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Miraa Is Unstoppable:The Case for Sorting out Kenya’s Convoluted Catha Edulis Agro-Industry

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Meru, Kenya – OILING THE WHEELS OF COMMERCE IN THE 19TH CENTURY

The American explorer William Chanler set up base in the Nyambene Range in 1893. He found a thriving local economy that attracted traders from across the region; a unique feature of this market was the use of the narcotic reddish-green twigs of a tree (Catha edulis), known as miraa locally, to seal deals and cement relationships among traders in a convivial atmosphere. He commented on their mildly pleasant effect. For visitors who came from as far as the hinterland of Lake Turkana, the botanical stimulant was a rare treat reinforcing ties of fictive kinship connecting their diverse communities.

Miraa, known as khat throughout the Middle East, has been intrinsic to the region’s prosperity ever since. It should be contributing to Kenya’s prosperity as well. The fact that it is not mirrors larger problems of colonially induced confusion and the failure to recognise Africa’s adaptive cultural economies. Like coffee and tea, Kenyan miraa should have been another lucrative generator of post-Independence agricultural capital.

The same origin story is invoked to explain the discovery of miraa and coffee in Ethiopia and Yemen. Concerned over the occasional disappearance of his goats, a herder follows their tracks to a forested glade. He finds them contentedly munching on wiry shrubs. So he tries chewing the twigs (or berries) himself, and finds he is refreshed and energised. You hear the same story in Meru, although the plant’s domestication and the area’s sophisticated ethno-pharmacological tradition is clearly a legacy of interaction with ancient hunter-gatherer clans.

The transition of Catha edulis and Caffea arabica from cultural consumables to market commodities has followed parallel but contrasting trajectories. Both commodities’ migration out of their traditional milieu initially generated religious opposition and political condemnation

The transition of Catha edulis and Caffea arabica from cultural consumables to market commodities has followed parallel but contrasting trajectories — although the 48 hour half-life of the former restricted its circulation until the era of modern transport. Both commodities’ migration out of their traditional milieu initially generated religious opposition and political condemnation. Coffee was banned in 16th century Mecca and subsequently labelled ‘the drink of the devil’ by Europeans.

THE PENNY UNIVERSITIES OF EAST AFRICA

The beverage surmounted these barriers and by the middle decades of the 1700s, coffee houses around Europe and the Middle East were providing an alternative to the recreational role of alcohol. Coffee houses became focal points for sober discussions of economics, politics, religion, and the issues of the day. The sobriquet ‘Penny Universities’ recognised coffee’s contribution to the European Enlightenment.

Today, Catha edulis facilitates the exchange of information in the same way, but the ‘Tree of Paradise’ rarely receives acknowledgement outside academic circles for promoting integration and mediating social change. Rather, it is routinely demonised and banned where regulation and social controls would work better.

In Yemen and across the Horn of Africa, users praise its medicinal qualities. The plant’s two active alkaloids, cathine and cathinone, are organic versions of ingredients used in many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines. Such attributes are obviously not the primary drivers of its consumption. Miraa is stronger than coffee, and considerably so in the case of certain varieties. Its highly variable stimulatory effects are one of the more complicated differences between drinking the bean and eating trees.

There is no fixed standard for khat, miraa, chat and other local varieties of the plant. Rather, the variegated morphology of Catha edulis makes it a one-species exemplar of diverse bio-morphology. Wildlings growing in full canopy forests can reach seventy feet, but the diverse domesticated kinds of chat found in Ethiopian markets can appear as different as the celery, broccoli, and basil sold in your neighbourhood supermarket.

Quality is a function of a number of factors such as differences among sub-varieties, altitude and climate, and place of cultivation. The plant usually appears as a wiry but leafy shrub whose branches are harvested several times a year. At maturity Meru miraa resembles the old olive trees of the Middle East, and age is a primary determinant of quality.

THE MOST SOPHISTICATED EXAMPLE OF AFRICAN PERMACULTURE

The mbaine miraa from the older trees was formerly reserved for ceremonial occasions, marriage negotiations, and featured in the deliberations of njuri elders. Adult men were only allowed to join these sittings and chew after fathering their first child.

Meru’s miraa agriculture presents the continent’s most sophisticated example of African permaculture. In contrast to Ethiopia and Yemen, where it is usually mono-cropped, Meru miraa is cultivated within a sophisticated agroforestry system. The typical miraa farm features a multi-storey ensemble of indigenous species providing food, forage, human and animal medicines, and other household use products. Where its lifespan does not exceed 50 years elsewhere, a Meru miraa farm is a multigenerational enterprise that only reaches adulthood after half a century.

The ‘Tree of Paradise’ rarely receives acknowledgement outside academic circles for promoting integration and mediating social change. Rather, it is routinely demonised

These agro-jungles include trees that conserve soil moisture and fix nitrogen, while the miraa trees are manicured and shaped as they grow to maximise exposure to sunlight and to minimise the space they occupy. It is an extremely efficient system in agro-ecological and economic terms: Meru trees continue to produce even during extended droughts.

While people obviously chew miraa for the buzz, consumers across the region value the milder and less edgy varieties both for their more subtle but superior high and minimal side effects. Formal analysis has yet to quantify variations in the physiological state induced by chewing the diverse spectrum of local varieties, but they are significant and market prices usually provide the best indicator of consumer preferences.

Multiple variables influence potency; quality and strength are not the same thing in this instance. In general, Catha edulis grown at lower altitudes and in drier settings is stronger, longer lasting, and less expensive. Kenya’s mbaine miraa can now sell for over Ksh5,000 ngs for a bundle where young mithairo miraa from the same locale may fetch one-tenth the price.

Veteran chewers are the most reliable source of information on the stimulant’s ridiculously diverse variations and comparative psycho-physiological effects. But localised environmental factors can make evaluation a tricky business. I once found miraa growing on the grassy knolls high up in the Chyulu Hills that looked like a spikey version of crab grass. Ingesting several of the short red-green stalks cost me a night’s sleep.

When it comes to the idiosyncratic characteristics of this Afro-Arab commodity, indigenous knowledge is paramount. Yet such arcane insights, including the oft-noted quality of suspending differences of race, religion and identity in gatherings where it is chewed, has been of little consequence outside the cultural universe of Catha edulis.

 

Historical and anthropological studies illuminate the role social commodities like coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar and other non-food consumables play in the process of socioeconomic transition. Miraa is clearly following a pathway similar to coffee’s spread in Europe, but remains controversial due to a combination of spurious criticism and biased science, including clinical findings isolated from the social and long-term context of khat consumption.

For decades, most of the commentaries proffered by European explorers like Richard Burton and other early Western observers deemed the act of chewing and its unique social dynamics as a curious if innocuous practice. Systemic biases, some of which can be traced to its historical association with Muslims, often punctuate contemporary critiques of Catha edulis. Regardless, the contested merits of chewing and khat commerce were a non-issue for governments until recently.

A MARKET COMMODITY IN ITS OWN RIGHT

The miraa trade was originally a by-product, and not the centrepiece, of this cultural-agricultural complex. Miraa was shifting from a facilitator of regional trade to a market commodity in its own right by the onset of colonialism. Modern commercialization took off during the late 1950s, after the Mau-Mau curfew was lifted.

In Kenya, the 48-hour economic half-life of Meru’s miraa limited colonial era circulation to Nairobi and Mombasa. Nyambene traders migrated to urban centres across the country after Independence, drawing in a new generation of aficionados from non-chewing communities. Kenya’s Anglophile Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, lobbied for its ban.

The mbaine miraa from the older trees was formerly reserved for ceremonial occasions, marriage negotiations, and featured in the deliberations of njuri elders. Adult men were only allowed to join these sittings and chew after fathering their first child

Around the same time, Saudi Arabia hosted an international conference on Catha edulis. Results of the papers presented were published in 1967 as a bulky compendium. The Kingdom subsequently criminalised the consumption and import of khat. Decades later, an Ethiopian participant in the Saudi conference told me the Saudi’s anti-khat agenda was clear from the onset, and that the Western scientists present were happy to play along.

Back in Kenya, a Meru delegation visited president Jomo Kenyatta to argue the case against prohibition. Mzee raised a bouquet of 200-year old mbaine to signal his recognition of miraa’s cultural legitimacy and economic role in the rural economy.

