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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

The Remarkable Revival of Ugandan Football

Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup, but at a continental level it is making a comeback. So is its club football.

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The Remarkable Revival of Ugandan Football
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As the prospect of the FIFA ban on Kenyan football being lifted improves, it might be a good time to look at the example of neighboring Uganda, and how the football sector in that country managed to pull itself out of a deep crisis. A decade ago, the state of Ugandan football looked highly discouraging: after years of internal wrangles and conflicts between the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and some of the country’s powerful clubs, as well as match manipulation, and financial accountability problems, many fans and sponsors turned their backs on the sector. The public image of both FUFA and club football was poor, and public trust and confidence were low. Meanwhile,  the popularity of the English Premier League (EPL) among Ugandan football enthusiasts was on a steady rise.

In 2022, however, Ugandan football is thriving, and it is increasingly successful internationally: The U20 male national team qualified for the 2023 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations; the winner of the last season’s Uganda Premier League (UPL), Vipers SC, reached the group phase of the CAF Champions League—only the second club in the country’s history (after Kampala Capital City Authority FC, KCCA) to achieve this milestone; the senior women’s national team won Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) competition and thus qualified for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations 2022 in Morocco (where the team went out in the group stages); the winner of the FUFA Women Super League (FWSL) 2022, She Corporate, made it into the final at the CAF Women Champions League Zonal Qualifiers (where they lost to Simba Queens from Tanzania); and Ugandan coach Charles Ayiekoh Lukula (who was in charge of She Corporate at that tournament) was hired as head coach by Simba Queens and led the club to the semi-final of the CAF Women’s Champions League in Morocco, the first time a CECAFA team reached that stage and the first time a Ugandan coached a team at this tournament.

Image credit Jörg Wiegratz ©.

In domestic competitions, there are many positive dynamics as well. The UPL is broadcast on live TV by Chinese multinational StarTimes, as part of a 10-year contract. There is also a revival of football in the various regions of the country outside the traditional football area of greater Kampala. The UPL clubs based in the north-western city of Arua and Jinja in the east did well last season and some of these teams have been competing for top UPL spots. Jinja-based BUL FC (thanks also to strong management and sponsorship) is atop the UPL table currently, and won the Stanbic Uganda Cup last season (against Vipers SC).

The fan base is growing and vibrant in a number of clubs and there are many examples of improved relationships between fans and club management. Many clubs manage to sign deals with sponsors, including those in the lower divisions and outside the UPL. Currently, more than 40 sponsors are engaged in the UPL.

The KCCA FC, which plays in the capital, just announced that it would start floodlit night games in the second half of the UPL season, thanks to the support of the club’s newly signed jersey sponsor, Chinese multinational CHINT Electric Uganda, an energy solutions company. FUFA started its own TV channel in 2022 and is broadcasting live games from various competitions (women and men; senior to school level), press conferences, and various other activities. The social media presence of FUFA, clubs, players, fans, journalists, and pundits is extensive, innovative, and captivating.There is a range of very strong and popular amateur competitions, especially in Kampala, usually played over the weekend. Artificial turf grounds have been constructed, and this supports the football of amateur teams, competition organizers, schools, academies, and communities. Arua Hill SC is building a stadium that is integrated into a larger shopping mall complex, which also has plenty of office space and hotel facilities. The club offers fans and other members of the public a real estate product—a plot and house in Kongolo Sports City. Clubs such as Vipers and KCCA made some good money from players’ sales in recent years and this helped  cover the club running costs and development initiatives, such as improvements to stadium infrastructures. Finally, football competitions at secondary school and university levels are popular with students and fans and attract significant media attention.

One could go on at length about the various current problems in Ugandan football—the issue of players’ welfare for example, but there is value in exploring what is behind the regained popularity and positive trends in the game in Uganda? How was the turn-around achieved?  I have explored these questions as part of a research project into the effects of the commercialization of football in Uganda and Kenya.

Image credit Jörg Wiegratz ©.

