African Writers: Meet Mary Kimani
Rwanda for me is a very enigmatic place. It is a place that has touched me very deeply... so deeply that I think I can never quite tear myself away...
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First published: June 22, 2006
In 1994 orders emanating from several radio stations urged the butchery of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. Without questioning the orders, the brutal and thoughtless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and modest number of Hutus commenced. Now, almost a decade later, some of the men behind those orders have been and are still on trial before a United Nations tribunal in Tanzania for their provocative words. Mary Kimani is one of the journalists who are fervently reporting the stories back to the international media.
Mary Kimani who was born on January 24 1976, is the Regional Communications Coordinator in Nairobi-Kenya, for Actionaid International as well as a young Kenyan journalist. ActionAid International works with poor and excluded people to eradicate poverty. It helps in the most affected regions, providing food aid, water, fuel subsidies and health services to children and pregnant women.
Among many topics Kimani has covered post genocide Rwanda, the abduction of child soldiers in Northern Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Sudan, and the child sexual slaves in many African countries. Daughter of Kenyan school teachers, it is only natural that she would write a book and that is exactly what she did. She wrote a book called He Didn't Die Easy where she tackles many of the problems which continue to ravage Africa - the wars, the famines, the floods, the fights for power, the deaths from AIDS; and the wasted potential. I had the opportunity to interview her and she had a lot to say.
He Didn't Die Easy by Mary Kimani.
Jane: Mary please tell us more about yourself.
Mary: I am the first born in a family of four. It's a small family by the standards of most African families that we grew up with. My parents were both teachers. Both taught English and Swahili literature in Kenyan secondary schools. The education system was the British GCSE before the former government attempted to remodel it and turn Kenya into an African Tiger economy- you can guess what happened. I was born on January 24 1976, at Pumwani maternity hospital, in Nairobi, which had a better reputation at that time than it does now. My mother was 17 and my dad was 22.
I had an interesting upbringing. My parents were part of that first group of African urbanites, children brought up in the cities in the immediate aftermath of the independence struggle. My grandparents (both sets) worked in Nairobi under the British colonial government and subsequently under the new independence regime. My grandparents (both sets) had those aspirations that all Africans of the time probably had - to see their children grow up to inherit this great wealth that was supposed to have been handed over. My parent's generation therefore grew up in a frantic age, knowledge was of the premium, and the intellectual elite held sway over the land. I think this influence is what led them to become teachers in the first place.
Your parents were really young when they had you!
Sunrise over Mount Kenya.
Yes they were. Although my parents were urbanites, I was not brought up in the city. I was barely two or so years when we moved from the city to Kerugoya, a small town at the foot of Mount Kenya. It was my dad's first posting and my memories of the place are of green grass, clear crystal streams and hordes of cows that chased us as we tried to make our way to the local equivalent of a kindergarten. His second posting was still in the central province of Kenya, in yet another stunningly green and fertile portion of the country, where we lived for five years, and probably my happiest years. We moved again to a small town, which had no fruit trees in bloom, no wide open areas covered with green grass and snobbish town children who laughed at my tree climbing skills.
I made up for it by reading. We grew up around many books - both Swahili and English Literature and poetry books. My parents kept a huge library of books at home, and when we exhausted those they introduced us to the concept of borrowing from the secondary school libraries. My parents like many others, had their failings. It was often a disorganized home, and sometimes quite unhappy. But on the other hand we were brought up in a very liberal atmosphere, we were given the possibility to choose what we wanted to make of ourselves, what faith we wanted to have, what we wanted to be when we grew up- it was a choice that many African children of that era, particularly girls, did not have.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
I never intended to be a journalist. I actually wanted to be a doctor - a neurosurgeon to be precise. But with one medical school in the whole country, and having failed to get more than a C in mathematics, it was a dream I had to part with sorrowfully. Even now, every once in a while I do think that I would have loved to be a doctor. I had the grades in all other subjects except Math. Not because I did not love it, but because I had not understood a single thing our last teacher had taught.
Money also played a role in my decision. Children from more well off families could sit for additional papers and if they passed, could apply for colleges abroad. I could not afford that route. I could not even afford university. A kind German Benedictine monk came to my rescue. He asked me to choose any course, as long as it was within the country, and he would pay for it. I chose Communication simply because from an age of about 8 I had been writing poems. I thought there was not much difference between one type of writing and another. Journalism seemed to come naturally to me. I was curious about life, about people, about their motives, their intentions, and I also wanted to tell people about what I had found out. To support myself in school, I started working in the community, and writing stories. I think this is what exposed me to the suffering of many others and probably gave me a greater impetus to write, both privately and for the media.
