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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 Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p’Bitek

In the first of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the renowned author and wonders whether Okot p’Bitek might have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had Oxford University treated him better.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p'Bitek
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The weight of the book in my hands registered as alarm, perhaps signalling the symbolism of its intellectual heft, a book the likes of which I had never reviewed in my quarter century in the business.

I had never reacted to a book the way I did to Lawino’s People on that day in a suburb of Kampala when it was handed to me by Kara Blackmore, one of the people at the London School of Economics who fought to ensure that Okot p’Bitek’s Ph.D dissertation, deliberately failed by Oxford university in 1970 and since then hidden from view, would be pulled out and published.

In his introduction, Tim Allen, LSE Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, puts the matter bluntly:

Okot p’Bitek’s D.Phil was actually failed by the University of Oxford in 1970. This was just three years before Talal Asad, another former student of Evans-Pritchard, published his well-known collection of articles by anthropologists, analysing and documenting ways in which anthropological thinking and practice had been affected by colonialism.

Before you have done any substantial reading, a disabling blow has already been delivered. What more can there be?

My own reaction had come before I had even read these words, and what that reaction was, perhaps holds some explanation:

I was instantly reminded of my time as a journalist at the turn of the new millennium, when I came across the most horrifying experience I remember. It was September 2004, and I had gone in a World Food Programme convoy delivering aid to Pajule camp for the internally displaced in northern Uganda. When I asked why five graves had been freshly dug side by side, I was told that no one had died yet, but that the daily death rate in that camp was roughly five.

Killing northerners had become a sort of sport. You tried to explain to all you came across that the modus operandi of the Museveni government was tribalistic, orgiastic murder and they jeered and said you northerners deserve it. You further explained that these same methods will later be turned against you and they said they were all Bantu people after all, the same people. To then watch the rising groundswell of southern activism against the regime after the end of the northern war and the disillusionment with the regime, when some of the dark methods the army learned in the north began to be applied in the south, is to feel sad at the failure to properly understand in time, who and what it was they were dealing with. It was a very dangerous time, and as a journalist, you knew that once you stuck your neck out to write about that war, it was the end of your career, and within only a year after writing the story, I learnt I would soon lose my job as journalist at the paper I worked at back then.

I had moved on from the dangerous years of the war, and now here was a book whipping my attention back directly to the war.

As for the northern war, there was always much talk about it being “a complex war”, but like all such talk, you suspected that those who made such statements really meant to say that very powerful governments, too powerful to name directly in small regional newspapers, had a hand in the conflict. Going to northern Uganda, even understanding the direct culpability of the Museveni power agenda, had felt like half-understanding the causes, with the result that a refulgent, odious, and inexplicable air of conspiracy hung over the topic.

Was this tome, weighing in at over 600 pages, going to reveal something?

All of the above may not be important, but the very existence of the book was already a statement. By publishing it, the London School of Economics academics were directly accusing Oxford University of censorship, and of deliberately destroying the academic career of one of the most pre-eminent African writers.

I understood that my reaction to the book stemmed from my own interest as a writer. But outside of that, very few people would understand why its publication mattered. Sure, the matter of two important scholar silenced by the British government, and by Oxford University, grabs attention. Otherwise, it is a matter that hacks back to a bygone era, a time when Britain mattered and which time is receding beyond living memory. So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation? One big answer is that Okot is a household name. But Frank Girling? You would have had to have scholarly interest in northern Uganda, even as an academic, for the name to mean something.

Was this not breaking some sort of gentleman’s agreement by so public an execution of a fellow British university? There you have the story before you—the liberal/progressive scholars of a liberal/progressive university having a go at the mother of all conservative institutions.

The connection to our own times is perhaps the direct link in the publication of these materials to the zeitgeist, and it follows on from the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign that has seen statues of odiously racist, right-wing heroes toppled, exposing how deeply rooted in slavery and imperialism many otherwise august western institutions are. In this connection, which is a very direct link to Oxford’s less than stellar history, this book is hence not just about colonialism and imperialism; it is about the attempt to cover up the crimes of colonialism and imperialism.

