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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

Ssenga, Shwenkazi, Shangazi: Adventures in Kiswahili

Kiswahili has not meant the same thing to all Africans everywhere at all times and so the ultimate desired goal behind the drive to adopt it as Africa’s common language has always remained unclear.

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The matter of whether Uganda should have a national language, and if so, whether that language should be Kiswahili, is one that comes up for some level of public scrutiny every few years.

The usual outcome when this happens is the same predictable commentary, and then the matter disappears from public view for a few more years.

There is a difference this time, whose significance is yet to be revealed.

Since the last such lurch in that direction, the East African Community trading bloc has more than doubled its population and trebled its size and, at its 21st summit in February 2021, the bloc issued a directive making Kiswahili an official language of the Community. The African Union has also announced the adoption of Kiswahili as a working language.

At its 41st Session in Paris in November 2021, the UNESCO General Conference declared July 7th “World Kiswahili Language Day” (Resolution 41 C/61), citing “the critical role played by Kiswahili in promoting cultural diversity, creating awareness, and fostering dialogue among civilizations.”

On the 5th of July last year, Uganda’s government followed suit with a cabinet announcement that Kiswahili was to now finally be the country’s national language.

Even Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s loudest left-wing party, has spoken volubly on the urgent need for Africa to adopt one language and that the language should be Kiswahili. This could have been in response to the African Union as a whole adopting Kiswahili as its Official Working Language in February 2022.

I doubt if a thing that is not a nation can create a national thing. And if languages create nations, then clearly we already have quite a few nations in existence inside the three, or seven, East African community member states.

In Uganda, the usual and easily invoked objections are around the history of the language as a tool of state repression. And this is the area of objection that critics of Ugandans expressing opposition to Kiswahili usually focus on. They do so because it allows for three politically correct points to be made.

The first is that English, Uganda’s official language, is also colonial, and so those opposed to Kiswahili should be opposed to English as well, which they don’t seem to be.

This enables a follow-on argument that language is a tool and therefore its use for good or bad depends on the motive of the user. And when the objection has specifically come from a native of Buganda, it is pointed out that their language Luganda was also a language of regional domination both before and during colonialism.

And finally it is argued that such objectors are simply locking ordinary Ugandans out of a wider free trade regional market.

Occasionally the point is made about the mythical benefits of accessing Kiswahili’s alleged high culture.

And so it goes, back and forth, in an unedifying spiral of oppression Olympics and republican self-righteousness.

In this back and forth, two important questions are ignored: effect and context. The second is the simpler one, and has already been discussed above—Kiswahili has not meant the same thing to all Africans everywhere at all times and will therefore have varying receptions.

But “effect” is the more fundamental issue. As mentioned, this proposal, or drive, has always remained unclear as to what the ultimate desired goal is. Several explanations exist.

If Africa wishes to build a united common cultural identity, we must first settle the question whether this is an act of rebuilding something that was destroyed, repairing something that exists but is broken, or departing from scratch. Which of the three will the future of African development be based on?

At the economic level, when we talk about integrating regional markets, have we also asked ourselves who owns these markets even in their current, less integrated form? Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?

The issue of cultural identity brought to mind an incident many years ago during an evening stroll in downtown Nairobi in the company of a Tanzanian colleague while attending a workshop in the city. During an encounter with one of the many Nairobi street kids, we had an interesting time observing how he alternated between understanding my crude Kiswahili — which was forcing me to “step up” — and my friend’s sophisticated version — which he was having to “dumb down” — as we asked him a little about his life’s journey thus far.

Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?

After the boy went on his way, we reverted to the English we had been using and ended up in a discussion about homes and homelessness. The point, I think, was about traditional African family structures. At some point, as I was expounding on the concept of the paternal aunt and maternal uncle in Kiganda (and other Bantu) cultures in their once actual role as potential resources for troubled children, my colleague became animated and recalled such relations from his childhood growing up in rural Tanzania, and then a little agitated at the sudden realization that he could no longer recall the specific title used, in the language of his childhood, to name these people.

The point here is whether this was just a loss of a word once spoken, or if it also meant the eventual loss of the role and meaning of the persons and relationships carried by that name. And if it was indeed an erasure, has that been the intended effect of the one-language policy?

What is gained and what is lost in such a process?

Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners. A change of language can therefore be shorthand for the suppression of native identity in an approach to African “nation-building” that the historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, described as being based on “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”.

For example, the Luganda version of the word that was lost to my erstwhile Tanzanian colleague is Senga (sometimes spelled Ssenga). Its meaning is very specific: the female sibling of one’s father by the same father, or set of fathers. In other words, being first and foremost of the same totem as your father. It is a clan institution operating at the family level and responsible for various things, such as overseeing her brother’s daughters’ personal lives, (including marriage, as extemporized in the book Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi), as well as installations of family heirs.

Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners.

A more revealing variation of the same institution exists in the culture, and therefore language, of Banyankole of Uganda. In one case it is call Shwenkazi, which is a verbal conflation of the term sho-enkazi (“sho” being “your father”, and “kazi”, being “female”). Quite literally, “your father the woman”, or more directly, “your woman-father”.

It is not reducible to the word “aunt”; it means paternally-descended paternal aunt, but not merely as a label but as a title that carries a specific cultural function.

In the ordinary Kiswahili being promoted, the word Shangazi means aunt.

One can clearly see a similarity with Senga and Shwenkazi. However, Shangazi functions only as a family label in the same way that aunt, uncle or brother do in English, such that the paternal aunt is “Shangazi wa baba”, and the maternal one “Shangazi wa mama”. I am unclear if any cultural function existed or still exists attached to the name (although I suspect it might, at least in some perfunctory form).

