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Big Fat African Weddings: Commercialisation of Traditional Culture, and Its Consequences

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BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences
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During the early 1800s, the Nuer of South Sudan began pushing out of their traditional homeland and increased their territory four-fold at the expense of their Dinka and Anuak neighbours by the late 1880s. The anthropologist Raymond Kelley described it as one of most prominent cases of tribal imperialism in the ethnographic record. According to his analysis, the Nuer expansion, which involved the acquisition of resources far beyond that required to satisfy their normal material needs, was driven by the rising cost of bride price.

Today we are witnessing a variation on bride price inflation of a different order. The institution of marriage has given rise to a new economic growth sector in the form of the wedding industry. For example, the wedding industry is now estimated to be worth US$ 60 billion in the United States and over $300 Billion globally. The global figures probably do not include Africa, where the wedding industry is a newer but even faster growing phenomenon in many African nations.

An ancient institution

Marriage is the most ancient and stable of human institutions. Anthropologists trace the institution to the need to avoid incest and establish the paternity of offspring.

Stone Age humans formalised the contractual bonding of husband and wife through the exchange of gifts, and most hunter-gatherer societies engaged in ritual courtship. We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

It is not difficult to see how the institutionalised demands of maintaining a healthy gene pool could make a critical difference in circumstances where humans lived in small and isolated groups. Human bands invested in social networks and developed complex kinship systems, while the cavemen who mated by clubbing a woman and dragging her to his cave became dumb and dumber over time. In any event, marriage became a defining feature of human existence.

One scientific publication described the institution in evolutionary terms as “reciprocal exogamy including the exchange of mates, goods, and services, and involving multiple kin lineages often existing in multiple residential communities”. Anthropologists investigating the roots of the institution note that these parameters have remained relatively unchanged over the millennia.

With the rise of agriculture, marriage came to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, conferring new rights and responsibilities in the process. The celebrations accompanying marriage played a fundamental role in fostering communal identity and solidarity. Before long, marriage was also key factor in building political relationships—a function that was elevated when the rise of royal dynasties saw marriage become an instrument of foreign policy.

This matrix of factors still obtains for marriage in African society. The institution is about much more than formalising the bio-emotional bond between two individuals, which now characterises Western practice. In most societies, it encompasses normative behaviour patterns and traits, including the wedding ceremonies and exchanges that formalise the contract. The marriage itself comes with expectations of relative permanence: shared residence, gender-based division of labour and management of resources, a sexual relationship oriented towards procreation and cooperation in child bearing and training.

While these factors, like the primacy of the nuclear family, are universal, the model based on the contract’s societal benefits has experienced significant attrition during the modern era. The wedding industry is the latest development to complicate the human dimension of marriage, and it appears to be racing out of control.

Conspicuous consumption

During the 1960s, weddings, especially the lavish high-cost version, came to be seen as effete. The contract was increasingly seen as a bond based on the relationship between two individuals. Divorce rates shot up and non-traditional unions between individuals of different backgrounds, including people of different religious, racial or social origins, proliferated. Pairing was about love. The resulting unions did not require an external religious or secular authority to legitimise it; the conventional ceremonial component was passé.

This encouraged the pursuit of innovative weddings, often held in unorthodox settings that appeal to the romantic ideal. The barefoot-on- the-beach wedding was popularised when Becks betrothed Posh in a sarong. The couple showcased several outfits, including bright violet costumes for the wedding party and a matching cowboy hat for baby Brooklyn. David Beckham later admitted that the garb made him look like “one of the guys in Dumb and Dumber” [the movie].

The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

The Beckham extravaganza came after Princess Diana’s 1981 “wedding of the century”, which made celebrity weddings fashionable. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton set a new bar for the 21st century—although, as in the case of the Diana event, most of the reported cost of $34 million was spent on security; the cost of the bride’s dress, at $434,000, was modest in comparison.

In many places, weddings have always provided a stage for conspicuous consumption. The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

Such extreme examples underscore the meteoric rise of the wedding industry across the planet. Fashionable contemporary weddings across the world now involve a full complement dressmakers, florists, reception halls, event planners, photographers, caterers, limo firms, DJs, bands, and jewellery designers. Few people can match the glass coach, the 25-foot bridal train, and the estimated 750 million television viewers of Princess Diana’s wedding, but many are willing to go into debt to finance a ceremony that is becoming the nuptial version of the arms race.

The wedding industry is flourishing across continents and cultures. In China, the $57-billion industry is registering a 7.8 per cent annual growth, but this will soon be trumped by India where the industry is expanding by 25 per cent a year. In the United Arab Emirates, the average cost of nuptials is estimated to be around $80,000. In the US, the average cost of a wedding is equivalent to a year’s salary for many service-sector employees or a year of university education.

These numbers appear to reflect relative differentials in income. The most expensive place in the US to get married is Manhattan, where the average cost is over $76,000, or five times the cost in Utah where the typical wedding expenditure is $15,257. The fact that this state is booming economically points to the influence of culture as well—which may represent the best hope for mitigating the more ominous implications accompanying the commercialisation of marriage and sexuality.

The Big African Wedding

During a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I went to a studio to get some passport pictures. There were several picture albums in the waiting area. They were actually gigantic, hardcover ledgers showcasing glamorous pictures of wedding couples, bridesmaids, best men, and other sundry wedding participants conspicuously adorned in some of the most expensively elegant finery I have ever seen. During the remainder of my visit I began to notice the proliferation of large and small wedding shops across the city.

I initially thought it was an Ethiopian thing. Wrong. Once alerted to its existence, evidence of Africa’s new wedding industry started to pop up everywhere. In Zambia there are weddings that last two weeks. The wedding industry in Kampala has seen the ten event organising companies operating in 2010 to grow to more than a hundred in 2017. Televised weddings provide revenue for Ugandan television stations that now charge 1 million shillings ($330) to broadcast lavish weddings.

Nigeria, true to form, is at the forefront of Africa’s new wedding sector. The industry that some say is fueled by Nigerians’ natural love of celebration probably owes more to their competitive nature. The CEO of one Nigerian wedding planning company explains: “People want their event to be the best. They want it to better than the next person’s so they won’t spare any expense to do whatever they need to do to get it done.”

