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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

Noble Savages and Other Myths: What Indigenous People Can Teach Us about Biodiversity

The prehistoric environment was created by humans who enhanced biodiversity, altering the plants and animals to suit themselves. Contemporary tribal peoples are still doing this today. The fact that they are the world’s best conservationists is not a “noble savage” romantic fantasy; it can now be proven. Yet the conservation industry is destroying these peoples and forcing them out of the territories they made and could save. However, as STEPHEN CORRY argues, if we stop this, everyone will benefit, along with the environment.

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Noble Savages and Other Myths: What Indigenous People Can Teach Us about Biodiversity
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“If we were to leave this jungle, then it would be difficult for it to survive. There is forest and water because we are here. If we were to leave, then come back in a while and look, there will be nothing left.”
~ Baiga tribesman, India

The noted environmentalist, Robert Goodland, was an early torchbearer of the warning that if you cut down a lot of Amazonia, it is destroyed forever. He explained that the rainforest lies on extremely poor soil and grows largely off its own detritus. When very large areas are felled, the trees aren’t able to grow back as they can’t produce the wet and rotting vegetation needed for the forest to regenerate.

Science has now figured out that this highly fertile soil is not a “natural” phenomenon. It was made by people­ – the result of countless generations of indigenous women and men discarding food and waste and enriching the soil in other ways.

When I started working for tribal peoples’ rights nearly fifty years ago, I often referred to Goodland’s work:

“RaceAmazonia, and it’s gone, destroying not only its indigenous inhabitants but much of the rest of the world besides, because the resultant increase in carbon in the atmosphere would accelerate climate change (as it would eventually come to be called), raise sea levels and drown cities like London, New York and San Francisco”

Goodland was broadly right, but he omitted one aspect of a vital thread in the complex web connecting all life – prehistoric humans. Mysteriously, Amazonia has some zones of rich humus called “dark earth”. Although Western scientists have only started studying it fairly recently, dark earth has been known about for at least a couple of centuries. After the Civil War, it was even cited as enticement for American Confederates to emigrate to Brazil, where slavery was still legal.

Science has now figured out that this highly fertile soil is not a “natural” phenomenon. It was made by people­ – the result of countless generations of indigenous women and men discarding food and waste and enriching the soil in other ways. It’s come as a surprise to many that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Amazonia had such an impact on their environment.

The first European explorers reported seeing cities of thousands and “fine highways” along the rivers they descended. This used to be dismissed as a sixteenth-century invention, but scientists are finally recognising that human habitation of Amazonia was so extensive, starting ten thousand years ago or more and rising to a population of perhaps five or six million. When the Spanish arrived, most areas had been cleared at least once, while leaving the surrounding forest intact and so avoiding Goodland’s total collapse prediction. It wasn’t just along the big rivers either; satellite imagery, backed by traditional archeology, is now revealing extensive prehistoric habitation in the forest interior as well.

It turns out that Amazonia doesn’t match at all with the image Europeans have projected on it in recent centuries. It was never a “wilderness” inhabited only by a few people leaving little impression on the landscape, at least not for thousands of years. On the contrary, the ecosystem has been shaped – actually created – by communities who adapted their surroundings to suit their taste.

These early “Indians” hunted hundreds of animals and birds and doubtless made pets of others. They used thousands of different plants for food, medicine, ritual, religion, hunting and fishing tools and poisons, decoration, clothing, building, and so on. They cultivated some close to their dwellings, and planted others along distant hunting and fishing trails. They spread seeds and cuttings, carrying them from place to place.

They significantly altered the flora, not only by moving plants around – their ancestors, for example, may well have carried the calabash, or bottle gourd, all the way from Africa – but also by changing them through selective breeding. Science has, so far, counted 83 distinct plant species that were altered by people in Amazonia, and the region is now recognised as a major world centre of prehistoric crop domestication.

Europeans brought catastrophe to the Amazon rainforest in the sixteenth century. Within just two or three generations of first contact, probably more than ninety per cent of the indigenous population was dead from violence and new diseases against which they had no immunity.

An easy and obvious way to improve plants is to use only seeds from trees producing the biggest fruits and always to leave someone the tree to reproduce, but other modifications went much further. For example, manioc, the most common foodstuff, barely survives without human intervention. A typical Amazon tribe recognises well over a hundred distinct varieties of this single species (and doesn’t need writing to remember them). Now it’s one of the world’s main staples, sustaining half a billion people throughout the tropics and beyond, yet it produces very few viable seeds. Manioc generally survives and spreads only if people plant its cuttings. Like other fully domesticated plants, it’s a human “invention”.

Europeans brought catastrophe to the Amazon rainforest in the sixteenth century. Within just two or three generations of first contact, probably more than ninety per cent of the indigenous population was dead from violence and new diseases against which they had no immunity. Proportionally, it was one of the biggest known wipeouts of the last thousand years, though most people have never heard of it. It wasn’t total though: Some Indians survived both the epidemics and the subsequent, and still ongoing, colonial genocide.

Others avoided both disease and killing and retreated away from the big rivers. Well over a hundred such “uncontacted tribes” have survived. Where their land hasn’t been stolen, Amazon Indians – now totaling over a million – are still enjoying their own, human-made environment, and not any invented “wilderness”. They don’t live like their ancestors did (no one does, not even the uncontacted tribes) but many seem to have kept some of the same values.

