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East of Uhuru Highway: Inside Nairobi’s Most Iconic (And Much-Maligned) Neighbourhoods

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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods
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Ismael Kulubi is a 66-years-old radio production guru with a scintillating voice that is still in great demand even after retirement. Advertising executives in need of an experienced voice hire him to do radio promos. By all measurable standards, Ismail has had a fulfilling career – he is a widely travelled man who has enjoyed life’s successes as a professional media man.

But his advertising and media professional friends have been always been puzzled by Ismael. With all the riches he made over the years and his ascribed social status, Ismael has lived all his life in Eastlands area, the eastern part of Nairobi that every Eastlander seeks to run away from at the slightest hint of money and success.

Eastlands: “No pretensions here”

A practicing Muslim, Ismael grew up in Majengo, the sprawling slum sandwiched between the famous Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, the inner-city neighbourhood that is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived. Women living there were believed to be sex workers who met the sexual needs of the black immigrant labourers employed in Nairobi who were not allowed to bring their families to the city.

After every Friday afternoon prayers, which he religiously observes at Jamia Mosque in central Nairobi, Ismael heads straight to Majengo in his gleaming beige metallic Mercedes Benz, something he has done for many years. His vintage German engineering marvel is still a spectacle to be behold among the ghetto dwellers. But Ismael is considered one of them and his posh car parked outside on Majengo’s main street is as safe as the Kenyan currency locked at the Central Bank building’s underground vaults in Nairobi city centre.

Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived.

“Majengo has the best pilau you can find anywhere in Nairobi,” Ismael tells me matter-of- factly. Every Friday afternoon, his hot pilau, specially catered to his culinary tastes, awaits him. “Majengo made me and it is a place that gives me immense joy, helps me stay firmly grounded and connects me with the people.” For Ismael, the Friday afternoon sumptuous meal served on large dishes called sinia is a social affair: He has his usual group who he eats with that ranges anywhere from five to ten people.

At one time, Ismael earned a salary that was commensurate with what is paid to top executives of blue chip companies. But that never stopped him from driving from the Karen and Lavington suburbs, where his offices used to be, to enjoy a meal cooked in the ramshackle kitchens and restaurants of Majengo. “Good food is a social engagement, it is not so much about how much money you spend on it,” says Ismael. And he can spend a lot. On any given Friday afternoon, Ismael can spend an upward of Ksh5000, depending on the number of people he is eating with. They will eat from the same sinia with their hands, seated on the floor. “There are no pretensions here, we eat together the way we eat in our respective houses,” says Ismael.

As they eat, Ismael’s Mercedes Benz will be attended to by between three to five young men who give it a clean shine like no other. This is another ritual in Majengo. “My car is never washed anywhere else – the boys know it, they have cleaned it for many years, it is like going to the same barber for many years. You do not want to change him because he has learned the nooks and crannies of your bumpy head.” The young men know that every Friday, some good money will come their way. “Ismael ni boy wetu… yuko chonjo…ua anatucheki kitu poa,” (Ismael is our man…he’s cool and pays us real well), say the young men.

After the sumptuous meal, drowned by the freshest of unadulterated juice, Ismael does not leave Kije (Majengo’s popular name). He has his spot outside where he sits with other men to chew gomba (also known as khat or miraa) that is specially delivered to him by his supplier of many years. He will then chew gombahandas and veve are variants of the same thing – accompanied by copious amounts of black coffee throughout the evening, after which he will drive back home to his house in Buru Buru estate.

“People who live in the so-called leafy suburbs have ghettoised Eastlands,” quips Ismael. “They live in a make-believe world that has blinded them to real-life happenings outside their presumed safe cocoons. They think Eastlands is one huge criminal world. You can imagine what they think of my hood Kije: we are all sons of harlots. That young people here neither have ambitions nor dreams. They are so wrong.” Ismael, whose long dead parents came from Saba Saba location in Maragua, Muranga County, says, “In Kije, the people are real, they have what it takes to live comfortably and decently and they are as informed with local and global current news as the Kenyans of Karen and Lavington.”

If you fly over Majengo slum, you would be amazed by the satellite TV dishes that adorn iron sheet rooftops. Inside some of these mud-plastered houses are some of the latest and funkiest hi-fi equipment and exotic furniture that one can only imagine in a Kileleshwa high- rise flat or in Loresho’s leafy suburbs. These dishes beam news outlets from such channels as Al Jazeera TV, BBC, CNN and France 24 English TV.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area.

“If you entered some of the houses here in Kije, you would literally be taken aback,” says Ismael. “There are houses that have 42-inch smart cable TV and Persian Bukhara rags and Turkish carpets that can only be a dream for many of the pretenders to middle class tastes. You know those houses where you have to remove your shoes to enter?” Many of these items are imported from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Yemen.

The traditional suspicion about Eastlands as an area where “dreams are made” and once those dreams are actualised you flee from the area to go and live those dreams elsewhere is a long-held stereotype that persists to date. Indeed some of the Nairobians who started life in the Eastlands estates, dingy or otherwise, comprise a big chunk of the most successful Kenyans who now live on the west side of the city’s spatial suburbs. Their pastime is nostalgically recounting how they are wasee wa mtaa (estate mates). Yet many, having bought into the Eastlands narrative themselves, are publicly embarrassed to be associated with the area.

My recent encounter with a high school chum of many years convinced me that the Eastlands narrative is not fading away in a hurry. Steve Ngotho, who has lived in Pretoria, South Africa, for a long time was in town recently. When he gave me a shout, we met at a restaurant in central Nairobi. After the usual pleasantries, Ngotho, who I had always known to shoot straight, asked where I lived…nowadays. “I live in Buru Buru,” I told him. “Ah, you mean you still live in Eastlands?” he asked. What he really meant was: What in God’s name would you still be doing in Eastlands?

Ngotho grew up in the western side of Nairobi, the general area that is west of Uhuru Highway. Uhuru Highway is the trunk road that cuts across the city centre and links the city to the highways that lead to Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the port city of Mombasa.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area. Ngotho, you can bet, is not the only former Nairobian to still harbour the “Eastlands narrative” (even when he lives abroad) – a place for people with failed ambitions and aspirations, where dreams did not take off.

The Eastlands narrative has its roots in the colonial era when some “African” areas were associated with congestion and crime. Hence, Eastlands to date is viewed as a place that does not have the attraction and aura of suburban “posh living”. For Eastlanders, the “leafy suburbs” imply breezy air, lots of jacaranda and pine trees, bungalows and maisonettes with compounds and open spaces that can only be found across Uhuru Highway.

Dr. Mosley Owino, a consultant dentist, likes to remind me that East London, where he trained as a dental surgeon, has many of the same characteristics and reputation as the Eastlands area of Nairobi: It is a place riven with deep poverty and overcrowding and which is not immune from the social problems that afflict such areas – the existence of rival gangs, loafers, social misfits and petty and hardcore criminals.

Buru Buru: “Like a suburban British hood”

Buru Buru estate, where Ismael bought his house in the 1980s, is one of the iconic estates that sometimes still salvages the Eastlands reputation, even as the estate itself, which has five phases, struggles against ghettoisation. Largely built in the 1970s, with the last phase five completed in 1982, Buru Buru was the estate where newly graduated architects, accountants, lawyers, physicians, quantity surveyors, among other graduates, aspired to live and start out because it captured their upward mobility aspirational lifestyle, its Eastlands location notwithstanding.

