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.
Independance Cha-cha to zuwi ye !
Kimpwanza cha-cha tubakidi
Table Ronde cha-cha ba gagner oh!
Lipanda cha-cha tozuwi ye!
Independence cha-cha que nous avons
Liberte cha-cha, obtenue !
Table Ronde cha-cha ils ont remporte !
Liberte cha-cha, arrachee !
Independence cha-cha declared!
Oh Freedom cha-cha we’ve conquered!
At the Round Table they won!
Oh Liberty cha-cha we’ve conquered!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Peter Kibukosya, who was once chairman of the Kenya Music Festival and who died in 1978.
- 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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)]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
By the time of the 2002 elections, Kenyans were enraptured by Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s defiant Unbwogable (unshakeable, unbeatable, unstoppable).
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.
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.
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.”
How Afrobeat(s) Was Hatched: From Kuti to Burna
Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Fela Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations on which the genre stands.
There was initially a slight conflation between the Afrobeat genre and its later reincarnation as Afrobeats. Recently however, there has been a demarcation between the two genres even though they share certain antecedents of lineage.
Fela Kuti—visionary composer, multi-instrumentalist, radical social activist, cultural renegade, political prisoner and pan-Africanist amongst other things—is regarded as the foremost exponent of Afrobeat and his life and work have been amply documented. Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat emerged after years of experimentation during which he lived in London as a student in the 1950s and 60s and then in Los Angeles in the late 60s. Kuti had studied classical music in England where he also spent time moonlighting in jazz clubs. Jazz, and not classical music, had been his first love. On completing his studies, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he had a stint in broadcasting before going into a full-time career in music.
At the time, West African highlife music was all the rave. Highlife is reputed to have been pioneered by E.T. Mensah, a Ghanaian exponent, but the genre soon gained widespread acceptance all over the West African coast. It was an intoxicating blend of Latin sounds and African polyrhythms served with bluesy horns. Essentially, it was feel-good music with little or no overt political content. It certainly didn’t need to be politically conscious because many African countries were still in a euphoric mood after recently gaining independence from their erstwhile colonisers.
For a while, Kuti dabbled in what he termed highlife-jazz. And then at the end of the 60s, he visited the United States on a musical tour. On getting there, he discovered that he and his band hadn’t obtained the correct visas that would permit them to work. In Los Angeles, he met Sandra Izidore, a young and beautiful African American woman who would change his life.
A student of anthropology, Izidore was also a radical pro-black activist who turned Kuti to the ideology of the Black Panther Party. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous momentum, with black leaders calling for urgent sociopolitical change. Such transformation also meant cultural assertion and empowerment as exemplified by James Brown’s radical cry, “Say it loud, I’m black and proud”. Brown in turn preached his searing political message through a diet of gut-bucket funk. Funk was unapologetically black at its core; the kind of music that in earlier times would be classified as race music. Basically a groove-based music, its energetic, funky drum patterns and heavy bass lines distinguished it as a form that spoke directly to the gut and soul.
Meanwhile, Kuti was taking copious notes on everything, from the strident political messaging to the indispensability of the groove coupled with the hypnotic and electrifying effects of gut-deep funk. There was clearly a lot to be learnt from a culturally resurgent black America.
Although Kuti deeply admired jazz, he still felt it lacked something. In particular, he believed that more obvious elements of African music needed to be added into the mix. These ingredients included powerful ancient West African drumming traditions. Within those illustrious percussive traditions, drummers had discovered a way to make drums “talk” in honouring their deities and forging stronger communal ties.
Kuti promptly set about incorporating those vital elements of West African music into his ever-expanding repertoire. Apart from his own indigenous Yoruba drumming, these elements included Ghanaian styles, highlife textures, jazzy horns and deep funk grooves. He also learnt about the power of African trance music and its innate spirituality. Having selected these assorted sonic elements, Kuti turned to questions of ideology and political message; it was an unlikely combination of ingredients funnelled through a highly idiosyncratic imagination.
Izidore had preached the necessity to develop a clear political vision. In America, political struggle was defined by the imperatives of black empowerment and the language of civil rights. Back in Nigeria, as the euphoric haze of independence wore off, Kuti was confronted by enervating postcolonial anomie. The ruling classes, both civilian and military, had become insufferably corrupt. Instead of real national development, Kuti saw missed opportunities and truncated potential which infuriated him. He started to lambast the decadent ruling classes and soon incurred their wrath. He was constantly harassed, arrested and beaten by military goons.
But Kuti had found a powerfully distinctive musical voice and an equally impressive political message to sit within it. Fastened together, his sonic template and ideological vision became a formidable weapon that attempted several things all at once: sociopolitical transformation, cultural and aesthetic affirmation, spiritual re-discovery and individual liberation.
