Connect with us

Culture

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

Published

on

BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Avatar
By

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

Culture

Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society

8 min read. The backlash against the women’s movement has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women, especially in music videos, says RASNA WARAH. This has had a negative impact on how women view their own bodies.

Published

on

Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society
Download PDFPrint Article

I do not normally agree with self-appointed media censor Ezekial Mutua, who gained notoriety recently for banning the film Rafiki because of its homosexual content, but I think we should not dismiss his claims that some Kenyan music videos are so crude and offensive that they should not be viewed by the public, especially the youth.

Mutua says that videos showing explicit sexual acts promote immorality in society. It is clear that the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board is approaching immorality from a purely sexual – dare I say Christian? – perspective. As Christine Mungai argued in a recent article, Kenyan society is immoral at so many levels that confining immorality to sexuality obscures the many ills that bedevil the country. “If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own,” she wrote.

However, if we shift the debate from morality to women’s rights, Mutua’s concerns could be valid. His views might be based on his warped sense of what is moral and immoral in society, but by calling for the ban, he inadvertently became a champion for women’s rights. Let me explain why.

I have stopped watching music videos of Kenyan, Congolese and black American hip hop and rap artists because I find them offensive to women. As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood. The skimpy outfits, the suggestive gyrating of the extraordinarily large buttocks, the focus on women’s surgically enhanced breasts are all meant to show that women are first and foremost sex objects.

In the majority of these music videos, the men are fully clothed; I have yet to see a man dangling his penis in front of the camera, yet women are expected not just to dangle but to wiggle their nude or semi-nude private parts. These videos are a slap in the face of all those women who fought for women’s rights and who continue to advocate against pornography, which they view as a form of women’s oppression.

As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood.

Many people believe that the anti-pornography movement denies men and women the right to freedom of expression and has prudish and out-dated views on sex and sexuality. What they don’t recognise is that most anti-pornography activists, such as the inimitable Andrea Dworkin, identify themselves as feminists. They are not against women and men having sex; they are against the debasement of the sexual act and the degradation of women in most porn films.

A former porn star who has started a campaign against the porn industry recently told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur that the sex shown in porn movies promotes unhealthy sexual relations between men and women. Some studies have also shown that men and boys who watch a lot of pornography become desensitised to violent sexual acts committed against women; they see women as purely sexual commodities whose main function is to please men.

The branding of women’s bodies

Unfortunately, the commodification and hypersexualisation of women and girls has gained a new impetus in this today’s money-worshipping world. Memories of slavery and female subjugation have been erased by advertisers, the music industry and the media in general, who use women’s bodies – especially black women’s bodies – to sell everything from cars to watches.

The sexualisation and sexual exploitation of black bodies is nothing new. Myths about black/African men and women’s extraordinary sexual prowess was one reason for the enforcement of strict segregation laws in the United States, South Africa and Kenya. White men feared that white women would not be able resist black/African men, or that black/African men were unable to control their sexual urges (unlike white men who were considered to be more cerebral) and so would be tempted to rape white women. (Yet, black/African slave women were routinely raped by their white owners.) There was even a belief that black women’s bodies were made differently from white women’s bodies and that they could endure more pain. It is therefore sad to see black male musicians perpetuate similar myths in their videos.

The sexualisation of women is not confined to music videos. In Kenya, some female news anchors and TV hosts act as if they are on a catwalk, with each competing with the other to show off their cleavages and legs. This sexing-up and dumbing down of presenters had turned the 9 o’clock news into an indecent show. Radio has not been spared either. Morning shows on some FM stations in Kenya would even make porn queens blush.

As Oyunga Pala noted in an article titled “Slay Queens, Socialites and Sponsors: Sexual Violence in Kenyan Society”, this commodification of women can result in sexual or other forms of violence, including murder. It also reinforces the notion that the only thing women have to sell in today’s market is their bodies. “The message young people hear and see is that eroticism is an investment in itself. To raise one’s sexual potency is a privilege and a currency that can be translated into real material benefits,” he wrote.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market themselves. The more hits, likes, shares or followers you get, the more money you make from the platform and the company whose products you display. Social influencing is now considered a respectable career choice, thanks to women like Kim Kardashian whose empire is built entirely on this concept.