Construction magnate John Mburu has lived in Buru Buru ever since he graduated from the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. With a yearly turnover of hundreds of millions of shillings, Mburu’s friends in the industry cannot understand why he still lives in the same house he started out in. A shilling billionaire, Mburu says Buru Buru is a suitable place to live in – it does not have the wannabe pretentious suburban lifestyle like many of the new estates that have come up: “It still retains decent, respectable and habitable estate characteristics that represents the lifestyles of people who have progressively grown their incomes.”

Buru Buru is among most famous suburban estates in East and Central Africa. When I first went to Tanzania, a quarter of a century ago, my newly acquired Tanzanian friends would ask me which part of Nairobi I came from. “Ule mtaa ambao unaishi mawaziri na wakuu wa serekali, unaufahamu?” (Do you know the estate that Kenyan ministers and top civil servants live in?) It was amusing to learn that my Tanzanians friends considered Buru Buru to be such a posh estate that only elite government people lived there.

“Buru Buru is very much like a British suburban hood,” says Stacy Wanjiku, who lived and studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. “Even the way people park outside their houses on the roadside is so British.” Wanjiku, who herself lives in Buru Buru, says the picket fencing may have long gone, but Buru Buru still retain its stand-out character with its shopping centres and it semi-detached architectural design uniformity.

Woodley and Kimathi: Civil servant estates

The estate that comes closer to once being a residential area for senior government civil servants is Woodley, which is located in the south-east of Nairobi, adjacent to Moi Nairobi Girls on Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Woodley is a fashionable estate made of a mixture of high-rise flats and bungalow houses with huge compounds and while it was not largely inhabited by cabinet ministers – at least certainly not in the 1980s – for some reason, Woodley was the residence of the senior-most Luo civil servants.

Alex Oduor, who lives in the estate, which is owned by Nairobi County, tells me that Woodley has all the trappings of a proper middle class neighbourhood: his house is in a safe secluded area, has a big compound for kids to romp about and to host a barbeque and is big enough to entertain guests and host visiting relatives from rural areas. Oduor himself lives in the three-bedroomed house once owned by Washington Okumu, the humongous jolly professor who brokered peace between Nelson Mandela of the African National Party (ANC) and Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1990s.

The estate closest in resemblance to Woodley in terms of design and layout is Kimathi estate in Eastlands. It is ensconced between Bahati and Jerusalem estates. Built in the early 1970s, Kimathi is your archetypal middle class neighbourhood that has a family ring to it: an “enclosed” estate with modest houses and little compounds. Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya, kept a house there for the longest time. Up to 1974, he represented Bahati constituency which Kimathi estate was a part of. Hudson Mwangi, a businessman who has lived in Kimathi estate for many years, says the estate is unpretentious and allows him to operate “below the radar”, without attracting too much attention from the prying eyes of gossipers and nosy people.

Kilimani and Kileleshwa: “Lonely jungles”

The estates that were truly classical middle class neighbourhoods were the adjoining suburban areas of Kileleshwa and Kilimani located in the west of Nairobi. They were your conventional neighbourhoods for senior civil servants from 1963 to early 2000s. “But today, these areas have become concrete jungles; the high-rise flats that are coming up daily have completely erased the beautiful memory of the semi-detached bungalow and maisonette residential houses that adorned the area,” says print journalist Oyunga Pala, who grew up in the Kilimani area. “In the days that I grew up in Kilimani, the area was attractive and scenic, the houses had huge compounds for children to safely play and run around in, and the neighbourhood had lots of trees and kaiyaba (Kei apple) fences.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts. Lilian Rice, a British national who lives in one of these flats, told me there is a “fake friendliness” among flat mates living in Kileleshwa. “Every time I visit my friend and workmate in Donholm in Eastlands, I notice the stark differences: the place is bubbly and full of life. The children are running helter-skelter, playing football or hide-and-seek. The neighbours pop in (unannounced) to share a funny anecdote or to enjoy a cup of tea together… I tell you the camaraderie is real and unpretentious.”

Rice says that the corner kiosks and green grocery vibandas (sheds) of Donholm really enchant her. “They serve as meeting points for people to banter and chat.” Rice concludes that Kileleshwa is “a lonely jungle” and Eastlands, with all its “dirt and disorder”, has “variety and vivacity.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts.

This variety of life was best captured for me by Rhoda Mbaya, who was brought up in an old Kileleshwa neighbourhood. When their father, a senior civil servant, died suddenly, the family had to move out of their five-bedroomed government house and relocate to Uthiru, a peri-urban and semi-rural area on the outskirts of Nairobi, 12km west of the city centre, in a place called 87. “Of course, it was at first traumatising, but we quickly adjusted,” said Rhoda. “The thing about living in the old Kileleshwa was that we led a secluded and shielded life, so when we had to move to Uthiru, it was obviously a scale-down, but we soon realised that Uthiru had its own advantages.”

Used to a subsidised life all her life, Rhoda was gratified to find that Uthiru had a cheaper and affordable lifestyle that was commensurate with her middle class tastes and which did not compromise her family’s social upward mobility. Her five siblings still rent out a five-bedroomed bungalow there, which is much more affordable than a house around the Kileleshwa/Kilimani “posh” areas.

“The vegetables are fresh and cheap, we get the milk straight from the cow, fresh and unskimmed and kienyeji (indigenous) chicken and eggs. The crux of the matter is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” said Rhoda. “Uthiru is teeming with people, we weren’t used to that, but yet again, the people are cosmopolitan, friendly and hospitable…but you know what? We discovered mutura (a sausage-like delicacy made out of stuffed offal) and pork. Uthiru has the best pork place in town.”

The rapid gentrifications of the city’s better known neighbourhoods, says Oyunga, are robbing the city of its iconic suburbs and traditional beautiful look. Kilimani’s expanding gentrification is already encountering opposition. The Kilimani Residents Association is up in arms against Cytonn Investment Company, a real estate private equity firm that intends to mobilise funds and put up a multi-storeyed building in the area.

Eastleigh: “Where dreams are incubated”

Gentrification in Nairobi has not been confined to the western side of the city. The Somali people’s influx in Eastleigh has led to a rapid and haphazard gentrification of the area. High- rise buildings have risen: some magnificent, some ugly and an eyesore. The buildings are both commercial and residential. A couple of years ago, a former powerful cabinet minister was persuaded to visit Eastleigh – a place he himself had confessed he had not visited for “donkey years”. The minister was astounded beyond belief when he found the area was home to two- and three-star hotels, complete with deluxe suites for accommodation and a la carte three-course menus.

Amid Eastleigh’s chaos, confusion, grime, mounting garbage, open sewers and systemic failure of services, there are Somali residents who live like Arab sheikhs in some of the most crowded and ugly flats. When Abdulrahman let me into his house on the top floor of a flat facing Pumwani Maternity Hospital, I was taken aback by the apparent affluence: The large sitting room was bedecked with jewelry and Arabian Nights-like ornaments, an imported sofa and a thick Afghanistan carpet. His prayer room was a wall-to-wall carpet affair. His expensive cutlery was like that of an emir. It was only after I came out of the house that I realised that indeed I was in the shambolic Eastleigh neighbourhood. Inside Abdulrahman’s house, it felt like I was in an affluent flat somewhere in Qatar or Yemen.