Kuti came to be viewed as a disconcerting maverick, an irrepressible icon who spoke fearlessly for the disenfranchised masses, a gadfly who constantly taunted and angered the political and economic elites, and finally, a social rebel who championed the causes of countercultural renegades. He blithely broke all the rules, politically, culturally and musically. And within this restless cauldron of rebellion and experimentation, classical Afrobeat was born, with Kuti as its instantly recognisable face. However, there were other musicians, such as Orlando Julius and Remi Kababa, who also favoured the genre.
Within Kuti’s large and revolving band, many musicians are credited with having played pivotal roles in forging Afrobeat’s sonic identity. In this regard, mention must be made of drummer Tony Allen’s contributions in laying down the percussive basis of the Afrobeat sound. Although Kuti was the visionary mastermind who assembled all the elements together, he was generous enough to acknowledge Allen’s vital inputs. Incidentally, Allen died in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic at the age of 79.
Another crucial figure in the Afrobeat story is baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun who succeeded Allen as band leader when the latter left in 1979 not long after the sacking and razing of Kalakuta Republic, Kuti’s countercultural commune, in 1977. The following year, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s mother and foremost feminist, who had been flung from an upstairs window during the raid on Kalakuta, died aged 78 as a result of her injuries.
Kuti himself was never the same after this ordeal. He gradually became understandably paranoid, distrustful of even his own well-meaning close friends and associates and increasingly reclusive. His oppression at the hands of the military authorities continued and a change in his sonic template became noticeable. For one, the joie de vivre evident in his earlier compositions rapidly gave way to a sombre, meditative tone which aligned with the spiritual turn of mind that came to inform his general outlook.
Kuti died in 1997 during the reign of Nigeria’s most heinous dictator, General Sani Abacha, who himself met his demise the following year. But even before his death, Kuti had been long past his prime, weakened by numerous beatings inflicted by an unforgiving military and HIV/Aids. Sadly, he died a bitter and broken man although ultimately, he had the last laugh. Afrobeat, the genre he pioneered and disseminated against all odds eventually became an attractive idiom, finding proponents all over the world. As this came to pass, his cultural stock increased in value exponentially.
Nollywood, the rough, innovative and adaptable movie industry hatched in the midst of a pulverising economic meltdown and severe sociocultural upheavals soon grew to international prominence on the strength of its DIY ethic. After Kuti’s passing, it was yet another cultural phenomenon that, in spite of all odds, attested to the region’s cultural vibrancy and resourcefulness. It can be argued that the confidence acquired by Nollywood somehow translated to other distinct yet related cultural pursuits such as music. In other words, the same DIY spirit that had birthed Nollywood eventually produced Afrobeats.
Afrobeats, as distinct from Afrobeat, is less political, arguably less musically accomplished or sophisticated and evidently less aesthetically ambitious. Today’s Afrobeats musicians work in a vastly different technological era in which they don’t need to learn to play and master what are considered to be traditional musical instruments. All they need is an adept beatmaker.
However, Kuti’s Afrobeat is an almost impossible proposition in the current economic environment because he often needed what would appear to be orchestras within orchestras to produce his intricate, lavishly textured sound and hence realise his singularly unique musical vision. Technically, this is very difficult to accomplish presently as the sheer logistics required to achieve this kind of feat are simply mind-boggling.
Kuti also believed strongly in the spiritual dimensions of African music; music was, in other words, an avenue to access ancestral life-worlds and establish historical continuity devoid of the frivolities of the present. In addition, there is also a striving to affirm and express the ineffable. Again, this refers to the spiritual component of classical Afrobeat.
Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy are regarded as the current superstars of the Afrobeats scene. And in several ways, they are all very different. Wizkid, one of the first breakout Afrobeats stars, has a distinctively mellow voice and is very skilled at ad libs and groove-laden free-styles. Lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except that he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance floors. In fairness to him, he does not pretend to be a political messiah or to possess a vision of how society ought to be reformed. He has also become part of the global entertainment industry which readily accepts and promotes stars that lend themselves to easy and unproblematic branding.
The same can be said of Davido, Wizkid’s compatriot and frequent rival, who hit the limelight about the same time as the latter. Davido’s voice isn’t as charming but he makes up for it with an equally astute understanding of the groove and indigenous African rhythms. Other advantages that serve him well are his relentless energy and cannily precise understanding of his strengths and limitations as a musician.
