I first visited Nigeria in 2009, and one of the first things that struck me as we drove around in Lagos was how festive everyone looked. It was an ordinary weekday, and people were doing ordinary things – selling wares by the roadside, navigating traffic, and just going about their day. But there was something striking about how they looked, and then it hit me – they were wearing what we in East Africa call kitenge or “African fabric”.
I had never seen this in everyday life – to me, kitenge was Sunday best, exclusively worn to church or to weddings, and in fact, often only by women of a certain age. Growing up in middle-class Nairobi, you certainly couldn’t catch me dead in kitenge in my teenage years, or more accurately, as soon as I had the power to resist what my mother insisted dressing me up in. It wasn’t cool. We would make fun of kids at Sunday school whose parents would dress them up in matching kitenges; our aesthetic was very much influenced by 1990s African-American hip-hop – FILA sneakers, denim dungarees (overalls), Nike and FUBU, and midriff-baring crop tops that our parents would disparagingly call “tumbo cuts”.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many African countries were pressurised to adopt structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were supposed to fix structural problems in African economies – remove foreign exchange controls, privatise state corporations, and liberalise trade.
These adjustments – sometimes grudgingly implemented by African governments, sometimes enthusiastically so – led to massive job cuts, crumbling public services and a stagnated formal sector. The social fall-out from these programmes was devastating to many communities, especially in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
But the liberalised trade also provided opportunities for a different kind of route to prosperity in Africa. This was made possible by the expansion of three airlines: Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways. Before the airline revolution in Africa, it could take days to transit from one city to another, and very frequently one had to transit through Europe – for example, Douala to Abidjan had to be connected via Paris.
However, these three airlines made for a very different kind of Africa. Via ET, KQ and SAA, one could move much more easily around the continent and trade with each other, creating what we will call the “kitenge route”.
Perhaps analogous to the silk route through Asia and Europe, the kitenge route was an ordinary businessperson sourcing shea butter from Ghana, or Ankara fabric from Nigeria, and selling it at an open-air market in Kampala; or hundreds of artisanal curio traders getting their artefacts from Kenya and Tanzania and selling them at glitzy malls in Johannesburg.
Along with the airline revolution came satellite television, and primarily South Africa-based Multichoice/ DSTV. Although the absolute figure of DSTV subscribers in Africa is small – just over 10 million households, more than half of which are in South Africa – its impact on the continent’s aesthetic has been outsized.
Perhaps analogous to the silk route through Asia and Europe, the kitenge route was an ordinary businessperson sourcing shea butter from Ghana, or Ankara fabric from Nigeria, and selling it at an open-air market in Kampala; or hundreds of artisanal curio traders getting their artefacts from Kenya and Tanzania and selling them at glitzy malls in Johannesburg.
The explosion of urban African music in the past two decades has been driven by many forces, among them demographic change, globalisation and fast-growing cities, but DSTV’s Channel O was one of the first to create a space for urban music on the continent. Private radio and television stations were also sprouting all over the continent, sourcing music and films from fellow African countries. Platforms like YouTube made art travel even more seamlessly.
For a generation of young Africans who had grown up in the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s, witnessing social decay and economic hardship all around them, the early 21st century was a time of possibility, even if the political reversals were many and economic promises yet to be fulfilled. Education expanded but so did unemployment; SAPs didn’t fix their country’s economic troubles, multiparty democracy didn’t quite deliver either, but at least they had this.
With that – and in later years, accelerated by social media – young urban Africans were starting to get their cues on what was “cool” from icons as diverse as Mafikizolo, P-Square and T.I.D. They got their fashion tips from Nollywood stars like Omotola J. Ekeinde and Genevieve Nnaji, and shared these ideas online on places like Pintrest, Tumblr, and Instagram.
With that, a distinctly “African” aesthetic was created, drawing on different influences all over the continent, unapologetically mixed-and-matched, and melded together into a recognisable yet paradoxically vague “African” identity. You don’t quite know what it is, but you recognise it when you see it in a full Nigerian agbada or gele all the way in Nairobi, fused into an Ankara top-and-jeans combo, or all the way minimised into strips of kitenge fabric on the collar or cuffs of an otherwise “formal” shirt.
As second-hand clothing (called mitumba in Kenya) flooded African markets in this context of liberalised trade, having your own tailored outfit was increasingly a status symbol – leading to a whole demographic of young, self-taught designers and tailors who had picked up their skills from the Internet and from teaching each other. In many places, the previous generation of tailors had largely faded into obscurity from the onslaught of SAPs and mitumba.
Mancini Migwi is one such designer who has found her niche in producing African print designs. “My mother had several kitenge outfits, but my appreciation and love for Afro prints came later in life,” she tells me. “I’m a self-taught artist; I learned to design and sew from watching videos online. Pintrest is my style bible; I draw heavily from what I see people sharing there.”
As second-hand clothing (called mitumba in Kenya) flooded African markets in this context of liberalised trade, having your own tailored outfit was increasingly a status symbol – leading to a whole demographic of young, self-taught designers and tailors who had picked up their skills from the Internet and from teaching each other.