One of the areas that has been under perpetual threat of gentrification is Eastlands itself. The vast estates of Bahati, Hamza-Makadara, Jericho, (Lumumba and Ofafa) Jerusalem, Kaloleni, Makongeni, Maringo, Mbotela and Uhuru that make up the “real” greater Eastlands area and whose fame has rested on council houses belonging to the now defunct Nairobi City Council, are being targeted by “private developers” who have been marking them for a long time to bring them down in the name of constructing “better” and more spacious accommodation for the residents.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies”

It is true that many of these houses could be past their building life cycle. Their average lifespan is 60 years – Maringo estate was built in 1958, for example.The Kaloleni “bungalows” were built in the 1940s. During the 1960s, this was one of the poshest African quarters. Jericho Lumumba was built in 1962, a year before Kenya got its independence from the British. A beautiful, well-designed and laid-out estate, with ample open spaces for recreation, it still retains its shine despite obvious neglect that includes peeling paintwork that no one remembers when it was last undertaken, uncollected garbage, dilapidated plumbing and open sewers.

Peter Mugo, who is a resident here, allowed me into his “humble abode” for a cup of African tea that has the milk, tea leaves and sugar all boiled together. Mugo’s humble abode is a two-roomed affair but the house is nonetheless as middle class as they come: it has all the gadgets and trappings of modern urban living. He has the latest Samsung smart TV, Sony Hi-Fi music system complete with woofers, stylish settees and an expensive carpet to boot. “My subsidised rent allows me to save enough money to send my kids to quality private schools,” Mugo told me. His youngest 10-year-old son is busy with his play-station, while his second born daughter is on her laptop googling her school homework on the Wi-Fi that her dad has installed in the house.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies,” says Victor Ochieng. Before moving to the west of Nairobi, Victor lived in Donholm for several years. “I used Jogoo Road (the trunk road that runs through the major Eastlands estates). All the time I lived in Doni I can tell you the traffic snarl-ups on Jogoo Road used to give me incessant headaches. Doni was also not an easy estate to live in: if it’s not water shortages, its garbage strewn all over. And when it rains, it floods. That was enough stress for me.”

Still, after moving to the west side of Nairobi, he now appreciates that people in Eastlands at least live within their means. “There’s a lot of flush money in places like Kileleshwa and the majority of lifestyles are sustained by credit cards. In essence, people here live beyond their means, all in the name of maintaining class and status.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Culture

The African Roots of Cuban Music

How socialist Cuba’s foreign policy of solidarity with Africans, midwifed a new genre of music on the island.

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The African Roots of Cuban Music
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British sociologist Paul Gilroy suggested the history of culture in the Atlantic world is characterized by constant exchange. One of the most traceable elements of that exchange, is the musical connections between communities of African descent on either side of the ocean. These musical practices operate as sites of resistance, cultural retention, and social cohesion that allow us to understand some of the ways we all are formed by trans-continental processes.

During the dawn of recorded music in the early part of the 20th century, Cuba—one of many New World sites of African and indigenous resistance to European colonisation and enslavement—would become a hotbed for musical export in the emerging industrialized system of music distribution. Folk musical traditions from across the island would come together in Havana’s studios, and then get dispersed around the entire Atlantic world. In the early part of the 20th Century, Cuban musical styles like son, mambo and guaguanco followed migrants and sailors out across the Atlantic, hitting radio waves in the ports of landing, and spreading throughout the interior of the countries they landed in.

With its strong traces of West and Central African rhythms, this music would find legions of devoted followers on the African continent. Local artists would try their hand at recreating the sound, and start to mix elements of their own local traditions creating what we now know as Congolese rumba, soukous, mbalax, semba, kizomba, and highlife, etc. These styles, amongst many others on the continent, would go on to form the backbone of national identity in the post-independence period, their propagation supported with enthusiasm by the leaders of the new nations. They are also the ancestors of many popular music sounds on the continent today.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 shook off the final shackles of American empire and posed a challenge to the hemispheric dominance of US imperial capitalism. In the Cold War propaganda machine, Cuba would go on to become the western hemisphere antithesis to everything its larger and more powerful neighbor to the north stood for.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it). In Africa, countries like Angola would strengthen their ties with Cuba during the Cold War, but the outsize cultural influence that Cuba held in the Atlantic world, pre-revolution, would leave a void that would quickly be filled by Jamaica, Brazil, and the Cuban and Puerto Rican diasporas in the US. Cuba itself would turn more inward, its cultural production burdened by the heavy weight of nostalgia and nation building—European, indigenous, and African roots fighting it out in a perennial dance on top of the ruins of the Spanish empire.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

The beauty in black Atlantic cultural formation is in the continual exchange of information that persists between peoples of African descent across language, national borders, and even time. This “counter-culture” of western modernity utilises and navigates systems that were designed to exploit and repress the communities from which it came. So naturally, on the back of western capitalism, African popular music influenced by Cuba would repeat the process initiated in the early 20th Century, finding receptive audiences back on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. In places like Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Cartagena and Baranquilla, the process of acculturation and hybridiation would repeat, and Africa would have its turn to make its mark on the popular musics of the Caribbean in the latter part of the century.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent

It would take until more recently, in the wake of political and cultural revolutions driven by youth on the African continent, and a global revolution in communication technology for similar processes to happen in Cuba. And that’s where Puerto Rican brothers Eli and Khalil Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s latest documentary Bakosó: Afrobeats in Cuba picks up.

The opening scene in the film shows Havana-based DJ Jigüe tuning into a radio interview with an artist named Ozkaro to hear that “something” is happening 700 km away in his home province of Santiago. A new musical genre, bakosó, was developing, and local artists such as Ozkaro were blending Afro-Cuban folk and popular music with contemporary continental genres like afrobeats, afrohouse, and kuduro. There are huge parties with hundreds, maybe thousands of fans in a public square, new dance styles and crews, and the city’s existing set of rappers and reggaetoneros are enthusiastically taking to the genre.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Jigüe decides that he needs to go back home after being disconnected and see what is going on in Santiago. This personal journey home, to a place of roots, serves as a metaphor in the film itself, for bakosó’s origin story, and for Cuban’s engagement with African culture in general. This, along with other devices employed by the directors, such as the folkloric dance performance that bookends the film, create a form-defying, yet accessible introduction to Cuba’s cultural landscape.

Once in Santiago, we travel with Jigüe to meet Ozkaro in his home studio where they discuss the difficulties in being an artist in Santiago: the lack of technology with which to produce and the challenge of being distant (or rather disconnected) from Havana where the largest media houses are. The absence of such hurdles is taken for granted in the global North. In the production of the current mainstream global pop sound, access to state of the art technology is a necessary prerequisite. Even with these limitations, Cubans have no problem accessing sounds from Africa. That’s because contemporary African genres arrived in Cuba from a surprising source: medical students from Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, and across the continent.

DJ Jigüe and Ozkaro. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.Some bakosó producers offer explanations as to why they think the African students’ music has been taken up with enthusiasm by the public in Santiago. Reasons dance around the idea of African retentions, sometimes slipping into essentialist tropes common across Latin America like, “Santiageras have a certain sexuality.” But, it’s Ozkaro who provides one of the most profound insights when he explains the importance of the clave rhythm to the Cuban public. His insight is interesting because it is an electronically programmed clave that has become the most pronounced element across many African popular music genres, and was one of the main rhythms that African audiences had originally connected with when Cuban music reached their shores.

