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Ayub Ogada: The Passing of a Nyatiti Evangelist

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Ayub Ogada remained largely unrecognised and unacknowledged at home – but he will be remembered globally for being a nyatiti prophet.

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Ayub Ogada: The Passing of a Nyatiti Evangelist
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The underlying tone of several online comments in response to the magnificence of Ayub Ogada’s music ruefully note that the man was a proverbial prophet who failed to gain acceptance at home. Home here stretches beyond his birthplace Kenya into the vast African continent. The various comments suggested that he did not receive the level of respect and star recognition and treatment accorded him in Europe where he spent a large part of his creative life.

When he passed away on 1st Feb 2019, messages of condolence, as well as newspaper articles, generally reiterated that Ayub, the nyatiti icon, had been neglected locally. Commentators lamented that his music did not receive sufficient airplay and that he was not featured regularly in the media. Some even suggested that the album he recently released, Kodhi, was all but successful. The narrative from another stream of commiseration minimised his musical genius and production to a single song, Koth Biro. The hauntingly melodious opening, “Aaaayehaye aye aye…aye hayee aye aye” is easily recognised even by those who draw a blank when asked, “Do you know Ayub Ogada?”

Granted, Koth Biro is Ayub Ogada’s most renowned song and signature tune, and has been rendered and re-rendered in countless versions by hundreds of artists all over the globe. However, to reduce him to the Koth Biro one-song wonder, displays a minimalist appreciation that obscures Ayub Ogada’s real contribution to world music and his success in putting Kenya and his adopted instrument – the nyatiti – on the global pedestal. This re-framing of Ayub Ogada’s quest, his narrative, his sojourn in Europe and eventual return to Kenya after almost two decades to settle in his rural home in Nyahera, Kisumu West, and his passion to work with the next generation of musicians paints a fuller picture of the man and his legacy.

***

I first met Job Ouko Seda in the early seventies. He was a teenager with a thick American drawl and along with his brothers, David and Eric, joined Our Lady of Mercy Primary School in Nairobi. Eric, the youngest of the three Seda siblings, was my classmate and later became a good friend. They had just returned to Kenya from Chicago in America where their father had been pursuing his clinical medicine studies. While there, he was accompanied by his wife and the young Job as they gave performances of Luo music to Kenyan and American audiences in college campuses.

Job, who was 6-years-old when they relocated to America, was part of the travelling troupe and ended up getting exposed to multiple performance traditions early. He got immersed in the African American cultural and civil rights scene and recounts meeting and shaking the hand of Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) and experiencing the aftermath of American segregation. Job has described how going to America from Mombasa, where he was born, was a big culture shock comparable only to the counter-shock that hit him upon his return to Kenya.

Upon completing his primary schooling at Our Lady of Mercy Primary School, Job joined Lenana High School where he played various musical instruments. He has said in interviews that the legendary Fadhili Williams of Malaika fame taught him how to play the guitar. While still in school he played for a band, Awengele, made up mainly of school mates. They experimented with rock and soul music that was playing on radio then. When he graduated from high school he teamed up with the likes of Gordon Ominde, Jack Otieno (Jack Odongo) and Ali Nassir to form Black Savage Band.   The band drew their influence from psych and folk rock, funk and R&B. They recorded their debut album, Something for Someone. The album is described as having all songs in English with politically and socially aware lyrics.

The band went on to release three more singles, Do you really care/Save the savage and Grassland/Kothbiro and Fire/Rita – a reggae sound. The eclecticism of the music genre they produced points to young men struggling to find a musical identity.   This was the time that the famous Koth Biro was composed. There has been controversy in some circles about the composer of the song. In an interview with John Lawrence published in 2015, Ayub Ogada said:

“There was one afternoon when Mbarak Achieng’ and I were hungry, coming from rehearsals to buy some French fries in town. So, while walking along Waiyaki Way, the melody came, and we wrote Koth Biro.”