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills. Although the currency on display under thick glass attracted the attention of Nigeria’s audacious criminal class, it usually ended up back in the bank on Monday morning. Spraying guests with dollars upped the ante in the country’s “go big or go home” stakes.

Kenya’s fast growing wedding industry has spawned hundreds of wedding planners and businesses offering everything from florists to high-end caterers and other related specialists. This service sector actually dates back to the Western infatuation with the wedding as an adventure theme, which has drawn couples from abroad to Kenya to tie the knot. The wedding-in-the-bush is a niche market that is still doing well, based on the number of Kenyan tour companies advertising diverse safari wedding packages. But it is small change compared to the new urban African wedding complex with its complement of service providers, magazines, television shows, and family brokers skilled at maximising the returns on nubile daughters.

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills.

On the one hand, the industry is a tech-savvy, Internet friendly economic sub-sector, but on the other, it is just another globalised neoliberal cash cow. At least in West Africa the industry is spawning a new fashion industry showcasing creative variations on traditional clothing. Fashionable African wedding attire has even added a few hundred boards to the 38 million and growing Pinterest wedding posts, and its pretty neat stuff. Kenya’s wedding juggernaut, in contrast, is driven by the couples’ marked preference for the Eurocentric “white” wedding.

“White” Kenyan weddings

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset. This line of critique makes Kenya’s first Big Shot wedding a bit incongruous—it was actually celebrated in Maasailand.

Sometime around the mid-1970s, the expansive Maasai Minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, Stanley Oloitiptip, threw an exceptionably exorbitant wedding for his oldest son. Stylistically, it contradicted almost everything Maasai culture stood for. It was certainly as outsized by the more modern standards of the day as the girth of the physically immense politician.

The irrepressible Oloitiptip justified the spectacle as a testament to “the fruits of Uhuru”. This explanation focused public attention on the diversion of state resources to fund the affair, a concern further compounded by the fact that the Honourable Minister had sired 46 other children.

As it turned out, there was no happy ending for the Big Man. In 1985, he suddenly found himself in prison for the misuse of public resources. Like the overpriced wedding gowns at the centre of contemporary weddings, the five normal prison uniforms sewn together to clothe him were used for only one day: he was released on bond the following morning and passed away several days later.

Although the Kenyan public has been treated to the occasional high profile wedding since then, the new big wedding phenomenon is defined by its distribution and scale. This is why some commentators applaud it as a vibrant growth industry and others hype it as symbolic of middle class prosperity—even though a large portion of newly weds don’t have the money to pay for their weddings.

The moral of the Oliotiptip story dovetails with other qualities associated with the big wedding trend. Close to a quarter of the couples opting for these bling weddings go into debt to finance them, and the majority of them regret the expenditure soon afterwards. A more disturbing statistic: the bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage.

Even so, the trend persists. One Ugandan professional stated that he has saved 50 million shillings for a big wedding. He says he only wants to have a wedding that befits his status as an educated man. If he can’t afford that, he’d rather not have a wedding at all. No wedding is now the norm for many, and no marriage at all is increasingly common. One regional study found that 50 per cent of young couples were living in free unions and another 25 per cent of women were raising children as single mothers.

Traditional communitas versus wedding bling

Weddings have long served as a vehicle for conspicuous consumption and the spread of consumer culture. The fact that both the rich and the middle classes now own fancy cars, TVs and designer handbags has raised the status-generating power of one-time social events like weddings. Wedding planners say that the industry is driven by women’s desire to be a Queen, and the center of attention albeit for one day. Men play along for reasons of status and prestige.

Traditional ceremonies were ritualised communal affairs imbued with layers of symbolism and meaning. The primary functions of many ceremonies, such as weddings, were to mark passage to a new stage of the life cycle and to foster unity within the community. The anthropologist Victor Turner’s classic study on African ritual and ceremony focused on the deep properties of these phenomena, and the universal role of liminality and communitas.

Liminality refers to the beginning or transitional stage in a process. The person at the centre of the transition is often regarded to be in a weak and dangerous or inauspicious state. Rituals based on the society’s spiritual, magical and religious traditions generate a state of communitas to insure the safe transition of the person in this liminal state.

The term communitas is associated with sharing a common experience that takes a whole community to the next level. Rites, rituals and ceremonies designed to temporarily negate differentials of rank and status create a social space based on homogeneity, equality and anonymity. This promotes a sense of group wholeness. Individuality is submerged in unity in a manner facilitating transformation. The way the spirit of a harambee fund-raising event induces you to contribute beyond your planned contribution is an example of the same.

The public ceremony is, in this sense, not an event, but part of a social process that facilitates the safe transition of the liminal individual, be it from girl to woman, boy to man, or candidate to group chief and leader. The state of communitas it engenders imbues the group with a lasting sense of unity and solidarity that allows society to function despite its internal conflicts and inequalities of wealth and status.

Turner describes how the process works in the case of the appointment of a new chief among the Ndembu of Zambia. After a period of sexual abstinence, the new candidate and is wife are housed in the specially constructed kafu, or death hut. They are dressed in rags and made to assume a submissive position. While in this state of liminality, elders revile the future leader: “Be silent! You are a mean and selfish fool, one who is bad-tempered! You do not love your fellows, you are only angry with them! Meanness and theft are all you have! Yet here we have called you and we say that you must succeed to the chieftainship.”

The couple are abused and forced to stay awake all night while commoners are invited to berate them for any misdeeds large or small. They are beaten and rubbed with special herbs. After this ordeal, the chief-to-be is instructed in his duties:

We have desired you and you only for our chief. Let your wife prepare food for the people who come here to the capital village. Do not be selfish, do not keep the chieftainship to yourself! You must laugh with the people, you must abstain from witchcraft! You must not be killing people! You must not be ungenerous to people! Today you are born as a new chief. If you were mean, and used to eat your cassava mush or your meat alone, today you are in the chieftainship. You must give up your selfish ways, you must welcome everyone, you are the chief!

