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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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Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications scholar and cultural activist. He is also an award winning playwright and social commentator. He has been involved in various struggles for social and political reform.

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Black Bodies and Black Flesh: A Story in Four Parts

What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”

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Black Bodies and Black Flesh: A Story in Four Parts
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Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Equal Justice Initiative
Multimedia: Montgomery, Alabama

Written on the body
Stage play: Andia Kisia

Heavy
Non-fiction, memoir: Kiese Laymon

Lusala
Film: Silas Miami, Wanjeri Gakuru, Oprah Oyugi. Story mentor: Mbithi Masya

The film Lusala (directed by Mugambi Nthiga) begins with a child being woken up by his drunk father, who forces him to dance as the father sings circumcision songs. The child, Lusala, dances grimly as his father sings and berates him for not knowing the song, and strikes the table menacingly with his bakora to keep the beat. The child cannot know the songs that are sung to make boys into men; he is still a boy. But the father sings his surly song and strikes the table again and again; the scene ends the way we know it will – with that bakora being used to strike the child’s body, a painful end to a painful song.

***

A few months ago, I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a beautiful spring day in March. The sun was shining and warm, the air was still. The sky seemed impossibly blue and perfect.

The museum and memorial are two separate but related sites – the former is an indoor museum located in a former warehouse that was used to hold enslaved people; it chronicles the harrowing story of black people in America from slavery, to racial terror, segregation and mass incarceration. The memorial, on an outdoor, six-acre site atop a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, memorializes more than 4,400 black men, women and children that were shot, hung, burned alive, drowned by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.

We — me, and the friend I was with – began by walking through the museum. He is black, American, and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, about 300km north of Montgomery. We looked at the notices for slave auctions and newspaper advertisements for the sale of human beings. We read the numerous humiliating laws that made blackness a stain on public spaces, and regulated the most mundane things in the Jim Crow Era, from beaches to billiard tables. We saw the soil that had been collected from sites where people had been lynched, displayed in jars on a shelf – red, brown, and black soil, Abel crying out for justice from the ground.

We got to the memorial, where a statue installation of a black family in chains designed by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is the first thing that confronts you. It had begun to rust, rivulets of bloody-looking ferric oxide running off the statue. We walked through the 800 steel columns hanging from the roof, each representing a county where a lynching had taken place, the names of the lynched engraved on the columns. They were intended to simulate black bodies swinging in the southern breeze – as Billie Holiday would have put it – and by this time I was thankful that this was outdoors or I might not have been able to breathe. The sky was now like a blanket, bright and blue and suffocating. But I knew I had to hold myself back from tears or breaking down, for I was there with a black American from Alabama. If I was shattering inside, how much more painful would it be for him, looking at places and histories he knew much more intimately.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice - Montgomery Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice – Montgomery Alabama. Photo – Flickr/shawncalhoun

At the end of the day, after a dinner of shrimp and grits at a restaurant across the road from the museum, I went to bed at 7.30pm. I was exhausted, a different kind of fatigue, one that both comes from the bones and settles on them, and sleep is a small comfort for 400 years of historical and ongoing terror that has taken hold of the body.

The next morning, we went to visit his family in Huntsville, he joked that this little country town was surely nothing like Nairobi city, and I half-agreed – in my eyes it was far too sprawling and sparsely populated to be a city. We played Cornhole, a kind of beanbag tossing game, with his family – his mother, brother and grandparents – in their backyard as the sun went down, and my embarrassing lack of hand-eye coordination threatened to make my team lose badly.

***

Oppression is written on the body. Just like those three hours in Montgomery made me feel like I had run a marathon, every act of political exclusion, judicial injustice, and intentional impoverishment leaves its mark on the body. Some marks are visible, like Lusala’s as a child at the hands of his violent father. Some are invisible, like later in Lusala’s life when physical scars have healed, but the fear has found a permanent place to live in his mind, until he eventually has a mental breakdown. Even so, the line between his mental state and his body are not clear-cut: Lusala’s terrors live in his body, manifested in frequent bed-wetting. By the end of the film, one realizes that his experiences cannot simply be described as “hallucinations” – they are real, at least as real as the violence and trauma he has suffered in his life. And Brian Ogola, who plays Lusala as an adult, inhabits these tragedies with devastating clarity – even the most fleeting look on his face speaks to so much that cannot bear to be spoken aloud.

Andia Kisia’s stage play Written On The Body, a collection of vignettes uncovering Kenya’s national traumas from the colonial moment to the present day, then turns our attention to the way these terrors can live in a body politic, the brutalization of an entire nation. In this way, Lusala and Written On The Body are in conversation – and coincidentally (or not), both directed by Mugambi Nthiga – speaking to each other and both exploring, in their own particular ways, Francis Imbuga’s famous quote, “When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”

It is not enough to say that Lusala is mentally ill, that he has anxiety or paranoia or psychosis. He is, instead, the solitary mind that the madness of this entire nation has taken residence. Lusala is all of us – all our pain, trauma, and catastrophe – which Written On The Body forces us to look at ourselves, and trace the outlines of this collective brokenness.