Since that moment, socioeconomic controversies and calls for legal control at home and elsewhere have mattered little to the Nyambene Meru, who remain comfortable living in their bucolic wooden cottages surrounded by miraa trees, some of which predate the Industrial Revolution. When queried on the possibility of legal impediments disrupting the ever-accelerating flight of their economic flagship, the standard response was ‘miraa haipingiki’ — miraa is unstoppable.

For years, there was little evidence contradicting the haipingiki thesis. After all, in the end, prohibition usually fails and the twigs wrapped in the leathery green leaves of the false banana (Ensete ventrilosum) had been conquering new markets for the past half-century.

Everything became more complicated after miraa became mixed up with the multinational Somali population. Somalia’s infamous president Siad Barre banned imports in 1982, then allowed the surreptitious smuggling of miraa to reward loyal clan militias. Their opponents chased him out of Mogadishu 10 years later. The civil war erupting after his 1993 exit ignited an exodus of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and beyond — with major ramifications for Meru’s miraa.

Thousands of refugees transiting through Nairobi or settled in the world’s largest refugee camp in Garissa came into contact with miraa for the first time. ‘It helps us process the upheavals overtaking our lives,’ one told me; I heard similar sentiments from aid workers coping with the chaos in Mogadishu.

The backstories were ignored by tabloid journalists more interested in branding khat as a drug of war. The US secretary of state for Africa chipped in by referring to combatants as ‘khat-crazed Rambos getting pumped up for evening raids.’

Agents supplying antagonistic Somali warlords, however, coexisted peacefully in Maua. Displaced Somalis flocked to Maua looking for work, some of them sleeping under trees at the edge of town. Before long, more organised entrepreneurs replaced the clan buyers and agents, their fleets of immaculate Land Cruisers speeding out of their loading bays every evening en route to destinations across the stateless region.

THE REAL ACTION FOLLOWS THE SOMALI DIASPORA

The real action followed the Somali diaspora. Refugee Somalis pioneered lucrative new export destinations in London and Holland that served as depots for other northern markets. The high prices the lower-grade export miraa fetched abroad turned some of the new khat merchants into overnight millionaires. It also created new frictions. Two boycott in Meru designed to deprive the Somalis of direct access to miraa in 1996 and 1999 underscored the souring relations between producers and exporters.

The second action coincided with the death of a popular Meru political activist, Nkuraru wa Ntai, who collapsed while dining with Somali friends in London. Kenyans claimed he was poisoned. His brother dismissed the conspiracy theory, informing the large crowd gathered at the funeral that his Somali associates were ordering miraa from Nkararu to help him pay for his higher degree studies.

THE SOMALIS RETURN, BUT LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN

The rumours persisted. Some Meru politicians from outside the miraa zone exploited the confusion by inciting youths who set up roadblocks and stoned miraa vehicles. An angry mob converged on Maua as the Somali community left for Isiolo in two large convoys. The local Meru business community, who for the most part appreciated the Somalis’ cosmopolitan presence, saw the politicians as opportunists manipulating the issues in order to take over the London trade.

Their gambit collapsed and the Somalis returned, but these events marked a new phase in the commercialisation process.

Several decades of commercialisation had spawned an efficient economic monoculture that was also eroding the smallholder agroforestry permaculture. Their ability to efficiently manoeuvre among the maze of spindly miraa branches made adolescents the harvesters of choice, while the high wages earned discouraged educational progress beyond basic written and numerical literacy. The economically abusive practice of renting miraa farms from cash-hungry farmers increased. Decreasing on-farm self-sufficiency and easy income combined with demographic increase to create a developmental cul-de-sac.

Formal analysis has yet to quantify variations in the physiological state induced by chewing the diverse spectrum of local varieties, but they are significant and market prices usually provide the best indicator of consumer preferences

The new markets had only partially alleviated the problem by the time the rising foreign-exchange returns from miraa began to garner belated recognition of its benefits for Kenya’s national economy.

A 2011 survey reported that miraa exports, growing at a rate of 9.7 per cent annually for several years, were now generating Ksh.16.5 billion ($231.7 million) annually — and represented 54 per cent of the fresh produce Kenya exported to other African countries. Earnings from the 12 tonnes exported to London and Amsterdam no doubt exceeded the value of the 20 tonnes of miraa exported to Somalia every week. Kenya is still the primary market and some 40 tonnes are consumed at home.

NUMBERS ABATE THE NOISE

It is not exactly surprising that the noise associated with miraa abated in the presence of such numbers. But the miraa export industry was facing formidable new challenges in the form of Wahhabi Muslim reformers and other Islamist opposition.

Miraa powers open discussion and information sharing. Users in Kenya often comment on the propensity of miraa gatherings to vaporise differences of race, class, and ethnicity among the participants. Researchers in Yemen and Ethiopia note the same, corroborating its role as social glue mediating social and class divisions. This makes it anathema to many Islamists.

In the UK, the government launched an enquiry supported by independent research. In 2009, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that most arguments against the substance were overstated; criminalisation would create more problems than it would solve.

Although Al Shabaab attempted to suppress miraa and chat consumption in areas under their control, they later quietly relaxed this stance in favour of taxation.

But the issue resurfaced and the UK banned Catha edulis in 2014, ostensibly because the government did not want London to become the transit point for smuggling khat to neighbouring countries where it is banned.

In both instances, the Kenya government did next to nothing to intervene on behalf of producers’ interest. No Kenyan organisation attempted to counter the arguments behind the ban, although the largest miraa producer association (Nyamita) eventually produced a quaintly worded although ineffective statement in defence of the commodity.

In Meru’s traditional miraa producing areas, informants estimate miraa now employs seven out of 10 people. The UK ban has flattened the economy in adjacent areas linked to the European markets. ‘In this area, ten out of ten people earn their living from miraa,’ one prominent trader from the area opined, ‘and under prevailing market conditions it is only a question of time until our people become poorer than they ever were in the past.’

In April 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the creation of a Ksh1 billion fund to assist farmers affected by the UK ban. The news came out of the blue, and the locals were suspicious, especially after an official statement referred to ‘amendments to the Crops Act giving the national government authority to establish mechanisms for promotion, production, distribution and marketing of miraa as a cash crop.’

Kenya’s smallholder producers have for decades struggled to assert greater control over cash crops like coffee and tea only to become dependent on buyer-driven commodity chains controlled by large international retailers. The more autonomous Nyambene Meru, in contrast, after years of longing for official acknowledgement of their indigenous cash crop, now face an economic double-whammy in the guise of new taxes and potentially negative forms of government intervention.

WAS BILLION SHILLING COMMISSION A POLITICAL SLUSH FUND?

The qualifications of the members appointed to the commission exacerbated these suspicions, and the preliminary findings of their work confirmed the flawed assumptions operating underneath the surface. These findings, surfacing in the press recently, reveal a basic ignorance of the dynamics of the miraa agronomy and agroforestry — especially the recommendation to provide miraa farmers with fertiliser.

Not only does this run counter to the organic synergies of miraa permaculture, fertiliser applied to miraa trees actually makes the twigs unpalatable and impossible to consume. Placing more trash receptacles in places where the heavy leaf-clad twigs are sold was the most practical recommendation on offer. Miraa growers, who saw the billion shilling commission as a political slush fund from the onset, are demanding that the full proceedings of the commission be made public.

The focus of the Nyambene agricultural system began to shift after the value of miraa passed the value of food crops during the early 1970s. Discouraging monocultural cultivation and promoting the traditional biodiversity-based production model would be a positive intervention from both an agronomic and household economy point of view.

This is not the first time a Kenyan government commission has raised more questions than answers. It is hardly surprising that Coastals are demanding similar support for the problems behind the precipitous decline of coconut production, while climate-stressed pastoralists are asking similar questions about the state’s lack of investment in lasting solutions for the aperiodic but predictable droughts ravaging their animals and settlements.

The civil war erupting after Siad Barre’s 1993 exit ignited an exodus of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and beyond — with major ramifications for Meru’s miraa 

That some farmers formerly selling to the European export market report they are now making better profits by selling to regional markets reminds us that the regional market has always been the driver of miraa commoditisation. At the same time, the case for educating the larger public about the unique qualities of the Tree of Paradise is long overdue.