One of Migwi’s clients is the musician Dan Aceda, who is friends with the television journalist Larry Madowo. For a while, Madowo hosted The Trend, a Friday night variety show which was at one time one of Kenya’s highest-rated television programme. Madowo would wear a different design every week, and Aceda was performing in high-profile music events like the Koroga Festival and Blankets and Wine. Aceda tells me that he was competing with his friend to see who could “unleash the best jacket”. It was a contest between friends that was playing out in front of millions of people – and subtly influencing what young people considered cool.
And for Rwandan designer Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba, the link between his rise as a designer, social media and an online buzz is even more obvious. The founder and creative director of bespoke menswear designer label House of Tayo, Rugamba was in college in Portland, Oregon in the United States when he put up a post on Tumblr in early 2012 of an idea he had – to create bow ties using African print fabric.
“Whenever I would say I’m from Rwanda, people would give me a look of pity,” Rugamba told me in a previous interview. “I didn’t like that. So I wanted to tell the story of African dignity – that being Rwandan, and African, wasn’t a pitiful thing.” Bow ties were his way of making this point: “They exude elegance and dignity.”
At this point he had not a shred of experience in fashion or design; what he had was his Tumblr post on how he was going to use bow ties to tell the story of an Africa that is dignified and sophisticated.
By sheer coincidence, that was the very week when big high fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Burberry were launching some “Africa-inspired” designs. Whenever people would google “African fashion” that week, they landed on his Tumblr post – and immediately, the buzz began growing, with orders and interview requests landing thick and fast.
Rugamba had to turn down many invitations to headline fashion events in the coming weeks, as he actually had no material to showcase yet. But that was the unlikely beginning of House of Tayo, and in the coming months, Rugamba spent many hours teaching himself everything he could about design and colour combinations, mostly from online tutorials and following fashion blogs.
Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, “African fabric” is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.
The one thing that all these fabrics have in common is colour. African print is unapologetically colourful, and wearing it in public – depending on the intensity of coloniality in your society – is taken to be a very brave move, or a political statement. In Nairobi certainly, formal spaces are very monochrome, especially for men; blue, black and intervening shades (light blue, navy, grey, white) are taken to be the proper tones for what Kenyans call “official” clothes.
The taboo of colour in formal spaces in Kenya is a legacy of the colonial imagination, and its attendant Victorian ethic, which saw everything African as a problem to be corralled, controlled and disciplined. And for African men, especially, the pressure to aesthetically conform is even more acute, because as men within the structures of patriarchy (even under colonialism) there is at least the possibility of social climbing in a way that excludes women simply because they are not men. In that way, women tend(ed) to have more room to continue wearing their kitenges, khangas and lesos.
The one thing that all these fabrics have in common is colour. African print is unapologetically colourful, and wearing it in public – depending on the intensity of coloniality in your society – is taken to be a very brave move, or a political statement.
It seems that the more one is in contact with the logic of whiteness, the more disciplined one’s aesthetic will be. It is perhaps the reason why West Africans generally have a less complicated relationship with African prints – because they were colonised under indirect rule and did not have large numbers of white settlers to directly influence public life in that way. It is perhaps the reason why in a city like Nairobi, it was very difficult – until recently – to find anywhere to eat “African food” in public that was not a kibanda (roadside kiosk). Beyond the kibanda is white territory, and therefore African food could not find a place in a formal restaurant. Only in the past few decades has this been changing, with a growing acceptance of African fabric, music and food in public spaces. A restaurant chain like Nyama Mama, an upmarket, African-themed establishment offering local cuisine, could have never existed in the 1990s Nairobi of my childhood. Even so, the menu at Nyama Mama tends to offer “modern” fusions or reinterpretations of local dishes instead of serving them straight up, like serving ugali as baked fritters instead of the traditional stiff porridge.
Still, African designs are far from being unruly and chaotic. The repetitive motifs and designs of many fabrics are an example of fractals – geometric figures in which each part has the same character as the whole. Look closely at a piece of kitenge or Ankara fabric, and you are likely to see infinitely complex patterns that are repeated over and over again in an ongoing feedback loop.
Ron Eglash, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, explains how fractals permeate everything, from braided hairstyles and kente cloth to counting systems and the design of homes and settlements in many African communities. In his 2007 TED talk ‘The Fractals at the Heart of African Designs’, Eglash traces his journey into trying to understand African fractals, and the common pushback that he would get – that it was all “just intuition” and “Africans can’t possibly really be using fractal geometry…it wasn’t invented until the 1970s.”
Ron Eglash, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, explains how fractals permeate everything, from braided hairstyles and kente cloth to counting systems and the design of homes and settlements in many African communities.
“Well, it’s true that some African fractals are, as far as I’m concerned, just pure intuition,” he says in the talk. “So some of these things, I’d wander around the streets of Dakar asking people, ‘What’s the algorithm? What’s the rule for making this?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, we just make it that way because it looks pretty, stupid.’ [Laughter] But sometimes, that’s not the case. In some cases, there would actually be algorithms, and very sophisticated algorithms. So in Mangbetu sculpture [from DR Congo], you’d see this recursive geometry. In Ethiopian crosses, you see this wonderful unfolding of the shape.”
Eglash eventually traces these algorithms to sand divination that is common all over Africa, where priests divine your fortunes by making marks in the sand. These marks follow certain patterns that become diverse self-generating symbols that can be reduced to odd or even symbols, a kind of binary code.