Research is revealing that practically everywhere you look, the solid ground on our planet has been changed by humans for thousands of years, if not longer. Although this isn’t what is generally taught, it’s really little more than common sense. As in the Amazon Basin, prehistoric people would obviously have favoured food plants with the best yields wherever they could, and would have carried them from place to place. The “pristine” hunter-gatherer who has practically no impact on the environment is as much a myth as any “untrammeled wilderness.”

***

Nowhere is the prehistoric shaping of landscape clearer than in Australia, where the long-accepted narrative is now being turned on its head. Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years, or perhaps up to twice as long (which would upset current “out of Africa” theories). They were there well before our species turned up in either the Americas or Europe. Like Amazon Indians, they too have long been described as small bands of “hunter-gatherers” having practically no impact on the “wilderness”.

It turns out that, as in Amazonia, this isn’t true in Australia either. The early British explorers reported seeing vast areas that reminded them of English estates. There were cultivated grasslands, cleared of scrubby undergrowth but scattered with stands of trees giving edible fruits and shade. It’s now thought that some 140 different grasses were harvested. One surveyor noted, “The desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field…we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.” He recorded how the Aboriginal people made “a kind of paste or bread” and grindstones some 30,000 years old have been found. That’s well over twice as old as humankind’s supposed “discovery of agriculture” in Mesopotamia.

Aboriginal people preserved and stored food, including tubers, grains, fish, game, fruits, caterpillars, insects, and much else. Harvests of both grain and edible insects brought together large congregations, doubtless to trade, to perform ceremonies and rituals, and to forge new liaisons and alliances.

The Europeans also reported finding quarries near villages, and towns of numerous stone-built houses. One is reckoned to have provided housing for 10,000 people. They also came across dams, irrigation systems, wells, artificial waterholes – stocked by carrying fish from one to the other – and fish traps, which might well be the first human structures so far found on Earth. One archaeological team thinks they are at least 40,000 years old.

Aboriginal people preserved and stored food, including tubers, grains, fish, game, fruits, caterpillars, insects, and much else. Harvests of both grain and edible insects brought together large congregations, doubtless to trade, to perform ceremonies and rituals, and to forge new liaisons and alliances.

The world’s oldest edge-ground axe found so far comes from Australia and dates back to at least 46,000 years, but irrespective of whether they had such tools or “discovered” agriculture before others, it now seems clear that the Aboriginal people of Australia were changing the landscape at least as much as anyone else around the world.

Just as in Amazonia, the European newcomers quickly destroyed all this. In many areas, their imported sheep destroyed the ground cover within just a few years. Overnight dews became less humid; the earth hardened, less rain was absorbed and so flowed into the rivers which then flooded, washing away topsoil. It was all completely contrary to the settlers’ conviction that they were introducing sensible and productive land use. Rather, the earth’s fertility, which had been carefully husbanded over countless generations, was eroded in a single short human lifespan. The colonists understood nothing of what they found in Australia.

An extraordinary map showing how much of the continent was once covered within the Aboriginal grain belt, as compared to how little is nowadays, should surely feature in every Australian school. It shows the quite extraordinary degree of ecological loss that the attempted destruction of Aboriginal Australia brought in its wake.

In some Australian coastal areas, killer whales and dolphins were observed, apparently working in tandem with people. They drove other whales and fish towards the shore where they could be easily harvested, with both people and dolphins taking their share. This astonishing partnership was noted by several early explorers but doesn’t seem to have been recorded elsewhere in the world as far as I know.

It’s certainly likely, however, that our ancestors in many places have long lived in a beneficial symbiosis with animals, including “wild” ones, just as tribal peoples do today. For example, the Hadza in Tanzania have long located honey though a whistled exchange with a species of bird which, though wild, has learned to lead the hunter to the right tree.

It’s certainly likely, however, that our ancestors in many places have long lived in a beneficial symbiosis with animals, including “wild” ones, just as tribal peoples do today. For example, the Hadza in Tanzania have long located honey though a whistled exchange with a species of bird which, though wild, has learned to lead the hunter to the right tree. The man climbs to the hive and smokes out the bees. The groggy insects focus on rescuing enough honey to move elsewhere, and so don’t attack. The hunter collects the honeycomb, while the bird, smaller than a blackbird, waits patiently to claim its share. Both its common and scientific name acknowledges its job – greater honeyguide (indicator indicator).

No one can ever know how long ago this sublime relationship first developed. We are certain, however, that other animals have not only been deliberately moved long distances but also, like plants, turned from one species into another. For example, European ancestors were breeding dogs from wolves at least 15,000 years ago, and likely more than twice that (though today’s dogs don’t seem to be directly descended from the earliest examples so far found).

Dogs extend a human’s hunting range and ability, inevitably altering the balance of predators and so modifying other fauna and flora in turn. It’s simple: If people hunt more wild pigs, say, as a result of having dogs, then more plants which the pigs eat will grow to fruition. This alone will change the flora – though it won’t be noticed by Europeans, who imagine all landscapes are “wild” unless they’re farmed European-style.

