Sometimes pictures lie. I am not an activist. Never even considered myself one. But I get angry, fast and hot. And when this happens, I do things, some of which I regret later on. These days it is better, because kitambo I used to break stuff when mad. I would get into fights, or say something really nasty that would not break a bone, but by George! it would make you think about it. This one time a girl from our hood who had just lost her mother borrowed my bicycle and then took long with it. I had just given it to her to do one lap, but then she disappeared. I waited for her for close to thirty minutes, and when she finally came back I was so livid that I looked her in the eyes and said, “Wewe ni mjinga sana. Hata ndio maana mamako alikufa.”
Three minutes after saying this I wanted to take it back. I wanted to say sorry, but I could not. How do you even apologize for shit like that? Those were the days when I used to talk about death so lightly because I did not know what it was. And yes, my sister heard me spit that insult at the poor girl, reported me to my elder brother Nimrod, who, given the fact that my dad was never around, had taken the mantle of father figure, beat me within an inch of heaven. I deserved it.
At the beginning when I said that photos lie and that I am not an activist, it was because David Kariuki pointed his lenses at me yesterday. The result was the image of a young man standing in front of a crowd, fist punching at nothing, wearing a Tshirt saying FUCK CENSORSHIP. And since it was shared on social media, one or two people have told me that I was their hero.
I do not think I am.
I do not qualify.
I was just angry.
We were at the Louis Leakey auditorium for the discussion on a proposed film bill that the Kenya Film Classification Board drafted. In this proposed law, the film board, under the guidance of Ezekiel Mutua, sought to have absolute power to regulate the entire creative economy with unfettered powers. And it angered me to think that this government looked at the arts industry in Kenya and the first thing that came into their minds was the need to take something away.
People who have never had to live off making art in this country perhaps they would not understand what it means to dedicate your life to producing creative works. If your work will not be stolen, it will either be undervalued or unappreciated half the time. I decided to quit the legal profession after finishing four years in law school, just so that I could write full time. At that time, I had a column in the Monday Standard, writing a space on campus life, and at the same time I was a copywriter at PVG – an advertising firm in Upper Hill. I had a constant flow of money. I was living at home, paying no bills. Once in a while, some company would approach me to do PR work for them at a fee. Life was good. I was comfortable.
Then I met a girl. Of course I did. Like Junot Diaz says, isn’t that how all these stories are supposed to go?
She had white anaemic eyes and spoke with a tongue that has surely asked for a VISA to somewhere cold. She spoke in a way that reminded me why I hate American hiphop. I swear half the time I could not understand what the hell she was even talking about – her words often dragged themselves from her mouth and there were a lot of Rs where Ts were supposed to be. On the first day we met, she spoke a lot about how life is difficult for writers in this country. Which did not make sense to me because she had a car. A big one, no less, with a tyre at the back. You have to understand that in my head, owning a car was the ultimate indication that someone had arrived. I remember thinking that given the accent and her lifestyle (read, car life), she was well off. Chick was even staying in a house in South B that has two bathrooms. When I insisted on paying KES. 1000 for fuel for having chauffeured me from my office in Upper Hill to my mom’s place in Madaraka, she looked at me as if I had said I was a descendant of Ramses II.
Perhaps she thought that I was trying to impress her. She was not wrong. I was. Who wouldn’t want to impress a girl with big white eyes that look like African poetry? But then, KES. 1000 was nothing to me at the time.
Well, it has been quite a while since that day. Two years have passed since then, and with them went my gigs at Standard and Upper Hill. My mother wanted me to practice law – to be a good son – and go to Kenya School of Law. I refused. I told her I wanted to write, she said no. She said I would not disrespect her in her own house. And those were very cold days for me – days when my mother withdrew the warmth of her love. Days when I left home early for jobo, but then stayed out late – always fishing for someone I could buy a drink for, or an event I could attend. Just so that I would not go back home, knowing the fights that awaited me.
Then one day Safaricom called me asking, “Would you be available for a roadtrip? We are going to pay you…” The amount had too many zeros. Forget my writing. Nobody had ever paid me that much for anything – not even my loyalty. We went for that road trip and on the day I returned, on a balmy Thursday afternoon, the girl with white eyes helped me move out.
I will not bore you with the details of what it means to be a blogger in this country. It is a broken record. You send proposals, some get rejected, some never get replied to, some get rejected and then the next day you see the same client using your idea. When you actually get jobo, you have to deal with readers who feel shortchanged when they see you promoting a brand. They call you a sell out. They say you have sold your soul to the devils. As if it is such an unforgivable sin to long for settled bills. But if you were to charge people to read your blog, nobody would pay. So how are you to survive? Then even after doing work, the agencies are always delaying your money with some procedural rigmarole bullshit. By the time you get paid, you have bills and debts lined up like ducks. Your bank account becomes a tunnel for channelling money from one person’s pocket to another person’s pocket.
But it is not always so bad. Often the sun shines on us. But happiness never comes to us in the form of fat cheques- we have long accepted that those are not our joys. Our bliss comes when we sit down and produce content and someone sends a tweet saying they loved it. Happiness comes in the comments section when we hold court and have a ball. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we write boring posts and readers throw virtual rotten tomatoes at our faces; but hey, that is part of the fun. Happiness is when we go back to our computers again to tell another story that would repeat this cycle. Happiness comes in knowing that even though I will not be paid for this, I am still free to say whatever I want however I want – so long as I am not an asshole about it.
This is just with blogging. Being an author/novelist is a different, more melancholic, dirge.
