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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby

15 min read.

Even with the apparent success of the Kenya rugby team, the politics of the Kenya Rugby Union seem over and over again to be an impediment to the flourishing of the sport.

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Stuck in a Ruck: The Perpetual Crisis of Kenya Sevens’ Rugby
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On March 12th 2018, Kenya, coached by Innocent Simiyu, trailed USA, led by former Kenya 7s coach, Mike Friday, by 12-19 with 1:46 left in the semi-finals of the Vancouver leg of the HSBC Sevens Circuit. The winner of this match would meet Fiji in the final of the Vancouver Sevens.

Two converted tries by American speedster Perry Baker had given the US a 14-0 lead that was halved by Nelson Oyoo, whose dancing feet hoodwinked the American big man Danny Barrett for five points in the centre. Oyoo went over again, one and a half minutes after the half-time hooter, shrugging off the attention of American speedster 2.0 Carlin Isles and taking advantage of a wonderful interception by Kenyan superstar Collins “Collo” Injera deep in the Kenyan half, to bring the Kenyans within two points of the Americans.

The Americans regained the lead at the start of the second half after Isles, arguably the fastest man in sevens rugby, had put on the afterburners, to score a try. Straight from the restart, Kenya won the ball and moved it swiftly to Andrew Amonde, on as a substitute, who tucked it under his right arm and pumped forward. From the resultant ruck, the ball moved to Jeffrey Oluoch, for a nifty switch that opened space for Collins Injera. Collo blasted through the American defense, and appeared destined for the try zone, only for Perry Baker, to catch up with him. Nevertheless, just as Baker sealed his tackle, Collo had the presence of mind to offload the ball to Willy Ambaka and Ambaka, with his 98th try on the circuit, dove in for a try. Sammy Oliech proceeded to convert to even the scores to 19 all.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

With 24 seconds on the clock, Oliech takes the kick off. The Americans win the restart, and pass the ball, looking for an opening in the Kenyan defense as the hooter buzzes. Danny Barrett, holding the ball, attempts to run through Oyoo, but the Kenyan brings him down. The Americans ruck. The ball pops out to Perry Baker, moves down the line to Martin Losefu and then Bevon Williams who runs into a solid tackle from the Kenyan captain Oscar Ouma. The Americans ruck. The Kenyans who had established a reputation as the best team in the breakdown on the circuit win the ruck as Collins Injera steals the ball. Losefu brings him down as he off-loads to Eden Agero who, in the face of the heavy American charge, pops it to Ouma. It is thirty-five seconds after the hooter and Ouma, holding the ball under his right arm, barrels towards the try-zone to seal the game at 24-19 securing a place for Kenya in the final of the 2018 Vancouver Sevens.

One would assume that this is the story of how Kenya 7s found success in Vancouver, and catapulted itself into being a sevens powerhouse. It is not. Instead, it is the story of how the management of Kenya Rugby Union, sabotaged Kenya Sevens or as coach Simiyu phrased it, “They are the same people. They never change. Year in, year out.”

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Kenya became a core member of the IRB Sevens circuit in 2004. Unlike the national football, cricket and athletics bodies, Kenya Rugby Football Union (nowadays known as Kenya Rugby Union) did not receive support from the International Rugby Board, impeding investment in a countrywide developmental program, and relied on the school network for their players.

In Shujaa’s (The Kenya National Sevens Team) first season as a core member of the circuit, the star player was Oscar Osir who like Edward Rombo before him was a swashbuckling winger with pace to burn. Osir had developed his talent at Nairobi Secondary, and he, together with other players who had developed their talents in the school system such as Benyamin Ayimba at Maseno School, Dennis ‘Ironman’ Mwanja at Musingu High, Ted Omondi at St. Mary’s Yala, among others— led Kenya into their first season as a core team. Shujaa went through a steep learning curve on the international scene.

It was not until Ayimba’s appointment as coach in 2009 that Kenya shed off its tag as the whipping boy of the circuit. In his first season as coach, Kenya reached the semi-finals seven times out of nine and the final once. Collins Injera became the World Series top try scorer while his brother, Humphrey Kayange was nominated as IRB Sevens player of the year in 2009. The Ayimba-led team reached the semi-finals of the Sevens World Cup at the end of the season.

