By Karen Wandia
This week we interviewed Naila Aroni, a Kenyan writer who centers her work on nuanced understandings of race, gender and the intersections of marginalised identities.
She tells us about her experience as a Kenyan writer, her powerful articles on voluntourism and appropriation and her advice for African creatives who have something to say.
How would you describe yourself and the work that you do?
I’m an artist, a thinker and a writer. The work I do is loosely inspired by gender, race, pan-Africanism, things that affect my day-to-day life and by extension my community. I use art as a vehicle to bring those issues to life and influence how people perceive these things.
Even when I critique films or engage with music, there’s always a socio-political element to it, because I feel like those things are inextricably linked.
Where did the inclusion of socio-political elements in your writing stem from?
Just this innate desire to bring underrepresented issues to light and being the representation that I wished to see when I was younger.
We grew up in Kenya with this notion that politics is a man’s game. Even when you have your uncles over or in a classroom setting, it’s always the guys speaking over women or wanting to be the loudest in the room. Even with issues that directly affect us like our bodies.
Also wanting to see women affecting policy, policy changes and having a say over our bodies and what we can and want to do.
You have talked about women’s autonomy in Kenyan spaces. What has your experience of being a woman writer from Kenya been like?
I guess every step that I’ve taken in my super early writing career has been on the foundation of the women before me. I mean, obviously, there’s the whole issue of access, where male writers will dominate writers’ rooms and give only their male counterparts opportunities and networking. But I’d say that I’m fortunate enough to be in this bubble, where I have a community of women who are mentors. I write for publications that are run by women, or where the editor-in-chief is a woman. So even though that structural barrier exists, I am writing for publications by women, so it’s a step in the right direction.
One of the articles you’ve written is entitled, ‘White women: Maasai culture is not here for your colonialist exploitation.’ Why was it important for you to write this article? And what would you want people to take away from it?
I saw how this British jeweller was stocking jewellery from Maasai women and selling it at 100% or 110% mark-up price. And it was just so outrageous. I needed to get it off my chest.
It was necessary especially with the visibility or globalisation of indigenous African cultures now. It’s like people are starting to take notice, but not actually citing us or giving us credit. And it just is in line with this whole tradition of white supremacy. Even if you look at the London Museum or other museums that have appropriated and stolen really important things in African cultures.
So yeah, we see how those attitudes are evolving and adapting over time. To me, it was this frustration that has been built up over time. Especially as someone who grew up in Karen, a predominantly white suburb, and wanting to call out cultural appropriation but not having the language to do so when I was much younger.
In the article, you explored the idea that Maasai women provide labour for fashion, but are shut out from trendsetting unless they’re attached to white people. You also discuss your desire for inclusion in publications like Vogue as a personal achievement. How have you navigated being a Kenyan who wants a part in mainstream platforms, but is aware of their exploitation?
I think two things can be true at once. It’s valid to call out giants in the media like Vogue for being non-inclusive. But it’s also valid to want a seat at the table. Both feelings are valid because you can imagine that we’ve grown up being socialised to think that these are markers of greatness and achievement. So, while it may be a personal achievement to you, you can still work towards dismantling those structures.
I’d give the analogy of the Grammys. Imagine you’re this incredible composer or musician who’s from Kenya and no Kenyan has ever been nominated in the top five categories. As much as you would want to catapult Kenyan music to the mainstream, there’s still that desire of wanting to be the first Kenyan to do it.
At the same time, it’s important not to dwell on representation politics because I guess what makes a lot of us comfortable is being the first person to do something. And then you become a gatekeeper where you feel like we should make it harder for anyone else to succeed you. That’s the only caution but again, both things can be true at the same time.
The article gained massive popularity. What feedback has stuck in your mind from people who read it?
I’d say the most rewarding part was the comments I received from fellow Kenyans. That’s always the most rewarding part because those are the people I write for. My aim, when I wrote the articles was just to share the consensus of what I felt a lot of Kenyans had been feeling.
Another interesting thing I noted was feedback from white people who, I would say, maybe felt emotionally guilty of appropriating in the past. So yeah, mixed reactions. Some people were feeling guilty. Others were feeling maybe intimidated, like, oh, how dare she, or even angry.
But to white people who felt appreciative and like they learned something, while they were thanking me, it’s not my position as a black woman to teach you about racism and all the things you need to unlearn. The article was just a template. And if it happens to provoke the thoughts of white people who don’t mind getting called out, then that’s not a bad thing. Once I put the article out there, I can’t control people’s reactions.
What would you say to African creatives who want to write on topics that will be considered controversial, but are concerned about having no control over the reactions to it?
We’ll get shit just for existing. Especially as someone who probably exists at the intersection of marginalised identities. For example, if you’re black, and on top of that you’re queer, just existence is intimidating or warrants spectacle. You might as well just do what you are supposed to do, or speak out about what you want to speak about anyway, even if they’re gonna have a problem with it.
And at the end of the day, I do think it’s worth it. Because even though we have grown up in a super conservative environment, the few privileges that we have are benefits given by the generation before us. Even if it’s being able to go outside and wear shorts, or a skirt, or listen to certain music, those are the small gains that people before us weren’t afraid to make.
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, I would want the next generation of young women to not internalise rape culture, for example, and know that XYZ isn’t happening because they dress a certain way or behaved a certain way. To me, that trumps the negative reaction of anyone who might feel offended by what I have to say or what I’m doing.
You also wrote about voluntourism and how the power dynamics involved lead to black people being taken advantage of. With issues like voluntourism and appropriation, people may fail to see the harm being done. How would you respond to this?
I think anyone who says that all these problems are just isolated incidents and aren’t systematic is usually coming from a position of immense privilege where stuff like this wouldn’t directly affect them.
It’s all part of the attitude that Africans exist outside of the circumference of a person whose privacy should be respected. It’s wanting access to who we are and not necessarily respecting our rights the way they would, generally, any other white person.
The advice I’d give is to listen to marginalised communities and people directly affected by a problem. They clearly have something to say.
Follow Naila @baesquiat on Twitter to read more of her work.