Islamic mystics learned these divination patterns from African priests, and then took them to Spain in the 12th century. There they were kept alive among alchemy communities as the idea of geomancy, or divination through the earth.
German mathematician Gottfried Wilhehm Leibniz wrote about geomancy in his dissertation in the late 17th century, using a one and a zero instead of odd and even symbols. English mathematician George Boole took Leibniz’s binary code and refined it into Boolean algebra in 1847, and John von Neumann took Boolean algebra and created the digital computer in the mid 20th century.
So every digital circuit in the world, according to this research, has its unlikely origin very long ago in Africa, and the humble kitenge is just part of a much bigger legacy. How very apt that these same digital platforms – social media, television, music and the Internet – are fuelling the spread of a culture that they owe their very existence to.
Prof. Ron Eglash’s 2007 TED talk ‘The Fractals at the Heart of African Designs’.
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Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya
How racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances can do the most damage.
In 1951, a prominent British medical journal on mental disease published the now-notorious account from Dr J.C. (John Colin) Carothers on “frontal lobe function and the African.” While such racist pseudo-sciences were ubiquitous throughout the colonial period, this article contained the rather shocking analogy comparing the brains of “normal” Africans to that of leucotomized (lobotomized) Europeans. Although the original article is lost somewhat to obscurity, its hypothesis has been a mainstay in much of the historiography surrounding the racist science behind what can be called a “colonial psychiatry.”
Since Megan Vaughan’s seminal article on “Idioms of Madness in a Nyasaland asylum” (1983), a robust sub-genre in medical history scholarship has followed suit to explore the concepts, confinements, and rhetorical abuses of colonial institutions across their occupied territories. Kenya, as is often the case, looms large. This is due, in part, to the work of Carothers throughout the 1940s from Nairobi’s Mathari Mental Hospital, which followed on from an ugly eugenicist turn amongst white settler physicians in the 1930s.
The body of work by such physicians appearing frequently within the pages of the East African Medical Journal and the later, more substantial, publications by Carothers in the early 1950s, solidified what came to be known as the East African School of psychiatry with Carothers as exemplar.
Carothers is known for three influential publications; the aforementioned article on frontal lobe function, a widely read World Health Organization monograph, The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953), and a British government commissioned treatise on the Mau Mau rebellion, “The Psychology of Mau Mau” (1954).
Despite his prominence in some quarters, and the expectation that his years of service at the helm of Mathari qualified him as an expert witness on African mentalities, Carothers’ work did not receive a quiet acceptance among his contemporaries. Experts from psychiatry and anthropology weighed in with responses to the WHO monograph with scathing reviews appearing in equally prominent journals. Lest Carothers’ stance on race appear unclear, critics made direct references to his racial and biological determinism—fair play, considering Carothers himself cited his frontal lobe theory in his later works.
Frantz Fanon, critiquing the agony of the colonial situation, referred directly to the sinister nature of the work emanating from Kenya and from Carothers specifically. Although Fanon had many targets, Carothers’ infamy was cited in a summing up of his chapter on “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” in The Wretched of the Earth with commentary on the damage done by the widespread acceptance, even in university teaching, of the “uniform conception of the African.”
“In order to make his point clearer” Fanon wrote, “Dr Carothers establishes a lively comparison. He puts forward the idea that the normal African is a ‘lobotomized European.’” Unlike Fanon, J.C. Carothers was not actually trained as a psychiatrist (he completed a diploma course in psychology while on leave in the UK). He utilized the patient population of Mathari Hospital and a general armchair anthropological tendency that infected many colonial administrators, to publish his findings about the nature of the “normal and abnormal” African. Although he lacked genuine academic credentials, he did enough to beat out experts like Melville Herskovitz (a prominent figure in the founding of modern African Studies in the US) to win the WHO commission. Despite this intellectual coup, the book was seen as a racially charged blemish on the organisation and was controversial the moment it was released.
Melville Herskovitz’ review warned that the potential damage caused by the publication was palpable. “For where, as in Africa, stakes are high and tempers are short, anything this side of the best scientific knowledge will accelerate existing tensions and make their resolution the more difficult.” The impact of the book might have remained fairly academic; it was, after all, an extended institutional report with a poorly constructed literature review. But it gave Carothers an air of authority as an expert on African psychology amidst a period of turmoil and increasingly violent demands for independence.
By the time the state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952, Carothers had already returned to the UK. When the British government called on him to provide his opinion on the psychological impulse behind the Mau Mau rebellion, he was able to oblige from the comfort of home by plagiarizing substantial aspects of The African Mind with added polemics about the “forest psychology” of the Mau Mau. He made a brief government sponsored visit in 1954 to observe the detention camps, and his visit to Manda Island was documented in a scant entry in Gakaara Wa Wanjau’s Mau Mau Author in Detention. The result was a widely read government pamphlet, “The Psychology of Mau Mau,” which not only explained the reasons why Kenyans had resorted to violence, but also laid out a medicalized rationale for what to do about it.
Under the radar, in the mid-1950s, another psychiatrist had a mandate to visit the camps. However, so dominant is the Carothers narrative of East African psychiatry, these two doctors are generally not compared as such. Edward Lambert Margetts was a little-known psychiatrist from Canada who had the distinction of having overseen Mathari Hospital during the Mau Mau war. In stark contrast to Carothers, Margetts made some surprising observations about the trauma of detention camps—although it must be said that he was no sympathizer to the Mau Mau cause.