Burna Boy, his multiple successes notwithstanding, is a slightly more demanding figure. Of the three major Afrobeats stars, he draws more directly from Kuti’s immense artistic legacy. He has sampled so many of Kuti’s compositions that detractors began to question his originality. Incidentally, Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, legendary jazz aficionado and broadcaster, had been Kuti’s manager in the 60s. So Burna comes from an artistic and ideological pedigree that can be traced right back to Kuti. His most recent musical offering entitled Twice as Tall comes barely a year after the Grammy-nominated and BET award-winning album, African Giant.
Burna has consistently attempted to infuse socially conscious lyrics in his music, an obvious connection to Kuti’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his mother, Bose Ogulu, is a producer of his latest album along with US luminaries P Diddy and Timberland. His sister works on his label as artistic director. Ensuring that his family participates in his artistic journey also chimes with Kuti’s understanding of the communal nature of music. However, being transformed into an unproblematic global star entails a more discreet packaging of his overt political agenda. If Burna gets too strident about his political message, sponsors and brands may balk at promoting him.
At the same time, there is clearly an inclination to present himself as a credible artist and not just a dance floor-filling flavour-of-the-month singer. It would be interesting to see how the contradictions between being a true artist and being merely an entertainer in the current music business climate play out. It is a bit early to predict how Burna intends to confront this dilemma as he tries to portray himself as an artist cut from the Kuti cloth while also having an eye on gorgeous video vixens who could make his visuals more interesting. His growing political awakening has to contend with the very real limitations within the music industry and the realities of becoming a veritable global icon.
Meanwhile, performers from all over the world continue to hop onto the Afrobeats wagon, from Beyonce, Drake, Chris Brown, H.E.R., Stormzy, Summer Walker, Wale, Jorja Smith, Sam Smith, Pop Smoke, Teyana Taylor to Afro B and many other globally acclaimed stars. And the morphology of Afrobeats has begun to reflect this astonishing diversity in terms of sound, presentation and potential.
Unlike Nollywood, Afrobeat(s) generally have had greater success as African cultural exports. In his heyday, Kuti almost immediately won over influential fans like the famed jazz pianist Randy Weston, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ginger Baker, Gilberto Gil, Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela and many other major industry players. There are Afrobeat combos playing in the Kuti mode in Europe, Asia, North and South America. Arguably, there are also more Kuti tribute bands playing abroad than on the African continent. Even before his death, in countries like Colombia, there were numerous cover versions of his songs that Kuti himself probably knew nothing about.
Fela!, the broadway musical composed by Bill T. Jones and sponsored by Jay Z and Will Smith in 2008, went on to have a successful international run taking in Europe and Africa. Since then another Fela-inspired musical extravaganza produced in Nigeria has gone on tour internationally. There are frequent festivals in France, Britain, the United States, Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria celebrating Kuti’s life and work.
Kuti’s discography is somewhat confusing for a number of reasons. He was extraordinarily prolific during his almost four-decade long career beginning from the early 60s. He privately established a plethora of record labels and also released many albums through mainstream companies such as EMI and Decca. Some estimates claim he released one hundred and thirty-three albums during his lifetime excluding almost two dozen masterpieces he simply refused to put on wax due to his eventual disillusionment with the music business and societal politics.
As for Afrobeats, in May 2020, US mainstream music outlet, Billboard Magazine, ran a special feature on the global rise of the genre profiling Davido, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Both Davido and Savage have performed on the US TV Jimmy Fallon show. Mr Eazi entertained US fans alongside Burna Boy in 2019 at the impactful Coachella Festival. His 2020 hit single, Oh My Gawd features Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Afrobeats has firmly taken root in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy supported by a large African diaspora population and enthusiastic European audiences. It is certainly not a mere passing fad but an increasingly durable fixture on the cultural calendar. Only this year, the UK launched its official Afrobeats music chart. And there are now festivals exclusively devoted to Afrobeats.
Nonetheless, Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations for a multi-faceted sonic future, the possibilities of which are yet to be exhaustively explored. Kuti was hardly able to reap the benefits of his astonishing work during his scandal-prone life. Indeed, he was an uncommonly courageous and uncompromising artist who often spurned the advances of international entertainment cartels just as he offended local political elites. And so in order to pursue his work, he had to build his own platforms and networks from scratch which entailed finding his own performance spaces, establishing his own record labels and developing independent channels for the appreciation and distribution of his music.
Kuti fought many battles on multiple fronts and, of course, due to his unyielding stance, he incurred great financial and reputational losses. For instance, he once famously turned down Motown’s attempt to buy his diverse back catalogue. But those very losses and sacrifices are what made it possible for Afrobeats to be born. Kuti almost single-handedly charted an aesthetic terrain that is full of yet to be explored musical riches.
Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking?
I met Isaac Juma in May 2006 at HOVIC — Hope for Victoria Children — a street children rehabilitation programme I was employed by as a social worker. HOVIC was established in 2002 to provide essential services to Kisumu’s street children as well as rehabilitate and reunite them with their families. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 children and young adults working and living on the streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities. When HOVIC’s drop-in centre opened its doors we had a running register of up to 400 children, with about 120 children visiting daily for food and various other services.
When the HOVIC programme started there seemed to be no methodology developed to undertake a census of Kisumu’s street children. A number of NGOs had tried to establish registers by organising parties at the Kisumu Sports Ground where the children and the youths would enjoy a meal and receive the gift of a t-shirt but these events always descended into chaos as fights broke out. To track the children we catered for, HOVIC created a database and register with the basic description and photographs of the children who came to the drop-in centre. The register was kept by a burly staffer aptly named Bouncer whose job it was to keep the children from hurting one another during the fights that frequently broke out at mealtimes. We had obviously underestimated the challenges of having in one closed environment hundreds of children and youths who were accustomed to solving their problems using violence.
I was fresh from university when I took the job at HOVIC, heading the rehabilitation programme. I was idealistic and overwhelmed by a strong sense of community and a desire to give back. The programme was run from the heart of Kisumu in an old concrete building that still harboured the ghosts of the one of the town’s first wealthy families. It was surrounded by Indian shops and open-air mechanics operated from a nearby Jua Kali yard filled with the carcasses of vehicles and ancient jalopies. The salary was paltry and any positive rewards of the job were counterbalanced by the depression that came with daily witnessing the reality of the children’s lives on the streets.
People brought their vehicles for repair in the sprawling yard. Women brought meat, tomatoes, onions and maize meal to the makeshift restaurants that dotted the yard. Crisp new notes and old ragged ones exchanged hands. Vehicles left happier than they had come. Some stayed longer. To be resuscitated or to die. Young boys, their bodies blackened by a life lived on the streets, collected the old oil that haemorrhaged from old engines. They scavenged discarded pieces of metal and plastic which they would take to the weighing scales of scrap metal dealers. All scrap metal had value but copper and aluminum were at a premium. On a good day, a kilogram of either would guarantee a meal. Plastic bottles were not of much value though; it would take hundreds of them to move the needle on the scale. The children moved through the sprawling yard like vultures, cleaning this ecosystem of waste. For food. For money. And for the occasional expression of sympathy.
Sympathy came mostly from people who had never before encountered humans in that state of existence. These people wondered what was wrong with the children’s homes, with their parents. How could they allow their children to wallow in waste? But expressions of sympathy were few and far between. More frequently, the street children were at the receiving end of the anger of those whose cars couldn’t be fixed quickly enough. Or who found the cost of repair too exorbitant. Or who felt that the mechanics were cheating them out of their money. Or those who simply needed someone to vent their frustrations on.
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children – some as young as five – survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking? Their bodies absorbed the abuse hurled at them, and like human sponges, they soaked in the hate and the oil in equal measure.
Kisumu’s street children came mainly from Nyanza and the western region. Most were orphans, left under the care of relatives when their parents died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Others had run away from violent parents and yet others to escape punishment from their guardians for petty crimes. But whatever the reasons, they all pointed to a deteriorating social order.
But even as the influx of street children grew, child protection services shrunk and soon the existing children’s homes within Kisumu could not accommodate them all. There are those who oppose the existence of children’s homes, believing that they act as magnets for street children, increasing their numbers on the streets. But from my experience, and having visited hundreds of families, the homes were sanctuaries for desperate children and filled the gap left by the government to provide child protection services. In effect, the government’s default setting was to send children to the Kisumu juvenile detention centre for crimes committed in the streets or for loitering in the streets at night before releasing them back into the very same streets with no attempt being made to locate their homes and reunite them with their families.
The hope was that the hardship suffered at the detention centre would act as a deterrent and motivate the children to return to their homes but my observation is that detention only hardened the children. To go through the police cells became a badge of honour and juvenile detention a rite of passage before the return to the streets.
In the meantime, the community hoped that the street children would one day disappear as if by magic, that the government would find a solution to the “menace”. Many were adamant that it was for the parents to take care of these children and hoped that this could be enforced legally to keep the children off the streets.
Instead, their numbers just kept growing. The streets provided these children with a space in which to discover themselves – through necessity and adversity. It could build them. Or break them. Had they been at home, chances were that they would be sober, in school, helping with family chores, teasing young girls at the watering hole while herding cattle. But instead they were here. And Kisumu streets were different and their darkness also different. It had teeth and it was biting off huge chunks of these children’s lives, leaving nothing but the basic instinct for survival. And hope.
