Art is politics; and, it’s the weapon Kuweni Serious uses to, as they say, “fight the evil forces of apathy,” they saw plaguing Kenyan youth in the aftermath of the country’s 2007 elections. Kuweni Serious is a cultural activist organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their team includes three creative minds committed to raising political consciousness among Kenyan youth, encouraging them to be active participants in the political process. Rachel Gichinga, Jim Chuchu (of the music group Just a Band) and Mbithi Masya work incollaboration with Just a Band, Ghetto Radio, NiSisi! and Roma Media to create and share creative works that capture our imaginations and inspire us to think critically about unjust political practices and proposed alternatives.
We had the great pleasure of speaking with Rachel Gichinga about Kuweni Serious. She discusses Kenya’s turbulent 2007 elections, which led the team to develop this project. Rachel also shares her thoughts on Kuweni Serious’ creative approach, Kenya’s future in relation to all of Africa and the stake people of African descent abroad have in realizing their vision for Kenya.
“Kuweni Serious” means “let’s get serious”. The Kiswahili word “Kuweni” employs both the collective and the imperative, and this is the sentiment that we’re trying to capture and relay. We felt that it was important to get young Kenyans thinking and talking about their country’s political development, and, hopefully beginning to act as well. One of our favourite contributors, Njoki Ngumi, put it best in her interview when she said, “We are not as powerless as we think we are.” Kuweni Serious aims at letting primarily members of our generation know exactly that.
All of us have a creative background and work in the arts, so it just made sense to use that format as it is one which we understand well, and one that we think our peers relate to with comparative ease as well.
Kuweni Serious has been very involved in mobilizing people to vote in the 2010 Constitution referendum. Why was the new constitution so important? Now that the new constitution has passed, what new opportunities and challenges do you think lie ahead for Kenya’s youth?
Let me provide a bit of context for this first. Kuweni Serious was borne out of the aftermath of the 2007 presidential election. We noticed that we and our peers spent that terrible period online, on Facebook, passing on information and opinions about what had happened/was happening. People were angry, scared, hurt, apathetic—the full gamut of emotions. The common thread there was that people from this particular background (young, educated, with some level of exposure to the world, folks who know what good governance should look like and are therefore particularly put-off by the fact that this is so absent in the Kenyan context) either genuinely cared about the country and wanted to do something but had no idea about how to get involved; or viewed the problem as too overwhelming and too detached from their common reality, and were, therefore, apathetic.
There were thus two primary kinds of young Kenyans for whom we started Kuweni Serious: the kind who were ranting on Facebook about injustice from the comfort of their armchair, feeling powerless and helpless; and the kind whose anger at the post-election violence stemmed from the fact that their favourite coffee shop/bar was rendered inaccessible during that period.
We at Kuweni Serious are currently focused more on the macro-issues. So, for example, when it came to the constitutional referendum, it was more important for us to get young people to read the constitution for themselves, rather than us taking a particular stand and telling them which side to vote for. That’s why we put bits of the constitution in comic form—make it easier for people to read, and hopefully if they start reading one section, they’ll move to another. We highlighted constitutional provisions that no one was talking about—general focus was on abortion, kadhi’s courts, land; we looked at forest cover, consumer rights, emergency medical care.
Our aim was to show people that there was more to the constitution than the few issues on which the politicians were choosing to concentrate their energies. Also, we believe firmly in the democratic process, and in the need for people to participate in their own development.
So, the long-winded and somewhat abstract response to your question is not so much about what we think the new constitution will or won’t do. There’s a lot of good in it, and there’s a lot that will be incredibly difficult to successfully implement. Our focus is: Do young Kenyans think that the political process works? Do they have faith in it? Do they think their vote counts? Do they know what they want their ideal Kenya to look like? When they went out to vote, did they understand what they were looking to either introduce, uphold, or throw out? Do they understand what building a new and improved Kenya involves? Are they willing to participate in that process? We believe that getting young Kenyans to a) read the constitution, and b) vote, were the first steps in addressing that.
Also, is there anything else you would like to tell us about the political realities your organization is addressing?
The idea behind Kuweni Serious was to create a space where our peers could confront the “middle class rage” and do something with it; where people were allowed to talk back to the people who talk to us every day through our media—our government, corporations, institutions, and the media itself. We’re looking to create a space within which young Kenyans can engage in constructive dialogue about the future of Kenya; a space in which we can address our unspoken desire to run away from the complexity of being Kenyan: disillusionment, voter apathy, despair and frustration. Our biggest ambition is to somehow elevate the opinion of the ordinary citizen back to its rightful place. Governance should be a conversation, not a lecture.