Written On The Body tells us that Kenya is an on-going war zone, with bodies, minds and spirits of its people the daily casualties. Still, in Kisia’s subtle rendering, Kenyan-ness is something tart rather than bitter, a junction where bleak nihilism sometimes takes a turn into dark humour. In one memorable scene, Kisia places a pair of pathologists – they might be medical examiners or mortuary attendants – at City Mortuary in the days and nights following the attempted coup in 1982. Bodies are coming in faster than the two (exceptionally played by Elsaphan Njora and Charity Nyambura) can process them, and they devise a way to quickly figure out some identifying characteristics for these anonymous cadavers.

It goes exactly where you think it’s going, for we are a country where tribal stereotypes are an instant shorthand for reading bodies – this one is too dark to be a Kamba, and this one is too well-dressed to be a Kisii – but by the time the scene ends in a phallic joke, circumcision making its grim return, the audience’s laughter had turned into embarrassment, even shame – is this what we have become?

***

Like Written On The Body, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy traces these same threads, of what happens to bodies when violence becomes the air we breathe. It is set in the Deep South, the place of strange fruit swinging in the southern breeze, whose painful story is ground zero for the memorial atop that hill in Montgomery.

Laymon, today a professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, tells the story of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi at the hands of a loving and complicated family, where love hurts and also heals, and it is difficult to see where one scar ends and the other begins.

But Laymon’s book goes further than I’ve seen a memoir go, especially one that inhabits and explores black masculinity. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak—a hard man.”

Laymon is not a hard man. His vulnerability, his fear and weakness are real in Heavy, they are literally written on his body – the scars on his body from childhood beatings, in the stress eating, in the 300lbs (135kg) he carries on his body while still a teenager, in the starvation he forces himself to undergo until he faints from lack of food, in the obsessive running that shatters his joints. The body is the site, the agent and the victim.

Still, what we may call vices, addictions or traumas – sexual violence, gambling, alcohol and drug addictions, eating disorders, broken relationships – are, in Laymon’s telling, scenes of tenderness. And by this I mean that he renders the story of black existence tenderly, with sensitivity and kindness, and that the stories themselves are tender – they are raw, inflamed, bruised, still bleeding.

Ultimately, the story in Heavy is that life is complicated, that it is a combination of multiple entanglements “that are so interwoven that it is easier to discard the entire box of tangled threads than to spend the time untangling them,” as C. Leigh McInnis, author and instructor of English at Jackson State University, described Heavy in this review. “[Laymon] provides a process of healing by showing that the first thing that people must do is realize just how multifactorial their hellish lives are and, then, realize that those multifactorial elements can be separated and analyzed even if the process is laborious.”

And so, Laymon gives us a scalpel to do this necessary, heavy work, which, although is inevitably painful, it can at the very least be precise.

***

What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”

These are the questions that Lusala, Written on the Body, Heavy and the Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice are asking us to confront, in their own particular yet related ways. Together, they present blackness, black corporeality, black existence – both in Africa and in the African Diaspora – as a site of great struggle, with some victories, but the struggle is ubiquitous, it is continuous, it is cosmic, it is seemingly eternal.

Over the three months that I watched, read and experienced the four works cited in this essay, I also listened to theologian and writer J. Kameron Carter present blackness as something else – a site of true spirituality. In a podcast recorded at Fuller Theological Seminary, Carter presents blackness as a kind of spiritual practice, the forms of life together created at the bottom of slave ships where black bodies are forced to be in contact, in the fields where a “violent arithmetic” reduces them to items on a balance sheet. Yet it is these spaces that are the possibility for alternative practices of the sacred.

In Carter’s reading, blackness as practiced in community always open, always accommodating, there’s always room for one more at the table, and this is how black communities survive – before Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, they welcomed him to join them for bible study, and later he said that the warm welcome he received almost made him not go through with the shooting.

This openness makes black communities vulnerable to infiltration, sabotage and attack, but also, paradoxically, makes them impossible to eliminate completely, because they are always renewing themselves in community, together, even through the forced intimacies enforced upon black bodies. “It is a kind of sociality that presumes embrace, not protection,” says Carter, “If there’s any self-defence for blackness is that it keeps on loving, which is why it can’t be killed… which is, in some curious way, a kind of self-defence.”

In other words, the vulnerability and finitude of individual bodies (in Greek, soma), is transfigured in and through community into the messy, unbounded, resilience of the flesh (in Greek, sarx). Blackness is more like flesh than it is like body, as Carter sees it, where flesh is a mode of material life where we are composed in relationship to each other, like compost. “Compost is a number of things put together. You can’t say compost is this, and not that – compost is compositional, it is many things put together…Blackness is like flesh in that way, it is always in touch with everything else, it is unbordered and non-exclusionary.”

This, as painful as it is, is true spiritual practice – a possibility of life together that makes something beautiful from the rubble, from the disaster around us. I was thinking about this on that perfect day in March as I laughed and played Cornhole in the embrace of a family I had just met in Alabama, until my wrist, in fact, my body, gave out.

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Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species

Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol faced numerous rejections from publishers before the collection was eventually published in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success. Yet, over 50 years since Okot’s encounter, poetry still appears at the bottom of the publishers’ priority list.

