Whispers: Fresh look at popular culture


Fourteen years this month since prominent Kenyan author and Sunday Nation “Whispers” humour columnist Wahome Mutahi died, a new book based on his writings has been released internationally by a major publisher. Popular Media in Kenyan History: Fiction and Newspapers as Political Actors (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) by Dr George Ogola, a journalist-turned-media academic, is a welcome contribution to the interdisciplinary interphases of fiction and the media, politics and culture. Its multifaceted nature will also be of interest to keen intellectuals in the social sciences. The book, however, sits best in the cross-pollinated genre of literary or “new” journalism.    

Dr Ogola — a lecturer in media studies at University of Central Lancashire, UK, with at least 15 theoretically and methodologically sound works to his name — theorises popular fiction as a popular culture with by far the bulk of his research material drawn from the Whispers column published by the Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard from 1983 to Mr Mutahi’s death on July 22, 2003.

For this reason I would have written “Wahome Mutahi (1954 – 2003)” into the title. For Dr Ogola’s intellectually sophisticated critique is an academic re-reading of Mr Mutahi’s alter ego, Whispers, and his alias, Son of the Soil (SoS) — along with his allegorical family comprised of Thatcher (wife), The Investment, also known as Pajero (daughter), Whispers Junior (son) with other supporting characters in tow.

The “family” is indeed a microcosm of Kenyan society, the feuds between a Whispers cornered by wife and children being symbolic of tensions in Kenya’s body politic, a critique on the church and secularism, a clash between social classes, generational splits and so forth. 

In laughing at himself, his family and supporting characters, Whispers is read as an interpretation of the “politics of the everyday”. For instance, in tackling the gender theme, Dr Ogola cites Whispers complaining about Thatcher’s assertiveness thus: “The other day she refused to open the door. When I threatened to walk in with the door, she welcomed me to go ahead,” (Sunday Nation, April 27, 1997).

Discussing generational tensions, Whispers says the following of his daughter, The Investment: “I would like to know why she is trying to outdo that woman of the Garden of Eden called Eve in matters of going about naked in broad daylight. If what she is wearing in the name of a skirt is not equal to being naked then I have no idea about nakedness.” (Sunday Nation, May 29, 1994).

As we laugh at and with Whispers poking fun at self, family, Kenyans at large and authority, we are at the same time forced to “ultimately reflect on the reasons for their laughter,” as the humour “stands for things bigger than themselves”. For instance, as we laugh at Thatcher’s life membership of the “sect of many waters,” we are at once made aware of the perils of the so-called “prosperity gospel” and the deviousness of charismatic churches. 

The literary journalism perspective comes alive with Dr Ogola’s discussion of Whispers’ use of rumour and gossip theorised as, “hidden scripts in a society where free speech is muzzled either by force or through indirect control of public channels of communication.” In the column, Mr Mutahi says Kenyans “belong to the species of humankind (not mankind) called Homo Rumapithecus that peddles merchandise called rumours” (Sunday Nation, January 11, 1998). No less significant is the author’s discussion of the code-mixing and code-switching in which Swahili, Sheng and an assortment of Kenyan language words and phrases are infused into English. 

But what is “popular in African popular culture?” Extending the interpretation to draw in writers as Mr John Kariamiti, Mr Sam Kahiga, Mr David Maillu, Mrs Grace Ogot and Mr Charles Mangua, Dr Ogola vigorously defends what has otherwise been referred to as “potboiler” or “pedestrian” literature. He conceives of popular culture as “the fluidity in cultural production and consumption which has made the hierarchical classification of culture highly untenable”. Popular culture is “blurring of demarcations between ‘high and low’ culture and a blend of voices and interests not confined to a society’s underclass.”

Dr Ogola is thus critical of the “university-based critics” who dismiss popular culture (literature) as “uncommitted” in contrast to supposedly “serious” and “canonical” literature. One of the alibis for his affront on elitism is the literary movements at the universities of Nairobi, Ibadan (Nigeria) and Makerere (Uganda) in the 1960s and 1970s. More importantly, he argues that newspapers provide alternative space for the “apprenticeship” of artists excluded from the utopian ivory towers that are universities. 

