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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space

There is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate.

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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space
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“Some birds should never be caged, their feathers are too bright. But when one such is finally set free, something inside of you sings that knows it was wrong to cage it in the first place.” – Red in Shawshank Redemption

I first met Binyavanga Wainana in 2002 – an election year in Kenya when a hopeful country was looking forward to removing an authoritarian regime and ushering in a brave new world. He had just returned from South Africa and was scouting around for ideas for a literary journal that he hoped to establish to revive the dying (if not dead) literary scene in Kenya.

It was during these heady days—when it seemed that anything was possible – that Binya, as he was fondly called, came back home like a gust of fresh air that sweeps through a damp, mouldy room and changes the atmosphere. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could mesmerise an audience so much so that many aspiring writers, including myself, who never imagined having a literary career, began writing their own stories, in their own voices, with no apologies.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined. As the blogger and academic Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities”.

Indeed, Binyavanga democratised the literary space in Kenya, especially for young writers. He entered the Kenyan literary scene at precisely the time when the country was undergoing a major transition – a “second liberation” brought about by a group of anti-establishment politicians and activists and a population hungry for change, which led to the election of Mwai Kibaki and an end to Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year reign.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined

It is difficult to write about someone you have known, especially someone who was as charismatic and controversial as Binya, whose short life as a literary icon generated as much admiration as it did indignation. He was not without flaws. Loud, sharp, witty, and even rude at times, he dared to question the status quo that reduced Kenyans, and Africans in general, to mere spectators in their own lives – people who saw themselves through other (mainly white) people’s eyes. Binya opened up literary spaces that had remained closed for many Kenyan writers. He gave us permission to write. This, I believe, was his greatest gift to young Kenyan writers, many of whom ventured out on their own and became literary warriors in their own right.

A polarising influence

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.). This essay not only made many Western journalists cringe, but was also a call to African writers to write about their lives and their continent in an authentic voice without worrying too much about how they would be perceived by non-African readers. In his essays, writings and speeches, he represented a new generation of Kenyan writers who, as Nigerian novelist Helon Habila commented, attempt to explain Kenya and Africa but do so “without a knee-jerk resort to colonial woes”.

Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities

But the very Westerners that Binya criticised in his writings were quick to adopt him and give him a platform where he could thrive. In a sense, they co-opted him, made him one of their own, thereby taking some of the sting out of his critique. Although often vilified – or perhaps misunderstood – at home, Binya was lauded abroad for his genius and writing acumen. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, which catapulted his career as a writer and earned him a directorship at the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College in the United States. Thereafter, he was wined and dined by publishers, agents and philanthropists eager for a fresh new African voice.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”. However, Ikheloa also censured the Kenyan writer for being one among many African writers who are rescued by the West “like abused puppies”. He was particularly harsh when commenting on the author’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place:

“Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations…On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture on entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excluded the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.”

The Economist, in a review of the book, was equally scathing: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”

However, both Ikheloa and the Economist failed to acknowledge that for any African writer to be taken seriously, he has to first go through an assembly line of agents, editors, publishers and distributors based in Europe or North America. African governments rarely support the arts, writers in particular, and the publishers on the continent are more interested in publishing textbooks (that bring in more profits) than publishing an author who is little known outside his country.

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa”, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.).

In 2007, perhaps in reaction to these criticisms, Binyavanga rejected an invitation by the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s nominating committee to be named as one among 250 Young Global Leaders. In an email to the chair of the committee, Queen Rania of Jordan, he wrote:

“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go [to China where the WEF was being held] anyway because we will get to be ‘validated’ and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people…The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative. It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs’.”

Coming out

However, Binyavanga would go on have a significant impact on the LGBTQ community in the last few years of his life when he stoked (some might even say welcomed) controversy, particularly after he came out as a gay man in 2014 and published what he called his book’s “lost chapter”. The coming-out essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mum, enraged the conservative Christian evangelical moral police (who he loathed and who he blamed for turning many Kenyans into zombie religious fanatics), who dismissed the author as the devil’s work. But the gay community both at home and abroad congratulated him for coming out, especially at a time when many African countries were targeting and criminalising homosexuals.

But not everyone was convinced that this Kenyan writer had the intellectual mettle to liberate Kenyan minds. In a critique of his six-part self-made video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations” (or what Binya referred to as “What I Have to Say About Being Gay”) published in the Saturday Nation, the Kenyan social scientist and academic, Joyce Nyairo, described his arguments as “scattered, off-hand generalities” and accused him of having a limited understanding of Kenya’s history. “His knowledge of homosexuality in colonial and post-colonial Kenya is either non-existent or it has been unwisely excluded,” she wrote.

Many also accused him of being deliberately apolitical or politically naïve. His quest to show Kenyan urban middle class lives (like his own family’s in Nakuru) as normal – without sufficiently explaining the abnormality that produced this class – earned him a few barbs. However, when the circumstances demanded, Binya could take on the role of political activist. In January 2008, for instance, at the height of the post-election violence in Kenya, when churches were being torched and women were being gang-raped for being “the wrong tribe”, he mobilised a group of writers to explain to the world what was going on in the country. He believed then that through the power of the pen, Kenya could be prevented from descending into a Rwanda-like genocide.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”

But while campaigning for a peaceful Kenya, he aligned himself with the very forces that had catapulted the country to the brink of a dangerous precipice. In 2013, when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were declared the winners of the presidential election, Binyavanga viewed their victory as a victory against the imperialist West and its so-called lackey, the International Criminal Court, which had indicted the duo for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. “Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.”

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Though he admitted later that he had perhaps declared victory too soon, he failed to understand that the problem afflicting Kenya was not that Western governments were imposing their will on the Kenyan people, but that Kenya was sliding back to the bad old days of the Moi era, when dissent was not tolerated and when a culture of mediocrity and corruption pervaded all arms of government.

