Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-KENYA: Writing For Peace

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Aug 4 2008 (IPS) - Since January, a group of politically-conscious poets, writers and storytellers in Kenya has been writing an alternative account of the violence that shook Kenya during the first two months of the year. Their work is now part of the evidence before the Waki Commission inquiring into post-election violence in Kenya.

Among the testimonies being reviewed by the Waki commission is a compilation of stories – ranging from journalistic reports to impressionistic writing – produced by Concerned Kenyan Writers (CKW), a group that came together in response to the violence that flared up after the disputed polls of December 27, 2007.

“When the world media was portraying Kenya as a country engulfed by ethnic hatred and mass violence, there were many people in all walks of society whose first thought was what can we do to help in this crisis,” says Shalini Gidoomal, director of the Kwani Trust, a Nairobi-based collective of writers and artists.

“We, as writers, could not have escaped that question. We had to do something and the only skill we could use to help our people was to write.”

And write they did. More than 160 news and analytical reports as well as poems and short stories have so far been produced and published worldwide by this group. Other than engaging well known Kenyan writers, the CKW also trained cub journalists to report on the crisis from Kenya’s perspective.

Some of the stories and poems produced by CKW have also been submitted to the Ministry of Education for inclusion in school curricula.

The CKW got its start as part of daily public meetings held by the Concerned Citizens for Peace (CCP) at different venues in Nairobi including the offices of and other civil society organisations. Led by former diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat, the CCP soon became an umbrella organisation fostering and facilitating peace initiatives by other Kenyan individuals and groups like CKW.

“Inaccurate reporting by the international media, telling the typical Dark Continent stories, warranted a corrective response from Kenyan writers. We were not journalists but we could adapt our skills to respond to what we found to be ill-informed, stereotypical and misleading coverage of the violence by reporters who barely knew the country and its people,” Shalini tells IPS.

“We were the first anywhere to wade into the thick of analysis and discussion during the conflict at a time when sensational, dehumanising images were conveying a simplistic story of barbarism to the world.”

One of the first images to catch the world’s attention was that of a man being hacked by a machete as he tried in vain to escape. The outraged writers’ group sent protest letters asking Sky News to stop airing it.

“The western media never show the mutilated, blood-soaked bodies of the victims of terrorist attacks of, say September 11 or of the 2005 London bombings. Why take a different approach to Kenya’s tragedy?” asks Shalini.

Lost in the prefabricated ethnic-tribal storyline were the real events and their complex causes. For example, No foreign media noticed that among the first wave of rioters were the thousands of Kalenjin youth who had just completed their rite of passage into adulthood in the circumcision camps in Eldoret, Western Kenya.

Equipped with a new sense of power and male identity, thousands of Kalenjin youth went on a rampaging march through western towns up to Nakuru in Rift Valley, burning farms and houses belonging the ‘outsiders’ living on ‘their’ land.

“These sociological and psychological factors were beyond the grasp of the international media which focused on the sensational and the stereotypical,” says Shalini, who believes that the rising numbers of unemployed, unskilled and frustrated male youth continue to pose a threat to the traumatised peace in society.

Dipesh Pabari, editor of Wajibu, a journal focusing on issues of social and ethical concern, believes that the initial reporting also missed the stories of courage and compassion by hundreds of common Kenyans, the wananchi, who came forward to help the victims irrespective of tribal and political affiliations.

One of them, a young man of 23, set up an SMS hotline, without any support from anyone. He received hundreds of distress messages every day, from people telling of their ordeal and wanting help, and from people who wanted to help them.

“There was a forest warder who risked his life by taking in 847 refugees at the height of the violence. There were young men in our secondary schools that took the courage to speak up to student bodies and made them change their behaviour, turning prejudices into acceptance when fear and hatred was all around. There were our women who went to pay silent flower tributes to the dead and on the way encouraged members of the security forces to do the same.

“All these stories have one thing in common: the people who cared looked beyond tribe and race and saw the common humanity of people in need,” says Dipesh, whose journal’s latest issue is devoted exclusively to the work produced the concerned writers and poets, telling some of the untold stories.

The work of the Concerned Kenyan Writers of Kenya is far from over. The Kwani Trust, which facilitates production and distribution of Kenyan literature, launched a two-week literary festival on August 1, inviting luminaries from across Africa to reflect on the recent past and on the way forward. The theme of the festival is “Re-visioning Kenya”.

“Let us not fool ourselves. Drastic and painful changes, both in policy and attitudes, are needed if we are to actually experience this new Kenya. There is a still a long way to go,” concludes Pabari, who believes that “when, where and how the (displaced survivors of the violence) are resettled will be the litmus test of our resolve to build a new Kenya.”

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susan levinkind