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The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World

Humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today.

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The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World
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Our human ancestors were using stone tools well before Homo sapiens evolved three hundred thousand or more years ago. Tools have been discovered dating back three million years, no less than ten times older than our species. Considering that some birds and fish use –and even fashion– tools (watch crows making hooks), and that any implements made of wood or other organic material will not show in early fossil records, it would be astonishing if our hominid ancestors weren’t using them well before the earliest stone ones we’ve so far found.

The most important tool of all was fire. Like much in archaeology nowadays, where microscopic analysis is changing earlier guesswork, the first known date for cooking is being pushed ever further into our deepest past. It is hotly debated issue, but some now put it at around a million years ago. Again, that is long before our species evolved – though of course some of those earlier, now extinct, hominid species are our direct ancestors.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive.

Many scientists believe that our very evolution could never have happened without cooking. It massively enhanced our calorie and nutrient intake, so enabling our teeth and guts to grow smaller and our brains, which need huge amounts of energy, to grow bigger. Brain size is a tradeoff between enabling women to walk upright (a wider pelvis needed to have even bigger-headed babies would make that impossible),and the inordinately large number of years we have to care for our helpless young, longer than any other species. That both engendered and depended on our enormous capacity for social cohesion, empathy and self-sacrifice. In brief, we made fire and cooked our food and that turned us into people, generally more virtuous than vicious –in spite of our striking inhumanities, and the religious dogmatists and “evolutionary psychologists” preaching otherwise.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive. It sounds about right.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank.

This all started happening hundreds of thousands of years ago. Fire, manipulated by our ancestors, changed the world, and cooking was just one part: Regular undergrowth burning had the other big impact. It’s enormously beneficial: It prevents scorching wildfire conflagrations (look at California or Australia today), and also massively increases biodiversity, however counter-intuitive that may sound to urbanites. It enriches the soil, encourages fresh plant growth, enables wind-blown seeds to germinate in the nutrient-rich ash rather than wither in the undergrowth, and so favors some species over others. All this attracts herbivores, which are followed by predators.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank. Aboriginal burning was far from destructive as the Europeans thought. It actually enhanced biodiversity and the food supply.

Several key principles have been noted for Aboriginal burning. Neighbors were always forewarned and agricultural lands were fired in rotation at specific times of year when the bush was in the right state and the weather favorable. This limited the fire’s intensity, allowed animals to move out of the way, avoided particular growing seasons, and stimulated particular seeds to germinate under the resulting hot ash.

Needless to say, the British banned the practice in many parts of its empire, teaching that undergrowth firing was a destructive and primitive local custom. Some scientists remain schooled in such colonialist prejudice today. The ban on undergrowth burning is still in force in much of India and continues damaging the environment. The Soliga people in India, for example, say that the recent massive rise in forest fires in Karnataka would not have happened if they had been advising on forest management and allowed to continue their traditional burning.

People deliberately start fires in many environments and have done so for a very long time. For example, there is evidence that it’s gone on in Southeast Asia for at least forty-five thousand years.

Today, the Xavante in Brazil take careful note of wind and rain before setting their ceremonial fires to assist hunting. The fires remain low and not overly hot because they are lit so regularly that undergrowth is not allowed to grow up year after year. Fire-resistant plants can easily regenerate, and animals have plenty of time to move away. Fire can obviously be destructive, but that includes getting rid of species no one wants, such as deadly disease-bearing insects like the tsetse fly in Africa and the Loranthus tree-killing parasite in India. It also brings new plants and animals in its wake.

Regular burning is key in the various “slash-and-burn” methods of farming tropical forests. It is also called “swidden,” but journalists unfortunately favor the more dramatic name, which has become pejorative. Whatever one calls it, the practice is still widely denigrated and even criminalized by some conservationists, who could not be more wrong. Other scientists, sticking to the evidence, now see it as, “an integral part of many, if not most, tropical forest landscapes that are crucial to biodiversity conservation in all the remaining large tropical forests: Amazonia, Borneo, Central Africa.” The Hanunoo people in the Philippines grow over 280 types of food with swidden, and an even greater variety can be found elsewhere.

If undergrowth burning led to cooking, which seems logical, then it dates back over a million years. Considering that some birds not only make tools, but also actually manipulate bushfires by dropping burning twigs to help their hunting – something Australian Aboriginal people have long known – then it’s likely that our ancestors were changing the world with fire more than a million years ago. Science is unlikely ever to be precise about the timing, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the ancient world has long been shaped by women and men.

Human-made clearings, whether opened up with fire, axe, or both, modified the local fauna by changing animals’ food and distribution. There’s evidence from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple reserve in India that tiger numbers increase in areas where tribal people still live –if, that is, they’re not threatened with eviction and so retain an incentive to maintain their environment. When the people move their fields to leave some dormant, they also abandon the ponds they made for drinking water. The clearings, remnant crops and water attract boar, deer, and other creatures. The big cats then thrive on the easy hunting found in the open spaces. When tribes are evicted “for tiger conservation” the authorities know they have to keep similar clearings open. As a Baiga man told Survival International, “If you remove us, the tiger will disappear as well.”

An increase in tiger numbers clearly impacts the cats’ prey. Deer are less plentiful, but they are healthier than they would be were they never hunted: Sick animals soon become tigers’ lunch. The smaller deer population in turn brings more tree growth which encourages different insect and bird life, and so on and on. It is all a shifting, interconnected balance that has included human beings as a key environmental shaper for many thousands of years.

When scientists asked them about beluga whale loss in the Arctic, the Inuit explained that warmer temperatures had brought an increase in the beaver population. The beavers took more of the fish, which the whales depended on, and so whale numbers had diminished. It simply hadn’t occurred to the whale experts to include beavers in their research, but the Inuit had observed and interpreted these connections as and when they were developing.

Western science has only begun to describe the depth and complexity of such associations over recent centuries, but other “non-scientific” ways of looking at our surroundings have been articulating it for a very long time.

Among the best known is the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime in which every geographical feature, every river, rock, plant, animal, even celestial bodies, and of course all the different tribes of humans, are descended from ancestors who emerged from the earth, and travelled around it in a series of adventures which are remembered and reenacted – and actively “re-created” through such reenactment– today. They capture an essential view of the world and our place in it which science seems to have largely bypassed in making its own invaluable discoveries.

Everything really is connected but, needless to say, the Dreamtime version was derided as primitive superstition by the European invaders who brought very different priorities from the British Isles. As well as massacring the native people, they infamously imported rabbits to shoot for sport. The creature immediately spread faster than any other mammal monitored anywhere and is now thought to have caused more species and habitat loss than anything else throughout the continent.

In brief, humans have been an integral part of the jigsaw of the planet’s ecosystem for thousands, even millions, of years. It is true we did eliminate some species, including the huge and dangerous auroch, bred by our ancestors into docile domestic cattle. However, prior to industrialization, it seems to be the case that we enhanced biodiversity rather than reduced it, at least in many places. Moreover, humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today. Whether it fits in with one’s beliefs or not, humans have always been changing the environment, for better or for worse.

The worse part is obvious, and is not confined to rabbits destroying Australian biodiversity. Massive urbanization and industrialization have made life easier for some over recent centuries, but have also created rampant environmental degradation, with escalating –in some cases permanent – damage to the health of significant flora and fauna, including humans. There is no shortage of warnings, studies, and prophets sounding that alarm. We can only pray it starts being properly heeded.

But what of the other side, how have people since antiquity made the world “better?” I’ve described the increased biodiversity, and that tigers seem to prefer it when they are around tribal people; it turns out that forest elephants do too. Baka “Pygmies” in the Congo Basin, for example, are characterized as “hunter-gatherers” but they also spread food plants around the forest, which attract animals. That is not just good for elephants: abandoned camps, fertilized with ash and waste, make good habitat for primates. In the Salonga National Park researchers think there may be up to five times more bonobo where the Iyaelima tribe live than where they don’t. The people were unusually allowed to remain inside the park because they too were classified as “wildlife”!

