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Averting the White Gaze: How a Black Panther in Laikipia Came to Symbolise the Absurdity in the Conservation World

14 min read.

The paradigm that we inherited (and still ignorantly embrace) firmly places a black man exclusively in the position of a ranger. In this context, “ranger” describes a non-intellectual participant in conservation who enforces policies created for the benefit of other people in other places, often to the detriment of locals.

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Averting the White Gaze: How a Black Panther in Laikipia Came to Symbolise the Absurdity in the Conservation World
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In early February 2019, local and international media were awash with the story of how an American photographer named Will Burrard-Lucas had captured breathtaking photographs of the first black leopard seen in Africa in over 100 years. Reaction came in thick and fast on social media. It began in wonderment at the beauty of the creature, the quality of the photographs and the apparent magnitude of the achievement. This so-called discovery was further elevated when it got endorsed and parroted by the venerable National Geographic magazine.

For an individual who has been in the field of conservation for nearly two decades, the critical opprobrium generated was fascinating. The proposition began with a few of the uninformed questioning whether black leopards really exist, followed by consternation that nobody had ever seen this animal in a century and puzzlement over how a foreign photographer had the requisite knowledge to find and photograph the animal living in our midst.

People all over Kenya were stunned for different reasons. Many friends who know of my involvement in conservation practice questioned the arrogance of the “white gaze” in conversation and the racial undertones that accompanied the “discovery” of the black leopard. After a lot of thought and conversations, I came to the realisation that the ground is beginning to shift, and conservation will have to change a lot sooner than many people expected.

As the news of the findings made the media rounds, the protestations rose to a crescendo, with the informed rightly questioning the arrogance of the photographer making such a claim. These were accompanied by photos of black leopards taken in the area in the last few years, including one photographed in Ol Ari Nyiro conservancy in May 2007 and another photographed in Ol Jogi conservancy in August 2013.

The most powerful rebuttal, however, came from the NALOOLO blog written by John Kisimir, a veteran journalist, that shed light on the hitherto unmentioned field assistant, Ambrose Letoluai, who works with a San Diego Zoo research project in the area and who knew of this animal, saw it, and photographed it, long before showing Will Burrard-Lucas where to set his camera traps for the best shot. Ambrose correctly states that their research team (which includes both locals and foreigners) has sighted and photographed this animal several times over the last year, and it’s unacceptable for their work to be slighted in this manner.

People all over Kenya were stunned for different reasons. Many friends who know of my involvement in conservation practice questioned the arrogance of the “white gaze” in conversation and the racial undertones that accompanied the “discovery” of the black leopard. After a lot of thought and conversations, I came to the realisation that the ground is beginning to shift, and conservation will have to change a lot sooner than many people expected.

Noble white hunters and explorers

My training is in carnivore ecology and I have been involved in conservation research and policy work for 20 years now. Those aware of my writings and lectures on racial prejudice know my position on these matters, but nonetheless I was intrigued by the events around this single species discovery. In a backhanded manner, Will Burrard-Lucas’ hubris and National Geographic’s inability to escape its “white explorer” origins inadvertently created awareness of an injustice and prejudice that was hidden in plain sight in our society for generations. It is worth stating here that “Geographical Societies” in the West are by and large bodies that were formed by wealthy people to fund and facilitate the white explorers’ voyages of “discovery” and plunder in the Global South. They are the ones who defied the likes of Henry Morton Stanley and others of his ilk.

In recent years, I have dedicated time and energy in advocacy, trying to get this message across to an oblivious society that is blissfully unaware of the seamy underbelly of the conservation world. Therefore, the spectacle of sudden enlightenment among the Kenyan public was a moment that defies description. The story of the first black leopard photographed in “over 100 years” advanced the understanding of the depth of our societal oppression and an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of our challenge across space and time.

