Are We Here Yet?
The 2011 performance at Nairobi’s The Theatre Company opens with two Mau Mau fighters stuck in Mt. Kenya forest. It is 1983. They are unaware Kenya gained independence 20 years ago. The two fighters, Mahela and Githai, re-enact the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, an annual tradition they have practiced the entire time they lived in the bush. Their enduring memory of life before this moment, is of the night they were dispatched to kill a British settler. They went as far as the white man’s bedroom, but developed cold feet. Now, 20 years later, they believe they are cursed for violating a cardinal Mau Mau oath – to kill the enemy. And are convinced that they can only get atonement by finding and killing an alternative white man.
The sound of an approaching vehicle interrupts the dreadlocked Mau Mau fighters obsessing over the oath. Two African American tourists emerge, accompanied by a white tour guide. Due the colour of his skin, Mahela and Githai decide that the tour guide is a colonialist and the accompanying African Americans his home guards – members of indigenous Kenyan communities who chose to collaborate with the British, branded traitors of the independence struggle. When the African Americans spot Mahela and Githai, they ask the tour guide whether the two-dreadlocked men are cast members for a skit and part of the entertainment package for the tourists seeking a full colonial misadventure experience. The confused tour guide mumbles a response as the two fighters presuming they are under attack, strike and capture the group. With a captive white man in their hands, Mahela and Githai debate on whether to kill him to cleanse themselves of the curse. Moments later, the two African American tourists break loose, make a sprint for the forest, and in the ensuing fracas, Githai accidentally shoots the white captive.
That performance, ‘Are We Here Yet’, marked Kenyan thespian Ogutu Muraya’s debut as a scriptwriter.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
In April 2012, a 26 year old, Ogutu woke up in his London hotel to good news. The Guardian newspaper had given the Kiswahili adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ translated by Ogutu, a Five Star rating. This was the highest accolade of any of the 37 Shakespeare performances delivered in 37 different languages at the Globe to Globe Festival – the biggest festival on Shakespeare’s works held during London’s Cultural Olympiad. Apart from translating the play, Ogutu was part of the cast and The Guardian singled him out for naughtily embodying his character, Mistress Quickly.
‘‘Such was the power of the performances, the way the cast seemed to live their lines, that the language barrier hardly mattered… the Swahili had an earthy gusto, an air of languor and sunshine that made Shakespeare’s prose seem prissy and verbose,’’ wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Gilchrist.
‘‘It ended, of course, with a dance, the crowd up on their feet clapping along as the company took their bows. A young girl sitting near me, who had been laughing throughout, was almost overcome. “To see Shakespeare in this setting, in Swahili, in England, it’s fabulous,” she said.
Ogutu and the seven cast members, including Tanzanian poet and thespian Mrisho Mpoto, who played the lead character, had left Nairobi for London on a shoe string budget. They had bought an assortment of second hand clothes for their costume, having only been able to afford proper attire for Mrisho. On arrival in London, they attended the technical rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, performed in Russian. What they saw made them decide they stood little chance at making an impression on the London audience. They had never performed in such a state of the art theatre. The group’s confidence took another hit when they attended the Maori performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. At the end of the show, the New Zealand cast performed the haka, the war dance popularized by their All Blacks rugby team.
It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that the East Africans made a lasting Five Star impression on the London audience.
DAS Graduate School
Fresh off ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ high, Ogutu submitted an application to DAS Graduate School (Academy of Theatre and Dance formerly known as DasArt), the prestigious experimental art institute and appendage of the Amsterdam University of the Arts. The main pitch on Ogutu’s portfolio, beside the Mau Mau piece, was that he had translated Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into Kiswahili, and been part of its cast during London’s Cultural Olympiad. The rejection letter, was accompanied by an email observing that Ogutu had a Shakespearean aesthetic, therefore advised him to instead apply to a British arts school, where he stood a better chance of admission.
Ogutu became aware that translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili and performing the same was not necessarily the most progressive thing for him to do. A member of the London audience observed that he ‘‘understood Shakespeare better in Kiswahili than he ever did in English’’, making the point that by translating Shakespeare, Ogutu had facilitated the export of the Empire’s culture to its former colonies and delivered it in a language and manner that was both agreeable and accessible to the former subjects. The translation had added a cultural richness to Shakespeare and to the validation of English literature in the former colonies.
Fortunately, Ogutu landed a month long residency in the Netherlands in September 2013, where he was to spend time interacting with arts institutions. Before his arrival in the Netherlands, Ogutu announced that DAS rejected his application during the school’s previous intake and he was keen on giving it another shot. The residency granted Ogutu’s wish and he ended up spending two weeks at DAS.
DAS is not your traditional performance school. The conversations dwelled on his future prospects as a performing artist, since DAS mantra was unhinged experimentation and imagination, seeking to break boundaries to produce artists grounded in practice. The more time he spent at DAS, the more Ogutu felt it was where he belonged. DAS admitted between seven and nine students for its two-year graduate program, and Ogutu knew it was not going to be easy gaining admission. He worked on a new application, and in early 2014, received news that he had made the shortlist. He travelled to Amsterdam for a three-day audition, went through a slew of interviews and made the cut second time round, joining DAS in September 2014.
Before admission, Ogutu had to bring a new birth certificate for the process of residency in Amsterdam. The old one was not accepted. He had to pay three times the tuition fees his European classmates paid at DAS, and underwent tests for Tuberculosis every six months. He concluded that for African to gain acceptance in Europe they had to be wealthy, healthy and brainy. The visa application process on its own had become a sort of state sanctioned eugenics, a manmade exercise of natural selection. One of his instructors put it differently. He told Ogutu of the Dutch policy of discouragement – a subtle code for institutional racism – where a myriad roadblocks are placed on the paths of outsiders.
Royal Dutch Shell
Barely a semester into his studies, Ogutu suddenly wanted to abandon his Dutch expedition and opt out of DAS. The reason behind this trepidation was that the school had relocated to a North Amsterdam property, hitherto occupied by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. Ogutu noted that the grounds that were previously an industrial part of Amsterdam had now been gentrified, comprising newly minted edgy arts institutions, incubators for start-ups, hotels, hostels, a film museum, an underground nightclub and high end apartments. A consortium of the City of Amsterdam now owned the 100-acre property that once housed the largest Shell laboratories in the world. The consortium donated part of the estate to DAS Graduate School, among other institutions.
