LIWRE 2011

Philo Ikonya
Speaking to a country on the throes of death

There are specific moments when words failed me. I did not have words. Traditionally my ancestors spoke in proverbs when faced with a difficulty and in all circumstances. Dances and eating at all ceremonies are common. At births the ulalations are made.. alliilliiiiiliiii. Ceremonies of the coming of age including the odious FGM, now outlawed in Kenya among girls, weddings, funerals and etc. are expressed in song and dance. Maybe all action is a form of writing. Only that it is not always in words. But words used in riddles, proverbs and song can be equal to a book.


I think creativity means certain silences. I think writing is a way of speaking with the body for a longer time than we can hold a conversation. It is a long dialogue with many people at different times. I think writing like music must bring about certain silences if only in order to alternate them with sound or words.


When Kenya stood on the brink of civil war in Dec- 2007, Jan, and February in 2008 I could not write. I could not move. The country had come to a standstill. It was easy to get depressed. Some people went mad. My friend says I stood on the verge of it but I felt always strong.

Perhaps madness is a form of misunderstood creativity at times. We agree it is a disease oftentimes and respect that. But we know there are varieties in the mix. Maybe we also have to think that disease can be understood creatively.


At that time all I knew is that I had to transform everything around me to make sense around me. I had to speak a different and new language. I divorced my tribe, so as to speak a different tongue, never mind that the tribe meant also my mother tongue. It was the agony of coming face to face of who we come become in the face of strife. Moving things to make them ever new.. or original.. words, thoughts, paintings.. I cut my hair. It was long and silky looking. I made dreadlocks and felt so good.


I wore a sackcloth. I went to town in it. I stitched messages on my sackcloth dress. I got messages to take off those things I was wearing because they were embarassing the country in the city of Nairobi. It was not the first time someone had been angry at how I dress. Maybe we gave too much power to fashionistas who use bodies to make money. I saw the power of the body as a placard. I had no words.. could hardly write and now this. I carried on. One night when Njeri shared with us her death threats. Finally, in the place of sleep, I wrote this midnight. It is harder to be awake in the tropics or at the equator at midnight. Day and night seem heavier there.









A Letter to Njeri

Dear Njeri,


And those who stood against violence.


Tonight, I am unable to sleep. You see, my country - our country - is on fire. It is almost the end of February: is it the end of Kenya as we knew it? Kenya beloved and full of potential. Kenya our country.

I have only heard one positive report from the BBC ever since the year began and I am not surprised; what positive things can one say at the moment? That children are not dying? They are. That many people are not being killed? They are. That our mothers are not being raped and little girls defiled? They are. That you have and are not the only one to receive death threats? You have. That houses are not burning? They are. That we have not fought these things all along? We have.

Before we had passed the years when we could only turn on BBC for trustworthy news even before we elected Kibaki on a reform platform in 2002. Let me come back to how I feel and why I am unable to sleep. It is because of you Njeri, my sister in the struggle. It is because you told us how you have received persistent death threats because you believe in human rights and standing up for the truth. I have to write this letter to you tonight, even if it is an hour to midnight.

Remember when we had the Kenya Civil Society Congress near the ABC place above Westlands? I arrived late but wearing my sack on which I had emblazoned the words in red: "I Believe, Hope and Love Kenya." I know you really liked this recent mode of my protest. I remember I had already spoken about the Sackcloth and Beads Movement and many said I moved their hearts. Before I got into the sack, we were choking and threatened with being silenced both in word and deed. I remember how we could not pass through Uhuru Park (Freedom Park) for many days, because it was, and still is, heavily guarded.

But what I remember most during my speech was your face and eyes full of encouragement, as I walked in this protest garb that I have now learnt to handle. It was empowering to see your intense look. Even in the face of threats you insist on examining again what went wrong with our social fabric. Then other people spoke and always we touched on principles, values, options, change - as we stared in the face of the darkest days we have ever known in Kenya.

As I finished speaking, the news of the death of the MP for Ainamoi, shot dead by a traffic policeman, was broken. We were all devastated. For the first time, I registered physical pain; I wanted to scream and cry and yell instead of observing a moment of silence. But we went on with the meeting and after adopting the resolutions, you spoke.

You said that perhaps you only had this time to speak, for none of us knows who will be silenced next. Many human rights activists have received many death threats and the matter is grave. If I discussed this with my mother in Central Province, I can see how pained she would be; her disapproving face would wrinkle and she would weep for Kenya. No words would console her. She is deeply humane and religious and used to welcome strangers and persons of other ethnic groups to our home. And she taught us to do the same. How then have we got to this as a country? I can see her shaking her head and saying pensively in Kikuyu, kai uuu ni uru i! ("this is great evil!").

Three minutes into your heartrending speech we were looking for our handkerchiefs. I had to take a walk. Without telling us the details of the death threats you have received, you told us that any of us could die anytime for having stood for the truth. You told us that the important thing would not be death, but what or how much we had done up to then. I looked at your fingers and thought all along they have been doing sacred work - watching over our various freedoms. All this time you have been engaged in the struggle, ever since you were a girl. In 1992 you were at Freedom Corner, a section of Uhuru Park, when Mothers in Action, old women whose children were held in prison by president Moi, undressed to curse him.