An article titled “How to Monetise Yourself Starting Now” published in a recent edition of the Saturday Nation shows you how one can become a rich social influencer. Among the author’s recommendations to become a successful social influencer are: “Be the talk of the town”, which includes being “photographed with the right people”; “Break the Internet”, which includes posting a daring or provocative photo of yourself on social media; and “Bring on the drama”, which means “never being too far from the rumour mill” and being “witnessed by the biggest gossip in town”.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market their bodies.

All these attention-seeking behaviours are then supposed to translate into money in the bank. Some Kenyan politicians have also bought into the notion that scandals will earn them notoriety, as illustrated by the sex videos posted by politicians or their sexual partners. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has not lost his job for his “pussy-grabbing” and making pejorative remarks about women, the disabled and minorities. That is how crude politics in today’s world has become.

Modern-day Hottentot Venuses

Dede Hunt, an African-American woman, recently put out a video that decried the “Baartmanisation” of black women in music videos and on the Internet. She wondered why African-American rappers constantly referred to black women as “whores” and “bitches” and why they used titillating images of black women’s breasts and buttocks in their videos. Is this what slavery had done to a people, she wondered, where former slaves humiliate their own, all in the name of record sales?

Hunt was referring to Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, who was a South African woman whose naked body was put on display for four years in London, where she was caged, mocked and leered at by Europeans. Baartman’s unusually large buttocks became the object of much scientific curiosity, amusement and voyeuristic stares. She was even taken to Paris, where an anatomist further examined her body at the Museum of Natural History. Her miserable life was cut short in 1815 when she died of an illness at the age of 25.

However, even death did not spare her the humiliation she had suffered while alive. Her skeleton, genitals and brain were preserved and exhibited at the museum in Paris for the next 150 years; the exhibit was only removed from public view in 1974.

Many would argue that dancing provocatively for a music video or posting nude pictures of yourself on social media is a woman’s right – a type of freedom brought on by the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. These women see themselves as modern, successful professionals who turned their natural physical assets into money-making enterprises.

But I would argue that while the sexual revolution (brought on partly by the invention of the contraceptive pill) did benefit women in many ways – for instance, by removing the stigma associated with “losing one’s virginity” before marriage – it also did them harm. Men viewed the sexual revolution as a licence to have sex irresponsibly – if a woman got pregnant as a result of a sexual liaison, it was both her fault and her responsibility. It also gained men access to more sexual partners, which they didn’t have before; in a sense, it allowed them to have sex for “free” because neither did they have to pay for it, nor did they have to marry the woman. This resulted in a significant rise in sexually transmitted diseases among both men and women.

Unlike Baartman, who was forced to strip and entertain people against her will, modern-day exhibitionists are willingly degrading themselves in front of cameras. They are not the victims of pimps or slave owners; they are the products of a modern world where misogyny has become the norm, and where the backlash against women’s liberation has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women.

The undeclared war against women

The advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s – with its push towards open market economies and societies where money is worshipped more than gods and goddesses – unleashed regressive, conservative forces that cancelled all the gains achieved by the women’s movement. It was the beginning of an era that elevated pornographers like Hugh Hefner, who, instead of being vilified for objectifying women in his Playboy magazine, got his own reality TV show where naked women young enough to be his granddaughters frolicked with the aging sex maniac in full view of cameras. Meanwhile, conservative religious forces decided what women could or could not do, including use contraception or have an abortion.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In the late 1980s, when Reaganomics and Thatcherism were at their peak, the beauty industry, alarmed by the decline in the use of its products by women who no longer cared for make-up and skin-hugging and revealing clothes, embarked on campaigns to lure women back into the sexist fold. The backlash was not so much a conspiracy against women as it was a calculated business decision to improve sales of cosmetics, plastic surgeries, skin-lightening creams, and other potentially harmful products, whose sales were plummeting.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In societies where women are valued mainly for their bodies, women will go to extraordinary lengths to make their bodies attractive to the men who decide what is attractive and what is not. This has spawned entire industries where women will self-mutilate, through, for example, skin-bleaching creams, tummy tucks and vaginal tightening procedures, in order to achieve a standard of beauty prescribed by the male-dominated culture. This, says Faludi, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and self-esteem. Women and young girls with low self-esteem become easy prey for predators. The impact on their physical health can be deadly: anti-wrinkle creams expose users to cancer-causing agents; silicone breast implants leave painful deformities; liposuction causes infections; and harmful eating disorders among girls and young women escalate.