The leadership of the current national football association president, Moses Magogo (in power since 2013), marked the beginning of the revival of both FUFA and the sector. This was a very gradual process that had shortcomings, limitations, and setbacks. However, judging by the situation in late 2022, it was remarkably successful. Key components of this revival included FUFA being more open and responsive to external criticism; a strengthened media team; a focus on professionalization of the sector via significant capacity-building (running various training programs for clubs, coaches, sponsors, media and other professional groups that operate in the sector); a more inclusive sharing of the benefits of these programs across regions; an enlarged set of well-organized competitions (including beach soccer and the like); a boosting of women’s football; promoting commercialization efforts; successes in attracting sponsorship; and an improvement in the relationship with government.

This trend is particularly evident in the strengthening of media/PR units in many clubs (that was accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdown months when clubs had to find a way to reach and stay in touch with fans at home, for instance via the launch of club TV). Social media handlers are the norm now and the work of these committed, skilled and enthusiastic, young handlers ensures that teams provide updated, detailed, and slick mix of texts, pictures and videos about the latest happenings in their clubs, on all sorts of platforms: from Tik Tok to Twitter. Other parts of club operations, such as accounting, marketing, fan affairs, talent recruitment & development, or players’ transfers have been professionalized too.

There is “more balance and better coexistence”—as one marketing professional put it—between EPL and UPL and Ugandan football generally. Dedicated fans now prefer to go to live matches rather than watch EPL games on TV. There is a significant and increasing sense of fan culture (in terms of identity, pride, rituals and off-pitch activities), self-organization, and desired engagement with the club management. Fans reportedly buy and increasingly wear the shirts of their local club also thanks to the “wear your local jersey” initiative, and other promotional activities. For example, one club gives free access to home games this season to all undergraduate university students who show up wearing the club’s 2022/23 jersey, while another club offers free access for women and students. Fans also spend money more readily on merchandise. There is also increasing demand for easily accessible and detailed information, statistics, data and updates. The drive for, interest in, and use of statistics and data (by fans, coaches, pundits, journalists, scouts and agents) is a major feature of the sector’s development. This is also due to the influence of betting that relies on people having access to stats.

Image credit Jörg Wiegratz ©.

Ugandan football is remarkably broad-based and linked to various values and aspirations: love and passion for the game; pride in one’s city, region, country and culture; professional opportunities, jobs, business, incomes, and profits; uniting communities and strengthening identities; showcasing, supporting and celebrating talent ; inspiring youth through being a role model in one’s home community; and putting all regions on the map of national attention.

Finally, many sponsors are joining the football sector, and/or renewing their engagements with it. Sponsors are varied and include firms from across the economic spectrum. Major sponsorships from multiple large brands are seen as crucial to inject money, vitality, and confidence into the game and the future trajectory of football in the country. There is no overreliance on betting firms in terms of sponsorships.

Uganda is not an outlier in the region given positive developments too in TanzaniaRwanda, and Burundi for example. Second, in Uganda it is not just football that is on a significant upward trend but the sports sector as a whole, including in netballbasketballrugbyboxing and athletics. Multimedia company Next Media just launched NBS Sport, a 24-hour sports-dedicated channel, to extensively broadcast local sports including live-action and talk shows. Joseph Kigozi, Next Media’s Deputy Group CEO and NBS Sport General Manager reportedly noted: “We have put together a platform where Ugandan sport can leave the back pages and small segments of daily content … Sport can be a source of income for all stakeholders … We look forward to working with all involved to make this a success.”

The platforms are here now, the work on expanding and stabilizing the content provision of local sports is well underway.

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

Masculinity in Kenya: The Pressure to Provide and Perform

Heterosexual Kenyan men are unhappy and they are desperately looking for explanations for the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women.

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Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.

Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labour migrant from western Kenya

During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalised east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo men from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on “city girls” who were portrayed as materialistic “slay queens” who “finish” men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their “Beelzebub nails”, as Wellington called the colourful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear repeatedly expressed by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or “contract marriages” that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. Once, on his way back to our shared apartment, my flatmate Samuel—a student of economics who is divorced from the mother of his baby son—passed a neighbour’s house where a group of women were celebrating a birthday. He shook his head and sighed: “We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.”

Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline had decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing FIFA videogames, or catcalling “brown-skinned” Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man cut his girlfriend’s throat and tried to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting his wife’s actions and character as the reason for his attempted suicide. Anything appeared better than spending time with the “daughters of Jezebel” who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding that they engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with, as expounded upon by Wellington:

“When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair. To me this is nonsense because that is not romantic love. I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.”

