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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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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

Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society

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

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

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

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

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

The evolution of digital tea and receipts

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

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

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

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

The rise of online ‘tabloids’

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

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

Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we love and loathe tabloids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gossip as a function of power

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

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

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

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

Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of Kenya’s grapevine 

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

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

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

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Culture

The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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