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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.

***

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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Joy Mboya is the Executive Director of The GoDown Arts Centre, the leading nonprofit multidisciplinary arts facility in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a performer and cultural activist.

Culture

The African Roots of Cuban Music

How socialist Cuba’s foreign policy of solidarity with Africans, midwifed a new genre of music on the island.

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The African Roots of Cuban Music
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British sociologist Paul Gilroy suggested the history of culture in the Atlantic world is characterized by constant exchange. One of the most traceable elements of that exchange, is the musical connections between communities of African descent on either side of the ocean. These musical practices operate as sites of resistance, cultural retention, and social cohesion that allow us to understand some of the ways we all are formed by trans-continental processes.

During the dawn of recorded music in the early part of the 20th century, Cuba—one of many New World sites of African and indigenous resistance to European colonisation and enslavement—would become a hotbed for musical export in the emerging industrialized system of music distribution. Folk musical traditions from across the island would come together in Havana’s studios, and then get dispersed around the entire Atlantic world. In the early part of the 20th Century, Cuban musical styles like son, mambo and guaguanco followed migrants and sailors out across the Atlantic, hitting radio waves in the ports of landing, and spreading throughout the interior of the countries they landed in.

With its strong traces of West and Central African rhythms, this music would find legions of devoted followers on the African continent. Local artists would try their hand at recreating the sound, and start to mix elements of their own local traditions creating what we now know as Congolese rumba, soukous, mbalax, semba, kizomba, and highlife, etc. These styles, amongst many others on the continent, would go on to form the backbone of national identity in the post-independence period, their propagation supported with enthusiasm by the leaders of the new nations. They are also the ancestors of many popular music sounds on the continent today.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Kiki on Conga. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 shook off the final shackles of American empire and posed a challenge to the hemispheric dominance of US imperial capitalism. In the Cold War propaganda machine, Cuba would go on to become the western hemisphere antithesis to everything its larger and more powerful neighbor to the north stood for.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it). In Africa, countries like Angola would strengthen their ties with Cuba during the Cold War, but the outsize cultural influence that Cuba held in the Atlantic world, pre-revolution, would leave a void that would quickly be filled by Jamaica, Brazil, and the Cuban and Puerto Rican diasporas in the US. Cuba itself would turn more inward, its cultural production burdened by the heavy weight of nostalgia and nation building—European, indigenous, and African roots fighting it out in a perennial dance on top of the ruins of the Spanish empire.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Youth of Chicharones. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

The beauty in black Atlantic cultural formation is in the continual exchange of information that persists between peoples of African descent across language, national borders, and even time. This “counter-culture” of western modernity utilises and navigates systems that were designed to exploit and repress the communities from which it came. So naturally, on the back of western capitalism, African popular music influenced by Cuba would repeat the process initiated in the early 20th Century, finding receptive audiences back on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. In places like Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Cartagena and Baranquilla, the process of acculturation and hybridiation would repeat, and Africa would have its turn to make its mark on the popular musics of the Caribbean in the latter part of the century.

While Cuba had technically been independent for at least a half century before sub-Saharan African nations, one could argue that Cubans found their true independence in conjunction with their peers on the continent

It would take until more recently, in the wake of political and cultural revolutions driven by youth on the African continent, and a global revolution in communication technology for similar processes to happen in Cuba. And that’s where Puerto Rican brothers Eli and Khalil Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s latest documentary Bakosó: Afrobeats in Cuba picks up.

The opening scene in the film shows Havana-based DJ Jigüe tuning into a radio interview with an artist named Ozkaro to hear that “something” is happening 700 km away in his home province of Santiago. A new musical genre, bakosó, was developing, and local artists such as Ozkaro were blending Afro-Cuban folk and popular music with contemporary continental genres like afrobeats, afrohouse, and kuduro. There are huge parties with hundreds, maybe thousands of fans in a public square, new dance styles and crews, and the city’s existing set of rappers and reggaetoneros are enthusiastically taking to the genre.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

DJ Jigüe. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Jigüe decides that he needs to go back home after being disconnected and see what is going on in Santiago. This personal journey home, to a place of roots, serves as a metaphor in the film itself, for bakosó’s origin story, and for Cuban’s engagement with African culture in general. This, along with other devices employed by the directors, such as the folkloric dance performance that bookends the film, create a form-defying, yet accessible introduction to Cuba’s cultural landscape.

Once in Santiago, we travel with Jigüe to meet Ozkaro in his home studio where they discuss the difficulties in being an artist in Santiago: the lack of technology with which to produce and the challenge of being distant (or rather disconnected) from Havana where the largest media houses are. The absence of such hurdles is taken for granted in the global North. In the production of the current mainstream global pop sound, access to state of the art technology is a necessary prerequisite. Even with these limitations, Cubans have no problem accessing sounds from Africa. That’s because contemporary African genres arrived in Cuba from a surprising source: medical students from Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, and across the continent.

DJ Jigüe and Ozkaro. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.Some bakosó producers offer explanations as to why they think the African students’ music has been taken up with enthusiasm by the public in Santiago. Reasons dance around the idea of African retentions, sometimes slipping into essentialist tropes common across Latin America like, “Santiageras have a certain sexuality.” But, it’s Ozkaro who provides one of the most profound insights when he explains the importance of the clave rhythm to the Cuban public. His insight is interesting because it is an electronically programmed clave that has become the most pronounced element across many African popular music genres, and was one of the main rhythms that African audiences had originally connected with when Cuban music reached their shores.

