“Is this what it means for you to be human?”

Yvonne Owuor

“Is this what it means for you to be human?”

Yvonne Owuor


Yvonne Owuor is a Kenyan writer who won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story ‘The Weight of Whispers’, and the Jommo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for her novel ‘Dust’, which was also short-listed for the Folio Prize in the UK.


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This interview was conducted over skype in early 2017. Photo credit – Footprints Press.

KP I suppose your question is given meaning in a larger context and can be understood a number of ways, would you be able to explain how this question came to you, and what you mean by it?

YO It took a long time to work out that this was one of the fundamental questions that drive and motivate my life quests, my restlessness, relationships, choices, politics and art. It is fuel for my explorations and expectations of the other. For example, when a story seeks me out, it comes as an invitation to look at a dimension of the possibilities embedded in that question. From my childhood years– precocious maybe– I was deeply possessed by the sense of deep mystery of the wonder of being here, of the mystery of the sky at night and the sheer awe that is the sea, the strangeness and surprise of my existence – how did I get here? Why? And then more and more, through encounters with literature, the arts, and worlds in stories as written, imaged and retold. I guess it was inevitable that I would start to mull over what being human in this world actually meant.

That question has informed so many of the life experiences I have tumbled into, or that have found me: in my twenties, volunteering as a caregiver in a hospice in Cape Town and being allowed the privilege of witnessing human transitions from life to death…and through this learning the sense that there is certainly more to what we know about life and being human than is told.  I once wrote a short piece for a book that was a portrait of Nairobi about how the city (its denizens) dies.  This then afforded  me the opportunity of spending the day at the morgue, and accompanying those who work there in their duties.  For me it was one of the most intense contemplative experiences I have ever known; an encounter with humans who have allowed themselves to be stripped thin off our human delusions, whose words are unwasted and who each carry within them that amused ancient gaze of those who understand how empty are our tumults, our screaming hatreds, our bloated performances of what we imagine life is. It is as if they know that moreness about human beingness, but it is something they could not articulate however much they tried.

This is a very long way of saying that it’s a question I don’t have an answer to, but which gently haunts me and calls me to attention often.  The sense of the mystery in human encounter, human being-ness and human hoping-ness remains a constant for me.

KP So in the exploration of this question, in your pursuit of it, it sounds like you found insight into it through the doorways of death.  How does death point us towards what it means to be alive, or what it means to be human?

YO Does this sound too macabre? But since you ask…. Have you ever experienced a human body, in its complete and utter stillness, the corpse?  The first time was seeing my beloved uncle Charlie who died when I was young.  The first impulse when I saw him there in his coffin was ‘where have you gone?’  Despite all the dramatics and performances we have created around the event of human dying. All those words. The terrifying grief. And yet the awareness at the back of the mind that this is a discarded shell – almost as if someone had stepped out of an astronaut’s suit. The question remains, where have you gone? What is the answer to that? How does it inform our daily living and choices? Does every human secretly wonder about this? Or it no longer matters. But this then leads to the riddle of why,  given the mystery of our  unknowing and our being, why do human beings choose to visit and inflict so much pain, death and suffering upon each other?  What is it in our humanity that leads us to inflict suffering on one another? Is this also something to do with what it means to be human?

KP Is violence a part of what it means to be human, or is it possible that we are dehumanised by certain things we do to each other?  This is perhaps another way of asking whether there are ways in which we fall short of our design?

YO I wonder if a core part of being human is to be broken, to fail, to falter; to have a sense of, yet fall short of, an ineffable ideal. And we live out the consequences of that fragility – which includes violence, the anger, the rage, the divisiveness, the murder. And then to try to strive again. Or, sometimes, not.

KP The vitality you get from certain things in life – that feeling of being alive – do they also point to what it means to be human, or to be alive – do they provide a clue as to what it means to be human?

YO I believe they do. Life is amazing, isn’t it, Kenny. To be human is to imagine, to be human is to love, to be human is to dare to journey, to be curious, to be in community…to be in communion. It is an endless fascination, this exploration of being-ness and being with other.

KP The way you have worded the question is interesting ‘what does it mean for you?’, implies perhaps that what it means to be human for one person, is not what it means to be human for another necessarily – does that make sense?

YO Yes it does. I suspect more and more that these types of questions are like an undercurrent that nudges us out to sea, the nudge being aspects of the question. I suspect that it can also appear as a terrifying question, and it’s not one that one should take too much time indulging in – I know my mother, she is more of a ‘get on with life’ sort, would say, for goodness sake, just live! One could try to live, but what does that mean in a deep and visceral way?  I mean, where do we pick up the manual or a reference book that details the how tos being human? I have had the privilege of encounters with so many different people, so many cultures and communities and ways of being and seeing and naming life, each of these offer ways and maps of being as if they are so many different notes to a musical orchestration of that question. The question, I imagine,  speaks its answers to us through our experiences of life, the earth, and each other, and what sense we make of these experiences.