The reality of street life was most manifest when night fell, when the good people retreated behind the reinforced doors that kept thieves at bay, that protected their television sets, their stereos, their microwaves, their flourishing lives away from the ghettos of Nyalenda and Obunga.
I once visited the places where the street children retreated to at night and found human beings folded into various shapes, bent into various forms, inside sacks that served as blankets and covers against the darkness and the mosquitoes, the full moon lending a surreal quality to the scene. They were lost in deep slumber, as if without a care in the world, some clutching plastic bottles to their breasts, the shoe glue that conjured up a more bearable reality, an alternative reality to help them navigate their waking nightmares and their sleeping terrors.
Some children were squeezed together into a single sack. Like twins in a womb. Forced together by circumstances not of their own making. Others had bigger sacks to themselves. Queen size sacks. King size sacks. Even here in the streets there was a hierarchy of power and influence. I looked over to Isaac, catching his face in the moonlight. This is how they start learning how to love each other. To protect each other. Brotherhood. This is also how they feel the initial warmth of their comrades. Kiss each other. Touch each other. Sometimes abuse each other, Isaac said matter-of-factly, pointing at the bodies that were tightly welded together in one sack. The older ones sometimes prey on the younger ones, Isaac continued, emphasizing each detail. As if concerned that I was missing important points.
Kisumu is hot. The ground absorbs heat from the sun like a loyal lover and when it is full, it vomits the excess heat into the environment. The doors of HOVIC would open to a frenzy of old faces and newcomers, each child bringing with him a thick layer of sweat from the heat and the story of their young life. The story of their families and their homes. Of a narrow escape from the police last night. Some came with fresh wounds inflicted by their peers. Or by the police. Or by dogs.
Others came high, floating on the cloud of euphoria that the shoe glue created in their minds. Glue was the street children’s opium. They bought it from cobblers who, like smalltime drug dealers, measured out glue meant for shoe repair into small bottles which they sold to the street children, a sticky yellow mess that seared the nostrils, numbed the brain and killed the hunger pangs and the pain. Sleep came easily, the hard ground now as soft as a downy mattress and safe as any home. Hypnotised into an alternative reality, they became quick to anger and violence was never far away.
One evening Isaac told me he had defaulted on his TB medications. He told me this with a smile on his face. Like it was something funny. I raised my head from my desk and asked him to repeat what he had said. “I have defaulted on my TB drugs. This is the second time I am defaulting.” Silence. I tried to look outside. I couldn’t see outside. The windows of my offices were so high. This building had not been built for office use. It had been built as a workshop for repairing old buses. “I know if I default again. I may get MDR-TB.”, Isaac continued. MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was wreaking havoc within Kenya’s healthcare system. I quickly made an appointment with the nurse who worked part-time at HOVIC.
Isaac could not keep track of his medication while living on the streets. He would lose his medication from the constant cat and mouse games with the police at night. On the other hand, the hospital needed him to account for every pill before he could get a refill. When he failed, they told him he needed to show up every day and take his pills at Kisumu District Hospital in the presence of nurses. And at each visit, he would have to go through the script of his life. And then the question he dreaded most would be thrown at him: “You are so smart. What are you doing in the streets? Why are you destroying your life in the streets?” He would soon get fed up and not go back.
To live, to survive, Isaac needed housing. Living on the streets is a complex affair. It gets even more complicated when one has a debilitating disease like TB. Survival starts with housing and food. We had figured out food. Children and youths could drop in at the rehabilitation center and get a warm meal. They could shower. The could get basic healthcare. But in the evening they would go back into the world, to the humming underworld of Kisumu Bus Stop. We needed safe housing.
There are many theories as to why children leave their homes to live and work in the streets. I have learned that it takes a lot for a child of seven years to decide to leave home for the streets. In one of the counselling sessions we held with the children, Isaac came along with a seven-year-old called Frederick Omondi. Or Freddie. Freddie had arrived in Kisumu from Gem. He had gotten into a matatu and somehow made it to Kisumu. He had never been to Kisumu before. He had no idea what Kisumu had in store for him. He was travelling by faith, the belief that a random stranger would hear his story and give him a chance at a life better than the one he was running away from. Isaac implored me to take Freddie home with me. I was living with my mother and my siblings. I obliged. Mostly out of fear for Freddie’s well-being than anything else.
