Michael Soi was at the immigration queue at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport when he saw a Chinese couple jump the queue to be served at the counter. “People on the queue pretended like this was not happening; they were willing to let this blatant breach of procedure pass,” says Soi.

Soi was of a different persuasion; this was going to happen on his watch. “I spoke up and asked the Chinese couple to get to the back of the queue,” he explains. “It was only when the people realised that I was serious that they also expressed their displeasure.” The Chinese couple was left with no option other than to do the right thing.

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Today, the topic of entitlement and high handedness by Chinese living and working in Kenya is quickly gaining currency. This was especially after the Sunday Standard published a dossier on how Chinese workers were ill-treating Kenyan workers on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).  Another aspect about the Chinese that is currently preoccupying Kenyans is the ballooning debt owed to the Chinese.

Latest figures released by Treasury indicate that China owns 70 per cent of debt owed by Kenya.

While the reality of Kenya/Chinese relations might come as something of a shock to a majority of Kenyans, Soi, a visual artist based at the Godown, had somehow seen it coming. Way back, even before Jubilee came into power, Soi had started doing a series of paintings he called China Love Africa.

The series take a satirical if not mischievous look at how China relates with Africa. “Ever since some African countries, Kenya included, embarked on the ‘Look East’ policy I got intrigued,” explains Soi. In Kenya, the ‘Look East policy started with the Kibaki administration. Tired of having conditions – mostly human rights related – attached on aid by Western donors, Africans found a willing ally in China

No matter how stained a county’s human rights were, this was no big deal to the Chinese, who were too willing to open their wallet and do business.

Apparently the Chinese had gotten wind of Soi’s paintings. In May of 2004, the artist was minding his business in his studio when he got some unexpected visitors. Four men and a woman, all Chinese nationals, proceeded to ransack his studio. Apparently they were unhappy with the message Soi was communicating in the China Loves Africa series. They felt he was disrespectful to China in spite of the “good things China was doing to Kenya”.

Well, Soi called them to order by telling them that he was an artist and was not interested in politics, and could they leave his studio.

The five visitors happened to be in a delegation that had accompanied the Chinese Prime Minister on a State visit to Kenya. The Prime Minister had come bearing a bag of goodies, including funds that would be used to kick-start the SGR.

In an interview with Maisha Yetu, at the time, Soi had this to say “… the Chinese are giving their money without any conditions. This is one way of abetting impunity among our leaders; that no matter how many people are killed or imprisoned China will still pour in money, money that most likely ends up in people’s pockets and which will be paid by our children in years to come…”

Four years down the line Soi’s words sound disturbingly prophetic.

The China Loves Africa exhibition opened at at the Circle Art Gallery, in Lavington on August 15. Among the pieces on display include one depicting a beach scene where two men, representing Europe and the US, stare enviously as a Chinese man enjoys the attentions of a well-endowed bikini-clad woman, representing Africa. The Chinese man is blissfully licking a chocolate in the shape of the African continent.

The painting shows how China has beaten Western powers in the race to exploit Africa’s rich resources. Another piece foresees a future where China actually chairs the African Union – remember the crippling debt? – and African delegates asleep behind the new ‘chairman’.

You only need to visit the exhibition to see for yourself. It ends on September 25

 

 

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The highly acclaimed TV drama Game of Thrones might be on its last stretch but it would appear that it has left a mark on Kenyan audiences. In the drama series there is an Iron Throne that every person, who thinks they have leadership blood in them, wants to occupy.

The throne is forged out of many swords said to have been melted by fiery dragon breath. Now, the quest to occupy this throne leads to a lot of bloodletting. Closer home, Sebastian Kiarie, a visual artiste from Ngecha Village in Kiambu County has come up with his local version of the Iron Throne.

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Like the throne on King’s Landing, Kiarie’s throne is made up of hundreds of machetes. He calls it The Seat of Impunity. The image is, at once, terrifying. This is especially when one takes into consideration Kenya’s blood soaked election cycles. Starting with 1992, the machete or panga became the weapon of choice for politically inspired ethnic clashes during election time.

 

Politicians who felt threatened by voters from ethnic communities, other than theirs, hired goons to finish off these ‘enemies’. The dark climax of these killing was witnessed in 2007, when Kenyans turned upon fellow countrymen in an orgy of mindless violence that left more 1,000 people dead; all in the name of politics and the quest to acquire power.

