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Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species

11 min read.

Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol faced numerous rejections from publishers before the collection was eventually published in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success. Yet, over 50 years since Okot’s encounter, poetry still appears at the bottom of the publishers’ priority list.

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Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species
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A friend, Evelyne Ongogo, a budding poet who had an anthology of her poems titled, ‘Dichol and Other Poems’ and ‘Breaking the Burdens’ published by non-mainstream publishers a few years back, sent me two of her latest anthologies titled, ‘The eye of the smiling sun’ and ‘Beautiful shards of the maiden pot’. Both these collections are published by what we would call fringe publishers – this could be a euphemism for self-publishing. I read the three collections and was struck by the quality of the writing. However, a nagging thought refused to melt away; the fringe publishing company. I wondered about poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing. I stopped to reflect on the last time a major publishing house operating in Kenya had released an anthology of poetry.

A few weeks later, I attended a function where two poets, Adipo Sidang’ the author of Parliament of Owls an eclectic collection of poems shared the stage with the most amazing Ugandan writer, Mugabi Byenkya, author of Dear Philomena, a novel compiled from a series of social media messages, phone conversations and thoughts. It is as radical as they come. Both these artists read from their works and performed from the corpus of their work. Adipo’s declamatory performance contrasted Mugabi’s sombre reflections, yet both were powerful rendition of poems. This awakened nagging thoughts on poetry; the creation, writing, publishing and marketing.

Speaking to Adipo after the conclusion of the event, he referenced his own experience and let out a tirade about the difficulty of publishing poetry in Kenya.   His frustration was obvious as he described the encounter with the mainstream publishers who flatly refused to even consider his work. Having faced so much rejection, he had virtually given up on the idea of publishing, yet when his work found a sympathetic eye to read even he was surprised that the verdict was that it was extraordinary.   His collection was published through an initiative supported by the Goethe Institute – not a mainstream publisher.   These tribulations reminded me of Okot p’Bitek’s frustrations when he first tried to get Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol published. After many rejections, he eventually published the collection in 1966. The collection of ‘songs’ was a resounding artistic and commercial success and it has been said that many publishers who rejected the manuscripts regretted their poor judgement. Okot’s encounter with the publishers was over fifty years ago, but it seemed that the script remains. The poetry publishing terrain has not changed? “Poetry and Drama” Adipo Sidang’ declared, “occupy the bottom of the priority pile of the overly commercial minded Kenyan publishers.   Unless a book is likely to end up among the set-books recommended by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development that will result in huge sales , they will not publish it”.

Death of Language

Publishers, have over the years been accused of focusing on profit and sacrificing the artistic and cultural importance of creative expression. Poetry seems to have suffered more than all the other literary genres. In the foreword of Dichol, the late Professor Christopher Lukorito Wanjala, the renown literary critic who taught in Kenyan Universities for over forty years, wrote his reflection on poetry: ‘We wondered whether poetry was still read, enjoyed and appreciated, by secondary school students. We concluded that poetry is too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation.”

Why would the late literature don doubt the position occupied by poetry in the secondary school language and literature syllabus? This is especially intriguing, because he reiterates the essential position poetry occupies among the corpus of literature genres in the learning of language.   Professor Wanjala must have been alluding to a past era when secondary students read and enjoyed poetry as an integral part of learning of English language. Literature, is creative expression of a language, and as such, is a product of mastery and competence in that language. Literature is to language what algebra is to numbers.   Whereas one can speak a language enough to get away with it, consuming, appreciating and enjoying (and creating) the literature created in a language is akin to the numeric ability and competence used in solving algebraic equations. It goes beyond simple addition, subtraction and multiplication.   It follows, that if secondary school students are not reading, enjoying and appreciating literature and poetry, their mastery of the language, any language, is stunted at its most will remain at the rudimentary level.

If there was recognition of the primacy of literature in the teaching of language, and poetry being among the genres of literature, why would it be that the production of material for the learning and enjoyment of poetry be considered a non-commercially viable enterprise? Could it be that the importance attached to linguistic dexterity that the good professor alluded to, is lost on us?

