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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 Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya

In Kenya, rising water levels in lakes along the Great Rift Valley have forced thousands of people from their homes, submerging huge areas of farmland. Schools, hospitals, roads and water pipes have been destroyed. Crucially, there is a real fear that Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, one fresh and the other saline, will contaminate each other. Ferdinand Omondi writes about this threat of an ecological disaster.

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The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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It was an easy Wednesday morning when the phone call came in. I was seated in my study, pitching ideas, studying for my semester exams and trolling the net for news. The COVID-19 pandemic has us working from home and away from offices and fieldwork unless absolutely necessary. My producer, Joe, told me there was a situation developing down in Baringo that fitted the “absolutely necessary” description.

Early the next day, I packed up to leave Nairobi for the first time since March, an overnight stay. Risk assessment? Check. Equipment? Check. PPE? Check. Headphones? Check. Waterproof shoes? I forgot to buy those.

The Landcruiser meandered its way down the winding highways and picturesque scenery of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Up at Mau Summit, Mount Longonot’s imposing mass upon the lowlands reminded me of the breath-taking scenery that is Great Rift Valley’s gift to Kenya. But this marvel of nature has been sending warning signs lately. Two years ago, the ground split open at Suswa, leaving a giant crack several kilometres long and forty feet deep in some areas. Geologists wondered whether Africa was beginning to split again, whether two tectonic plates were moving away from each other. Thousands of people were forced to relocate.

This August it was the lakes in the Rift Valley, some 280 kilometres north of Nairobi, that had us heading out to investigate. Our drive to Baringo was uneventful, except for a stop in the middle of Marigat to move a tortoise off the road. The noise of passing vehicles had driven it to recoil into its shell in the middle of the highway. Baringo is teeming with wildlife.

We eventually pulled up at Kampi ya Samaki, a sleepy lakeside fishing and tourism settlement. A group of excited young men crowded the windows and aggressively tried to get our attention.

“No hotel here sir, they are all flooded. I take you somewhere else. Please. Good price”. I hear the words, but can’t figure out who spoke.

“All of them?”

“Yes. All of them. The flood is very bad. All the good hotels are gone”.

These young men are tour guides, starved of revenue since lakeside resorts in Baringo became submerged under water. One of them identifies himself as Rama. Rama says it has been months since he last had a good day’s pay. We are standing at the green gate of what would have been the entrance to Robert’s Camp. The entire facility is flooded. Every structure is under water. It was a beautiful lakeside resort with cottages and tents, camping grounds and a bar. We would probably have spent the night here. But today we will have to make do with the Tamarind Garden, situated several hundred metres away and across the road that runs alongside the lake. It is modest, clean and basic. The rooms are a bit claustrophobic, but the service more than assuages my insecurities. We retire for the night, to begin a fresh day in the early morning and really digest the extent of the damage caused by a lake that is aggressively extending its boundaries.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
The sun is just rising over the hills, the rays beautifully reflecting on the calm water. It is early morning, and we have hired the services of Julius, a boatman whose thriving tour business now depends on ferrying stranded locals from one end of the lake to another, and occasional visitors like us. Dickson Lenasolio, a middle-aged local, is taking us to the place he used to call home, which he says is now all under water. As we weave through the trees and shrubs that were once Robert’s Camp’s lush gardens, I am warned not to trail my bare hands in the water. This is crocodile territory.

We move slowly along the edges of the lake. We sail past a building half submerged in water, only the green roof protruding above the morning waves. This was the fisheries department, and just beyond it was a health centre. All around me used to be dry land on which a community once thrived. There were homes, farms, schools, and hospitals. Much of that has been submerged.  As we speed up, another tourist resort comes into view. The Soi Safari Lodge, a striking 74-room hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool stands desolate and ghostly. It was deserted after the lake flooded the ground floors. I am told the owners had only recently made renovations in preparation for tourists.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
We speed up across the lake, past a dead crocodile floating in the water. After about twenty minutes, the boat slows down as we approach Dickson’s former village. I can see the protruding roofs of houses where people used to live. I can make out sections of maize plantations from the extended stems of dying maize plants swaying in the waves. I can make out paddocks and homestead fences from the dangerously sagging wires and posts that are threatening to stall our boat. Dickson is now guiding us through the maze of roofs, trees and weeds, his wrinkles too prominent for one aged only 54. As he points to the spot where his house once stood, he tells us he was once a wealthy dairy farmer, before Lake Baringo swelled and swallowed up all his material wealth and he lost everything.

