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Philo Ikonya Interview

Sunday 31 August 2014

The phoenix hope , can wing her way through desert skies and still defying fortune’s spite revive from ashes and rise.
 Miguel de Cervantes.

“Welcome back Philo,” Everyone was saying that. They were all looking at a short, light-skinned woman with dreadlocks. My curiosity was piqued. Who was she? Why was she being welcomed back? Where was she coming from? We were at a literature forum in Nairobi. She stood to speak. She read one of her poems. Little by little, word by word, my curiosity was being fed. She looked like a lady who had a lot to say. I was (still am) a lady who was very willing to listen. In the months that followed, I listened. The more I heard, the more she reminded me of a phoenix rising from its ashes. Thus, the name Philo Phoenix was born. Philo has become a person I look up to and respect. Her story deeply inspires me. It reminds me every day, that no matter what you go through, you can rise again. No matter the country a Phoenix finds itself, it can spread it’s wings and fly. Here is her story. May it awaken the Phoenix in you. May you fly…

People have written that Philo is a writer, lecturer and human rights activist. A mother that speaks many languages, is that who you would say you are?

​ It is people who reveal who one is, not oneself. They respond and define you. Last week after I read a poem on a boat on Ljublinica River in Slovenia with the audience listening from the bridge someone came later and told me. “You have a very strong spirit. You are great. Don´t lose it!" I have heard such voices often. It is me who has to ask myself often who I am. As for what I do...

Those are only the things I do as I try to express who I am. I am none of them. Philo is love as her name means. Now who am I?​ I feel that I am an unstoppable ball of energy that flies in certain orbits. I know that this is the only thing I could lean on a few years back. It still is. I once walked into the office of a UN boss. She looked at what I had gone to show her. She listened to me.

She wrote on my notebook. “I do not know where you are going but I am sure you will get there!" Somebody else had told me the same thing when I spoke about my dreams with publications and many other things. I have strength. Staying power.

 But I have to say I am happy that we cannot be defined completely. None of us. That is the mystery of a human being.

What was your childhood like?

My childhood was full of surprises, stories and problems balanced well. My Mother was my first teacher. I loved reading with her. I worked and used my imagination to the full. To the point of imagining a river is flooded and sitting there to let it get back to normal level so that I could cross. I have had since I was a child, a vast imagination. Local bridges always looked like an experiment to me. I travelled to the Rift Valley often by train. That took me away from home at age 10 and I grew up in varied environments. I see it in my work now.
My best memories are being with sisters and brothers in simple dwelling and loving to be each other’s friend. Dreaming to get out of poverty and always covered with a kind of sense of direction. I loved my life. I sat and thought about changing the world. I felt my heart deep down... how I loved, how I cried, how I smiled. The sun around and walks, and a certain warming up of the sun from 9am going towards a lazy young afternoon to about 3pm when a fullness of heat and day always struck me. I waited eagerly for the evenings which for me were a gathering of souls. I did not miss to note the openness of four o’clock. Maybe it is because at that time the bell rang freeing us from desks and to learning that depended on being inside a room. Therefore my best afternoons were with a literature book with the class under the trees when in school and reading in turns. I lived in the pages. I can still hear a pot boiling and conversations.

When or how did you start writing?

I just started by writing. No, there was a deep desire to do it before, something always courting me with love. But drawing the first alphabet made me think that writing should be beautiful. In the fiction sense I remember the English composition teacher telling me to leave some things out because they were for books. I first naturally wrote long and detailed essays and she only wanted two pages. I published my first poems as far as I know in a School Magazine, Chex, which I started in Kianda School. At least there I published one poem titled ’Peace’. I had some strong political ones that were soon after published in Writers’ Association Journal, WAK, where Kivutha Kibwana and I were poetry editors. I wrote many poems and read them with friends such as Justa Wawira and others who were always keen on literary gatherings. 

Your son was born in 1995, yes? Tell me about him.

​ This one is now a young adult endowed with all freedoms including the freedom of speech and all human rights. He loves music and is talented in sciences and arts. He is original and beyond that, I cannot invade his privacy! 

How was your life in Kenya before exile?

​Deep in service from when I left school and before. Active. Always happy to work/write with the chance to look out and see constant sunshine. People. Always with my finger on the pulse on what was going on until things changed. I have always felt successful and happy.​

You were arrested in 2009 and beaten up by policemen while in custody. I know that that must have been a terrible experience. What happened?

