Connect with us

Culture

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.

Published

on

Poetry Is Dying and Poets Are an Endangered Species
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Avatar
By

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

The Life and Mind of Ali Zaidi

13 min read. Ali Zaidi was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. He was also an incredibly warm and genuine person who was happiest when surrounded by large groups of people.

Published

on

Download PDFPrint Article

The last time I heard from Ali Zaidi was May 22nd this year in a message that blipped out from a long stretch of silence.

I sent an email in reply, I texted, I called. There was no response.

I had spent nearly a week in northern Kenya, and the poor connections prevented me from checking my mail. The events of 21st May had passed me by. A source I was due to interview in Turkana had abruptly travelled to Uganda and so in a hurry, I had caught a plane from Lodwar and flown to Eldoret to cut the 6 to 7 hour journey down to 30 minutes so that I could arrive overland in Soroti in Uganda, where he was, before nightfall. Right on the tarmac of Eldoret airport, with reliable connection back on, the news jolted me.

I went numb. I tried calling several people. The messages kept rushing in. The drive from the airport to Eldoret town itself seemed surreal.

An email sent the day before popped up. It read:

“David, sorry to have missed you. Listen, we want to put together a tribute next week. Care to do something?

He was so much fun.”

The emailer was Ali Zaidi. And that email was the first communication we had had in ages. It was also the last time I heard from him. His “sorry to have missed you” was from the fact that the week before, I had passed by the Nation Centre, where Ali worked, and been told that he had stepped out briefly. The “tribute” that Ali was referring to was what he was putting together for The EastAfrican following the untimely death of Kenyan writer BinyavangaWainaina, with whom he had a long and close connection.

Circumstances play a sadistic hand. The next email I got from Nairobi was nearly four months later. It was a request to write about my memories of Ali Zaidi, who had passed away a few days earlier. Two obituaries in a year of people I knew left me crushed.

I had written for The EastAfrican newspaper since 1999 but I only got to know Ali Zaidi in 2008. I had spent that decade in Kampala, so the occasional walk-ins into the Nation Centre were hurried, impersonal, encounters. But in 2008, my life had changed. Constant conflict with the Ugandan government over my writing made my career at the paper untenable. So I became a full-time writer, something I had always wanted. And in 2008, Nairobi was where actual writing was taking place. After I met Binyavanga and Billy Kahora in Kampala in March of that year, I moved to Nairobi in August.

Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to. This time, the formality of him being my boss was gone, and we could talk openly.

The 18th birthday of his son Hassan provided the occasion at which I formally met Ali Zaidi’s circle. It was a Saturday, a day that also coincided with the opening of the KwaniLitfest of that year. New and a guest of Kwani, I spent that weekend driving around Nairobi in cabs with Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of the literary journal.

Kwani had organised a discussion on writing for magazines, which was being held at the Karen Blixen Museum in Karen, with Binyavanga and Yvonne Owuor sharing the stage. It was an interesting, writerly talk, but Ali had personally called and invited me to his house and I was getting anxious to leave.

Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was an editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to.

We arrived at Ali’s well after 2 o’clock that afternoon. New in Nairobi, I could not believe how cold it was at that hour, right on the equator! But that had been my experience during my early days in Nairobi; cold all the time, and because of cold, also constantly hungry. My hosts did not seem too keen on food themselves, and I wondered about their lives, and just what it was I had stepped into.

Ali’s house in Loresho was not what I had expected it to be. It was also unsurprising that it was what it was. Informal, comfortably disarrayed, welcoming, unintimidating. Loresho was a gated estate far from the centre of the city, nestled in a thickly wooded “leafy” suburb.

It seemed that everybody was there. I recognised Lynn MuthoniWanyeki from her mugshot in The EastAfrican. A young, energetically bouncing writer (he wore his credentials too well) introduced himself as Parselelo Ole Kantai. Ali emerged from his house, and amidst the crowd (for it was a packed compound, very wide, with wood and stone sculptures all over), he spotted me and Binyavanga coming in. He stood waiting for us to approach. “David,” he said, smiling, warmly. He took my hand and led me indoors. “Let me feed you.” At last. Someone in Nairobi understood that people needed to eat.

But it was the sheer number of people in Ali Zaidi’s house that occupied my mind. From the sound of them (all eloquent), and the look of them (the tasteful but crumpled look of arty sorts) you could tell who the writer was, the filmmaker, the musician, the activist. Had he taken each one of them by the hand and said “let me feed you”?

Ali’s warmth spoke volumes about who he was. Firstly, his was a house full of children. And then books, and artwork enough to qualify as a museum. We went past the living room, and inside the kitchen, he introduced his children. There, where I was to often find him, was Hassan, marinating piles of meat. We went past him to more introductions – Franco, Emma, Tara (Ali’s children) to the backyard so I could see his wife Irene’s big marble sculpture, a work in progress.

Back to the front garden, which was enormous and punctuated with Irene’s sculptures, there were more introductions, hands to grip, names to exchange: Betty Muragori (soon to be Sitawa Namwalie who invited me to the opening of her poetry show, CutoffMyTongue), Wanyeki, Rasna Warah, Shalini Gidoomal. I forget the rest. The talk was a high, theory-studded tenor. You turned here and caught a whiff of postmodernist extrapolations that side someone in deconstructionist pique, and over there, postcolonial postulation. People held court, drew a circle, talked, then dispersed, sat by the fire, re-congregated around another forth-holder, filled glasses, opened another bottle.