A proper long-term strategy would address Western prejudices, refute the findings of bad science, document its history as a legitimate African social institution that forges ties among communities, highlight the ecologically sustainable practices of Nyambene miraa cultivators, and share the cross-generational knowledge informing proper consumption, including the cultural controls limiting its abuse.

EDUCATION IS THE KEY TO A RATIONAL POLICY

The Somali are both the most successful pioneers of new miraa markets and the primary source of opposition to its consumption. An educational initiative as discussed above — including support for investigating the role of Catha edulis as an antidote to religious radicalisation – would help rehabilitate the prejudicial portrayal of the commodity supporting its ban.

This will take time. Policies regulating the sale to minors at home and the type of miraa sold abroad represent a more useful approach to reverse the problem than the current state-based methods to rescue the situation.

The arguments featuring here are not intended to minimise the problems that come with the spread of Catha edulis consumption. But sorting out the issues of a socially interactive botanical stimulant is a more feasible proposition than parallel efforts to combat the considerably more serious problems of drugs and criminality plaguing the region, like the heroin scourge and criminal networks associated with it recently reported in these pages.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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The Life and Lens of Mohinder Dhillon

11 min read. A.K KAIZA, one of the writers who worked with the late Mohinder Dhillon on his autobiography, My Camera, My Life, recalls the special moments he shared with this remarkable cameraman.

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The Life and Lens of Mohinder Dhillon
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“You cannot write about Mohinder without first mentioning his fundamental humanity – the abiding reality that he is an all-round lovely man.” — Jon Snow, presenter, Channel Four News

It was August 7th, 2008. The time would have been a little past 11 in the morning, the usual coffee, tea and cakes break hour at the literature festival in Nairobi that I was participating in. We had come out of the Braeburn School room onto the lawn for coffee, and also for the sun. And there, standing with his back to the sun, the sunlight turning his white hair into a shiny glow, was Mohinder Dhillon – ramrod straight, despite the walking stick. He carried about him the air of something profound about to happen.

The Braeburn School was on holiday and that had left it open for Kwani to hold the Kwani LitFest. A gathering of writers, guest speakers and would-be writers was holed in at the place. To an outsider, as I was, Nairobi was a little jarring. People seemed to get over-excited when talking, too shrill, too waxed. It was a society, as I later understood, that had never experienced civil war, and was struggling to find stability after the post-election violence of 2007/2008 that had shocked the nation.

Later that evening, at a drinking session with fellow writers, including Binyavanga Wainaina, Tom Maliti, Billy Kahora and Kalundi Serumaga, the Kenyan writer and journalist Parselelo Ole Kantai said, “There is this incredible fellow in my class. He has the most unbelievable story. He was a cameraman who went everywhere.”

This “incredible fellow”, Kantai continued, had been to the Congo, to Vietnam. He had also almost been shot at by a firing squad in 1964. He wanted to write a book about his life.

If I did not think about the “incredible fellow” that evening, in barely a month – and for the rest of my years in Nairobi – I was to think of little else. It took me a while to appreciate that the man who I spoke with at least once a week for twelve years had been one of the pioneers of international television news. Many of the places he went with his camera had never been filmed before.

He led a unique life.

Lunch at Sir Mohinder’s

Events seemed to have moved very fast after that August. In September, I moved to Nairobi and would stay there till the end of 2011. A week later, I was asked if I would meet a certain man the syllables of whose name came in one ear and went right through the other.

We were to meet him for lunch, somewhere in Westlands. We drove up to his house, in a place I was to know as Brookside Drive, which abuts the dipping curve of Lower Kabete Road as it begins the rise to Spring Valley. The house was a bungalow set on a half-acre suburban plot. What struck me, going up the rising drive, was the garden, its gaiety of colour, the bright birds of paradise, the heliconia whose deep red seemed otherworldly, the powder puff trees, marigold aplenty, a bud or two of amaryllis, and the roses, and yet more roses.

Mohinder was waiting for us outside. I notice that he has keen eyes and that up close, he is a giant of a man. But he carries a certain humility. The smile on his face is the smile of a man not totally sure of himself.

This “incredible fellow”, Kantai continued, had been to the Congo, to Vietnam. He had also almost been shot at by a firing squad in 1964. He wanted to write a book about his life.

He leads us into his house and to the circular dining table very heavily laden for just three guests. And in what I would later learn was his child-like fascination with everything, and a party trick he doubtless liked to put on show for his guests, he reaches out and gives the table a twirl. It is one of those dining tables with a swivel top. And as the table rotates, the aroma of salad dressing, grams, and mutton permeates the air.

A fellow foodie! Where had I been all my life when Mohinder’s house was the place to be?

This septuagenarian, in this very neat and attractive house, with the beautiful, tiny figurines and artworks that you are unlikely to run into daily, was saying, relax, be yourself, start from there.

I look out of the window, and see a bird feeder outside next to a wind chime. It is not only us humans who come to lunch at Mohinder’s. And when the sunlight streams in through the corner window, you can see in the light the shades of the flowers outside that the sun picks and dashes about on the walls. Whatever this writing assignment, my heart and soul have already said yes before Mohinder has even asked if it was possible. There is something rip-roaringly alive about him.

Leaving India

Food was a constant motif in the story of Mohinder’s life as we wrote it. Of the many facets of a life lived intensely, it was always food that came to mind as the thread running through a long, eventful life. There had been the street food in Vietnam that Mohinder described with such relish that I grew jealous of him. There was the dinner he had in Korea which he spoke about in such tones that the taste of it crept onto my tongue, as if it was just last week, rather than three decades back in 1974. There was the butter in Retla that his grandmother made. “She broke the milk,” was the way he described it.

He had fond childhood recollections, from his birth in 1931 in Punjab, in a hamlet called Babar Pur, named after the first Moghul emperor, but which was previously known as Retla. There had been the kite flying. He told me to watch the movie, The Kite Runner (which in 2008 was all the rage), to get an idea of the value placed on this activity/sport. He had been the kite flyer, and his brother, Jindi – later a Kenyan Olympian in the 1956 Sydney event, and now a British medical doctor – had been his kite runner. There had also been the game known as kabadi.

Food was a constant motif in the story of Mohinder’s life as we wrote it. Of the many facets of a life lived intensely, it was always food that came to mind as the thread running through a long, eventful life.

Then there was Raja, his champion fighting cock. In later years, Mohinder regretted keeping a fighting cock. But he and Raja, as is the case with pastoralists and their livestock, were soul mates. What hurt Raja hurt Mohinder even more. But Raja was not for eating. A neighbour, whose fighting cock had been decimated by Mohinder’s, had lured Raja to his place and broken his leg. The inconsolable Mohinder reset Raja’s bones, and fed him tumin and almonds till he got well. His grandmother complained about the extravagance on a cock. As I got to know more about her, I realised that his grandmother had shaped Mohinder’s life the most.

But the cloistered life he led during his childhood, so long ago, so far away in Punjab, would never return. His father had worked for the Uganda Railways from 1917 and decided to move his family to Kenya. The 1940s world in which Mohinder came of age was totally different. It was not until Mohinder came to East Africa that he learnt that there had been a World War. He first heard of Mahatma Gandhi when he was settled in Nairobi.

He remembered setting sail for Africa with his family from Bombay (now Mumbai):

“The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. I was afraid to cross the road. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed. Bombay was awe-inspiring. Everything was new to me. There was almost nothing in Bombay we could relate to, except the vegetables.”

In Mombasa, once the Khandala, a coaling ship, had deposited the family, he set out with one of his brothers, Inderjeet (later a media personality in Kenya who died in a tragic accident), and they followed, pied piper-like, men with stoves and clinking cups and the strong aroma of some strange drink that smelled like almonds. He was to discover much later, once settled in Nairobi, that it was on the streets of Mombasa that he first smelled coffee.

And so I had found the point of gravitation with Mohinder. This was not a story of woe and strife. Mohinder’s life story, and the book it would birth, I could see, would best be started off as a memoir of an enchanting childhood. How else, when the best memories of Mohinder’s life were those of the wide-eyed pleasure he experienced when seeing something for the first time?

***

When the Khandala drew close to the shores of Mombasa, Mohinder saw strange men in white furiously swinging sticks. They just kept swinging, as if sword-fighting, but against no one.

“David,” Mohinder tells me, his voice rising. “We knew nothing. That was my first time seeing golf being played.”