Kiarie’s sculpture is thus a timely reminder of the deadly nature of our politics, where politicians will do anything, including shedding blood in order to get into power. These politicians are encouraged by the fact that they will get away with it. In short, the top political seat in Kenya is drenched in blood.  This is the impunity Kiarie addresses in his unique sculpture.

Seat of Impunity is among artworks that have been on display, at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) since the beginning of this month. Titled Art Creative and Beyond, this is a joint exhibition by artists drawn from Ngecha Village. This village has been made popular by the large number of self taught artists who have left a mark, nationally and even internationally.

This is a village where everyone knows someone who is an artist. Besides, Ngecha could well be the only village in Kenya with two active art galleries. Some of the popular names from Ngecha include, Brush Wanyu, Sane Wadu, Shine Tani, Chain Muhandi, among others.

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Artists are said to be mirrors of society and true to type, the artistes from Ngecha have not shied away from happenings in society including politics. Still on the topic of violence and impunity, Brush Wanyu has a painting that depicts the violence that took place in Mpeketoni, Lamu County, a few years ago, that resulted in the death of a number of people.

The explanation given to Kenyans on those killings was that it was the work of terrorists, but Brush is unconvinced. “This is impunity at play; perpetrators know they will get away with it,” he says. “Life in our country has completely lost meaning.”

Then there is King Dodge, whose painting style mirrors that of Brush. Dodge has a painting that talks about the foundations of nationhood. He says that the Kenyan Nation was founded on falsehood. “The true fighters of freedom were shunted and power was taken by home guards and loyalists,” he explains. “That is why the Kenyan flag is upside down.”

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There are a total of 14 artistes from the Ngecha collective, who have taken part in the exhibition that ends at the end of the month. Notably missing from the exhibition were Sane Wadu, who now has his base in Naivasha and Shine Tani, who runs the Banana Hill Gallery.

With such an abundance of artistic talent one would assume that the Kiambu County Government takes good care of these artistes, after all they are a positive marking point for the county. Sadly, this is not the case. King Dodge explained that the county government has been aloof at best. “We’ve tried getting in touch with the county government to see how we can work together but we were taken round in circles; we eventually gave up on them,” he said.

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It is ironical that while the top leadership in the county is busy airing its smelly fabric in public, they have completely ignored this artistic village in Ngecha, which if well embraced, would catapult them to the top of the charts as it were. Yet, this is a county with a Cultural Officer under its payroll.

Meanwhile as the Kiambu County Government continues to bury its head in the sand, NMK knows too well the important place these artistes occupy in the country’s cultural heritage. This explains why they keep hosting them for exhibitions.

Lydia Galavu, the curator of the Creativity Gallery at the NMK says that the story of Kenyan contemporary art would not be complete without mentioning artistes from Ngecha. “The beauty of these artistes from Ngecha, who also include women, is that they live and work in the village,” she explains. “They are mostly farmers, which is their main source of livelihood. Their day to day existence is reflected in their artworks.”

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o makes a homecoming, of sorts, when he returns to Amherst College—where he was based in the early stages of exile—in a three-day fest celebrating his 80th birthday.

He will be one of the star attractions at the Amherst Lit Festival, hosted by the top liberal arts college, and whose prominent Kenyan alumni include President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Ngugi taught at Amherst College in 1991, serving as a distinguished visiting professor of English and African Literature. His birthday celebrations will be between March 1-3.

The Kenyan journalist and author, Dr Peter Kimani, who is coordinating Ngugi’s event, is presently the Visiting Writer at the college. Kimani expects Ngugi’s celebration to springboard an assessment of his artistic legacy.

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Poster for the three-day event

Kimani, whom many in the literary world consider to be Ngugi’s literary son, explained that the theme of the celebration, ‘This Time Tomorrow,’ draws from an old Ngugi play that contemplates the future of a widowed woman, who is rendered homeless after her slum home is overrun by city authorities.

“It’s opportune time for Kenyans and Africans to ponder: Where do we go from here? Where do we take Ngugi’s artistic legacy, ‘this time tomorrow’”? Kimani said, adding that Ngugi’s engagements as a socially committed writer and activist provide useful lessons for African writers.

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Prof Ngugi (left) and his protege Dr Peter Kimani

“Ngugi’s decision to return to his roots, by championing African languages in late 1970s, was at the peak of his writing career. That meant his work suffered less immediate circulation, though not necessarily, less impact.