As I was quickly learning, in that circle, you did not simply say things. There had to be an intellectual filter, an optic, a politics via which you saw the world. It was like living inside the pages of The New Yorker, or the Times Literary Supplement, or the London Review of Books. Books, titles, verses, quotes and much else flew about to emphasise a point, a name invoked to shore up a position, wedge in a definition.

And there was Ali Zaidi, walking in, resting on an elbow, listening, gathering a line, looking over shoulders, recharging an empty glass, then pulling over someone who might inject a new idea, an anecdote, drawing the embers out of an overcharged guest, keeping the fires burning. I thought of Anna Scherer in the opening scenes of War and Peace. Had the Tolstoyan character been less pushy and read Marx (a century before her time, admittedly but it might have saved the characters in that book!), her name would have been Ali Zaidi.

What he might have meant when he took my hand, might as well have been “let me seed you”.

As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani? went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.

I don’t remember at what point Binyavanga left the party (he forgot his jacket there that evening, I recollect), so I caught a ride back to where I was staying with Parselelo well after 1 on Sunday morning.

To start life in Nairobi, I had to get pragmatic. I had shut down my workshop in Kampala, so I was not making anything to sell to pay the rent. During the week, I rung Ali up. He suggested lunch at Riviera Bar and Restaurant, a short walk from the Nation Centre. As I was to find out, Ali’s haunts were a circle of restaurants minutes from the Nation Centre, which allowed him to nip out briefly and then return to his desk.

I needed to write more regularly, I told him. Nairobi is expensive, I said. That year, I had also strayed into literary infamy and needed to explain myself.

As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani?went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.

He chuckled. He may have intuited that already. It was lunch but all he had was a Spanish omelette. I told him I had some ideas about art and literary criticism. “Send in some stuff and let’s see,” he said, instantly looking worried. Perennial bet-hedgers, editors, I always found, reacted to writing proposals with alarm where writers expect gushing enthusiasm.

The closing months of 2008 were fascinating. What started as a weekly comment on this and that literary tradition and heritage turned into a ping-pong exchange of comments and counter-arguments with other literary commentators in Nairobi. We had a lovely debate about literature and history in the pages of The East African. It was the most engrossing bout of newspapering I can recollect.

Over the next few years, I was to see Ali in a way that had not been possible from a distance.

There was his personal/intellectual background and also the context in which it fit. For decades, to be an editor in Nairobi was to have occupied a serious position via which power and public life were mediated. From descriptions, one could hazard that the template may have been set as far back as 1902 when A.M. Jeevanjee hired the British editor W.H Tiller to man the African Standard (later bought by British interest and renamed East African Standard) as founding editor.

By many accounts a grasping man, W.H. Tiller was said to have run the place in the pugnacious mould that was to characterise the job thereafter. Post-independence Kenya was enlivened by a procession of print media editors whose reputations remain in the same ring as generals, CEOs and politicians: John Bierman, Hillary Ng’weno, Boaz Omari, George Githii, John McHaffie, Philip Ochieng, Joe Rodriguez, Gerry Loughran, Joseph Odindo, Peter Mwaura, George Mbugguss, Joe Kadhi. Dramas and epochs attach to each with the swing of Kenyan and East African politics.

Ali Zaidi brought his intellect and social gift to the role. He ran a newspaper whose reputation was without equal in East Africa and beyond. By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.

***

Ali Zaidi was born Aligarh in India and came to Kenya in the early years of President Daniel arap Moi’s rule. He did some teaching before finding his calling as an editor. He told me he could no longer live in India after witnessing the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. He had read economics at Master’s degree level at Delhi University.

I first heard the name Ali Zaidi when I joined The EastAfrican newspaper in 1999, still only 23 and not yet graduated from university. Ali likes this. Ali does not like that. He was not the managing editor. That was Joseph Odindo. But he was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. I saw him once in those early years, when I visited Nairobi in 2002, and not again till 2008.

Given its structure, and as a weekly, TheEastAfrican’s reporters were required to do hard news. What I really paid attention to was art and literature. It was how I came to the attention of Ali Zaidi.

By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.

He was not too enthusiastic about what I had to say about art and books. He must have thought me a novice all over the place with ideas. Whatever reviews I wrote were whittled down to reporterial bare bones. He also thought I wrote with too much flourish. “Just go down to town,” was his way of saying write simply. I was not too enamoured by him either. I had called him a philistine – not directly, but in words that amounted to the same. It took me a while to understand that the arts section mattered a lot to Ali.

Once settled in Nairobi, the bulk of my meetings with Ali consisted of the lunches at restaurants within walking distance of the Nation Centre. These provided a chance to talk. 2008 was the year of financial collapse. Capitalism, as we had come to know it, had ended. People were starting to talk about Marx again.

“You have not read Marx,” he stated.

I protested.

“You have read of Marx,” he modulated the charge.

I detailed to him what I had read of Marx. When I mentioned that I planned to tackle the Grundrisse, he scowled.

“Stop telling lies. Read Marx.”

His vehemence gave me pause to reflect. It was not like Ali to insist so harshly. But it was then that I began to sense where his intellectual locus sat. I understood that when he said “you have not read Marx,” he meant I was not hewing to the Marxist school he was beholden to, the very typically Marxist internecine conflict to have. But what might that be? The answer was not a difficult one. He was a Walter Benjamin Marxist. (To boot, he was even a spitting image of the great German philosopher-martyr.)