A series of critical questions emerge from this. Clearly, the three words Senga, Shwenkazi and Shangazi bear a common root. But did they at some point also carry the same function? How come the function-name seems to be clearer (and also similar) in Luganda and Runyankore, and not in Kiswahili, where it is a flat label indiscriminately applicable to any female sibling of any parent?

Was there a time when Shangazi also meant Senga in both name and function? If so, by what process was this lost?

Therefore, the main point is this: if one is to substitute Luganda, or Runyankore with Kiswahili, or even just make it primary to them, then the meaning of this institution — quite central to how the extended family system operates here — will be lost. And so will the practice, and therefore eventually, the culture.

This feeds into the question of what kind of future the advocates of Kiswahili-for-all envisage. A lot of cultural activism in Africa is hemmed in by either a preservation mentality, or a profusion one.

Kiswahili advocacy suffers from both. On the one hand, Swahili culture is seen as a culture worth preserving in the memory of its “highest” forms (which are really just a celebration of the Arab-informed city-states of the coast, built as assimilationist fixtures of a spreading Arabist culture headquartered somewhere in Arabia to the north-north-east). This means leaving it with the erasures and distortions fully embedded. This is because the dominant version of modern Pan-Africanism conceptualizes its task as one of building from scratch. The past does not matter at all, and the present matters only as the place where the future is being planned.

On the other hand, the language has been allowed to grow variously, based on needs and circumstances. In the case of Tanzania, for example, it was part of the inheritance of the German colonial erasure that became useful in the Basil Davidson description.

This is a problem of legitimacy. Cultures, and the languages they produce, have owners. It is these owners that should hold the ultimate right to curate the direction in which their language goes, because they have the original, and greatest stake in it. Between the governments of Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya, on top of the respective language institutes in those countries, it is unclear who has the ultimate say over matters of vocabulary, syntax and general linguistic development. What is clear is that any or all of those centres carry a bigger voice than the indigenous Bantu people of the East African coast who birthed the language.

The problem is larger than one might think. State-owned Kiswahili (which is the Kiswahili formally taught in schools) tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth. It is common for English and other language words to be simply dropped, as if through a trapdoor, into the language. For example, doctor is rendered “daktari”, clinic “kliniki”, and picture “picha”. This happens in many languages to some extent. But with Kiswahili, it seems to be almost a matter of policy, because this is done even in cases were a native word already exists, or could be organically created from the existing vocabulary. And this is only complicated by the reality of the differences in dialect among the various coastal peoples anyway. In short, it is not one authentic Kiswahili that is being ignored and distorted, but several of them.

State-owned Kiswahili tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth.

The immediate effect is to place a larger than usual memory burden on the learner or speaker, as there is no organic source within the language for those nouns. In Luganda, for example, the word for clinic or hospital is taken from the verb to be ill. This is the rule for a large number of words and it makes it much easier to recognize or recall the word, or even to develop other words, especially adjectives, around it.

What word, then, will be used in Uganda? And will the state setting the Kiswahili exams be willing to make an accommodation, or insist on language orthodoxy, such as it is?

The purpose of any valid Africanist exercise would be to build up the African identity, but this can only work if understood as a task of recovery, as opposed to reinvention.

To restore an original building, one needs the original bricks. And then to repair them individually before rebuilding.

As one remnant of a wider family of remnant languages coming out of one wider language, Kiswahili is just one such brick. The problem is that the modern pan-Africanist Kiswahili advocates believe it, or just intend to make it, to be a whole wall.

Which also leads to the economic question: Beyond the 50 or so Kenyan cents my Tanzanian friend and I gave to street kid, how did our common ability to speak in Kiswahili help him? And to what extent had the idea of new protections from the state helped erode the viability of the family-level cultural institution that failed him? How much Kiswahili spoken by the Maasai Tanzanians of Loliondo will become enough for their right to reclaim the land they have just been evicted from by the Tanzanian state in order to make way for Middle Eastern Big Game-hunting corporations?

What are the risks that may come with making African cultures less internally culturally cohesive and more dependent on citizen protections backed ultimately by a former colonial state? And are they indeed seen as risks?

Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance. Many languages, especially those at the receiving end of colonial, or genocide-extermination, or genocide-assimilation experiences, have gone through the same.

But the problem is this: Kiswahili is being promoted as a meta-language, rising above other Bantu (and even wider African) languages. In reality, it is just another Bantu language, with its own particular history of external impacts and distortions. It is part of a whole, coming with its own particular missing parts. A convenient means, first for the establishment of the coastal slave plantations and trade, and later for the European explorer missions — the human resource required to mobilize a trade or exploration caravan inland would have recruited from a lot of the people found along the coast.

Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance.

I think we have seen enough to be able to recognize that Bantu languages are all parts of a missing whole.

This is the central point made by Cheikh Anta Diop, when he speaks of the cultural unity of Black Africa. This is the difference between a word being borrowed, as has happened with Kiswahili Arab and state use, and a word being inherited. And also therefore, the difference between a whole language being borrowed, as the post-colonial states have done and seek to further do, and inherited, as post-Egyptian languages seem to have done.

In summary, instead of seeking to repair and develop all the bricks of their gaps and erasure so as to rebuild the wall of the original African meta-language, the advocates of Kiswahili seek to pick out one of the incomplete bricks and impose it, with its specific defects, on the speakers of all the other languages. It is an act of double-erasure.

Swahili needs to address its own historical identity crisis as part of the process of African cultures everywhere also addressing their own setbacks.

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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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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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Masculinity in Kenya: The Pressure to Provide and Perform
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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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