Despite a penchant for collecting, documenting, and writing, he eschewed any opportunity to write about the Mau Mau war directly, but he too was invited to visit detention camps and to examine detainees brought to Mathari. Camp superintendents had little interest in big picture theories about the African mind, but they were keen to expose specific prisoners who were suspected of feigning mental illness as a means of escaping hard labor.
While some of Margetts’ notes are uncharacteristically cagey, he observed key patterns amongst a small number of detainees held in camps as well as Kenyans living amidst Mau Mau chaos. Most fascinating are medical notes with a term coined by Margetts “Mau Mau perplexity fear syndrome” in which he documented the anguished testimonies or panicked delusions of Kenyans who lived under a constant terror of violence.
For detainees, Margetts made a remarkable observation that while some prisoners might well be “malingering,” others exhibited signs of dissociation caused by extreme trauma related to their confinement. Ganser Syndrome (after Sigbert Ganser, 1898) was also known as “prison psychosis” and included an array of unusual symptoms such as hysterical blindness or the compulsion to give nonsensical answers to easily understood questions. Margetts queried whether some detainees could be considered under this diagnosis—an indication that some of the trauma in Kenya might be attributable to British administration of the war and not the innate savagery of the African personality.
Frantz Fanon also referred directly to Carothers’ “Psychology of Mau Mau,” and to the government’s concurrence that the “revolt [was] the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose reoccurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.” If Fanon was aware of Margetts at all, he would likely have conflated his views with those of his predecessor within the East African School. Fanon noted that Carothers’ work dovetailed with the types of claims made by the North African School. and the credence given to such ideas made the corruption, and “tragedy” of colonial medicine all the more evident.
Although they were contemporaries, these three psychiatrists had little in common, although two of them challenged the “Mau Mau as mental disease” paradigm from the distinct vantage points of clinical curiosity and revolutionary political thought. There are still many avenues to pursue within a scholarship concerned with psychiatry’s entanglement with colonial politics and violence, but perhaps J.C. Carothers output has had a shelf life beyond what it should have done. Edward Margetts’ tenure at Mathari is not unproblematic, but nonetheless leaves a very different intellectual footprint. From his clinical notes and writing, we may apply a bit more nuance and tension to the otherwise flat depiction of Carothers’ overt racism.
The “East African school” represents a paradox between a scientific community that for the most part knew better in the 1950s, and the undeniable influence of racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances to do the most damage.
BBI: Fighting Back Against Our Need to Uproot Uthamaki (White) Masculinity
BBI would have shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas, or that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male.
It is now fairly well accepted in the public discourse outside Kikuyuland that the alcoholism and suicide rates among Kikuyu men are related to the soul pact which the Kikuyu community has signed since 1969 to keep the Kenyattas in power. It is a phenomenon that creates a lot of bitterness in the rest of the country, especially within the communities that have most recently suffered large-scale state violence, such as that witnessed in Kibra and Kisumu in 2017 during the protests against the disputed election of Uhuru Kenyatta.
The extremely slow realisation that the Kikuyu are becoming isolated from the rest of Kenya has started to produce a literature in which the Kikuyu are portrayed as having acknowledged the mistake they made in supporting Uhuru in 2017.
This narrative, however, still contains the supremacist blind spot which Kenyans complain about. The realisation of the mistake comes not from a deep regret about the loss of non-Kikuyu life, including the fact that some Kikuyu supporters of Jubilee cheered on the police massacres that largely targeted the Luo community. Rather, the regret comes from a bad business environment, implying that if business was doing well, all things remaining constant, there would be no problem with what happened in 2017. In other words, money is more valuable than non-Kikuyu life.
As one can imagine, this hubris makes many Kenyans livid. But unfortunately, it is not enough to say that the empathy the Kikuyu are seeking is still selfish and narrow-minded. Although it is. Rather, we must analyse how this hubris became entrenched among the Kikuyu, because the mechanisms which have made the Kikuyu collectively oblivious of the national sentiment are actually contained in the BBI which was recently deemed unconstitutional by the High Court.
Embedded in BBI was the disease that has led to the collective zombification and self-decimation of Kikuyu men, and which would have spread to the rest of Kenya. Ultimately, BBI was less about institutional change and more about a change in the collective Kenyan soul. BBI did not call for change in the status quo; rather, it sought a change in our attitude towards the status quo, an attitude that has already taken Kikuyu masculinity captive.
The culture of Uthamakistan
The unstated religion in Kikuyuland is that being a Kikuyu man is the best thing since sliced bread. This religion is reaffirmed at various gatherings (weddings, funerals, church services) where men are encouraged to affirm a manhood that is modelled on the local rich man who owns land and drives around in an SUV, and ultimately on Uhuru Kenyatta himself. This model of masculinity is a Kenyanification of the colonial white settler. In fact, had it not been for technology and independence, the alpha Kikuyu male would have a horse instead of a Prado, and would have called himself Sir Charles or Prince Andrew. I’ve been told that such men do exist in the exclusive clubs formerly frequented exclusively by colonial settlers, but the only one I’ve seen is former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
The message in Kikuyu country is that there is no other alternative to manhood. In some ceremonies I have attended, even in church, this reification of what one would call Uthamaki masculinity is presented as a cultural obligation. Kikuyu men are told that other Kenyan ethnic groups are proud of their identity, but Kikuyus are ashamed of theirs, and so joining groups like the kiama kia ma is an obligation to not just the ethnic group, but to a pan-African identity as a whole. This narrative is not only widespread, but it is also comprehensive, because it covers property, education, culture, faith, gender and anti-colonialism, making it difficult for an ordinary man without a sufficient grasp of history and political education to resist it.