I was hence starting from the beginning, fleshing out what it was that propelled the man. To begin with, the thorough-going, intellectual coherence of historical materialism always provided penetrative insight. It provided a structure of not only thought but also action that could have tremendous impact. Because it was critical, being as it were, on the offensive against an exploitative class, Marxism did not have to play hide-and-seek with history. Coming up with dodgy arguments to support personal wealth was the territory of liberal and neoliberal apologists, such as Maynard Keynes and his successors, Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek.

I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.

But what was it about Walter Benjamin that appealed to Ali and how might it have shaped how he saw the world?

The Jewish philosopher, whose death on the Spanish border when he was fleeing Nazis in 1939 remains a mystery and continues to divide Spain, had gone longer distances than most Marxists of his times in postulating a critical theory. Walter Benjamin’s idea of history, his “angel of history” (after buying the painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus) is his most powerful idea. The eponymous angel in the painting, Walter Benjamin wrote, “would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed”.

This insight into history was, to say the least, ultra-revolutionary. What it said, and how it has variously been interpreted, is that the past (lost causes) is not dead (defeated) as long as there are people still willing to fight for it. It is the closest one can come to resurrecting the dead, this idea of picking up the cause they died for and then refighting it. The catchy formulation being that the fate of the past lies in the hands of the present. In other words, the past is not dead as long as the living continue to believe in its ideas.

I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.

There was also his critical art theory: Walter Benjamin’s was a fundamental questioning of the concept of art, stripping it down to a matter of aesthetic, from which point open-ended questions become possible: as “Art”, it is an absolute in itself; but as “aesthetic”, it is the territory of the subjective, a thing you can negotiate with. An immensely liberating direction to take, for then, totalities, or what Ali liked to term “absolutes”, rapidly came unstuck. For the work of art, as Walter Benjamin argued, is tied to the question of tradition, what a people think of the object. What had been pure creativity in one epoch had in another age been an object of veneration, of spiritual significance; what had for one people been just a utilitarian, functional object becomes for another a work of art. Created objects are armed and disarmed as art, depending on the politics of a time. For instance, graffiti would in the 1990s be a nuisance scarring cityscapes. In a period of insurrection against the “one percent”, Banksy would be viewed as a great artist.

The work of art becomes tied to other larger aspects external to the object of art, making the metamorphosis from the spiritual stage to the political and the economic. Art in the industrial age hence takes on a new, urgent significance. It becomes the keeper of the forces of a spiritualism exiled from human relationships by the forces of production.

The work of art becomes the only safe place in which freedom, equality, community, and kindness will not jeopardise the profit motive of capitalism. For if these ideas are left within human society, they will inspire resistance against the exploiting class. The work of art begins to command vast sums of money because they are indeed storing the very lifeblood of human society. It might seem as though the capitalist patrons of art are missing the warmth of community they have destroyed. It is telling that global corporations give so much money to museums, not so much as a back-handed apology as ensuring that what is imprisoned in art stays there, to be viewed rather than lived.

According to this line of argument, the work of art is then slightly off-centre to the objet d’art. A sculpted stone is a stone with a shape. It will only become art when we will it to be art. That “will” comes from our political positioning, for it is the belief of our society, as well as the class we belong to, that tells us how to feel. Hence, art is not an intrinsic property of the object. All value is external to the object.

Ali Zaidi spoke often of Walter Benjamin’s examination of the work of art at the dawn of the modern era, the “mechanical reproduction of the work of art”, stating that a photograph of a famous work of art was no less valuable than the original itself. This was Walter Benjamin’s argument. An argument dangerous to a rising age of fascist nativism for which value must be intrinsic and inseparably innate to the volk. (Ali, who moved to Africa and married an African, an act that was anathema within the migrant Asian community, did not see race or tribe or class. His Marxism was a lived idea.) If all interpretations art, history, culture are political, then is it not hogwash to claim any one culture as supreme?

Ali would say things like “the destruction of the material cultures of African societies was central to the colonial enterprise”, a typically Marxist statement to make. But it swept away rhetorical verbiage and overheated, superficialities about identity. It went to the gist of history itself, that the struggle was not of “civilization” but of baser intent, for control of material resources, to put it crudely.

As I saw it, that was the point at which Ali operated his politics, as it were. It also made him a stranger to an age in which identity politics characterised everything. As far as I can remember, he had little to say about post-war philosophical politics and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to discuss Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

The irony was that the intellectual set that gathered around Ali was deeply steeped in the postmodern identity politics spawned by their ideas. Most spouted it second-hand without knowledge of where it emanated from, the free-for-all, anything-goes “deconstruction” tool of reading that Derrida inflicted upon intellect.

I never came to know Ali’s views on postmodernism. Perhaps others did. But it was not a topic he encouraged whenever I brought it up. At any rate, extend the ideas of Walter Benjamin two or three decades into the 21st century and they likely end up there.

He did not set out to influence anyone. That would have been not only crude but disingenuous. They would all have dropped him for that. It is not that he was too clever for that. Rather, Ali was genuine.

He was addicted to people. I could see that. He could not get through an evening without the company of at least half a dozen people. People were his element. He was happiest in large groups.

I’d like to think he found a home in East Africa. He believed in things, and he went out of his way to make it possible for creative, earnest and driven intellectuals to have a say. We appreciated that deeply.