Their error is partly rooted in the enduring, though entirely mistaken, belief in the so-called discovery of agriculture. However, much it is repeated as an article of faith. This didn’t take place in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, and didn’t result in a leap forward in the quality of life. (In fact, it’s now thought that the resultant increase in sedentarism and animal-to-human disease transmission initiated a great increase in human suffering. The fictions first emerged in the early twentieth century at a time when “scientific racism” was widely accepted in Northern Europe and America.

The myths are intertwined: The archeologists saw themselves as descendants of the first agriculturalists, and were convinced they were responsible for the most advanced civilisation on Earth. Europe, they believed, had forged ahead when the other (supposed) “races” lagged behind.

It turns out that the really hurtful fantasy is the invention of this “superior white man” rather than any “noble savage.” The truth is that people were taming, domesticating or moving plants and animals long before the proliferation of grain crops in any imagined “cradle of civilisation.”

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‘Nita Ride Boda Boda’: How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya

The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew.

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'Nita Ride Boda Boda': How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya
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“And you, do you go on a bicycle?”

“I do go on a bicycle, yes.”

The question was meant to be an insult but there was no comeback to the answer. Tom Mboya had just interrupted Martin Shikuku’s speech in Parliament to ask him whether he was any different from others who “…change cars everyday…” Shikuku’s answer, even then in 1964, was shocking – and even true to an extent. A few years later, he would be cycling to Parliament in a bid to encourage his colleagues to follow suit and “meet the people”. It clearly never caught on.

Shikuku had reason to be concerned. Everyone in the independence generation had grown up in a time where the bicycle was the most accessible means of transport. In their varied careers in the colony, they had cycled to school, work, social events, and political meetings. As soon as they could upgrade to motor vehicles, they ditched their bicycles and became part of a capitalist class with a penchant for conspicuous consumption. In the years just before and after independence, this newly minted political elite engaged in a race to purchase the best cars they could find. The only rule was to not get cars, or a fleet, better than the president’s.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”.

In 1963, an American businessman gifted Jomo Kenyatta a Lincoln Convertible to add to his fleet, which included a Mercedes 300 SE and a Rolls Royce, setting the bar quite high. By 1966, he had yet another Mercedes, but ordered a Rolls Royce meant for the mayor of Nairobi returned to London. This acquisition spree by men, many of whom had been careless just a few years earlier, was a waste of public funds. It was also a psychological coup, a statement of a new class that did not want to be associated with poverty in any form.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”. This critical symbol of a new nation was now limited to the select few who could afford, by virtue of their political and economic positions, to drive. To fly it on a bicycle was sacrilege. The bicycle was now what shecyclesNairobi calls “a strong symbol of poor man’s mobility in Nairobi, second to walking.”

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story “Wedding at the Cross”, the (Raleigh) bicycle features prominently as a symbol of poverty that was not acceptable to the “Christian and propertied class”. The protagonist, Wariuki, has to lose his bicycle, and himself, to become what he thinks society needs him to be, and to show his parents-in-law that he is good enough to marry their daughter, Mariamu. By the time he meets them again after independence, he is a rich businessman driving a new Mercedes Benz. In another of Ngugi’s short stories, “A Mercedes Funeral”, a poor man’s funeral planning becomes the epicentre of political competition. One politician offers a Mercedes to transport the corpse, trumping his competitors. The implication in these postcolonial tales is the same: the bicycle had lost its cool.

The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew. It was still significantly smaller than the Ugandan market, where a cycling craze was well underway by the mid-1920s. Of the 4,852 bicycles that were imported in 1927, for example, only 1,719 of them were meant for the Kenyan market. At the time, overall demand in both countries had been falling steadily from a short-lived peak of nearly 24,000 bicycles two years earlier.

By 1930, demand had dipped to 1,295 bicycles. It recovered, clocking 14,003 units by 1936. Despite these fluctuations, bicycles were still outselling all other forms of mechanised transport. They were an expensive purchase only affordable to a select few who had jobs that paid well enough to save up. This cost element also meant that only men, who had actively been forced into wage labour since the early 1900s, could afford them. In the migrant labour economy, a bicycle was the fastest way for them to get to work, and for some, to get the work done.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school.

Even when more women were employed in formal wage labour, they were mostly limited to resident agriculture and low wage employment. Combined with pre-existing perspectives on gendered roles, cycling emerged as an exclusively male space. It explains why nearly all the major stories involving bikes from this time involve male riders, from Kenyatta’s famous bicycle in the 1920s to the story of Kamawe Musungu, whose murder led to the first (and only) execution of a white man in Kenya. A forgotten detail of the assassination of Chief Waruhiu, which triggered the State of Emergency, is that his bodyguard was not in the car with him because he (Waruhiu) had forced him to cycle back on his friend’s bicycle.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school. Before long, in the 1940s and 1950s especially, women were riding too, although female riders never became as prevalent as male ones. This was partly because, as bicycle use became an almost exclusively rural form of transport, cultural views on female riders did not change. They extended not just to riding, but also to usage, as a by-law requiring women to sit sideways, introduced in the Kisumu County Assembly in 2013, shows.

