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Religion and Politics: The Devil Is in the Details

12 min read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture

Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society

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

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

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

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

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

The evolution of digital tea and receipts

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

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

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

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

The rise of online ‘tabloids’

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

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

Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we love and loathe tabloids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gossip as a function of power

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

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

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

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

Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of Kenya’s grapevine 

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

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

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

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Culture

The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema

In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?

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With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.

The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.

African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.

In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.

Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”

For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.

Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra KaiThe Karate KidAmerican History XThe Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The MercenaryThe African DoctorThe Boy Who Harnessed the WindTsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.

Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and  editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.

There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.

Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.

Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.

On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.

As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.

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

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

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

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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