Billed by critics as Kenya’s first truly significant poet, Jared Othieno Angira has broken his long silence, granting Saturday Nation an interview from Seattle, USA.
One of East Africa’s most anthologised poets who says he fled Kenya in July 2005 after running afoul of Kanu dictatorship and losing jobs in quick succession, is a leading innovator and experimenter in poetic form.
His seminal collection, Silent Voices, which he says consists of “crude voices gasping in the dark, of voices trapped in between despair and existence, of voices caught up in a maze but always seeking to get through,” signalled to the literary world that he was a force to reckon with.
He revealed that he was unjustly kicked out of both the Kenya Ports Authority and the Agricultural Finance Corporation for allegedly “participating in the planning and execution of the failed coup of 1982.”
But even after he went through a tumultuous professional career, there was no ebb in his literary production, and the sheer volume of his work, published in either personal collections or well-known anthologies, further entrenched his eminence on the world literary stage.
One of a group of leading literary lights in Africa who have no background in the arts that also include Elechi Amadi and Ferdinand Oyono, Angira, who studied commerce at the University of Nairobi, not only contributed to the first issue of the respected literary journal Busara, but was appointed its editor-in-chief in 1969.
The author of the poem ‘No Coffin, No Grave,’ familiar with many high school students in Kenya, later attended the London School of Economics and the Arthur D. Little School of Management in Massachusetts, USA, where he earned an MSc in Business Administration, Human Resource and Psychology.
And now, having booked his place in the poets’ Hall of Fame, Angira, who turns 69 on January 19, prepares to make his debut in the field of prose.
“My first novel is already with a publisher in Nairobi,” he told this writer during a telephone chat this week from his current abode on the shores of the Pacific in the State of Washington, USA.
“The novel is part of a trilogy, and the next two parts of the series are among the things I’m working on currently.”
The human resources consultant and part-time poetry teacher says he hopes to return to Kenya to play his part in making the country “a saner place for the future generations.”
Excerpts of the interview
Why did you leave Kenya?
I left Kenya in July 2005 for reasons that were both personal and existential. You may wish to note that I weathered it through the very difficult reign (nay, misrule) of (Daniel arap) Moi. Twice they arrested me from my office at the port of Mombasa, and
twice they freed me for lack of evidence. Reason? That I was an active participant in the planning and execution of the failed coup of 1982. In 1986, I was unceremoniously hurled out of my job at the port for being “anti-Nyayo”.
Whatever barometer they used, perhaps only Philip Okundi might one day tell Kenyans. So I ended up at the Agricultural Finance Corporation, because it was not security-sensitive, so l was told. Somehow, Charles Mbindyo did not mind working with an anti-Nyayo character.
With changes at AFC, I soon fell into disfavour with Moi’s nephew who had taken over as chief executive. And that is how I found my way out. I went into self-employment, and that is where you had the first interview with me. Certainly I needed a
‘cooling off’ moment, away from the precincts of a persistently bimetallic tinder box!
Are you in Seattle with family?
That is a very strange question. What is your concept of a “family”? I refuse to be reduced to the very narrow confines of a sociological “nuclear family”. I have many siblings spread out not only in various parts of Kenya, but in distant lands of the world.
More specifically, I belong to the larger family of those who yearn to make this earth a better place for the future generations. A member of that family that longs to be heard, who also have a story to tell, whose dreams have been clouded by, and suffocated
by, the myriad contradictions that plague societies today. Among those relegated to the peripheral existence, and who are barely allowed near the ladder of upward mobility. And here I mean upward mobility into a world of equal opportunities rather than
perpetually gingerly clinging to a rainbow of optimism and hope. Yes I belong to that family that keeps asking: Where did we come from, and where are we going?
How do you earn a living in the US, and do you envisage returning to Kenya soon?
I work as an HR consultant (full time) and as a part-time teacher of poetry classes at the Richard Hugo House. Yes, I do envisage returning to Kenya and playing my part in making Kenya a saner place for the future generations. That is my hope. If we will
not have succeeded, at least, we will have tried.
