Beyond Bars – Philo Ikonya

On 16 December 2010, the Free Word Centre was transformed for the launch of Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, a special issue of Index on Censorship (issue 04/2010). The magazine, which includes pieces by celebrated authors including Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, President Mohamed Nasheed and Sir Tom Stoppard, is a celebration of the WiPC’s work on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers around the world since its foundation in 1960, and a testament to the bravery of our colleagues who, often at great risk to themselves and their families, continue to speak truth to power. 

We were delighted to welcome author, human rights activist and President of Kenyan PEN Philo Ikonya as our guest speaker for the evening and are pleased to be able to publish her moving speech here:

Thank you very much Carole Seymour- Jones, ladies and gentlemen, Index on Censorship and English PEN. It’s really so exciting to and also very humbling to be here before you and surrounded by these  very special people. It’s really just so amazing for me because I feel that the people who keep on standing up and saying that they work for those people behind bars have almost put themselves behind bars for the sake of those people who are behind bars. So I was very happy to see Cat Lucas and sad to hear that Carole is stepping down but I know that Salil Tripathi will do a very wonderful job.

And so ladies and gentlemen good evening. Along with congratulating Lydia Cacho for winning the 2010 PEN/Pinter Prize, let met begin with a little story about Lydia Cacho whose place I have taken today for reasons of insecurity.

Let me first reflect on my words tonight. They arrest, kill some to silence all, but ‘beyond bars’ and beyond death, there is power, if we are there to hold it up. We must not let the voice of the silenced disappear… We must prop it up more. This is the sign that we together we are victors beyond all. We touch one another in ways that are hard to describe. I would like to include here mentioned a little anecdote about Lydia Cacho whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Oslo in a Free Word meeting in June 2009.

Lydia was more than a panel member of the discussion on free speech that I took part in. She was not just talking, she was listening. I was surprised when she signed a second book of hers and gave it to me with the words, «I have something else for you, Philo!» I wondered what it could be. At the lunch table, Lydia brought out something and it was an amethyst necklace with a pair of earrings to match. I was taken aback and more still when she said they were made out of an award she had received from Amnesty International. I told her I would not be able to take part of an award… to her. She told me that the skirt that hangs as a pendant from the necklace was a the Aztec goddess   Coatlicue who wears a skirt of snakes but who is powerful in matters of life and death. She told me that the stones have healing power and so too the goddess for they take all the suffering one feels and turn it into joy. She told me when still she could see I would not take it that I would also someday find someone who needed this necklace one day, and that when I did, I would know I had found that person and then I would give them the necklace with the same words. Today a Polish girl I met last year carries the story and the necklace for her part of the healing. This silent movement of joy and pain, I am sure, will outlive us in this symbol from Lydia and touch many people. Congratulations Lydia Cacho, wherever you maybe. May you be safe in spite of the threats you receive often. May the spirit of victory be yours because you only pass it on.                                                    

English PEN, Index on Censorship, International PEN, and particularly the WiPC, my first thought for you is a happy one. You stand in solidarity, you have stood in solidarity with people who moved some of us, most of us to be who we are. We as writers are linked in immeasurable ways, fathomable to those who enjoy the genuine connection of being together in commitment, standing in solidarity at the hour of pain and also of glory. Crossing borders. PEN has touched many people through the years.

I remember the many times I imagined the life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, how in Nairobi we asked after him when we met an American writer of Russian origin who was travelling through Nairobi just from Moscow on his journey home. That awareness came to me because of love for freedom.

I remember also one night of vigil for Aung San Syuu Kyi with a writer and political and human rights activist in 2008. In a wonderful house in Nairobi, we tried to imagine the limitations of her house arrest. We silently joined the idea of people in different continents and we spent a night discussing freedom when she turned 63 still under house arrest. How happily we jumped recently when she was freed at last.

I know for a fact that one thing that is certain is that in this struggle for human rights, for free expression, we are the victors. I know it so well. My conviction stems from the fact that those who have silenced those who spoke up are, most of the time, not seen united as we are tonight, celebrating voices of even those who are gone but whose impact moves us. I see many in this journal: Anna Politkovskaya, Hrant Dink, Vasyl Stus, Ken Saro Wiwa and Ruth First, and many others.

