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Oliver Mtukudzi: The Art of Protest

It is safe to say that Mtukudzi was one of a group of African musicians – alongside the likes of Masekela – who were adopted by Kenyans as one of their own, invited back time and again for representing something which was at once soothing and liberating, always reminding their audiences that Africa was still one. By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE

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Oliver Mtukudzi: The Art of Protest
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‘As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. It has to be for revolution.’’

– Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

On Wednesday January 23 2018, as Zimbabwean and one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians Oliver Mtukudzi took his final bow in Harare aged 66, the floodgates of debate opened. Who was this cultural colossus? What about his politics cast against the turbulent reality of Zimbabwe? There is global consensus that Mtukudzi was a musical giant, but away from the music, nuanced conversations were happening. Was Mtukudzi modeled in the image of Franco Luambo Makiadi, who towed Mobutu Sese Seko’s line to stay in favour and keep producing music, or was he a Fela Kuti, a no-holds-barred bold anti-establishment figure?

There is little evidence to suggest that Mtukudzi was explicitly either a Franco or Fela replica – at least politically speaking. His loyal fans insist that he was simply Tuku, a man who handled his music and politics with a delicate balance as to allow himself the license to keep singing and touring, while avoiding the tempting trap of complicity by siding with the oppressors. One needs to revisit a little history to understand the obsession with situating a certain generation and caliber of African artists –a classification Mtukudzi belonged – within the prevailing political circumstances in their home countries.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, alongside writers and poets such as Keorapetse Kgositsile and Dennis Brutus, deployed their celebrity status to shape events both at home and abroad, thereby succeeding in drawing global attention to the plight of a segregated and oppressed Black population. Makeba, using the personal-is-political strategy, insisted that her music was not political, hastening to add – possibly as a caveat – that she only sang about truth. To her listeners across the world, what Makeba called truth was equated to her broadcasting the malevolent experiences suffered by Black South Africans, in effect deploying music to camouflage her anti-apartheid campaign. Makeba did not need to announce her politics from rooftops, because she was living her politics out loud for everyone to see and hear.

As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. It has to be for revolution

When Hugh Masekela, arrived in exile in the United States, he was still confused about what genre of music to pursue. He was mimicking a lot of American jazz before Miles Davis urged him to stick to the Southern Africa sound he had been experimenting with and take his time before digging his heels in politically. He benefitted from the counsel of African American musical greats such Harry Belafonte, who persuaded Masekela against returning to South Africa to bury his mother. Belafonte feared that the young Masekela had not built the influence needed to restrain the apartheid regime from arresting and imprisoning him. In time, Masekela slowly built the requisite stature, joining the likes of Makeba in using music to tell their country’s story. Like Makeba, Masekela was not overtly political outside his music, but his compositions did not hide his position.

On his part, the poet Dennis Brutus – like his Nigerian counterpart Christopher Okigbo – went all out. Brutus put his poetry aside for a moment and successfully campaigned for the banning of South Africa from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. By the time the announcement of the ban was made, Brutus, who had returned home to South Africa, was already serving jail time in Robben Island – locked up in a prison cell next to that of Nelson Mandela – for his activities against the apartheid regime. On leaving jail, Brutus fled South Africa, banned from writing and publishing in the country.

Okigbo seemingly faced with limited choices took up arms to fight alongside his Igbo kin during the Biafra war, an act which resulted in the poet’s death in combat. Okigbo’s passing deeply affected his contemporary Chinua Achebe who eulogized him through his ‘Dirge for Okigbo’ resulting in Achebe leaving Nigeria and assuming the role of Biafra’s ambassador at large. Earlier, before the fighting had taken root, the poet and playwright Wole Soyinka appointed himself mediator between the two warring sides secretly meeting Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. This act saw Soyinka imprisoned for two years by the country’s military dictatorship. Closer home, in 1970s repressive Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiongo was detained following the staging of his play ‘Ngaahika Ndeeda’ – Gikuyu for ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ – after the state considered Ngugi’s actions seditious.

Like Makeba and Masekela, Mtukudzi fought a battle of memory. He may not have had a political-heavy discography but he took up the battle identity that ensured that his people would not forget themselves, in the process ensuring Africa and the world did not forget his people.

By consciously keeping away from overt political commentary in Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi in a way chose to look beyond Zimbabwe much as he was looking right into his country’s eyes, his life mission being to make the rest of the world see, feel, touch, smell and taste the best of Zimbabwe’s culture and artistry. To some, this was enough. To others, Tuku’s apolitical nature was akin to neutrality, construed as complicity.

***

On the first Friday night after the passing of Mtukudzi, I made a midnight dash to Sippers, the Nairobi Rhumba hideaway, looking to find out who Mtukudzi was and what he represented in the eyes of my interlocutors. Following his long career that stretched decades of performances across Africa and the West, the man known as one of Zimbabwe’s finest exports – according to his daughter Selmour – built a global following.

‘‘He put Zimbabwe on the map,’’ said Selmour, who is also a musician of note. ‘‘He’s the biggest export from Zimbabwe, and all artists look up to him, to get to his level and surpass it. He set the gold standard.’’

In Kenya, Mtukudzi’s huge following first originated from his popular hit Todii – which is all that a sizeable chunk of his fans knew about the man and his music. Mtukudzi also made frequent appearances in the Nairobi concert circuit, earning himself a more discerning followership that went beyond Todii. Much as the song is popular with revelers across Africa and beyond, Todii was born out of one of Mtukudzi’s saddest life experiences. In 1996, four members of Black Spirit, Mtukudzi’s band – including his younger brother Robert Mtukudzi, with whom he started his musical journey – got infected with HIV/AIDS. All the four succumbed to the disease, dying within a two-month window of each other’s death.

‘‘I wrote Todii to address the HIV/AIDS stigma,’’ Mtukudzi told an interviewer in 2015. ‘‘It was a song meant to help start a difficult conversation, which many people didn’t know how to go about.’’

It is safe to say that Mtukudzi was one of a group of African musicians – alongside the likes of Masekela – who were adopted by Kenyans as one of their own, invited back time and again for representing something which was at once soothing and liberating, always reminding their audiences that Africa was still one. Musically, Kenya has struggled to produce artistic personas of such stature, much as it has had an abundance of gifted musicians –such as the late Ayub Ogada – some of whom have even collaborated musically with these African greats. For various reasons, Kenya’s cultural glue doesn’t hold tight enough. Benga, for instance, a Kenyan sound which was exported across Africa and beyond during the 1970s, still struggles to pass for the quintessential Kenyan musical experience partly because it is reduced to the ‘ethnic’ categorization, while artists from other African countries who sing in their languages are embraced as transcendent cultural icons. To cure this void, Kenya has found itself perpetually looking outside, to the likes of Mtukudzi.

‘‘My impression of Mtukudzi was heavily influenced by the white neo-liberal view of him,’’ said Oketch, a Kenyan professor of philosophy who spent years living and studying in the West. ‘‘Every summer, for as long as I remember, Mtukudzi was invited to Chicago, where he sometimes performed alongside his countryman Thomas Mapfumo. To the white crowd, he was this big deal African performer. That was my earliest introduction to the man – an African revered by the concert going Western crowd.’’