The ritual results in the figurative death of the liminal candidate and his rebirth as a leader. Turner goes on to detail how many other ceremonial processes across cultures, including the coronation of Popes, display many of the same structural attributes.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions, and most cultural and religious weddings display similar dynamics to sanctify and bless the marriage contract.

In my own case, prior my own wedding, the idea of getting married was a remote and distant prospect. I was living in Lamu, and the process started as an idea suggested by close friends who told me, “Marrying is easy and since you are here you should give it a try even if just for a week.” The idea evolved into an experimental possibility that in turn led to a proposal to marry, arranged in the usual manner.

The only request from my side was that the marriage ceremony would be a small, private affair. Swahili weddings, in my view, were carnival style affairs that did not fit my style. I wanted a closed personal ceremony to go with the already exotic circumstances.

“Sure, we will do it that way if that’s what you want,” my future in-laws told me. Although I did not know it, at the time, I was totally out of my depth, in a liminal state of ignorance, weakness, naiveté, and vulnerability.

I also did not realise that the coast was home to the region’s most developed indigenous wedding industry. As the time approached, I was informed of a series of unanticipated developments: a bus arrived with furniture and other trappings; the next day another came from Mombasa with a posse of musicians, a boat arrived with guests from the islands, and so on. This build-up countered my expectations of a small intimate wedding.

A week before the actual event, people started addressing me as Bwana Harusi. Lamu’s normally shy ladies began to accost me with propositions, and several times women dragged me into their homes as I passed through the town’s narrow alleys. My “handlers” told me that as Bwana Harusi I was fair game for such mischief until the formal marriage; it was best I stay indoors. They were otherwise helpful but not very informative. Among other things, they did not explain that a proper wedding is mandatory for a girl’s first marriage, and that the arrangements were the exclusive province of the bride’s family.

Three days of robust wedding celebrations ensued. I became caught up in the spirit, and consented to options for the groom’s side, like holding the kirumbizi stick fighting dance and the all-night kesha party. My father surrogate arranged for the kirumbizi, which coincided with the district secondary school sports tournament. The presence of the archipelago’s most athletically inclined youth insured it was the most fiercely contested kirumbizi stick fighting in Lamu’s modern history. Swept away by the spirit of this communitas, I ended up splurging on food, miraa for my Somali friends, and a Bajuni msondo dance followed by what became a public party while the bride’s taarabu music echoed through the other side of time.

After sunrise I was married in the kind of simple ceremony I had originally requested, although there was still one last surprise.

I had paid the conventional dowry for that time of several thousand shillings. But when the actual moment came, I was confused when I heard the town’s most respected sheikh ask me the formulaic question: Do you agree to marry Safiya binti Mohammed Ali for the mahari of 50 Kenya shillings?

This was repeated three times. Though mystified and bewildered, I managed to utter “kabeitu, or “I agree” in Arabic. Only later did I learn that the small sum substituted for the dowry proper, often referred to as mahari ya Kiarabu, is designed to protect the family, which typically ends up spending more than the dowry on the wedding. The provision comes into effect if the marriage fails or the groom has legitimate cause for rejecting the bride and reclaims the mahari proper. The dowry proper, in any case, goes to the wife, and not her father.

In the evening I was escorted to the bride’s house where, according to the Swahili tradition of fungati, we spent the next week in the wedding suite where we were treated as royalty. We were both all so liminal at the time, although for different reasons. By the end of the week’s seclusion I was integrated into the extended family and emerged as a culturally validated member of Lamu society.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions

As individuals, my wife and I were and still are very different people from totally different backgrounds. I am not sure if our union would have survived if it began as the private affair I originally envisioned. It took a while, but I came to understand how the process of public communitas and internal family bonding contributed to the fact that forty-one years later we are still together.

There is a broader moral to this love story.

The impact of commercialised weddings

Victor Turner observes that liminality and communitas are essentially phenomena of transition. His analysis explains why many modern phenomena, from millenarian movements and the counter-cultural quest for alternative lifestyles to the rise of Nazism, borrow much of their mythology and symbolism from traditional rites de passage, either in the cultures in which they originate or in the cultures with which they are in contact. Turner documents many forms of these phenomena from once-a- generation ceremonies to the rituals of everyday life.

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear. Lela Anwar, an administrator with the coast’s Donge Charity Network, offers the following commentary on Mombasa’s changing wedding complex.

A typical wedding in Mombasa now costs more than an average citizen’s salary, yet they are getting bigger and more dramatic. The Nikkah, the nucleus of any Islamic wedding, is a straightforward and inexpensive affair because it mainly involves a recitation of wedding vows followed by attendees sharing a quick repast of coffee and haluwa in the mosque. It is also a mainly male event, complemented by a smaller gathering of female relatives and close friends in another room. Even though the nikkah is the most essential part of the wedding, the reception consumes the majority of time, financial, and human resources. The reception, known as kupamba in Swahili, is an extravagant women-only event featuring an often evening of loud music, outlandish hairdos and makeup, jewel-studded dresses, and multiple servings of fancy food and drinks. Local women view the kupamba through the lens of social class: the fancier the reception is, the more status conferred on the family. Curiously, the kupamba celebration can exert more leverage on social class than actual wealth. A family that hosts an outlandish wedding is regarded as ‘high class’ even if the wedding was funded by loans and donations from extended family and friends.

 Muslims are aware that the Prophet Muhammad recommended simple weddings yet despite the religious incentive for sticking to the sunnah traditions, the scale and costs of Swahili weddings continue to rise. This phenomenon is linked to attributed gender dynamics, and specifically to gender roles that are socially enforced in traditional Swahili societies. There are certain female social activities that are frowned upon even though it is fairly acceptable for men to go clubbing or spend long hours away from the family consuming miraa or pursuing other forms of entertainment. Swahili women who deviate from their prescribed roles are, in contrast, given negative labels and may be castigated as being promiscuous or prostitutes. Unlike men, you rarely see women spending hours with friends partaking in social activities outside the home. With almost no outlet or spaces available to women for entertainment, weddings are now the default venues where they can dress up and enjoy an evening of music and fun within a socially acceptable environment. Weddings are an outlet for self-expression; an opportunity for the traditional Swahili woman to morph into a glamour queen. They are a welcome respite from her daily, culturally prescribed cocoon.