You write poetry, prose as well as journalistic articles. When did you start writing in general?
As I said earlier, I grew up in a house where both parents were teachers, they were always writing and reading and I guess imitating your parents is what all children do. The first poem I wrote was when I was about 8. I entered several competitions as a child, and later on in high school, I wrote several poems which won national awards. I continued to write poetry for national competitions throughout college. It was one of the ways in which I was able to earn money. When I left High School, I wrote for a Catholic Youth Magazine, and in college I became an assistant editor for the college magazine as well as contributing editorials for a column on Africa issues called Africa Watch. In my third year of college I was recruited by a feature agency as a part time editor and correspondent. Most of the articles were sold to magazines in Europe and I must admit that the first time I saw my beeline on an international paper I was hooked.
I have now held a job for the last five years reporting on Rwanda. It has been a challenge as well as a great learning experience. Most of all, I have learnt about human beings, their capacity for endurance, for kindness, for greatness, for love, and at the same time, their capacity for evil, for violence, for great hatred.
Can you please tell us about the book He Didn't Die Easy...
He Didn't Die Easy is a book about life's journeys. It is written partly in prose articles and partly in poetry and represents over ten years of struggling to answer questions that bother all of us. Why do people suffer? Why do some suffer more than others? And what do we do when life turns out to be anything but what we hoped for? It is a personal journey but I believe one that will not be unfamiliar to those who read it as all humans in one way or another go through these things. The sections "The mail will not be coming..." and "He didn't die easy..." describe the anguish, pain, and terror of the daily experiences of the men and women that I met and talked to in the course of my work in Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC. The poetry is painful and harrowing, and no attempts are made to sanitize what can only be described as intolerable. "We tell ourselves a few lies to help us make it through the day... is a window into my own struggle to reconcile myself with the tragic experiences and violence written about in the first two sections and our concept of a humane world. The poetry in the final chapter "The Ramblings of a Troubled Mind..." is a poetry of recovery, a poetry which, though not answering the fundamental questions that will continue to challenge each of us, illustrates and promises a kind of healing.
What inspired you to write it?
I was inspired to write this book by life, by the people who I have met in the course of my work, by their pain, their fears, their anguish, their hope, their incredible courage, their determination to go on, their love of life, their despair, and sometimes, sadly, the terrible experience of watching a human being give up, give in and die away. These things have moved me deeply, I think sometimes we live too superficially, at a very shallow level, it really does change your life when you meet and interact with people who have been forced by circumstances to dig deeper, go further, find greater strength, and it is really frightening to see what happens to a human being when pain, anguish and agony lead the spirit to shrivel.
I felt driven to put these things down in writing. Almost as if I was attempting to freeze a moment in time, a slice of what it is to be human in very difficult circumstances, I hoped that other people would be able to see a bit of themselves in the stories and the poems, and hopefully be more compassionate, more engaged with those who have to live through these experiences daily.
How do you hope that this book will affect people that read it?
I hope it will make people pause and think. Pause and think about what it is to be human in places where there is war, suffering, hunger, poverty. What it means to have aspirations in countries where there is no freedom, what it means to rest in a place where you have to walk long distances to get water, what it means to be a woman in a country that has disintegrated and men have turned to predators. I would like people to think. Only when we are able to put ourselves in these people's shoes can we begin to act. Action must be led by compassion, by empathy, by the realisation of what it really is like to live in the circumstances that so many live.
Is there a particular market that you are aiming to get with this book?
If I was able to get everyone to read this book I would. Because it is really not a book by an African to Africans, nor it is targeted to the western world, it is really a book that for anyone who would wish to have a glimpse into the lives of the people I have met, their stories, their challenges, their courage, their victories and the times when we have all failed them.
Where can people go to buy the book?
The book is titled He Didn't Die Easy. The ISBN Number is 142080197X it is possible to order from your local bookshop and you would need to allow for 2-5 days shipping depending on where you are. The book is also available for sale on the AuthorHouse website authorhouse.com and it can also be ordered on Amazon at amazon.com.