The film moves on from there to explore more of the African retentions embedded in Santiagero culture, and explains the conditions that birthed a strong African consciousness in this part of the island. In a scene where the group Conexión Africa is recording a song called “Africa” with an Angolan football club’s banner on the wall of the booth, one can tangibly feel such African consciousness manifesting.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Bakosó party. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

While this celebration of Africa in Cuba is inspirational, the film is a bit overburdened by the weight given to the personal allegory of a return to African roots (and subsequent journey out to share them with the world). Beyond just a connection to roots, it must be understood that the birth of this new musical genre was assisted by Cuba’s state foreign policy of building global South solidarity, and aiding the African liberation movements. The film lightly touches on this. For example, Jigüe mentions the history of Cuban military support for Angola, and how this action is thought upon fondly by many of the Angolan students who arrive to Cuba. The film, however, would have benefited from more of this political context to balance out Jigüe’s romanticism.

One section, if expanded on, would have gone a long way to rectify this issue, and that was the story of how a nationwide Africa Day celebration came to be in Cuba. Nayda Gordon, the founder of a youth African dance troupe, Sangre Nueva, explains how years ago African students would only practice their cultures with each other in parties and celebrations behind the closed doors of the medical schools. The cultures of these students piqued her interest, so she reached out to a medical student named Demba and together they organized to form the troupe. A former African medical student, Dr. Ibrahim Keita, mentions Demba and a committee that was formed ten years ago with the aim of integrating African students more with the local community. Keita alludes to the fact that this committee helped bring about the Africa Day festivities and claims, “if Kuduro is being accepted by Cuban youth today, it’s because that was our intention.”

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Santiago, Cuba. Image credit Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

Gordon’s personal motivation to connect with strangers is fascinating. It would be interesting to contextualize her initiative in relation to Cuban social norms and find out why it was important for her to connect Cuban youth with African culture. Also, the modes available for building programs of integration through grassroots solidarity in Cuba are unfamiliar to me, and in the film this section passes very quickly. It left me wondering: What was the committee? Who all was involved? And, how did they managed to gain state support? An international audience especially would have benefited from further exploration of these questions.

After the Revolution, Cuban cultural production would become cut off from capitalist networks of trade, though the nation would retain some influence in the Caribbean and South America (despite US attempts to prevent it).

Jigüe mentions over and over that this or that could happen “only in Santiago.” This perhaps works best in a local context amidst a continued struggle with racial inequality on the island, but not so much outside of Cuba. Because, rather than exceptional, the formation of a genre like bakosó, and the conditions that allowed it, is a process that I have personally seen repeated over and over across the Atlantic world (admittedly thanks to a little passport privilege and a fast internet connection). Kuduro, afrobeats, and afrohouse themselves are a result of such processes, and this is not the first time director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi has been there for such moments. He previously documented the growth of hip hop in Cuba with his film Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano and the rise of hiplife in Ghana in Homegrown: Hiplife in Ghana.

What is exceptional about Santiago that makes it stand out amongst its hemispheric neighbors are the social conditions that allowed this exchange to happen. In contrast to North America—where corporate streaming platforms and an “Africans! They’re just like us” narrative are propelling Afropop into the mainstream—in Cuba a state policy of global South solidarity, has merged with an African consciousness embedded amongst the people. This political formation is what opened pathways for integration between Cubans and their African immigrant neighbors. Paradoxically, at a time when much of us are hyper-connected, in the face of digital disconnection, Cubans were able to connect with Africa via Africans themselves. So, bakosó remains as a unique cultural space in a world where cultural difference seems to be melting away—it is wonderful, simply, because it is still a story of a specific place, and a sound for a specific people, at a specific moment in time.

Still, what may be most exciting for audiences in regards to both the film and the music itself is that they allow us to romanticize the potentials and possibilities they symbolize. Bakosó, as a gift to Cuba from the African nations that were touched by Cuba’s influence, being sent back to the island that helped define what it means to be African in the modern world. With beautiful cinematography, and an innovative take on the documentary genre, the Jacobs-Fantauzzi brothers have done a great job in documenting this exchange on another leg of its journey.

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

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Culture

The Clergy and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance

What Kenya needs is not a clergy in bed with politicians but one that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable.

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There has been an ongoing debate in the last couple of months about the hefty cash donations politicians make to churches and to individual clergymen in Kenya. There have also been debates about the impact of money on the relationship between the church and the state, and about by the political class co-opting church leaders. There is even talk now about politicians radicalising thousands of angry, disenfranchised, jobless youth through cash donations and political and religious ideologies. An emerging Christian nationalism that is inspired by populist politics in many parts of the world also has many observers worried. Money, economic disenfranchisement and religious ideologies are blamed for this emerging trend.

A large section of Christian evangelicals in Africa, for example, support populist politicians including former President Donald J. Trump. In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics in the last couple of years and this could lead to seriously compromising the religious leaders’ ability to stand up to the political class.

Deputy President William Ruto has caused a furore over the millions of shillings he has been donating to the churches. Ruto has sought to create an image of himself as a God-fearing generous giver, as demonstrated in the many churches he has visited, the questionable source of the money donated notwithstanding.

The clearest example of this is the dichotomy now playing between the president-led Kieleweke and Deputy President-led Tanga Tanga factions of the ruling Jubilee Party. When they took their battles to the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) in Kenol area of Murang’a County on 4 October 2020, it led to the deaths of two young men. The commotion created at Gaitegi AIPCA church by the two opposing factions is the latest testament of how the church has been infiltrated by the dark forces of political rivalry.