The safety bicycle

Bicycles were still a rather recent innovation at the start of the colonial conquest of the African continent. A German man, Baron Karl Von Drais, filed the first patent of the modern bike’s ancestor in 1818. His design was inspired by the “Year without a Summer” (1816), which followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Considered the worst eruption in recent history, it lowered global temperatures and ruined crop harvests for several years. The ensuing famine killed humans, and more importantly for this story, horses. That presented a transport problem for which Drais had an answer.

His invention, the Laufmachine (“running machine”) was a wooden, human-propelled, two-wheeled machine. It had no gears or pedals, which would take another five decades to invent. But it, and later variants, caught on. One of those variants was called The Boneshaker because it had a wooden frame and metal tires, making for an uncomfortable ride. Others had one massive wheel and a much smaller one. Still, they had the same basic problems as Drais’s machine; they were heavy, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Such variants informed the perception that the bicycle was a toy for daring, wealthy young men.

All that changed in 1885, when the “safety bicycle”, as we know it today, with its metal frame and two same-sized wheels, was invented. Two years later, a Scottish veterinarian called John B. Dunlop experimented with pneumatic tyres on his son’s tricycle. He filed and got a patent for the tyres, although he lost it two years later because another Scotsman had filed a similar patent four decades prior. Combined, these inventions triggered a cycling craze in the 1890s that led to more affordable bicycles and eventually, their presence in the colonies. Colonies became even more important markets after bicycle demand stalled in the United States as Americans ditched other forms of transport for Henry Ford’s Model T.

By the 1930s, there were several brands battling for the East African market. Almost all were British, and the most prestigious of them was Raleigh. The introduction to the 1932 Raleigh Sales Catalogue claims that the Baganda were so enthralled with the bicycle that “the name has been adopted as their common definition of quality, and should a necktie, cap, or any other object meet with their enthusiastic approval, immediately it is dubbed ‘Raleigh’.”

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!”

The competition, which had brands such as Humber, Hercules, and BSA, was still formidable. Bicycles, unlike gramophones (the other luxury item of the day), had a primary appeal beyond prestige. They offered mobility in an economy that was increasingly demanding it, with few public options in place.

The bicycle economy

The bicycle that caught on was the single-speed, steel-frame roadster. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, it came in black. It was relatively within reach, economically, and to some extent, durable. It also needed to be registered, and over time, modified to add parts, such as reflectors, as road rules evolved. But bicycles offered an unmatchable utility because they could perform many other roles, including as economic and social tools.

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!” Raleigh used different variations of this idea in most of its artwork, incorporating a man, a lion, and a bicycle. A BSA bicycle ad from around the same time shows a smartly dressed man cycling, and two ladies in the background checking him out. A slightly more forward-thinking Raleigh billboard depicts a man riding a bicycle in the foreground, and two ladies cycling in the background. Its copy reads “Be Modern Ride a Raleigh.”

This primary market also spawned off another source of employment – bicycle mechanics. Bicycle mechanics were a unique class at the time because they were mostly self-employed, and their primary customers were black. The competition among them drove down repair prices so that if you owned a bicycle by the 1940s, you didn’t need to pay a herd of cattle to get it repaired, as Nabongo Mumia had done in 1910.

Mechanics and bicycle owners got their spares from Asian-owned shops, which thrived as bicycle usage increased. In 1936, for example, bicycle tyre imports were ten times higher than the number of bicycles imported. This trade built a few Indian tycoons, such as Kassam Kanji Rahim Varsi, who got a loan from his father-in-law and opened a bicycle parts shop in Nairobi. By the 1950s, Bata and the Avon Rubber Company made bicycle tyres in Kenya, but other parts still had to be shipped in.

While many of the bicycle’s earliest users used it to commute to and from, and during, work, people found other economic uses as well. The most resilient of these is transport, which grew out of a demand for transport services at the Kenya-Uganda border. The bicycle was also used to transport food, at times animals, tools, and other materials. Others modified their bicycles to create mobile business units, such as mounting a knife-sharpening stone oh the bicycle.

The prestige and utility of cycling also meant bicycles were a frequent target for burglary. Bicycle theft was such a problem in East Africa in the 1950s that Dar es Salaam had a special Bicycle Squad within its police force and Uganda had a Bicycle Thefts Committee around the same time. In Kenya, it was often listed among the most common thefts of property, and magistrates regularly whipped young offenders who were caught with stolen bicycles. Early administrators in Nairobi also employed vagrancy laws to arrest people for a vaguely described offence called “misuse of bicycle”.

The Wabenzi class

In the post-war period of the late 1940s, thousands of demobilised soldiers sought transport licences. Many bought lorries and cars, but the bicycle remained the most frequently used form of transport in the country, especially in rural areas. As more people joined a fledging white collar class in the late 50s and the early 60s, the bicycle remained a symbol of the blue-collar worker and ultimately, poverty. The only black people who had cars before the 1950s were colonial chiefs and a few enterprising businessmen.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space.

Before long this cadre of car owners would include independence politicians, who bought them for campaigns and travels. They quickly ditched the small cars they had acquired in the late 50s and early 60s and switched to fuel guzzlers. What mattered now was what type of car one drove, hence the rise of the “Wabenzi” – a generation that even included at least one high profile theft of a Mercedes Benz from a showroom in Nairobi.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space. In a discussion about Daniel Arap Moi’s retirement benefits in 2003, one of the main issues was why his bodyguards and watu wa mikono also needed Mercedes Benzes. The alternative, of course, was not bicycles.

