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The Dark and Devious History of Tea: The Beverage That Floated Empires

9 min read. For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

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The Dark and Devious History of Tea: The Beverage That Floated Empires
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No one knows when we, as the human race, decided that tea is worth drinking, though tea remains fabled as one of the world’s oldest beverages. Its story of origin is scant – there is uncertain allusion to a strong beverage in a Chinese document from 59 B.C, and some architectural evidence pointing to a century earlier, traced to the Han Yangling Mausoleum in Xi’an in western China, which was built for the Jing Emperor Liu Qi, who died in 141 B.C.

But from its murky beginnings, this unassuming leafy bush would come to shape history as we know it. For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

There are four types of tea – black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea, originating from two varieties of the plant in the Camellia family: Camellia sinensis, a narrow-leaf variety originating in central China and Japan thriving in the cool, high mountain regions there, while the broad leaf variety, Camellia assamica, thrives best in the moist, tropical climates found in Northeast India and Yunnan provinces of China.

Turkey leads the global tea consumption at 6.96 million pounds with Ireland, United Kingdom and Russia coming in at second, third and fourth place respectively. Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Protected by the mountain mists, and given just enough humidity, the plant produces shiny, dark green leaves and small, tender, white blossoms. The final quality of tea depends on a lot of factors – the soil, climate, altitude, and expertise of the tea-pickers.

Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Research shows that tea has not always been consumed as a beverage. It was used in burial rituals among Chinese royalty, as a mixture containing the buds, some roasted barley, salt, and or ginger. It would later adopt other uses including as dowry payment for aristocrats, around 640 A.D. A thousand years later in the 1600s the buds would land in the British Isles, sipping its way into daily culinary preferences as it provided relief and a ‘high’ for workers who often had to contend with the drudgery of manual labour. Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

The tea craze reached British high society through Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese aristocrat who married into the British monarchy, to Charles II. As an early celebrity endorser of tea, her wedding to Charles II helped the fad to take off among the British nobility, making it as native to British royalty as white weddings.

Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

Catherine of Braganza’s enthusiasm for tea, as well as the expensive nature of the new invention, sugar, made tea a hallmark and fetish for the status-chasing elites.

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From the 1600s the fortune of tea as a global beverage seemed relentless. Its cultural phenomenon as a mark of status meant lots of people developed new literature on this ‘wondrous beverage’, key among them an English writer named Thomas Tryon, who counted Benjamin Franklin as one of his fans.

Tryon was an advocate for tea in moderation, and not conspicuous consumption as was the case with the aristocrats of the day. Tryon developed self-help books around tea, for which his enthusiasm was tempered by his conflicted relationship with sugar. On one hand, he hated the slavery of the sugar plantations in the West Indies, while still savouring the magical effects of the substance in his tea. Tryon, well aware that the cruelty of slavery drained into the cups of British royalty as an enchanting beverage, expressed a love-hate relationship with sugar and by extension tea.

Some of the same health and cultural claims about tea that people like Tryon were making, including mental clarity, esteem, and momentary high, and the perceived analgesics of sugar – were also being made about coffee. But coffee lost out in prestige because of its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, then a poor periphery of the British Empire and its imperial interests. With little capacity for industrial production, coffee was limited in reach and adoption.

Meanwhile tea, tied to the far more developed Far East commercial treadmills had an easier time rising to meet demand in the West. England engaged in trade with China, through the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company, exporting spices, silks and other goods like opium in exchange for tea. The multiplicity of good fortunes; a huge demand back home, naval trade, existence of the huge trading firms British East India Company and Dutch East India Company, spurred the first impulses of modern capitalism.

Soon the Chinese rejected opiates owing to their addictive effects and the British realized that if they were going to keep pace with the tea craze back at home and not have to deal with the Chinese, they had to own tea plantations themselves.

Tea was such a lucrative trade, that, by the mid-19th century, the firm, through a Scottish botanist went on to steal tea seedlings and the secrets of tea production from China and used that to establish a tea empire in conquered India.

The British understood that getting their hands on the plant, and learning how to grow it, was not just good business, it was a cultural prestige, commercial coup and a strong geopolitical move.

Historian Sara Rose in her book For All the Tea In China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History describes how Scottish botanist had written about the marvels of tea in his travel journals during a trip to China in 1845. His writings caught the attention of Victorian high society, who then tasked him to make a return visit and sneak out tea seedlings out of China and to learn the mechanics of tea production, which would then be planted in British-controlled India.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

The impact of the espionage was incalculable; within decades, India surpassed China as the world’s largest tea producer, China sunk never to recover until the 1970s, Britain rose and the global commerce moved to the West for the next 180 years.

***

A new tea empire arose during that time, and true to Tryon’s fears and disgust, a new kind of capitalism developed. It would be spurred on by bureaucratic, infrastructural, commercial and military capabilities, supporting slavery, colonialism and land expropriation aided by plunder through British institutions.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

That legacy implicit in our tea making cultures is still with us today. The great inequalities, between class divides and between nation-states that characterize the modern world can be traced to this global commerce’s long and violent operations.

The tea empire in India evolved over centuries as a critical cog and a microcosm of the larger problematic capitalism with its oppressive social and political structures in places such as West Indies the Ottoman Empire and mid-1800s western India.

The centrality of slavery in the massive production of Tea Empire in India, the rise of 18th centuries tea merchants in South Asia and their centrality in the slave trade irked Tryon and his ilk. In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

The British Empire’s ability to modernize and industrialize rested on the power and reach of the two companies, their control of distant lands, naval superiority, and enslaved labour in India. Slavery, therefore, has always been an integral part of the sugar and tea economy; a core part of the Western world, and it took a violent struggle, most successfully in the 1790s in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to break its yoke.

In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

Tea and sugar proved to be convenient alternatives to alcohol, a good addition to British culinary options, and good source of cheap calories for the masses. As the Industrial Revolution got underway, where the factory replaced the plough beginning in the mid-1700s, tea sweetened the transition away from hard farm labour giving the factory workers regular hits of caffeine.

The mercurial duo of tea and sugar made not just cultural sense as a classy drink but also spelt a boon for British government coffers. As the wheels of industrialization grew louder and churned faster, tea accounted for every tenth pound into the royal coffers, while sugar imports could sufficiently fund the then global British navy. Sugar made tea popular while tea made sugar valuable to the empire.

The tea-and-sugar revenues filled the British royal navy coffers enabling them to conquer distant lands around the globe in the 1800s at a terrible human cost, especially in Africa and the West Indies.

In America, of all the British sensibilities that the Americans adopted, tea drinking seems to be one of those that simply dissolved into the Atlantic Ocean, with minimal traces of tea culture making it on the journey west. The Charleston Tea Plantation in Wadmalaw Island just southwest of bustling Charleston, South Carolina, is the only lush, green landscape that holds on to legacy of tea in the whole of continental America.

The sprawling 127 acres of gleaming rows of green leaves unfolds in Waccamaw, one of the Sea Islands that dot the shoreline. The plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., in partnership with third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall. It is what remains of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party or what was simply known as “the Destruction of the Tea in Boston till 1830s.”

That incident over 240 years ago on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, involved the Sons of Liberty in Boston, disguised as Mohawks, stealing aboard three British merchant ships and tipping over more than 340 chests of quality East India Co. tea into the sea. This destruction of tea leaves as a protest against England’s unjust taxation policy sparked the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies culminating in the independence as the United States of America.

