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East Africa’s Freedom Soundtracks

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East Africa’s Freedom Soundtracks
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Grassroots activism by Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasabuvu and a deteriorating local economy were among the reasons why the idea for a roundtable conference was first formulated in 1959 by the Congolese Labour party. The aim was to organise the independence of Belgian colonies in Africa. So on January 3rd,1960, the Belgian government announced that it was  going to convene  a roundtable conference with the goal of helping the Congolese to transition from colonial rule to independence. That was when Joseph Kabassele was approached to select a few musicians who would travel as an African jazz band to  entertain the Congolese delegation in Brussels. One of the songs they performed was Independance cha cha composed by Joseph Kabasele, also known as Le Grand Kalle. It is one of the most memorable songs as well as one of the first Pan-African hits.

(Lingala version)

Independance Cha-cha to zuwi ye !
Oh
Kimpwanza cha-cha  tubakidi
Oh
Table Ronde cha-cha ba gagner oh!
Oh
Lipanda cha-cha tozuwi ye!

(French version)

Independence cha-cha que nous avons
arrache !
oh
Liberte cha-cha, obtenue !
A la
Table Ronde cha-cha ils ont remporte !
Oh
Liberte cha-cha, arrachee  !

(English version)

Independence cha-cha declared!
Oh Freedom cha-cha we’ve conquered!
At the Round Table they won!
Oh Liberty cha-cha we’ve conquered!

Independence Cha Cha – Grand Kalle

Capturing, as it did, the mood of a continent throwing off the shackles of colonial domination, the song, as described by Alain Mabanckou, the Congolese-born French writer and academic, “ quickly became the hymn of the emancipation of the black continent”.

However, many of the newly independent states chose to adopt some of the symbols of statehood pioneered by their erstwhile colonial masters, including national flags and anthems. And when it came to the latter, rather than adopt the songs that symbolised liberation to their citizens, they commissioned new tunes that were more in keeping with international norms.

Just as the concept of the nation-state was premiered in Europe, so too was that of national anthems, and many today follow the conventions established there. The Netherlands has the oldest song used as a national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which was composed between 1568 and 1572 but not officially recognised as such till 1932. The United Kingdom’s “God Save The Queen” is widely considered to be the oldest national anthem and many countries, both in Europe and among her former colonies, have modelled theirs on it. Malcolm Boyd, who has analysed a great number of national anthems, described the two most common categories as hymns with a solemn pace and melody (such as “God Save The Queen”) and marches (such as the French “La Marseillaise”).

Even as Kalle’s appeal for unity was ignored in the Congo, which was quickly plunged into civil war, independence was dawning in East Africa and Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania were themselves using music to nurture and cement national traditions as well as create a sense of unity among people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

THE NATIONAL ANTHEMS OF EAST AFRICA

As David A. Butz notes, “Scholars from a variety of disciplines argue that the function of national symbols is to activate collective group membership and, as a result, to encourage belongingness and identification with one’s nation.”

Kenyan musicologist Professor Mellitus Nyongesa Wanyama of Moi and Kabarak universities, who is also the founder of the Utafiiti Foundation Research Centre, explains that in Africa, a national anthem is a patriotic song that evokes and eulogises the history, traditions and struggles of its people. Therefore, it may vary from country to country. National anthems are also used to rally people to work together for unity and development, and may symbolise praise, devotion, or patriotism. . “An anthem should be made memorable by the use of simple words that everyone can identify with and it is usually in the national language of the country,” he says.

After independence, African governments, Kenya included, tasked the elite minds available at the time to come up with national symbols for their respective countries, which included national anthems’ tunes and lyrics.

According to Wikipedia, Kenya’s national anthem was one of the first to be specifically commissioned. It was written by the Kenyan Anthem Commission in 1963, which was composed of the following five individuals:

  1. Professor Washington Ambrose Omondi, who is currently an associate professor in the Department of Music and Dance, School of Visual and Performing Arts at Kenyatta University.
  2. The late George Zenoga Zake who passed away in 2008. Zake was a Kenya-based Ugandan music professor who founded the music department at Kenyatta University; he was in charge of assisting the Railway Training School choir in recording the Kiswahili version of the national anthem.
  3. The late Graham Hyslop, who was an organist at the All Saints Cathedral and Kenya’s colonial Music Inspector in 1963 with a particular interest in Pokomo songs. He was also conductor of the All Saints and Alliance School choirs. He died in 1978. It was he who recorded a lullaby from Mzee Meza Maroa Galana that became the melody to the anthem.
  4. Peter Kibukosya, who was once chairman of the Kenya Music Festival and who died in 1978.
  5. Finally, the late Rev. Thomas Kalume, who not only translated the New Testament from Hebrew into Kiswahili, but was the first clergyman to be elected to Kenya’s parliament – as MP for Malindi North in 1969.