“I had Sahiwals [a breed of high-yield dairy cows]. I sold milk to the locals and it was good business. I would sell milk every day, and I had lots of grass in my farm”.

Dickson goes on to describe what he lost.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“My farm here was wire-fenced. We were using solar power to keep out wild animals. But when the water approached and we kept thinking it will recede, it did not, until it became impossible to retrieve the wire. Now it’s all below here, and the wire was very expensive. One roll is over 200 dollars. I fenced over 40 acres with it. My brother fenced 60. All of that is gone. It’s had to get it out because you can hardly even see the posts. These were 9-foot posts”.

“It wasn’t just me. There were other farmers who also did the business. They kept cows either for beef or milk. We suffered heavy losses. Because all the farms are now under water. We had no means of preventing it. At first, we thought we could seal the farms off. But, no. The lake kept rising night and day. Until it covered all the farms and we moved”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
Dickson says they have never seen the water levels rise like this since they were born. Not even his father, who he says is now 92. He recalls how the flooding began during the heavy rains back in March and everyone thought it would ease off with time. It did not.

“I brought down my buildings and so did my neighbours”, says Dickson. “We moved up about 800 metres. We started living there, and the water still got to us. We pulled our homes down. Now many have moved up the hill, to Marigat, Leberer, all the way up. Unfortunately, when we moved the animals up there, away from the grass they were used to, they fell sick and died”.

“Our father lived here. Our grandfathers lived here too. But now we have no hope. We don’t see the water receding because it has risen to unprecedented levels”.’

We drop Dickson off as close to his new home as possible, and he alights and wades off into the distance. He fears he may have to relocate his home for the third time.

The flooding has also cut off essential services. Power, transport, health. A building that used to be a clinic sits lonely among the tall dead trees in the still water. We watch as sick women are brought in by boat. They wade to the shore in search of medication. They will meet nurse Emily, who provides free health care in a little green tent, from where she has noticed a surge in crocodile attacks.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“We were treating burns, wounds and snake bites”, says Emily. “We also helped women with family planning and gave HIV/AIDS support. Since the flooding, our work has been affected because many people can’t get to us because they used to come on foot. Others fear travelling over water because there are crocodiles and hippos”.

Next to Emily’s small tent a group of women are sifting quality grass seeds. The seeds would have been planted on the land which is now underwater. The health facilities and grass are provided by RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments), a trust that helps local people turn arid land into sustainable pasture. The social enterprise runs a project called “Nyasi ni Pesa” – grass is money – which provides the locals with indigenous species of dryland grass which can survive the area’s arid conditions. This is the grass that Dickson’s purebreds thrived on. After harvesting, RAE then buys back the seeds, giving the women and their families a healthy income too. But the whole model is now under threat.

Murray Roberts, a Kenyan of British ancestry, runs the RAE project. He has lived in Baringo his whole life, and has watched the water levels rise and rise. Roberts shows me an extraordinary family photo taken in the 90s. It’s a photo of his two sons jumping off a cliff outside his home. It appears to be at least 30 feet high. We take another boat ride to the place where the photo was taken; the entire cliff face is now below the water.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
But Murray has an even bigger fear than the loss of land and livelihoods. Less than 40 kilometres south of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria. The highly saline lake is home to a famous colony of flamingos and is a gazetted national park. But Lake Bogoria is also rising. I learn that the Kenya Wildlife Service has moved its main gate three times, each one submerged as the lake expands. Senior KWS Warden James Kimaru has been quoted saying that the water levels increased within one month from a width of 34 km2 to 43 km2. We see one of the KWS buildings in the distance, half submerged in water. New roads into the reserve are being constructed after previous ones were also covered by the water. As the lakes expand in width, the distance between them shrinks. Murray is concerned that with both Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria rising, the two lakes could eventually contaminate each other.

“The thing that is really worrying me about this situation is if Lake Bogoria starts flowing into Lake Baringo. What would be the outcome of that because Bogoria is a highly alkaline lake and it will be an ecological disaster. Once that water reaches Lake Baringo it will affect the fish, it will affect the bird life, it will affect the aquatic life”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
It is a concern that the Baringo County government shares. A post-floods report published in June by the Kenya Inter-Agency Rapid Assessment Mechanism concluded that the Rift Valley is becoming the most flood-prone region in Kenya. Much of that water ends up in the lakes, which inevitably swell. The report attributed the flooding to a combination of poor land use practices, deforestation and accumulation of silt. In May, the government counted over 200 deaths from flooding, with at least 800,000 people affected countrywide, Much of the destruction happened along river and lake settlements like Lake Baringo and its feeder rivers. Outside the Rift Valley, Lake Victoria was reported to have risen to its highest levels in over 50 years.

