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’.
How Afrobeat(s) Was Hatched: From Kuti to Burna
Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Fela Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations on which the genre stands.
There was initially a slight conflation between the Afrobeat genre and its later reincarnation as Afrobeats. Recently however, there has been a demarcation between the two genres even though they share certain antecedents of lineage.
Fela Kuti—visionary composer, multi-instrumentalist, radical social activist, cultural renegade, political prisoner and pan-Africanist amongst other things—is regarded as the foremost exponent of Afrobeat and his life and work have been amply documented. Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat emerged after years of experimentation during which he lived in London as a student in the 1950s and 60s and then in Los Angeles in the late 60s. Kuti had studied classical music in England where he also spent time moonlighting in jazz clubs. Jazz, and not classical music, had been his first love. On completing his studies, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he had a stint in broadcasting before going into a full-time career in music.
At the time, West African highlife music was all the rave. Highlife is reputed to have been pioneered by E.T. Mensah, a Ghanaian exponent, but the genre soon gained widespread acceptance all over the West African coast. It was an intoxicating blend of Latin sounds and African polyrhythms served with bluesy horns. Essentially, it was feel-good music with little or no overt political content. It certainly didn’t need to be politically conscious because many African countries were still in a euphoric mood after recently gaining independence from their erstwhile colonisers.
For a while, Kuti dabbled in what he termed highlife-jazz. And then at the end of the 60s, he visited the United States on a musical tour. On getting there, he discovered that he and his band hadn’t obtained the correct visas that would permit them to work. In Los Angeles, he met Sandra Izidore, a young and beautiful African American woman who would change his life.
A student of anthropology, Izidore was also a radical pro-black activist who turned Kuti to the ideology of the Black Panther Party. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous momentum, with black leaders calling for urgent sociopolitical change. Such transformation also meant cultural assertion and empowerment as exemplified by James Brown’s radical cry, “Say it loud, I’m black and proud”. Brown in turn preached his searing political message through a diet of gut-bucket funk. Funk was unapologetically black at its core; the kind of music that in earlier times would be classified as race music. Basically a groove-based music, its energetic, funky drum patterns and heavy bass lines distinguished it as a form that spoke directly to the gut and soul.
Meanwhile, Kuti was taking copious notes on everything, from the strident political messaging to the indispensability of the groove coupled with the hypnotic and electrifying effects of gut-deep funk. There was clearly a lot to be learnt from a culturally resurgent black America.
Although Kuti deeply admired jazz, he still felt it lacked something. In particular, he believed that more obvious elements of African music needed to be added into the mix. These ingredients included powerful ancient West African drumming traditions. Within those illustrious percussive traditions, drummers had discovered a way to make drums “talk” in honouring their deities and forging stronger communal ties.
Kuti promptly set about incorporating those vital elements of West African music into his ever-expanding repertoire. Apart from his own indigenous Yoruba drumming, these elements included Ghanaian styles, highlife textures, jazzy horns and deep funk grooves. He also learnt about the power of African trance music and its innate spirituality. Having selected these assorted sonic elements, Kuti turned to questions of ideology and political message; it was an unlikely combination of ingredients funnelled through a highly idiosyncratic imagination.
Izidore had preached the necessity to develop a clear political vision. In America, political struggle was defined by the imperatives of black empowerment and the language of civil rights. Back in Nigeria, as the euphoric haze of independence wore off, Kuti was confronted by enervating postcolonial anomie. The ruling classes, both civilian and military, had become insufferably corrupt. Instead of real national development, Kuti saw missed opportunities and truncated potential which infuriated him. He started to lambast the decadent ruling classes and soon incurred their wrath. He was constantly harassed, arrested and beaten by military goons.
But Kuti had found a powerfully distinctive musical voice and an equally impressive political message to sit within it. Fastened together, his sonic template and ideological vision became a formidable weapon that attempted several things all at once: sociopolitical transformation, cultural and aesthetic affirmation, spiritual re-discovery and individual liberation.
Kuti came to be viewed as a disconcerting maverick, an irrepressible icon who spoke fearlessly for the disenfranchised masses, a gadfly who constantly taunted and angered the political and economic elites, and finally, a social rebel who championed the causes of countercultural renegades. He blithely broke all the rules, politically, culturally and musically. And within this restless cauldron of rebellion and experimentation, classical Afrobeat was born, with Kuti as its instantly recognisable face. However, there were other musicians, such as Orlando Julius and Remi Kababa, who also favoured the genre.
