In an interview with ROAPE, Kenyan activist Lena Anyuolo talks about her background, politics and writing. She explains that when our environment is trauma, and we are forced to survive under impossible conditions it is hard to love. Activists are exposed twice – first to our personal demons and then to the task of fighting for socialism while living the crisis of capitalism. Only the transformative power of revolutionary work can save us.
Can you tell ROAPE readers about your background and work?
I am a writer, a poet and feminist. I am a member of Ukombozi Library. I grew up in a small family. My mother was a teacher and my father a computer engineer. There was a culture of learning in our home. My sister and I were encouraged to explore our environment through reading books, watching films and play. I am a proud alumnus of Dohnolm Catholic primary school. My teachers were kind people. I loved my friends. Many of the aspects of my early learning environment encouraged analysis. I went to a national high school. It wasn’t the best experience to be so far from home, at a boarding school.
Writing was nurtured in me from an early age. My early childhood mentors encouraged imagination. My sister, my friends and I would make up games to play, by myself I would make up fantastical stories in my head some of which I’d write down. In high school, I felt my creativity stifled. It was a blow to my confidence. We had a heavy workload of memorizing irrelevant things so that we could pass our examinations and maintain our ‘ranking’. There were few avenues to ‘blow off steam’ apart from one hour of optional physical education once a week.
My self-esteem took a big blow when my mother died when I was still young. I was in class seven and my sister was in class five. I was really scared because I felt alone in the world. We lived with different relatives over the school holidays. My social life was suddenly heavily disrupted. I went from having a bevy of friends to struggling to find and keep hold of friends because of all the movement. I grew exceptionally close to my sister because of it. She felt like the only family I had. It wasn’t a perfect relationship because we were doing our best to grow up, be there for each other, and fit the expectations of our relatives so that our material needs would be met. We did our best to make it work under such stressful conditions. She remains my dearest friend.
University was rough. My world was getting bigger, and up until then my entire being had been pegged on academic success and the approval of my relatives. In university, it didn’t matter what my grades were or how over-achieving I had been in high school. I ached for a mentor. I desperately wanted to write but lacked the creative confidence to do so. University felt so big. It also challenged my belief systems, and ambition. The initial excitement to be at university wore off very fast. I had imagined an intellectually stimulating culture, but in the end I felt drained and exhausted by the bureaucracy and tedium.
I took on a number of odd jobs and that helped me to diversify my interactions. I read a lot and it expanded my world view. I ended up at Ukombozi Library because of a love for books and libraries. The dreamer in me was excited to explore. The rebel in me was elated because it was a subversive space. I wouldn’t say I was interested in local politics. I had already given up all hope of expecting change from the government. I was apolitical because I didn’t know, or couldn’t see how we could possibly get ourselves out of the fucked-up order of things. Yet, at the library, the atmosphere was hopeful. The centres overflowed with optimism. People didn’t have the answers, but everyone was doing their best to analyse society and come up with a strategy for change.
I would debate a lot in high school and at university, and the period after that. I still do. Our discussions were quite philosophical. I have fond memories of fiery debates about the US elections, and our capacities for change in the current electoral climate. This was around 2013. My best friend at the time introduced me to feminism and she encouraged me to read Frantz Fanon‘s The Wretched of the Earth, and Bell Hooks. On long afternoons with another close friend, I would debate intensely about the application of these ideologies to our reality. I was enriched by these women in my life.
You are an activist and writer, and have been involved for some years with Mathare Social Justice Centre, can you tell us something about your activism and how you became politicised?
I began human rights work and political work at the same time. I was strongly inclined to political work because of the examples of audacity that I read about in the resistance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, Wangari Maathai, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, the Kurdish Women Movement, Che Guevarra, Celia Sanchez, Dandara Plamares. I could write an endless list of these people. I was impressed by the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg and her analysis of the women’s struggle.
The social justice centres were an ideal space for experimentation with these political theories. They were an organised, organic, grassroots movement of workers. We faced the task of ideologically grounding the centres to grow from human rights theory to scientific socialism. I was challenged by the practical ways in which my comrades dealt with extra judicial executions, water scarcity, gender-based violence. I was inspired by the persistence and collective effort of the social justice centres to document these violations, conduct community dialogues and disrupt the status quo in civic spaces dominated by NGOs, human rights organisations that were based in upper class neighbourhoods.
I became politicised through various study cells at Ukombozi Library, and Mathare Social Justice Centre.
Though you are also an environmental activist, you describe yourself as a socialist. What role does socialist politics – and anti-capitalism – plays in your activism and political thinking?
They are tools of analysis. Capitalist education and religion has conditioned us to believe that the oppression of the many by a few propertied individuals is natural. It is a deeply depressing, fatalistic world view. The ideology of workers is optimistic because we are practically, daily engaged in class struggle for a better world in which the means of production are controlled by our labour. Scientific socialism removes the evil veil of capitalism revealing to us that this is not a natural world order – it is the great, indeed historic adversary of capitalism.