Reverence for elephants is widespread in Africa. The Baka, for example, think they have an intimate spiritual connection with the animals – which includes sustainably hunting them for food and ritual. This can seem anathema to those urban Europeans and North Americans for whom wild animals (big ones at least), are anthropomorphized and considered nicer than us, untrammeled by our supposedly unique sin and guilt.

If anyone doubts the level of misanthropy to which such “Disneyfication” of nature can sink, they might read the comments accompanying internet stories about poaching. Extremist animal rights advocates repeatedly put animal life far above that of their fellow humans, particularly when the victims are African or Asian.

Unfortunately, this often goes unchallenged by those moderates who also value people. Extrajudicial killing, so-called “shoot on sight” is routinely applauded, even if some of the wounded and dead “poachers” include children, and were never criminals but simply poor people looking for food or even firewood or medicinal plants on what was once their land. Those accepting this as mere “collateral damage” in a righteous war against poaching are rejecting human rights, often gleefully.

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Stephen Corry (b. 1951, Malaya) was projects director of Survival International, the global movement supporting indigenous and tribal peoples, from 1972, and has been its director since 1984.

Culture

Ogutu’s Dutch Blues: Notes of Kenyan Native Son

Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works.

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Ogutu’s Dutch Blues: Notes of Kenyan Native Son
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1

Are We Here Yet?

 

The 2011 performance at Nairobi’s The Theatre Company opens with two Mau Mau fighters stuck in Mt. Kenya forest. It is 1983. They are unaware Kenya gained independence 20 years ago. The two fighters, Mahela and Githai, re-enact the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, an annual tradition they have practiced the entire time they lived in the bush. Their enduring memory of life before this moment, is of the night they were dispatched to kill a British settler. They went as far as the white man’s bedroom, but developed cold feet. Now, 20 years later, they believe they are cursed for violating a cardinal Mau Mau oath – to kill the enemy. And are convinced that they can only get atonement by finding and killing an alternative white man.

The sound of an approaching vehicle interrupts the dreadlocked Mau Mau fighters obsessing over the oath. Two African American tourists emerge, accompanied by a white tour guide. Due the colour of his skin, Mahela and Githai decide that the tour guide is a colonialist and the accompanying African Americans his home guards – members of indigenous Kenyan communities who chose to collaborate with the British, branded traitors of the independence struggle. When the African Americans spot Mahela and Githai, they ask the tour guide whether the two-dreadlocked men are cast members for a skit and part of the entertainment package for the tourists seeking a full colonial misadventure experience. The confused tour guide mumbles a response as the two fighters presuming they are under attack, strike and capture the group. With a captive white man in their hands, Mahela and Githai debate on whether to kill him to cleanse themselves of the curse. Moments later, the two African American tourists break loose, make a sprint for the forest, and in the ensuing fracas, Githai accidentally shoots the white captive.

That performance, ‘Are We Here Yet’, marked Kenyan thespian Ogutu Muraya’s debut as a scriptwriter.

2

The Merry Wives of Windsor

 

In April 2012, a 26 year old, Ogutu woke up in his London hotel to good news. The Guardian newspaper had given the Kiswahili adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ translated by Ogutu, a Five Star rating. This was the highest accolade of any of the 37 Shakespeare performances delivered in 37 different languages at the Globe to Globe Festival – the biggest festival on Shakespeare’s works held during London’s Cultural Olympiad. Apart from translating the play, Ogutu was part of the cast and The Guardian singled him out for naughtily embodying his character, Mistress Quickly.

‘‘Such was the power of the performances, the way the cast seemed to live their lines, that the language barrier hardly mattered… the Swahili had an earthy gusto, an air of languor and sunshine that made Shakespeare’s prose seem prissy and verbose,’’ wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Gilchrist.

‘‘It ended, of course, with a dance, the crowd up on their feet clapping along as the company took their bows. A young girl sitting near me, who had been laughing throughout, was almost overcome. “To see Shakespeare in this setting, in Swahili, in England, it’s fabulous,” she said.

Ogutu and the seven cast members, including Tanzanian poet and thespian Mrisho Mpoto, who played the lead character, had left Nairobi for London on a shoe string budget. They had bought an assortment of second hand clothes for their costume, having only been able to afford proper attire for Mrisho. On arrival in London, they attended the technical rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, performed in Russian. What they saw made them decide they stood little chance at making an impression on the London audience. They had never performed in such a state of the art theatre. The group’s confidence took another hit when they attended the Maori performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. At the end of the show, the New Zealand cast performed the haka, the war dance popularized by their All Blacks rugby team.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that the East Africans made a lasting Five Star impression on the London audience.

3

DAS Graduate School

 

Fresh off ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ high, Ogutu submitted an application to DAS Graduate School (Academy of Theatre and Dance formerly known as DasArt), the prestigious experimental art institute and appendage of the Amsterdam University of the Arts. The main pitch on Ogutu’s portfolio, beside the Mau Mau piece, was that he had translated Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into Kiswahili, and been part of its cast during London’s Cultural Olympiad. The rejection letter, was accompanied by an email observing that Ogutu had a Shakespearean aesthetic, therefore advised him to instead apply to a British arts school, where he stood a better chance of admission.

Ogutu became aware that translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili and performing the same was not necessarily the most progressive thing for him to do. A member of the London audience observed that he ‘‘understood Shakespeare better in Kiswahili than he ever did in English’’, making the point that by translating Shakespeare, Ogutu had facilitated the export of the Empire’s culture to its former colonies and delivered it in a language and manner that was both agreeable and accessible to the former subjects. The translation had added a cultural richness to Shakespeare and to the validation of English literature in the former colonies.

Fortunately, Ogutu landed a month long residency in the Netherlands in September 2013, where he was to spend time interacting with arts institutions. Before his arrival in the Netherlands, Ogutu announced that DAS rejected his application during the school’s previous intake and he was keen on giving it another shot. The residency granted Ogutu’s wish and he ended up spending two weeks at DAS.

DAS is not your traditional performance school. The conversations dwelled on his future prospects as a performing artist, since DAS mantra was unhinged experimentation and imagination, seeking to break boundaries to produce artists grounded in practice. The more time he spent at DAS, the more Ogutu felt it was where he belonged. DAS admitted between seven and nine students for its two-year graduate program, and Ogutu knew it was not going to be easy gaining admission. He worked on a new application, and in early 2014, received news that he had made the shortlist. He travelled to Amsterdam for a three-day audition, went through a slew of interviews and made the cut second time round, joining DAS in September 2014.

Before admission, Ogutu had to bring a new birth certificate for the process of residency in Amsterdam. The old one was not accepted. He had to pay three times the tuition fees his European classmates paid at DAS, and underwent tests for Tuberculosis every six months. He concluded that for African to gain acceptance in Europe they had to be wealthy, healthy and brainy. The visa application process on its own had become a sort of state sanctioned eugenics, a manmade exercise of natural selection. One of his instructors put it differently. He told Ogutu of the Dutch policy of discouragement – a subtle code for institutional racism – where a myriad roadblocks are placed on the paths of outsiders.

4

Royal Dutch Shell

 

Barely a semester into his studies, Ogutu suddenly wanted to abandon his Dutch expedition and opt out of DAS. The reason behind this trepidation was that the school had relocated to a North Amsterdam property, hitherto occupied by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. Ogutu noted that the grounds that were previously an industrial part of Amsterdam had now been gentrified, comprising newly minted edgy arts institutions, incubators for start-ups, hotels, hostels, a film museum, an underground nightclub and high end apartments. A consortium of the City of Amsterdam now owned the 100-acre property that once housed the largest Shell laboratories in the world. The consortium donated part of the estate to DAS Graduate School, among other institutions.

In an attempt to speak truth to power, Ogutu’s first school project, ‘A Clarification of My Internal Politics’, sought to question DAS’ relocation Shell’s pseudo museum. He sought to interrogate why DAS would want to go anywhere near an ethically stained multinational like Shell, without critical reflection. Through the performance lecture, Ogutu juxtaposed Shell’s reputation in the Netherlands against its misdeeds in Nigeria, particularly in Ogoniland, where it was accused of gross environmental degradation in a UNEP report. In 1995, Sani Abacha’s regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for agitating against Shell’s activities, resulting in a 2009 out of court settlement with Shell paying $15.5m to the Ogoni nine and one other victim and $5m going into an Ogoni education trust fund. Through act of artistic protest, Ogutu hoped, idealistic, that his project would bring DAS back to its senses.