Our colonial history class taught us about European explorers, such as David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, James Augustus Grant, Pierre Paul de Brazza and Samuel Teleki, who came to Africa to explore the “Dark Continent” that we call our home. The education we received in school implied that these were brave souls in search of adventure. As a young student, I remember being intensely curious about the “why” question. Why did they come? Why here? Why for so long? Why the risk?

These explorers were coming to spread influence and political power, to plunder resources and to spread Christianity. The personal glory and self-gratification accrued after random acts of cruelty and arrogance was generally just a bonus that came with the territory. Besides the church and their home governments, these explorers brought great prestige to institutions like the Royal Geographical Society, which quickly became venues for enthralling talks of their adventures and repositories of specimens collected and artefacts looted from the lands being “explored”.

The consensus in conservation biology is that for anything to exist in Africa, it has to be discovered by a Caucasian. This isn’t a new phenomenon; since colonial days, lakes, mountains, rivers, valleys and even wild animals have been “discovered” and named by people from Europe. It is never questioned, just accepted. For those who think that these are relics banished to ancient history, we only need to look at the names around us. Restricting ourselves to the conservation sector, we see the names Grant’s gazelle (Gazella granti) and DeBrazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) named after James Augustus Grant and Pierre Paul de Brazza, respectively. The Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) was named after Jules Grevy, the president of France between 1879 and 1887.

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, there was increased conservation activity in Britain’s East African colonies (the term “conservation” being used very loosely in this instance). This prominently involved the declaration of national park ordinances in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda in 1945, 1948, and 1952, respectively. National parks were crucial instruments in the dislocation of Africans from selected areas and the creation of nature spaces for recreation by European settlers by expressly demarcating areas where no person (read: native) was allowed to enter. What escaped all but the most perceptive of historians is that the flurry of creation of national parks and other conservation structures that followed these ordinances was a sphere of influence that was designed to withstand the African independence wave that followed shortly thereafter.

These parks also provided a useful and relatively harmless employment opportunity to demobilised British soldiers with no skills other than shooting. Indeed, an examination of colonial game wardens’ reports from the mid-20th century reveals wardens with military backgrounds without exception. This set the stage for African wildlife conservation practice as a domain of white men with guns – a situation that has stood the test of time and which is becoming an anachronism that has survived the passing decades of decolonisation.

This position of dominion captured the imagination of Hollywood, and was celebrated in “noble white hunter” movies, notably Mogambo (shot in Kenya in 1953), Hatari (shot in Tanganyika in 1962) and Born Free (shot in Kenya in 1966), which featured George Adamson, the last relic of the military age who was killed by bandits in Kora in 1988. The latter years of the 20th century also saw the advent of the noble “white saviour” in the form of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (1984), and the “classic” Out of Africa (1985) starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

The ranger mentality

The paradigm that we inherited (and still ignorantly embrace) firmly places a black man exclusively in the position of a ranger. In this context, “ranger” describes a non-intellectual participant in conservation who enforces policies created for the benefit of other people in other places, often to the detriment of locals. Within this fallacy resides the mentality that ties conservation values and heritage to their attractiveness to tourists. The most obvious manifestation of this in Kenya is the existence of a Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. In countries where heritage is regarded for its intrinsic value to its citizens, it is placed under the ministry of interior (security) or under natural resources.

This weakness is recognised by NGOs and their foreign supporters who seek to supplant the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in the policy arena while almost exclusively restricting their support to operational materials and equipment. Like all other long-held beliefs, the ranger position is one that has numerous adherents who have invested significantly in it, resulting in a systemic malaise. The long drawn-out struggle to recruit a substantive Director-General at KWS has taken strange turns, with repeated advertisements and re-advertisements interspersed with long interludes of silence.

The minister’s proposal seemed extreme given that poaching figures in Kenya currently stand at 69 elephants last year out of a population of 34,000 (an attrition rate of 0.2%) and 9 rhinos out of a population of approximately 1,000 (an attrition rate of 0.9%). The latter number is even lower than the 12 rhinos that were lost at the hands of KWS itself in a botched translocation exercise in July 2018.