You have spent long years struggling with depression and a diagnosis of ADHD, you have written powerfully about these episodes – can you tell us about your depression, and how you view depression in the context of our struggles under capitalism?
Depression is a monster. As I reflect on my life, I am able to see that much of my struggle with it was directly linked to my material conditions. The structure of capitalism and patriarchy does not support healthy relationships of any kind. Family is considered the bedrock of social justice and freedom, yet it is also the place where peace is first disrupted. Our environment is trauma. We survive under impossible conditions. Nairobi makes it hard to love. As activists, we are double exposed. First to our personal demons and then to the task of organising for socialism while living the crisis of capitalism in these concrete prisons. Depression leads to a very slow death. The medical industry in Kenya is ultra-capitalist. From the insurance company to the hospitals. It is a privilege to gain access to healthcare with any sort of dignity.
Through study, I now know that capitalism is quick to put a stamp of illness on behaviour that does not conform to the picture of the ideal robotic worker. Capitalism profits from the trauma that capitalism and patriarchy itself causes in us. It turns psychiatrists into drug dealers, eager to medicate for profit.
I knew my primary home environment was highly abusive and directly linked to my depression and suicidal ideation, but I lacked the material means to find a place of my own. So, I used pills prescribed by the medical profession to cope, the medication would flatline me emotionally and deaden my feelings. To me that was better than having to be fully aware of the reality of my living conditions.
However, I am hopeful that we can heal but there is no easy panacea. There is also a good amount of effort that must be put into developing healthy mental practices.
My greatest appreciation goes to my comrades, organising together has helped to chip away at some of my despair. It is an exhilarating process because I was able to see practically that even an individual has a role to play in history. No resistance is too small, and we are not condemned to hopelessness. It is capitalist trauma to always perceive doom and gloom. We have all the power in our hands to destroy capitalism and build socialism from its ruins. We must do this in order to survive as a species. The poem by Langston Hughes I look at the world sums up the transformative power of revolutionary work.
I appreciate now, for example, that better planning of my finances can alleviate some of the anxiety of survival. It can help to have a little extra to cultivate a small hobby. Constant, persistent self-cultivation in a study circle continues to sharpen one’s worldview and that in-depth knowledge of our situation helps us remain optimistic about our revolutionary potential and future.
One way you interpret the world, and express your rage against its horrors and how we live our lives, is through poetry? Some of your poetry, can be found here, but can you tell us about the importance of poetry and creative writing in your life, and how it speaks to our battered lives, and revolutionary hope. How do you see the ‘uses’ of poetry in our movements, and lives?
I mentioned earlier that at some point it felt like I had lost my creative confidence. One of my mentors is Mama Wangari. I am so grateful for her presence. Whether she knew it or not, she slayed a big part of my enforced creative shyness. Even the messages, letters, emails we wrote to each other, are pieces of incredibly valuable writing. That was an epiphany. I saw my notebooks in a different light. They were beautiful precious pieces of text. These were my points of release. I am a firm believer in the political flowing from the personal. You must be able to tell your story honestly whether you are telling it to yourself or to others. When we tell our story truthfully, we can inspire others.
We would like to make a short selection of your poems available to our readers, can you introduce us to the collection and what the poems mean to you?
This collection is based on reflections from 2020. That was a wild year for me in terms of organising. I felt like my life had been distilled into the intensity of the months between March and November that year. I had to talk about it because it was a lot to deal with. There was a lot happening in my personal life in addition to organising during the pandemic. I became a workaholic because I was trying to postpone dealing with myself.
Inevitably, I came undone, so I had to face up to myself whether I liked it or not. My comrade, Maryanne Kasina, the convenor of Women in Social Justice Centres urges activists to try and come to terms with themselves. To tell the truth to ourselves and accept who we are – as flawed and broken as we might be. There’s no escaping this aspect of humanity otherwise we may end up causing quite a bit of harm. It’s not as if we will reach an actualised version of ourselves. I don’t believe in that. But we must retain the belief in our capacity to change and grow.
Fanon says that out of obscurity, we discover our mission. Dialectical materialism teaches us that the world is in a constant state of flux – even in our individual biology this is occurring. So, there are no permanent or irredeemable mistakes. Toni Cade Bambara writes that there is no such thing as an instant guerrilla. We have to face up to uncomfortable realities. The good thing is that if we have cultivated safe communities, then we won’t have to go through this process alone. We must remember not to be harsh to our ourselves or each other when we falter, we can correct ourselves and move forward. This collection which is being published next year is a reflection of that time. There is grief and rage, cheekiness too. It is precious. A drop of my being.
In the aftermath of covid, and the continuing devastation of our planet, what is the future for activists and social movements in Kenya and the region?