Njeri, as Abubakar Awadh said in his prayers after the meeting, Kenya has been blessed to have some strong women politicians and especially from Central Province. Women who, unlike most of the people there, refuse to blindly support one power versus the other just because they belong to a specific ethnic group.

Our leaders have failed in uniting this province with the rest of Kenya.

You told us to stay focused and frustrate the efforts to make us lose focus. You told us if you were to go, the important thing would be for all to continue struggling. It was so hard to hear that - so agonizing to look at your youthful self and hear you talk about being killed. The audience was hushed and weeping. How could we listen to talk of losing you? Your tears choked you, too; you said they were tears of courage - and that just like the MP who went down at 40 years old (and the second one even before we buried the first: David Were was only 39), we could all be next. You called on each of us to keep moving and fighting to the end rather than give in to injustice.

While some have fled Kenya, you and others have opted to stay in spite of the threats. You said that we would go on "inspired by Philo's hope," my hope. I now realize something beyond us is at work. These moments of utmost trial have brought us to the stark realization that the price we pay is eternal vigilance.

I wore the strong sack maybe as a symbol of how much strength I really felt I needed. Perhaps this is why you were looking at me that way when I spoke. And as you spoke, you added strength to me.

Next we heard Mumbi tell her story. She had only hours within which to pack, leave her home and also change her name. Mumbi means "one who creates" in Kikuyu; according to legend, Mumbi is the mother of the Kikuyu. Mumbi rose and spoke of the many internally displaced people whom she is trying to look after - 20,000 in Central Province. She is threatened because she was an Orange Democratic Movement coordinator - the main opposition party in Kenya and unacceptable in Central Province.

This experience of our country being torn in tatters over election results has been so terrible, so bad, that we have been to the place where all faith is tested. A place where prayer is not forthcoming though we are generally very prayerful. A place where singing spirituals is impossible, where songs of resistance fade on our tongues and we become truly tongue-tied. People have been dying daily, every hour, and nobody seems to have the will to stop it. Even our mourning songs desert us. Every day we see images of death and destruction, we see and hear fights over identity. We have seen so many people become refugees within our own country, the so-called IDPs. We have seen blood in many places - the blood of that woman, perhaps a single mother, her little one crying out, "Mama." But Mummy lay in blood already clotted. What will that child live to re-live?

How shall we heal our nation of violence, how will we heal these deep wounds? How shall we do away with poverty and injustice overnight - the fuel of this violence? Do you remember the Millennium Development Goals? Do you remember ordinary Kenyans struggling over debt cancellation at Gleneagles, Scotland? The politicians, even some in opposition now but then in government, had no strategy on this. I remember more sharp than theirs was the voice of a Caucasian Latin American missionary priest from the slums of Nairobi.

I promise to stop these people who threaten you from killing their nation. I will take my sackcloth and stitch onto it messages, pleading for your lives. I know many other Central Province people in exile - they say these people betrayed your communities as much as the homeguards did during colonial times. I will stitch my messages calling out for your freedom and walk all the way to Mukurwe-ini Wa Nyagathanga, the original home, or so they say, of the Kikuyu. I will plead with the people to remember that they exist because of the nine daughters of Mumbi. That these nine daughters symbolize the salvation of a people who shall always be carried by the wombs of women! How can they choose to ignore that? I will ask them how they can terrorize their daughters and sons so. I will ask them why Central Province has been in this dark eclipse for so long. Would Gikuyu and Mumbi, our legendary parents, have approved of that?

I will ask them why they want their children to perish rather than flourish. I will demand that they give us back our rights and our children. I will.

I will stand there before the Mugumo tree and the famed trees of the Kikuyu home and sing dirges. I will ask them - where has all our wisdom gone? I will ask them why they keep you, Njeri, on deathrow - the kind where one is convicted in their absence, tried, judged and condemned in silence and relegated to watching one's own back until who knows when. I will ask them hard questions, Njeri. You promise to fight till the end and you encourage us to do so -- still, they have questions to answer.

Why do they want to shed your blood? I do not believe it will happen. I believe we shall run together - until the children of the mountain hold hands with the children of the lake, and all the other children of Kenya, safely under the leadership of women.

Yet you had this disturbing message: the man who wrote from Rwanda, before the genocide that later claimed him. His letter starts, 'tonight they are coming for me and my family." And Njeri, you rightly said, now we only have the letter - this man and his family died. But let me tell you something - you are of the Kimathi hair knots (dreadlocks). You have refused to die kneeling and begging. And if you must die, you will die not thinking of death but of triumph. Courage, hope and love will live on because of you and your unflinching faithfulness to your call. I remember your mother describing to me, the only time I met her, how she checked your body when you had been beaten up by police in Nakuru over multiparty changes. I remember that. I remember our prayers for our victories. And our victory need never be getting elected, we know that now.

Njeri, I just wanted to put these words down before I make you a sackcloth in the morning. I will add some beads of victory because you deserve many medals. But beads will do to celebrate your heart burning with patriotism. Let the police wear dangling medals and medallions.

You stirred an essential dialogue in us today; you lit a fire and passed on to us your bravery and patriotism. Eternal vigilance is the price we will have to pay so that you stay. You and your son, mum and husband will not die. Neither will Kenya. We will never go to a meeting again and not feel you, Njeri, even a century from now. This is Kenya.