In a letter published in Brittle Paper in October 2017, when Kenya was about to go through another election, he stated: “I would like to apologise to all the people of Kenya for not seeing through the attempts to rig the election in 2013. I believe that going to the polls on 26 October with the same IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] is a mistake.” Like many others who view Kenya’s democracy purely through the lens of free and fair elections, he failed to see that the main problem in Kenya is not that we consistently have rigged elections; the problem is more systemic – we refuse to acknowledge that the rain started beating us at independence, when the first wave of leaders decided that the spoils of a post-colonial state should be distributed among a tiny elite and that ethnic identity should determine the nature and scale of that distribution.

The change that never came

“I want to live a life of free imagination,” Binya stated. “I want to see this continent change.”

Sadly, the change that he envisioned in Kenya did not come during his lifetime. By the time he died last week, at the age of 48, the same reactionary, anti-change forces were back in power – forces that are taking Kenya back to those dark days when creative minds and imaginations were considered a threat to national security (or rather, to the security of the president) and when artistic spirits were crushed. We no longer have the torture chambers that sent writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o into exile four decades ago, but Binya’s untimely death has reminded us that the struggle for a new way of thinking and bold ideas is still not over; on the contrary, the old guard is firmly back in the saddle.

However, there is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate. He never managed to finish the novel he said he was writing when he fell ill a few years ago, but he did leave behind an indelible body of work that challenged his generation to take charge of their own narratives.

I think Binya would have agreed with the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, who said, “To write is to die a little less when I die, to leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more.”

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Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

Culture

Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda – Review

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

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Who is Uganda’s enigmatic leader Yoweri Museveni? Since seizing power 33 years ago, his army has profoundly reshaped the politics of central and eastern Africa, and some outside of this region have even heard of him.

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers and foreign aid programs, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

I’ve been reporting on Uganda for almost 25 years, and I still find Museveni fascinating. As a rebel leader during the early 1980s, his shape-shifting exploits were legendary. Again and again, his small band of rebels would menace and outwit Uganda’s much larger national army and then melt away into the bush. Ugandans joke that Museveni could turn into a cat and walk through roadblocks.

William Pike, who served as editor of Uganda’s government-owned New Vision newspaper from 1986-2006 has almost certainly had more contact with Museveni than any other non-Ugandan writer. Pike’s gripping new book Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda provides an insider’s view of the Ugandan leader and his movement.

By all accounts, Pike is a highly effective editor and manager. Former employees have described him to me as a gentle boss who ran a productive, disciplined newsroom. He wasn’t afraid to go after cases of corruption involving senior cabinet ministers and even sporadic cases of torture and extra-judicial killings carried out by Museveni’s security forces. Under his leadership, the New Vision soon became Uganda’s most popular publication. I’m personally acquainted with Pike and have always found him kind, intelligent and extremely likeable. His book is also very well-written.

Unfortunately however, Combatants presents an overly flattering image of Museveni’s regime that belies reality, overlooks recent scholarship that challenges Pike’s version of events and sometimes contradicts the findings of Pike’s own New Vision reporters.

***

Pike first met Museveni in 1984, when the young reporter snuck behind enemy lines during the so-called “bush war” against Uganda’s then-president Milton Obote. By then, Museveni’s rebels known as the National Resistance Army, or NRA– controlled a significant part of the Luwero Triangle, an 8000 square mile area northwest of Kampala that had been the site of intense fighting. Until then, the bush war was viewed internationally as a minor skirmish, but Pike’s articles for the UK Observer and Guardian newspapers helped bring Museveni’s struggle to the attention of western policymakers.

The Luwero Triangle is the rural homeland of the Baganda people—Uganda’s largest ethnic group. Soon after launching his rebellion, Museveni, a Munyankole from western Uganda, promised Baganda leaders that if he managed to take power, he’d restore their traditional kingdom, which Obote had violently crushed in 1966. In return, the Baganda allowed Museveni to base his forces in their villages. When Museveni’s men attacked army and police posts, Obote’s undisciplined and brutal soldiers responded with disproportionate force, killing anyone, including innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the rebels. During his visit, Pike was shown areas littered with human skulls. Quoting Museveni, he estimated that Obote’s forces had killed some 300,000 people—roughly half the population of the Luwero Triangle at the time.

The UK government, which supported Obote, was claiming that some 12,000 people had been killed on all sides of the fighting. If Pike was correct, Obote was responsible for genocide, and Britain’s support was unconscionable. By then, the Reagan administration was already distancing itself from Obote. While Pike was in Luwero, then Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams told a congressional hearing that Obote’s regime had killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Normally such a huge figure would be referenced by a reputable source, ideally a forensic investigation, but like Pike, Abrams cited no independent source for those figures. When asked by Congressman Don Bonker where his source for the Luwero death toll came from, Abrams equivocated. “You wouldn’t be able to document those numbers,” he said. “There is no way of measuring directly, but there seems to be some kind of consensus that that is the order of magnitude.” Around the same time, the Washington Post also published a brief article on Uganda. Citing unnamed refugee monitoring groups and “official US sources” the author, who had not visited Uganda, also wrote that Obote’s forces had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Since then, a more complex narrative about the Luwero skulls has emerged which Pike does not explore in Combatants. Not only is there no evidence that the death toll was as high as Pike and Reagan Administration officials claimed, Obote’s army, though undisciplined and brutal, may not have been responsible for all the casualties that did occur. Most deaths probably resulted from disease and hunger as a result of mass displacement. In 1983, the government launched a counter offensive against the NRA, and in the process rounded up more than 100,000 villagers into squalid camps without adequate food, water and medicine. The NRA then ordered the evacuation of those who remained in the area. As thousands of peasants trudged north with the NRA, more reportedly died. When the NRA retook those areas, the bones of the casualties of these operations could have been among those shown to Pike.

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters.

The NRA was also probably not blameless. Shortly after Pike’s visit, a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph visited one of the villages where the army was alleged to have massacred hundreds of people a year earlier. He found “nothing to support [these] claims.” The army had withdrawn to allow the Telegraph reporter to freely interview the chief and villagers. “The surprise these people showed when asked about a massacre could not have been an act,” he wrote. However, they did mention that Museveni’s rebels had recently killed three men and four children. Some of the rebels came from the area and locals recognized them, even though they were partially disguised in army uniforms. “They were dressed halfway,” the chief said. “I mean they were in army and civilian clothes, all mixed up.”