***

On the other side of the world in the choppy seas of the Indian Ocean lies the archipelago of Sri Lanka. This tea paradise’s long relationship with beverage goes back to 1890 when Sir Thomas Lipton arrived on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, seeking to acquire real estate. 128 years later, the tea industry employs 1 million of the 22 million citizens.

A little further northwest of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) lies Myanmar ( Burma), with its evolving generational politics of tea culture. Burma, as it is more popularly known internationally, is grappling with its tea-taking culture truncated across generational lines. Currently only middle-aged men keep the consumption of steaming laphet yay- Burmese tea alive. Laphet yay is the signature Burmese tea; black tea, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. From Puta in the northerly region to Naypritaw in the central regions and in Yangon, tea consumption is more than regular past time; it’s a cultural moment for Burmese citizens. Word has it that the pro-democracy 8888 political uprising against the 1988 military rule might have started in a tea shop somewhere in the capital, Yangon.

The Indian subcontinent, one of the cradles of ancient tea, is home to Darjeeling, a boutique tea, referred to as the ‘Champagne Of Teas’. According to Jeff Koehler, author of Darjeeling – The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, Darjeeling remains India’s internationally renowned tea thanks to its auction sales even though it makes up a mere 1% of the 2 billion pounds of tea that Indians consume annually. India produces just 8 million pounds of Darjeeling tea out of 87 tea estates in the Himalayas.

However, it is further south of the Equator in Kenya that the true nation-state building power of tea lies. Measuring just about 582,000 square kilometres, Kenya has about 198,000 hectares of tea plantations churning about 480, 000 tonnes of tea annually. Introduced in the country in 1903 by GWL Caine the crop would be commercialized 21 years later by Malcolm Fyers Bell. Currently, Kenya has surpassed India and even China- the ancient homeland of tea – in tea production. Small- scale production is managed through 66 factories handling about 500, 000 small-scale farmers on 100,000 hectares of tea. Most of it is auctioned in the city port of Mombasa and exported abroad for blending with other lower quality tea varieties.

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India who are former British colonies.

So was Fortune history’s beguiling economic spy, or a mere botanist who brought tea and its technologies west?

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India both former British colonies.

Fortune never saw himself as a spy or a great player in global geopolitical games. It is as though his greatness (or villainy) lies accidently in him being a China and plant expert right at the point where the leaves that shaped the world lay halfway around the world from his Scottish neighbourhood. He was not a hero in his own eyes.

Nevertheless, by his small act, never has the fate of history been so drastically dependent on a bunch of leaves since Eve in the Garden of Eden, as when Fortune smuggled that humble seedling.

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Darius Okolla is a writer and a social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

A Street Named Bi Pendo

11 min read. Kisumu is not alone in using street names as a form of resistance, as a way of refusing to forget. The naming of streets in Kenya can be used as a form of symbolic resistance and as a locus for collective memory expressing group identity.

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A Street Named Bi Pendo
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“Memory is short-lived/And more important instead/That streets are well-laid/Flowing and uncongested.” — Jonathan Kariara, Naming Streets in Nairobi

The main road that runs through Kisumu is called Jomo Kenyatta Highway. Named after the country’s first president, the road divides the town in a North-South axis that runs from Patel Flats (where it stops being Kakamega Road) to the State Lodge in Milimani. In fact, one might argue that it is the spine of the city, in the sense of it being the central nervous system and the other roads feeding off it. In other words, cut off this road from either end (at Kondele or at the intersection with Busia Road) and you have killed Kisumu.

During the 2017 electoral period, Jomo Kenyatta Highway was the epicentre of several violent clashes between opposition supporters and police officers. A general election had been held on 8 August and the main candidates in the presidential election were the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party, and Raila Odinga of the NASA coalition. On 9 August, as tallying was ongoing, Odinga announced that the elections database had been hacked and the results were being manipulated in favour of his opponent, and that the hacker had used the credentials of Chris Msando, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) ICT manager who had been murdered less than two weeks to the election. Odinga said, “What the IEBC has posted is a complete fraud . . . to give Uhuru Kenyatta votes that were not cast . . . We have uncovered the fraud.”

In the wake of Odinga’s rejection of the poll results, police officers moved onto the streets, and into neighbourhoods, alleging that they were flashing out the rioters who had hidden in residential areas. There were reports of police officers breaking into houses, and beating innocent civilians. Several residential areas in Kisumu remained in the constant haze of teargas that the police had lobbed in their pursuit of “rioters”. At night, when residents had retired to their houses, police officers went door to door, lobbing tear gas canisters into people’s houses, and attacking people in their sleep. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, On the night of 11 to 12 August, as they carried out their house-to-house operations, police officers killed at least 10 people (a low estimate) in Kisumu, one of whom was Samantha Pendo, a six-month-old baby. Witnesses would later tell Human Rights Watch that, “on August 11th, police violently attacked her family, kicking, slapping, and beating with gun butts and batons everyone in the house, including the baby.” This was at 12.30 am.

In the wake of Samantha Pendo’s murder, Kenyans erupted. Numerous commentators on social media condemned the violence and the grotesque murder of a six-month-old baby. However, in a statement given the very day of the attack on Pendo, Interior Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang’i, denied that the police officers had been using excessive force on civilians. Even as Pendo was in a coma at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu, he dismissed claims of violence being meted out on protestors. Instead, Matiang’i claimed that those who had been injured had been in the midst of looting as police officers tried to prevent them from doing so. He said, “Some criminal elements took advantage of the situation to loot property. The police responded and normalcy has returned to the area.”

After three days in a coma arising from a head injury, Pendo succumbed to the trauma. In the wake of her death, an unknown group of people went up and down Jomo Kenyatta Highway defacing all the road signs carrying that name. They scratched out the nameJomo Kenyatta Highway and in its stead wrote, in green ink, “Bi Pendo Road.”

On 14 February 2019, an inquest led by Kisumu Senior Resident Magistrate Beryl Omolo found five police officers culpable of Samantha Pendo’s murder. In her ruling, she also recommended prosecution against eight GSU officers who had been involved in the operation. Less than four months after her ruling, Odinga, who had since stumbled into an alliance with Kenyatta, urged his supporters to move on from the events of August 2017. He declared that it was the moment of healing and that people needed to forget the wounds of the past.

Kisumu refuses to forget. Two and a half years on from that August night, Bi Pendo Road is the main road running through the city. While, on paper, the road still bears its original name, in reality, the green ink on the road signs refuses to forget. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime Kisumu has had a violent relationship with the state. When Jomo Kenyatta came to open a hospital in Kisumu In 1969, the crowd erupted in anger at the speech he made, and his security detail opened fire, killing an estimated eleven people on the spot, and injuring hundreds. The cycle of violence continued. In 1982. In 1992. In 1997. In 2002. In 2005. In 2007, after the disputed elections, the police shot dead an estimated 115 people. On 30 March 2013, the day of a Supreme Court ruling on the disputed presidential elections, a police officer shouted at a group of youths, saying, “We forgave you people in Kisumu during the 2007-2008 violence. This time we are going to teach you a lesson”. On that day alone, 5 people were killed and 24 were admitted in hospital with bullet wounds.

