Author: Joe Khamisi
Publ: Trafford, 390 pp
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu
In writing The Politics of Betrayal Joe Khamisi has made an undeniable achievement: He has added a pioneering title to the list of books about Kenya’s history from the perspective of active participants in the events chronicled. Pioneers start the job of clearing the path to perfection and can therefore expect to receive either unqualified praise or qualified criticism. It should fall to the reviewer to proffer the latter.
Khamisi was the Member of Parliament for the coastal constituency of Bahari from 2003 to 2007. He would have us understand that he himself was a Beloved, Ideal Politician, untainted by corruption or scandal. However, he seems to be very accepting of fellow politicians, whatever their shortcomings. Significantly, although he describes Kenya’s second President Daniel arap Moi’s grip on power as being monstrously brutal he goes on to write that: Even the most cynical critics of his policies agree that Moi was truly a patriot and a nationalist. As for Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta: Kenyans will always memorise (sic) Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father, for his great sacrifice to the Kenyan nation. He was a lion, a great African giant. Later on, on page 113 to be precise, Khamisi informs us that a newspaper report entitled: Land: Who owns Kenya? carried the following allegation: The extended Kenyatta family alone….owned an estimated five hundred thousand acres. Which, one would say, to put it mildly, is not an inconsiderable inheritance from the patriotic sacrifice of a close relation.
However, there is a notable exception to this accommodating rule: Khamisi seems to have it in for Kenya’s current Vice President: As for Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, he writes, I hope he will one day realise his miracle dreams. This rather fulsome desire is, similarly, expressed in the early, Acknowledgements’ pages and those who sense a settling of old scores in the offing are not to be disappointed. The VP duly emerges as the villain of the piece, pathologically duplicitous and disloyal. As machination follows upon machination in the battle for State House, one discovers that Kalonzo Musyoka would not have been Vice President today if it had not been for….you’ve guessed it… Joe Khamisi! Read all about it in The Politics of Betrayal: Diary of a Kenyan Legislator!
Only that it is not a diary, really. It is more like what can be called patchwork journalese. As one might expect from an author with a degree in journalism, and a qualified journalist at times too keen to show off his proficiency in the English language at that. Khamisi is particularly fond of the sentence quaintly loaded with all-encompassing description. Take, for example, this offering on a fellow legislator: He was no longer the callow, wispy young man with skinny legs who liked to frequent beer joints in the city. And this is the beginning of Chapter 5: It was a balmy day following days of incessant rains; the sky was blue and the white clouds were scattered and formless. The birds sang from the treetops, and the swishing wind, fuelled by swaying coconut trees, produced amazing musical notes that permeated through the villages in a falsetto of transcendental calmness. At this point in his story Khamisi was headed, by car, to a place called Kikambala, described as a semi-urban enclave with an abundance of mangoes that dangled from shapeless tree branches like coloured kidneys. Which is all very well. However, that such lines should have made it to final print in the first place points to a need not only for us to have more writing, in general, but also for us to have far better editing. And especially since younger readers will use published books as templates for their own writing, the crusade must also continue for less hurried proof reading. Otherwise, our children will condemn us for leading them to believe that one can, indeed, memorise, rather than memorialise a person. That our parliamentarians sit in the August House (p45) rather than in the august House (with markedly different stress on the two syllables). That the thing to say is dire-hard (p103) rather than die-hard. Or that it’s a panel of imminent (p109), rather than eminent people. Or that someone prefers not to buldge on an issue (p129) rather than not to budge on it. Or that the colloquial expression is to choose and pick (p147) rather than to pick and choose. Or that it’s correct to shade much light on something (p153) rather than to shed much light on it. There are other such glaring infelicities of language and syntax. Hopefully, as paying readers, we shall come to a point where we find this sort of thing unacceptable.
The description of Khamisi’s journalese as ‘patchwork’ requires some qualification: What the back cover blurb would encourage the prospective buyer or borrower to think is going to be a book on one, major topic, that is the Moi succession, turns out to be several books on many, different topics. For there to be this eventual dispensation, The Politics of Betrayal is divided conveniently into three sections. Section Two is dedicated to political commentary with the chapter titles (adopted spelling retained): Constitution-making, Questions for Cash, Greedy Legislators, Corruption in the Media, Devolved funds and Women in Parliament. Section Three has personal takes on former headline news, with the titles: Who killed Ouko? (No answer is provided); Obama visits, Kibera pricks. (A very dubious editorial decision); Lucy’s intriguing life. (The views expressed are not treasonable); Political spying and, finally, Do you want to be an MP in Kenya? (With a light touch.) For good measure, the Afterword contains Excerpts of the Speech by Senator Barack Obama at the University of Nairobi, with a warning on corruption. There are also a Glossary, an Index and numerous footnotes.
To come to a conclusion, it seems to me that Joe Khamisi, writing as an insider, could have better satisfied high expectations. His profile tells us that, as well as being an elected MP, he was managing director of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and that he served in the Kenya Foreign Service during what he himself describes as the long reign of terror (p23) of the Moi years. What kind of orders from above did he have to carry out as the man in charge of the state radio and television station in order to either confuse or placate the masses? This and other questions constantly come to mind as one reads his narrative. Yet Khamisi shows a preference for reported speech and only very rarely does he address the reader in the first person, singular. Much of what he tells us could have been registered from dedicated monitoring of the Kenyan media over the last ten years. Therefore, one is intrigued not so much by what Khamisi reveals but by what he chooses not to reveal. Be that as it may, he has decided upon a genre noted for and largely defined by disclosure. The fact is that his own journalistic barbecue simply doesn’t provide enough of it. In order to stop our leaders from doing wrong we should be made more aware not only of what they do wrong but, perhaps more tellingly, of how they manage to do wrong and, invariably, get away with it. And to those who would feel themselves unjustly maligned by such revealing disclosure, an author like Khamisi has every right to retort: ‘Well then, go ahead and write your own memoirs!’