Arrests. Arrested. Horrible moment. Three of them, came out of the blue. There is much about them on the Internet. One moment I am singing peacefully with hand on chest with colleagues, the next we are arrested and at the back of a high lorry. Wearing empty paper bags of Unga, maize meal in my hands and asking why maize was sold to Sudan for a higher price while Kenyans died of starvation, in other words shouting corruption which I say is death... and suddenly the beatings you refer to. I am a child of freedom and Kenyan independence that was fought for also by my father and not only the big names we always hear about. There were countless nameless freedom earners who had come to cash their ´cheque´ of freedom as Martin Luther King Jr., called it and they could not. That does not mean that their children and others have forgotten what freedom is even as we clearly distinguish it from Independence of the nation as obtained in 1963. I am not a daughter or woman of fear. I work with my hands and my imagination too. I speak out strongly and eloquently. I wore sackcloth to speak against violence in 2007/2008. It was another way of expressing myself about pains and deaths in a dying Kenya then. This irritated many in power.

What events led to the decision to go to exile?

 The events above played a role. You look around you and feel inside you and your body and spirit tell you there are some times it is better to move away from for some time. It is a deep innate realisation that is beyond one. Suddenly I would feel that the country is throwing up, throwing me up. I got protection after the arrests.

What was the hardest part about leaving?

Many things and this is something I cannot explain. It remains a puzzle in one´s life forever. I left but never left. Exile makes you realise many things about space and yourself and you see with deep humility in a way that we are all wayfarers and that at the same time; we can never understand that well enough.
Let me share this poem, The Return, from Out of Prison- Love Songs

 The Return

To be free,
I have to live with,
My Mothers cling,
Alive on my chest,
On my breast as well
Roles reversed with age
I came home to suckle
when she clung to me,
with many tunes 
of a language without words
prepared for a land without tongues
where our spirits glow

I felt still child,
never old,
and roles I versed.
I gave her to suckle
and she smiled
at me and blessed me,
with my own milk

I returned to my God of honey,
soft hands on my forehead,
I answer in tradition,
Na aiiii, Na aiiiii
Thaaaii, thaaai
Nyasaye nyakalaga!
and Kit Mikayi
Gracious Motherland
There is enough for our boys and girls
men and women
Hold me but let my soul dance
Silently we hold as one
all your children..

She blesses further...
​​Speaking about challenges would take a book. I am not afraid of life. I however want to meet my challenges as I am and not with someone watching me so I have to waste time watching over my shoulder. Europe is NOT a paradise. I was here as a young student and thought NEVER to come back to Europe. I had to learn to think, however, that human beings must create without worrying about space and place but rather protecting their craft, capacity and imagination. Preserving much for another day and learning. Life is full of twists and turns. There is the reality that one has to face without experience and that is the best school. It introduces us to dimensions humans can never dominate, not even kings!​

You are a guest writer at International City of Refuge Network (ICORN). How is that working out? Do you like it?
For the official part I was a Guest Writer, Oslo until 2012 March. Last week I was in an ICORN Annual Meeting. I participate always with the hope of suggesting improvements no matter where I am. We can all do better when we are not complacent.

I read an excerpt from Kenya Will You Marry Me, and I must say I loved it. "We do not need to sleep with the minister, to get into power...” it is sad that many girls my age believe that the only way they can get into power is by "knowing people". What would you tell such girls?

​ Sadly, it is not only girls who believe that. It is old men first and even young ones. They have the idea that they must dominate someone or see them lying flat before them or whatever before they can get not just power but often just about anything! A little money should you be in trouble! These girls belong to a group that gets convinced that this is the only way. It is not. And you can get what you want and still say "No".

You know it is not the helpless girls without an education and papers who believe that, it is also women of high learning who find "Thigh Power" a feasible way to power. I heard a whole speech on that. Yes, a woman urging women to go that way because some had only succeeded that way. I hope those will one day be looked at as we look or hear about dinosaurs some day. 

On your way to power, I ask how much should you lose? If it is a part of yourself, your dignity then no way. That is powerlessness. By the way this applies not just to getting elected but also in getting a job, even getting a book published some people would suggest that it would be a better book if it had private bed sessions. Every time you give a sexual favor to get a job, you sign in more women into abuse, you vote for powerlessness.

My best poem is My Pencil Is My Canoe; it speaks to me of hope. It reminds me of a phoenix rising from its ashes. "I will be back, in a tiny pencil canoe, I know I will, with a song so long for an oar". What inspired it? Does it mean that you hope to come back to Kenya for good?