Recently, a letter purportedly written by a University student leader went viral on social media. Though the subject of the memo was tragic, a student at that university had been shot dead by thugs during a robbery, what caused consternation was the poor language and paucity of grammar sense in the memo. Many commentators were left wondering how a university-level student could write such an incomprehensible memo. To be fair to the student, there were some who did not understand what the fuss was all about!!

The tragic inability of this student to express himself raised questions surrounding standards of English in our education system. The fact that English is the only language of instruction in our education system elevated this concern to crisis level. Was this student able to understand what was being taught and how would he respond to his examiners. Returning to poetry one could ask, with this kind of limited language could this student actually read, enjoy and appreciate poetry?

The crafting of a memo might not be considered a literary exercise, but it calls for one to utilise language creatively in order to communicate a message. In that process of communication, an individual uses a distinct style and voice, they chose their words carefully to create the desired impact. The tone of the memo, in this case announcing the demise of a fellow student, should have conveyed the solemnity of the message.   The gravity of the student leader’s appeal to the institution’s administration to do something to ensure the security of the student body should have been contained in the choice of words. Stylistics, is the study of distinctive styles found in literary expression and even a memo such as the one referenced here, was roundly criticised because it was subjected to a stylistic analysis. Herein lies the reason for Professor Wanjala’s lament. The skill to read, enjoy and appreciate writing is taught through literature and more so in poetry. Neglect of poetry in particular, and literature in general, is likely to result in the production of a generation that is ‘word deaf’ or those who cannot understand nuance and word-play. They will not ‘get it’ and what happens to one who goes through life totally at sea regarding things around them?

Poetry taught one to understand meaning that is stated and implied, it taught one to be a ‘wordsmith’ to know when irony, satire, hyperbole and sarcasm are in use. Figurative and colourful language, including proverbs are used in poetry and, as Chinua Achebe taught us, proverbs (and indeed other figurative language) are the palm-oil with which words are eaten! Will this generation not suffer from communication indigestion?

The Hollywood movie titled, Green Book bagged several awards at this year’s Oscar awards. The anti-racism storyline carries a powerful message about intrinsic human nature, and the power of friendship. It tells the story of an unemployed working class Italian-American bouncer who, out of desperation, takes up a job as a driver/bodyguard to a brilliant African American classical pianist traversing the American South in the 60s. This is at the height of the American Civil rights campaigns and racial segregation and lynching was rife. The reversed race roles of Black master and White subordinate ignite the initial spark in a movie that is loaded with nuances. The race stereotype-based assumptions in the movie abound, as expected, but the most fascinating interaction between Merhashala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, playing Don Shirley and Tony Lip respectively, happens when Shirley, the African American, coaches the barely literate clueless white driver how to compose a love letter. Tony’s vocabulary bank is totally overdrawn, he being a man accustomed to using his fist. His distressed attempts at communicating his feelings and emotions to his wife are salvaged by Shirley who injects linguistic flair and poetry into the letters. After much coaching, Tony eventually, catches on and is able to express his feelings and emotions to his wife in poetic language. His letters cause a sensation back at home among the womenfolk unused to such elevated highfalutin expression. When Tony returns from his work-trip, he is welcomed by an extremely elated and charmed spouse, totally enamoured by his communication. Without the benefit of a formal poetry lesson, Tony is walked through a stylistic course at the end of which he is able to read, enjoy, appreciate and create poetry and when he does he is the better for it. Tony’s poetry results in a revolution within and without.