The publishing world is one of the toughest to conquer. Traditional publishing operates with a catch 22 system. They prefer to publish writers that are known, but how can you be known if you are not published? In the face of that many people like you are opting to self-publish. What do you think about the negative stigma that traditional publishing houses have about self-publishing? Do you think that this attitude is changing?
I think that traditional publishing houses see self-publishing as an avenue for failed writers and that is really terrible. To be quite frank, it is hard for any writer, leave alone Black African writers to break into the international market and self-publishing is often the only way in. Given that traditional publishing houses typically trash thousands of manuscripts for every single one they publish, it was only inevitable that a thriving self publishing sector would come up. Traditional publishing houses will always have a certain prestige, simply because they pick a few books out of thousands. That selection creates a sense of exclusivity but this doesn't necessarily mean that all the books published by traditional publishing houses are better than self-published ones. I think slowly people are beginning to realise this and in time, how good a book is will be judged not by the fact that it was self published or published by a traditional publisher but on the quality of the writing, which is really how things it should be. But this might take some time.
For those that may be interested in self publishing, can you please tell us what your experience with Author House was?
I think it is important to be realistic about expectations. Author House is a good avenue to publish through, but it is important to have all the information otherwise one might expect a lot and be disappointed. I think this is particularly the case when it comes to marketing. When you are self-publishing you have to take the lead on marketing, you have to be active and involved in interesting people in your book, you have to actively take up selling and promotion, many people don't expect that and it can lead to disappointments. I have found a useful way to look at it is that you are taking upon yourself the role of writer, marketer, and publicist. It's a bit daunting but if you believe in your product, then you are probably going to be successful. Author House has very supportive and friendly staff who walk you through every step, but at the end of it all you have to take the lead if your book is to sell.
For the last five years you have covered Rwanda's post genocide reconstruction and healing, the peace process in Burundi and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Can you give us an idea of life in Rwanda after the genocide?
Rwanda- The Road to Ruhengeri.
It is still a place with deep wounds, deep pain and still in need of healing. At the same time it is a shockingly beautiful place. I still can never get over the fact that a place so beautiful could have produced people capable of such atrocities. The country has largely recovered its infrastructure, and is very secure. It's the kind of place you can go jogging at 11 pm in the night without fear. But for most, life in Rwanda after the genocide is not easy. There are survivors who have lost their entire families, women who have been infected with HIV AIDS from the rapes they experienced, and those who have had to bring up rape children. But it is also not easy for families whose brothers and sisters are still in prison awaiting trial for genocide. It is now 11 years some of those people have in been in prison for a very long time awaiting trial.
Isn't it emotionally tough to cover these stories?
It is but I am committed to it. The government has instituted communal courts (called Gacaca) aimed at making the process of justice and reconciliation move faster. Many prisoners have been provisionally released and will be tried in these communal courts, but even that is fraught with challenges. Imagine being a survivor and meeting with someone who killed your family and having to live next door to him until his trial comes up? Or imagine being a prisoner who was forced by soldiers to kill neighbours and having to come back to your community and face the people whose relatives you killed? And I am only highlighting the obvious issues - I could name many more, people lost land, houses, people came back from exile to claim back their property and displaced others, there are children who lost all adult members of their families and have had to bring themselves up. Such children, especially girls are vulnerable and are often abused and give birth to other children they can barely take care of. Rwanda is a very challenging place.
Why do you have an interest in Rwanda? Are there any personal motivations?
Rwanda for me is a very enigmatic place. It is a place that has touched me very deeply... so deeply that I think I can never quite tear myself away from this place. It is a place of great beauty and great pain. It is a place of great courage and incredible atrocities. It's a place trying to move on but often pinned down by the weight of the past. Quite frankly I fell in love with Rwanda. I fell in love with its people and though often I have felt that the anguish of the place is too overwhelming and too overpowering, I find it hard to fall out of love with the country.
What are the challenges of reporting stories about Rwanda as an African female journalist?
To be frank I think it was easier covering Rwanda because I was a woman than if I had been a man. I didn't come to Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the war, when things were still insecure and dangerous for women. I came to Rwanda for the first time when things were already quite stable and although there was an insurgency in the north, I never had to go there. The things I have covered about Rwanda have largely revolved around the impact in the subsequent years. You must realise that the worst victims of the war were women and children.