Within Kuti’s large and revolving band, many musicians are credited with having played pivotal roles in forging Afrobeat’s sonic identity. In this regard, mention must be made of drummer Tony Allen’s contributions in laying down the percussive basis of the Afrobeat sound. Although Kuti was the visionary mastermind who assembled all the elements together, he was generous enough to acknowledge Allen’s vital inputs. Incidentally, Allen died in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic at the age of 79.
Another crucial figure in the Afrobeat story is baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun who succeeded Allen as band leader when the latter left in 1979 not long after the sacking and razing of Kalakuta Republic, Kuti’s countercultural commune, in 1977. The following year, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s mother and foremost feminist, who had been flung from an upstairs window during the raid on Kalakuta, died aged 78 as a result of her injuries.
Kuti himself was never the same after this ordeal. He gradually became understandably paranoid, distrustful of even his own well-meaning close friends and associates and increasingly reclusive. His oppression at the hands of the military authorities continued and a change in his sonic template became noticeable. For one, the joie de vivre evident in his earlier compositions rapidly gave way to a sombre, meditative tone which aligned with the spiritual turn of mind that came to inform his general outlook.
Kuti died in 1997 during the reign of Nigeria’s most heinous dictator, General Sani Abacha, who himself met his demise the following year. But even before his death, Kuti had been long past his prime, weakened by numerous beatings inflicted by an unforgiving military and HIV/Aids. Sadly, he died a bitter and broken man although ultimately, he had the last laugh. Afrobeat, the genre he pioneered and disseminated against all odds eventually became an attractive idiom, finding proponents all over the world. As this came to pass, his cultural stock increased in value exponentially.
Nollywood, the rough, innovative and adaptable movie industry hatched in the midst of a pulverising economic meltdown and severe sociocultural upheavals soon grew to international prominence on the strength of its DIY ethic. After Kuti’s passing, it was yet another cultural phenomenon that, in spite of all odds, attested to the region’s cultural vibrancy and resourcefulness. It can be argued that the confidence acquired by Nollywood somehow translated to other distinct yet related cultural pursuits such as music. In other words, the same DIY spirit that had birthed Nollywood eventually produced Afrobeats.
Afrobeats, as distinct from Afrobeat, is less political, arguably less musically accomplished or sophisticated and evidently less aesthetically ambitious. Today’s Afrobeats musicians work in a vastly different technological era in which they don’t need to learn to play and master what are considered to be traditional musical instruments. All they need is an adept beatmaker.
However, Kuti’s Afrobeat is an almost impossible proposition in the current economic environment because he often needed what would appear to be orchestras within orchestras to produce his intricate, lavishly textured sound and hence realise his singularly unique musical vision. Technically, this is very difficult to accomplish presently as the sheer logistics required to achieve this kind of feat are simply mind-boggling.
Kuti also believed strongly in the spiritual dimensions of African music; music was, in other words, an avenue to access ancestral life-worlds and establish historical continuity devoid of the frivolities of the present. In addition, there is also a striving to affirm and express the ineffable. Again, this refers to the spiritual component of classical Afrobeat.
Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy are regarded as the current superstars of the Afrobeats scene. And in several ways, they are all very different. Wizkid, one of the first breakout Afrobeats stars, has a distinctively mellow voice and is very skilled at ad libs and groove-laden free-styles. Lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except that he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance floors. In fairness to him, he does not pretend to be a political messiah or to possess a vision of how society ought to be reformed. He has also become part of the global entertainment industry which readily accepts and promotes stars that lend themselves to easy and unproblematic branding.
The same can be said of Davido, Wizkid’s compatriot and frequent rival, who hit the limelight about the same time as the latter. Davido’s voice isn’t as charming but he makes up for it with an equally astute understanding of the groove and indigenous African rhythms. Other advantages that serve him well are his relentless energy and cannily precise understanding of his strengths and limitations as a musician.
Burna Boy, his multiple successes notwithstanding, is a slightly more demanding figure. Of the three major Afrobeats stars, he draws more directly from Kuti’s immense artistic legacy. He has sampled so many of Kuti’s compositions that detractors began to question his originality. Incidentally, Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, legendary jazz aficionado and broadcaster, had been Kuti’s manager in the 60s. So Burna comes from an artistic and ideological pedigree that can be traced right back to Kuti. His most recent musical offering entitled Twice as Tall comes barely a year after the Grammy-nominated and BET award-winning album, African Giant.