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters. In his 2011 memoir Betrayed By My Leader, former NRA Major John Kazoora describes an NRA massacre of Obote-loyalists belonging to the Alur tribe. “They would dig a shallow grave,” he writes, “tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called Kafuni.”

In some cases, the NRA may even have killed its own. At first, Museveni mainly recruited from his own Banyankole tribe and Buganda, but after Obote brutally forced Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees into camps where many starved and died, some of them joined the rebellion as well. They grew close to Museveni, whose Hima people are closely related to the Tutsis, and soon began to dominate the force. Toward the end of the war, Baganda NRA soldiers began dying mysteriously and some suspected foul play. “We were fighting tribalism,” one Muganda NRA veteran told The Monitor newspaper, “but it was growing in the bush.” In 1983, Museveni warned all Westerners, including aid workers and diplomats, to leave Uganda at once. “We don’t possess the power to prevent accidents,” he wrote in a signed letter issued by his representatives in Kenya. Three weeks later, a Canadian engineer was gunned down on his doorstep in Kampala; four other European aid workers were killed a few months later. While the killers were never definitively identified, the NRA had kidnapped and released four other Swiss hostages and a French doctor around the same time.

***

In July 1985, Obote was toppled by his own army. The NRA continued to battle for power as desultory peace talks dragged on in Nairobi. Eventually, the NRA took Kampala from the disorganized, weak Ugandan government forces, and Museveni was sworn in in January 1986.

Back in London, a series of glowing tributes to Museveni appeared in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, many of them written by Pike. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen Years of Torture and Killing,” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again,” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.

As the war was winding down, Pike and Times of London journalist Richard Dowden toured NRA held areas, where villagers unanimously told them that all the atrocities were the fault of Obote’s forces; none were committed by the NRA, they said. However, both journalists were being escorted by NRA officers. Under the circumstances, it’s conceivable that villagers might have been afraid to report NRA atrocities, if they knew of any.

In recent years, opposition politicians including Kizza Besigye who served as Museveni’s doctor during the bush war, have called for a forensic investigation of the Luwero killings. Museveni has refused. Such an investigation would be very difficult in any case, since the NRA ordered locals to rebury the bones or gather them in memorial sites after the war.

Whatever the reality, the Luwero skulls provided Museveni with political capital early on. Shortly after coming to power, he escorted diplomats around the Luwero Triangle, pointing out the scattered remains and mass graves that Pike had seen. This helped bolster international support for Museveni, who came to be seen as Uganda’s best hope for a way out of the quagmire of its bloody history. Billions of foreign aid dollars would soon flow into his treasury.

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns

During the 1996 presidential campaigns, the New Vision reported that Museveni’s main challenger, Paul Ssemogerere was planning to invite Milton Obote back from exile and appoint him to his cabinet. Ssemogerere vigorously denied this, but Pike insisted it was true. The article was published alongside a Museveni campaign ad with images of Luwero skulls heaped up in a pyramid and the following slogan:

“Don’t forget the past. Over one million Ugandans, our brothers, sisters, family and friends, lost their lives. YOUR VOTE COULD BRING IT BACK.”

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns. After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

More recently, Uganda’s tourism board has proposed creating a museum to commemorate those killed by previous regimes, including the Luwero dead.

***

Combatants also covers the early years of the war in northern Uganda that would give rise to the terrifying warlord Joseph Kony. But here, again, Pike paints an overly rosy picture of the NRA’s role. After Museveni was sworn in, his troops continued to pursue soldiers of the former Ugandan army, most of whom came from northern and eastern Uganda. In March 1986, former government soldiers in Acholiland—comprising the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum—finally put down their guns. When the NRA arrived in Gulu they were “disciplined, friendly and respectful,” according to New Vision journalist Caroline Lamwaka. They requested the former army soldiers to surrender their weapons and some did so. Then in late April, the NRA began conducting raids on villages where they suspected guns were still being hidden. Property was looted, women were raped and unarmed people were shot and killed. Some Acholi ex-soldiers who surrendered were taken to Western Uganda and never seen again. As political scientist Adam Branch puts it, the NRA appeared to be launching “a counter-insurgency without an insurgency.” In August 1986, a few thousand former members of Obote’s army who had escaped over the border to Sudan invaded and attacked the NRA. In turn, NRA attacks against Acholi civilians escalated, and more rebel groups, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army soon emerged. Uganda’s twenty-year northern war was soon underway.

After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

In Combatants, Pike attributes the NRA atrocities to a few bad apples in the ranks or to poorly integrated former rebel groups, including one named FEDEMU, that weren’t mainstream NRA. But the New Vision’s Caroline Lamwaka disputes this. “I do not agree with the common argument advanced by some NRM officials, as well as some Acholi,” she writes in her posthumously published memoir,

“that it was the actions of FEDEMU soldiers that caused the rebellion….the NRA proper is equally to blame for the mess. If it were only FEDEMU, war would not have broken out in Teso and Lango, or in the whole of Acholi. The government’s argument that the war was due to former [government] soldiers fighting to recover “lost glory” or the “soft and easy life” or that they were “criminals” who feared to face the law, also misrepresents and oversimplifies the complex causes of the conflict.”

Throughout Combatants, Pike emphasizes how Museveni’s government respected media freedom, and insists that he was never prevented from printing stories critical of the government. However, he does not mention that many journalists have received bribes and death threats from the regime, and some have been tortured, including his own employee Lamwaka, quoted above. In 1988, she was assaulted by a Ugandan army officer after reporting on cattle thefts by government forces. In her memoir, she writes that what she experienced was so humiliating she could not describe it in print.

