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Tracing the Roots of Benga

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“You cannot sing African music in proper English.” – Fela Kuti

Now, more than 40 years later, it might be difficult to imagine that Kenyan Benga music was associated with freedom fighters in Rhodesia’s Bush War (the Chimurenga) in the late 1960s through to the late 1970s. In the fight to end white minority rule for the soul of a new Zimbabwe, the homeland of a black majority, Benga music embodied the liberation spirit. The music of D.O. (Daniel Owino) Misiani, George Ramogi, George Ojijo, Collela Mazee and Victoria Jazz is what Zimbabweans in the 70s in rural townships stamped their feet and swayed to in the hope of a new future for Zimbabwe.

How did Kenyan music that originated among the Luo spread like a wild bush fire far beyond the shores of Lake Victoria to different parts of Kenya and further to Southern Africa and the world? Who was Oluoch Kanindo and how did his name give birth to a new genre of music in Zimbabwe?

To get to the bottom of the Benga story, I went out in search of Tabu Osusa, who had just launched a much anticipated book, Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music in Kenya 1946-2016 at the Sippers restaurant in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area. Tabu is tall and looks in fit shape at 63. He wears a signature beret and glasses and carries himself with the fatherly disposition of a Catholic priest – until he leans forward and starts agonising over his pet peeve, Kenyan music.

Benga has a distinct African musical heritage that connects culturally and socially with diverse groups of Africans in search of “their sound”. In the villages and market centres of Western, Rift Valley and Eastern and in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Benga music is what the masses respond to with enthusiasm.

Tabu is a music producer and founder of Ketebul Music. His motivation for starting Ketebul (Luo for drumsticks) was the glaring absence of originality in the Kenyan music he sampled. To his refined ears, it sounded too American and nothing unique. For over a decade, he has discovered and produced musicians whose musical identity was rooted in indigenous cultural styles. Makadem and Winyo are some of his better known protégés. In the early 1980s, along with Samba Mapangala, he co-founded the Orchestra Virunga band, one of the biggest musical acts in East Africa for close to a decade.

Presently, he is on a mission of piecing together Kenya’s musical history, delving into the pertinent question of Kenya’s musical identity. Tabu, under his Ketebul label, has produced several documentaries on what he refers to as a “Retracing Series”. The list includes Retracing the Benga Rhythm, Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits and Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest. John Sibi-Okumu narrates the series in a distinct and posh accent and sounds like a British anthropologist on a BBC history channel. Shades of Benga is Tabu’s biggest project yet, taking up to three years of commitment to put together. He launched it alongside a photo exhibition at the Alliance Française Centre in Nairobi, tracing not just the pioneers of Benga music in Kenya but all the other greats from different genres that would define Kenyan sound.

We sit on the upper floor of the refurbished Sippers bar, which is very different from the cramped drinking dungeon stuck in my memory. Sippers has a cherished reputation as an artiste hub, where forgotten heroes gather to reminisce over the good old days over a drink and intellectual banter. Some heavy hitters have played live at Sippers, folks like Ayub Ogada, Makadem, Winyo and Suzanna Owiyo.

I ask Tabu about the title. “I called it Shades of Benga, because Benga is the dominant genre of music played in Kenya but the book is not all just about Benga”.

I got a courtesy advance copy on PDF for this review. Shades of Benga is published in a coffee table format and I was amazed by how rich Kenya’s music heritage is. Stuff they do not teach you in school. Tabu has put together a musical encyclopedia of Kenya, paying tribute to all the pioneers of diverse musical genres, from the 40s straight to the present day. The book tracks Fundi Konde, Fadhili Williams, Joseph Kamaru, Kalenjin sisters, Super Mazembe, Sal Davis, Sauti Sol, Eric Wainaina, to name a few. However, for all his attempts at inclusivity, the focal point of his book, rich in detail, is Benga.

The two influential personalities in the nascent Benga scene were Mwenda Jean Bosco and Eduardo Masengo who came from Eastern Congo and introduced a finger-plucking technique. The duo greatly influenced pioneer Benga musicians such as the Ogara Boys. In this new style, the guitar was not strummed but plucked in a manner that mimicked traditional African instruments.

Benga has a distinct African musical heritage that connects culturally and socially with diverse groups of Africans in search of “their sound”. In the villages and market centres of Western, Rift Valley and Eastern and in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Benga music is what the masses respond to with enthusiasm. Men and women let loose, unrestrained to the feverish plucking of the lead guitar, to live music in the Eastlands neighbourhood of Nairobi.