“But he received less external recognition, as Europe wasn’t going to reward someone seeking to end their cultural hegemony. He put his people and continent first, and that’s a useful lesson for us to postulate.”

The Amherst celebration will feature readings and discussions surrounding Ngugi’s life in writing. Most activities will be held at Amherst College, though Smith College, which is part of the Five Colleges incorporating Amherst, Hampshire, Mt Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will host some events.

This includes Ngugi’s public lecture: “Birth of a Dream Weaver: The Pleasures and Perils of Writing,” reflecting on Ngugi’s evolution as a writer, a career that took off while still an undergraduate at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962 with the play, The Black Hermit. This will be on March 1.

That evening, Amherst College will host a staged reading of the play, This Time Tomorrow, directed by Kim Euell, an award-winning African-American dramaturg based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

On March 2, Amherst College will also host a screening of a film, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The River Between African and European Languages, directed by the Kenyan academic, Prof Ndirangu Wachanga, who is based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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Wachanga’s work looks at the intersect of memory and the construction of national history. Over the past decade, he has documented the lives and times of leading Kenyan academics, including Ali Mazrui.

Ngugi will deliver the final reading the Amherst Lit Festival, followed by his birthday celebration, on March 3.

The month of March will prove busy for Kimani. He has a scheduled tour of London between March 10 and 17, to promote the British edition of his historical novel, Dance of the Jakaranda.

The book was released in New York last February, to great critical acclaim, including a New York Times Notable Book of the Year selection.

Kimani will give public readings and discuss his work at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, London School of Economics, and Cambridge University.

Other book events will be Daunts, the oldest independent bookstore in London, and Waterstones, the largest bookstore chain in Europe, where he will be in conversation with Fiammetta Rocco, the Books and Arts editor at The Economist.

Kimani will wrap up his mid-year book tour at the Calabash festival in Jamaica, hailed by critics as the best literary event in the world. Hosted at Treasure beach, south of Jamaica, the biennial festival is held on a beachfront. It’s free and open to the public.

At any given point in the weeklong fest, some 2,500 people sit in the audience, waiting to soak up a reading or performance!

The marketing of Tafaria Castle, which straddles two counties, Lakipia and Nyandarua, is such that no one in their right mind would pass up the opportunity to spend a night there.
When a call came in, one fine Friday, asking if I would like to go to Tafaria, the following day, I did not think twice; I cancelled an appointment I had the following day.
The caller mentioned that the tour would involve a ‘two hour hike’. I easily brushed off this information; the only thing ringing in my mind was Tafaria.
We were to be picked by a van at 5.45 am, at the Kencom Bus Stage. Ordinarily, I would have taken a matatu, but the thought of walking from the Railways matatu terminus to Kencom, carrying a camera, at that early hour, was not one I fancied; what with the blood cuddling reports of muggings in this Sonko city.
For the sake of my camera, I managed to convince my mechanic to act as my chauffeur that morning.
I was the first one to arrive at Kencom, a full five minutes ahead of schedule. We were to pick a few other guys along Thika Road. To get to Tafaria, one has to go through Nyeri. Nyeri is about 150 kilometres from Nairobi. Tafaria is 65 kilometres from Nyeri, as you go towards Nyahururu.

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The majestic Tafaria Castle

We were supposed to get to Tafaria Castle at 9am, where I imagined we would take breakfast before embarking on the ‘hike’.
Our last pick-up in Juja was a young man, who kept us waiting in Kenol for more than one hour.
This delay was to cost us dearly, at least for me.
Along the way George Waititu, the director of Tafaria Castle, called, asking us to find them deep inside Aberdare National Park, where the team was to embark on the hike.
That call put paid my dream of a sumptuous breakfast at Tafaria. Just before getting to the Rhino Gate, of the park, we encountered a steep incline and our van was unable to get to the top. We had to push it to the top.
Bad mistake.
Pushing the vehicle sapped all the energy in my body; remember I had not taken breakfast, having woken up at 3.30 am. Coupled with the fact that I was woefully unfit, I was not in the best shape for the hike, which by now I realised involved climbing a mountain – Satima is said to be the third highest peak in Kenya, after Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon.

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The Castle of Love

When we got to the starting point, having driven some 10 kilometers inside the Park, Amos Mwaura, the high pitched guide told us that the leading pack, having gotten impatient, had set off an hour earlier. We needed to catch up, he said, there were four kilometres ahead of us. I panicked.