The team officially started the process of composing the anthem in May 1963, just before the Independence Day celebrations in December of that year. Years before, as a music expert visiting East African schools, Hyslop had recorded the traditional Pokomo lullaby, B-e-e Mndondo B-e-e, which Galana would later say he had “learnt and mastered as a young boy”. The song’s simplicity and originality apparently so impressed Hyslop that he took the recording back to Nairobi where it was lodged with the National Museum as part of the country’s cultural heritage. Galana described the song as “simply an adult telling a child not to fear as the sound it is hearing is of a goat bleating. The adult asks who had wronged the child and then assures the young one that he would go to fight them – the people in the farms – while the moon is shining brightly….”

In an interview published in the Daily Nation in December 2015, a month after the death of Mzee Galana, Prof. Omondi said the Kenyan Anthem Commission had visited various peoples at the Coast to sample and record folk tunes for consideration and possible adaptation. “Like most folk songs, there was no known composer of most of these Pokomo folk songs,” he said.

After several weeks, the commission presented three different tunes, including Galana’s lullaby. They then went ahead and composed lyrics in both Kiswahili and English. Additionally, they also agreed that the opening stanza be composed as a prayer, O God of all creation, bless this our land and nation | Ee Mungu nguvu yetu, Ilete baraka kwetu, following the anthem-as-hymn template established by the British. This was credited to the late Rev. Kalume.

National Anthem of Kenya


In August 1963, the tune was accepted after the Police Band played the three verses in both Kiswahili and English to the prime minister and his council of ministers.

When the real work began, the All Saints Cathedral choir was the first to be approached to record the English version while the Railway Training School choir was asked to record the Kiswahili version. All this was done in less than four weeks. On September 4th, 1963, the respective choirs were then asked to perform the anthem at Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s residence in Gatundu.

In addition to the choirs, there was another entry, one by the late Gerishon Manani, who in 1966 founded and became the chairman of the Kenya National Folk Music and Dance Festival. Initially, Mr. Manani had secured a scholarship from the British Council to study music at Trinity College in
London, from 1958 to 1963. Mr. Manani’s song was titled Kenya Taifa Letu. After it was official that his song would not be Kenya’s national anthem, Mr. Manani changed the title to  Kenya National Song of Praise. The song was recorded in both Kiswahili and English. Sadly, the original copy cannot be traced.

After the auditions, Mzee Kenyatta requested that the commission’s and Mr. Manani’s anthems be merged into one. After consultations, however, it was decided that the anthems be performed before a gathering of local people who were present for the occasion. They unanimously chose the Commission’s anthem.

Subsequently, that month, the Commission’s English version was sung by a mixed choir from Alliance High School, Alliance Girls High School and the All Saints Cathedral, while the Railways Training School choir sang the Kiswahili version.

Subsequently, Jomo Kenyatta wrote a letter in November 1963 thanking Prof. Omondi and his team for their work; this was the only recognition the team received from the state. Interestingly, Mr. Galana would only learn that the tune he had provided to Hyslop had been selected for the anthem when it was played at the Independence Day celebrations on 12th December 1963. Like many Kenyans on that night, he and a group of friends and relatives were following the events on the radio. “We silently listened to the King’s Anthem and after it ended, we prepared to hear our own new national anthem which we had been told would be sung for the first time that night,” he told the Daily Nation in 2011. “Then the new national anthem came on air. The tune was that of my song even though the words had been changed.”

Although he did gain a measure of recognition, Mr. Galana would die a bitter man. “Never trust the government of Kenya, it only gives lip service to its heroes, most of whom are living in squalid conditions,” the then 95-year old told a writer for the Tana River County’s official website in 2013, two years before his death. “I did not hold a gun and go to the bush like Dedan Kimathi or Major Blue and others. However, I contributed the melody and the whole world acknowledges that.”

Though never a part of the Kenyan Anthem Commission, when news of Mr. Galana’s death reached State House, President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the man who had picked his tune for the national anthem, sent condolences and even gifts to the family. Most members of the Commission are today also deceased and little remembered.

