Wamwere, Koigi Wa 1949-
WAMWERE, Koigi wa 1949-
PERSONAL: Born 1949, in Rugongo, Nakuru Province, Kenya; son of Wamwere Kuria (a forest officer) and Monica Wangu. Education: Attended Cornell University (hotel administration), 1971.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts St., New York, NY 10013.
CAREER: Writer and human rights activist. Barclays Bank, Nakuru, Kenya, bank clerk, 1970-71; Jogoo Commercial College, teacher, 1973-74; elected to Kenyan parliament, 1979-82. Africonsult ACT: The African Consulting Team on the Use of African Culture in the Fight against Aids, East African regional coordinator; National Democratic and Human Rights Organization, Ndehurio, Kenya, executive director.
A Woman Reborn, Spear Books (Nairobi, Kenya), 1980.
The People's Representative and the Tyrants, or Kenya, Independence without Freedom, New Concept Typesetters (Nairobi, Kenya), 1992.
Dream of Freedom (novel), Views Media (Nairobi, Kenya), 1997.
Justice on Trial: The Koigi Case, Views Media (Nairobi, Kenya), 1997.
I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom, foreword by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Nan Richardson, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: When Kenyan human rights activist Koigi wa Wamwere was born in 1949, his country was still a British colony. While attending Cornell University, Wamwere was inspired by American civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy. He carried their fire for freedom back to his country, where he dedicated himself to the causes of political reform, democracy, freedom from oppression, and open elections. For his efforts, Wamwere spent more than thirteen years in prison, suffering torture and other abuses over several decades, under both President Jomo Kenyatta and dictator Daniel arap Moi. He is often compared to Nelson Mandela of South Africa because of his relentless struggles on behalf of the Kenyan people.
His first arrest occurred when he was suspected of being involved in the assassination of J. M. Kariuki, Kenya's population minister. He was detained from September 1975 until December 1978, four months after Kenyatta's death. Wamwere was elected to the Kenyan parliament in 1979, and served three years. In 1982 elements of the Kenyan Air Force made an unsuccessful attempted to overturn Moi's government, and when a crackdown on dissidents followed, Wamwere was again detained. During his time in parliament, he championed the rights of the poor and was elected chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, but before the committee's first meeting, he was removed.
Wamwere went into exile in Norway in 1986, and in 1990, while in Uganda, he was abducted by Kenyan security forces and charged with high treason for an alleged attempt to overthrow Moi. The charges were dropped in January 1993, after he had spent two years in prison, and he was again arrested in November 1993, this time charged with attempting to steal weapons from a police station, to be used in a coup d'etat against Moi's regime. These charges carried the death penalty for Wamwere and his brother and brother-in-law, who were also involved, but international pressure led by Amnesty International caused the punishment to be reduced to four years in prison plus six cane strokes. The three defendants, considered political prisoners by the international human rights community, were supported by a defense team that filed appeals on their behalf, and they were granted bail in 1996 on medical grounds.
Wamwere wrote of the events of this period in his memoir, Justice on Trial: The Koigi Case. His Dream of Freedom is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is the story of a young Kenyan named Macaria wa Kihooto, which translates to "seeker of justice." The manuscript was smuggled out of prison and first published in Norway. Wamwere said it "was to be my last testament to my people and to the world if I was sentenced and hanged by President Moi's dictatorship."
A team report on the Kenyan Nation Web site noted that "the radical former MP made for one of the more interesting candidates in 1997, with his flowing dread-locks, the numerous arrests and charges on capital offences he had survived. . . . His failure to win in 1997, despite being a presidential candidate, was attributed to a number of reasons. First, he had been out of the scene for far too long. Secondly, he was on a minor party (KENDA) ticket while the mood in central Kenya was to rally behind the presidential bid of Mr. Mwai Kibaki of the Democratic Party." Democracy finally arrived in Kenya when Kibaki, promising to end corruption, won the 2002 election on the ticket of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), after which Wamwere fulfilled a promise he had made thirteen years earlier. He said he would cut off his dreadlocks when Moi left power.
I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom was published in the year of that election, a memoir of Wamwere's life beginning with his difficult childhood, with projections for the future and possible runs for office. He writes of the 1952-59 Mau Mau insurrection against the British, his years as a teen in the seminary, and his experiences in the United States.
American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote at his Web site that "Wamwere's Africa . . . is not pretty. It is a story of political corruption, of clan conflict, of power politics exercised in African nations, but for the continued economic interests of white foreigners. In Nigeria, American and British oil interests dominate the politics and economic life of the nation. In Kenya, land, titles, prestige, and economic power remains in British hands, who share with an African elite."
A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the memoir a "strange and powerful work," noting that although it is essentially biographical, "Wamwere frequently interrupts with Kenyan history, ethnography, folk tales, poetry, fables, parables, songs, and laments for lost friends and lost causes." The reviewer noted that by denouncing American aid to African dictators, and supporting female circumcision, Wamwere "treads at times on Western toes."
Evan Mwangi, who reviewed I Refuse to Die for the Nation Web site, wrote that "The most innovative strategy in the narrative is Koigi's use of oral literary techniques. It is as if the narrative is orally delivered as opposed to physically scripted. . . . In his creative use of language, Koigi pushes the frontiers of the autobiographical genre by not only telling us what actually happened but by conjuring into existence probable imaginary happenings, especially when he narrates vivid imaginations of his funeral." Booklist's Vernon Ford remarked that Wamwere "exhibits resilience and optimism in his inspiring autobiography."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Wamwere, Koigi wa, Justice on Trial: The Koigi Case, Views Media (Nairobi, Kenya), 1997.
Wamwere, Koigi wa, I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom, forword by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Nan Richardson, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, Vernon Ford, review of I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom, p. 52.
Christian Science Monitor, December 24, 1990, Robert M. Press, "Jailed Dissident at Center of Kenya's Struggle for Reform," p. 6.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of I Refuse to Die, p. 1208.
New York Times, October 3, 1995, "Lashings and a Jail Term for Kenyan Dissident," p. A4.
Digital Freedom Network,http://www.dfn.org/ (March 15, 1998), review of Justice on Trial: The Koigi Case.
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition Web site,http://www.freemumia.com/ (September 1, 2002), Mumia Abu-Jamal, review of I Refuse to Die.
Nation Online (Kenya), http://www.nationaudio.com/ (March 18, 2002), "A Hotbed of Kenya's Politics;" (November 24, 2002) Evan Mwangi, review of I Refuse to Die.*