Two recent events in the policy arena have revealed the systemic challenges that arise from the “ranger mentality” that pervades our statutory conservation authority. The first was an ill-advised attempt to re-introduce consumptive use of various wildlife species as game meat to be served in restaurants, kowtowing to a cabal of tourism investors that want to re-introduce sport hunting in Kenya. This was a case where the tourism industry asked for conservation policy to be changed to serve their purposes. If this question was approached from a conservation perspective, one would have questioned the feasibility of serving game meat in restaurants while prosecuting (and occasionally shooting) suspected poachers.

As expected, this initiative ran into strong headwinds, and seems to have been aborted without the task force having submitted their report following several months of discussions and “public engagements”. This was an attempt by the “rangers” to change the law to satisfy external interests at the expense of locals.

The second starkest and potentially most tragic example was the recent declaration by the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife that Kenya is going to fast track legislation to introduce the death penalty for poachers, proudly announced exclusively in foreign news outlets. As expected, there were choruses of praise coming from NGOs and “conservationists” all over the world at this “significant step” taken by Kenya to save wildlife.

The minister’s proposal seemed extreme given that poaching figures in Kenya currently stand at 69 elephants last year out of a population of 34,000 (an attrition rate of 0.2%) and 9 rhinos out of a population of approximately 1,000 (an attrition rate of 0.9%). (The latter number is even lower than the 12 rhinos that were lost at the hands of KWS itself in a botched translocation exercise in July 2018.) Neither of these numbers presents the “crisis” that dominates conservation news out of Kenya, and it beggars belief that the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife would act on the denigration of the state authority’s efforts in this manner.

Moreover, there is the well-known fact that Kenya has not carried out the death penalty since the hanging of the 1982 coup plotters, Hezekiah Ochuka and Pancras Oteyo Okumu, in 1987 for treason, so there is no chance that a death sentence can be carried out on a killer of a wild animal. It is, therefore, difficult to imagine what purpose this legislative move would have served, other than the ranger state seeking to please the perceived owners of our wildlife narrative.

When Save the Elephants reported (also in 2016) that a lone bull elephant had “bravely” entered Somalia after 20 years, BBC (again) parroted the same news with much fanfare. Nobody thought to question how they deduced that this elephant is the only one that had crossed into Somalia, or that it had last visited that country 20 years ago.

It is worth repeating that the most robust aspect of this perception of ourselves as rangers is the manner in which our citizens and institutions have all internalised it. KWS staff at all levels are regularly taken for security training, including high-level courses at the National Defence College. Yet they are law enforcers, not military personnel. I stand to be corrected but I am unaware of KWS staff ever being taken for conservation philosophy and ethics training at a similar level. The most likely reason for this is the lack of resources because our policy weakness and “operational” thinking doesn’t accommodate this. Our usual big NGO donors certainly wouldn’t fund it because a “thinking” KWS might wake up to the fact that they are killing and supplanting it. As we learned from the colonialists, black people in conservation in Africa are not supposed to think. They are the porters, rangers, trackers (and poachers). The unseen and unheard black man is not just a factor of photography, a subjective art form from which we can easily be deleted using Photoshop or movie editing software; it spills over into science as well, which is supposed to be objective observation.

In my carnivore ecology experience, I have come across what was described (by the BBC, no less) as a the “discovery” of a population of 100 lions in the Alatash region of Ethiopia in February 2016 by a group of scientists led by Dr. Hans Bauer of Oxford University’s wild carnivore research unit. One single lion’s roar can be heard across several kilometers. These were 100 lions. Ethiopia is a nation of around 90 million people. It stands to reason that some Ethiopian would have heard or seen the lions, their tracks or the remains of their kills.

When Save the Elephants reported (also in 2016) that a lone bull elephant had “bravely” entered Somalia after 20 years, BBC (again) parroted the same news with much fanfare. Nobody thought to question how they deduced that this elephant is the only one that had crossed into Somalia, or that it had last visited that country 20 years ago. It is accepted as true because it is reported by a white man in Africa. This is such a coarse and primitive premise that has been eliminated from most thinking and human endeavour in Africa, but still persists in conservation.

