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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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Heresy of Okot
In the third and final part of a review of Lawino’s People: The Acholi of Uganda by Okot p’Bitek and Frank Knowles Girling, A.K. Kaiza concludes that it is Okot’s writing on the religion of his Central Luo that may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way, and the reason why he was failed by Oxford University.
“I think Okot p’Bitek stopped giving thought to Oxford. He understood the colonial venture quite clearly and he believed that we Africans needed to sort ourselves out. In any case, by the time they asked him to revise the thesis (after which they would fail it again) he had already been a successful poet and cultural icon in his own right — setting up arts festivals in Kisumu and Gulu as well as being the first African director of the National Theatre in Kampala.” Juliane Okot Bitek
“Woko, Wi-lobo and Ru-piny were not deities, not spirits or powers. They were not worshiped, no sacrifices were offered to them. And when a man cried ‘Wi-lobo,’ he was not calling on anybody or anything. They were not a prayer or supplication. They were descriptive of the sad predicament of human existence.”
These words, lying deep in the book, after so much has been said and said so passionately, are not the most dramatic in a 625 page-strong tome. But if you were to choose which ones best capture the spirit of this publication, they would not be a bad place to start.
They sound a fairly representative note of the intellectual locus of the man who wrote them. A world view you likely first encountered in Song of Lawino, that gently insistent, powerfully cultured note has since become so much a part of the literary furniture of postcolonial Africa that attributing them to Okot is no longer necessary.
The phrase “sad predicament of human existence”, may sound like any pithy observation that makes instant sense, but after 511 pages, at which point they appear, you as an African reader are desperate for the insight this brings.
Why was the thesis failed?
The sidelining of the academic and scholarly works of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek by Oxford University under the supervision of Prof Evans-Pritchard remains a scandalous event, at least to those of us who expected better from British higher learning. In his introduction to the double publication, Tim Allen, Professor and director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE, writes that “In the case of Frank Girling, it is obvious why his work is neglected. Although he managed to secure his D. Phil in 1952, he had fallen foul of the Protectorate authorities in Uganda . . . in contrast, the overlooking of Okot p’Bitek’s anthropological contributions is harder to understand.”
Prof. Tim Allen explains that another Evans-Pritchard student and Oxford alumni, Talal Asad, published a collection by well-known anthropologists expounding the very views Okot had postulated. This was the view that British anthropology had played handmaiden to colonial injustice, providing the justificatory, academised loot that made the whip and chain wielders feel less guilty. Allen goes on to say that by the late 1960s, Okot was angry (as a black man, being called “angry” is not flattering), and defiant.
He explains that the offending thesis itself is moderate in tone. So, Okot could not be accused of going rogue activist in the haloed temple of academia.
“It was even more of a casualty of British anthropology’s colonial encounter,” he writes, addressing and at the same time, not addressing, the intrigue.
It has been five decades since the event and we still don’t know why. But after 625 pages, does resolution come?
As far as the Okot part of the publication is concerned, there is nothing really new in the way Girling’s bit is. The central attraction in the Okot section, The Religion of the Central Luo, was published in 1971 by The East African Literature Bureau and went on to have its stellar moment in thinking on African societies.
This resurrection renews the work, and Allen’s introduction along with the shattering clarity of Girling’s materialist approach to anthropology, opens the secret socio-political chambers hidden in the rites and rituals Okot describes here.
The two transform Okot’s text into a crime scene. We approach it, sleuthing tools in hand, ferreting in the undergrowth of scholarly nuance for that stray error that exclaims, aha! Got you!
It is so very much like Okot to come back from the grave to give us once again that frisson of novelty and courage.
But the stigmata is visible. There is an odd, incompleteness in it. We already encountered this oddity in Girling’s part of the book. The explanation for that, we were told, is that the colonial authorities and their academic mentors in Oxford cut Girling’s work with one year left in it so any publishing can only stitch mismatching body parts on.
This affects Okot’s work at a structural level. He describes well the history and politics of Jo Paluo and Alur in the opening chapters. He is starting to establish a historical particularity for his subject. He is also challenging the idea of tribes by showing the cultural-political continuum across colonially tribalised communities.