The film moves on from there to explore more of the African retentions embedded in Santiagero culture, and explains the conditions that birthed a strong African consciousness in this part of the island. In a scene where the group Conexión Africa is recording a song called “Africa” with an Angolan football club’s banner on the wall of the booth, one can tangibly feel such African consciousness manifesting.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While this celebration of Africa in Cuba is inspirational, the film is a bit overburdened by the weight given to the personal allegory of a return to African roots (and subsequent journey out to share them with the world). Beyond just a connection to roots, it must be understood that the birth of this new musical genre was assisted by Cuba’s state foreign policy of building global South solidarity, and aiding the African liberation movements. The film lightly touches on this. For example, Jigüe mentions the history of Cuban military support for Angola, and how this action is thought upon fondly by many of the Angolan students who arrive to Cuba. The film, however, would have benefited from more of this political context to balance out Jigüe’s romanticism.

One section, if expanded on, would have gone a long way to rectify this issue, and that was the story of how a nationwide Africa Day celebration came to be in Cuba. Nayda Gordon, the founder of a youth African dance troupe, Sangre Nueva, explains how years ago African students would only practice their cultures with each other in parties and celebrations behind the closed doors of the medical schools. The cultures of these students piqued her interest, so she reached out to a medical student named Demba and together they organized to form the troupe. A former African medical student, Dr. Ibrahim Keita, mentions Demba and a committee that was formed ten years ago with the aim of integrating African students more with the local community. Keita alludes to the fact that this committee helped bring about the Africa Day festivities and claims, “if Kuduro is being accepted by Cuban youth today, it’s because that was our intention.”

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Gordon’s personal motivation to connect with strangers is fascinating. It would be interesting to contextualize her initiative in relation to Cuban social norms and find out why it was important for her to connect Cuban youth with African culture. Also, the modes available for building programs of integration through grassroots solidarity in Cuba are unfamiliar to me, and in the film this section passes very quickly. It left me wondering: What was the committee? Who all was involved? And, how did they managed to gain state support? An international audience especially would have benefited from further exploration of these questions.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it).

Jigüe mentions over and over that this or that could happen “only in Santiago.” This perhaps works best in a local context amidst a continued struggle with racial inequality on the island, but not so much outside of Cuba. Because, rather than exceptional, the formation of a genre like bakosó, and the conditions that allowed it, is a process that I have personally seen repeated over and over across the Atlantic world (admittedly thanks to a little passport privilege and a fast internet connection). Kuduro, afrobeats, and afrohouse themselves are a result of such processes, and this is not the first time director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi has been there for such moments. He previously documented the growth of hip hop in Cuba with his film Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano and the rise of hiplife in Ghana in Homegrown: Hiplife in Ghana.

What is exceptional about Santiago that makes it stand out amongst its hemispheric neighbors are the social conditions that allowed this exchange to happen. In contrast to North America—where corporate streaming platforms and an “Africans! They’re just like us” narrative are propelling Afropop into the mainstream—in Cuba a state policy of global South solidarity, has merged with an African consciousness embedded amongst the people. This political formation is what opened pathways for integration between Cubans and their African immigrant neighbors. Paradoxically, at a time when much of us are hyper-connected, in the face of digital disconnection, Cubans were able to connect with Africa via Africans themselves. So, bakosó remains as a unique cultural space in a world where cultural difference seems to be melting away—it is wonderful, simply, because it is still a story of a specific place, and a sound for a specific people, at a specific moment in time.

Still, what may be most exciting for audiences in regards to both the film and the music itself is that they allow us to romanticize the potentials and possibilities they symbolize. Bakosó, as a gift to Cuba from the African nations that were touched by Cuba’s influence, being sent back to the island that helped define what it means to be African in the modern world. With beautiful cinematography, and an innovative take on the documentary genre, the Jacobs-Fantauzzi brothers have done a great job in documenting this exchange on another leg of its journey.

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

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The Clergy and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance

What Kenya needs is not a clergy in bed with politicians but one that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable.

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There has been an ongoing debate in the last couple of months about the hefty cash donations politicians make to churches and to individual clergymen in Kenya. There have also been debates about the impact of money on the relationship between the church and the state, and about by the political class co-opting church leaders. There is even talk now about politicians radicalising thousands of angry, disenfranchised, jobless youth through cash donations and political and religious ideologies. An emerging Christian nationalism that is inspired by populist politics in many parts of the world also has many observers worried. Money, economic disenfranchisement and religious ideologies are blamed for this emerging trend.

A large section of Christian evangelicals in Africa, for example, support populist politicians including former President Donald J. Trump. In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics in the last couple of years and this could lead to seriously compromising the religious leaders’ ability to stand up to the political class.

Deputy President William Ruto has caused a furore over the millions of shillings he has been donating to the churches. Ruto has sought to create an image of himself as a God-fearing generous giver, as demonstrated in the many churches he has visited, the questionable source of the money donated notwithstanding.

The clearest example of this is the dichotomy now playing between the president-led Kieleweke and Deputy President-led Tanga Tanga factions of the ruling Jubilee Party. When they took their battles to the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) in Kenol area of Murang’a County on 4 October 2020, it led to the deaths of two young men. The commotion created at Gaitegi AIPCA church by the two opposing factions is the latest testament of how the church has been infiltrated by the dark forces of political rivalry.

On 11 January 2021, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministries (JIAM) was back in the limelight. A video circulating on social media showed the evangelist-turned-politician-turned-Ruto supporter dishing out money to scores of people.

While some church leaders in the Anglican and the Catholic churches have clearly told politicians to keep their money off their pulpits, the majority of Kenya’s clergy, especially those of the evangelical and the pentecostal persuasion — and particularly the prosperity gospel-allied churches — see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, while speaking in a multisectoral initiative against corruption in 2019, warned ACK clerics against accepting corrupt money. “Let us not allow Harambee money to become a subtle way to sanitise corrupt leaders,” said Sapit. Deputy President William Ruto and a coterie of politicians allied to him promptly answered Sapit: “We will continue to worship Jehovah God with our hearts and substance. We are unashamed of God and unapologetic about our faith.”

In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics.

On 24 October 2020 Ruto held a fund-raising meeting for the St Leo Catholic Church in Sianda, Mumias East. Evidently, the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown had not locked up the DP’s purse. Clearly, it’s not only the evangelical leadership that covets politicians’ money. While the Anglican and Catholic churches’ leadership have clearly specified their criteria for receiving donations, and have at the same time asked the politicians to keep off their pulpit and keep their money, evangelical and pentecostal churches, especially those aligned to the prosperity gospel, see nothing wrong with accepting money from politicians. There have been public spats and bitter exchanges in the country that essentially encapsulate a debate that has not only refused to go away, but one that divides Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Kenyan Church and its credibility

Struggling with a legitimacy crisis since the 2007/8 post-election violence (PEV), the church leadership seems to have abandoned its flock, divided by ethnicity and politics as it is.  Archbishop David Gitari (ACK), Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Catholic Church and retired Rev. Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) fought for democracy, freedom of expression and multiparty politics during Daniel T. arap Moi’s dictatorial reign and have often been described as the architects of social justice and as the conscience of the nation.

The emergence of evangelical pastors driven by the gospel of prosperity seems to have undone all the foundational work that these mainstream church leaders fought so hard to set up. The PEV exposed the underbelly of the Kenyan church as it were and since then, the church has never been the same and it has struggled to recover its image as the moral compass of the nation. The National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that brings together all the protestant churches, even offered a public apology, acknowledging that the Church had let down Kenyans.