He seemed happy. He often said: “In Africa, people accept you as long as they sense that you are genuine. Elsewhere, they see your face, your religion, and shoo you away.”

Continue Reading

Culture

The Evolving Politics of Death in Kenya

9 min read. Attitudes about death and bodies have evolved over time writes PATRICK GATHARA. But the politics of death in today’s context has been marred with colonial myths and narratives that influence death and burial rights.

Published

on

The Evolving Politics of Death in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

The cremation in August of the body of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, who died of cancer, is the latest challenge to Kenyan’s conception of not just death, and the handling and disposal of bodies, but also of the place of tradition and culture in contemporary society.

It came barely a month after controversies surrounding other high profile deaths. In July the passing of Safaricom CEO, Bobby Collymore, attracted unprecedented media coverage and dominated all the front pages, with the country’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Nation, dedicating 24 pages to a special report on his life and achievements. While as head of what is by far the largest company in the region, he was undoubtedly a major figure – dignitaries at his memorial included President Uhuru Kenyatta and former UK premier, Tony Blair- the media-driven public hype around his demise, from stories about his captaincy of the so-called “Boys Club” to his heroic stoicism in the face of cancer, seemed a bit over the top. One struggles to find parallels in Kenya’s past. Few local political or cultural figures have merited similar treatment. It may have been partly paid for by Safaricom, and provided an opportunity for the media to further ingratiate itself to one of its largest advertisers, but regardless of its merits, the episode opened a window into how the Kenyan media, and the society it serves, deal with death.

Around the same time, controversial blogger, Robert Alai, was charged with treason for posting online a picture of the bodies of police officers killed in a terror attack in the remote north east of the country a fortnight prior. For those officers, there was no public mourning. A passing mention in the papers, no names, and a forbidden photograph of their bodies dumped in the back of a pick-up truck was all they would get.

This raises questions about which deaths are worth noting, why and how? Which ones should go unmentioned and unmourned? Which bodies are we allowed to see and which ones are to be hidden? How have attitudes to death and bodies evolved?

When, in the second half of the 19th century, the Europeans arrived in what is now Kenya, they did not find “tribes” as we now know them. Some of the ethnicities they found were confusing and fluid. As described by John Lonsdale, no “tribe” had a unified government; none had a unified line of descent or even an agreed upon origin myth; none practised just one form of subsistence; and none had a standard language – just clusters of dialects that shaded into each other. Within we encountered a variety of beliefs and practices governing death. Few of these survived colonialism. “[TheAgikuyu] traditional mode of burial and funeral rites …has disappeared and has been replaced by methods and practices from other cultures, English culture being the largest contributor,” writes Prof Johnson Mbugua in his book Funeral Rites Reformation for Any African Ethnic Community Based on the Proposed New Funeral Practices for the Agikuyu. As described in his Amazon bio, during his PhD research which formed the basis for the book, Prof Mbugua found “that the mode of coping with death of virtually all African ethnic communities has taken propositions and turns that are neither cultural, scriptural nor necessary”.

This raises questions about which deaths are worth noting, why and how? Which ones should go unmentioned and unmourned? Which bodies are we allowed to see and which ones are to be hidden?

In essence, what Prof Mbugua is saying is that much of what passes for “traditional” funeral practice today is anything but. Which should not be surprising given that, as Bruce Berman has noted in his paper, Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Modernity: The Paradox of Mau Mau, many popular ideas of tradition and culture are not based on what actually existed but rather on a combination of the myths of British anthropologists and officials as well as the interests of small African elite. He writes: “It has been clear for many years that the concept of “traditional society,” and its particular expression in Africa, ‘tribal society,’ represent idealized constructs which very imperfectly reflect what is now understood about the character of pre-colonial African societies. In particular, the dominant image of traditional society as highly integrated, stable, relatively unchanging, and largely free of disruptive internal conflict has been challenged by increasing evidence of the fluidity of political boundaries and ethnic identities and the significant levels of internal conflict revealed in contemporary historical research. The concept of traditional society was not in any case based on substantial and systematically collected empirical evidence”.

In short, any appeal to tradition as a justification for particular funeral rites should be taken with a rather large helping of salt. The Kikuyu provide an excellent example. Today, burial of the dead accompanied with elaborate, supposedly traditional, rituals, is the norm.However, these have little resemblance to the burial rituals associated with the societies the Kikuyu of today are supposedly descended from. Prof Mbugua notes that in the time before the colonial upheaval, cultural practices differed considerably between groups as well as social and economic classes of Kikuyu. In some cases, folks of high status had elaborate funeral rites involving burial, beer, ceremonial sexual intercourse between widows and hired men (known asendia-ruhiu or sellers of swords – a reference to penises), as well as the slaughter of livestock. Other less-favored individuals were simply left out in the bush to be devoured by wild animals, at times being led out when sickly to a clearing to die. It would thus be reasonable to surmise, as Dr Yvan Droz of the Graduate Institute, Geneva notes in his chapter on Transformations of Death among the Kikuyu of Kenya: From Hyenas to Tombs in the book FUNERALS IN AFRICA: Explorations of a Social Phenomenon, “Kikuyu people very rarely buried their dead”.In fact, in describing the internment of an elder in the Agikuyu Guild, one of the groups that made up the Kikuyu (the other being the Ukabi Guild), Prof Mbugua notes that “the funeral was not attended by close family members, including wives or even friends. Agikuyu feared and avoided burials”.