Inevitably, this model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status. So what are the options for such Kikuyu men who do not own property?
Alcohol and suicide. Alcohol to silence the voices in his head asking him to be what he cannot be, and because he can’t burn down the media houses, Jogoo House and the churches to shut those voices up. After all, the Uthamakistan message is that those institutions are “his” and if he can’t enter them, Muigai is doing so on his behalf. So he can’t fight the institutions that are “his”.
The other option is suicide in order to get out of the system altogether.
And this was the suffocation that Binyavanga Wainaina was fighting against. He was saying that the narrative of the straight pipeline which says “go to school, get a job or start a business” was “crap”. To illustrate, Binyavanga gave the example of someone with two masters’ degrees paying a 300,000 shillings bribe to get a job as a private in the Kenya Defence Forces. Throughout his life, Binyavanga called for a variety of stories and innovations to counter this single story that is strangling Kikuyu men, and ultimately all Kenyans.
This model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status.
What Binyavanga was calling for was a fundamental reconsideration of what it meant to be human, and for an imagination of what a human Kenya would look like. The status quo responded viciously. Kwani?, the platform for his cultural action, was welcomed with hostility by the academy that called writers associated with him “literary gangsters”. In the end, Binyavanga spent his last days struggling to pick himself up as the legacy he had struggled to build began to decline.
Granted, Binyavanga had not reckoned with the ethnic dimension of what he was fighting against, and often wavered between supporting and opposing the government. But he was onto something, and the seed which he had planted needed the soil, water and sunlight of Kenya’s diversity and creativity to germinate.
And this is not to suggest that Binyavanga was the only one who had this seed. He probably got as far as he did because he was a Kikuyu man. In other areas of Kenya, such seeds never see the light. Culture and arts in Kenya have buckled under the weight of a claustrophobic public life that is hostile to any public gathering of Kenyans outside political rallies or the inevitable weddings, initiations and funerals. And BBI had proposed penetrating even those ceremonies by providing the syllabi to be used at initiations and the material to be used in marriage counselling.
And so the purpose of BBI was two-fold: to not only prevent different imaginations of what Kenya can be, of a Kenya that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male who offers no innovation or social service, but to also suck in the rest of Kenya into this narrow, racist archetype of manhood. BBI sought to infiltrate faith, initiation ceremonies, schools, marriage, history and education to ensure that the seed of the propertied ruling class is planted in every mind in every corner of Kenya.
The Kenyatta head start
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not. The Kenyattas already dominate the cultural space and imagination of Kenya, and so the proposals in the BBI simply gave them a greater advantage than all the other Kenyan communities, ethnic or not. The Kenyatta name already brands the nation’s major conference centre, the national referral hospital, two universities, the largest international airport, a major street in the capital city and the largest public beach at the coast. The name of Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother, Mama Ngina, is now carried on the rebuilt waterfront which her son inaugurated on Mashujaa Day in 2019, a day which was renamed precisely for the opposite purpose, that of divorcing Kenya’s historical memory from its personification in the Kenyattas.
The Kenyattas even have the grave of their patriarch in the central business district, next to where the elected representatives make policy for the rest of Kenya. During the Uhuru presidency, laying a wreath at that grave is a protocol for foreign dignitaries visiting Kenya. Uhuru’s government also used a statue of the president’s father on Kenya’s new bank notes, circumventing the law that stipulates that a human portrait shall not be used. The cynical argument was that the image was of a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, rather than of Jomo Kenyatta himself.
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not.
The basic message is that Kenya’s national identity is synonymous with the Kenyattas, and is not to be shared with any heroes or historical milestones from the rest of Kenya. Other heroes can be commemorated in the 46 counties but not in Nairobi, which the BBI assigned a special status because of the foreign (read Euro-American) expatriates who live there. If Kenyans wanted to remember Mekatilili, for example, it would have to be done in Malindi and not in Nairobi.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has also sealed any loophole that might be present in the education sector by reducing education to vocational training for children, and by crushing the incentive to the study the arts and humanities by paying lecturers in this field less than lecturers in STEM. And if BBI were to pass, history and ethics would be dominated by the Kenyatta family, since the BBI proposed the position of an Official Historian in the Office of the President.
Basically, what BBI was doing was to shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas. And since that model of manhood embodied by Uhuru was not accessible to the overwhelming majority of Kenyan men, BBI would have meant that alcoholism and suicide would have become the means of escape from this suffocation.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity, and has been waging war against any model of manhood which does not exude the aesthetics of a propertied Kikuyu landowner. The fear of Luo men, including of Raila, is not about initiation. It is a fear of a different manhood whose identity is not attached to state power used for massive and primitive accumulation, a manhood that is different from the colonial settler manhood on which Kenya was founded.
