Reading Rasna Warah

I promised myself (and Rasna) that I would write something about Red Soil and Roasted Maize, her recent collection. I hesitate to use the word “review,” because I want something more textured, less bound to the conventions of the review: overview, significant moments, assessment, evaluation, and so on. I have mentioned, previously, that I am intrigued by the memory work going on in Kenyan cultural production—in Richard Onyango’s paintings, Jim Chuchu’s “plastic tribe” series, Shailja’s Patel’s writing, Sitawa Namwalie’s choreo-poems, among many other projects. I am interested in the kinds of openings these memory objects provide that are often aslant to our dominant rhetorics: when one pays attention to the remarkable individual and collaborative projects taken on by Kenyan women, for instance, one understands that, as Wambui Mwangi and Melissa Williams argue, the one-third gender rule is a start, but not enough.

I started writing (mostly angry) emails to Rasna when I left Kenya and the Daily Nation went online. She lived in my head for a long time before I met her. Another way to say this might be that she is the Kenyan writer with whom I have had the most sustained, long-term relationship. I barely remember those emails now, but I remember their sense of outrage, their sense of “how dare she?” Even as, now, I find myself more than grateful to her for modeling a writing practice that was bold and audacious. At a time in Kenya’s history when it was too possible to feel overwhelmed and defeated, to become callused and indifferent, Rasna’s writing prodded me into feeling something, into remembering that I had a relationship to Kenya, no matter how complex and vexed. It is difficult to value this gift. And I want to mark it.

An early moment in Red Soil captures some of the scope of Rasna’s writing (and vision):

As many print journalists in the country will tell you, newspaper articles are not valued so much for what they say, but for what they can wrap; as in many African countries, old newspapers in Kenya usually end up in informal restaurants and markets where they are used to wrap chips, mandazi, meat and other foodstuff. (location 279)

Trafficking between the professional and the quotidian, between modes of production and practices of consumption, Rasna’s writing is always attuned to transformations in social and material relations: the value of newspaper as it holds food. Granted, this image of newspaper as food wrapper is slightly mournful, to the extent that what we mean by print circulation in Kenya is a process of ink transfer onto food, even as it is common to see folks reading their food wrappers.

This observational metaphor (print as food wrapper) underscores the urgency of and necessity for the collection: the ephemerality of newspaper risks losing precious histories of being and sensation. In a profound way, Rasna has been a barometer of Kenyan feeling, and Red Soil reminds us of this.

Indeed, she outlines a compelling history of how feeling for Kenya emerges:

As “midnight’s child”, born in the period of Kenya’s independence, my cynicism is perhaps a reflection of my generation. We entered adulthood at a time when Kenya degenerated from a healthy, vibrant economy in the 1960s and ‘70s to a banana republic in the 1980s and ‘90s. We have known friends and colleagues who were tortured or imprisoned for fictional offences labelled “sedition”. We have witnessed the national treasure being looted right before our eyes and the country’s most respected institution of higher learning descending into mediocrity and decay. (Kindle location 483)

Because of these structural conditions, she continues, “We cannot be romantic about Kenya, not because we don’t love it, but we don’t remember a time when life was simple, rosy and full of promise” (loc 487). She muses on what it means to love Kenya. On learning that Kibaki had “reinstated William Ruto and Sam Ongeri as ministers, hours after” Raila Odinga had suspended them “corruption allegations,” what Rasna aptly describes as “political shenanigans,” she writes,

That evening, like many other Kenyans, my husband and I spent the night of Valentine’s Day discussing whether we loved this country enough to fight for it, or whether we should just retreat into our own tiny little worlds—and hope that the pain would one day go away. (loc 539)

Loving Kenya is not easy. Rasna documents what it means to love Kenya: the events that make it possible and impossible, the seductions of “roasted maize” and “fresh air and samosas” (loc 1650), the disappointment of “political shenanigans, the promise embodied in writers like Andia Kisia (“Kenya’s unsung literary heroine,” loc 1613) and Yvonne Owuor (loc 1654), the contradictions of arresting citizens for “sitting on a flower pot” in the CBD as slumdwellers use “flying toilets” (loc 3373).

Even with all this, Rasna continually embraces belonging: “Kenyans constantly amaze me” (loc 932); “Nothing can make you fall more in love with Kenya than a visit to another country” (loc 1641).

As I read Red Soil, I am struck by the force of Rasna’s choosing: she has chosen Kenya. Over and over she chooses Kenya. Even when it is undergoing what she describes as a “nervous breakdown” (loc 2327).

Of course, I don’t always agree with Rasna—in my head, I am still writing (sometimes angry) emails. For instance, she claims, “Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a society is to have the equivalent of a nervous breakdown so that it can final seek a lasting cure” (loc 2327). The metaphor grates—the trajectory from “nervous breakdown” to “treatment” is much more complex, mediated by class and access and will and ability. Yet, I’m grateful for the opportunity to disagree, to get angry, to feel something beyond a kind of disinterested voyeurism made possible by my non-residence and education.

Red Soil is a hope-filled book, and this surprises me, not least because Rasna is infamous for her cynicism. Writing is always an act of hope, a note stuck in a beehive in the belief that someday someone will look for honey. I am grateful for Rasna’s sticky notes.

8 thoughts on “Reading Rasna Warah

  1. One word: Eish!
    I’ve been getting into a lot of fights with people lately about this love for Kenya. What exactly does it mean to love Kenya? I’m going to be thinking about that all day.

    And maybe for us non-Nairobians Kenya has always looked different. Kenya certainly looked different when I lived in Nyanza and then Coast province. Nairobi is so sure of its Kenyan-ness, but these other spaces not so. You can feel the contentiousness, the ambiguities, the opposition (not to say that the same is not true of spaces within Nairobi).