In an attempt to speak truth to power, Ogutu’s first school project, ‘A Clarification of My Internal Politics’, sought to question DAS’ relocation Shell’s pseudo museum. He sought to interrogate why DAS would want to go anywhere near an ethically stained multinational like Shell, without critical reflection. Through the performance lecture, Ogutu juxtaposed Shell’s reputation in the Netherlands against its misdeeds in Nigeria, particularly in Ogoniland, where it was accused of gross environmental degradation in a UNEP report. In 1995, Sani Abacha’s regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for agitating against Shell’s activities, resulting in a 2009 out of court settlement with Shell paying $15.5m to the Ogoni nine and one other victim and $5m going into an Ogoni education trust fund. Through act of artistic protest, Ogutu hoped, idealistic, that his project would bring DAS back to its senses.
Ogutu’s art project received a lukewarm reception, critiqued for its artistic merits, shortfalls and belittled. Ogutu wondered whether he was naïve to presume society would sit up whenever he presented what he considered radical thought as his classmates and instructors did not necessarily center their practice on the sociopolitical. Disillusioned, Ogutu slipped into depression. He thereafter wrote to DAS, opting out of his studies, unable to navigate his new realities. DAS offered Ogutu a month during the December 2014 break to reflect on his decision. As if extending an olive branch, DAS bought Ogutu’s ticket to Nairobi, after he applied for an emergency grant.
This feeling of powerlessness was not new. During his undergraduate International Relations studies at Nairobi’s United States International University–Africa, Ogutu felt the program taught everything about what was wrong with the world but never offered solutions. Therefore in the pursuit of meaningful change, he embraced the arts, growing to become The Theater Company’s creative director and later joining DAS, only for him to realize late in the day that ‘‘the complexities of life proved immune to the artistic antidote.’’
Back in Nairobi, Ogutu sought out three Kenyan artists who had lived overseas, in search of understanding of his artistic struggles. The writer Binyavanga Wainaina told Ogutu his struggle was familiar, that he was going through a formatting process, advising Ogutu to seek sunshine whenever he could, telling him winter messed people up. The performance artist Sitawa Namwalie told Ogutu those Amsterdam years were his induction into the art world, for him to find his place in it. The publisher Muthoni Garland asked Ogutu to read American writer and activist James Baldwin, mainly ‘Notes of a Native Son’, reflections on Baldwin’s days holed up in Paris.
Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects at DAS either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin, or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works. Ogutu returned to Amsterdam in January 2015, somewhat reenergized. For his second semester project, he produced a short theatre piece titled ‘Nobody Knows My Name’, borrowing explicitly from one of Baldwin’s book titles.
The piece centered around Café Tournon in Paris, a hugely popular meeting spot for African American artists, some of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who had since sought refuge in Paris. The twist in Ogutu’s piece, picked from Baldwin’s writings and of others around the 1956 Congress, was that the CIA, French intelligence and other infiltrators such as the KGB had made inroads within this particular Paris group of Black writers and artists as part of the cultural Warfare. Ogutu’s main character, is a Black writer dealing with writer’s block as he tries to write about his time at Café Tournon. He is unable to make headway because he can no longer tell what was real and what was an enactment of the intelligence agencies, in spite of the glimpses of purity and authenticity at the café.
The idea of a meta-narrative about a Black writer trying to write a story about events of his life in a foreign country where he had sought refuge and escaped his home country’s hounding, reflected Ogutu’s frame of mind. In this case, Café Tournon was the symbol of the physical space abroad and the place where failure lurked, trailed by a mixture of anxiety and paranoia. It had taken Ogutu years of applications and rejections, in the hope of an admission into DAS. Yet at DAS, where he was supposed to thrive, he remained in a state of paralysis.
In his final year project at DAS, Ogutu sunk deeper into the happenings at the four day 1956 Black Writers and Artists congress in Paris, in a performance piece he titled ‘Fractured Memory’.
The piece, broken into four parts, each representing a day at the congress, opens with a scene of the reading of an emotive letter sent by WEB Du Bois, who could not travel to Paris because he was denied an American passport. Du Bois warns that part of the American delegation is state sponsored infiltration and that revelation causes tension at the congress. On the second day, Martinique poet and politician Aime Cesaire delivers a rousing speech on the relationship between colonialism and culture, going as far as labeling African Americans as colonised subjects. To counter Cesaire, Ogutu brings in Baldwin, who points out that Cesaire does not own up to his own personal effects of colonialism, seeing that he was addressing a congress of Blacks gathered in Paris speaking in French.
The third serving dwells on confrontations happening at the Congress, ending with the realization that there was no consensus on how to liberate people of African descent from colonialism, apartheid, segregation and exploitation. In the fourth section, Ogutu recites a poem that introspects on the agitations at the Congress. For each of these segments, Ogutu layers them with contemporary and historical issues in Kenya such as mistrust, anger, division – reiterating that the challenges of Paris 1956 still bedevil the Black people in Africa and elsewhere.
In November 2016, Ogutu performed ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Batard Festival in Brussels. After the performance, Tunde Adefioye, an American-Nigerian curator representing Brussel’s Royal Flemish Theatre came looking for him. Tunde was deeply moved by Ogutu’s performance and offered him a performance slot at the Royal Flemish Theatre in March 2018.
On New Year’s Day 2018, aboard a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Ogutu’s state of mind oscillated between elation, anxiety and indecisiveness. Earlier, in September 2017, he was selected as one of 15 artists in residence by the City of Amsterdam. The program, dubbed the Three Package Deal, funded by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, came with a €22,500 stipend that covered living expenses, an artist studio and a research budget for a theatre production, to be showcased after the residency. Upon graduation from DAS the previous year, Ogutu was granted a one year visa, usually provided to graduates from Dutch institutions. That one year in Amsterdam post-graduation became a haunting experience. Despite the relief he had found in James Baldwin and his work, Ogutu still had to put up with a sense of not belonging as he wrestled with questions of race and racism, and how this affected his life and work. The residency came with a two year visa, meaning Ogutu had to decide whether he had the stamina to survive Amsterdam.
Here was a man debating whether to continue with the residency or opt out. It was a huge honour to be selected, and he was cognizant of the fact that benefactors who he did not want to disappoint had put up a strong case for him in the process. Ogutu took the entire month of January 2018 to make the decision to return to Amsterdam and take up the residency, partly prompted by the need to return to Europe anyway since he was already slotted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.
The Life and Works of Leopold II
Ogutu arrived in Brussels on March 8, 2018, a day before his performance of ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre. Noah Voelker, an American classmate at DAS who was now a collaborator, accompanied him. They checked into two spacious studio apartments, before proceeding to the theatre to check on the technical elements of the performance. The show, performed in English, had French and Dutch surtitles (as subtitles are known in theatre) to attract both the city’s Dutch and French speakers.