On the day they left Mombasa for Nairobi, on the train, his father, Tek Singh (fondly referred to in the home as Bau Ji) off-handedly commented on the strange, lopping bird out on the savannah. He said that one of its eggs could make an omelette for an entire family. It was the first time Mohinder had seen an ostrich.

“An omelette for the entire family? Father, what is an omelette?”

“That over there is a lion.”

“A lion?”

“Father, does a lion lay eggs?”

“The lion is the king of the jungle. It can do whatever it likes.”

Above all, Mohinder was a comedian, with perfect timing. We spent many afternoons digging up and dishing out jokes.

His first camera, when he started taking television news footage, was heavy. But he did not know it.

“It was a studio camera but I never felt the weight,” he said. “I grew up drinking buffalo milk.”

“There was one from 1979, oh, I already told the one about matooke at the Sheraton? How about fingernails?”

“Which one?”

“Oh, the ITN reporter I was with he said to me, ‘Mohinder, look how fertile Uganda is. You can put your finger in the ground and the nails grow instantly.’”

Idi Amin and the media circus

There was more than one from 1979. There was an entire world of experiences condensed into that year.

For Mohinder, 1979 was a very important year. It was, I sensed, the year when he made up his mind about many things.

The media circus. There was plenty of that. He had known Idi Amin all of the nine previous years. He had been genuinely scared of him, and even more scared of his henchmen. And so, upon the coup that felled his regime, they rushed to Makerere University where a British newspaper had reported that Amin’s soldiers had lopped off female students’ breasts.

“David, there were many terrible things Amin did,” he told me. “But the warden we approached told us, ‘Don’t make up stories about Amin. No girls had their breasts cut off.’”

For the international media, the “Third World” was fair game.

“It was a studio camera but I never felt the weight,” he said. “I grew up drinking buffalo milk.”

One day, Mohinder told me that Ryzard Kapuscinski had sat down with him and told him stories about famines and huts and snakes. In the great Polish writer’s books appear minute details of what Kapuscinski had encountered in his journeys across Africa – details that mirrored Mohinder’s own journeys, which made one wonder whether Kapuscinski might actually have been describing Mohinder’s experiences.

My real job, as it quickly became clear, was to sit and listen.

Babar Pur. India. Vietnam, Robert Mugabe, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo.

Talking about Mugabe brought in Nyerere, as if to clear the air. Mugabe, the most complex character Mohinder ever turned his camera lens on, back in 1979-80. A man so wily, it was thought that not even the British, who spent so much time profiling him, could not tell what he was up to.

“What about Mobutu?”

“A fop, dressing to the nines.”

“And Patrice Lumumba?”

“I only met his son, a sad-faced young man, when he came to commission a bust of his father in Nairobi.”

“Laurent Desire Kabila?”

“I did not make much of him. It was in the 60s. He sat there saying nothing in the presence of Somialot.”

“Kenneth Kaunda?”

“Too emotional. The smallest thing about Zambia set him crying. The reason he kept a handkerchief constantly was so he could wipe away the tears. There was a joke in which Zambia rhymed with some beer. The drinking in his country made Kaunda cry too.”

“Idi Amin?”

On Idi Amin, there was not a straightforward a response, except that Amin liked to clown around as a kind of diversion. When he sentenced men to be executed during Ramadhan, the Saudis got upset so Amin faked a coma. They said he was hospitalised and there was going to be an operation. It turned out to be a cyst in his backside.

Names from a bygone era, Talbot, Indira Gandhi, the Queen Mother, Emperor Haile Selassie, a portrait gallery from the dawn of the Cold War.

Food and famine

Mohinder always had stories about food, laid out as state dinners, or as history-makers.

The 20th century, a century of great famines. The food that ran out.

In 1964, when what was meant to be a few days of getting images of the Simba rebellion in Eastern Congo, turned into a two-week nightmare in what was then Albertville, now Kalemie, on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was two weeks during which he met a young man named Laurent Desire Kabila who turned up with Simba rebel leader, Somialot. Locked out, and with no transport over Lake Tanganyika, they ate fish and hard, inedible French bread.

There was the dinner in Kurdistan and in Afghanistan, with hosts he never forgot who were under Soviet and Iranian attack.

There was the crisis of the El Molo whose single diet of fish had ravaged the community, which Mohinder had captured on camera decades ago.

“Too emotional. The smallest thing about Zambia set him crying. The reason he kept a handkerchief constantly was so he could wipe away the tears. There was a joke in which Zambia rhymed with some beer. The drinking in his country made Kaunda cry too.”

And above all, there was the failure of harvest, in 1984, when an entire nation, Ethiopia, had no food.

The darkening of Mohinder’s vision of the world from 1984 left a shadow that hung over his head till the end of his life. Till his last months, whenever Mohinder spoke of the Ethiopian famine, he started to shake, as if he was going to go into convulsions. The image of the old man carrying a lifeless child to bury, and Mohinder, ever the witness, unable to properly carry his camera because tears are flowing down his own face. And in a charter plane doing the documentary, African Calvary, about the famine, Mohinder walks over to Mother Teresa and she takes his hand and consoles him, “My son, it is Calvary.” And so they name the film.

There had been the famine in Karamoja before that, in 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, the images that Mohinder captured on camera had inspired thousands of people to donate millions of dollars to buy food for famine victims.

Then there was too much of the wrong food: the matooke in Kampala in 1979 that they could no longer stomach. Kampala had been in lockdown following the Tanzanian invasion that flushed Idi Amin out of Uganda and the markets were shut. (Somehow, Mohammed Amin, a friend and rival, with whom Mohinder’s name had been intertwined in the 1970s and ‘80s, managed to get hold of some steaks and joints.)

The decline of Empire 

There was the scale of time, of history and the insurmountable bulk of an empire that lay between me and Mohinder. He was already 44 years old when I was born; when he died this year, I was 44. Life experiences too vast to comprehend, even when explained.

He had along the way been given a knighthood, which is why he was Sir Mohinder. Well into his 80s, he received an honorary Ph.D, Dr. Mohinder Dhillon.

He counted in his circle an emperor, presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates. He had been the personal cameraman of Emperor Haile Selassie in the waning days of his life, when the Emperor was starting to become senile.

He had been there when Belgium crashed out of the Congo. He had been there for the independence of nearly all African countries, and there too, when the dominos continued to collapse as the structures of colonialism crumbled and gave way to newly independent states.

There he is, on 26th January 1971, a morning in Kampala. Idi Amin, likely drunk, on the morning after the coup, speech slurring, not yet fully comprehending what his coup means.

There he is as Belgian missionaries catch the last planes out of the Congo.

***

The last meal I had with Mohinder was a hasty breakfast on Riverside Drive, his last home, in 2019. I was in a hurry to catch a bus to Kitale. Mohinder insisted I first eat something. I gulped down a cup of coffee and snatched a banana. It had been many years since that lunch in 2008.

He counted in his circle an emperor, presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates. He had been the personal cameraman of Emperor Haile Selassie in the waning days of his life, when the Emperor was starting to become senile.

By then, his health had deteriorated. He barely left the house. But the big lunches had continued. Lunchtime, I had grown to learn, had been a favourite hour to visit Mohinder, as attested by the endless stream of guests who dropped in. Peter, his long-time cook, had been one of the most popular people in Nairobi, judging by the very eminent calibre of people who dropped in on Mohinder: academics, human rights lawyers, environmentalists, international television correspondents, Hollywood film stars, activists, chief justices. And as each came in, and sat at the rotating table, there was Peter, apron on, beaming, his forever-oily face advertising the goodness coming out of the kitchen.

But I sensed too that the reason Mohinder paid attention to meals, and taking care of his guests, was to keep alive the memory of his wife, Ambi, who died during the meningitis epidemic of 1990. It was she who had trained Peter. By all accounts, she had been a woman worthy of Mohinder, and when she died, he and his son Sam lost the pillar in their lives.

He greatly loved life, but he also longed to see Ambi again.

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Khaligraph Jones and Emerging Hip Hop Futures in Kenya

12 min read. Kenya’s hip hop scene has been nothing but a graveyard of mixtapes which, while offering a glimpse of spirit and experimentation, deny listeners the beauty of intention, coherence, and completeness. Testimony 1990 is a New Age album, warm and optimistic. It does not lament. It chronicles contemporary challenges besetting a young man in Nairobi.