Burna has consistently attempted to infuse socially conscious lyrics in his music, an obvious connection to Kuti’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his mother, Bose Ogulu, is a producer of his latest album along with US luminaries P Diddy and Timberland. His sister works on his label as artistic director. Ensuring that his family participates in his artistic journey also chimes with Kuti’s understanding of the communal nature of music. However, being transformed into an unproblematic global star entails a more discreet packaging of his overt political agenda. If Burna gets too strident about his political message, sponsors and brands may balk at promoting him.
At the same time, there is clearly an inclination to present himself as a credible artist and not just a dance floor-filling flavour-of-the-month singer. It would be interesting to see how the contradictions between being a true artist and being merely an entertainer in the current music business climate play out. It is a bit early to predict how Burna intends to confront this dilemma as he tries to portray himself as an artist cut from the Kuti cloth while also having an eye on gorgeous video vixens who could make his visuals more interesting. His growing political awakening has to contend with the very real limitations within the music industry and the realities of becoming a veritable global icon.
Meanwhile, performers from all over the world continue to hop onto the Afrobeats wagon, from Beyonce, Drake, Chris Brown, H.E.R., Stormzy, Summer Walker, Wale, Jorja Smith, Sam Smith, Pop Smoke, Teyana Taylor to Afro B and many other globally acclaimed stars. And the morphology of Afrobeats has begun to reflect this astonishing diversity in terms of sound, presentation and potential.
Unlike Nollywood, Afrobeat(s) generally have had greater success as African cultural exports. In his heyday, Kuti almost immediately won over influential fans like the famed jazz pianist Randy Weston, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ginger Baker, Gilberto Gil, Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela and many other major industry players. There are Afrobeat combos playing in the Kuti mode in Europe, Asia, North and South America. Arguably, there are also more Kuti tribute bands playing abroad than on the African continent. Even before his death, in countries like Colombia, there were numerous cover versions of his songs that Kuti himself probably knew nothing about.
Fela!, the broadway musical composed by Bill T. Jones and sponsored by Jay Z and Will Smith in 2008, went on to have a successful international run taking in Europe and Africa. Since then another Fela-inspired musical extravaganza produced in Nigeria has gone on tour internationally. There are frequent festivals in France, Britain, the United States, Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria celebrating Kuti’s life and work.
Kuti’s discography is somewhat confusing for a number of reasons. He was extraordinarily prolific during his almost four-decade long career beginning from the early 60s. He privately established a plethora of record labels and also released many albums through mainstream companies such as EMI and Decca. Some estimates claim he released one hundred and thirty-three albums during his lifetime excluding almost two dozen masterpieces he simply refused to put on wax due to his eventual disillusionment with the music business and societal politics.
As for Afrobeats, in May 2020, US mainstream music outlet, Billboard Magazine, ran a special feature on the global rise of the genre profiling Davido, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Both Davido and Savage have performed on the US TV Jimmy Fallon show. Mr Eazi entertained US fans alongside Burna Boy in 2019 at the impactful Coachella Festival. His 2020 hit single, Oh My Gawd features Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Afrobeats has firmly taken root in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy supported by a large African diaspora population and enthusiastic European audiences. It is certainly not a mere passing fad but an increasingly durable fixture on the cultural calendar. Only this year, the UK launched its official Afrobeats music chart. And there are now festivals exclusively devoted to Afrobeats.
Nonetheless, Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations for a multi-faceted sonic future, the possibilities of which are yet to be exhaustively explored. Kuti was hardly able to reap the benefits of his astonishing work during his scandal-prone life. Indeed, he was an uncommonly courageous and uncompromising artist who often spurned the advances of international entertainment cartels just as he offended local political elites. And so in order to pursue his work, he had to build his own platforms and networks from scratch which entailed finding his own performance spaces, establishing his own record labels and developing independent channels for the appreciation and distribution of his music.
Kuti fought many battles on multiple fronts and, of course, due to his unyielding stance, he incurred great financial and reputational losses. For instance, he once famously turned down Motown’s attempt to buy his diverse back catalogue. But those very losses and sacrifices are what made it possible for Afrobeats to be born. Kuti almost single-handedly charted an aesthetic terrain that is full of yet to be explored musical riches.
Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking?
I met Isaac Juma in May 2006 at HOVIC — Hope for Victoria Children — a street children rehabilitation programme I was employed by as a social worker. HOVIC was established in 2002 to provide essential services to Kisumu’s street children as well as rehabilitate and reunite them with their families. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 children and young adults working and living on the streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities. When HOVIC’s drop-in centre opened its doors we had a running register of up to 400 children, with about 120 children visiting daily for food and various other services.