For this class, bicycles were only good as toys for children. This was not a view limited to Kenya or East Africa, as the global bicycle market was struggling as more people opted for cars. Bicycle manufacturers had to find new ways of selling them, which pushed them back to the original sales pitch of the bicycle as a children’s toy and a tool for extreme sports. The single-speed roadster was now a product more popular for its function over form, and its users invisible to the “cultured” classes.

Still, as grown-ups moved to cars, bicycles for their children became a major class distinction. In the 1970s and 1980s, owning a BMX was a middle-class status symbol. Ironically for these classes, the car craze meant that cyclists were forgotten in infrastructure and budget planning. Private cars and motorways took over, and riding a bicycle in an urban centre increasingly became dangerous. This meant that children who grew up in cities and towns were not allowed to ride bicycles on the roads because of the dangers cars represented.

The implication for the majority of bicycle users was far worse, as they were seen as a nuisance on the roads. Bicycle lanes were not a priority, and even essential things like proper bicycle parking were only available in some colonial-era structures. Import duty remained prohibitively high (in some years as high as 90 per cent) until the government started systematically reducing it in the mid-1980s. Even before then, bicycles remained an important economic tool for a silent majority who could not afford private cars or even the expense of public transport.

The end of the bicycle’s run as a symbol of prestige was to be expected, but it did not end its usage among the working class or even the lower cadres of government employees. In 1990, for example, the government imported 525 bicycles to be issued to field agricultural extension staff on loan basis. Bicycles were bought for local government employees, and even health workers working in HIV/AIDS prevention in the early 2000s. They’ve even been used in political campaigns as recently as 2017, before being quickly replaced with fuel-guzzlers that constitute the welcome package for our legislators.

The true threat to the bicycle’s run as the wheels of the people was not the car, but its motorised descendant. There were only 525 registered motorcycles in Kenya in 1963, and only 4,136 in 2004. By the time duty on motorcycles below 250cc was waived in 2007, these numbers had grown to 16,923. Today, there are closer to a million bicycles, serving different functions but primarily as boda bodas (bicycle taxis).

But the single-speed roadster is still remarkably popular, mostly because of the same reason it has always been popular – it doesn’t need fuel, and it is cheap to repair. Plus, it’s good exercise.

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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby

Even with the apparent success of the Kenya rugby team, the politics of the Kenya Rugby Union seem over and over again to be an impediment of the flourishing ing of the sport.

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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby
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On March 12th 2018, Kenya, coached by Innocent Simiyu, trailed USA, led by former Kenya 7s coach, Mike Friday, by 12-19 with 1:46 left in the semi-finals of the Vancouver leg of the HSBC Sevens Circuit. The winner of this match would meet Fiji in the final of the Vancouver Sevens.

Two converted tries by American speedster Perry Baker had given the US a 14-0 lead that was halved by Nelson Oyoo, whose dancing feet hoodwinked the American big man Danny Barrett for five points in the centre. Oyoo went over again, one and a half minutes after the half-time hooter, shrugging off the attention of American speedster 2.0 Carlin Isles and taking advantage of a wonderful interception by Kenyan superstar Collins “Collo” Injera deep in the Kenyan half, to bring the Kenyans within two points of the Americans.

The Americans regained the lead at the start of the second half after Isles, arguably the fastest man in sevens rugby, had put on the afterburners, to score a try. Straight from the restart, Kenya won the ball and moved it swiftly to Andrew Amonde, on as a substitute, who tucked it under his right arm and pumped forward. From the resultant ruck, the ball moved to Jeffrey Oluoch, for a nifty switch that opened space for Collins Injera. Collo blasted through the American defense, and appeared destined for the try zone, only for Perry Baker, to catch up with him. Nevertheless, just as Baker sealed his tackle, Collo had the presence of mind to offload the ball to Willy Ambaka and Ambaka, with his 98th try on the circuit, dove in for a try. Sammy Oliech proceeded to convert to even the scores to 19 all.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

With 24 seconds on the clock, Oliech takes the kick off. The Americans win the restart, and pass the ball, looking for an opening in the Kenyan defense as the hooter buzzes. Danny Barrett, holding the ball, attempts to run through Oyoo, but the Kenyan brings him down. The Americans ruck. The ball pops out to Perry Baker, moves down the line to Martin Losefu and then Bevon Williams who runs into a solid tackle from the Kenyan captain Oscar Ouma. The Americans ruck. The Kenyans who had established a reputation as the best team in the breakdown on the circuit win the ruck as Collins Injera steals the ball. Losefu brings him down as he off-loads to Eden Agero who, in the face of the heavy American charge, pops it to Ouma. It is thirty-five seconds after the hooter and Ouma, holding the ball under his right arm, barrels towards the try-zone to seal the game at 24-19 securing a place for Kenya in the final of the 2018 Vancouver Sevens.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

*

Kenya became a core member of the IRB Sevens circuit in 2004. Unlike the national football, cricket and athletics bodies, Kenya Rugby Football Union (nowadays known as Kenya Rugby Union) did not receive support from the International Rugby Board, impeding investment in a countrywide developmental program, and relied on the school network for their players.