Weddings are so important that now invitation cards are sold for as much as Ksh. 7000 by invitees unable to attend. The downside of this commercialisation is that increasingly large numbers of urban and peri-urban youth are finding it difficult to marry. This has provided an entry point for radicalisation and terrorist recruitment as two recent studies on the coast of Kenya have documented.

 The wedding industry, as discussed in the first section of this essay, in many ways contradicts the role of traditional cultural processes. Weddings as events emphasise the conspicuous expenditure of resources for the sake of prestige and competition. Instead of transforming the couples to live in harmony and contribute to the public good, bling weddings condemn many of them to an uphill struggle to survive as a pair.

More traditional wedding ceremonies, as the passage above indicates, offer Swahili women a degree of gender-based communitas. The contemporary coastal wedding, however, also reinforces structural inequalities contributing to the radicalisation of both male and female youth. Sex is a powerful and dangerous force that easily leads one into a state of liminal danger. The wedding industry taps into this for material gain. Jihadi radicals effectively exploit the negative aspect of the same social change to recruit individuals who for various economic and ideological reasons fall outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam.

The role of such factors, including constraints associated with the commercialisation of weddings, have been documented by researchers on Kenya’s coast and elsewhere. In the meantime, it turns out that a range of high profile players in the West have discovered the value of communitas and other spiritual techniques that help merge the individual “I” into the collective “We”. Advocates include the top echelon of Google and other Silicon Valley executives, some of most decorated US Navy Seals team leaders, and other copacetic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. The 2017 book, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, reports how these players are seeking out ways of replicating the ecstatic sense of unity embedded in the African rituals studied by Victor Turner and others. In the words of the authors, “This feeling tightens social bonds and ignites enduring passion—the kind that lets us come together to plan, organize, and tackle great challenges.”

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear.

For the techies, entrepreneurs and soldiers who have adopted pursuits from yoga and bio-feedback meditation to psychedelics and extreme sports, getting into this zone is about enhancing productivity and their cutting edge. It is hardly surprising that the bad guys have developed their own form of communitas to do the same. In any event, society needs more of the problem-solving passion the world’s top entrepreneurs are seeking to cultivate than the competition driven by the bling of the wedding industry—especially when it comes to some of the human surrogates now being generated by artificial intelligence technology.

The rise of the wedding industry bookends one side of a larger neoliberal trend of inequality and social polarisation; developments on the other side of the spectrum have given rise to the technologically enabled sexbot, first predicted in the original 1975 version of Stepford Wives and updated in more recent films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. One blogger summed up the implications for marriage and the family as an existential threat to humanity: “This will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”

A return to the ritually-reinforced social bonds that made the celebration of marriage a universal rite of passage is needed to sustain the family unit as the most basic human institution. Creative variations on the modern wedding may yet provide a platform for adaptive cultural innovations on this front. For example, last December, Laabied Mohammed Gurcharan of the Donge Network established a new precedent for Mombasa’s wedding scene. Instead of the usual by- invitation-only event, he shared his wedding feast with the children of the Mama Dhahabu Orphanage.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Culture

The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p’Bitek

In the first of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the renowned author and wonders whether Okot p’Bitek might have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had Oxford University treated him better.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p'Bitek
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The weight of the book in my hands registered as alarm, perhaps signalling the symbolism of its intellectual heft, a book the likes of which I had never reviewed in my quarter century in the business.

I had never reacted to a book the way I did to Lawino’s People on that day in a suburb of Kampala when it was handed to me by Kara Blackmore, one of the people at the London School of Economics who fought to ensure that Okot p’Bitek’s Ph.D dissertation, deliberately failed by Oxford university in 1970 and since then hidden from view, would be pulled out and published.

In his introduction, Tim Allen, LSE Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, puts the matter bluntly:

Okot p’Bitek’s D.Phil was actually failed by the University of Oxford in 1970. This was just three years before Talal Asad, another former student of Evans-Pritchard, published his well-known collection of articles by anthropologists, analysing and documenting ways in which anthropological thinking and practice had been affected by colonialism.

Before you have done any substantial reading, a disabling blow has already been delivered. What more can there be?

My own reaction had come before I had even read these words, and what that reaction was, perhaps holds some explanation:

I was instantly reminded of my time as a journalist at the turn of the new millennium, when I came across the most horrifying experience I remember. It was September 2004, and I had gone in a World Food Programme convoy delivering aid to Pajule camp for the internally displaced in northern Uganda. When I asked why five graves had been freshly dug side by side, I was told that no one had died yet, but that the daily death rate in that camp was roughly five.

Killing northerners had become a sort of sport. You tried to explain to all you came across that the modus operandi of the Museveni government was tribalistic, orgiastic murder and they jeered and said you northerners deserve it. You further explained that these same methods will later be turned against you and they said they were all Bantu people after all, the same people. To then watch the rising groundswell of southern activism against the regime after the end of the northern war and the disillusionment with the regime, when some of the dark methods the army learned in the north began to be applied in the south, is to feel sad at the failure to properly understand in time, who and what it was they were dealing with. It was a very dangerous time, and as a journalist, you knew that once you stuck your neck out to write about that war, it was the end of your career, and within only a year after writing the story, I learnt I would soon lose my job as journalist at the paper I worked at back then.

I had moved on from the dangerous years of the war, and now here was a book whipping my attention back directly to the war.

As for the northern war, there was always much talk about it being “a complex war”, but like all such talk, you suspected that those who made such statements really meant to say that very powerful governments, too powerful to name directly in small regional newspapers, had a hand in the conflict. Going to northern Uganda, even understanding the direct culpability of the Museveni power agenda, had felt like half-understanding the causes, with the result that a refulgent, odious, and inexplicable air of conspiracy hung over the topic.

Was this tome, weighing in at over 600 pages, going to reveal something?

All of the above may not be important, but the very existence of the book was already a statement. By publishing it, the London School of Economics academics were directly accusing Oxford University of censorship, and of deliberately destroying the academic career of one of the most pre-eminent African writers.