For some critics, Mtukudzi fits the criteria of the African export to the West – which in some quarters translates to being a sellout. Nonetheless, Mtukudzi did not limit his performances to Western capitals. Tuku possibly performed across Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular as much as he did away from home, building a solid homegrown fanbase.

Mtukudzi and Mapfumo were one time bandmates in their youthful years, playing for the Wagon Wheel band. Much as they were both influential in the later periods of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, Mapfumo almost always rocked the political boat post-independence in 1980, with Mtukudzi taking the middle ground, both within and outside of his music. As a result of their different approaches to Zimbabwean politics, Mapfumo was exiled in the early 1990s, while Mtukudzi stayed put, giving Zimbabweans something to hold onto musically in times of serious political tribulations. Mtukudzi christened his music Tuku, drawn from his nickname, while Mapfumo dubbed his sound Chimurenga, continuing to be heavily associated with the liberation movement by the same name. Chimurenga, according to Ntone Edjabe – the Cameroonian DJ, journalist and founder of the Cape Town based Pan-African gazette, the Chimurenga Chronic – means ‘‘in the spirit of Murenga’’, who was a highly revered Shona liberation hero.

For some critics, Mtukudzi fits the criteria of the African export to the West – which in some quarters translates to being a sellout. Nonetheless, Mtukudzi did not limit his performances to Western capitals. Tuku possibly performed across Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular as much as he did away from home, building a solid homegrown fanbase.

‘‘He was a Shona who was loved by the Ndebele,’’ said Irene who is a Kenyan consultant with a multinational who has worked in a number of African countries. ‘‘I was once told of how when my friend’s sister arrived in Zimbabwe from an overseas trip, she came across one of the largest crowds she had ever seen in Harare. On asking what the occasion was she was informed it was an Oliver Mtukudzi concert. That is how much the man was loved in his motherland.’’

In many African countries, political competition gets highly divisive, setting communities against each other. Zimbabwe was no exception. Gukurahundi – a Shona term loosely translated to mean ‘‘the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains’’ – was a series of massacres carried out against the Ndebele population by the Zimbabwean army under Robert Mugabe between 1983 and 1987. It was believed to have emanated from the rivalry between the two dominant political parties, ZANU led by Mugabe, a Shona, and ZAPU, led by Mugabe’s fellow liberation stalwart Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebele. The killings were intended to quell a supposed impending rebellion against the Mugabe state, resulting in thousands of deaths. This has remained one of the darkest patches in Zimbabwe’s history – just like Biafra for Nigeria. Therefore, the acknowledgment that Mtukudzi, a Shona, was celebrated in Ndebele land despite the painful historical fissures goes a long way in signifying the power of Tuku.

‘‘I credit Mtukudzi with maintaining Zimbabwe’s cultural momentum,’’ Irene said, ‘‘something which a number of African countries lost post-independence. In that way, he became an invaluable national asset, a symbol of resilience, and a Pan-African treasure. If there is one thing we have continuously been reminded of as Africans, it is that you lose momentum, you lose the struggle. By singing about love, life, loss, Mtukudzi reminded us of what being Zimbabwean and living the Zimbabwean and African experience felt like, reinforcing the idea of art as the natural adhesive that holds societies together.’’

Mtukudzi gave Zimbabwe what Fela gave to Nigeria – artistic endurance. Tuku was not Zimbabwe’s Fela, because Zimbabwe might not have needed a Fela with the presence of a robust liberation movement that solidly rallied around a beloved Robert Mugabe, before the man turned rogue. On the other hand, Nigeria had a series of coup d’etats after independence, resulting in successive military dictatorships that Fela felt obliged to keep resisting. The Fela comparison therefore only went as far as Mtukudzi’s artistic staying power, that he was perpetually present, towering in the lives of Zimbabweans from the time of the liberation struggle onwards – metaphorically holding the country’s hand through the good, the bad and the ugly.

‘‘Why do we sing, why is there art?’’ Mtukudzi posed during the 2015 interview, grappling with the question of the role of art and artists, explaining his life’s work. ‘‘Art is to give life and hope to the people. Art is for healing broken hearts. Like in Zimbabwe, you don’t sing a song when you have nothing to say.’’

Mtukudzi gave Zimbabwe what Fela gave to Nigeria – artistic endurance. Tuku was not Zimbabwe’s Fela, because Zimbabwe might not have needed a Fela with the presence of a robust liberation movement that solidly rallied around a beloved Robert Mugabe, before the man turned rogue.

***

In Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire – the home of Rhumba – standing up to the strongman, whether an artist or politician, was like buying one’s one-way ticket to prison, or at worse, writing one’s obituary. It therefore took the likes of Papa Wemba – whose cultural contribution is not fully appreciated by many outside the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) – to use their artistic influence to start cracking Mobutu’s edifice, covertly. As Mobutu enforced his Zaireanization program, asking the Congolese to denounce Western influence – including fashion and names – Papa Wemba led a quiet rebellion by reimagining fashion, starting a sartorial elegance movement which did not fall within Mobutu’s categorization of Western clothing, but equally didn’t fit into African fashion as imagined by the President.

This created sufficient middle ground occupied by those who wished to defy Mobutu and his politics covertly, without necessarily going to the streets to battle against military tanks. Fashion therefore became a weapon, a place of solace, an assertion of personal and collective defiance, a reclamation of self-dignity. This gave way to the rise of the La Sape (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnesd’Élégance, translated as the ‘‘Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People’’) to which Papa Wemba became the unofficial leader, influenced by fashion trends in Milan and Paris – directly challenging Mobutu’s anti-European sentiment, and by extension challenging his politics. It was the perfect illustration of soft power.

Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe – like Mobutu’s Zaire – morphed into a cesspool which ordinarily results in artists being pressured to use their art for something bigger. Mtukudzi therefore found himself under the spotlight, seeing that his contemporary Thomas Mapfumo who some insist is the closest Zimbabwe has gotten to having a Fela, both musically and politically had long drawn the line on the sand and declared all-out war on Mugabe, just as he did with the colonialists before that. Yet Mtukudzi refused to get directly drawn into the politics of the day, by all indications pulling a Papa Wemba-like soft power move – picking to fight on the cultural frontline – because sometimes one has to pick their battles. There are those who will condemn Tuku for his apolitical stance, just as there are those who will understand where the man was coming from, because sometimes, under such strenuous circumstances, there is only so much one can do.

On that cultural frontline, there was one significant battle that Mtukudzi successfully waged in seeking to preserve the essence of Zimbabwean music. The genesis of Mtukudzi’s pushback, as documented in ‘‘Shades of Benga’’ – a seminal work on Kenyan music history by Tabu Osusa’s Ketebul Music – started with the appointment of the Kenyan music producer Oluoch Kanindo as the regional representative for the international music label EMI Records. Kanindo became so instrumental in EMI’s Africa operations to a point of earning the privilege of jet setting across the continent, to seal recording and distribution deals.

