Dark Secrets of Kenya: An Interview with Writer Philo Ikonya

by Madeleine Barnes    /  August 1, 2011  / 2 Comments

Philo Ikonya

Photo: Sune Segal


In 2010, Kenyans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a national referendum that was signed by President Mwai Kibaki in front of more than ten thousand people in Nairobi, the country’s capital.

The new constitution aims to settle the land ownership issues once and for all, create a Senate, and decentralize the political system. The document signified hope for rebirth and many people believed that Kenya, a country torn apart by decades of violence and corruption, would see justice, fairness, and peace.

Kenyan writer and activist Philo Ikonya, who experienced the violence of the current government first-hand, also has hope for the constitution’s changes and the upcoming election in 2012.

Ikonya, who has been arrested multiple times for protesting, was severely beaten while in police custody in 2009. She is also president of the Kenyan chapter of PEN.

Author of This Bread of Peace, Out of Prison- Love Song, Leading the Night, and Kenya, Will You Marry Me? Ikonya focuses on women, politics, and human rights issues, lectures around the world and speaks many languages.

In 2010 Ikonya left Kenya and sought refuge in Oslo, Norway, where she currently lives with her son as a guest writer of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). She communicated with Sampsonia Way via Skype, and after some technological problems, talked about her writing, activism, being a mother in exile, and freedom of expression in Kenya.

Hi Philo, are you there?

Finally yes, great to see you. There is a bit of a connection problem. I’ll try to turn off a few things that I have on. Ah, there you are.

I have your book here, Kenya, Will You Marry Me? I wish you could sign it through Skype!

Wow, you got that fast!

I can see your son on the screen..

He is going out with his friends now. He had an exam and he got the highest mark. [Being in exile] it’s hard for him, so it’s a good thing that he’s getting good grades. He was presenting Animal Farm in Norwegian for fifteen minutes on Powerpoint and talking about Russia before 1945. He rehearsed until 2am. He was also analyzing rap music recently—he really likes rap.

I read in one of your blogs that he really likes Lil Wayne, is that true?

He loves Lil Wayne, I think maybe too much! He also loves Michael Jackson, so he’s very influenced by American rappers and musicians. It was funny because when he was rehearsing for his presentation he was too monotone, so we looked at young men and film stars speaking like Sidney Poitier, and then Obama, then Lil Wayne. All of these things really energized him.

How does your son affect your writing and your views on freedom of expression?

I felt more creative after he was born in 1995. When I write—especially when I was writing Kenya, Will You Marry Me?—I think of my country and my son, and want him to be stable and to experience democracy. There is a tendency in young people to admire people in America and Europe, but I want him to recognize heroes in Africa too. I have also written a few things for children. I just finished one adventure story that put me in the world my son grew up in.

What happened before you left Kenya in 2009?

In 2009 a book called It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower by Michela Wrong was published. You could buy that book in New York and London, but not in Nairobi. I saw someone reading it privately and asked them where they got it, but they said they couldn’t tell me unless they really trusted me. I got so angry.

We couldn’t have the book because it was about governmental corruption. It was a well-researched story of a former parliament member, and when I saw this, I said: “No. We have to stop [this censorship] before it takes a toll. I have to have this book; I have to [be able to] read it on a bus. We cannot act like we are not free.”

So we got copies of the book and brought it back to the country, and people were cautiously taking it around with them. PEN was promoting it in different cities and talking about it. This was not taken well by the government. It was okay if the book didn’t appear, but now it was appearing with well-known activists.

A few of us who were promoting the book were noted as the key movers. I was well aware that phones were tapped, and there was a close monitoring of who was doing what. We have never been guaranteed freedom.

Later on, the media outlets all over the world announced “PEN Kenya President Arrested.” I understand that the police were brutal when they arrested you.

That arrest, that last 24 hours, was the longest of my entire life [Ikonya had been arrested two times before in August 2007 and February 2009]

I had never experienced or imagined a forceful male beating me. When it happened, it was absolutely unbelievable. We were talking to people who were picketing about maize that had been sold to them by members of parliament. We knew there was a lot more that demanded attention. We were saying, please, when you elect your members of parliament, make no mistakes.

When the arrests started, I could have run and hid, but someone was beating my colleague and I knew he would have a very hard time if I did not stay. This particular policeman was notorious; he had already arrested some human rights activists before, and when he came to me, he was very brutal. He almost broke my right hand. For two years I felt pain lifting anything.

The worst part of these arrests was the verbal threats: People talking to us about being buried that same day in the forest and never speaking again. They were saying it and laughing. I really do stand my ground; I never stopped answering them. Every time they said something I answered back. One of them said: “Madam, do you know how you will die?” And I said, “Yes; surrounded by books, in my bed, with people that love me.” He was surprised that I was answering.

The same officer boxed my cheeks and my jaw. I wanted to stop him. I told him to look at me and he looked into my eyes. I asked him, “What do you see? You see peace and you see God—why are you doing this to Him?” That’s a moment I’ll never forget. Something happened that was not from me, or from him. Looking back, it was a fascinating thing.

I told him I did not see life in his eyes. I saw betrayal, I saw that he had lost his soul and that he was a killer. He tore my dress so I arrived at the police station with my dress falling off, but the police wouldn’t allow activists to bring me clothes.