The real poachers

Our profession exists in a realm where the message is simple: All African wildlife is in peril and the source of the threat is black people. Just to be clear, this is not an aspect of citizenship, but race. There are hundreds of thousands of Africans of Caucasian extraction who routinely indulge in “hunting”, “culling”, “cropping” and other euphemisms for killing of wildlife, but however often they kill wildlife outside legal structures, the odious term “poacher” is never used in Africa in reference to anyone who isn’t black skinned. This is no accident – it is the existence of African conservation practice in a twilight zone where reality seeks to follow perception, rather than the logical reverse.

A fairly stark reminder of this is the way in which meat from wild animals is referred to as “bushmeat” when eaten by local black people, and called “game meat” or “venison” when eaten in upper-class circles dominated by foreign tourists. The most shocking thing to most people whenever I share this example is not the depth of this obvious prejudice, but the way in which societies all over the world (including ourselves) have come to accept it as the norm. This norm, in a nutshell, is the greatest challenge to conservation in Kenya, not poachers, not human populations, not law enforcement, or smuggling. My experience in the realm of wildlife management in Kenya has been largely in the arena of carnivore conservation and I have witnessed several instances of race-based, bare-faced entitlement to destroy our national heritage.

Three incidents come to mind. The first was a “conservationist” (sanctioned by KWS) carrying carcasses of cows into the Aberdare National Park in the year 2000 and hanging them on a tree, patiently waiting and shooting every single lion that came to eat the meat. I was the unseen and unheard black man who was an MSc student collecting tissue samples from the killed lions for research. I am not sure how many lions were eventually killed because I only survived one night. (A “normal” African man not suffering from bloodlust may have lasted longer.) It is a crying shame that this man served on the board of KWS until last year, and is currently the CEO of the largest wildlife conservancy in southern Kenya.

The second incident was years later, in 2009, when as a member of the KWS carnivore management committee, we fielded a request from another “conservationist” to shoot 50% of the hyenas in the Aberdare National Park because “they are killing too many young rhinos and buffalo”. I was taken aback by the temerity of the request, and I was glad that the revulsion that I and other committee members expressed carried the day.

The third incident happened in 2012 when as a member of the same committee, we fielded a request from another world-famous “conservationist” to kill lions in his private wildlife conservancy because he felt that they were killing too many Grevy’s zebra foals. Again, we rejected this request, but it never stops.

One thread was uniform across all these requests – they came from white men who are considered leaders in conservation, and all have sat on the Board of Trustees of Kenya Wildlife Service. Would KWS countenance such hubris from a black Kenyan? Is there any possibility that the recent ill-advised request to hunt wildlife to serve game meat in restaurants came from a black Kenyan? I think not.

To an observer from outside the profession, the difficult conundrum in which conservation finds itself would look like a situation we should be struggling to free ourselves from. However, there are factors that we must consider. The status quo has been in place for so long that there is a large contingent of local professionals who have learned how to negotiate it and find themselves very comfortable positions therein. These are positions and assignments that are well-remunerated and highly regarded without the burden of formulating, justifying or adjusting policy as necessary. This entails sitting in an office, travelling to attend (not give presentations at) conferences, being the “Áfrican face” wherever one is needed and appending signatures wherever and whenever one is needed by the foreign interests that really do hold the reins to our conservation sector.

In return for this, there is a lot of “discretionary” funding, business class travel, and handsome per diem allowances, not to mention slaps on the back and being referred to as a “good chap”, “fundi” or a “switched on” fellow. (Incidentally, the latter term is one strictly reserved for black people. It is a backhanded compliment that implies the subject is a relatively intelligent and active member of a largely indolent population.)

Under the current atmosphere, is it really a surprise that KWS was unable to recruit a substantive Director-General nearly two years after the resignation of the previous holder of the office whose qualifications were in banking? The most recent move by the Board of Trustees was to lower the qualifications required in the advertisement initially put out in November 2018. This wasn’t surprising either, because the intellectual weakness in our conservation sector still desperately wanted a ranger, not a leader at the helm of KWS.

