Missing Moi?

In her wonderful poem, “A Gifted Almost-Fifty,” Sitawa Namwalie mourns the “angry young poetry” she could not write “at twenty.” She could not write this poetry because the “political regime,” under Moi, “did not tolerate vocalization.” When he left, “poetry erupted, spewing on its own, brimming.” And those of us who have been privileged to watch Cut Off My Tongue or to read its finely wrought lines both mourn the loss of that “angry young poetry” and celebrate the new “spewing.”

Sitawa writes a painful truth. Politically repressive regimes can kill expression. We become too afraid to write and publish truths, especially when we know the fates of those who have dared and have now disappeared into exile or early graves. Arguably, poetry has been one of the hardest hit arts, as the Moi years produced little that was worthy of note, certainly little that burrows deep under the skin and captures hearts and minds.

Given the gift of Sitawa’s writing, I am troubled by Mutahi Ngunyi’s latest act of political revisionism. His first sentence reads, “Sometimes I miss mzee Moi.” Now a de-fanged old man, a retired grandfather, Moi can be missed, if only “sometimes.” And why does Ngunyi miss Moi? He writes, “Even Mungiki was scared of Moi. Not as commander-in-chief, but as Moi.”

He misses Moi because he misses being afraid.

This puzzles me.

Yet, it shouldn’t, for it’s the same “devil you know” mentality that kept Moi in power through the first few years of multi-party rule.

But what state are we in that we miss being afraid? And what kind of histories are we constructing where the repressive, political-exile-creating, poetry-silencing, political-opponent-torturing regime of Moi is in any way preferable to Kibaki’s bumbling silences and awkward speeches?

It is troubling that Ngunyi equates order with fear, that he subordinates the formal and informal social contracts we create and inhabit to rule by intimidation and terror.

Ngunyi is not exceptional.

Over the past few years, many Kenyans, from both liberal and conservative sides of the political spectrum have admitted they miss Moi. They miss the order he represented and resent the current state of disorder. Moi, they assert, would never have countenanced activists being rude and disrupting national meetings. Moi, they say with longing, would have kept noisemakers quiet and Kenya running. Moi, they sing with admiration, was a real leader, a real man, one who kept his family in check. Moi, the redeemed, the renewed, the beloved one.

Moi returned as a benevolent Frankenstein.

A few months ago, we learned that Kibaki sought advice from Moi, and now Moi has returned to the political arena in the role of learned counselor. And we welcome him, because we prefer the devils we know.

Others can detail Moi’s acts against Kenyans. I focus not on what he did, but on how he made us feel. And this returns me to Sitawa’s poetry.

“24 years of blundering terror,” she writes, “stole my fuming twenties.” But not just her twenties. The theft of her voice extended to her thirties and she “gave up” in her “forties.” At “Almost-fifty,” Sitawa has discovered her “angry overdue gift.”

How many others had their twenties, thirties, and forties stolen and silenced? How many others remain silent, still afraid of walls with ears and friends whose smiles cannot be trusted? What have we continued to lose because of Moi’s regime? Might we have lost more than one generation of artists, singers, prophets, soothsayers, visionaries?

We have yet to calculate the psychic costs of Moi’s presidency, what it meant, and how it continues to endure. Our psychic and material lives continue to be impoverished by his repressive reign. He lingers in the absent spaces, on our walls, in our minds, in our theaters.

Politics is not just about governance. It is also about creating what the Marxist critic Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.” Through their actions, politicians create psychic and emotional atmospheres that shape the kinds of art and writing we will produce. And while some brave dreamers can escape the poison of repression, many others find themselves silenced, their gifts stolen, and our collective lives made the less rich.

I receive the gift of Sitawa’s poetry with mixed feelings. Happy and excited that she found her stolen voice, thrilled that her poetry found her and “spewed.” Yet sad because I worry that other would-be artists have not been as fortunate, that their voices remain buried, their poetries muffled, their songs unsung. Like the many millions that were stolen under Moi and may never be recovered, our artistic treasures are lost to us.