On 11 January 2021, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministries (JIAM) was back in the limelight. A video circulating on social media showed the evangelist-turned-politician-turned-Ruto supporter dishing out money to scores of people.

While some church leaders in the Anglican and the Catholic churches have clearly told politicians to keep their money off their pulpits, the majority of Kenya’s clergy, especially those of the evangelical and the pentecostal persuasion — and particularly the prosperity gospel-allied churches — see absolutely nothing wrong with this. Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, while speaking in a multisectoral initiative against corruption in 2019, warned ACK clerics against accepting corrupt money. “Let us not allow Harambee money to become a subtle way to sanitise corrupt leaders,” said Sapit. Deputy President William Ruto and a coterie of politicians allied to him promptly answered Sapit: “We will continue to worship Jehovah God with our hearts and substance. We are unashamed of God and unapologetic about our faith.”

In Kenya, money, ethnicity and religion have apparently taken centre stage in national politics.

On 24 October 2020 Ruto held a fund-raising meeting for the St Leo Catholic Church in Sianda, Mumias East. Evidently, the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown had not locked up the DP’s purse. Clearly, it’s not only the evangelical leadership that covets politicians’ money. While the Anglican and Catholic churches’ leadership have clearly specified their criteria for receiving donations, and have at the same time asked the politicians to keep off their pulpit and keep their money, evangelical and pentecostal churches, especially those aligned to the prosperity gospel, see nothing wrong with accepting money from politicians. There have been public spats and bitter exchanges in the country that essentially encapsulate a debate that has not only refused to go away, but one that divides Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Kenyan Church and its credibility

Struggling with a legitimacy crisis since the 2007/8 post-election violence (PEV), the church leadership seems to have abandoned its flock, divided by ethnicity and politics as it is.  Archbishop David Gitari (ACK), Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Catholic Church and retired Rev. Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) fought for democracy, freedom of expression and multiparty politics during Daniel T. arap Moi’s dictatorial reign and have often been described as the architects of social justice and as the conscience of the nation.

The emergence of evangelical pastors driven by the gospel of prosperity seems to have undone all the foundational work that these mainstream church leaders fought so hard to set up. The PEV exposed the underbelly of the Kenyan church as it were and since then, the church has never been the same and it has struggled to recover its image as the moral compass of the nation. The National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that brings together all the protestant churches, even offered a public apology, acknowledging that the Church had let down Kenyans.

Given the fact that liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other, the churches’ acceptance of hefty cash donations from politicians has led Kenyans to question the very credibility and legitimacy of these churches’ leadership. Yet the co-option of religious leaders by the state and politicians is nothing new. The Deputy President’s  donations to churches have brought to the fore the causal inter-play between church and state, the intersection between faith, politics and governance issues. The donations have also raised critical questions about the relationship between Christianity and religio-ethnic politics.

Christianity and religio-ethnic politics

Religio-ethnic political competition and mobilisation have increasingly become the defining features of electoral politics in Africa, Kenya included. In Kenya, God, politics, money and ethnicity are often inseparable. Yet church politics, money and ethnicity have recently assumed centre stage. During the 2013 and 2017 general elections, for example, political competition was increasingly defined and characterised by the use of the notions of God and tribe. The appropriation of biblical language and rhetoric and its imagery by politicians during the campaign periods sought to paint their politics as God-driven and God-ordained, while casting their antagonists’ politics as driven by the dark, evil forces of Satan and witchcraft.

Prior to the 2013 general elections, the Jubilee Coalition presidential candidate and his running mate, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, faced criminal charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). To fend off the ICC, the duo turned to religious rhetoric and portrayed their tribulations as the work of the devil and the opposition, then led by Raila Odinga. They also referred to the civil society as the “evil society.” Uhuru and Ruto traversed the country, holding political rallies camouflaged as prayer meetings, accompanied by a retinue of clergymen who would lay hands on them and anoint them with special oil, as they prayed fervently, casting away ICC demons, castigating the opposition and condemning the “evil society”.

Their political nemesis, Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA), equally appropriated religious rhetoric. Raila promised to lead Kenyans to a new dawn by taking them to Canaan, the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey. He appropriated the biblical imagery of the Book of Exodus, where he likened himself to Joshua, who would lead the people out of slavery into the “promised land”. The imagery became a rallying call for millions of his followers. In 2019 and 2020, Deputy President Ruto not only appropriated Christian theological language, but also became one of the biggest church funders just like President Moi before him.

In a bid to outdo everyone, Ruto has elevated the prosperity gospel and its proponents, the self-styled prophets and bishops, to unprecedented levels of self-importance. In the process, he has cleverly cultivated a Christian nationalistic image, subtly appropriating pentecostal language in his public speeches. He has also been accused of taking advantage of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of unemployed youth in a way that could potentially radicalise them.

Ruto’s cosy relationship with the clergy should be understood in the light of religio-political and ethnic mobilisation that has now become the defining feature of post neo-liberal politics in Kenya and beyond. During the 2010 constitutional referendum, Ruto aligned himself with the Christian clergy to oppose the new constitution. Since then, the relationship between the Deputy President and the Christian right in Kenya has blossomed, the allegations of corruption made against him notwithstanding; Ruto has his allies in the church.

Liberal democracy thrives where the secular and religious domains keep a safe distance from each other.

In a country reeling from massive debt, loss of employment and the coronavirus pandemic, the clergy has been silent as Kenyans go through unprecedented suffering, massive job losses, a weak public health infrastructure, corruption, and the theft of medical equipment donated by humanitarian people and organisations. Their loud silence in the wake of the high numbers of deaths of medical personnel, the doctors’ strike and the controversial BBI politics, has been deafening.