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A talent emerged with a vociferous, shrill and piercing cry deep in the heart of Kayole on June 12, 1990. It was an uncertain time. Agitations for multiparty democracy clouded the air amidst arbitrary detentions, torture and killings. Still, a mother – freed from the listlessness of a third trimester – rocked a plump newborn. As the cries of Robert Ouko’s assassination tapered, it was only fitting that the mother in Kayole thought it wise to name her new hope – Brian Ouko Robert – perhaps as a silent resistance against the dictatorial regime. I do not know. I have not asked. But I know we use names to resist erasure.

Brian Ouko Robert – aka Mr. Omollo aka Khaligraph Jones – was welcomed by a troubled country of barely 20 million people. Exactly 28 years later, this baby released a debut album, Testimony 1990, and give us a chance to look back not only at this baby who has now become a man, but at a country whose population, just like its troubles, has doubled. Let us talk about the music of this prodigious talent.

Testimony 1990

Testimony 1990 is a testimony of Kaligraph Jones’s life, his troubles, and those of his country. Khaligraph is not an overnight celebrity. His success is not the product of the modern viral phenomenon, where the gods of the internet choose to crown a new artist with a million views on Youtube for some mumble rap. He is not the product of accidental fame but of tenacity.

His interest in music began at an early age in elementary school. He attended Imara Primary School and Brucewood Secondary School, and at 13 his love of music was visible and palpable. It helped that his older brother loved music too. Together they released their first rap track in 2004.

But Kenya has one of the most unforgiving hip hop music ecosystems. There are only two options for an artist: have the right connections and money, or be willing to toil for years through venom-infested underground rap battles to gain recognition.

Khaligraph made his bones the hard way.

In 2009, The Channel O Emcee Africa tour, sponsored by Sprite, came calling in search of the premier freestyle MC. They dubbed it the Channel O MC Challenge. At the heart of the competition was the desire to initiate awareness of “street life” as a sociocultural context captured by local hip hop music. Khaligraph, then a 19-year-old lad, laced his gloves and threw himself into the ring.

Let us recount the day.

A Saturday night. June 6 2009. The venue is Club Clique. The finals for the Emcee Africa Kenya edition. Early that day, over 50 MCs flocked to Baricho Road to register for the competition. The fans were your typical pre-skinny-jeans hip hop crowd. Baggy jeans, hoods, Timbaland, bling bling – fake no less – and a gangsta attitude to boot. The judges: Mwafreeka, Abbas Kubaff aka Doobeez, and Nazizi. Three notable voices with sledgehammer disc tracks to their names.

Kenya has one of the most unforgiving hip hop music ecosystems. There are only two options for an artist: have the right connections and money, or be willing to toil for years through venom-infested underground rap battles to gain recognition.

The judges have their ears tuned for isolating the dope from the whack rappers. During the auditions, Mwafreeka is reported to have told a hopeless contestant to say aloud how whack they were. This nitbit reminds me of my primary school teacher, Mr. Odede, who, when we could not get our mathematics right, admonished us, en whole, to shout, to the world how sheep we were. Sheep most were.

A line-up of 10 MCs is selected to battle for the top spot. They are: Point Blank. Long Jon. Lethal Dynamic. Oluchina. Khaligraph. Kip. Kimya. Bizzle. O.D. And one female MC, Xtatic. I lioness out to destroy the cabal of bloody manes.

It was simple: get to the stage and showcase your lyrical prowess, spitting spur-of-the-moment rhymes, either acapella or on beat boxing, or you could prompt the judges to give you a topic if you thought you had mad skills. Eliminations pitted Point Blank vs Khaligraph for the big prize = $10,000. That is, 780,000 Kenya shillings. (A dollar was going for 78 Kenyan shillings in 2009. It goes for 100 Kenya shillings today. A weaker shilling.)

Point Blank floors Khaligraph. Everybody agrees. But this would mark the beginning of Khaligraph’s ascendancy. In that list of 10 MCs, 10 years later, none has been as industrious as Khaligraph. None can challenge him to the throne of Kenya’s top MC today. None dominates the airwaves like he does today. Testimony 1990 is a testament of his focus, the fire lit that Saturday night in 2009.

It is a New Age album, warm and optimistic. It does not lament. It chronicles contemporary challenges besetting a young man in Nairobi. It is not belt out in broody lyricism, perhaps because Testimony 1990 comes from an artist who has achieved remarkable success. It is not a chronicle of his status now, as an artist, but a sort of reflection of a past lived through, of battles won. It is unlike the legendary Kalamashaka with their gritty rhymes and the personal catastrophe of jumping a thousand hurdles and still not making it to the Promised Land.

The album opens with “Testimony” featuring Sagini, a quintessential recap of the spirit of the album, and “Blessings” – a track thanking God. The warmth and reflection is a manifestation of the prevailing mood in the hip hop world today. One can say most albums released in 2018 sailed in a sea of positivity. Warm dynamic performances packaged with the versatility of moods and styles. “No chance, featuring the immensely talented Fena Gitu, is a clean introspective lay of wisdom. It is a combination of rapping and singing, away from the old times when rappers laid two or three verses on a solo cut. Instead we have a fluency where rap is blended neatly with song, interacting much more than you’d find in the two-dimensional hook-led templates of old.

It is customary to catch an older cat being mentioned, or a style or voice aped, sometimes temporarily. It is paying homage when a rapper references an older rapper or quotes a line. It is a nod of influence. An acknowledgement that the old wordplay still lives, that it has been connected to the present. Not sure whether anybody realized it, but even in that track with Msupa S, Khaligraph pulled a little of Johhny Vigeti: that raspy voice. He does it again in “For Life”. If you love Mr Vigeti, you can pick Khaligraph channeling him Vigeti from mid second verse.

The album opens with “Testimony” featuring Sagini, a quintessential recap of the spirit of the album, and “Blessings” – a track thanking God. The warmth and reflection is a manifestation of the prevailing mood in the hip hop world today.

The production of some of the tracks is a nod to the prevailing styles ruling the market. “Gwala”, like “Yego”, is trap music, same as “Taking it all” with Timmy Blanco, same as “Don’t Know” with KO. All nods to the South African contemporaries, that up here in East Africa, we can do it just like you do. “Beat It” channels the pop icon Michael Jackson. “Make Babies” is a typical Khaligraph lyrical flexing: just shouting from the rooftops that he can accelerate if he wants to. He channel’s Eminem’s flow towards the end.

“Instagram Girls” and “Superwoman” are storytelling tracks. “Aisee” with Ray C is a light danceable beat. Ray C was the sultry goddess of our teenage years. She peppered our adolescence with sexual provocation. As a playlist, the album, with its solid lyrical releases, reflects an artist who has grown and is comfortable with his voice, an artist who is ready to put Kenya’s hip hop on the international map.

On the other hand, there are concerns over the lack of politically-conscious hip hop in Kenya.

Hip hop as a political force

Hip hop is inherently political. With its roots traced to the militant spoken word by groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, hip hop has always delivered political missives from the front line. In the 1980s, hip hop chronicled and reacted to the policies of US President Ronald Reagan, which called for widespread tax cats, decreased social spending, increased military spending and the deregulation of domestic markets. Reaganomics led to massive cuts to social programmes and widened income inequality, consequences which were particularly worse for African American families.

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five captured this devastation in “The Message” in 1982. Robert Hilburn of Los Angeles Times described the single as “a revolutionary seven-minute record that is a brilliant compact chronicle of the tension and despair of the ghetto life that rips the innocence of the American Dream.”

These hip hop forefathers opened the door for younger fiery voices. When Public Enemy came to the fore, they earned the moniker Black America’s CNN. Public enemy centered political and cultural consciousness in a sonic experimentation infused with skilled poetic rhymes. They were ferocious unlike anything that had been seen before.

Hip hop is inherently political. With its roots traced to the militant spoken word by groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, hip hop has always delivered political missives from the front line.

Life outcomes were no better in Kenya. The economy collapsed from a nominal GDP of USD 7.265 billion in 1980 to USD 6.135 billion in 1985. Even worse, Kenya became one of the first countries to sign a Structural Adjustment Programme loan with the World Bank. The trade liberalisation experience was a gross disappointment and threw the early 1990s into great uncertainty. But before the ship could be directed away from the high waves, Kamlesh Pattni, as the chief architect of what became known as the Goldenberg Scandal, in collaboration with the top operatives in the Moi government, including the president himself, raped the country, stealing billions from the public coffers. An ignominy that lost the country the equivalent of 10% of GDP.