In Chapter 2, he glancingly connects these to Bunyoro, but we assume that was outside his scope, or he did not have the time to delve much into that, although we can infer from the long line of queen mothers of Bunyoro-Kitara rulers (Abakama) taken from the Luo-speakers, and the tracing of its lineage to Labongo, that this is the case. In any case, the politics of Bunyoro and that of the Central Luo, particularly the Payira Clan, who are also Babiito, like the rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, which filial connections cover the other kingdoms in the country, were so interwoven that calling them allies would be an under-description.
Okot ropes the Lango into this Central Luo grouping whilst acknowledging the difficulty of saying so with certainty. The Lango too had their tight military alliances with Bunyoro-Kitara.
But we note a glaring omission. Okot talks at length about Acoli religion and religious practice when the section arrives. He does not do so with that of the Jo Palwo, Alur or Lango. Could the frustrations he met at Oxford have prevented further work? What emerges sounds more like the religion of the Acholi than of the Central Luo. Is it even remotely possible that Okot did not see such a thing, so that his failure to recognise the obvious failed his D.Phil?
Going after Driberg, Crazzolara, Roscoe et al
One of the most important contributions Okot makes to African studies is on ethnicity. Where his errant antecedents Driberg, Crazzolara and Roscoe wrote of “tribe” in such a way that Africa is transformed into an archipelago of hostile communities, Okot raises out of the colonial abyss the many connecting cultural bridges, so that the familiar fact which prompts Africans when they meet fellow Africans to declare “we really are one people,” emerges. Had Oxford given its imprimatur to such a view, might the likes of Kwame Appiah have written a less discreditable book than In My Father’s House, a book with an annoying colonial view that Africans are disparate tribes?
Okot lends powerful evidence to the position of many black scholars who insist that African societies are language, rather than tribal groups. But it is in Okot on the religion of his Central Luo that one instinctively feels that his work may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way.
Okot goes to War
It is a lively, closely observed section running to six chapters. He opens by examining theories of Jok, then the variations on the idea, and expanding on the African pantheistic concept of deism. He next turns attention to worship places, the Abila, or Kac, the family shrines. He looks at spirit-possession, witchcraft and sorcery, then that social institution of lam, kir and kwong which he calls curses but can also be expansively seen as invocations, and which we need to hear more of for it is a literary genre of African societies which in our time has been brought dramatically to life by Stella Nyanzi. But that is another topic altogether. As these topics follow one after the other, a pattern starts to emerge. He tackles first the idea of God (Jok), and gradually works down to practices that have a filigree of the religious but are otherwise quasi-spiritual and mostly having nothing to do with worship but have been erroneously attributed so.
Take Chapter 9 on Woko, Wi-Lobo and Ru-Piny. As he explains them, these concepts are philosophical, prepositional; Wi-lobo as boundarisation of existence, “Wi, on top of, above, and the common noun lobo, earth. Literally it meant on the land above the soil or earth. But in the context in which we are discussing it, Wi-lobo meant the state of being alive on the earth, being in this world.”
Wi-lobo approximates to what other philosophical traditions refer to as Being. Woko, literally translating as outside, is synonymous with Wi-lobo but as Okot explains it, the idea is something like becoming, a state of transience from, into and beyond. There is much ambiguity about Ru-Piny. It means dawn, dawning, which on the face of it is the passage from darkness to light, the burnishing of the night. And yet, it is also about the exchange of the woes of darkness with those of the light, the double-facedness of existence — an existentialist notion.
Okot puts it better in his inimitable way: “Against Wi-lobo and Ru-Piny, man was impotent. They knelt on their victims and crushed them. There was nothing you could do to prevent them from carrying out their cruel schemes . . . because Wi-lobo, Woko and Ru-Piny were also deaf, blind and senseless.”
These concepts are far-reaching and are to be found as the framing concepts of Luo arts and music, the protagonists of much music and theatre flung into the face of inscrutable fate. Mr Crazzolara, and you benighted Boccassino, this is about art and philosophy, not religion!
