In the fall of 2008, I ran a writing workshop in Kibera. Kenyans aged between 15 and 22 wrote personal narratives. Over 75% of these narratives had some variation of the sentence “Kibera is the largest slum in Africa.” Otherwise dissimilar narratives repeated NGO dogma about Kibera. At the time, I thought this repetition was peculiar to Kibera because it is saturated with NGOs. But I soon started noticing versions and variations of what I called NGO-speak. Today I’d call it report-based realism. Or, more simply, report realism.
Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality. One can imagine how these aims meld with traditional modes of realism and naturalism and also speak to modernist truncations and postmodern undecidability. However, report realism names a more historically accurate way to name a genre indebted (very literally) to NGOS in Kenya.
The report aesthetic goes beyond citing NGO facts and figures. It is concerned, above all, with a search for truth and accuracy and is threatened by imaginative labor. One hears Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind:
NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
Genres that strain realism—the gothic and neo-gothic, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, and so on—are conspicuously absent in Kenyan writing, even as they are incredibly well represented in Kenyan book consumption. We are not writing what we are reading; even the very popular Christian-themed fiction about fighting demonic forces, which is really a variation of the horror novel, remains relatively sparse in terms of what we write or, perhaps more accurately, what we choose to make public of our writing. The believable and the realistic are bounded by NGO narratives and perspectives. And too many writers believe that the only writing worth anything is the believable and the realistic: to be a “committed” writer requires adhering to report realism.
Report realism believes in the power of “truth,” whether contemporary or historical, with a faith that borders on fundamentalism. In report realism, the truth will set us free. Report realism confirms objective NGO reports and affirms what Kenyans feel to be the truth of a particular condition. In report realism, for instance, the Kenyan prostitute is always a morally degraded figure looking for a way out to a respectable moral life. This realism is celebrated and supported by the NGO organizations who fund writing competitions and publish winning entries devoted to describing the real Kenya and by mainstream publishers who have the conservative mission of producing appropriately moral literature.
Yet, the “truth” of report realism is an imaginative one. NGO proposals and reports do not simply narrate what “is”; instead, they create scenarios of what is and what could be. While brainspace does not permit any extended thinking at the moment, the fictionality of NGO facticity merits closer attention.
Report realism emerged as a dominant form in the post-Moi years. The rise of digital communication coupled with the Kibaki government’s more open communication policies enabled government reports to circulate in previously unprecedented ways—we could all read and cite Waki and Kriegler and Akiwumi and Ndungu. These foundational reports, in turn, generated additional reports. Every NGO meeting I’ve attended has produced and circulated some kind of report. Creative writers are often asked to write and edit reports. The figures and causes that form the object of those reports appear in our fiction.
Report realism is buttressed by a salvific zeal. Writing that is not cause-driven is dismissed as westernized or detached. For instance, a review of Binyavanga’s book in the Economist complained, “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing.” Kenyan reviewers echoed and elaborated on this comment. Writing in the Daily Nation, Silas Nyanchwani argued, “It is time we began to pursue literature that celebrates our culture as well as the emerging challenges,” and offered this prescriptive view of literature: “The youth are grappling with unemployment, population explosion, and urban issues of sexual orientation and hyper-consumerism.” An otherwise positive review by Joseph Mwella urged Kenyans to “meet” Binyavanga” to “encounter his geo-politics and ideology,” as they are “radical and cutting-edge.” Binyavanga’s writing may not have a cause, but Binyavanga does.
Report writing generates and fosters aesthetic practices—perhaps “habits” is a better word. How does the report imagine and deploy setting? Narrative movement? How does it figure rumor, gossip, story? How does its reliance on testimonies and interviews (not always) coupled with numerical statistics shape character development? (Many Kenyans write very flat characters, and I think there’s something to be said about the effect of report realism on such writing.) How does the cause-driven agenda of NGO labor blend with and modify the cause-driven agenda of a political literature? What strange hybrids are produced?
These are tentative thoughts so I don’t have any real answers. Here are some tentative formulations. In an earlier draft, I had argued that report realists believe they are continuing Ngugi’s tradition of political protest but are, instead, engaged in a genre of complaint. The endless citation of life’s depredations creates its own echo chamber that far from spurring political action, merely inhabits an affective form of stuckness (you will recognize my indebtedness to Berlant). While report realism dominates Kenyan fiction (though one could trace its effects in poetry), it is based on an attenuated relationship to imaginative labor: the demands of reality based on NGO figures and settings and situations take precedence over the possibilities of wild imaginations. Workshops (sponsored by NGOs) and readings (sponsored by NGOs) continue to smother wild(er) imaginative labor. Formal innovation is a massive no-go. And here I do not mean attempts to imitate Euro-American literatures; rather, the resources offered by our languages and music and patterns of living become subordinated to strict chronological timelines, strict forms of cause and effect, strict moral lessons, strict life lessons. Even forms that seem to depart from believability—allegory and satire, for instance—return to report realism in their didacticism.
A curious NGO structure now enters this musing: meant to be descriptive, it has turned diagnostic. Trained by the numerous reports I have read, I want to ask, “what is to be done?” I think it’s a fair question. I want to advocate for wild imaginations—wild forms of writing, non-linear narratives, an obsessive attention to detail, writing that strains at the edges, reaches beyond itself. I’m interested in writing that lives in secret folders on computers, scurries under beds and into drawers when friends visit, worries that it will be deemed obscene, crazy, impossible. I’m interested in writing that dares truth-the truth of feeling, the truth of form, the truth of seeking, the truth of language seeking byways and creating paths. I’m interested in writing beyond report realism.
Fantastic musing, thanks for condering it, and sharing it. I totally cosign with what experiences I have in the poetry space, and will wonder and look with you about the stuff people don’t show, or in some cases (even mine?) allow themselves to stew over and write.
Great piece. My instant reaction is: this is a wonderful way to frame Binyavanga’s achievement, which defers the possibility of writing about “reality” almost forever, making it the endpoint of the entire book (rather than the taken-for-granted presumption that you start from (Kibera is…,etc).
I need to underline tentative. Binyavanga describes a lot of writing as “high school composition” that is seeking approval from a teacher. And Muthoni Garland reminds me that the problem is not content but aesthetics–in his editorial for Kwani? 5, Billy maps the same stuff, but he is far more firmly wedded to realism than I am. I think this is why I love Muthoni’s Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori so much (now available as an ebook on amazon!), because it refuses the ease of report realism’s will to resolution.