Helen Robinson, a geologist with extensive experience in East Africa, explained to me that when it is hot and dry for a long time the soils becomes so dry that they cannot absorb water. Then when it rains, huge amounts run along the surface to the rivers, then the lakes. Robinson explained that if the soils had some moisture content, much more of the rainwater would drain into the groundwater system. Trees help soils to retain moisture, but Kenya’s forest cover is only 7% of its landmass, 3 per cent less than the 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
All these points reinforce the concerns that human activity is contributing to the extreme changes in our climate. The UN says climate change is a reality, and that human activity is the main cause. Scientists have stressed the importance of lowering our carbon emissions to limit the impact we’re having on our planet. Robinson said that if we don’t try harder, the damage could become irreversible including melting ice at the poles, rising sea levels, more climate extremes, loss of habitats and mass extinctions.

Baringo is experiencing extreme weather changes and destruction to its habitat. But across the Rift Valley, similar swellings were recorded in Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha this year, and even in Lake Turkana in the north, with the varying levels of destruction pointing to a pattern. Whatever the causes, it is a race for survival, and at the moment, nature is winning.

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Culture

Are Kenyans Ready to Parley?

Kenyans are reportedly “being taken by storm” by Parler, a newish right-wing social media platform. But do they really know how toxic the storm sweeping over them is? The platform is racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, white supremacist – and that’s only for starters.

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Are Kenyans Ready to Parley?
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US-based Parler has been around since 2018, but was fairly unknown outside the US until recently. Billed as a conservative alternative to Twitter, it now has some two million users, including Kenyans, who post what Parler calls “parleys” rather than tweets. It champions free speech, claims not to censor, and has attracted many Twitter castaways who were banned for breaking Twitter’s rules – especially those concerning racist hate speech. (An FM radio station in Kenya claimed that Kenyans were “being taken by storm” by Parler.)

Parler has made concerted efforts to lure Donald Trump away from his Twitter addiction, thus far unsuccessfully, even though Twitter has started fact-checking Trump’s tweets and removing those that are false or misleading, which has made the US president very unhappy. Founded by conservatives fed up with the moderation of posts on Twitter and Facebook, it has become the go-to home for right-wingers and “libertarians” in the US, the UK and around the world.

But how popular is this social media platform likely to become in Kenya and the diaspora once its unbridled racism and Western-centrism becomes clear?

Despite its free speech credentials, Parler does in fact ban those it doesn’t like. “Pretty much all of my leftist friends joined Parler to screw with MAGA [Make America Great Again] folks, and every last one of them was banned in less than 24 hours because conservatives truly love free speech,” one user wrote on Twitter.

This is largely the story of my experience on Parler. I joined in July, under a pseudonym, largely to find out what some of the British “castaways” were up to, and to continue calling them out on racism and Islamophobia, in particular. What I’ve experienced in this shouty, sweary bear-pit may act as a warning to those tempted to dive in.

Within days of joining, I was called (among other things) a tyrant, leftard, libtard, racist, fascist, pedo and peodo (sic), faggot, nonce, pervert, jihadist, globalist, c**t, twunt (a reference to Twitter), whiney Karen, baby raper, commie, Marxist, moron, and a “stanky, sweat-dripping, hairy balls dude”. One British man who lobbed constant anti-Irish abuse after I revealed my dual Irish/British citizenship, called me a “dirty peat-digging Paddy”, Tinker and “bog trotting Mick”. (The slur “leftie scum” is comparatively sweet.) Though I left my gender unclear (“bloke, possibly”), many have assumed I am a gay man, and have sent homophobic abuse that elides gay men and paedophiles.

Within days of joining, I was called (among other things) a tyrant, leftard, libtard, racist, fascist, pedo and peodo (sic), faggot, nonce, pervert, jihadist, globalist, c**t, twunt (a reference to Twitter), whiney Karen, baby raper, commie, Marxist, moron, and a “stanky, sweat-dripping, hairy balls dude”.

But this is nothing compared to the online abuse thrown at women of colour. When Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, many on the official Team Trump timeline called her a whore (“ho”) who has slept her way to the top. Revolting memes and doctored pictures showed her being f**ked from behind by a donkey (a symbol associated with Democrats), going down on the J in Joe, as a scantily-clad prostitute standing on a street corner next to a photo-shopped image of Biden dressed as a pimp, and so on.