“Feminist” in this post-feminist world has also become a dirty word, and women who led the women’s movement are now relegated to the pages of history. Some, like Donald Trump and his ilk, have even suggested that such women become feminists either because they are ugly (and so have a grudge against beautiful women) or because they are lesbians (and so do not like men). Meanwhile the rape of women and girls has reached epidemic proportions around the world, with “date rape” being cited as the most common form of sexual violence among college students in the United States.

In other countries, such as India, the Bollywood movie industry has stopped producing serious films on women’s issues; instead films are rated for their sex appeal. “Item numbers” – song-and-dance routines focused on titillating male audiences – are now de rigueur in Bollywood blockbusters. Meanwhile, incidences of rape have increased in cities such as New Delhi, which has been dubbed the rape capital of India.

The backlash against women has entered a critical stage. Women must fight back and remain vigilant.

Continue Reading

Culture

The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya

10 min read. Ali Zaidi and I parachuted into Kenya when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

Published

on

The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

Jubilee supporters invoke the “colonial mentality” trope to defend the government against critics of Kenya’s spiraling debt burden. Kenya’s inequitable land legacy resurfaces in attacks on the white owners of wildlife conservancies. A chief rapes a minor in the Rift Valley; a social media influencer tweets that the blame lies with colonialism. A commentary on Kenya’s Failed Independence in these pages detours to take aim at “the hare-brained ideas and visions peddled by middle-aged white men,” enroute to calling for a new narrative based on the African experience.

I could not agree more. But the current backlash against the colonial intervention and its post-colonial aftermath points to the decades-wide gap in the conceptualisation of this new narrative. Problems of land, inequality, citizenship rights, and Kenya’s fossilised elitism have not gone away. Several decades after the political economy debate that predicted the failure of the independence project in the first place, the discontent signifies a deeper malaise.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia. The iconic Mau Mau were barely keeping body and soul together. I came in search of the ecstatic poly-rhythmic antecedents of avant-garde jazz only to discover Kenyan hipsters listening to Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, and Roger Whitaker.

The conservatism of cosmopolitan Kenyans clashed with the progressive critique dominating the civil rights movement and the robust Third World studies of that era. To be sure, the debate over neocolonialism and capitalism was raging among the university crowd. No one disagreed on the need for some form of colonial detoxification. Secondary students shared frayed paperback copies of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The rhetoric tallied with many of my own assumptions after growing up in America’s Deep South.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia.

But in the countryside and the towns hosting most of Kenya’s population, the post-uhuru betrayal articulated in English-language polemics like Odinga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru occupied a narrow band in the public imagination.

Not yet decolonisation

Theory predicted a population receptive to the Marxist arguments of those days but the empirical reality of independent Kenya got in the way. Agrarian commercialisation generated multi-sectoral economic growth while preserving the role of estate agriculture and foreign investment. The transfer of land through the Million Acre scheme cooled anti-colonial passions even though the land problem remained. Kenya’s early post-independence success and stability augured for a continuation of the same.

The Kenya model provided a pragmatic counterpoint to the socialism being championed by Algeria, Mali, Mozambique, Guinea, and post-Haile Selassie Ethiopia. Support for anti-colonial policies nevertheless continued to exert a strong ideological and political influence across the continent. The radical critique advanced by African scholars and writers at home and in the diaspora enjoyed the advantage of authenticity that the liberators who turned conservative once in power could muster little intellectual ammunition to counter.

They did not have to. The Kenyan government conjured up its own version of “African Socialism” in Sessional Paper No. 10. We all know how that played out. The new elites were not content with harvesting the low hanging fruits of uhuru. Anyone standing in their way became enemies of the state. Kenya’s stability bought international support.

In his coloruful memoir, The Reds and the Blacks, the anti-communist US ambassador William Atwood dismissed the post-uhuru angst of Odinga & Co. by explaining that the contest for the political soul of Kenya was really about superpower patronage and ethnicity. The neo-capitalism versus socialism debate was a red herring. The assassination of Tom Mboya two years after the book’s publication suggested he was right.