Despite their aversion to dead bodies, the Agikuyu viewed death itself with equanimity and fatalistic acceptance. “Though death was never in ordinary circumstances welcomed, the Agikuyu did not have the haunting fear of [it] which grips people of other civilizations,” Prof Mbugua writes.

And just as they accepted death as a necessary transition to the spirit world, they also seem to have been keen to make the most of their time in the flesh. As narrated by Prof Mbugua and suggested by the endia-ruhiu, the Agikuyu of pre-colonial times were not as stuck up on sex as their proclaimed descendants of today would like to believe. In fact, it was remarkably liberal in some aspects. Widows could keep their endia-ruhiu lovers if they wished, even after they were inherited by their dead husbands’ relatives; pre-marital and extra-marital affairs were the norm, including wife-sharing practice of kuhandaitimu, in which a visiting agemate planted a spear outside the hut of one of his host’s wives and got to spend the night with her.

Folks of high status had elaborate funeral rites involving burial, beer, ceremonial sexual intercourse between widows and hired men as well as the slaughter of livestock. Other less-favored individuals were simply left out in the bush to be devoured by wild animals…

Anyway, back to funerals. So why and when did burial become universal? Well, as Dr Droz notes, it all happened in the colonial era and was driven by one event in particular. The British, he says, had been trying to get the Kikuyu to stop tossing bodies into the bush without much success until, in February 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu was able to demonstrate to the Carter Commission, set up a year earlier to investigate African land claims and grievances, that land grabbed by an English settler actually belonged to his family by exhuming the remains of his grandfather. Suddenly bodies were no longer just the unclean detritus from a one-way ticket on the ancestral plane, but were now effectively transformed into a title for land, and burial “into a means of ascertaining control over property…Burial became a means to assert one’s modernity and to mark out inherited property: a new concept of land ownership was born”. Where land was once a communal resource, it now became the basis of private wealth and completely transformed social, economic and class relations within the society with attendant consequences that Kenyans continue to pay for to this day.

An interesting parallel is evident when one looks at the contemporary meaning of graves to the Luo. In his book, Mortgaging the Ancestors: Ideologies of Attachment in Africa, Prof Parker Shipton of Boston University writes that “Luo people, and especially men, have made graves into tools of territoriality, and anchors of being”, meaning that where once it was claimed that “Luo did not look upon particular pieces of land, or ancestral traces on them, with great reverence,” today “graves, ancestral homestead sites, and cleared fields make the focal points for land claims”.

But burials denote not just ownership but also belonging, as highlighted by the famous case of SM Otieno, whose intestate death in December 1986 sparked a huge, bitter and very public 6-month legal battle between his widow, Wambui and the UmiraKager clan over who between them had the right to bury him. As Prof Shipton puts it, “not anyone may be buried anywhere, and contests over the disposition of bodies can become as intense as competition over land”.

In February 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu was able to demonstrate to the Carter Commission, that land grabbed by an English settler actually belonged to his family by exhuming the remains of his grandfather.

Similarly, when it comes to rituals and forms associated with funerals, like with the Kikuyu “traditional” has been a moving target. For example, as Prof Shipton notes that “elders in the mid and late twentieth century spoke of earlier times when Luo buried their dead beneath earthen floors of houses, but by the 1980s, all or nearly all were buried outside.”

In 1903, Charles William Hobley, then a 36-year-old Assistant Deputy Commissioner in the East African Protectorate published a second tranche of results from his research into the habits and beliefs of the people of what became the Protectorate’s Kisumu Province. He took a note of a“curious” customs that one would be hard-pressed to find in today’s “traditional” funerals.

Among the Jo-Luo when a person dies, for days, perhaps months after, the whole village wails with great fervour, and at stated intervals according to the conventions laid down for the case. If however, a barren woman dies, the people of the village at once commence to wail in the usual way, and the brothers and sisters of the deceased proceed as quickly as possible to the village where the death occurred. The first blood-relation of the deceased who arrives on the scene takes a sharp acacia thorn, sticks it into the sole of the foot of the corpse and breaks it off; immediately this is done all wailing ceases at once, nor is it renewed as in the case of an ordinary death.

“Elders in the mid and late twentieth century spoke of earlier times when Luo buried their dead beneath earthen floors of houses, but by the 1980s, all or nearly all were buried outside.”

[A]mong, the Awa-wanga [the Luhya“tribe” hadn’t been invented yet]… if a young girl, a virgin, dies, her female relatives, whose duty it is to bury her, artificially deflower the body before burial; this is always done by the forcible insertion of the pointed bulb of spathes which cover the immature flowers at the lower end of a growing bunch of bananas. If this is omitted, it is believed that the sisters of the deceased will not be found to be virgins on their marriage; this would be considered somewhat of a disgrace.

The point here is not to simply take as gospel truth the observations of a young British official who may or may not have understood what he reported. Rather, it is to underline the fact that what we call “tradition” may not be as clear cut -or even as desirable – as we sometimes like to think it is.

It is thus clear that fulminations, such as those of “Luo elders” against the cremation of Ken Okoth cremation, need to be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism when grounded on the shifting sands of “tradition”. Even if his body were to be transported to Nyanza, any burial he would get would not be “traditional”, if by that we mean it would be carried out in a way the pre-colonial folks of Kavirondo would immediately recognize as upholding a belief system which was undermined and eventually swept away by a perfect storm of Christianization and Kenyanization.