Ogutu’s art project received a lukewarm reception, critiqued for its artistic merits, shortfalls and belittled. Ogutu wondered whether he was naïve to presume society would sit up whenever he presented what he considered radical thought as his classmates and instructors did not necessarily center their practice on the sociopolitical. Disillusioned, Ogutu slipped into depression. He thereafter wrote to DAS, opting out of his studies, unable to navigate his new realities. DAS offered Ogutu a month during the December 2014 break to reflect on his decision. As if extending an olive branch, DAS bought Ogutu’s ticket to Nairobi, after he applied for an emergency grant.

This feeling of powerlessness was not new. During his undergraduate International Relations studies at Nairobi’s United States International University–Africa, Ogutu felt the program taught everything about what was wrong with the world but never offered solutions. Therefore in the pursuit of meaningful change, he embraced the arts, growing to become The Theater Company’s creative director and later joining DAS, only for him to realize late in the day that ‘‘the complexities of life proved immune to the artistic antidote.’’

5

James Baldwin

 

Back in Nairobi, Ogutu sought out three Kenyan artists who had lived overseas, in search of understanding of his artistic struggles. The writer Binyavanga Wainaina told Ogutu his struggle was familiar, that he was going through a formatting process, advising Ogutu to seek sunshine whenever he could, telling him winter messed people up. The performance artist Sitawa Namwalie told Ogutu those Amsterdam years were his induction into the art world, for him to find his place in it. The publisher Muthoni Garland asked Ogutu to read American writer and activist James Baldwin, mainly ‘Notes of a Native Son’, reflections on Baldwin’s days holed up in Paris.

Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects at DAS either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin, or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works. Ogutu returned to Amsterdam in January 2015, somewhat reenergized. For his second semester project, he produced a short theatre piece titled ‘Nobody Knows My Name’, borrowing explicitly from one of Baldwin’s book titles.

The piece centered around Café Tournon in Paris, a hugely popular meeting spot for African American artists, some of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who had since sought refuge in Paris. The twist in Ogutu’s piece, picked from Baldwin’s writings and of others around the 1956 Congress, was that the CIA, French intelligence and other infiltrators such as the KGB had made inroads within this particular Paris group of Black writers and artists as part of the cultural Warfare. Ogutu’s main character, is a Black writer dealing with writer’s block as he tries to write about his time at Café Tournon. He is unable to make headway because he can no longer tell what was real and what was an enactment of the intelligence agencies, in spite of the glimpses of purity and authenticity at the café.

The idea of a meta-narrative about a Black writer trying to write a story about events of his life in a foreign country where he had sought refuge and escaped his home country’s hounding, reflected Ogutu’s frame of mind. In this case, Café Tournon was the symbol of the physical space abroad and the place where failure lurked, trailed by a mixture of anxiety and paranoia. It had taken Ogutu years of applications and rejections, in the hope of an admission into DAS. Yet at DAS, where he was supposed to thrive, he remained in a state of paralysis.

6

Fractured Memory

 

In his final year project at DAS, Ogutu sunk deeper into the happenings at the four day 1956 Black Writers and Artists congress in Paris, in a performance piece he titled ‘Fractured Memory’.

The piece, broken into four parts, each representing a day at the congress, opens with a scene of the reading of an emotive letter sent by WEB Du Bois, who could not travel to Paris because he was denied an American passport. Du Bois warns that part of the American delegation is state sponsored infiltration and that revelation causes tension at the congress. On the second day, Martinique poet and politician Aime Cesaire delivers a rousing speech on the relationship between colonialism and culture, going as far as labeling African Americans as colonised subjects. To counter Cesaire, Ogutu brings in Baldwin, who points out that Cesaire does not own up to his own personal effects of colonialism, seeing that he was addressing a congress of Blacks gathered in Paris speaking in French.

The third serving dwells on confrontations happening at the Congress, ending with the realization that there was no consensus on how to liberate people of African descent from colonialism, apartheid, segregation and exploitation. In the fourth section, Ogutu recites a poem that introspects on the agitations at the Congress. For each of these segments, Ogutu layers them with contemporary and historical issues in Kenya such as mistrust, anger, division – reiterating that the challenges of Paris 1956 still bedevil the Black people in Africa and elsewhere.

In November 2016, Ogutu performed ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Batard Festival in Brussels. After the performance, Tunde Adefioye, an American-Nigerian curator representing Brussel’s Royal Flemish Theatre came looking for him. Tunde was deeply moved by Ogutu’s performance and offered him a performance slot at the Royal Flemish Theatre in March 2018.

On New Year’s Day 2018, aboard a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Ogutu’s state of mind oscillated between elation, anxiety and indecisiveness. Earlier, in September 2017, he was selected as one of 15 artists in residence by the City of Amsterdam. The program, dubbed the Three Package Deal, funded by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, came with a €22,500 stipend that covered living expenses, an artist studio and a research budget for a theatre production, to be showcased after the residency. Upon graduation from DAS the previous year, Ogutu was granted a one year visa, usually provided to graduates from Dutch institutions. That one year in Amsterdam post-graduation became a haunting experience. Despite the relief he had found in James Baldwin and his work, Ogutu still had to put up with a sense of not belonging as he wrestled with questions of race and racism, and how this affected his life and work. The residency came with a two year visa, meaning Ogutu had to decide whether he had the stamina to survive Amsterdam.

Here was a man debating whether to continue with the residency or opt out. It was a huge honour to be selected, and he was cognizant of the fact that benefactors who he did not want to disappoint had put up a strong case for him in the process. Ogutu took the entire month of January 2018 to make the decision to return to Amsterdam and take up the residency, partly prompted by the need to return to Europe anyway since he was already slotted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.

7

The Life and Works of Leopold II

 

Ogutu arrived in Brussels on March 8, 2018, a day before his performance of ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre. Noah Voelker, an American classmate at DAS who was now a collaborator, accompanied him. They checked into two spacious studio apartments, before proceeding to the theatre to check on the technical elements of the performance. The show, performed in English, had French and Dutch surtitles (as subtitles are known in theatre) to attract both the city’s Dutch and French speakers.

As Ogutu and Noah went through the technical motions of the show, a staffer at the theater told them about ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’, a performance which was being staged on the night of March 8. The show would take place at the main theatre as the anchor performance, followed by Ogutu’s performance on March 9 at an adjoining box theatre. He would later discover that the pairing of the two performances was to ignite a dialogue on colonialism and decolonization. ‘Fractured Memory’ was lined up as a hesitant partner in a weird post-colonial dance with King Leopold II’s misdeeds in the Congo.

Earlier the same day, Ogutu sent Tunde Adefioye – the theater’s curator who had booked Ogutu’s show – a text message requesting tickets for ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’. Tunde told him the show was sold out, but that he would seek out some connections. He never got back to Ogutu. It later emerged that Tunde preferred Ogutu did not watch the Leopold II show, possibly suspecting the performance’s racist undertones would expectedly elicit an unpleasant reaction. Ogutu reasoned that Tunde meant well and wanted to stick to his institution’s program while shielding Ogutu from triggers that would affect his performance. Unknown to Tunde, the theatre’s staffer went to the box office and worked out two tickets for Ogutu and Noah to watch the Leopold II show.

***

In Ogutu’s narration, the opening scene featured the only black cast member cleaning the front of the theatre using a vacuum cleaner, moving around the stage and into the audience, creating confusion as to whether he was part of the performance. Then the rest of the cast took to the stage, with African characters played by white actors wearing black faces. The King of Congo was depicted as an ape-like creature, and whenever the white actors playing as Africans spoke, their speech was deliberately sluggish and inaudible, as if not representations of actual humans. The actor playing King Leopold II produced a belching sound whenever interacting with Africans, implying that in communication with Africans, one resorted to a range of grunt sounds outside of ordinary speech. In representing African children, their voices became hoarse and croaky.