When Julius Nyerere castigated Kenya as a man-eat-man society during the foreplay that led to the break-up of the East African Community, Charles Njonjo replied that Tanzania was a man-eat-nothing society. The jibe became a political meme. J.M. Kariuki’s comment that the country was becoming a land of “ten millionaires and ten million beggars” arguably came closer to how many citizens felt. The disappearance and death of the outspoken politician in March 1975 triggered the government’s first serious crisis. The crowd heckled Jomo Kenyatta when he addressed the public at Uhuru Park. The president mobilised the military, jets buzzed over Nairobi.

Back on the cooperative farm hosting my field studies programme, our Swahili teachers told us they were going to take up arms. Most of us were sympathetic, although a few of our fellow students did not tune in. Nothing happened, but the martyrdom of J.M. did refocus attention on Kenya’s capitalist problem, at least for a while.

The experience that preceded my arrival in Kenya contributed to my eclectic and nuanced view of developments in Kenya. I participated in the April 31 and May Day anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington D.C., but I was not pro-Ho Chi Minh. I immersed myself in the feed-your-head radicalism of the university environment, but I found the student Marxists pedantic, arrogant, and overbearing.

I took off and spent nine months in Central America, where the time spent in Maya Indian villages converted me to the cause of peasants and indigenous peoples. Like many of my generation radicalised by the war and Anglo-American racism, it was perfectly logical to lionise Che Guevara while rejecting Fidel Castro.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos. I headed to the lightly colonised periphery where I found that “the idiocy of rural life” provided rich insights into Africans’ creative tradition of adapting to their distinctive environmental and social conditions.

In any case, life in the shags offered a more useful pathway to personal decolonisation, an objective that tempered one’s perceptions of Kenyan politics. Moreover, Kenya’s high profile as an exemplar of capitalist development in Africa actually cut both ways. Ideological opposition to the government contributed to the country’s vibrant intellectual milieu, which in turn translated back-handed support for the status quo. The contradiction manifested in the detention of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for staging his vernacular play Ngahika Ndeenda in 1977, while his English-language books remained on the national secondary school syllabus.

The role of Marxism in the region’s political discourse was, however, already diminishing at this juncture; the detention of several other Marxist critics of the state signaled that in Kenya the party was over. The dominance of the Dependency school, and the mess created by the neo-Marxist shortcuts implemented by its African adherents – as I was to realise many years later – hastened its decline elsewhere across the continent.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos.

The activism inspired by the radical Marxist narrative returned for a swan song several months after Daniel arap Moi became president in 1978. Nairobi University students registered their dissatisfaction with his government by staging a protest on behalf of striking doctors. A boisterous crowd marched down River Road chanting and carrying placards with the usual slogans: A Lucha Continua, Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth, and Not Yet Uhuru in Kenya.

I watched the impending collision from a box seat on the balcony of the New Kenya Lodge. The General Service Unit ambushed the students when they reached the corner of Latema Road. The ringleader was wearing a red cap. He and several of his mates melted into the crowds of unsuspecting pedestrians. “No maize in Kenya!” they shouted as they weaved their way to safety.

It turned out to be the last time I witnessed Kenyans rallying around Marxist slogans.

The Moi dialectic

The Marxist bogey had returned in the guise of the MwaKenya movement after Moi assumed power, but it did little to slow down the long slog of his “passing cloud” presidency. The failed military coup that almost did on August 1, 1982 had dispensed with the anti-capital clichés. Its inebriated leaders exhorted the gathering mob to loot by shouting “Power!”; the traditional “to the people” refrain was conspicuously absent.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Not that Marxism mattered anymore in the febrile narratives of the next twenty years—the direct link between the Air Force coup-makers and the Odinga family had dissipated any political legitimacy the formerly Marxian opposition once enjoyed.

A friend from Harvard once told me that Marxism was the last stage of Christianity. It is an interesting hypothesis. Like Christianity, the Marxian Gospel gave rise to many denominations and interpretations: the epistemological Marxism of the professors, the mobilising ideology of the freedom fighters, the liberation theology of Latin American priests, the Animal Farm Marxism of Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard school, and the magic of the French Structural Marxists who employed class analysis to account for inequality in pre-capitalist societies, to name a few.