I understood that my reaction to the book stemmed from my own interest as a writer. But outside of that, very few people would understand why its publication mattered. Sure, the matter of two important scholar silenced by the British government, and by Oxford University, grabs attention. Otherwise, it is a matter that hacks back to a bygone era, a time when Britain mattered and which time is receding beyond living memory. So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation? One big answer is that Okot is a household name. But Frank Girling? You would have had to have scholarly interest in northern Uganda, even as an academic, for the name to mean something.

Was this not breaking some sort of gentleman’s agreement by so public an execution of a fellow British university? There you have the story before you—the liberal/progressive scholars of a liberal/progressive university having a go at the mother of all conservative institutions.

The connection to our own times is perhaps the direct link in the publication of these materials to the zeitgeist, and it follows on from the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign that has seen statues of odiously racist, right-wing heroes toppled, exposing how deeply rooted in slavery and imperialism many otherwise august western institutions are. In this connection, which is a very direct link to Oxford’s less than stellar history, this book is hence not just about colonialism and imperialism; it is about the attempt to cover up the crimes of colonialism and imperialism.

So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation?

The more pedantic explanation is that the copyright to Girling’s materials, which belonged to Her Majesty’s government, had expired after 50 years, and therefore it could be reprinted.

Otherwise, there is little doubt that this affair deeply damages the standing of Oxford; it more than deserves this bloody goring from Tim et al. Oxford, the recipient of endowments from more slave ships that sailed under the Union Jack, than any other university you can think of, and one that educated nearly every colonial governor, remains so deeply invested in it’s alternative reality that it refuses to take down the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College.

Girling

He was an anthropologist. I first came across his name a long time ago whilst foraging for scholarly material on northern Uganda. Within the small, northern Uganda intellectual circles in which he is known, I have often heard it said that it was he that solidified the name “Acholi” to the group that had not commonly called itself that prior to British creation of tribes. But this claim had always rung hollow. The British delimited communities geographically and put an end to the fluidity that had previously seen clans absorbed and dispersed into different language groups. Local historians dismiss the social reality of tribes, and speak instead of language groups. They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache. All these had happened long before Girling was even born.

What I was not prepared for was the extent to which the British government and the powerful universities of that country went to ensure that Girling’s career was destroyed. Given the self-declared righteousness of Britain on the international stage, so Stalinist an act, practiced with abandon but never reported by the BBC for whom tyranny only happened abroad, is still shocking.

Okot

It was not new to me that Oxford had failed Okot’s dissertation. The late Professor Akiiki Mujaju, whom I became close to at Makerere, and who was a contemporary of Okot’s, had told me about the matter. But it was unclear. It seemed that no one saw the offending dissertation. Okot himself had died tragically and young. It was speculated within academic and literary circles that what Oxford had done to him had so demoralised him that it also disorganised his literary output. Might he have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had the university treated him better?

The beginnings

Like all sagas, this one had a long and surprising, highly connected beginning. The story of Girling’s sordid treatment starts with colonial Britain moving to directly incorporate social research as a legislatively created and government-funded undertaking. Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets. You might almost be describing an HBO television series, rather than how such bodies as the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) came into existence.

They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache.

The story begins in the late 1930s, at the very dawn of the war, and is not disconnected from it. This was a repositioning of the place of anthropology in colonial affairs. Much as the discipline has been closely associated with colonialism, it was not as central as it might seem. Within the colonial British government, anthropology had never had the prestige of say Biology, or Botany or Geology. Colonial officials in general held anthropologists at a distance, regarding them as difficult individuals with their own “personal axe to grind”, as British Secretary of State in the late 1930s, Malcolm McDonald, put it.

They had a tendency to go native.

A paradox hence; maligned by anti-colonialists, held in suspicion by colonial officials, can one say that anthropologists made colonialism worse than it already was? It would be far-fetched to assume that fascists and racists first consulted anthropology texts before making up their minds.  Rather, the monies for anthropology research had come, curiously, from American philanthropists—chiefly the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. As various scholars suggest, the decision by the British colonial office to consider direct support to social science research may have been from a natural progress in colonial affairs. The empire had by the 1930s been consolidated and reached its fullest extent. Natives were now not seen as just dark-skinned hostiles, but a part of the state. The lobbying impact of the American social research council in creating the New Deal had been immense. They had had data to influence Congress. The British drive to create a welfare system lacked reliable data.

Various sources describe the fascinating meeting at which the foundations for the proposed council were discussed. For the empire, and Africa in particular, the nascent council considered Makerere and Achimota.

Who else but Lord Frederick Lugard himself to be present at the first meeting? The other imperial figure at the meeting, whose own reputation is not fondly remembered in India, was William Hailey, also Lord Hailey, Governor of Punjab in the 1920s. It was as if Darth Sidious and Darth Vader were in one room: It is 1939, and the skies are already darkened with heralds of a war that those present understood would shake their empire so there was some urgency in the agenda. If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting. Although it would not be until the 1960s that the council would eventually receive the government funding it demanded, its ideas were put to work straight away.

Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets.

The council came late to the game, for by then, anthropology had already made its fortunes. After all, by this time, Bronislow Malinowski, a leading figure in the development of Anthropology, was at the dusk of his career and would die a couple of years after this meeting.

In Uganda itself, pioneering work had already been done a generation earlier, with such works as The Baganda: An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs (1911) by Rev. John Roscoe, and The Lango: A Nilotic Tribe of Uganda (1923) by J.H. Driberg.

Coming so late in the empire’s lifespan, what would have been the purpose? Had enough not been written already? Adjusting for the fact that by 1939, no part of the empire had broken off yet, was this perhaps an attempt to respond to what were seen as the more progressive models of the USSR and the USA, which were not based on imperial colonialism but a kind of social and economic “scientificism”? A project of consolidation? Even back then, there was much talk of “development”, in the same manner that the World Bank and IMF speak of it today, a would-be positive term that in reality often means promoting land grabbing, breaking up of communities, punitive labour laws and growing inequalities in favour of settlers. The development of a colony is not good news for natives, then or now.