As the English surtitles streamed past and Ogutu married them to the acts on stage, he got agitated. To Ogutu’s dismay, the worst was yet to come after the performance, when the predominantly white audience gave the cast a standing ovation. The cast moved backstage but as the audience was still clapping, came back on stage to soak in the accolades. Ogutu felt sick to the stomach, not knowing whether to be surprised or disappointed. To this audience in Brussels, the portrayal of Africans as primitive sub-humans passed for art.

From the theatre, Ogutu did not speak to anyone. He went straight to his apartment, and could not sleep that night. The following morning at 9am, Noah was at the theatre, ready to do a test run of ‘Fractured Memory’. He sent Ogutu a text, asking whether he was on his way. Ogutu said he was.

The moment Noah set his eyes on Ogutu he knew something was amiss. Noah also knew it all had to do with what they had watched the previous night. There was no denying that the show was racist. Noah and Ogutu had a little chat, sharing views on the show. Ogutu told Noah he was not sure he wanted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ in such a racially toxic environment. Noah said he understood, but asked Ogutu to give it further thought. Ogutu walked into the theatre set up for his performance. The moment he walked in, he instinctively knew he would not be performing that night. He told Noah he was going to take a walk back to the apartment, and that by the time he got there, he would relay his final decision.

By the time Ogutu got to the apartment, his mind was made. He was not performing.

***

When Tunde Adefioye heard about Ogutu’s decision, he requested a meeting. Ogutu asked for an hour as he called Amsterdam, where Veem House of Performance was handling his travel and other logistics. He informed them of his decision to pull out, asking for arrangements for the next available train back to Amsterdam. Tunde was devastated, admitting that he too shared in Ogutu’s frustrations of ‘The Life and Times of King Leopold II’ portrayal of Africans. The theatre’s business manager reached out to Noah, asking for a meeting. Ogutu declined.

By the time Noah and Ogutu arrived in Amsterdam, the main newspapers in Brussels had picked up the story, as a cancelation message had to be sent out by the theater. Journalists wanted a comment from Ogutu, for the next day’s papers. Feeling under weather, Ogutu took his medication and passed out. By the time he woke up, the journalists’ 5pm deadline had lapsed. They went to print without his comment. Phone calls and solidarity messages from friends and industry players started streaming in. By the evening of March 9, Ogutu had to release a statement. He consulted the team at Veem, before making a stinging, succinct Facebook post. The Royal Flemish Theatre on its part issued a defensive counter statement, citing artistic freedom. Tunde wrote a conciliatory piece, hoping Ogutu would have an opportunity to perform at the theatre sometime in future and to contribute to the decolonization discourse. The theatre’s artistic director tried reaching Ogutu through Veem, intending to issue a personal apology.

In his statement, Ogutu bitterly protested the placement of ‘Fractured Memory’ next to a hyper-problematic piece framed as part of an exercise in the critical reflection on colonialism. The use of racist slurs such as nigger, the apish characterization and imbecilic mannerisms attributed to Africans, the racialized costumes and sexualization of the black body, and the use of the black face – all in Ogutu’s words – were some of the unacceptable devices deployed to demean the dignity of black people.

It was as if Ogutu was having an artistic epiphany. All his readings of Baldwin crystallized before his eyes. There he was, a Black artist in Brussels, encountering blatant racism within the very artistic spaces he had hoped to find elevated discourses on culture, race and race relations. Like Baldwin, he now had to react directly to these acts by carving out his own responses. Ogutu had to now live his politics, and mature as a protégé of Baldwin’s work.

Three days later, on March 12 2018, Ogutu boarded a Nairobi bound KLM flight, booked a month earlier. Unlike during his New Year’s Amsterdam to Nairobi flight when he was torn between moving back home or taking up the City of Amsterdam residency, he now felt a sense of artistic purpose. He had taken up the residency and premiered his next show, ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, that aptly captured his nomadic tendencies. Brussels may have devastated Ogutu, but it simultaneously awoke the urgency within him.

8

Because I Always Feel Like Running

 

The person who helped Ogutu clarify his thoughts was Anne Breure, the director at Amsterdam’s Veem House of Performance. Breure forwarded Ogutu’s name to her coalition of arts organizations back in 2017, proposing him as a potential artist in residency. With his nomination under consideration, Ogutu retreated to his little Amsterdam studio for two months, July and August 2017, where he conceptualized his next performance project, dedicated to the residency. The piece, titled ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, investigated the building blocks in the lives of East African long distance runners. Ogutu’s research narrowed down to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikile, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino and Tanzania’s John Stephen Akwari.

By looking at the lives of these three at their height on the track, Ogutu intended to develop a piece exhibiting the spirit of sacrifice, excellence and resilience. He might as well have been projecting his own life. At the end of 2017, Ogutu had already done dummy performances of the show at the Veem House of Performance in Amsterdam, the Spielarts Festival in Munich and a follow up show in February 2018 in the city of Gronigen.

By this time, Leila Anderson, a South African artist who was a year ahead of Ogutu at DAS, became one of his closest collaborators, urging him on whenever Ogutu encountered performance-related anxiety.

Previously, like when he performed at the Batard Festival in Brussels in 2016, Ogutu would lock himself up the entire time, only leaving his room to do his show then retreat, never wanting to interact with the outside world. He was now less reclusive thanks to Leila. When Ogutu returned to Amsterdam at the end of January 2018 after taking a break in Nairobi to contemplate whether to carry on with the residency or not – and to spend time with his ailing mother, his only surviving parent for a long time – he pinned six A3 spreadsheets on the wall of his bedroom. He stuck six yellow sticky notes on each of the spreadsheets, and in each sticky note, he chronologically listed the events that had shaped his life for the last decade.

He started out with the 2007/2008 Kenyan post election violence, which inspired his Mau Mau piece, but which had directly affected his family. His name, Ogutu Muruya – with Ogutu coming from his Luo ancestry and Muraya coming from his Kikuyu lineage – was seen as an oxymoron since it collapsed the two politically antagonistic communities into one entity. He was neither Luo enough nor Kikuyu enough for as long as he could remember, and the 2007/2008 ethnic violence put his family on the spot including from neighbours who debated whether they were Luos or Kikuyus. Depending on where one was, being either Luo or Kikuyu could mean life or death. He listed migration, in relation to his move to DAS, and listed his time at DAS under studies. The list kept growing as Ogutu applied specificity.

From each sticky note Ogutu originated a web of arrows pointed into the A3 spreadsheets, where he wrote detailed notes on what ramifications each of the items listed on the sticky notes had brought into his life. By the time he was done, the white A3 surfaces were filled with acres of hardly legible text. Looking at whatever he had written, Ogutu concluded that there was nothing more to be squeezed out of that decade. He had come full circle. He took photos of the spreadsheets and saved them on his phone, before picking his bags and heading to Brussels on March 8 2018.

Brussels through ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’ had already set the mission on how to jumpstart his next ten year cycle, confronting him with the question of race and racism afresh. It was now all up to him.

As Franz Fanon said,
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.

*The End*

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Culture

Religion and Politics: The Devil Is in the Details

From the dawn of independence, the same old script of religious manipulation has thrived, writes CAREY BARAKA. One would imagine for the millennial generation, the tricks that Moi used to stay in power for twenty-four years, the same tricks that Uhuru and Ruto are using, would not work in this era. Yet, it is apparent that history keeps repeating itself and these tactics are still at play today.

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Religion and Politics: The Devil Is the Details
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On March 12th, 2019, former Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga declared that the River Jordan had crocodiles, and that he and Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, were building bridges for Kenyans to cross the river safely into Canaan. Raila Odinga, who was a presidential candidate in the Kenyan general elections in 2017 against Kenyatta had, almost exactly a year earlier, on March 9th, 2018, buried the hatchet with his rival and so he felt the need to defend the coalition. By using Canaan as a metaphor, Raila had brought his hitherto rival into the inner sanctum of the religious metaphor he had used to campaign for office.

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors make us believe in an analogy that is better than reality. American poet Robert Frost declared that “an idea is a feat of association, and that the height of it is a good metaphor.” Raila understands the power of a good metaphor, the power of association that a metaphor conjures, and the power of his metaphor of Canaan in a predominantly Christian country.