Benga artistes rarely get airplay on mainstream channels as they are deemed not polished enough for urban mainstream tastes. Benga’s working class label has relegated it to vernacular radio stations. The big Benga artistes in Kenya have nearly no presence to speak of in the ranks of popular Kenyan music. For many youngsters born after 1980, Benga is the kind of music one would probably only encounter in a frantic bus park of Kisumu.

Benga came to town with the rural labour migration from Nyanza who came to Nairobi in search of the Kenyan dream. They clung to their music to find a rooting and as a kind of reality check against the influence of the new urban and foreign musical genres that were the rage in Nairobi. Benga music spoke to the issues and realities of the marginalised lower and rural classes.

Tabu believes that Kenya has done a great injustice to its musical pioneers by refusing to acknowledge their contribution to the country’s musical heritage. Thus, Shades of Benga is a reaction to this glaring gap, a 70-year musical journey and a repository of not just Kenyan music, but a journey through Kenya’s social history.

The origin of the term Benga has being a matter of great debate. The term is attributed to the Benga great D.O Misiani who claimed it was drawn from his mother’s name. Another version is linked to the Luo meaning of a word drawn from obengore, meaning to let loose. When I put the question to Tabu, he dismisses the Misiani theory. ” Most of the people we interviewed believe the word was coined from the short skirts the ladies wore during The Ogara Boys’ shows and it was John Ogara who first popularised the term.”

Tabu believes that Kenya has done a great injustice to its musical pioneers by refusing to acknowledge their contribution to the country’s musical heritage. Thus, Shades of Benga is a reaction to this glaring gap, a 70-year musical journey and a repository of not just Kenyan music, but a journey through Kenya’s social history.

The book begins in the mid-1940s in the post World War II period with the return of the soldiers in the King’s African Rifle regiment. The King’s African Rifles East African battalion fought in several campaigns for the British during the First and Second World War. Not all the men were on the warfront; some would be recruited as part of the entertainment unit that went around spreading cheer to the troops in far-flung bases. At the end of the war, they returned home with their instruments and skills, bringing back the box guitar, the single musical instrument that would change the face of music in Africa.

One of the pioneers was Fundi Konde, who became a breakout star and a sound engineer in his later years. Fundi Konde did time in Sri Lanka, India and Burma. His unit toured and performed 350 shows by the end of the war in 1945.

Tabu remembers working with an older Fundi Konde in the early 80s and holds some regret for not recognising the privilege of sitting at the feet of a master. “By then he simply struck me as an old fashioned sound engineer,” he remembers with a distinct remorse at the folly of youth.

Fundi Konde was influenced by the Afro-Cuban styles of beloro, chacha and rumba and he infused those styles into his music. The distinct tunes endure in his timeless hits, such as Tausi Ndege Wangu and Mama Sowera.

Fundi Konde came to fame in the African band formed by Peter Colmore, a British Army captain who morphed into East Africa’s foremost impressario in the 60s. The original members were Joseph Chuza Dias, Baya Toya, Ngala Karani, Charles Senkatuka and Nelson Gonzabato. Fundi Konde is credited as the first Kenyan to record using an electric guitar and is regarded as the father of modern Kenya music.

Kenyan musicians became widely recognised in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at around the same time that Congolese music was gaining popularity in Kenya. Kanindo music is a source of nostalgia for Southerners. In 70s and 80s, Kanindo style, also known as Sungura, in Zimbabwe was bigger than the popular Chimurenga style founded by the legendary Thomas Mafumo.

His contemporaries include Paul Mwachupa. He also worked with Fadhili Williams of the iconic love ballad Malaika. Tabu addresses the controversy behind the origin of Malaika in Shades of Benga. What we know of as Malaika is apparently the second version. The first version was done by Grant Charo with Fadhili Williams in the background in the Jambo Band. It was a collaboration. However, Fadhili would enjoy the spotlight after renditions by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte put the single on the world map. Cover versions were performed by Boney M and Angelique Kidjo, elevating Malaika to the realm of classics.

In the 1950s, with the Fundi Konde generation ruling the roost, something seismic occurred to Kenyan music and disrupted the party.

The two influential personalities in the nascent Benga scene were Mwenda Jean Bosco and Eduardo Masengo who came from Eastern Congo and introduced a finger-plucking technique. The duo greatly influenced pioneer Benga musicians such as the Ogara Boys. In this new style, the guitar was not strummed but plucked in a manner that mimicked traditional African instruments. The melody leads, then the vocals build to a no-holds-barred instrumental climax. The beat is hypnotic and the revelers would let loose as though possessed. These pioneer musicians, drawing inspiration from traditional music, began to define a new kind of sound that was distinctly different from anything on the scene at the time.