Freddie’s home, like Isaac’s, was a world filled with nothingness. Freddie’s home had rocks. Big rocks. And his parents’ graves. His parents had died when he was very young. He barely knew them. He was left in the care of his uncle who, not knowing what to do with his life in that environment, resorted to drinking copious amounts of the local brew. I met him once. Drunk. Tall. Incapable of coherent speech. He was burdened by the loss of his relatives and took this loss out on his wife. Not knowing what to do, the woman took out her frustrations on Freddie. The cycle of violence was established. From the strongest to the most vulnerable. Until one day Freddie decided to run to Kisumu, and was brought to HOVIC.
Freddie’s journey to Kisumu was guided by a conspiracy of coincidences and good fortune. A lot could have gone wrong. He was lucky to make it to Kisumu with no bus fare. His aunt could have killed him. He could have ended in another town. He also arrived at a time when Isaac was friends with a young Australian man called Peter Dunkley. In his own unique way, Peter was looking to give back by helping to sponsor a destitute child. Isaac met Peter at Kisumu Sports Ground and struck up a conversation with him. The fact that all these random factors aligned is pure luck.
Isaac’s home on the other hand consisted of one room and one bed. His paraplegic brother, his other brothers, his mother, were all confined in this one tiny space. They were happy to see us. His paraplegic brother was trying to speak. His seizures were worsening and they were struggling to buy him the monthly supply of phenobarbitones. Isaac had also left home young. He wanted to save his family. He left to look for help.
People living in the streets are perceived as liars right from the word go. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Part of my job as a social worker was to conduct home visits. To witness and document the realities of the home environments and the circumstances that compel children to come to the streets. The realities of the homes the children came from always hit me hard, without warning. They came in the form of Freddie’s uncle. His alcoholism. In the form of Freddie’s aunt. She stood at a distance from us when we visited the home. In fear. Overwhelmed that the first white person she was encountering in her life had been brought to her home by a child she had persecuted violently. A child she had thought was long dead. What was the chance of that? It was a revelation of biblical proportions to all of us. We decided that Freddie was not remaining in that home.
The image of Isaac’s paraplegic brother brought home to me the reason for Isaac’s decision to leave home. Risking everything. Leaving the love of his family and abandoning some degree of predictability within the confines of poverty, for the unknown of the streets. He was barely a boy. What have we become as a society? Why does it take us so long to see that it takes a lot for these children to be on the streets? To put their lives at risk? It certainly wasn’t for fun. Or for adventure. These children had seen things we have not seen. The nightmare they faced on the streets was in many instances lesser than the nightmare they faced at home.
I have since stopped slicing up my brain trying to understand these children and I feel no shame in keeping the company of those who have spent a part of their lives in the streets.
It’s the 23rd of July 2019. I am seated across from Isaac in his house in that concrete jungle teeming with humanity that is Kahawa West. Isaac is talking to me about politics. His time abroad. His work at an international NGO, and his plans to finish his post-graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. I am not sure what would have become of Isaac or Freddie if they had not made the decision to run away from home and seek help in the streets.
But Isaac and Freddie are exceptions. They had the will to stay away from drugs and from the other temptations of street life. Isaac had a very clear vision of who he wanted to be, and how his success would be channeled to help his family. He has achieved that vision. Freddie is on track to achieving his vision too.
I still encounter some of those who were on the streets with Isaac and Freddie back in 2006 and 2007 every time I walk down Oginga Odinga Street. They are now adults. Many of the others have died; killed during the cycles of post-election violence or succumbed to disease or drowned in Lake Victoria. A few lucky ones were helped to return home by relatives or well-wishers, or through street children programmes.
I cannot point to one singular factor that would explain why some make it out of the streets and others do not, except perhaps a chance encounter with the right people, a strong will to survive. And luck.
The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
In Kenya, rising water levels in lakes along the Great Rift Valley have forced thousands of people from their homes, submerging huge areas of farmland. Schools, hospitals, roads and water pipes have been destroyed. Crucially, there is a real fear that Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, one fresh and the other saline, will contaminate each other. Ferdinand Omondi writes about this threat of an ecological disaster.
It was an easy Wednesday morning when the phone call came in. I was seated in my study, pitching ideas, studying for my semester exams and trolling the net for news. The COVID-19 pandemic has us working from home and away from offices and fieldwork unless absolutely necessary. My producer, Joe, told me there was a situation developing down in Baringo that fitted the “absolutely necessary” description.
Early the next day, I packed up to leave Nairobi for the first time since March, an overnight stay. Risk assessment? Check. Equipment? Check. PPE? Check. Headphones? Check. Waterproof shoes? I forgot to buy those.