As Ogutu and Noah went through the technical motions of the show, a staffer at the theater told them about ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’, a performance which was being staged on the night of March 8. The show would take place at the main theatre as the anchor performance, followed by Ogutu’s performance on March 9 at an adjoining box theatre. He would later discover that the pairing of the two performances was to ignite a dialogue on colonialism and decolonization. ‘Fractured Memory’ was lined up as a hesitant partner in a weird post-colonial dance with King Leopold II’s misdeeds in the Congo.
Earlier the same day, Ogutu sent Tunde Adefioye – the theater’s curator who had booked Ogutu’s show – a text message requesting tickets for ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’. Tunde told him the show was sold out, but that he would seek out some connections. He never got back to Ogutu. It later emerged that Tunde preferred Ogutu did not watch the Leopold II show, possibly suspecting the performance’s racist undertones would expectedly elicit an unpleasant reaction. Ogutu reasoned that Tunde meant well and wanted to stick to his institution’s program while shielding Ogutu from triggers that would affect his performance. Unknown to Tunde, the theatre’s staffer went to the box office and worked out two tickets for Ogutu and Noah to watch the Leopold II show.
In Ogutu’s narration, the opening scene featured the only black cast member cleaning the front of the theatre using a vacuum cleaner, moving around the stage and into the audience, creating confusion as to whether he was part of the performance. Then the rest of the cast took to the stage, with African characters played by white actors wearing black faces. The King of Congo was depicted as an ape-like creature, and whenever the white actors playing as Africans spoke, their speech was deliberately sluggish and inaudible, as if not representations of actual humans. The actor playing King Leopold II produced a belching sound whenever interacting with Africans, implying that in communication with Africans, one resorted to a range of grunt sounds outside of ordinary speech. In representing African children, their voices became hoarse and croaky.
As the English surtitles streamed past and Ogutu married them to the acts on stage, he got agitated. To Ogutu’s dismay, the worst was yet to come after the performance, when the predominantly white audience gave the cast a standing ovation. The cast moved backstage but as the audience was still clapping, came back on stage to soak in the accolades. Ogutu felt sick to the stomach, not knowing whether to be surprised or disappointed. To this audience in Brussels, the portrayal of Africans as primitive sub-humans passed for art.
From the theatre, Ogutu did not speak to anyone. He went straight to his apartment, and could not sleep that night. The following morning at 9am, Noah was at the theatre, ready to do a test run of ‘Fractured Memory’. He sent Ogutu a text, asking whether he was on his way. Ogutu said he was.
The moment Noah set his eyes on Ogutu he knew something was amiss. Noah also knew it all had to do with what they had watched the previous night. There was no denying that the show was racist. Noah and Ogutu had a little chat, sharing views on the show. Ogutu told Noah he was not sure he wanted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ in such a racially toxic environment. Noah said he understood, but asked Ogutu to give it further thought. Ogutu walked into the theatre set up for his performance. The moment he walked in, he instinctively knew he would not be performing that night. He told Noah he was going to take a walk back to the apartment, and that by the time he got there, he would relay his final decision.
By the time Ogutu got to the apartment, his mind was made. He was not performing.
When Tunde Adefioye heard about Ogutu’s decision, he requested a meeting. Ogutu asked for an hour as he called Amsterdam, where Veem House of Performance was handling his travel and other logistics. He informed them of his decision to pull out, asking for arrangements for the next available train back to Amsterdam. Tunde was devastated, admitting that he too shared in Ogutu’s frustrations of ‘The Life and Times of King Leopold II’ portrayal of Africans. The theatre’s business manager reached out to Noah, asking for a meeting. Ogutu declined.
By the time Noah and Ogutu arrived in Amsterdam, the main newspapers in Brussels had picked up the story, as a cancelation message had to be sent out by the theater. Journalists wanted a comment from Ogutu, for the next day’s papers. Feeling under weather, Ogutu took his medication and passed out. By the time he woke up, the journalists’ 5pm deadline had lapsed. They went to print without his comment. Phone calls and solidarity messages from friends and industry players started streaming in. By the evening of March 9, Ogutu had to release a statement. He consulted the team at Veem, before making a stinging, succinct Facebook post. The Royal Flemish Theatre on its part issued a defensive counter statement, citing artistic freedom. Tunde wrote a conciliatory piece, hoping Ogutu would have an opportunity to perform at the theatre sometime in future and to contribute to the decolonization discourse. The theatre’s artistic director tried reaching Ogutu through Veem, intending to issue a personal apology.
In his statement, Ogutu bitterly protested the placement of ‘Fractured Memory’ next to a hyper-problematic piece framed as part of an exercise in the critical reflection on colonialism. The use of racist slurs such as nigger, the apish characterization and imbecilic mannerisms attributed to Africans, the racialized costumes and sexualization of the black body, and the use of the black face – all in Ogutu’s words – were some of the unacceptable devices deployed to demean the dignity of black people.
It was as if Ogutu was having an artistic epiphany. All his readings of Baldwin crystallized before his eyes. There he was, a Black artist in Brussels, encountering blatant racism within the very artistic spaces he had hoped to find elevated discourses on culture, race and race relations. Like Baldwin, he now had to react directly to these acts by carving out his own responses. Ogutu had to now live his politics, and mature as a protégé of Baldwin’s work.
Three days later, on March 12 2018, Ogutu boarded a Nairobi bound KLM flight, booked a month earlier. Unlike during his New Year’s Amsterdam to Nairobi flight when he was torn between moving back home or taking up the City of Amsterdam residency, he now felt a sense of artistic purpose. He had taken up the residency and premiered his next show, ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, that aptly captured his nomadic tendencies. Brussels may have devastated Ogutu, but it simultaneously awoke the urgency within him.
Because I Always Feel Like Running
The person who helped Ogutu clarify his thoughts was Anne Breure, the director at Amsterdam’s Veem House of Performance. Breure forwarded Ogutu’s name to her coalition of arts organizations back in 2017, proposing him as a potential artist in residency. With his nomination under consideration, Ogutu retreated to his little Amsterdam studio for two months, July and August 2017, where he conceptualized his next performance project, dedicated to the residency. The piece, titled ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, investigated the building blocks in the lives of East African long distance runners. Ogutu’s research narrowed down to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikile, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino and Tanzania’s John Stephen Akwari.
By looking at the lives of these three at their height on the track, Ogutu intended to develop a piece exhibiting the spirit of sacrifice, excellence and resilience. He might as well have been projecting his own life. At the end of 2017, Ogutu had already done dummy performances of the show at the Veem House of Performance in Amsterdam, the Spielarts Festival in Munich and a follow up show in February 2018 in the city of Gronigen.