A similar situation prevailed in Uganda. Before Professor George Wilberforce Kakoma, the man behind Uganda’s national anthem, passed away in 2012, he had filed a case in court accusing the government of infringing on his rights to own property and for not paying him royalties for the use of his song. He claimed about $1.9 million (equivalent to about Ush4.5 billion). Initially, the government had paid him Ush2,000 in 1963, which is less than a dollar today.

In early 1962, a committee was tasked with choosing Uganda’s national symbols. Its members were George Wilberforce Kakoma, Polycarp Kakooza, Bambi Katana, Senteza Kajubi and Wilberforce Nadiope, who later became President Milton Obote’s Vice President. In 1961 the commission sent out an advertisement that was published in the Uganda Argus, a government-owned newspaper, for interested people to submit compositions and designs for not only the national anthem but other national symbols too.

The short-listed individuals were invited to come and showcase their work to the committee. Unfortunately their submissions were disappointing. It was then that the head of the committee, Professor George William Kajubi, asked Professor George Kakoma, a renowned inspector of schools and a music teacher, to compose an anthem. Prof Kakoma composed the melody but Peter Wyngard, Kakoma’s friend who was then a lecturer at the Makerere Institute of Education, composed the lyrics. Interestingly, other members of the committee, including Rev. Kakooza and Mr. Katana, appear to have also made submissions of their own. Mr. Kakoma came up with the anthem overnight and it was declared the winner in July 1962, a few months before Independence.

Oh Uganda may God uphold thee,
we lay our future in thy hand,
United, free for liberty together we’ll
always stand

National Anthem of Uganda

In 2010, Mr. Kakoma was awarded USh50 million ($14,000) by the Ugandan High Court, which recognised that he, along with the Ugandan government, had joint ownership of the copyright to the anthem. The court, however, also decreed that as a condition to his getting the money (a third of the out-of-court settlement he had rejected in 2009), Mr. Kakoma had to give up his claim to the copyright. Mr. Kakoma, who died in April 2012, appealed the judgement and as of May 2016, the case had yet to be decided.

THE ANOMALOUS CASE OF TANZANIA

As Professor Mellitus Wanyama explains, “The first line in the first stanza of Tanzania’s anthem was adopted from South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika, which was composed in 1897 by a schoolteacher and poet, Enoch Mankayi Sontonga”. Set to the tune of the Welsh hymn, Aberystwyth, written by Joseph Parry more than two decades before, the hymn became popular in South African churches and was taken up by the choir of Ohlange High School, whose co-founder was the first president of the South African Native National Congress. It was sung to close the first Congress meeting in 1912, and by 1925, had become the official closing anthem of the organisation, which had by then changed its name to the African National Congress. In 1927, a Xhosa poet, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, wrote an additional seven verses, and the tune quickly spread across the continent as a liberation anthem, much as Kalle’s Independence cha cha would 30 years later.

National Anthem of Tanzania

While the Kenyan and Ugandan anthems both invoke divine favour for their respective nations, especially in the first stanza, the case changes with the Tanzanian national anthem, which opens with God Bless Africa. Why is this so? And why was Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika successfully adopted as a basis for several countries’ anthems unlike Independence cha cha?

Various reasons have been advanced as to why Tanzania chose the South African song. The country had played a critical role in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. Its first president, Julius Nyerere, had, even prior to Tanganyika’s independence in 1961, been a leading campaigner against the apartheid regime, calling for a boycott of South African goods and helping to launch Britain’s anti-apartheid movement. When in power, he offered unflinching support to the ANC’s guerrilla fighters, who found refuge and a base for planning and training for their struggle in Tanzania. When the apartheid regime refused to issue them travel documents, it was on Tanzanian passports that ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were able to travel the world.

Further, Tanzania had offered itself as a base for others fighting for liberation, hosting the forces of many movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) from South Africa, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU), and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) from Namibia.

As Thandika Mkandawire, the Malawian-born Swedish economist, noted, “Up until independence, many of these nationalists movements of southern Africa used si Sikelel’ i Afrika as their nationalist anthem.” It therefore came as no surprise when Tanganyika adopted the Kiswahili version of the Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika as its national anthem in 1961 and the same was retained after it united with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

African music is an incredibly rich and fertile ground. The different regions produce their own distinctive musical styles. So, away from national anthems, we have other songs across East Africa that inspired the agitation for freedom and watered the seeds of nationalism in the pre-Independence and post-independence eras.