There are times when I have gone to film on location and felt embarrassed that my cameraman was a man. I think being a woman helped, women and children trusted me more, and many times I felt guilty that I was living what in comparison was such a privileged life. I also worked a lot in the prisons of Rwanda, and there again I felt that the fact that I was a woman, a non threatening presence made many prisoners open up when they would not have done so. I think the only time I had problems was when I was talking to authorities. As a woman (and by the way I am rather small bodied) I was often dismissed and considered non-important. I had many occasions when I had to wait for hours on end to get an official to talk to me, but over time they came to know me and it became easier.
What did you think of the movie Hotel Rwanda? How accurate was it in depicting the horrors of the genocide?
I liked Hotel Rwanda. I know that a lot of people who lived in Rwanda at the time don't. I can understand their disappointment - the filming was done in present day Rwanda; some of the buildings in the film were not there during the genocide. A lot of the filming was done in South Africa, and there are a lot of scenes that if you know Kigali you can tell, they are not in Kigali at all. Some of the names they picked for their characters, particularly the children who were missing were names that couldn't exist in Rwanda. I think that is largely why some people were disappointed.
I think if someone is looking for 100% historical accuracy, they might not be so happy. It is hard to do a film and get the genocide pinned down in 100% accuracy or please everyone in the audience. But generally I think they were quite faithful to the general reality. For me, I found it to be a good film. I covered the Tribunal during the tail end of Rutaganda's trial and then his appeal of his sentence and for me it was very moving to see those women in the film who were locked up in his garage. I know some of the women who were kept there during the genocide and raped daily, and that scene really got to me.
I know that Rwanda, despite all the turmoil that it has been through is a very beautiful place. If you were a travel agent trying to bring in tourists, how would you sell the idea of travelling to Rwanda to them?
Rwanda is not the kind of tourist destination that most places are. It is a deep and sober place it's the kind of tour package you take when you want to see nature, take a break and reflect rather than a busy bustling and active type of tour package. You can get to do the gorillas, and that is quite an experience, and they have a game park in Akagera which has a lot of animals. There are several beautiful lakes, they are quiet, beautiful places.
Click here to play video:
Rwanda: Kibuye Scenery & Lake Kivu (chawbacon.org)
What role do you think that African women can play in improving the political situation in Africa?
I think instead of the word 'can' let us use the word 'are'. African women are at the forefront of change in the continent. In each and every country you go, you find women who are saying no to dictatorship, no to war, no to looting and corruption. There are names that quickly come to mind, Graca Machel, Prof. Wangari Maathai, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Winnie Byanyima, Angelique Savani, Ellen Johnson Salif, Judge Navanethem Pillay for example. I could try to list more names for you but that would be unfair, because for every woman I mention there are several others who are working day and night doing something to change the continent. To be quite frank, I think that where we have seen real change, it has been because of the pressure that women have put in to have change. They are tired of war, they are tired of the destruction of communities, they want peace and they want it yesterday and this trend is only bound to continue.
What is your opinion of a beautiful black woman?
Now that's a question. I think this concept of a beautiful black woman is currently under negotiation. There were people who saw Alek Wek and wondered whether she could really be a symbol of African beauty, then Oluchi Onweagba came onto the scene and there are those who felt that the concept of her as a representative of African beauty was still too western. I think we are slowly getting to the point where we will get a consensus. I have met very beautiful African women who are very dark, very slim and some who are very light skinned and fat. There has been a long negotiation on how an African woman's skin, hair and dress should look like before it can be seen as authentic, African and also beautiful. I think whatever it will end up being, it should be something truly African - that doesn't necessarily mean fat, or very dark, but it should be something that many African woman can identify with. For me right now someone who has that look would be someone like Kaone Kairo, our latest face of Africa. I like her clean shaven head, her open eyes, simple face. She is still very slim, which some people would argue is a western view of beauty but she truly has an African look to her.
There are many young people looking around for role models. What advice do you have for young people that want to follow your footsteps?
Oh dear! That is always a hard question. I think the one thing I would tell young people is to read. Read a lot. It always pay to expose yourself to the other people's world views, it expands your horizon and keeps you from having a narrow approach to life. Read widely, read deeply, if you can read a book every week, if you can't, try a book every fortnight. The second piece of advice would probably be to live deeply. In an age of MTV, Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives it's easy to settle for clichés, fashion, and empty statements and platitudes. Choose to live deeply, look around you and endeavour to really see what is happening, think through choices deeply. Imagine that life is a huge pond and what you take out of it depends on what you bring with you. Don't drink out of the pool with a spoon, drink deeply, and put a bucket in there if you can.