By this time, Leila Anderson, a South African artist who was a year ahead of Ogutu at DAS, became one of his closest collaborators, urging him on whenever Ogutu encountered performance-related anxiety.
Previously, like when he performed at the Batard Festival in Brussels in 2016, Ogutu would lock himself up the entire time, only leaving his room to do his show then retreat, never wanting to interact with the outside world. He was now less reclusive thanks to Leila. When Ogutu returned to Amsterdam at the end of January 2018 after taking a break in Nairobi to contemplate whether to carry on with the residency or not – and to spend time with his ailing mother, his only surviving parent for a long time – he pinned six A3 spreadsheets on the wall of his bedroom. He stuck six yellow sticky notes on each of the spreadsheets, and in each sticky note, he chronologically listed the events that had shaped his life for the last decade.
He started out with the 2007/2008 Kenyan post election violence, which inspired his Mau Mau piece, but which had directly affected his family. His name, Ogutu Muruya – with Ogutu coming from his Luo ancestry and Muraya coming from his Kikuyu lineage – was seen as an oxymoron since it collapsed the two politically antagonistic communities into one entity. He was neither Luo enough nor Kikuyu enough for as long as he could remember, and the 2007/2008 ethnic violence put his family on the spot including from neighbours who debated whether they were Luos or Kikuyus. Depending on where one was, being either Luo or Kikuyu could mean life or death. He listed migration, in relation to his move to DAS, and listed his time at DAS under studies. The list kept growing as Ogutu applied specificity.
From each sticky note Ogutu originated a web of arrows pointed into the A3 spreadsheets, where he wrote detailed notes on what ramifications each of the items listed on the sticky notes had brought into his life. By the time he was done, the white A3 surfaces were filled with acres of hardly legible text. Looking at whatever he had written, Ogutu concluded that there was nothing more to be squeezed out of that decade. He had come full circle. He took photos of the spreadsheets and saved them on his phone, before picking his bags and heading to Brussels on March 8 2018.
Brussels through ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’ had already set the mission on how to jumpstart his next ten year cycle, confronting him with the question of race and racism afresh. It was now all up to him.
As Franz Fanon said,
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.
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Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya
How racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances can do the most damage.
In 1951, a prominent British medical journal on mental disease published the now-notorious account from Dr J.C. (John Colin) Carothers on “frontal lobe function and the African.” While such racist pseudo-sciences were ubiquitous throughout the colonial period, this article contained the rather shocking analogy comparing the brains of “normal” Africans to that of leucotomized (lobotomized) Europeans. Although the original article is lost somewhat to obscurity, its hypothesis has been a mainstay in much of the historiography surrounding the racist science behind what can be called a “colonial psychiatry.”
Since Megan Vaughan’s seminal article on “Idioms of Madness in a Nyasaland asylum” (1983), a robust sub-genre in medical history scholarship has followed suit to explore the concepts, confinements, and rhetorical abuses of colonial institutions across their occupied territories. Kenya, as is often the case, looms large. This is due, in part, to the work of Carothers throughout the 1940s from Nairobi’s Mathari Mental Hospital, which followed on from an ugly eugenicist turn amongst white settler physicians in the 1930s.
The body of work by such physicians appearing frequently within the pages of the East African Medical Journal and the later, more substantial, publications by Carothers in the early 1950s, solidified what came to be known as the East African School of psychiatry with Carothers as exemplar.
Carothers is known for three influential publications; the aforementioned article on frontal lobe function, a widely read World Health Organization monograph, The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953), and a British government commissioned treatise on the Mau Mau rebellion, “The Psychology of Mau Mau” (1954).
Despite his prominence in some quarters, and the expectation that his years of service at the helm of Mathari qualified him as an expert witness on African mentalities, Carothers’ work did not receive a quiet acceptance among his contemporaries. Experts from psychiatry and anthropology weighed in with responses to the WHO monograph with scathing reviews appearing in equally prominent journals. Lest Carothers’ stance on race appear unclear, critics made direct references to his racial and biological determinism—fair play, considering Carothers himself cited his frontal lobe theory in his later works.
Frantz Fanon, critiquing the agony of the colonial situation, referred directly to the sinister nature of the work emanating from Kenya and from Carothers specifically. Although Fanon had many targets, Carothers’ infamy was cited in a summing up of his chapter on “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” in The Wretched of the Earth with commentary on the damage done by the widespread acceptance, even in university teaching, of the “uniform conception of the African.”
“In order to make his point clearer” Fanon wrote, “Dr Carothers establishes a lively comparison. He puts forward the idea that the normal African is a ‘lobotomized European.’” Unlike Fanon, J.C. Carothers was not actually trained as a psychiatrist (he completed a diploma course in psychology while on leave in the UK). He utilized the patient population of Mathari Hospital and a general armchair anthropological tendency that infected many colonial administrators, to publish his findings about the nature of the “normal and abnormal” African. Although he lacked genuine academic credentials, he did enough to beat out experts like Melville Herskovitz (a prominent figure in the founding of modern African Studies in the US) to win the WHO commission. Despite this intellectual coup, the book was seen as a racially charged blemish on the organisation and was controversial the moment it was released.
Melville Herskovitz’ review warned that the potential damage caused by the publication was palpable. “For where, as in Africa, stakes are high and tempers are short, anything this side of the best scientific knowledge will accelerate existing tensions and make their resolution the more difficult.” The impact of the book might have remained fairly academic; it was, after all, an extended institutional report with a poorly constructed literature review. But it gave Carothers an air of authority as an expert on African psychology amidst a period of turmoil and increasingly violent demands for independence.
By the time the state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952, Carothers had already returned to the UK. When the British government called on him to provide his opinion on the psychological impulse behind the Mau Mau rebellion, he was able to oblige from the comfort of home by plagiarizing substantial aspects of The African Mind with added polemics about the “forest psychology” of the Mau Mau. He made a brief government sponsored visit in 1954 to observe the detention camps, and his visit to Manda Island was documented in a scant entry in Gakaara Wa Wanjau’s Mau Mau Author in Detention. The result was a widely read government pamphlet, “The Psychology of Mau Mau,” which not only explained the reasons why Kenyans had resorted to violence, but also laid out a medicalized rationale for what to do about it.
Under the radar, in the mid-1950s, another psychiatrist had a mandate to visit the camps. However, so dominant is the Carothers narrative of East African psychiatry, these two doctors are generally not compared as such. Edward Lambert Margetts was a little-known psychiatrist from Canada who had the distinction of having overseen Mathari Hospital during the Mau Mau war. In stark contrast to Carothers, Margetts made some surprising observations about the trauma of detention camps—although it must be said that he was no sympathizer to the Mau Mau cause.