The song is a Luo folk song imploring a certain Auma to be cautious because a major downpour is imminent and to hurry home with the herd of cattle. Black Savages went ahead and recorded it, but it was Ayub Ogada who remade the nyatiti version that has assumed iconic status.

When Black Savages fell apart, Job was tasked to form a band by Alan Donovan of African Heritage fame. The band was to accompany Kenya’s African Heritage Festival, which showcased Afrocentric fashion and design pieces. Alan Donovan’s brief to the band was to compose and produce original music, not the inauthentic tunes that were in vogue in Nairobi. This was to mark a turning point in Job Seda’s transformation as a musician, a transition to which he credits Alan Donavan. He has been quoted expressing gratitude saying, “I would be nothing without this man.”

The song is a Luo folk song imploring a certain Auma to be cautious because a major downpour is imminent and to hurry home with the herd of cattle. Black Savages went ahead and recorded it, but it was Ayub Ogada who remade the nyatiti version that has assumed iconic status.

That was 1979. Job rounded up some of his former colleagues, Mbarak Achieng’, Francis Njoroge Noel Sanyanafwa (Drury – an old school mate at Our Lady of Mercy and Lenena School) and Goro Kunii, and a unique musical journey began. Their repertoire included original compositions fusing traditional music with sounds of rock and soul. The band was later joined by Jack Odongo, Ali Mogobeni, Shabaan Onyango, Walter Amalemba, Sammy Eshikaty, Gido Kibukosya and Samite Mulondo from Uganda. They recorded Niko Saikini and Handas. Job’s search for a real identity was still relentless. In between playing music, he was involved in film and is credited for work in The Color Purple and with acting roles in Out of Africa and The Kitchen Toto.

In an interview with Rupi Mangat, Job describes his epiphany, and conversion to the nyatiti. He recounts coming face to face with the musical instrument on display at the African Heritage showroom.

It was an instrument from my rural home, but nobody was playing it there any longer. So I bought it for a sum of Kshs 3,000 paying for it in instalments of Kshs 100. Then I found a teacher at the Bomas of Kenya to teach me how to play it. One lesson cost Kshs100. After six lessons, I could not afford the lessons anymore and taught myself. Since nobody played the instrument in Nairobi, I had to connect with the old people in Nyahera to learn more”.

Had Job Seda discovered the nyatiti, or had the nyatiti found him? Here he was, gravitating away from the mix of African Heritage’s afro rock and soul, and returning to learn at the feet of the elders. It was a truly remarkable rediscovery of his Nilotic roots.

In an interview, Job recalls the beginning of his relationship with the nyatiti:

It was love at first sight for the nyatiti and Ogada. I often saw the instrument used by traditional groups or folk musicians. When I strummed the Kamba nane strings, I instantly felt so strongly reconnected with my cultural roots.

There was a metamorphosis happening and Job was giving way to Ayub Ogada. The juogi (spirits) that had been bottled up in him were slowly welling up and consuming Job and giving birth to Ayub Ogada.

In his own words:

Job Seda had done a certain type of music that wasn’t African and I was involved in film industry. So I thought deeply about my life in 1986 and decided that I wanted to turn over a new leaf. When I discovered nyatiti, I went fully African.”

***

The origin of the eight-stringed nyatiti or lyre is shrouded in mysticism. It is noted that communities along the Nile river valley play versions of the instrument all the way from Egypt to the East African lacustrine region. It is more common among the Nilotic Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups. Among the Bantu-speaking people, only the Abagusii and Bukusu have equivalents: the obokano and litungu, respectively.

Had Job Seda discovered the nyatiti, or had the nyatiti found him? Here he was, gravitating away from the mix of African Heritage’s afro rock and soul, and returning to learn at the feet of the elders. It was a truly remarkable rediscovery of his Nilotic roots.

Speculation that the instrument originated in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece or Babylon is supported by images of the instrument on hieroglyphics in Egypt. The music scholars who have traced the nyatiti along the Nile valley assert that it is only found along the migration route of the Nilotic people. In Uganda, the Acoli – a Luo-speaking people – also have the enanga or adungu that is played by the Jo-Padhola and Ateso. According to Nyamungu Odindo, who was Ayub Ogada’s nyatiti teacher, the nyatiti came from Israel and passed through Libya, which is where Ramogi, the mystical progenitor of the Luo people, got the instrument.

