My inquiry into the status of contemporary Kenyan protest music indignantly began with a hypothesis that this genre has gone mute in recent years. My agitation was fuelled after watching a documentary on the great artist of the American civil rights movement, Nina Simone hunched over her piano, singing Mississippi Goddam. The song was riveting, bold, defiant and ‘in your face’. Her song, sung in 1964 at the height of the American Civil rights campaign, was exceedingly bold. Nina was a rising star and a commercial success, but her musical career took a different tangent after the release of Mississippi Goddam. The song was banned from the air-waves, supposedly because of the cuss word, ‘goddam’, an unacceptable term for the time. However, that did not stop the song from becoming the Civil rights’ anthem and receiving more resonance than the popular gospel turned protest song, ‘We shall overcome’ mainstreamed by Pete Seegar.
Nina’s song, spoke truth to power, the power of the white supremacist, segregationist intent on denying African Americans their human rights. In a sense, Nina committed commercial suicide in order to gain her political voice. The documentary led to my reflection on the role of music in political protest in Kenya, and left me wondering, when did the voice of protest music in Kenya fall silent?
Immediately after independence, there were “patriotic” songs composed to celebrate the newly attained uhuru. Musicians created songs reminding Kenyans of the independence struggle and the sacrifices that had resulted in self-rule. They also extolled the virtues of the main actors in this fight but slowly the music morphed into songs glorifying the first president, Jomo Kenyatta. As President Kenyatta consolidated power, the timbre of praise songs rose; the person of the president and the aspiration of the nation became one. It was the beginning of court poetry and a hero-worship culture.
The first major political shock to the national project was the assassination in 1965 of Pio Gama Pinto, the left-leaning journalist, politician, ex-detainee, freedom fighter and confidante of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Pinto was a Specially Elected Member of the House of Representatives and an avowed socialist. His assassination followed the dissolution of KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) that led to Kenya becoming a de facto one-party state.
The next major political event was the formation of Kenya People’s Union (KPU) in 1966 that flung Kenya back to multi-party dispensation, but which, most importantly, signified the split in the original KANU (Kenya African National Union) and the beginning of the Kenyatta/Oginga-Odinga rivalry.
These events fermented the beginning of protest music in Kenya as artists began to respond to the political contestations. The state came down viciously on its critics and opponents, signalling the narrowing of democratic space. Artists began to speak truth to power.
In 1969, in an act of defiance, Abdilatif Abdulla, a poet and member of KPU, wrote the treatise Kenya: Twendapi? (Kenya, where are we heading to?), which earned him the notoriety of being Kenya’s first post-independence political prisoner (1969-72). It was a bold attempt at speaking truth to power and revealed that the state was prepared to use all means to stifle commentary.
Speaking truth to power is described as a non-violent political tactic employed by dissidents against the received wisdom or propaganda of governments they regard as oppressive, authoritarian or an “ideocracy”. Speaking that truth through music has the benefit of being able to inform, educate and mobilise through popular entertainment. The potency of music arises from its ability to mutate into contemporary popular culture and reach across the barriers of elitism that limit a novelist, an actor, a musician or any other type of artist.
In 1969, in an act of defiance, Abdilatif Abdulla, a poet and member of KPU, wrote the treatise Kenya: Twendapi? (Kenya, where are we heading to?), which earned him the notoriety of being Kenya’s first post-independence political prisoner (1969-72). It was a bold attempt at speaking truth to power and revealed that the state was prepared to use all means to stifle commentary.
As the Kenyatta government progressively became more repressive, so did the intensity of the protest music. The manner that the state responded to protest music speaking truth to power offers us a window into understanding the current state of protest music.
