Koigi wa Wamwere
Seven Stories Press ($15.95)
by Kevin Carollo
I suffered a prison and detention term, but that is out of the past and I am not going to remember it . . . If I wronged you forgive me, if you wronged me, I forgive you . . . Let us forgive and forget.
—Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first independent President, speaking to British settlers after being released from colonial detention
When people forget the lessons of history, nothing is too evil to be reenacted.
—Koigi wa Wamwere
Colonialism is alive and well in Africa. Its legacy is clearly witnessed in the mindsets and policies of postcolonial leaders who have accumulated great wealth and worked to silence the plurality of voices necessary to a nation's vitality. Leaders, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, currently engaged in a civil war since Mobutu's overthrow four years ago), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (still in power), Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi (deceased), Sani Abacha of Nigeria (deceased), Mwai Kibaki of Kenya (still in power), and so on, have reenacted the colonial order of affairs, typically for the benefit of capitalist interests abroad. On the eves of independence across Africa, the people anticipated liberation from the yoke of colonial influence, and they received more of the same treatment.
In the decades following the era of colonization, it has become incumbent on African writers to articulate the legacy of colonial culture on the minds of Africans. Many have done so at the risk of detention, torture, and death. In articulating the general shift from colonial oppressions to their postcolonial simulacra, the question of freedom has remained paramount in contemporary African writing. We often talk about liberation and freedom these days, with Western leaders antsy for armed conflict among the most vociferous. The current state of the world forces us to pose a number of serious questions surrounding its prospects for freedom: What is the value of liberty taken for granted? Do words such as "liberation" and "freedom" embody more than a rhetorical valence today? What does it take to make such words signify something concrete and meaningful in postcolonial Africa?
If anyone can provide insight into the complexity of these questions, it would have to be Koigi wa Wamwere, the Kenyan activist who has spent thirteen years in prison since the mid-1970s. His autobiography, I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom, was written "for those who value freedom more than power." Initially imprisoned by Kenyan's first postcolonial leader, Jomo Kenyatta, and then suffering multiple detentions under Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, Koigi has experienced the various constraints of colonial rule within and without Kenyan prison walls. Whether as a member of Kenya's parliament or as an exile in Norway, he has lived with perennial death threats because of his belief in a Kenya—and an Africa—that truly operates "post" its colonial legacy. The publication of I Refuse to Die provides strong testament to his search for an independent Africa in more than just name. His struggle contains multitudes, and reflects a continental effort to move beyond colonial modes of existence and ethnic rivalries.
I Refuse To Die has a more personal and wide-ranging scope than his 1988 account of his first two detentions, Conscience on Trial (thankfully still in print from Africa World Press, Inc.). Though he re-covers this period of his life, the treatment has a very different feel; the same poems included in both books have different wording, for example. But mostly the shift in narrative effect stems from his lengthy description of the years leading up to his first detention, beginning with chapters entitled "A Kenyan Timeline" and "Childhood 1949-58." With the extensive exposition of growing up in the colonial era—roughly a third of the book—I Refuse To Die offers a more detailed historical context for contemporary Kenyan politics than its predecessor. Once the narrative arrives at the 1980s, things begin to move fast, and Koigi becomes increasingly focused on the juridical nature of his life in prison and exile.
Occasionally, one would like I Refuse To Die to offer more "reflection on" and less "detailing of." What the narrative sometimes lacks in pacing, however, it makes up for in the compelling treatment of how Koigi's life comes to represent the persecution of many, how his survival acquires a curious symbolic resonance for postcolonial Africa as a whole. Like many of its great writers who have endured torture and detention—including Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa (the latter was eventually hanged by the Abacha regime, despite international outcry), Malawian Jack Mapanje, fellow Kenyan Ngugi wa Th'iongo, South Africans Jeremy Cronin, Molefe Pheto, Breyten Breytenbach, Ruth First (killed in 1982 by a mail bomb), et al., and so on—Koigi both benefits from and comes under suspicion due to widespread public recognition of his writing and actions. He refuses to die, and his persecutors refuse to kill him—a struggle between freedom and power that often lasts for decades. As in the case of Hastings Banda, Robert Mugabe, and Jomo Kenyatta, some African leaders who detain political prisoners do so after having spent many years imprisoned by colonial regimes—a fact that gives the prison itself a curious symbolic resonance for postcolonial Africa, to say the least.