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The hikers approach the Theatre of Heaven

Mwaura noticed that one of us had come dressed in office attire; a suit!
From his tone, Mwaura came across as a no-nonsense guy; no cutting corners here.
You can imagine my relief when Mwaura passed around snacks wrapped in tinfoil. I attacked mine straight away; such was my hunger.
From the word go Mwaura set a punishing pace and immediately I knew it was going to be a long day for me. I simply could not keep up. My lower back was on fire, my legs felt like they were made of lead. I was panting, nay grunting, as I shuffled one protesting leg after the other.
After clearing the first hill made up of bush and thickets and having wolfed down my entire lunch pack I felt somehow energised and enjoyed the less strenuous descent into the moorland.

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The enchanting vegetation up there

My worries temporarily forgotten, my eyes suddenly opened up to the beauty and splendor all around me. This was an absolute eye fest; a true hiker’s paradise . Apart from the gently rolling hills, the valleys and the gorges, I saw some of the most dramatic rock formations ever witnessed in God’s wide world.
From the look of things, God must have been in a mischievous mood when he created these rocks.
To be honest, some of the rocks, from a far, look like animal droppings. Others have more elaborate patterns like ancient ruins. I was especially struck by one that looked like a giant tulip. This one I later realised has been christened The Lost Pyramid.
We later learnt from Mr Waititu that due to the fact that not many people frequent this particular area, these interesting rock formations are yet to be named. Thus the Tafaria establishment have, with the permission of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), embarked on naming these amazing rockformations.

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Into the moorland

This is how we learnt that they have called this place, its haunting beauty and all is now called the Theatre of Heaven. I for one could not imagine a better place to shoot a movie. The Kenya Film Commission, Ezekiel Mutua seems to be making all the decisions nowadays, can thank me later.
Other interesting names include the Castle of Love, Devil’s Sword and Dragon’s Teeth.
Tafaria wants to promote the Theatre of Heaven as a tourist destination to the level of Mt Kenya and even Maasai Mara. Mr Waititu, a widely travelled man, said that he has been to the Swiss Alps but he maintains that the Kenyan Alps are in a class of their own.

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The Devil’s Sword

Soon, it was time to go back and it struck me how far we had come. Luckily, I had taken some mountain spring water and was somehow rejuvenated.
Still, it bothered me to no end that the man in a suit was constantly ahead of me. Just then, I missed a step and my right foot got stuck the sticky dark mud. Meanwhile, suit man and his office shoes, kept walking ahead like he was on red carpet.
My discomfort was compensated by the anticipation of spending the night in the dreamy Tafaria Castle. It gave me the energy to plod on. Luckily it was downhill, er, in a good way, all the way.

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The magical wedding under the Twin Peaks

When we got down to the twin peaks, where the vehicles had been left, a table was laid for a delicious cocktail. And to the surprise of many, a couple was tying the knot. Many ladies were left envious at what beautiful the mountain scenery was.

Pictures by Joseph Ngunjiri

Nganga Mbugua makes history by being nominated for a record fourth time in the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize with his book Angels of the Wild, published by One Planet.
The winner of this year’s edition of the Wahome Mutahi Prize, administered by the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), will be awarded at the end of the 19th edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair, whose hast tag is #NIBFinspiredtoread.
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The first time his book Terrorists of the Aberdare (Big Books) got nominated, in 2010, it went ahead to win the prize, which is awarded on a bi-annual basis. The next time the prize was announce, in 2012, his other book, Different Colours (Big Books) again won the prize.
In 2014, his collection of poetry, This Land is our Land was again nominated and got the first runners-up position, after the top spot was scooped up by surgeon Yusuf Dawood’s The Last Word (Longhorn).
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Ng’ang’a Mbugua (Left), is all smiles as he receives his winner’s certificate from Prof Egara Kabaji, who was the chief guest at the ceremony

This year Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s book has been nominated alongside Anthony Mugo’s Ask the Stars (Longhorn) and Peter Kareithi’s Komu Fights for Change (Longhorn).
KPA also announced the nominees for the Kiswahili category of the Award. They are Mashetani wa Alepo by Tom Olali (Jomo Kenyatta Foundation) Kovu Moyoni by John Habwe (BookMark Africa) and Narejea Nyumbani by Jeff Mandila (Jomo Kenyatta Foundation).
The Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, now in its sixth edition, was established in 2006, by KPA, in honour of humourist and satirist, the late Wahome Mutahi, who was made popular by his Whispers column, which was published by both the Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard.

