BBC Natural History has just announced a new series, “One Planet, Seven Worlds”, fronted by veteran broadcaster David Attenborough, to tell “the fundamental truth about what makes each [continent] unique.” I’d be astonished if it covered one of the most important aspects of the “fundamental truth”, which is the way local people have enhanced biodiversity and shaped “nature” since time immemorial, and what happened and is still happening to those people who have largely escaped being subsumed into the mainstream by colonialism and industrialisation. (These minorities are now labelled as ethnic, indigenous or tribal, depending on the regional context.)
Like most families in rural Britain, we got our first television towards the end of the 1950s. Every five o’clock came Children’s Hour – rather dull puppets, some excellent cartoons, and of course “nature.” My earliest memory is that of Armand and Michaela Denis filming “Pygmies” and constructing a rope suspension bridge in Africa (entirely faked, why would they want one?), and a boyish David Attenborough in fuzzy black and white chasing down wild animals to capture for the London Zoo. It was the start of something big: The BBC’s Natural History Unit has gone on to become the world’s biggest producer of wildlife films.
In the decades since the rope trick bridge, the BBC Natural History Unit has also presented a single, unshakable view of wildlife and conservation. No one doubts that it works magnificently; it’s the corporation’s biggest money earner. It formed and still shapes the public’s view of what conservation actually means in distant continents. This specialised BBC unit shows us a pristine wilderness full of photogenic beasts whose existence, we are told (usually by the same David Attenborough), is endangered by loss of habitat, human overpopulation, and of course “poaching” – such threats apparently emanating from Africans or Asians.
The same narrative is also peddled by the big conservation organisations, which thrive in financial symbiosis with the BBC’s orthodoxy as the corporation makes money from its programmes and as donations from the viewing public flow to the NGOs. Each presents the complex question of conservation in exactly the same way, and each proposes the same, simple – and entirely wrong – solution. It is“fortress conservation” with more and more“brave guards” and increasing military force and weaponry to defend the animals against the human killers (who are never white).
In the decades since the rope trick bridge, the BBC Natural History Unit has also presented a single, unshakable view of wildlife and conservation. No one doubts that it works magnificently; it’s the corporation’s biggest money earner. It formed and still shapes the public’s view of what conservation actually means in distant continents.
To anyone who knows the other sides of conservation, the bias is obvious, but the BBC unit’s ideology is relentless and impacts the wider BBC as a whole. The corporation’s website, for example, almost always features a news story about poaching, illustrated with grisly pictures of mutilated animals, or it did until recently.
“Massacre” in Botswana
Then, in September2018, something new happened. It began with BBC News breaking a story on elephant poaching in Botswana (“Dozens of elephants killed near Botswana wildlife sanctuary”) which, as usual, gathered in hysteria as it rolled around the web. It became a“genocide” and even one of the “worst mass poaching sprees” in Africa.
But the tale unraveled when scrutinised, and no one who’s followed it can now sensibly believe it was true. There was no “massacre”, it turns out that the story arose at least partly from the power struggle between the country’s former President Khama, an army general known for his implacable support for “fortress conservation,” and his successor, President Masisi.
In spite of a great deal of evidence to that effect, the BBC journalist who broke the story, Alastair Leithead, stood by it, though the corporation itself quietly changed its tune. For example, over eighty per cent of BBC Africa tweets reported on poaching in the month prior to the “massacre” but there was only one story (about shellfish) in the following three months. Leithead’s source for Botswana was Elephants Without Borders, an NGO with a vested interest in supporting ex-president Khama, and which would have raked in donations as a result of the story. Leithead was doubtless unaware of how he had favoured one political faction over another; he was presumably just supporting the BBC’s traditional conservation model in the run-up to the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference due to take place in London the following month, October 2018.
That’s speculation, but what’s certain is that films that show a completely different side of conservation, such as the excellent “Unnatural Histories,” can be counted on one hand and are relegated to non-mainstream channels, like BBC4. The wholly different narrative they expose begins with the revelation that protected areas were never “pristine wildernesses” in the first place; they were home to local peoples who actually created the “wild” ecosystems, and who were then thrown out and destroyed when parks were imposed by national governments. The grass plains of the Serengeti, the Amazon rainforest and so on, were all formed by vigorous human intervention over thousands of years. Experts now accept this, but it remains little known among the general public. Why? Because very few BBC nature viewers have ever been told the real history: After all, it profoundly undermines the fake one.
The destruction of the original landowners, the creators and curators of the world’s “wildernesses”, is criminal in several respects. One is that they were often far better at maintaining biodiversity than the incoming, usually white, conservationists. The latter often fail, and usually blame the locals when things go wrong.
Another point is just how protected these areas really are. They usually include an infrastructure specifically aimed at only the richest tourists. Most of the African parks marketed as “pristine wilderness” include roads, hotels (called “lodges,”to make them seem smaller), luxury “camps”, artificial water holes and salt licks to attract animals, airstrips, and so on. I have been in one where a leopard appeared every evening in perfect view of the hotel dining room, just as food was being served. The excited guests rarely stayed long enough to question what might lie behind this spectacular coincidence, but of course the tourists weren’t the only ones being fed by the hotel staff.
The destruction of the original landowners, the creators and curators of the world’s “wildernesses”, is criminal in several respects. One is that they were often far better at maintaining biodiversity than the incoming, usually white, conservationists. The latter often fail, and usually blame the locals when things go wrong.
Protected areas are not only landscaped for elite tourism, some of the animals which fill our screens have been transported there. That doesn’t always work out well, and some pay with their lives. For example, at least ten rhinos died in Kenya in 2018 as a result of being moved into a park. That’s more than were poached in either of the previous two years. Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident: Some twenty per cent of “endangered” cheetahs routinely die while being transported in South Africa by conservationists.
But artificial landscaping and importing animals are just two aspects of what has become partly a film set: Protected areas are often home to mining (such as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana), logging, destructive monoculture, such as teak and oil palm, and trophy hunting (such as around Lobeke National Park, Cameroon). Much of this happens in government-approved concessions and some of the companies involved work in close partnership with conservation NGOs.
Since the Botswana elephant “massacre” was exposed as a sham in September 2018, I’ve noticed a quiet shift at the BBC: I haven’t been scrutinising rigorously, but I can’t remember seeing a single poaching story headlined since.
Pitting people against nature
However, now there’s a new development, this time concerning India. It began with a BBC news report in 2017, “Killing for Conservation”, by correspondent, Justin Rowlatt. His film exposed the atrocities committed in the name of conservation in India’s Kaziranga National Park – cinematically visited by Prince William and Kate – where rangers have “shoot on sight” orders and are never prosecuted for vigorously deploying them. They killed around twenty so-called poachers a year, sometimes more than the number of animals poached.
Some “animal liberationists” may raise a cheer at this gruesome news, but Rowlatt filmed testimony from innocent locals who had been devastated as a result, including relatives of a man with severe learning difficulties, fatally shot as he was rounding up cows near the park’s edge, and 7-year-old Akash Orang, crippled for life when rangers fired on him by mistake. His father told Rowlatt, “He used to be cheerful, he isn’t anymore. In the night he wakes up in pain and cries for his mother.”
