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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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society
A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.
To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.
Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.
Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.
Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”
The evolution of digital tea and receipts
Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.
Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.
Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.
Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.
The rise of online ‘tabloids’
Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’
Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.
Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.
In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.
Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.
While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.
Why do we love and loathe tabloids?
Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.
Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.
Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy.
Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.
We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.
Gossip as a function of power
Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.
There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.
Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.
Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage
But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.
When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.
An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.
A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.
In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.
Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.
Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.
But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.
Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.
The future of Kenya’s grapevine
The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.
Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.
And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.
The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?
With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.
African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.
In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.
Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”
For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.
Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra Kai, The Karate Kid, American History X, The Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The Mercenary, The African Doctor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Tsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.
Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.
There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.
Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.
Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.
On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.
As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.
The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
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