Given the fact that liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other, the churches’ acceptance of hefty cash donations from politicians has led Kenyans to question the very credibility and legitimacy of these churches’ leadership. Yet the co-option of religious leaders by the state and politicians is nothing new. The Deputy President’s  donations to churches have brought to the fore the causal inter-play between church and state, the intersection between faith, politics and governance issues. The donations have also raised critical questions about the relationship between Christianity and religio-ethnic politics.

Christianity and religio-ethnic politics

Religio-ethnic political competition and mobilisation have increasingly become the defining features of electoral politics in Africa, Kenya included. In Kenya, God, politics, money and ethnicity are often inseparable. Yet church politics, money and ethnicity have recently assumed centre stage. During the 2013 and 2017 general elections, for example, political competition was increasingly defined and characterised by the use of the notions of God and tribe. The appropriation of biblical language and rhetoric and its imagery by politicians during the campaign periods sought to paint their politics as God-driven and God-ordained, while casting their antagonists’ politics as driven by the dark, evil forces of Satan and witchcraft.

Prior to the 2013 general elections, the Jubilee Coalition presidential candidate and his running mate, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, faced criminal charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). To fend off the ICC, the duo turned to religious rhetoric and portrayed their tribulations as the work of the devil and the opposition, then led by Raila Odinga. They also referred to the civil society as the “evil society.” Uhuru and Ruto traversed the country, holding political rallies camouflaged as prayer meetings, accompanied by a retinue of clergymen who would lay hands on them and anoint them with special oil, as they prayed fervently, casting away ICC demons, castigating the opposition and condemning the “evil society”.

Their political nemesis, Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), equally appropriated religious rhetoric. Raila promised to lead Kenyans to a new dawn by taking them to Canaan, the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey. He appropriated the biblical imagery of the Book of Exodus, where he likened himself to Joshua, who would lead the people out of slavery into the “promised land”. The imagery became a rallying call for millions of his followers. In 2019 and 2020, Deputy President Ruto not only appropriated Christian theological language, but also became one of the biggest church funders just like President Moi before him.

In a bid to outdo everyone, Ruto has elevated the prosperity gospel and its proponents, the self-styled prophets and bishops, to unprecedented levels of self-importance. In the process, he has cleverly cultivated a Christian nationalistic image, subtly appropriating pentecostal language in his public speeches. He has also been accused of taking advantage of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of unemployed youth in a way that could potentially radicalise them.

Ruto’s cosy relationship with the clergy should be understood in the light of religio-political and ethnic mobilisation that has now become the defining feature of post neo-liberal politics in Kenya and beyond. During the 2010 constitutional referendum, Ruto aligned himself with the Christian clergy to oppose the new constitution. Since then, the relationship between the Deputy President and the Christian right in Kenya has blossomed, the allegations of corruption made against him notwithstanding; Ruto has his allies in the church.

Liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other.

In a country reeling from massive debt, loss of employment and the coronavirus pandemic, the clergy has been silent as Kenyans go through unprecedented suffering, massive job losses, a weak public health infrastructure, corruption, and the theft of medical equipment donated by humanitarian people and organisations. Their loud silence in the wake of the high numbers of deaths of medical personnel, the doctors’ strike and the controversial BBI politics, has been deafening.

But Ruto’s disturbing relationship with the clergy is not anything new. Moi heavily appropriated religion and created for himself an image of a God-fearing politician who not only attended church service ritually and piously every Sunday, but who also heavily invested in the churches and the clergy by contributing large amounts of money and allocating them large tracts of land.

Politicians have perfected the art of appropriating religion in times of crises. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have been calling on religious leaders to offer prayers as they call on the people to repent their sins. While there is nothing wrong with politicians asking for frequent and collective prayers when the country is faced with crises, Kenyans also need to question how they are governed and what the priorities of their politicians should be. No amount of prayers will ever take away bad governance, corruption, disease, inequality, poverty, road accidents and violence. These are policy issues that have everything to do with ethical and just leadership, the rule of the law, governance of national resources, respect for human rights, well-equipped and functional hospitals and efficient public service delivery, and little to do with religion.

Deputy President Ruto’s relationship with the clergy must be understood through the prism of, not just the politicisation of religion, but also its implications for good governance, and for the church and the state. The Jubilee Party administration has since 2013 been weakening the church’s leadership by compromising it with money so that the clergy does not call out on its excesses.

In Kenya, the church and the state have always had a symbiotic relationship. The clergy has always tried to co-opt political leaders while the state has always been involved in schemes to co-opt the church. This is not to ignore the fact that the leaders of certain mainstream churches have, in certain critical political moments, stood their ground and urged the government to abandon its authoritarian tendencies, and even pushed for constitutional reforms.

After the promulgation of the new Constitution of Kenya 2010, mainstream churches took a back seat as pentecostal and evangelical churches occupied the centre stage of the country’s political arena. Ruto has ostensibly found dependable allies in the majority of evangelical churches, who see him as a generous giver and one who fits in well with their health-and-wealth gospel.

This is not peculiar to Ruto. Politicians across the country continue to appropriate religious idioms, language, rhetoric and symbolisms. We are witnessing the same developments in other African countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — politicians appropriating religion as a means to their political ends. In 2016, Donald Trump appealed to the evangelical right and their unwavering support helped him win his presidential bid. In 2020 Trump again appealed to the same Christian right to try to win a second term. He appropriated religion and mobilised the evangelical right to cast himself as the protector of religious rights from neo-liberals, socialists and leftists.

The Ruto factor in churches and its implications for governance

William Ruto projects the image of a God-fearing man under perpetual siege from the political dark forces of Satan. He gives the impression that his Christian faith has helped him overcome the forces that his political enemies are using to fight him. While his enemies are busy working hard to make him look bad in the eyes of the electorate, the church, it seems to me, has also been working overtime to paint him in the light of a generous servant of God who is largely misunderstood. Even as his enemies describe him as a most corrupt, divisive and ambitious politician, the church makes him look humble and decent and “a fearfully made child of God” who is a victim of political machinations.

Ruto’s spirited efforts to be allied with the clergy must be understood within the context of a search for a Christian legitimacy and social respectability. The Deputy President could also be looking for approval and acceptance from the clergy. He is looking to his faith to repair a badly damaged public image that has refused to go away: the image of a fabulously wealthy politician who passes himself off as a humble servant of God who speaks the language of the downtrodden. And so the apparent association with the church is a quest to portray himself as a victim of dynastic politics that are jealous of his “hustler” beginnings and that do not want him excelling in national politics. In short, Ruto is using the church to advance his overarching political ambitions.

Like many a politician before him, Ruto has appropriated religion during this period of turmoil in his political career to draw, not just admiration, legitimacy and respect, but also empathy and pity. The late President Moi appropriated the Christian faith to cleanse his autocratic regime. Zambia’s President Fredrick Chiluba declared himself a Christian and Zambia a Christian nation, despite the massive corruption dogging his country. The recently deceased President John Magufuli declared that God had healed Tanzania of the COVID-19 pandemic. He appropriated religion and notions of God in his populist politics in a way that appealed to millions of religious people wish want to see God at the centre of politics and governance.