Despite a penchant for collecting, documenting, and writing, he eschewed any opportunity to write about the Mau Mau war directly, but he too was invited to visit detention camps and to examine detainees brought to Mathari. Camp superintendents had little interest in big picture theories about the African mind, but they were keen to expose specific prisoners who were suspected of feigning mental illness as a means of escaping hard labor.
While some of Margetts’ notes are uncharacteristically cagey, he observed key patterns amongst a small number of detainees held in camps as well as Kenyans living amidst Mau Mau chaos. Most fascinating are medical notes with a term coined by Margetts “Mau Mau perplexity fear syndrome” in which he documented the anguished testimonies or panicked delusions of Kenyans who lived under a constant terror of violence.
For detainees, Margetts made a remarkable observation that while some prisoners might well be “malingering,” others exhibited signs of dissociation caused by extreme trauma related to their confinement. Ganser Syndrome (after Sigbert Ganser, 1898) was also known as “prison psychosis” and included an array of unusual symptoms such as hysterical blindness or the compulsion to give nonsensical answers to easily understood questions. Margetts queried whether some detainees could be considered under this diagnosis—an indication that some of the trauma in Kenya might be attributable to British administration of the war and not the innate savagery of the African personality.
Frantz Fanon also referred directly to Carothers’ “Psychology of Mau Mau,” and to the government’s concurrence that the “revolt [was] the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose reoccurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.” If Fanon was aware of Margetts at all, he would likely have conflated his views with those of his predecessor within the East African School. Fanon noted that Carothers’ work dovetailed with the types of claims made by the North African School. and the credence given to such ideas made the corruption, and “tragedy” of colonial medicine all the more evident.
Although they were contemporaries, these three psychiatrists had little in common, although two of them challenged the “Mau Mau as mental disease” paradigm from the distinct vantage points of clinical curiosity and revolutionary political thought. There are still many avenues to pursue within a scholarship concerned with psychiatry’s entanglement with colonial politics and violence, but perhaps J.C. Carothers output has had a shelf life beyond what it should have done. Edward Margetts’ tenure at Mathari is not unproblematic, but nonetheless leaves a very different intellectual footprint. From his clinical notes and writing, we may apply a bit more nuance and tension to the otherwise flat depiction of Carothers’ overt racism.
The “East African school” represents a paradox between a scientific community that for the most part knew better in the 1950s, and the undeniable influence of racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances to do the most damage.
BBI: Fighting Back Against Our Need to Uproot Uthamaki (White) Masculinity
BBI would have shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas, or that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male.
It is now fairly well accepted in the public discourse outside Kikuyuland that the alcoholism and suicide rates among Kikuyu men are related to the soul pact which the Kikuyu community has signed since 1969 to keep the Kenyattas in power. It is a phenomenon that creates a lot of bitterness in the rest of the country, especially within the communities that have most recently suffered large-scale state violence, such as that witnessed in Kibra and Kisumu in 2017 during the protests against the disputed election of Uhuru Kenyatta.
The extremely slow realisation that the Kikuyu are becoming isolated from the rest of Kenya has started to produce a literature in which the Kikuyu are portrayed as having acknowledged the mistake they made in supporting Uhuru in 2017.
This narrative, however, still contains the supremacist blind spot which Kenyans complain about. The realisation of the mistake comes not from a deep regret about the loss of non-Kikuyu life, including the fact that some Kikuyu supporters of Jubilee cheered on the police massacres that largely targeted the Luo community. Rather, the regret comes from a bad business environment, implying that if business was doing well, all things remaining constant, there would be no problem with what happened in 2017. In other words, money is more valuable than non-Kikuyu life.
As one can imagine, this hubris makes many Kenyans livid. But unfortunately, it is not enough to say that the empathy the Kikuyu are seeking is still selfish and narrow-minded. Although it is. Rather, we must analyse how this hubris became entrenched among the Kikuyu, because the mechanisms which have made the Kikuyu collectively oblivious of the national sentiment are actually contained in the BBI which was recently deemed unconstitutional by the High Court.
Embedded in BBI was the disease that has led to the collective zombification and self-decimation of Kikuyu men, and which would have spread to the rest of Kenya. Ultimately, BBI was less about institutional change and more about a change in the collective Kenyan soul. BBI did not call for change in the status quo; rather, it sought a change in our attitude towards the status quo, an attitude that has already taken Kikuyu masculinity captive.
The culture of Uthamakistan
The unstated religion in Kikuyuland is that being a Kikuyu man is the best thing since sliced bread. This religion is reaffirmed at various gatherings (weddings, funerals, church services) where men are encouraged to affirm a manhood that is modelled on the local rich man who owns land and drives around in an SUV, and ultimately on Uhuru Kenyatta himself. This model of masculinity is a Kenyanification of the colonial white settler. In fact, had it not been for technology and independence, the alpha Kikuyu male would have a horse instead of a Prado, and would have called himself Sir Charles or Prince Andrew. I’ve been told that such men do exist in the exclusive clubs formerly frequented exclusively by colonial settlers, but the only one I’ve seen is former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
The message in Kikuyu country is that there is no other alternative to manhood. In some ceremonies I have attended, even in church, this reification of what one would call Uthamaki masculinity is presented as a cultural obligation. Kikuyu men are told that other Kenyan ethnic groups are proud of their identity, but Kikuyus are ashamed of theirs, and so joining groups like the kiama kia ma is an obligation to not just the ethnic group, but to a pan-African identity as a whole. This narrative is not only widespread, but it is also comprehensive, because it covers property, education, culture, faith, gender and anti-colonialism, making it difficult for an ordinary man without a sufficient grasp of history and political education to resist it.
Inevitably, this model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status. So what are the options for such Kikuyu men who do not own property?
Alcohol and suicide. Alcohol to silence the voices in his head asking him to be what he cannot be, and because he can’t burn down the media houses, Jogoo House and the churches to shut those voices up. After all, the Uthamakistan message is that those institutions are “his” and if he can’t enter them, Muigai is doing so on his behalf. So he can’t fight the institutions that are “his”.
The other option is suicide in order to get out of the system altogether.
And this was the suffocation that Binyavanga Wainaina was fighting against. He was saying that the narrative of the straight pipeline which says “go to school, get a job or start a business” was “crap”. To illustrate, Binyavanga gave the example of someone with two masters’ degrees paying a 300,000 shillings bribe to get a job as a private in the Kenya Defence Forces. Throughout his life, Binyavanga called for a variety of stories and innovations to counter this single story that is strangling Kikuyu men, and ultimately all Kenyans.