The same “birther” slurs that Trump and Trumpites lobbed at Barack Obama – for allegedly having been born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be POTUS – are also being lobbed at Asian-American Harris, who was in fact born in the US. One sample racist comment stands for many: “You have to give Kamala Comealot Harris credit in one area… she has worked hard in her career. She has worn out 12 pairs of knee pads!” This kind of abuse continues unabate, whenever Trumpites refer to the Dems and their presidential candidates. I repeat, much of this is on the official Team Trump timeline. Let that sink in.

Shortly after joining Parler, I also began reading the online Front Page Magazine (FPM), founded in the US by far-right commentator David Horowitz, which features articles by former British Twitter queen Katie Hopkins (explained below). Some of the abuse in the comment sections on FPM is as bad if not worse than Parler

Much of what I’ve read cannot be reproduced here, because it includes unfettered racism, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, and all the other “obias” one can think of. Language that would earn the messenger an instant ban from Twitter. (I will give some examples later.) One can usually identify fellow travellers by the fact that they “up-vote” your comment, whereas right-wing nasties give you the thumbs down, often followed by a torrent of four-lettered abuse. Parler does not do “likes” as Twitter does, and neither is there an edit option. Occasionally, just to draw people out, I throw in the odd (tongue-in-cheek) far-right endorsement, which is enthusiastically greeted as presumably coming from “one of us”. I sometimes agree with Katie and her ilk; very few recognise this as sarcasm.

Why describe my Parler experience? Because while it is tempting to ignore Parler and the far right and to wrinkle your nose and turn away, I believe it is dangerous to do so. That’s also an empirical observation, grounded in my past experience as a newspaper hack who has interviewed far-right lads. In an earlier incarnation as a sociology student, I joined a gang in order to study youth deviance, and learned plenty about fledgling British Nazis. Turning a blind eye allows these folk to fester underground, largely unseen and unchecked, and to assume that the far-right threat has receded. At least these haters were in full view on Twitter, and could be called out by thousands of people, before being banned if they violated Twitter’s rules. Lift the lid on Parler and FPM and you find a hornet’s nest buzzing with people stoking hatred against anyone perceived as the enemy.

British migrants from Twitter

The best-known of these recent migrants to these platforms include far-right activist Tommy Robinson and his whacky pal Katie Hopkins, who is often described as a “media commentator”. Islamophobic racist white supremacists would be a better label, though they both claim not to be racist or white supremacist. Both call themselves journalists, which is infuriating to those of us who really are.

Tommy is fond of wearing T-shirts reading “Convicted of Journalism”, following his conviction and jailing for contempt of court in July 2019 after he interfered with the trial of a sexual grooming gang the previous year. (This is only the latest in a string of convictions; he faces trial for libel soon.) I helped to get Hopkins permanently banned from Twitter earlier this year after a sustained campaign (by me and others) that ranged from ridicule to flat condemnation. Hopkins never engaged with me, but eventually blocked me after the ridicule became acute. I dubbed her Shouty Nutkins, then Burkie Bonkins after she began wearing a burqa in videos sending up British “ISIS bride” Shamima Begum. So much for the great champion of free speech. Every time this happens I think: “They don’t like it up ‘em, do they? (That’s a famous line from the British sitcom Dad’s Army, about an amateur militia preparing to fight the Germans in World War II. It refers to a bayonet, a blade fixed to the end of a rifle which can be used to stab an opponent in hand-to-hand fighting.)

Why describe my Parler experience? Because while it is tempting to ignore Parler and the far right and to wrinkle your nose and turn away, I believe it is dangerous to do so. That’s also an empirical observation, grounded in my past experience as a newspaper hack who has interviewed far-right lads.

Now, I am someone who swore until recently that I would never use Twitter, never mind anything other social media site. Stupid, big waste of time and energy, who the heck has the time to tweet all day? But like many others, I’ve found that it’s addictive, especially during lockdown. Then the big migration happened, with fashes (that’s what we leftie trolls call fascists) gleefully bragging about their newfound freedom on Parler, and calling to their pals to join them and abandon “Twatter” It became tempting to see what was happening on the other side. I soon developed a second addiction.

Shocked Parler users

The daft thing about Parler is that its devotees – especially those who boast about migrating from Twitter to these sunny, sweary uplands – seem surprised that “the enemy” has followed them there. I was endlessly told it wasn’t the right place for me, that I should “f**k off back to Twatter”. Here’s one example from a woman writing on 27 July: “You ever heard the saying the left can’t troll? Thats why you want to de platform and censor us lol f**k off back to twitter you melt (sic).” And on 2 August: “Why are there so many anti Katie Muslims on here?”