Your website states: “Perhaps it is only when our comfort zones were threatened that we realized that our leaders, our ‘Honorables’ are self-obsessed, thieving, murderous idiots. Honorables, indeed.” This is a very bold and passionate statement. Artists across the world have been censored or forcibly punished for making politically critical art (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o for, example). You all seem fearless, in both your writing and your art. Did you have any reservations about making such direct statements? And videos, like “Save Yourself. Vote.”? Why?
We’re incredibly grateful for those who’ve gone before us and spoke out so that we could have a voice. We salute them. We never really have to think about self-censorship or fear for our lives/safety, and this is directly because of people like Ngugi who fought these battles on our behalf. If they worked so hard to clear the democratic space for us, who are we to disregard that opportunity and sit in silence?
On the videos: They feature Rapcha the Sayantist, who’s a popular local comedian and radio show host, in a series of tongue-in-cheek rants about how the government should step in to save a number of situations, from providing customers for hawkers, to finding alternative forms of contraception for slum dwellers, to ensuring that there’s always oil in the power transformers so that poor people can take it to use in their cooking. At which point Makmende (a fictitious Kenyan superhero created by Just A Band, also known as Kenya’s first viral sensation) steps in to beat up the guy for his laziness. The idea is that sitting and waiting for the government to do things for us (reiterated in If This Country Burns, We Burn With It) will achieve absolutely nothing. Save yourself from your own mess, and one way in which you can do that is by voting, which puts the power of change in your own hands.
Kuweni Serious set out to answer questions like: “How do Kenya’s youth feel about all the chaos around us? Are we proud to be Kenyan or are we secretly wishing we could get green cards and disappear forever? Where shall we raise our own kids? Are we happy?” How would you describe your findings?
We care about our country and want to see the members of our generation getting involved in its development. Our findings so far were that people are angry and disillusioned, but mostly hopeful. They still love Kenya, even when she doesn’t act like she loves them back. Voter turnout for the referendum was about 70%, which means that even after the chaos of 2007, people are still investing their time and energy in attempting to make a change.
You are all youths your self. What is the age range of the Kuweni Serious staff?
What do you think a healthy political climate for Kenya looks like? What is your dream for Kenya? The generation that will come after you?
Functionality, really. A place where justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. A step in that direction would involve public ceremonies where Bashir is NOT invited, for example. People power in action. Young Kenyans not only expecting better, but demanding better, and getting better.
In what ways, if any, do you think youth outside of Kenya can help reach some of the goals you have just described? Do you think there is anything black youth, in particular, in different parts of the world should know and do about the situation in Kenya?
Putting it in an extremely simple manner, knowledge is power. The more information that is shared across geographical and social boundaries, the better placed young people are to help others, to partner with them. Perhaps what black youth from different parts of the world need to know is that we are not as dissimilar as they think. We share a lot of the same angst, the same hopes and fears, the same desire for progress and pride in our own.
How would you say Kenya’s future is tied to that of the African continent, generally? Do you think Pan-Africanism is still relevant in Kenya?
Pan-Africanism is definitely still relevant in Kenya. We saw the huge ripple effect of the 2007 post-election violence in the region and on a wider scale—there’s no way one country’s stability or development can be considered as standing apart from the rest. We’ve probably started to think more in terms of regional blocs (the East African Community, for example), so that helps to contextualize Pan-Africanism, which is a concept that was perhaps more abstract for this generation.
Anything else you want to share…?
[Borrowed from a speech made by Bill Clinton a few years ago] Everyone has the ability to make a difference. And because you can, you must.
Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?
Living unchained means the ability to be undefined. It means embracing the multiple identities we hold as young 21st century Africans living in a globalized word. Amartya Sen has a great way of putting it: “Despite the immensity of the vision implicit in the laudable task of ‘situating a person in the society’, the translation of that vision into actual application has often taken the form of neglecting the relevance of the person’s plural social relations, seriously underestimating the richness of the multiple features of her ‘social situation’. The underlying vision sees humanity in a dramatically reduced form.”
Kuweni Serious partners significantly with Just a Band, and they explained that quite succinctly in their article here. We at Kuweni Serious stand with that as our definition of living unchained.