I do not miss Moi. How can I when the consequences of his actions surround me everyday? How can I when the songs that should fill the air remain unsung? When the poetry that should flow from our mouths remains unwritten? When the art that celebrates our lives remains unpainted, undrawn, hidden, buried, stolen?

I do not miss fear. I do not miss terror. I do not miss being silenced.

I do not miss Moi.

Not even sometimes.

8 thoughts on “Missing Moi?

  1. I never ever miss Moi.
    He might have had a good side but it was overshadowed by the bad. The fear that existed even in young children, Nyayo House, Special Branch, does that evoke anything in the Kenyans that “miss” him?

  2. Gukira… Well said, but!

    I will not say that I miss Moi, but I miss Strength in Leadership. And I think that was what Mutahi Ngunyi was alluding to in his article. When a sitting president does not stand up to be counted when a country is under fire (Post Election Violence)but calls a press conference to discuss his wive(s), I miss leadership.

    Mungiki are everywhere; collecting protection fees in various estates, decapitating people everywhere, and seemingly overpowering our badly paid police force. That shows a vacuum in leadership and specifically especially strength in leadership. When the police become executioners and Kenyans can no longer differentiate between the police and the Mungiki sect; I miss strong leadership.

    When ministers steal maize, oil, fleece the country in angloleasing deals etc. I wonder where leadership is…

    Moi may have killed creativity by choking it at its infancy; but after Kibaki allowing it flourish, he has made things so bad that instead of the inspirational and uplifting kind of poetry, we are seeing the vile and saddening type. The Never Again theme doing rounds is Kibaki’s creation.

    I have come under attack for writing only about the negatives of this country, but as I have replied on several occasions; Even without conscious effort, one will write more negative than positive things about our beloved country. That is the mood of the country and it reflects in all forms of art.

    But I guess dark poetry is better than no poetry.


    PS. My apologies for the long response.

  3. Do we even have a semblance of a functioning government? Seems all they’re concerned about is maintaing their hold on power without delivering to the very people that gave the mandate to lead. In hushed tones they’re talking about 2012 behind our backs and banking on the same old tricks of dishing out money to the millions of hungry, desperate Kenyans knowing full well they will be elected back to the eating house.

    I’d take the Moi era over this one any day. No administration is perfect but the current one does not even have the letter P in it’s dictionary of *olitics (pun intended)

  4. Marvin,

    Please, keep writing! WordPress doesn’t have word limits. And it’s important that we become more explicit about what we mean. We Kenyans have a bad habit of not spelling out what we mean and then complaining about being misunderstood.

    The idea of strength and strong leaders is one we really need to have a discussion about in Kenya. Arguably, Kenyatta and Moi were “strong leaders,” but the African strongman–think of Idi Amin or Bokassa–is as much a figure of horror as veneration. I must admit, I’m more interested in effective leadership, a sentiment that, I think, Akiey shares, and it might be that strong leadership and effective leadership are not exactly the same thing.

    I was at University of Nairobi a few months ago, and a young student said we need a “dictator.” I was horrified by the cavalier way in which he said it, and worried that we actually lack the conceptual tools and methodologies to envision good, non-repressive leadership. These are still matters we need to think about.

    Thanks for thinking with me.

  5. Keguro…

    I guess I should have said strong and effective leader. I need to know that there is somebody in charge of the country. I do not want to pay taxes to the Government at the end of the month and then go home and pay “taxes” to Mungiki.

    I have heard the calls for a dictator. I of course do not want one, but I cannot ignore what people mean when they say that. As things stand, you get the feeling that our President has done all he possibly can. And with so many things running amok, people are looking for a strong hand to even say that all will be well.

    Unfortunately, strength in Africa has hitherto gone hand in hand with dictatorship.


  6. Quite articulate and passionate.Indeed, Moi must not and should not be missed. Nor should we speak of him with even the mildest overtones of granduer. Still, the sentiments of Mutahi Ngunyi Hold true in the hearts and minds of many. Vice is rife and prosperous. These politicians parade their calous disregard with reckless pride. They flout their rank corruptions like street prostitutes. And stand irresulute as our beloved nation dies a miserable and painful death. These men are devoid of all morality. Can it be any wonder that most would now rather the devil himself than these?

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