Bitter independence waters
As the dream of independence began to fade, Ishmael Nga’nga of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Gathaithi Church choir released a song, Mai ni Maruru (The waters are bitter), which likened the deferred dream-fruits of independence to the bitter waters spoken of in the Bible. The expected fruits of independence had been replaced by aggrandisement by the political elite. Though his song was couched in biblical and religious symbolism, the powerful heard it. Nga’nga lamented that, “Men and women are quarrelling/ over small matters, telling each other/ “I did not want someone like you”/ Because the water is bitter/ When you go to the office seeking assistance/ You find an angry officer/ When you try to enter, he tells you he is ‘busy’/ Because the water is bitter.”
Ishmael’s song was banned by the Kenyatta government and the president is said to have retorted that the fruits of independent could not be equated to the proverbial bitter water that caused concern to the children of Israel. The state resorted to silencing its critics using the public broadcaster that was the only one available at this time. This approach was to become a standard way of ensuring that the voice of protest was not heard.
The culture of political assassinations, mysterious deaths and disappearances of politicians began to become commonplace. Argwings Kodhek died in a suspicious accident in January of 1969. A few months later, the charismatic politician Tom Mboya was assassinated. In 1972, Ronald Ngala died in a Christmas Day accident that baffled many. In 1975, the fiery Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (JM), who had served as Kenyatta’s personal secretary, was murdered. Joseph Kamaru, a personal friend of JM and a popular Benga musician, used his music to protest the killing of the politician. Kamaru’s song was banned by the Voice of Kenya (later known as the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) on June 20, 1975 and Kamaru is reported to have been arrested and, along with his collaborators, and whipped by the president himself. (This claim is, however, difficult to verify.)
Beyond the use of state machinery to limit access to audiences by shutting down the airwaves, physical threats and actual violence entered the repertoire of tools used by the state to ensure that criticism was curtailed. Kamaru is reported to have said that after releasing the song, he experienced very hard times because the song didn’t go well with the ruling elite and he even started receiving death threats. He said, “I received threats that if I was not careful, my head would be picked from Ngong where Kariuki’s lifeless body was found.”
After President Moi came to power in 1978, Kamaru enjoyed a period of molly-coddling Moi and even earned himself an official state trip to Japan. Upon his return, he sang the Safari ya Japan collection in which he heaped praises on Moi. This dalliance did not last long. When Kamaru supported multipartyism, he fell out of favour with Moi.
In 1988, amid the infamous mlolongo queue-voting system championed by Moi, Kamaru released a song, Mahoya ma Bururi (Prayers of the Nation). During this time, the discontent with Moi’s rule had reached boiling point levels. There was growing opposition to the state after the brutal 1986 crackdown on real and perceived dissidents, especially members of the Mwakenya movement.
Kamaru recalls that the song was an instant hit and created a lot of tension countrywide. He describes efforts by Moi to have him stop selling the Gikuyu version of the song. Moi went as far as giving Kamaru Sh800,000 to make a Kiswahili version of the song. Kamaru jumped at this offer and actually made the Kiswahili version, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to see Moi and to present him with his finished “homework”. He concluded that it must have been Moi’s way of trying to get him not to sell the song.
The state used its economic muscle to appropriate protest music by buying out artists and, in some cases, turning them into total pro-establishment praise-singers. The need for financial success and survival was enough incentive to silence voices of critics. When coercion did not work, the state was willing to “buy out” the artist speaking truth to power. Kamaru’s experience with Moi is instructive.
Daniel Owino Misiani, another musician who had used his art to consistently critique the political repression by the Kenyatta regime, especially the political assassinations, was imprisoned on various occasions for his lyrics, which were deemed offensive to the state. He was also threatened with deportation from Kenya on several occasions because he was born in Shirati, which is administratively in Tanzania. Kamaru and Owino were unique musicians in that even though their music could be taken off the air by the national broadcaster, they had built a strong ethnic fan base. Their records sold in the thousands and, therefore, their financial independence offered them a better chance of resisting the state capture of their protest music.
The state used its economic muscle to appropriate protest music by buying out artists and, in some cases, turning them into total pro-establishment praise-singers. The need for financial success and survival was enough incentive to silence voices of critics.
