Celebrating Whispers 15 Years On: How Satire Can Further Civic Discourse

Image removed.This year, 2018, marks 15 years since the death of Wahome Mutahi (1954 – 2003), who was one of Kenya’s most prolific fiction writers, as well as a playwright, columnist, political satirist, pundit and public opinion leader. He was popularly known as Whispers after the name of the column he wrote for The Daily Nation from 1982 to 2003, offering a satirical view of the trials and tribulations of Kenyan life. According to George Ogola in The Idiom of Age in a Popular Kenyan Newspaper Serial, at a time when the state had all but monopolized public sites of expression in the country, Whispers kept the Kenyan popular media porous, opening up spaces for the discussion of social and political issues that could otherwise only be ‘whispered’. It became the most visible site of social, cultural and political expression for the last two decades at a time when freedom to such expression was highly constrained by the state.

The political repression of the 1980s is just one of the series human rights abuses that the Moi regime has been criticized for. In 1986 Mutahi was arrested with his brother Njuguna Mutahi and detained in the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers, hidden in the basement of a 26-story government building in Nairobi's city center.  He was charged with sedition and alleged association with the underground Mwakenya Movement and later transferred to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. They were both released after fifteen months without ever being brought to trial. His imprisonment inspired him to write Three Days on the Cross and Jailbug.

The satirical arts have experienced phenomenal growth in Kenya since then. Kenyan satirists today range from cartoonists to playwrights to stand-up comedians and musicians, and they have been instrumental in helping society articulate problems and hold the powerful to account.  The state of civic space under the current regime in Kenya is of concern with government’s increasing impatience with dissenting or critical voices including shutting down sections of the media that do not tow the line.  Even with existing constitutional provisions for the protection of freedom of expression, the relationship between governments and the media is increasingly strained.

The Heinrich Boell Foundation supported the publication of a souvenir collection of the Whispers column and a round table conversation on the role of satire in advancing civic discourse to stir conversation on the importance of the free media, satire and political humor. The launch and round table on 20th July at PAWA 254 was attended way beyond the expected capacity where the keynote address was given by Dr. Joyce Nyairo, who focused on satirical humour as a long history in Kenya and how Whispers was one of the pioneers in Kenya. She also explored the role of satire given how social media has liberalised it to all citizens using gifs and other forms to critique governments. The lecture was followed by a panel discussion including Dr. Doseline Kiguru, Dr. Wandia Njoya, Boniface Mwangi, Dr. Tom Odhiambo and Paul Kelemba, also known as Maddo. The panel discussed the development and growth of satire including the impact of the Whispers column, liberation of the media in Kenya as well as the limits of satire and humour within social media.

The Whispers column became the most visible site of social, cultural and political expression for the last two decades at a time when freedom of such expression was highly constrained by the State.  “Wahome took theatre and humour to a different level and was a man living beyond his time. We are glad that this publication is coming out 15 years after his death,” said Prof Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Communications, publisher of the book.

Wahome Mutahi died on July 22, 2003.

Copies of the Souvenir collection can be bought at Twaweza Communications and Prestige Book Store in Nairobi.