Let’s Celebrate those Writing for Freedom

Happy Madaraka Day, all. First celebrated on 1 June 1963, the date Kenyans took back internal self-rule from British colonialism, the day finds its most significance in 2024 by asking how truly free we are all.

Released in March, the 2023/2024 United Nations Human Development Report informs us that inequalities are expanding again for the first time in twenty years for many worldwide. We have had the highest number of mass conflicts and internally displaced populations since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Last year was the hottest in 140 years for the entire planet. While the Kenyan economy produces a mere 0.5 of the carbon dioxide emissions destroying our planet (compared with Kenya’s partners United Arab Emirates (25) and the USA (14.9), the effects of climate catastrophes have been especially devastating for us and those in the global south.

Economies like Kenya have fallen deeper into debt and are more dependent than in the last two decades. Identity-based polarization is spiking, producing powerful leaders only interested in self-enrichment, their gender, class, or ethnic groups. Yet, the digital revolution is phenomenally expanding our access to knowledge. We are living longer and are more internationally mobile. Three times more people now live in countries not of their birth than ever before.

By the time the Kenya Kwanza administration took office, Kenyans were schooling more, living longer and were healthier than in the last thirty years. Kenyans are also more knowledgeable than ever before. On average, Kenyans were living to the age of 62 and enjoying 11 years of schooling, and the gender gap was narrowing. Despite these advances, Kenya ranks 146th out of 193 countries in terms of human development performance. With a Gini Co-efficiency of 38.7, Kenya remains highly inequitable. The richest 1 per cent own 15 per cent of the national income, the richest 10 per cent, 32 per cent, while the poorest 40 per cent, 18 per cent.

Gross inequalities have a direct impact on human development. Driving misery and distress for millions, they accelerate crime, social instability, and economic productivity. The HDR further argues that the time has come for a new form of international cooperation. Revisiting Amatya Sen’s seminal essay “Development as Freedom,” they call states and people to go beyond the “forms” (freedom from fear, want, and deprivation) to the “off” (freedom of self, thought, voice, and collection action).

This emancipatory declaration would be music to the ears of Prof Ngũgi wa Thiong’o and the late Prof. Micere Githae Mugo. During this month of freedom, the Kenya Diaspora Alliance (USA), Amnesty International Kenya, and community and university-based groups are organizing 60 “Reading for Freedom” events. Funded by the public and with support from both authors’ loyal publishing house, East African Educational Publishers, the events will see each participating library or resource centre gifted with the writers’ books.

Close to a thousand Kenyans at home and in the diaspora are expected to read and discuss their writings in Baringo, Bungoma, Busia, Elgeyo-Marakwet, Isiolo, Kericho, Kiambu, Kisii, Kilifi, Kirinyaga, Kisumu, Machakos, Makueni, Meru, Migori, Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Siaya, Turkana and Wajir between 7 and 21 June, leading up to the final event on 22 June in Atlanta, USA.

Ngũgi and Micere are two of Kenya’s bravest and most famous writers. Fifty years of literary writing have catalyzed a passion for human rights, freedom from colonial oppression and languages, women’s empowerment and community organizing against inequalities across several generations of Kenyans. Lest we forget, Kenyans did not always have the right and space to write, say, read and publish what they wanted.

June 2024 marks the first anniversary of Micere Githae Mugo’s passing away and the retirement of Ngũgi wa Thiong’o from active teaching and a move to Atlanta, Georgia. Let’s celebrate them and all who write, speak or act today to protect and expand the freedoms contained in our Bill of Rights this month. As UNDP urges us, “We can do better. We have a lot going for us. Let’s get moving.”


To participate in the upcoming events, https://www.amnestykenya.org/celebration-of-kenyans-who-wrote-for-freedom/

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]