In the month of May, in the lead-up to the August 2017 presidential elections, Raila travelled to Israel where he visited the Western wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and posted photos of himself praying on his social media pages. The Western wall better known as the Wailing Wall is a place of prayer and pilgrimage sacred to the Jewish people. Raila talked about how praying on the wall reminded him of his days in detention. He said, “The story goes that you write your wish on a piece of paper, stick it on the wall and say a prayer and the message goes directly to God.” By referring to his stint in detention during his prayer, he was, in one fell swoop, establishing his credibility as both a reformer and a man of God.

Upon his return to Kenya from Jerusalem, Raila proclaimed himself as Joshua and that he would lead Kenyans to the Promised Land. In Christian theology, Joshua led the Israelites to Canaan, after fleeing from slavery in Egypt. Raila hoped to project the reign of Uhuru as one of hardship and suffering, akin to the biblical Egypt, and that Raila as Joshua, would lead them out of their suffering into the Promised Land, Canaan, the land of milk and honey. By caricaturing himself in this way, Raila intended to tap into Kenyans’ religious bent and influence them into voting for him in the August elections.

His opponents recognized the danger his methods held for them, and moved in to squash the idea of Raila’s personified as a Joshua. The Deputy President, William Ruto, who was Kenyatta’s running mate dismissed him as a fake Joshua, belittling Raila’s quest as taking Kenyans to a land of chang’aa and busaa, unlike the biblical Canaan, the land of milk and honey. This was snide reference to Raila’s proposal to legalize the sale of chang’aa when elected. Chang’aa is a traditional home brewed spirit popular among working class Kenyans. Mutahi Ngunyi, a political analyst and one of Kenyatta’s parrot men, also rejected Raila’s ability to be Joshua, arguing that Raila was full of “acidic pessimism” and negative energy.

Undeterred, Raila pushed on with his vision of Canaan. During his campaign, rallies he promised his supporters that he would take them to the land of milk and honey upon his ascension to the presidency. The more he invoked his utopia of Canaan, the more Kenyans from all walks of life, started talking about it. On social media, people shared creative memes about their aspirations once they got to the Canaan. Whether accidentally or by design, Raila was copying a script successfully used by Kenyatta and Ruto as running mates in 2013 election.

As part of their rhetoric during the campaigns, Ruto and Kenyatta alluded that Raila, had ‘fixed’ the charges at the Hague, and that, together, they would defeat the devil that was the ICC. The representation of the devil as the buzzword for one’s political enemy did not start with Ruto and Kenyatta.

In January 2012, William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta had been among the six Kenyans indicted by the ICC to stand trial over the 2008 Post Election Violence in Kenya. While many observers expected that the trial would lead to an end of their respective presidential bids, it did not. Rather, the two of them united in the face of a common enemy, the ICC. When they announced their coalition and joint presidential bid with Kenyatta vying for the presidency and Ruto as his running mate, they declared that it would be good for national reconciliation. Despite the irony that the two of them were once fierce rivals, they became the most serious threat to Raila’s bid for the presidency.

As part of their rhetoric during the campaigns, Ruto and Kenyatta alluded that Raila, had ‘fixed’ the charges at the Hague, and that, together, they would defeat the devil that was the ICC. The representation of the devil as the buzzword for one’s political enemy did not start with Ruto and Kenyatta.

In her book, The Origin of Satan, the religious historian Elaine Pagels tracks the origins of the ‘devil’ as a symbol for demonizing one’s opponents. In the book, which came on the back of her elegant analysis of the Nag Hammadi Library, Pagels reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the Christian religion was never homogeneous, even in its nascent days. While there were agents of malice in such Judeo-Christian texts as Numbers and Job, these were not what we now know as the devil. The figure of the Devil (also known as Satan or Belial or Beelzebub) first appears in the first century AD, particularly with two radical Jewish sects — one called the Essenes, and another that coalesced around Jesus of Nazareth. These two sects painted themselves as embroiled in a cosmic war, and the Devil-figure was cast as the great enemy who wanted to see their destruction.

Kenyan politics is intrinsically ethno-nationalist, and deeply patriarchal, as Nanjala Nyabola observes, but it also has a very spiritualist bent. This spiritualist bent has led to national obsession with the cult of ‘holy men’ such as Pius Miuru, Prophet David Owuor, and Ambilikile Masapila, otherwise known as Babu wa Loliondo, and his ‘wonder drug’.

However, as Pagels informs us, the members of these sects used the term Devil (and its variations), more often than not, to refer to their political enemies. For instance, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth used the term to refer to mainstream Jews (this Satanification of mainstream Judaism becomes the foundation of anti-semitism), to political parties such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and to the Roman Empire which was colonizing Palestine. In fact, when Jesus was executed he was killed for a political crime — that he claimed that he was going to establish a kingdom, and not because he claimed to be the son of God which the Romans did not care about — and he was given the punishment given to political criminals/insurrectionists — death by crucifixion.

Kenyan politics is by design ethno-nationalist, and deeply patriarchal, as Nanjala Nyabola observes, but it also has a very spiritualist bent. This spiritualist bent has led to national obsession with the cult of ‘holy men’ such as Pius Miuru, Prophet David Owuor, and Ambilikile Masapila, otherwise known as Babu wa Loliondo, and his ‘wonder drug’. The March 2013 elections presented the opportunity for Kenyatta and Ruto cling to the image of the ICC as the Devil and they as God’s persecuted followers. After they won the presidential election, Ruto broke down in tears during a church service proclaiming himself to ‘surged over by the grace and favor of God.’ It was a complete performance. The godly references did not end there.

In a political rally in September 2013, Kenyatta declared, in reference to the ICC charges, “We will defend ourselves and we will make sure that we have cleared our names and that of Kenya. We know that with God on our side and the devil will be ashamed.”

At the same rally, Kenyatta added, “God will clear us of the false accusations that have been leveled against us. We therefore humbly request that you pray for us. I believe that when we go before the court and speak the truth, we shall shame the devil.”

Two years later, in September 2015, the two, together with their political allies, held what they described as the “mother of all prayer rallies” aimed at “keeping the evil spirits of the International Criminal Court at bay.” Critics were quick to dismiss the rally as nothing more than a poorly-disguised political rally. Writing in the aftermath of the rally, Ishmael Bundi, a Nairobi-based journalist, argued, “Kenyans have become very sensitive to naked displays of tribalism, hence the reason to call Sunday’s rally a ‘prayer meeting’ and not what it was: a transparent ploy to drum up ethnic paranoia against the ICC.“

Naturally, Uhuru and Ruto were quick to recognize the danger of Raila declaring himself a Joshua. In the months both preceding and following the election, they went on the offensive, and turned the devil jibe on him. In statements that were transmitted in vernacular Gikuyu and Kalenjin radio stations, Raila was likened to the devil. This would become the pattern of their diatribes against Raila, as they went on to accuse him of being a mganga (a witchdoctor) who couldn’t compete with the people of God, and bewitching his followers into boycotting the farce that was the repeat election.

In The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels explores the politics of the early Christian church, or the hodgepodge of believers each of whom claimed to be the true believers. While the term “the devil” was applied as a slur against one’s opponents, there also existed a space for healthy intellectual thought. For instance, in the group of believers who had coalesced around the disciples, there was a rift in how true faith ought to be practised. While most of the disciples agreed that the established way was through a strong church structure (a strong political church structure), Thomas (or the writer of The Gospel of Thomas), who was the first to have the authorship of a gospel attributed to him, argued that true faith was best practised individually. Rather than becoming a follower of Christ in a strong church structure, one ought to live individually and “become a Christ.” This was anathema to the other disciples, and John (or the writer of The Gospel of John) would come up with a story that established Thomas as a doubter, and thus sully his credentials as a true man of the faith.