The Landcruiser meandered its way down the winding highways and picturesque scenery of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Up at Mau Summit, Mount Longonot’s imposing mass upon the lowlands reminded me of the breath-taking scenery that is Great Rift Valley’s gift to Kenya. But this marvel of nature has been sending warning signs lately. Two years ago, the ground split open at Suswa, leaving a giant crack several kilometres long and forty feet deep in some areas. Geologists wondered whether Africa was beginning to split again, whether two tectonic plates were moving away from each other. Thousands of people were forced to relocate.
This August it was the lakes in the Rift Valley, some 280 kilometres north of Nairobi, that had us heading out to investigate. Our drive to Baringo was uneventful, except for a stop in the middle of Marigat to move a tortoise off the road. The noise of passing vehicles had driven it to recoil into its shell in the middle of the highway. Baringo is teeming with wildlife.
We eventually pulled up at Kampi ya Samaki, a sleepy lakeside fishing and tourism settlement. A group of excited young men crowded the windows and aggressively tried to get our attention.
“No hotel here sir, they are all flooded. I take you somewhere else. Please. Good price”. I hear the words, but can’t figure out who spoke.
“All of them?”
“Yes. All of them. The flood is very bad. All the good hotels are gone”.
These young men are tour guides, starved of revenue since lakeside resorts in Baringo became submerged under water. One of them identifies himself as Rama. Rama says it has been months since he last had a good day’s pay. We are standing at the green gate of what would have been the entrance to Robert’s Camp. The entire facility is flooded. Every structure is under water. It was a beautiful lakeside resort with cottages and tents, camping grounds and a bar. We would probably have spent the night here. But today we will have to make do with the Tamarind Garden, situated several hundred metres away and across the road that runs alongside the lake. It is modest, clean and basic. The rooms are a bit claustrophobic, but the service more than assuages my insecurities. We retire for the night, to begin a fresh day in the early morning and really digest the extent of the damage caused by a lake that is aggressively extending its boundaries.
The sun is just rising over the hills, the rays beautifully reflecting on the calm water. It is early morning, and we have hired the services of Julius, a boatman whose thriving tour business now depends on ferrying stranded locals from one end of the lake to another, and occasional visitors like us. Dickson Lenasolio, a middle-aged local, is taking us to the place he used to call home, which he says is now all under water. As we weave through the trees and shrubs that were once Robert’s Camp’s lush gardens, I am warned not to trail my bare hands in the water. This is crocodile territory.
We move slowly along the edges of the lake. We sail past a building half submerged in water, only the green roof protruding above the morning waves. This was the fisheries department, and just beyond it was a health centre. All around me used to be dry land on which a community once thrived. There were homes, farms, schools, and hospitals. Much of that has been submerged. As we speed up, another tourist resort comes into view. The Soi Safari Lodge, a striking 74-room hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool stands desolate and ghostly. It was deserted after the lake flooded the ground floors. I am told the owners had only recently made renovations in preparation for tourists.
We speed up across the lake, past a dead crocodile floating in the water. After about twenty minutes, the boat slows down as we approach Dickson’s former village. I can see the protruding roofs of houses where people used to live. I can make out sections of maize plantations from the extended stems of dying maize plants swaying in the waves. I can make out paddocks and homestead fences from the dangerously sagging wires and posts that are threatening to stall our boat. Dickson is now guiding us through the maze of roofs, trees and weeds, his wrinkles too prominent for one aged only 54. As he points to the spot where his house once stood, he tells us he was once a wealthy dairy farmer, before Lake Baringo swelled and swallowed up all his material wealth and he lost everything.
“I had Sahiwals [a breed of high-yield dairy cows]. I sold milk to the locals and it was good business. I would sell milk every day, and I had lots of grass in my farm”.
Dickson goes on to describe what he lost.
“My farm here was wire-fenced. We were using solar power to keep out wild animals. But when the water approached and we kept thinking it will recede, it did not, until it became impossible to retrieve the wire. Now it’s all below here, and the wire was very expensive. One roll is over 200 dollars. I fenced over 40 acres with it. My brother fenced 60. All of that is gone. It’s had to get it out because you can hardly even see the posts. These were 9-foot posts”.
“It wasn’t just me. There were other farmers who also did the business. They kept cows either for beef or milk. We suffered heavy losses. Because all the farms are now under water. We had no means of preventing it. At first, we thought we could seal the farms off. But, no. The lake kept rising night and day. Until it covered all the farms and we moved”.
Dickson says they have never seen the water levels rise like this since they were born. Not even his father, who he says is now 92. He recalls how the flooding began during the heavy rains back in March and everyone thought it would ease off with time. It did not.