With the uniqueness of the new beat, Benga rose from a pairing of a sharp lead percussion guitar that dominated the track. The guitar was played with urgency steadily building up to a pure climax. The Luo musicians were the first to adopt this new guitar-playing technique that involved plucking and picking single notes, falling back on how the popular traditional fiddle like Orutu and the eight stringed Nyatiti are played.

A new sound was born and the imitators of this plucking technique would be credited as the pioneers of the Benga genre. George Ramogi and George Ojijo were among Benga’s original stars as they brought Benga to the mainstream by recording with different labels in Nairobi. However, in Tabu’s view, the Ogara Boys, which included John Ogara, Ochieng Nelly and Aketch Oyosi, were the true pioneers. As Benga gained ground in Nairobi, all the migrants who had moved into the city from the rural areas naturally gravitated towards it.

Two distinct cultures emerged in Nairobi – the ethnic and the foreign. Benga retreated to the backwaters of Nairobi where it was associated with village life, poor rural folk and urban filth. Foreign music, such as funk, disco and soul, became upper class identifiers and those who wanted to belong stopped listening to local tunes.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, Fadhili Williams and Daudi Kabaka, another big star, rose to glory as the King of the African Twist, inspired by the King of Twist, Chubby Checker. The torch of Twist would be kept burning by John Nzenze. Daudi Kabaka, with his distinct head of white hair, created many classics and struck music gold with his most famous number Helule Helule. The song went global when the British band Tremeloes from East London did a cover and hit the top 20 in the UK charts. Other covers were done by Medium Terzett from Germany, Los del Sol from Spain and Dzentlmenu through the 60s. Sadly, Daudi Kabaka did not receive royalties for his hit song. Tabu would say, deadpan, “He sold it for a song”.

Benga moved from the shores of Lake Victoria to Nairobi. The role of the session musicians on River Road was significant in its spread to different parts of Kenya. They took Benga beyond its stronghold. During this time, musicians from Tanzania, Uganda and Congo would arrive to record in Nairobi and these groups of highly talented session musicians ended becoming the regular back-up instrumentalists for the different artistes who frequented their studios in River Road. They played the beats and people laid their tracks. River Road became the Mecca of music production and from that single street Benga spread like a virus. Luo fishermen who earned a livelihood around the lakes of East Africa came with Benga music and spread it from shore to shore.

But for all its glory, Benga could not escape its class trap. In the popular mind, Benga musicians were deemed inferior because they were not formally educated, unlike the Rumba guys who were college graduates – musicians such as Jose Kokeyo, the father of the flamboyant musician Akothee and Owiti Ger whose grandchild Beldina Maliaka has emerged as a contemporary musician in Sweden. This class bubble was responsible for the proliferation of Congolese Rumba in Kenya enjoying mainstream traction that Benga musicians craved for.

The 1960s was a vibrant time in Kenyan music. Indigenous record labels rushed in to fill the vacuum left by European producers.

David Amunga, who sang along Ben Blastos Bulawayo on the memorable composition Someni Vijana, was the first African to set up a record label, the Mwangaza Music store 1965. Joseph Kamaru was to follow with City Sounds in 1968 and it was from Kamaru’s stable that Kikuyu Benga would fluff its wings.

The 1960s would also produce Benga’s first major band Shirati Jazz, formed by D. O. Misiani who hailed from northern Tanzania.

By the 70s, Benga had captured the hearts and minds of cross-border populations, from Congo to Zimbabwe. Tabu describes the 70s as the golden age of Benga.

D.O Misiani was a bonafide Benga superstar from the 70s through to the 80s, earning the title of “The King of Benga”. Misiani’s socially conscious voice resonated with the times. Shirati Jazz launched a string of hits that were East Africa’s biggest songs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Shirati Jazz’s biggest rival was Victoria Jazz, formed in 1972 by Ochieng, Nelly Mengo and Collela Mazee.   George Ramogi and D.O. Misiani would enjoy some level of commercial success, though in Tabu’s view, John Ogara had a more versatile playing style.