Killing for Conservation was about Kaziranga in Assam, but many other atrocities have been reported from dozens of protected areas across India. At the time of writing, no less than 280,000 people, mostly tribal Adivasis,* face illegal and forced eviction from tiger reserves, usually from places where they’ve lived successfully in close proximity to the big cats for generations.
Rowlatt’s film attracted a fierce outcry from the conservation establishment. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) clamoured for retribution, so the Indian government responded by banning the BBC from all protected areas for five years. In a stroke, the wildlife filmmakers were deprived of their most iconic non-African star, and all because BBC News had exposed an inconvenient truth about what“conservation” actually meant for local people.
At the end of 2018, the story took another twist when a letter received by the NTCA was leaked. It was seemingly written by Julian Hector, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, but had no date or addressee. Hector expressed“regret for any adverse impacts” caused by the Rowlatt film. He noted the “successful efforts” in Indian tiger conservation, and was concerned that the work had now been “made harder”. He proffered apologies for his failure to approach the tiger authority earlier. Stories quickly appeared in the Indian press falsely claiming that the BBC had apologised for, and even retracted, its film.
Rowlatt’s film attracted a fierce outcry from the conservation establishment. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) clamoured for retribution, so the Indian government responded by banning the BBC from all protected areas for five years. In a stroke, the wildlife filmmakers were deprived of their most iconic non-African star, and all because BBC News had exposed an inconvenient truth about what “conservation” actually meant for local people.
Given the letter’s missing date and addressee, Survival International initially suspected a hoax. We asked Hector’s staff if it was genuine, but they weren’t saying. We turned to the head of the BBC, Tony Hall, to ask whether or not the BBC stood by Rowlatt’s film. The BBC boss quickly replied in the affirmative: It turns out that the letter really had been written by Hector, but the corporation was certainly not retracting its report that innocent people have been shot, tortured, and some killed, in the (supposed) conservation of Indian protected areas.
This was encouraging because we knew Rowlatt’s report was just the tip of a monster iceberg: For years, Survival International has been reporting harrowing testimonies about atrocities committed against the Mising, Baiga, Jenu Kuruba, and many other tribal peoples in the name of conservation. Hector’s letter was simply an attempt by BBC Natural History to get back to filming tigers – irrespective of the atrocities Adivasi people face in the reserves.
One can understand its desperation, of course. BBC Natural History was launching a new flagship series, “Dynasties”, and it was as spectacular as expected. Its wonderful episode on tigers, broadcast in December 2018, repeats the usual old falsehoods. Viewers are lectured (by the very same David Attenborough!), “In India today there are new pressures, making it harder than ever [for tigers] to rear a family.” This simply isn’t true. According to the Indian authorities, tigers are increasing in numbers, albeit slowly, and so wasn’t it really “harder than ever” for them during the British Raj’s tiger massacre (starting in around the 1870s and carrying on in independent India)? This “sport” lasted a hundred years and killed tens of thousands, taking the animal to the edge of extinction.The blood from that slaughter lies on the hands of the parents and grandparents of many of today’s British viewers, but it’s always safer, and supposedly less “political,” simply to blame poor villagers in today’s India.
What needs to be done
What all this highlights is the bias at the heart of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. It relentlessly promulgates the foundation myth of Western conservation, that “wildernesses” must be defended against the Africans or Asians who actually live there. Never mind that national parks in Europe often include working farms and even towns; in other continents the locals must be thrown out, and then shot if they try and go back in. Such pitting people against nature may be the metaphorical lifeblood of a conservation industry that relies on the TV portrayal of natural history, but it’s an entirely false antagonism that drains the real lifeblood from indigenous, tribal and other local people.
Things must change, and not only to respect the law and human rights. If they don’t, we could soon be facing the end of protected areas and their wildlife. The local backlash against them is gaining increasingly angry momentum and is bound to prevail, especially in Africa where “our” cherished conservation is increasingly seen as nothing more than land-grabbing colonialism. The imagery that has filled our screens throughout my lifetime must acknowledge its bias and start reflecting the real world.
We should be shown how protected areas are the result of thousands of years of human habitation; how local, especially indigenous, people, have enhanced both the landscape and wildlife; how evicting and mistreating them leads to biodiversity loss; and how it is they who must be returned to the forefront of protecting wildlife, in all its forms. You don’t need environmental qualifications to realise that the people defending their own land and resources are going to be better guardians than the hired, underpaid rangers who are easily tempted by corruption. We should be listening to them, the locals, much more than to the environmentalists and broadcasters (with their own sky-high carbon footprints).
Things must change, and not only to respect the law and human rights. If they don’t, we could soon be facing the end of protected areas and their wildlife. The local backlash against them is gaining increasingly angry momentum and is bound to prevail, especially in Africa where “our” cherished conservation is increasingly seen as nothing more than land-grabbing colonialism.
The BBC, with its millions of viewers, really should play a leading role in the conservation of nature, but it’s not the one currently acted out on our screens: In the long run, the images now transmitted into the comfort of our living rooms are deeply counterproductive for conservation, irrespective of their undoubted beauty and the money and accolades they gather.
(*”Adivasi” is a term used for many of the 700 or so unique tribal peoples in India, numbering over 100,000,000 individuals. Some may not be more “indigenous” to the subcontinent than many mainstream Indians, and the government doesn’t use the term “indigenous.” They do, however, retain their own separate identity, are often largely self-sufficient, and maintain a strong attachment to their lands. They are widely discriminated against. I go into the fraught question of “correct” terminology in my book Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World.)
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The Clergy and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance
What Kenya needs is not a clergy in bed with politicians but one that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable.
There has been an ongoing debate in the last couple of months about the hefty cash donations politicians make to churches and to individual clergymen in Kenya. There have also been debates about the impact of money on the relationship between the church and the state, and about by the political class co-opting church leaders. There is even talk now about politicians radicalising thousands of angry, disenfranchised, jobless youth through cash donations and political and religious ideologies. An emerging Christian nationalism that is inspired by populist politics in many parts of the world also has many observers worried. Money, economic disenfranchisement and religious ideologies are blamed for this emerging trend.
A large section of Christian evangelicals in Africa, for example, support populist politicians including former President Donald J. Trump. In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics in the last couple of years and this could lead to seriously compromising the religious leaders’ ability to stand up to the political class.
Deputy President William Ruto has caused a furore over the millions of shillings he has been donating to the churches. Ruto has sought to create an image of himself as a God-fearing generous giver, as demonstrated in the many churches he has visited, the questionable source of the money donated notwithstanding.
The clearest example of this is the dichotomy now playing between the president-led Kieleweke and Deputy President-led Tanga Tanga factions of the ruling Jubilee Party. When they took their battles to the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) in Kenol area of Murang’a County on 4 October 2020, it led to the deaths of two young men. The commotion created at Gaitegi AIPCA church by the two opposing factions is the latest testament of how the church has been infiltrated by the dark forces of political rivalry.
On 11 January 2021, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministries (JIAM) was back in the limelight. A video circulating on social media showed the evangelist-turned-politician-turned-Ruto supporter dishing out money to scores of people.