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Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species
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A friend, Evelyne Ongogo, a budding poet who had an anthology of her poems titled, ‘Dichol and Other Poems’ and ‘Breaking the Burdens’ published by non-mainstream publishers a few years back, sent me two of her latest anthologies titled, ‘The eye of the smiling sun’ and ‘Beautiful shards of the maiden pot’. Both these collections are published by what we would call fringe publishers – this could be a euphemism for self-publishing. I read the three collections and was struck by the quality of the writing. However, a nagging thought refused to melt away; the fringe publishing company. I wondered about poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing. I stopped to reflect on the last time a major publishing house operating in Kenya had released an anthology of poetry.

A few weeks later, I attended a function where two poets, Adipo Sidang’ the author of Parliament of Owls an eclectic collection of poems shared the stage with the most amazing Ugandan writer, Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, a novel compiled from a series of social media messages, phone conversations and thoughts. It is as radical as they come. Both these artists read from their works and performed from the corpus of their work. Adipo’s declamatory performance contrasted Mugabi’s sombre reflections, yet both were powerful rendition of poems. This awakened nagging thoughts on poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing.

Speaking to Adipo after the conclusion of the event, he referenced his own experience and let out a tirade about the difficulty of publishing poetry in Kenya.   His frustration was obvious as he described the encounter with the mainstream publishers who flatly refused to even consider his work. Having faced so much rejection, he had virtually given up on the idea of publishing, yet when his work found a sympathetic eye to read even he was surprised that the verdict was that it was extraordinary.   His collection was published through an initiative supported by the Goethe Institute – not a mainstream publisher.   These tribulations reminded me of Okot p’Bitek’s frustrations when he first tried to get Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol published. After many rejections, he eventually published the collection in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success and it has been said that many publishers who rejected the manuscripts regretted their poor judgement. Okot’s encounter with the publishers was over fifty years ago, but it seemed that the script remains. The poetry publishing terrain has not changed? “Poetry and Drama” Adipo Sidang’ declared, “occupy the bottom of the priority pile of the overly commercial minded Kenyan publishers.   Unless a book is likely to end up among the set-books recommended by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development that will result in huge sales , they will not publish it”.

Death of Language

Publishers, have over the years been accused of focusing on profit and sacrificing the artistic and cultural importance of creative expression. Poetry seems to have suffered more than all the other literary genres. In the foreword of Dichol, the late Professor Christopher Lukorito Wanjala, the renown literary critic who taught in Kenyan Universities for over forty years, wrote his reflection on poetry: ‘We wondered whether poetry was still read, enjoyed and appreciated, by secondary school students. We concluded that poetry is too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation.”

Why would the late literature don doubt the position occupied by poetry in the secondary school language and literature syllabus? This is especially intriguing, because he reiterates the essential position poetry occupies among the corpus of literature genres in the learning of language.   Professor Wanjala must have been alluding to a past era when secondary students read and enjoyed poetry as an integral part of learning of English language. Literature, is creative expression of a language, and as such, is a product of mastery and competence in that language. Literature is to language what algebra is to numbers.   Whereas one can speak a language enough to get away with it, consuming, appreciating and enjoying (and creating) the literature created in a language is akin to the numeric ability and competence used in solving algebraic equations. It goes beyond simple addition, subtraction and multiplication.   It follows, that if secondary school students are not reading, enjoying and appreciating literature and poetry, their mastery of the language, any language, is stunted at its most will remain at the rudimentary level.

If there was recognition of the primacy of literature in the teaching of language, and poetry being among the genres of literature, why would it be that the production of material for the learning and enjoyment of poetry be considered a non-commercially viable enterprise? Could it be that the importance attached to linguistic dexterity that the good professor alluded to, is lost on us?

Recently, a letter purportedly written by a University student leader went viral on social media. Though the subject of the memo was tragic, a student at that university had been shot dead by thugs during a robbery, what caused consternation was the poor language and paucity of grammar sense in the memo. Many commentators were left wondering how a university-level student could write such an incomprehensible memo. To be fair to the student, there were some who did not understand what the fuss was all about!!

The tragic inability of this student to express himself raised questions surrounding standards of English in our education system. The fact that English is the only language of instruction in our education system elevated this concern to crisis level. Was this student able to understand what was being taught and how would he respond to his examiners. Returning to poetry one could ask, with this kind of limited language could this student actually read, enjoy and appreciate poetry?

The crafting of a memo might not be considered a literary exercise, but it calls for one to utilise language creatively in order to communicate a message. In that process of communication, an individual uses a distinct style and voice, they chose their words carefully to create the desired impact. The tone of the memo, in this case announcing the demise of a fellow student, should have conveyed the solemnity of the message.   The gravity of the student leader’s appeal to the institution’s administration to do something to ensure the security of the student body should have been contained in the choice of words. Stylistics, is the study of distinctive styles found in literary expression and even a memo such as the one referenced here, was roundly criticised because it was subjected to a stylistic analysis. Herein lies the reason for Professor Wanjala’s lament. The skill to read, enjoy and appreciate writing is taught through literature and more so in poetry. Neglect of poetry in particular, and literature in general, is likely to result in the production of a generation that is ‘word deaf’ or those who cannot understand nuance and word-play. They will not ‘get it’ and what happens to one who goes through life totally at sea regarding things around them?