John Bull Sucks up to Uncle Sam

An old line trotted out to explain British attempts to clean up its colony act was the other matter of the British government’s relationship with the USA. At the advent of the Second World War, the British were skittish about getting their American cousins into the war (favourably on their side). They were not going to beat the Germans by themselves (even with the Americans in, it still remained for the Red Army to bring down the Wehrmacht), but the optics did not look good that, with an empire as vast as the British one, you could not do it yourselves. The USA had not taken the path of overseas colonialism, and opinion in Washington sneered at this European predilection for colonies. Colonialism was looking outdated, no more than a matter of beating up natives. The British were anxious to prove to the Americans that their edition of colonialism was meant for the good of the natives, but the files contained no data to create a coherent development plan. Was this turn in attitude a PR exercise in getting American help against the Nazis? At the time, it pays to remember, Soviet socialism, which was militantly anti-colonial, was visibly more progressive with its “five-year” plan models and it was Western Europe that looked antiquated.

A good man in Africa

It is how Frank Girling arrived in Gulu, as part of the army of government-funded anthropologists fanning out into the continent. At roughly the same time, Okot was getting out of Gulu, going out into the empire.

Girling got down to work with great vigour, a conscientious man out to deliver on his commission and his profession. The discipline, to the extent that anthropology could be so called, had developed a fairly structured approach and presentation. There were the requisite spatial establishing to make, of the geography, the cultural and linguistic locations. Some description of the arts, the industry, political structures, birth, youth, marriage and death rituals of the natives. Where did these natives come from, how did they describe themselves to others and who were their neighbours, what larger groupings did their culture and language belong in? Girling, like all anthropologists, had to answer these questions in his study.

He has arrived in Acholi 50 years after the start of the colonial era. He has come, as he quickly realises, not to carry out an ethnographic study, but a forensic examination. He has come to study, not the Acholi, but the impact of British colonisation of the Acholi. He realizes that he has been drafted as a co-conspirator in crime.

He is a very highly educated man. His intellectual orientation is keener than the lazy, racially self-satisfied fair of the Roscoe of half a century before him. He is a materialist whose understanding of history demands he draw his conclusions from the economic, the interactions between men, and their movement of value across class segments to make an explanation of what is happening.

If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting.

Girling’s conclusion is that the policies adopted since the inception of British rule in Acholi have greatly destabilised the society. He sets the beginning of this phase from the days of the first colonial administrator, John Rutherford Parkin Postlethwaite, accounts of whose actions make him a veritable Mr Kurtz, who decided to uproot a significant portion of Acholi society from their ancestral lands and resettle them in patterns deemed conducive to the production of cotton for the mills of Manchester. Girling examines how this, along with what he euphemistically calls “half-free labour”, and forced taxation, have upturned the social and political structures of the land. To boot, succession lines have been stopped and “commoners” are now in charge. The coming of the East African Railway, the industrial town of Jinja in the south, the coffee and sugar plantations of the south, the preference by the British for northerners to serve in the army, prisons and police, have torn the men away from their wives and children. The able-bodied have been taken away to work for Europeans and Asians and little left for Acholi.

This sort of treatment was very common throughout the European empires, but in the case of Uganda, Acholi seems to have been set out for unique dismemberment in ways that say, the Baganda were not.  The Acholi Girling runs into question why the British destroyed their political systems but left intact those of the south. There is a racial hierarchy in operation in Acholi, as in all of the colony, with the untouchable whites, the economically favoured Asians. Black people are fair game, as one Gujarati trader openly admits; “we cheat Africans”, but goes on to say white people are not different. They have to bribe British officials from time to time.

An unflattering image of British colonialism arises. Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges. Colonial hierarchies are in full force. The rulers don’t notice black people, who throughout remain faceless.

The Empire Strikes back

The report is scandalous. If this is what the Colonial Social Science Research Council had bargained for, they had not taken seriously enough the view of the Secretary of State, Malcolm MacDonald, that some anthropologists had “a personal axe to grind”.

Girling was a Marxist theorist who did not hide his communist party membership. The report extravagantly affirms the sneering words of the Soviet Union and the USA against European colonialism.

If, as an ideological axe-grind, the prescience of Girling’s warning that British policy in Acholi would be disastrous, would need stronger imageries to counteract what was to follow a generation later, long after the British have left Uganda. We may infer, but it takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges.

Her Majesty’s government would have none of it. Girling was forced to cut out the damaging chapters of his conclusion. He was forced to edit his work to weed out evidence of British culpability in the destruction of Acholi social systems. What was eventually published was a greatly watered down report, putting emphasis on the ways in which “development” could be achieved.

The ensuing mistreatment of Girling, which ensured his substantial intellect would not have an impact, and his career not go far, did not change his beliefs. To the end of his life, he remained a Marxist, displaying the steadfast courage of the communists without whom the war against Nazism would not have been won. He had in his younger years, volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain after all.

A Black man in Cecil Rhodes backyard

Okot was not a Marxist. But for the system, he was something worse; he was a black man, a native. His presence and his choice to study anthropology at an advanced level were replete with contradictions. On the one hand, the foundation of the exploitative system on which Oxford drew its stipend depended upon the unpaid labour of men like himself. But Oxford was a centre of civilisation, an idea that did not theoretically gel with slavery as its endowments. If anthropology had thrived on a racist assumption about the darker races, how was a black man going to become an anthropologist? The result might have been seen from a mile away; it was a foregone conclusion that a clash was brewing. Okot’s work on the thesis was always going to be a repudiation of the very field he was studying, and so it emerges thus. He had the gall to call out the entire heritage of white scholarship on Acholi/Luo, for getting it wrong.

The work he does is staggeringly exhaustive. He is studying northern Bunyoro-Kitara. But he cannot delimit himself geographically, for he quickly discovers that the ethnic boundaries as spelt out by colonial policy don’t make sense. There is barely any such boundary between the Luo of his cohort and Bunyoro-Kitara. This becomes a source of friction between himself and his supervisors. This is where the two scholars converge. Both were supervised by the same man, Evans-Pritchard, albeit in different decades, but whose role in the ostracism of the two men would be interesting to know in detail.