Kenyan politics is not as subtle. In Kenyan politics, accusing political opponents of being The Devil is as strong as it gets. The devil jibe is not reserved for Raila. The list of people referred to as the devil by Uhuru, Ruto and their allies would make for interesting reading. In 2012, after his attempts at a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi floundered, Uhuru talked about “dark forces” that had forced him to join hands with Mudavadi. In March 2017, Uhuru referred to Josephat Nanok, the Governor of Turkana, as shetani mshenzi (a madman and a devil/ a stupid devil). In August 2018, Ruto referred to his detractors as “injili ya shetani” (the devil’s gospel). On March 14th, 2019, Oscar Sudi, a Ruto ally, declared, in the wake of the Uhuru-Raila handshake, “Since Raila Odinga ‘mganga’ joined government, there has been wrangles, gossip and sorcery. You greeted him, he has come to Jubilee with a magic spell and I see, he has bewitched you.” The list goes on. They have even turned the devil jibe on themselves, as seen when Moses Kuria blamed “shetani za kutangatanga”, a sly reference to Ruto, for his criticism of Uhuru. Just as Pagels writes about the Essenes and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, referring to one’s political opponents as the devil, wild religious analogies such as the figure of the devil have come to dictate political discourse in the country. It was not always so.

At independence, there was a strong bias towards intellectual thought running in the country. The first president of the country, Jomo Kenyatta, authored the book “ Facing Mt. Kenya” exploring Gikuyu religion and the first cabinet was full of people who relished intellectual inquiry. Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga, both members of the founding cabinet, differed bitterly and publicly on matters of ideology. A few years after independence, when the first vice president’s relationship with the government imploded, he, Oginga Odinga, wrote a book “ Not Yet Uhuru” detailing everything that he felt was wrong with the Kenyan state. Joseph Murumbi, Oginga’s replacement as vice president, was also a man of intellectual rigour, described by veteran journalist Joe Kadhi as ‘highly respected by journalists and regarded as far brighter than most of his peers’ and, after his resignation from government, he became a figure of importance in Kenya’s cultural history. Then came Daniel Moi, first as vice-president, then as president in 1978.

*

Facing mounting pressure from critics and dissidents, Moi turned his focus towards the Christian church as a way to stifle the growing opposition towards him. Mungai writes, “The position taken by the EFK (Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya) during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.”

In thinking about how religion was first used as a soporific by Kenyan politicians, we must examine Daniel Moi’s use of religion to lull the masses. Christine Mungai has written about how, during Moi’s reign as president, religion became the primary focus of political discourse. While the war against intellectual thought in politics had started during Kenyatta’s reign, it blossomed into a full frontal assault under Moi. Facing mounting pressure from critics and dissidents, Moi turned his focus towards the Christian church as a way to stifle the growing opposition towards him. Mungai writes, “The position taken by the EFK (Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya) during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.”

The Argentines defeated the Dutch in the final to claim the World Cup and General Videla milked the moment of national solidarity and international fame for all it was worth. Gustavo Campana, in Stands Without People, argues that football was used by Videla to polish his image in the face of accusations of torture, disappearances and murder that had started to appear in the global press.

A similar, more widely studied pattern emerges with the South American dictatorships of the 20th Century. Uruguayan novelist Mario Benedetti was the first to write about how South American dictators used football as political soporific. Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945) for one recognized the duality of the sport in helping strengthen his reign. With the press censored, political parties banned, civil rights curtailed and restraints on the police lifted, Vargas exploited the value of football to establish commonality with the masses and as a tool of distraction from the violence of his tyrannical rule. In Italy, Mussolini’s fascist regime was the first to use football as an integral part of government. In Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955) had slogans such as “Peron, the first sportsman,” and “Perón sponsors sports,” to turn the country’s eye to the role of sports in the making of the new Argentina “which we all desire.” Later, in 1978, two years after a junta led by General Jorge Videla had overthrown Peron government, Argentina would host the World Cup. While hosting a World Cup made little sense for a country grappling with a mountain of debt, the junta declared the World Cup a matter of national interest as justification for the hosting.

The Argentines defeated the Dutch in the final to claim the World Cup and General Videla milked the moment of national solidarity and international fame for all it was worth. Gustavo Campana, in Stands Without People, argues that football was used by Videla to polish his image in the face of accusations of torture, disappearances and murder that had started to appear in the global press.

“Religion is the opium of the masses,” Karl Marx quipped, famously, in the introduction to a book of political criticism he never finished. While Marx was not entirely against religion, he dismissed it as a useful tool that the ruling class used to keep the masses sated, a source of phoney happiness to which the masses turned to numb the pain of reality. Marx’s argument of mass distraction can apply to such things as sports and celebrity gossip, used by the ruling class to keep the masses sated. The South American dictators recognized the ability of football to do this, the same way Mobutu did with music in the DRC, and Daniel Moi with religion in Kenya.

Other writers have echoed Marx’s argument in their writing. “Spirituality doesn’t protest injustice, it just bears it,” a character in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House declares. Closer home, prominent Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in his excellently-named 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii explores a similar theme. The two central characters, Kiguunda and Wangechi, convert to Christianity with the desire to see their daughter, Gathoni, marry right and be acceptable to their prospective in-laws, the Kios, Ahab and Jezebel. However, the financial burden of a Christian wedding proves too heavy for Kiguunda and Wangechi and the two of them resort to taking a loan from the bank to fund their Christianity, going against their better judgement and the advice of their neighbors, Gicaamba and Njooki. The play ends with Kiguunda and Wangechi in destitution after losing ownership of their land to the Kios.

*

Ironically, Christianity, the religion to which approximately 84.8% of the Kenyan population claim allegiance, was founded on the prism of political rebellion, but then repackaged into a faith of subservience and piety.

Just as the Kios used Christianity to blind Kiguunda and Wangechi from the brazen theft of their land, Moi used the same religion to get away with his kleptocratic excesses for twenty-four years as do Kenyan politicians use religious metaphors, particularly Christian ones, to attempt to veer Kenyan from the moral ineptitudes of those in power. Ironically, Christianity, the religion to which approximately 84.8% of the Kenyan population claim allegiance, was founded on the prism of political rebellion, but then repackaged into a faith of subservience and piety. It is this subservience that the political class continues to rely on as they talk about devils, raid churches and offer cash donation as they proclaim themselves God’s chosen leaders and their enemies the Devil. There is real power in these metaphors.

In The Democratic Republic of Congo, the knowledge that Mobutu was using music to construct a veneer of respectability did not stop people from listening, dancing and worshipping Lingala music. The writer Alain Mabanckou, from the neighbouring Republic of Congo, pokes fun at “the country across the river”, saying that Mobutu gave the people music so that he could have the power.

One would imagine for the millennial generation, the tricks that Moi used to stay in power for twenty-four years, the same tricks that Uhuru and Ruto are using, would not work in this era. Yet, it is apparent that history keeps repeating itself. From the dawn of independence, the same old script of religious manipulation has thrived. In a quote attributed to Jomo Kenyatta we first learnt, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

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I Am Not Your Role Model: Shades of Feminism and the Curious Case of Akothee

Akothee does not vilify the man. Instead, she accepts that she was going through a rebellious phase in her life taking full ownership for her decisions and the consequences of her choices.   Akothee got repeatedly pregnant, but she blames neither her mother-in-law nor her husband.

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I Am Not Your Role Model: Shades of Feminism and the Curious Case of Akothee
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Anyone with a fleeting interest in the arts in Kenya, not familiar with the name, Akothee and does not have an opinion about her, may have missed the subtle manner Akothee is influencing gender and feminism discourse in Kenya. Akothee is no stranger to controversy, and easily qualifies as the Kenyan une femme terrible or a typical bad girl.

Akothee has cultivated a risqué reputation. In African entertainment circles, she compares to Brenda Fassie, the South African Afro-pop star. Brenda Fassie’s raunchy performances, her political commitment to the poor, her open lesbian relationship after marriage and having a son, made her stand out as an outlier. Akothee’s fame, or notoriety has been buoyed by two recent highly publicised occurrences: her public spat with Ezekiel Mutua, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), censor-in-chief of creative expression in Kenya, and her hugely successful relief food and water mobilization efforts aimed at assisting the famine-ravaged communities in Turkana in Northern Kenya. Akothee’s public performances offers us an interesting re-reading and re-writing of the perception of not just a creative female performer and the performance arts, but the public image of a modern African woman challenging patriarchal projection of power in all its manifestations.