The number of strings of the lyre in every community has symbolic significance. The nyatiti has eight and it is said that this number represents the four days of seclusion observed upon the birth of a male child before he is brought out. (A female child is brought out after three days.) The last four strings represent the four days of vigil observed upon the demise of a man. (It is three days for a woman.) The strings therefore represent the entire life of man, from birth to death.

In this patriarchal worldview, the nyatiti player strums the entire continuum of life and death, in a sense acting as a mediator between the present and the past. In a recent interview, Ayub Ogada paraphrased this philosophy. He said:

Every time I play a song, I give you part of myself. So eventually, I must die because I have given you everything!”

There is more to the strings of the nyatiti. When it is tuned, the fourth and fifth chord from either up or down have the same tune. There is a Dholuo tongue-twister that says, “Nyatiti madiere móchodo chuny Jathum chutho.” This could roughly translate to, ‘The middle cord of the nyatiti that completely breaks the heart of the lyre player.” It suggests that the middle strings are the most important and if they break the musician and his music are as good as dead. It also suggests the spiritual bond or relationship between the musician and his instrument.

In this patriarchal worldview, the nyatiti player strums the entire continuum of life and death, in a sense acting as a mediator between the present and the past.

The nyatiti, unlike other string instruments, is very personal, and the tuning is dependent on the vocal range of and individual player. Researchers who have studied nyatiti players have noted that some players duplicate the tone of the voice while others produce a harmonic structure within which the vocal melody progresses. Nyatiti melodies are distributed to both hands and are played in an interlocking fashion using seven out of the ten fingers. The instrument is sacred in many respects, and it is believed that those who play it are not just musicians, but are possessed by the spirit of the thum nyatiti. The instrument is considered feminine, the prefix nya suggesting daughter of titi, which is onomatopoetic of the sound the middle cords. Nya is also the diminutive and so combined with titi it means “a small titi”. This feminisation of the instrument could be the reason that the nyatiti was traditionally only played by males.

An ethnomusicologist researcher tells us that women were discouraged from playing the nyatiti and that there was a social rule that stated that if a woman as much as touched the instrument she would be compelled to marry the owner. This has recently changed and there are accomplished female players.

The nyatiti was also handed down from father to son and so not everyone could learn and play it; it had to be in your blood. Some studies have shown that the predecessor of the nyatiti – the thum – was slightly bigger, and the beat was maintained by a different player. The nyatiti was made smaller to accommodate the single player who had to combine all the accompaniments in competition with the one-man guitar.

Traditionally, the nyatiti was played while seated. The player would sit on a small stool (orindi) while wearing on his right big toe a wrought iron ring (onduongó) and a couple of small metallic bells. As he plucked his nyatiti, he kept time striking the neck of the nyatiti with the onduongó causing the bells to jingle as he did so. Thus the single nyatiti player was an entire ensemble, producing the percussive beat, the harmony through the singing, the melody through the nyatiti and the accompanying rattles.

***

It is fascinating and illustrative of the transformation that in interviews detailing how he took up the nyatiti, Job Seda begins to refer to Ogada in the third person.   The new identity associated with the instrument was taking him over. He said:

When you start to play the instrument, you practically get married. She won’t like you to play another instrument. You play and you enter a contract, and you have to be serious. Suits me fine; I’m happily married.

From his experience at the African Heritage, he was completely sold to the idea of developing traditional music made from traditional instruments. His frustration is felt in in this 1993 quote: “I lived a lot in the city and found it very difficult to have access to traditional music.”

