Memoirs of a Kenyan Porcupine

Tom Odhiambo

The Kenyan media is notorious for misleading Kenyans that our politicians are fat cats. The media makes the politicians look like they are merely cats indeed – animals that we Kenyans like and dislike, depending on what the cat does for you. If it hunts rats for you, it is a good companion. If it is a pet – for ‘modern’, animal-loving Kenyans – it is a partner, often equal to a human.

If you are of the dark medicine type uganga it is a worthy tool for reminding those who trouble you that evil is real. So, when the Kenyan media calls politicians fat cats, which one of the three categories above do they mean? Probably they mean that these cats have eaten so much of our wealth that they are now fat. But this merely means that they are good at eating. So, what’s wrong with that?

I think that Kenyan journalists may find it worth consulting Alain Mabanckou’s book, Memoirs of a Porcupine if they want a new and better term for describing our beloved MPs. Calling them MPigs is, to be honest, an endearment! Pigs clean the environment; they eat what human beings don’t want to eat anymore; and turn that dirt into wonderful meat? Pork eaters swear that it is fatty and tasty meat! But how many Kenyans have met a porcupine or tasted its meat? It is a hairy encounter if you meet a porcupine. They say its meat is tasty, those who have eaten it. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a porcupine-hunting party.

But generally porcupines, wherever they exist, don’t just walk around. They hide; a trait that would make a porcupine the perfect alter ego of a Kenyan politician because if we are looking for a terrifying image with which to describe the hideous, evil and threatening nature of our waheshimiwa, then the porcupine fits the bill, very convincingly.

If you read Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine you will meet this storytelling Porcupine. He is the partner-in-crime of the main character in the novel; although at times you might think that he really is the evil one. He and his partner kill people in the village on the slightest of provocation. He is the shadow evil force behind his master – the double of a man called Kibandi. They visit evil on anybody who annoys, provokes or hurts Kibandi’s feelings. Mr. Porcupine scouts the homes and houses where they plan to kill someone. He sometimes executes the victims. Children, adults, women, men, the old or young, all are their victims. One can say that ‘they’ kill wantonly, until his master is killed by the villagers who accuse Kibandi of the evil that had been afflicting their village. This is when Mr. Porcupine realizes that he too could easily be killed.

But it is what Mr. Porcupine says at the beginning of the story that should interest the Kenyan most. It is what a Kenyan who follows our politics should scrutinize closely. Mr. porcupine says, “so, I’m just an animal, just a dumb, wild animal, men would say, though if you ask me most of them are dumber and wilder than any animal, but to them I am just a porcupine, and since they only believe in what they can see, they’d see nothing special in me, just one of those mammals with long sharp quills, slower than a hound dog, too lazy to stray from the patch where he feeds.” And this self-description best says what many Kenyans believe about their politicians, the politicians’ relatives, henchmen, hangers on, errand boys, vijana and ‘godfathers.’

Often when we blame politicians for evil, for the corruption that is slowly eating everything in its way in this country, for how they are gradually turning this country into a banana republic – we really don’t need to be a basket case – or for this country’s inability to begin to dream about the Kenya Vision 2030 – so, what happens after the dream doesn’t happen in the year of the Lord 2030 – or for this country eating its children, women, the old, the poor, the slum-dwellers, the villagers and anyone who doesn’t have a Kenyan ID or doesn’t know how to speak Kiswahili, all that time we make the cardinal mistake of forgetting to include the politicians’ doubles on the charge sheet. We forget that ‘double’ rhymes with that French word for the devil or even the word for devilish – diabolical!

We need to identify the Kenyan politicians’ doubles. We need to know who are these men and women ‘behind’ the politicians, urging them to rob, displace, sack, abandon or kill the rest of us so that only the politician and his wife, girlfriend, children, parents, relatives, friends, business colleagues, townsmen and tribesmen can remain to hog Kenya! Who is your MPs double? Is it you; could it be your sister or uncle or cousin or friend or village mate? Are you in the group of women and men urging your MP, Senator or Governor not to bother about the other, non-local/non-relative family, clan or tribe in your home town or village?

Memoirs of a Porcupine reminds us of how the forces of evil reside within and around us. Mr. Porcupine lives in the bushes not so far away from the village where Kibandi lives. Not many people pay attention to a mere porcupine, when it crosses one’s path for like he reminds us in the quotation above, he is ‘just a dumb, wild animal’, at least in the eyes of the villagers. Danger doesn’t have to be diabolical even; it doesn’t have to reside in Hell – that unknown place feared by many Christians; evil doesn’t have to be blown into our houses, homes or villages by some cursed wind. Remember that Swahili saying, kikulacho ki nguoni mwako?

It is when we ignore the sycophants around the politicians, it is when we dismiss their wives and children, it is when we wave away their advisors, it is when we refuse to acknowledge the evil that the people who surround the leaders that we make that fatal mistake, for which we and posterity may pay dearly. Leaders may have good intentions. They may will and wish good for their people but do their advisors and immediate followers share the same interests? Think about the noises in the government in Kenya today. Or even just the rumbling within the ruling coalition. You can extend that to the complaints about this and that in the opposition coalition. Then move to the county governments to count the number of demands by county representatives. Ad infinitum.

Every time there is a leadership crisis in Kenya, probably we should ask: where is the porcupine? For if we can find the porcupines of all the politicians involved, if we can discover who are running the rackets in government that the president spoke about some time back, if we can identify the ‘ghosts’ that filch our Milch, if we can provoke the doubles of civil servants who refuse to see things in the new light shone by the constitution, if we can expose the identities of the many anonymous individuals who ‘speak, act and react’ on behalf of the government of Kenya, we may just sort out our perennial crises. It is these shadowy characters that we must be willing to confront and probe, all the time.

Well, the porcupine in Memoirs of a Porcupine confesses his sins but only after his master/double is killed. But by this point tens of people are dead; chaos has been visited on the village and its people. This is the problem with giving politicians a second chance; the danger of waiting, hoping that a politician will change his/her ways, is that it is very costly to humanity in the end. That cost, whose invoice comes in the form of theft of public resources, displacements, hunger, starvation, wars, deaths, is so unbearable that it has ruptured some societies on a scale where re-membering, reconciliation and reparation become near-impossible.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi and is a co-founder of Native Intelligence.


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