Okot’s focus on this triad is, in my opinion, the key that provides entrance into what the religious belief of the people was and what it was not; it is also the key that frees African theology from the demonic incarceration imposed on it by imperial Christianity and anthropology. But before we have arrived at this point (chapter 9) we have been through six prior chapters during which Okot took on the establishment of western scholarship on African religion.
Our Simple Minds
In few places has the black man been more traduced than in his relationship with God. In sexuality, industry, politics, science, commerce, marriage and health, the entire heritage of the black man came under attack by the amassed battalions of enslavers, colonisers and free traders. These attacks follow a template, which is that what is African is dirty, at a primitive stage, without order and purpose.
The other name they used for black people, besides savages, is heathens, kafir, as though our souls (when allowed that we had any) were properties of the devil already.
Okot’s thesis here charges explorers, imperial agents, scholars and missionaries for not only refusing to understand African religions, but for calling whatever they saw happening as so much animist garbage. Africans were accused of worshiping forests, rocks, streams and lakes; we had no idea of a supreme being, no idea of an afterlife.
The Heresy of Okot
Okot calls up one at a time, the big names that misled the world about African spirituality:
Sir Samuel Baker, John Roscoe, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Renato Boccassino, Godfrey Lienhardt, Jack Herbert Driberg, Captain Ernest Grove, John Beattie, Bere, Hayley, Kitching, Tarantino, Taylor Tempels, Middleton, Menzies, Southall, Gray, and many more quoted here, had the same approach — the Africans did not know what they were saying; pay no attention no matter how intelligent they appear to be; study his ways and draw conclusions from that.
Anthropology, in a way, is the fine art of not listening.
Crazzolara best captures this attitude when he writes of what went on in the conversion enterprise: “Natives were urged with tiresome questions to make a choice as to which of the Jok among the many had created them. Such questions implied suppositions which probably never occurred to their simple minds . . . they answered that they did not know, which was more near the truth.”
On the back of a single observation in Equatorial Province, Baker, the pugnacious explorer-colonial agent, concluded that Africans had no religion nor conception of a deity. Baker had a theological debate with a man he names as “Commoro”, in Lotuko, over the existence of a being superior to mankind. This debate, done via a Lotuko translator who understood Bari, to a Bari translator who understood Arabic henceforth to Baker, is recorded by Baker whom we can only take at his word. It is comical. After intense, very patronising exchanges, the man Commoro replies to Baker (of good and bad people): “If they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”
The statement is startling with its raw, irreproachable realism. But Baker, Okot charges, was only interested in affirming his own beliefs and not learning that of Commoro.
The approach they took was to strip-search Africans for spiritual beliefs and feed what they found into a bonfire of racism, an act of culturecide. But there was a challenge to overcome. People don’t let go of their beliefs like that. To make it stick, the Christian god they carried with them (in much the same way African rulers carried Jok from one place to another) had to be disguised as an African deity — a bizarre minstrel act in which Jahweh wore blackface — and faked an African accent. This necessitated taking an existing African deity, emptying it of content and replacing it with Roman-Christian theology. This gave conversion the feel of a smooth segue, with converts often not feeling the jab.
And this is the violence Okot rails against. Through this mendacity, African pantheism was replaced by a monotheistic ethos. The senatorial Republic of gods was superseded by a tyrannical, fili-deist, Augustan imperialism, a one family-rule religion. Rubanga was bleached white, right here in the tropics. The function of African gods disappeared under the harsh colonial regime. Black gods like Mungu, Nyasae, Katonda, Ruhanga, Ngai, Nzambe and Rubanga, worshiped long before the White Fathers and Church Missionary Society arrived, became colonially reconstructed évolués, front-company enterprises; like Liberian flags of convenience, they concealed the real, tax-dodging paymaster in the background. They had become spiritually possessed by an invasive spiritual species.