We must all tell our stories
The state’s determination to protect this Kikuyu (white) alpha male is relentless.
That is why the so-called fight for the boy child that was started in Kikuyuland by Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume was started as a war against women, rather than as a war against the white supremacist Kenyan masculinity. The so-called oppression of men does not deal with the fact that the majority of victims of extra-judicial killings are young men, right from the slums all the way to universities.
The same model of masculinity accounts for why any man whose political thinking is different from that of the state is vilified in Kenya as being uncircumcised, womanly, gay or insane. That is if they are not expelled on a plane, beaten or shot in the streets by the police. That would answer Gathara’s pondering “why some Kenyans seem to imagine that being called either a woman or a homosexual is an insult.”
And unfortunately, the Kenyan church became coopted into this corruption of Kenyan masculinity through embracing the “family values” of the American evangelical right. The church did not recognise that even as evangelicals talk of nuclear families, they have a separate narrative of black male pathology, because white supremacy does not consider black (or African) men capable of belonging to stable families. The narrative of black male pathology is necessary to explain why black people are poor and disenfranchised. The Kikuyu elite justify Uthamakism with a similar rhetoric, arguing that poor Kikuyu men are a social problem created by empowered women or the “girl child”.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity.
The way ahead is not to decide which family is a real family. It is to send a strong message to the state that it has no business dictating what is in our bedrooms, our homes, our cultural spaces and in our education. The BBI proposed to extend the tentacles of the Kenyan state into marriages, initiation ceremonies, ethnicity, art and history, so that the Kenyan state would be re-made in the image of the Kikuyu (white) alpha male.
The solution is to tell our stories, and to fight against the state being the only decision-maker about who tells stories and what stories we tell. Even the position of prime minister proposed by the BBI was a means of alienating people from telling their stories, because it sought to prevent citizens from having a direct say in politics.
It is also important that we do not hate disenfranchised and culturally miseducated Kikuyu men so much that we fail to see that it is precisely that model of citizenship and manhood that was being prepared for all Kenyans. We need to resist the efforts of state to dictate our stories. We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
And we must free our cultures and identities from the shackles of ethnicity. Since colonial rule, Kenyans have made the mistake of restricting culture to ethnicity, forgetting that culture also includes information, education, technology and art.
As Dan Ojwang explains, even Kenyan intellectuals have drowned in this medieval narrative of self-contained and rigid ethnic groups, and ironically in the name of fighting against the colonial project whose cultural model the intellectuals apply. Yet in history, Ojwang argues, there is ample evidence of hybridity even within ethnic groups before colonial rule. By contrast, BBI stuck to the ethnic lines drawn by colonialism, confining culture to ethnicity, and then bringing all other forms of cultural production under the direct control of the state.
We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
But most of all, we need a new, deep Kenyan story, such as that of freedom, of a brave and proud people who defied oppression to assert our humanity. Mekatilili, Syokimau, Pio Gama Pinto, David Munyakei, Chelagat Mutai, Chris Msando, Onyango Oloo and Kioko Mang’eli are just a few of our heroes whose names should be on our buildings, in our awards and in our history books.
To call for a diversity of human accomplishment must not be reduced to facilitating women and non-Kikuyus to compete for the narrow definition of masculinity embodied in the colonial state and in the Kenyattas.
If that model of manhood is already proving to be deadly for the men from the president’s backyard, and for the women who innocently love them, how much more deadly would it be for the rest of Kenya?
Rest in oblivion, BBI. We rejoice at your demise.
A Moran’s Meal and Other Changing Fortunes
As frequent droughts and famines wreak havoc and the ravages of climate change are felt, nomadic herders have had to rethink their economic livelihoods.
My friend is having a Samburu traditional wedding and I attend in earnest glee; food was not the centre of that wedding. I remember how after waiting an inordinate number of hours for any signs of food preparation, at around 1 p.m. my friend said “there goes your stew” and I saw some way from us a few morans leading a goat towards the acacia thicket by the dry riverbed. A moran pilau was hastily put together. We were served in Jerry cans that had been cut in half. The morans used their knives to cut spoons out of tree bark and we ate like men about to go to war. We then lay under the trees as the morans sat in pairs preening their looks and adjusting their hairpins. Later they danced under the acacias, the morans in their colourful socks jumping endlessly well into the wee hours of the next morning, fuelled by the pilau from lunch. No wonder the morans were trim, without any superfluous flesh on their wiry bodies.
On another occasion, amongst the Gabra whose marriage calendar falls twice a year, with hundreds of traditional weddings being held across the land on the same day, goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.
In the north, guided by the moon and the seasons, it was ritual that largely dictated the slaughter of goats. During the circumcision ceremonies late last year, thousands of goats were slaughtered within the span of a few days. At an age set transition ceremony amongst the Rendile a few years ago, everyone who was transitioning slaughtered a goat, thousands of them in just a couple of days. A friend ran behind a thicket and brought me back a badly roasted whole goat’s hind leg and a moran’s knife. This was how pastoral nomads partook in goat and beef consumption.
Goats died en masse during Almado and Sorio and then the rest of the year people subsisted on milk, porridge, boiled maize and ilkitegee — ugali with dollops of fat and sugar. The calendar of these ceremonies coincided with important seasonal changes. The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.
Goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.