This model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status.
What Binyavanga was calling for was a fundamental reconsideration of what it meant to be human, and for an imagination of what a human Kenya would look like. The status quo responded viciously. Kwani?, the platform for his cultural action, was welcomed with hostility by the academy that called writers associated with him “literary gangsters”. In the end, Binyavanga spent his last days struggling to pick himself up as the legacy he had struggled to build began to decline.
Granted, Binyavanga had not reckoned with the ethnic dimension of what he was fighting against, and often wavered between supporting and opposing the government. But he was onto something, and the seed which he had planted needed the soil, water and sunlight of Kenya’s diversity and creativity to germinate.
And this is not to suggest that Binyavanga was the only one who had this seed. He probably got as far as he did because he was a Kikuyu man. In other areas of Kenya, such seeds never see the light. Culture and arts in Kenya have buckled under the weight of a claustrophobic public life that is hostile to any public gathering of Kenyans outside political rallies or the inevitable weddings, initiations and funerals. And BBI had proposed penetrating even those ceremonies by providing the syllabi to be used at initiations and the material to be used in marriage counselling.
And so the purpose of BBI was two-fold: to not only prevent different imaginations of what Kenya can be, of a Kenya that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male who offers no innovation or social service, but to also suck in the rest of Kenya into this narrow, racist archetype of manhood. BBI sought to infiltrate faith, initiation ceremonies, schools, marriage, history and education to ensure that the seed of the propertied ruling class is planted in every mind in every corner of Kenya.
The Kenyatta head start
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not. The Kenyattas already dominate the cultural space and imagination of Kenya, and so the proposals in the BBI simply gave them a greater advantage than all the other Kenyan communities, ethnic or not. The Kenyatta name already brands the nation’s major conference centre, the national referral hospital, two universities, the largest international airport, a major street in the capital city and the largest public beach at the coast. The name of Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother, Mama Ngina, is now carried on the rebuilt waterfront which her son inaugurated on Mashujaa Day in 2019, a day which was renamed precisely for the opposite purpose, that of divorcing Kenya’s historical memory from its personification in the Kenyattas.
The Kenyattas even have the grave of their patriarch in the central business district, next to where the elected representatives make policy for the rest of Kenya. During the Uhuru presidency, laying a wreath at that grave is a protocol for foreign dignitaries visiting Kenya. Uhuru’s government also used a statue of the president’s father on Kenya’s new bank notes, circumventing the law that stipulates that a human portrait shall not be used. The cynical argument was that the image was of a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, rather than of Jomo Kenyatta himself.
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not.
The basic message is that Kenya’s national identity is synonymous with the Kenyattas, and is not to be shared with any heroes or historical milestones from the rest of Kenya. Other heroes can be commemorated in the 46 counties but not in Nairobi, which the BBI assigned a special status because of the foreign (read Euro-American) expatriates who live there. If Kenyans wanted to remember Mekatilili, for example, it would have to be done in Malindi and not in Nairobi.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has also sealed any loophole that might be present in the education sector by reducing education to vocational training for children, and by crushing the incentive to the study the arts and humanities by paying lecturers in this field less than lecturers in STEM. And if BBI were to pass, history and ethics would be dominated by the Kenyatta family, since the BBI proposed the position of an Official Historian in the Office of the President.
Basically, what BBI was doing was to shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas. And since that model of manhood embodied by Uhuru was not accessible to the overwhelming majority of Kenyan men, BBI would have meant that alcoholism and suicide would have become the means of escape from this suffocation.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity, and has been waging war against any model of manhood which does not exude the aesthetics of a propertied Kikuyu landowner. The fear of Luo men, including of Raila, is not about initiation. It is a fear of a different manhood whose identity is not attached to state power used for massive and primitive accumulation, a manhood that is different from the colonial settler manhood on which Kenya was founded.
We must all tell our stories
The state’s determination to protect this Kikuyu (white) alpha male is relentless.
That is why the so-called fight for the boy child that was started in Kikuyuland by Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume was started as a war against women, rather than as a war against the white supremacist Kenyan masculinity. The so-called oppression of men does not deal with the fact that the majority of victims of extra-judicial killings are young men, right from the slums all the way to universities.
The same model of masculinity accounts for why any man whose political thinking is different from that of the state is vilified in Kenya as being uncircumcised, womanly, gay or insane. That is if they are not expelled on a plane, beaten or shot in the streets by the police. That would answer Gathara’s pondering “why some Kenyans seem to imagine that being called either a woman or a homosexual is an insult.”
And unfortunately, the Kenyan church became coopted into this corruption of Kenyan masculinity through embracing the “family values” of the American evangelical right. The church did not recognise that even as evangelicals talk of nuclear families, they have a separate narrative of black male pathology, because white supremacy does not consider black (or African) men capable of belonging to stable families. The narrative of black male pathology is necessary to explain why black people are poor and disenfranchised. The Kikuyu elite justify Uthamakism with a similar rhetoric, arguing that poor Kikuyu men are a social problem created by empowered women or the “girl child”.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity.
The way ahead is not to decide which family is a real family. It is to send a strong message to the state that it has no business dictating what is in our bedrooms, our homes, our cultural spaces and in our education. The BBI proposed to extend the tentacles of the Kenyan state into marriages, initiation ceremonies, ethnicity, art and history, so that the Kenyan state would be re-made in the image of the Kikuyu (white) alpha male.
The solution is to tell our stories, and to fight against the state being the only decision-maker about who tells stories and what stories we tell. Even the position of prime minister proposed by the BBI was a means of alienating people from telling their stories, because it sought to prevent citizens from having a direct say in politics.
It is also important that we do not hate disenfranchised and culturally miseducated Kikuyu men so much that we fail to see that it is precisely that model of citizenship and manhood that was being prepared for all Kenyans. We need to resist the efforts of state to dictate our stories. We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
And we must free our cultures and identities from the shackles of ethnicity. Since colonial rule, Kenyans have made the mistake of restricting culture to ethnicity, forgetting that culture also includes information, education, technology and art.
As Dan Ojwang explains, even Kenyan intellectuals have drowned in this medieval narrative of self-contained and rigid ethnic groups, and ironically in the name of fighting against the colonial project whose cultural model the intellectuals apply. Yet in history, Ojwang argues, there is ample evidence of hybridity even within ethnic groups before colonial rule. By contrast, BBI stuck to the ethnic lines drawn by colonialism, confining culture to ethnicity, and then bringing all other forms of cultural production under the direct control of the state.
