Exiles Without Websites

An article in the Daily Nation informs us that Philo Ikonya, a friend and colleague, is “now” living in exile in Norway. For this information, we have to thank “the internet.”

According to a profile posted on the website of The International Cities of Refuge Network, Ms Ikonya fled Kenya a year ago due to what she claimed was political persecution. “Her political activeness and writing got her arrested several times in Kenya,” states the website.
. . .

She is quoted saying that she fears returning to the country for her own safety and that of her son. “When asked if she will ever return to the Kenya, she says that it is quite difficult,” the report states.

I am not sure what to make of the belatedness of this report. I noted many months ago that Philo has been in exile. While I don’t have the headspace to argue anything specific,* I find it interesting that her exile seems surprising—now that Kenyans are ostensibly “post-exile”—and that her testimony needs to be mediated by a western-based organization.

In part, I conflate two issues.

The first, the continuing sense that we who write and think and act as Kenyans, and often as Africans, need to be validated, much like Wheatley, by media in the U.S. or Europe. We can only believe Philo when her reports of being exiled are confirmed by others. And, if the Daily Nation is to be believed, we are “shocked” by such news. “Shocked” that she complains of police harassment, even though we have evidence of her being harassed and intimidated and arrested. Evidence that the reporter who filed the story did not feel compelled to check or cite or underscore.

Following Hughes, we could call this our racial mountain.

The second has to do with the status of “exile.”

In forthcoming work, I argue,

In 1959, Barack Obama Sr. left Kenya for the U.S. through a special program designed by Tom Mboya, one of Kenya’s leading politicians. Mboya conceived of the airlifts as an anti-colonial measure, to circumvent British control of scholarships to Kenyan students (Shachtman 2009 p. 5-6); also, while Kenyan students had been admitted to U.S. universities and colleges, few could afford the airfare and the tuition (Mboya 1960 p. 53). Mboya lobbied U.S. educational institutions to provide scholarships to African students (p. 137-151). Between 1959 and 1963 close to 800 students from East Africa, most from Kenya, traveled to the U.S. on scholarships to colleges and high schools (Shachtman 2009 p. 7). Obama Sr. and his airlift cohort represented a new form of the Kenyan abroad. Unlike the first generation of Kenyans abroad in the 1920s and early 1930s, which included Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange, the airlift cohort stood at the threshold of independence. They were going to train as professionals who would come home to lead Kenya, a postcolonial version of W.E.B. Du Bois’s talented tenth. Ironically, this generation who traveled at the eve of independence would be among the last of the hopeful Kenyans abroad. As early as the late 1960s, the image of the Kenyan abroad and, more broadly, the African abroad, had changed dramatically.

By 1982, the political exile had become a too-familiar figure in African history. South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele wearily proclaimed, “Exiles. The numbers keep growing. Every political upheaval in Africa yields yet another crop of exiles” (1982 p. 29). Even though political repression had been a feature of Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency, a period when two popular young politicians, Tom Mboya and J.M. Kariuki were assassinated in 1969 and 1975 respectively, and when political radicals, such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, were detained without trial, we can mark 1982, barely 4 years into Daniel arap Moi’s presidency, as a key moment in the making of the Kenyan exile. Following a failed coup d’etat, university lecturers and students were arrested, and over the following twenty years of Moi’s rule, intellectuals, artists, and political activists, including Micere Mugo, Willy Mutunga, Koigi Wamwere, Raila Odinga, E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Maina wa Kinyatti and others, were forced into exile.

Political exile created a powerful platform from which to critique the failures of post-independence governance and to articulate a new vision for Kenya’s future. In fact, the term exile became synonymous with political resistance. Kenyan exiles collaborated with groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to monitor and critique the excesses of the Moi government (Schmitz 1999). Exiles also coalesced into important political groups that were instrumental in re-shaping Kenya’s political future. These groups included the London-based Committee for the Release of Prisoners in Kenya; London-based Umoja, later re-named UKENYA; and the U.S.-based Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), which has a prominent role in overseeing Kenyan governance today. While each of these groups had different foci and ideologies, their collective activism shaped the dominant image of the Kenyan abroad as a politically engaged exile.