But Ruto’s disturbing relationship with the clergy is not anything new. Moi heavily appropriated religion and created for himself an image of a God-fearing politician who not only attended church service ritually and piously every Sunday, but who also heavily invested in the churches and the clergy by contributing large amounts of money and allocating them large tracts of land.

Politicians have perfected the art of appropriating religion in times of crises. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have been calling on religious leaders to offer prayers as they call on the people to repent their sins. While there is nothing wrong with politicians asking for frequent and collective prayers when the country is faced with crises, Kenyans also need to question how they are governed and what the priorities of their politicians should be. No amount of prayers will ever take away bad governance, corruption, disease, inequality, poverty, road accidents and violence. These are policy issues that have everything to do with ethical and just leadership, the rule of the law, governance of national resources, respect for human rights, well-equipped and functional hospitals and efficient public service delivery, and little to do with religion.

Deputy President Ruto’s relationship with the clergy must be understood through the prism of, not just the politicisation of religion, but also its implications for good governance, and for the church and the state. The Jubilee Party administration has since 2013 been weakening the church’s leadership by compromising it with money so that the clergy does not call out on its excesses.

In Kenya, the church and the state have always had a symbiotic relationship. The clergy has always tried to co-opt political leaders while the state has always been involved in schemes to co-opt the church. This is not to ignore the fact that the leaders of certain mainstream churches have, in certain critical political moments, stood their ground and urged the government to abandon its authoritarian tendencies, and even pushed for constitutional reforms.

After the promulgation of the new Constitution of Kenya 2010, mainstream churches took a back seat as pentecostal and evangelical churches occupied the centre stage of the country’s political arena. Ruto has ostensibly found dependable allies in the majority of evangelical churches, who see him as a generous giver and one who fits in well with their health-and-wealth gospel.

This is not peculiar to Ruto. Politicians across the country continue to appropriate religious idioms, language, rhetoric and symbolisms. We are witnessing the same developments in other African countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — politicians appropriating religion as a means to their political ends. In 2016, Donald Trump appealed to the evangelical right and their unwavering support helped him win his presidential bid. In 2020 Trump again appealed to the same Christian right to try to win a second term. He appropriated religion and mobilised the evangelical right to cast himself as the protector of religious rights from neo-liberals, socialists and leftists.

The Ruto factor in churches and its implications for governance

William Ruto projects the image of a God-fearing man under perpetual siege from the political dark forces of Satan. He gives the impression that his Christian faith has helped him overcome the forces that his political enemies are using to fight him. While his enemies are busy working hard to make him look bad in the eyes of the electorate, the church, it seems to me, has also been working overtime to paint him in the light of a generous servant of God who is largely misunderstood. Even as his enemies describe him as a most corrupt, divisive and ambitious politician, the church makes him look humble and decent and “a fearfully made child of God” who is a victim of political machinations.

Ruto’s spirited efforts to be allied with the clergy must be understood within the context of a search for a Christian legitimacy and social respectability. The Deputy President could also be looking for approval and acceptance from the clergy. He is looking to his faith to repair a badly damaged public image that has refused to go away: the image of a fabulously wealthy politician who passes himself off as a humble servant of God who speaks the language of the downtrodden. And so the apparent association with the church is a quest to portray himself as a victim of dynastic politics that are jealous of his “hustler” beginnings and that do not want him excelling in national politics. In short, Ruto is using the church to advance his overarching political ambitions.

Like many a politician before him, Ruto has appropriated religion during this period of turmoil in his political career to draw, not just admiration, legitimacy and respect, but also empathy and pity. The late President Moi appropriated the Christian faith to cleanse his autocratic regime. Zambia’s President Fredrick Chiluba declared himself a Christian and Zambia a Christian nation, despite the massive corruption dogging his country. The recently deceased President John Magufuli declared that God had healed Tanzania of the COVID-19 pandemic. He appropriated religion and notions of God in his populist politics in a way that appealed to millions of religious people wish want to see God at the centre of politics and governance.

Intent on getting money and socio-political power to influence public policy, the Church has opened itself to the vagaries of political pedlars. To that extent, hunger for power, particularly political and social power play, is no longer the preserve of politicians. The Kenyan clergy also wants a piece of that power and influence. Hence, spiritual power is hardly the driving force of these religious leaders who no longer view politics as a dirty game. On the contrary, many clergy now see politics as a means to financial, social and political power. African pentecostal and evangelical clergy (with the exception of a few who are well-grounded in proper theological training) lack the philosophical and theological tools to engage the state or politicians. Many rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture and socio-political phenomena. Pentecostal clergy are also prone to populist politics and, more importantly, they are less likely to criticise a dictatorial government. They prefer to pray away issues including pandemics like COVID-19. They are beholden to faith healing, miracles and the gospel of prosperity. Human rights, social justice and poverty are not issues they like to engage with, let alone seek to understand their primary causes; they much prefer spiritualising issues.

The church leadership of the pentecostal and evangelical churches believes in creating social transformation by transforming individuals’ morals and personal lives, which is commendable. Individual transformation is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be even better if the whole society were to be fundamentally transformed. Pentecostals also place greater emphasis on the heavenly realm and the hereafter than in the hell in which many Kenyans already live. In a country under bad governance, the theology of individual transformation must be questioned. And we must ask critical the questions: how is it that a highly religious country like Kenya, where more than 80 per cent of the population identify as Christians, has not seen it fit to embrace meaningful socio-political transformation?