This is the best question for me to answer. I love it when someone says ´my best poem is…´. One writes many and all of them are like children to a writer not wishing to put any above the other! I wrote this poem on a tram 17 as I was going home at around 3pm on an afternoon from the Rosenhof College, Oslo where I used to learn Norwegian. I had not used a pencil for so long in my life and had moved on to typing directly. Here I was sharpening pencils often. This poem had been selected to be read in an audience at the Literature House in Oslo without my knowledge. I sat in the audience and the reader did not know me. I was sitting there as she read and explained. Reaction? Tears. Then a well-known Norwegian composer said he wanted to put it into music. We did not proceed to that as life is fast. 

 I wrote the poem without much thought ...but obviously I was thinking very deeply. 
So what inspired it? I love water and movement. Circumstances and the movement of the tram maybe started it off? Loneliness. Even when I told my closest friends I would leave Kenya it was with pain because if circumstances had been different this is not what I would have done. I was working with grassroots and had a made a lot of inroads into many things including politics. Am I coming back or what am I planning next you ask? Not into politics directly in terms of a position. No. That cheapens something often, in my view. Politics gives power but it has a hand behind it which takes so much more away. Am I coming back? Many times my answer is `I do not know` but my words normally know before me... so maybe there is something there. I guess you noticed that. 

It was very hard to see Kenya burn, sort of admire the saddest parts of histories of nations and here I think of Rwanda in 1994, almost imitate. It is Kenya that must rise like a phoenix… Let strong ideas move our part of the world. Rise like a phoenix and I love those words because everyone who is oppressed, everyone who is rejected and unaccepted for whatever reason, one who is rejected also by those who should be close will rise like a phoenix someday, even if they will not be seen by the world as they do it like drag queen Conchita Wurst. 

What are your thoughts on Africa as a continent?

Africa is too big to be spoken about generally. World of greatness. Precious and gifted world. Powerful in connecting human beings. It is however, not surprising that the negative aspects hop out and hit one’s eyes hard. Somalia. Rwanda has picked up many pieces and moved... but freedom and human rights for all are the only check and balance over the years), Mali, Ethiopia, The CAR, Eritrea, DRC, Sudan, South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Chad, Nigeria..(*Rwanda, Burundi),Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya. The norm should not be unrest, contentious issues in the news all the time. And if they are there they will be used quite negatively against Africa. Then disease hits my eyes. My God, this now? Ebola? Where does the world miss the point, where does Africa fail? I want to imagine that proactivity is the only way out and many people including the rest of the globe is often caught off guard. Neither Ebola is new, nor are Malaria, TB and HIV-Aids. The urgency to find medication and solutions becomes more real when the rest of the world feels threatened. This should not be a game. The world is one and should have learned from the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century which was named Black Plague.

Who does Philo read?

 I read everything and everyone I find. Books arrest me. They give me wings to fly, think and write. These are usually philosophical and poetic books about people who lived and caused an impact. Many people. Not just one.

What does Philo do to unwind

I love everything that makes the body move beyond its own normal rhythm. Swimming, running, dancing. I run for 6km daily. It’s when I’m running that I do most of my thinking. I am surrounded by drinks of all types but that is not my way as it invites woes to women and men over 18. A drink once in a while is not bad but when one is lucky to reach the fifth decade, one should drink a lot, a lot of water! Milk from time to time! Music and reading. MEDITATION.

Quick facts about Philo.

Fish and ugali and great greens of all types and fruits. Tend to vegetarian but eat meat sometimes.​ Taste from early days is best and lives on.


All types.

Dream destination

I sometimes imagine that it would be great to land in Lumbumbashi in the DRC without notice and sing along and speak Lingala when I learn. I am curious about all islands though.

Best movie?   

This changes every so often.. Today let me say...Invictus ( With Morgan Freeman as Mandela), Il Postino (about Pablo Neruda in exile) But that is not the only one of course and not yet watched the latest one starring Lupita. Not yet here but will catch up.​ Should I just quickly say that The Devil Wears Prada is great on flights when one can watch movies?

It has been a long journey full of excitement and sometimes breaks. The most recent being Philo’s visit to China. She was one of the international distinguished guests to the Qinghai Lake International Poetry Festival Square. This journey doesn’t end here. We will see a lot more from this Phoenix. I leave you with one of Philo’s favorite quotes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice.” Be like a phoenix. Rise from your ashes. Fly.