The end of the Kenyatta presidency and ushering in of the Moi era gave some respite to the artists. However, this only lasted till the 1982 coup by the Air Force that was followed by state repression. The fact that university students, lecturers and intellectuals had supported the coup led Moi to clamp down on creatives.
As Moi’s regime became more repressive, and as the economy sank deeper into a black hole, Osumba Rateng’ released the song Baba Otonglo that detailed the economic hardships ordinary Kenyans were facing. In the song, a family is forced to adopt severe austerity measures, which were presented in a humorous manner, but which were painfully true. Baba Otonglo parodies the rigmarole surrounding the presentation of the annual budget in Parliament. Economic policies were singled out as sinking the ordinary Kenyan deeper and deeper into despair. He sings, “Budget iko high, vyakula vimepanda, ukame umezidi, vitu vyote vimepanda” (The budgeted cost of living is way too high, price of foodstuff has escalated, the drought has persisted, the cost of everything has risen.” The state responded to this song in the usual brutal fashion.
When the song was released, it was considered to have political undertones. The thin-skinned politicians lobbied to have the song pulled off the air. Osumba was visited by police and questioned. He detailed his experience in an interview.‘Four policemen came to my house in Baba Dogo Estate, Nairobi and arrested me. They accused me of criticizing the Government and composing a song that incited people.” To save his skin, Osumba insisted that the song was just a creative spin at the hard economic times. He escaped without charges being preferred against him.
Hip hop, Sheng and angry urban youth
The late 1980s and 90s marked a change in the socio-political landscape in Kenya. Among the most relevant change was the liberalisation of the airwaves and the resumption of political contest after the re-introduction of multi-party politics. Between 1980 and 2009, the population of Nairobi ballooned from 862,000 to about 3.4 million. According to a 2009 UN-Habitat, more than 34 per cent of Kenya’s total population lives in urban areas and of this, more than 71 per cent confined to informal settlements. Informal settlements in Nairobi, and other urban areas, are a consequence of failure of government policies and official indifference. Amnesty International has described the intricacies of the informal settlements in this way, “The experience of slum-dwellers starkly illustrates that people living in poverty not only face deprivation, but are also strapped in poverty because they are excluded from the rest of the society, denied a say and threatened with violence and insecurity.’’
Enter, Dandora and other marginalised urban settlements like Mathare, Majengo, Korogocho, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Kibera. Dandora, better known as, ‘D’ by the youthful musicians of this era became the code name for the Kenyan equivalent of the projects where Hip hop as protest music was born. The life and demographic profile in these inner cities mirrors the hip hop producing ghettos of the US. The hip hop story in Kenya is the story of Kalamashaka.
Kamaa, one of the founders of the Kalamashaka trio, describes how the group rose to express the tribulations of urban marginalisation and how the voice of this group and others like it were marginalised.
Kalamashaka was the most prominent of the pioneer Kenyan hip hop groups using Sheng to rap and infusing politics in their lyrics.
Kalamashaka began by rapping about the state of their existence in the urban ghettos of Nairobi dominated by serious social strife, depressed economies, ethnic tensions, state corruption, institutional failure, infrastructural collapse, crime, violence, police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Just like their American role-models, they were anti-establishment and explicitly political.
Kalamashaka made a mark in the music scene by their signature tune, ‘Tafsiri Hii’ (Translate This) which, by default, managed to get a lot of air-play when it was first produced. The song was an indictment of the prevailing inequality in Kenya and the disenfranchisement of the youth. Kamaa describes their lyrics as “gangsta and radical.’’ The use of Sheng, which at that at that time was struggling to shed off its identity as a street thug language and gain acceptance as a Kenyan patois was revolutionary because it immediately drew a generational as well as class line.
Kalamashaka began by rapping about the state of their existence in informal settlements dominated by serious social strife, depressed economies, ethnic tensions, state corruption, institutional failure, infrastructural collapse, crime, violence, police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Just like their American role models, they were anti-establishment and explicitly political.
The emerging Hip Hop musicians spoke truth to power, describing how the system had failed them. The lyrics were described as “full of rage.’’