Religion “cleans” up people, gives them a veneer of credibility, respect and acceptance. That is why politicians align themselves with the Church. When politicians are under siege, they take refuge in the Church, even as they seek to mobilise their ethnic bases. In a kind of symbiotic relationship,  religious leaders use politicians such as Ruto to access state resources and political power. In return, politicians give the clergy not just money, but personal appeal, social power and a sense of self-importance. Such clergy crave to be seen as special “big men and women of God” who are powerful, rich and have friends in high society. One would hope that spiritual leaders would be the salt of the earth, that they would champion social justice causes as well as human flourishing, but unfortunately, like the political class, they seek power, prestige, money and state recognition for their own sake.

There are a myriad other reasons why the clergy courts politicians. In its effort to push its conservative agenda on reproductive health and rights, sex education, sexuality and gender empowerment among many other issues, the clergy’s romance with the political class is strategic: they are partners when it comes to controlling society for their own selfish ends. Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution; he clergyviewed the constitution as too liberal in matters of sexuality, reproductive health rights and women’s place in society.

There has also been religious mobilisation and contestation over sexual and reproductive health rights and choices in Kenya, as recently witnessed with the Reproductive Health Bill (2019) and during the 2019 UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) held in Nairobi. On the two occasions, religious leaders and their powerful lobbies employed mobilisation tactics to oppose the Reproductive Bill and the ICPD25 conference. Demonstrations were recently held against the Reproductive Health Bill — also christened the abortion bill or the Susan Kihika bill — because of its supposedly neo-liberal agenda.

Kenyans have not forgotten that religious leaders coalesced around Ruto to oppose the adoption of the 2010 constitution.

The influence of the American evangelical far right is also evident in Kenya’s conservative churches, especially in the area of sexuality and reproductive health rights. The American evangelicals’ support for President Donald J Trump — who is not a Christian by any standards but uses Christianity for his own political ends — is alive in African evangelical circles. Some of the evangelical pastors here in Kenya are reported to have prayed for Trump as he battled to win a second term in the 4 November 2020 elections. One of the reasons evangelicals support Trump is because he aligns himself with the Christian right’s ideologies and conservative positions on a score of social and political issues.

It is also a fact that evangelical churches here in Kenya receive a lot of funding from the American evangelical right. The same logic explains the clergy’s relationship with politicians in Kenya. It is a money thing. And it is not hard to see. In its 10th month now, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many Kenyans vulnerable and in dire need of financial help. Yet the Church leadership has chosen to pursue its narrow agenda of cavorting with the political class in exchange for financial gain, self-aggrandisement and the opportunity to influence public policy.

A dozen years after PEV, the church leadership in Kenya does not seem to have learnt any lessons. It has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché. It has refused to be spiritually blackmailed and financially manipulated. That generation is daily debunking the myth of spiritual power and torment.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are important actors, key elements and important forces within civil society. Religion is also important in the lives of many Africans, Kenyan’s in particular. A recent Pew Research Poll found that more than 85 per cent of Kenyans said religion was very important to them. There are a number of reasons why religion is important to Kenyans. First, religion provides Kenyans with the language to make sense of their suffering. Secondly, religious people want to see good people voted into government because they believe they can bring ethical leadership and decency to public life. Christians want to see good people voted in, people who promote healing, national cohesion and economic betterment.

The Church has become the butt of crude jokes on social media from a woke generation that does not fear and is not beholden to the “touch not my anointed servants” cliché.

But this is not the case. Instead what we have is a clergy that is in bed with the political class. Co-option of the clergy is bad for democracy and governance. When the Church and its clergy accept monetary contributions from politicians, it compromises them. The Church loses its voice, conscience and ability to hold politicians and the state accountable. In a country reeling from corruption, bad governance, gender and sexual abuse, high incidences of teenage pregnancy, police violence, poverty, ethnic marginalisation, inequality, ethnic tensions and the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya needs a clergy that can boldly speak up against the state and hold political leaders accountable even as they set a good example of moral leadership themselves. Kenya needs a new moral compass and consciousness, an alternative imagination from both citizens and religious leaders. But such leaders in Kenya today are few and far between; partisan politics always has its consequences, more so for the church leadership.

The Ruto factor in church can therefore be understood as a weakening of the structure of the church and the co-option of its leadership. Yet, it also speaks of the church’s lack of philosophical and theological tools to deal with such infiltration, a lack of ethical and moral underpinning to resist such an injudicious relationship. Yet I proffer that it is not too late for religious leaders to rethink their nebulous association with the political class and to re-engage the Kenyan people in their quest for social justice and human flourishing.

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Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?

“Conservancies” in Kenya are presented as an example of conservation by and for local people, but they can be a device to grab land. Unless this changes, the future for wildlife conservation looks bleak.

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Are Kenyan Conservancies a Trojan Horse for Land Grabs?
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There are two approaches to exercising your imperial ambitions over others. One is simply to invade their territory with armed force and subjugate them. The other is to bring some of their own leaders, or potential leaders, onto your side with inducements or threats, and so enforce your rule indirectly. The big historical empires usually did both.

Britain, for example, famously ruled India by securing the allegiance of that vast country’s five hundred princely states, step by step. Some were defeated in battle, some were taken over with mutually beneficial trade – beneficial for the rulers, that is. Others were led to accept, even embrace, British dominion through inducements and bribery. London established its rule over the whole subcontinent and beyond even though its fighting men and civilian administrators were always vastly outnumbered by the locals. For every Brit in the “Raj”, there were always well over a thousand Indians. The numbers were only a little more balanced in Kenya, where just 23,000 European settlers dominated a realm of over five million Africans.