The last stage of Christianity metaphor, however, was not about the religiosity behind the draconian purification of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Rather, he was referring to the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic’s similarities with the cosmology of the Christian Trinity.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Unlike Ali, I was not a member of that club. I had been initiated into the “consciousness-raising” cult of Marxist theory; I never drank the Kool-Aid. The religious Marxist discourse that had put me off during my youth had much in common with today’s Islamist narrative and the praxis of true believer movements like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram.

The radical influences that shaped both of us while coming of age steered us towards different compass points. Ali Zaidi believed in Hegelian progress towards the universal spirit as it unfolds through the resolution of capitalism’s contradictions. My quest was the more Fanonian salvation to be found in non-capitalist cultural systems.

The years had melted away since we embarked on the respective paths that had brought us both to Kenya. The twenty-eight year Moi interlude had in fact advanced Kenya’s dialectical process in a manner not anticipated by the middle-aged white, brown, and black men entrusted with charting the neoliberal’s pursuit of the end of history.

Moi was the forest fire that clears the way for new growth, the flood that forced the river to change its course. The largely donor-driven phase of the developmental cycle that unfolded in his wake had bulldozed the once vigorous ecology of ideas and concepts, and left a stagnant swamp of buzzwords, negative ethnicity, and flavour of the day policy analysis in its place. It was bad.

We were all trying to get by and to find a way through the degraded collective mindset when I met Ali Zaidi in 1995.

Commodity fetishism revisited

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences. He was an urbanite; I have always straddled town and country. I was a baseball person and he was a cricket guy; I was a fan of the Marx Brothers, Ali a dedicated follower of Karl Marx.

Ali underwent a catharsis after the events of 1989 that he described in an essay published in the Executive ten years later. Until his death this month, he retained the belief that Marx was still relevant to the fact that the world deserves better than the mess that was unfolding on all sides. The latter problem became the focus of many long conversations that gravitated towards the former’s work.

I was sceptical in the beginning but came to a new appreciation of the clarity Marx offered under Ali’s tutelage. Like many of the zealous Marxists trading in his ideas, I had actually read only a limited sample of the Prophet’s own writing. I owned up: although Marxist analysis had produced much of the best work in my field, I found Marx’s writing too dense.

Ali, who had actually read the full canon of Marx’s works, disagreed vehemently. I remember one discussion in particular that captured the quality of our discourse. It grew out of my misuse of Marx’s commodity fetishism: I had always assumed the concept was bound up with the anthropological definition of fetishism i.e. the practice of investing inanimate objects with power or some mystical agency.

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences.

Wrong. “Commodity fetishism is not about personal identification with products and brands,” Ali told me. “It’s about the difference between the use value of an object and the exchange value of the same in the market.”

He went on to explain this difference. “For example, if you catch a fish and we eat it on the table I made, we are sharing in the use-value generated by our labour. But when conditions induce us to sell these products of our time and labour, the end result is the valuation of everything and everyone in monetary terms. Commodity fetishism dehumanises the relationships between people and communities by reducing them to factors of class, wealth, and status.”

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy. You can observe it at work in the tribalism, polarisation, and racism exploited by the architects of Brexit and the alt-right. The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Ali’s Marxism was not about quasi-religious abstractions; it resurfaced in the decategorised approach Ali personified through his highly interactive lifestyle. Everyone counted. He shared and communicated without pretention, and he was a positive influence on the ever-widening circle of those who came into contact with him.

We are all colonised. We go through life as vehicles for our identities and histories and cultural preferences. It is hard to escape, but the received influences defining our personas can be mitigated by our accumulated experiences. The tendency to categorise people by the language they speak, their clothing, appearance, age, complexion, possessions, and signs of origin was always there, but it has grown stronger as Kenya transits into the kind of atomised capitalist society Marx predicted.

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy…The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Perhaps we were lucky. Ali and I parachuted in when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on our shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

This brings us to the dilemma of the younger Kenyans who are now the majority in Decolony Keenya. They are discovering that when you are born is just as important as where you are born, and they think it is not fair. But as Fanon predicted, “For many years to come we shall be bandaging the countless and sometimes indelible wounds inflicted on our people by the colonialist onslaught.”