The realization that “tradition” and “culture” have (and have always been) little more than inventions, products of former generations’ struggle to understand and cope with the world and to pass on what they learnt – imperfectly at best – to us, is a freeing thought. We do not need to be defined by what and who came before. We should learn from them but also have the courage to write our own chapters in the book of life, to define, reinterpret and reshape “tradition” as we see fit. And if that means someone prefers to be cremated rather than buried, then that should be fine too. Perhaps decades from now, a new generation will grow up thinking, as we do today, that that is tradition.

It is also clear from the historical record, that even in death there have always been discriminations when it came to the treatment of the high and mighty compared to the hoi polloi. That perhaps is the one true tradition that has survived as evidenced by Alai’s prosecution for showing bodies that should be kept hidden. The same was the case with those accused (however inaccurately) of showing the corpses of Kenyan soldiers at El Adde and Kulbiyow in Somalia. It is borne out in the subsequent government attempts to erase the victims of these attacks from the public memory in a bid to hide its culpability.

The bodies we are allowed to see and grieve have always been hostage to power. Decisions over who is to be feted and buried and who is to be forgotten and tossed to the hyenas (literally and figuratively) are less about tradition and more about control. After all, if you control narratives, you can control society. This is how we end up with a mausoleum for Kenyatta’s dad and an unmarked, forgotten grave for Dedan Kimathi. And why so much attention is lavished on dead MPs and businessmen and relatively little on KDF dead soldiers. It is a marker of whose lives are important and whose are disposable.

Continue Reading

Culture

The Wildlife Utilization Task Force Report: Is This Land Grab Through Conservation Policy?

11 min read. The members of Wildlife Utilization Task Force have attempted to facilitate the blatant colonization of our lands through wildlife management chicanery. Whether their respective roles were a deliberate conspiracy or unwitting, remains to be seen. However, we will never forget their names. We Kenyans deserve better and should never accept this shame they have visited upon us.

Published

on

The Wildlife Utilization Task Force Report: Is This Land Grab Through Conservation Policy?
Download PDFPrint Article

In February 2018, following a reorganization of the Kenya Government, the conservation and management of wildlife was moved from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MENR) to the Ministry of Tourism. With that move, the statutory wildlife conservation agency, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) became the major line parastatal under this ministry. I have always felt that the pairing of Tourism and Wildlife is a ridiculous supplication of government structure to the aspirations of foreigners in the management of natural heritage. My skepticism was fueled by the fact that the Cabinet Secretary (CS), Mr. Najib Balala is someone with decades of experience in the tourism sector (even prior to joining politics) but none in the wildlife conservation sector.

In a rare display of honesty from a member of the Kenya Cabinet during his maiden visit to KWS headquarters as CS, he stated that he needed time to fully understand the goings-on in the organization and the sector at large. My skepticism at the initial realignment of wildlife under the tourism ministry quickly turned to consternation when after just one month in charge of the wildlife docket, the minister said that we should revert to serving game meat in high-class restaurants in order to improve the foreign tourists’ experience in Kenya. Many of the conservation fraternity in Kenya reacted to this statement with revulsion at the thought of officially sanctioned ‘bushmeat poaching’, while others were bemused that anyone could suggest something so ludicrous.

I was stunned into silence on the 29th March 2018 when the CS appointed a task force to look into the issue and report back to him, not least, because the power of the conservation elite over Kenya’s conservation policy was shamelessly displayed. The catharsis I had felt after John Mbaria and I published the ‘The Big Conservation Lie’ about a year earlier instantly evaporated. Those who have read the book, or closely monitored the conservation sector in Kenya will know that the sector never responds quickly (if ever) to requests or issues raised by indigenous Africans. Nonetheless, I rapidly got my thoughts in order, with the aim of submitting my negative opinions on this scheme as clearly and forcefully as possible. I was ready to do this, until I saw the mandate of the task force –

“… to assess and advise on the modalities of implementing the provisions of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013 (WCMA 2013) on sustainable, consumptive wildlife utilization (CWU). CWU within the WCMA 2013 includes deliberate mechanisms by which wildlife resources in Kenya can be used to provide benefits to wildlife, the national economy, and individuals and communities living with wildlife”.

The task therefore, was not to collect any views but to work out ways of implementing a racist and selfish piece of legislation sneaked into place by conservation pirates as a ruse to colonize Kenya’s rangelands. So what’s new or unique about this? Personally, I haven’t in my years experienced any such blatant self-interest pushed through government organs and structures by people who aren’t part of the system. It is important for us to understand that for the past 5 years, Kenya’s conservation sector has been operating within a policy vacuum where conservation decisions and actions are undertaken by KWS based on personal whims of the management, or the personal desires of whoever is funding the process being undertaken.

In light of this, a good place to start the interrogation of this process is to examine and unpack the composition of the task force Itself:

Dr. David Western, Dr. John Waithaka  (Chairman), Dr. Benson Okita-Ouma, Ms. Caroline Kariuki, Ms. Gladys Warigia, Dr. Holly Dublin, Ms. Munira Bashir, Dr. Shadrack Ngene, Mr. Stephen Manegene, and Mr. Solomon Kyalo.

To do this, first we must first exclude Dr. Ngene and Mr. Kyalo who are both KWS staff and Mr. Manegene, the Director of Wildlife Conservation in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. As I stated earlier, there was no policy decision to be made by this committee, and these gentlemen simply comprise the ‘facade of government’. Whether or not they knew about the nature of their role, is a story for another day. Next, we have Ms Caroline Kariuki, the CEO of Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA). Kenya currently suffers from a case of what education scholar Wandia Njoya refers to as managerialism- that senseless belief that anyone with a knowledge of management and business administration can fit into any position, hence the rampant appointment of business people to provide leadership in any sector, and the feigned surprise at the spectacular failures that ensue.