So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation?

The more pedantic explanation is that the copyright to Girling’s materials, which belonged to Her Majesty’s government, had expired after 50 years, and therefore it could be reprinted.

Otherwise, there is little doubt that this affair deeply damages the standing of Oxford; it more than deserves this bloody goring from Tim et al. Oxford, the recipient of endowments from more slave ships that sailed under the Union Jack, than any other university you can think of, and one that educated nearly every colonial governor, remains so deeply invested in it’s alternative reality that it refuses to take down the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College.

Girling

He was an anthropologist. I first came across his name a long time ago whilst foraging for scholarly material on northern Uganda. Within the small, northern Uganda intellectual circles in which he is known, I have often heard it said that it was he that solidified the name “Acholi” to the group that had not commonly called itself that prior to British creation of tribes. But this claim had always rung hollow. The British delimited communities geographically and put an end to the fluidity that had previously seen clans absorbed and dispersed into different language groups. Local historians dismiss the social reality of tribes, and speak instead of language groups. They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache. All these had happened long before Girling was even born.

What I was not prepared for was the extent to which the British government and the powerful universities of that country went to ensure that Girling’s career was destroyed. Given the self-declared righteousness of Britain on the international stage, so Stalinist an act, practiced with abandon but never reported by the BBC for whom tyranny only happened abroad, is still shocking.

Okot

It was not new to me that Oxford had failed Okot’s dissertation. The late Professor Akiiki Mujaju, whom I became close to at Makerere, and who was a contemporary of Okot’s, had told me about the matter. But it was unclear. It seemed that no one saw the offending dissertation. Okot himself had died tragically and young. It was speculated within academic and literary circles that what Oxford had done to him had so demoralised him that it also disorganised his literary output. Might he have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had the university treated him better?

The beginnings

Like all sagas, this one had a long and surprising, highly connected beginning. The story of Girling’s sordid treatment starts with colonial Britain moving to directly incorporate social research as a legislatively created and government-funded undertaking. Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets. You might almost be describing an HBO television series, rather than how such bodies as the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) came into existence.

They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache.

The story begins in the late 1930s, at the very dawn of the war, and is not disconnected from it. This was a repositioning of the place of anthropology in colonial affairs. Much as the discipline has been closely associated with colonialism, it was not as central as it might seem. Within the colonial British government, anthropology had never had the prestige of say Biology, or Botany or Geology. Colonial officials in general held anthropologists at a distance, regarding them as difficult individuals with their own “personal axe to grind”, as British Secretary of State in the late 1930s, Malcolm McDonald, put it.

They had a tendency to go native.

A paradox hence; maligned by anti-colonialists, held in suspicion by colonial officials, can one say that anthropologists made colonialism worse than it already was? It would be far-fetched to assume that fascists and racists first consulted anthropology texts before making up their minds.  Rather, the monies for anthropology research had come, curiously, from American philanthropists—chiefly the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. As various scholars suggest, the decision by the British colonial office to consider direct support to social science research may have been from a natural progress in colonial affairs. The empire had by the 1930s been consolidated and reached its fullest extent. Natives were now not seen as just dark-skinned hostiles, but a part of the state. The lobbying impact of the American social research council in creating the New Deal had been immense. They had had data to influence Congress. The British drive to create a welfare system lacked reliable data.

Various sources describe the fascinating meeting at which the foundations for the proposed council were discussed. For the empire, and Africa in particular, the nascent council considered Makerere and Achimota.

Who else but Lord Frederick Lugard himself to be present at the first meeting? The other imperial figure at the meeting, whose own reputation is not fondly remembered in India, was William Hailey, also Lord Hailey, Governor of Punjab in the 1920s. It was as if Darth Sidious and Darth Vader were in one room: It is 1939, and the skies are already darkened with heralds of a war that those present understood would shake their empire so there was some urgency in the agenda. If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting. Although it would not be until the 1960s that the council would eventually receive the government funding it demanded, its ideas were put to work straight away.

Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets.

The council came late to the game, for by then, anthropology had already made its fortunes. After all, by this time, Bronislow Malinowski, a leading figure in the development of Anthropology, was at the dusk of his career and would die a couple of years after this meeting.

In Uganda itself, pioneering work had already been done a generation earlier, with such works as The Baganda: An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs (1911) by Rev. John Roscoe, and The Lango: A Nilotic Tribe of Uganda (1923) by J.H. Driberg.

Coming so late in the empire’s lifespan, what would have been the purpose? Had enough not been written already? Adjusting for the fact that by 1939, no part of the empire had broken off yet, was this perhaps an attempt to respond to what were seen as the more progressive models of the USSR and the USA, which were not based on imperial colonialism but a kind of social and economic “scientificism”? A project of consolidation? Even back then, there was much talk of “development”, in the same manner that the World Bank and IMF speak of it today, a would-be positive term that in reality often means promoting land grabbing, breaking up of communities, punitive labour laws and growing inequalities in favour of settlers. The development of a colony is not good news for natives, then or now.

John Bull Sucks up to Uncle Sam

An old line trotted out to explain British attempts to clean up its colony act was the other matter of the British government’s relationship with the USA. At the advent of the Second World War, the British were skittish about getting their American cousins into the war (favourably on their side). They were not going to beat the Germans by themselves (even with the Americans in, it still remained for the Red Army to bring down the Wehrmacht), but the optics did not look good that, with an empire as vast as the British one, you could not do it yourselves. The USA had not taken the path of overseas colonialism, and opinion in Washington sneered at this European predilection for colonies. Colonialism was looking outdated, no more than a matter of beating up natives. The British were anxious to prove to the Americans that their edition of colonialism was meant for the good of the natives, but the files contained no data to create a coherent development plan. Was this turn in attitude a PR exercise in getting American help against the Nazis? At the time, it pays to remember, Soviet socialism, which was militantly anti-colonial, was visibly more progressive with its “five-year” plan models and it was Western Europe that looked antiquated.

A good man in Africa

It is how Frank Girling arrived in Gulu, as part of the army of government-funded anthropologists fanning out into the continent. At roughly the same time, Okot was getting out of Gulu, going out into the empire.

Girling got down to work with great vigour, a conscientious man out to deliver on his commission and his profession. The discipline, to the extent that anthropology could be so called, had developed a fairly structured approach and presentation. There were the requisite spatial establishing to make, of the geography, the cultural and linguistic locations. Some description of the arts, the industry, political structures, birth, youth, marriage and death rituals of the natives. Where did these natives come from, how did they describe themselves to others and who were their neighbours, what larger groupings did their culture and language belong in? Girling, like all anthropologists, had to answer these questions in his study.

He has arrived in Acholi 50 years after the start of the colonial era. He has come, as he quickly realises, not to carry out an ethnographic study, but a forensic examination. He has come to study, not the Acholi, but the impact of British colonisation of the Acholi. He realizes that he has been drafted as a co-conspirator in crime.

He is a very highly educated man. His intellectual orientation is keener than the lazy, racially self-satisfied fair of the Roscoe of half a century before him. He is a materialist whose understanding of history demands he draw his conclusions from the economic, the interactions between men, and their movement of value across class segments to make an explanation of what is happening.

If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting.

Girling’s conclusion is that the policies adopted since the inception of British rule in Acholi have greatly destabilised the society. He sets the beginning of this phase from the days of the first colonial administrator, John Rutherford Parkin Postlethwaite, accounts of whose actions make him a veritable Mr Kurtz, who decided to uproot a significant portion of Acholi society from their ancestral lands and resettle them in patterns deemed conducive to the production of cotton for the mills of Manchester. Girling examines how this, along with what he euphemistically calls “half-free labour”, and forced taxation, have upturned the social and political structures of the land. To boot, succession lines have been stopped and “commoners” are now in charge. The coming of the East African Railway, the industrial town of Jinja in the south, the coffee and sugar plantations of the south, the preference by the British for northerners to serve in the army, prisons and police, have torn the men away from their wives and children. The able-bodied have been taken away to work for Europeans and Asians and little left for Acholi.