Okot’s dissertation is positively dripping with disdain for all the big anthropology names that have come before him. He calls out an important source on Luo studies, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, for laziness. He refuses to acknowledge the preponderance of “tribe”, dismissing the idea of “Acholi”, and insisting on seeing the continuum of these concatenated societies with the same language and political ties. He is generally affirming the African version of Africa, which is a political statement in itself.

It takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

For himself, the irony wreathing Okot and his Ph.D attempt brims with drama he himself might have smiled at. He already carried degrees. He had studied law at Aberystwyth University. He was a big name in world literature. He had been a footballer; now he wants to become Dr Okot. But of anthropology? For one of the lesser beings to self-gaze is comical enough in itself. As has been said of the legions of black anthropologists (an oxymoronic enough construct), Okot was studying himself, observing his own peculiarity, his own beastliness, self-othering himself, like being your own dentist, like auto-erotica or self-disembowelment.

Okot’s work vigorously repudiated the double-faced act of imperial colonialism. But he is subtle, and capable enough that he does not glorify Africanness. You cannot accuse him of something as crude as that. He places his people’s experiences in a realistic dialectic, pointing out ironies, discontinuities and historical contradictions inherent in his own people’s polity. It is a first class work of scholarliness. By and of itself, Ph.D theses have not often been so well written.

Deconstructionist

His timing was wrong. Decolonisation was in full swing. Losing an empire was humiliating enough. But the 1960s is seeing an ever-increasing number of natives acquiring doctorates, writing books and making films directly challenging centuries of the western canon. Deconstruction and structuralism are questioning the foundations of such universities as Oxford. We can only imagine how the colleges of Oxford felt besieged by the likes of Okot.

But you would have to be close enough to both Acholi and Bunyoro colonial experiences to glean something darker in both the British government and Oxford’s hands in the proscription of Okot and Girling. Okot’s study of Bunyoro-Kitara and Acholi was coming too close to a scene of crime; the British had committed a horrendous genocide in the very locale that Okot was studying and had his dissertation been approved, how long would it take before others began to ask what the British had done in Bunyoro?

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The Changing Face of Kisii as Smallholder Agriculture Wanes

Sub-division of ancestral land has all but wiped out farming in Kisii, driving poverty and malnutrition and pushing the population into migration in search of greener pastures.

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When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.

Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.

Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.

Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.

What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.

Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.

On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

What happened?

The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times

While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.

Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.

Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.

Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.

Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.

Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.

Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.

First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.

Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.

The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.

That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.

Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.

Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.

Changing Dietary Patterns 

Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.

Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.

However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.

Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.

Mass exodus and generational interdependency 

According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.

Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.

Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.

Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.

The climate change factor

In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.

When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.

When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.

Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.

However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.

“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.

Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Mental Health in Kenyan Women Activists

In the first of a three-part series on mental health and activism in Kenya, Noosim Naimasiah writes about the pandemic of mental health breakdown in Kenya. She notes how activists respond increasingly to distress calls, extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse, fatal domestic violence, and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Naimasiah writes how communities once connected by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal system registering only exchange value.

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Women activists in Nairobi are struggling with mental health problems, further aggravated by the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic. As part of the larger community of African activists, I comprehend in sharper relief the myriad ways that women activists suffer. Caring for others and ourselves is a balance most struggle to strike, so that in the end many activists have become overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and resentful.

The manifestation of living in a patriarchal society, the culturally alienating effects of colonization compounded by the suffering inflicted by a highly unequal neoliberal society melt into each other to form a toxic political amalgam. Talk therapy or ‘self-care’ is extended at a prohibitive cost, holding the possibility of healing at bay and leaving most activists depressed and dystopic. It also reinforces individual healing which though important, cannot be isolated from context of the dis-ease. Short retreats or mental health workshops might provide temporary reprieve, but do not address the issues holistically or with long-term healing in mind. Dysfunctional and destructive coping mechanisms like alcoholism have become common coping strategies.

In this three-part series for roape.net, I will be exploring how alienation is manifested in the context of Kenya women activists. The first part will look at how national mental health documents and statistics remain ensnared in imperial hegemony and therefore do not reflect the reality on the ground. The second part will contend with activism as labour and look at how patriarchal structures in the home and the influence of NGOs have further alienated the labour of women activist historically. The third part looks back at African mental health structures before western hegemony and examines colonialism as a watershed period during which cultural structures and social networks were violently discontinued. The conclusion proposes that African methodologies and practitioners should form communities of healing practice to address mental health problems not just for activists, but for the larger African public.

Mental health – a Kenyan retrospective

The meteoric rise in mental breakdown cases in Kenya is symptomatic and catastrophic. Symptomatic because they signal an inner implosion provoked by the unbearable conditions of being today. Catastrophic because it seems, rather suddenly, that intimate relations of the self, of lovers and families, friends and communities are the prelude to a crime scene; for suicide and gruesome murders. As the advance guard in our communities, activists experience a double burden. They not only have to contend with the escalating violence in our local communities but also to deal with the manifestation of this social upheaval in their own lives.

Activists at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library who are also linked with the social justice movement across the city are permanently attending to distress calls, mostly of a violent nature. The severe cases of extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse – even of minors, fatal domestic violence and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of horizontal violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Lack of toilet facilities for instance, are the precursor to recurrent urinary tract infections. Or rape. Medical services were privatized since the advent of SAPs in the 1980s and continue to be unaffordable to most working-class people. Gendered relations are buttressed by a capitalist system, making them increasingly transactional and culturally alienated from their history and context. Political systems that held communities together by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal and punitive schema registering only exchange value.

It is easy to censure Covid 19 as the primary cause, but the pandemic is a strawman for the complex historical layers that have created a monstrosity whose soft white underbelly was exposed in the last few years. Jobs that were already precariously held were lost. Labouring bodies enervated by decades of consuming pesticides, new age diseases and the liberalization of public hospitals were easily asphyxiated by Covid.  And tragically, the fragile conditions of African minds long deracinated by colonialism were crippled further by debt and failed aspirations.

A recent continent-wide study carried out by the African Women Development Fund in 2020, found that 73 million women in Africa were affected by mental health conditions with more than 25 million suffering from neurological conditions. In Kenya specifically, the crisis is escalating with a reported 483 suicide cases and 409 cases of grievous assaults in just three months April – June, 2021, compared to 196 cases in all of 2019. Domestic violence and homicides in Kenya are soaring, with a conservative estimate of at least three people killed by a family member every day, according to statistics compiled from the Nation and police news reports.