Ayimba’s next two seasons were not as impressive as the first, and neither was his replacement, Mitch Ocholla’s sole season in 2011-2012. Under pressure from the sponsors, Kenya Airways, and the IRB, KRU took their search for the next Shujaa coach abroad. In came English man Mike Friday. Friday was coach for only a season, but what a season it was. The team finished 5th in the standings. Willy Ambaka was voted into the season dream team, and, at the World Cup, at the end of the season, the team replicated its performances from three years earlier, reaching the semi-finals, with only a last-gap tackle by Englishman Dan Norton preventing Ambaka from netting a try that would have kept them in the tournament.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights.

However, Friday left the team at the end of the season, in almost the exact way that Simiyu would five years later. He was controversially fired by KRU and promptly reinstated just before the 2013 World Cup in Moscow. After the World Cup, he walked away completely. A new coach, South African Paul Treu, was hired, leading Shujaa in the 2014/15 season, but he would resign abruptly citing interference by some members of the KRU board. It was during Treu’s tenure that KRU reviewed player salaries leading to the senior players including Injera, Oscar Ouma, Dennis Ombachi and Billy Odhiambo, refusing to play for Kenya. Former Kenyan international Felix Ochieng, who was Treu’s assistant, was promoted to head coach for the remainder of 2014/2015 season.

The next season would see the return of Benjamin Ayimba for a second time, a reign which would culminate in Kenya’s first ever main cup win, at the Singapore Sevens in April 2016. However, Ayimba’s glory did not last, as he found himself at loggerheads with the KRU board allegedly over a move to fight for the players’ rights. Ayimba’s appointment was revoked at the end of the season and KRU was back shopping for a new coach, one who they hoped would not get under their skins as Ayimba had.

On October 17th, 2016, Innocent “Namcos” Simiyu was appointed head coach of the national sevens team. His remit was to ensure that Kenya became a serious contender at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Simiyu, a former Kenya 7s and Kenya 15s captain, took to the task with gusto, and he came up with a four-year plan. The first year was supposed to be the foundation year, to focus on the systemic concerns such as issues with player contracts and equipment that had previously affected player performances. In the second year, the team’s performance was projected to rise to the challenge of securing a place in the top six teams alongside a plan to build a Kenya Sevens B-team that would be playing five tournaments per year.

By March 2018, Simiyu’s plan was well and truly on course. The team was performing exceptionally on the circuit, and gaining plaudits for their wonderful displays on the turnover, in which they were by far the best team on the circuit. The improved physicality and tactical awareness of the team was due to the work put in by Simiyu and Geoffrey Kimani, the Strength and Conditioning Coach, combined with sessions with IRB referees that delved into the rule changes in the game. Furthermore, late in March 2018, the B-team, which Simiyu had been advocating for, had won the Victoria Sevens, with Brian Wahinya and Levy Amunga, who had been schoolmates in St. Mary’s, Yala, scoring the tries in the final.

After a stellar performance by Shujaa in the Vancouver leg of the IRB Sevens Circuit, in March 2018, Brand Kenya approached Kenya Rugby Union to appoint the team as brand ambassadors of the country. As part of their deal with the players, Brand Kenya was to pay each of the players a one-time fee of a hundred thousand Kenya shillings, and KRU instructed the players that, rather than having each player deal directly with Brand Kenya, they would take over and make sure the payments reached each individual player. The deal was made public on May 24th, 2018, by Richard Omwela, the Kenya Rugby Union board chairman.

However, by the time the team was playing in the Paris leg of the HSBC Circuit on 9th June, no money had hit the players’ personal accounts. The players, in a desperate attempt to make a point, decided to mask the ‘Make it Kenya’ logo on their national jerseys before their second game against Fiji in Paris. Shujaa beat the sevens heavyweights, winning 22-19, ending the Fijians’ 24-match unbeaten run in the circuit. Despite the win, KRU and Brand Kenya officials were furious, and Omwela promised consequences. Several sources interviewed stated that Brand Kenya had indeed paid out the money to KRU’s accounts before the Paris leg only for the money to be rerouted to take care of some pending overdrafts that KRU had. The board defended its position, stating the delay in the payment to the players had been clearly communicated through the management.