Among his Central Luo, the missionaries settled on an import from Bunyoro-Kitara, the Luo-ised “Rubanga” (also Lubanga/Obanga) from “Ruhanga”. This was one god among many, picked out because one missionary caught a whiff of the word “mold”, synonymous with create. In similar vein, in Buganda, the missionaries alighted on the Kiganda god of fabricants, Katonda, a lesser deity compared to Lubaale, also from the root verb okutonda (to fashion) as Jahweh’s tropicalised incarnation there. In the case of the Luo, the missionaries did not listen long enough to know that they saw Rubanga as an unpleasant god that afflicted man with tuberculosis of the spine. The name stuck, much to the amusement of South Sudanese writer, Taban lo Liyong, who has had much to say about it.
Trees, forests and rocks
These scholars did not listen to what the Africans were saying about their beliefs. They chose to infer instead and came up with such ideas as “supreme being”, “life force”; their African sources said they had nothing of the sort. They next looked to the places where worship took place, in “forests”, rocks, along rivers and lakes and said Africans worshiped these; the Africans said this was not true. The Africans, they decided, were too daft to know their own minds.
What kind of defence can one start to mount? Okot presents the many ways in which African religious practice was misrepresented. The central pattern in all these is that the interlocutors had come to impose their beliefs and truth is always an inconvenience to imperial enterprise.
Outside of the monotheistic framework, getting a handle on gods gets complex. But Okot is also entering very dangerous territory. Any African knows just how dangerous it is to even express knowledge of pre-colonial gods; even if you know, you must pretend ignorance. Even the most highly educated feels the pressure to pay lip service to the Christian god. At Makerere, Okot would have walked past the Main Hall flanked by two Christian churches, his own faculty under the shadow of the Protestant St. Francis Church. It need not be said that academia, as the British brought it to Uganda, must first acknowledge the primacy of the Christian doctrine. Throw away the cloak of academia from colonial anthropology and you can clearly see the medievalism in the saga. Growing up in Lango, I was aware that the word Jok was associated with the unsayable, not exactly the devil himself, but the dark and the demonic. And yet next door to the Luo speakers, among the Ateker, the very word itself denotes goodness and sanctity: in Teso we used to sing “Ejok na Edeke” – God is good. In Lango itself, a song sang to children wishing them a prosperous future mentioned Jok, “Jo’jok amalo do/Atini dong roman do,” as a line went, so it was also a word associated with the good among the Luo, for who wishes demons upon her baby?
It was in later years that I came to understand that the fear of jok was itself the shame we had in our own material past, which shame the priests reminded you of each Sunday morning, and via a catechism you learnt by rote. Those of us who dodged catechism classes for confirmation were forbidden from the Eucharist, and can never marry under the Christian banner. These catechism classes are the forges in which black people are still daily taught to be ashamed of their blackness. It will never end, for the forced conversion accuses us of a sin we can’t help but commit; it accuses us of being black.
Okot’s unacceptable truths
Okot starts his dissection of Jok by going into the myths of their genesis. The Jok came in various ways. But one interesting one is that it was the founding leaders of the various Acholi states (chiefdom is a reductive colonial term) that also brought the Jok, as indeed Constantine imposed Christianity on Rome. The founder of Patiko, Atiko himself (we learn from Okot that the many Acholi states starting with “Pa” follow after their founder. Hence, Atiko founder of Patiko, Aweli founder of Pawel, etc.); so that this Jok becomes thought of as the god of Atiko, as others can speak of the god of Abraham.
The Jok of Patiko were Baka and Alela. The complexity here is that Baka and Alela then gave names to hills, so that when he came to Patiko, John Beattie concluded that these hills were considered the father and the mother of the people. Okot sought out a priest of Baka who he said laughed at the idea and said Jok Baka and Alela merely resided in caves in the hills.
He examines the Jok of Koc, called Jok Lokka. It is recognisable in many religious founding myths when the Acholi of Koc, after they fled hunger and crossed the Nile (not the first people in religious mythology to cross the Nile in search of bounty) to Bunyoro, say that one Ojwiya disappeared into the wilderness and returned transformed and started performing miracles, including for instance, multiplying the number of chicks. They called the Jok of Ojwiya Jok Lokka because he came from across the Nile. A people with a religious myth like this can only be converted for political, not religious, reasons. In truth there was little daylight between the religion of it in these parts and the biblical accounts.