Mona Eltahaway writes that we must emerge, not regress. We are definitely not unscathed, but we must continue drawing on the lessons from our practice. We need to be really aggressive about organising against patriarchy. It is urgent that we do so because sexism is causing deep harm to ourselves and our communities.
I am optimistic about the future because of the existence of Ukombozi library, the organic intellectuals movement, the ecological justice movement, Vita books, Women in Social Justice Centres, Matigari Book Club, RSL study cells, Cheche Bookshop…. the list is endless and that reflects that we are a young, politically aware group of people eager for lasting change.
Lena Grace Anyuolo is a writer, poet and social justice activist with Mathare Social Justice Centre and Ukombozi Library. Her writing has appeared in a range of publications, including Jalada’s 7th anthology themed After+Life, The Elephant and roape.net.
A collection of Anyuolo’s poetry, Rage and Bloom, is being published by Editor House Facility in 2022.
ROAPE has asked the scholar and Editor House Facility publisher, Yusuf Serunkuma, to select three poems from Lena’s collection, and to give a brief description of the poems.
The dreams of (student) revolutionaries and overcoming colonial/capitalist exploitation yet being constantly met by brutal force.
This is a fever dream
Greased by bruised coffee in oily teacups
University students debating socialism and ujamaa
Reform and Revolution.
This is a fever dream,
Greased by bruised coffee…
Ta! Ta! Ta!
Choking smoke through the window
Heavy breathing and shattered glass under the bed
It is a terrorist attack,
These police raids,
Looking for Rosa and Cabral
We told them, ‘Afande, Titina Sila left a long time ago! Or did you not go to school?’
Ta! Ta! Ta!
Suddenly I am drowning in blood
The police inspector said if we did not behave, even those fever dreams will be outlawed
An illegal dream we dare to dream,
Greased by bruised coffee in oily tea cups.
University students debating colonialism in Tiananmen square,
Qadaffi’s revolution in Taifa hall,
Opposite Ghandi’s library,
and America’s wing
dwarfed by China’s tower.
I am just a body
The problem with ascribing roles to perceived genders because of our physical bodies and each gender role coming with their own complications.
…that eats and talks.
I am neither woman nor man therefore do not treat me as such.
You see breasts and think that I am a woman,
I must wash the dishes, feed the chickens, wash the children,
harvest osuga and cook it with zeal.
Then in the evening, whether it be icy cold or boiling hot,
my pussy must be clean in case you want to de-stress in it.
You see a bulge in my shorts and think I am a man,
I must be up at the light of dawn, despite the rain,
To milk the cows,
Go down the valley and up the hill to fetch water,
Despite the scorching sun,
Weed the garden and slash the grass,
Despite my fear of snakes and the pitch-black darkness,
check what is making that noise by the fence.
I must not cry because it is said I am to be as solid as the rock of Gibraltar.
I am just a body,
With breasts and a penis tucked in the folds of my flesh
I am neither man nor woman, therefore do not treat me as such.
You saw blood red rivers during a full moon and thought I was a woman.
I must lactate and nurture, so that the children know how to greet elders
and do not pick their noses.
You saw small white pools at the edge of morning woods and thought I was a man.
I must come pre-loaded with the ability to deal with the plumber, the carpenter,
and the electrician.
You forget that I am just a body that eats and shits,
… that eats and talks,
…that eats and fucks,
…that eats and laughs and dances in sorrow and cries in joy,
I am neither woman nor man, therefore do not treat me as such.
On the ironies of people that live a privileged life, while claiming to be socialists!
Two years ago, I met you,
A bad boy who made my heart sing,
We debated class struggle in your BMW X5,
I wondered if a socialist could drive a Benzie,
And flavour their steak with Remy Martin XO,
This is socialist type of living,
As I popped one,
Two pills into my mouth,
I watched my face drop as the world flew by.
You gave me a ruby ring,
“From the communist party to you, my queen.”
We trafficked majestic trunks from Congo to the Cape
They were royal times of Persian silks,
And pedigree dogs named Biggie, Pac and Bella.
Still I wondered if the mobilized were currency for your wallet,
As I snorted one,
Two lines of coke,
I felt my face grow numb as the world flew by.
You gave me a Tanzanite key chain,
“From the communist party to you, my queen,” you said.
As we trafficked little children from Libya to the Maldives
and promised shipwrecked Syrians national status.
Two years ago, I met you,
A bad boy who made my heart sing,
We debated Marxism in your Cherokee,
I wondered if a socialist could drive an Audi,
And dress in cashmere.
This is socialist type of living,
As I chewed one,
Two grams of psylocibin,
The room came alive in technicolour.
You gave me an emerald bracelet,
“From the communist party to you, my queen”
I wondered about Africans and Marxists,
And African Marxists, coloniality,
Confusions of modernity,
Slavery in the north and child pornography in the East.
This is socialist type of living,
As I shot up one,
Two vials of methamphetamine,
I watched the world fly by,
Dazed in luxurious furs.