Poetry taught one to understand meaning that is stated and implied, it taught one to be a ‘wordsmith’ to know when irony, satire, hyperbole and sarcasm are in use. Figurative and colourful language, including proverbs are used in poetry and, as Chinua Achebe taught us, proverbs (and indeed other figurative language) are the palm-oil with which words are eaten! Will this generation not suffer from communication indigestion?

The Hollywood movie titled, Green Book bagged several awards at this year’s Oscar awards. The anti-racism storyline carries a powerful message about intrinsic human nature, and the power of friendship. It tells the story of an unemployed working class Italian-American bouncer who, out of desperation, takes up a job as a driver/bodyguard to a brilliant African American classical pianist traversing the American South in the 60s. This is at the height of the American Civil rights campaigns and racial segregation and lynching was rife. The reversed race roles of Black master and White subordinate ignite the initial spark in a movie that is loaded with nuances. The race stereotype-based assumptions in the movie abound, as expected, but the most fascinating interaction between Merhashala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, playing Don Shirley and Tony Lip respectively, happens when Shirley, the African American, coaches the barely literate clueless white driver how to compose a love letter. Tony’s vocabulary bank is totally overdrawn, he being a man accustomed to using his fist. His distressed attempts at communicating his feelings and emotions to his wife are salvaged by Shirley who injects linguistic flair and poetry into the letters. After much coaching, Tony eventually, catches on and is able to express his feelings and emotions to his wife in poetic language. His letters cause a sensation back at home among the womenfolk unused to such elevated highfalutin expression. When Tony returns from his work-trip, he is welcomed by an extremely elated and charmed spouse, totally enamoured by his communication. Without the benefit of a formal poetry lesson, Tony is walked through a stylistic course at the end of which he is able to read, enjoy, appreciate and create poetry and when he does he is the better for it. Tony’s poetry results in a revolution within and without.

Complexity

Poetry has had the reputation of being ‘hard’ and in his allusion to the threat of ‘oversimplification’ Professor Wanjala acknowledges that poetry has by nature to be complex. At the same time, he applauds the late poet Okot p’Bitek for simplifying poetry and making it more accessible. Wanjala, must have been making a distinction between simplification in terms of form, but not the complexity of the thoughts and feelings expressed via poetry. Many who went through poetry lessons were scarred to the bone, especially by the likes of poets like the late Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka who took pride in writing esoteric poetry that was supposedly for the initiated and select few and not the masses. Deciphering their works was like solving algebraic problem. One could argue that complicated language used just for its own sake, does not support the need for communication. However, there are critics like Horace Goddard in a review of Interpreters, considered to be among the most obscure of Soyinka’s work in prose, who assert that the complexity in Soyinka’s language was reflective of the complicated issues bedevilling Nigeria. In order to express these issues, he had to coin a language that could capture the complexity. He also argues that when a non-native speaker is using an adopted language there is the challenge of appropriating a language enough to give it a distinct identity other than the original. In this case Soyinka’s English must be distinct from that of any other native English speaker. Could the ‘difficultness’ of poetry be the reason that it has repelled secondary school readers and hence it’s a case of the enemy within?

Many who studied language and literature in the days that Prof Wanjala nostalgically refers to, will recall that the literary genres were handled separately: prose – usually represented by the novels or short stories, drama and poetry. Poetry stood out and retained a certain alien quality, even though there were African and Kenyan poets writing. Whereas the novel was domesticated early, and publishers embraced African novelists and provided them a publishing platform, the same opportunity was not accorded poetry and drama. Poetry actually fared less favourably among the neglected siblings. A casual look at the published works under the African Writers Series set up by Heinemann Educational Books Limited the leading publishers of literary work by Africans at that time, demonstrates the bias.   For every poetry collection published, there are twenty extended prose works. Drama does not fare any better. Could this bias have originated from the colonial hangover that concluded that the extended prose form was easily identifiable as an African art and literary form more akin to African storytelling – with a higher chance of commercial success – as compared to poetry and drama? Would it be plausible to speculate that this racist notion actually informed the commercial decision that saw publishing opening up for novelist and not poets? Could the bias against poetry that Adipo Sidang’ recounted a few weeks ago actually have begun well in the sixties? When we reflect on the ground-breaking work by Okot p’Bitek this speculation gains some traction.

Quality versus Quantity

Okot’s attempts to get published by the mainstream publishers faced headwinds. It was difficult to convince publishing houses that Song of Lawino fitted the narrow definition a poem, especially because Okot had called it ‘Wer pa Lawino’ and ‘song’ was not considered a literary genre. This was even though there were western ‘songs’ like Odyssey and Iliad by Homer. Wer, was maybe considered too simple in form.   What Wanjala considered its strength, was probably seen as the one feature that excluded it from consideration.   Okot’s poem has been hailed as among the most lucid discourses on the process of deculturalisation of the African by western education and religion. Professor Andrew Gurr, who served as head of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and Okot p’Bitek’s colleague in an inaugural lecture, analysed Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol and explained how they articulated the theme of cultural conflict with deep insight. He went on to compare Okot’s poem to other post-colonial writing and accorded it plaudits as high as other celebrated works. Wanjala recognises Okot for having launched an African poetry tradition in print with his Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. He recognises Evelyne Ongogo, among others, for keeping aflame the song tradition, and he celebrates her for demystifying poetry as an art form and rekindling the interest in African poetry.   Professor Wanjala draws a line between oversimplification and demystification and identifies the former as a threat. He says, ‘We concluded that poetry was too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation’.