When the HOVIC programme started there seemed to be no methodology developed to undertake a census of Kisumu’s street children. A number of NGOs had tried to establish registers by organising parties at the Kisumu Sports Ground where the children and the youths would enjoy a meal and receive the gift of a t-shirt but these events always descended into chaos as fights broke out. To track the children we catered for, HOVIC created a database and register with the basic description and photographs of the children who came to the drop-in centre. The register was kept by a burly staffer aptly named Bouncer whose job it was to keep the children from hurting one another during the fights that frequently broke out at mealtimes. We had obviously underestimated the challenges of having in one closed environment hundreds of children and youths who were accustomed to solving their problems using violence.
I was fresh from university when I took the job at HOVIC, heading the rehabilitation programme. I was idealistic and overwhelmed by a strong sense of community and a desire to give back. The programme was run from the heart of Kisumu in an old concrete building that still harboured the ghosts of the one of the town’s first wealthy families. It was surrounded by Indian shops and open-air mechanics operated from a nearby Jua Kali yard filled with the carcasses of vehicles and ancient jalopies. The salary was paltry and any positive rewards of the job were counterbalanced by the depression that came with daily witnessing the reality of the children’s lives on the streets.
People brought their vehicles for repair in the sprawling yard. Women brought meat, tomatoes, onions and maize meal to the makeshift restaurants that dotted the yard. Crisp new notes and old ragged ones exchanged hands. Vehicles left happier than they had come. Some stayed longer. To be resuscitated or to die. Young boys, their bodies blackened by a life lived on the streets, collected the old oil that haemorrhaged from old engines. They scavenged discarded pieces of metal and plastic which they would take to the weighing scales of scrap metal dealers. All scrap metal had value but copper and aluminum were at a premium. On a good day, a kilogram of either would guarantee a meal. Plastic bottles were not of much value though; it would take hundreds of them to move the needle on the scale. The children moved through the sprawling yard like vultures, cleaning this ecosystem of waste. For food. For money. And for the occasional expression of sympathy.
Sympathy came mostly from people who had never before encountered humans in that state of existence. These people wondered what was wrong with the children’s homes, with their parents. How could they allow their children to wallow in waste? But expressions of sympathy were few and far between. More frequently, the street children were at the receiving end of the anger of those whose cars couldn’t be fixed quickly enough. Or who found the cost of repair too exorbitant. Or who felt that the mechanics were cheating them out of their money. Or those who simply needed someone to vent their frustrations on.
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children – some as young as five – survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking? Their bodies absorbed the abuse hurled at them, and like human sponges, they soaked in the hate and the oil in equal measure.
Kisumu’s street children came mainly from Nyanza and the western region. Most were orphans, left under the care of relatives when their parents died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Others had run away from violent parents and yet others to escape punishment from their guardians for petty crimes. But whatever the reasons, they all pointed to a deteriorating social order.
But even as the influx of street children grew, child protection services shrunk and soon the existing children’s homes within Kisumu could not accommodate them all. There are those who oppose the existence of children’s homes, believing that they act as magnets for street children, increasing their numbers on the streets. But from my experience, and having visited hundreds of families, the homes were sanctuaries for desperate children and filled the gap left by the government to provide child protection services. In effect, the government’s default setting was to send children to the Kisumu juvenile detention centre for crimes committed in the streets or for loitering in the streets at night before releasing them back into the very same streets with no attempt being made to locate their homes and reunite them with their families.
The hope was that the hardship suffered at the detention centre would act as a deterrent and motivate the children to return to their homes but my observation is that detention only hardened the children. To go through the police cells became a badge of honour and juvenile detention a rite of passage before the return to the streets.
In the meantime, the community hoped that the street children would one day disappear as if by magic, that the government would find a solution to the “menace”. Many were adamant that it was for the parents to take care of these children and hoped that this could be enforced legally to keep the children off the streets.
Instead, their numbers just kept growing. The streets provided these children with a space in which to discover themselves – through necessity and adversity. It could build them. Or break them. Had they been at home, chances were that they would be sober, in school, helping with family chores, teasing young girls at the watering hole while herding cattle. But instead they were here. And Kisumu streets were different and their darkness also different. It had teeth and it was biting off huge chunks of these children’s lives, leaving nothing but the basic instinct for survival. And hope.
The reality of street life was most manifest when night fell, when the good people retreated behind the reinforced doors that kept thieves at bay, that protected their television sets, their stereos, their microwaves, their flourishing lives away from the ghettos of Nyalenda and Obunga.