Of course, indigenous resistance forced the empires’ retreat and proved the imperial model to be unsustainable. But the Europeans’ belief in their own superiority, and that the rest of the world could and should be manipulated to their own advantage, proved harder to dismantle and may have as many adherents now as it had at the empires’ height.

Conservation is just one area in which colonial control remains embedded, certainly in Kenya and in much of Africa and beyond. About 20 per cent of Kenya’s land is in Protected Areas (PAs) (of which about 9 per cent is state land and the remainder is private) and they are overwhelmingly run by the descendants of white colonists and subsidised with enormous amounts of money provided by conservation NGOs and governments from northern Europe and the USA. Those which make a profit do so off tourism from non-Africans, often rich ones who can afford a minimum $1,000 per person per night for luxury holidays, with only a few crumbs from the table ever dropping into the hands of indigenous Africans. For comparison, the average salary for a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry or as a wildlife ranger is less than US$5,000 a year.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, some well-meaning conservationists finally began to note the criticism that they had been seizing indigenous and other peoples’ lands without consent, or even any pretense at consultation. They began to realise that the traditional concept of African Protected Areas, as zones which exclude local people – including those who had been living there for many generations – was in urgent need of reform. Even those with no interest in changing still recognised the pressing need for rebranding: conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

At about the same time, some white farmers in Kenya began to think that their land – originally given to them to produce food for the colony – could make them more money if they turned it into Protected Areas and start hosting paying visitors. Overall costs would be small: the properties had been stolen from Africans and handed to the settlers without charge, the houses and other facilities had been built by underpaid locals, and a bevy of servants (now called “staff”) could readily be drawn from the nearby population. On the other side of the ledger, overseas guests would be happy to fork out the same fortunes they were used to paying for luxury accommodation in the Global North, or even more as an experience of “wild Africa” was highly prized and marketable. The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden, populated largely by exotic megafauna, and popularised in literature and film throughout the twentieth century, could be a money spinner.

Conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.

The realisation that conservation dollars might be ripe for the taking seems to have first occurred in the 1980s in Lewa Downs, an old cattle ranch north of Mt Kenya which had been given to the Craig family by the colonial government sixty years before. The Craigs had already leased part of it to an Englishwoman, Anna Merz, who trucked in rhinos from all over Kenya, keeping the animals in – and Africans out – with armed guards and electric fences. Ian Craig, a former big game hunter, decided to landscape the whole ranch around wildlife tourism, bringing in more rhinos and other iconic species that visitors would pay to see.

Lewa Wilderness

Lewa Wilderness

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond. Most are promoted by a rather opaque local NGO, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), established by Craig himself in 2004, (although the NRT gives a different account of its genesis, saying the first suggestion came from Francis Ole Kaparo, former speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly) which in turn is heavily supported by the biggest and richest conservation organisation in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (more on that below).

There are now over three dozen conservancies, covering huge swathes of Kenya, totalling about 11 per cent of the country (6.3 million hectares at the last count). They have overtaken national parks in size and are often cited as the vanguard for a conservation reformation which has discarded the old “fortress” model and replaced it with “community-based conservation”, supposedly set up under the control and even ownership of local people. They have become the standard rebuff to critics who point out that wildlife protection remains essentially colonial, run by and for non-Africans.

The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond.

As so often with projects in the Global South – and many in the Global North for that matter – peeling away the propaganda can uncover hidden depths. To start with an aside, though one which resonates deeply with many Kenyans, Lewa’s links with the old colonial power remain celebrated. Prince William spent part of his “gap year” there in 2000 and was boyfriend to Ian Craig’s daughter. The royal heir remains a frequent guest, he proposed to the future queen in one of its tourist “camps”, and they named one of the guest tables at their wedding dinner after it. Ian Craig was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2016. British government ministers, including future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also visited. If you can pull the right strings, it’s easy to drop by. The largest British army base in Africa is less than fifty kilometres away, just a few minutes’ helicopter hop.

Boris Johnson visits Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Boris Johnson visits Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Reuters

Land use in northern Kenya is key to understanding how the conservancies have been established and the problems they are throwing up. As the cool, fertile slopes of Mt Kenya slope down to a lower plateau which extends 250 miles north to the Ethiopian border, the country becomes hotter, arid, and less conducive to settled farming. This is part of the traditional domain of several peoples who have lived from mobile pastoralism for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They herd sheep, goats, camels and, most famously for the Maasai and Samburu, cattle. At first sight, it seems like an arduous way to live in a landscape which supports little visible vegetation. But in practise, like so many “traditional” lifestyles, it is actually highly – and sophisticatedly – attuned to the environment. It depends on a high degree of mobility, with herds walking large distances to take advantage of regional precipitation, changing seasons, and the appearance or disappearance of surface water. Both herds and herders know where they are heading, and why, applying a complex understanding of the terrain and weather consolidated over many generations.

The landscape gives sustenance to livestock and people, and is then left to regenerate until another herd arrives to take its share; it’s also the stage on which these peoples have their genesis and where their identity is forged. With many different peoples (Rendille, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Pokot, etc., as well as Samburu and Maasai) using the same terrain, there is a perpetual balancing of neighbourship and shared values against the potential for friction, often over competition for grazing and water. National frontiers, drawn with rulers on maps by the colonial powers, are largely invisible and substantially porous, with troubled Ethiopia to the north and war-torn Somalia in the east.