My discussion with Adipo Sidang’ explored the role played by social media in the ‘publication’ of poetry. He acknowledged that because publishers had shunned poetry, poets retreated to the blogosphere. This alternative platform is wonderful for poets to share their work, but Sidang’, like Professor Wanjala, acknowledged that this free forum poses a serious challenge of quality. While the great thing is that there is an outlet for free expression, there are many blogs where what passes as poetry would not pass the test of quality. There is a notion that poetry can exist devoid of any standards of quality.   Austin Bukenya, among the foremost poets and teachers avers that, ‘a good poem is made up of a competent fusion of strong feelings and well-structured expression’. The latter part of this definition is most important, ‘well-structured expression’ especially in the face of the proliferation of ‘free verse’ on the social media platforms. Experimentation is fine, but anything done for its own sake defeats the purpose.   Free verse is not formless verse; it endeavours to creatively establish its own patterns that best suits what the poet is trying to communicate. When words are thrown together helter-skelter simply to achieve a rhyming or rhythmical effect it results in the oversimplification that Professor Wanjala lamented. Poems, are not simply about rhyme and rhythm, though these elements are crucial for performance poetry.

Performance and Poetic Roots

Performance poetry has a long tradition in Africa, and indeed Okot’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol actually are, or are crafted on the template of traditional Acoli song performance. The Spoken word has emerged as a unique genre within poetry and its growth has been fuelled by the ‘open mic’ tradition that allowed poets to present their poems to a live audience. In the 80s the universities popularised ‘Poetry Nite’ where any poet was free to present their poems to the student body. This is the period of state paranoia and being found with ‘subversive literature’ was the easiest way of ending up as a state guest. Oral performance of political protest poetry caught on as an unintended consequence. Thankfully, it was before the days of mobile phones with video recording capability with which evidence of subversion’ could have been captured.   Bold original poems were recited, enjoyed and appreciated.

The ‘open mic’ sessions were highly influenced by the African American and Jamaican spoken word artist like Mutaburuka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gill Scott Heron and others. These spoken word traditions were heavily influenced by the musical tradition – mainly reggae, soul, blues and jazz and used word play, intonation and voice inflection to communicate. The soul of performance poetry, and spoken word, lies in the musical and lyrical poetic tradition. In our case it seems like many of the artists performing poetry and spoken word have tried to borrow these ‘foreign’ traditions hence are unable to adequately manipulate them. The result is the free verse that Bukenya describes as a travesty.

The Swahili language ‘Ngonjera’ poetic tradition provides a model upon which Kenyan performance poetry can be authentically modelled. Ngonjera is a call-response poetic performance with two opposing sides of a group, or single performers engaging in a battle of wits and rhyme tackling any emerging issue. One performer poses a question or challenge and the other answers as much wit as possible. However, to date the tradition has not evolved, remaining relatively monotonous, but offers great potential for evolving into a rich form of poetry presentation. A more complicated oral poetic form is the Gichaandi – a traditional Gikuyu oral poetry recitation that uses proverbs and riddles and can be performed by one or by two contesting Gichaandi performers in ‘burn out’ format. The loser among the duo is the one who faces a challenge that they are unable to respond to, or respond in manner that is deemed to be inarticulate. The Gichaandi art form is among those that can be described as dying and so is Khuswala Kumuse performed among the Bukusu.

Khuswala is recited as part of the funeral rites of a great departed individual.   The recitation details the lineage and history of the departed individual and his history with time, the experts in oral history are dying off and the art form is becoming rarer even as western tradition slowly edge out the traditional Bukusu culture.   Among the Luo funeral dirges, sigiiya are among the most resilient. These are usually individual performances unaccompanied by instruments and poetically express the relationship between the mourner and the deceased and also encapsulates the loss experienced by their departure.

This sample of oral poetry traditions is by no means exhaustive. The young generation of poets that Professor Wanjala is afraid might end up oversimplifying poetry could do well to research into these forms and use them as a model. Building a critical mass of consumers of poetry, will convince publishers that a market could be cultivated for poetry. The responsibility of convincing publishers, who are investors like any other and would like to put their investment where there is return, lies with the current crop of poets. The challenge that social media poses is that of ensuring that quality prevails.   There are those who would argue that the market forces will determine high quality because it will rise to the top.   However, the challenge remains, that if literature is not being taught, and especially stylistics, then the consumer will be unable to read, enjoy and appreciate poetry and that way the vicious cycle that has condemned poetry to the bottom of the literary pile will prevail and so will the quality of language.