In this land of uncertainty, complex safety nets had emerged to distribute risk and guard against uncertainty. Meals reflected this spirit of sharing at the micro level; one never ate alone, and food was served in large sinias with six people sitting around a single plate. Aphorisms like “if shared, a flea can make two bites” were often repeated.
Yet, with climate change, the image coming out of northern Kenya is one of starvation. Extreme seasonal changes have increased uncertainty and the frequency of drought-induced famine. This year, the March-April long rains were dismal and already stories of looming hunger are beginning to circulate, with 40,000 people said to be facing starvation in Marsabit.
Flanked on one side by the Kenyan highlands, which are known for large-scale cash crop plantation agriculture, and by the teff and corn-growing Ethiopian highlands on the other, one wonders why the dominant image emerging out of this large swathe of low shrubland is one of starvation.
Over the years though, efforts have been made to transform this image without however taking into account the complex dynamics at play. The common policy response has always favoured — or has been geared towards — changing pastoral nomadism by introducing crop agriculture. For a country like Kenya, where agriculture contributes a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, crop agriculture seems to be the government’s default setting and in this mode, pastoral nomadism has been vilified as both outdated and as unsustainable as a means to a livelihood. Unending efforts have been dedicated to bringing change and NGOs compete with each other in handing out greenhouses and irrigation equipment. Youth groups are trained in modern poultry farming methods and women’s groups are given beehives to start beekeeping. Wreckage from these efforts dots the landscape.
As nomads became increasingly sedentary, new economic pursuits emerged which demanded a massive dietary readjustment. Caloric needs increased and palates developed new tastes. As people settled and moved to salaried and wage labour, food security at the household level improved greatly. Rice, spaghetti, chapati and macaroni served with beans, meat and potatoes were the meals consumed in most towns in northern Kenya throughout the year. Most of these were foods were lacking in fibre, leading to unique health problems. Bowel movement is hampered and many suffer from hemorrhoids in secret; it is a common health complaint in the urban centres that is further exacerbated by miraa consumption.
With food security achieved for the settled populations, more meat was consumed in the urban centres, a big departure from the pastoral dietary habits. “If a meal doesn‘t have meat in it, is it even a meal?” seems to be the unasked question sitting unanswered on each plate. The Marsabit Integrated Smart Survey of 2019 showed that consumption of animal protein-rich foods was so high that health practitioners warned Marsabit residents against eating too much beef.
A history of farming in Marsabit
According to the Marsabit Statistical Abstract published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), 16,000km² around Marsabit is arable land. Mr Woche Guyo, a historian from Marsabit, has been keenly following the agricultural patterns in the region and says, “Those who remembered the history of farming in N. Kenya would recall the British were very much interested in N. Kenya food sufficiency. Up to 1914 the British (colonial administrators stationed in northern Kenya) were buying food directly from Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known then. The death of Emperor Menelik and the SUCCESSION struggle complicated matters for the British.) The permanent solution came in 1920. The Burji AND the Konso provided a permanent solution.”
The British brought Burji farmers from Ethiopia and settled them around Mt. Marsabit to start farming on the lush montane. The Burji came with their cereal-rich meals like fiqe, kurkurfa, qanchebello, qita, thabo, buthena, and they introduced the moringa tree — shalqetha became the flag by which Burji households were identified.
The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.
The variety of foods Burji farmers brought to Kenya introduced an important change to the food habits of the pastoral nomads, adding cereals and grain to their staple diet of milk and meat. This was achieved long before relief food became a fixture in the north’s uncertain food calendar. These culinary changes also forced the pastoral nomads in Marsabit and Moyale to diversify into small-scale mixed agriculture. Back in Ethiopia, the Burji are still expert farmers. On a trip to Burjiland a few years back, I was invited to a wedding where I sat with elders and we were served bean stew and anjera made from brown teff, which we washed down with barley beer. In Kenya Burji weddings were affairs where meat and rice had to be served.
By the 1980s, with increasing droughts, Mr Woche was writing articles about farming with titles like Making the Desert a Land of Plenty and Rendile Put Down Farm Roots for the daily newspapers. Through these articles, he traced the history of nomads branching into crop farming in Marsabit. “By the end of the second world war, Marsabit was becoming the granary of the Northern Frontier District,” he wrote in 1982. “Main crops grown are maize, wheat, coffee, pigeon peas, cow peas, njahi, Ethiopian finger millet, teff, sorghum, sweet potatoes and cassava”. Everything can and did grow in Marsabit.
But the frequent droughts and famines were wreaking havoc. More and more destitute nomads were shifting from pastoralism to crop farming. Every drought came with its own feeding centre which eventually grew into a settlement. The main intervention at these feeding centres was to place a hoe in the hands of the newly destitute. The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.
Nomadic herders have also been forced by climate change to rethink their economic livelihoods, and by adopting crop agriculture, many have risked alienation in order to fit into their new way of life. These pioneers have become true agro-pastoralists, adding to their resilience cap the feather of dynamism.
Songa, an agricultural Rendile village, was started in 1979 and was by the 1990s feeding itself and selling surpluses of kales, tomatoes, and juicy mangos in Marsabit town. The Songa exemplar is repeated in Badassa, Drib Gombo and Gabra Scheme areas. Much of the 16,000km² arable land has however been abandoned with most of it now lying fallow or planted with the evergreen miraa trees.
