The oxymoron did not escape us. It was just softly ignored, tapped against the creative energy that engulfed the event. Similar to how it’s treated in every other event, it was not until we had sufficient alcohol in us that we loosened up and tackled the beast.
A couple of nights ago, smacked in the middle of American Thanksgiving, I went to a friend’s launch of The Nest in Nairobi. The Nest aspires to be a creative space for emerging Kenyan artists, such as writers, bloggers, musicians, and designers, to collaborate and support each other’s work. I decided to go primarily to support my friend and because I was nostalgic for the creative crowds I used to run with back in Chicago.
In the backdrop of good music and the primarily Nairobi-born and -bred middle to high class Kenyans, I struck up conversations with a group of writers and artists, some emerging and others established. One is an aspiring poet, another was the former manager of Binyavanga Wainaina and the current festival organizer of the famous African literature magazine, Kwani?, and another is a former marketer turned indie musician. All were raised in Kenya and come from comfortable families.
After a couple of drinks, the conversation shifted to the already-prevalent violence and menacing atmosphere surrounding the presidential election to be held in March, 2013 (the last presidential election killed over 1000 and displaced 300,000 Kenyans). They talked about tribalism and how because they were raised in Nairobi, they never cared too much about tribe affiliations until the last presidential election, when violence and curfews forced them to retreat and defend their own tribes. They could no longer be Kenyans together. Rather, they were either Luos or Kikuyus or Luhya, or one of the other 39 tribes. This begs the essential question to which emerging Kenyan artists mule over everyday, “what is Kenyan?”
Mostly perceptively, a lot of the emerging artists face a conflict. What they are doing- creating various mediums of art- is considered by most Kenyans as “frivolous” and “useless”. It is not that Kenyans do not like dance or music. For most Kenyans, how can the middle and upper class Kenyans waste precious resources to do art when 50% of Kenyan live on less than $1.25 per day and people starve on a daily basis? Why can’t they do something more practical to help Kenyans, such as engineering? This argument is not unique. Everywhere in emerging markets, especially in cut throat countries such as BRIC and Nigeria, there is the prevalent view that the liberal arts education heralded by the West is for weaklings who are not good enough to make it to law, engineering, or medical schools.
I posed this question to my new group of friends. Their answer astonished me and rid of my personal guilt. For them, they are helping the Kenyan cause on a long-term macro-level. They see the problem of tribalism and subsequent feuds and violence not in terms of corruption and the way people are brought up. Rather, they see it a consequence of cooping up 40 million ethnically different people in a country that has no national identity. Even war, typically a national unifier, has not helped Kenyans come together. Rather, the Kenyan-Somalian War has increased the separation of different groups of people as demonstrated by the recent violence in Eastleigh. National identity, or rather the lack thereof, is the pandora’s box.
And these emerging artists are the answer to the problem of lack of identity. Because they are raised in urban environment where tribalism is almost invisible except for the mother tongues spoken, their work, based on their personal experiences, reflect a more unified front. Their creative works, whether it is creating a distinctly Kenyan genre of literature, similar to how Chinua Achebe put the Nigerian lit scene on the map, or using visual art to exemplify Kenyan history, are collaboratively inventing the national Kenyan identity and values. And the artists are contributors to this cause. They are energized and enthusiastic in sheparding this change. They are full of ideals, hubris, ambition, and dedication.
Creating a national identity does not happen overnight. It is gritty work that overlooks every other societal problem. Because it is slow and progress is not as obvious and quantifiable as “1 million children are fed every day due to our work”, it becomes a vital problem that gets tossed to the side whenever politics and policies are involved. In political philosophy, we learn that liberal nationalism takes decades and centuries and is one of the primary reasons for the strengthening of Western nations in the 19th century. This class of emerging artists have fearlessly taken on the challenge.
These artists are young, and in a society as traditional as Kenya, they face numerous hurdles. They need to battle sexism, ageism, and the daunting status quo. But they are the right people to affect change. They are passionate, flexible, creative, intelligent, and know how to work around the problems. And they are Kenyans. At the very least, they have the tools to go viral and reach millions with whatever message they come up with at a low cost. They are tech savvy, likeable, are Twitter and blog ninjas…literally.
I guess I should have called this post, “In Defense of Kenyan Artists”, but I wanted to open up this dialogue. Perhaps, as a devil’s advocate, they are simply using a noble cause to justify their work and their hearts are not actually in the movement.