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Review of Rasna Warah's 'Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected Essays and Articles on Contemporary Kenya'

In a review of Rasna Warah’s 'Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected Essays and Articles on Contemporary Kenya', Oby Obyerodhyambo praises a hard-hitting collection of commentaries from the Daily Nation columnist.

Regular readers and addicts of Rasna Warah’s columns in the Daily Nation know the daredevil ‘telling it as it is’ approach to her writing style, sparing neither topic nor issue. If any of these Rasna-philes pick up ‘Red Soil and Roasted Maize’, they will be doing so because a collection of her articles spanning more than a decade will be an experience similar to letting an alcoholic roam freely in a ‘drink as much as you can’ liquor store.

If you are a faint-hearted African apologist dare not try to read this book. If you are a fundamentalist homophobic Christian do not risk reading this book. If you are a UN starry-eyed staffer full of self-righteousness, or one aspiring to be one, give this book a wide berth. If you are a child of the Kenyan post-independence political shenanigans, pray that the book gets banned.

Yes, because in these pages you will see your dilemma articulated in a brutally honest and annoyingly refreshing way. The collection is cathartic; as a reader you will identify with the Kenya that Rasna describes here. You will see your colleagues and friends, your leaders and the so-called movers and shakers in industry and global politics undressed as Rasna describes the hubris – that fatal flaw in our failed systems – and eventually brings them and us all down to the level where we feel that there must be change.

Though Rasna is a bitter critic of the current and past political establishment in Kenya, her book is – in an ironic twist – a toast to the current Kenyan political leadership she pillories so much in that it ‘allows’ her to attack it and describe it in such unsavoury terms. If there is a need for evidence that there is intellectual tolerance today that was not there in the past, it is this book. The fact that such harsh criticism is actually tolerated is evidence that the political space has opened up tremendously. To a reader not familiar with the openness today one would think that such a work would not see the light of day in Kenya, until one notices that the articles have actually been published in magazines and dailies sold locally. This shows that Kenya has indeed come a long way.

Red soil, and more so roasted maize, are iconic of the Kenyan landscape – that rich deep soil that characterises many parts to the country and the road-side snack you find in every Kenyan town and which you will see people munching along streets – but the collection of essays, though they are described as being ‘on contemporary Kenya’, have a broader outlook. As you read through the collection, you hear echoes of Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ in her analysis of the sick relationship between the North and South, while criticism of the donor mentality resonates with the more recent ‘Dead Aid’ by Dambisa Moyo. However, as a former UN insider herself, her critique of global government reminds us of one time Kofi Annan’s special envoy for AIDS Stephen Lewis’ scathing attacks of UNAIDS.

The essays are organised into three parts that allow the reader a rare glimpse into the writers’ personal identity and dilemma, her national identity as a Kenyan of Asian origin and an ethnic minority, and in the third part we see her professional identity as a UN staffer who graduates to being a disillusioned cynical aid worker forced to resign in order to regain her soul. In all these parts, Rasna perfectly plays the role of the writer, and her writing as a mirror of society presents slices of life’s experiences so bitingly close it causes one to cringe.

Similarly, the essays on contemporary Kenya are a brutal indictment of the Kenyan national psyche; the Eurocentricism, hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of its leadership that has allowed nepotism and ethnocentrism to kill the dream of uhuru; the ambivalence of garrulous Kenyans in the diaspora with their self-styled importance and cosmopolitan worldview, but who are as rabidly ethnocentric as their compatriots at home; the insular south Asian who allow the repugnant caste system to continue framing how they interrelate thousands of miles away from Asia and also impedes their full integration into their adopted home; the judgmental, homophobic liberal politician and the men and women of the cloth who are as hypocritical as they are self-righteous.

She returns to the issue of the glorification of poverty and failed policies in the attack on the way that the state has been complicit in turning Kibera into a tourist attraction, and though the attacks are relentless one cannot help feeling that she has her finger on the pulse. The most discomfiture with Rasna’s book will be felt in the UN Gigiri environs of Nairobi because of the manner that her articles expose the grand graft that goes on in the UN system in the name of humanitarian assistance. She speaks to the inability of that system to rid itself of corruption and scandals. The sheen on all the red number-plated four-wheel drives crisscrossing the Kenyan landscape – especially now with the humanitarian crisis wrought by the drought in the Horn of Africa region – fades fast under her scrutiny. However, in an act of mitigation she does describe how a UN initiative in Afghanistan fostered the growth of a movement that provided education for the girl-child and transformed the culture of that nation. So all is not lost, but the wake-up call needs to be heeded.

Rasna’s essays are refreshing to read, witty – even humorous – and very pointed.


* Rasna Warah’s 'Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected Essays and Articles on Contemporary Kenya' is published by Author House, Bloomington IN, 2011.
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