As Okot writes, he refamiliarises to you the African reader, what colonial ethnographers had alienated. But he also puts these religious beliefs squarely within the locus of what all religions appear to have — founding myths, miraculous births, disappearances into the wilderness. But religion is politics, and imperialism commanded that savages cannot have a past similar to that of the conqueror.
These anthropologists never imagined that black people would ever read what they wrote. Open any anthropology text and the statement is always there. This may have emboldened them to print any balderdash they cooked up. But could these scholars also not have considered that people were forbidden to discuss their religion with strangers and that the answers they received were wilfully diversionary? Was Okot told the truth because he was himself a local?
Okot also discusses totems and food prohibitions. Although these are closely held, they are not gods, Okot insists, for these totems were so interpreted by colonial scholars who henceforth said that because say an elephant or leopard totem was given near-human potency, it indicated worship. They ought to have followed the matter to discover that those of the elephant clan considered it one of them but not above them.
Okot also states that keeping an ancestral shrine (Abila), and making sacrifices to ancestors did not indicate ancestor worship.
Ala, Omarari and Abiba
It gets more intricate, and as the unfurling of Jok continues, it begins to appear that the term was indeed very widely conceived. It seems to go beyond the idea of a deity. Take the so-called “cults” of Ala, Omarari and Abiba. Omarari is said to have appeared at the end of the First World War. Ala came earlier, Abiba around the Second World War.
It is on the question of “cults” that it starts to become hard to call colonial anthropology an academic discipline. Even Okot’s own reaction is problematic. Could they and he not see what was right there in their face?
The “cults”, said to have “followers” and that feel different to the earlier “jok”, are Ala, Omarari, Abiba and others but I will concentrate on these three.
Take Ala. The “cult” performance of Ala consisted of wearing long white robes and turban and pronouncing Arabic words. We already start to see where this is heading. The “followers” of Abiba are said to have believed that a “witch” sent kites into the sky which had fire in their anuses. There is less description of Omarari except to say it followed an epidemic.
Each of these “cults” follow major events and intrusions into these societies. And then they disappear as quickly. What they appear to be are memorialization and communication, performance arts that mark their epoch.
Were these gods, cults or simply pieces of theatre and performing arts, in the manner of masquerade ceremonies? Do plays and films that gain cult status signal worship? Does Elvis Presley following, sightings, costuming, festivals or re-enactments of the American Civil War signal religion? Is the one a god and Gettysburg worshiped? Are the ritualized practices of psychotherapy to heal soldiers returning from war witchcraft? The so-called Abiba cult, a presentation of bombers in mythologised form, was precisely that, albeit by African experts to heal black soldiers returning from Burma (the painting, Guernica, had its own way of portraying this terrifying new power).
There is reason to believe that the “cult” of Ala was a way of dealing with the trauma of Arab slavers from Sudan, for they invoked “Allah” when they attacked Africans.
As with Woko, Wi-lobo, Ru-piny, and Bala and Alela rocks, the notion of the cult reveals the pugnacious impatience imperial scholars had towards the ways of the people they had come to occupy. Those who waited a minute to really try and understand Africa, like Girling, were accused of going native. White people who disagreed with imperialism were severely ostracized. Nuances that would have separated philosophy, legalities (we have not even talked about the manner in which African laws were reduced to taboos), performance arts from religion were cruelly traduced.
To worsen it, The Witchcraft Act was passed which broadly illegalised the people’s beliefs, arts, philosophies and psychotherapy practices. Missionaries established missionary villages at which children were held captive and punished if found to have learnt their culture.
The amassed ranks of colonial scholars are today a disgraced lot. Few if any in Africa take them seriously. Colonialism and its colour bars had artificially kept their magic alive. Decolonisation meant western universities had to tread carefully and, in an interesting twist, many Western scholars are today at the forefront of the defence of African history, as witness the publication of this book. But the hegemony persists, for rather than colour bars, new barriers like travel restrictions mean that western research maintains its extractive practice. The kind of access western scholars have to Africa, African scholars cannot have in their countries. In this industry, we remain native informers. The prosthetics of censorship such as Okot suffered may have kept their respectability for only so long, but the damage they and universities like Oxford did to people of colour will endure for a very long time.