Farming became so successful that storage for cereals in Marsabit was inadequate and tonnes of maize from the region were stored at the Cereals Board in faraway Meru. Bananas from Marsabit won prizes at agricultural shows in Embu for their world-class quality.
“My father and his friends were bringing in tractorfuls of maize over several days,” says Woche, “but that was in the good days when the climate was okay.”
In those years Marsabit received rain almost all year round, making it hard to dry maize and forcing those growing it around the town to take it to the lowlands for drying, 30 kilometers away. Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now. Yet there was no investment in the agricultural sector then. Even now, many decades later, the same problems persist in the crop agriculture sector; hardly any technology is in use and few investments are made.
The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.
NGOs have led the efforts in food production and in Garissa individuals have established irrigation schemes along the Tana river, which has led to an explosion of farming activities. This in turn has led to an influx of farmhands, with hundreds of Luhya labourers from western Kenya working on farms in Garissa. In Marsabit the more experienced and effective farm labourers are from Meru and even the Burji, who used to do all the work on their farms themselves, now hire Merus to work for them.
Cushioning against social shocks
Funerals in the north offer an interesting crucible through which to examine how social safety nets work. At a funeral, a cow is slaughtered and its meat is boiled in large chunks with no spices added lest one develop a taste for the meal and start wishing for regular funerals. After the burial, hundreds of people head to the household of the bereaved and for a brief moment funereal gloom turns into a gloomy feast as people eat, joyless looks on their faces as they roll morsels of white, spiceless rice with their fingers and partake of the boiled beef.
“We have eaten so and so’s rice” often remarked after the death of a friend means “he is finally gone”. The finality of their existence and departure is captured in the partaking of that rice.
Yet the beef and white rice business at funerals is a new affair for the Burji. Even as late as the mid-1990s, when someone died people prepared meals and took some of it in bowls to the household of the bereaved. There was no pressure to bring anything fancy and one brought their usual meals. Rice, qita, fiqe, githeri, kurkurfa and buthena dishes prepared in different households were brought and served to the relatives of the bereaved for a whole week. This practice was referred to as bochocha by the Burji, a tradition they had brought with them from Ethiopia, a safety net that meant that funerals didn’t require substantial resources or put the bereaved in any unnecessary debt.
But as new urban prosperity emerged so too did new funeral rituals. Shumo, boiled maize, was rejected and a cow had to die no matter the status of the departed, leading to high send-off costs and debts to be repaid. Instead of pooling food, now people contributed 50 shillings for any community member who died.
Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now
There is an ongoing debate about the slaughter of cows at funerals. It started from Wahhabist quarters, sparked by sheikhs from the new mosques who argue that there is a need to keep funeral costs down, that people who are in mourning should not be involved in the logistics of sourcing for cows, rice and firewood, that no fire should be lit in the household of the bereaved, and that no debts should be incurred.
This suggestion to change funeral traditions has the ecologists amongst us arguing for the ecological role played by the killing of cows at funerals, that in this manner a necessary balance between the human population and the cow population is achieved. The mercantilists argue that the livestock trade depends on funerals and marriages; funerals have evolved to play a big part in the demand-side of the livestock trade in the region. Yet others argue for the army of destitutes who keep an ear to the ground for news of funerals where they can eat a decent meal and carry some food back home in paper bags.
Food changes, changing foods
The landscape changes, the tractors in the rapidly vanishing farmlands upend the ox-drawn plough, Meru youths with their pangas working in pairs replace groups of Borana men as cheaper, more experienced labour. The panga and the agility of its user bring a more convenient efficiency as does the demand of an impatient urban dweller to whom a meal of cooked beans packed in a paper bag is sold.
The stoic if philosophical look of the nomad in the grasslands besides his/her goat alters its shape in the town. The role that traditional waist beads played in measuring the nutritional and health status of children has now been left to community health workers or volunteers who go around the villages with MUAC tapes taking arm measurements and prescribing Plumpy’Nut.
In the arable lands of Marsabit, old fruit and moringa trees are cleared and farms subdivided into tiny plots to meet the growing demand for housing. This changing land utility parallels the changing diet in the region.
In the past, some clans did not eat poultry meat and in parts of Marsabit poultry was kept only for trade. But these taboos are lifting and we are seeing an increase in the consumption of traditionally forbidden foods, further contributing to food security. For many years, the region didn’t provide the necessary market for fish from Lake Turkana which ended up in markets as far away as Burundi and Congo. But this too is changing as the communities continue to embrace new foods.
Facing the future
Northern Kenya has seen a significant rise in population in the last 50 years. The demographic changes that have emerged with education, the growth of towns and changing lifestyles have led to a bigger change in crucial survival strategies which are the result of a combination of the NGO-led introduction to crop agriculture, the agriculture-oriented income-generating activities of youth and women groups, and kitchen gardens. Slowly, northern Kenyans are acquiring practical skills in a region that had previously never engaged in crop agriculture. Kina in Isiolo has become an irrigation farming haven.
Opening up the road networks means that vegetables from the Kenyan highlands can now reach hitherto inaccessible areas, with boda bodas and probox vehicles crisscrossing the northern plains with fresh goods every morning, although Ethiopia also offers a cheaper alternative to Kenyan agricultural produce.
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