Intent on getting money and socio-political power to influence public policy, the Church has opened itself to the vagaries of political pedlars. To that extent, hunger for power, particularly political and social power play, is no longer the preserve of politicians. The Kenyan clergy also wants a piece of that power and influence. Hence, spiritual power is hardly the driving force of these religious leaders who no longer view politics as a dirty game. On the contrary, many clergy now see politics as a means to financial, social and political power. African pentecostal and evangelical clergy (with the exception of a few who are well-grounded in proper theological training) lack the philosophical and theological tools to engage the state or politicians. Many rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture and socio-political phenomena. Pentecostal clergy are also prone to populist politics and, more importantly, they are less likely to criticise a dictatorial government. They prefer to pray away issues including pandemics like COVID-19. They are beholden to faith healing, miracles and the gospel of prosperity. Human rights, social justice and poverty are not issues they like to engage with, let alone seek to understand their primary causes; they much prefer spiritualising issues.

The church leadership of the pentecostal and evangelical churches believes in creating social transformation by transforming individuals’ morals and personal lives, which is commendable. Individual transformation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be even better if the whole society were to be fundamentally transformed. Pentecostals also place greater emphasis on the heavenly realm and the hereafter than in the hell in which many Kenyans already live. In a country under bad governance, the theology of individual transformation must be questioned. And we must ask critical the questions: how is it that a highly religious country like Kenya, where more than 80 per cent of the population identify as Christians, has not seen it fit to embrace meaningful socio-political transformation?

Religion “cleans” up people, gives them a veneer of credibility, respect and acceptance. That is why politicians align themselves with the Church. When politicians are under siege, they take refuge in the Church, even as they seek to mobilise their ethnic bases. In a kind of symbiotic relationship,  religious leaders use politicians such as Ruto to access state resources and political power. In return, politicians give the clergy not just money, but personal appeal, social power and a sense of self-importance. Such clergy crave to be seen as special “big men and women of God” who are powerful, rich and have friends in high society. One would hope that spiritual leaders would be the salt of the earth, that they would champion social justice causes as well as human flourishing, but unfortunately, like the political class, they seek power, prestige, money and state recognition for their own sake.

There are a myriad other reasons why the clergy courts politicians. In its effort to push its conservative agenda on reproductive health and rights, sex education, sexuality and gender empowerment among many other issues, the clergy’s romance with the political class is strategic: they are partners when it comes to controlling society for their own selfish ends. Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution; he clergyviewed the constitution as too liberal in matters of sexuality, reproductive health rights and women’s place in society.

There has also been religious mobilisation and contestation over sexual and reproductive health rights and choices in Kenya, as recently witnessed with the Reproductive Health Bill (2019) and during the 2019 UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) held in Nairobi. On the two occasions, religious leaders and their powerful lobbies employed mobilisation tactics to oppose the Reproductive Bill and the ICPD25 conference. Demonstrations were recently held against the Reproductive Health Bill — also christened the abortion bill or the Susan Kihika bill — because of its supposedly neo-liberal agenda.

Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution.

The influence of the American evangelical far right is also evident in Kenya’s conservative churches, especially in the area of sexuality and reproductive health rights. The American evangelicals’ support for President Donald J Trump — who is not a Christian by any standards but uses Christianity for his own political ends — is alive in African evangelical circles. Some of the evangelical pastors here in Kenya are reported to have prayed for Trump as he battled to win a second term in the 4 November 2020 elections. One of the reasons evangelicals support Trump is because he aligns himself with the Christian right’s ideologies and conservative positions on a score of social and political issues.

It is also a fact that evangelical churches here in Kenya receive a lot of funding from the American evangelical right. The same logic explains the clergy’s relationship with politicians in Kenya. It is a money thing. And it is not hard to see. In its 10th month now, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many Kenyans vulnerable and in dire need of financial help. Yet the Church leadership has chosen to pursue its narrow agenda of cavorting with the political class in exchange for financial gain, self-aggrandisement and the opportunity to influence public policy.

A dozen years after PEV, the church leadership in Kenya does not seem to have learnt any lessons. It has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché. It has refused to be spiritually blackmailed and financially manipulated. That generation is daily debunking the myth of spiritual power and torment.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are important actors, key elements and important forces within civil society. Religion is also important in the lives of many Africans, Kenyan’s in particular. A recent Pew Research Poll found that more than 85 per cent of Kenyans said religion was very important to them. There are a number of reasons why religion is important to Kenyans. First, religion provides Kenyans with the language to make sense of their suffering. Secondly, religious people want to see good people voted into government because they believe they can bring ethical leadership and decency to public life. Christians want to see good people voted in, people who promote healing, national cohesion and economic betterment.

The Church has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché.

But this is not the case. Instead what we have is a clergy that is in bed with the political class. Co-option of the clergy is bad for democracy and governance. When the Church and its clergy accept monetary contributions from politicians, it compromises them. The Church loses its voice, conscience and ability to hold politicians and the state accountable. In a country reeling from corruption, bad governance, gender and sexual abuse, high incidences of teenage pregnancy, police violence, poverty, ethnic marginalisation, inequality, ethnic tensions and the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya needs a clergy that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable even as they set a good example of moral leadership themselves. Kenya needs a new moral compass and consciousness, an alternative imagination from both citizens and religious leaders. But such leaders in Kenya today are few and far between; partisan politics always has its consequences, more so for the church leadership.

The Ruto factor in church can therefore be understood as a weakening of the structure of the church and the co-option of its leadership. Yet, it also speaks of the church’s lack of philosophical and theological tools to deal with such infiltration, a lack of ethical and moral underpinning to resist such an injudicious relationship. Yet I proffer that it is not too late for religious leaders to rethink their nebulous association with the political class and to re-engage the Kenyan people in their quest for social justice and human flourishing.

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Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?

“Conservancies” in Kenya are presented as an example of conservation by and for local people, but they can be a device to grab land. Unless this changes, the future for wildlife conservation looks bleak.

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There are two approaches to exercising your imperial ambitions over others. One is simply to invade their territory with armed force and subjugate them. The other is to bring some of their own leaders, or potential leaders, onto your side with inducements or threats, and so enforce your rule indirectly. The big historical empires usually did both.

Britain, for example, famously ruled India by securing the allegiance of that vast country’s five hundred princely states, step by step. Some were defeated in battle, some were taken over with mutually beneficial trade – beneficial for the rulers, that is. Others were led to accept, even embrace, British dominion through inducements and bribery. London established its rule over the whole subcontinent and beyond even though its fighting men and civilian administrators were always vastly outnumbered by the locals. For every Brit in the “Raj”, there were always well over a thousand Indians. The numbers were only a little more balanced in Kenya, where just 23,000 European settlers dominated a realm of over five million Africans.

Of course, indigenous resistance forced the empires’ retreat and proved the imperial model to be unsustainable. But the Europeans’ belief in their own superiority, and that the rest of the world could and should be manipulated to their own advantage, proved harder to dismantle and may have as many adherents now as it had at the empires’ height.

Conservation is just one area in which colonial control remains embedded, certainly in Kenya and in much of Africa and beyond. About 20 per cent of Kenya’s land is in Protected Areas (PAs) (of which about 9 per cent is state land and the remainder is private) and they are overwhelmingly run by the descendants of white colonists and subsidised with enormous amounts of money provided by conservation NGOs and governments from northern Europe and the USA. Those which make a profit do so off tourism from non-Africans, often rich ones who can afford a minimum $1,000 per person per night for luxury holidays, with only a few crumbs from the table ever dropping into the hands of indigenous Africans. For comparison, the average salary for a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry or as a wildlife ranger is less than US$5,000 a year.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, some well-meaning conservationists finally began to note the criticism that they had been seizing indigenous and other peoples’ lands without consent, or even any pretense at consultation. They began to realise that the traditional concept of African Protected Areas, as zones which exclude local people – including those who had been living there for many generations – was in urgent need of reform. Even those with no interest in changing still recognised the pressing need for rebranding: conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

At about the same time, some white farmers in Kenya began to think that their land – originally given to them to produce food for the colony – could make them more money if they turned it into Protected Areas and start hosting paying visitors. Overall costs would be small: the properties had been stolen from Africans and handed to the settlers without charge, the houses and other facilities had been built by underpaid locals, and a bevy of servants (now called “staff”) could readily be drawn from the nearby population. On the other side of the ledger, overseas guests would be happy to fork out the same fortunes they were used to paying for luxury accommodation in the Global North, or even more as an experience of “wild Africa” was highly prized and marketable. The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden, populated largely by exotic megafauna, and popularised in literature and film throughout the twentieth century, could be a money spinner.

Conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

The realisation that conservation dollars might be ripe for the taking seems to have first occurred in the 1980s in Lewa Downs, an old cattle ranch north of Mt Kenya which had been given to the Craig family by the colonial government sixty years before. The Craigs had already leased part of it to an Englishwoman, Anna Merz, who trucked in rhinos from all over Kenya, keeping the animals in – and Africans out – with armed guards and electric fences. Ian Craig, a former big game hunter, decided to landscape the whole ranch around wildlife tourism, bringing in more rhinos and other iconic species that visitors would pay to see.

Lewa Wilderness

Lewa Wilderness

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond. Most are promoted by a rather opaque local NGO, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), established by Craig himself in 2004, (although the NRT gives a different account of its genesis, saying the first suggestion came from Francis Ole Kaparo, former speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly) which in turn is heavily supported by the biggest and richest conservation organisation in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (more on that below).

There are now over three dozen conservancies, covering huge swathes of Kenya, totalling about 11 per cent of the country (6.3 million hectares at the last count). They have overtaken national parks in size and are often cited as the vanguard for a conservation reformation which has discarded the old “fortress” model and replaced it with “community-based conservation”, supposedly set up under the control and even ownership of local people. They have become the standard rebuff to critics who point out that wildlife protection remains essentially colonial, run by and for non-Africans.

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond.

As so often with projects in the Global South – and many in the Global North for that matter – peeling away the propaganda can uncover hidden depths. To start with an aside, though one which resonates deeply with many Kenyans, Lewa’s links with the old colonial power remain celebrated. Prince William spent part of his “gap year” there in 2000 and was boyfriend to Ian Craig’s daughter. The royal heir remains a frequent guest, he proposed to the future queen in one of its tourist “camps”, and they named one of the guest tables at their wedding dinner after it. Ian Craig was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2016. British government ministers, including future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also visited. If you can pull the right strings, it’s easy to drop by. The largest British army base in Africa is less than fifty kilometres away, just a few minutes’ helicopter hop.

Boris Johnson visits Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Boris Johnson visits Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Land use in northern Kenya is key to understanding how the conservancies have been established and the problems they are throwing up. As the cool, fertile slopes of Mt Kenya slope down to a lower plateau which extends 250 miles north to the Ethiopian border, the country becomes hotter, arid, and less conducive to settled farming. This is part of the traditional domain of several peoples who have lived from mobile pastoralism for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They herd sheep, goats, camels and, most famously for the Maasai and Samburu, cattle. At first sight, it seems like an arduous way to live in a landscape which supports little visible vegetation. But in practise, like so many “traditional” lifestyles, it is actually highly – and sophisticatedly – attuned to the environment. It depends on a high degree of mobility, with herds walking large distances to take advantage of regional precipitation, changing seasons, and the appearance or disappearance of surface water. Both herds and herders know where they are heading, and why, applying a complex understanding of the terrain and weather consolidated over many generations.

The landscape gives sustenance to livestock and people, and is then left to regenerate until another herd arrives to take its share; it’s also the stage on which these peoples have their genesis and where their identity is forged. With many different peoples (Rendille, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Pokot, etc., as well as Samburu and Maasai) using the same terrain, there is a perpetual balancing of neighbourship and shared values against the potential for friction, often over competition for grazing and water. National frontiers, drawn with rulers on maps by the colonial powers, are largely invisible and substantially porous, with troubled Ethiopia to the north and war-torn Somalia in the east.

British dominion over this part of Africa had been established for less than thirty years when the end of the “Raj” in 1947 India clearly signalled the sun was setting over the empire as a whole. After several years of armed struggle, which was met with brutal suppression by the colonials, Kenya finally saw the inevitable final lowering of the Union Jack in 1963. The British left a few thousand settlers behind, and many of their core beliefs. One was the mistrust, even hostility and disdain, with which all national governments view peoples who favour a mobile approach to life over a fixed abode: nomads, of course, are always very difficult to tax and control.

The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden populated largely by exotic megafauna could be a money spinner.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back. This is in spite of the increasing scientific realisation that the ecosystems of the great East African grass plains are actually the creation of grazing animals, which enhance rather than diminish the country. Peoples who live from mobile herding, like others who eat mainly from their hunting and gathering, enjoy a way of life which in reality improves rather than reduces biodiversity, and which has sustained a huge proportion of Africa’s population for millennia. The upper end of estimates count no less than one quarter of the population of all Africa as dependent on herding.

But the colonials saw things differently. Immersed in anthropological prejudice which placed settled agriculturalists at the apex of human evolution, they had long been in favour of reducing, and even ending, pastoralism – and subsistence hunting – altogether. The same bias was inherited by the newly independent Kenyan government which was largely dominated by those from the Gikuyu ethnic group, traditionally farmers who produced Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The herders have faced discrimination for a long time.

The British Crown had originally “given” the so-called “White Highlands”, the higher, cooler, malaria-free centre of the country, to white settlers in the 1920s, particularly to World War I veterans like Ian Craig’s grandfather. When the new landholders started erecting fences, the surrounding herders were forced to adapt, avoiding some areas altogether and grazing others only covertly, often risking arrest or armed violence when they cut fences. However, nomadic peoples, whether herders or hunters, are generally far more agile and versatile than their static neighbours, so they adapted and survived and, by and large, are still there.

After Kenyan independence, one way of continuing to try and press herders into the settled mainstream was to recognise their communal ownership, but only over restricted parts of their grazing. This was shoehorned into existing land legislation really written for peoples who stayed put. The herders, at least some of them, were awarded “Group Ranches”, in which specific kith and kin became the owners of limited areas. To represent their title to the authorities, they had to establish committees, habitually through their councils of elders—most African pastoral peoples have a codified hierarchy in age sets, where important decisions are traditionally referred to older folk.

That is an outline of the complex background of competition for land when white farmers decided to move into wildlife tourism. It was easy enough for them to embrace Craig’s conservancy model for their own farms, but when it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, the Group Ranches owned by the pastoralists, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Sometimes this might have involved genuine consultation with, and consent by, the community; in other cases, it didn’t. The elders, or sometimes just a few individuals picked up by NRT and driven to its meetings, would be asked to agree terms on a 30-year lease which gave away designated parts of their land to an “investor”, a company which would build visitor accommodation geared around wildlife viewing. In exchange, the African landowners would be given a few, largely menial, paid jobs in and around the “lodge” or luxury camp, but they would also have to provide security around its perimeter and clear any necessary roads and infrastructure, all without any further payment. The Group Ranch would receive a small fee for each night a tourist stayed, unless the visitor were an associate or family member of the investor, in which case there would be no payment. What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation. The herders had no experience in securing their own legal advice, and the contracts made no reference to Group Ranch members having access to any audited figures to check whether or not they were being correctly remunerated.