The 1970s was also the period that Benga’s proudest ambassador entered the scene. He was a debonair and charismatic gentleman known as Phares Oluoch Kanindo, the Berry Gordie of Benga. Kanindo was a visionary marketer who decided to open a new Benga market in Southern Africa. Eager to establish new audiences, he organised Benga musicians into bands and started shipping Benga records to Zimbabwe, branded SP (Super Producer) Kanindo music under his AIT Records (Kenya) label. The independence war had curtailed music production in Zimbabwe. Kanindo who had a nose for opportunity set up shop and met the demand for an indigenous style that Zimbabweans related to. The music from East Africa struck a chord. Freedom fighters in the liberation struggle to free Zimbabwe from minority rule developed a fondness for the sound and today Kanindo music is associated with the birth of Zimbabwe.

Progressive Zimbabwean musicians started sampling the new sound and from this emerged stars like Moses Rwizi, Kanindo Jazz Band and Obadiah Matulana, stamping a new Southern African identity on Benga.

Benga music in Zimbabwe is known as Kanindo or Sungura music. If you switch to any YouTube channel and search for Kanindo music, you will come across a wide range of artistes, all from Zimbabwe, with Alick Macheso topping the list.

Music is a major transmitter of cultural expression. When we abandoned our music, we cut the throat of our culture, our identity and our spiritual essence. Tabu Osusa’s Shades of Benga is a worthy tribute to the forgotten pioneers of modern Kenyan music and a crucial contribution to the history of African music.

Kenyan musicians became widely recognised in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at around the same time that Congolese music was gaining popularity in Kenya. Kanindo music is a source of nostalgia for Southerners. In 70s and 80s, Kanindo style, also known as Sungura, in Zimbabwe was bigger than the popular Chimurenga style founded by the legendary Thomas Mafumo.

While Oluoch Kanindo was busy making inroads in the South, a Kenyan of Asian descent, Arvindkumar P. Chandarana based in Kericho, created a new Benga focal point in the Rift Valley. Musicians did not have to travel all the way to Nairobi, thanks to Chandarana’s Mambo label, which was directly responsible for the spread of Benga in the Rift Valley and Western Kenya and for the emergence of Kalenjin, Kisii and Luhya Benga acts.

The decline of Benga began in the mid-80s due to a number of factors. The major record companies, such as EMI and Polygraph, left and the local producers could not match their market spend and reach. Technology was also rapidly changing as the cassette player took over from turntables and records. The new urban generation that had lost links with their rural foundations had turned West. The video cassette record introduced foreign superstars. Kenyans gradually started to gravitate towards American music and were swept away by the disco culture whose glitz was too hard to resist.

Two distinct cultures emerged in Nairobi – the ethnic and the foreign. Benga retreated to the backwaters of Nairobi where it was associated with village life, poor rural folk and urban filth. Foreign music, such as funk, disco and soul, became upper class identifiers and those who wanted to belong stopped listening to local tunes.

In the home of Benga in Western Kenya, the rise of Rumba and Ohangla styles came after Benga’s crown. Luo musicians began to perceive Benga as too ethnic and gravitated towards rumba. Tabu labeled them with a trace of disappointment as the “the Rumba crooners”. “Currently, the only guys who have remained true to Benga could include Dola Kabarry, Atomi Sifa, and Winyo who sing something I call ‘Benga Blues’.

When you listen to West African or Congolese music, you know where it is from. Where is the Kenyan sound?” The question of identity and originality keeps recurring during the course our conversation. “There is an Ethiopian music, I am sure you don’t know somone called Malatu Astatke. He used to play American jazz that he studied at Berkeley but when he returned to Ethiopia, he decided to take leave of American jazz and experimented with Ethiopian music and came up with Ethio jazz.

Benga is our beat and Tabu bemoans the young musicians who refuse to draw their inspiration from this source to create unique sounds.

Today Kenyan music is clutching at the straws for identity. Kenyan musicians have glamourised all these other styles and forgotten their own. We are everyone else but ourselves. Tabu is blunt, “We are trying to be Congolese, Americans, Nigerians. Kenyan music is the classic jack of all trades and master of none.”

Music is a major transmitter of cultural expression and when we abandoned our music, we cut the throat of our culture, our identity and our spiritual essence. Tabu Osusa’s Shades of Benga is a worthy tribute to the forgotten pioneers of modern Kenyan music and a crucial contribution to the history of African music.

The ancient said, when you lose your way, go back to where you lost your way and start again. It starts with remembering our roots. “We have to make ethnic cool again” preaches Tabu. “When we left the villages for the city, we left behind our culture, our values, our foods, our languages and our music”.

By Oyunga Pala
Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan Newspaper columnist.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan journalist, editor and a curator at The Elephant.

Culture

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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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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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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