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Decolonising Conservation: It Is About the Land, Stupid!

The perpetual colonial project has miseducated us that conservation is about wildlife, while it is actually about our land, our heritage, our culture, our languages, our beliefs…it is about US.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies
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I was among the small number of people fortunate enough to attend the meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York City in April. I approached it with an open mind eager to learn all sorts of new lessons from the proceedings and realized that the most valuable lessons I learned were actually outside the packed meeting agenda.

A typical encounter on my first day at the UN Headquarters often followed these lines – “Hello, where are you from?”

“ I’m from Kenya”.

“Really? What community? Maasai? Ogiek? Sengwer?”

I hasten to remind my compatriots at this point that the ethnic origins of the name ‘Ogada’ aren’t as obvious to someone from Russia or the Far East as they are to us! For an ‘outsider’, the UNPFII meeting is like a trip back to elementary school, where the first step in everything you do is to establish your identity. On that score, we need to understand who the ‘insiders’ are:- They are representatives of indigenous (by UN definition) people from all over the world who have been involved in this meeting and its processes for a few years. They are distinguished by their colourful attire and adornments, the familiar banter with other delegates and for the confident manner in which they move around the extraordinarily complicated layout of the UN conference building. As an African attending this meeting in a technical capacity, I was a member of a very small minority

I was invited to this meeting in New York by the UN rapporteur on indigenous issues to give a technical assessment of the negative impacts of conservation on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples. This invitation was extended after I gave a harsh indictment of conservation organizations working in Kenya and the scant attention they pay to the rights of local communities in the areas where they work during the EGM (experts’ group meeting) on these issues held in Nairobi in January 2019. This initial invitation was a pleasant surprise to me, and I felt like an outsider in the rarefied atmosphere of the UN offices in Nairobi, and approached my presentation in the same uninhibited manner in which uninvited guests approach food at a banquet, not expecting a repeat invitation.

It is sad that in 2019, speaking out against injustices and corruption perpetrated by conservation interests is still anathema in Kenya and many parts of Africa. Whereas indigenous African people have taken their rightful place in all fields of human endeavor, conservation is still the one arena where we still consider ourselves subservient to any outsider and get treated accordingly. A search for experts and world authorities on any species or issues on African wildlife will invariably yield the name of a person of Caucasian extraction. A number of these ‘Africa experts’ were seated in the room as I spoke in Nairobi, and judging from the audience reactions, some of them did appreciate my candour although I admit that some looked like they were suffering aneurysms. The depth of our problem as a country was revealed when an indigenous Kenyan participant (dressed in traditional regalia to boot) referred to my presentation as ‘controversial and racist’.

Indigenous People’ Rights

Three months later in April, I was a participant at the UN headquarters New York. Overall, the meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on indigenous issues is an eye-opener to anyone who isn’t part of the ‘system’ and wonders why peoples’ resource rights are flouted with such ease in our country and other parts of Africa. I noticed that the presence of affected nations/societies is in the form of ‘indigenous people’- This is a term loosely applied to many peoples who are marginalized or oppressed in one way or another all over the world.

In Africa, and Kenya in particular, this term refers to some ethnic groups and not others, despite the fact that (in my view) all locals are indigenous to this country and are affected by resource injustices. The upshot of this is that many countries (Kenya included) end up represented by individuals chosen because of who they are or where they come from, rather than how well they can address the issues at hand.

Appearances are emphasised, and an outsider can see the weight placed on presence and attire rather than substance. As a Kenyan, I see the most harmful impact of this approach as the marginalization of views coming from people who are perceived as coming from ethnic communities who do not ‘live with wildlife’. This fits perfectly into the ‘divide and rule’ colonial narrative that pervades our entire conservation sector. Indeed, we have foreign agents and agencies in conservation trying to categorize our citizenry into groups that should or should not have opinions on conservation practice, regardless of their technical expertise (or lack thereof). From my personal experience, the only people in Kenya who have directly opposed my views about conservation practice from this ethnic perspective have been those of foreign extraction and their acolytes.

Conservation challenges vis-à-vis the rights of indigenous peoples is an exceedingly complex arena where success will most likely visit those who are best able to ‘step back’ and put the entire picture into perspective. It is not immediately apparent to the layperson why this is important, given that our media is awash with captivating stories of how millions of dollars, tens of years, indeed entire lives have been ‘dedicated’ or ‘given’ to saving a particular species in a given place. We are in a place where myths and legends sell, since the truth tends to be intellectually burdensome.

Reclaiming Indigenous Knowledge

I was however gratified to see that the UNPFII has a specific session on indigenous languages, and present at this session was a delegation from Kajiado county in Kenya discussing preservation and documentation of Maa language. There were the typical thoughts about the need to document traditions and culture. I raised a query; how are we going to preserve Maasai culture and language while as a country we are fighting pastoralism incessantly. We are killing Kenya Meat Commission, we are blocking stock routes, we are annexing and privatizing rangelands for tourism. Is there a part of Maa language or heritage that is separate from livestock rearing? Is there a part of any vernacular language that can live when separated from the homeland that gave life to it? I am glad to report that those queries changed their line of thought.