We might pose to dissect what Mutua represents; he is a staunch defender of, and flaunts the ignominious Films and Stage Plays Licensing Act that was used in the late eighties and nineties to stifle political and creative expression in Kenya.

To locate the issues of feminism that Akothee brings to the fore, our discussions must move beyond the image broadcast by Mutua, that of a scantily clad atrocious artist, promoting vulgarity and pornography, morally bankrupt, an embarrassment and anathema to African values (whatever those are). We might pose to dissect what Mutua represents; he is a staunch defender of, and flaunts the ignominious Films and Stage Plays Licensing Act that was used in the late eighties and nineties to stifle political and creative expression in Kenya.

Today, few people will recall that this law was used to shut down Ngugi wa Thiongó’s Kamirithu Arts Centre, ban performances of Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for me), Ngahiika Ndeenda (I will marry when I Want) and Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The same law was used to stop performances of: The Fate of a Cockroach by Tewfik el Hakim, Shamba la Wanyama, and adaptation of Animal Farm by George Orwell, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay by Dario Fo and Drumbeats on Kerenyaga by yours truly ( Oby Obyerodhyambo). This law was vigorously fought by artists and civil society just as much as the Chief’s Act and Preservation of Security Act (Detention Act). Mutua has been at the forefront of supporting increasingly draconian censorship legislation to give power to the Film Classification Board so that free expression is curtailed.

Mutua also fashions himself as a moral crusader allegedly protecting Kenyans from decadence supposedly promoted largely through creative expression; film and music. On the basis of protecting morality and curtailing obscenity, he banned the public viewing of the award winning film, Rafiki (until the courts intervened) and playing of Diamond Platinum’s song Kwangaru. Mutua’s hard-line position ruled illegal by the court as contradictory to the constitutionally protected rights and freedoms of expression, association and conscience leads us to question the platform upon which he pontificates. One could argue that his actions smack of male chauvinism, misogyny, sexism and patriarchy and that his conflict with Akothee manifests the deep desire and attempt by patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic and chauvinistic systems to maintain control over women; their bodies and intellect. Akothee’s push back represents a refusal to take such patronization lying down.

Ideas of how women should behave, present and conduct themselves in public, interact and relate to others and respond to issues are defined by culture, tradition and religion. Akothee’s response to attempts to control and define how she should carry herself is deliberate. Akothee has been confronting patriarchal systemic sexism all her life. The scale of her philanthropic engagement, her use of personal resources to mobilize the public has earned her more credibility than local leaders and traditional disaster relief organizations forming a foreground to reflect on her life.

Akothee stayed in this household for seven years and bore children in annual cycles: her first born at age fourteen, the second at fifteen, the third at sixteen and the fourth at age seventeen! She lost her second child in infancy due to lack of resources to secure health care for the child.

Esther Akoth Kokeyo was born thirty-six years ago. While in Form 2, aged fourteen, she eloped with a lover and got married. Akothee does not speak about this episode in her life as a victim. Instead, she extols the romantic nature of the misadventure, even though the lover in question committed a crime of marrying an underage girl. After eloping with this man, Akothee moved in with her mother-in-law in Awendo town and in her own words, was reduced to a house-girl. Akothee states this matter-of-fact even though she was a sexually exploited fourteen-year-old girl and a child labourer. Akothee stayed in this household for seven years and bore children in annual cycles: her first born at age fourteen, the second at fifteen, the third at sixteen and the fourth at age seventeen! She lost her second child in infancy due to lack of resources to secure health care for the child. Yet she does not speak about this with any trace of bitterness or anger.

The father of her children proceeded to finish high school and university while she bore him babies. Eventually, he graduated in 2003, and they began a modest life as a married couple. A year after her husband graduated, and at 21 years old with three children, she left her mother-in-law’s place and moved to Kanga shopping centre, in Migori County to set up a business selling omena (Dagaa) to fund her return to school and cater for the upkeep of her family. In an interview, she says, “I decided to go clear my fourth form at Kanyasrega secondary school. I would drop the kids at kindergarten before proceeding to school. In the evening I would pick them up from the teacher’s house, take them home and go sell my omena for one hour.” Akothee, made a conscious decision to educate herself probably seeking to liberate herself from the control of her educated husband and his mother.

Her husband’s fortunes began to change for the better, but by age twenty three the mother of three was kicked out of her marriage for being “too boring, too hard-headed and un-romantic”. Her pursuit of academic and financial betterment meant that she no longer fitted within her former husband’s traditional ideal or stereotype of a wife; submissive, helpless and non-opinionated.

Not to be deterred, the penniless Akothee moved on to Mombasa to join her brother in running his taxi business after a stint as a matatu driver. The transport business in Kenya remains the preserve of men because the jobs therein are characterized as rowdy, risky, crude and would expose women to intrusive attention from men or even sexual abuse. Akothee went against the gendered grain by taking on this career.

While working as a taxi driver, Akothee began investing the little savings that she had. It was here that she met a man with whom she began a relationship. This relationship led to her relocation to Zurich, Switzerland with this partner and ended up with her fifth conception. The relationship did not last long, and Akothee reveals that contrary to her expectations, the man was only interested in her bearing children and not in marriage. So she left him, and flew back to Kenya. This move marks an interesting transition in Akothee’s life. She walked out of a relationship that did not guarantee her marriage – which is what she wanted, but which sought to confine her to a reproductive role. Her act of defiance to being confined to a procreative role, marked a turning point.

After returning to Kenya, Akothee launched her musical career and started making money performing music and dancing. She also began to invest in different sectors. She expanded the taxi business, ventured into tours and safaris, real estate, hotel industry and entertainment. The multiple enterprises that would see her fortunes rise dramatically had begun. Gradually, Akothee gained financial independence and autonomy challenging the notion that women only attain financial independence through affiliation to men, either by marriage or inheritance from fathers and never through hard work and investment.

Not Playing Victim

Akothee consistently refuses to depict herself as a victim of circumstances beyond her control. She reminisces her seduction and elopement at age 14 with a romanticism that could be labelled as naiveté were it not such a regular trait in her character. She does not blame her then husband for luring her into elopement. In fact, she nostalgically recalls how seductive his letters were; written on blue coloured foolscap paper. Even with hindsight, Akothee does not vilify the man. Instead, she accepts that she was going through a rebellious phase in her life taking full ownership for her decisions and the consequences of her choices.  Akothee got repeatedly pregnant, but she blames neither her mother-in-law nor her husband. She has repeatedly warned her daughters against falling for similar tricks from men. “Men don’t really mean what they whisper in your ears when they need sex, that time they are lost. Let them do the theory, practicals is in your hands”.

Akothee has been categorical that what she did was stupid and by taking ownership of her mistakes, she empowers herself to use her error of judgment as lessons. She does not privilege her husband and give him power over her. About her husband having ‘abandoned’ his role she says, “Okello is my sweetheart. He was my first boyfriend. Wherever you are, daddy, we are proud of you. You see, your daughter is at Strathmore…You must come and pat me on the back”. Her ex-husband is irrelevant as she tells her own story of folly.

The modern African feminist discourse around sexuality decries the power and control that customs and traditions had over the woman’s body, social and sexual norms. In the traditional African reading, there was a high value placed on ‘real womanhood’ (read: motherhood) and sexual purity. This led to a high level of policing of a woman’s sexuality by her parents, society and religious institutions. The woman’s reproductive role was privileged above all else. The ability to conceive and bear a child was critical to assuming the status of ‘mother of’ which is the preferred term of respect for a mother. Many traditional societies revered virginity and the loss of virginity on the first night of marriage was apparently a great honour to the bride’s family.

Conversely, if a woman had lost her virginity beforehand, the act brought shame and stigma. A woman’s sexual and reproductive rights are controlled by patriarchal cultural norms and while extramarital sexual relationships are considered normal for men the idea of a woman’s ‘infidelity’ is remains a major infraction. These rights are controlled and negotiated through their relationships with her male relations and her in-laws. Women, thus have very little power to decide and fully express their sexual rights and sexuality.

