Monday, September 29, 2008

Detain him, vote him out, but you can’t silence him

Former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere at the Sauti ya Mwananchi radio studio in Nakuru. The station broadcasts only in Kiswahili. Photo/ JOSEPH KIHERI 

By MICHAEL NJUGUNA

Governments can lock up Koigi wa Wamwere in detention camps and voters deny him votes, but the man cannot be silenced, what with his own radio station ruling the airwaves in the Central Rift Valley while he burns the midnight oil writing books.

His radio station, Sauti Ya Mwananchi that broadcasts from Nakuru Town is competing for a niche in the fast-growing industry, while his new book — Towards Genocide in Kenya — is in bookshops.

Koigi, who has spent 13 years in detention since Kenyan became independent, says: “I realised as a young man that corruption, injustice and the exploitation of the poor masses were eating into the roots of our tree of independence.

Paid the price

“I heard an inner voice telling me to fight the vice so that everyone can enjoy the fruits of independence irrespective of their ethnic background. I have paid the price, but I’m not bitter or ready to give up my ideals.”

Koigi — the name means an outspoken leader — has lived up to his name.

“Woe unto me, my mother that you bore me, a man of strife and contention,” he says quoting the biblical suffering of Jeremiah (Chapter 10 verse 10).

Koigi was born in Dundori Forest where his father was a labourer during the colonial era, earning less that Sh10 a month.

His maternal grandfather, whom he is named after, was an orphan nicknamed Mung’ura (one who lives on scrap).

Koigi would normally have been known by that name today, but the man did not want his descendants to become a laughing stock and warned against any of his grandchildren inheriting the nickname.

Koigi, who was first detained during the Kenyatta era and again during the Moi regime says he always knew the consequences of his utterances, but would not withstand the power of the inner voice calling him to speak out against what he considered unjust.

He remembers when a woman relative, who went to pray for him in prison, suggested he stops criticising the Government because he was risking his life.

“I was moved by another woman who said that I should continue speaking because only living people speak. She told the rest to leave me to speak my mind as I would not have an opportunity to speak if I was assassinated. I have continued speaking like Prophet Jeremiah even when the dire consequences are obvious.,” Mr Wamwere said.

“It was impossible to bottle up the burning messages even when I knew I would end up in Kamiti Maximum Prison or at a mortuary. I always knew it was suicidal,” he added.

Koigi recalls an incident in prison when his food was poisoned, but the attempt failed when he tasted a drop of the soup with the tip of his tongue but immediately spat it out as it was very bitter. “I have no doubt that they wanted to poison me, but God spared my life.”

Another time, he pleaded with a prison warder to tell him whether there were plans to execute him. “He asked whether I thought I had accomplished my work on earth, but when I replied in the negative, and he told me not to worry.” Koigi later wrote a book, I Refuse to Die.

Without love

His belief that morality without love was soul-destroying got him into trouble with his hosts in Norway where he was an exile when he wrote his book, Tears of the Heart: A Portrait of Racism in Norway and Europe.

The book, first published in Norwegian, was a thunderbolt. The hosts could not believe the Kenyan exile could write such a book on their own soil.

But Koigi stood his ground arguing that he had been in exile because of criticising the government of his mother country.

“Discrimination on the basis of racism was equally bad. Our children were being discriminated against in Norwegian schools, and the matter was aggravated by the murder of a young boy known as Benjamin near his school. The boy was killed because he was coloured, one of his parents being a Norwegian and the other a foreigner,” Koigi says.

He could not believe that a country that had produced a Nobel Prize laureate could also accommodate racism.

He has received commendation and criticism for his books which include, A Woman Reborn, The People’s Representative, Tyrants, Koigi on Trial, Conscience on Trial and Justice on Trial.

Is he bitter with the Kenyatta and Moi regimes? “Not at all, it was political. I would be bitter today if I did not speak out against what I considered to be unjust … I will continue doing so as long as I live.’

The radio station, he says, was not intended to be his mouth piece, but a medium for the ordinary people.

His role models include a former Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Mau Mau General Kago and J.M. Kariuki.

“These people were courageous nationalists, honest and opposed to negative ethnicity. Their ideals have outlived them,” Koigi added.

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