Thanks to Kanindo’s infiltration of the African market through his Sungura and Kanindo record labels, both of which exploited the EMI music distribution networks – the Kenyan sound, Benga, became popular in East and Southern Africa, going as far as being one of the more popular sounds among Zimbabwean freedom fighters. Benga started influencing Zimbabwean music especially in the late 1970s when Kanindo was in his musical prime as a producer. It was off the back of this musical invasion that Mtukudzi made a conscious decision to pushback against it, seeking to preserve the Shona and Ndebele traditional sounds, leading to the birth of Tuku. The influence of Benga was so strong that there are proponents who hold that much as he worked overtime to become a Zimbabwean purist, Mtukudzi borrowed elements of his music from Benga. This monumental pushback illustrates Tuku’s sense of eternal cultural patriotism.

***

Oliver Mtukudzi was born in September 1952 in Highfield, a Harare township with historic significance as one of the founding hotspots of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. As if predestined to be a musician, Mtukudzi’s parents had met during a choir competition, passing down the music bug to their eldest son, Oliver and his younger brother Robert, who became bandmates in Mtukudzi’s Black Spirits. In the early 1970s, the two brothers started experimenting with music and landed in trouble for sneaking out of the house to play at a local beer parlor. It was here that Mtukudzi got a rare opportunity to have his first encounter with an electric guitar, getting in trouble with his parents, who were against their two sons’ pursuit of a career in music.

‘‘I played the guitar so well,’’ Mtukudzi recalled, ‘‘such that the following day, those at the beer parlor reported to my father how talented I was. It was the one time my father hit me, for sneaking out of the house and spending time at the beer parlor in pursuit of music.’’

As fate would have it, the self-taught guitarist who began experimenting, looking for his own unique sound that had observers saying he didn’t play the guitar right – would land his big break while sitting right in front of his family home in Highlife. Brighton Matebere, at the time a leading journalist with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, had a love interest on Mtukudzi’s street, and regularly ran into the young Mtukudzi practicing with his guitar outside his family house whenever he came around to visit his girlfriend. Matebere was impressed by Mtukudzi’s skills and invited him to perform during his radio show. It was his impressive performance during the radio interview that resulted in Mtukudzi getting his first recording deal in 1975, never to look back again. Later, in 1977, he joined Wagon Wheel band, alongside Thomas Mapfumo.

‘‘When I left school I did not get a job for at least three years,’’ Mtukudzi revisited the birth of his politics, from where he learnt to hide in his music. ‘‘Blacks were not allowed to apply for jobs, but the colonialists didn’t think of art as a weapon that could be used against them. So they allowed us to sing. It was therefore up to the artist to help the nation heal and grow. We used idioms and proverbs, knowing that Shona speakers would decipher the coded messages we were passing across without being explicitly political.’’

67 albums later, Mtukudzi still spoke as if he was in search of what to call a career, telling Forbes Africa in 2016, ‘‘I am yet to decide on a career to take on, because this is not a career for me. I am just doing me.’’

As debate rages on about Mtukudzi’s legacy, Mtukudzi made things easier by summing it all up himself in 2015.

‘‘Pakare Paye is my legacy,’’ he said, ‘‘the legacy I am leaving behind for youngsters to get somewhere where they can showcase what they do best. My generation and I didn’t have similar opportunities.’’

The Pakare Paye Arts Center, meaning ‘that place’, is an expansive piece of real estate which Mtukudzi transformed from a rundown junkyard into a state of the art facility with recording studios and performance spaces. The center is located in Norton, about 45 kms from Harare. Pakare Paye has become a space for artistic apprentices seeking a soft landing in a country where the government gives little regard to the arts. Yet Pakare Paye remains a reminder of one of Mtukudzi’s saddest memories, since he originally built it intending for his only son and bandmate, Sam – who died from a 2010 road accident on his way from the airport – to ran it. Following his son’s passing, Mtukudzi took a two year hiatus from recording music, returning with Sarawoga, meaning ‘‘left alone’’.

‘‘Sam was more of a friend than a son to me,’’ Mtukudzi reminisced. ‘‘He was somebody who challenged me, not as a son but as a friend. It made me feel closer to him. He was so talented to a point where I couldn’t believe how much he could do musically, because he hadn’t had a very long music career.’’

For now, the family musical baton rests with Selmour, Mtukudzi’s daughter.

‘‘Some come and say oh, your children are following in your footsteps,’’ Mtukudzi said, as if diffusing pressure off his children who had taken after him. ‘‘That’s not true. I made my own steps, and my children make their own steps. God doesn’t duplicate talent. So they can’t be me. They have to be themselves.’’

Mtukudzi seems to have made peace with himself – as a father, husband, artist and Zimbabwean – having done what he thought he needed to do as a Zimbabwean cultural vanguard. Yet more was expected of him by those who felt he should have done something, said something, regarding Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi chose to play cultural politics – and succeeded in safeguarding Zimbabwe’s interests on that front both at home and on the global stage – but the political jury is still out on whether that was enough or whether those who demanded more from the man were justified.

In an interview with Kenyan actor and playwright John Sibi-Okumu, journalist and DJ Ntone Edjabe of the Chimurenga Chronic explained, responding to a question on the role of culture in raising public consciousness to tackle societal challenges, ‘‘Imagining culture as a tool, as something that can be used for anything but itself as an act of living and an articulation of that life is always dangerous, whether for positive or other reasons,’’ Ntone admitted that indeed art and culture affects society, but putting a weight of expectations on culture becomes inhibitive. ‘‘…but yes, aspects of culture, music, literature, film… the production of culture, can bring people together. We’ve seen this historically.’’

If art can be left alone for its own sake, should artists, who become influential cultural figures in society, be left alone, or is that an oxymoron? On his part, novelist Chinua Achebe had no internal contradictions on what art is, and what function art plays in society and about the place of art and artists in politics.

Imagining culture as a tool, as something that can be used for anything but itself as an act of living and an articulation of that life is always dangerous, whether for positive or other reasons

‘‘Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,’’ Achebe said during a rare conversation with his African American contemporary James Baldwin. ‘‘If you look very carefully, you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is. And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It is only that they are on the other side.’’

The jury is still out on Tuku’s politics, but no one will deny that he was master of his craft.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Culture

The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man

Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that the offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

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The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man
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Ken Odhiambo Okoth, Member of Parliament (MP) for Kibra Constituency in Nairobi, has been in the news a lot over the last few years, mainly because of his stellar performance in his role. From late last year, however, he was ‘trending’ in the mainstream and social media not because of building a Girls’ High school at a cost that fellow MPs claim to use to put up pit latrines in their constituencies, but because he came out and disclosed that he was battling cancer. Granted, Ken is not the first Kenyan politician to disclose affliction by cancer. A few years back, Senator, Beth Mugo boldly disclosed that she had breast cancer and spoke encouragingly of her treatment journey and ‘victory’. Kisumu Governor Professor Anyang’ Nyongó, has also been public about his prostate cancer illness and treatment. Recently while breaking ground of a Cancer Diagnostic and treatment centre in Kisumu, he self-referenced as among the ‘growing cancer statistics’. Yet what makes Ken Okoth’s disclosure more significant is its gravity.