In Shujaa’s (The Kenya National Sevens Team) first season as a core member of the circuit, the star player was Oscar Osir who like Edward Rombo before him was a swashbuckling winger with pace to burn. Osir had developed his talent at Nairobi Secondary, and he, together with other players who had developed their talents in the school system such as Benyamin Ayimba at Maseno School, Dennis ‘Ironman’ Mwanja at Musingu High, Ted Omondi at St. Mary’s Yala, among others— led Kenya into their first season as a core team. Shujaa went through a steep learning curve on the international scene.

It was not until Ayimba’s appointment as coach in 2009 that Kenya shed off its tag as the whipping boy of the circuit. In his first season as coach, Kenya reached the semi-finals seven times out of nine and the final once. Collins Injera became the World Series top try scorer while his brother, Humphrey Kayange was nominated as IRB Sevens player of the year in 2009. The Ayimba-led team reached the semi-finals of the Sevens World Cup at the end of the season.

Ayimba’s next two seasons were not as impressive as the first, and neither was his replacement, Mitch Ocholla’s sole season in 2011-2012. Under pressure from the sponsors, Kenya Airways, and the IRB, KRU took their search for the next Shujaa coach abroad. In came English man Mike Friday. Friday was coach for only a season, but what a season it was. The team finished 5th in the standings. Willy Ambaka was voted into the season dream team, and, at the World Cup, at the end of the season, the team replicated its performances from three years earlier, reaching the semi-finals, with only a last-gap tackle by Englishman Dan Norton preventing Ambaka from netting a try that would have kept them in the tournament.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights.

However, Friday left the team at the end of the season, in almost the exact way that Simiyu would five years later. He was controversially fired by KRU and promptly reinstated just before the 2013 World Cup in Moscow. After the World Cup, he walked away completely. A new coach, South African Paul Treu, was hired, leading Shujaa in the 2014/15 season, but he would resign abruptly citing interference by some members of the KRU board. It was during Treu’s tenure that KRU reviewed player salaries leading to the senior players including Injera, Oscar Ouma, Dennis Ombachi and Billy Odhiambo, refusing to play for Kenya. Former Kenyan international Felix Ochieng, who was Treu’s assistant, was promoted to head coach for the remainder of 2014/2015 season.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights. Ayimba’s appointment was revoked at the end of the season and KRU was back shopping for a new coach, one who they hoped would not get under their skins as Ayimba had.

On October 17th, 2016, Innocent “Namcos” Simiyu was appointed head coach of the national sevens team. His remit was to ensure that Kenya became a serious contender at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Simiyu, a former Kenya 7s and Kenya 15s captain, took to the task with gusto, and he came up with a four-year plan. The first year was supposed to be the foundation year, to focus on the systemic concerns such as issues with player contracts and equipment that had previously affected player performances. In the second year, the team’s performance was projected to rise to the challenge of securing a place in the top six teams alongside a plan to build a Kenya Sevens B-team that would be playing five tournaments per year.

By March 2018, Simiyu’s plan was well and truly on course. The team was performing exceptionally on the circuit, and gaining plaudits for their wonderful displays on the turnover, in which they were by far the best team on the circuit. The improved physicality and tactical awareness of the team was due to the work put in by Simiyu and Geoffrey Kimani, the Strength and Conditioning Coach, combined with sessions with IRB referees that delved into the rule changes in the game. Furthermore, late in March 2018, the B-team, which Simiyu had been advocating for, had won the Victoria Sevens, with Brian Wahinya and Levy Amunga, who had been schoolmates in St. Mary’s, Yala, scoring the tries in the final.

After a stellar performance by Shujaa in the Vancouver leg of the IRB Sevens Circuit, in March 2018, Brand Kenya approached Kenya Rugby Union to appoint the team as brand ambassadors of the country. As part of their deal with the players, Brand Kenya was to pay each of the players a one-time fee of a hundred thousand Kenya shillings, and KRU instructed the players that, rather than having each player deal directly with Brand Kenya, they would take over and make sure the payments reached each individual player. The deal was made public on May 24th, 2018, by Richard Omwela, the Kenya Rugby Union board chairman.

However, by the time the team was playing in the Paris leg of the HSBC Circuit on 9th June, no money had hit the players’ personal accounts. The players, in a desperate attempt to make a point, decided to mask the ‘Make it Kenya’ logo on their national jerseys before their second game against Fiji in Paris. Shujaa beat the sevens heavyweights, winning 22-19, ending the Fijians’ 24-match unbeaten run in the circuit. Despite the win, KRU and Brand Kenya officials were furious, and Omwela promised consequences. Several sources interviewed stated that Brand Kenya had indeed paid out the money to KRU’s accounts before the Paris leg only for the money to be rerouted to take care of some pending overdrafts that KRU had. The board defended its position, stating the delay in the payment to the players had been clearly communicated through the management.

Incensed, Simiyu got embroiled in this saga, and earned the sack as a result, with his assistant, William Webster, mandated to guide the team through the World Cup, six weeks away in San Francisco, USA. Simiyu says that he had been in a meeting with the rest of the coaching staff when he received word of a disciplinary meeting constituted against the players. Simiyu went to the disciplinary meeting, requested to be heard and was told to wait outside. He obliged. According to Citizen TV, Simiyu had stormed a tribunal hearing between Brand Kenya and the Kenya Sevens team, to plead the player’s case following the fiasco in Paris. While Simiyu denies storming the meeting, he does not deny his anger at the injustice of the situation. “We were six weeks to the World Cup, and KRU initiated a disciplinary process on the players without notifying me…I felt that, as head of the program, I had to be involved because I knew the issues.”