This sort of treatment was very common throughout the European empires, but in the case of Uganda, Acholi seems to have been set out for unique dismemberment in ways that say, the Baganda were not.  The Acholi Girling runs into question why the British destroyed their political systems but left intact those of the south. There is a racial hierarchy in operation in Acholi, as in all of the colony, with the untouchable whites, the economically favoured Asians. Black people are fair game, as one Gujarati trader openly admits; “we cheat Africans”, but goes on to say white people are not different. They have to bribe British officials from time to time.

An unflattering image of British colonialism arises. Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges. Colonial hierarchies are in full force. The rulers don’t notice black people, who throughout remain faceless.

The Empire Strikes back

The report is scandalous. If this is what the Colonial Social Science Research Council had bargained for, they had not taken seriously enough the view of the Secretary of State, Malcolm MacDonald, that some anthropologists had “a personal axe to grind”.

Girling was a Marxist theorist who did not hide his communist party membership. The report extravagantly affirms the sneering words of the Soviet Union and the USA against European colonialism.

If, as an ideological axe-grind, the prescience of Girling’s warning that British policy in Acholi would be disastrous, would need stronger imageries to counteract what was to follow a generation later, long after the British have left Uganda. We may infer, but it takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges.

Her Majesty’s government would have none of it. Girling was forced to cut out the damaging chapters of his conclusion. He was forced to edit his work to weed out evidence of British culpability in the destruction of Acholi social systems. What was eventually published was a greatly watered down report, putting emphasis on the ways in which “development” could be achieved.

The ensuing mistreatment of Girling, which ensured his substantial intellect would not have an impact, and his career not go far, did not change his beliefs. To the end of his life, he remained a Marxist, displaying the steadfast courage of the communists without whom the war against Nazism would not have been won. He had in his younger years, volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain after all.

A Black man in Cecil Rhodes backyard

Okot was not a Marxist. But for the system, he was something worse; he was a black man, a native. His presence and his choice to study anthropology at an advanced level were replete with contradictions. On the one hand, the foundation of the exploitative system on which Oxford drew its stipend depended upon the unpaid labour of men like himself. But Oxford was a centre of civilisation, an idea that did not theoretically gel with slavery as its endowments. If anthropology had thrived on a racist assumption about the darker races, how was a black man going to become an anthropologist? The result might have been seen from a mile away; it was a foregone conclusion that a clash was brewing. Okot’s work on the thesis was always going to be a repudiation of the very field he was studying, and so it emerges thus. He had the gall to call out the entire heritage of white scholarship on Acholi/Luo, for getting it wrong.

The work he does is staggeringly exhaustive. He is studying northern Bunyoro-Kitara. But he cannot delimit himself geographically, for he quickly discovers that the ethnic boundaries as spelt out by colonial policy don’t make sense. There is barely any such boundary between the Luo of his cohort and Bunyoro-Kitara. This becomes a source of friction between himself and his supervisors. This is where the two scholars converge. Both were supervised by the same man, Evans-Pritchard, albeit in different decades, but whose role in the ostracism of the two men would be interesting to know in detail.

Okot’s dissertation is positively dripping with disdain for all the big anthropology names that have come before him. He calls out an important source on Luo studies, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, for laziness. He refuses to acknowledge the preponderance of “tribe”, dismissing the idea of “Acholi”, and insisting on seeing the continuum of these concatenated societies with the same language and political ties. He is generally affirming the African version of Africa, which is a political statement in itself.

It takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

For himself, the irony wreathing Okot and his Ph.D attempt brims with drama he himself might have smiled at. He already carried degrees. He had studied law at Aberystwyth University. He was a big name in world literature. He had been a footballer; now he wants to become Dr Okot. But of anthropology? For one of the lesser beings to self-gaze is comical enough in itself. As has been said of the legions of black anthropologists (an oxymoronic enough construct), Okot was studying himself, observing his own peculiarity, his own beastliness, self-othering himself, like being your own dentist, like auto-erotica or self-disembowelment.

Okot’s work vigorously repudiated the double-faced act of imperial colonialism. But he is subtle, and capable enough that he does not glorify Africanness. You cannot accuse him of something as crude as that. He places his people’s experiences in a realistic dialectic, pointing out ironies, discontinuities and historical contradictions inherent in his own people’s polity. It is a first class work of scholarliness. By and of itself, Ph.D theses have not often been so well written.

Deconstructionist

His timing was wrong. Decolonisation was in full swing. Losing an empire was humiliating enough. But the 1960s is seeing an ever-increasing number of natives acquiring doctorates, writing books and making films directly challenging centuries of the western canon. Deconstruction and structuralism are questioning the foundations of such universities as Oxford. We can only imagine how the colleges of Oxford felt besieged by the likes of Okot.

But you would have to be close enough to both Acholi and Bunyoro colonial experiences to glean something darker in both the British government and Oxford’s hands in the proscription of Okot and Girling. Okot’s study of Bunyoro-Kitara and Acholi was coming too close to a scene of crime; the British had committed a horrendous genocide in the very locale that Okot was studying and had his dissertation been approved, how long would it take before others began to ask what the British had done in Bunyoro?

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The Changing Face of Kisii as Smallholder Agriculture Wanes

Sub-division of ancestral land has all but wiped out farming in Kisii, driving poverty and malnutrition and pushing the population into migration in search of greener pastures.

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When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.

Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.

Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.

Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.

What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.

Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.

On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

What happened?

The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times

While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.

Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.

Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.

Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.

Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.

Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.

Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.

First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.

Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.

The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.

That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.

Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.

Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.

Changing Dietary Patterns 

Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.

Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.

However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.

Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.

Mass exodus and generational interdependency 

According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.

Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.

Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.

Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.

The climate change factor

In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.

When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.

When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.

Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.

However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.

“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.

Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.

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Culture

Mental Health in Kenyan Women Activists

In the first of a three-part series on mental health and activism in Kenya, Noosim Naimasiah writes about the pandemic of mental health breakdown in Kenya. She notes how activists respond increasingly to distress calls, extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse, fatal domestic violence, and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Naimasiah writes how communities once connected by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal system registering only exchange value.

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Women activists in Nairobi are struggling with mental health problems, further aggravated by the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic. As part of the larger community of African activists, I comprehend in sharper relief the myriad ways that women activists suffer. Caring for others and ourselves is a balance most struggle to strike, so that in the end many activists have become overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and resentful.

The manifestation of living in a patriarchal society, the culturally alienating effects of colonization compounded by the suffering inflicted by a highly unequal neoliberal society melt into each other to form a toxic political amalgam. Talk therapy or ‘self-care’ is extended at a prohibitive cost, holding the possibility of healing at bay and leaving most activists depressed and dystopic. It also reinforces individual healing which though important, cannot be isolated from context of the dis-ease. Short retreats or mental health workshops might provide temporary reprieve, but do not address the issues holistically or with long-term healing in mind. Dysfunctional and destructive coping mechanisms like alcoholism have become common coping strategies.

In this three-part series for roape.net, I will be exploring how alienation is manifested in the context of Kenya women activists. The first part will look at how national mental health documents and statistics remain ensnared in imperial hegemony and therefore do not reflect the reality on the ground. The second part will contend with activism as labour and look at how patriarchal structures in the home and the influence of NGOs have further alienated the labour of women activist historically. The third part looks back at African mental health structures before western hegemony and examines colonialism as a watershed period during which cultural structures and social networks were violently discontinued. The conclusion proposes that African methodologies and practitioners should form communities of healing practice to address mental health problems not just for activists, but for the larger African public.