Ken Okoth, at forty-one, is among the younger crop of legislators in Kenya. He is not your typical cancer patient since many people still associate cancer with old age. When one is diagnosed with cancer at such a ‘young’ age, this apparent anomaly becomes the starting point of the conversation. Ken Okoth publicly disclosed that his colorectal cancer had progressed to stage four; meaning that he had no chance of a reversal, or treatment, only clinical management. Okoth was basically announcing that his disease was terminal and that his demise from this disease is imminent. This announcement is unprecedented in two ways: Okoth is a Kenyan politician and admitting mortality and terminality is a complete no-no among Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s political class. Secondly, as an African, dalliance with death is totally anathema. Denial of the eventuality of death, is deeply wired in our African DNA and psyche, more so in the mental constitution of the African political class.

The ‘Houdini’ Syndrome.

Non-disclosure and denial of ill-health status reaches comic proportions in Africa. In the last thirty years, out of the twenty-one heads of state who have died of illness, eleven died in hospitals abroad. Usually in Europe. One assumes that an individual seeking medical care when and where they can find it is normal. However, the lengths that state machinery goes into denying, lying or explaining the ‘disappearance’ of politicians when unwell, seeking treatment, or at times has even passed away is simply bizarre.

There was the case of Togolese president, Gnassingbe Eyadama whose office strenuously denied he was ailing until he died in an airplane overflying Tunisian airspace while being rushed abroad for treatment.  Then there was Chadian leader, Pascal Yoadimnadji who died of diabetes related illnesses in Paris as his office was reassuring the public that he was improving and would soon return home.  Ghanaian head of state, John Atta Mills’ ill-heath was a loudly murmured topic. He was ‘rumoured’ to be suffering from throat cancer.  When he died in 2012, he had previously had to deny rumours of his death twice!  Even after he died, there were conflicting reports on the cause of his death. Gabonese President, Omar Bongo was reportedly in Barcelona, Spain for a whole month supposedly resting after the “intense emotional shock” of losing his wife.  Despite stories circulating that he was at an advanced stage of cancer, his office denied and underplayed his illness.  Eventually, pressure mounted because the host country media did not play along.  His office admitted he was seeking ‘routine’ medical tests.  After two days of denials of leaked information that the leader had died, his office announced his ‘sudden death’.  Then there was the president of Nigeria, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, who was reportedly unwell and sought treatment in Saudi Arabia.  He disappeared from the public for four months before ‘sneaking’ back into the nation’s capital under cover of darkness, retreated from public eyes until his death three months later.  His illness and cause of death remains a topic for conjecture to date.

In Guinea, President, Lanasana Conte had been ailing and going in and out of the country for medical treatment.  At one point the editor of a paper printed an unflattering picture of him looking frail.  He was promptly arrested and forced to publish an earlier picture showing the leader looking better.  Eventually, when he died of ‘long illness’, it was announced that he had ‘hid his physical suffering’ from the nation for years because of his dedication to duty’.  There was the case of the Ethiopian leader, Meles Zanawi who was supposedly in a health facility in Belgium for two months during which time rumours of the seriousness of his health, and even death, were stringently denied. When eventually his demise was announced, it was said that he had suddenly contracted an infection.  Among the most morbidly hilarious case was of Bingu Wa Mutharika who suffered a massive heart attack at home.  The rumour mills were busy churning out stories that he had died, but even as this was happening, he was flown off to a hospital in South Africa where after a few days his death (second death) was announced.  Zambian head of state, Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was hospitalised in Paris.  His office denied for almost two months that his condition was grave.  Unconfirmed rumours of his death led to the South African parliament observing a minute of silence that was later retracted after much embarrassment.  Back at home, there were demands that the state of the leader’s health and fitness to continue holding the office be confirmed by independent clinicians.  After much prevarication his demise was announced.  Ironically, Micheal Sata one among those who had demanded the leader’s health be confirmed, would a few years later be in the same predicament and he himself passed away in a London hospital after the standard denials of ill-health.  There is a pathological obsession with secrecy and an official playing of smoke and mirrors game with health of African political leaders as a strategy to subvert democracy by undermining accountability and staving off opposition

God Syndrome: Mortality Versus Immortality

Opacity, in matters health among politicians, even when there are tell-tale signs of frailty is intriguing. The kind of photographs Ken Okoth recently released, shows the image of an individual ravaged by chemotherapy. This reveal, by a Kenyan politician and a sitting MP, viewed together with the self-disclosure of his diagnosis brings onto the public space the issue of mortality and immortality of an African politician. In that respect Ken Okoth’s gesture is a first.

Physical infirmity, illness, and death are ultimate equalizers of all mankind. Illness shears away all the pomp and grandeur. Gone are the wailing sirens of chase cars, the coterie of hangers-on and saluting body-guards bullying all and sundry. Illness takes away the guard of honour, the decorated podium and customised lectern. Illness brings a different type of media attention. That which was craved for and adored is avoided and shunned. Politicians instead plead that their privacy be respected. Only sneaked pictures will be seen and not the ‘selfies’ Ken Okoth provided. The image of an ailing African politician underscores his or her humanity. While this should be obvious, the African politician strives to maintain a demi-god status. Note the names that they have given themselves: Osagyefo, Ngwazi, Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, ‘Mtukufu’; the glorious,adored and venerated ones.

This self-deification is by design and a carefully choreographed strategy. Approximation to immortality suggests infallibility, indispensability, omnipotence and omniscience.  There is political capital and entitlement in omnipotence because it scares away any opposition or contestation. During the late 1970s, President Kenyatta, old and ailing, began to appear less and less in public. Some politicians around him, began to plot his succession, or rather manipulate his succession to deny his Vice President a direct line to the coveted seat. The Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, who had his own ideas of how the succession should play out, declared that it was treasonous to imagine, think, encompass or utter thoughts surrounding the death of the President. Njonjo, cobbled up some constitutional interpretation that made imagination treasonous and by so doing rendered the ailing Kenyatta immortal. It was not only that one could not voice thoughts about his demise, it was treachery to even think he could die!

A few years before this, the renowned South African Cardiologist, Dr. Christian Barnard had visited the country and though the state sought to treat his visit as some innocuous touristic event with no significance, rumours went around that he was in Kenya to examine Mzee’s heart. At no point was the public briefed on the prognosis of their president’s health. The culture of mystique and secrecy surrounding the life and health of the leader was carefully orchestrated to stave off any opposition. If a leader is deemed to be mortal, then it is fair game to challenge them. Njonjo was able to use this interpretation of the constitution to effectively scuttle Moi’s opponents and when Mzee died in 1978 he comfortably rose to presidency.