All who work for freedom, PEN, Index on Censorship, all of us.. You were there outside the bars, inside the bars and beyond the bars. I thank you, even when you feel and write so much about how you are free and they are inside, as in ‘Letter from the outside’ by Tom Stoppard included here. So, forgive me if I must sing for you. You are the victors… and those gone before. I must sing you, as we say in my local language. It is this song of our faith in action for free expression that carries us through.  

Your journal goes Beyond Bars because you have been with writers Behind the Bars. I know it through experience. Your letters.. our letters.. are with those behind bars right now: Liu Xiaobo, Djamshid Karimov, Isaak Dawit, Eynulla Fatullayev and Tran Khai Than Thuy among others. You are working with those who roam the world living in the faith of their word, in exile in protest.

I know how strength that I can only explain reached me because of the knowledge that I was not alone came out in song. Song is what Vusifile Mini knew before going to the gallows because of apartheid.. Mandela too… minds focused on a sure and good finish sing.

Beyond bars… we must sing freedom and love. Beyond bars we cease to ask who we are any more that we might be the ones speaking, we become channels through whom a sharp and clear plea for freedom may be heard. Inside the cells, in my case only for a few days.. I felt a power that thrust me beyond who I was. That power came from having believed that people can stand together against oppression and win. It came from knowing that outside the bars.. someone was ceaselessly working for freedom. That there are more chains of solidarity than handcuffs. That as you arrest me, I can opt to keep looking up and singing.. and if you kick me, I can still stand up and sing with blood in my teeth. No one chooses that moment. I certainly never thought that it would ever be part of my life.

But others had come and gone before me: Vusifile Mini sang to the gallows because he denounced apartheid. Mandela did the same and Desmond Tutu sings in his laughter, awakening in us a freshness of the joy of the celebration of the inconquerable human spirit already inherited by his daughter. I see a huge testimony in Index on Censorship. We choose to be free. I see it in words that writers and poets left for us, as did Mahmoud Darwish.

And they asked him:
Why do you sing?
And he answered,
as they seized him:
I sing because I sing
And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains.

I think of the future generations. We have chosen to live in our memories for the sake of freedom. Freedom is still to be defended because eternal vigilance is the price we have to pay. Everytime you lift your pen or move your fingers on the keyboard thinking about freedom, you are keeping vigil.

None of us are ourselves as we seem to understand ourselves. All of us are not just a continent but a universe and all of us are intricately connected.

We are all more than we perceive, think, write and say and we are together. When they killed one, and two and three and hundreds, they wanted to kill you too and they killed others who chose silence. When they make you keep wondering if your are fine, if somebody is tracking you down, they are stealing the freedom of your imagination. Your joy, your love for beauty, your reason, your freedom, your very being. They are taking your creative force little by little. We do not give up because we know that freedom is greater than them and will always be greater than those who oppress. This we must remind them with our unceasing song. We will not let fear reign and gnaw at freedom.

So, I cannot forget to carry on the voices of those were taken away from us prematurely. I am thinking of a young Kenyan blogger who was assasinated in 2009 on the 5th of March. I am thinking of how we had been saying there would never be asssasinations again in Kenya .. I am thinking of Ngugi Wa Thiongo who wrote about J. M. Kariuki who was assassinated on the 2nd of March in 1975…. we thought it was old fashioned to assassinate people.. but the lesson is always the same: eternal vigilance is the price we have to pay. Many writers refuse to forget. This is not loved by those who would silence. They are not comfortable when they see the past in the present. When they see that the act of silencing only enforces greater love, courage and commitment. Congratulations, Index on Censorship, English PEN and the Writers in Prison Committee for your work. I am proud to launch this journal Beyond Bars, 50 years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee.

Philo Ikonya
16 December 2010

To hear an extract from Philo’s speech, please click here.

Photos by Saskia Schmidt, What Is It Production Ltd

To see more photos from the launch, please click here.

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