Pike also downplays NRA abuses in eastern Uganda, where another rebel group emerged after the NRA, which was at first welcomed by locals, committed atrocities similar to those in Acholiland. He downplays Museveni’s involvement in arming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Pike also downplays Museveni’s responsibility for the Congo war which claimed over five million lives. According to Pike, Museveni ordered his troops not to engage in business on Congolese soil. He nevertheless fails to explain how Museveni’s own brother and son came to be linked to a company that traded in smuggled Congolese diamonds during this time.

***

During the 1990s, Pike and other western journalists helped create a new narrative about central Africa. By then, many of Africa’s independence movements were a mess–in part because of western Cold War meddling, but also because of the limited capabilities of some African leaders. But Museveni, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, would be celebrated in the Western media as Africa’s great new hope. All had come to power by the gun and distained democracy, but made well-spoken promises to keep their countries in order and concentrate on development.

Western leaders from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the President of the World Bank quickly bought into the idea that Africa needed “strong leadership” –a wiggle phrase which could mean anything from a firm stance on corruption to outright tyranny. Foreign aid and military hardware flowed into the coffers of the “new leaders”. But even as the chorus of praise was rising around them, they were using Western largesse to escalate wars with their neighbors, giving rise to an orgy of violence that would claim millions of lives from Eritrea to Uganda to Congo and southern Sudan.

***

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents….”

Pike never questions whether Museveni’s harsh repression, not democracy, might have been the source of these problems; nor does he ask himself whether this repression might help explain why Uganda was so riddled with rebel groups in the first place. There is something tragic about Pike’s Combatants, which could have been a much more powerful book. Where it falls short is in the matter of empathy, like the half-hearted white religious leaders who supported civil rights in the southern United States in principle, but chastised Martin Luther King for what they considered his “unwise and untimely” civil rights activism.

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents.

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote King in frustration,“but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

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Culture

The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man

Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that the offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

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Ken Odhiambo Okoth, Member of Parliament (MP) for Kibra Constituency in Nairobi, has been in the news a lot over the last few years, mainly because of his stellar performance in his role. From late last year, however, he was ‘trending’ in the mainstream and social media not because of building a Girls’ High school at a cost that fellow MPs claim to use to put up pit latrines in their constituencies, but because he came out and disclosed that he was battling cancer. Granted, Ken is not the first Kenyan politician to disclose affliction by cancer. A few years back, Senator, Beth Mugo boldly disclosed that she had breast cancer and spoke encouragingly of her treatment journey and ‘victory’. Kisumu Governor Professor Anyang’ Nyongó, has also been public about his prostate cancer illness and treatment. Recently while breaking ground of a Cancer Diagnostic and treatment centre in Kisumu, he self-referenced as among the ‘growing cancer statistics’. Yet what makes Ken Okoth’s disclosure more significant is its gravity.

Ken Okoth, at forty-one, is among the younger crop of legislators in Kenya. He is not your typical cancer patient since many people still associate cancer with old age. When one is diagnosed with cancer at such a ‘young’ age, this apparent anomaly becomes the starting point of the conversation. Ken Okoth publicly disclosed that his colorectal cancer had progressed to stage four; meaning that he had no chance of a reversal, or treatment, only clinical management. Okoth was basically announcing that his disease was terminal and that his demise from this disease is imminent. This announcement is unprecedented in two ways: Okoth is a Kenyan politician and admitting mortality and terminality is a complete no-no among Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s political class. Secondly, as an African, dalliance with death is totally anathema. Denial of the eventuality of death, is deeply wired in our African DNA and psyche, more so in the mental constitution of the African political class.

The ‘Houdini’ Syndrome

Non-disclosure and denial of ill-health status reaches comic proportions in Africa. In the last thirty years, out of the twenty-one heads of state who have died of illness, eleven died in hospitals abroad. Usually in Europe. One assumes that an individual seeking medical care when and where they can find it is normal. However, the lengths that state machinery goes into denying, lying or explaining the ‘disappearance’ of politicians when unwell, seeking treatment, or at times has even passed away is simply bizarre.

There was the case of Togolese president, Gnassingbe Eyadama whose office strenuously denied he was ailing until he died in an airplane overflying Tunisian airspace while being rushed abroad for treatment.  Then there was Chadian leader, Pascal Yoadimnadji who died of diabetes related illnesses in Paris as his office was reassuring the public that he was improving and would soon return home.  Ghanaian head of state, John Atta Mills’ ill-heath was a loudly murmured topic. He was ‘rumoured’ to be suffering from throat cancer.  When he died in 2012, he had previously had to deny rumours of his death twice!  Even after he died, there were conflicting reports on the cause of his death. Gabonese President, Omar Bongo was reportedly in Barcelona, Spain for a whole month supposedly resting after the “intense emotional shock” of losing his wife.  Despite stories circulating that he was at an advanced stage of cancer, his office denied and underplayed his illness.  Eventually, pressure mounted because the host country media did not play along.  His office admitted he was seeking ‘routine’ medical tests.  After two days of denials of leaked information that the leader had died, his office announced his ‘sudden death’.  Then there was the president of Nigeria, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, who was reportedly unwell and sought treatment in Saudi Arabia.  He disappeared from the public for four months before ‘sneaking’ back into the nation’s capital under cover of darkness, retreated from public eyes until his death three months later.  His illness and cause of death remains a topic for conjecture to date.