Complexity

Poetry has had the reputation of being ‘hard’ and in his allusion to the threat of ‘oversimplification’ Professor Wanjala acknowledges that poetry has by nature to be complex. At the same time, he applauds the late poet Okot p’Bitek for simplifying poetry and making it more accessible. Wanjala, must have been making a distinction between simplification in terms of form, but not the complexity of the thoughts and feelings expressed via poetry. Many who went through poetry lessons were scarred to the bone, especially by the likes of poets like the late Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka who took pride in writing esoteric poetry that was supposedly for the initiated and select few and not the masses. Deciphering their works was like solving algebraic problem. One could argue that complicated language used just for its own sake, does not support the need for communication. However, there are critics like Horace Goddard in a review of Interpreters, considered to be among the most obscure of Soyinka’s work in prose, who assert that the complexity in Soyinka’s language was reflective of the complicated issues bedevilling Nigeria. In order to express these issues, he had to coin a language that could capture the complexity. He also argues that when a non-native speaker is using an adopted language there is the challenge of appropriating a language enough to give it a distinct identity other than the original. In this case Soyinka’s English must be distinct from that of any other native English speaker. Could the ‘difficultness’ of poetry be the reason that it has repelled secondary school readers and hence it’s a case of the enemy within?

Many who studied language and literature in the days that Prof Wanjala nostalgically refers to, will recall that the literary genres were handled separately: prose – usually represented by the novels or short stories, drama and poetry. Poetry stood out and retained a certain alien quality, even though there were African and Kenyan poets writing. Whereas the novel was domesticated early, and publishers embraced African novelists and provided them a publishing platform, the same opportunity was not accorded poetry and drama. Poetry actually fared less favourably among the neglected siblings. A casual look at the published works under the African Writers Series set up by Heinemann Educational Books Limited the leading publishers of literary work by Africans at that time, demonstrates the bias.   For every poetry collection published, there are twenty extended prose works. Drama does not fare any better. Could this bias have originated from the colonial hangover that concluded that the extended prose form was easily identifiable as an African art and literary form more akin to African storytelling – with a higher chance of commercial success – as compared to poetry and drama? Would it be plausible to speculate that this racist notion actually informed the commercial decision that saw publishing opening up for novelist and not poets? Could the bias against poetry that Adipo Sidang’ recounted a few weeks ago actually have begun well in the sixties? When we reflect on the ground-breaking work by Okot p’Bitek this speculation gains some traction.

Quality versus Quantity

Okot’s attempts to get published by the mainstream publishers faced headwinds. It was difficult to convince publishing houses that Song of Lawino fitted the narrow definition a poem, especially because Okot had called it ‘Wer pa Lawino’ and ‘song’ was not considered a literary genre. This was even though there were western ‘songs’ like Odyssey and Iliad by Homer. Wer, was maybe considered too simple in form.   What Wanjala considered its strength, was probably seen as the one feature that excluded it from consideration.   Okot’s poem has been hailed as among the most lucid discourses on the process of deculturalisation of the African by western education and religion. Professor Andrew Gurr, who served as head of the Department of English at the University of Nairobi and Okot p’Bitek’s colleague in an inaugural lecture, analysed Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol and explained how they articulated the theme of cultural conflict with deep insight. He went on to compare Okot’s poem to other post-colonial writing and accorded it plaudits as high as other celebrated works. Wanjala recognises Okot for having launched an African poetry tradition in print with his Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. He recognises Evelyne Ongogo, among others, for keeping aflame the song tradition, and he celebrates her for demystifying poetry as an art form and rekindling the interest in African poetry.   Professor Wanjala draws a line between oversimplification and demystification and identifies the former as a threat. He says, ‘We concluded that poetry was too important a literary genre to be oversimplified in the social media by the young generation’.

My discussion with Adipo Sidang’ explored the role played by social media in the ‘publication’ of poetry. He acknowledged that because publishers had shunned poetry, poets retreated to the blogosphere. This alternative platform is wonderful for poets to share their work, but Sidang’, like Professor Wanjala, acknowledged that this free forum poses a serious challenge of quality. While the great thing is that there is an outlet for free expression, there are many blogs where what passes as poetry would not pass the test of quality. There is a notion that poetry can exist devoid of any standards of quality.   Austin Bukenya, among the foremost poets and teachers avers that, ‘a good poem is made up of a competent fusion of strong feelings and well-structured expression’. The latter part of this definition is most important, ‘well-structured expression’ especially in the face of the proliferation of ‘free verse’ on the social media platforms. Experimentation is fine, but anything done for its own sake defeats the purpose.   Free verse is not formless verse; it endeavours to creatively establish its own patterns that best suits what the poet is trying to communicate. When words are thrown together helter-skelter simply to achieve a rhyming or rhythmical effect it results in the oversimplification that Professor Wanjala lamented. Poems, are not simply about rhyme and rhythm, though these elements are crucial for performance poetry.