The Kenyan music scene during this period was under the siege of Congolese rhumba, soul and R&B, jazz, Latin pop and even country and western. For groups like African Heritage that were trying to be original, there was a shortage of role models. Further afield, it was the period when African artistes like Fela Kuti released global hits such as Lady and Shakara. Osibisa, a British Afro-pop band, was releasing hit after hit – Woyaya, We are Going, Happy Children. Artistes like Manu Dibango had released Soul Makosa. There is no doubt that these musicians influenced Ayub Ogada’s thinking and creative direction. Many parallels can be drawn to Ayub Ogada’s transformation to artists like Fela Kuti who abandoned his birth name, Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, and the high life type of music and adopted Afro-beat. Ayub Ogada however, never became as overtly political as Fela was, though he was a social commentator.

Job’s restlessness persisted, and after a highly creative stint with African Heritage, he parted ways with the other members, including Gido Kibukosya, Wally Amalemba, Sam Eshikaty, and Jack Odongo, due to aesthetic and ideological differences. He decided to take the band in a different direction. He is quoted saying:

They wanted to get into more Afro-fusion (read Westernised) sounds while I wanted to stick with strengthening the indigenous African sounds of my music, so we had to go our separate ways.

He was conflicted because he felt that he was not growing musically. So in 1986 he set off to the UK in search of kindred spirits. He stated in an interview that he needed to meet and interact with musicians making similar music away from the copy-cat scene in Nairobi and Kenya. He was by then an accomplished nyatiti player. At this point, it would be apt to paraphrase the famous quote by Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon and state that this was one small step for the man Ayub Ogada and one giant leap for the nyatiti.

Ayub Ogada’s sojourn in Europe is only comparable to what Lamine Konte of Senegal and Foday Musa Suso of Gambia did for the kora. These artistes brought the kora to Europe to dialogue with musical trends alien to the Mandinka tradition that had produced it. Lamine Konte mixed the kora with Casamance traditional melodies and harmonised it with Afro Cuban rhythms while Foday Musa Suso crossed the kora with jazz instruments. Artist like Toumane Diabete improvised and infused the kora with other types of music and gave birth to a revival of the griot tradition and the contemporisation of the instrument and its performance.

No one before Ayub Ogada had done this for the nyatiti. His was a deliberate decision and sacrifice. In a 2016 interview after his Koth Biro was played in his absence at the opening of the Summer Olympics, he reminisced about the visa-obtaining shenanigans that had made it impossible for him to travel to Rio. He poignantly stated:

I know most probably our traditional instruments such as nyatiti are not taken with the seriousness like others. I am sure if it were some people carrying pianos, guitars, and other contemporary instruments, the treatment would have been different.

The story of Ayub Ogada, roughing it out in the London Underground while playing his nyatiti, has been told and retold hundreds of times, but the point that is missing is the realisation of the nature of the sacrifice that led to the global recognition of the nyatiti and its distinct sound. Ayub Ogada and the nyatiti strode onto the global stage when he was invited to play at WOMAD in 1988. He was scheduled to play for ten minutes, but at the last minute a Mozambican band failed to turn up and he was asked if he could play. He describes that serendipitous moment in an interview with Francis Gooding in 2016:

I said, no problem. I went into this great, big concert hall. The place was empty. I set myself up, plugged myself in, and did my concert. Normally, I close my eyes when I perform, and when I finished, the concert hall was packed, over capacity, and the applause just nearly blew me over. I nearly fell off my stool. As I came off stage, Peter Gabriel came and escorted me and that’s really how I began with WOMAD and Real World.”

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Peter Gabriel invited him to take part in one of the recording weeks and the rise of Ayub Ogada and nyatiti had begun. He went on to record En Mana Kuoyo (It is Just Sand). 

Ayub Ogada’s sojourn in Europe is only comparable to what Lamine Konte of Senegal and Foday Musa Suso of Gambia did for the kora. These artistes brought the kora to Europe to dialogue with musical trends alien to the Mandinka tradition that had produced it. 