Hip hop Sheng was inspired by American Hip-hop music that the establishment had problems with because of the explicit lyrics and the apparent glorification of violence. The urban ýouth generation’ in the poorer settlements of Nairobi identified with Hip hop emerging from. The music was angry and retributive. Kalamashaka became the face of a movement that morphed into Ukoo Fulani – an angry and disenfranchised urban youth movement. Kalamashaka and Ukoo Fulani began to invoke the name, Mau Mau the liberation movement that remained banned in Kenya till 2002. This sent signals to the political status quo that the movement was potentially dangerous.
Market forces and political sycophancy
The response to the rising protest music signalled a totally new era in censorship. It was no longer the state that took it upon itself to ban music; commercial radio stations did this job for the state. Kamaa describes how radio presenters began to shut out these sounds from the air, effectively driving them underground. The emergent commercial radio stations that were reliant on state and corporate goodwill and advertising effectively became agents of shutting down any anti-establishment voice. The use of Sheng was tolerated only to the extent that it allowed commercial interests to provide marketing information to the youth demographic. Any message that was aimed at raising social conscience was not acceptable.
Denied air time, and obviously not the kind of musicians who would be invited to perform at national celebrations, the economic marginalisation of this genre of music drove the artists deeper underground while their lyrics became angrier. Denial of air time meant that their voices were limited because they did not enjoy the base popularity that Owino Misiani or Joseph Kamaru had.
The response to the rising protest music signalled a totally new era in censorship. It was no longer the state that took it upon itself to ban music; commercial radio stations did this job for the state. Kamaa describes how radio presenters began to shut out these sounds from the air, effectively driving them underground.
Commercialisation was the other factor that sunk youthful urban voices deeper into oblivion. Eric Musyoka, a producer, recalling his break-up with Kalamashaka, poignantly says, “I learnt that radical and hard stance does not help.” This marked his transition from a producer of hip-hop to commercial music. So-called “market forces” conspired to lock out the voices that were not in line with the status quo.
Just as had happened to Nina Simone, the interests of the commercial oligarchs meant that raw talent and protest music could not secure time in recording studios. Barred from commercial airwaves and recording studios, protest music became a marginalised genre. Even though there were some who were speaking about vices such as corruption, only the less controversial numbers, like Eric Wainaina’s Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo, received acceptance and air time and were played at national celebrations. Though Eric spoke of the extent to which the cancer of corruption had metastasised in Kenya, he was not angry enough. Though he spoke of the fact that ordinary Kenyans are confronted with corruption in every facet of their lives, he did not squarely lay blame for this sorry state on the rulers. So whereas Eric’s voice is broadcast loudly, that of the angry hip hop and reggae musicians, such as Mashifta, Kitu Sewer and Sarabi, are pushed away from the mainstream and into the underground; effectively muted.
Political sycophancy is also responsible for muting the voices of musicians speaking truth to power. Tom Mboya Angángá, better known as Atommy Sifa, had to flee into exile in Tanzania after he and a nondescript musician, Tedeja Kenya, produced a song in which they lampooned Raila Odinga for being responsible for the political and socio-economic woes bedevilling Luoland. Though there are no records that indicate that Raila Odinga himself threatened him with repercussions, the opposition leader’s rabid supporters intimidated Atommy enough for him to fear for his life. Tede received few brickbats because, unlike Atommy, he was considered a non-entity and had little following through his music. When politics is highly personalised and ethnicised, those perceived to speak truth to the prevalent power are silenced through political patronage. However, when it suits the political class, they will use musicians who sing in ethnic languages to their advantage. For instance, the hip hop group Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s hit song Unbwogable (Unbeatable) became the rallying cry of Raila and other opposition politicians during the 2002 elections that ousted Moi’s KANU party from power.