Neither do these folk understand the concept of free speech, which they seem to think simply involves swearing. It’s been quite liberating to swear back harder when I am not being scrupulously polite, which winds them up even more. It’s not for nothing that I have been a tabloid hack, Hell’s Angel, and racing stable girl in my time. No experience is ever wasted.

The daft thing about Parler is that its devotees – especially those who boast about migrating from Twitter to these sunny, sweary uplands – seem surprised that “the enemy” has followed them there. I was endlessly told it wasn’t the right place for me, that I should “f**k off back to Twatter”.

Far-right racists have effectively kettled themselves, and are now shouting pointlessly into the void at each other. Recent topics of “discussion” (at least on Hopkins’ timeline, and before the run-up to the US elections began in earnest) are largely on Black Lives Matter, immigrants, Muslims, sexual grooming gangs in northern England, vaccines and COVID lockdown measures, which Hopkins opposes. The libertarian, gun-toting Trumpite Americans on Parler lap up Tommy and Katie, blissfully unaware that they are both reviled and mocked here in the UK. “We love you, Foreign Secretary!” (posted while she was visiting the US in August). Said another: “You are loved by a saviour and his church!” One up-voted my sarky comment: “Katie for Chancellor!” The same people are invariably Christian (I call them CINOs, Christians in name only), anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, “Deep State” freaks and COVID denialists, their profile pic bristling with guns, MAGA, images of POTUS, and the Stars and Stripes.

Some observations

A key observation, from a British point of view, is that some of Tommy’s followers are now turning against him. They question his source of income (that includes donations from fans), his wealthy lifestyle (he lives in a £1m mansion, or did until it was allegedly firebombed recently by persons unknown), and his support for Israel. “Are you talking about Britain or Israel, Tommeh?” asked one former Tommy fan, whose profile declares: “100% white. 100% proud.” Another disgruntled self-confessed racist told me: “Who said I like Tommy? He loves wogs and Jews.”

Another observations is that working class Tory voters are turning against the British government, especially Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel, largely because of their failure to take tougher action against immigrants arriving by cross-channel dinghy. (More than 5,000 migrants have entered the UK this way so far this year.) Nobody wants to discuss Brexit much, despite my best attempts to draw them out.

Overall, there is seething anger and scapegoating of “others”, as one might expect. Cross-cutting themes, which straddle international borders, include a perceived loss of identity in the face of multiculturalism, a fear of being “invaded” by Muslims in particular, and foreign threats to “Western civilization” (“I think it would be a good idea,” said Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of it). Underlying it all is a strong sense of insecure masculinity and fragile identity.

The mantra is white America first, white Britain first, Western civilisation first, the rest of the world nowhere.

Blocked

Tommy Robinson blocked me after a particularly good day (from my point of view) when I taunted him for the hypocrisy of running away to Spain after the alleged arson attack on his home. This from a man who has spent years railing against immigrants and asylum seekers, yet now appears to be seeking asylum abroad. A man who voted Brexit and against freedom of movement, yet ran to mainland Europe at the first sign of trouble. A man who rails against “commies”, yet is clearly in Putin’s pocket. Jokers on Twitter say he’s changed his name to Juan Kerr in order to assimilate more quickly in Spain. Katie blocked me soon afterwards.

I felt cheated: I’d only been on Parler about 10 days. Lots more folk started lobbing abuse and down-voting my posts before blocking me. On 10 August I got this:

Breaking!!!!!
Watch out for xxx

Sounds like one very bitter and twisted individual. (obviously on summer vacation)

While I could still follow Katie, I took the opportunity while she was in the US in August “pounding the sidewalks for Trump”, to sabotage her feed. Very politely, saying I am updating her followers on the “immigrants in boats” story which she can’t report on while away, I posted stories from the Guardian and anti-Brexit New European that punctured Priti Patel’s plans to send in the Royal Navy. Some naïve Yanks up-voted me (indicating approval), clearly before having read the stories.

Overall, there is seething anger and scapegoating of “others”, as one might expect. Cross-cutting themes, which straddle international borders, include a perceived loss of identity in the face of multiculturalism, a fear of being “invaded” by Muslims in particular, and foreign threats to “Western civilization”

Having been dumped by those two charmers, I turned to trolling people on the Team Trump feed. On 25 August, 17-year-old self-styled vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse shot dead two strangers at a BLM protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and wounded a third. This came days after unarmed Jacob Blake was shot in the back by cops at point-blank range, leaving him partly paralysed. I need not tell you who was white and who black. Rittenhouse (who has been charged with homicide) is being hailed by some as a national hero, while Blake is accused of the usual: guilty while black.