Yakubaliwa. Millennials, more than the post-independence generations preceding them, are the real victims of colonial rule. And a dose of Ali Zaidi-style political theory might help them fill the gap in their existential critiques.

Nothing is sacred – even the idea of decolonisation should be decolonised.

Continue Reading

Culture

One (Private) Ring to Rule Them All: A Case Study of One Acre Fund

9 min read. CHRISTINE MUNGAI travelled to western Kenya to meet farmers who had only good things to say about One Acre Fund’s activities in their communities, as the organization fills a gap created by the abandonment of smallholder farmers by government authorities. But more questions arise on how exactly the organization is able to circumvent the cartels that have gripped the sector, and on the structural inequalities that the company exploits and even exacerbates.

Published

on

One (Private) Ring to Rule Them All: A Case Study of One Acre Fund
Download PDFPrint Article

In Yala, Siaya County, Friday is market day. Wares of all kinds – farm produce, household goods, plastic knick-knacks and second-hand clothing – are lain out, the place is buzzing with activity. We arrive on Friday around 1pm, with the sun high in the sky and just as Friday prayers are concluding at Yala mosque. But just around the corner from the mosque and the market is Yala’s NCPB (National Cereal and Produce Board) depot. The place is still and eerie, the warehouses seem deserted, a railway track that runs through the depot has long rusted.

The only sign of life here is at one warehouse, which has been hired by One Acre Fund, a non-profit organization that supplies smallholder farmers with assets including seeds and fertilizer on credit, which are then paid back at the end of the season. One Acre Fund says it works with 400,000 farmers in Kenya – the majority in western Kenya, though it is now venturing further afield into other regions — providing not just financing for the critical assets, but also agricultural extension, training, support and crop insurance. Its loan repayment rates, going by its own data, are at 98% — extremely solid for any financial service provider, and especially one that directly serves rural, smallholder farmers, a constituency that is considered risky or otherwise unattractive to investors.

I first heard about One Acre Fund six years ago, when a book was delivered to my desk for review while I was a reporter at The East African newspaper. The book was titled The Last Hunger Season, written by American journalist Roger Thurow who spent a year in western Kenya chronicling the lives and seasons of four Kenyan farmers who had signed up to One Acre Fund.

The book was a beautiful piece of non-fiction: quite soon into the narrative, one gets invested in the stories of these four farmers, and far from merely being a glowing puff piece for the organization, Thurow handled the story with nuance and particularly brought out the risks and uncertainties that rural smallholders are constantly grappling with. Because of low prices of maize at harvest time, and a lack of proper storage, most maize farmers end up selling their maize at almost throwaway prices at harvest time, only to become net buyers of maize through the course of the year. In fact, as Thurow notes, the maize farmers in his story were actually food insecure and battled hunger at certain times of the year.

This, combined with the vagaries of nature and various unexpected costs, such as an illness in the family or an unforeseen expenditure at a child’s school, means that whatever benefit they received from One Acre Fund’s activities were ultimately tenuous: there were just too many moving pieces in their lives to contend with.

Still, during my recent visit to the western region at least, the positive testimonies of One Acre Fund’s activities in the region are many. In Bungoma, Kakamega and Vihiga, nearly all the farmers we spoke to had heard of One Acre Fund, and many gave us effusive accounts of how since signing up to organization’s programs, land that was producing measly yields or had even been abandoned altogether quickly started turning around.

Because of low prices of maize at harvest time, and a lack of proper storage, most maize farmers end up selling their maize at almost throwaway prices at harvest time, only to become net buyers of maize through the course of the year.

Winnifred Akiso, a communications officer at One Acre Fund, tells me that to join the program, farmers must be part of a group of about 16 farmers, and pay Ksh500 ($5). With that payment, they get a loan equivalent of about KSh8,000 ($80) worth of certified seed, fertilizer, pesticide and crop insurance; the company provides extension services such as soil testing and planting advice, drawn from a treasure trove of crop, weather and soil data. The organization has now expanded to Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Ethiopia.