In Guinea, President, Lanasana Conte had been ailing and going in and out of the country for medical treatment.  At one point the editor of a paper printed an unflattering picture of him looking frail.  He was promptly arrested and forced to publish an earlier picture showing the leader looking better.  Eventually, when he died of ‘long illness’, it was announced that he had ‘hid his physical suffering’ from the nation for years because of his dedication to duty’.  There was the case of the Ethiopian leader, Meles Zanawi who was supposedly in a health facility in Belgium for two months during which time rumours of the seriousness of his health, and even death, were stringently denied. When eventually his demise was announced, it was said that he had suddenly contracted an infection.  Among the most morbidly hilarious case was of Bingu Wa Mutharika who suffered a massive heart attack at home.  The rumour mills were busy churning out stories that he had died, but even as this was happening, he was flown off to a hospital in South Africa where after a few days his death (second death) was announced.  Zambian head of state, Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was hospitalised in Paris.  His office denied for almost two months that his condition was grave.  Unconfirmed rumours of his death led to the South African parliament observing a minute of silence that was later retracted after much embarrassment.  Back at home, there were demands that the state of the leader’s health and fitness to continue holding the office be confirmed by independent clinicians.  After much prevarication his demise was announced.  Ironically, Micheal Sata one among those who had demanded the leader’s health be confirmed, would a few years later be in the same predicament and he himself passed away in a London hospital after the standard denials of ill-health.  There is a pathological obsession with secrecy and an official playing of smoke and mirrors game with health of African political leaders as a strategy to subvert democracy by undermining accountability and staving off opposition

God Syndrome: Mortality Versus Immortality

Opacity, in matters health among politicians, even when there are tell-tale signs of frailty is intriguing. The kind of photographs Ken Okoth recently released, shows the image of an individual ravaged by chemotherapy. This reveal, by a Kenyan politician and a sitting MP, viewed together with the self-disclosure of his diagnosis brings onto the public space the issue of mortality and immortality of an African politician. In that respect Ken Okoth’s gesture is a first.

Physical infirmity, illness, and death are ultimate equalizers of all mankind. Illness shears away all the pomp and grandeur. Gone are the wailing sirens of chase cars, the coterie of hangers-on and saluting body-guards bullying all and sundry. Illness takes away the guard of honour, the decorated podium and customised lectern. Illness brings a different type of media attention. That which was craved for and adored is avoided and shunned. Politicians instead plead that their privacy be respected. Only sneaked pictures will be seen and not the ‘selfies’ Ken Okoth provided. The image of an ailing African politician underscores his or her humanity. While this should be obvious, the African politician strives to maintain a demi-god status. Note the names that they have given themselves: Osagyefo, Ngwazi, Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, ‘Mtukufu’; the glorious,adored and venerated ones.

This self-deification is by design and a carefully choreographed strategy. Approximation to immortality suggests infallibility, indispensability, omnipotence and omniscience.  There is political capital and entitlement in omnipotence because it scares away any opposition or contestation. During the late 1970s, President Kenyatta, old and ailing, began to appear less and less in public. Some politicians around him, began to plot his succession, or rather manipulate his succession to deny his Vice President a direct line to the coveted seat. The Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, who had his own ideas of how the succession should play out, declared that it was treasonous to imagine, think, encompass or utter thoughts surrounding the death of the President. Njonjo, cobbled up some constitutional interpretation that made imagination treasonous and by so doing rendered the ailing Kenyatta immortal. It was not only that one could not voice thoughts about his demise, it was treachery to even think he could die!

A few years before this, the renowned South African cardiologist, Dr. Christian Barnard had visited the country and though the state sought to treat his visit as some innocuous touristic event with no significance, rumours went around that he was in Kenya to examine Mzee’s heart. At no point was the public briefed on the prognosis of their president’s health. The culture of mystique and secrecy surrounding the life and health of the leader was carefully orchestrated to stave off any opposition. If a leader is deemed to be mortal, then it is fair game to challenge them. Njonjo was able to use this interpretation of the constitution to effectively scuttle Moi’s opponents and when Mzee died in 1978 he comfortably rose to presidency.

It is no wonder that during Moi’s twenty-four-year tenure he never ‘fell ill’. The health of the president never came into the public domain. As Moi’s reign rolled out, and multi-party politics was re-introduced, he faced more challenges than his predecessor, but his health remained a well-managed secret. The deification continued with ‘praise songs’ such as ‘Tawala Kenya Tawala’ and ‘Fimbo ya Nyayo’ composed and sung to serenade him. Today, retired President Moi is nearing a century, he is not in the best of health. Retired President Kibaki is 87 years old, and after his well-documented accident, his health status is left to speculation and rumours. Once in a while there will be unconfirmed reports of sightings of these elder statesmen at hospitals, but no official mention. Even in retirement, the myth of immortality prevails.

In America and UK in contrast the nation is kept very informed about the health of former leaders. When Ronald Reagan was stricken by Alzheimer’s disease the public were duly informed, the media gave regular updates on his progress right to the point they broke the news of his demise. George W. Bush battled Parkinson’s disease while former President Jimmy Carter managed brain cancer under full public glare. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s health was widely reported as she battled dementia.

The Passing Cloud Syndrome: Indispensability Versus Ephemerality

Illness is nature’s way of reminding us of the transitory, ephemeral nature of life, and with it, the reality that none of us is indispensable. When a bout of illness takes one away from the regular cycle of things, it creates a vacuum, albeit temporary, that must get filled. It matters not how long one is indisposed, but ‘life goes on’ and the gap is filled. The constant turning of the wheels of life is a lesson that African politicians loath. The desire to shroud instances when one is indisposed yet systems continue to run stems from the desire to maintain control. The fear of ‘looming shadows’ is among the African politician’s biggest fear. This is why it is common to hear politicians complaining about ‘political tourists’, a euphemism for potential opponents.

During a presidential campaign speech, President Moi corrupted the Kiswahili proverb, stating that “Paka akiondoka…atarudi tena”. Convoluting it to suggest that, when the cats away …it will surely return. In his utterance he was negating the wisdom that when gaps are created, others fill them up and even thrive. Moi was referring to a period he had travelled out of the country, at a time he had refused to appoint a substantive deputy. There had been questions posed on who was in charge in his absence. Moi, effectively rubbished the idea that anyone was good enough to deputize or replace him.