I posted a comment, which got this swift response from a Rittenhouse defender: “Did you miss the part where one of his assailants was carrying a pistol? And they were in the process of beating the shit out of him? The fact that he held back as long as he did is testament to his desire to NOT kill them. They created the situation that caused their deaths, not him.”

At this point our reporter left.

For more on Parler in Kenya: https://www.nation.co.ke/kenya/news/world/with-social-media-in-tumult-startup-parler-draws-conservatives-1446834. The quote “being taken by storm” is from kiss100.co.ke (21 July 2020).

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Culture

The Exodus: Corona-Induced Urban-To-Rural Migration

City dwellers in Kenya are rushing to their rural homes in droves because of economic and social disruptions caused by coronavirus lockdowns and curfews. Many may never return to the city.

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Eric Oduor was your archetypal suave, tech savvy, cosmopolitan millennial with an urban mien – well, until several weeks ago, when he called from Sigomre village in Ugenya location, Siaya County, to announce that he had now fully relocated to his rural home from Nairobi city. At only 37, recently married in the last five years, with two young children and working as an IT consultant, Oduor was every millennial’s dream: living in the fast lane, seeming to have been coping well with the city’s corporate rat race. Then coronavirus crisis struck and his life changed completely.

“In the five months that the pandemic hit Kenya, all my four major corporate clients that I used to maintain and service and offer IT solutions to closed shop. In one fell swoop, I was declared redundant; I suddenly had no income. My clients empathised with me, but said there was little they could do. They also had been hit hard (I didn’t need to be told), nobody saw the pandemic coming, nobody imagined it was here to stay. It has completely disrupted and disoriented our lives,” said Oduor.

With a young family that depended on him, Oduor found himself in a bind. Yes, his wife was in gainful employment, but the family was not going to rely on his wife’s salary and there was no the guarantee she would keep her job

“So I had to think doubly hard, what I wanted to do with my life, with my family in these very difficult coronavirus times and beyond. Even after the coronavirus is finally said to have been tamed, our lives will never be the same again, and life will never go back to normal as we used to know it.”

So, after thinking very hard, one evening, Oduor broke the tough news to his wife: “We can no longer sustain our lives in the city and this thing isn’t going away any time soon. We must brace for the future now. The sooner the better, and the only way to do that is by retracing our footsteps back home, because that is the only way we can salvage our lives. City life is proving to be unsustainable.” To his great relief and surprise too, his wife agreed with him and paved the way for him to go and conduct a reconnaissance mission in Sigomre village.

Oduor’s wife is thoroughly urbanised – trendy and younger…in every sense of the word, an urban sophisticate. Above all, she is from the Mt Kenya region, so one can understand why Oduor was a bit apprehensive as he broke the “sad” news to his wife.

“This COVID-19 has had a terrible impact on marriages. It has led some marriages to break up, so you can imagine what difficulties mixed marriages like mine could be going through. My wife agreed with me that our lives’ and our children’s future lay not in the big city, but ultimately in a place where we can develop to our taste and we can always be sure whatever the disruption, we could always absorb it because we’re truly at home,” said a relieved Oduor.

To his great surprise, it was not only he who was relieved: “My father was worried about this new mysterious disease that was sweeping the world like a mystical wave and which had arrived in the country and was claiming peoples’ lives in the city. In a roundabout way, he suggested to me to temporarily relocate the family and bring it home. In a way, many rural folks, including my parents, honestly believe the coronavirus is domiciled in the city. When it broke, my father told me leave and come back home.”

As if that was not enough of a worry, said Oduor, when he told his father that is consultancy jobs had actually dried up, his father became really concerned. “Ordinarily, it’s we children who normally take care of our folks in their rural home. Now my parents were sending foodstuff to my family to beef up our sustenance. He would send beans, dry maize, millet and posho-mill flour. When I went to see him to tell him I was moving my family back home, he was overjoyed. He said, ‘Look my son, at the very least, there’s plenty of food and shelter here. The children aren’t going to school until next year. It will give you time to think about what you would like to do here.”

