I REFUSE TO DIE

My Journey for Freedom

By Koigi wa Wamwere

Seven Stories. 368 pp. $24.95

When Mwai Kibaki was elected president of Kenya in December, he became the third man to lead the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1963. More important, Kibaki's party, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), ended the KANU Party's 40-year stranglehold on national electoral politics. KANU had been the personal province of outgoing President Daniel arap Moi, whose "big man"-style rule was characterized by injustice, repression and greed. It's understandable if some Kenyans in past years suspected that their big man had gotten a big head -- as they celebrated Moi Day, for example, or as they walked along Moi Avenue on their way to collect their children from Moi Academy, or counted their bank notes decorated with Moi's imperious face.

Kibaki likely had this kind of governmental self-absorption in mind when he pledged to end corruption during his swearing-in. "I am inheriting a country which has been badly ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude," he declared.

Few could agree with that assessment more heartily than Koigi wa Wamwere, who has spent most of his adult life battling for social equality and human rights in Kenya. His memoir, "I Refuse to Die," covers his career as an activist as well as his childhood as the eldest son of impoverished forest workers.

Koigi wa Wamwere was born in 1949 in Nakuru Province, nearly 30 years after the British East African Protectorate had been renamed Kenya and more than 40 years after the Masters and Servants Ordinance of 1906 "categorized all white people as masters and all black people as their servants." Although the rules of colonialism were firmly in place, Koigi recalls that he understood little about the system.

"But whenever I saw a white man," he writes, "he carried a gun for killing. Whenever I saw a white man, he wore shoes and socks and made us walk barefoot or wear tire sandals. Whenever I saw a white man, he owned land and we had none. Whenever I saw a white man, he lived in a big house and we in poor huts."

As much as such inequities disturbed him, Koigi reserves his fiercest language for Moi and his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta. He argues that the British released the legendary first leader of independent Kenya "not to liberate Kenyans but to continue milking Mother Kenya for them."

Increasing dissatisfaction with his country's leadership induced Koigi to abandon his studies at Cornell University in 1973 and return to Nakuru. He became a journalist, reporting on working conditions of the poor and writing incisive political commentary. In 1979, he won a seat in parliament, in which he served for three years. His activities provoked the ire of Kenya's increasingly paranoid ruling class, resulting in his detention on three separate occasions. He spent a total of 13 years in Kenyan prisons. Koigi attracted international attention in 1995, when he and two fellow activists were convicted on trumped-up robbery charges and sentenced to four years in jail and six strokes of the cane. The efforts of human-rights activists around the world helped to secure his release in 1996. With the possible exception of the novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo, Koigi wa Wamwere may be Kenya's best-known dissident. The East African Standard, a Kenyan newspaper, has written, "his notoriety was such that he remained in the nation's subconscious although he was either on the run, in exile, detention or in a jail cell."

Koigi's memories of his turbulent career are often fascinating, although there are occasional missteps. His defense of female circumcision -- "a custom greatly misunderstood in the west" -- while earnest, fails to persuade. Equally dubious are his heartfelt re-creations of encounters that he could not have witnessed firsthand. While he rightly condemns Western nations for cozying up to dictators when it suits their interests, he contradicts himself when he praises Moammar Gaddafi as a "champion of the African revolution."

On the other hand, his descriptions of his torture at the hands of Moi's henchmen and of police harassment of his parents are both excruciating and credible. It is difficult to complete "I Refuse to Die" without admiring Koigi's selflessness and courage. And his tirelessness as well: The former detainee has been elected to parliament once again.

As a member of NARC, he has pledged to work with President Kibaki -- the same Kibaki who served as Moi's vice president for 10 years. Koigi, a lifelong champion of the poor and downtrodden in a nation where the annual per capita income hovers around $300, has formed an improbable alliance with a wealthy landowner. He told the East African Standard that he believes Kibaki has changed. "I was opposed to him when he was in government as a minister," he said, "but now he is a different man altogether." For Koigi's sake -- and Kenya's -- here's hoping he's right.