Through the 1980s and well into the 2000s, the Kenyan abroad was understood to have a strong critique of the government.
. . .
In the post-Moi era, the remittance economy enabled the Kenyan government to re-imagine the status of the Kenyan abroad and to create languages and institutions that emphasized connection rather than critique, attachment rather than revolution. It is at that historical moment, the transition to a post-Moi world, in which economic relations are privileged over political critique that the term “diaspora” supplants the term “exile.” I am not suggesting that the conditions that gave rise to exile had been eliminated; many Kenyans abroad are still economic, political, and social exiles. I am interested, here, in what Brent Edwards describes as the “uses” of diaspora (2004), how the term has been adopted by Kenyans, how it is understood, and how it circulates.

Within the Kenyan context, the term diaspora is used in at least three inter-related ways. I use the passive voice deliberately, because the term diaspora functions in different ways for Kenyans abroad, the government, and Kenyans in Kenya. First, it is used to bind together the wide range of Kenyans abroad, ranging from political exiles to economic immigrants. Unlike other diasporas that often rely on traumatic histories of departure to define themselves, in the Kenyan context the circumstances under which one becomes a Kenyan abroad are trumped by the fact of being abroad. As such, it is a term that is interested only in partial, truncated genealogies; uninterested in why Kenyans move abroad, it views all Kenyans abroad through the same economic-driven lenses. Second, it offers a useful strategy through which to include multi-generational Kenya-affiliated groups and individuals, especially those who are of Kenyan descent but are not citizens. The rubric of diaspora can claim Obama and other individuals of Kenyan descent, primarily by erasing any political relationship to Kenya’s history and present. In claiming multi-generational Kenyan descendants, the term diaspora attempts to solve the political problem of allegiance, one in which Kenyan descendants who are foreign nationals experience no necessary connection to Kenyan history or politics. In solving the problem of allegiance, the term diaspora attempts to cultivate an ongoing economic relationship between Kenya and those abroad. In a global economy, investment in a foreign space, even an ostensible point of origin, need not reflect any particular political affiliation or allegiance. And this is my third point. The rubric of diaspora privileges the economic relationship above all others: Kenyans abroad, no matter their actual social class or legal status, are considered economic migrants and, consequently, economic resources.

Each of the three groups I have mentioned, Kenyans abroad, the government, and Kenyans in Kenya, have different and sometimes conflicting investments in privileging either economic or political practices of belonging. We must be careful to recognize the privileging of economics over politics as a strategic decision, no matter which group deploys it. Put otherwise, it would be unwise to claim that the government prioritizes the economic relationship when dealing with Kenyans abroad while that population is more interested in the political. A more nuanced analysis would foreground the circumstances under which the economic takes precedence, the advantages that accrue to particular groups in privileging the economic, and the moments when the economic is an insufficient rubric under which to configure the home-diaspora bond.

The rise of “diaspora” as the conceptual framework through which the Kenyan abroad should be understood, a diaspora that takes the economic as foundational, has made it difficult, if not impossible, for us to engage the ongoing politics of exile. Indeed, Kenyans in exile are routinely mocked, accused of seeking favors from western donors. No one who has seen riot police dispersing crowds dares to believe that we are past what Ngugi calls Moi-ism. Yet our press has bought into this post-Moi-ism narrative. One remembers that John Githongo was repeatedly accused of inflating claims about the danger he faced.

In part, I am interested here in asking about what it means to be an “exile,” what it means to “go underground.” I am interested in what it means to be forcibly un-homed. About the conditions that create unhomeliness and the people who un-home. And about the subsequent shock registered when one names that un-homing.

*at some point, I’m hoping my brain kicks in. This not-thinking I am doing is distressing.

One thought on “Exiles Without Websites

  1. You are seeing and thinking miles beyond.. I would say space beyond.. stars beyond those who should know Kenya. Perhaps it takes physical space for people to see what is closest to them. Congratulations.. spread the word… Wake them up unto their plight… nothing comes easily!

    spread it!

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