For example, in the 1960s, Mwana wa mberi, a traditional song that literally congratulates a mother on begetting a first child, has, according to the late Prof. Naomi Shitemi, been adopted in other situations that require hero-honouring. Prof. Maurice Amutabi’s essay “Cultural History of the Abaluyia: The Role of Traditional Music”, notes that the song became “very popular with the nationalist fervor … [I]t was adopted unofficially as a nationalist anthem at political rallies in Western Kenya”. Following independence, William Ignosi Mwoshi, the man largely credited with popularising the song outside the Luyha community, performed it for Jomo Kenyatta at his Gatundu home, signifying victory over the colonial rule.

‘Mwana wa mberi … [Alas! The Firstborn Child!]
‘mwana wa mberi beyaye
‘mwana wa mberi
Beyaye ‘we
Mwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero (repeat stanza)
Mwana wa mberi ni…. (mention celebrant)
Ni…. (mention celebrant)
Mwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero
Beyaye okhali na ‘undi no!
Mwana wa mberi
‘ha’ undi, no?
Mwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero (repeat stanza)
Lera tsimbande tsia wabikha
Mwana wa mberi
Khufuye omwana
Mwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero (mention cereals & grains)

Eee omwana wa mberi
Ee omwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero
Ee omwana wa mberi
Ee omwana wa mberi ne shiekhoyero (repeat stanza) 

The English translation:

[Alas the firstborn child!
The firstborn child
Alas indeed
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy (repeat stanza)

The firstborn is … (mention celebrant)
Yes it is…. (mention celebrant)
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy

Alas there is no other!
A firstborn child
You have another one
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy (repeat stanza)

Bring precious grains you have stored
For the firstborn child
We shower the child
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy (mention cereals & grains)

Oh yea the firstborn child
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy
Oh yea the firstborn child
Indeed the firstborn child is real joy (repeat stanza)]

Courtesy Prof. Naomi Shitemi

In a sense, Mwana wa mberi inaugurated an era where music encouraged nationalistic sentiment, many times reinventing history and exaggerating the virtues and deeds of founding presidents. As repressive and dictatorial single-party regimes constrained the space for democratic expression, musicians were reduced to praise-singers in the service of the state and its rulers. As Marie Korpe and Ole Reitov noted in their article on music censorship in Africa titled “Not to be Broadcasted”, “almost all broadcasting media [were] state-controlled and … performed as ‘his master’s voice’ during various regimes, be it in Tanzania under Nyerere, or Zaire under Mobuto”. In the 60s and early 70s, Kenya’s national celebrations were synonymous with live choirs performing patriotic songs. Jomo Kenyatta was a big fan and would go the extra mile to transport his favourite choirs to his Gatundu home to entertain him. Enock Ondego’s Wimbo was Historia, composed after Kenyatta’s death, recounts the arrest, trial and imprisonment of the so-called Kapenguria Six and offers a sanitised and exaggerated rendition of Kenyatta’s role in securing independence.

Maisha ya Mzee Jomo Kenyatta – Ukunda Group Singers

Enjoy the acoustic and electric guitar sounds in this song Shirikisho la Afrika by another Kenyan singer, John Mwale, which was released in 1983. The song celebrates the coming together of East African countries to form the initial East African Community (which he believed would strengthen the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union), which was formed in 1967, collapsed in 1977, and revived on 7th July 2000.

Shirikisho la Afrika – John Mwale

Kenyan twist dance maestro John Amutabi Nzenze composed one song as a tribute to the Kenyan founding father Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In the song, he also speaks against corruption and encourages Kenyans to work hard for future generations. The song is titled Kenyatta.

Kenyatta – John Nzenze / Geoff Ridden

In Tanzania, the Atomic Jazz Band, formed in the mid-1950s, composed a song, Tanzania
Yetu,
which tells of the feats of Tanzanian leader Mwalimu Nyerere. The song was famous all through the 1960s under the leadership of band leader John Kijiko.

Tanzania Yetu Ni Nchi Ya Furaha – Atomic Jazz Band

It is rare, especially in recent times, for an artist to sing about a leader from a country other than his or her own. But Kenya’s Daniel Owino (D.O.) Misiani and his Shirati Jazz Band composed a track extolling the virtues of the fallen Pan-Africanist leader Julius Nyerere titled Piny Ema Oneno (It’s the world that has seen it). This was among Kenya’s most successful bands. Starting off as Luo Sweet Voice, it became Shirati Luo Voice Jazz around 1972, before changing its name to Orchestra D.O. 7 Shirati Jazz in 1975.