Incensed, Simiyu got embroiled in this saga, and earned the sack as a result, with his assistant, William Webster, mandated to guide the team through the World Cup, six weeks away in San Francisco, USA. Simiyu says that he had been in a meeting with the rest of the coaching staff when he received word of a disciplinary meeting constituted against the players. Simiyu went to the disciplinary meeting, requested to be heard and was told to wait outside. He obliged. According to Citizen TV, Simiyu had stormed a tribunal hearing between Brand Kenya and the Kenya Sevens team, to plead the player’s case following the fiasco in Paris. While Simiyu denies storming the meeting, he does not deny his anger at the injustice of the situation. “We were six weeks to the World Cup, and KRU initiated a disciplinary process on the players without notifying me…I felt that, as head of the program, I had to be involved because I knew the issues.”

Just like Ayimba before him, Simiyu’s tiff with the board was due to his insistence on fighting for the players.“It was more of a kangaroo court,” he says, “because the people who started the problem were the ones disciplining the players, and this did not make sense. Because the issues with regards to Brand Kenya started at the office of the CEO and the DOR (Director of Rugby), and they were solely responsible for what happened, but they are the same ones who are now disciplining the players. It was more of a cover-up so that they can sell a story to the public.”

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season.

Kenyans on social media reacted in anger at the move to fire Simiyu. The players, too, reacted, as they swore not to play in the World Cup as long as Simiyu was not the coach. Rashid Echesa, the former Cabinet Secretary for Sports, intervened, and, after a meeting with the KRU board led by Vice-Chairman, Thomas Opiyo, Simiyu was restored to his post. However, by the time he was reinstated, it was too late for the team. Shujaa had lost four weeks of active preparation time, and it cost them in San Francisco. After two consecutive semi-final appearances at the Sevens world cup, Shujaa failed to qualify for the quarters of the 2018 World Cup, losing their last group stage match 31-26 to Scotland, after having squandered a 28-5 lead. This was to be Simiyu’s last assignment as Kenya Sevens head coach. Despite leading the team to a record points tally of 104 points in the Circuit, KRU decided not to renew his contract, choosing instead to advertise the position. The four-year plan had now been abandoned.

The sacking of Simiyu, and the subsequent refusal by KRU to renew his contract, is an indicator of a dangerous pattern that has emerged in Kenya Sevens in the last few years. While some would claim that it was an individual disagreement between KRU and Simiyu, it is telling that senior players such as Collins Injera, Oscar Ouma, Oscar Ayodi, and Willy Ambaka and virtually all the players who were contracted by KRU to play for Shujaa last season have refused to play Sevens rugby this season. That Geoffrey Kimani also turned down the contract he was offered by KRU and instead took up an appointment as Uganda’s Strength and Conditioning coach points to deeper-lying issues within KRU.

According to Simiyu, the problems in Kenyan rugby are obvious, and one does not need a rocket science degree to point them out. First, he feels that there is a lack of proper governance within Kenyan rugby. The leadership is irrational, has issues with their integrity, and the people at the top have bought their way into the leadership of the game. Furthermore, Simiyu argues that several of the clubs are briefcase clubs (either owned by a company, or run by a few individuals, and, sometimes, just one individual), and the people use their clubs to advance their personal ambitions. “It will be more about sharing resources. That’s what happened with Kenya Sevens. They used the national team as a kitty to share, to secure votes, so that they can get elected.”

This is what had happened in 2014, when the KRU Chairman, Mwangi Muthee, together with KRU directors Godwin Kiruga and Maurice Masiga, quit in a huff (Peninah Wahome, the KRU Director of Development, would soon follow). In his resignation letter, Muthee talked about “serious questions raised by sponsors about some board members’ involvement in issues of conflict of interests in the supplying of kit to the KRU and the fraternity, questionable procurement of airline tickets worth tens of millions of shillings outside established KRU channels, questionable hotel accommodation contracts, and many other inflated bills and cases of unbecoming language to downright insulting language directed at senior management of some of our sponsors.” Muthee’s piledriver hit hard, and the national government promised to clear “the rugby mess.”

Simiyu feels that some of the people on KRU the board, are out to deliberately sabotage Kenya Sevens. “We had put up a plan how we approach the game, even in terms of pre-season, conditioning aspect, health aspect, the management and administration…by the time we were going to the World Cup, all those things were being removed. By the time our contracts were ending, it was not clear whether there would be a pre-season. There was no point basically to apply.”