It is no wonder that during Moi’s twenty-four-year tenure he never ‘fell ill’. The health of the president never came into the public domain. As Moi’s reign rolled out, and multi-party politics was re-introduced, he faced more challenges than his predecessor, but his health remained a well-managed secret. The deification continued with ‘praise songs’ such as ‘Tawala Kenya Tawala’ and ‘Fimbo ya Nyayo’ composed and sung to serenade him. Today, retired President Moi is nearing a century, he is not in the best of health. Retired President Kibaki is 87 years old, and after his well-documented accident, his health status is left to speculation and rumours. Once in a while there will be unconfirmed reports of sightings of these elder statesmen at hospitals, but no official mention. Even in retirement, the myth of immortality prevails.

In America and UK in contrast the nation is kept very informed about the health of former leaders. When Ronald Reagan was stricken by Alzheimer’s disease the public were duly informed, the media gave regular updates on his progress right to the point they broke the news of his demise. George W. Bush battled Parkinson’s disease while former President Jimmy Carter managed brain cancer under full public glare. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s health was widely reported as she battled dementia.

The Passing Cloud Syndrome: Indispensability Versus Ephemerality

Illness is nature’s way of reminding us of the transitory, ephemeral nature of life, and with it, the reality that none of us is indispensable. When a bout of illness takes one away from the regular cycle of things, it creates a vacuum, albeit temporary, that must get filled. It matters not how long one is indisposed, but ‘life goes on’ and the gap is filled. The constant turning of the wheels of life is a lesson that African politicians loath. The desire to shroud instances when one is indisposed yet systems continue to run stems from the desire to maintain control. The fear of ‘looming shadows’ is among the African politician’s biggest fear. This is why it is common to hear politicians complaining about ‘political tourists’, a euphemism for potential opponents.

During a presidential campaign speech, President Moi corrupted the Kiswahili proverb, stating that “Paka akiondoka…atarudi tena”. Convoluting it to suggest that, when the cats away …it will surely return. In his utterance he was negating the wisdom that when gaps are created, others fill them up and even thrive. Moi was referring to a period he had travelled out of the country, at a time he had refused to appoint a substantive deputy. There had been questions posed on who was in charge in his absence. Moi, effectively rubbished the idea that anyone was good enough to deputize or replace him.

The notion of indispensability and irreplaceability stems from the merging of an individual’s ego and the office they occupy; they conflate themselves and the office and develop a sense of entitlement to it. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his most illuminating primer on leadership, gives tips that African leaders should take to heart. He poignantly says, ‘Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it”. Equating oneself to an office is the height of megalomania a problem that has afflicted African politics for ages. Individuals feel entitled to hold offices and take any form of contest personally and not as expression of democratic processes. In Africa, challenging an incumbent is treated as a personal affront not only by the individual but also by the people and the system. The way that opposition politicians are persecuted in almost every corner of Africa is indicative of this. The feeling of personal ownership of political office, is among the biggest challenge to the entrenchment of democracy in Africa.   Acknowledgement of mortality as Ken Okoth has done would separate the individual from an office. Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

Mystique Versus Ordinary: The Lwanda Magere Complex

There is a well-known legend of Lwanda Magere, the mythical Luo warrior. The story goes that the indomitable warrior’s body was stone-solid, and during battle enemy spears would simply glance off him. His invincibility in mystical power rendered his body as hard as a rock.   The secret of his super-human exploit was a closely guarded secret, but once it was revealed to his enemies by a bride he married from the rival tribe, he was soon vanquished. African politicians have delusions of invincibility upon attainment of the status of ‘mheshimiwa’. In this delusion of super-human status and invincibility falling ill, admitting to being ill and being in need of medical attention would be akin to conceding that they are indeed human and can be vanquished.

Maintaining this image of invincibility is a strategy to stave off any opposition to their elective positions. To maintain this image, any sign of illness is managed confidentially and an alternative narrative is woven to explain any physical changes or absence. Ken Okoth has provided a very different narrative. He has shown a human side of a politician and everyone is now lining up to secure a selfie with him. In the recent past, there is a tragi-comic case where an ailing politician in London was visited by his family who went on to report that they had even eaten a meal of ‘ugali’ with the patient only for the man to die even before the ink had dried on their statement. There was a Governor who was terminally ill and would ‘disappear’ from his County for extended periods, yet his office would issue official denials that he was ill until he unfortunately passed away.

African politicians understand the art and benefit of mystique well. The African politician does not do ordinary; all efforts are made to demonstrate that they are extra ordinary. Alternatively, America’s first black President Obama was the high-priest of ordinary with several every day Joe instances of going about life. African politicians once elected into office, lose even the capability to carry their own cell-phone. They lose the motor-skill ability of opening car-doors or even pulling a seat for themselves. Nothing demonstrates African leader’s sense of the mystique than their motorcades. The sheer power-show, in face of the poor citizenry, is supposed to demonstrate the leader’s power and invincibility. Ironically, the more the display of power, the more it demonstrates fear and vulnerability. In some countries, the leader’s motorcade includes a phalanx of horses and armoured vehicles. The large motor-cades and the heavily armed coterie of bodyguards are a modern day version of the fetishes worn by a ‘mganga’ – witch-doctor. The mganga wore a human skull, bird feathers, talons and beaks, snake skins and genitalia of reptiles. The African leader uses the same shock-and-awe tactics.

Now picture this politician, once surrounded by all these talismans and paraphernalia of power getting a bout of diarrhoea, syphilis, cholera, shingles, dementia or even diseases more ‘prestigious’ as Parkinson’s, Diabetes or Hypertension. The body ends up racked by aches, coughs and blisters and the management of health results in an emaciated image of their former selves. The myth would be shattered forever; he would be Lwanda Magere whose secret is out and the enemy soldiers would be creeping to spear his shadow. Kenyan politicians are now trooping to be seen paying homage to Ken Okoth whose ordinariness and non-mystique humanity has resonated so powerfully with the public. The writing is out there on the wall for them to read as found in the Book of Daniel: mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin. Ken Okoth’s celebrity status and popularity is not derived from flaunting of power, portrayed invincibility and omniscience, but from his exemplary service, accountability and honesty.

Omniscience Versus Vulnerability

At that point when illness strips the politician of all semblance of power, their biggest fear comes to the fore; that of placing themselves in the hands of others, admitting that there are others more capable than themselves.

There is nothing as humbling as being asked to strip and step behind an examination curtain, lie down and be subjected to examination. This feeling of vulnerability and helplessness is probably what leads many African political leaders to seek medical treatment abroad – where they are unrecognisable, basically nobody. The thought of being reduced to a normal human being with ailments is probably too much to bear. Some politicians might believe they are not safe being in such a vulnerable condition in a place where they have done so much harm.

There is also the fear that the doctor examining them might be one whose upward mobility has been affected by the poor policies they have passed or failed to pass. It could be a clinician whose working conditions have been compromised by the pilferage of the health budget. The facility could be one whose equipment are sub-standard and supplied with fake drugs because of the corrupt deal they cut during procurement.