The economic devastation created fertile ground for the emergence of one of the most influential hip hop acts in Kenya, Ukoo Flani, in 1995. The group’s music flourished as a form of protest – authentic, gritty, and startling in its boldness. Ukoo Flani historicised slum life, using Dandora as a poster child for the effects of endemic corruption, breakdown of public service delivery, rampant crime and police brutality, and immense suffering during the Moi dictatorship. Hip hop, belted out in Sheng – to escape the censor of the police state– became a tool for the disenfranchised young men in the sprawling ghettos to voice their dissatisfaction and dissent.

Over the past two decades, hip hop has oscillated from social and political commentary to easy-going party jams, or a mix of both. In America, subgenres such as gangsta rap brought news styles to socio-political commentary, as reminiscent in NWA’s “F**k the Police”. But this was clouded by portrayals of masculinity, sexuality, and materialism in ways that seemed anti-ethical to the messaging of the preceding decade. In Kenya, artists, particularly those in the Underground, continued to rail against urban violence and dysfunction, police brutality and extrajudicial killing of young men in slums.

Khaligraph’s music attempts to carry both social and political commentary and easy-going party jams. While a majority of his tracks are fashioned for the club, a few explore social and political themes. The track “Gaza” is a song about Nairobi’s notorious criminal gang by the same name. The track juxtaposes a dialogue between two people – a living gang member and a deceased one, with the threat of Hessy – Nairobi’s super cop – in the middle. The living gang member, as most are wont to be, is steeped in anger, crime and violence, spewing threats at Hessy for cutting down the gang friend, and vowing revenge. In slow, introspective storytelling, the dead gang member feeds the living member with sober, down-to-earth advice to let go of the idea of meting out revenge on the cop, or they’ll eat copper – Sheng’s euphemism for the rampant extrajudicial killings of young men perceived to be members of criminal gangs.

Hip hop, belted out in Sheng – to escape the censor of the police state– became a tool for the disenfranchised young men in the sprawling ghettos to voice their dissatisfaction and dissent.

“Chali ya Ghetto” (2017) is a narrative of life in the ghetto, one that extols the virtues of hard work and focus. The central message is that fortitude is the only path ghetto youth have for getting out of the slums alive, for social mobility. Such tracks, however, do not detail the extent of systemic marginalisation that not only pushes young people to drugs and gang violence but also effectively imprisons 60% of Nairobi’s population in informal settlements.

The question of whether hip hop can become a political mobilising force beyond the restrictions of personal protest is an old one. Most rappers start their musical career with an outrage against a system of oppression. As their careers progress, most tone down their lyrics to gain mainstream approval. It is only those who persist in the Underground that model their entire career on social and political commentary. In the modern marketplace, post-2000s, mainstream hip hop, inspired by gangsta rap, features the symbols of crass materialism – from gold chains, souped-up cars, toxic displays of masculinity, and sexual objectification.

Thanks to the Kanye West era, which began with the College Dropout in 2004, hip hop has succeeded in breaking down the old impregnable wall between commercial and socially-conscious hip hop. As Common told Fader in 2016; “Kanye kind of brought in a thing where it was like, you can rap about getting money and ‘Jesus Walks’. You can be down with Jay Z and Mos Def. Kanye brought together those different worlds.” This is the seismic shift that made Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly” or Childish Gambino’s “This is America” possible.

These shifts have also been replayed in Kenya. The mixing of commercial success and socially-conscious hip hop is what has made it possible for a commercial artist such as King Kaka to release “Wajinga Nyinyi” (2019) – one of the most impactful political protest tracks in recent years. It is not that the track tells Kenyans what they don’t know; rather, King Kaka serialises what is discussed daily on social media, and what is splashed on the front pages of daily newspapers. The lyrics translate the dysfunctions of a nation – clothed daily in civil terms – into the raw, unadorned, unpretentious language of the streets. #WajngaNyinyi tells Kenyans to stop being stupid and start holding the system accountable.

Urban colonial identity

This is the music culture that Khaligraph grew into, one in which hip hop was broadcast news from the ghetto, the hood. Rappers repped their hoods. Ukoo Flani made Dandora the capital city of Kenya’s hip hop, decked it with rhymes depicting an unforgiving cityscape for adult males and a space of tough love as Zakah na Kah depicted in the eponymic “Dandora L.o.v.e.”

When Khaligraph came of age, he began to identify with Kayole. Kayole 1960. The origins of the estates and route numbers, and the pervasiveness of these bus routes in Kenyan hip hop relate to the vital role recorded music plays in the construction of personal and collective cultural memory. While these bus route numbers evoke nostalgia over the years when the city was efficiently managed, the carrying forward of this colonial heritage in modern hip hop imagination shows the extent to which our collective memory and identity bears the remnants of the colonial state.

The bus route numbers go back to pre-independence years. Overseas Transport Company of London established the first local bus in Kenya in 1934, with a fleet of 13 buses plying 12 routes. The City Council of Nairobi, in 1966, awarded Kenya Bus Service (KBS) a monopoly franchise to run the country’s first formal means of public transport. The heydays of KBS was a demand-driven, efficient and predictable transport system. Fares were regulated.

The design of route numbers was in three dimensions. Route numbers above 100 series were for peri-urban routes, routes below 100 were intra-urban and urban, with the exception of 1, 2, and 3 which were peri-urban. All peri-urban routes terminated at Machakos Bus Station and all buses ending with the 100 Series terminated at the Bus Station. The addition of a letter to a route number signified that there were shorter routes that did not reach the specific destination, or they deviated from the original route then later joined it. Other routes, such as 9 and 6, were circular routes. A vehicle heading to Eastleigh, number 9, would use route 6 when coming back to town. Some of these route numbers have changed, others remain. Route 1 used to be from the City Centre to Dagoretti Corner. Routes 61 and 60, plying the City Centre to Kayole, are no longer in operation, and were changed to Route 1960 and 1961. Hence Kayole 1960.

Nazizi, the First Lady, was the first of Kenya’s MCs to chronicle the route number phenomenon in urban rap through the track “Kenyan Girl, Kenyan Boy”, and the recent “Mat Za Ronga” by Tunji ft Khaligraph Jones follows that age-old feature of Nairobi’s urban rap. Octopizzo, Khaligraph’s longtime rival to Kenya’s King of Rap throne, reps Namba 8 – Kibera.

Music marketplace

Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of political themes in hip hop albums. Kendrick Lamar’s vignettes capturing the African-American life is the poster political-hip-hop-album for the decade. Juliani’s 2016 album Mtaa Mentality is a definitive entry for politically-conscious albums in Kenya.

For the most part, away from the pioneering hip hop albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kenya’s hip hop scene has been nothing but a graveyard of mix tapes which, while offering a glimpse of spirit and experimentation, deny listeners the beauty of intention, coherence, and completeness. Kenya is home to “superstar” musicians without music albums. Music singles, which had hitherto been known as a precursor to an album, have in most cases been the only output Kenyan fans have received from their musicians.

Given the predominantly club-banger focus of a music single, it is often difficult to chart the trajectory of a musician from the perspective of their thematic concerns. However, the album Testimony 1990 is a condensed piece of work that offers us coherence, a singular thematic focus, and a snapshot of the career progress of the artist.

Sheng, as a practice of moving across languages, has always been the choice for urban youth to resist and to engage in socio-political commentary and protest. But with the breaking down of market boundaries through the dominance of a few US-based music streaming platforms, language is once again becoming a significant indicator for capturing the international market.

For young African artists, the future belongs to those who can blend local languages and the lingua franca with the dominant language of business, in this case English. It is the reason why Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz, while capturing the local East African market on the back of Swahili lyrics, resorts to English when doing collaborations with American artists such as Rick Ross and Omario. Khaligraph is the evolution of that trend, and it will not be long before he begins hustling for that big collaboration with a major American artist.

The album Testimony 1990 is a condensed piece of work that offers us coherence, a singular thematic focus, and a snapshot of the career progress of the artist.