By now, we are wondering where Lawino and her song comes in. Very closely indeed. It appears to have its roots in the worship and prayer ceremonies to jok, which is fitting, for arts everywhere are largely secularised religious rites. Okot being Okot, we expect him to move beyond the turf war with European scholars and celebrate the social and religious side of his Central Luo. He does so with aplomb. His thesis settles frequently into enjoying the beauty of Acholi culture. The most humorous part for me is the quotation of the prayer offered by the people of Palaro to their Jok, Lapul. It bears quoting at length for there is the suggestion that this is the prototype for the Lawino-Okot joust:
Pule oh (Pule is pet name of Lapul)
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyaka mutero coo i rok
The girl who marries a man outside the chiefdom
Mor wange woko
Explode her eyeballs
Anyaka ma deg awone Palaro
The girl who rejects men of Palaro
Anyaka me mito lu-rok
The girl who loves foreigners
Nek Wang cware woko
Kill her husband’s eyes
Nek cware woko
Kill her husband
The men had had their say before God. Now the women stepped forth:
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyira wai bene litinni
The girls are also your children
Wegi bolli no
Your children with the spears (penis)
Bene gukelo anyira rok
Have also brought foreign girls
Ci pe ineko wanggi
But you have not killed their eyes
Wan bene gin ma neko wang wa peke
We too nothing will kill our eyes
Okwong ki la-lam
Let it (misfortune) begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Wek okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Mukelo anyira rok
Whoever brings a foreign girl
Nek wange woko
Kill his eyes
Nek dako-ne woko
Kill his wife
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic, konywa
Pule (daughter) of Lacic, help us
The Existential Crisis Created by Humanity’s Addiction to Plastic
The materials used to make every day plastic items are harmful to human health yet we still make plastic because we need it. It is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else.
The late American comedian George Carlin had a hilarious routine where he made fun of our existential crisis about plastics and the environment. “The planet . . . is a self-correcting system,” he’d say, “The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed.” Then he’d add, “And if it’s true that plastic is not biodegradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic.”
We might as well be living in that reality now—of the earth plus plastic. In the same way different eras of human history are named for the materials that most defined them, like the Iron and Bronze Ages, some geologists now refer to our time as the Plasticene—The Age of Plastics. We’ve never mass produced or distributed any other synthetic substance at so large a scale across the world as we have plastic. With it has come vast plastic pollution, finding the solution to which is hampered by the fact that we created plastic and now need it despite the dangers it poses to every living thing on earth.
Plastic, broadly defined as “a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers”, is a relatively modern invention. Although its history dates back to the 19th century, we didn’t start large-scale production of completely synthetic everyday materials until the 1950s. And we’ve never stopped.
In the seven decades since the ‘50s, human beings have created more than 9 billion metric tons of plastic, more than half of them in the last two decades alone. That’s billions of tons of a material we know to be essentially non-biodegradable.
Some optimistic estimates by organisations such as UNEP are that we have recycled about 9 per cent of it, while environmental activists say it is a lot less than that. Either way, it means that most, if not all, the plastic ever made is still around, and every year, we add nearly 400 million tons more. A lot of it is single-use plastic, destined to be used once and thrown away.
“We currently dump 11 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said recently, adding, “In 2018 alone, impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least US$6-9 billion globally.”
Plastic was originally good for the environment. When it was first invented in the mid-19th century, it was primarily made from cellulose, the basic building block of all plants. Its biggest selling points, even then, were that it was malleable, meaning it could be moulded into different shapes and designed for different uses. In fact the word plastic—from the Greek word “plastikos” which means to “grow” or “form”—initially referred to this capacity to be deformed without rupturing. A derivative type of that early plastic made in the 1860s soon found use as an alternative to ivory, which was harvested off slaughtered elephants and used to make everything from piano keys to billiards.