The burden of economic and sexual performance was not only felt by poorer migrant men, however. Rather, as shown by articles in Kenyan newspapers (see, for example, here and here), it is a nationwide pandemic affecting men from different classes. On a two-day-long men’s meeting on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in mid-2022 which I attended and which was organized by Chomba Njoka and the self-help book authors and masculinity consultants Silas Nyanchwani and Jacob Aliet, for instance, a male lawyer, a psychologist, and a land surveyor, among others, lamented about similar issues. Sitting around a bonfire drinking cold beer in the damp cold of Mt. Kenya, one man after another told a story about a girlfriend who cheated with a financially better-off man, a wife who emptied the marital home of all valuables and left with the children, or young women who come to Nairobi to be seduced by the city’s material promises and men in suits with “deep pockets” who flock the bars of places like Pipeline looking for teenage girls with dreams of big cars, shiny clothes, and expensive hair pieces. Initially the stories were told hesitantly; one could feel that the men telling them were afraid to be blamed. Was I not man enough to provide for a family? Was I responsible for my wife leaving me? But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life. Maybe, we began to think, it was not our fault. But whose fault was it then?

“Nairobian girls, man, acha tu (Kiswahili, “just leave it”)! If some hapless guy with disposable income and sensible behaviour shows some interest, the girl will put her acting mask on, and can easily fool the man proper. Nothing wrong with that, as life is a game. You play. They play. We play each other”, writes Nyanchwani in his book 50 Memos to Men, a collection of his Facebook posts on gender relations in contemporary Nairobi. When I first met Silas in a café in Nairobi’s central business district,  a calm and soft-spoken guy over six feet tall and father of a girl, he told me that men had been left behind in Kenya’s economic and cultural development of the last two decades, perpetuating local discourses about the “neglect of the boychild”. Most development aid interventions were targeting the girlchild, and women were increasingly empowered economically. Who, however, was there to tell men what to do, to give men a voice and guidance? Aliet, an imposing man with an authoritative appearance, shared Nyanchwani’s sentiments. Known as a writer of Sci-Fi novels, Aliet decided to write his book Unplugged: Things our fathers did not tell us after many of his male friends had shared stories with him about the pressure to provide, the burden of performance, women’s ungratefulness, and men’s inability to know how to respond to what women and society demands of them. If the raving reviews by both men and women on the homepage of the Nuria bookstore are anything to go by, the book has helped many male readers to find relief and new hope by receiving guidance on what it means to be a man in contemporary Kenya.

But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life.

Yet neither Nyanchwani nor Aliet rule over Nairobi’s booming masculinity consultancy scene where one can find controversial figures such as former radio host Andrew Kibe among more moderate voices such as Pastor Simon Mbevi who counsels men and couples or Onyango Otieno who openly talks about his experience as a male rape victim and advises men to allow themselves to be vulnerable. The most famous personality, however, is Amerix, a medical doctor from western Kenya who gives advice to Kenyan men on Twitter and through other social media channels. Although Aliet, Nyanchwani—the former writer of The Retrosexual column in The Nairobian that is now written by Brian Guserwa—and Amerix align with the global red pill movement, part of a global backlash against feminism or some of feminism’s social consequences, they do so to different degrees. While they all agree that the world has become “femicentric” and that men need to swallow the red pill to be “unplugged” from the false truths of feminism, Amerix has a more radical take on Kenya’s gender relations and not only offers answers that aim to change the totality of his adepts’ daily lives but also openly admires Paul Kagame’s autocratic style of leadership and dreams of a world where strong “Afrikan” men subdue obedient women. In his chat groups, young Kenyans are not allowed to write using “effeminate” emojis or incorrect English while dreaming about a reinstated patriarchal order and implementing Amerix’ advice by practicing semen retention to accumulate testosterone, fasting for days, lifting weights, and avoiding processed food as well as the imperial ideology spread in NGOs and churches by white men and women. Being pressured to perform economically and sexually, young men all over Nairobi beg Amerix to “continue to mislead” them by warning against get-rich-quick schemes and by ridiculing women’s expectations of large penises and pornographic sexual performances.