I once visited the places where the street children retreated to at night and found human beings folded into various shapes, bent into various forms, inside sacks that served as blankets and covers against the darkness and the mosquitoes, the full moon lending a surreal quality to the scene. They were lost in deep slumber, as if without a care in the world, some clutching plastic bottles to their breasts, the shoe glue that conjured up a more bearable reality, an alternative reality to help them navigate their waking nightmares and their sleeping terrors.
Some children were squeezed together into a single sack. Like twins in a womb. Forced together by circumstances not of their own making. Others had bigger sacks to themselves. Queen size sacks. King size sacks. Even here in the streets there was a hierarchy of power and influence. I looked over to Isaac, catching his face in the moonlight. This is how they start learning how to love each other. To protect each other. Brotherhood. This is also how they feel the initial warmth of their comrades. Kiss each other. Touch each other. Sometimes abuse each other, Isaac said matter-of-factly, pointing at the bodies that were tightly welded together in one sack. The older ones sometimes prey on the younger ones, Isaac continued, emphasizing each detail. As if concerned that I was missing important points.
Kisumu is hot. The ground absorbs heat from the sun like a loyal lover and when it is full, it vomits the excess heat into the environment. The doors of HOVIC would open to a frenzy of old faces and newcomers, each child bringing with him a thick layer of sweat from the heat and the story of their young life. The story of their families and their homes. Of a narrow escape from the police last night. Some came with fresh wounds inflicted by their peers. Or by the police. Or by dogs.
Others came high, floating on the cloud of euphoria that the shoe glue created in their minds. Glue was the street children’s opium. They bought it from cobblers who, like smalltime drug dealers, measured out glue meant for shoe repair into small bottles which they sold to the street children, a sticky yellow mess that seared the nostrils, numbed the brain and killed the hunger pangs and the pain. Sleep came easily, the hard ground now as soft as a downy mattress and safe as any home. Hypnotised into an alternative reality, they became quick to anger and violence was never far away.
One evening Isaac told me he had defaulted on his TB medications. He told me this with a smile on his face. Like it was something funny. I raised my head from my desk and asked him to repeat what he had said. “I have defaulted on my TB drugs. This is the second time I am defaulting.” Silence. I tried to look outside. I couldn’t see outside. The windows of my offices were so high. This building had not been built for office use. It had been built as a workshop for repairing old buses. “I know if I default again. I may get MDR-TB.”, Isaac continued. MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was wreaking havoc within Kenya’s healthcare system. I quickly made an appointment with the nurse who worked part-time at HOVIC.
Isaac could not keep track of his medication while living on the streets. He would lose his medication from the constant cat and mouse games with the police at night. On the other hand, the hospital needed him to account for every pill before he could get a refill. When he failed, they told him he needed to show up every day and take his pills at Kisumu District Hospital in the presence of nurses. And at each visit, he would have to go through the script of his life. And then the question he dreaded most would be thrown at him: “You are so smart. What are you doing in the streets? Why are you destroying your life in the streets?” He would soon get fed up and not go back.
To live, to survive, Isaac needed housing. Living on the streets is a complex affair. It gets even more complicated when one has a debilitating disease like TB. Survival starts with housing and food. We had figured out food. Children and youths could drop in at the rehabilitation center and get a warm meal. They could shower. The could get basic healthcare. But in the evening they would go back into the world, to the humming underworld of Kisumu Bus Stop. We needed safe housing.
There are many theories as to why children leave their homes to live and work in the streets. I have learned that it takes a lot for a child of seven years to decide to leave home for the streets. In one of the counselling sessions we held with the children, Isaac came along with a seven-year-old called Frederick Omondi. Or Freddie. Freddie had arrived in Kisumu from Gem. He had gotten into a matatu and somehow made it to Kisumu. He had never been to Kisumu before. He had no idea what Kisumu had in store for him. He was travelling by faith, the belief that a random stranger would hear his story and give him a chance at a life better than the one he was running away from. Isaac implored me to take Freddie home with me. I was living with my mother and my siblings. I obliged. Mostly out of fear for Freddie’s well-being than anything else.
Freddie’s home, like Isaac’s, was a world filled with nothingness. Freddie’s home had rocks. Big rocks. And his parents’ graves. His parents had died when he was very young. He barely knew them. He was left in the care of his uncle who, not knowing what to do with his life in that environment, resorted to drinking copious amounts of the local brew. I met him once. Drunk. Tall. Incapable of coherent speech. He was burdened by the loss of his relatives and took this loss out on his wife. Not knowing what to do, the woman took out her frustrations on Freddie. The cycle of violence was established. From the strongest to the most vulnerable. Until one day Freddie decided to run to Kisumu, and was brought to HOVIC.