Kisumu is not alone in using street names as a way of resistance, as a way of refusing to forget. Derek Alderman, an American historical geographer whose focus is on landscapes of public memory, has written about how naming can be used as a way of symbolic resistance. Michael Hebbert has argued about the existence of a relationship between memory and space. In his view, “a shared space such as a street can be a locus for collective memory and can express group identity through architecture, monuments, and street names.” Further, he posits that street names can indicate a community’s desire to remember certain personalities or events.

Road names in Nairobi exist in similar praxes. When, from 1928 to 1936, the British colonial government moved to change street names in Nairobi; from numbered streets, they renamed the streets after figures who were important in their British imagination. In the wake of independence in 1963, the African government in power saw the need to rename these streets. For instance, Delamere Avenue became Kenyatta Avenue, while the four streets branching out of Kenyatta Avenue had their names changed. Originally named after the first, second, third and fourth colonial commissioners who would later become governors — Arthur Henry Hardinge, Charles Eliot, Donald William Stewart and James Hayes Sadler — they were given names of African personalities: Kimathi Street, Muindi Mbingu Street, Wabera Street, and Koinange Street. College Road was renamed Harry Thuku Road, while the road named after the Queen, Queens Way, was rebaptized Mama Ngina Street.

Kenyatta Avenue (formerly known as Delamere Avenue) in the mid-1960s. Photo. Flickr/Michael Jefferies

In Nairobi’s Industrial Area, most of the roads had been named after towns in England. These were localised: Edinburgh Road to Enterprise Road, Aberdeen Road to Addis Ababa Road, Birmingham Road to Bamburi Road, Clifford Road to Changamwe Road, Dublin Road to Dakar Road, London Road to Lusaka Road, and Liverpool Road to Likoni Road.

A similar renaming was attempted in Kileleshwa, a neighbourhood popular with the emergent African elite. As with Industrial Area, roads which bore names that reflected localities in England were renamed to reflect the new reality of independence. According to Peris Teyie, an academic at Maseno University’s School of Planning and Architecture, the initial plan had been to name the roads in alphabetical order, like in Industrial Area. However, the planners got lazy. “They got tired of trying to do them alphabetically, and started naming them randomly.” This is why Siaya Road, Gusii Avenue and Oloitoktok Road are to be found in the same zone.

It must be noted here that not everyone agreed with this process of writing away the colonialists. One James Kangangi Njuguna was reported to have argued for the preservation of history in the renaming process, even though it could remind Kenyans of negative experiences.

In their renaming, the ruling government revealed its politics in the patterns that the new road names followed. First, the road names were predominantly male, and remain so to this day, with Mama Ngina Road and Wangari Maathai Road being the only major roads in the city named after women. (Tubman Road, contrary to popular belief, is named after William Tubman, the 19th President of Liberia, and not Harriet Tubman) This is noteworthy, considering Wangari Maathai Road is a recent addition, and Mama Ngina Road is all about patriarchal patronage. Secondly, as Melissa Wangui Wanjiru and Kosuke Matsubara note, “the naming of streets was biased towards the Kikuyu (the largest community in Kenya),” and there was a dramatic “erasure of Indian street names”.

Walking through Nairobi’s streets, one notices several names that are conspicuous by their absence from the politics of commemoration, names that in other realities would have been present: Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia, Masinde Muliro, Achieng’ Oneko . . . all of them socialist-leaning politicians. Wanjiru and Matsubara argue that, “Such was the case for many who were considered heroes in Kenya’s fight for freedom, but who were vilified and alienated both in the colonial and post-colonial periods.”

Pio Gama Pinto’s case is an interesting one. After his death, there was a quest to rename Victoria Street after him. Vershi, a resident of Nairobi, suggested that the street be renamed after the Kenyan-Goan politician who had been one of the leading members of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). His request was ignored by the naming authorities, and the street was not renamed after Pinto. Instead, there followed a mass expunging of Indian names from Nairobi’s streets. In 1973, 58 of the streets in the Central Business District bore Indian names. All of these were replaced, with the exception of Aga Khan Walk. For instance, Jeevanjee Street, which had been named after Alibhai Mula Jeevanjee, an Asian-born citizen who owned most of the buildings on that street, was renamed Mfangano Street. Moreover, the 21 streets in Ngara that bore Indian names had their names replaced with African names, as did the 19 streets in South C Estate, despite these areas being occupied mostly by Indian-Kenyan families. Streets whose names were changed include Jamnagar Avenue (to Idado Avenue), Hoshiarpur Road (to Mukarati Road), and Alamgir Avenue (to Muhuti Avenue).

That Aga Khan Walk survives is a testament to the power the Aga Khan wields in this country. Aga Khan is a title held by the Imām of the Nizari Ismaili Shias. Since 1957, the holder of the title has been the 49th Imām, Prince Shah Karim al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV. The Aga Khan’s influence is most felt through his ownership of the Nation Media Group, although he also has interests in, among others, Diamond Trust Bank, Farmer’s Choice Ltd, Jubilee Insurance, The Aga Khan Education Service, and Serena Hotels.

A street in Westlands was later named after Pinto. This is interesting given how Goans have, for the most part, been written out of Kenya’s history. Pinto, Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro and Francis Xavier D’Silva are the only Goans who have places named after them in Nairobi. Ribeiro was the doctor who first diagnosed an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city, while D’Silva, better known as Baba Dogo, earned plaudits for his generosity towards impoverished whites who lived in Murumbi, an area later renamed Baba Dogo.

However, there was an ethnic over-representation of the Kikuyu in the naming of the streets and, on 8 December 1970, in a session titled the “Colonial Names of Nairobi Streets,” Tamason Barmalel, the MP of Chepalungu Constituency, took the government to task over this issue, asking how the government would “ensure that future street names would represent all ethnic groups in the country.” The assistant minister in charge of the naming process, Nathan Munoko, assured him that the street names were mainly based on suggestions from the public, before they were analysed by the street naming sub-committee to ensure equitable distribution, before being forwarded to the minister for approval.

Four years after Pinto’s assassination, Tom Mboya was shot dead on Government Road. After his death, there was a lot of clamour about how to memorialise him.. Since he had been killed on Government Road, it made sense to rename this road after him, and Jaffer, a resident of Mombasa, suggested this. He also suggested that Kilindini Road in Mombasa be named after Mboya, as well as one street in each town in Kenya. James Mbori, the Kasipul-Kabondo MP, led the charge in parliament, and during a parliamentary session titled “Change of name of Government Road to Tom Mboya Road”, he asked the Minister for Local Government, Dr Gikonyo Kiano, whether this would happen. Dr Kiano demurred, saying that government policy was to rename those roads which bore names reminiscent of the colonial era, and Government Road was not one of these roads. In any case, he argued, it was not appropriate to rename Government Road since it was a symbol of the Government of Kenya.

However, it was thrown back at him that Government Road had been named thus by the colonial government, and therefore it was evocative of the British colonial administration. Upon Dr Kiano’s further resistance, Mbori went on the offensive, implying that the road’s name had been reserved for someone else. He asked, “Mr. Speaker Sir, would the minister deny that the name of Government Road is reserved for some future naming?”

