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The Kitenge Route: The algorithms and aesthetics of African fabrics

9 min read.

Every digital circuit in the world, has its unlikely origin very long ago in Africa, and the humble kitenge is just part of a much bigger legacy.

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The Kitenge Route: The algorithms and aesthetics of African fabrics
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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”.

Montage of African fabric-themed decor at Nyama Mama restaurant, Nairobi

Montage of African fabric-themed decor at Nyama Mama restaurant, Nairobi

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.

Beyond the Numbers

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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.

Kitenge Image

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.

Kitenge Image

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.

***

Kitenge Image

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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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has written on a wide range of subjects. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and more. Currently, Christine is the curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public interest storytelling.

Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

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

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

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

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

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Our Words Must Count

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

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

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

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

How is this contradiction possible?

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

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

The violence of language

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

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

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

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

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

When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak

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

When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge

When we question, we are ungrateful

When we lament, we’re not providing solutions

When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable

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

When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence

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

When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally

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

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

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

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

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

What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?

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

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

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

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

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

Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:

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

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

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

Our words must count

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

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

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

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

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

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

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