The task therefore, was not to collect any views but to work out ways of implementing a racist and selfish piece of legislation sneaked into place by conservation pirates as a ruse to colonize Kenya’s rangelands.

A case in point was the appointment and unsuccessful tenure of the banker Kitili Mbathi as Director-General of KWS. Ms. Kariuki presence gives the whole wildlife decimation scheme a ‘business face’, conferring a certain human, yet dispassionate commercial cachet that can be used to portray any opposition to it as ‘emotional’ or ‘unreasonable’. Apart from that, there is nothing in her background that suggests that she could competently discuss the impacts of this decision on our natural heritage. Dr. David Western is a highly experienced wildlife ecologist and a former director of Kenya Wildlife Service. His KWS tenure was curtailed by a bitter war between the old primitive wildlife colonial project, and the new, sophisticated wildlife colonial project, which lost that particular battle, but is now in ascendancy. The wildlife colonial project in Africa is simply the use of wildlife conservation and wildlife-related recreation as a tool to exercise control over the lands inhabited by wildlife. This ‘tool’ is especially effective in the annexation of rangelands shared by wildlife and pastoralist livestock producers. In recent years, Kenyans have become pretty erudite in matters conservation and tourism, so the primitive old project that rode on personalities like George Adamson, Richard Leakey, and other white people with ‘bush experience’ (as opposed to academic qualifications) has become obsolete. The colonial project had to go on, and Dr. Western with his strong academic credentials, Caucasian extraction and Kenyan citizenship fit the bill for this particular assignment.

He was appointed Chairman when the task force was initially constituted, and of all the members, is the one most likely to have mooted the idea to the minister. He immediately opted out of the Chair for unknown reasons. We can only speculate that voicing the arguments would have betrayed his personal role and that of the colonial project in the whole scheme. His next best option was Dr. John Waithaka, a former KWS scientist who Dr. Western had mentored in the past, but had since made his name, working with distinction as a senior biologist at Parks Canada. Many in the know felt reassured that a man of Waithaka’s stature would see the hole in this scheme and advise against it. In light of this, it felt fortuitous, if not deliberate that after a few weeks, he got appointed Chairman of the KWS board, effectively removing him from the position, which was taken over by Dr. Ben Okita, the head of monitoring at Save the Elephants. With Dr. Waithaka’s exit, everyone left in the committee, apart from the ‘government people’ represented the aspirations of different players in conservation colonial project.

…. Kenyans have become pretty erudite in matters conservation and tourism, so the primitive old project that rode on personalities like George Adamson, Richard Leakey, and other white people with ‘bush experience’ (as opposed to academic qualifications) has become obsolete.

Dr. Okita’s role as the third-choice chair of the group does not imply any expectations amongst the powers-that-be that he will do anything other than toe the set line. Dr. Holly Dublin is a representative of the conservation colonial project, working for an amorphous group of international capitalists called the “B-Team” www.bteam.org. Keen observers will notice that the ‘B-Team also included the late Bob Collymore, immediate former CEO of Safaricom, a major “investor” in conservation through various conservancies and NGOs in Kenya. Dr. Dublin works as the B-Team’s ‘sustainability expert’ which basically means she advises on how this capitalist group can commodify natural resources, invest in management structures and exploit it in the long term for their own benefit. She chaired the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN for 25 years and was instrumental in getting Dr. Okita into that position in the same year (2018) that he assumed the chair of the task force. It is important to note that she is a special advisor to the Zeitz Foundation, founded by Mr. Jochen Zeitz, the German millionaire investor, and former CEO of Puma sportswear. Zeitz was also appointed to the KWS board of trustees. A puzzling appointment, until one understands how Kenya’s wildlife is the tool through which global capital has chosen to colonize our lands.

Mr. Peter Hetz is the director of Laikipia Wildlife Forum, which was a grassroots conservation NGO, but now functions as a lobby group for the (white) large scale land owners in Laikipia, Kenya. A prominent member of this group is one Jochen Zeitz, owner of the 55,000-acre Segera Ranch and member of the KWS board of trustees. Next, we have Ms. Munira Bashir, the country director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), probably the world’s prime example of conservation capitalism. Last but not least, there is Ms. Gladys Warigia, a lawyer and joint secretary of the task force. She works for the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA), one of TNC’s proxies in Kenya that is helping them take over and exercise their hold over rangelands through the ‘community conservancy’ model. Through the latter two, TNC will have a finger on the deliberations and the legal ‘pulse’ of the task force and its deliberations in real time.

Peter Hetz is also on the board of KWCA, so this committee that looks diverse to the lay person is actually a complete convergence of the interests of the conservation colonial project, accompanied by a few ‘window dressers’ who have no say in its machinations, but are content to enjoy the largesse that comes with membership of such committees in Kenya. Another perceived advantage is that if the conservation colonial project gains power in Kenya, they will be in pole position for the plum ‘gun-bearer’ jobs as these avaricious foreign elite pillage our natural heritage. I have long lamented the intellectual vacuity that resides in the leadership of our statutory authority, Kenya Wildlife Service. However still, this didn’t mitigate my consternation at seeing its officers willingly participate in a process that is leading their institution to the gallows.