Performance and Poetic Roots

Performance poetry has a long tradition in Africa, and indeed Okot’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ochol actually are, or are crafted on the template of traditional Acoli song performance. The Spoken word has emerged as a unique genre within poetry and its growth has been fuelled by the ‘open mic’ tradition that allowed poets to present their poems to a live audience. In the 80s the universities popularised ‘Poetry Nite’ where any poet was free to present their poems to the student body. This is the period of state paranoia and being found with ‘subversive literature’ was the easiest way of ending up as a state guest. Oral performance of political protest poetry caught on as an unintended consequence. Thankfully, it was before the days of mobile phones with video recording capability with which evidence of subversion’ could have been captured.   Bold original poems were recited, enjoyed and appreciated.

The ‘open mic’ sessions were highly influenced by the African American and Jamaican spoken word artist like Mutaburuka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gill Scott Heron and others. These spoken word traditions were heavily influenced by the musical tradition – mainly reggae, soul, blues and jazz and used word play, intonation and voice inflection to communicate. The soul of performance poetry, and spoken word, lies in the musical and lyrical poetic tradition. In our case it seems like many of the artists performing poetry and spoken word have tried to borrow these ‘foreign’ traditions hence are unable to adequately manipulate them. The result is the free verse that Bukenya describes as a travesty.

The Swahili language ‘Ngonjera’ poetic tradition provides a model upon which Kenyan performance poetry can be authentically modelled. Ngonjera is a call-response poetic performance with two opposing sides of a group, or single performers engaging in a battle of wits and rhyme tackling any emerging issue. One performer poses a question or challenge and the other answers as much wit as possible. However, to date the tradition has not evolved, remaining relatively monotonous, but offers great potential for evolving into a rich form of poetry presentation. A more complicated oral poetic form is the Gichaandi – a traditional Gikuyu oral poetry recitation that uses proverbs and riddles and can be performed by one or by two contesting Gichaandi performers in ‘burn out’ format. The loser among the duo is the one who faces a challenge that they are unable to respond to, or respond in manner that is deemed to be inarticulate. The Gichaandi art form is among those that can be described as dying and so is Khuswala Kumuse performed among the Bukusu.

Khuswala is recited as part of the funeral rites of a great departed individual.   The recitation details the lineage and history of the departed individual and his history with time, the experts in oral history are dying off and the art form is becoming rarer even as western tradition slowly edge out the traditional Bukusu culture.   Among the Luo funeral dirges, sigiiya are among the most resilient. These are usually individual performances unaccompanied by instruments and poetically express the relationship between the mourner and the deceased and also encapsulates the loss experienced by their departure.

This sample of oral poetry traditions is by no means exhaustive. The young generation of poets that Professor Wanjala is afraid might end up oversimplifying poetry could do well to research into these forms and use them as a model. Building a critical mass of consumers of poetry, will convince publishers that a market could be cultivated for poetry. The responsibility of convincing publishers, who are investors like any other and would like to put their investment where there is return, lies with the current crop of poets. The challenge that social media poses is that of ensuring that quality prevails.   There are those who would argue that the market forces will determine high quality because it will rise to the top.   However, the challenge remains, that if literature is not being taught, and especially stylistics, then the consumer will be unable to read, enjoy and appreciate poetry and that way the vicious cycle that has condemned poetry to the bottom of the literary pile will prevail and so will the quality of language.

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Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications scholar and cultural activist. He is also an award winning playwright and social commentator. He has been involved in various struggles for social and political reform.

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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