Tom Mboya’s supporters were aggrieved, and attempts were made to find another street to bear his name. St. Austin’s Road was proposed, but it was turned down on the grounds that it wasn’t important enough a road to bear the name of a man of Mboya’s stature. This road was later renamed James Gichuru Road. Government Road remained Government Road, and the less important Victoria Street, the same one which had been denied Pinto’s memory, was renamed after Mboya. In 1978, Government Road was renamed Moi Avenue, rendering Mbori’s prediction true.

Then there are the Shifta roads, named after victims of the Shifta War: Wabera Street, formerly Elliot Street, named after Daudi Dabasso Wabera, whose assassination a week after Kenya had been granted independence sparked what became known as the Shifta War; and Lt. Tumbo Avenue, formerly General Smuts Avenue, named after Lt. John Charles Tumbo Kalima, who led the Kenyan military effort against the insurgency and was killed in an ambush between Garissa and Wajir.

Around Kibra (very importantly not Kibera), several streets bear Nubian names. A meeting of the parliamentary street naming sub-committee held on 30 March 1971 suggested ten street names for the Kibera Government Housing Scheme: Ihura Road, Toi Road, Kambui Road, Sara-Ngombe Road, Chief Suleman Road, Lemule Road, Apollo Road, Kambi Muru Road, Laini Saba Road and Adhola Marongo Road (CCN 1971). With the exception of Ihura and Kambui Roads, all the other names are of Nubian origin. The Nubian community is being remembered. Only, Nubian leaders would argue differently, given that the Nubian community occupies only 700 acres of land in Kibra, with the rest of the land, some 3498 acres, having been forcibly taken over by the post-colonial government with no compensation offered. The recognition of the Nubian community is, as Wanjiru and Matsubara state, superficial, since the real demands of the Nubian community were mostly ignored.

Street names in Nairobi, and in Kenya, have also been used as arenas for reputational politics. For instance, going through Kakamega is an immersion into Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Masinde Muliro Gardens . . . the man from further North in Bungoma, being commemorated in Kakamega. It is the same with Oginga Odinga in Kisumu and Siaya, Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, and Daniel Moi in Eldoret. In Nairobi, several streets were named after Pan-Africanists, but these were almost all Pan-Africanists with whom Jomo Kenyatta had interacted or personally admired. He and Ralph Bunche in London in 1936, and Bunche had visited Kenya at Kenyatta’s behest two years later; Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and W. E. B. Du Bois had also interacted with Kenyatta in London. Dennis Pritt had represented Kenyatta at the Kapenguria Trial in 1952 while William Tubman, Mokhtar Daddah, Albert Luthuli and Haile Selassie were, together with Kenyatta, all part of the Pan-African movement in the 1960s.

The battle of reputations came about with the proposed renaming of Enterprise Road to Kibaki Road. When the proposal was made, it was opposed on the grounds that government policy prohibited naming streets after living personalities except for heads of state. Yet Mama Ngina was, and still is, a living personality, and was not, and still isn’t, a head of state. Still, much can be inferred from the fact that the road given her name was once known as Queens Way.

One of the main roads running through Mombasa is Mama Ngina Drive, which used to be Azania Drive, renamed at independence after a person who again, was, and still is, a living personality, and was not, and still isn’t, a head of state. In 2019, there was a furore over a move to name a recreational park along the road Mama Ngina Waterfront Park. According to Okoa Mombasa, a coalition that led the opposition to the proposed name, this was a “gross deletion and obfuscation” of local history, and an attempt to “inscribe a historical memory alien to the place and local inhabitants”.

All these years later, the big reputation in the landscape of naming remains KANU, chama cha baba na mama. According to David Lowenthal, the landscape is not just a product of human actions in the past, but rather a tangible symbol of people’s attachment to the past. The main road to Eastlands, Jogoo Road, bears the symbol of the long-time ruling party of the country. One might argue that it is a symbol of the cockerel of the national court of arms, but then, one would have to think about why the symbol of KANU is on the national court of arms.

Wandia Njoya has written about how the Kenyatta family has taken control of national symbols, and has argued for the need to delink the family from national symbols and ideals. When Princess Elizabeth Way was renamed Uhuru Highway, the intention had not been to switch the name from the ruler of the Kenyan colony to the ruler of independent Kenya.

In the wake of the farcical 2017 electoral process and the subsequent violence, there was a violent renaming of things in Kisumu. Bi Pendo Road, yes, but also Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, where several signs were defaced, and Jubilee Market, which was renamed Orengo Market, and where, as with Jomo Kenyatta Highway, the signs with that name were defaced, and a new name inked over, a name that still stands to this day.

That Bi Pendo Road exists is not merely a monument to Samantha Pendo. Rather, it is an affirmation of Kisumu’s refusal to forget, to move on from the victims of police brutality in 2017, in 2013, in 2007, and in all the other years, as Odinga urged in 2019, and continues to urge through the Building Bridges Initiative.

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Knowing Binyavanga

14 min read. A story of an unlikely friendship, a chronicle of the final years of the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga’s life, from the perspective of a former student activist discovered on the brink of despair and mentored into a writer.

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Knowing Binyavanga
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‘‘I want to go and drink in River Road, where you guys used to drink,’’ Binyavanga told me, wanting to experience Nairobi’s underbelly, where broke University of Nairobi students and those staying in cheap downtown hostels engaged in debauchery. It had all started a month or so earlier. I had shared with him bits and pieces of a memoir on student activism that I had been working on. That story seemed to make Binyavanga want to talk for hours on end, as if wanting to discover a part of Kenya he wasn’t familiar with, including drinking in Nairobi’s dingy backstreet bars.

I had instigated our chance meeting weeks earlier through a random Facebook message. After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda following an untidy spillover of my student activism, I had returned to Kenya in early 2010, broke and broken. Sitting in a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights safe house in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighbourhood, I started writing a memoir, later deciding to share a section of it with someone I considered a literary authority, wanting to know whether it was all just trash. I settled on Binyavanga, at the time Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York. I wrote him one of those possibly irritating I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, suspecting he received tens of those at a time. Luckily, Binyavanga responded in under ten minutes, saying he was busy but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his email address, and asked me to send him a chapter. He emailed back in less than 30 minutes.

‘‘Where are you?’’ Binyavanga wrote, ‘‘Are you safe?’’

Under a month later, upon his return to Nairobi—with loads of emails in-between about his intention to grant me one of the early Achebe Center writing fellowships—Binyavanga and I met for the first time at Divino, a restaurant on Nairobi’s Argwings Kodhek Road, and spoke for ten hours. Towards the end of the evening, Binyavanga told me he had a friend who lived nearby, on Kirichwa Road, whom he thought I should meet. That friend was his contemporary, the writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai, who joined us at Divino. The next weekend, staying true to the spirit of our new friendship, Binyavanga invited me to one of his epic parties at his house in Karen, introducing me to his high-flying literati friends as a promising writer in his usual exuberant way. That day, at that party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.

Eager to learn more about my bleak University of Nairobi days, his curiosity sparked by the writing I had shared with him, Binyavanga decided to immerse himself into the downtown Nairobi scene, which was foreign to him. And so, one Saturday evening, I joined Binyavanga and his stocky, talkative cab driver, Njuki, who took us to the less glamourous part of the city. We drove around downtown Nairobi, to those places with their infamous little pubs with names like Emirates, where music blares out of faulty speakers and the streets are populated with staggering, drunken patrons.