Ayimba is equally blunt in his assessment of KRU. In his view, “they know where they want us to be, they don’t have a plan, neither to do they support anybody who’s got a radical idea…Right now we just have people who are happy to be in office and to be called KRU directors, as opposed to people who want to make a difference.”

On January 16th, 2019, the Kenya 7s team to the Hamilton and Sydney legs of the 2018-2019 HSBC World Sevens Series did not include any of the players who had represented Kenya at the 7s World Cup six months earlier. The players who had travelled to the World Cup had been expected to form the core of the 2018-2019 team which would challenge for Top Four status, in line with the four-year plan that had been agreed with Innocent Simiyu when he was appointed Head Coach of Kenya Sevens in 2016. That none of the senior players was named in the team for these two legs, and that the team accumulated a grand total of four points from these two legs is a sign of how quickly things have unraveled for Kenya Sevens and at the Kenya Rugby Union. This unraveling is part of an existing pattern, rather than a new event.

The Jacob Ojee-captained side was led by Paul Murunga Amunavi, the immediate former Homeboyz RFC coach, who had been appointed Simiyu’s successor. Murunga was appointed coach on the back of Homeboyz’ dominant performance in the local sevens circuit, having won four of the six tournaments, and finished second and third in the other two. In an interview with the Daily Nation, Murunga claimed that the aim was “to a build a strong side next season that will reach the medal bracket at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and go on to win the World Cup in 2021.” Speaking separately, Thomas Odundo, the Director of Rugby at KRU, offers thoughts which do not tally with Murunga’s assessment. He says, “I can’t say I can tell you what will be there in two years’ time. For instance, one, we don’t know how the World Series is going to end, I don’t know. It might go either way, we might fail to remain in the World Series”.

On February 2nd, 2019, ten months after the win over the USA in Vancouver, the Kenyans faced the Americans again. The Kenyans had faced USA after Vancouver, drawing 19-19 in the London leg of the circuit. Just over half a year later, the team is no longer the same. Gone are Willy Ambaka, Collins Injera and Nelson Oyoo, the try-getters in the last two USA-Kenya matchups. Gone too are Oscar Ouma, who was in the dream team last season, Sammy Oliech, Andrew Amonde, Billy ‘The Kid’ Odhiambo, Dan Sikuta. Agero, Ayodi, the captain, Jeffrey Oluoch and Brian Tanga. In short, the team that was supposed to compete for the gold in Tokyo in 2020. In their place, instead, are a bunch of players who are, while talented, simply not ready to be playing at the top level. They are, in the words of Odundo, “players who had never played at that level. They were seeing people they see only on TV.” This new team was pummeled by the US, going down 41-0. What this means is that while the US and Kenya were at the same level last season, this season USA is top of the standings, while Kenya is firmly in the relegation battle.

According to the Kenya Rugby Union, lack of money is to blame for most of the challenges facing Kenya 7s, and Kenyan rugby in general. Odundo says, “We had to revise our terms of engagement, based on whatever money was available to us. The Sevens team doesn’t have a sponsor at the moment, so we don’t really have the funds to support the pay they were being given when Sportspesa was there.” On January 1st, 2018, a government tax of 35% took effect. The next day, Ronald Karauri, the Sportpesa CEO, announced the government tax meant that the betting firm could no longer continue supporting sports, and so it was cancelling all its sponsorship arrangements with Kenyan sports teams.

KRU was one of these, and it lost its main financial partner. Four months later, when Sportspesa renewed its sponsorship deals with Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, and FKF, KRU was left out in the cold. Despite this, Odundo points out, “For all of last year, KRU met all its obligations to the players, despite having no sponsors. But this year we simply had to review that.” Furthermore, all their attempts to get new sponsors have been moot. “It is ongoing, we are always having conversations with sponsors, but we haven’t had any positive response.” But, in the meantime, “…plans change…we’ve got to adjust. There’s always adjustments going on.”