Freddie’s journey to Kisumu was guided by a conspiracy of coincidences and good fortune. A lot could have gone wrong. He was lucky to make it to Kisumu with no bus fare. His aunt could have killed him. He could have ended in another town. He also arrived at a time when Isaac was friends with a young Australian man called Peter Dunkley. In his own unique way, Peter was looking to give back by helping to sponsor a destitute child. Isaac met Peter at Kisumu Sports Ground and struck up a conversation with him. The fact that all these random factors aligned is pure luck.
Isaac’s home on the other hand consisted of one room and one bed. His paraplegic brother, his other brothers, his mother, were all confined in this one tiny space. They were happy to see us. His paraplegic brother was trying to speak. His seizures were worsening and they were struggling to buy him the monthly supply of phenobarbitones. Isaac had also left home young. He wanted to save his family. He left to look for help.
People living in the streets are perceived as liars right from the word go. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Part of my job as a social worker was to conduct home visits. To witness and document the realities of the home environments and the circumstances that compel children to come to the streets. The realities of the homes the children came from always hit me hard, without warning. They came in the form of Freddie’s uncle. His alcoholism. In the form of Freddie’s aunt. She stood at a distance from us when we visited the home. In fear. Overwhelmed that the first white person she was encountering in her life had been brought to her home by a child she had persecuted violently. A child she had thought was long dead. What was the chance of that? It was a revelation of biblical proportions to all of us. We decided that Freddie was not remaining in that home.
The image of Isaac’s paraplegic brother brought home to me the reason for Isaac’s decision to leave home. Risking everything. Leaving the love of his family and abandoning some degree of predictability within the confines of poverty, for the unknown of the streets. He was barely a boy. What have we become as a society? Why does it take us so long to see that it takes a lot for these children to be on the streets? To put their lives at risk? It certainly wasn’t for fun. Or for adventure. These children had seen things we have not seen. The nightmare they faced on the streets was in many instances lesser than the nightmare they faced at home.
I have since stopped slicing up my brain trying to understand these children and I feel no shame in keeping the company of those who have spent a part of their lives in the streets.
It’s the 23rd of July 2019. I am seated across from Isaac in his house in that concrete jungle teeming with humanity that is Kahawa West. Isaac is talking to me about politics. His time abroad. His work at an international NGO, and his plans to finish his post-graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. I am not sure what would have become of Isaac or Freddie if they had not made the decision to run away from home and seek help in the streets.
But Isaac and Freddie are exceptions. They had the will to stay away from drugs and from the other temptations of street life. Isaac had a very clear vision of who he wanted to be, and how his success would be channeled to help his family. He has achieved that vision. Freddie is on track to achieving his vision too.
I still encounter some of those who were on the streets with Isaac and Freddie back in 2006 and 2007 every time I walk down Oginga Odinga Street. They are now adults. Many of the others have died; killed during the cycles of post-election violence or succumbed to disease or drowned in Lake Victoria. A few lucky ones were helped to return home by relatives or well-wishers, or through street children programmes.
I cannot point to one singular factor that would explain why some make it out of the streets and others do not, except perhaps a chance encounter with the right people, a strong will to survive. And luck.
The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
In Kenya, rising water levels in lakes along the Great Rift Valley have forced thousands of people from their homes, submerging huge areas of farmland. Schools, hospitals, roads and water pipes have been destroyed. Crucially, there is a real fear that Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, one fresh and the other saline, will contaminate each other. Ferdinand Omondi writes about this threat of an ecological disaster.
It was an easy Wednesday morning when the phone call came in. I was seated in my study, pitching ideas, studying for my semester exams and trolling the net for news. The COVID-19 pandemic has us working from home and away from offices and fieldwork unless absolutely necessary. My producer, Joe, told me there was a situation developing down in Baringo that fitted the “absolutely necessary” description.
Early the next day, I packed up to leave Nairobi for the first time since March, an overnight stay. Risk assessment? Check. Equipment? Check. PPE? Check. Headphones? Check. Waterproof shoes? I forgot to buy those.
The Landcruiser meandered its way down the winding highways and picturesque scenery of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Up at Mau Summit, Mount Longonot’s imposing mass upon the lowlands reminded me of the breath-taking scenery that is Great Rift Valley’s gift to Kenya. But this marvel of nature has been sending warning signs lately. Two years ago, the ground split open at Suswa, leaving a giant crack several kilometres long and forty feet deep in some areas. Geologists wondered whether Africa was beginning to split again, whether two tectonic plates were moving away from each other. Thousands of people were forced to relocate.