British dominion over this part of Africa had been established for less than thirty years when the end of the “Raj” in 1947 India clearly signalled the sun was setting over the empire as a whole. After several years of armed struggle, which was met with brutal suppression by the colonials, Kenya finally saw the inevitable final lowering of the Union Jack in 1963. The British left a few thousand settlers behind, and many of their core beliefs. One was the mistrust, even hostility and disdain, with which all national governments view peoples who favour a mobile approach to life over a fixed abode: nomads, of course, are always very difficult to tax and control.

The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden populated largely by exotic megafauna could be a money spinner.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back. This is in spite of the increasing scientific realisation that the ecosystems of the great East African grass plains are actually the creation of grazing animals, which enhance rather than diminish the country. Peoples who live from mobile herding, like others who eat mainly from their hunting and gathering, enjoy a way of life which in reality improves rather than reduces biodiversity, and which has sustained a huge proportion of Africa’s population for millennia. The upper end of estimates count no less than one quarter of the population of all Africa as dependent on herding.

But the colonials saw things differently. Immersed in anthropological prejudice which placed settled agriculturalists at the apex of human evolution, they had long been in favour of reducing, and even ending, pastoralism – and subsistence hunting – altogether. The same bias was inherited by the newly independent Kenyan government which was largely dominated by those from the Gikuyu ethnic group, traditionally farmers who produced Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The herders have faced discrimination for a long time.

The British Crown had originally “given” the so-called “White Highlands”, the higher, cooler, malaria-free centre of the country, to white settlers in the 1920s, particularly to World War I veterans like Ian Craig’s grandfather. When the new landholders started erecting fences, the surrounding herders were forced to adapt, avoiding some areas altogether and grazing others only covertly, often risking arrest or armed violence when they cut fences. However, nomadic peoples, whether herders or hunters, are generally far more agile and versatile than their static neighbours, so they adapted and survived and, by and large, are still there.

After Kenyan independence, one way of continuing to try and press herders into the settled mainstream was to recognise their communal ownership, but only over restricted parts of their grazing. This was shoehorned into existing land legislation really written for peoples who stayed put. The herders, at least some of them, were awarded “Group Ranches”, in which specific kith and kin became the owners of limited areas. To represent their title to the authorities, they had to establish committees, habitually through their councils of elders—most African pastoral peoples have a codified hierarchy in age sets, where important decisions are traditionally referred to older folk.

That is an outline of the complex background of competition for land when white farmers decided to move into wildlife tourism. It was easy enough for them to embrace Craig’s conservancy model for their own farms, but when it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, the Group Ranches owned by the pastoralists, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Sometimes this might have involved genuine consultation with, and consent by, the community; in other cases, it didn’t. The elders, or sometimes just a few individuals picked up by NRT and driven to its meetings, would be asked to agree terms on a 30-year lease which gave away designated parts of their land to an “investor”, a company which would build visitor accommodation geared around wildlife viewing. In exchange, the African landowners would be given a few, largely menial, paid jobs in and around the “lodge” or luxury camp, but they would also have to provide security around its perimeter and clear any necessary roads and infrastructure, all without any further payment. The Group Ranch would receive a small fee for each night a tourist stayed, unless the visitor were an associate or family member of the investor, in which case there would be no payment. What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation. The herders had no experience in securing their own legal advice, and the contracts made no reference to Group Ranch members having access to any audited figures to check whether or not they were being correctly remunerated.

When it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.

Such agreements are not made public or translated into any local language. They would never pass scrutiny for fairness, or even legality, which is probably why copies of the contracts were not made available to some communities, and why some remain confidential to the investor decades after they were signed (Requests to be shown copies of contracts were ignored but I have nevertheless read some from confidential sources.) Moreover, when the lease ends, some are liable to be renewed automatically for another thirty years on the same terms.

“Agreements” like these are barely disguised land grabs. The herders lose part of their land for little return, with the investor taking possession to build high-end accommodation. The tourist business can then truck in some big animals, and start raking in handsome profits from rich tourists whose expectations of being waited on by bedecked, colourful African “warriors” and women are fulfilled. The waiters and cleaners are of course the rightful landowners.

In this way, self-sufficient, independent, and resilient herders have been turned into a servant sector entirely dependent on an industry which is, in turn, dependent on the whims of tourist fashion (and which has proved particularly unsustainable because of travel curtailments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic).

Another way the NRT has begun to erode pastoralism has been to establish its grip over the regional economy. It has formed a business, buying the livestock of favoured herders (but not that of critics) and selling it on to the food industry. NRT can presumably afford the financial risk because any losses can be offset by tourist profits and conservation grants from wealthy backers like The Nature Conservancy which are in turn subsidised by Western governments. Such economic domination has undermined regional markets and elevated NRT into a key economic driver of northern Kenya – all supposedly for the benefit of the local population.

Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back.

NRT can get away with all this partly because the leases are between a particular investor and a Group Ranch: NRT claims its role is merely as hands-off adviser, and denies liability for any unfairness as it’s not itself a formal party to any of the contracts. It advises the investor certainly, but any claim that it can give advice which is in the best interest of the herders at the same time is clearly not true.

Its annual reports don’t show any audited figures, as NGOs in Kenya are not legally required to produce independently verified accounts in the way they are in Europe or the USA. Requests to see them are rebuffed or ignored; how it sources its funds is vague. It can, in other words, make whatever unsupported claims it likes: the possibilities for creative accounting, to say the least, seem great.