While some church leaders in the Anglican and the Catholic churches have clearly told politicians to keep their money off their pulpits, the majority of Kenya’s clergy, especially those of the evangelical and the pentecostal persuasion — and particularly the prosperity gospel-allied churches — see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, while speaking in a multisectoral initiative against corruption in 2019, warned ACK clerics against accepting corrupt money. “Let us not allow Harambee money to become a subtle way to sanitise corrupt leaders,” said Sapit. Deputy President William Ruto and a coterie of politicians allied to him promptly answered Sapit: “We will continue to worship Jehovah God with our hearts and substance. We are unashamed of God and unapologetic about our faith.”
In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics.
On 24 October 2020 Ruto held a fund-raising meeting for the St Leo Catholic Church in Sianda, Mumias East. Evidently, the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown had not locked up the DP’s purse. Clearly, it’s not only the evangelical leadership that covets politicians’ money. While the Anglican and Catholic churches’ leadership have clearly specified their criteria for receiving donations, and have at the same time asked the politicians to keep off their pulpit and keep their money, evangelical and pentecostal churches, especially those aligned to the prosperity gospel, see nothing wrong with accepting money from politicians. There have been public spats and bitter exchanges in the country that essentially encapsulate a debate that has not only refused to go away, but one that divides Christians and non-Christians alike.
The Kenyan Church and its credibility
Struggling with a legitimacy crisis since the 2007/8 post-election violence (PEV), the church leadership seems to have abandoned its flock, divided by ethnicity and politics as it is. Archbishop David Gitari (ACK), Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Catholic Church and retired Rev. Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) fought for democracy, freedom of expression and multiparty politics during Daniel T. arap Moi’s dictatorial reign and have often been described as the architects of social justice and as the conscience of the nation.
The emergence of evangelical pastors driven by the gospel of prosperity seems to have undone all the foundational work that these mainstream church leaders fought so hard to set up. The PEV exposed the underbelly of the Kenyan church as it were and since then, the church has never been the same and it has struggled to recover its image as the moral compass of the nation. The National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that brings together all the protestant churches, even offered a public apology, acknowledging that the Church had let down Kenyans.
Given the fact that liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other, the churches’ acceptance of hefty cash donations from politicians has led Kenyans to question the very credibility and legitimacy of these churches’ leadership. Yet the co-option of religious leaders by the state and politicians is nothing new. The Deputy President’s donations to churches have brought to the fore the causal inter-play between church and state, the intersection between faith, politics and governance issues. The donations have also raised critical questions about the relationship between Christianity and religio-ethnic politics.
Christianity and religio-ethnic politics
Religio-ethnic political competition and mobilisation have increasingly become the defining features of electoral politics in Africa, Kenya included. In Kenya, God, politics, money and ethnicity are often inseparable. Yet church politics, money and ethnicity have recently assumed centre stage. During the 2013 and 2017 general elections, for example, political competition was increasingly defined and characterised by the use of the notions of God and tribe. The appropriation of biblical language and rhetoric and its imagery by politicians during the campaign periods sought to paint their politics as God-driven and God-ordained, while casting their antagonists’ politics as driven by the dark, evil forces of Satan and witchcraft.
Prior to the 2013 general elections, the Jubilee Coalition presidential candidate and his running mate, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, faced criminal charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). To fend off the ICC, the duo turned to religious rhetoric and portrayed their tribulations as the work of the devil and the opposition, then led by Raila Odinga. They also referred to the civil society as the “evil society.” Uhuru and Ruto traversed the country, holding political rallies camouflaged as prayer meetings, accompanied by a retinue of clergymen who would lay hands on them and anoint them with special oil, as they prayed fervently, casting away ICC demons, castigating the opposition and condemning the “evil society”.
Their political nemesis, Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), equally appropriated religious rhetoric. Raila promised to lead Kenyans to a new dawn by taking them to Canaan, the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey. He appropriated the biblical imagery of the Book of Exodus, where he likened himself to Joshua, who would lead the people out of slavery into the “promised land”. The imagery became a rallying call for millions of his followers. In 2019 and 2020, Deputy President Ruto not only appropriated Christian theological language, but also became one of the biggest church funders just like President Moi before him.
In a bid to outdo everyone, Ruto has elevated the prosperity gospel and its proponents, the self-styled prophets and bishops, to unprecedented levels of self-importance. In the process, he has cleverly cultivated a Christian nationalistic image, subtly appropriating pentecostal language in his public speeches. He has also been accused of taking advantage of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of unemployed youth in a way that could potentially radicalise them.
Ruto’s cosy relationship with the clergy should be understood in the light of religio-political and ethnic mobilisation that has now become the defining feature of post neo-liberal politics in Kenya and beyond. During the 2010 constitutional referendum, Ruto aligned himself with the Christian clergy to oppose the new constitution. Since then, the relationship between the Deputy President and the Christian right in Kenya has blossomed, the allegations of corruption made against him notwithstanding; Ruto has his allies in the church.
Liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other.
In a country reeling from massive debt, loss of employment and the coronavirus pandemic, the clergy has been silent as Kenyans go through unprecedented suffering, massive job losses, a weak public health infrastructure, corruption, and the theft of medical equipment donated by humanitarian people and organisations. Their loud silence in the wake of the high numbers of deaths of medical personnel, the doctors’ strike and the controversial BBI politics, has been deafening.
But Ruto’s disturbing relationship with the clergy is not anything new. Moi heavily appropriated religion and created for himself an image of a God-fearing politician who not only attended church service ritually and piously every Sunday, but who also heavily invested in the churches and the clergy by contributing large amounts of money and allocating them large tracts of land.
Politicians have perfected the art of appropriating religion in times of crises. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have been calling on religious leaders to offer prayers as they call on the people to repent their sins. While there is nothing wrong with politicians asking for frequent and collective prayers when the country is faced with crises, Kenyans also need to question how they are governed and what the priorities of their politicians should be. No amount of prayers will ever take away bad governance, corruption, disease, inequality, poverty, road accidents and violence. These are policy issues that have everything to do with ethical and just leadership, the rule of the law, governance of national resources, respect for human rights, well-equipped and functional hospitals and efficient public service delivery, and little to do with religion.
Deputy President Ruto’s relationship with the clergy must be understood through the prism of, not just the politicisation of religion, but also its implications for good governance, and for the church and the state. The Jubilee Party administration has since 2013 been weakening the church’s leadership by compromising it with money so that the clergy does not call out on its excesses.
In Kenya, the church and the state have always had a symbiotic relationship. The clergy has always tried to co-opt political leaders while the state has always been involved in schemes to co-opt the church. This is not to ignore the fact that the leaders of certain mainstream churches have, in certain critical political moments, stood their ground and urged the government to abandon its authoritarian tendencies, and even pushed for constitutional reforms.
After the promulgation of the new Constitution of Kenya 2010, mainstream churches took a back seat as pentecostal and evangelical churches occupied the centre stage of the country’s political arena. Ruto has ostensibly found dependable allies in the majority of evangelical churches, who see him as a generous giver and one who fits in well with their health-and-wealth gospel.
