Billy Kahora, the editor of Kenya’s first literary magazine, Kwani, gave a speech titled “The Kenya I Live In” in the Stern Conference Room at Hagerty Library, April 20.
Kahora lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where the government threatens writers in an attempt to control information. He was in Pennsylvania speaking on behalf of City of Asylum, an organization that provides refuge to writers threatened by their native governments.
Kahora opened his speech by explaining the challenging political context that contemporary Kenyan writers have dealt with over the years. He described the clash between politics and literature that governmental restrictions have fueled.
“[Exiling journalists] is really about controlling voting and elections, and making sure you get the maximum number of votes for your supporters within that group,” Kahora said.
In the 1970s, the major opposition against Kenyan authors began. The government of Kenya felt that writers were producing knowledge and awareness that was anti-African and that was targeted against the government. The government jailed many authors and removed their writings from school curricula, and many Kenyan writers consequently fled the country.
Kahora, whose work has been published in Granta and Vanity Fair, began writing at the age of 16, when he was working and schooling in South Africa. In 2007, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh and studied creative writing as a Chevening Scholar. His first novel, “The True Story of David Munyakei, Goldenberg Whistleblower,” was published in 2008.
The story, which tells of the corruption in Kenya and the threats that face citizens who try to fight against it, provided a major theme for the speech.
Kahora also explained the history of his country, emphasizing that the Kenyan government is still considered a dictatorship. He explained that in the 90s, a new era of hostility between journalists and politicians was born. Thanks to journalists, Kenyan citizens began to understand the meaning of independence and freedom and began to question their identity and history — a fact that outraged the government.
Later in the speech, Kahora spoke more about the struggle for journalists to find a voice in Kenya. He noted that there is solidarity between Kenyan journalists and citizens, who trust them as a reliable source for information.
“If you cast [journalists] out of here, your constituents leave as well,” Kahora said.
Between 1980 and 2003, Kenya was producing only five literary fictions a year. It was at this time that many Kenyan writers convinced citizens that it was necessary to put together a medium through which contemporary writers could express themselves. This is what Kwani seeks to do.
“Because African places are not frequently described, you need to find your own idioms that immediately capture the nature of the place. That’s one challenge of living in diaspora, writing about things that people back home can relate too and describing places in such a way that other readers can understand what or where you are coming from,” Kahora said of writing for the magazine.
Kwani, which was formed in January 2003, is largely a social commentary on the once-colonized Kenya, answering questions regarding Kenyan leadership. Kwani means “So?” or “So what?,” a common theme of the publication.
The publication is a collection of different forms of art that tell stories such as poetry, creative non-fiction, fiction and even photography. Most photos in the 2006 publication of Kwani illustrated the post-election violence that took place in Kenya. Kwani also published quotes from eyewitnesses of the violence to show the intensity of the chaos.
The publication seeks to fill up the vacuum of contemporary literature in Kenya.
“Right now in Kenya, there is such a death of books unlike in Nigeria. Nigerians are very good at using idioms to capture places and scenes even though they lived here. It’s [important to] frame the language because you want to write something that people can look at back home and say, this is my reality,” Kahora said.
Kahora joined Kwani after its third publication in 2005.
“Spending time away from your country affects you. When I went to South Africa, my aesthetic nature and sensitivity, the kind of thinking I get into tends to be South African. But it gives you more perspective. It gives you more experience so it could enhance your writing,” Kahora continued.
Kahora noted that important political conversations are not taking place because people do not want to talk about the post-election violence. Kwani provides a safe place for Kenyan authors to express their views.
Both African and non-African students, primarily students whose majors were English and literature or political science, attended the event. Kwani publications were also on display at the event for guests to glance through and gain a better knowledge of the Kwani series.