I meet Benson Manyonyi, who runs One Acre Fund’s duka in Bungoma town, a repurposed 40-ft container that serves as a shop where farmers can come and buy all kinds of inputs – not just seed and fertilizer, but also chicken feeders, pesticide backpack sprayers and even the humble panga. Although not a farmer himself, Benson tells us of the travails at his parents’ two-acre piece of land, not far from the town centre.

“They had totally given up on farming,” he tells me. “On that two-acre piece of land, they would till half an acre, and the most they could get was a mere two bags of maize.”

“My parents would buy inputs from local agrovet shops, but the seed would either yield very little, or even not germinate altogether. Fertilizer was often adulterated with gravel and sand, and there was really nothing they could do. They might complain to the shop owner, but then they didn’t really have options. It was very discouraging, and I told myself I would never be a farmer if this is what it meant – constantly throwing money away.”

He tells me that since joining One Acre Fund’s program, his parents harvested 37 bags on two acres at the end of last season. “It’s really unbelievable that it’s the very same land that I saw causing them so much pain.”

Wilbroda Wangila is another farmer in Bungoma, who owns half an acre on which she grows maize, beans and groundnuts (njugu). Until a few years ago she had given up on farming too – it was taking too much of her time, energy and money – she was earning an income by working on other people’s land as a casual day labourer, or kibarua. On that half-acre, it would be a good season if she got two bags of maize on it; often it was less, one-and-a-half or even just one bag of maize.

“I signed on to One Acre Fund in 2010, and today I’m harvesting seven bags of maize on that same piece of land,” she tells me. “Two bags are usually enough to feed my family through the season, so last year I sold five bags of maize. I bought mabati (iron sheets) and finally finished building this permanent house,” she says as she proudly shows off her living room, pouring us copious amounts of tea and insisting we eat more njugu.

Stories like these abound in the homes we visited, and most farmers complained angrily about faceless, shadowy “cartels” that had ensnared the supply chains for seed, fertilizer and inputs of all kinds. The land in western Kenya is fertile but underperforming, they tell me, because of the poor quality inputs and the agrovet cartels that they believed were politically protected.

“How can someone supply fake seed and fertilizer year after year, you report them to the police and the local chief and nothing happens?” Benson says. “They always walked around here like there was nothing you could do to them. And that’s what most people believe – they are untouchable. And you know rural people are sometimes a little docile and they learn to live with such situations. People like my parents don’t want to stir up trouble.”

But even as the upbeat stories abound on the ground in western Kenya, among a more urban, middle-class constituency things are different. One Acre Fund’s headquarters is in Kakamega, a purpose-built facility which ticks all the right boxes for eco-features (its internal walls are made of maize stalks!), and hosts over 500 office staff – including agronomists, soil scientists, and weather specialists, and even in-house artists and graphic designers. The organization has more than 3,000 employees in total, the majority being field staff, extension officers and supply chain/ logistics managers. The staff roll has been expanding rapidly, and the company frequently posts job vacancies on various online platforms.

Stories like these abound in the homes we visited, and most farmers complained angrily about faceless, shadowy “cartels” that had ensnared the supply chains for seed, fertilizer and inputs of all kinds.

However, every now and then complaints bubble up on social media, especially Twitter, of the company seemingly re-advertising the same jobs over and over again, and taking applicants through a rigorous process that includes answering extensive case studies and test scenarios. Some suspect that the company is harvesting data and extracting labour from prospective job applicants as a form of “free” market research. There are also recurring complaints of huge pay gaps between local and expatriate staff, a grievance replicated in many organizations in Nairobi, a city whose reputation of opportunity – “Silicon Savannah” – has attracted investors and expatriates from far and wide, but has also ended up rapidly gentrifying certain parts of the city and deepening resentment among qualified locals who sense their value, labour and expertise is diminished simply because they are not expatriates.

One Acre Fund responded to these complaints – including a #SomeoneTellOneAcreFund hashtag – with a blog post published by the company’s co-founder and executive director Andrew Youn saying that their hiring process is “fairly unique” and that they are working on making the hiring process shorter and putting out better feedback, but iterating they “never reuse candidate exercises or share them beyond the hiring committee.”