This is not peculiar to Ruto. Politicians across the country continue to appropriate religious idioms, language, rhetoric and symbolisms. We are witnessing the same developments in other African countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — politicians appropriating religion as a means to their political ends. In 2016, Donald Trump appealed to the evangelical right and their unwavering support helped him win his presidential bid. In 2020 Trump again appealed to the same Christian right to try to win a second term. He appropriated religion and mobilised the evangelical right to cast himself as the protector of religious rights from neo-liberals, socialists and leftists.
The Ruto factor in churches and its implications for governance
William Ruto projects the image of a God-fearing man under perpetual siege from the political dark forces of Satan. He gives the impression that his Christian faith has helped him overcome the forces that his political enemies are using to fight him. While his enemies are busy working hard to make him look bad in the eyes of the electorate, the church, it seems to me, has also been working overtime to paint him in the light of a generous servant of God who is largely misunderstood. Even as his enemies describe him as a most corrupt, divisive and ambitious politician, the church makes him look humble and decent and “a fearfully made child of God” who is a victim of political machinations.
Ruto’s spirited efforts to be allied with the clergy must be understood within the context of a search for a Christian legitimacy and social respectability. The Deputy President could also be looking for approval and acceptance from the clergy. He is looking to his faith to repair a badly damaged public image that has refused to go away: the image of a fabulously wealthy politician who passes himself off as a humble servant of God who speaks the language of the downtrodden. And so the apparent association with the church is a quest to portray himself as a victim of dynastic politics that are jealous of his “hustler” beginnings and that do not want him excelling in national politics. In short, Ruto is using the church to advance his overarching political ambitions.
Like many a politician before him, Ruto has appropriated religion during this period of turmoil in his political career to draw, not just admiration, legitimacy and respect, but also empathy and pity. The late President Moi appropriated the Christian faith to cleanse his autocratic regime. Zambia’s President Fredrick Chiluba declared himself a Christian and Zambia a Christian nation, despite the massive corruption dogging his country. The recently deceased President John Magufuli declared that God had healed Tanzania of the COVID-19 pandemic. He appropriated religion and notions of God in his populist politics in a way that appealed to millions of religious people wish want to see God at the centre of politics and governance.
Intent on getting money and socio-political power to influence public policy, the Church has opened itself to the vagaries of political pedlars. To that extent, hunger for power, particularly political and social power play, is no longer the preserve of politicians. The Kenyan clergy also wants a piece of that power and influence. Hence, spiritual power is hardly the driving force of these religious leaders who no longer view politics as a dirty game. On the contrary, many clergy now see politics as a means to financial, social and political power. African pentecostal and evangelical clergy (with the exception of a few who are well-grounded in proper theological training) lack the philosophical and theological tools to engage the state or politicians. Many rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture and socio-political phenomena. Pentecostal clergy are also prone to populist politics and, more importantly, they are less likely to criticise a dictatorial government. They prefer to pray away issues including pandemics like COVID-19. They are beholden to faith healing, miracles and the gospel of prosperity. Human rights, social justice and poverty are not issues they like to engage with, let alone seek to understand their primary causes; they much prefer spiritualising issues.
The church leadership of the pentecostal and evangelical churches believes in creating social transformation by transforming individuals’ morals and personal lives, which is commendable. Individual transformation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be even better if the whole society were to be fundamentally transformed. Pentecostals also place greater emphasis on the heavenly realm and the hereafter than in the hell in which many Kenyans already live. In a country under bad governance, the theology of individual transformation must be questioned. And we must ask critical the questions: how is it that a highly religious country like Kenya, where more than 80 per cent of the population identify as Christians, has not seen it fit to embrace meaningful socio-political transformation?
Religion “cleans” up people, gives them a veneer of credibility, respect and acceptance. That is why politicians align themselves with the Church. When politicians are under siege, they take refuge in the Church, even as they seek to mobilise their ethnic bases. In a kind of symbiotic relationship, religious leaders use politicians such as Ruto to access state resources and political power. In return, politicians give the clergy not just money, but personal appeal, social power and a sense of self-importance. Such clergy crave to be seen as special “big men and women of God” who are powerful, rich and have friends in high society. One would hope that spiritual leaders would be the salt of the earth, that they would champion social justice causes as well as human flourishing, but unfortunately, like the political class, they seek power, prestige, money and state recognition for their own sake.
There are a myriad other reasons why the clergy courts politicians. In its effort to push its conservative agenda on reproductive health and rights, sex education, sexuality and gender empowerment among many other issues, the clergy’s romance with the political class is strategic: they are partners when it comes to controlling society for their own selfish ends. Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution; he clergyviewed the constitution as too liberal in matters of sexuality, reproductive health rights and women’s place in society.
There has also been religious mobilisation and contestation over sexual and reproductive health rights and choices in Kenya, as recently witnessed with the Reproductive Health Bill (2019) and during the 2019 UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) held in Nairobi. On the two occasions, religious leaders and their powerful lobbies employed mobilisation tactics to oppose the Reproductive Bill and the ICPD25 conference. Demonstrations were recently held against the Reproductive Health Bill — also christened the abortion bill or the Susan Kihika bill — because of its supposedly neo-liberal agenda.
Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution.
The influence of the American evangelical far right is also evident in Kenya’s conservative churches, especially in the area of sexuality and reproductive health rights. The American evangelicals’ support for President Donald J Trump — who is not a Christian by any standards but uses Christianity for his own political ends — is alive in African evangelical circles. Some of the evangelical pastors here in Kenya are reported to have prayed for Trump as he battled to win a second term in the 4 November 2020 elections. One of the reasons evangelicals support Trump is because he aligns himself with the Christian right’s ideologies and conservative positions on a score of social and political issues.
It is also a fact that evangelical churches here in Kenya receive a lot of funding from the American evangelical right. The same logic explains the clergy’s relationship with politicians in Kenya. It is a money thing. And it is not hard to see. In its 10th month now, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many Kenyans vulnerable and in dire need of financial help. Yet the Church leadership has chosen to pursue its narrow agenda of cavorting with the political class in exchange for financial gain, self-aggrandisement and the opportunity to influence public policy.
A dozen years after PEV, the church leadership in Kenya does not seem to have learnt any lessons. It has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché. It has refused to be spiritually blackmailed and financially manipulated. That generation is daily debunking the myth of spiritual power and torment.
Religious institutions and religious leaders are important actors, key elements and important forces within civil society. Religion is also important in the lives of many Africans, Kenyan’s in particular. A recent Pew Research Poll found that more than 85 per cent of Kenyans said religion was very important to them. There are a number of reasons why religion is important to Kenyans. First, religion provides Kenyans with the language to make sense of their suffering. Secondly, religious people want to see good people voted into government because they believe they can bring ethical leadership and decency to public life. Christians want to see good people voted in, people who promote healing, national cohesion and economic betterment.
The Church has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché.
