By EMEKA-MAYAKA GEKARA AND JULIUS SIGEI
Posted Friday, June 14 2013 at 23:05
Posted Friday, June 14 2013 at 23:05
Kamukunji MP Yusuf Hassan was injured last year in a grenade attack in Nairobi’s Eastleigh, ending up confined to hospital beds in Kenya and South Africa for several months.
The former exile, who was once at the forefront agitation for political prisoners’ release, had his passport revoked at one point and his father arrested. He speaks of how books kept him going in some of the longest days in his life and why he hopes to return to Kisii High School.
Q: December 6, 2012, is certainly one of the darkest days in your life.
A: It was a great tragedy, very shocking. I mean I have worked in many places rocked by conflicts only to come and be attacked at home. But, it was also only after the accident that I came to know the true spirit of Kenyans, their incredible love and kindness. Kenyans prayed for me in churches and mosques and to-date, people I don’t know stop me in the street to express their sympathies.
Being in hospital for half a year is certainly emotionally taxing. What kept you going?
My faith. I have a very strong faith and hope. I told myself I must get up again by the will of God. Therapy and spending time with friends also kept me alive. I also got to read a lot. Reading actually kept me going.
What kind of books?
It was a mix. I read autobiographies, biographies and fiction. While in South Africa, I read the inspiring biography of Chris Hani. (Chris Martin Thembisile Hani was the charismatic leader of the anti-Apartheid South African Communist Party. He was assassinated in 1993.) Another interesting book I read was Priest and Partisan: A South African Journey.
It is the story of Father Alan Michael Lapsley, a victim of a bomb attack in Zimbabwe during apartheid. He lost both hands and sight in one eye. I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s epic novel Flight Behavior. The book on global warming is the only environmental novel I have read.
This attack came at the height of campaigns. How did you manage it from a hospital bed?
I don’t know. I just watched the news like anyone else. But seriously speaking, it is the team of collaborators and the army of volunteers who delivered the win. I can never thank them enough.
You used to host Raila Odinga and other dissidents during your days at the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners and Ukenya opposition group. But you have been one of his harshest critics. What changed?
Well, I worked with all kinds of dissidents, like Raila and (Kenneth) Matiba. But I came to know Raila after I had returned to the country. I was in the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners when Jaramogi (Oginga Odinga) was the active leader of the opposition. His track record was that of a true nationalist. Well, I was in Raila’s party but I don’t want to get into that now.
We were with other national heroes like the poet Abdilatif Abdalla who wrote Sauti ya Dhiki. One poem that particularly inspired us was Kahawa, which went like “I am coffee and whatever you do to me I remain black and I smell the same. (Prof Abdalla became the first political prisoner in independent Kenya to be jailed by the Jomo Kenyatta government at the age of 22 in March 1969.)
What do you consider the most transformational book that you have read?
I have been transformed by books. Books transform lives. While at Taranganya School in Kuria, our teacher and some Peace Corps volunteers introduced us to Karl Marx, Martin Luther King and other black American writers and human rights activists. I also read Frantz Fanon, the Negritude poet Cheikh Anta Diop, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. I particularly liked Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind. I read books on the Cuban revolution featuring leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. All this radicalised us.
What are you reading now?
I am now reading Bandiet out of Jail, the prison memoirs of South African journalist-teacher Hugh Lewin. Prof Lewin, who taught me, was imprisoned for seven years by the apartheid regime. The book is engrossing and uplifting at the same time.
Have you ever returned to Kisii High School since 1972?
No, I have not because I have been out of the country for most of my life. I would, however, love to go back there despite having been expelled.
What had you done to be expelled?
Nothing but the argument was I had led the school to strike.
Celebrated Somali writer Nurrudin Farah was here in April and he declared that the world had ‘invented’ the fact that there were pirates in Somalia. Do you agree?
Nurrudin Farah is one of the greatest writers from our side of the world. He is also a friend and he actually came to see me when I was recuperating in South Africa. But I don’t wish to comment on that because I have not seen it.
Farah also lamented the harassment of Somalis in Nairobi’s Eastleigh and the mistreatment of those in North Eastern Kenya.
Yes, those historical problems are there. Exclusion and marginalisation of the people continues to date. We hope the new Constitution will address that.
To President Obama, terrorism is a manifestation of intolerance. What is the cause of terrorism?
The biggest contributor to terrorism is the dispossession and disempowerment of sections of communities by regimes. It is lack of true democracy and human rights. The biggest perpetrator of all this is the USA itself.
What one book would you buy for former President Moi?
It is too late now; I don’t want to rock the boat.
South Africa and Nigeria are the melting pots of African literary scholarship. Where do you place Kenya?
Yes, those countries as well as Ghana have a dynamic literary and publishing culture. Even here there was a time when we had first class novelists and writers. Not any more. Since I came back, there has not been any major publication rolling out of our presses.
We are a conservative society where nobody wants a provocative book that can rock the status quo. A majority only want feel-good, inspirational stories.
Where do you take your children to school and what kind of books do you buy for them?
We are global nomads. I’ve lived in more than 20 countries and my son has schooled all over the world. My six-year old daughter is at Peponi School in Nairobi and she is now reading How the Hippo got to Swim.
You have worked with the BBC and Voice of America. In your view, what ails Kenyan journalism?
Lack of research. They don’t do much investigation and much of what you read is unsubstantiated statements and inaccuracies.
There are two sides to the MPs’ salary debate. Do you think MPs have been treated well?
Certainly not. Now we cannot even walk around freely. We can be beaten up. Look at this mileage claims for example. I don’t get it because I don’t travel as I my constituency is here. So when you lump everybody with MPs from Moyale and say legislators to earn this much from mileage claims, is that fair?
What is the one thing that keeps you awake at night?
Poverty and inequality. I have always wanted to make a difference, to play a role in the search for equity and social justice.