This August it was the lakes in the Rift Valley, some 280 kilometres north of Nairobi, that had us heading out to investigate. Our drive to Baringo was uneventful, except for a stop in the middle of Marigat to move a tortoise off the road. The noise of passing vehicles had driven it to recoil into its shell in the middle of the highway. Baringo is teeming with wildlife.
We eventually pulled up at Kampi ya Samaki, a sleepy lakeside fishing and tourism settlement. A group of excited young men crowded the windows and aggressively tried to get our attention.
“No hotel here sir, they are all flooded. I take you somewhere else. Please. Good price”. I hear the words, but can’t figure out who spoke.
“All of them?”
“Yes. All of them. The flood is very bad. All the good hotels are gone”.
These young men are tour guides, starved of revenue since lakeside resorts in Baringo became submerged under water. One of them identifies himself as Rama. Rama says it has been months since he last had a good day’s pay. We are standing at the green gate of what would have been the entrance to Robert’s Camp. The entire facility is flooded. Every structure is under water. It was a beautiful lakeside resort with cottages and tents, camping grounds and a bar. We would probably have spent the night here. But today we will have to make do with the Tamarind Garden, situated several hundred metres away and across the road that runs alongside the lake. It is modest, clean and basic. The rooms are a bit claustrophobic, but the service more than assuages my insecurities. We retire for the night, to begin a fresh day in the early morning and really digest the extent of the damage caused by a lake that is aggressively extending its boundaries.
The sun is just rising over the hills, the rays beautifully reflecting on the calm water. It is early morning, and we have hired the services of Julius, a boatman whose thriving tour business now depends on ferrying stranded locals from one end of the lake to another, and occasional visitors like us. Dickson Lenasolio, a middle-aged local, is taking us to the place he used to call home, which he says is now all under water. As we weave through the trees and shrubs that were once Robert’s Camp’s lush gardens, I am warned not to trail my bare hands in the water. This is crocodile territory.
We move slowly along the edges of the lake. We sail past a building half submerged in water, only the green roof protruding above the morning waves. This was the fisheries department, and just beyond it was a health centre. All around me used to be dry land on which a community once thrived. There were homes, farms, schools, and hospitals. Much of that has been submerged. As we speed up, another tourist resort comes into view. The Soi Safari Lodge, a striking 74-room hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool stands desolate and ghostly. It was deserted after the lake flooded the ground floors. I am told the owners had only recently made renovations in preparation for tourists.
We speed up across the lake, past a dead crocodile floating in the water. After about twenty minutes, the boat slows down as we approach Dickson’s former village. I can see the protruding roofs of houses where people used to live. I can make out sections of maize plantations from the extended stems of dying maize plants swaying in the waves. I can make out paddocks and homestead fences from the dangerously sagging wires and posts that are threatening to stall our boat. Dickson is now guiding us through the maze of roofs, trees and weeds, his wrinkles too prominent for one aged only 54. As he points to the spot where his house once stood, he tells us he was once a wealthy dairy farmer, before Lake Baringo swelled and swallowed up all his material wealth and he lost everything.
“I had Sahiwals [a breed of high-yield dairy cows]. I sold milk to the locals and it was good business. I would sell milk every day, and I had lots of grass in my farm”.
Dickson goes on to describe what he lost.
“My farm here was wire-fenced. We were using solar power to keep out wild animals. But when the water approached and we kept thinking it will recede, it did not, until it became impossible to retrieve the wire. Now it’s all below here, and the wire was very expensive. One roll is over 200 dollars. I fenced over 40 acres with it. My brother fenced 60. All of that is gone. It’s had to get it out because you can hardly even see the posts. These were 9-foot posts”.
“It wasn’t just me. There were other farmers who also did the business. They kept cows either for beef or milk. We suffered heavy losses. Because all the farms are now under water. We had no means of preventing it. At first, we thought we could seal the farms off. But, no. The lake kept rising night and day. Until it covered all the farms and we moved”.
Dickson says they have never seen the water levels rise like this since they were born. Not even his father, who he says is now 92. He recalls how the flooding began during the heavy rains back in March and everyone thought it would ease off with time. It did not.
“I brought down my buildings and so did my neighbours”, says Dickson. “We moved up about 800 metres. We started living there, and the water still got to us. We pulled our homes down. Now many have moved up the hill, to Marigat, Leberer, all the way up. Unfortunately, when we moved the animals up there, away from the grass they were used to, they fell sick and died”.