Just like Ayimba before him, Simiyu’s tiff with the board was due to his insistence on fighting for the players.“It was more of a kangaroo court,” he says, “because the people who started the problem were the ones disciplining the players, and this did not make sense. Because the issues with regards to Brand Kenya started at the office of the CEO and the DOR (Director of Rugby), and they were solely responsible for what happened, but they are the same ones who are now disciplining the players. It was more of a cover-up so that they can sell a story to the public.”

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season.

Kenyans on social media reacted in anger at the move to fire Simiyu. The players, too, reacted, as they swore not to play in the World Cup as long as Simiyu was not the coach. Rashid Echesa, the former Cabinet Secretary for Sports, intervened, and, after a meeting with the KRU board led by Vice-Chairman, Thomas Opiyo, Simiyu was restored to his post. However, by the time he was reinstated, it was too late for the team. Shujaa had lost four weeks of active preparation time, and it cost them in San Francisco. After two consecutive semi-final appearances at the Sevens world cup, Shujaa failed to qualify for the quarters of the 2018 World Cup, losing their last group stage match 31-26 to Scotland, after having squandered a 28-5 lead. This was to be Simiyu’s last assignment as Kenya Sevens head coach. Despite leading the team to a record points tally of 104 points in the Circuit, KRU decided not to renew his contract, choosing instead to advertise the position. The four-year plan had now been abandoned.

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season. That Geoffrey Kimani also turned down the contract he was offered by KRU and instead took up an appointment as Uganda’s Strength and Conditioning coach points to deeper-lying issues within KRU.

According to Simiyu, the problems in Kenyan rugby are obvious, and one does not need a rocket science degree to point them out. First, he feels that there is a lack of proper governance within Kenyan rugby. The leadership is irrational, has issues with their integrity, and the people at the top have bought their way into the leadership of the game. Furthermore, Simiyu argues that several of the clubs are briefcase clubs (either owned by a company, or run by a few individuals, and, sometimes, just one individual), and the people use their clubs to advance their personal ambitions. “It will be more about sharing resources. That’s what happened with Kenya Sevens. They used the national team as a kitty to share, to secure votes, so that they can get elected.”

This is what had happened in 2014, when the KRU Chairman, Mwangi Muthee, together with KRU directors Godwin Kiruga and Maurice Masiga, quit in a huff (Peninah Wahome, the KRU Director of Development, would soon follow). In his resignation letter, Muthee talked about “serious questions raised by sponsors about some board members’ involvement in issues of conflict of interests in the supplying of kit to the KRU and the fraternity, questionable procurement of airline tickets worth tens of millions of shillings outside established KRU channels, questionable hotel accommodation contracts, and many other inflated bills and cases of unbecoming language to downright insulting language directed at senior management of some of our sponsors.” Muthee’s piledriver hit hard, and the national government promised to clear “the rugby mess.”

Simiyu feels that some of the people on KRU the board, are out to deliberately sabotage Kenya Sevens. “We had put up a plan how we approach the game, even in terms of pre-season, conditioning aspect, health aspect, the management and administration…by the time we were going to the World Cup, all those things were being removed. By the time our contracts were ending, it was not clear whether there would be a pre-season. There was no point basically to apply.”

Ayimba is equally blunt in his assessment of KRU. In his view, “they know where they want us to be, they don’t have a plan, neither to do they support anybody who’s got a radical idea…Right now we just have people who are happy to be in office and to be called KRU directors, as opposed to people who want to make a difference.”

On January 16th, 2019, the Kenya 7s team to the Hamilton and Sydney legs of the 2018-2019 HSBC World Sevens Series did not include any of the players who had represented Kenya at the 7s World Cup six months earlier. The players who had travelled to the World Cup had been expected to form the core of the 2018-2019 team which would challenge for Top Four status, in line with the four-year plan that had been agreed with Innocent Simiyu when he was appointed Head Coach of Kenya Sevens in 2016. That none of the senior players was named in the team for these two legs, and that the team accumulated a grand total of four points from these two legs is a sign of how quickly things have unraveled for Kenya Sevens and at the Kenya Rugby Union. This unraveling is part of an existing pattern, rather than a new event.

The Jacob Ojee-captained side was led by Paul Murunga Amunavi, the immediate former Homeboyz RFC coach, who had been appointed Simiyu’s successor. Murunga was appointed coach on the back of Homeboyz’ dominant performance in the local sevens circuit, having won four of the six tournaments, and finished second and third in the other two. In an interview with the Daily Nation, Murunga claimed that the aim was “to a build a strong side next season that will reach the medal bracket at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and go on to win the World Cup in 2021.” Speaking separately, Thomas Odundo, the Director of Rugby at KRU, offers thoughts which do not tally with Murunga’s assessment. He says, “I can’t say I can tell you what will be there in two years’ time. For instance, one, we don’t know how the World Series is going to end, I don’t know. It might go either way, we might fail to remain in the World Series”.