KP You wonder if the answer to that question has changed or become richer in a world of globalisation and migration, where we are met with the other?

YO Do you think that the question itself informs our response to ‘the other’?  So in places like our (Western) Indian Ocean milieu where the codes of hospitality to an other, these are covenants for encounters with other human beings, the approach is different when the stranger is met.  I could contrast that with the recent response from Hungary, symbolized by that woman who kicked a father and child who were seeking refuge among them….I felt such a twinge of shame as a human being. I wanted to look away from the evidence of this horrendous incapacity to receive another, especially one in such profound distress. This is not a judgement on that woman or Hungarians– that is not my role– as much as it is to ask again, in the witness of such human brokenness—I speak of that kick– what does being human actually mean today and now in the imagined globalized arena? What does it mean to be human in Kenya, in Nairobi, as a woman of Africa?

KP So the question really has sharp teeth when it comes to our obligations to the other, particularly in light of our current political and cultural moment…

YO I hope so. Are you as worried as I am about what is going on in the world right now?

KP Yes, I fear the way that much of the world appears to be lurching

YO For me it goes beyond the challenges we face, Kenny, it’s also about our human willingness to go deeper into, to imagine better about ourselves. To be willing to ask ourselves as individuals, family and society, in this moment of time, what does it mean for me to be human? I am afraid though that caught up in the throes of so many distractions, a majority do not actually give a damn. But perhaps too, that is also what it means to be human; opting out of caring.

KP You were challenged to ask the question of what is it to be human by looking at death, though as you said – we are unfortunately not issued with a manual which answers the question, but there are clues. You have a faith and a deep spirituality – to what extent does spirituality inform what it means for you to be human.

YO I wonder if what we call ‘spirituality’ is the name we give for our awareness of the immensity of and mystery of existence?  I wonder if this sensibility is one of the keys offered to our humanity to make sense of being-ness, of being ‘here’ and ‘now’? Spirituality, and linked to that imagination.  I make myself vulnerable to all the ways and methods of speaking, imagining the world and our humanity, immersing myself in as many of these that have resonance to my innermost being. You know Kenny, I think one of the things that bothers me most about the state of my/our humanness is that we are so capable of imagining a transcendent human being-ness that embraces all, and yet we find ourselves incapable of choosing that way, giving in to selfishness, greed, those list of things that we all know about and try to excuse, even as they harm our joy. Why? What stops me, you, others? Fear? Of what? Can’t figure that one out.

KP Though there are green shoots of hope amongst the rubble.  Martin Luther King Jr said that we don’t see the stars until it’s night, it’s not until the world feels very dark that our attention is drawn to the light – where do you find hope and light today?

YO Through the great adventure of living, of human relationships, of wandering through faith as a way of seeing and trying again, through text and through paintings, and music and the wisdom and insights of those who have gone before. I find hope in artists, the ones who dare see differently, the ones who pour stories and mythologies that change or elevate human dreaming. Within the darkness the points of light are always there…Did you ever read the story of Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, who shows up at sites of evil devastation in black suit to play his cello. This is what human sublimity looks like, the evidence of distilled human beauty. He is hope. Because of humans like him, I know that whatever happens in the world now, whatever terrible things are likely to unfold – and the world and its small-souled leaders seem hell-bent in their intent to start an inferno, again wilfully, there will be light. What a sacrament; the vision of a man willfully entering into hell, a space where the smoke of human bombs, created by human hands, rises among the debris of shredded human lives, this man in his morning coat stops to draw out sublime melodies. Karim Wasfi and the others like him we do not always hear about, this agonizing beauty and defiant courage of playing life and its infinite truths into a site of death, this I believe, is one of the most profound ways and meanings of being human.


4 Responses

Generally speaking, we encourage readers to respond to the question that each interviewee poses. What was your first reaction? Do you agree? Disagree? Please, let us know!

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    Submitted on 22nd February 2017, 5:22 pm   |   Respond

    Gathoni Njuguna

    Wow, deep stuff. Thanks Yvonne for your deep insight in what being human is. I enjoyed every line. And your way of words, so beautiful. Thank you. Regards. Gathoni Njuguna

    Submitted on 14th April 2017, 10:34 am   |   Respond

    Gathoni Njuguna

    I agree with Yvonne’s response. For me, being human, two things come to mind, the ability to imagine a different life for ourselves and the ability to show empathy to our fellow human beings. Thanks for a great interview. Best regards. Gathoni

    Submitted on 14th April 2017, 10:39 am   |   Respond


    Just curious. Was Yvonne Owuor given time to research her responses? Or was it a spontaneous exercise. I think if the latter was the case then Yvonne is genius. I cant find fault in the answers, their meanings and the artistry in the language used.

    Submitted on 17th April 2017, 2:01 pm   |   Respond

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