Modern hydrocarbon-based plastics trace their history back to 1907, when Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, invented a fully synthetic plastic, the first of its kind, and called it Bakelite. Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later. Unlike the cellulose-based plastics that had come before, Bakelite was cheap to make and could be easily mass-produced. But it would be another four decades before plastics spread across the globe. In that time, research focused on making new plastics and finding uses for them. Plastic and other related inventions of the pre-World War II era, such as nylon, soon found uses on the war fronts, increasing demand and boosting production.
Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later.
We still make plastic because we need it. Plastic is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else. It’s in our homes, our offices, our cars, our computers and phones, and in nearly every aspect of our lives. It makes toys, pipes, building materials, furniture, medical equipment and countless other things. For example, by the time Kenya banned single-use plastic carrier bags in 2017, the plastic industry was supplying an estimated 100 million plastic bags to supermarkets every month.
A prevailing defence by Big Plastic is that when it comes to transporting food, beverages and other essentials to 8 billion people, plastic has the lowest carbon footprint compared to alternatives. The main problem though, is that its relatively short useful lifespan does not justify how long it persists in the environment. Even worse, most consumer plastic is designed to be used only once and discarded; US magazine advertisements in the 1950s pushed plastic as better than existing reusable products because it was cheap and easily replaceable.
Such overt advertising of the most visible pollutant we’ve ever made would not work today. The reason is that in the last six decades, plastic has progressively lost its lustre. It is unclear when plastic began losing the crowd, but one aspect of this decline in reputation was the very things that made plastic such a popular material in the first place. Plastic is cheap, so the word ‘plastic’ soon acquired a new use, as a word used to describe something that is cheap (in quality), and fake. By the late 1960s, it was increasingly clear that plastic was here to stay, and that it was not good for the environment. The growth and impact of the anti-plastics movement in the next two decades triggered questions about how the situation could be salvaged, hence the birth of recycling campaigns from the early 1970s.
Recycling was never going to work, and the proof of this is that it was a compromise solution driven primarily by the plastic industry. After a major oil spill in the United States in 1969 kindled political pressure to act on the environment, the plastic industry lobbied heavily against drastic action. Their solution was to push for recycling, although everyone involved already knew that it would not work because the technology to do it effectively did not exist at the time.
Recycling has improved since the 1980s, but it is still an ineffective way of managing all the plastic waste produced each day. Another very problematic aspect of recycling is the global waste trade, which sees countries in the West send their plastic waste to poor countries to be sorted and recycled.
We’ve always known that the hydrocarbons we so lucratively mine from the earth and transform into fuels and plastics are not just polluting the planet, but could also be affecting our health. Part of the reason for the slow pace in dealing with the threat posed by plastics, despite the fact that their ubiquity means that any potential harm could be widespread, is that the “war on plastics” has focused mainly on where discarded products end up, and the indirect impact on health. In a 2018 report, UNEP reiterated the known risk that “By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of diseases like malaria.”
However, a growing body of research now shows that plastic is not just in the environment around us, it is also inside us. Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch. We eat seafood and land animals that have consumed plastics. For example, a 2018 study by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) found plastic bags (and nylon strings and synthetic hair) in the stomachs of more than half the animals slaughtered in three major abattoirs.
“Marine and other species ingest plastics and absorb the chemicals within them,” says Erastus Ooko, Plastic Project Engagement Lead for Greenpeace Africa, “and then we ingest them. It has been clear for a long time that the toxins in their bodies are going up the food chain but it is hard to quantify in practice.”
Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch.
Further, chemicals such as Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, which is used to harden plastics and is found in a number of consumer products, including drinking containers, baby bottles, and the linings of infant formula and food cans, have also been shown to leach into foods and beverages. Thus the question is not whether we are consuming plastic, but how much of it we are consuming and with what impacts.
Although plastic is non-biodegradable in that it takes a long time to degrade, it does break down with time and usage into smaller particles known as microplastics, which can also degrade over time into even smaller particles known as nanoplastics. Most of the plastic we consume is in this micro and nano form, making it hard, but not impossible (in the case of microplastics), to detect or even study. A 2020 study found that infants consume millions of microplastic particles per litre when fed using polypropylene (PP) infant feeding bottles. PP is a common household plastic, and other studies have shown PP microplastic release from food containers, kettles, and other everyday items.