Mental health – a Kenyan retrospective

The meteoric rise in mental breakdown cases in Kenya is symptomatic and catastrophic. Symptomatic because they signal an inner implosion provoked by the unbearable conditions of being today. Catastrophic because it seems, rather suddenly, that intimate relations of the self, of lovers and families, friends and communities are the prelude to a crime scene; for suicide and gruesome murders. As the advance guard in our communities, activists experience a double burden. They not only have to contend with the escalating violence in our local communities but also to deal with the manifestation of this social upheaval in their own lives.

Activists at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library who are also linked with the social justice movement across the city are permanently attending to distress calls, mostly of a violent nature. The severe cases of extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse – even of minors, fatal domestic violence and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of horizontal violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Lack of toilet facilities for instance, are the precursor to recurrent urinary tract infections. Or rape. Medical services were privatized since the advent of SAPs in the 1980s and continue to be unaffordable to most working-class people. Gendered relations are buttressed by a capitalist system, making them increasingly transactional and culturally alienated from their history and context. Political systems that held communities together by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal and punitive schema registering only exchange value.

It is easy to censure Covid 19 as the primary cause, but the pandemic is a strawman for the complex historical layers that have created a monstrosity whose soft white underbelly was exposed in the last few years. Jobs that were already precariously held were lost. Labouring bodies enervated by decades of consuming pesticides, new age diseases and the liberalization of public hospitals were easily asphyxiated by Covid.  And tragically, the fragile conditions of African minds long deracinated by colonialism were crippled further by debt and failed aspirations.

A recent continent-wide study carried out by the African Women Development Fund in 2020, found that 73 million women in Africa were affected by mental health conditions with more than 25 million suffering from neurological conditions. In Kenya specifically, the crisis is escalating with a reported 483 suicide cases and 409 cases of grievous assaults in just three months April – June, 2021, compared to 196 cases in all of 2019. Domestic violence and homicides in Kenya are soaring, with a conservative estimate of at least three people killed by a family member every day, according to statistics compiled from the Nation and police news reports.

For women activists, this trend has been exacerbated with the onset of Covid 19, where personal burdens both at home and in the frontlines of providing support and security, especially for women have been compounded. The UN Women has labelled these incidents the ‘shadow pandemic’ where more than one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence since the pandemic began. Though the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta noted the seriousness of this crisis and committed millions of funds to address it, little had changed on the ground.

In a recent study on the wellbeing of Kenyan women activists, 200 WHRDs (Women human rights defenders) in the informal settlements reported that they experienced serious mental health challenges. On a list of possible disorders including depression, anxiety, paranoia and PTSD, the women acknowledged experiencing at least 80% of these conditions. They cited the lack of a regular income, the trauma generated by their work, the physical and sexual harassment sometimes from the community and co-activists, a general sense of dystopia because of the injustice perpetrated by the criminal justice system and the strenuous effect on families and intimate relationships as the precursors for their mental health problems. This recent study is important and illuminating on the general situation of WHRD. However, a political typology of the activists was not articulated, the ‘list of mental illnesses’ was pre-emptive as it was presented during the research and might have undermined the possibility of engaging with the formulations of illnesses as experienced rather than as referenced. Categories are derivations of pathologies researched and articulated elsewhere, in a historically consistent display of colonial dominance over indigenous knowledge systems.

Part One: Imperial Games of Numbers and Manuals

The current national statistics on the prevalence and character of mental illness in Kenya are elusive. Old research data is recycled, presenting a false diagnosis on a vastly altering social and political terrain. Health policies are xeroxed from WHO with little cognizance of the prevailing history and context. Recommendations reveal no engagement with indigenous modes of healing and make the exact same appeals presented more than 40 years ago. We are generating imperial neuro-scapes, effacing the real portrait of a continent in distress.

