Category Archives: Kenyan authors

No snowflakes in the torture chamber

‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots

In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.

As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.

“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.

Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.

Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on Wahome Mutahiintellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.

His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.

Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.

In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.

“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”

In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”

Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.

“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”

Three Days on the Cross by Wahome MutahiBut the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”

Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”

The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).

Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.

Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.

Want to learn more?

Bookends #4 March 2018

I didn’t get around to a Bookends post last week but I hope this episode makes up for that deficiency. Once again I bring you a book, a blog post and an article that have caught my attention in recent days.

Article: writers resisting oppression

I came across the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o when I embarked on my World of Literature project with the aim of expanding my reading horizons by choosing books from 50 different countries. I’m up to 36 at the moment.

Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was one of the books that I’ve come across so far. As a tale of a village whose appeals for help go unanswered when the harvests fail and they are left starving, this book was considered so incendiary by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author without trial or charge. It took pressure from Amnesty International to get him released.

Interviewed by The Guardian newspaper about his memoir Wrestling with the Devil (out in the UK on April 5) he says that what helped him survive was his power of imagination and determination to resist. “Resistance is the best way of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you’re right, you stick to your beliefs, and they help you to survive.”

Read the interview in The Guardian here but then go out and get a copy of Petals of Blood.

Book: The Book of Tiblisi

Book of TblisiOne part of the world that is all too familiar with oppression is Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. It’s 26 years ago since they declared independence – during that time they’ve experienced two wars with their former ‘master’, a coup d’etat and economic hardship. In The Book of Tblisi published by Comma Press, ten stories from local writers show how the country, and its capital city Tblisi, has recovered its spirit. I don’t normally enjoy short stories but the collections produced by Comma Press in their “Book of …..” series are the exception.

Blog Post: A blogger with courage

Some of you know Jill who blogs at Jill’s Book Cafe, and have been following her posts over the last year in which she described her treatment for breast cancer. There was a lot of humour in the initial posts (one hilarious one dealt with  the difficulties of getting into and out of a bra). She’s needed every ounce of courage in recent months because of the effects of the medication. Do read her latest post called “Hello from the other side of chemotherapy” and give her a virtual hug.

 

Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

petalsbloodSome novels can make you laugh; some can make you cry.  Just occasionally they can make you angry.

There was little to laugh at in Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is a book designed to evoke quite a different set of reactions, a book it would be difficult to read and not feel frustrated, exasperated and even outraged.

This is a novel about disillusionment; about the loss of the ideal of independence and the destruction of hope; about betrayal and hypocrisy and about the triumph of corruption over humanity. So incendiary was this novel at the time of its publication in 1977 that its author was imprisoned without charges by a Kenyan government sensitive to criticism of its manner of ruling their newly-independent nation. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience.

Petals of Blood opens with the arrest and detention of four people from the village of Ilmorog. It’s a village geographically remote from the centre of government and remote from the minds of those who form that government.  Ilmorog

One night three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in the village are murdered in an arson attack. Four suspects are quickly arrested and detained for questioning: Munira, the headmaster of the village’s small school; Karega his assistant teacher, Abdullah,  the crippled owner of the  local store and Wanja the beautiful, spirited barmaid/shop assistant. The four are linked to each other through friendship, to the fortunes of Ilmorog and the fortunes of Kenya itself.

Ngugi uses these four characters to unfold a human drama, telling the story in flashback to twelve years before the fire when Munira had arrived in Ilmorog to set up the school.  Through the individual stories of the quartet we discover their past disappointments and frustrations with post independent Kenya motivate them to push for change. When the rains fail, the crops wither and the villagers begin to die, they hatch a plan to lead the villagers on a long walk to Nairobi, to lobby their elected officials for help.

…it was they outside there who ought to dance to the needs of the people. Now it seemed that authority, power, everything, was outside Ilmorog… out there….in the big city. They must go and confront that which had been the cause of their empty granaries, that which had sapped their energies, and caused their weakness. Long ago when their cattle and goats were taken by hostile nations, the warriors went out, followed them and would not return until they had recovered their stolen wealth. Now Ilmorog’s own heart ad been stole. They would follow to recover it. It was a new kind of war… but war all the same.

The walk confronts them with an even harsher reality. Modern Kenya is dominated by corrupt businessmen and politicians who have quickly and conveniently forgotten the high ideals of the revolt they waged to expel the British. No-one in this new order, neither church or state, cares about the plight of  the people of a remote village.  Despised and patronised but with all appeals for help rejected, they return home dejected.

faminein kenyaThe exodus is an emotive set piece which symbolises the moral decline that Ngugi sees permeate the country. But in case we didn’t quite understand his point, he uses the second half of the novel to reinforce the message. The efforts of the villagers to draw attention to their community have unfortunate consequences which render them vulnerable to commercial opportunism, political expediency and religious hypocrisy.

By the end, the four friends feel a sense of betrayal by those in power. Yet despite the personal losses they suffer, they never lose their faith that one day, Kenya will fulfil its true destiny. This time it will be a country run by the people themselves.

Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end  the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then,would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, joying and loving in creative labour.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o 2Political corruption, social injustice, the struggle for freedom are not not uncommon themes in African literature. But Petals of Blood is one of the most strongly narrated indictments of a regime that assumed power with a promise of ending the inequality of its colonial masters only to perpetuate the same oppressions and divisions. Little wonder those in power were too afraid to let this author continue unfettered in his critique.

The Verdict

A truly remarkable novel. Difficult at times to read unless you are familiar with the country’s history. But it’s passionate depiction of the corrupting influence of power blended with some wonderfully portrayed characters, make this a compelling book.

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