Ayub Ogada and his nyatiti have shared the stage with various types of musicians and choirs. Koth Biro, in particular, has been rendered in uncountable forms with different instrumentation and even vocalisation of the nyatiti riff. The Luo lyrics of Koth Biro have been sung by hundreds of artists, with some renditions sounding totally ridiculous to the Luo ear. I am prepared to lay a bet that there is no other Kenyan song that has been as globally rendered as Koth Biro has. When I watched a perfect cello remaking of the nyatiti, it spoke of the length that Ayub Ogada’s sojourn had taken the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is not only inspiring new creations, but is getting incorporated into global beats, thanks to Ayub Ogada. He was by no means a traditional nyatiti player; he improvised and changed the playing position of the lyre. He cradled the nyatiti on his lap – a style that has now become more acceptable and probably allows the players more face-time with the audience. This playing position is also easier for female players of nyatiti to adopt. Working with varied instrumentalists, he created space for more and more instruments to accompany his nyatiti and he used the gara and onduon’go less and less. He incorporated djembe drums, thus adding a more powerful pulsating beat to his tunes, and welcomed the West African drums into the nyatiti’s space.

Ayub Ogada might as well be credited with the upright nyatiti playing position that democratised the instrument by making it gender neutral.

In 2007 Ayub Ogada, the pilgrim and his nyatiti, returned home. He said:

Many people have forgotten traditional music. I feel a responsibility to re-introduce it. I learnt from here and I want to give back.”

Like an evangelist, Ayub Ogada had converted the world to appreciate this unique instrument that has a history of over 5,000 years. He had put Kenya on the map with Koth Biro, the tune that had featured in sound tracks of international films, and more recently in Kanye West’s music. The remaining task for the nyatiti proselyte was to re-ground traditional music and instruments back to the source.

Ayub Ogada returned home to set up a studio where he could work with younger artists and provide the direction that he felt he lacked as a young man. Returning to one’s roots – dala – is an imploring message in Koth Biro: Auma keluru dhok e dala (Auma, bring the cattle back home). The family’s wealth, the cattle, finally returned to the homestead.

Upon his death, there were many, like the singer Suzanne Owiyo, who eulogised him as the inspiration that led them to taking up the nyatiti. Ayub Ogada’s prodigy, Martin Murimi, who goes by the name Papillion, is taking the nyatiti to the next level. He has designed an instrument called Anywal-Abel, a combination of a harp, percussion and thumb piano. Papillion attributes his success to his mentor, for whom he composed a song, Ayubu. In the song he praises Ayub Ogada as the quintessential teacher and mentor in whose debt he will forever be. He met Ayub Ogada in 2013 at a workshop and Ayub went ahead and invited him to the African Heritage and mentored him. He has since grown as an artist performer and designer of his own instruments. He is hailed as the only one in Africa. He said, “I felt the need to thank Ayub for the impact he has put in me and so I did it with my first song.”

Ayub Ogada returned home to set up a studio where he could work with younger artists and provide the direction that he felt he lacked as a young man. Returning to one’s roots – dala – is an imploring message in Koth Biro: Auma keluru dhok e dala (Auma, bring the cattle back home). The family’s wealth, the cattle, finally returned to the homestead.

Unfortunately, Ayub Ogada remained largely unrecognised and unacknowledged at home – but he will be remembered globally for being a nyatiti prophet.

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Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications scholar and cultural activist. He is also an award winning playwright and social commentator. He has been involved in various struggles for social and political reform.

Culture

The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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

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Culture

Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders

Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.

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Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.

Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.

After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’

What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’

Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.

The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.

‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’

Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’

Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.

After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.

Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.

On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.

Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.

But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.

As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.

Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’

Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’

Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.

Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.

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Our Words Must Count

Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

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On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.

That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”

Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.

How is this contradiction possible?

I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.

This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.

The violence of language

These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.

Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.

​It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:

When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak

When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made 

When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge

When we question, we are ungrateful

When we lament, we’re not providing solutions

When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable

When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals

When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence

When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility

When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally

When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution

When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others

When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves 

The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think

But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?

What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?

These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.

This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.

“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”

In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.

Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?

Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:

  1. Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
  2. Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
  3. Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.

These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.

As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.

Our words must count

The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.

Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?

Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.

When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. ​That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.

So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?

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