I speak to Maurice Otieno, general manager of Mettā, a members’ club that supports entrepreneurs, connecting them with investors and creating spaces to collaborate. He highlights more structural challenges that have led to companies like One Acre Fund – and a handful of others in the tech space including Twiga Foods, Tala, Branch and a few more – taking up the bulk start-up and investment funds. For its part, One Acre Fund has received numerous grants, including $100,000 from the John Deere Foundation, $300,000 from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, $765,000 from the Skoll Foundation, $10.5 million from the Perishing Square Foundation, and more in partnerships with the MasterCard Foundation ($10 million), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($11.6 million) and others.

“The reality is if you are dealing with foreign investors, they really want to hear the ‘we-are-saving-Africa’ story. As a local entrepreneur you are entering a space with certain narratives firmly in place,” he tells me.

“It’s understandable we are angry [about the apparent racism in the space] but the question is, how do we navigate these realities? Local individuals and companies have the money, but we have found it to be a real struggle to get them to invest in great local ideas. Most of it goes into real estate. Perhaps it has to do with how many of these people made their money – if it is through unorthodox means, then they hold on tighter to it.”

Maurice adds: “This might be unpopular to say, but I think there’s also some reluctance by local investors to invest in sectors that most foreign money is going to – such as AgriTech, EdTech and HealthTech. Local investors tend to want to put their money in the shiny, glamorous, business-to-business solutions, especially FinTech which is the hot new thing today,” he tells me.

Some suspect that the company is harvesting data and extracting labour from prospective job applicants as a form of “free” market research. There are also recurring complaints of huge pay gaps between local and expatriate staff.

But Phares Kariuki, CEO of Node Africa, an information management firm, strongly disagrees with this view. “This is a very problematic statement,” he says. “First of all, new innovations struggle to find capital in all economies. Tech companies took a while to become an attractive sector for investment, even in the US.”

Phares adds that secondly, local Kenyan investors have been putting their money in ‘boring’ businesses that folks haven’t heard of; it’s literally the foreigners going into the shiny spaces.

“It was local investors, knowledge, developers and government policy that made Kenya one of the most connected countries in Africa and made it the attractive place it is now for immigrants and expats. And about not wanting to serve the poor — look at companies like Equity Bank that brought banking services down to the villages, where people had long been overlooked. Safaricom’s ‘Please Call Me’ and Sambaza features, were all ways of servicing the needs of the poor. It is not only foreigners that want to help poor people – they just monopolize the narratives and make it seem like they are the only ones doing so; they are good at storytelling.”

I see the gaps even more starkly on the ground in western Kenya. When you consider that a whole swathe of smallholder farmers were basically abandoned to their own devices by Kenyan authorities, left to contend with substandard seed and fertilizer and lack of credit, to the point where they had given up on farming, then entities such as One Acre Fund can come in and fill a gap that has been allowed to fester. The silent NCPB depot in Yala is proof of this — One Acre Fund is able to find warehouses to rent because NCPB is not working the way it used to. And the reason for this is, to some extent, neoliberal policies in the agricultural sector that diverted government investment away from places like western Kenya.

It didn’t have to be this way – with private (neoliberal, foreign-funded) solutions to public problems. And the gaps are so stark, and the bar so low, that even small interventions – only reliable seed, for example – can have such a huge impact.

The question though, is how One Acre Fund is managing to make such big gains in a bandit economy, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga described Kenya. How is the organization able to circumvent the cartels? Is it just a case of swapping one cartel out for the other?

“I no longer believe that the people who caused this structural inequality through colonialism, racial segregation, exploitation and more, are the ones who can resolve it,” Phares concludes. “Author Anand Giridharadas speaks about this phenomenon in his book Winners Take All. In Kenya, people who have privilege in the largest economy in the world – the US – come to Africa and many times capitalise on the very structural problems that they claim to be solving. These companies are, in fact, exploitative – they exploit local talent and labour, as well as taking advantage of the ‘white saviour’ narratives.”

But I obviously couldn’t say this to Wilbroda that day. She was just really happy about her new house and the progress she has made in her life. “You know, I only went to school until Standard 8,” she tells me. “Lakini sasa ninaheshimika, kama mtu anafanya kazi ya mshahara.” I’m respected in the community, like someone with a salaried job. That strikes me in a way that I can’t quite explain, and I keep sipping my tea.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

Continue Reading

Trending