The Kenyan postcolonial mimicry of colonial order even extends to the roles of prison guards, such that those who guarded Mau Mau dissidents in the colonial era continue working for the independent government. During Koigi's first incarceration in the '70s, a Corporal Kethore asks long-time detainee Achieng Oneko whether he remembers a 1953 flight to Lamu Island Colonial Prison: "When Oneko said he did, Kethore admitted that he was a prison escort in that flight! These askaris were the direct link between the colonial government and the Kenyatta regime."
Many of Koigi's personal encounters with the inheritors of colonial detention reinforce this connection:
"In detention I also met a warden, Kariuki wa Ricu, who boasted of taking part in the hunt for Mau Mau freedom fighters. When he caught Mau Mau, he said, he beheaded them and took their bleeding heads to his white bosses for money."
. . .
"Dr. Bowry bragged that however he badly he treated us, there was nothing we could ever do to him. After all, he asked, what are you? In the colonial detention, I gave Kenyatta water. What did he do to me when he became president? I am still here and will do to you what I want."
. . .
"Another MP [Member of Parliament] had earlier told me how this Kiereini worked as a screener in colonial detention camps like Manyani prison."
These anecdotal links between colonial and postcolonial governments bring home a salient point of regime change: those who inherit or overthrow a corrupt system of government will replicate the corruption of that system—the recognition of which forces us to complicate any notions of independence or liberation. As a consequence, the imperative of saying no, of refusing to die, continues: "I thought, maybe nobody will kill me if I refuse to die. Whenever death beckoned, I would simply say no."
Westerners are willfully ignorant of how a century of colonialism and Cold War has created and enabled the dictatorial regimes of contemporary Africa. But rather than simply blame the era of colonialism for the subsequent problems of contemporary Kenya, and in addition to articulating how the psychology of colonial times continues to operate in the minds of Kenyans, Koigi depicts how indigenous African cultures persist despite the incursion of colonialism. The abundance of Gikuyu proverbs throughout his autobiography suggests that the most accessible forms of resistance lie in indigenous solutions that antedate and have co-existed with colonial rule.
Koigi's lengthy descriptions of family and compatriots serve to illustrate how his suffering has always encompassed an entire people. At the beginning of the text, he asserts: "Among our people, life does not begin at birth." When asked who he was before he was born, his mother explains:
You were my father. That is why I called you him.
Before him, did I live?
Yes, you did.
Have I always lived and shall not die?
People do not die, she said, we only move from one form of life to another and from one world to another. Life does not begin at birth and it does not end with death.
In addition to Gikuyu and Swahili sayings, Koigi includes myriad stories, speeches, and voices to maintain the sense of life as extending beyond the borders of the self. The integration of familial, political, and cultural dimensions of existence does not always occur as effectively as it does here. The collective protests of mothers like Koigi's include such tactics as hunger strikes, public nakedness, and symbolic chaining in court. Their voices are heard loud and clear in I Refuse to Die: "We will remain chained as long as our sons languish in prison. Colonialists put us in chains. Our leaders continue to put us in chains."
Colonialism may be alive and well in Africa, but so are those who say no to it. I Refuse To Die stands as a passionate and poignant testimony to the struggle of one man—and by that I also mean one family and one people—to remember and survive the evil lessons of history. But it is also much more than that. Koigi wa Wamwere, in life and print, challenges us to make freedom a word that means something tangible for all.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003