I have learnt that life always rewards an honest heart felt engagement. What that simply means is not to settle for what is easy and simple. Determine to grow, determine to make what you are today better than what you were yesterday. That simply means that if you were writing good yesterday, to try and bring something new in it today, if you were a good doctor yesterday, to try and bring something else to it today. Not to settle, to push yourself ever constantly to do more, live more, give more, be more. Finally, hold yourself to account. Take a stock of what life has offered you and determine to be a good manager of those resources. There are people counting and depending on you to be the best person you can ever be. And truly that is all we are called upon to do in life, to be the very best we can be. I think if you can hold yourself to account and constantly check if you are being the best you can be, then you will probably live a very deep, fruitful and fulfilling life.
Who are your role models?
This has always been a hard question for me to answer. The reason is simply that I have had so many role models and so many influences in my life but if I was to stick to just two, I would say two women. One was Priscilla Wahu Gacau. She was a distant relative, but more importantly she was the owner and matron at my last primary school. She was unique in that she had lived a single life throughout. She was born in the late 20's and was one of those first Africans to go to school. Her family did not approve and she was somehow adopted by a white missionary lady called Mathis. When I first met her she was in her late sixties. She was formidable woman, active in local politics, a disciplinarian, but incredibly loving, and giving. She was also a financial success; she had her own land, owned her own house, and owned her car, a Peugeot 504. It may not seem like much to a person reading this, but in those days women rarely had such 'wealth'. It was inconceivable that a woman could own so much!
She definitely is a good role model!
She was running this school which had about 64 girl students. I was one of them. It was a really mixed group; some of the students were orphans who she was taking care of, and some were discipline cases who she had the knack of bringing back to line. She had done something that was taboo to most African women of her era and I might say even this era. She had opted to live a single life, adopted a girl, who had grown up, gotten married and produced grandchildren for her. To live such a life, in that era took incredible self-belief. She really influenced my life. I saw in her what I would like to be, a powerful independent woman whose life reaches and touches many people in a positive empowering sense.
I am glad you have mentioned her because stories about successful, empowering African women like that are rare especially that generation. We hear stories like those of Madam C.J Walker and Phyllis Wheatley, but their African contemporaries are missing from the history pages...
I agree. The other woman is my grandmother. In my culture, we are named after our parents. So I being the first child in my home, I am named after my grandmother (father's mother). She is an amazing woman and it would not be possible to tell her story here. Suffice to say, in her era, women did not separate from their husbands. No matter how unfaithful or how violent. They stuck it out until they died. She didn't really see things that way. My grandfather, like many men of that era, was promiscuous; the problem was that every time his mistresses got pregnant he would send them to her to take care of them! Which she did, and with a clean open heart. But with no support from him she was working to feed everyone.
When she finally decided to separate, she took up working in Nairobi, and with great difficulty brought up her children herself. I admire her strength, her courage, her determination to bring up her children and the fact that she was able to provide them all with a basic education and for those who were able to stick it out, a secondary education. But to be honest what really impresses me about her is that she could very well be someone from my generation. Her approach to life is so open, so refreshing, so informed and so adaptable that it puts to shame many narrow minded people of our generation. I have learnt one lesson from her, to believe in yourself, to believe that you can make life work no matter how bad things are, but most of all to bear no bitterness for things that go wrong because bitterness only serves to kill and burn your spirit.
What is next for you?
I have recently moved jobs. I wanted to do more than writing. I wanted to work in a humanitarian organisation and be part of the process of finding solutions to some of the problems I have documented. I still do a lot of writing, but right now I am looking for professionals who are willing to volunteer some of their time, energy to go to the field and help people solve their problems. I am in particular looking for doctors, lawyers, trauma counsellors, water and sanitation experts. The idea is to bring together a group of African professionals who for no pay will be willing to say go into a village and do a medical clinic for a day or two, or help them dig a borehole, or provide a trauma counselling clinic for a day. The response I have received from people I have talked to has been surprisingly positive considering that we are telling them this is a strictly voluntary organisation where we will not pay them anything. It is very heartening. It tells us all that we are capable of doing so much, and we are able to change people's lives so easily. We are currently in the process of registering this as a Trust and we hope to have a website up and running soon, anyone who is interested to know more about it can write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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First published: June 22, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.