The notion of indispensability and irreplaceability stems from the merging of an individual’s ego and the office they occupy; they conflate themselves and the office and develop a sense of entitlement to it. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his most illuminating primer on leadership, gives tips that African leaders should take to heart. He poignantly says, ‘Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it”. Equating oneself to an office is the height of megalomania a problem that has afflicted African politics for ages. Individuals feel entitled to hold offices and take any form of contest personally and not as expression of democratic processes. In Africa, challenging an incumbent is treated as a personal affront not only by the individual but also by the people and the system. The way that opposition politicians are persecuted in almost every corner of Africa is indicative of this. The feeling of personal ownership of political office, is among the biggest challenge to the entrenchment of democracy in Africa.   Acknowledgement of mortality as Ken Okoth has done would separate the individual from an office. Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

Mystique Versus Ordinary: The Lwanda Magere Complex

There is a well-known legend of Lwanda Magere, the mythical Luo warrior. The story goes that the indomitable warrior’s body was stone-solid, and during battle enemy spears would simply glance off him. His invincibility in mystical power rendered his body as hard as a rock.   The secret of his super-human exploit was a closely guarded secret, but once it was revealed to his enemies by a bride he married from the rival tribe, he was soon vanquished. African politicians have delusions of invincibility upon attainment of the status of ‘mheshimiwa’. In this delusion of super-human status and invincibility falling ill, admitting to being ill and being in need of medical attention would be akin to conceding that they are indeed human and can be vanquished.

Maintaining this image of invincibility is a strategy to stave off any opposition to their elective positions. To maintain this image, any sign of illness is managed confidentially and an alternative narrative is woven to explain any physical changes or absence. Ken Okoth has provided a very different narrative. He has shown a human side of a politician and everyone is now lining up to secure a selfie with him. In the recent past, there is a tragi-comic case where an ailing politician in London was visited by his family who went on to report that they had even eaten a meal of ‘ugali’ with the patient only for the man to die even before the ink had dried on their statement. There was a Governor who was terminally ill and would ‘disappear’ from his County for extended periods, yet his office would issue official denials that he was ill until he unfortunately passed away.

African politicians understand the art and benefit of mystique well. The African politician does not do ordinary; all efforts are made to demonstrate that they are extra ordinary. Alternatively, America’s first black President Obama was the high-priest of ordinary with several every day Joe instances of going about life. African politicians once elected into office, lose even the capability to carry their own cell-phone. They lose the motor-skill ability of opening car-doors or even pulling a seat for themselves. Nothing demonstrates African leader’s sense of the mystique than their motorcades. The sheer power-show, in face of the poor citizenry, is supposed to demonstrate the leader’s power and invincibility. Ironically, the more the display of power, the more it demonstrates fear and vulnerability. In some countries, the leader’s motorcade includes a phalanx of horses and armoured vehicles. The large motor-cades and the heavily armed coterie of bodyguards are a modern day version of the fetishes worn by a ‘mganga’ – witch-doctor. The mganga wore a human skull, bird feathers, talons and beaks, snake skins and genitalia of reptiles. The African leader uses the same shock-and-awe tactics.

Now picture this politician, once surrounded by all these talismans and paraphernalia of power getting a bout of diarrhoea, syphilis, cholera, shingles, dementia or even diseases more ‘prestigious’ as Parkinson’s, Diabetes or Hypertension. The body ends up racked by aches, coughs and blisters and the management of health results in an emaciated image of their former selves. The myth would be shattered forever; he would be Lwanda Magere whose secret is out and the enemy soldiers would be creeping to spear his shadow. Kenyan politicians are now trooping to be seen paying homage to Ken Okoth whose ordinariness and non-mystique humanity has resonated so powerfully with the public. The writing is out there on the wall for them to read as found in the Book of Daniel: mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin. Ken Okoth’s celebrity status and popularity is not derived from flaunting of power, portrayed invincibility and omniscience, but from his exemplary service, accountability and honesty.

Omniscience Versus Vulnerability

At that point when illness strips the politician of all semblance of power, their biggest fear comes to the fore; that of placing themselves in the hands of others, admitting that there are others more capable than themselves.

There is nothing as humbling as being asked to strip and step behind an examination curtain, lie down and be subjected to examination. This feeling of vulnerability and helplessness is probably what leads many African political leaders to seek medical treatment abroad – where they are unrecognisable, basically nobody. The thought of being reduced to a normal human being with ailments is probably too much to bear. Some politicians might believe they are not safe being in such a vulnerable condition in a place where they have done so much harm.

There is also the fear that the doctor examining them might be one whose upward mobility has been affected by the poor policies they have passed or failed to pass. It could be a clinician whose working conditions have been compromised by the pilferage of the health budget. The facility could be one whose equipment are sub-standard and supplied with fake drugs because of the corrupt deal they cut during procurement.

This alone justifies running away to seek treatment elsewhere. During his presidency, the deposed Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, would reportedly seek medical treatment in Singapore. He would travel to the South Asian nation to go under the radar for weeks before returning home. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent long periods in Europe seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Every time he does so, the trips are shrouded in secrecy even as they are funded by the Nigerian taxpayer.

Frail health or illness is not the kind of thing that one would wish another, but there is no other experience that underscores equality, humanity, vulnerability and ephemerality. The problems of democracy in Africa stem from a failure to recognise these basic principles of good governance. An appreciation of equality and fraternity of all humanity would ensure equal treatment. Recognition of the non-permanence of life or situations would ensure the development of systems and institutions and not personality cults and encourage transitional politics.

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The Quest for the Kenya National Dress

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The Quest for the Kenya National Dress
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An Interview with Joy Mboya

Joy Mboya is the Director of the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi—a nonprofit institution for the convergence of the arts in Nairobi and East Africa. Between 2003 and 2005, the GoDown Arts Centre hosted the Sunlight Quest for Kenya’s National Dress; an interactive process that was designed to generate concepts for Kenya’s national attire. This project definitely advanced conversation but was not publicly adopted by a critical mass, with many Kenyans saying that the outfits were not practical or suitable for daily use. There has been little reflection on the objectives and scope of the project, the extent of its public engagement strategies, and its successes and failures. Joy spoke with us about her experiences with the project and her thoughts on Kenyan national identity.

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Back when I was in my 20s, there were very few spaces that had been fleshed out to support the newly minted fashion designer. So for the longest time, if you wanted to get anywhere, the Smirnoff Fashion Awards were huge. At this level it was quite your run-of-the-mill show; maybe somebody bought a piece or two but not too much else happened there. However, it was still exciting, and in the event that you won the local award, you qualified to compete for the global award at a ceremony attended by huge international designers and fashion houses, and maybe somebody important would notice you and something might happen.