Tribute to the late Julius Nyerere – D.O Misiani

In Tanzania, the late Marijani Rajabu, who performed a musical style that was popularly known as Muziki Wa Dansi in Tanzania, composed a song titled Nyerere to acknowledge the efforts of Mwalimu in the fight for Tanzania’s freedom. He also urges Tanzanians to pray for their president.

Nyerere – Marijani Rajabu

In 1979, a year after Kenyatta’s death, Kaakai Kilonzo and his Kilimambogo Brothers Band offered a utopic vision of Kenya in the song Kenya Nchi Yangu. He followed that up with Fuata Nyayo, which extolled the virtues of Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi. Originally Kaakai performed in Kamba, his native language, but rose to national fame after releasing his music in Kiswahili.

Kenya Nchi Yangu – Kakai Kilonzo

Another famous patriotic song was America to Africa by the veteran Kenya singer David Amunga. In this song, he expresses his joy at coming back home to Kenya after staying for several years in the USA. It was released in 1964.

Going Back to Africa – David Amunga

Following the ouster in 1979 of Idi Amin, famously known as the “Butcher of Uganda”, the song Saba Saba celebrated his removal from power and espoused the people’s freedom from the grip of Amin’s authoritarian rule.

Saba Saba

However, there were still sounds of resistance and protest. In 1984 John Owino released Baba Otonglo, a song decrying the poor state of the domestic economy, which so alarmed the Moi government in Kenya that the records on the market were confiscated. In 1997, the trio known as Kalamashaka rebelled against the hardships of life in Nairobi’s low-income neighbourhoods with their hit Tafsri Hii, and, as Oyunga Pala writes, “cemented the place of Sheng and Swahili rap as the voice of the urban youth all over Kenya.”

Tafsiri Hii – Kalamashaka

Similarly, in 2002, as the Nyayo era drew to a close, Kenyans were again dancing to the sounds of Yote Yawezekana Bila Moi (All is Possible Without Moi), a satirical corruption of the gospel song which declared Yote Yawezekana Kwa Imani (All is Possible with Faith).

A year earlier, Eric Wainaina’s Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (Land of Bribery) expressed the common frustration with the corrupt state (and earned him notoriety after organisers at a music festival attended by the then Vice-President, George Saitoti, tried to stop him from performing the song).

Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo – Eric Wainaina

By the time of the 2002 elections, Kenyans were enraptured by Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s defiant Unbwogable (unshakeable, unbeatable, unstoppable).

Unbwogable – Gidi Gidi Maji Maji

And a new generation of musicians are now picking up from where their predecessors left off. Artists like Juliani in Kenya are continuing to challenge and highlight the inequities of Kenyan society and the iniquity of its politicians.

Barua ya Ocampo – Juliani

One such artist is Tanzanian superstar Diamond Platinumz, who has recently released a song titled Acha Nikae Kimya, meaning, “It is better for me to be silent if expressing myself will land me into trouble.” In recent times several people have been arrested in Tanzania for expressing themselves strongly against the government of President John Magufuli.

Acha Nikae Kimya – Diamond Platnumz

We cannot exhaust the list, but we leave you with a famous quote by Nelson Mandela who was very much in love with South African music, having been a great fan of the late Brenda Fassie. He said: “The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope.”

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Lucy Ilado is a music journalist based in Nairobi.

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Culture

Removing a Dictator

How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?

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Removing a Dictator
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In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.

Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.

Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”

The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.

On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.

While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.

A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:

In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.

While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?

In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.

People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.

As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.

One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.

In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.

A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government,  when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”

Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.

These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.

The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.

While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”

The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.

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Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
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If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.

So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.

The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.

At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.

“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”

The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.

“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.

Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.

“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.

Then, another surprise.

“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.

“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.

Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.

“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.

So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.

On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.

“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.

Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.

“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.

The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.

“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.

“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”

Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense.  So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.

John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”

John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.

Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.

“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.

After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.

James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”

Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in

There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.

Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.

James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.

Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.

“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.

Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.

Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:

“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”

“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.

Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.

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Culture

Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.

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Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
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In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.

The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.

Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.

The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.

In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.

Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.

News and their social epidemics

With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.

In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.

A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?

Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.

Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.

News and confirmation bias

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.

To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.

Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.

Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.

Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.

Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.

Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).

Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.

The worst must be reported

Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.

Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.

An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.

A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.

“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”

“So why look here?” asks the officer.

“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.

It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.

There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.

The Anatomy of a Stereotype

A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.

There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.

Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.

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