Artistes have a luxury that mortals have not been afforded. They live forever through the things they create. For some, life begins after death. Wahome Mutahi is one of those whose works transcends death. What was to be a routine operation to remove a lymphoma on his back left him in a coma for 137 days, but nine years now since his death, Whispers Son of Soil, as he was famously known, still remains the most celebrated humor columnist in Kenya.
Wahome Mutahi might not have been the funniest writer at the time, but he had his way. It was his simplicity that set him apart, an ability to appeal to people across all divides. He crafted his anecdotes from the familiar space, with his family as his playground, poking fun at the communal misery of Kenyans. This kind of gallows humor, as Antonin Obrdlik once said, is an index of strength or morale on the part of oppressed peoples. Through the years of hopelessness under the Moi’s Regime, Wahome Mutahi gladly catered to Daily Nation readers every Sunday morning.
Humor is not a funny business, especially in a society where one had to watch what they said. It is a society, as he wrote, that had to be careful; there were too many reckless bullets flying around. You couldn’t trust anyone, not even policemen for they tended to have enough bullets to shoot stray ones. He took this chance to express criticism on injustices and hypocrisies, sometimes even naked oppression that could not be criticized otherwise. I doubt we would be blowing his horn too loud if we called him the writer who got us through a tough regime. Wahome Mutahi was a columnist at a time when the general air of the country was tense. When the then president, Moi, was Baba na Mama. No one dared say anything. The creative space was gagged, barren. The best we had had gone on exile, or was locked somewhere in the basement of Nyayo House. The others dared say nothing for memories of Nyayo House torture were still fresh, so they penned by the law. But Wahome Mutahi in his column managed to poke fun at the regime and the oppression of Kenyans, albeit subtly.
We are in a Jua Kali republic and that’s where a man must be made to feel like a canine because he does not have an item called a kipande. I am feeling like a rabid dog without a vaccination certificate. This is because I don’t have a vaccination certificate otherwise known as a new generation Identity Card. What happens to such a dog is that it is shot on sight. I am told that if I don’t get a vaccination certificate, I will eat rotten meat like a dog in Kamiti for months come the end of this month.
At the time Wahome was writing his column, freedom of speech was a decorative word. Wahome himself was a victim of the Nyayo House Chambers torture in 1986, arrested for sedition and association with the underground group, the Mwakenya Movement. He would then be transferred to Kamiti Maximum Prison where he would spend fifteen months without trial. After release, he wrote Three Days on the Cross and Jailbug. Three days on the Cross later won the 1992 prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.
If they didn’t arrest the writer, they’d slap the media house with a lawsuit. Expectedly, they would win the case; they were the puppeteers of the law. At one time, The People Daily is said to have been ordered to pay former Cabinet Minister Nicholas Biwott $250,000 on a story that painted him corrupt. Bookshops were not spared either. They had to be careful what books they stocked. Bookpoint, for stocking a book by Ian West and Chester Stern which implicated Nicholas Biwott for the murder of the late Robert Ouko, was fined $125,000. It is a regime that was afraid of writers, of creativity. The practice, as Rasna Warah once wrote, had Moi-nised even our Universities. They were being careful not to create another Ngugi. A pen as we know it, is beyond a sword.
Wahome questioned yes, but the end of his means was to ‘make the funny’, to help Kenyans keep their sanity and regain perspective, better still, have a good Sunday. His product had its own lingua franca. He didn’t believe the men who humbly sat on our streets with a bowl for a shilling were to be called beggars. They were Self-employed Outdoor Money Solicitors. He did not like to be called bald, which he was, he preferred folicularly challenged. And if Jane had ugly teeth, the Son of Soil encouraged you to say that Jane has an alternative dentation. As she ages, don’t call her old. Modesty required one to say that Jane is chronologically gifted, which would then leave her cosmetically different. Sugar daddy? No. He preferred you call them sexually focused chronologically gifted individuals. In the event you lost your job, the Son of Soil encouraged you to say you were involuntarily leisured.
His jokes were not aggressive. They were subtle but penetrative. He would use his family as playground. His wife was Thatcher, his mother was Appepklonia, his daughter Pajero, his son the Domestic Thug and his car Whispermobile. He was protective of Pajero, and believed a man to be bold enough who will walk to him and ask for her hand in marriage. His house was secured, with metal bars where necessary “to keep away misguided young men with enough money to show Pajero that something called henging is a good idea. “ He was the typical Kenyan parent.
Whispers also had things to say about his own father, the Son of Nyaituga:
The biggest job that the son of Nyaituga ever did was to manufacture children and leave them to worry about how to survive for the rest of their lives. The man had better things to do, the two most important ones being cleaning up goat ribs and washing them down with good honey alcohol. After he was full of the two consumables, he went back to manufacturing babies
Feminists were not spared either. After the fourth world conference on women held in Beijing in 1995, whispers wrote:
Soon, children will be reading a subject called Herstory and not History. At school they will be taught about personslaughter and not manslaughter. Eventually, some of them will get Spinster’s degrees and not Bachelor’s or Masters degrees because the latter were banned after Beijing.
The talented author was also an actor, caricaturing the peculiarity of the Kenyan, and satirizing Kenyan politics with his group, Igiza Productions. Wahome also wrote other books, among them The Miracle Merchants, Mr Canta, Hassan the Genie, The Ghost of Garba Tula and Just Wait and See.
They say that it is one thing to be free, but it is also another thing to own thy free self. Wahome Mutahi is among the crop of writers who courted death by daring to write. Books like the recently released Peeling Back the Mask by Miguna Miguna would never have seen the light of the day back then. Freedom of the press might still not be in our hands, given that a good number of our media houses play mouthpiece for the political heavyweights, but it is nothing compared to how far we have come. This is not to say that we should fall back and accept things as they are. But let us celebrate those, like Wahome Mutahi, Ngungi wa Thiong’o and Abdilatif Abdalla suffered for this freedom. Let us celebrate writers like them who quenched our thirst for reading at a time of literary bareness.
Rest well, Whispers Son of Soil.