“In a Dictatorship Nothing is Secret:” Interview with Billy Kahora
Billy Kahora came of age in post-independence Kenya, during a time of rising poverty and social upheaval. In his words, he grew up just as “things were getting really shitty.” Born in the 1970s, Kahora is part of a younger generation of African writers struggling to create their own literary community in nations ruled by dictators, lacking in wealth, or void of academic institutions.
Kahora studied and worked in South Africa and served as an editorial assistant for AllAfrica.com in Washington, D.C. He was a Chevening Scholar in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh.
Recently, he edited Kenya Burning, a visual narrative of the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya. He is also the author of The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower and wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy, directed by Tom Tykwer and Hawa Essuman. Currently, he is the managing editor of the Nairobi-based literary magazine Kwani.
Kahora spent three weeks on Sampsonia Way as part of a partnership between City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Read Kahora’s short story “The Gorilla’s Apprentice.”
You told Granta magazine that you started writing in your 20s “when everything around [you] started contorting in unprecedented ways.” What was going on at that time?
The first contortions were what everyone goes through in their late teens or early 20s. The second were the changing dynamics in Kenya. I grew up middle class and life was pretty good up to the late 1980s. But, because of the increasing marginalization of Africa and the internal dynamics, President Daniel Arap Moi was becoming a dictator. In the early 1990s, I reached university age, but getting a good education was no longer a given, because there was a huge reduction of the middle class. There was a politically connected upper class and then a large population of poor people in the slums.
It was also a time of political agitation called the Second Independence. Things were really coming to a head, and I was just coming of age. It was a perfect storm.
Why did you choose writing as your way of making sense of this difficult time?
When I was younger, reading was an escape, but then I realized that all of the things I imagined—all the escapes I made as a child through reading—could never be realized. Now if Kenya had discovered oil and became very wealthy, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer. I could have my books and my wealth and not need anything else. But the everyday reality of my world was disconnected from what I had read. I needed to connect that outside world to this process of reading that I’d come to love so much.
Wanting to be a writer came from trying to make sense of all that was happening, but it also came comes from a love of books and words that didn’t need to be explained.
What inspired you to write your first book The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower?
In dictatorships, nothing’s a secret. What I mean is that the dictator’s life is always public. It’s just the way dictators work; other than having things like the army, he must always exert himself into the mental-scape of the community. The dictator is everywhere: he’s the number one teacher, he’s the number one farmer. He’s always on TV. In addition to nothing being a secret, nothing is written down.
However, there is still this incredible memory: You go to a bar and there will be some guy and he used to work in the torture chambers and he’ll tell you his story. But he won’t write it down. You need a way to tap into this or you miss a huge part of the narrative of your society.
A friend of mine who was familiar with my fiction challenged me to do something on Munyakei, who blew the whistle on massive irregularities in trade subsidies, irregularities that cost Kenya billions of dollars. It came to be known as the Goldenberg Scandal, but nothing happened. No one was prosecuted really.
So I spent three months living with Munyakei and published a long article in Kwani about that experience. Then three years later he died, and I had to go back and trace what had actually happened. I wrote 30,000 words and decided it was too long to publish in the journal, so we published it as a novella.
It’s interesting that you call it a novella. Isn’t it a work of non-fiction?
I’m very interested in capturing a certain reality, but the difference between non-fiction and fiction really is that you can get sued for one and not the other.
As you mentioned, The True Story of David Munyakei originally appeared in Kwani, a Niarobi-based literary magazine where you are an editor. You’ve described Kwani as “non-academic and non-institutionalized.” Why are those characteristics important to you?
Once a dictatorship sets in, the first things that are compromised are the institutions. Dictators have to make sure you don’t have an ecosystem where independent thinking can flourish. So you make the universities really mediocre and politicize them so much they can’t generate literary and cultural production. The other thing that produces writers is the media, so you do the same thing to that. You close down all channels of freedom of expression.
So the traditional spaces in which writers thrive and come from are closed. So what happens? The people who travel outside of Kenya come back with a huge energy, asking questions about where the writers are. And that’s how Kwani started. When journalist Binyavanga Wainaina came back from South Africa, he wanted to create a space for writers.
You also spent a considerable amount of time outside of Kenya. What is the role of the diaspora in creating contemporary Kenyan literature?
People like Tom and I are part of a generation who were born in the 1970s and came of age when things started to get really shitty. Disillusionment sets in 10-15 years after independence because there is economic deprivation, and education standards go down. All these spaces that create culture and literature are killed. As a writer, it’s hard to flourish if you don’t have access to a literary past.
When people leave, first and foremost, they get an education. They gain a sense that there were writers who came before them. They go to a place where they see literary cultures flourishing, and they learned from that. So when they go back they know what they need to do.
The thing that you need to realize is that creativity is never killed. The dictatorship has only killed the structures that support and systematize creativity. So when writers come back, they not only have their own creativity, they see the creativity that’s already in place. They have the money and resources that they’ve acquired from elsewhere to create structures to support culture. That is what happened with Kwani.
Having a literary past is crucial for individual writers, but what does having a literary past give to a nation as a whole?
Places that have literary pasts have more than just a load of books sitting around; literature has become a part of the total life of a society. It’s in the definition of society and in the way people think politically. It makes your language more beautiful and that’s why people say the Declaration of Independence is poetic.
In places where there is a dictatorship, it’s not that people aren’t being creative and producing good ideas and great books. Instead, it that these things are divorced from life. In places where there are no connections, it’s easy to re-write the past to suit the dictator. All you need is someone to write the textbook.
In your work as a writer and editor, you are invested in making sure history can’t be re-written that easily. You are involved in projects that document and bare witness to Kenyan history. For example, you collaborated with the Go-Down Arts Centre in Nairobi on Kenya Burning, an exhibit of photos documenting post-election violence from 2007. What is story do these photos tell?
Elections are the only time that the huge underclass feels that it has any say in its country and any stake in being Kenyan. At the same time, there is a lot of political patronage and largess. In a place were hustling is part of day-to-day life, the election becomes the hustler’s dream.
The political class rouses up the population and creates a huge mass feeling. In fact, the elections are like a party, but not of enjoyment. Perhaps it’s more like a carnival, which is a moment of a loss of control. You see, the general idea of citizenship is not developed, and so there are all sorts of violence happening, both to and by this large underclass. Elections are, in a very perverse way, the freest time in Kenya.
What have you been working on while you’ve been in residence at COA/P?
I’m part of a project called Pilgrimages through the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists. They send 14 different writers to 14 different cities, and I was sent to Luanda, in the new southern Sudan. I have been putting together a draft of a novella on Luanda, which is large in my head as we speak. It has a crazy, crazy history.
Read Elizabeth’s bio.