That we eat a substantial amount of microplastics is not itself a surprise—we also inhale and consume dust, sand, insects and other minute things unknowingly every day. The difference is that microplastics are synthetic and pose direct risks as foreign bodies in our bodies, and because of their chemical makeup.
We most likely excrete most of these micro plastics. But there is a significant gap in research on the damage they do to our bodies, and in what gets absorbed into the body. What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways. A 2020 report by The Endocrine Society found that “one hundred and forty-four chemicals or chemical groups known to be hazardous to human health are actively used in plastics.”
The dose makes the poison
One of these is BPA, a known endocrine disrupting chemical that interferes with normal hormonal function. These effects are not minor; studies have suggested that the disruption can lead to birth defects, developmental problems in children, cancers, and immune system suppression.
The key challenge in assessing just how badly this chemical group has affected human health is that within plastics, which are complex polymers, BPA is a benign addition. It can, however, be released as plastics wear down, or are heated repeatedly, meaning that it’s hard to trace just when and where it enters the human body and what damage it leaves behind.
Another chemical, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is a suspected carcinogen and potential endocrine disruptor. DEHP was the most common plasticiser for decades, mainly used in the making of Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) but is slowly being replaced with alternatives due to concerns about its toxicity to multiple organ systems, including the reproductive system and thyroid function. A recent study compared the levels of DEHP and two other chemicals in dog testes from several regions in Europe and found a parallel between high DEHP and testicular conditions. The study suggests that this may be indicative of the situation among human males, because dogs and human beings share the same everyday environment and are exposed to the same household contaminants.
What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways.
The most obvious place to begin when assessing the direct effects of plastics to human health is with those who make them. Since the 1970s, for example, scientists have suspected, and subsequently confirmed, that vinyl chloride, the building block of PVC, is a carcinogen that can and has led to occupational cancers. A 2011 study found a link between high DEHP concentrations in the air breathed by workers in PVC plants with negative effects on sperm motility, among other adverse effects. Another exposed group, Ooko says, are communities who live around plastic manufacturing plants, who could be suffering health conditions due to the fumes and other chemicals released during the manufacturing process.
For these and other reasons, the European Union has banned DEHP and two other chemicals from all plastic items that children might put in their mouths, such as toys, since 2007. Under new rules that came into force in 2020, this ban is now extended to all other consumer products, regulating the amount of DEHP and other potentially harmful chemicals that people come into contact with. “There has been a huge knowledge gap in how plastics affect human health. Things get attention when direct connections can be made, and the direct connections between plastic and health conditions came in at a later stage,” Ooko explains.
Similarly, chemicals used to make styrofoam products such as styrene monomer and benzene are suspected carcinogens. Then there’s the heavy metals, water repellents, and flame retardants used in the making of plastics. Although heavy metals such as lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, and bromine are found in nature, our current exposure to them is primarily through synthetic things like plastic. Some research has shown that not only are these metals, which in substantial quantities are detrimental to human health, present in plastics, but they can also be absorbed by microplastics from the environment.
In the 2000s, as our appetite for plastic exploded, scientists began focusing more and more on the health effects to human beings and animals beyond just marine life. Bans such as the DEHP bans in Europe and single-use plastic bans in Kenya and other places are driven not just by environmental concerns, but also by human health ones. This transition is still slow, because the research on health effects is still scant, and is held back by complications such as how to determine what harm plastic is doing to our health when it is present in the body of nearly every living human being.
Carlin’s comedy set ends with the idea that perhaps plastic was the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned in the first place. “It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.” Then he’d add, “Could be the answer to the age-old egocentric philosophical question: ‘Why are we here?’” It is an answer that may be slowly poisoning us.
Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.
Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.
That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.
Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.
The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.
Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.
I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.
Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.
There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.
Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.
My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.
On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.
On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.
Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.
Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.
In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.
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