Case in point: the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya. This committee was a presidential directive in 2019 that set out to assess the mental health challenges in Kenya and advice government on resource allocation. They visited health facilities in the major towns and held sector-specific meetings and in total, ‘held discussions with 1,569 Kenyans, received 206 memoranda (submitted 121 on emails, 73 hard copies and 12 on Taskforce website)’. They also stated, with certainty; ‘It was clear that at least 25% of outpatients and 40% of inpatients in different health facilities had a mental illness, and an estimated prevalence of psychosis stated as 1% of the general population’. Yet, there was no reference.

I had encountered this very statistic on another government funded institution – the (KNCHR) Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report on mental health – written in 2011. In turn, this KNCHR presents these very statistics as if they were current, but a cursory look at the reference reveals a paper written in 1979! Professor David M. Ndetei and Professor J. Muhangi conducted this research 40 years ago in a day clinic (the 40% inpatient statistic hence a strange addition) and articulated their findings in an article in which the neurological, cultural, social and political context were expressly demarcated. Firstly, class was a fundamental lens through which psychiatric illness was assessed. The setting was Athi River, a suburban area at the time consisting mainly of immigrant who worked as labourers in the factories, who were low-income earners and a minority peasant Kamba and pastoralist Maasai population existing mainly in a subsistence economy. Secondly, parameters were elaborate, expansive and historical – a psychiatric history which included family histories, personality development, sexual activities, sleep patterns, bowel functions and appetite rather than preemptive. Thirdly, the criterion of culture was a crucial basis for analysis, where an earlier article, was referenced showing how patients with psychiatric disorders had culturally specific symptoms – the more rural and non-literate patients exhibited symptoms related to the gut and the more urban population had more-head related symptoms.[3] Limitations like lack of laboratory investigations were cited. This signals a regression in the way of research capacity and critical analysis.

Why were the obvious ‘laboratories’ for research like the local hospitals, local healers and the police reports that generally serve as the first points of contact for the mentally unwell not consulted? Instead, the usual liberal rhetoric on ‘declaring national emergencies and national health months’ were pronounced. More aggravatingly, a commission on national happiness was recommended, in tandem with the World Happiness Report, with highly subjective criterion, none of which, of course, were generated in the continent. For instance, generosity, cited as one of the indicators for happiness in the survey, is premised on a question of whether one has donated money to a charity in the past month?! In a context where the social relations that bolster generosity have not been fully institutionalized, this is a strange and socially adulterated question.

The definition and determinants of mental health in Kenyan policy though in some ways comprehensive are quoted directly from the WHO manual. Public participation is a farce, the notion that policy interventions were developed through a consultative process are not reflected in the content of the policy. As always it seems, history is censored. Strategies that include reviewing legislation, developing guidelines and standards, investing in finance, technology, human resources, service delivery and developing Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks are generic functions that are unlikely to facilitate genuine local engagement.

Like the WHO mental health manual, the very basis of mental health diagnosis in Kenya – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is developed by the American Association of Psychiatry. These are western cultural documents, predicated on American notions  on ‘what constitutes a real disorder, what counts as scientific evidence, and how research should be conducted’.[4] Psychiatric disorders make dramatic appearances, are declassified as illnesses, changing into pharmaceutically curable ailments reflecting shifts in western social and political contexts. Even when non-western populations are engaged and assessed, the primary criterion for psychopathy are those developed within western subjects. The criterion for health, the distinctions between disorder and normal responses to distress, and the ideas of personhood superimpose foreign categories producing a social dissonance and political disarticulation in local communities.

This very process of mental and medical imperialism is likely a primary basis for mental disorders. The understanding of western diagnostic criteria as ethnopsychiatry is crucial in dismantling western medical hegemony.  Even in their own territory, questions abound on over-diagnosis in the pursuit of pharmaceutical profits. It is not a coincidence that the two institutions producing global data on mental health, the WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, are both heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Concerns have been advanced on the lack of transparency on the methods and data used by the institute, as well as the lack of a variety of independent views by scientists that could deflect from the political and economic objectives of the foundation.

Even in seemingly benign accounts of health like statistics, imperial machinations remain afoot, preventing us from developing local concepts for research, screening, and diagnosis of mental illness.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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