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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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.
Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.
Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.
After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’
What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’
Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.
The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.
‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’
Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’
Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.
After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.
Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.
On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.
Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.
But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.
As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.
Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.
‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’
In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’
Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’
Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.
Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.
Our Words Must Count
Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.
On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.
That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”
Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.
How is this contradiction possible?
I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.
This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.
The violence of language
These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.
Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.
Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.
When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.
It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:
When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak
When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made
When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge
When we question, we are ungrateful
When we lament, we’re not providing solutions
When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable
When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals
When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence
When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility
When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally
When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution
When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others
When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves
The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think
But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?
What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?
These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.
This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.
“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”
In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.
Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?
Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:
- Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
- Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
- Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.
These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.
As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.
Our words must count
The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.
Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?
Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.
The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.
So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?
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