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.