This alone justifies running away to seek treatment elsewhere. During his presidency, the deposed Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, would reportedly seek medical treatment in Singapore. He would travel to the South Asian nation to go under the radar for weeks before returning home. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent long periods in Europe seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Every time he does so, the trips are shrouded in secrecy even as they are funded by the Nigerian taxpayer.

Frail health or illness is not the kind of thing that one would wish another, but there is no other experience that underscores equality, humanity, vulnerability and ephemerality. The problems of democracy in Africa stem from a failure to recognise these basic principles of good governance. An appreciation of equality and fraternity of all humanity would ensure equal treatment. Recognition of the non-permanence of life or situations would ensure the development of systems and institutions and not personality cults and encourage transitional politics.

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Culture

The Quest for the Kenya National Dress

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The Quest for the Kenya National Dress
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An Interview with Joy Mboya

Joy Mboya is the Director of the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi—a nonprofit institution for the convergence of the arts in Nairobi and East Africa. Between 2003 and 2005, the GoDown Arts Centre hosted the Sunlight Quest for Kenya’s National Dress; an interactive process that was designed to generate concepts for Kenya’s national attire. This project definitely advanced conversation but was not publicly adopted by a critical mass, with many Kenyans saying that the outfits were not practical or suitable for daily use. There has been little reflection on the objectives and scope of the project, the extent of its public engagement strategies, and its successes and failures. Joy spoke with us about her experiences with the project and her thoughts on Kenyan national identity.

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Back when I was in my 20s, there were very few spaces that had been fleshed out to support the newly minted fashion designer. So for the longest time, if you wanted to get anywhere, the Smirnoff Fashion Awards were huge. At this level it was quite your run-of-the-mill show; maybe somebody bought a piece or two but not too much else happened there. However, it was still exciting, and in the event that you won the local award, you qualified to compete for the global award at a ceremony attended by huge international designers and fashion houses, and maybe somebody important would notice you and something might happen.

Now, more and more, I think corporates do better in the arts when they form foundations that have a separate plan for their engagements from their general business agenda. This way, their support can be more deliberate and long-term, aside from having one moment in the light. But the Smirnoff Fashion Awards, other early fashion shows, and all the beauty pageants were real opportunities back then. Corporates were growing and solidifying their brands by linking up with fashion, glamour, contemporary style, you name it.

Patricia Ithau was a former Miss Kenya and had been a model for a long time, remaining very interested in fashion even after she left the scene.

So it was no surprise that when she had the opportunity to spearhead the idea of a national dress, she really ran with it. It would not have happened without her interest and her push at Unilever, without her saying “Here’s an opportunity, Sunlight,( a Unilever detergent brand) let’s do something”. She had a big connection with fashion designers because of her history in the industry, so she begun to seek out people she knew to see how they could be involved. She is the one who brought in the government through the Ministry of Culture, to ensure it was something the state bought into, to make everything national and formal.

The GoDown was still fairly new then—that was around 2003—and we said we would be happy to host the tangible parts of the process and coordinate whatever meetings they needed. Unilever would put out the call and then we would receive the submissions, exhibit them publicly, assist them in identifying teams of cultural experts for follow-up, that kind of stuff.

Ideating a National Dress

Early on in the process, our priority was moderating the designers to make sure they kept an open mind, that they did not get bogged down with individual perspectives but remained aware of the wider space. The first thing they did was gather all the ideas that had been submitted, pin them on the walls and stand back and ask themselves, “What’s happening here?” I think they recognized early—and this was of course rather difficult to relay—that the notion of a national dress, especially in Kenya, was going to be influenced by too many different things, and that they were never going to actually create a national dress, by themselves, from scratch. What the designers could truly offer was an informed way to see how we as Kenyans clothed ourselves, how we worked with the body and what parts of the body we emphasized, combined with what was happening in the contemporary space, and what elements of all this were worth carrying forward.

It was tough. The designers would make presentations during the earlier focus group meetings, and many people would come in actually expecting a final dress. But the designers would still be talking about concepts that were showing up in a lot of traditional dress: the cape representing a moment of ceremony or status for men; some kind of adornment across the chest; the loincloth with optional cover of the behind for women (this was where the notion of the apron came from); headdresses to make the face an obvious focal point and such. Everybody was hanging something around their ears, piercing their lips, or even wearing mud caps that they could stick feathers into, to give some examples.

The designers were wondering how to begin working with all these interesting sensibilities to create a final product. Just before they began, they wanted the public to participate in the process, so that there could be buy-in from the very beginning. Having them choose a dress at that stage was going to be impossible, so they thought through what would be a more realistic set of options. They decided that perhaps the public could choose the colours they would most prefer on a Kenyan national dress. Sunlight tied it in with a marketing gimmick about washing clothes that wouldn’t fade, which I think was a bit myopic. Marketing is fine, but not if it is going to interrupt an intricate, important process.

The ideas that the designers actually put forward were just concepts. They never, ever, described them as dresses. They wanted to put these out so that Kenyan fashion designers would begin to design original pieces interpreting them, which they would then sell to the people, also hoping that some members of the public would be a bit adventurous and absolutely do their own thing. Building familiarity with and acceptance of these would need a huge marketing push, obviously. Fifty million shillings had already been spent mobilizing ideas from the nation, taking the designers to visit different places to learn about different cultures, putting together focus groups, having presentations, and all.

So How Did You Sustain That Kind of Momentum and Energy?

This was where Patricia was really clever and strategic—she knew that once the brand was done making their statement, they weren’t going to throw any more millions into the project. That was her main reason for bringing in the Kenya Government, through the Ministry, because hopefully they would become excited enough to kind of keep this thing going.

That was the grand hope, that these things would find their own legs. Some of the designers who were not part of the original process began to pick it up. Wambui of Moo Cow* (*Wambui Njogu, one of the two founders of the Kenyan fashion label Moo Cow, which was established in 2002.) did some funky leather aprons that could be worn over denim jeans. People got excited about making their own extended aprons from the neck all the way down. Even the government picked up some elements of it. One of our sports teams actually made some of the concepts into the team costume, of course in the Kenya colours. The ladies had a red skirt, with black trim, embroidered on, which suggested the apron—I don’t think there was a separate flap. The men in that particular group had the three-notch treatment at their necklines.

Ideally, we would be seeing pieces evolved from the national dress concepts all the time, not just for special occasions or trips abroad, until it was no longer new or weird and it became part of how we saw ourselves. We would be feeling like we needed these pieces for our full identity, and starting to buy them. We didn’t have that opportunity to make a lasting presence, however. One thing that ended up happening was that designers made items that the public considered overpriced and were labelled as luxury items when the designers didn’t intend them to be seen that way. They were just trying to make back their money and make a decent profit. Nobody quite picked up the cape. I wonder whether it was too expensive or if they just were wondering, “How am I going to pull this off?” But we almost introduced it again when Willy Mutunga was Chief Justice. We said we would be happy to pull together a team of designers to really think about the Supreme Court judges’ dress. He was excited about that*.