“I brought down my buildings and so did my neighbours”, says Dickson. “We moved up about 800 metres. We started living there, and the water still got to us. We pulled our homes down. Now many have moved up the hill, to Marigat, Leberer, all the way up. Unfortunately, when we moved the animals up there, away from the grass they were used to, they fell sick and died”.
“Our father lived here. Our grandfathers lived here too. But now we have no hope. We don’t see the water receding because it has risen to unprecedented levels”.’
We drop Dickson off as close to his new home as possible, and he alights and wades off into the distance. He fears he may have to relocate his home for the third time.
The flooding has also cut off essential services. Power, transport, health. A building that used to be a clinic sits lonely among the tall dead trees in the still water. We watch as sick women are brought in by boat. They wade to the shore in search of medication. They will meet nurse Emily, who provides free health care in a little green tent, from where she has noticed a surge in crocodile attacks.
“We were treating burns, wounds and snake bites”, says Emily. “We also helped women with family planning and gave HIV/AIDS support. Since the flooding, our work has been affected because many people can’t get to us because they used to come on foot. Others fear travelling over water because there are crocodiles and hippos”.
Next to Emily’s small tent a group of women are sifting quality grass seeds. The seeds would have been planted on the land which is now underwater. The health facilities and grass are provided by RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments), a trust that helps local people turn arid land into sustainable pasture. The social enterprise runs a project called “Nyasi ni Pesa” – grass is money – which provides the locals with indigenous species of dryland grass which can survive the area’s arid conditions. This is the grass that Dickson’s purebreds thrived on. After harvesting, RAE then buys back the seeds, giving the women and their families a healthy income too. But the whole model is now under threat.
Murray Roberts, a Kenyan of British ancestry, runs the RAE project. He has lived in Baringo his whole life, and has watched the water levels rise and rise. Roberts shows me an extraordinary family photo taken in the 90s. It’s a photo of his two sons jumping off a cliff outside his home. It appears to be at least 30 feet high. We take another boat ride to the place where the photo was taken; the entire cliff face is now below the water.
But Murray has an even bigger fear than the loss of land and livelihoods. Less than 40 kilometres south of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria. The highly saline lake is home to a famous colony of flamingos and is a gazetted national park. But Lake Bogoria is also rising. I learn that the Kenya Wildlife Service has moved its main gate three times, each one submerged as the lake expands. Senior KWS Warden James Kimaru has been quoted saying that the water levels increased within one month from a width of 34 km2 to 43 km2. We see one of the KWS buildings in the distance, half submerged in water. New roads into the reserve are being constructed after previous ones were also covered by the water. As the lakes expand in width, the distance between them shrinks. Murray is concerned that with both Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria rising, the two lakes could eventually contaminate each other.
“The thing that is really worrying me about this situation is if Lake Bogoria starts flowing into Lake Baringo. What would be the outcome of that because Bogoria is a highly alkaline lake and it will be an ecological disaster. Once that water reaches Lake Baringo it will affect the fish, it will affect the bird life, it will affect the aquatic life”.
It is a concern that the Baringo County government shares. A post-floods report published in June by the Kenya Inter-Agency Rapid Assessment Mechanism concluded that the Rift Valley is becoming the most flood-prone region in Kenya. Much of that water ends up in the lakes, which inevitably swell. The report attributed the flooding to a combination of poor land use practices, deforestation and accumulation of silt. In May, the government counted over 200 deaths from flooding, with at least 800,000 people affected countrywide, Much of the destruction happened along river and lake settlements like Lake Baringo and its feeder rivers. Outside the Rift Valley, Lake Victoria was reported to have risen to its highest levels in over 50 years.
Helen Robinson, a geologist with extensive experience in East Africa, explained to me that when it is hot and dry for a long time the soils becomes so dry that they cannot absorb water. Then when it rains, huge amounts run along the surface to the rivers, then the lakes. Robinson explained that if the soils had some moisture content, much more of the rainwater would drain into the groundwater system. Trees help soils to retain moisture, but Kenya’s forest cover is only 7% of its landmass, 3 per cent less than the 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.
All these points reinforce the concerns that human activity is contributing to the extreme changes in our climate. The UN says climate change is a reality, and that human activity is the main cause. Scientists have stressed the importance of lowering our carbon emissions to limit the impact we’re having on our planet. Robinson said that if we don’t try harder, the damage could become irreversible including melting ice at the poles, rising sea levels, more climate extremes, loss of habitats and mass extinctions.
Baringo is experiencing extreme weather changes and destruction to its habitat. But across the Rift Valley, similar swellings were recorded in Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha this year, and even in Lake Turkana in the north, with the varying levels of destruction pointing to a pattern. Whatever the causes, it is a race for survival, and at the moment, nature is winning.
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