But this is not the case. Instead what we have is a clergy that is in bed with the political class. Co-option of the clergy is bad for democracy and governance. When the Church and its clergy accept monetary contributions from politicians, it compromises them. The Church loses its voice, conscience and ability to hold politicians and the state accountable. In a country reeling from corruption, bad governance, gender and sexual abuse, high incidences of teenage pregnancy, police violence, poverty, ethnic marginalisation, inequality, ethnic tensions and the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya needs a clergy that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable even as they set a good example of moral leadership themselves. Kenya needs a new moral compass and consciousness, an alternative imagination from both citizens and religious leaders. But such leaders in Kenya today are few and far between; partisan politics always has its consequences, more so for the church leadership.
The Ruto factor in church can therefore be understood as a weakening of the structure of the church and the co-option of its leadership. Yet, it also speaks of the church’s lack of philosophical and theological tools to deal with such infiltration, a lack of ethical and moral underpinning to resist such an injudicious relationship. Yet I proffer that it is not too late for religious leaders to rethink their nebulous association with the political class and to re-engage the Kenyan people in their quest for social justice and human flourishing.
Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?
“Conservancies” in Kenya are presented as an example of conservation by and for local people, but they can be a device to grab land. Unless this changes, the future for wildlife conservation looks bleak.
There are two approaches to exercising your imperial ambitions over others. One is simply to invade their territory with armed force and subjugate them. The other is to bring some of their own leaders, or potential leaders, onto your side with inducements or threats, and so enforce your rule indirectly. The big historical empires usually did both.
Britain, for example, famously ruled India by securing the allegiance of that vast country’s five hundred princely states, step by step. Some were defeated in battle, some were taken over with mutually beneficial trade – beneficial for the rulers, that is. Others were led to accept, even embrace, British dominion through inducements and bribery. London established its rule over the whole subcontinent and beyond even though its fighting men and civilian administrators were always vastly outnumbered by the locals. For every Brit in the “Raj”, there were always well over a thousand Indians. The numbers were only a little more balanced in Kenya, where just 23,000 European settlers dominated a realm of over five million Africans.
Of course, indigenous resistance forced the empires’ retreat and proved the imperial model to be unsustainable. But the Europeans’ belief in their own superiority, and that the rest of the world could and should be manipulated to their own advantage, proved harder to dismantle and may have as many adherents now as it had at the empires’ height.
Conservation is just one area in which colonial control remains embedded, certainly in Kenya and in much of Africa and beyond. About 20 per cent of Kenya’s land is in Protected Areas (PAs) (of which about 9 per cent is state land and the remainder is private) and they are overwhelmingly run by the descendants of white colonists and subsidised with enormous amounts of money provided by conservation NGOs and governments from northern Europe and the USA. Those which make a profit do so off tourism from non-Africans, often rich ones who can afford a minimum $1,000 per person per night for luxury holidays, with only a few crumbs from the table ever dropping into the hands of indigenous Africans. For comparison, the average salary for a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry or as a wildlife ranger is less than US$5,000 a year.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, some well-meaning conservationists finally began to note the criticism that they had been seizing indigenous and other peoples’ lands without consent, or even any pretense at consultation. They began to realise that the traditional concept of African Protected Areas, as zones which exclude local people – including those who had been living there for many generations – was in urgent need of reform. Even those with no interest in changing still recognised the pressing need for rebranding: conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.
At about the same time, some white farmers in Kenya began to think that their land – originally given to them to produce food for the colony – could make them more money if they turned it into Protected Areas and start hosting paying visitors. Overall costs would be small: the properties had been stolen from Africans and handed to the settlers without charge, the houses and other facilities had been built by underpaid locals, and a bevy of servants (now called “staff”) could readily be drawn from the nearby population. On the other side of the ledger, overseas guests would be happy to fork out the same fortunes they were used to paying for luxury accommodation in the Global North, or even more as an experience of “wild Africa” was highly prized and marketable. The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden, populated largely by exotic megafauna, and popularised in literature and film throughout the twentieth century, could be a money spinner.
Conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.
The realisation that conservation dollars might be ripe for the taking seems to have first occurred in the 1980s in Lewa Downs, an old cattle ranch north of Mt Kenya which had been given to the Craig family by the colonial government sixty years before. The Craigs had already leased part of it to an Englishwoman, Anna Merz, who trucked in rhinos from all over Kenya, keeping the animals in – and Africans out – with armed guards and electric fences. Ian Craig, a former big game hunter, decided to landscape the whole ranch around wildlife tourism, bringing in more rhinos and other iconic species that visitors would pay to see.
The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond. Most are promoted by a rather opaque local NGO, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), established by Craig himself in 2004, (although the NRT gives a different account of its genesis, saying the first suggestion came from Francis Ole Kaparo, former speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly) which in turn is heavily supported by the biggest and richest conservation organisation in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (more on that below).
There are now over three dozen conservancies, covering huge swathes of Kenya, totalling about 11 per cent of the country (6.3 million hectares at the last count). They have overtaken national parks in size and are often cited as the vanguard for a conservation reformation which has discarded the old “fortress” model and replaced it with “community-based conservation”, supposedly set up under the control and even ownership of local people. They have become the standard rebuff to critics who point out that wildlife protection remains essentially colonial, run by and for non-Africans.
The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond.
As so often with projects in the Global South – and many in the Global North for that matter – peeling away the propaganda can uncover hidden depths. To start with an aside, though one which resonates deeply with many Kenyans, Lewa’s links with the old colonial power remain celebrated. Prince William spent part of his “gap year” there in 2000 and was boyfriend to Ian Craig’s daughter. The royal heir remains a frequent guest, he proposed to the future queen in one of its tourist “camps”, and they named one of the guest tables at their wedding dinner after it. Ian Craig was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2016. British government ministers, including future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also visited. If you can pull the right strings, it’s easy to drop by. The largest British army base in Africa is less than fifty kilometres away, just a few minutes’ helicopter hop.
Land use in northern Kenya is key to understanding how the conservancies have been established and the problems they are throwing up. As the cool, fertile slopes of Mt Kenya slope down to a lower plateau which extends 250 miles north to the Ethiopian border, the country becomes hotter, arid, and less conducive to settled farming. This is part of the traditional domain of several peoples who have lived from mobile pastoralism for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They herd sheep, goats, camels and, most famously for the Maasai and Samburu, cattle. At first sight, it seems like an arduous way to live in a landscape which supports little visible vegetation. But in practise, like so many “traditional” lifestyles, it is actually highly – and sophisticatedly – attuned to the environment. It depends on a high degree of mobility, with herds walking large distances to take advantage of regional precipitation, changing seasons, and the appearance or disappearance of surface water. Both herds and herders know where they are heading, and why, applying a complex understanding of the terrain and weather consolidated over many generations.
The landscape gives sustenance to livestock and people, and is then left to regenerate until another herd arrives to take its share; it’s also the stage on which these peoples have their genesis and where their identity is forged. With many different peoples (Rendille, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Pokot, etc., as well as Samburu and Maasai) using the same terrain, there is a perpetual balancing of neighbourship and shared values against the potential for friction, often over competition for grazing and water. National frontiers, drawn with rulers on maps by the colonial powers, are largely invisible and substantially porous, with troubled Ethiopia to the north and war-torn Somalia in the east.