Musicians, like all professionals, depend on the power of the market to make ends meet and commercial considerations, as we saw in the case of Kamaru, can silence the truth. In Kenya, musicians face immense struggles because of a poor infrastructure supporting the music business. Piracy and irregular payment of royalties for airplay makes it hard to be a commercial success. The market for live performances is low, with foreign artistes in higher demand and commanding better pay. An artist who hopes to speak truth to power gradually finds him or herself ground out of operation by penury. Artists like Owino Misiani and Kamaru could afford to be outspoken because they had a strong ethnic fan base that translated to a vibrant market. Their music being banned from the airwaves actually served to popularise their messages among ethnically-polarised constituencies. But they are more the exception than the norm.
The language used in protest music can also lead to marginalisation. The modern Kenyan musician, in an attempt to be more cosmopolitan, uses Kiswahili or English. These are not languages of political discourse in Kenya. Granted they may be used in public rallies, but the real political discussions happen in mother tongues. This explains why Moi was not comfortable with Kamaru’s Mahoya ma Bururi in the Gikuyu language, but was willing to finance the Kiswahili version. Moi knew that the same song rendered in Kiswahili would suffer the same fate as Gabriel Omolo’s, Lunchtime or Eric Wainaina’s Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo. The passion of political protest only works in the language of the masses, and outside the urban informal settlements, ethnic languages hold sway. Any song rendered in Kiswahili or English carries no threat of insurrection.
Language for protest assumes a deeper complexity in Kenya. Whereas Bob Marley used Jamaican English to sing political protest and Fela Kuti used Pidgin English, which is the language of the downtrodden in most of West Africa, there is no equivalent language of the masses in Kenya. For example, Juliani’s song, Utawala (The administration) speaks of poor governance and impunity, but the moment he switches to rap and a hip hop style, he limits his audience. Hip hop and rap in Kenya are associated with crotch-grabbing African American wannabes who do not resonate with the ordinary citizens outside of the urban settlements. With time though, as urbanisation increases, and urban populations become a significant electoral demographic, this is likely to change.
The most successful musicians who have been able to speak truth to power are those who have a base, who speak in the language of that base and hence have a strong constituency. Failure to understand the true language of the ordinary citizen renders any political content irrelevant or innocuous. The powerful are not bothered by any message that will self-reduce to a touristy sing-song like Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo because it will never mobilise political response. Even the hugely successful Sauti Sol’s recent song and accompanying video, Tujiangalie, which critiques the current government’s neglect of ordinary citizens’ concerns, has failed to move the masses, perhaps because the band is associated more with feel-good songs than with anti-establishment music.
If Kenyan musicians are to regain the chagrin and attention of the establishment, they must speak the language of the masses. They must break social taboos, like Nina Simone did with Mississippi Goddam. She was able to express the anger of the African American in his everyday language. So must our musicians express the anger welling up because of grand corruption, huge national debts, state wastage and opulence, extrajudicial killings, over-taxation and miscarriage of justice.
The most successful musicians who have been able to speak truth to power are those who have a base, who speak in the language of that base and hence have a strong constituency. Failure to understand the true language of the ordinary citizen renders any political content irrelevant or innocuous. The powerful are not bothered by any message that will self-reduce to a touristy sing-song like Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo because it will never mobilise political response.
One could rightfully argue that protest music in Kenya is muted, not because artists are not producing it, but because the genre has been effectively driven underground. It’s vibrant in the digital repositories where the masses have little access.
In addition, the artists themselves have been marginalised by commercial interests keen on maintaining the status quo, so they struggle against all odds. The state no longer needs strong-arm tactics like detention, jail and threats because the media is doing the work of censorship for them. Civil society might support these artists, but as long as access to mass media is outside their grasp, these voices will remain muted.
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The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?
With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.
African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.
In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.
Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”
For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.
Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra Kai, The Karate Kid, American History X, The Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The Mercenary, The African Doctor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Tsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.
Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.
There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.
Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.
Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.
On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.
As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.
The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.
Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.
Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.
After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’
What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’
Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.
The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.
‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’
Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’
Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.
After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.
Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.
On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.
Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.
But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.
As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.
Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.
‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’
In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’
Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’
Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.
Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.
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