KENYA: Words that Reshape a Countryís Identity

Kristin Palitza interviews BILLY KAHORA, editor of Kenyan journal Kwani?

DURBAN, Mar 11 (IPS) - The goal is ambitious: Kenyaís first literary journal, Kwani?, wants to bring new thinking to the country - and ultimately the continent - and reshape African identities. The journal aims to provoke, create, entertain and develop a literary community that isnít afraid to question the status quo.

Knowing that the publication of an annual journal might not be enough to bring a new vision to a country, Kwani? banks on regular interaction with the public. It organises two literary events each month - a prose reading series and a poetry open mic evening. Kwani? also runs an annual literature festival that features 40 poets and writers from the continent.

Kwani? was set up in Nairobi by contemporary Kenyan writers, Binyawanga Wainaina and Muthoni Garland in 2003. Its editor, Billy Kahora, launched the journalís fifth edition this week at the 12th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, South Africa.

IPS: What does Kwani mean?

Billy Kahora: Kwani is a Swahili word and means literally translated Ďso what?í. We chose the name because it indicates a stance, a reaction. Itís our form of rebellion against a country that has unilateral, prescriptive, too-structured ways of doing politics. We want to question the status quo with new, fresh ideas and new thinking.

IPS: Who contributes to Kwani?

BK: Most of our writers, 60 percent to 70 percent, are from Kenya and East Africa, but we also have contributors from Senegal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the diaspora, especially in the later editions. With every new journal, we include more contributions from different countries on the continent.

Our writers tend to be in their 20s and 30s and are generally interested in expressing themselves in a more modern way that questions political, social and economic structures. They are journalists, writers, photographers, cartoonists and poets. We are a space for new voices.

IPS: Some of the writers published in Kwani? have won or been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. How do you select your contributors?

BK: We are interested in new expressions, sensibility and making evident what is happening in day-to-day live but which is usually not articulated. We want to entertain, provoke, create. We choose writers who grapple with issues and force us out of our comfort zones.

IPS: What differentiates Kwani? from other African literary journals?

BK: What makes Kwani? different is that we are non-academic and non-institutionalis ed. While most journals are situated within a university context, we come from an unstructured place, from fiction and social commentary backgrounds. We want to celebrate African stories.

Our aim is to promote East African writers, develop new talent and create a literary community.

IPS: Kwani?ís aim is to open up new socio-cultural and socio-political spaces through literature. How?

BK: We want to re-define what Kenyan day-to-day life is. Usually, socio-political and socio-cultural spaces are defined by government, the media, universities and local constituencies. But thatís not enough. We want to open additional, alternative spaces.

Kwani? is interested in starting a more direct interaction with the public. Thatís why we are not only a journal, but we also do readings, organise literature festivals and offer workshops in places that fall out of the Ďofficialí, such as youth clubs and community centres.

IPS: Do you intend to reshape or revision Kenyan identity?

BK: Itís happening all the time. Narratives in our journals are about unrecognised Africanness - not how it is usually defined by the church, the state, the media and universities. Those institutions see culture and identity in descriptive, one-dimensional ways. Kwani? tries to open this up and represent the rest of society without being prescriptive.

IPS: What are some of the key themes of the journals?

BK: We are interested in investigating the relationship between people and power. Our concern is the image of Kenya and Africa and creating a new political consciousness.

We aim to interrogate Kenya from a post-national space. Who are we? is the question we constantly ask and try to answer in our writing. As a result, Kwani? tends to publish very personal stories about issues of identity, self-discovery, family, crime, ethnicity, poverty and urbanisation.

IPS: The latest Kwani? examines Kenya in the context of the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections. Have these events changed contemporary literature in Kenya?

BK: They havenít. What Kwani? does is offer a mirror, a new beginning of thinking about society. Concerns of writers are always influenced by the events around them and their writing reflects upon society.

When a crisis like this happens to a country, you start looking for answers. As a result, the journal dealt with the countryís big, current issues, such as unfair distribution of wealth, land and resources.

IPS: You published a mini-Kwani? titled "How to write about Africa?". Have you found an answer to the question?

BK: We asked the question in a satirical way that points a finger to all the books that have been written about Kenya and Africa in the West, based on colonial thinking. The question is meant to indicate that there isnít one single answer to it. There are many ways to write about Africa, not only they prescriptive, colonial, patronising way.

IPS: Do you believe literature can help bring political and social change?

BK: In Kenya, socio-political conversations usually follow what politicians decide the important issues of the day are. There is too much agenda setting by politicians, to a degree that it is difficult for anyone else to squeeze in a word.

If you write about what ordinary people think and how they live, like Kwani? aims to do, you open up another conversation and thatís important.

IPS: Is Kwani? in search of a new nation?

BK: Because of national state failure in Kenya, people have become sceptical of anything to do with nation building. We want to allow for and start off a debate that enables democracy and creates an economy that everybody can take part in and benefit from.