It would be easy to ridicule the absurdity of some of the advice given by Amerix or to call out Aliet and Nyanchwani as toxic men. Yet, over one million people are following Amerix on Twitter, and both Aliet and Nyanchwani are typical Kenyan men who, despite harbouring patriarchal inclinations, care about their children and their spouses. None of the men I met on the slopes of Mt. Kenya dreamt of enslaving women, and all agreed that a return to their fathers’ world was not desirable. However, after three years of fieldwork, I can count on the fingers of one hand those men who confided to me that they are in happy relationships or marriages. Heterosexual Kenyan men, in other words, are unhappy, and, as attested by Amerix’ fame, they are desperately looking for explanations for their experience of economic, romantic, and sexual pressure and the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women more generally. Many Kenyan men feel side-lined and, despite their willingness and attempts to provide, are unable to meet what they imagine to be—or what sometimes indeed are—the unrealistic expectations of women, which compels them to look for advice from fellow Kenyan men who seem to be the only voices resonating with the problems they face “on the ground”. Mark, an unemployed Luo migrant with a degree in physics who survived by writing essays for Chinese students with substandard English skills, responded to my question about the role of Amerix in his life with excitement:

“Amerix is talking about why shouldn’t we be us? Why do you have to be dictated by a woman? Let the woman decide whatever you have to do? Be away from friends she does not want? Do whatever she wants? You see that? So, we were like, give us this shit. […] From the first day, we were all into Amerix’ thing. […] There are some people who argue that Amerix is misleading the men, but then if you understand what Amerix is talking about, it is the real thing, the real situation on the ground.”

In such an impasse, Western journalists, social scientists, and development aid practitioners should ask themselves what social, economic, and conceptual benefits for both men and women could be generated from working with more moderate masculinity consultants such as Nyanchwani. Although they neither agree to notions of the social construction of gender nor share beliefs in the necessity to dismantle all patriarchal gender roles, they have access to the minds and hearts of Kenyan men such as Wellington, Mark, or Samuel. While I disagree with the red pill movement’s evolutionary naturalization of gender roles and its simplistic use of biological assumptions—such as female hypergamy—to explain human social relations and strongly believe that a more political-economic approach would allow men and women to attack some of the common enemies that deprive them of economic development, I also think that honest debates that include the voices of various masculinity consultants could open a conceptual space beyond, on the one hand, the capitalistic and colonial notion of the male breadwinner and provider that necessarily produces pressured men who desperately want but cannot provide for their loved ones due to the structural conditions of Kenya’s capitalistic economy, and, on the other hand, the largely still unacceptable notions of men as vulnerable and dependent that only resonate with a few middle-class Kenyans. Such progressive, open-minded, and creative debates might help to repair what appears to be a social constellation characterized by mutual misunderstanding and heightened mistrust between men and women.

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TRUST: The Power of Storytelling to Explain the Utility of Technology

Chief Nyamweya and Anne Connelly’s graphic novel and motion comic imagines an alternative African future using storytelling and blockchain technology.

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TRUST: The Power of Storytelling to Explain the Utility of Technology
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Last month, Freehand Studios, an African digital arts and social impact studio based in Nairobi, released a graphic novel and motion comic whose story aims to inspire young Africans to imagine and build an alternative African future using blockchain technology.

Set in a fictitious African republic, TRUST tells the story of Moraa, a young female activist who, together with a group of techies called the Sankofa Collective, use the power of blockchain technology to stand up to Max—a land-grabbing oligarch whose greed threatens their communal land, their culture and the entire pastoral community.

Outside of the crypto bubble, most people—even the smartest and most sophisticated—don’t understand what blockchain and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are, or what their utility is in everyday life.

By writing the graphic novel, co-authors Chief Nyamweya and Anne Connelly have used the power of storytelling to focus more on the utility of the technology and less on the intricacies of how it works, while creatively exploring the themes of corruption, cultural and ecological preservation,  historical injustices, communal trust, and land ownership.

In the novel, Moraa, the story’s protagonist, is an activist who has never heard of technologies such as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organisations), Bitcoin and blockchain. However, when she meets Akinyi and the Sankofa Collective, she is taught about these technologies and how they work using relatable analogies. Later on in the story, we learn why they built the Wahenga DAO and why they were fundraising using bitcoins.

Kenya has the highest digital currency adoption rate in Africa

Three years ago, If you had walked up to a random stranger on the streets of Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, woman or man, young or old, and asked them if they knew what crypto or blockchain technologies are, let alone if they had ever used them, you would most likely have been met with blank stares.