“Our father lived here. Our grandfathers lived here too. But now we have no hope. We don’t see the water receding because it has risen to unprecedented levels”.’
We drop Dickson off as close to his new home as possible, and he alights and wades off into the distance. He fears he may have to relocate his home for the third time.
The flooding has also cut off essential services. Power, transport, health. A building that used to be a clinic sits lonely among the tall dead trees in the still water. We watch as sick women are brought in by boat. They wade to the shore in search of medication. They will meet nurse Emily, who provides free health care in a little green tent, from where she has noticed a surge in crocodile attacks.
“We were treating burns, wounds and snake bites”, says Emily. “We also helped women with family planning and gave HIV/AIDS support. Since the flooding, our work has been affected because many people can’t get to us because they used to come on foot. Others fear travelling over water because there are crocodiles and hippos”.
Next to Emily’s small tent a group of women are sifting quality grass seeds. The seeds would have been planted on the land which is now underwater. The health facilities and grass are provided by RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments), a trust that helps local people turn arid land into sustainable pasture. The social enterprise runs a project called “Nyasi ni Pesa” – grass is money – which provides the locals with indigenous species of dryland grass which can survive the area’s arid conditions. This is the grass that Dickson’s purebreds thrived on. After harvesting, RAE then buys back the seeds, giving the women and their families a healthy income too. But the whole model is now under threat.
Murray Roberts, a Kenyan of British ancestry, runs the RAE project. He has lived in Baringo his whole life, and has watched the water levels rise and rise. Roberts shows me an extraordinary family photo taken in the 90s. It’s a photo of his two sons jumping off a cliff outside his home. It appears to be at least 30 feet high. We take another boat ride to the place where the photo was taken; the entire cliff face is now below the water.
But Murray has an even bigger fear than the loss of land and livelihoods. Less than 40 kilometres south of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria. The highly saline lake is home to a famous colony of flamingos and is a gazetted national park. But Lake Bogoria is also rising. I learn that the Kenya Wildlife Service has moved its main gate three times, each one submerged as the lake expands. Senior KWS Warden James Kimaru has been quoted saying that the water levels increased within one month from a width of 34 km2 to 43 km2. We see one of the KWS buildings in the distance, half submerged in water. New roads into the reserve are being constructed after previous ones were also covered by the water. As the lakes expand in width, the distance between them shrinks. Murray is concerned that with both Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria rising, the two lakes could eventually contaminate each other.
“The thing that is really worrying me about this situation is if Lake Bogoria starts flowing into Lake Baringo. What would be the outcome of that because Bogoria is a highly alkaline lake and it will be an ecological disaster. Once that water reaches Lake Baringo it will affect the fish, it will affect the bird life, it will affect the aquatic life”.
It is a concern that the Baringo County government shares. A post-floods report published in June by the Kenya Inter-Agency Rapid Assessment Mechanism concluded that the Rift Valley is becoming the most flood-prone region in Kenya. Much of that water ends up in the lakes, which inevitably swell. The report attributed the flooding to a combination of poor land use practices, deforestation and accumulation of silt. In May, the government counted over 200 deaths from flooding, with at least 800,000 people affected countrywide, Much of the destruction happened along river and lake settlements like Lake Baringo and its feeder rivers. Outside the Rift Valley, Lake Victoria was reported to have risen to its highest levels in over 50 years.
Helen Robinson, a geologist with extensive experience in East Africa, explained to me that when it is hot and dry for a long time the soils becomes so dry that they cannot absorb water. Then when it rains, huge amounts run along the surface to the rivers, then the lakes. Robinson explained that if the soils had some moisture content, much more of the rainwater would drain into the groundwater system. Trees help soils to retain moisture, but Kenya’s forest cover is only 7% of its landmass, 3 per cent less than the 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.
All these points reinforce the concerns that human activity is contributing to the extreme changes in our climate. The UN says climate change is a reality, and that human activity is the main cause. Scientists have stressed the importance of lowering our carbon emissions to limit the impact we’re having on our planet. Robinson said that if we don’t try harder, the damage could become irreversible including melting ice at the poles, rising sea levels, more climate extremes, loss of habitats and mass extinctions.
Baringo is experiencing extreme weather changes and destruction to its habitat. But across the Rift Valley, similar swellings were recorded in Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha this year, and even in Lake Turkana in the north, with the varying levels of destruction pointing to a pattern. Whatever the causes, it is a race for survival, and at the moment, nature is winning.
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