    Just the other day I got into a bad spat with a close friend over this love for Kenya. I’m still angry and looking for a brawl. I love Kenya, but sifuati nyayo. I find all this “najivunia kuwa Mkenya” campaigns too limiting for my experience of what Kenya is; it is like a nail in the coffin. I can’t take it!

    But maybe it is because I have never been able to wrap my mind around patriotism. Maybe I’m too jaded by my Moi era experiences. As I write in my current blog post, I feel like a relic of the past. I grew up under Moi and then left Kenya as Kibaki came in. And now Kenya is this young thing on the internet; it is all these Inuka Kenya and Kuweni Serious and Kwani? websites; it is all these eco-toilets and Sonkos and everything young and brawling and energetic, but I’m still fighting old fights and old demons. And somewhere in all of this it is raining, only it is not rainwater but maziwa ya nyayo that’s falling.

    Unrelated: it reminds me of that bumper sticker. “I love my country, but I think we should see other people.”

    Moving on! Keguro, where do you get time to read everything? I love reading through your eyes.

    Ahsante.

  2. I think reading Rasna is one of the most important ways to get at what “loving Kenya” might mean. The multiple registers of hope and despair–her work is constantly veering between mania and depression–capture the difficult labor of love. It is this notion of love as a “working out,” I’m tempted to say a “bad romance,” that is so compelling, although it took me a long time to figure it out. It helps to have some of her writing assembled in one place.

    I *wish* I read everything. I’ve become an absurdly slow reader over the past few years. As for time, it’s nice that reading is part of my job and that my job is structured to give me time to read. *Some* academic jobs are wonderful that way. But I also make time to read and often write about things long after I’ve read them–those long plane trips are good chances to catch up on stuff, I’ve discovered.

    I’m not sure I recognize Kibaki’s Kenya. It has a sense of dissonance for me since it was born while I was away–I have no clue how to respond to it or how to act in it. Somehow, the loss of fluency is enabling–it’s forced me to slow down and think a little more.

  3. I have mentioned, previously, that I am intrigued by the memory work going on in Kenyan cultural production—in Richard Onyango’s paintings, Jim Chuchu’s “plastic tribe” series, Shailja’s Patel’s writing, Sitawa Namwalie’s choreo-poems, among many other projects

    .

    In a lot of decent hip hop too: K-Shaka’s Angalia Saa, for a start.

  4. But maybe it is because I have never been able to wrap my mind around patriotism. Maybe I’m too jaded by my Moi era experiences. As I write in my current blog post, I feel like a relic of the past. I grew up under Moi and then left Kenya as Kibaki came in.

    It’s interesting that your two main explanations for your ambivalence re patriotism all have to do with the state. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why this might be: the mid-Moi state was a monster, occupying almost all the psychic space reserved for politics. It really did take mental effort to distinguish Moi, state and nation. On the other hand, many managed to make the effort. And it’s precisely because they loved their country—in an uncomplicated way which simply asked that the bully stop kicking the shit out of those with whom they shared their lives—that they made the effort, and had their braids yanked out for their trouble.

  5. Daniel,

    Thanks for the music reference. My sonic existence is pretty terrible. I’d love to see some writing about how you think about the role of Kenyan sonics as memory objects. Do write something–AFTER you complete the thesis! Distractions are a little too welcome at this stage of the game.

    Ronald,

    It really is a great collection. I’m glad it’s in the world AND on kindle!

  6. @Daniel Waweru,
    It is true as you suggest that there is a kind of love(?) for Kenya(ns) that could be found in the minimal distance between the Moi state and the people. True that one must not get the two mixed up all the time. And that this minimal space (either in resistance or non-complicity), this No Man’s Land, is where to locate patriotism, especially apropos the Moi years.

    I agree and disagree with you. To agree would be to let the people (us) off the hook too easily. We weren’t simply resistors. Far too often we complied with the state (most times under duress, as you know).

    Here you must remember Brecht’s remark about all those accused at Stalin’s show trials in the later 1930’s (the charges brought against most of the accused, charges like sedition, were completely trumped up and therefore the accused proclaimed their innocence…initially…before torture). Brecht said, “If the are innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot.”

    Now there are multiple ways of reading this statement, but one of the readings suggests that if these people might have been in a position to plot the overthrow/defeat of Stalin and they didn’t do so out of their attachment to their “innocence”, then they are all the more guilty. (Here I’m reminded that the only person I know of to make this sort of claim with Kenya and the Moi years in mind is that opportunist un-enigma Raila Odinga. Apropos his involvement in the 1982 coup plot, Raila has at times said that he was acting out of an ethical imperative to be a part of the overthrow KANU, whether by peaceful means or not. That such good analysis can come from a figure as corrupted as Raila is disturbing and also a testament to the kind of political debacle Kenya is in).

    I think the way you conceptualize patriotism as that minimal space between the state and its people (alas, the Moi state did not even need the people) comes out of an attachment with a sort of “innocence” that I can’t quite swallow. That definition absolves we the people all too easily. I’m more attached to those moments when we recognized (in a psychoanalytic way) ourselves in the state, even as the state. Because these moments were there aplenty and they also say something.

    But if our patriotism is because it is the Moi state alone that took our country to the dogs without the people’s assistance, then patriotism becomes even more problematic for me — surprise! If we were innocent and only the state guilty, then we deserve all the more to be shot!

    Friendly warning: thanks for your response. As you can see by now, I love bad arguments, like the ones in this post.

    Onward! to infantilism.

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