Kenyan parents can now rest easy in the knowledge that book prices are not going to be increased, at least according to the publishers’ umbrella body.
In a press statement dated January 2, 2016, Mr. David Waweru, the chairman of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), reports appearing in the media to the effect that book prices have been increased by up to 15 per cent are ‘false and alarmist’ .

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“The  source cited is  not an industry insider and  no  effort was made  to verify this  false
information,” explained Mr. Waweru, who is also the CEO of WordAlive Publishers.
He added “The facts  are that  out of over 4,000  textbooks in the
Orange Book only  about 200 books are affected  by a  price increase of between  4 and 10 per cent.” He however did not specify which books are to be affected by the price increase.
“Whereas publishers would have
wished to  increase the prices to match the increase of the  costs of production and mitigate for the
weakening shilling, publishers instead  opted to  lower their  margins with  the increase of  4 to 10 per cent and keep a majority of  the titles at the same price level.  In fact, prices on some titles were  reduced,” he added.

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Mr. David Waweru

Our sources however tell us that, on this issue, the horse has already bolted, as book distributors have marked up their prices and are advising bookshops to follow suit.
The real bone of contention, though is the Kenya government’s unpopular decision to slap VAT on books. “KPA once again  urges government  to
zero-rate textbooks as it is  immoral to  tax knowledge and  therefore raise  the  barriers  of access  to books,” said Mr. Waweru.
Kenya, he explained, is the second country in Africa, after South Africa, to impose VAT on books despite being signatories to international conventions that commit not to impose taxes on books.

Nudes make for good art, but not all

Posted: December 14, 2015 in Issues, News
Tags: ,

I wrote this piece in August and it was published in The Nairobian. I thought I might reproduce it here.

The other day I came across quite a thoughtful Facebook post by a woman who poured out her heart on the merits and demerits of posing nude for a painting. What struck me was how deeply and hauntingly reflective her piece was.

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She proudly pointed out that her body deserves to be celebrated and honoured. “Why should I be ashamed of a vessel which has served me well, which despite innumerable illnesses, pregnancy, and breastfeeding and various abuse from me, has housed my soul and nurtured my dreams?” she posed.
Her essay, which, among other things, explored moral and religious issues as appertains to nude paintings, got me thinking; while there are women who will not think twice about disrobing and baring all, nudes are more complicated than that, as testified by the dilemma of this woman, an artist in her own right, and who, in her confession, is approaching 50.
“…here I am middle-aged, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, with everything in my body heading south with effortless ease, ready, nay, baying to pose nude for a painting…” she wrote.
Seeing as we are living in the age of the digital camera and camera enabled smart phones, more and more women are baring all and somehow their images are finding their way on the Internet. The debate over who released these images is neither here nor there. Suffice to say that the ‘damage’ has been done and team-‘mafisi’, have salivated on them and shared them.
Remember how musician Kaz caused an Internet furore when her nude images were shared far and wide. There is also the more recent case of a Ugandan musician, who claimed that her Nigerian ex-boyfriend had leaked her nude photos on the Internet, as a way of revenge for being dumped. What’s with female musicians and leaked nude photos anyway?
Well, if you ask me, there is nothing artistic in these photos; in fact I would call them trashy. They come nowhere near nude paintings, which can only be appreciated by those who treasure the finer things in life.
Lord Kennethe Clark, in his seminal book The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form, makes the distinction between the naked body and the nude. He states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations.
From the above explanation alone, you will then realise that a nude painting is a work of high art. My Facebook friend’s post should be viewed purely in that light; hence her dilemma. While she has come to term with her sexuality and is thus not afraid to celebrate her body as a work of art, she has to reckon with the realities of life and societal/religious expectations.
She makes reference to obstacles posed by religion when she says: “Christianity, as it is presented, equates the female body with sin. I resent that. I do not consider my body sinful; I think it is wonderfully and beautifully made…”
Still, as much as nudes as regarded as works of high art, it must not be forgotten that eroticism forms the core of their attraction. Says Clark: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse, in the spectator, some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art…”
Here is Kenya Patrick Mukabi is known for his nudes, featuring plus size women. Mukabi, who moved his base from the Godown to the Railway Museum, told ‘The Nairobian’ in a past interview, that he gets volunteers who disrobe and model for him. Now that is art.
The other person known for such kinds of work is coast-based Richard Onyango.
As for my Facebook friend, I urge her to follow her heart; it is always right, the heart that is.