Herein lies a solution to the seemingly intractable conservation challenges we in Kenya face every day. Our system is designed to perpetuate the primitive, militarized western ‘fortress conservation’ approach that defines local people as enemies. This system was developed in the West nearly 200 years ago, and we in Kenya still follow it slavishly, down to the recent appointment of a senior military officer to head the state wildlife authority KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service). Our best option is to urgently institute a sophisticated approach that taps into indigenous African knowledge(s) of the environment on which their lives and livelihoods depended on. This is an approach that requires inputs from sociologists, economists, historians, artists, traditional leaders, amongst others. Most importantly, it requires the investment of time chiefly because the intellectual resources required to take this approach are finite, old, and battered from generations of physical and psychological neglect and suppression. How many of us in Kenya, or the rest of Africa today have the courage take this up?

Time is also the reason why this option becomes difficult for a country like Kenya to pursue. If we are honest, we will know that there is a limit to how long African peoples’ connection to their homelands can survive the relentless denigration, violence, miseducation and geographical displacement therefrom. When allowed to fester for long enough, these factors result in a culture in which self-loathing cloaks itself with puny short-term gains and masquerades as ‘success’. Anyone who doubts the potency of this violent displacement and continuous mis-education can examine its effect on recent immigrants to the West from Africa, who in a few short years, lose complete touch with the realities they grew up in. This mis-education has everything to do with conservation.

The Myth of Conservation

The perpetual colonial project has miseducated us that conservation is about wildlife, while it is actually about our land, our heritage, our culture, our languages, our beliefs…it is about US. The colonial project has taught us that conservation is about the protection of a few larger species that the foreign tourists regard as beautiful, ‘cute’, majestic, or otherwise charismatic. We (the miseducated) then take up arms and kill our brethren to ‘protect’ the beautiful places the colonists chose as venues for land and resource grabbing. I must grudgingly acknowledge the success of the perpetual colonial project, because in 2019, the Kenya Government still believes that the objective of their conservation agenda is to satisfy the needs of tourists. We still have a Ministry of ‘Tourism and Wildlife’ (headed by a minister with a tourism background) and Kenya Wildlife Service has a tourism department that dwarfs its education department because it is more important to please visitors than to educate Kenyan citizens about our heritage.

The colonial project has moved out of the formally protected areas and created new monsters called ‘wildlife conservancies’, where success is measured by the number of locals who can be persuaded, coerced or bribed with donor subsidies to give up their livelihoods, birthrights, and other forms of identity. This miasma of disenfranchisement around conservancies can be seen in a thousand tourism brochures; The picture of a moran from any of the Maa-speaking communities clad in full traditional regalia (sword included) serving drinks to scantily-clad foreign tourists lounging in a pool set in splendid isolation in the middle of his (arid) homeland against a backdrop of a conservancy from which his people and their livestock have been removed.

Let’s get back to Kajiado for a moment- One of the key issues that the Kajiado delegation had brought to the table at the UNPFII is the matter of the land occupied by Tata Chemicals Factory (otherwise known to most Kenyans as Magadi Soda Company). Since 1924, this factory was established to mine trona (soda ash) as a result of a clause in the 1911 Anglo-Maasai agreement between representatives of the two parties. I won’t get into the details of those colonial agreements, but the crux of the matter here is that trona is mined from Lake Magadi (which has an area approximately 35,000 acres), but the agreement granted these charlatans exclusive use of 225,000 acres. This basically means that they are only using 15.5% of the land they annexed from the Kajiado Maasai nearly a century ago, and there is no visible utilization of the other 84.5%. In practical terms, this means that the local population must seek permission from a foreign company to graze their animals on a vast area of their ancestral land.

The Land Question

Can the preservation of the Maasai cultural identity and indigenous language be done without restitution of the lands from which they were uprooted? Indeed, this question can be applied to any other ethnic group in the world living on indigenous land. From my experience, language (and to some extent culture) is a living medium of communication that draws from shared experiences and resources amongst a people. In Africa, we use a lot of natural resources in situ and many aspects of idioms and nuances in our vernacular languages were drawn from particular features, resources and even geographical locations. When I impressed upon my compatriots from Kajiado in New York that matters of culture, natural resources and heritage should not be pursued separately but as a whole, I was deeply gratified when they embraced this line of thought.

It therefore is a far-fetched thought that one can presume to celebrate, conserve, and value any culture or heritage while uprooting or otherwise dislodging people from their ancestral origins. It is a patent lie that these strange externally-funded and conceived creatures called ‘wildlife conservancies’ can claim to be celebrating Maa culture in the form of beadwork (which they never stop crowing about being some form of ‘empowerment’) while actively suppressing the pastoralist livestock production system in every way they can, including by force of arms. They are strangling livelihood, identity, and dignity and replacing it with penury and indentured labour. They are creating arbitrary borders across landscapes and between communities, instantly creating ‘others’ where there were none. These sorts of actions are well-documented, not in conservation literature, but in the history of Africa’s colonisation in the 19th Century.

