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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 Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders

Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.

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Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.

Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.

After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’

What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’

Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.

The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.

‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’

Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’

Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.

After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.

Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.

On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.

Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.

But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.

As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.

Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’

Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’

Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.

Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.

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Our Words Must Count

Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

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On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.

That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”

Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.

How is this contradiction possible?

I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.

This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.

The violence of language

These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.

Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.

​It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:

When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak

When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made 

When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge

When we question, we are ungrateful

When we lament, we’re not providing solutions

When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable

When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals

When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence

When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility

When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally

When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution

When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others

When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves 

The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think

But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?

What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?

These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.

This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.

“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”

In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.

Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?

Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:

  1. Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
  2. Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
  3. Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.

These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.

As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.

Our words must count

The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.

Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?

Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.

When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. ​That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.

So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?

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