Binyavanga didn’t seem impressed, much as he wanted to be in the depth of it all. Then Njuki took a turn off River Road, landing us at the junction of Keekorok Road and Jaisala Road, next to the better-known Kirinyaga Road. There stood an imposing, modernish building, AJS Plaza, which seemed out of place in the midst of structures that had seen better days, possibly dating back to colonial days. At the rear of the building, on the lower ground floor, was what looked like a kiosk, selling alcohol. There were seats placed in front of a small window from where drinks emerged.

‘‘I think I like this place,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘Let’s sit here.’’

Jaisala Road, which is where the watering hole was located, was quiet and deserted. Sitting on the plastic chairs, we faced a tiny dark alley, which served as the urinal for the little kiosk. Every time Binyavanga stood up, delicately balanced his imposing frame and crossed the street, positioning himself at the edge of the dark corridor to relieve himself, I wondered what I had done, bringing him to these sorts of places.

Before I could explore that thought further, Binyavanga would return, relieved and reenergised, downing his bottle of Guinness, engaging gear-five as Parselelo Kantai would later cheekily christen that moment when an idea hits Binyavanga’s mind and he is shouting and drinking and making his point loudly and urgently. A lot of gear-fives happened at Kantai’s Kirichwa Road backyard at four in the morning as our host asked us to keep it down for the sake of his neighbours.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

Later that night, the only activity on Jaisala Road, other than that originating from our corner of the street, was the steady stream of Congolese nationals, mostly musicians, returning from live performances in places across the city—places like Simmers, that popular city center nightspot—to their rooms at Jaisala Hotel in the building across the road. Or to the cheap lodgings in the upper floors of the buildings on the street.

An idea came to Binyavanga.

‘‘I want to buy a building here,’’ he said, ‘‘one located on a corner, and transform this place.’’

Binyavanga revisited this conversation over the years, his idea of owning a building in that part of Nairobi, where he wanted to establish an arts and culture center, house the Kwani? office, and in so doing collapse the Nairobi art scene’s class divide. To his thinking, those from upper class Nairobi would—in the usual way that gentrification works—be interested in being part of this downtown experience, while those from the less privileged parts of the city would only need to board one matatu and access the venue bila hustle. As our first joint project, that night, Binyavanga gave me a much needed $100—I was dead broke—to scout for a suitable building for such a project.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

‘‘Here’s some money,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘I don’t want you to get stuck.’’

At around that time, the literary journal Kwani?, of which Binyavanga was the looming founding editor, was working on its seventh edition, the majuu issue. African writers who lived or had lived in the Diaspora were being asked to tell their tales of life abroad. Having briefly read my Kampala asylum seeking escapades, which I doubt fitted neatly into Kwani?’s Diaspora template, Binyavanga reached out to Kwani’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, introducing yet another of his discoveries, another promising Kenyan writer.

‘‘You have to publish this guy,’’ Binyavanga pushed Billy on the phone, over and over again.

Billy, possibly half curious and partly seeking to get Binyavanga off his back, asked me to send him 10,000 words of my Kampala story. That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I told of sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, thereafter spending months navigating Uganda’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR processes.

Binyavanga went back to New York, staying in touch with me the whole time. He was back in under three months, and would call every other day, asking to meet up for lunch and talk through the evening and into the night. A lover of fine dining, he would ask me to join him at either Le Rustique on General Mathenge Drive, Talisman in Karen or Mediterraneo at The Junction. Whenever I went to meet him, I always found Binyavanga punching away at his MacBook, which almost always had bits of cigarette ash on the keyboard. He would light a Dunhill Switch cigarette in mid-conversation, and when making an important point, lift his cigarette-holding arm up in the air, put the cigarette in his other hand, take a long puff and blow the smoke upwards. He would then engage gear-five, sipping a Guinness, a cappuccino or sparkling water.

‘‘I want to protect you,’’ Binyavanga would say, feeling obligated to give me some form of cover from whoever he imagined had been after me. ‘‘If they think of coming after you, I want them to see me, and know that we can make a lot of noise if anything happens to you.’’

That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I detailed my sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya.

One late afternoon, after a visa renewal appointment at the American embassy in Nairobi, Binyavanga called and asked me to join him at the Java Coffee House in Gigiri, where I found him later that evening. The moment I settled in, I noticed something strange was happening to him. He was punching on his MacBook keyboard relentlessly, his level of concentration higher than what I was accustomed to. He seemed somber and quieter, yet peaceful, and smiled whenever he looked up from whatever he was writing. Then he spoke.

‘‘I am resigning from the Achebe Center,’’ he said, without giving the reason why he was walking away. ‘‘I will send the letter before boarding my flight to New York later tonight.’’

When he returned from New York a fortnight later, Binyavanga made me a proposition. He was now talking about spending more time in Africa, as if overcome by a new sense of agency. He had originally wanted to grant me an Achebe Center fellowship that would give me time and space to write. Now that he was no longer at the Center, he had an alternative.

‘‘Can you live in Nakuru?’’ he asked me one afternoon. ‘‘There is a house. My father’s house.’’

I had never lived in Nakuru, and didn’t know what life was like there. But seeing how keen Binyavanga was to have me find a space to clear my mind and get on with the writing, I immediately said yes. We had gotten to a place where I felt he knew exactly what was good for me, because why else would he keep at it when he had other important things he could spend his time on? He wrote a brief email introducing me to his siblings—Jimmy, Ciru and Chiqy—telling them that I would house-sit their home for three months. I was soon off to Nakuru.

I arrived in Nakuru’s Milimani neighbourhood to find a five-bedroom mansion, a small detail Binyavanga had omitted to mention. The plan was that I would receive a stipend for groceries and Binyavanga would make trips down to Nakuru to check on me. Whenever he came around, we spent hours talking politics, writing, Africa, and in the evenings we would make our way to downtown Nakuru, where he would take me on a tour of old pubs with history. He would stay for up to a week.

My routine was simple. Wake up, bask with Tony the dog, get some writing done, make lunch with Vincent the gardener, write some more, take a long evening walk, have lunch leftovers for dinner, write again, then sleep. When the loneliness got too much or the writing wasn’t working, I would go to the backyard and have the occasional smoke, promising myself not to make a habit of it. On Fridays and Saturdays, I went to Rafikis, the happening nightspot in Nakuru at the time. I stood alone at a spot near the entrance, and drank till morning, speaking to no one. Frequenting Rafikis was my way of seeing other humans other than my two constant companions, Vincent, who was always busy pruning the hedges, and Tony the dog. Before I knew it, I had lived in Nakuru for a year and it was time to move back to Nairobi.

‘‘Come to Karen,’’ Binyavanga told me as I left Nakuru. ‘‘I’ve got an extra bedroom.’’

I got to Binyavanga’s Karen home after nightfall. I knew the place from my visit a year earlier when he had invited me over for the party at which he had introduced me to his writer friends. The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades. Books, and what I imagined were printed copies of submissions from across Africa, littered the place. I sat quietly in a corner and watched them work. Later that night, Binyavanga showed me to the extra bedroom which I would occupy for the next two years.

Barely a month after my arrival in Karen, on the night of 17 January 2014, we were sitting in the cold living room, working as we always did, everyone facing the page. On the stroke of midnight, I looked up, uttering the first words spoken for the better part of that night.

‘‘Happy birthday, Binya,’’ I said.

