Of Poetry & Politics in Kenya

One of the few photos I’ve captured during a whirlwind first month in Mombasa.

I am consistently surprised by the places poetry has taken me. My bar was set high when the first spoken word piece I had ever written, Leftover Wars, put me on stage in front of 18,000 youth at We Day Vancouver. In addition to the sheer magnitude of the audience, I was faced with the incredible task of following up a 20 minute speech by former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. From that performance, I’ve taken my poetry to single digit audiences in brooding cafes, national level poetry slams, job and scholarship interviews, a TEDx conference, and to classrooms across the country as co-founder of Raise Your Voice Canada. My biggest surprise however, came when poetry began to open doors with signs I couldn’t read.

As I anxiously awaited post-election clearance to go to Kenya, I began searching for poetry communities within Nairobi and Mombasa, where I would be based for the next 8 months as an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Youth Fellow. I came across The Dadaab Theatre Project (DTP), which is an initiative of the Great Globe Foundation supported in part by the US State Department, Filmaid, Save the Children and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). I was equally confused and excited by the fact that a Theatre Project was being funded by UNHCR, and reached out to learn more. I was quickly met with an excited message from co-founder Michael Littig, who was set to arrive in Nairobi a few days after me for a celebration of the latest cohort of students. Since 2011, Michael has sought to prove through practice that poetry, arts, and theatre; like food, water and shelter, are fundamental needs of human life. Set amidst the extreme conditions of Dadaab, the second largest refugee camp in the world, the project heard a resounding yes. After meeting Michael in Nairobi, I was invited to join him the next day in Eastleigh, where DTP programs are now being run by one of Michael’s students from Dadaab.

Eastleigh is a neighbourhood in Nairobi that is uniquely highlighted on the Global Affairs Canada Advisory for Kenya as a whole. It has been a particular flashpoint for cultural tensions, with its significant Somali population earning it the nickname of Mogadishu Kidogo or “little Mogadishu”. While the warnings were stark, the opportunity was greater, and our safety was somewhat assured by our local partners, and the beating daytime sun. Michael insisted we go by matatu; now, if you know anything of Kenya, you know the matatus (local minibuses) are a sight to behold. Vibrantly coloured and erratically driven at best, they are a mainstay of the streets. In stark contrast to the norm, the first matatu we came across that was destined for Eastleigh was all black, “EASTLEIGH COMMUTER” stencilled in white spray paint along the site, and completely silent. Not one to be fazed by false omens, we opted for more vibrant one, which had two screens playing the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”… a song I never thought I’d take comfort in hearing.

Eastleigh was a necessary wake-up call. The downtown core, the Aga Khan offices, and the hotel where we had been staying were all in a bubble, and I had almost grown comfortable in an illusion of Kenya that was purely prosperous. That is not to say that Eastleigh was not bustling; the food vendors and local businesses were abound, but the poverty was evident, and our senses of being muzungu and muhindi (foreign, english speaking white and Indian persons respectively) were heightened to new levels.

We soon arrived at the restaurant and met the students, two boys and three girls, all from Somalia and now living in Eastleigh. Unbeknownst to them, they has also officially become published poets; Michael handed out the final product of Dadaab Theatre Project’s program, a book that juxtaposed poems of identity written by young American students in Alabama and their counterparts sitting in front of me. As they read their poems aloud, I was entirely enraptured in the moment. I never would have imagined that one day, I would be sitting in Kenya, sharing verse with young Somali poets. Themes of violence, race, and adolescence resonated throughout the poems of Americans and Somali alike . Their words painted a picture of strife and struggle, but also one of immense resilience, creativity, and potential.

I was particularly moved by one student’s observation on the universality of poetry, “ultimately, poetry is the same. It’s only the language that changes.” In my seven years as a spoken word poet, I had never considered poetry as an essence that could be divorced from its words; and yet this young poet before me had somehow tapped into a sentiment that was much larger than himself. It was as if the centuries of Somali oral tradition (they are known as a nation of poets) were speaking through him — and indeed, it is the hope that this very tradition will live on through these students.

Recently, the Kenyan Supreme Court overturned the August 8th election in a historic ruling that has set a precedence for democracies across the continent. Between NASA Presidential Candidate Raila Odinga’s decision to pursue peaceful petition in the courts rather than repeat the 2007 post-election violence, and the young poets I had the privilege of meeting, there is reason to believe that the pen remains mightier than the sword in Kenya. Moving forward, the words of these young poets provide insight into a marginalized community in a country that is heading back to the polls and remains divided by entrenched tribal and cultural lines. While tackling ideas of place, person and politic in a borrowed tongue, the poets expressed a hope that they may continue to build peace and community through verse; and I hope to contribute to that during my time here in Kenya. After all, the language may be different, but the poetry is the same.

Gautham Krishnaraj is a 2017–2018 Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Youth Fellow, 2016–2017 RBC Students Leading Change Scholar, and recent MSc Global Health Graduate (McMaster University). He currently resides in Mombasa, Kenya where he is working with the Madrasa Early Childhood Program, an Aga Khan Development Network Initiative.

The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the Aga Khan Development Network, Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Madrasa Early Childhood Program Kenya, Dadaab Theatre Project, or Great Globe Foundation. All Rights Reserved.