We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
But most of all, we need a new, deep Kenyan story, such as that of freedom, of a brave and proud people who defied oppression to assert our humanity. Mekatilili, Syokimau, Pio Gama Pinto, David Munyakei, Chelagat Mutai, Chris Msando, Onyango Oloo and Kioko Mang’eli are just a few of our heroes whose names should be on our buildings, in our awards and in our history books.
To call for a diversity of human accomplishment must not be reduced to facilitating women and non-Kikuyus to compete for the narrow definition of masculinity embodied in the colonial state and in the Kenyattas.
If that model of manhood is already proving to be deadly for the men from the president’s backyard, and for the women who innocently love them, how much more deadly would it be for the rest of Kenya?
Rest in oblivion, BBI. We rejoice at your demise.
A Moran’s Meal and Other Changing Fortunes
As frequent droughts and famines wreak havoc and the ravages of climate change are felt, nomadic herders have had to rethink their economic livelihoods.
My friend is having a Samburu traditional wedding and I attend in earnest glee; food was not the centre of that wedding. I remember how after waiting an inordinate number of hours for any signs of food preparation, at around 1 p.m. my friend said “there goes your stew” and I saw some way from us a few morans leading a goat towards the acacia thicket by the dry riverbed. A moran pilau was hastily put together. We were served in Jerry cans that had been cut in half. The morans used their knives to cut spoons out of tree bark and we ate like men about to go to war. We then lay under the trees as the morans sat in pairs preening their looks and adjusting their hairpins. Later they danced under the acacias, the morans in their colourful socks jumping endlessly well into the wee hours of the next morning, fuelled by the pilau from lunch. No wonder the morans were trim, without any superfluous flesh on their wiry bodies.
On another occasion, amongst the Gabra whose marriage calendar falls twice a year, with hundreds of traditional weddings being held across the land on the same day, goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.
In the north, guided by the moon and the seasons, it was ritual that largely dictated the slaughter of goats. During the circumcision ceremonies late last year, thousands of goats were slaughtered within the span of a few days. At an age set transition ceremony amongst the Rendile a few years ago, everyone who was transitioning slaughtered a goat, thousands of them in just a couple of days. A friend ran behind a thicket and brought me back a badly roasted whole goat’s hind leg and a moran’s knife. This was how pastoral nomads partook in goat and beef consumption.
Goats died en masse during Almado and Sorio and then the rest of the year people subsisted on milk, porridge, boiled maize and ilkitegee — ugali with dollops of fat and sugar. The calendar of these ceremonies coincided with important seasonal changes. The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.
Goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.
In this land of uncertainty, complex safety nets had emerged to distribute risk and guard against uncertainty. Meals reflected this spirit of sharing at the micro level; one never ate alone, and food was served in large sinias with six people sitting around a single plate. Aphorisms like “if shared, a flea can make two bites” were often repeated.
Yet, with climate change, the image coming out of northern Kenya is one of starvation. Extreme seasonal changes have increased uncertainty and the frequency of drought-induced famine. This year, the March-April long rains were dismal and already stories of looming hunger are beginning to circulate, with 40,000 people said to be facing starvation in Marsabit.
Flanked on one side by the Kenyan highlands, which are known for large-scale cash crop plantation agriculture, and by the teff and corn-growing Ethiopian highlands on the other, one wonders why the dominant image emerging out of this large swathe of low shrubland is one of starvation.
Over the years though, efforts have been made to transform this image without however taking into account the complex dynamics at play. The common policy response has always favoured — or has been geared towards — changing pastoral nomadism by introducing crop agriculture. For a country like Kenya, where agriculture contributes a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, crop agriculture seems to be the government’s default setting and in this mode, pastoral nomadism has been vilified as both outdated and as unsustainable as a means to a livelihood. Unending efforts have been dedicated to bringing change and NGOs compete with each other in handing out greenhouses and irrigation equipment. Youth groups are trained in modern poultry farming methods and women’s groups are given beehives to start beekeeping. Wreckage from these efforts dots the landscape.
As nomads became increasingly sedentary, new economic pursuits emerged which demanded a massive dietary readjustment. Caloric needs increased and palates developed new tastes. As people settled and moved to salaried and wage labour, food security at the household level improved greatly. Rice, spaghetti, chapati and macaroni served with beans, meat and potatoes were the meals consumed in most towns in northern Kenya throughout the year. Most of these were foods were lacking in fibre, leading to unique health problems. Bowel movement is hampered and many suffer from hemorrhoids in secret; it is a common health complaint in the urban centres that is further exacerbated by miraa consumption.
With food security achieved for the settled populations, more meat was consumed in the urban centres, a big departure from the pastoral dietary habits. “If a meal doesn‘t have meat in it, is it even a meal?” seems to be the unasked question sitting unanswered on each plate. The Marsabit Integrated Smart Survey of 2019 showed that consumption of animal protein-rich foods was so high that health practitioners warned Marsabit residents against eating too much beef.
A history of farming in Marsabit
According to the Marsabit Statistical Abstract published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), 16,000km² around Marsabit is arable land. Mr Woche Guyo, a historian from Marsabit, has been keenly following the agricultural patterns in the region and says, “Those who remembered the history of farming in N. Kenya would recall the British were very much interested in N. Kenya food sufficiency. Up to 1914 the British (colonial administrators stationed in northern Kenya) were buying food directly from Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known then. The death of Emperor Menelik and the SUCCESSION struggle complicated matters for the British.) The permanent solution came in 1920. The Burji AND the Konso provided a permanent solution.”
The British brought Burji farmers from Ethiopia and settled them around Mt. Marsabit to start farming on the lush montane. The Burji came with their cereal-rich meals like fiqe, kurkurfa, qanchebello, qita, thabo, buthena, and they introduced the moringa tree — shalqetha became the flag by which Burji households were identified.
The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.
The variety of foods Burji farmers brought to Kenya introduced an important change to the food habits of the pastoral nomads, adding cereals and grain to their staple diet of milk and meat. This was achieved long before relief food became a fixture in the north’s uncertain food calendar. These culinary changes also forced the pastoral nomads in Marsabit and Moyale to diversify into small-scale mixed agriculture. Back in Ethiopia, the Burji are still expert farmers. On a trip to Burjiland a few years back, I was invited to a wedding where I sat with elders and we were served bean stew and anjera made from brown teff, which we washed down with barley beer. In Kenya Burji weddings were affairs where meat and rice had to be served.