‘‘Thank you,’’ he replied, barely looking up.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

Binyavanga’s cell phone was ringing off the hook. Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, among a myriad other international news outlets, all wanted an interview. We were riding in a taxi, as we always did, going I can’t remember where, when Binyavanga, seated in the front passenger seat, holding a cigarette out the window, turned and looked at me.

The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades.

‘‘Man, I need your help,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you help me handle these media inquiries? There’ll be chums.’’ And just like that, I started working as Binyavanga’s occasional assistant, before it became a full-time firefighting gig not without its dramatic moments, like being pulled out of writing workshops to make calls to embassy officials to sort out incomplete visa applications.

From dealing with his literary agents in London and New York, to maintaining his calendar, booking flights and planning airport drop-offs and pick-ups in Nairobi, to replying to requests for interviews and such, finding a place for them in his crowded diary, this gig-on-steroids also involved buying groceries, dealing with the landlord, making visa applications, and tracking bill payments. It was a full-on engagement, all the while trying to maintain a friendship and a social life. I became Binyavanga’s friend, assistant, housemate, confidant, and bodyguard even, all rolled into one.

The distress call came on a Friday night—the 24th of October 2015—catching me midway through dinner. I was attending the farewell party for the African Writers Trust editorial workshop somewhere in Bugolobi, Kampala, keen on partying away the remainder of the night. The caller was Binyavanga’s closest high school friend, whom I knew well but not in an I-can-call-you-on-a-Friday-night-just-to-say-hello way. I left the loud banquet room and went outside.

‘‘Isaac, are you in Nairobi?” he asked.

‘‘No. I am not,’’ I replied. ‘‘I am in Kampala, but will be back by tomorrow midday.’’

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share. Disoriented, I ended up drinking a little too much—to the point of almost missing my early morning ride to the airport—keeping the news to myself. I landed in Nairobi, dropped off my bags at the house in Karen and made my way to Karen Hospital.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning, the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

I found Binyavanga in the ICU, looking healthy and awake, but having difficulty with his speech. It seemed temporary, as if he would undergo a procedure or two and then everything would go back to normal. Before the stroke, Binyavanga had embarked on a crazy European run—Toronto, London then Paris, or something like that—attending a series of events before jumping on a plane and flying off to the next city. Seeing how tight his schedule had been and how much he had had to do, I thought this was all short-term, a product of the fatigue. Once out of ICU, Binyavanga would call me every morning, asking me to go and be with him at the hospital. I would tell him I was already on my way anyway, that he didn’t need to call for me to go to him.

‘‘Call so and so,’’ he would mumble from his hospital bed. ‘‘Tell them I’ve had a stroke.’’

It was as if we had moved his living room to his hospital room; he refused to slow down. We worked every morning, replying to emails, making phone calls, cancelling speaking and other engagements. Binyavanga was nothing if not painfully stubborn, never surrendering, insisting on acting as if everything was normal, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone. From Karen Hospital, it was Nairobi Hospital after a very brief break, before a group of friends and his family worked out a plan to get him to India, where his writer friend Achal Prabhala had recommended a solid post-stroke recovery programme. The idea of leaving the country appealed to Binyavanga.

On the day Binyavanga was leaving for India, I was returning from a Commonwealth Writers event in Malta, which I had attended as an East Africa stringer. As I was coming out of arrivals, I spotted a Nairobi Hospital ambulance parked outside the international departures gate and, recognising some of our mutual friends standing next to its open door, I walked over and saw Binyavanga lying on a stretcher, waiting to be wheeled onto the runway to board his flight. We exchanged pleasantries before I wished him good luck and said goodbye. A few weeks later, Binyavanga started sending emails to me and to the group of friends, asking that I travel to India. He became persistent, and soon, I was off to India.

I travelled to India on my birthday in December 2015, arriving in Bangalore, where Binyavanga was recuperating, at four in the morning. I made my way to the three-bedroom serviced apartment on Ulsoor Lake, where Binyavanga was staying with his sister Ciru, and a friend of theirs, Tango, who showed me to my room. At about eight in the morning, Binyavanga knocked on my door. I opened, we hugged, and he welcomed me to India. And that is how my eventful one-month stay in India began.

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share.

It was back to routine. We would wake up and have breakfast in the restaurant situated within the apartment building, by which time the taxi driver was already waiting in the basement parking. I would accompany Binyavanga to hospital for his sessions—speech therapy, physiotherapy, the works—after which we would go for lunch together and then spend the better part of the afternoon at a high-end gym. (I sat outside the building, people watching.) Then we would go back to the apartment, from where we all went out for dinner or something like that, and the next morning we would start all over again.

From Bangalore, and having regained much of his physical strength, Binyavanga was briefly back in Kenya, before leaving for Berlin to take up a DAAD fellowship for a year. Berlin was difficult. He encountered racism, and found himself having online scuffles with all kinds of people, including Kwani?. Thereafter, he briefly moved to South Africa, before returning to Kenya in 2017. I made a point of visiting him at least once a week. We spoke about anything and everything, just like in the old days, the only difference being that he couldn’t speak with the same vigour, ease and speed as before. The dreams grew even bigger, and every time I visited there was either an improvement on a concept, or a totally different idea he wanted to pursue. On the weeks when I couldn’t make it to see him, he would call asking why I hadn’t visited. At other times, he called and said he was lonely.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany Binyavanga to Kigali. I couldn’t ascertain whether he was fit to travel, and wondered why none of those around him wanted to make the trip with him. I kept avoiding him, sometimes not taking his calls, feeling that I was in a Catch 22 situation—wanting to be there for him, but worrying about his health. However, on the eve of the trip, Binyavanga did what Binyavanga did best: put me in a situation where I couldn’t say no.

‘‘I’ve bought two tickets, mine and yours,’’ he said on phone, ‘‘We’re going to Kigali kesho.’’

The first sign that Binyavanga wasn’t his best self was at the security screening at the airport in Nairobi; I had to step in to assist him with every step of the process. Inside the aircraft, the passenger seated next to him, noticing that he might need assistance during the flight, offered me his seat so that I could be with Binyavanga. We arrived in Kigali and got in touch with his cousin Brenda, who directed us to a hotel across the street from the Rwandan Parliament. We booked adjacent deluxe rooms on the fifth floor, each the size of an apartment. It was typical Binyavanga, always going over the top, be it with fashion or restaurants.

Binyavanga would wake up every morning and knock at my door, asking me to help him get ready for the day. On the day of the funeral I took him to his uncle’s home, where he paid his last respects and reconnected with his maternal cousins. We attended the requiem mass at a Catholic cathedral in central Kigali, sitting at the back of the church. I was born a Catholic and as I participated in the rituals, Binyavanga kept giving me a sideways look that seemed to say, “I thought I knew you”. We attended the burial at a cemetery in the outskirts of Kigali, before taking our flight back to Nairobi the following day.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

It was during that Kigali trip, his last trip outside Kenya, that I last saw Binyavanga walking unaided. A few weeks later, he was back in hospital, staying for a couple of weeks, having suffered another stroke. He was discharged and underwent a lot of physiotherapy, regaining much of his physical strength. I visited him two to three times a week, and mostly found him lying on the couch, watching Netflix on his MacBook. He would sit up, trying to have a conversation, before asking me to recommend shows or movies on Netflix. I would mention a show or a movie, read him the synopsis, after which he would say yes or no. We would speak, yet again, about his desire to do a PhD in Literature at Princeton, with him asking that the writer Andia Kisia and I work on his application. He would repeat his wish to study the work of Kojo Laing, since to Binyavanga’s mind, no one wrote better than Laing.