Accordingly, Dr Ogola lays into critics who have taken a dim view of popular literature. Prof Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi is upbraided for dumbing down on writers such as Mr Maillu and Mr Mangua for their “supposed infatuation with the romance genre  and with the banal.”

The book draws fodder from Mr Mutahi’s humourous fiction to probe the alternative, informal narratives attendant to the political changes that occurred in Kenya especially in the momentous “second liberation” epoch between the early to late 1990s. Dr Ogola argues that alternative, informal narratives ala Whispers “interpenetrate” with the formal discourses vested at the apex in state power.

He addresses the gap in the failure of African literary, cultural, political and media scholarship to connect dots between these social science vectors in accounting for the recent African history with Kenya as the context. Dr Ogola demonstrates the neglect, first of the informal narratives and secondly, the inter-linkages between the informal (with popular fiction as the case in point) and the formal (for instance, writings on the state and political parties). The running thread is that Mr Mutahi and other African popular fiction-in-the-media practitioners contribute to Africa’s “cultural economy and are therefore sites of cultural production”.

The Kenyan post-colonial experience is discussed at the cultural, economic and political levels. At the cultural level, the Kenyan subaltern, whether rural or urban, is seen in Whispers’ characters struggling with multiple vagaries wrought by modernity. The political theme is preponderant with perspectives as we see Mr Mutahi tapping into a nostalgic past to satirise a degenerating present — an excellent example being the fictional resurrection of Jomo Kenyatta for a tour of Nairobi (‘Jomo’s big Jamhuri Day encounters’, Sunday Nation, December 17, 1995). In the economic space, Whispers’ many hair-brained ploys for quick riches demonstrate the hollowing out of the economy by a rapacious state.  

Whispers, Dr Ogola argues, was a liberating space as the President Daniel Moi “state had all but monopolised public sites of popular expression in the country and thus Whispers kept the Kenyan press porous,” opening up spaces for the discussion of social and political issues that could only be “whispered.”

A couple of exhibits from Dr Ogola’s work suffice to illustrate the intersection of popular culture-politics. One of the outstanding aspects is Mr Mutahi’s biting, if circuitous, denigration of the Moi administration (“an ogre of the theme”) and the party, Kanu. On the “performance of power” front, for instance, Dr Ogola cites Mr Mutahi’s mirthful re-enactment of the cacophonous orchestration (vifijo na nderemo” – great applause) that accompanied Mr Moi’s numerous public appearances. On what he refers to as “paternal construction of authority,” we see Whispers characterisation of Mr Moi – “the man who was born and brought up in Sacho”— as Mzee (wise old man) Baba wa Taifa (father of the nation), Mtukufu (honourable) and the ruling party as Baba na Mama (mother and father). Mzee Kenyatta’s totemic use of the flywhisk and Mr Moi’s use of rungu or fimbo ya Nyayo (Nyayo’s club) are discussed as symbolic accessories in the power performance. A connection is made between these artefacts of power performance and the attendant myths around them which then make their way into Whispers’ columns creating, if not accentuating, a sheer sub-culture. Dr Ogola refers to the “dramaturgy of power” (the dramatisation of power) as seen in the Kanu symbol Jogoo (rooster) which became synonymous with Mr Moi.

The book is dense in the passages where Dr Ogola casts Whispers into wider academic discourses. If this slows down the reading, it also enables appreciation of the deeper meaning of the yarns of arguably Kenya’s foremost humourist.

On the preponderance of topics and themes in Whispers, the author unnecessarily concedes that “it is difficult, perhaps even impractical to want to give a complete inventory of what Whispers discussed at the political level.” Rather than throw hands in the air in exasperation, Dr Ogola could have devised a parsimonious analytical categorisation scheme. The framing theory is, for instance, a pathway in that large discourses can be disciplined into few, neat categories.

Indeed, Whispers’ thematic thrusts fall into three meta-frames: economics, culture and politics – period! Also, there are a number of studies on Mr Mutahi that Dr Ogola did not consult. This may be because the book is based on the author’s doctoral thesis submitted at University of the Witwatersrand in the mid-2000s. These drawbacks are, however, minor; the versatile 185-page treatise assembles a large catalogue of thinkers and would serve well as a reader for Kenyan (and African) media and culture departments in universities.

Dr Wekesa is a senior lecturer and research coordinator in the journalism and media department, University of the Witwatersrand, [email protected]