British dominion over this part of Africa had been established for less than thirty years when the end of the “Raj” in 1947 India clearly signalled the sun was setting over the empire as a whole. After several years of armed struggle, which was met with brutal suppression by the colonials, Kenya finally saw the inevitable final lowering of the Union Jack in 1963. The British left a few thousand settlers behind, and many of their core beliefs. One was the mistrust, even hostility and disdain, with which all national governments view peoples who favour a mobile approach to life over a fixed abode: nomads, of course, are always very difficult to tax and control.
The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden populated largely by exotic megafauna could be a money spinner.
Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back. This is in spite of the increasing scientific realisation that the ecosystems of the great East African grass plains are actually the creation of grazing animals, which enhance rather than diminish the country. Peoples who live from mobile herding, like others who eat mainly from their hunting and gathering, enjoy a way of life which in reality improves rather than reduces biodiversity, and which has sustained a huge proportion of Africa’s population for millennia. The upper end of estimates count no less than one quarter of the population of all Africa as dependent on herding.
But the colonials saw things differently. Immersed in anthropological prejudice which placed settled agriculturalists at the apex of human evolution, they had long been in favour of reducing, and even ending, pastoralism – and subsistence hunting – altogether. The same bias was inherited by the newly independent Kenyan government which was largely dominated by those from the Gikuyu ethnic group, traditionally farmers who produced Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The herders have faced discrimination for a long time.
The British Crown had originally “given” the so-called “White Highlands”, the higher, cooler, malaria-free centre of the country, to white settlers in the 1920s, particularly to World War I veterans like Ian Craig’s grandfather. When the new landholders started erecting fences, the surrounding herders were forced to adapt, avoiding some areas altogether and grazing others only covertly, often risking arrest or armed violence when they cut fences. However, nomadic peoples, whether herders or hunters, are generally far more agile and versatile than their static neighbours, so they adapted and survived and, by and large, are still there.
After Kenyan independence, one way of continuing to try and press herders into the settled mainstream was to recognise their communal ownership, but only over restricted parts of their grazing. This was shoehorned into existing land legislation really written for peoples who stayed put. The herders, at least some of them, were awarded “Group Ranches”, in which specific kith and kin became the owners of limited areas. To represent their title to the authorities, they had to establish committees, habitually through their councils of elders—most African pastoral peoples have a codified hierarchy in age sets, where important decisions are traditionally referred to older folk.
That is an outline of the complex background of competition for land when white farmers decided to move into wildlife tourism. It was easy enough for them to embrace Craig’s conservancy model for their own farms, but when it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, the Group Ranches owned by the pastoralists, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.
Sometimes this might have involved genuine consultation with, and consent by, the community; in other cases, it didn’t. The elders, or sometimes just a few individuals picked up by NRT and driven to its meetings, would be asked to agree terms on a 30-year lease which gave away designated parts of their land to an “investor”, a company which would build visitor accommodation geared around wildlife viewing. In exchange, the African landowners would be given a few, largely menial, paid jobs in and around the “lodge” or luxury camp, but they would also have to provide security around its perimeter and clear any necessary roads and infrastructure, all without any further payment. The Group Ranch would receive a small fee for each night a tourist stayed, unless the visitor were an associate or family member of the investor, in which case there would be no payment. What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation. The herders had no experience in securing their own legal advice, and the contracts made no reference to Group Ranch members having access to any audited figures to check whether or not they were being correctly remunerated.
When it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.
Such agreements are not made public or translated into any local language. They would never pass scrutiny for fairness, or even legality, which is probably why copies of the contracts were not made available to some communities, and why some remain confidential to the investor decades after they were signed (Requests to be shown copies of contracts were ignored but I have nevertheless read some from confidential sources.) Moreover, when the lease ends, some are liable to be renewed automatically for another thirty years on the same terms.
“Agreements” like these are barely disguised land grabs. The herders lose part of their land for little return, with the investor taking possession to build high-end accommodation. The tourist business can then truck in some big animals, and start raking in handsome profits from rich tourists whose expectations of being waited on by bedecked, colourful African “warriors” and women are fulfilled. The waiters and cleaners are of course the rightful landowners.
In this way, self-sufficient, independent, and resilient herders have been turned into a servant sector entirely dependent on an industry which is, in turn, dependent on the whims of tourist fashion (and which has proved particularly unsustainable because of travel curtailments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic).
Another way the NRT has begun to erode pastoralism has been to establish its grip over the regional economy. It has formed a business, buying the livestock of favoured herders (but not that of critics) and selling it on to the food industry. NRT can presumably afford the financial risk because any losses can be offset by tourist profits and conservation grants from wealthy backers like The Nature Conservancy which are in turn subsidised by Western governments. Such economic domination has undermined regional markets and elevated NRT into a key economic driver of northern Kenya – all supposedly for the benefit of the local population.
Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back.
NRT can get away with all this partly because the leases are between a particular investor and a Group Ranch: NRT claims its role is merely as hands-off adviser, and denies liability for any unfairness as it’s not itself a formal party to any of the contracts. It advises the investor certainly, but any claim that it can give advice which is in the best interest of the herders at the same time is clearly not true.
Its annual reports don’t show any audited figures, as NGOs in Kenya are not legally required to produce independently verified accounts in the way they are in Europe or the USA. Requests to see them are rebuffed or ignored; how it sources its funds is vague. It can, in other words, make whatever unsupported claims it likes: the possibilities for creative accounting, to say the least, seem great.
It’s understandable that knowledgeable Kenyans are suspicious of such an opaque NGO gaining effective control over much of northern Kenya and directly impacting the lives of millions of Africans. When a white Kenyan with close links to the former colonial master’s head of state is pulling the strings, such concerns are likely to be amplified, even more so when TNC’s involvement is considered – especially given some conservationists’ stated desire to stop all meat eating (aside from chicken) throughout the continent, for supposedly environmental reasons!
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars. Its headquarters are less than six kilometres from the White House in Washington, and it was headed by investment banker Mark Tercek until 2019. He used to be a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs until the financial collapse of 2008 when his bank’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis exploded. Together with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs was a major player in the mess which led to job losses for nine million Americans. This was the time that Tercek left banking for conservation, though the switch may not have involved much transformation in his worldview, or been too onerous a sacrifice for that matter: there’s little reason to think he started flying economy class, and his basic TNC salary in 2015 was $765,000. Tercek left TNC in 2019 after a sexual harassment probe into the organisation’s leadership.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars.
It’s easy to see why rich Americans getting control of pastoralists’ land in Kenya, via a local NGO with intimate ties to an old colonial élite which still keeps its army on site, is not wholeheartedly welcomed when herders debate in the shade of their thorn trees. Not being given sight of the contracts they are told they once agreed to naturally raises anxiety. There are a few young men who benefit from the jobs, and who understandably might find these developments more agreeable, but opposition remains high. It can be expressed quietly, with those herders who dislike NRT keeping their voices muted for fear that the authorities are listening out for hostile opinion which they think is seditious. Critics have been threatened, and conservationists who question NRT can find career paths shut off.
