In this scintillating presentation, especially targeted at young designers and more seasoned creatives at the National Creative Economy Conference held in Nairobi in February 2015, Yvonne Owuor, acclaimed writer, cut through to the issues at the heart of the Creative Economy—that it needs a business model that can support its distinct character and the creative and imaginative energy that gives it life. She observes that the question at the heart of creativity and its expression is the fundamental one of what it means to be human.
Several years ago, I lived in Swaziland, an incredible Kingdom of mostly mountains and beautiful people. For a long time the country had struggled with having a particular road built—they even brought global experts in. Everyone who came in faltered in front of its almost perpendicular climb. It took a Kenyan engineering company to make the road, and what a spectacular road they made. A few years later, when I landed in Swaziland one of the things I was asked once someone found out I was Kenyan was, “Do you know Engineer Wanjohi?” Wanjohi Consulting Company went to Swaziland because the Kenyan space and its shortcuts mentality had no time and place for their professionalism.
I am thinking about roads and the imagination because I have just had the misfortune of using the Thika Highway for the first time today, to get here. My people, how can one build a highway without a drainage system or side markers? A road with few directional signs, and no marked crossing areas for pedestrians? With culverts that we are supposed to believe are tunnels. No sense of art or pride in such work? We had to import strangers to build a bad road in our own country whilst in another country interested in high standards, the minds, skills, and imagination of Kenyans transformed a road engineering challenge into a showpiece.
Back to the topic: what do we need to grow our creative economy?
What we first need to grow is the capacity to see not only ourselves, but to see what we have and what we are capable of. I am not saying with the eyes only but with the eyes of the heart; to be able to see and to be able to name the vision we hold. We can, and have talked about the Creative Economy for far too many years. The Creative Economy is about the doing. It is in what we produce. We who are content creators and enablers have an amazing opportunity right now with the whole digital migration thing. The subtext of this is the content economy; the migration happens, the liberalisation of channels, guess what, it is about putting control and the agency for content making into the hands of creative entrepreneurs. But are the creative entrepreneurs ready? No. We are faced with an immense opportunity now and instead we are busy lamenting the past and trying to squeeze the metaphorical sour old wine into new skin. So what are we going to do about it? We cannot expect that the mindset of the past will accommodate the new creative industry needs. I am telling you now that trying to force our selves into pre-established corporate business models will not, cannot work. For one, we do not use the same language. You cannot walk into KCB (Kenya Commercial Bank) and ask for a large business loan based on the collateral of your imagination—they will giggle you out of town. But we must dare to imagine and experiment with the kind of institutions and structures that resonate with our needs. It is possible, isn’t it? Frankly, we do not have a choice, do we? But it is quite exciting. Look at who is here in this room today. Together, with our specialisations and aptitude,we are the creative industries ecosystem of Africa. In here we have the capacity to emerge with a sustainable blueprint that would change conversation into production
This is another challenge we face as we seek to reclaim and own and use our imagination infrastructure to generate the models that would support and sustain our productivity. I realise that contributing to the problem of evolving a new lexicon for the ecosystem offering itself to us,is the damage to our faculties caused by the removal of the arts and critical thinking from the school curriculum (what was the Kenya Institute of Education–KIE thinking?) This has stunted the conceptual, design, surrealistic, creative, critical, impressionistic thinking that would seed the visioning of things, processes and products that do not yet exist. Listen, I hear that high schools are sending students to university engineering,design and architecture faculties, who cannot draw, who cannot even describe a painting. How? Really, how? Is it ignorance or is there a secret plan to bankrupt the Kenyan imagination? With a citizens’ under educated imagination how can a country hope to innovate for the future amidst a riot of other ideas?
Even today when we talk about building a city, why do we think of building a Dubai in say, Turkana?Dubai has already been built. Is it that we have no architectural imagination; no idea of conceiving of Kenyan spaces in an original way? In stale Kenya minds Dubai epitomizes the total, the ultimate idea of a city. Come on! Why is it that every building that we see along Thika Road, every [!] mall that we see, looks exactly the same, steel, glass and cliché? Why is there is no evidence of an organic,original Kenyan or ‘Thikan’ vocabulary of space use and design? What murdered design thinking in Kenya? What breed of architects has been inflicted upon our fair land? Quick. Name one structure in Kenya that makes your hearts skip a beat? One that you would drive kilometers to look at? Just one.
These questions are fundamental to our discussions about the Kenya creative economy. The software (imagination, creativity, thought) is a thing that we rarely consider, but it is software that would inform whatever it is that needs to be born. That is why today we keep going back, round and round, like circling a waterhole over and over again and returning to the same point, right back at the beginning, with nothing really moving. Actually I am wrong—things are moving, but this is how. The thing about the creative industry is that it is promiscuous. It is not patriotic. It will look for its means of expression wherever it can and if it finds an all-embracing environment and community in Iceland that is where it will go
Listen, Africa oriented artists, writers, designers and singers are good ‘commodities’ right now. So for example, Kwani Trust publishes my book Dust, but only after negotiating with my New York Publishers and my New York Agent, and paying New York. I would never have had the place to grow my professional writing life here. I know that because I have tried it. I have tried very hard to stay within this space, build the infrastructure that can allow me to keep writing here. This is my inspiration. But it is not possible. Not yet. I know it is going to change in the next couple of years.But, guys, we are competing with the rest of the World and there is money to be made and these guys were not looking for me because of the radiance of my smile. They are looking for the product and how it can benefit us all. I am also paying American taxes even though I do not live there.
My job as a content creator is to create. The Agent told me, “ We shall circle the wagons around you”meaning that your job, Yvonne, is just to write and we do everything to give you the environment you need to write.” It is about the product and the output and the fact that they know that they have a product they can sell. And they have a way of seeing that product that we are not capable of seeing. Here, I have met some of the most incredible young writers who have ever written who are working as Actuarial scientists. One of the senior Central Bank officials in Kenya was a high-level concert pianist in London. This is the environment that we have created. This is what we do. We consume and destroy the intangible, creative, wild energy of the best of our best.
So, why are books consumed? Books are consumed, not so much for the cultural aesthetic as the fact that they answer the very fundamental questions that excite every human being’s imagination,such as: “who am I and what does it mean to be human?” The substantive quest for what you call truth, beauty and goodness is not abstract. It lies at the heart of everything—the music consumed or the film watched. We seek meaning and especially for you young designers. You are not designing in abstraction; you are designing for the human condition, for the earth, that will give energy to whatever it is that you create. Don’t forget that the meaning can also be distorted. The creation of meaning through creativity is also a political thing. It will transform the legend of failure into success.It can be used for good or bad, but that is its power. And maybe we do not talk enough about what this particular category of things mean.
Kenya is already regarded as a hub and an outlier. Anyone who wants a creative orientation to anything already comes to Kenya. The primary challenge is in our own capacity; the capacity of the Wenyeji to see and to own and to understand what they have and to dare to embrace the person in their midst, to seek out and ask, what is your gift, what structure do we need to create to harness it for you and for us? In its place today we are obsessed with that most vapid of questions (in Kenya)that aims strictly to diminish, judge, limit, constrain and accuse—what is your ‘tribe’? And in the manner of a collection of unimaginative knuckleheads, of course we have a long and elaborate negative vocabulary for that question, while the rest of the world dares to imagine and plan for cities on Pluto.