Human rights activist Wa Wamwere relates in harrowing detail the repeated incarcerations, tortures, and terrors inflicted upon him and his family by Kenya’s oppressive regimes.
This strange and powerful work mixes memoir, social history, polemic, and manifesto. Its basic structure is autobiographical, but Wa Wamwere frequently interrupts with Kenyan history, ethnography, folk tales, poetry, fables, parables, songs, and laments for lost friends and lost causes. We learn about his birth into an impoverished family. His father was a forest worker who labored long hours for a pittance. His mother struggled to keep her family safe and cohesive; she emerges here as a powerful woman who would not abandon the political causes of her sons, even in the face of prison and torture. Wa Wamwere’s childhood was difficult in school and out. He recalls teachers who beat him every day, and he endured the loss of a one-year-old sister who was inadvertently dropped into a pot of boiling porridge. He records his disillusion with Jomo Kenyatta, who transformed quickly from hero to horror, and his revulsion at the policies of David arap Moi, Kenyatta’s successor. Wa Wamwere attended Cornell in the early 1970s but returned to Kenya in 1973 and became involved in revolutionary politics. The next 30 years brought him small successes (he was elected to parliament) and unspeakable pain. For opposing Moi’s government, he was repeatedly arrested (usually without warrant), beaten, jailed, and otherwise humiliated and intimidated. His most recent release was in 1997. The author treads at times on Western toes: he blasts America for supporting African dictators, vigorously defends “female circumcision,” and lauds Qadaffi. Interested less in the quality than in the power of his prose, he frequently diminishes the latter by paying too little attention to the former; clichés pervade and sometimes spoil his text.
Nonetheless, a terrifying work of enormous importance that contrasts humanity with bestiality, dignity with depravity.