Kwani? A Journal’s claim to the New Kenya

As the brainchild of Caine Prize winner Binyavanga Wainaina, Kwani? Journal boasts a history of provocative writings on identity and the nation of Kenya, changing the image of Kenyan literature worldwide.

Kwani? 07 Majuu. Cover artwork by Michael Araka. Courtesy of the artist.

 

In ‘Discovering Home’—a 2002 short story written by Wainaina—Sheng is defined as “a very hip street language that mixes Swahili and English.” Sheng represented the New Kenya as an urban dialect spoken among a young demographic in Nairobi, inspiring Kwani?’s evolution into a writers trust in 2003.

The verve of Kenyan Hip-Hop provided the expression kwani meaning “what”—a question directed towards the literary elite. However, the magazine’s founders rejected the tags “anti-establishment” and “anti-academic” .

In hindsight, it was this controversial question which defined the journal’s writing style, first published in 2003. To be exact, it was an interruption, where newspapers and national literature failed, into the zeitgeist of early 2000s’ Nairobi-Kenya.

The journal’s cartoonists enjoyed enormous editorial space satirizing Kenyan politicians, an attraction that stood out for a myriad of Kwani?readers. However, this attraction has since been outweighed by photographic essays, notably Kenya’s Burning in the fifth issue ‘The Fire Next Time’ on Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. The cartoons on the cover of the most recent issue ‘Majuu’ are less satirical and more historical, documenting the airlift migrations of Kenyan students in the sixties to Russia and America.

Kwani?’s literal image of the new Kenya rekindled interest in Kenyan literature, and African writing in general. That image consists of the conscious questioning of the old Kenya, captured in ‘Discovering Home’. The short story’s narrator asks a young Masai girl in the Kenyan countryside, “Kwani? You don’t want to go to University and all that?” After she tells him she’s circumcised and looking forward to marriage, he quickly replies, “Si, you could have refused.” Such characteristic defiance of female circumcision is hard to come by in canonical texts such as Song of Lawino (1966) that advocate traditional values.

These moments of clarity in Kwani? define the new Kenya. The fifth issue made similar interventions into Mathare, one of the biggest slums in Nairobi. Editor Billy Kahora wrote about capturing “the people’s will” and a need for well-informed discussions on tribe. Long poetic narratives, at once personal and anthropological, followed in the journal’s contents on the origins of tribe.

The thoroughness with which Kwani? questions Kenya never ceases to astonish. Its investigative, anthropological, and imaginative methods in writing remain a potent resource for answers to the question of identity in an age of disheartening political reality in Kenya.

 

 

About

Established in 2003, Kwani Trust is a Kenyan based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing and committed to the growth of the creative industry through the publishing and distribution of contemporary African writing, offering training opportunities, producing literary events and establishing and maintaining global literary networks.  Its flagship journal, Kwani?, has 7 print editions to date. Each contains more than 300 pages of new journalism, experimental writing, poetry, cartoons, photographs, cutting edge academic papers, ideas, literary travel writing & creative non-fiction. Kwani? 07 Majuu picks up the idea of leaving and of return, something that has framed the conversations and hybrid identities of many Kwani? writers. It explores diasporic imaginaries and discourses in fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, history, art, design and social media.

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Written by Serubiri Moses.

 

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All images courtesy of Michael Araka via Behance.
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