Observers who don’t understand the complex social systems in Kenya’s rangelands will only fathom the removal of livestock in the context of intellectually and morally bankrupt tourism interests that deem these animals somehow ‘unsightly’ to tourists. This is a serious problem but let’s stick with land, which the more astute observers will realize is the issue. Resource use patterns and associated skill sets are the glue that hold African societies to their ancestral lands. For instance, as a Kenyan of Luo heritage let us for a moment imagine that our ancestral lands bordering Lake Victoria, Homa Bay, Mbita, Kisumu, Karachuonyo, Asembo, Uyoma were turned into a conservancy ‘core area’ for exclusive use by a tourism lessee. The society would face imminent collapse economically, culturally, and socially if the locals would be prohibited from exploiting the waters of Lake Victoria through fishing or sailing. In a similar vein, the rangelands are places where livestock production is not a mere livelihood that can be replaced with serving drinks at a lodge.

It is a form of identity, dignity and most of all these animals are the glue that holds pastoralist societies together and binds them to their homelands. If he didn’t have any livestock there, what would a Samburu man be doing in Kalama or Sere Olipi? What would a Maasai man be doing in Naikarra or Narosura, or Nguruman? What would a Borana man be doing in Logologo or Karare if he didn’t have any animals grazing there? The contemporary colonial project knows this, and that is why they will invest millions of dollars to dupe, threaten, coerce or otherwise convince pastoralists to give up livestock.

There is historical precedent to this strategy. I refer to one of the greatest recorded genocides that befell the Native American Nations with the arrival of the European immigrants. A crucial cog in the wheels of that machine was the complete destruction of the millions-strong herds of bison that roamed the plains. These were the Native Americans’ “livestock” on which they depended for food, clothing, fuel (from the fat) and building materials (housing units built from hides) to survive the harsh temperate winters. With the bison gone, they didn’t stand a chance. Those who survived the bullets remained in penury, stripped of their identity, power, and dignity. It isn’t vastly different in Africa today, where we face assault from heavily funded foreign pirates ‘in love’ with our country and wildlife, guns placed in the hands of our foolish brethren called ‘game scouts’ and local law enforcers being trained by foreign special forces on how best to kill us.

Conservancy Pirates

For the privateers who have the funding but cannot access sovereign state militaries, this dubious service is also offered by mercenary groups like 51 degrees, VETPAW and Trojan Group based in Kenya, the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. Most of all, the loss of our dignity and heritage is driven by the numerous local people, conservation officers, government officials and local leaders who see these problems, but still collaborate so as to enjoy some morsels from the table of donor largesse.

I have often been asked to propose ways in which we can address these ethical and existential challenges we face from this monster of prejudice and colonialism hiding under the hallowed cloak of conservation. There are a wide variety of workable approaches depending on circumstances but there are a few absolutes; Firstly, it must involve every single one of us, because it is about us, the people, not about animals, or parks, but our heritage so we must reject any labels (especially the ethnic ones) that seek to divide us for ease of control by the pirates. These labels also dehumanize our communities and reduce their rights to levels below universally accepted human rights. The State also has a part to play here- we should immediately put a stop to all armed wildlife law enforcement activities outside the structure of the two statutory organs KWS and KFS (Kenya Forest Service). These extraneous operatives are inhabiting a legal twilight zone where nothing is what it seems, or should be. The ethical and legal pitfalls are so stark and numerous, that if the State cannot see them, one would question the thinking behind defining Kenya as a sovereign state. Grant funding for wildlife law enforcement should go to KWS and anyone unwilling to channel such funding to the state agency should keep their money.

A Case for Policy Change

Next is the hardest pill to swallow. We must dismantle and discard the model of conservation developed in the West, and funded by the west to conserve for the West. This requires a radical shift from where we are. KWS at present has no policy department, cultural liaison department, no anthropologists, and sociologists- basically has no tools to deal with humans, except guns and bullets. Whenever they need to deal with the human dimensions detailed above, they have to run to the NGO pirates to lead them down the garden path. This is the door through which the colonial project is taking our homelands. The colonists driving this project are hidden in plain sight. They call themselves the Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation (http://cpicfinance.com) take time to learn the names of your interlopers. The first step in this policy direction for Kenya would be to totally and permanently remove any tourism interests from the table at which conservation policy is being discussed. They should come in and sell the products of that finished policy with the firm knowledge that it was made to serve the Kenyan people, not the tourists.

Finally, we must stop this runaway train called ‘conservancies’ until we can legally and logically define it and define its direction. Currently, it is just a well-funded train hurtling at high speed down a railway that is being built as it moves. I am calling for definition, because I know for sure that there are good ones, and the ecological, social, cultural, economic and edaphic factors surrounding these conservancies vary greatly. The NGO pirate conservancies hide behind the good ones like the fabled dog with wooden horns at the meeting of antelopes.

I’ll conclude with an update on the Magadi Soda story. The local Maasai community led by the Kajiado County Governor are aggressively demanding the restitution of their birthright and payment of outstanding land rates. Meanwhile, the pastoralist development network (PDNK) led by Michael Tiampati have petitioned the UN rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people about it. The lessees are looking increasingly cornered, so in order to escape returning the land to its original owners, they are now frantically trying to turn it into wildlife conservancies. I rest my case.

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