By the 1980s, with increasing droughts, Mr Woche was writing articles about farming with titles like Making the Desert a Land of Plenty and Rendile Put Down Farm Roots for the daily newspapers. Through these articles, he traced the history of nomads branching into crop farming in Marsabit. “By the end of the second world war, Marsabit was becoming the granary of the Northern Frontier District,” he wrote in 1982. “Main crops grown are maize, wheat, coffee, pigeon peas, cow peas, njahi, Ethiopian finger millet, teff, sorghum, sweet potatoes and cassava”. Everything can and did grow in Marsabit.
But the frequent droughts and famines were wreaking havoc. More and more destitute nomads were shifting from pastoralism to crop farming. Every drought came with its own feeding centre which eventually grew into a settlement. The main intervention at these feeding centres was to place a hoe in the hands of the newly destitute. The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.
Nomadic herders have also been forced by climate change to rethink their economic livelihoods, and by adopting crop agriculture, many have risked alienation in order to fit into their new way of life. These pioneers have become true agro-pastoralists, adding to their resilience cap the feather of dynamism.
Songa, an agricultural Rendile village, was started in 1979 and was by the 1990s feeding itself and selling surpluses of kales, tomatoes, and juicy mangos in Marsabit town. The Songa exemplar is repeated in Badassa, Drib Gombo and Gabra Scheme areas. Much of the 16,000km² arable land has however been abandoned with most of it now lying fallow or planted with the evergreen miraa trees.
Farming became so successful that storage for cereals in Marsabit was inadequate and tonnes of maize from the region were stored at the Cereals Board in faraway Meru. Bananas from Marsabit won prizes at agricultural shows in Embu for their world-class quality.
“My father and his friends were bringing in tractorfuls of maize over several days,” says Woche, “but that was in the good days when the climate was okay.”
In those years Marsabit received rain almost all year round, making it hard to dry maize and forcing those growing it around the town to take it to the lowlands for drying, 30 kilometers away. Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now. Yet there was no investment in the agricultural sector then. Even now, many decades later, the same problems persist in the crop agriculture sector; hardly any technology is in use and few investments are made.
The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.
NGOs have led the efforts in food production and in Garissa individuals have established irrigation schemes along the Tana river, which has led to an explosion of farming activities. This in turn has led to an influx of farmhands, with hundreds of Luhya labourers from western Kenya working on farms in Garissa. In Marsabit the more experienced and effective farm labourers are from Meru and even the Burji, who used to do all the work on their farms themselves, now hire Merus to work for them.
Cushioning against social shocks
Funerals in the north offer an interesting crucible through which to examine how social safety nets work. At a funeral, a cow is slaughtered and its meat is boiled in large chunks with no spices added lest one develop a taste for the meal and start wishing for regular funerals. After the burial, hundreds of people head to the household of the bereaved and for a brief moment funereal gloom turns into a gloomy feast as people eat, joyless looks on their faces as they roll morsels of white, spiceless rice with their fingers and partake of the boiled beef.
“We have eaten so and so’s rice” often remarked after the death of a friend means “he is finally gone”. The finality of their existence and departure is captured in the partaking of that rice.
Yet the beef and white rice business at funerals is a new affair for the Burji. Even as late as the mid-1990s, when someone died people prepared meals and took some of it in bowls to the household of the bereaved. There was no pressure to bring anything fancy and one brought their usual meals. Rice, qita, fiqe, githeri, kurkurfa and buthena dishes prepared in different households were brought and served to the relatives of the bereaved for a whole week. This practice was referred to as bochocha by the Burji, a tradition they had brought with them from Ethiopia, a safety net that meant that funerals didn’t require substantial resources or put the bereaved in any unnecessary debt.
But as new urban prosperity emerged so too did new funeral rituals. Shumo, boiled maize, was rejected and a cow had to die no matter the status of the departed, leading to high send-off costs and debts to be repaid. Instead of pooling food, now people contributed 50 shillings for any community member who died.
Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now
There is an ongoing debate about the slaughter of cows at funerals. It started from Wahhabist quarters, sparked by sheikhs from the new mosques who argue that there is a need to keep funeral costs down, that people who are in mourning should not be involved in the logistics of sourcing for cows, rice and firewood, that no fire should be lit in the household of the bereaved, and that no debts should be incurred.
This suggestion to change funeral traditions has the ecologists amongst us arguing for the ecological role played by the killing of cows at funerals, that in this manner a necessary balance between the human population and the cow population is achieved. The mercantilists argue that the livestock trade depends on funerals and marriages; funerals have evolved to play a big part in the demand-side of the livestock trade in the region. Yet others argue for the army of destitutes who keep an ear to the ground for news of funerals where they can eat a decent meal and carry some food back home in paper bags.
Food changes, changing foods
The landscape changes, the tractors in the rapidly vanishing farmlands upend the ox-drawn plough, Meru youths with their pangas working in pairs replace groups of Borana men as cheaper, more experienced labour. The panga and the agility of its user bring a more convenient efficiency as does the demand of an impatient urban dweller to whom a meal of cooked beans packed in a paper bag is sold.
The stoic if philosophical look of the nomad in the grasslands besides his/her goat alters its shape in the town. The role that traditional waist beads played in measuring the nutritional and health status of children has now been left to community health workers or volunteers who go around the villages with MUAC tapes taking arm measurements and prescribing Plumpy’Nut.
In the arable lands of Marsabit, old fruit and moringa trees are cleared and farms subdivided into tiny plots to meet the growing demand for housing. This changing land utility parallels the changing diet in the region.
In the past, some clans did not eat poultry meat and in parts of Marsabit poultry was kept only for trade. But these taboos are lifting and we are seeing an increase in the consumption of traditionally forbidden foods, further contributing to food security. For many years, the region didn’t provide the necessary market for fish from Lake Turkana which ended up in markets as far away as Burundi and Congo. But this too is changing as the communities continue to embrace new foods.
Facing the future
Northern Kenya has seen a significant rise in population in the last 50 years. The demographic changes that have emerged with education, the growth of towns and changing lifestyles have led to a bigger change in crucial survival strategies which are the result of a combination of the NGO-led introduction to crop agriculture, the agriculture-oriented income-generating activities of youth and women groups, and kitchen gardens. Slowly, northern Kenyans are acquiring practical skills in a region that had previously never engaged in crop agriculture. Kina in Isiolo has become an irrigation farming haven.
Opening up the road networks means that vegetables from the Kenyan highlands can now reach hitherto inaccessible areas, with boda bodas and probox vehicles crisscrossing the northern plains with fresh goods every morning, although Ethiopia also offers a cheaper alternative to Kenyan agricultural produce.
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