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And they asked him:
Why do you sing?
And he answered, as they seized him:
I sing because I sing

And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains

From Poem Of The Land, Mahmoud Darwish
(Written to commemorate five Palestinian girls killed by the Israelis, 30 March 30 1976 at a demonstration to protest Israeli seizures of Arab land).

When I read this poem, I think of my friend, Philo Ikonya. Philo is the president of the Kenya Chapter of PEN, the international society of writers dedicated to the promotion of literature and freedom of expression, a lifelong activist, an artist to her fingertips. She puts her heart into everything she does. Looks unflinchingly at the horrors of poverty and violence. Brings the voices of their survivors into the spaces where powerful elites gather. She mentors Kenyan girls raped in the post-election violence, protests government corruption, wields her pen with fierce, lyrical intelligence in the global media.

Philo organises, campaigns, writes, sings, publishes, reads to children in Uhuru Park from her latest book ‘Barack Obama: The Boy Who Became President’, and raises her son single-handed. And glows with unquenchable charm and delight in everyday life. Last August, we left Kibera courthouse together after a hearing on police violence. My mind was reeling with the enormity of the forces against us – I saw nothing of the vibrant life around us. Philo, beautifully present in the moment, was pointing out attractive skirts on market stalls.

Just two weeks ago, she emailed me:

‘I have to share my joy at being 50 and on top of the world.... I love it!!! I feel marvellous!! Had a lovely quiet birthday..... started at 4 am 'cos I could not wait!!!’

And a few months ago:

‘I was moved spending a little time with my Mum. She told me that when something outrageous happened in the old days... women had a tune... they would call out from shamba to shamba and abandon their weeding implements and go to the paths singing and pleading with God. Often it was about drought... and they would push off this evil... and the rain would come....

Shailja, you triggered off something about me and my mum with Migritude… I now try to spend a few hours with her every week. I have learnt to do it knitting... (I admire Gandhi's weaving, these physical things draw out something to share with others). Stories come... We have fun… I tell her I am knitting for her the way she knit for us when we were little. I see her surprise at me knitting. It takes her straight back to her youth and stitches taught by nuns... winning the handicraft show… I think of the people who can no longer 'knit' family because of our violence in Kenya.’

Philo was arrested today. Along with other activists, she stood outside Kenya's parliament, holding a 2-kilogram bag of maize flour in silent protest at the government corruption that has led to mass hunger in Kenya. She and two other activists, Chrispus Fwamba and Patrick Kamotho, were grabbed and manhandled by the police, and are now being held in Nairobi police stations.

An email from the PEN Kenya treasurer, Khainga Ookwemba, says:

‘Philo has been physically brutalised by a police officer, who pulled her chest as she demanded the police give her a phone, which had been taken away. Lawyers Elisha Ongoya and Anne Njogu are demanding her release so that she can receive medical treatment. By the time of writing this note, after spending the whole afternoon at the police station, they had denied her bond and release.’

My arms fly reflexively to cover my own chest, and I take deep breaths.

A press release from the Mars Kenya Group says:

Philo Ikonya’s clothes were ripped off and the police have refused her access to clothing.

I put my face in my hands and cry.

When I opened my inbox today, I was going to send Philo a poem I wrote this weekend. Unabashedly dreamy, about Valentine's roses. I've been drinking in their velvet loveliness. And thinking with each perfumed inhalation of the human exploitation, environmental destruction, wreaked by the global flower industry. Of the atrocity of starving Gazans forced to feed roses grown for export to livestock, due to Israel's military blockade. More than anyone I know, Philo would understand what I was trying to say, about receiving beauty, honouring the impulses of the heart, while never denying the truths beneath.

So here's a post-Valentine's bribe :-). Please ACT, with all the energy and time you can allocate, TODAY, to have Philo and the others arrested with her, released. Take the steps below. Forward this to your networks, listserves, friends, colleagues. And then, if you want to read the poem, send me an email with ‘Roses, please’ in the subject line. I'll trust that you've really done your best, and send you the poem.

Towards a world of justice and beauty,


(1) Send a text message TODAY, to Kenya's President and Prime Minister. Use the one below, or craft your own.

Mr Kibaki/Mr Odinga - we hold u accountable 4 police violence and illegal arrests against Philo Ikonya n other civil society activists. Release them NOW and fire Police Commissioner Ali!

To President Mwai Kibaki (via his spokesperson, Alfred Mutua):
Cellphone number + 254 721 240 443

To Prime Minister Raila Odinga
Cellphone + 254 733 620 736

Attorney General:
Amos Wako + 254 722 772 453

2) Send an email

To President Mwai Kibaki
[email][email protected]

To Prime Minister Raila Odinga
[email][email protected]

Suggested Message:

Mr Kibaki / Mr. Odinga, I urge you to act immediately to release Philo Ikonya, Fwamba Chrispus, and Patrick Kamotho from illegal police custody. Police Commissioner Ali must be fired for presiding over escalating police violations of civil and human rights in Kenya.

Signed: Name, Organization / Affiliation (if any), City, Country

3) If you are a Kenyan repeat steps 1) and 2) with your own MP and other parliamentarians. Contact details for Kenyan MPs here.

4) If you live outside Kenya, repeat steps 1) and 2), directing the texts and emails to the Kenyan Ambassador or High Commissioner in your country.

5) If you are a foreign national living in Kenya, repeat steps 1) and 2) with the Ambassador or High Commissioner of your country in Kenya.

6) Copy to the Feedback Form on the site of the Kenyan Police Force:

7) Kofi Annan, in his capacity as the head of the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Process, through his spokesman:[email protected]