PROLIFIC EXILED KENYAN POET LAUNCHES NEW-OLD NOVEL
BY margaretta wa gacheru. Not published March 8, 2014
Having lived in exile in Norway for the past four and a half years, Philo Ikonyo, the former Chairperson of PEN Kenya, Nation reporter, poet and human rights activist, should’ve been welcomed home with jubilation and joy.
Former PEN Kenya Chair Philo Ikonyo speaking at Goethe Institute in Febrary. pix by Margaretta
Instead, the prolific poet and author of more than a dozen books came quietly into the country early last month (Feb). The primary purpose of her brief stay in Kenya, she told Business Daily, was to see her elderly mother and spend quality time with the octogenarian who claims Philo takes after her own mother. She was also a single mother who boldly chose an activist career over marriage.
“She also valued her freedom and never feared standing up to the powers that be,” said Philo who’s just come out with a book, entitled Time to Say: No! (co-edited with PEN Austria president Hellmuth Niedelhe) inspired by another kindred spirit, Malala, the 16 year old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for fearlessly proclaiming girls’ right to education.
It’s no surprise then, that Philo, the outspoken rebel who’s been standing up for social justice and freedom of expression practically all her life, couldn’t stay quiet in Kenya for long.
Last weekend but one, she was invited by fellow poet Tony Mochoma, to attend an AWKA (Association of Women Writers of Kenya) session of aspiring Kenyan writers at Goethe Institute where she freely shared her views, not on politics but on poetry and prose.
She also announced a hastily arranged book launch of her first published novel (one of three with a fourth one on the way), Leading the Night, [which was published by Twaweza Communications in 2010].
Philo Ikonyo at her Book Launch for ‘Leading the Night’, coincidental with Commemoration of JM Kariuki and Pinto. pix by Margaretta
That took place last Friday afternoon during a commemorative service for JM Kariuki and …Pinto at Kenya National Theatre. Giving a stirring speech that confirmed Philo has lost not of her fiery conviction, she also announced the recent publication of her latest novel, Still Sings the Nightbird.
The two events (at GI and KNT) amounted to the first times Philo had taken a public platform since she was detained and brutally beaten in 2009 apparently for demonstrating outside Parliament against the maize scandal and Turkana famine.
It was that incident and the ensuing discovery that she was under police surveillance that precipitated her decision to seek asylum in Europe while attending a conference in Frankfurt, honouring the Kenya Human Rights Commission chairman Njeri Kababibiri.
Passing through Vienna on her way to the conference, Philo met with [the PEN Austria president Hellmuth Niedelhe who not only helped her to settle in Oslo with support from PEN Norway. He also enabled her to get her poetry published (both in English and Germany).
‘Songs of prison – Love Songs’ came out in 2010 followed swiftly by a second volume of poetry published in Belfast entitled ‘The Bread of Peace’.
But these were just the beginning. Once she reached Oslo, her PEN colleagues helped her find a place to live and write as well as to bring her teenage son to Oslo for further studies.
So while she’s missed Kenya, Philo has written nonstop since she left. She had already published several children’s books with East African Educational Publishers before her departure; but she came out with ‘Kenya, will you marry me?’ in 2011 followed by ‘Silence is Shame’ in 2012, and ‘Still Sings the Nightbird’ in 2013.
She also said ‘Splintering Silence, Invincible Nubia and a two volume anthology entitled Black Orpha: voices of women poets were coming out soon.
In other words, her enforced exile was an incredibly fruitful time for Philo who’s been able to reflect on and write about contemporary Kenya.
Having come a long way from Kiambaa where she grew up on a small quarter acre plot parcelled out to ex-Mau Mau detainees like her dad, Philo says she always had a thirst for knowledge, literature and freedom of thought.
The beneficiary of scholarships received through her mother’s connection with Opus Dei, Philo made it all the way to Nairobi University where she graduated in Literature in 1989. Another scholarship earned her a three year stint in Italy where she received the equivalent of a doctorate, after which she returned to teach five years at Kianda Secondary.
But then her thirst for further education compelled her to resign from Kianda and return to UoN for a MA degree
It was while still at Kianda that Philo joined PEN Kenya in 1992. Not long after that, she got a job with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and got more involved with human rights issues.
In 2001 she launched her political career, first running for council woman for Kiambu, then for Parliament against Njenga Karume. And even though she lost on both occasions, Philo’s passion for social justice inspired to stand with other human rights activists, even when it clearly meant having to confront powers that be and getting roughed up and jailed several times in the process.
Philo left Kenya just as quietly as she arrived last weekend. But it was inevitable that she created ripples in the socio-political landscape and inspired a whole slew of aspiring writers and social activists to follow her lead and stand up for social justice, against corruption and impunity .