The British army is there in force with various objectives. It’s obviously found a useful training ground, but the official reasons are to combat terrorism, support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and also to help rangers “protect elephants from poachers”. It’s true that many British taxpayers might well support their army protecting elephants, but it still raises uncomfortable questions about the merging of the roles of soldiers, police, and wildlife rangers – especially given that some of the latter are private militias employed by rich white landowners to guard their very expensive properties and wealthy tourists. The minimum price to stay a few days in one luxurious conservancy, Ol Jogi, just thirty kilometres from the army base, is over $34,000. The conservancy has nevertheless received money from a British charity, Save the Rhino, with some of the funds going to ranger training.
What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation.
Concerns are growing over how valuable this land might be aside from its tourist potential. Northern Kenya was always important geopolitically in the slicing and dicing of Africa. It was a cushion between Britain and its colonial rivals, France and Italy, and it remains a buffer between mainly Christian Kenya and war-torn Somalia, the launch pad for violent incursions by al-Shabab militants. These have been going on for years and can meet with sympathy in Muslim parts of Kenya. There is wealth under the ground too – fossil fuels, minerals, and aquifers. All stand to be more easily and profitably exploited were local African landowners to be undermined or removed. After all, Protected Areas in other parts of Africa are often leased out to oil, gas, minerals or diamond companies. It’s possible that getting rid of people from conservation zones is as much about future profits as it is about the 19th century northern European and American belief which elevates divine Nature above sinning humankind.
Even a cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them (Kalepo, Meibae, Nannapa, Narupa, Naapu, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Central, Sera, and Biliqo Bulesa), which could affect Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, and Borana. All have, or have had, mining concessions inside their boundaries.
Whatever the reasons behind the growth of the conservancy model, at first sight it’s a win-win for conservationists. They can claim the communities are equal partners, when of course they’re not; yet more of the country can be fenced off into Protected Areas for profit; and the assault on mobile pastoralism – which has long been a key refrain in conservationists’ myopic and ultimately destructive vision of “nature” without humans (except them) – can be fortified.
It’s clever, but as well as its reliance on unsustainable tourism, it embodies another key flaw which may eventually prove its undoing: it doesn’t reckon with the profound relationship many herders have with how they live with and from their animals. They have weathered droughts and conflicts over numerous generations and pastoralists know their way of life is supremely sustainable. Conservancies don’t take into account their resilience and toughness; herders don’t like being pushed around and are prepared to cut fences and risk violence when necessary to protect their livestock and future.
A cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them.
Real solutions, benefiting both people and the environment, demand discarding deep-seated prejudice, which is always the primary obstacle to real change. The stranglehold of wealthy “landowners” must be loosened. Both conservationists and the government should recognise the importance of nomadic pastoralists as valued stewards of the country’s ecosystems, and stop trying to finish with them. They should approach the herders with respect, offering resources only when asked for, which should be passed into the control of locals represented by their own spokespersons. Of course such a new approach would bring complications, especially with growing competition for resources. However, things are complicated now, and they are marching in the wrong direction.
Unless things change, it seems likely that pastoralists will reoccupy their grazing lands, by force if necessary, and so bring to an end the reign of Protected Areas altogether. Many pastoralists are now seeing that there’s less harassment where there’s less tourism. There are already protest killings, where wild animals are slaughtered, not for tusks, horns, meat, or even because they are a danger to livestock or people, but as retaliation against the land grabs which have dogged these Africans since Europeans first turned up and told them to settle down, get “civilised”, and accept their place in the divine and established order – as landless workers and servants.
I am grateful to Dr Mordecai Ogada for leading me to the problem of the conservancies through his book, The Big Conservation Lie, Mbaria & Ogada, 2016, and for commenting on this article.
The Murder of Women in Kenya and the Psychology of Blame
Victim blaming prepares the groundwork to invalidate the victim and removes inhibitions from those deploying it, giving another man permission to violate the victim.
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a Kenyan woman living in Kenya? Well, it’s terrifying. And it’s even worse if you are the mother of a Kenyan daughter. There is a place in your mind that is always preoccupied with concerns for her safety. Is she safe? What horrors might find her out there?
Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui died on March 9th 2021 while undergoing treatment at the Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital. A few days before Velvine’s death, Jennifer Wambua, the Deputy Communications Director of the National Land Commission (NLC), was found dead. Both women had been raped and murdered. But their murders were not enough; social media launched its usual blame-the-victim game, focusing most viciously on Velvine. You see, Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui was 24 years old, working as a waitress, and she willingly went to a Nairobi hotel with a married man.
There is little hope that justice will prevail in both cases. But it wasn’t always like this. Kenyan women did not always live at the mercy of sexual predators. American historian Brett Shadle has conducted research on attitudes towards rape among the Gusii in pre-independence Kenya. In his paper entitled, Rape in the Courts of Gusiiland, Kenya, 1940s-1960s, which he shared in response to the rape and murder of Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui, we get a glimpse into what can be defined as traditional African attitudes towards rape and the violation of women.
Shadle reviews the rape court cases in Gusiiland between the 1940s and the 1960s and sets out to show how seriously African courts treated the offence of rape. He notes the following:
“Court elders, and later magistrates, punished rapists harshly, in absolute terms and relative to crimes such as elopement. The courts’ conception of the crime was also strikingly “modern”: elders and magistrates treated rape as an offense against a woman as opposed to one against her male guardian. Perhaps most fascinating are cases in which an accused man claimed to have had consensual sex with his accuser. Unlike their contemporaries in Western and in Kenya’s British-run courts, Gusii elders did not expect a woman to prove that she had not consented to sex: instead, they demanded that the accused prove that she had consented. The record of these decisions complicates the notion of a progression away from a deeply rooted, deeply conservative patriarchal culture. In the absence of comprehensive historical studies of rape in Kenya (and indeed in most of Africa), this article suggests a different context in which to place contemporary debates surrounding sexual violence, and also offers another dimension to the historiography of gender and the law in colonial Africa.”
When I read this passage, I felt like crying with relief. African society was not brutal and did not treat women with violent disdain as so many Africans believe today. Just the idea that a man had to prove that a woman had consented to a sexual act is revolutionary for most societies in the world. It demands a level of responsibility on perpetrators that the so-called modern world has not been able to achieve. And it opens a sea of possibility for the reconstruction of Kenyan society in unimaginable ways.
In today’s Kenya blaming the victim even when she or he ends up murdered has become the norm. This blame game has become an echo chamber that is used to amplify the threat of violence. After the rape and murder of a woman, this echo comes from everywhere. It creates an element of unpredictability in our lives and makes us feel that we are surrounded by men who think nothing of subjecting women and girls to unspeakable violence.
So, imagine being the mother of a Kenyan daughter. The thing is she is now a teenager or a young adult and she is exploring life. She has discovered her beauty. Like many teenagers and young adults, she loves clothes, she is exploring her style, testing what looks best on her, how to maximise her beauty and of course she follows international trends from music videos. The fights you have with her about her preference for scanty clothing are endless. You try to get through to her that Rihanna and Beyoncé are musicians. Those skimpily dressed women in music videos do not dress like that in real life. Even they clothe themselves more fully when they go to the supermarket or to visit their grandparents. There is a lot of eye rolling and stamping of feet.
But she is young. Even when she tells you that Velvine’s murder has her scared, it doesn’t moderate her behaviour. You see, she is still a teenager and teenagers are immortal. Do you remember your immortal days?