There is a new legion of internet-born artists, genre-bending productions and visuals, serving digital native fan bases with exciting single tracks. The Gengetone – perhaps the most significant development in Kenyan music in years – is already stealing the airwaves from maturing acts such as Khaligraph, Octopizzo, and King Kaka. The new wave is characterised by explicit content, with song lyrics promoting violence and misogyny, and videos promoting the sexual objectification of women.

However, as writer Barbara Wanjala notes: “Kenyan artists have been experimenting to see what will capture the youth. The contemporary sound landscape runs the whole gamut, from songs that speak about debauchery to conscious lyricists rapping with conviction. Other artists straddle both worlds, producing output that has commercial appeal as well as tracks that are socially responsible.”

It remains to be seen whether, in addition to documenting, socio-politically conscious hip hop can engender political mobilisation and drive political change in Kenya. Perhaps Wakadinali’s “Kuna Siku Youths Wataungana” (2020) – which explicitly calls on youth to organise, mobilise, and take political action – is an encouraging direction for the new decade.

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Speak to My Heart! A Place for Indigenous Languages in African Fiction

12 min read. African mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned, with sub-Saharan Africa being one of the regions with the most endangered languages. But the solution will not come from simply promulgating policy. The “African society” must hold conversations with itself and overhaul its value system, because language is culture, and culture is empty without its set of values and truths.

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In an interview on Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station radio back in 2017, celebrated South Sudanese essayist, poet and scholar Professor Taban lo Liyong’ was asked by the interviewer to give his thoughts on the famous first African Writers Conference that took place on June 1, 1962 at Makerere University, Kampala. Taban, whom I fondly call the ‘poetrigenarian’, did not mince his words. He quipped that the Conference of African Writers of English Expression, as it was dubbed, not only isolated East African writers but also snubbed African writers who had published their works in indigenous languages. He went on to observe that Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek “invited himself” to the conference while Ngugi wa Thiong’o – then James Ngugi, attended it, not as a writer of fiction but as a journalist. At the time, Okot had published Lak Tar (White Teeth) in Acholi while Ngugi would proceed to give his The River Between manuscript to Chinua Achebe at the conference, a book that the South Sudanese interestingly describes as “algebraic” as it is “the writing of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in the Kenyan context”.

Taban further observed that the isolation of East Africans from a conference that occurred right on their territory was meant to “shame them into writing since East Africa was a literary desert at the time”. But Taban was particularly disturbed by the deliberate move to lock out African writers who wrote in their mother tongue. In so doing, the Western organisers of the conference simply told Africans that English was superior to African languages and had a special place in the land they had colonised.

Ironically, it was after this conference that Nigerian scholar Obi Wali published his controversial essay titled The Dead End of African Literature in which he argued that “an African writer who thinks and feels in his or her own language must only write in that language”. English, he argued, did not have the capability to “carry the African experience”. Some of the writers like Achebe argued to the contrary that Africans could Africanise English to authentically convey our cultural truths. But Wali’s paper inspired young writers of the time, notable among them being Ngugi wa Thiong’o who went on to become one of the chief proponents of writing in indigenous languages.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, in What Decolonizing the Mind Means Today, an article published in Literary Hub in June 2018, echoes his father’s views when he observes that the relegation of African languages in the post-colonial literary space influenced Ngugi to publish Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature in 1986. In the work, Ngugi rightly spiritualises language as culture and demonstrates its critical role in the decolonisation of the mind.

Earlier in 1966, Ngugi together with Taban and p’Bitek led other scholars at the University of Nairobi in pushing for the abolition of the then English Department and its replacement by a new department that would open up the study of literature to African literature and literature from other cultures. Indeed, the Department of Literature was finally established by the university and this saw the introduction of courses like East African Literature.

It’s more than half a century since these writers challenged the colonial hoisting of the English language post the fall of the Union Jack. Today, the University of Nairobi’s Education Building hosts, among other departments, three key departments that teach languages and literature: the Department of Literature, the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Kiswahili. In major universities across Anglophone Africa there exists a department that teaches African Languages, notable among them being Makerere University, University of Botswana, University of South Africa, Wits, Stellenbosch and University of Zimbabwe, among others. In these universities, post-graduate students are at liberty to identify and conduct research on any language or literature of their choice, including indigenous knowledge systems.

It’s safe to say that the rise of African languages and literatures in African universities is something that should be treasured. However, it’s hard to identify any palpable influence beyond the theoretical walls of academia. In fact, there is every indication that we have come full circle, and despite academic research in universities, mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned, mostly by educated native speakers in cities and towns. In particular, Generation Z or Gen-Z (described by the BBC as anyone born after 1995) represents a generation that can hardly communicate in their mother tongue. A majority of Millennials (the generation preceding Gen-Z) are equally unable to speak their mother tongue. The only difference is that the former are generally apathetic – if it’s not technology or social media, it’s not worth their time.

UNESCO observes on its website that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the three regions with the most endangered languages, the other two being Melanasia and South America. But Sub-Saharan Africa has a special relationship with French just as it does with English and Portuguese. According to a report published by Quartz Africa in October 2018, French is now the world’s fifth most spoken language “thanks largely to the millions of Africans who speak it each day”. The report states that 35% of the three million French speakers are from Sub-Saharan Africa while Asia only accounts for 0.6%. Interesting.

There is every indication that we have come full circle and despite academic research in universities, mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned

In the meantime, African languages are falling off the scale. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 observed that Sudan had the highest number of endangered languages, a total of 65; Cameroon was second with 36; and Nigeria tied with Chad at number three with 29 endangered languages. Kenya was third from last with 13 endangered languages; with slightly more than 60 indigenous languages in the country, this is tragic. In Kenya, languages like Burji, Suba and Boni are considered endangered while Yaaku and El Molo have been declared extinct. These deaths occur more as a result of political rather than natural causes.

The cemetery of dead languages may have no physical graves or tombs but it surely is just as unnervingly silent as the human cemetery. These languages are buried in the minds of native speakers as a memory of an empty epitaph – one that cannot be understood, retrieved and passed on to the next generation.

Long before we began committing linguicide (death of a language), the colonial masters knew how valuable our indigenous languages were to us and ensured that they colonised us culturally by perpetuating injustices against our languages. Through subjugation, slavery and total dehumanisation of Africans, the colonial master succeeded in creating an image of Africa and Africans that couldn’t exist independent of the colonial crown.

Every country had its fair share of colonial experience. In most of these countries, the colonial experience created a black mzungu (Englishman/woman) out of the educated class and those born afterwards inherited the primitive worship of mzungu as superior to us.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 observed that Sudan had the highest number of endangered languages, a total of 65

In Kenya, the black mzungu syndrome is linguistically evident in our collective response to the misguided belief that the English language is superior to our indigenous languages including Kiswahili. To be educated in Kenya is to speak good English; you are a genius if you speak the Queen’s English. English is a key metric of academic excellence. Woe unto you if you speak English with your mother tongue accent, even though Kenyans admire Russians when they speak English with a Russian accent and are glued to their TVs when an Italian speaks Swahili or Kikamba with an Italian accent. Those of us who stay in America for a minute land back home with an American “accent” that openly clashes with our mother tongue accent. To sound American is to sound polished.

But our love for foreign accents strangely isn’t limited to the West. I have come across Kenyans who while they shame or bully a fellow Kenyan on social media because he or she speaks English with a heavy mother tongue accent, delight at and in fact mimic with admiration how, say, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema says “Mama, give us a signal”. Somehow, it doesn’t bother them that Malema’s accent is influenced by his mother tongue, and he’s perfectly proud of his mother tongue just as other South Africans probably are. The same thing can be said of our celebration of Nigerian pidgin. Clearly, our disdain for how we speak English points to an identity crisis we host in our bodies. It has appreciably affected how we relate with our mother tongue languages and with one another.

Some of the Millennials and Gen-zers attempt to justify this disdain by claiming rather erroneously that indigenous languages are a cause of disunity in pluralistic societies like Kenya. Yet inter-ethnic hostility is not a function of one’s language. Rather it is a by-product of misguided tribal attitudes characterised by hate and insecurity. But it is not surprising that these two generations cannot appreciate the place of the indigenous language in their culture; the education system never trained them to. It is proof that learners in our schools deserve a system of education that destroys the black mzungu mentality and enables them to creatively learn their mother tongue, particularly in lower primary school.