*Kenyan judges eventually opted to retain their existing robes, but made the donning of the whitish-grey horsehair wigs optional. Mutunga, Hon. Justice Dr Willy, S.C., Dressing and Addressing the Kenyan Judiciary, 2011, Kenya Law Journal, Nairobi, Kenya

One of the designers said, “Hang on, what if we revive the cape from the national dress? We could rethink it for the Chief Justice, maybe for the big ceremonies so he doesn’t have to wear it all the time?”

That idea was taken to the judges and some of them thought it was a bit too much. I remember meeting one of them in the corridor and he asked, “Joy, what are you guys about to dress us in? Taking us back to hides and skins?*”

*Kenyan Judges Change Titles, Dress Code, 2011, The Daily Monitor, Kampala, Uganda

People always come back to me and to the Godown, trying to find out what happened to the national dress, and why it just vanished into the ether. University students especially have come by to investigate this as part of their Master’s Degree, so all their theses must be sitting around somewhere*.

Misati, Beatrice N., Kenya National Attire: Factors Influencing adoption, 2008, School of Arts and Design, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya 

Imo, Beatrice Elung’ata, Adoption of the Kenya National Dress as a Basis for Developing a Decision-Making Model for the Local Industry, 2013, Department of Fashion Design and Marketing, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

Many of them were a lot more interested in the process of the design. But most feedback from the general public was asking the question, “Why did you think that you could prescribe a dress for us that was not the dress we wanted?”

We’d all conveniently forgotten the extensive public participation and iteration. But I also think that some things just take time, and perhaps people only really get into a thing like this when given a certain amount of time. Perhaps the national dress needed that kind of continuous engagement so that ten years on we would consider saying, “Actually, what happened to the apron? What happened to the shirt?” People needed to interpret their own nationhood through growing familiarity with the national dress concepts. They needed to be reassured that these concepts had actually come from long deliberations over our diverse origins and cultural heritage, and that the concepts were open for all kinds of interesting interpretations as time passed, not just what the designers had put together back then.

We needed exhibitions and discussions over a much longer period than we imagined, to get a project of this weight to stick and gain traction with the people. The Sunlight process with the public and the designers provided the opportunity to say, “If you create something that doesn’t reference heritage or doesn’t pay attention to culture, Kenyans will reject it.”

Coming To Terms with the Rejection

But diverse cultural references were there, and yet there was still rejection.

So was it that it was not pretty enough, and if so, what could people have wanted ‘pretty’ to be? I don’t know. The most interesting question now, for me, is how to get to the root of what Kenyans are actually complaining about, because it wasn’t clear then and in many ways it still isn’t. None of the shirts ever took off in any way so the men did not really have anything, but there had been a few ideas here and there that the women had found interesting. There was even a concept of the dress for women who wore hijab. I think there was also a real missed opportunity in the Minister for Culture—that was Balala*, then.

* Hon. Najib Balala, who served as Minister for Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services between 2003 and 2004.

He would seize on anything that would amplify his ministry and his role. He could have said, “For as long as I’m the Minister for Culture let me just keep this thing alive.” I think that perhaps the urgency was just not seen at that time. Perhaps the designers didn’t succeed in communicating that the concepts they saw were prototypical aesthetics, if they can be called that. That the way that women in one community would cover themselves across the front was by using a loin cloth, certainly, but that loin cloth was not exactly the same from one community to another. Everybody did it in whichever material was locally available, for their local climate and regional sensibilities. So, again, there was never going to be a national dress in that immediately formulaic sense of, “Ah, that’s a Kenyan dress. Are you Kenyan?” “ Yes.” “ I see you’ve got an apron, and the other Kenyan’s got a different apron.”

How Do We Just Accept That We’re so Incredibly Diverse and Different?

It was not going to be like that for a long time, at least, not without continuity, public education and sustained visibility. It was always going to be a difficult project. It would have been progressive to keep it alive for a decade or two and see what would we would have had in the end. I think Kenyans are beginning to accept is that one of the things that stands out about us is our diversity. We haven’t reduced that diversity yet into a single thing or a few core things in the same way that the West Africans seem to have done. I do not know how they did it. Perhaps their kingdoms and organizational structures were much more visible, and therefore notions of kings, chiefs and ceremonial dress were much more immediate in their minds than in ours? I have no idea. But more and more now I wonder, “How do we first of all just accept that we’re so incredibly diverse and different?”

How can we become excited about that, and then allow it to organically find the things that will coalesce into the cores, into the singles? Everything else that remains can just be allowed to stay different, you know? Maybe trying to look at these things in only one way is a reason we will continue going astray, or asking ourselves questions that have no answers.

In terms of diversity, one of the people who has a wonderful story around that is Tabu Osusa of Ketebul*, who says that when Kenya did a showcase at the 2014 Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Institution, our musical presentation was called exceptional because it was so diverse.

*Ketebul Music, a Kenyan record label and studio founded in 2007.

People already knew the South African sound, or the West African kora which was lovely and beautiful but nothing was really changing. It was just the same kinds of sounds all the way through. But when they saw the Kenyan spread, they began to pay attention because it couldn’t be defined by one thing or a few things. So my thought now is to interrogate that and figure it out, instead of panicking and seeing it as a problem.

It is not clear whether the failure of this project to gain traction with the Kenyan public was due to the communication and marketing, the underestimation of the work and time needed by the parties involved, or a combination of these and other factors. Several things have happened in the thirteen years since this process, with regard to urban national conversations on identity and fashion.

The Africa Rising narrative, with increased optimism about Africa’s future and greater continental esteem, has led to the opening up of cultural borders to new generations of young Kenyans. This has had a wider audience because of access to tech, information and social media, with more of them finding ways to integrate cultural pieces not just into ceremonial or occasion clothing, but also into practical, everyday garb. The 2009 publication of a national culture and heritage policy* openly declared state interest in development of national attire. (National Policy on Culture and Heritage, 2009.)

There is also a greater desire for and consumption of clothing designed by Kenyans and inspired by Kenyan cultures. It is possible that this set of brewing cultural conditions could better demonstrate the importance of a national dress, beyond an abstract need to stand out from other Africans in international fora. Perhaps wider cultural dialogue must occur before a national dress can truly evolve from our shared, diverse ethnic experiences in a way that will be more widely acceptable to citizens. It is also possible that national dresses evolve organically from cultures only when they are ready to do so, and that it is not a shortcoming to lack one.

 

Endnote

The 2004 Sunlight Quest for a National Dress remains a critical attempt to create recognizable national symbols through attire, beyond the flag, the national anthem, the coat of arms and the public seal*.

(Article 9: National Symbols and National Days, from Chapter 2 – The Republic, The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, Kenya.)

This interview was originally published in the fashion book Not African Enough ( 2017) by the Nest Collective and republished with their permission.

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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space

There is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate.

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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space
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“Some birds should never be caged, their feathers are too bright. But when one such is finally set free, something inside of you sings that knows it was wrong to cage it in the first place.” – Red in Shawshank Redemption

I first met Binyavanga Wainana in 2002 – an election year in Kenya when a hopeful country was looking forward to removing an authoritarian regime and ushering in a brave new world. He had just returned from South Africa and was scouting around for ideas for a literary journal that he hoped to establish to revive the dying (if not dead) literary scene in Kenya.