On February 2nd, 2019, ten months after the win over the USA in Vancouver, the Kenyans faced the Americans again. The Kenyans had faced USA after Vancouver, drawing 19-19 in the London leg of the circuit. Just over half a year later, the team is no longer the same. Gone are Willy Ambaka, Collins Injera and Nelson Oyoo, the try-getters in the last two USA-Kenya matchups. Gone too are Oscar Ouma, who was in the dream team last season, Sammy Oliech, Andrew Amonde, Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Dan Sikuta. Agero, Ayodi, the captain, Jeffrey Oluoch and Brian Tanga. In short, the team that was supposed to compete for the gold in Tokyo in 2020. In their place, instead, are a bunch of players who are, while talented, simply not ready to be playing at the top level. They are, in the words of Odundo, “players who had never played at that level. They were seeing people they see only on TV.” This new team was pummeled by the US, going down 41-0. What this means is that while the US and Kenya were at the same level last season, this season USA is top of the standings, while Kenya is firmly in the relegation battle.

According to the Kenya Rugby Union, lack of money is to blame for most of the challenges facing Kenya 7s, and Kenyan rugby in general. Odundo says, “We had to revise our terms of engagement, based on whatever money was available to us. The Sevens team doesn’t have a sponsor at the moment, so we don’t really have the funds to support the pay they were being given when Sportspesa was there.” On January 1st, 2018, a government tax of 35% took effect. The next day, Ronald Karauri, the Sportpesa CEO, announced the government tax meant that the betting firm could no longer continue supporting sports, and so it was cancelling all its sponsorship arrangements with Kenyan sports teams.

KRU was one of these, and it lost its main financial partner. Four months later, when Sportspesa renewed its sponsorship deals with Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, and FKF, KRU was left out in the cold. Despite this, Odundo points out, “For all of last year, KRU met all its obligations to the players, despite having no sponsors. But this year we simply had to review that.” Furthermore, all their attempts to get new sponsors have been moot. “It is ongoing, we are always having conversations with sponsors, but we haven’t had any positive response.” But, in the meantime, “…plans change…we’ve got to adjust. There’s always adjustments going on.”

While money is definitely an issue, focusing solely on it absolves KRU of all responsibility for the failures with Kenya Sevens. Critics have argued that it is KRU’s job to get money for the team, and their inability to do so is an indictment of their failure as a body. A general rule with sevens rugby, and with other sports, is that sponsors are attracted to a team that is performing well. Reflecting on this, Ayimba asks, “So, if you get rid of the people who are performing well, what is the end game?” In addition, KRU is heavily in-debt, with indications of debts of up to 100 million.

Sasha Mutai, a former KRU vice-chairman who vied for the chairmanship at the concluded March 20th KRU elections, points out that KRU dug this pit for themselves. The fact that Safari Sevens, which used to be the flagship sporting event in the country, having made losses for five years straight, thus making 2013 the last time the event was profitable. This, coupled with the fact that a KRU director was verbally abusive to Safaricom’s head of marketing, led to the communication behemoth pulling out of sponsoring the tournament, and KRU.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s.

Subsequently, corporate Kenya lost its faith with Kenya Rugby Union. Mutai argues that under the tutelage of the Omwela led board, the game has lost credibility completely, and only with a fresh start will the sponsors come back to sponsoring the Sevens team. That the national government, while promising to assist KRU, insisted that it would only do so after the elections, (perhaps waiting to see who will be elected), is a microcosm of the lack of trust that stakeholders in the game have in the KRU board and this includes Corporate Kenya, the players, the coaching staff, fans, both pitch side and online.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s. In the first six legs of the new season, Kenya Sevens has not qualified for any of the quarter-finals. There is a feeling in sections of the local rugby circle that current coach Paul Murunga is being set up to fail and that he will be fired and a new coach will be hired by KRU, probably a foreigner.

Simiyu smiles with bitterness at this prospect. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. You don’t need a foreigner to tell you. The challenges are always there. Ayimba said it, he was fired. Friday said it, he was fired. Paul Treu said it, he was fired. I’ve said the same thing, I was fired…It’s the same rat race. So long as they can’t deal with the issues, they attack the people.”

Meanwhile, KRU has shifted its expectations with the realization that this season is bust, with the conditions it has dug Kenya 7s into. While the previous plan was that, Kenya would be fighting to win several legs, this season, Odundo, the Director of Rugby at the KRU is not optimistic “We hope to get to some quarter-finals, and maybe a semi-final, which is achievable.” In addition, Odundo, the man responsible for matters rugby at the Kenya Rugby Union, points out, “I don’t know what failure is. Maybe our expectations of ourselves are too high.”

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

On March 4th 2019, USA won the Las Vegas 7s. With the win, which was coincidentally the fifth consecutive time they were making a main cup final, the team rose to the top of the standings. It is not possible to look at USA’s performances without a tinge of regret, knowing that this was the level which Kenya would very well have been at had Simiyu been allowed to proceed with his plan. While the USA, a team that was at the same level as Kenya less than a year earlier tops the standings with 113 points, Kenya has a measly 18 points, which, while should ostensibly mean that the team is safe from relegation, is a sign of how low, and how fast, the Kenya Rugby Union let the team fall.

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

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