In 2019, a Member of the Nairobi County Assembly, Ms. Sylvia Museiya, sought to introduce a Bill in the County Assembly to make learning the mother tongue compulsory for Early Childhood Development learners. She proposed that parents be compelled to teach their children their mother tongue at home with the learners then expected to speak the language in class. Ms. Museiya’s concern came from the fact that most children in Nairobi cannot speak their mother tongue and their parents seem to be the enablers of this self-inflicted injustice. One may not approve of her approach, but there is consensus that there exists a problem somewhere. Ironically, while learners in Nairobi are soon being forced to learn to speak their mother tongue, learners in rural schools have always been punished for speaking their mother tongue. In my formative years, we had the dreaded “disc” – a physical object that pupils hung around their necks whenever they were “caught” speaking their mother tongue. Same system of education, different motivations. In one, the city parent is guilty, in the other, the rural teacher is.

Post-colonial scholars questioned and sought to dethrone colonial ideologies that shaped education and gave learners a false consciousness through “internalisation of the image of the oppressor” and the oppressor became “the model of humanity” for learners as Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire observed in his influential work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

As post-colonial scholars sought to install the indigenous language at the center of literary and linguistic studies in our universities, the education system of the time was already dehumanising learners in primary school with a warped philosophy that radicalised learners into disowning their languages. Metaphorically speaking, post-colonial African scholars prepared the way but no one really showed up; young learners had been directed the other way.

Over time, our society and its political body parts (citizens and institutions) have become more culturally unconscious in a world that is fast changing. Consequently, identity becomes loose if not nebulous since people are generally learned but not necessarily educated. This lack of cultural consciousness is proof of failure on the part of our social institutions and explains why over fifty years later, we are still debating whether we should write in our indigenous languages.

Nonetheless, I find it grossly unfair to assess the African writer’s commitment to his or her culture based on whether he or she has authored works in his or her indigenous language. As much as an indigenous language enables its speakers to authentically express their truths and values, these truths and values may still be expressed in a foreign language. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart back in 1958 and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust fifty years later are just but a few demonstrations of this possibility.

This view is not to be interpreted to mean that a foreign language can usurp (violently or on the pretext of conveying a people’s truths) the cultural power of an indigenous language. Foreign languages shouldn’t be made or be seen to compete with indigenous languages because they actually can co-exist. They should not be considered as alternatives to the existence of any indigenous language.

There wouldn’t be a better time than the time when Africa starts to produce just as much writing in indigenous languages as in foreign languages. But how would it be possible if African governments do not devotedly invest in their languages and cultures? How would it be possible if the West that controls the African fiction enterprise continues to respond to the demands of their (Western) market? How would it be possible if the 21st Century African writer is blamed for a problem that is clearly not of his or her own making?

It is not enough for the older generation of African writers to simply cheer younger African writers into writing in their mother tongue. In fact, it would be a catastrophic failure on the part of the former if they didn’t appreciate that writing in indigenous languages is dependent on various dynamics and thus cannot be resolved by merely “encouraging” the younger generation of writers to write in their mother tongue.

First, take for instance the cancer of cultural illiteracy that prevails in our society today. We live in a society that perpetuates, against itself and its own offspring, the colonial and neocolonial ideologies. It’s a generation of culturally illiterate learners who are hardly interested in literature published in their indigenous languages. If they don’t speak it, either because they can’t or because they don’t want to, will they read it? In this environment, the African writer of mother tongue fiction isn’t guaranteed returns and thus has every right to choose a language that guarantees financial reward. Writing is not martyrdom.

Sadly, this cultural illiteracy is sustained by a snobbish political class that clings to the traditional hierarchical exercise of power through domination and thus is antagonistic to open and truly participatory policy-making processes that involve stakeholders. The recent contentious implementation of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) that replaced the 8-4-4 system in Kenya amply embodies this problem.

Secondly, textbook publishing has bedeviled the growth of fiction in Kenya. In a country where publishers are motivated by profits, fiction writers are bound to struggle to get their work published. It can only get worse for writers of mother tongue fiction. In an article published in The Elephant titled African Publishing Minefields and the Woes of the African Writer, Kenyan author Stanley Gazemba lays bare the inability of the local publishing industry to support the growth of fiction. He observes that the local publisher is profit-motivated and would rather invest in publishing books for schools than take a leap of faith into works of fiction. These publishers fundamentally publish fiction for speculation; if they don’t see a set book or a school reader in a writer’s manuscript, they’ll most likely not publish it. It’s for this reason that the African writer turns to foreign publishers, which as Gazemba observes, is a difficult expedition.

It’s a generation of culturally illiterate learners who are hardly interested in literature published in their indigenous languages

But the reality is that it’s rare to come by foreign publishers interested in mother tongue fiction. Those that are will ask for a translation (to see if it meets their threshold, and fits their style and audience) and the assessment will most likely be based on the translation, not the work in its original form. Not even the many online literary journals and magazines that dominate the African literary scene today are actively publishing works in mother tongue save for a few editions here and there. In 2016, for instance, Jalada translated into over 30 languages Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Gikuyu fable The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the then Jalada Managing Editor Moses Kilolo said Ngugi was “uniquely placed to be the first distinguished author and intellectual featured in our periodical Translations Issue”. During the 2017 Caine Prize Writers workshop in Tanzania, the Director of the Prize, Dr. Lizzy Attree, commissioned the translation into Kiswahili of selected excerpts from Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s “Memories We Lost”, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky and Abdul Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift. Such projects are expensive and are isolated cases on the continent; it explains why I can’t seem to find Jalada Translations Issue No 2 four years later. Away from this, there’s hardly any fiction published today in indigenous languages in Kenya, besides Kiswahili which is one of the two official languages.

In my early school years, I came across a number of Dholuo stories that are mostly out of print today. These included Otieno Achach, a classic by Tanzanian writer Christian Konjra Aloo, published by East African Publishing House in 1966; Masira ki ndaki (Misfortune is Inevitable) by the late Professor Okoth Okombo, Miaha by Grace Ogot (later translated as Strange Bride by Okoth Okombo). Asenath Bole Odaga perhaps stands out as the greatest contributor to Dholuo literature, with works varying from short stories and oral literature to an English-Dholuo dictionary. It would be accurate to say that, unlike today, publishers of the time embraced mother tongue fiction..

Without a doubt, because of these dynamics, the African writer may lack the motivation to write or even translate works of fiction into his or her indigenous language. The popular line has been that writers should be left to choose their preferred language of telling their stories, a position that I do not have a problem with. However, it’s reasonable to argue that our choices could have been different if our collective experiences had been better. It would help if we held the political class accountable for their cultural sins of enabling cultural servitude through neocolonialism and moral corruption in independent Africa. In so doing, we can reward ourselves with the opportunity to redefine the determinants that govern the choices that this and the next generation will make. This is a critical stepping stone to a more sustainable conversation.

At the risk of sounding academic, Sun-ki Chai, in a paper titled Rational Choice and Culture: Clashing Perspectives or Complementary Modes of Analysis, reports that individuals’ actions usually are “dependent on preferences that are determined by socio-psychological factors” and that “culture plays a role in shaping the behavior of rational individuals”. In this context, the African writer’s choice to write in a foreign language is influenced by his or her past and present environment.

In light of this, it is necessary that the society interacts with its past and present to eliminate encumbrances that stifle the growth of indigenous languages in all forms. These hindrances are more political than we would want to imagine. Since politics can be complex and subjective, the solution will not come from simply promulgating one policy after another. The “African society” must hold conversations with itself and overhaul its value system, because language is culture, and culture is empty without its set of values and truths.

Since politics can be complex and subjective, the solution will not come from simply promulgating one policy after another

Finally, an anecdote. I once bumped into a professor of Literature along the pavements of University of Nairobi. The professor was chatting with a female colleague and I gathered he was trying to speak to the lady in her mother tongue which was not his mother tongue. She kept smiling. The professor then went on to wittily tell me he was trying to “speak to her heart”. He said that when a man speaks in English to a lady whose first language isn’t English, he speaks to her head; but when he speaks to her in her mother tongue, he speaks to her heart. In our case, the lady goes by the name Africa. She may understand English, French or Portuguese, but I’m sure she misses mother tongue stories and the poems of the African writer audibly flowing in the calm beat of her heart.

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