It was during these heady days—when it seemed that anything was possible – that Binya, as he was fondly called, came back home like a gust of fresh air that sweeps through a damp, mouldy room and changes the atmosphere. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could mesmerise an audience so much so that many aspiring writers, including myself, who never imagined having a literary career, began writing their own stories, in their own voices, with no apologies.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined. As the blogger and academic Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities”.

Indeed, Binyavanga democratised the literary space in Kenya, especially for young writers. He entered the Kenyan literary scene at precisely the time when the country was undergoing a major transition – a “second liberation” brought about by a group of anti-establishment politicians and activists and a population hungry for change, which led to the election of Mwai Kibaki and an end to Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year reign.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined

It is difficult to write about someone you have known, especially someone who was as charismatic and controversial as Binya, whose short life as a literary icon generated as much admiration as it did indignation. He was not without flaws. Loud, sharp, witty, and even rude at times, he dared to question the status quo that reduced Kenyans, and Africans in general, to mere spectators in their own lives – people who saw themselves through other (mainly white) people’s eyes. Binya opened up literary spaces that had remained closed for many Kenyan writers. He gave us permission to write. This, I believe, was his greatest gift to young Kenyan writers, many of whom ventured out on their own and became literary warriors in their own right.

A polarising influence

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.). This essay not only made many Western journalists cringe, but was also a call to African writers to write about their lives and their continent in an authentic voice without worrying too much about how they would be perceived by non-African readers. In his essays, writings and speeches, he represented a new generation of Kenyan writers who, as Nigerian novelist Helon Habila commented, attempt to explain Kenya and Africa but do so “without a knee-jerk resort to colonial woes”.

Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities

But the very Westerners that Binya criticised in his writings were quick to adopt him and give him a platform where he could thrive. In a sense, they co-opted him, made him one of their own, thereby taking some of the sting out of his critique. Although often vilified – or perhaps misunderstood – at home, Binya was lauded abroad for his genius and writing acumen. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, which catapulted his career as a writer and earned him a directorship at the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College in the United States. Thereafter, he was wined and dined by publishers, agents and philanthropists eager for a fresh new African voice.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”. However, Ikheloa also censured the Kenyan writer for being one among many African writers who are rescued by the West “like abused puppies”. He was particularly harsh when commenting on the author’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place:

“Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations…On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture on entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excluded the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.”

The Economist, in a review of the book, was equally scathing: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”

However, both Ikheloa and the Economist failed to acknowledge that for any African writer to be taken seriously, he has to first go through an assembly line of agents, editors, publishers and distributors based in Europe or North America. African governments rarely support the arts, writers in particular, and the publishers on the continent are more interested in publishing textbooks (that bring in more profits) than publishing an author who is little known outside his country.

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa”, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.).

In 2007, perhaps in reaction to these criticisms, Binyavanga rejected an invitation by the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s nominating committee to be named as one among 250 Young Global Leaders. In an email to the chair of the committee, Queen Rania of Jordan, he wrote:

“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go [to China where the WEF was being held] anyway because we will get to be ‘validated’ and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people…The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative. It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs’.”

Coming out

However, Binyavanga would go on have a significant impact on the LGBTQ community in the last few years of his life when he stoked (some might even say welcomed) controversy, particularly after he came out as a gay man in 2014 and published what he called his book’s “lost chapter”. The coming-out essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mum, enraged the conservative Christian evangelical moral police (who he loathed and who he blamed for turning many Kenyans into zombie religious fanatics), who dismissed the author as the devil’s work. But the gay community both at home and abroad congratulated him for coming out, especially at a time when many African countries were targeting and criminalising homosexuals.

But not everyone was convinced that this Kenyan writer had the intellectual mettle to liberate Kenyan minds. In a critique of his six-part self-made video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations” (or what Binya referred to as “What I Have to Say About Being Gay”) published in the Saturday Nation, the Kenyan social scientist and academic, Joyce Nyairo, described his arguments as “scattered, off-hand generalities” and accused him of having a limited understanding of Kenya’s history. “His knowledge of homosexuality in colonial and post-colonial Kenya is either non-existent or it has been unwisely excluded,” she wrote.

Many also accused him of being deliberately apolitical or politically naïve. His quest to show Kenyan urban middle class lives (like his own family’s in Nakuru) as normal – without sufficiently explaining the abnormality that produced this class – earned him a few barbs. However, when the circumstances demanded, Binya could take on the role of political activist. In January 2008, for instance, at the height of the post-election violence in Kenya, when churches were being torched and women were being gang-raped for being “the wrong tribe”, he mobilised a group of writers to explain to the world what was going on in the country. He believed then that through the power of the pen, Kenya could be prevented from descending into a Rwanda-like genocide.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”

But while campaigning for a peaceful Kenya, he aligned himself with the very forces that had catapulted the country to the brink of a dangerous precipice. In 2013, when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were declared the winners of the presidential election, Binyavanga viewed their victory as a victory against the imperialist West and its so-called lackey, the International Criminal Court, which had indicted the duo for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. “Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.”

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Though he admitted later that he had perhaps declared victory too soon, he failed to understand that the problem afflicting Kenya was not that Western governments were imposing their will on the Kenyan people, but that Kenya was sliding back to the bad old days of the Moi era, when dissent was not tolerated and when a culture of mediocrity and corruption pervaded all arms of government.

In a letter published in Brittle Paper in October 2017, when Kenya was about to go through another election, he stated: “I would like to apologise to all the people of Kenya for not seeing through the attempts to rig the election in 2013. I believe that going to the polls on 26 October with the same IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] is a mistake.” Like many others who view Kenya’s democracy purely through the lens of free and fair elections, he failed to see that the main problem in Kenya is not that we consistently have rigged elections; the problem is more systemic – we refuse to acknowledge that the rain started beating us at independence, when the first wave of leaders decided that the spoils of a post-colonial state should be distributed among a tiny elite and that ethnic identity should determine the nature and scale of that distribution.

The change that never came

“I want to live a life of free imagination,” Binya stated. “I want to see this continent change.”

Sadly, the change that he envisioned in Kenya did not come during his lifetime. By the time he died last week, at the age of 48, the same reactionary, anti-change forces were back in power – forces that are taking Kenya back to those dark days when creative minds and imaginations were considered a threat to national security (or rather, to the security of the president) and when artistic spirits were crushed. We no longer have the torture chambers that sent writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o into exile four decades ago, but Binya’s untimely death has reminded us that the struggle for a new way of thinking and bold ideas is still not over; on the contrary, the old guard is firmly back in the saddle.

However, there is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate. He never managed to finish the novel he said he was writing when he fell ill a few years ago, but he did leave behind an indelible body of work that challenged his generation to take charge of their own narratives.

I think Binya would have agreed with the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, who said, “To write is to die a little less when I die, to leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more.”

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