What have you published since your earlier collections, and what’s next?
Not Far from Sunset (2011) and Shuffles from Unborn Motherlands (2013), both collection of poems. Two manuscripts, a novel and volume of poems, are currently with East African Educational Publishers.
How has life been away from home?
It has been a time of self-reflection, a time that I have had to think a lot about Kenya, the beloved country. No doubt I do miss the many good people with who I shared moments of joy and despair. I also feel that partly we, the artists have not done as much as we should have done, to better the lives of the downtrodden.
The genuine reports that are coming out of the country are stories of big time corruption... Olympic standard geniuses. This is corruption at industrial level of production, quite copious, complete with corporate protection through institutionalised
mechanisms. When you see tribalism being practised with religious commitment, based on a creed of promises made at the campaign euphoria, it is no joke; it is a matter of life and death for “our people”. How can one talk of equality?
With what audacity can one talk of unity? Today, you can easily guess rightly that if, by some good luck, a windfall came by way of dollar foreign aid for the establishment of a ‘Sanitation Authority’, the top job would be the preserve of the guys at the hilltop
cupola, whose tyranny of numbers bequeathed them the nation’s destiny.
But in retrospect, I have learnt other lessons, too. That complex civilisations do destroy themselves, many a time, that collapse runs throughout human history. But there is always time for renaissance and resurrection. There is time for a society to go
through distress, and time to embrace sanity, a time for collective delusion and a time for rediscovery. The time to look back and sigh over the moments when the high and mighty internalised evil through hard psychological wiring, consumed itself in the
power of deceit and self-induced obsession with wealth stolen from the wretched of the earth.
Today Kenya has become a place where everything is a commodity. And Jesus weeps! Can anyone talk of societal core values? Unless you wish to be an inmate of Mathare Hospital. But I have hope, that one day we will, with Maya Angelou, attain that
aspiration of liberating the human mind.
What are your views on the state of literature in Kenya today?
Sadly, there is not much that one can go to town for regarding the poetry today, I mean qualitatively, not quantitatively. Poetry does not consist in simply arranging words in some fancy patterns across the page. Poetry requires deep commitment to the craft,
experimenting with form, where necessary, but also developing the genre. At the same time, attention must be paid to the content, for ours is a mission to change society for the better. The reason why we mirror the soul of society is to identify the
diagnostic elements that the surgeon’s knife will be directed to.
I see art as a means to an end. This is what we tried to achieve in the ‘70s and ‘80s. No one expects us to invent the wheel. It was invented long ago, but we can modify it to suit our urgent situational needs. If there is any strategy to learn from my mentors,
Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Chris Okigbo, I will surely do so.
But that does not mean, as some so-called literary critic said the other day, that “Angira tried hard to be influenced by Okigbo.” Either he has never read Okigbo’s poetry or he merely hears about Angira’s poetry! That is why I have always believed that my
works must have ideological identity. Without ideological clarity, we can never make this place a better cradle for the future generations. These noble aspirations are glaringly absent in Kenyan literature today.
No coffin, no grave
He was buried without a coffin
without a grave
the scavengers performed the post-mortem
in the open mortuary
without sterilized knives
in front of the night club
stuttering rifles put up
the gun salute of the day
that was a state burial anyway
the car knelt
the red plate wept, wrapped itself in blood its master’s
the diary revealed to the sea
the rain anchored there at last
isn’t our flag red, black, and white?
so he wrapped himself well
who could signal yellow
when we had to leave politics to the experts
and brood on books
brood on hunger
grumble under the black pot
sleep under torn mosquito net
and let lice lick our intestines
the lord of the bar, money speaks madam
woman magnet, money speaks madam
we only cover the stinking darkness
of the cave of our mouths
and ask our father who is in hell to judge him
the quick and the good
Well, his dairy, submarine of the Third World War
showed he wished
to be buried in a gold-laden coffin
like a VIP
under the jacaranda tree beside his palace
a shelter for his grave
and much beer for the funeral party
anyway one noisy pupil suggested we bring
tractors and plough the land.