Then came a balding spawn of Beelzebub trying to tell me that this last thing I have left, this freedom to create, is what he wants to take away. And not just mine as writer and a bookseller. This man wants to control the freedom of photographers, film makers, comedians, playwrights, visual artists, scriptwriters, advertising agencies, actors, columnists, publishers and even every single person that has an account on social media. That to be any of these people you have to register with KFCB and get a certificate. That you have to have been vetted by someone who has no creative bone in him, before you even think of creating art. That before you take your phone out to do a Facebook Live video, or Snapchat or post something on YouTube, Ezekiel Mutua and his cabal of hyenas must have given you a go ahead. Failure to which you either pay 200k or face 5 years imprisonment (or something silly like that). And the thought of one human being wielding such immense power scared me at first. The fear crippled me. And then it angered me. Such authority is supposed to be for the gods only. Yet here were mere mortals with not a single hair of art on their skins (and for one, none at all) trying to tread where even angels are forbidden.
That is when I got myself that FUCK CENSORSHIP t-shirt.
Those two words are not just two words. They are many. I slept angry and woke up yesterday angry. I knew that I was going to stand up and speak my mind to this Ali Baba of artistic expression. I had it all scripted in my head.
I wanted to tell Mutua that he and his people at KFCB had chosen a very bad time to propose something so violent. I wanted to remind him that this is the week that the Nobel Prize for Literature is being awarded and that one of the most serious contenders for this prestigious prize is a man named Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A novelist whose writerly brilliance needs no introduction, but who was exiled because of his artistic expression. Moi offered him a red carpet welcome when he wanted to come back to Kenya – euphemism for blood, because his (Moi’s) ego was too fragile to be questioned. That one of our pioneering artists had to live in exile because of censorship is bad enough, but what is worse is allowing a sadistic criminal like him to encourage the same thing today.
I wanted to tell Mutua that he is not a Christian. Because Christianity has always been about love and choice. Love is the greatest commandment in Christian history. Choice is what God himself gave us. The choice to either follow Him or not. So when somebody decides to choose not to follow God, that person is exercising a God given right! Also, if indeed there is an ancient grandfather up above who created the whole world and everything in it, then that guy is the greatest artist ever. And therefore to stifle art and to limit creativity is not just an offence against us but against God Himself – the same deity who Mutua purports to worship ever so fervently. Meaning, given his foul attitude to his creator’s own pastime, Mr. Mutua is going to hell and not even a diplomatic passport can save him from eternal damnation.
Oh, and this thing called ‘the church’ that he keeps talking about, saying that it has his back, is something he needs to interrogate. The church is not a bunch of priests only. Or a building with a cross at the top. The church is believers. The congregation. And there are many artists who part of this crowd.
I wanted to tell Ezekiel Mutua that when he says he has the backing of parents and the church behind him, he is not really making sense. Because the people in that room are also parents. Imagine artists have children? I know it must be such a radical idea to you Mr. Mutua, but yeah, artists also have penises, vaginas and wombs and they fuck and they reproduce. Artists are not bad (or any less) parents simply because they are artists.
I wanted to tell Mutua and his people that even them, however vile and wretched they are, have a place in art. Because art is just like Christianity in its welcoming spirit.
Then I wanted to tell them to go fuck themselves.
Finally, I wanted to turn to the crowd and explain to them that this man and his people have carried us children for far too long. This man is greedy. Greedy for power. And the thing about greedy people is that they will never have enough. They are insatiable. First they came for CocaCola, then the LGBTIQA, then speed dating events, then house parties, then Nini Wacera & Kaz, and now they have come for the rest of us. And even when they have taken everything, they will want more of that. For them, they grab what they can hold and keep what they can take. They are fucking us over without so much as dinner first. Then come around to say that is is for the greater good of this country. Naaaah men. The good in this country has very little to do with Ezekiel Mutua, and if he says so, then he is nothing more than a rooster trying to take credit for the dawn.
And this man offends me. So much that I feel the need to borrow something from The Practice.
Ezekiel Mutua offends me threefold. As a Kenyan, an artist and a human being. When this public officer implies to the world that he can supersede the clear intent of the law establishing his office, he offends my sensibilities as a Kenyan. When he champions a bill that will take away my ability and creativity to write, he offends me as an artist. And when this narcissistic, self-congratulatory tub of ignorance decides to lecture me on ‘human values’, he offends morality itself…and I take it personally as a man. It would be a great insult to human nature to understand why he and his fellows at KFCB authored a disdainful piece of legislation such as that. But it is an even greater outrage for us to tolerate it.
So when I say that it is very important that we should all run away from Ezekiel Mutua’s reasoning with the same zeal and determination his hairline is, I am saying so not just because it is the right thing to do, but also (and more importantly) because it is our patriotic duty, goddamnit!
Unfortunately, I did not say all these things. The moment my turn came, I was not as eloquent as I thought I would be. I stammered. I mixed up my thinking process and for a moment, everything in my mind went dark. My anger stifled my tongue and I sat down, disappointed, but still angry. Hoping that my t-shirt said everything that I could not. It is one of those pathetic moments when you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, but then when the time comes to speak, everything disappears. Like answers in an exam room. Only for you to remember five minutes past too late.
However, somewhere in my brief 15 seconds of blabber, David Kariuki positioned himself very well and, click, froze a moment in history with his camera. A moment that portrayed me as some sort of brave, courageous person. Heroic even.
Sadly, I am not any of those things. I was simply livid.
But you know what? Being driven home by that girl with big white eyes from two years ago reminded me that I am a writer. Writers write whatever it is they have to say, not really speak it.
I just did.