While money is definitely an issue, focusing solely on it absolves KRU of all responsibility for the failures with Kenya Sevens. Critics have argued that it is KRU’s job to get money for the team, and their inability to do so is an indictment of their failure as a body. A general rule with sevens rugby, and with other sports, is that sponsors are attracted to a team that is performing well. Reflecting on this, Ayimba asks, “So, if you get rid of the people who are performing well, what is the end game?” In addition, KRU is heavily in-debt, with indications of debts of up to 100 million.

Sasha Mutai, a former KRU vice-chairman who vied for the chairmanship at the concluded March 20th KRU elections, points out that KRU dug this pit for themselves. The fact that Safari Sevens, which used to be the flagship sporting event in the country, having made losses for five years straight, thus making 2013 the last time the event was profitable. This, coupled with the fact that a KRU director was verbally abusive to Safaricom’s head of marketing, led to the communication behemoth pulling out of sponsoring the tournament, and KRU.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s.

Subsequently, corporate Kenya lost its faith with Kenya Rugby Union. Mutai argues that under the tutelage of the Omwela led board, the game has lost credibility completely, and only with a fresh start will the sponsors come back to sponsoring the Sevens team. That the national government, while promising to assist KRU, insisted that it would only do so after the elections, (perhaps waiting to see who will be elected), is a microcosm of the lack of trust that stakeholders in the game have in the KRU board and this includes Corporate Kenya, the players, the coaching staff, fans, both pitch side and online.

Innocent Simiyu, the most successful coach in the history of Kenya Sevens by virtue of points tally at the end of the season, left his role acrimoniously. So did Ayimba, who guided Kenya to its first ever Cup win in Singapore in 2016 and Mike Friday, who took Kenya to the World Cup semis, and who is currently lighting up the circuit with USA 7s. In the first six legs of the new season, Kenya Sevens has not qualified for any of the quarter-finals. There is a feeling in sections of the local rugby circle that current coach Paul Murunga is being set up to fail and that he will be fired and a new coach will be hired by KRU, probably a foreigner.

Simiyu smiles with bitterness at this prospect. “I don’t think it’s rocket science. You don’t need a foreigner to tell you. The challenges are always there. Ayimba said it, he was fired. Friday said it, he was fired. Paul Treu said it, he was fired. I’ve said the same thing, I was fired…It’s the same rat race. So long as they can’t deal with the issues, they attack the people.”

Meanwhile, KRU has shifted its expectations with the realization that this season is bust, with the conditions it has dug Kenya 7s into. While the previous plan was that, Kenya would be fighting to win several legs, this season, Odundo, the Director of Rugby at the KRU is not optimistic “We hope to get to some quarter-finals, and maybe a semi-final, which is achievable.” In addition, Odundo, the man responsible for matters rugby at the Kenya Rugby Union, points out, “I don’t know what failure is. Maybe our expectations of ourselves are too high.”

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

On March 4th 2019, USA won the Las Vegas 7s. With the win, which was coincidentally the fifth consecutive time they were making a main cup final, the team rose to the top of the standings. It is not possible to look at USA’s performances without a tinge of regret, knowing that this was the level which Kenya would very well have been at had Simiyu been allowed to proceed with his plan. While the USA, a team that was at the same level as Kenya less than a year earlier tops the standings with 113 points, Kenya has a measly 18 points, which, while should ostensibly mean that the team is safe from relegation, is a sign of how low, and how fast, the Kenya Rugby Union let the team fall.

On 20th March 2019, Oduor Gangla was elected chairman of KRU. Alongside Gangla the former KRU secretary, most of the KRU directors retained their seats. In 2016, when they had been voted into office, Gangla and this crop of directors had declared themselves ‘Team Change’, but now having seen the state of Kenyan rugby during their reign, rugby observers are pessimistic about whether the next three years will be any different from the previous three.

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Carey Baraka is a becoming writer and philosopher from Kisumu, Kenya.

Culture

The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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The Politics of Street Names
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June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.

Recent movements like Rhodes Must FallFaidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”

To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!

Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.

As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?

There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.

Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”

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

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Culture

The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.

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In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.

The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”

He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.

We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”

This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.

Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.

Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.

At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”

Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”

Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”

It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”

The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.

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

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Culture

Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo

The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.

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Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo
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On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.

Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.

With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.

Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.

It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.

As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.

Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.

For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.

That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.

While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.

Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.

Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.

An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?

Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.

Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.

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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