Now, more and more, I think corporates do better in the arts when they form foundations that have a separate plan for their engagements from their general business agenda. This way, their support can be more deliberate and long-term, aside from having one moment in the light. But the Smirnoff Fashion Awards, other early fashion shows, and all the beauty pageants were real opportunities back then. Corporates were growing and solidifying their brands by linking up with fashion, glamour, contemporary style, you name it.

Patricia Ithau was a former Miss Kenya and had been a model for a long time, remaining very interested in fashion even after she left the scene.

So it was no surprise that when she had the opportunity to spearhead the idea of a national dress, she really ran with it. It would not have happened without her interest and her push at Unilever, without her saying “Here’s an opportunity, Sunlight,( a Unilever detergent brand) let’s do something”. She had a big connection with fashion designers because of her history in the industry, so she begun to seek out people she knew to see how they could be involved. She is the one who brought in the government through the Ministry of Culture, to ensure it was something the state bought into, to make everything national and formal.

The GoDown was still fairly new then—that was around 2003—and we said we would be happy to host the tangible parts of the process and coordinate whatever meetings they needed. Unilever would put out the call and then we would receive the submissions, exhibit them publicly, assist them in identifying teams of cultural experts for follow-up, that kind of stuff.

Ideating a National Dress

Early on in the process, our priority was moderating the designers to make sure they kept an open mind, that they did not get bogged down with individual perspectives but remained aware of the wider space. The first thing they did was gather all the ideas that had been submitted, pin them on the walls and stand back and ask themselves, “What’s happening here?” I think they recognized early—and this was of course rather difficult to relay—that the notion of a national dress, especially in Kenya, was going to be influenced by too many different things, and that they were never going to actually create a national dress, by themselves, from scratch. What the designers could truly offer was an informed way to see how we as Kenyans clothed ourselves, how we worked with the body and what parts of the body we emphasized, combined with what was happening in the contemporary space, and what elements of all this were worth carrying forward.

It was tough. The designers would make presentations during the earlier focus group meetings, and many people would come in actually expecting a final dress. But the designers would still be talking about concepts that were showing up in a lot of traditional dress: the cape representing a moment of ceremony or status for men; some kind of adornment across the chest; the loincloth with optional cover of the behind for women (this was where the notion of the apron came from); headdresses to make the face an obvious focal point and such. Everybody was hanging something around their ears, piercing their lips, or even wearing mud caps that they could stick feathers into, to give some examples.

The designers were wondering how to begin working with all these interesting sensibilities to create a final product. Just before they began, they wanted the public to participate in the process, so that there could be buy-in from the very beginning. Having them choose a dress at that stage was going to be impossible, so they thought through what would be a more realistic set of options. They decided that perhaps the public could choose the colours they would most prefer on a Kenyan national dress. Sunlight tied it in with a marketing gimmick about washing clothes that wouldn’t fade, which I think was a bit myopic. Marketing is fine, but not if it is going to interrupt an intricate, important process.

The ideas that the designers actually put forward were just concepts. They never, ever, described them as dresses. They wanted to put these out so that Kenyan fashion designers would begin to design original pieces interpreting them, which they would then sell to the people, also hoping that some members of the public would be a bit adventurous and absolutely do their own thing. Building familiarity with and acceptance of these would need a huge marketing push, obviously. Fifty million shillings had already been spent mobilizing ideas from the nation, taking the designers to visit different places to learn about different cultures, putting together focus groups, having presentations, and all.

So How Did You Sustain That Kind of Momentum and Energy?

This was where Patricia was really clever and strategic—she knew that once the brand was done making their statement, they weren’t going to throw any more millions into the project. That was her main reason for bringing in the Kenya Government, through the Ministry, because hopefully they would become excited enough to kind of keep this thing going.

That was the grand hope, that these things would find their own legs. Some of the designers who were not part of the original process began to pick it up. Wambui of Moo Cow* (*Wambui Njogu, one of the two founders of the Kenyan fashion label Moo Cow, which was established in 2002.) did some funky leather aprons that could be worn over denim jeans. People got excited about making their own extended aprons from the neck all the way down. Even the government picked up some elements of it. One of our sports teams actually made some of the concepts into the team costume, of course in the Kenya colours. The ladies had a red skirt, with black trim, embroidered on, which suggested the apron—I don’t think there was a separate flap. The men in that particular group had the three-notch treatment at their necklines.

Ideally, we would be seeing pieces evolved from the national dress concepts all the time, not just for special occasions or trips abroad, until it was no longer new or weird and it became part of how we saw ourselves. We would be feeling like we needed these pieces for our full identity, and starting to buy them. We didn’t have that opportunity to make a lasting presence, however. One thing that ended up happening was that designers made items that the public considered overpriced and were labelled as luxury items when the designers didn’t intend them to be seen that way. They were just trying to make back their money and make a decent profit. Nobody quite picked up the cape. I wonder whether it was too expensive or if they just were wondering, “How am I going to pull this off?” But we almost introduced it again when Willy Mutunga was Chief Justice. We said we would be happy to pull together a team of designers to really think about the Supreme Court judges’ dress. He was excited about that*.

*Kenyan judges eventually opted to retain their existing robes, but made the donning of the whitish-grey horsehair wigs optional. Mutunga, Hon. Justice Dr Willy, S.C., Dressing and Addressing the Kenyan Judiciary, 2011, Kenya Law Journal, Nairobi, Kenya

One of the designers said, “Hang on, what if we revive the cape from the national dress? We could rethink it for the Chief Justice, maybe for the big ceremonies so he doesn’t have to wear it all the time?”

That idea was taken to the judges and some of them thought it was a bit too much. I remember meeting one of them in the corridor and he asked, “Joy, what are you guys about to dress us in? Taking us back to hides and skins?*”

*Kenyan Judges Change Titles, Dress Code, 2011, The Daily Monitor, Kampala, Uganda

People always come back to me and to the Godown, trying to find out what happened to the national dress, and why it just vanished into the ether. University students especially have come by to investigate this as part of their Master’s Degree, so all their theses must be sitting around somewhere*.

