Redscar scandal: Plagiarism mirrors the corruption in Kenya

Redscar Photo: Courtesy

Recently, Kenyan poetry celebrated the successes of the young doctor-poet, Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga, who had swiftly moved from relative obscurity and into the limelight.

He was published in reputable magazines, and was shortlisted for, or won, numerous competitions from the Nyanza Literary Festival Prize to the Okot p’Bitek Translation Prize to the Uganda-based BNP Poetry Prize.

Redscar’s apparent success was all over the Kenyan literature blogosphere and featured in national newspapers, often alongside photographs of him receiving large cheques.

However, a quality magazine that published one of ‘his’ poems caught him out after readers complained that it was plagiarised, copied virtually wholesale from the work of another, Zanzooba Magdoos.

The Missing Slate magazine later reported that they’d found numerous other poems, purportedly by Redscar and published on his blog as his own, to be equally plagiarised, often from ‘female writer[s] of colour’.

Soon the magazine tweeted: ‘We now have evidence that more than 10 poems plagiarised... Looking increasingly like none of his work is original’.

Enkare, a fine, Kenyan-edited journal, then pulled down a Redscar poem after this, too, seemed suspicious, and sleuthing Kenyan writers such as Mehul Gohil drew the community’s attention to further plagiarised pieces.

Colleagues began to reflect on how, recently, they’d become surprised at the poetry Redscar had started writing, as it seemed at odds with his experiences; or, how Redscar’s output moved, suspiciously effortlessly, from Afro-trad forms of expression to US-style ‘cut-up-and-digress’.

By this time, Redscar had issued a Facebook comment, calling everything a ‘misunderstanding’; his Facebook page then went offline.

Further, his blog disappeared. The allegations seemed justified.

The case reminds me of a British one from 2011. A plagiarist, Christian Ward, appropriated the work of talented poet Helen Mort, winning a competition for ‘his’ work, even though his submission featured only very minor word changes from the original.

The plagiarism was of the same type as Redscar’s, who also only changes a handful of words from the appropriated text.

Other poems purportedly by Ward were double-checked, and it became clear he’d plagiarised numerous poems. Ward’s feeble response was that this was all a ‘mistake’, a word similar to Redscar’s equally poor ‘misunderstanding’.

(Plagiarists even copy each other’s excuses, it seems!) In Ward’s case, previously visible online material mysteriously disappeared. Ward was rightly shamed by magazines he’d submitted to, competitions he’d entered, and poets he’d offended.

Those Ward plagiarised were frequently women. They weren’t flattered. Many suggested that they were, rather, ‘upset and angered and embarrassed’.

Recently, in a case involving poems stolen from a Scottish poet and negligibly rewritten to fit a Caribbean situation, one commentator, the gifted Kei Miller, correctly implied that such plagiarism is a form of identity theft, not just ‘word theft’.

I’d suggest that such theft is even more unforgiveable when it’s by men from women, or of works by women of colour or members of the gay community; one of Redscar’s victims was the talented Frank Malaba, an LGBTI poet from southern Africa, who seems rightfully outraged by the breach of trust, especially since his stolen poem, ‘Where?’, appears online with a copyright symbol beneath it!

Redscar has no right to appropriate others’ experiences; at the very least, such heartlessness is contrary to the compassion that poetry can express.

Occasionally, plagiarism overlaps with copyright infringement, but in Redscar’s case it’s for the law to decide whether illegality has occurred.

I personally feel that outright plagiarism should be declared illegal, and when I’m wearing my other, Kenyan school principal hat, I’d ensure that my institution took serious action against anyone attempting to plagiarise in term papers; it’s the ethical response to unethical practice.

There is aesthetic ‘borrowing’ in literature, true; but this is not what has happened in this instance.

So, what to do? Well, articles like this one and statements like The Missing Slate’s should continue to fairly appear and be posted online, where Redscar’s name can be found by other magazines and competition organisers.

Also, I think the Kenyan poetry community needs to do a few things.

Firstly, Redscar is a young man, and a human being; on the personal level, sympathy is required, and even support, for he must be enduring terrible embarrassment.

Yet, just as we’d not like a politician who illegitimately amassed wealth in his youth to acquire senior positions based upon that door-opening theft, so too we shouldn’t turn blind eyes to this scandal, as Kenyan literature’s reputation is at stake.

Frankly, I feel that magazines should pass over Redscar’s future submissions, and that competitions should decline his entries. Further, that our local festivals should steer clear, and that poetry events should feel confident without him.

Most importantly, although Redscar must be given his right of reply, I feel that he, too, must honestly do something at this dishonest time: withdraw his poems from magazines, resign from editorships and return any prize monies that might have been deceptively acquired.

As co-editor of a forthcoming Kwani? anthology of Kenyan poetry since 2003, I’ll certainly be arguing that Redscar doesn’t appear.

Finally, I think he should return to being a doctor and a hobbyist poet. After all, if I, a poet, presumed to practice medicine as a quack, I’d expect to be put firmly in my place. Good luck, Redscar.

Keep reading, and writing: your own poems!

-Partington is a Kenyan writer and teacher, based in Machakos.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Sde.co.ke


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