Oduor’s father farms maize, keeps chickens, sheep and goats, and has dairy cows for milk,. After leaving the city himself five years ago for good, he never looked back. “In those five years, my father. who regularly came to the city, has only spent two nights in town since he left,” said Oduor. “He would come on the night bus, spend the whole day doing his biasharas and in the evening, he would be on the night bus again heading home. I couldn’t persuade him to spend the night here. My father had always told me Nairobi is a place where people go to look for employment. Once that employment is over, you pack your things and return home where you came from.”

“Ordinarily, it’s we children who normally take care of our folks in their rural home. Now my parents were sending foodstuff to my family to beef up our sustenance…”

With his savings, Oduor is exploring several options: He had already built a two-bedroomed house on his piece of land given to him by his father, so, like his father said, food and shelter are not a problem. “If taken seriously and done well, agriculture is worth the risk because people will always eat. My father has become a full-time farmer and it’s been keeping him going. I’d like to take it further and see what will come of it, even as I explore other possibilities,” averred Oduor. That doesn’t mean that I will no longer be coming to the city. All it means is that the city has ceased to be the centre of our family’s life.”

Colonial constructions

Oduor could be the exception rather than the rule: It is unlikely that the majority of millennials will be migrating to their rural homes in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, but he is certainly an aberration that might as well explain the extent to which disruptions, such as a global pandemic or even an economic meltdown, can lead people in cities to reevaluate their lives and consider their options.

Economist David Ndii remarked once that in Africa, people travel to and live light in the metropolis because many cities in Africa were not built with the natives in mind. Cities have remained colonial constructions alien to the indigenous people. The great lesson for many people then has always been that in the cities, you must always have a way out of a calamity or a disruption.

But really, it is because Africans never consider cities to be their proper dwellings? Cities are still transient places for a majority of Africans. Many African cities were built by and for the colonialists, who accepted indigenous people only as indentured or migrant labour. If you did not have a pass to enter the city, or work there, you would be arrested and fined.

To date many people who live in cities have one foot there, the other one in a rural area where their ancestors hailed from and what they call home. The idea of a city to many Africans, young and old, has always been a temporary one. Their annual exodus from the city to their respective rural homes during the Easter holiday and more so during the Christmas festive season explains this notion of the reverse urban-rural migration. It also explains, why rural areas become the refuge of city dwellers running away from city calamities and commotions be they, for instance the 1982 failed coup, the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi, the general elections held after every five year cycle, and especially after the disputed presidential elections of 2007 that led to an explosion of violence in the Rift Valley region.

Economist David Ndii remarked once that in Africa, people travel to and live light in the metropolis because many cities in Africa were not built with the natives in mind. Cities have remained colonial constructions alien to the indigenous people.

Way before the coronavirus crisis came to bear on us, a millennial who owned an electronics shop at the famous Nyamakima area relocated back home to Murang’a County in 2018 after it become untenable to run his erstwhile lucrative business. “With the government’s crackdown on counterfeit goods, which we used to import from China, and the subsequent hoarding of our goods at the government warehouses in Industrial Area, I lost so much money, as did many other traders, that I decided to just leave Nairobi and go home. Kaba kuinoka. I’m better off in my rural home,” said the trader.

No safety nets

“When President Uhuru Kenyatta reviewed the cessation of movement between counties on July 7, 2020, it was to allow people in Nairobi to leave town and transport their families back to their rural areas,” alleged a senior civil servant. “We (the government), knew people were suffering in the city. Many had lost their jobs, they couldn’t pay their rents, they couldn’t feed their children. Life had truly become a burden. It was going to be just a matter of time before the situation possibly blew out of hand. The government had to choose between facing a boiling agitation from the people, who would soon take it no more, or risk the very same people transporting coronavirus to the rural areas. Whichever option it took, it was the devil’s alternative.”

Many of these people worked as casual labourers, drivers or housekeepers or as waiters or waitresses in bars, restaurants and hotels. Or in the informal sector as hawkers, street vendors and merchandise traders. I know this because I am in a group that has been pooling resources to buy food for families that live where we grew up in Eastlands. With no gainful employment, yet mounting bills to pay, and no safety nets to fall back on as they would in their rural homes, many of these people just waited for the government to reconsider cessation so that they could take their families to their rural areas.

One of the big factors that drove Oduor out of Nairobi is the fact that he continued to pay rent for five months for a house he couldn’t call home and without an income. “That is money I can invest in a small project in the rural area,” he explained.