When it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Such agreements are not made public or translated into any local language. They would never pass scrutiny for fairness, or even legality, which is probably why copies of the contracts were not made available to some communities, and why some remain confidential to the investor decades after they were signed (Requests to be shown copies of contracts were ignored but I have nevertheless read some from confidential sources.) Moreover, when the lease ends, some are liable to be renewed automatically for another thirty years on the same terms.

“Agreements” like these are barely disguised land grabs. The herders lose part of their land for little return, with the investor taking possession to build high-end accommodation. The tourist business can then truck in some big animals, and start raking in handsome profits from rich tourists whose expectations of being waited on by bedecked, colourful African “warriors” and women are fulfilled. The waiters and cleaners are of course the rightful landowners.

In this way, self-sufficient, independent, and resilient herders have been turned into a servant sector entirely dependent on an industry which is, in turn, dependent on the whims of tourist fashion (and which has proved particularly unsustainable because of travel curtailments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic).

Another way the NRT has begun to erode pastoralism has been to establish its grip over the regional economy. It has formed a business, buying the livestock of favoured herders (but not that of critics) and selling it on to the food industry. NRT can presumably afford the financial risk because any losses can be offset by tourist profits and conservation grants from wealthy backers like The Nature Conservancy which are in turn subsidised by Western governments. Such economic domination has undermined regional markets and elevated NRT into a key economic driver of northern Kenya – all supposedly for the benefit of the local population.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back.

NRT can get away with all this partly because the leases are between a particular investor and a Group Ranch: NRT claims its role is merely as hands-off adviser, and denies liability for any unfairness as it’s not itself a formal party to any of the contracts. It advises the investor certainly, but any claim that it can give advice which is in the best interest of the herders at the same time is clearly not true.

Its annual reports don’t show any audited figures, as NGOs in Kenya are not legally required to produce independently verified accounts in the way they are in Europe or the USA. Requests to see them are rebuffed or ignored; how it sources its funds is vague. It can, in other words, make whatever unsupported claims it likes: the possibilities for creative accounting, to say the least, seem great.

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

It’s understandable that knowledgeable Kenyans are suspicious of such an opaque NGO gaining effective control over much of northern Kenya and directly impacting the lives of millions of Africans. When a white Kenyan with close links to the former colonial master’s head of state is pulling the strings, such concerns are likely to be amplified, even more so when TNC’s involvement is considered – especially given some conservationists’ stated desire to stop all meat eating (aside from chicken) throughout the continent, for supposedly environmental reasons!

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars. Its headquarters are less than six kilometres from the White House in Washington, and it was headed by investment banker Mark Tercek until 2019. He used to be a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs until the financial collapse of 2008 when his bank’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis exploded. Together with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs was a major player in the mess which led to job losses for nine million Americans. This was the time that Tercek left banking for conservation, though the switch may not have involved much transformation in his worldview, or been too onerous a sacrifice for that matter: there’s little reason to think he started flying economy class, and his basic TNC salary in 2015 was $765,000. Tercek left TNC in 2019 after a sexual harassment probe into the organisation’s leadership.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars.

It’s easy to see why rich Americans getting control of pastoralists’ land in Kenya, via a local NGO with intimate ties to an old colonial élite which still keeps its army on site, is not wholeheartedly welcomed when herders debate in the shade of their thorn trees. Not being given sight of the contracts they are told they once agreed to naturally raises anxiety. There are a few young men who benefit from the jobs, and who understandably might find these developments more agreeable, but opposition remains high. It can be expressed quietly, with those herders who dislike NRT keeping their voices muted for fear that the authorities are listening out for hostile opinion which they think is seditious. Critics have been threatened, and conservationists who question NRT can find career paths shut off.

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

The British army is there in force with various objectives. It’s obviously found a useful training ground, but the official reasons are to combat terrorism, support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and also to help rangers “protect elephants from poachers”. It’s true that many British taxpayers might well support their army protecting elephants, but it still raises uncomfortable questions about the merging of the roles of soldiers, police, and wildlife rangers – especially given that some of the latter are private militias employed by rich white landowners to guard their very expensive properties and wealthy tourists. The minimum price to stay a few days in one luxurious conservancy, Ol Jogi, just thirty kilometres from the army base, is over $34,000. The conservancy has nevertheless received money from a British charity, Save the Rhino, with some of the funds going to ranger training.

What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation.

Concerns are growing over how valuable this land might be aside from its tourist potential. Northern Kenya was always important geopolitically in the slicing and dicing of Africa. It was a cushion between Britain and its colonial rivals, France and Italy, and it remains a buffer between mainly Christian Kenya and war-torn Somalia, the launch pad for violent incursions by al-Shabab militants. These have been going on for years and can meet with sympathy in Muslim parts of Kenya. There is wealth under the ground too – fossil fuels, minerals, and aquifers. All stand to be more easily and profitably exploited were local African landowners to be undermined or removed. After all, Protected Areas in other parts of Africa are often leased out to oil, gas, minerals or diamond companies. It’s possible that getting rid of people from conservation zones is as much about future profits as it is about the 19th century northern European and American belief which elevates divine Nature above sinning humankind.

Even a cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them (Kalepo, Meibae, Nannapa, Narupa, Naapu, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Central, Sera, and Biliqo Bulesa), which could affect Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, and Borana. All have, or have had, mining concessions inside their boundaries.

Whatever the reasons behind the growth of the conservancy model, at first sight it’s a win-win for conservationists. They can claim the communities are equal partners, when of course they’re not; yet more of the country can be fenced off into Protected Areas for profit; and the assault on mobile pastoralism – which has long been a key refrain in conservationists’ myopic and ultimately destructive vision of “nature” without humans (except them) – can be fortified.

It’s clever, but as well as its reliance on unsustainable tourism, it embodies another key flaw which may eventually prove its undoing: it doesn’t reckon with the profound relationship many herders have with how they live with and from their animals. They have weathered droughts and conflicts over numerous generations and pastoralists know their way of life is supremely sustainable. Conservancies don’t take into account their resilience and toughness; herders don’t like being pushed around and are prepared to cut fences and risk violence when necessary to protect their livestock and future.

A cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them.

Real solutions, benefiting both people and the environment, demand discarding deep-seated prejudice, which is always the primary obstacle to real change. The stranglehold of wealthy “landowners” must be loosened. Both conservationists and the government should recognise the importance of nomadic pastoralists as valued stewards of the country’s ecosystems, and stop trying to finish with them. They should approach the herders with respect, offering resources only when asked for, which should be passed into the control of locals represented by their own spokespersons. Of course such a new approach would bring complications, especially with growing competition for resources. However, things are complicated now, and they are marching in the wrong direction.

Unless things change, it seems likely that pastoralists will reoccupy their grazing lands, by force if necessary, and so bring to an end the reign of Protected Areas altogether. Many pastoralists are now seeing that there’s less harassment where there’s less tourism. There are already protest killings, where wild animals are slaughtered, not for tusks, horns, meat, or even because they are a danger to livestock or people, but as retaliation against the land grabs which have dogged these Africans since Europeans first turned up and told them to settle down, get “civilised”, and accept their place in the divine and established order – as landless workers and servants.

I am grateful to Dr Mordecai Ogada for leading me to the problem of the conservancies through his book, The Big Conservation Lie, Mbaria & Ogada, 2016, and for commenting on this article.

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