Modern African feminism has correctly called out this enforced powerlessness as an element of domination, and decried acquiescence to this domination as an implicit acceptance of this power over the women’s body. In the prevalent patriarchal cultures and religions, the sexual and reproductive rights of a women is highly regulated. The issue of abortion for instance is not in women’s hands. The whole question of access to FP (Family Planning) is another illustrative point. Poverty compounds female sexuality and there is a greater loss of control because money is used as a means to control female sexuality. Thus the manner of her dressing, her presentation and how she expresses sexuality and sensuality must fit within these confines or she is deemed to have crossed the line. This privileging of tradition and culture as well as its agents, parents, fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, patriarchal leaders would keep a woman forever in chains fashioned by the perception of what is right, decent and allowed by tradition and culture.

At the height of the brouhaha over a controversial performance, and before the revelation that her parents were indeed present at the show, critics questioned whether she would mount such a ‘shameful’ performance in front of her father. After it emerged that her father actually supports her art in totality, he received backlash for ‘condoning such immorality’.

Akothee’s reluctance to accept or blame cultural and traditional institutions for her multiple pregnancies and births, her images of sexuality and her redefining how she relates to her father (who would represent traditional cultural authority) for instance, is a push back to traditionally defined identities for women. Akothee asserts that her father supports her full heartedly. At the height of the brouhaha over a controversial performance, and before the revelation that her parents were indeed present at the show, critics questioned whether she would mount such a ‘shameful’ performance in front of her father. After it emerged that her father actually supports her art in totality, he received backlash for ‘condoning such immorality’. Here again, sexual and body taboo associated with the female body comes up. The argument being that it is inconceivable that a ‘decent daughter’ could perform in a sexually provocative outfit in the presence of her father.

Akothee relationship with her father serves to re-define cultural norms in a radical way; her interaction with her father clearly re-demarcates the daughter/father and performer/audience dichotomy.

Multiple pregnancies and births resulting from the lack of choice is usually framed as arising from powerlessness, but not in Akothee’s case. She has controversially stated that making babies is her hobby, and at one point tweeted that she wanted to ‘give her lover’ triplets. Akothee’s attitude towards child-bearing runs counter intuitive to the idea that by giving birth multiple times a woman’s body is exploited. Akothee extends this re-definition to single-motherhood. Akothee has fashioned herself as a proud single parent calls herself, ‘President of Single mothers’ re-calibrating the public perception of single motherhood hitherto filled with stigma. Akothee makes no apology for having had children with three different men. The reality is that men who have children with multiple women ado not suffer stigma, while women do.

Single mothers have fought for official recognition of their children by the biological fathers, in the case of inheritance and the provision of child support. In March 2019, the High Court ruled that Kenyan children ‘born out of wedlock’ can now inherit a father’s property. This marks a major victory for those who have been seeking equal rights for children of single mothers in a case filed by the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA) and a single mother of two. In Akothee’s case, this seems to be the least of her priorities. Akothee’s crusade seems to gravitate around normalizing the role of single motherhood and proving that children of single mothers are in no way disadvantaged.

Her unapologetic expression of agency, independence, and self-control of her life as well as her destiny might be the reason that Akothee raises so much opprobrium. The cause of disagreement between her and the archconservatives is her resistance to the ideals of Victorian ethics. The state embodies a subjective cultural norm premised on the idea of a ‘decent ‘and ‘moral’ woman who behaves and dresses in a prescribed manner. Mutua’s expressed discomfiture with Akothee’s dressing is probably informed by the idea that a woman, mother of grown up girls to wit, should not wear revealing clothes.

The inordinate sexualisation of the female body even when she is a performer as Akothee is, betrays a lopsided sense of morality that reveals gender bias and sexism. It is interesting that even the woman who were defending Akothee’s right to dress as she pleased, could only reference non-African music icons as comparisons. Akothee’s defenders challenged Mutua to take note of the mode of dressing by performers like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga or Aguilera. There were no African performers mentioned. Globalised culture has not embraced African aesthetics and as a result, the African female performer is inclined to imitate standards set by western cultural icons.

Gender and feminism discourse critique exposes the flaws of the notion held that women sabotage their own upward mobility. The predominant social script states that female envy and jealousy is responsible for women’s lot in life, and that cat-fights are second nature. The unspoken logic therefore, is that keeping women from advancing is actually good for them, it is self-preserving because it prevents them from cannibalizing each other. Akothee challenges this stereotype in her description of her relationship with her mother-in-law. She has described living under trying circumstances with her mother-in-law for seven years, during which time she even lost a child. However, she does not have a negative word for her mother-in-law.

Akothee’s quest for self-identity and freedom from being seen as an appendage of a man, or a culturally defined female identity – a wife, mother, daughter – is at the core of her conflict with those who abrogate to themselves the role of defining the role and place of women. Akothee argues that she is nobody’s role model and this can only be read as a rejection of the patriarchal definition of roles for the ‘decent’and perfect woman and mother. Since she is the mother of post-teenage daughters she is traditionally supposed to behave as a ‘mother-in-law’ and set an example to her daughters of how decent women are supposed to behave. This value system is biased against women. Fathers of sons of similar age are not expected to serve as role models to male children who are socially sanctioned to be unruly and mischievous.

Akothee demands freedom that will liberate women from oppressive culturally defined roles. Akothee rejects the sexist desire to control women through the sanction of shame. In 2012 during a performance in Istanbul, Madonna pulled down her bra and revealed a nipple and flashed her butt. Previously during the 2003 VMAs she had kissed pop stars Britney Spears and Christine Aguilera.  Madonna performed using Christian and Hindu religious iconography while simulating sex and masturbation on stage. She even got the Vatican threaten to boycott Pepsi products after her highly controversial performance in the soft-drinks ad. Yet Madonna has argued that her performances are actually challenges against male domination. In her own words she says, “It just fits right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities’. It is hard to miss the parallels between Akothee and Madonna. Madonna has rallied against sexism while still proving to be highly successful as a performer and financial success.

Akothee has had to deal with those who delegitimize her wealth by attributing the source of her wealth to a male partner – stopping short of declaring her a commercial sex-worker.

At the height of media attention over her net worth, Akothee’s manager clarified that contrary to media reports that she was worth 600 million, the figure was actually 6.2 Billion Kenya Shillings. The attainment of financial independence by a woman, is yet another element that puts a woman at odds with sexist ideology. Such a woman has power that challenges patriarchal power structures. In the wake of the recent famine and food shortage in Turkana, Akothee who revealed that she had spent some of her early years in that region and therefore considers it ‘home’ mobilized resources and delivered emergency food relief to the starving residents while the government dithered and denied the obvious. In typical Akothee fashion, she showed up in Turkana dressed in traditional garb women as if to dare those who have criticised her adornments as non-African and disrespectful. Her image, juxtaposed to that of Nairobi Governor Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi trailed by a commando styled body guard, spoke volumes in regards to empathy and appropriateness. Many on social media posed the rhetorical question whether her philanthropic gesture did not indeed tally with that of a perfect role model.

Akothee has had to deal with those who delegitimize her wealth by attributing the source of her wealth to a male partner – stopping short of declaring her a commercial sex-worker. Akothee herself says, “I have had to struggle for everything: it’s not easy. I get so many burnouts. I didn’t just wake up from a sponsors bed with millions of shillings in my bank account. You really have to grab every opportunity with both hands, whether it’s an interview, your job or a business.”

The image of helplessness and dependence is so ingrained that any woman showing financial capacity, and as in the case of Akothee and flaunting her wealth is deemed to be un-womanly. A man can flaunt his wealth (as Sonko does) but a woman who has wealth should be humble and at best invisible. Akothee goes against the script because she displays her wealth.

Akothee is not your typical proponent from the mainstream African feminist movement. She does not have has middle class background. She is not an intellectual, nor does she possess academic pedigree. She is not a political figure, neither does she belong to civil society, but if we are to use Naomi Nkealah’s definition of African Feminism, Akothee has sought to create a new liberal productive and self-reliant African woman within the heterogeneous cultures of Africa. Her struggle against entrenched sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, male chauvinism and moral correctness challenges culture as it affects the perception of woman in Africa. In this regard, Akothee is indeed a role model.

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