So that is why a family in Kawangware, after exhausting its reserves, went to a merchandise shop that sells and accepts second-hand goods and hawked their furniture in return for cash, which it would use to pay for transport for the long journey to western Kenya. Kawangware is a sprawling peri-urban area that was originally inhabited by the Kikuyu, but which is now dominated by Kenyans from the western region. The odd jobs the man of the house was doing had dissipated. With several mouths to feed, the man had no choice but to retrace his footsteps to his rural home.

A visit to “Machakos” Country Bus Station in downtown Nairobi revealed that people were travelling back home in droves, and accompanied by hordes of children and household goods – from wooden beds and mattresses to sofa sets and utensils. It was evident that many were not planning to return to the city in a hurry, if they would return at all. The many travellers I spoke to said life in the city had become unbearable and it was time to go back to their roots. “Shule zilifungwa, hakuna kazi tunafanya nini huku? Schools have been closed, there’s no work, what are we doing in the city?

“Because of the curfew, buses are only leaving in the mornings,” explained Vincent Musa, one of the groundsmen at the station, which serves buses that travel all over upcountry. To possibly tame the spread of coronavirus, the government also instituted a curfew – first the curfew was between 5am – 7pm, later on the president revised it to 5am – 9pm. “Everyday buses have been leaving here between 6am – 10am in order to beat the curfew at 9pm. Many of the destinations of these buses take an average of seven to eight hours. Most of the people who have been travelling are women and children. Since the children are not going to school, it is pointless to keep them in Nairobi.”

“It is easier for the man to survive alone in the city,” said a man who was accompanied by his wife and children. “Wacha waende nyumbani, mimi nitang’ang’ana na maisha hapa Nairobi.”I’m taking my family home, I will return to deal with the harsh city life.

Musa named for me nearly all the destinations that the people were travelling to: Ahero, Boro, Bungoma, Eldoret, Cheptais Chwele, Homa Bay, Kadel, Katito, Kendu Bay, Kimilili, Kisumu, Kisii, Kitale, Koguta, Luanda, Malaba, Maseno, Matunda, Moi’s Bridge, Mbita, Muhoroni, Ng’iya, Nyandorera, Olare, Rwambwa, Siaya, Urangu, Wagai and Webuye.

While at the station, I counted seven different bus companies that ferried people home: Climax Coaches, Eldoret Express, Greenline, Nairobi Bus Union, Nyar Ugenya and Nyamira Express. After coronavirus set in, many of these buses were grounded, and even though the lifting of the cessation had given the owners some reprieve, many are still grounded. “The bus capacity had been reduced. A bus that carried 67 passengers has now been restricted to 40 only. This reduction of passengers has meant that fares have had to be doubled,” said Musa.

Many of the fares to western Kenya ranged from between Sh600 and Sh800 before the pandemic. Now they are charging Sh1,400 or above to all destinations in Nyanza, Kisii and Transzoia. One bus to Kitale charges Sh1,750.

One of the big factors that drove Oduor out of Nairobi is the fact that he continued to pay rent for five months for a house he couldn’t call home and without an income. “That is money I can invest in a small project in the rural area,” he explained.

Majiwa, the supervisor told me the pandemic had been a wake-up call for many Kenyans. “Nairobi has never been a domicile for anybody – permanent or otherwise. I’m here because I still have work. The day they tell me I’m redundant, I’ll pack my things and head home. In Nairobi, you pay for everything, including going for ablution. In the rural area, food is plenty and free, children can never lack anything to eat. That’s why people are taking their children back home. Every morning 25 buses have been leaving here heading to western Kenya, packed with women and their children”.

There has been another reason why many parents from western Kenya living in Nairobi have been transporting their children back home in great numbers. “Once the government announced that schools will not reopen till January next year, circumcision rites for boys, which usually are conducted in the month of August and December, started early in July,” said Musa. “And these rites will go on till December non-stop. Wacha watoto watengenezwe.” Let the boys get initiated now that they are not going to school. Circumcision for boys, especially among the Bukusu people who live in Bungoma, Kitale and around Mt Elgon area, is an elaborate affair.

Not since the scare of the terrorists’ bomb at the former US embassy, then located at the corner of Haile Selassie Avenue and Moi Avenue in Nairobi, has there been such a scare leading people to migrate to their rural homes. While the scale of the Al Qaeda bombing had never been witnessed before in Nairobi, it nonetheless never took people’s jobs, or cumulatively threatened their lives. People rightly reasoned that if they escaped the city to their rural homes, they would be safe

The current coronavirus scare is compounded by the fact that normal life has been completely disrupted, so there is a possibility that those leaving might never return. There is also the issue of people believing that COVID-19 is basically a city disease.

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