[At the station] I talked to the other inmates who had been beaten badly. I kept on talking and said that they did not deserve to be beaten like that. When I got out on bail, I noticed I was being followed. A familiar man got a flat near me, and we recognized each other. I remember thinking, could it be that some people are planted in the cells to track us down?

Philo Ikonya

Photo: Sune Segal


You were persecuted for your poetry too…

Yes. I remember running from school because someone told me to be very careful with some poetry I was writing and to shred it because intelligence people were capable of coming to my house. They never came, but you can imagine what a panic I was in, and how I went running. I am talking about President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, in power from 1978 until 2002, and at his worst between 1991 and 1996. A lot of people were detained and in trouble for things they wrote. That is why I was so upset when they banned Michela [Wrong]‘s book.

What struggles do women in Kenya face in relation to freedom of expression?

There was a study on fathers in Kenya, and the results were very devastating. They showed that a lot of abuse, including incest, was carried out in families. I know from my own life that many fathers are capable of doing terrible things.

As a Kenyan woman grows and encounters adulthood, she will also have to face the practice of female genital mutilation. It’s still a challenge that is happening in many areas—not so much in the big cities, but sometimes it happens. Since my parents were against this tradition, I was spared, but this is one major thing that needs to be looked at.

It’s not just about the individual women—it’s about keeping a whole population down. When a woman is very loud, when she knows what she wants and is not afraid, people abuse her. One very strong person called me “uncircumcised woman.” It’s about being in charge and saying, “This is what I want.”

I’m not discounting the terrible levels of pain that some women in Somalia and other countries have endured through infibulations [The most severe form of female genital mutilation]. I remember listening to a colleague who took about 15 minutes to urinate, and it was very embarrassing for her. She had to have reconstructive surgery. Doctors who are competent in this are not that common and many women have to go abroad for treatment.

Officially Kenyan law is against female genital mutilation but the less severe forms of it are still practiced.

Do you think young women feel pressured to undergo circumcision procedures?

Yes. Young people who don’t agree with the ceremony, or whose parents don’t agree with it, are often made to feel out of place, like they don’t fit into the group. So it becomes a way of being recognized and respected. Those who don’t do it are looked down upon. There is a socialization of the whole thing so you can be accepted and married, but it’s actually a starting point of abuse. The ceremony is a signal that the young girl is ready for marriage. Can you imagine? Before they are even healed, they have old men coming to marry them. I cannot imagine a worse type of slavery. I can’t imagine being the girl sitting outside the house dragging her feet because of pain, and then there are suddenly people who have come to marry you. The sooner these things stop going on, the sooner we can go forward. It’s hard to fight culture.

In your newest book, Kenya, Will You Marry Me? you say you love “all of Kenya and not parts.” Can you explain your love of Kenya?

All my life I have met so many good people it’s unbelievable. I have seen so much goodness in my own family—goodness mixed with a lot of sacrifice— from very poor people who have nothing to eat. They always tried to share whatever they had. I often remember people carrying a kind of pancake we make that everyone takes a part of. Kenya is recorded in history as a country that managed to throw off the British Empire in a very short time. They shook it off quite fast.

The people fighting in [MauMau] used to say that if we only have one bean, we will all have a bit of that bean. I have always been fascinated by the love around me, people telling stories, laughing, working early in the morning, some of them left home without anything hot to drink; people feeding their families, going to school—it can’t be easy, but there is such goodness and such beauty in this country. You’ve got to see the lakes, the highlands around Nairobi, the desert and rivers. This is not supposed to be a miserable place. It’s not Siberia. No one should convert it to a place of misery. It’s a place that calls a lot of people to love it.

Do you think you will ever return to Kenya?

Yes, I will return to Kenya. My time here in Oslo will soon expire. I will go back to my country, and it will not be easy. But I have to protect my writing, that’s for sure, and see how I grow in that regard. When I return, I will not drag my son with me the same way I did when we ran away. People don’t realize children have feelings and friends and a community, and moving can have a negative impact on them. My son has to come first in this regard because I pulled him out of Kenya when it was time for him to move into secondary school. Here, he has had to remain in what Norwegians call secondary school. I am in exile, and I am a mother. And I will not stop being a mother because I am in exile.

Visit philoikonya.blogspot.com here.

Read a poem from Kenya Will You Marry Me?

About the Author

Madeleine Barnes is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing and Fine Arts. Her poems have appeared in places like The Rattling Wall, Weave Magazine, Open Thread, The Albion Review, Allegheny Review, 5AM, and North Central Review. She is the recipient of the Borders Open Door Poetry Prize, the Princeton Poetry Prize, and the Women's Press Club award for journalism. In the fall she will travel to Trinity College Dublin to pursue a Masters of Philosophy in Creative Writing.

View all articles by Madeleine Barnes

2 Comments on "Dark Secrets of Kenya: An Interview with Writer Philo Ikonya"

  1. J. M. Songe July 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm ·

    Philo Thank you for all the good work you continue to do. I knew you in school as one of the seniors I admired. You are a beautiful, courageous woman. A model for all of Kenya.

  2. Joyce Funches May 30, 2013 at 7:10 am ·

    Hi Ikonya, I remember you, secondary school. I hope you are back home. I feel the love you have for Kenya. Be the best mother you can be, wherever you find yourself.

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