For women activists, this trend has been exacerbated with the onset of Covid 19, where personal burdens both at home and in the frontlines of providing support and security, especially for women have been compounded. The UN Women has labelled these incidents the ‘shadow pandemic’ where more than one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence since the pandemic began. Though the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta noted the seriousness of this crisis and committed millions of funds to address it, little had changed on the ground.

In a recent study on the wellbeing of Kenyan women activists, 200 WHRDs (Women human rights defenders) in the informal settlements reported that they experienced serious mental health challenges. On a list of possible disorders including depression, anxiety, paranoia and PTSD, the women acknowledged experiencing at least 80% of these conditions. They cited the lack of a regular income, the trauma generated by their work, the physical and sexual harassment sometimes from the community and co-activists, a general sense of dystopia because of the injustice perpetrated by the criminal justice system and the strenuous effect on families and intimate relationships as the precursors for their mental health problems. This recent study is important and illuminating on the general situation of WHRD. However, a political typology of the activists was not articulated, the ‘list of mental illnesses’ was pre-emptive as it was presented during the research and might have undermined the possibility of engaging with the formulations of illnesses as experienced rather than as referenced. Categories are derivations of pathologies researched and articulated elsewhere, in a historically consistent display of colonial dominance over indigenous knowledge systems.

Part One: Imperial Games of Numbers and Manuals

The current national statistics on the prevalence and character of mental illness in Kenya are elusive. Old research data is recycled, presenting a false diagnosis on a vastly altering social and political terrain. Health policies are xeroxed from WHO with little cognizance of the prevailing history and context. Recommendations reveal no engagement with indigenous modes of healing and make the exact same appeals presented more than 40 years ago. We are generating imperial neuro-scapes, effacing the real portrait of a continent in distress.

Case in point: the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya. This committee was a presidential directive in 2019 that set out to assess the mental health challenges in Kenya and advice government on resource allocation. They visited health facilities in the major towns and held sector-specific meetings and in total, ‘held discussions with 1,569 Kenyans, received 206 memoranda (submitted 121 on emails, 73 hard copies and 12 on Taskforce website)’. They also stated, with certainty; ‘It was clear that at least 25% of outpatients and 40% of inpatients in different health facilities had a mental illness, and an estimated prevalence of psychosis stated as 1% of the general population’. Yet, there was no reference.

I had encountered this very statistic on another government funded institution – the (KNCHR) Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report on mental health – written in 2011. In turn, this KNCHR presents these very statistics as if they were current, but a cursory look at the reference reveals a paper written in 1979! Professor David M. Ndetei and Professor J. Muhangi conducted this research 40 years ago in a day clinic (the 40% inpatient statistic hence a strange addition) and articulated their findings in an article in which the neurological, cultural, social and political context were expressly demarcated. Firstly, class was a fundamental lens through which psychiatric illness was assessed. The setting was Athi River, a suburban area at the time consisting mainly of immigrant who worked as labourers in the factories, who were low-income earners and a minority peasant Kamba and pastoralist Maasai population existing mainly in a subsistence economy. Secondly, parameters were elaborate, expansive and historical – a psychiatric history which included family histories, personality development, sexual activities, sleep patterns, bowel functions and appetite rather than preemptive. Thirdly, the criterion of culture was a crucial basis for analysis, where an earlier article, was referenced showing how patients with psychiatric disorders had culturally specific symptoms – the more rural and non-literate patients exhibited symptoms related to the gut and the more urban population had more-head related symptoms.[3] Limitations like lack of laboratory investigations were cited. This signals a regression in the way of research capacity and critical analysis.

Why were the obvious ‘laboratories’ for research like the local hospitals, local healers and the police reports that generally serve as the first points of contact for the mentally unwell not consulted? Instead, the usual liberal rhetoric on ‘declaring national emergencies and national health months’ were pronounced. More aggravatingly, a commission on national happiness was recommended, in tandem with the World Happiness Report, with highly subjective criterion, none of which, of course, were generated in the continent. For instance, generosity, cited as one of the indicators for happiness in the survey, is premised on a question of whether one has donated money to a charity in the past month?! In a context where the social relations that bolster generosity have not been fully institutionalized, this is a strange and socially adulterated question.

The definition and determinants of mental health in Kenyan policy though in some ways comprehensive are quoted directly from the WHO manual. Public participation is a farce, the notion that policy interventions were developed through a consultative process are not reflected in the content of the policy. As always it seems, history is censored. Strategies that include reviewing legislation, developing guidelines and standards, investing in finance, technology, human resources, service delivery and developing Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks are generic functions that are unlikely to facilitate genuine local engagement.

Like the WHO mental health manual, the very basis of mental health diagnosis in Kenya – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is developed by the American Association of Psychiatry. These are western cultural documents, predicated on American notions  on ‘what constitutes a real disorder, what counts as scientific evidence, and how research should be conducted’.[4] Psychiatric disorders make dramatic appearances, are declassified as illnesses, changing into pharmaceutically curable ailments reflecting shifts in western social and political contexts. Even when non-western populations are engaged and assessed, the primary criterion for psychopathy are those developed within western subjects. The criterion for health, the distinctions between disorder and normal responses to distress, and the ideas of personhood superimpose foreign categories producing a social dissonance and political disarticulation in local communities.

This very process of mental and medical imperialism is likely a primary basis for mental disorders. The understanding of western diagnostic criteria as ethnopsychiatry is crucial in dismantling western medical hegemony.  Even in their own territory, questions abound on over-diagnosis in the pursuit of pharmaceutical profits. It is not a coincidence that the two institutions producing global data on mental health, the WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, are both heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Concerns have been advanced on the lack of transparency on the methods and data used by the institute, as well as the lack of a variety of independent views by scientists that could deflect from the political and economic objectives of the foundation.

Even in seemingly benign accounts of health like statistics, imperial machinations remain afoot, preventing us from developing local concepts for research, screening, and diagnosis of mental illness.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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