Red Soil and Roasted Maize. Interview with Rasna Warah

The interview features Rasna Warah's new book 'Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected Essays and Articles on Contemporary Kenya'.*

Q. Your new book  'Red Soil and Roasted Maize' presents a collection of new and past articles on Kenya. How does the contemporary Kenya look like?

A. Contemporary Kenya is full of contradictions. For instance, on the one hand, we have a very progressive new constitution that promises to deliver justice to Kenyans; on the other hand, we have growing ethnic polarization and deepening inequalities that threaten to cancel out all gains made in the recent past. Urban Kenya is cosmopolitan, forward-looking, highly Westernized, whereas rural Kenya is steeped in illiteracy, extreme deprivation and tradition. Kenya today is both a place of hope and optimism, but it is also the site of much despair and grievance. How these contradictions play out is something we cannot predict.

Q. Inequalities, ethnic chauvinism and corruption are some of the issues addressed in the book. Which are the key remarks/messages emerging in this regard? What challenges do we need to be vigilant about for the future?

A. The book does not have grand message or conclusion as such. What it tries to do is provide snapshots of recent events that have shaped Kenyans' lives, from the turbulent transition to democracy in 2002 to the flawed election in 2007 that had a deep impact on Kenya's political, economic and social landscape. Inequality, ethnic chauvinism and corruption emerge as key issues that Kenya has so far failed to address, and therefore are recurring themes in many of the essays and articles. These are the very issues that could derail the reform process if they not handled with care. Failure to address them could plunge the country into the kind of violence we witnessed in 2007/8. The reason I decided to put the book together was that I felt that the very important and rapid changes and transitions that Kenya has experienced in the last decade had not been adequately recorded and that there was a real danger that these events would be forgotten. I wanted to capture the nation's spirit and mood at this important time in its history. The book does not pretend to be academic it provides a slice of Kenya's recent history from a journalist's perspective. It also has some personal stories that I included in the collection to give the reader a sense of my own place in this society.

Q. What does the title refer to? Are the red soil and the roasted maize the features that best describe Kenya?

A. The idea of the title actually came from a friend, who picked it up from one of the chapters in the book that talks about the intense nostalgia and homesickness that Kenyans in the Diaspora feel when they think of home. For many Kenyans, home is synonymous with the deep iron-rich red soil of the countryside. Roasted maize is Kenyans' favourite snack. Red soil and roasted maize evoke a sense of belonging, and I hope that comes out in the title.

Q. Kenya is described as a highly polarized nation in Africa. What does it mean?

A. Kenya is among the most unequal societies in the world, with the rich controlling most of the country's resources. It is also an ethnically divided society. Unfortunately, wealth and poverty have developed along ethnic lines, which is extremely dangerous in a situation where people can be easily manipulated.† While the new constitution attempts to reverse these trends, it could take a long time before we see ourselves as one nation rather than a country of 40-plus tribes.

Q. Which hopes and fears does Kenyan youth have regarding their future? What hope do you see for the upcoming generations - whether under the new constitutional dispensation or otherwise for overcoming this legacy of chauvinisms (ethnic, religious, racial, gender, age) - and what challenges do we need to be vigilant about?

A. I am very optimistic about Kenyan youth. I think a new generation is emerging that is conscious of its place in society and is courageously fighting against the forces of darkness. Many young people write to me telling me about their hopes and fears. They would like to believe that the new political dispensation in Kenya and the radical changes to the judiciary could bring about much-needed changes in the way the country is run and managed, but they fear that the 'old guard' will have its way in the end, and that they will be where they started angry, disillusioned and marginalized. Having said that, I also see signs of apathy and ignorance among our youth. The celebrity culture that is becoming pervasive in the country is clouding the real issues facing Kenya's youth. Many young girls and boys want to take the fast lane to money and fame, which unfortunately has a down-side. For real change to come about, I think we need to change the Kenyan mind-set, to create a citizenry that values ethics over money and that cooperates rather than competes. A leadership that inculcates these values is critical.

Interview by Angela Zarro

* Rasna Warah, Red Soil and Roasted Maize Authorhouse (May 2011)

Rasna Warah is a writer and editor based in Malindi, Kenya. She also writes a column for the Daily Nation, Kenya's largest newspaper, and sits on the board of SID's Eastern Africa Office.

Read also: Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits. Interview with Rasna Warah (SID Forum, 2010)