Just weeks later, Binyavanga was back in hospital, never to make it out alive. I visited him in the ICU one afternoon. Standing there, alone, watching him through a glass barrier—no one was allowed any closer—I felt my knees giving way, almost collapsing to the floor. We looked at each other. I felt that he wanted to speak, to ask me to do something for him, or to pass a message to someone, as it had always been with us. He couldn’t utter the words. After the longest, the frailest, eye contact, he slowly closed his eyes and slept. It felt like goodbye.

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Finding Lagos: A Jazz Tribute to an African City

11 min read. Award-winning American jazz singer/song-writer of East African ancestry, Somi, was in Lagos to work on her seventh studio album which will be released in the summer of 2020. Nigerian doctor, poet and music critic, Dami Ajayi caught up with Somi for Sunday brunch.

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Finding Lagos: A Jazz Tribute to an African City
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Somi is running late.

It is the Sunday morning after the February 2019 presidential elections that saw President Muhammadu Buhari returned to office and Lagos has endured a wet weekend. The roads have become flooded with rainwater escaping out of blocked drains, carrying with it styrofoam, plastic, non-recyclable waste and reusable debris. Traffic is what results. Traffic of short tempers and selfish driving, traffic of potholes and murky water, traffic that validates Fela’s claim in his tune Go Slow, traffic that traps Somi in an Uber taxi from where she sends a text message, “I am running late.”

I find her courtesy rather unusual. My experience of artistes in Nigeria is that being late for appointments is typical and not showing up is the rule. Somi apologises effusively when she finally arrives, hurriedly walking in, looking gorgeous in her flowing blue Adire gown.

“You just walk around and everyone is in their best and they just seem to try and find courage to face the next week. I introduce my song, with words about a woman who dared to dream, despite having a difficult life”, Somi says in a restaurant full of people in their Sunday best.

We are at the Cactus Restaurant on Victoria Island, an upscale diner popular for its Sunday brunch. The clientele is mostly elaborately dressed Christians just from church; middle-aged, bespectacled, brocade-wearing men sporting Yoruba caps and holding teenage daughters by the hand, mothers in George or Velvet or Ankara and elaborately styled headgear, strutting with the kind of confidence associated with ownership, bespectacled teenage sons, gangly and pimply, walking in their wake.

Somi lives in New York. She is visiting Lagos for pre-production meetings for her seventh album, recording rough demos and workshopping ideas with Cobhams Asuquo, the producer with whom she made her iconic fourth album.

Her seventh album is yet to be titled, but she says it is in conversation with her stage play, Dreaming Zenzile, which is about the life, the times and the music of the late South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba.

“My new album is in conversation with my play,” Somi says as she flips the menu, considering breakfast options. She makes her order and asks for extra avocados on the side.

Somi is no stranger to Cactus. She is also no stranger to Lagos. She had first been invited to Lagos in 2010 by the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival, but they were tentative about their dates—their major obstacle being the upcoming 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence celebrations.

By sheer happenstance, Somi was visiting friends in Lagos when the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival finally settled on dates, but the timing was still off. Lagos would be deprived of the magic of Somi and her five-man band but, providentially, Somi would comb the city on her own terms, flitting between working class and upscale areas, the Mainland and the Island, and falling in love with Yaba, an iconic part of the megacity.

Another opportunity to visit Lagos came soon enough; a seven-week International Art Residency at Kwara State University in Ilorin, in collaboration with New York University. Somi had been recommended by Professor Awam Amkpa of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, who had remembered how fond she was of Lagos.

“I came back to teach in Ilorin for seven weeks since that was all the time I had available. I remember looking up Ilorin and it was like a million, two million people . . . I love the idea of going to an African city that is not really like the centre,” Somi reminisces. She planned on spending three days a week in Ilorin and four in Lagos. To her dismay, her teaching at Ilorin was sabotaged by incessant union strikes.

“They kept going on strike and I taught once a week and I was to teach there for seven weeks. So I felt like I didn‘t get to spend time with the students as we all anticipated but it was still lovely. And you know at some point after much thinking, I decided to stay.”

Somi stayed in Nigeria for 18 months. She wrote, workshopped and recorded the songs that would become her fourth album, The Lagos Music Salon.

I experienced Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon (TLMS) on Ethiopian Airlines’ inflight entertainment in 2015. Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos.

Lagos is a conundrum of a city. Lagos is where the dreams of most Nigerians berth, optimistic that they shall come to pass. But like most cities, Lagos also engenders disappointment in the long run. Dreams may take their time to fruition, and so the citizens of Lagos are best classified thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.

The cover art on the TLMS album is of an elegant black woman wearing an Ankara dress leaning against shabby wooden panelling. The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened.

Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos

Every song on TLMS keys into the Lagos experience. Eighteen songs lasting a bit beyond an hour. The impression is an eternal one. One is in awe of the possibilities of powerful vocal cords and intricately curated music exploring the boundless complexity of a city that over twenty million people call home.

TLMS is a contemporary album in conversation about the city, but within the ethos of the city’s past as well as her musical traditions. Following a brisk introduction, the album pays homage to juju music—the soundtrack of the city through the 70s—with the vibrant up-tempo love song Love Juju #1 teasingly conflating the existing misconception about the nomenclature of that variant of palm-wine music. Juju here could mean the music whose name is possibly derived from the onomatopoeic Yoruba verb “to throw”, or an intense romantic affection that could be the consequence of hypnosis. Somi plays both sides with talking drums and the steel pedal guitar.

Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages. Somi is so fascinated by the way life happens in Lagos and her panoramic gaze eschews class, sex, gender and occupation; she is inexhaustibly preoccupied with what it means to be every kind of human in Lagos.

The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened

Listen to Somi’s Brown Round Things and you are thrown into the devastating beauty of Lagos nights. Accompanied by Ambrose Akinmusire’s piquant trumpet notes, the song knifes through the night and beautifies the nocturnal mundanity of the sex work that animates certain aspects of the city. Admiralty Way, Lekki. Sanusi Fafunwa, Victoria Island. And Allen Avenue, the Mecca of the Lagos Red Light District.

The album’s interludes and skits are byte-sized aural delights of certain sounds characteristic of Lagos. Yet, the most accomplished of these songlets is Somi’s visitation of Nelly Uchendu’s Love Nwantintin which enjoys the gospel feel of the acapella group In His Image—a sultry tribute to Lagos by way of the River Niger.

The victory of Somi’s album lies in how it curates Lagos’ sounds and kinetics in a manner that is both recognisable and satisfactory. Four years since its release, this album is still the most extensive jazz album detailing the Lagos experience and the most original interpretation of the city since Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Google Somi and you are likely to fall upon another Somi, a Korean-Canadian singer and songwriter who broke out through Produce 101, an M-Net survival reality show.

This Somi’s full name is Laura Kabasomi Kakoma whom Wikipedia describes as an “American singer, songwriter and actor of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage”.

Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages

Somi was born in Illinois to a Rwandan academic father and a Ugandan mother. Her family would relocate to Zambia when she was aged three. In the late 80s, her father took up a professorship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Somi studied Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois and has a postgraduate degree in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

“Writing was always a private art for me as a child and I‘ve always been a writer of some sort, but it is private, more like catharsis”, Somi says, adding that, “Singing too was a private thing. Like a lot of people, I used to sing as a child and then when my family and I moved to the States, I experienced culture shock and racism. I had an experience with a teacher who was so hostile to me and she shut me up when I was to present a piece I had won an award for and that kind of affected me . . . She was like ‘are you reading or not, just know no one even cares’ . . . I couldn’t sing publicly. Which for me is another reason I decided to play the cello, as I just needed an outlet that didn‘t involve me singing.”

In 2003, Somi released her first album in New York called Eternal Motive, an 11-track album with a monochrome portrait of Somi on the cover. The internet has all but forgotten these first steps but a review of a later work describes it as “electric soul jazz”, a nod at Somi’s love for genre-blending and bending.

Four years later, she independently released Red Soil in My Eyes. Jeff Tamarkin of the All Music Review glowingly remarks, Red Soil in My Eyes is all elegance and awe, and attempting to reduce Somi’s pan-globalism and command of her artistic environment to a single genre or purpose would be a fruitless endeavour. She skates easily between worlds, touching on both smooth and raucous neo-soul, nuanced jazz expression and more than a dollop of East African tradition until something else altogether emerges.”

Ingele, a Swahili song that was a finalist in the world music category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, is a moving delight that touches the core of anyone who knows that music is indeed the undertow of the soul. But Somi did not set out to become a Jazz singer: “I wasn‘t setting out to be a jazz singer. I just wanted to be a songwriter and poet. I’ll say I am very inspired by jazz regardless”. Perhaps Somi meant that she had a crush on Jazz and once the inspiration came, it was impossible to resist.

After the release of Red Soil in My Eyes, Somi’s father fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer.

“For me, it put my work on hold and I had to travel to my parent‘s home in Illinois to have time off. It was really a hard time for me at that point and writing the album.”

The songs she wrote through this dark period would become If The Rain Comes First, her third studio album released by Obliqsound at about the time her father passed away.

“It‘s actually an album about how we perceive the challenges in our lives, and in the West, the rain is seen as a negative thing. Where we are from, my mother always talked about how the rain was a blessing.”

The eponymous song achieves an auditory equivalent of petrichor, the sweet smell that comes with the rainfall that Somi sings about. And beyond the varying perceptions of what rain seems to signify, If The Rain Comes First feels like a rite of passage, a washing away, if you will, of pain and grief. This quality spreads throughout the meditative album which also features South African jazz vocalist, trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Hugh Masekela—fondly called Uncle Hugh by Somi—on the hypnotic Enganjyani, which means “most beloved” in Rutooro, Somi’s mother’s language.

All About Jazz qualifies the achievement of her third album thus: “With If the Rains Come First, Somi’s songwriting has taken on a new sophistication and depth. Surrounded by a cast of virtuosic collaborators who understand precisely where she’s going and how to get there, Somi burrows deeply into her words and ultimately something transcendent emerges.”

Somi returned to teach at Kwara State University, Nigeria, before the release of her fourth album, a live album titled Somi Live at Jazz Standard. A 10-track compilation of her songs plus covers of Abbey Lincoln’s Should’ve Been and Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, Somi’s live album was recorded over two days at New York City’s Jazz Standard.

Raw at Jazz Standard might have been a better title, since the hour-long performance so vibrantly captures the unfiltered, unvarnished Somi freed from studio wizardry,” writes Christopher Loudon. Eight years after its release, that experience of being transposed into the past, into the presence of that emotive music stirred by pitch-perfect instrumentation and the majesty of Somi’s vocals and East African languages still happens.

“I actually didn‘t come to Lagos to write a new album, I was actually trying to work on another album”, says Somi. Trust Lagos to wrestle any competition out of your mind. Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems.

On the evening of Sunday June 3, 2012, Flight 992, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft belonging to Dana Air and carrying 153 souls from Abuja to Lagos, crashed into buildings in Lagos while attempting an emergency landing. All the passengers and crew on the aircraft and six people on the ground perished.

Somi wrote a poem that became Last Song, for a woman she had fleetingly encountered at a jazz festival a week before the plane crash.

“I met this young lady, we became friends, and I got to know she also just moved back, as a single woman in Lagos . . . I kept thinking about her and sadly we didn‘t exchange numbers . . . So on that Sunday, I was hanging out with some friends when one of them got news that she was among the people that died in the plane crash.”

Last Song is Somi’s tribute to an acquaintance she wished she had known better. It is a poignant re-imagination of how fleeting moments could pass innocuously into the void, how existence is a transient thing, how goodbyes could be ephemeral or eternal.

Somi’s vision often imagines a singular person as opposed to a herd of people. But once she has achieved that emotional resonance with one person, the bigger picture becomes easier to populate.

“After I lost my dad and I didn’t feel understood by the people around me, I decided to take a break and I chose Lagos . . . I had a lot of friends in Lagos from Nigerian friends abroad.”

From around 2010 a lot of Nigerians in the diaspora had returned on account of the prospects of the booming economy. While in Lagos, Somi went around with a digital recorder documenting everything—conversations, traffic sounds, protests and even her own laughter.

Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems

When she realised that a body of work was in the offing, she began to workshop the new material. Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of African Artists Foundation, then located at Raymond Njoku, Ikoyi, graciously provided the space where Somi began to do a monthly series, showcasing songs with a band strung together by Cobhams Asuquo. A good number of those songs found their way into The Lagos Music Salon.

Somi’s sixth album, Petite Afrique, is to Harlem, New York, what The Lagos Music Salon is to Lagos.

Harlem, a historic place, populated by Africans and African-Americans alike, becomes a field for a sonic survey. Somi, the vocalist, anthropologist and virtuoso performer hits closer to home this time, even if the scope of her theme has grown wider.

Petite Afrique means “Little Africa” and it is a tribute to a cohort of African immigrants, mostly from Senegal, who reside on New York’s 116th Street. Much as it is about migrants, it is also about the implicit and explicit tension between Africans and African-Americans as is manifest in the kind of conversations they have with each other. The myriad of issues that populate these discussions include xenophobia, islamophobia as well as gentrification—but Somi’s powers shine through in how her message melds seamlessly into the music.

Speaking about how the album came about, Somi says, “It started in Harlem, I think, after The Lagos Music Salon. I lived in Harlem for about ten years . . . Then there was this friction between Africans and African-Americans, and the whole idea of gentrification and the need for unity between these two. So naturally for me, I felt a need to connect with the people of Harlem, having stayed there for a while, so Petite Afrique was my own way of giving back to Harlem . . .”

What Somi achieves in fifty-two minutes and fourteen songs is a triumphant exploration of the black experience. Little wonder then that Petite Afrique received the Outstanding Jazz Album award at the 49th National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards.

Somi’s career has gone way past her brief stay in Lagos but the city will remain a critical reference point in her career. The Lagos Music Salon changed her career and Lagos will always remain home to her.

As she says, “I love New York, but the thing in Lagos is, if you can make it in Lagos, you can make it anywhere, the city is hard, but when you show up for the city, the city shows up for you.”

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