Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Too Raw?

As a child I often wished I could climb the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter behind our home. If Samwel Wanjau had carved a flight of steps up the back of a leg, I would have ascended the twelve feet to the fierce dreadlocks, and settled a few scores.

"I'm the king of the castle,
You're the dirty rascal.
I'm the king of the castle,
Get down, you dirty rascal!"

The taunt, directed at my older brother, would have penetrated the canopy of eucalyptus trees and instilled the fear of god into the bullies of Ridgeways Estate.

Instead, I climbed the Jacaranda tree in front of the house and daydreamed amidst clusters of fragrant, purple, trumpet-shaped blooms...

If Wanjau had carved an aesthetically "palatable" symbol of Kenya's fight for independence, as he was commissioned, the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter would be standing in front of the Kenya Parliament building today, celebrating forty-five years of independence from British colonial rule.
Instead, Wanjau conveyed what he envisioned with characteristic honesty and vigor.

As a result, Sir Charles Four Piece Suit Njonjo, the attorney-general of Kenya at the time, declared the Mau Mau's stance
too raw, unfit for human consumption and therefore, unfit for Parliament buildings.
The deal was off. Wanjau's big dream was disrupted.

But I could still daydream in the Jacaranda tree amidst clusters of fragrant, purple, trumpet shaped blooms...

...about instilling the fear of god into neocolonial puppets who dared assault an African artist's creative expression.

I didn't.

Instead, I ran circles around the base of the Mau Mau playing catch with Safi, and in this picture, showing her a bird's nest I had found, complete with unhatched eggs.

Baba first met Samwel Wanjau at Nairobi's Gikomba market, making curios to feed the growing tourist industry. He invited Wanjau to join Paa Ya Paa, and he became the first official member of the artists-in-residence program. Wanjau and many other artists after him were encouraged to free themselves from the repetitive style of commercial art.

Wanjau soon became one of Kenya's most ingenious artists. In 1969 he was honored as Kenya's leading sculptor, a designation that led to his being commissioned to create an historical emblem for the new republic's Parliament buildings. The beautification committee that commissioned the work was led by Sir Charles Njonjo.

The Mau Mau Freedom Fighter was built out of cement reinforced in steel wires. For several weeks, every day after school, I would go around to the back to watch Wanjau work.

He never tired of my questions about his crooked arm and I never tired of his Kiswahili enunciated in a heavy Nyeri Kikuyu accent. He told me stories of the Emergency Period when he was a Mau Mau freedom fighter in the 1950s. The way he carved Bundukis [gun stocks] that were used in the resistance; how he was arrested and thrown in jail; how he escaped. And when the Home Guard burnt his father's hut down, how he was shot in the arm as he tried to escape and thrown back in jail. When he subsequently escaped it seemed he had finally found the path leading to his long road to national and international fame.

In my mind, the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter remains a rock solid representation of resilience to cultural domination in Kenya; a manifestation of creative independence, authentic, raw; not overdone like Sir Charles' Four Piece Suit.

And when I go home, I can sit at its base, raise my head and celebrate its inspirational power, and still daydream...

...about fueling my spiritual independence.
Au siyo? [not so?]

Mpaka next time,

Mama Shujaa.
Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

28 comments:

  1. kabisa! thanks for popping by to see me...just been so busy and have not got round to updating..going to try tonight. god. its SO hot and SO dry at the moment and NO rain on the horizon...cattle starting to die near piaya...people hungry. HATE it and want some rain...send us some!!! lots love xxx j oh and ps..learnt some great new words! tikitikimaji and wowowo! (LOVE the last one and it makes everybody at mitumba laugh too!) xxx

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  2. What an incredible, beautiful post Mama Shujaa... the Mau Mau Freedom Fighter is fine work, indeed, and the pictures of you romping around it--both as a child and grown--is equally beautiful. Artistic freedom does not come easy, but what a wonderful way to celebrate it here. Thank you for the lovely writing and a peek into your memories.

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  3. Odegle,

    Asante ndugu yangu, remembering the past stimulates my present and future.

    Mama Shujaa.

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  4. Janelli dearest!