That has since changed.

In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.

Out of a population of 53.7 million Kenyans, 4.25 million individuals possess digital currencies, the highest adoption rate in Africa according to a United Nations research report.

Nigeria has the world’s highest share of active crypto traders, a report published this year by global research firm Morning Consult found. With more than 50 per cent of monthly active adult crypto traders, Nigeria topped the list of countries with the highest share of adults that trade crypto once a month.

In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.

Despite the directive of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) banning crypto transactions in 2021 and the subsequent fining of three banks for allegedly facilitating cryptocurrency transactions the same year, Nigerians went on to trade at least N77.75bn ($185m) worth of Bitcoin in the first three months of the year. About 33.4 million Nigerians still trade or own crypto assets.

In 2021, Nigeria was reported by Google trends as the country with the highest number of bitcoin searches globally, revealing the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency in the country.

Four million South Africans own cryptocurrencies according to Finder’s Cryptocurrency Adoption Index which ranked the country 18th out of 26 countries for crypto adoption.

Despite a widespread ban on cryptocurrency in some countries and tough regulations in others, crypto, which has so far been one of blockchain’s biggest use cases, keeps growing.

But more needs to happen.

Blockchain and crypto technologies have a storytelling problem

Blockchain has a storytelling problem.

Emily Parker, the co-founder of Longhash, presented an essay on the Unchained Podcast titled Blockchain Tech’s Storytelling Problem and How to Solve it. In the episode, she explains,

“I have had countless versions of this same interaction. Step outside of the crypto bubble and say the word ‘blockchain’, and you will often hear smart and sophisticated people say things like, “I tried to understand it . . . but then I gave up.” This mental block, so to speak, has real implications for an industry whose success largely depends on network effects and public participation.”

This is a larger industry problem that continues to plague one of the most complex mass market technologies in history. As Parker further notes, the lack of a clear storyline may not have mattered during the 2017 crypto boom. However, a lot has changed since then and for a technology whose growth and future are dependent on having as many people as possible use it, it’s doing a poor job at onboarding or even creating goodwill among the public.

Some of these problems are legitimately hard to solve. But at the same time, the cryptocurrency industry is not helping itself. Instead of trying to communicate a larger vision, many are consumed by petty infighting about which tokens are best, Parker notes.

Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault. In offering some solutions on how the blockchain industry can remedy these seemingly insurmountable challenges Parker notes,

“Some of the most important work may lie with entrepreneurs and developers. For blockchain technology to truly touch ground, it needs to be applied to products that people actually use. If a start-up can’t concisely describe its product and the problem that it is attempting to solve, then does the world really need that product?”

Her solution lies at the very heart of why Nyamweya and Connelly wrote the TRUST graphic novel.

The blockchain industry continues to be white and male-dominated. This is a problem that could threaten the technology’s global adoption. It is a status quo that enthusiasts such as Connelly who have seen the industry grow since its inception are hell-bent on challenging.

TRUST — A story rooted in young Africans’ hunger for a decentralized African future

Connelly, who teaches Blockchain for Social Impact at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, first suggested the idea of writing a graphic novel to Nyamweya when the two met at Singularity University.

Nyamweya — a Kenyan writer and illustrator best known for his masterfully ink-illustrated graphic novels that address history, science and most recently, the future of education — did not understand what blockchain was before meeting Connelly. However, it did not take him long to appreciate its potential and what this power, placed in the hands of young Africans, could help them do in building their future.

Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault.

“Young Africans are hungry for a vision of an African future rooted in trust, sustainability and freedom from unaccountable state power. It is the desire to satisfy this hunger with a story of a practicable grassroots alternative that led us to create this transmedia project called ‘TRUST’. We wanted to use the power of storytelling to speak to readers and viewers about blockchain technology, inspiring them to see a decentralized future rooted in justice and ecological sustainability.” remarked Chief while speaking at the book’s launch.

Emerging three years later is a story beautifully told in black and white illustrations that are relatable to any African familiar with the frustrations of living in a capitalistic society and dealing with centralized power.

Connelly and Nyamweya’s vision for TRUST is that millions of young Africans will have access to inspiring and culturally relevant stories that allow them to reimagine their own futures. The two believe that with new technologies such as blockchain, young Africans can build that future by claiming their seat at the table.

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