Misati, Beatrice N., Kenya National Attire: Factors Influencing adoption, 2008, School of Arts and Design, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya 

Imo, Beatrice Elung’ata, Adoption of the Kenya National Dress as a Basis for Developing a Decision-Making Model for the Local Industry, 2013, Department of Fashion Design and Marketing, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

Many of them were a lot more interested in the process of the design. But most feedback from the general public was asking the question, “Why did you think that you could prescribe a dress for us that was not the dress we wanted?”

We’d all conveniently forgotten the extensive public participation and iteration. But I also think that some things just take time, and perhaps people only really get into a thing like this when given a certain amount of time. Perhaps the national dress needed that kind of continuous engagement so that ten years on we would consider saying, “Actually, what happened to the apron? What happened to the shirt?” People needed to interpret their own nationhood through growing familiarity with the national dress concepts. They needed to be reassured that these concepts had actually come from long deliberations over our diverse origins and cultural heritage, and that the concepts were open for all kinds of interesting interpretations as time passed, not just what the designers had put together back then.

We needed exhibitions and discussions over a much longer period than we imagined, to get a project of this weight to stick and gain traction with the people. The Sunlight process with the public and the designers provided the opportunity to say, “If you create something that doesn’t reference heritage or doesn’t pay attention to culture, Kenyans will reject it.”

Coming To Terms with the Rejection

But diverse cultural references were there, and yet there was still rejection.

So was it that it was not pretty enough, and if so, what could people have wanted ‘pretty’ to be? I don’t know. The most interesting question now, for me, is how to get to the root of what Kenyans are actually complaining about, because it wasn’t clear then and in many ways it still isn’t. None of the shirts ever took off in any way so the men did not really have anything, but there had been a few ideas here and there that the women had found interesting. There was even a concept of the dress for women who wore hijab. I think there was also a real missed opportunity in the Minister for Culture—that was Balala*, then.

* Hon. Najib Balala, who served as Minister for Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services between 2003 and 2004.

He would seize on anything that would amplify his ministry and his role. He could have said, “For as long as I’m the Minister for Culture let me just keep this thing alive.” I think that perhaps the urgency was just not seen at that time. Perhaps the designers didn’t succeed in communicating that the concepts they saw were prototypical aesthetics, if they can be called that. That the way that women in one community would cover themselves across the front was by using a loin cloth, certainly, but that loin cloth was not exactly the same from one community to another. Everybody did it in whichever material was locally available, for their local climate and regional sensibilities. So, again, there was never going to be a national dress in that immediately formulaic sense of, “Ah, that’s a Kenyan dress. Are you Kenyan?” “ Yes.” “ I see you’ve got an apron, and the other Kenyan’s got a different apron.”

How Do We Just Accept That We’re so Incredibly Diverse and Different?

It was not going to be like that for a long time, at least, not without continuity, public education and sustained visibility. It was always going to be a difficult project. It would have been progressive to keep it alive for a decade or two and see what would we would have had in the end. I think Kenyans are beginning to accept is that one of the things that stands out about us is our diversity. We haven’t reduced that diversity yet into a single thing or a few core things in the same way that the West Africans seem to have done. I do not know how they did it. Perhaps their kingdoms and organizational structures were much more visible, and therefore notions of kings, chiefs and ceremonial dress were much more immediate in their minds than in ours? I have no idea. But more and more now I wonder, “How do we first of all just accept that we’re so incredibly diverse and different?”

How can we become excited about that, and then allow it to organically find the things that will coalesce into the cores, into the singles? Everything else that remains can just be allowed to stay different, you know? Maybe trying to look at these things in only one way is a reason we will continue going astray, or asking ourselves questions that have no answers.

In terms of diversity, one of the people who has a wonderful story around that is Tabu Osusa of Ketebul*, who says that when Kenya did a showcase at the 2014 Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Institution, our musical presentation was called exceptional because it was so diverse.

*Ketebul Music, a Kenyan record label and studio founded in 2007.

People already knew the South African sound, or the West African kora which was lovely and beautiful but nothing was really changing. It was just the same kinds of sounds all the way through. But when they saw the Kenyan spread, they began to pay attention because it couldn’t be defined by one thing or a few things. So my thought now is to interrogate that and figure it out, instead of panicking and seeing it as a problem.

It is not clear whether the failure of this project to gain traction with the Kenyan public was due to the communication and marketing, the underestimation of the work and time needed by the parties involved, or a combination of these and other factors. Several things have happened in the thirteen years since this process, with regard to urban national conversations on identity and fashion.

The Africa Rising narrative, with increased optimism about Africa’s future and greater continental esteem, has led to the opening up of cultural borders to new generations of young Kenyans. This has had a wider audience because of access to tech, information and social media, with more of them finding ways to integrate cultural pieces not just into ceremonial or occasion clothing, but also into practical, everyday garb. The 2009 publication of a national culture and heritage policy* openly declared state interest in development of national attire. (National Policy on Culture and Heritage, 2009.)

There is also a greater desire for and consumption of clothing designed by Kenyans and inspired by Kenyan cultures. It is possible that this set of brewing cultural conditions could better demonstrate the importance of a national dress, beyond an abstract need to stand out from other Africans in international fora. Perhaps wider cultural dialogue must occur before a national dress can truly evolve from our shared, diverse ethnic experiences in a way that will be more widely acceptable to citizens. It is also possible that national dresses evolve organically from cultures only when they are ready to do so, and that it is not a shortcoming to lack one.

 

Endnote

The 2004 Sunlight Quest for a National Dress remains a critical attempt to create recognizable national symbols through attire, beyond the flag, the national anthem, the coat of arms and the public seal*.

(Article 9: National Symbols and National Days, from Chapter 2 – The Republic, The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, Kenya.)

This interview was originally published in the fashion book Not African Enough ( 2017) by the Nest Collective and republished with their permission.

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