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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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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society

A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.

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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society
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To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.

Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.

Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.

Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”

The evolution of digital tea and receipts

Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.

Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.

Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.  

Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.

The rise of online ‘tabloids’

Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’ 

Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.

Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.

In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.

Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.

While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.

Why do we love and loathe tabloids?

Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.

Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.

Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy. 

Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.

We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.

Gossip as a function of power

Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.

There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.

Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.

Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage

But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.

When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.

An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.

A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.

In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.

Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.

Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.

But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives  – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.

Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.

The future of Kenya’s grapevine 

The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.

Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.

And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.

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Culture

The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema

In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?

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With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.

The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.

African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.

In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.

Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”

For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.

Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra KaiThe Karate KidAmerican History XThe Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The MercenaryThe African DoctorThe Boy Who Harnessed the WindTsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.

Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and  editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.

There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.

Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.

Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.

On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.

As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.

This post is from a 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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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

This post is from a 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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