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

NRT Conservancies

It’s understandable that knowledgeable Kenyans are suspicious of such an opaque NGO gaining effective control over much of northern Kenya and directly impacting the lives of millions of Africans. When a white Kenyan with close links to the former colonial master’s head of state is pulling the strings, such concerns are likely to be amplified, even more so when TNC’s involvement is considered – especially given some conservationists’ stated desire to stop all meat eating (aside from chicken) throughout the continent, for supposedly environmental reasons!

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars. Its headquarters are less than six kilometres from the White House in Washington, and it was headed by investment banker Mark Tercek until 2019. He used to be a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs until the financial collapse of 2008 when his bank’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis exploded. Together with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs was a major player in the mess which led to job losses for nine million Americans. This was the time that Tercek left banking for conservation, though the switch may not have involved much transformation in his worldview, or been too onerous a sacrifice for that matter: there’s little reason to think he started flying economy class, and his basic TNC salary in 2015 was $765,000. Tercek left TNC in 2019 after a sexual harassment probe into the organisation’s leadership.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars.

It’s easy to see why rich Americans getting control of pastoralists’ land in Kenya, via a local NGO with intimate ties to an old colonial élite which still keeps its army on site, is not wholeheartedly welcomed when herders debate in the shade of their thorn trees. Not being given sight of the contracts they are told they once agreed to naturally raises anxiety. There are a few young men who benefit from the jobs, and who understandably might find these developments more agreeable, but opposition remains high. It can be expressed quietly, with those herders who dislike NRT keeping their voices muted for fear that the authorities are listening out for hostile opinion which they think is seditious. Critics have been threatened, and conservationists who question NRT can find career paths shut off.

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

Independent researcher, Dr Mordecai Ogada, listens to herders’ grievances about conservancies. Copyright M. Ogada

The British army is there in force with various objectives. It’s obviously found a useful training ground, but the official reasons are to combat terrorism, support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and also to help rangers “protect elephants from poachers”. It’s true that many British taxpayers might well support their army protecting elephants, but it still raises uncomfortable questions about the merging of the roles of soldiers, police, and wildlife rangers – especially given that some of the latter are private militias employed by rich white landowners to guard their very expensive properties and wealthy tourists. The minimum price to stay a few days in one luxurious conservancy, Ol Jogi, just thirty kilometres from the army base, is over $34,000. The conservancy has nevertheless received money from a British charity, Save the Rhino, with some of the funds going to ranger training.

What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation.

Concerns are growing over how valuable this land might be aside from its tourist potential. Northern Kenya was always important geopolitically in the slicing and dicing of Africa. It was a cushion between Britain and its colonial rivals, France and Italy, and it remains a buffer between mainly Christian Kenya and war-torn Somalia, the launch pad for violent incursions by al-Shabab militants. These have been going on for years and can meet with sympathy in Muslim parts of Kenya. There is wealth under the ground too – fossil fuels, minerals, and aquifers. All stand to be more easily and profitably exploited were local African landowners to be undermined or removed. After all, Protected Areas in other parts of Africa are often leased out to oil, gas, minerals or diamond companies. It’s possible that getting rid of people from conservation zones is as much about future profits as it is about the 19th century northern European and American belief which elevates divine Nature above sinning humankind.

Even a cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them (Kalepo, Meibae, Nannapa, Narupa, Naapu, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Central, Sera, and Biliqo Bulesa), which could affect Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, and Borana. All have, or have had, mining concessions inside their boundaries.

Whatever the reasons behind the growth of the conservancy model, at first sight it’s a win-win for conservationists. They can claim the communities are equal partners, when of course they’re not; yet more of the country can be fenced off into Protected Areas for profit; and the assault on mobile pastoralism – which has long been a key refrain in conservationists’ myopic and ultimately destructive vision of “nature” without humans (except them) – can be fortified.

It’s clever, but as well as its reliance on unsustainable tourism, it embodies another key flaw which may eventually prove its undoing: it doesn’t reckon with the profound relationship many herders have with how they live with and from their animals. They have weathered droughts and conflicts over numerous generations and pastoralists know their way of life is supremely sustainable. Conservancies don’t take into account their resilience and toughness; herders don’t like being pushed around and are prepared to cut fences and risk violence when necessary to protect their livestock and future.

A cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them.

Real solutions, benefiting both people and the environment, demand discarding deep-seated prejudice, which is always the primary obstacle to real change. The stranglehold of wealthy “landowners” must be loosened. Both conservationists and the government should recognise the importance of nomadic pastoralists as valued stewards of the country’s ecosystems, and stop trying to finish with them. They should approach the herders with respect, offering resources only when asked for, which should be passed into the control of locals represented by their own spokespersons. Of course such a new approach would bring complications, especially with growing competition for resources. However, things are complicated now, and they are marching in the wrong direction.

Unless things change, it seems likely that pastoralists will reoccupy their grazing lands, by force if necessary, and so bring to an end the reign of Protected Areas altogether. Many pastoralists are now seeing that there’s less harassment where there’s less tourism. There are already protest killings, where wild animals are slaughtered, not for tusks, horns, meat, or even because they are a danger to livestock or people, but as retaliation against the land grabs which have dogged these Africans since Europeans first turned up and told them to settle down, get “civilised”, and accept their place in the divine and established order – as landless workers and servants.

I am grateful to Dr Mordecai Ogada for leading me to the problem of the conservancies through his book, The Big Conservation Lie, Mbaria & Ogada, 2016, and for commenting on this article.

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