We live in an imperfect world, and it is rife with injustices in almost every field, but the visceral reactions to The Big Conservation Lie continue to confound me even two years after its publication because of how illogical some of them are. I cannot speak to my co-author’s experiences, but I’ve had a few bizarre interactions with readers attempting to police my outrage…

On 13th March 2019, the weak intellectual core succumbed once again and a senior officer from the Kenya Navy, Brigadier John Waweru, was appointed Director-General of KWS by executive order. With due respect to him, it will take a while before a navy officer comes to grips with the challenges facing our conservation sector.

‘Why are you people so angry?’

I wouldn’t be so confident as to claim any cause-and-effect relation, but since the publication of The Big Conservation Lie, there have been questions raised in various quarters about the millions of dollars perpetually being sunk into the conservation “industry” and the returns on investment (or lack thereof). This book, which I co-authored with John Mbaria, has understandably elicited very strong reactions because of its content.

We live in an imperfect world, and it is rife with injustices in almost every field, but the visceral reactions to The Big Conservation Lie continue to confound me even two years after its publication because of how illogical some of them are. I cannot speak to my co-author’s experiences, but I’ve had a few bizarre interactions with readers attempting to police my outrage, mostly in the realm of “I understand that there are governance challenges, prejudice, and corruption in the conservation sector, but why are you people so angry?” Others would opine that everything said in the book is true, but for some reason would take issue with the pointed way in which we said it. The truth about these comments has only recently dawned on me – that it is normal to point out and have opinions on conservation policy challenges in Africa if you are white but not if you are black. Even if what you are saying makes perfect sense and is already in the public domain, the colour of your skin makes it unacceptable.

I have previously embarked on a mission to find writings (articles, books, chapters, etc.) by black Kenyan conservationists on the injustices and prejudices bedeviling the sector. There are none, and I would be delighted to be proved wrong on this. With all our high qualifications and senior-sounding positions, we are content to be rangers awaiting instructions on the destiny of our own heritage.

Many of us mistakenly think that we are safe, but we are not. When 12 rhinos died in a botched translocation exercise in 2018, a number of senior and highly-qualified black “rangers” paid a heavy price for their part in an exercise that was solely based on a World Wildlife Fund power trip dubbed the “Kenya Black Rhino Action Plan” and not on government wildlife policy.

We are beginning to experience a paradigm shift, and there is a growing realisation that this whole conservation thing is really about us, and not about those who come to see what we have conserved. It showed up in the immediate response to the claims of the Laikipia leopard sighting being the “first in 100 years” and the backtracking from the photographer.

This new thinking is especially true amongst the younger conservationists because, sadly, most of those above the age of 40 have been irretrievably defiled by the conservation establishment. However, the rest of us are enjoying something of a “perfect storm” with unrelated things occurring together to accelerate change. It is a story that is still fluid and happening. As a writer though, I appreciate the poetic justice of it all – how the arrogance of a white man claiming to have discovered a black panther in Kenya proved to be the trigger that woke up our sleeping masses.

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Mordecai Ogada is a carnivore ecologist from Kenya and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

Culture

Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society

A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.

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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society
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To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.

Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.

Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.

Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”

The evolution of digital tea and receipts

Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.

Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.

Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.  

Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.

The rise of online ‘tabloids’

Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’ 

Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.

Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.

In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.

Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.

While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.

Why do we love and loathe tabloids?

Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.

Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.

Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy. 

Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.

We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.

Gossip as a function of power

Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.

There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.

Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.

Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage

But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.

When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.

An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.

A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.

In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.

Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.

Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.

But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives  – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.

Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.

The future of Kenya’s grapevine 

The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.

Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.

And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.

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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?

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The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
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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 KaiThe Karate KidAmerican History XThe 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 MercenaryThe African DoctorThe Boy Who Harnessed the WindTsotsi 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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