    Sasa THOSE are new words! Ati umesema tikitikimaji? Watermelon? and wowowo? Ni nini hiyo?

    Poleni sana about the lack of rain. Yaani this happened before in 2007 au siyo?

    I will pray for rain. Tutaonana baadaye.

    Mama Shujaa.

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  5. BTW Denene: that's a picture of my mom, not me as an adult; I guess I get my good looks from her. :-)

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  6. You always have such beautiful photography, such beautiful memories and such beautiful words. You really bring those experiences to life for us and I really am always enlightened by what you have to say.

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  7. Mama Shujaa, I just love your writing style and this is a great piece! It's also personal for me because I remember playing with you as a kid around that freedom fighter sculpture. Thanks for bringing back those wonderful childhood memories with such beautiful and powerful language!

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  8. Mrembo Ms. Bar B

    Nina hadithi nyingi sana...thanks for the love.

    Mama S.

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  9. AO!!!! Dearest!!

    Thanks for commenting. Wow! How are you? Great to hear from you. Yaani now it's no holds barred...LOL!

    Big Hugs
    xoxoxox
    Mama Shujaa.

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  10. :-)) Please keep those posts coming! You still need to teach some of us how/where you get all that energy to do all the multi-tasking you do! Bet you can still do a perfect cartwheel too! LOL!

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  11. I agree with AO, I would love to know how you do it? Your post's are pieces of poetry. How lucky we are to receive them so often!

    Bis bald,
    RAC

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  12. Thanks for some Kenya history and isn't it wonderful that we have the freedom to daydream. Can't imagine life without it.

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  13. A wonderful story, and you write beautifully dear Sister :) Bless Maithri for introducing us to each other :)

    Ya Haqq!

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  14. AO,

    Corporate America forced it on me: relentless multi-tasking. Thankfully a stirring within prompted me to seek writing as an outlet, the way I keep from becoming a robot... :-)

    Love ya,
    Mama Shujaa.

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  15. Rose Anne,

    Wie gehts? Sometimes I feel like I don't post often enough... :-)

    Mama Shujaa

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  16. Moto Mama,

    How wonderful your comment - the freedom to daydream?!! I love it.

    Thank you.

    Mama S.

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  17. Irving,

    Indeed Maithri is a wonderful human being.

    Haki kabisa! :-)

    Mama Shujaa.

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  18. If I had just a small smithering of your writing talent, I would be one happy writer indeed. I felt like I was sitting up in that tree with you, smelling the flowers during your childhood.

    This was a lovely written memory and a poignant reminder of the struggles many have gone through for artistic freedom.

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  19. Angie,

    In all the years I spent around artists, the one constant was their strong belief in their work.
    Their work was their life and they came to terms with life through their art. It was a means of survival. Especially when we had a large influx of refugees...
    a story for another day.

    Mama Shujaa.

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  20. What a beautiful site!I look forward to exploring it more.

    Thank you for stopping by and seeing what is going on with our work in Haiti.

    I believe we both know Maithri...we're now connected! ;-)

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  21. Marcia,

    Thanks for dropping in and indeed Maithri is our amazing friend. Beyond that, kudos to you for the amazing work in Haiti.

    Be blessed my friend,

    Mama Shujaa.

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  22. I come back time and again to visit your blog, Mama Shujaa. You paint word pictures so vividly that the very air becomes redolent with the sounds and smells and simmering heat of Africa. It takes me home for a little while. Asante sana.

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  23. I enjoyed the snapshot of you and your dog and the childhood memories that accompany it. I admire Wanjau for being true to his vision.

    I spent one summer in Kenya and loved it. You bring it alive with your words.

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  24. Sarah,

    Thank you and I am one of many benefactors of Wanjau's monumental integrity.

    Peace,

    Mama Shujaa

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  25. Your childhood must have been incredible! New and exciting artist community; nature and free roaming animals; and lots of love from your family members. I want to leave this snow, abandon my winter coat and climb in that picture with you as a child. I want to scratch your dog behind his ears and touch the cool patterns on your skirt.
    Thank you for sharing!
    Luv & Miss U.

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