Being the mother of a Kenyan daughter means that you walk a tight rope. You want to keep your daughter safe, but you can see her potential. You can see how high she can fly if only the monsters don’t get to her. And so, you are on that tight rope, trying to not clip her wings. The irony is that you must let her fly so that she can learn how to recognise monsters and how to evade the danger. If you keep her locked up in a dark room you will make her even more vulnerable and make her easy prey for the monsters you are trying to keep her safe from. What a conundrum.
The purpose of victim blaming
I have often wondered as to the purpose of victim blaming. If we examine the case of the two recently murdered women, Jennifer Wambua and Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui, it is Velvine who has received an overwhelming onslaught of victim blaming. There has been much more empathy for Jennifer Wambua. In my view, it is quite easy to see why. Jennifer Wambua was cloaked in respectability in that she was a middle-aged married woman who was also a professional working in a prestigious organisation. And she was abducted the day she was due to testify in a land case. Her murder screams collateral damage in the high-stakes corruption that has come to overwhelm issues of land in this country. Somehow, the implication is that these are mitigating circumstances which allowed netizens to show respect for Jennifer Wambua.
Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui on the other hand was a young waitress who willingly accompanied a married man to a hotel. And therein lies her crime. No one asks why a married man is violating his vows. Velvine is to blame for leading him astray and for getting herself murdered. The murderer has been rendered invisible, despite the horrific injuries he inflicted on her, so let’s bring him back to life. The murdering rapist’s name is one Joseph Kinyua Murimi.
When you think about it, victim blaming is common in most societies around the world. In 2020, the United States of America showed us their limitless ability to blame black men, women and children for the often fatal violence meted out against them by the police. It appears that those who have the right to blame the victim are those people who hold the power in a community. The powerful perpetrators get to frame the violence, blame the victims of the violence and manufacture often outlandish reasons to justify the need for the violence and then they get to evade any consequences. Of course, many of the Kenyan people blaming Velvine for the violence inflicted on her protested vociferously against the horrendous injustice inflicted on African American George Floyd in 2020.
Here are some examples of social media posts including the exchange between Onyango Otieno, a leading gender activitist and trauma healing counsellor, and various victim-blaming netizens:
The function of victim blaming
According to Wikipedia, It was the American psychologist William Ryan who first devised the phrase “blaming the victim” in his 1971 book of the same title, which described victim blaming as “an ideology used to justify racism and social injustice against black people in the United States.”
Victim blaming “occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them”. The term has now been expanded to include victim blaming in other circumstances such as sexual assault and murder as was the case for Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui.
In examining the psychology of blame I have identified several reasons for this phenomenon. First, and ironically, victim blaming often stems from a desire to keep ourselves safe. Psychologists note that people need to believe that the world is a just and fair place and it is those people who take unnecessary risks who get what they deserve. People need to believe that their world is a place where one can safely get out of bed every morning and one in which a person can develop long range goals and have a chance of living long enough to make them happen. And so, when a person near us is the victim of violent crime such as rape or murder, we have the tendency to point the finger away from themselves. We must re-stabilise our disturbed world by blaming the victim and recovering our sense of security. Violence cannot be just a random thing. This is what some of those people blaming Velvine are doing.
But others are engaged in a subtle form of control of women and girls by spreading careless, randomised fear. Thus, Velvine may be gone but fear is being used to shrink women and girls into submission. These social media posts reveal some of the blame arguments.
“… 6% of rapes occur to innocent girls who meet evil men, while 94% of rapes occur to girls who are not so innocent who go out seeking rapists…”
This form of control also says something about the fears of those in power. What it says is that they may be afraid that they are losing control of the privileged position that patriarchy assigns them in society.
Victim blaming and lowered inhibitions
As I conducted research on the psychology of victim blaming, I came across a third and most surprising impact, which is that it removes inhibitions from those deploying it. The powerful would-be perpetrators use blame to remove their brain’s natural inhibitions that are there to prevent people from behaving poorly toward others. Victim blaming helps build thought patterns that allow people to act in a way that their moral compass would normally prevent. Thus, in the case of Velvine, many justified her murder because she accompanied a married man to a hotel. She was after easy money. She was young. She was not rich. Several social media posts are captured below to illustrate this point.
So what do you want?. Men castrated?. Among those, https://t.co/vbxsZygL40 many are just false alligations?.https://t.co/fd7f2rN2Qe many of the girls had taken gifts from the men.https://t.co/rT0jWONK6p many of those were raped in lodgings and clubs?
— Arsbuc kitonyi (@ArsbucK) March 19, 2021
Greed is what is killing our sisters…..why would you want ro be with a total stranger.surely there are more than enough pple oround them for relationships
— patrick (@patrickbett174) March 21, 2021
These reasons prepare the groundwork to invalidate another woman and gives another man permission to violate her. In the process, the lowering of inhibitions that blame creates will allow more men to kill women.
In research on the phenomenon of victim blaming recently conducted by Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral associate in psychology at Harvard University, and Liane Young, a professor of psychology at Boston College. The researchers worked with 994 participants and was based on four separate studies. The two professors published their findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. One of the findings relevant to the Kenyan situation is quoted below and relates to the impact of moral values on victim blaming which helps in understanding the contrasting reactions to the rapes and murders of Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui and Jennifer Wambua.
“First, they noted that moral values play a large role in determining the likelihood that someone will engage in victim-blaming behaviors, such as rating the victim as “contaminated” rather than “injured,” and thus stigmatizing that person more for having been the victim of a crime. Niemi and Young identified two primary sets of moral values: binding values and individualizing values. While everyone has a mix of the two, people who exhibit stronger binding values tend to favor protecting a group or the interests of a team as a whole, whereas people who exhibit stronger individualizing values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to an individual.”
People are always surprised when women join in the blame game. One Winnie Wadera caused uproar on social media when she blamed Velvine despite acknowledging that she herself was a victim of rape.
Yet it is widely acknowledged that for systems to work and to do the job they were designed to do, every part of society must play its part.
In this case patriarchy is the system that is being upheld by this form of victim blaming. And “it’s the woman’s fault” story must be sustained not only by those using it to evade responsibility, but must also be believed and defended by its victims. Thus, women blame themselves and blame other women for the violence they experience at the hands of men. Winnie Wadera posted:
“I know women are killed in hotel rooms and it is SO WRONG and are we ready to also start the conversation about “women stop following materials in those hotel rooms” or women are innocent and I should leave them alone?”
This ganging up on the victim turns the spotlight on the woman, leaving the perpetrator to go scot-free. The impact of victim blaming is that the victim is isolated and re-victimised by those she should count on for support. And for those women and girls Velvine left behind, the world becomes an even more dangerous place.
This article could not have been written without the help of Onyango Otieno a Gender Activist and Trauma Healing Counsellor who kindly shared his social media posts with me, Prof. Brett Shadle who kindly shared his research on traditional attitudes to rape in the courts of Gusiiland between the 1940s and the 1960s giving me relief and hope. Writing the article was also made possible by the rage of Kenyans at the murder of Jennifer Wambua and Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui.
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