The report itself is a startling collection of contradictions, obfuscations and reference to privileges that are only available to the “conservation 1%”. This is the sector of our society that have own large tracts of land in wildlife habitats, are plugged into international tourism markets, are licensed to hold high-velocity firearms, hold current licenses to capture, kill, or otherwise handle wildlife and lastly, overwhelmingly white.

Environmental journalist and co-author of ‘The Big Conservation Lie’ author Gatu Mbaria says that in Kenya, the truth about conservation (and many other things) lies within what isn’t said or written. A very powerful and dishonest message lies in the photos in the report, starting from the cover, where the collage includes bamboo and aloe, betraying a startling level of hubris and underestimation of Kenyans’ intelligence. The second (dishonest and pretty insulting) picture message is on the title page where there is a headline “Consumptive Wildlife Utilization” and a photo of a Maasai man holding a spear while watching a herd of wildebeest. This is the most important page to the capitalists who will be expected to fund this plan – “Give us money to take ownership of this wildlife and use it before the black savages eat it all”. Forget the fact that the Maasai frown on consumption of meat from wild animals, and are among the best custodians of wildlife in Kenya.

The insults to Kenyans’ collective intelligence begin right from the preamble;

“…. the Task Force’s terms of reference emphasized that trophy hunting in Kenya remained banned and that there are no intentions of re-opening it. Therefore, its further consideration was not taken up by the Task Force”.

Trophy hunting is not defined by regulators, but by the intellectual circumstance of the killing. If I kill a rat, it is the individual, NOT the government that decides whether I am doing pest control, trophy hunting, or consumptive use.  The killer is the one who decides whether to throw it out, eat it or mount its head on the wall.

As an instructor, a part of my teaching method has always been to ask students to read and analyze all literature in detail, but this report requires a change of tact, for two reasons; Firstly, one needs to ignore the nonsensical details therein, which are designed to obscure, rather than illuminate the true objectives. Secondly, one needs to pick up on the subtle details which reveal the truth.

The conservation 1% sector own large tracts of land in wildlife habitats, are plugged into international tourism markets, are licensed to hold high-velocity firearms, hold current licenses to capture, kill, or otherwise handle wildlife and lastly, overwhelmingly white.

Here is an example of the latter; The ‘all options considered’ chart purports to propose a framework through which authorities will govern the way we use our wild plants! Is KWS now seeking to even police the way in which we harvest managu (African nightshade) as a vegetable, eat wild fruits, and gather medicines and mushrooms from our environment? This spurious notion is not designed to convey any meaning but as a distraction to the reader. These are some of the sections to ignore. Another part of the flowchart claims that this ‘consumptive wildlife utilization’ will increase “cultural and religious benefits” of living with wildlife, implying the presence of some savage cultural and traditional religious beliefs that demand the killing of wildlife. Racial prejudice has always been par for the course in African conservation practice, but it is seldom expressed so pointedly in official government documents. Racial slurs, however painful it is to black or brown people around the world, should never be ignored in conservation, because it is a reminder of the conservation colonial project’s Achilles heel -hubris.

These distracting details are too many enumerate, so it is more efficient to look at the telling ones. Firstly, there is the oft-quoted research from Dr. Joseph Ogutu (a biostatistician, not a biologist) at the University of Hohenheim which is always a favourite of proponents of sport hunting wanting to hide the ‘whiteness’ of their aspirations behind statistical gymnastics, educational qualifications and an African name.

Quoting from the report:

Ogutu et al.’s (2016) report shows that the numbers of mammals with an average body weight greater than 3 kg have declined by 68%. More recent data suggest that this trend is continuing and that population growth, habitat loss, bushmeat poaching for subsistence and commercial purposes, inadequate institutional and technical capacities, institutionalized governance challenges, insufficient regulations to devolve user rights to landowners with wildlife, the absence of benefits and incentives for landowners to maintain wildlife, and the general absence of awareness and knowledge of mechanisms and benefits of CWU undermine the potential of CWU in the country”.

Crudely translated, this means ‘There are too much pressure exerted on wildlife from black people. Also note that ‘bushmeat’ is something only eaten by black people -when white people eat wildlife, it is ‘game meat’ or ‘venison’. Secondly, that KWS is useless and unable to fulfill its mandates. Consequently, the only way we can conserve wildlife outside parks is to create instruments that can confer stronger ownership to the white people, so the blacks can conserve it in the service of white people.

This is the much-vaunted ‘job creation’ we are told will accrue from the slaughter of our wildlife. Game scouts, trackers, skinners, meat inspectors, and the like. This is what is seen as a fair exchange in return for our natural heritage. Probably the most insidious recommendation is hidden under the innocuous-sounding sub-title “Innovations”. It states that KWCA should be given the mandate for the following aspects of consumptive wildlife utilization; management planning services, business planning services,  Wildlife and biodiversity monitoring efforts and audits for conservancies employing non-consumptive and consumptive wildlife uses.

The hubris raises its ugly head again when the authors disingenuously added the statement “This could complement government efforts in CWU implementation and management”.

This doesn’t complement KWS efforts -This is the total replacement of KWS by The Nature Conservancy through proxy.

Racial slurs, however painful it is to black or brown people around the world, should never be ignored in conservation, because it is a reminder of the conservation colonial project’s Achilles heel -hubris.

One of the key lessons from this entire caper is that the conservation colonial project is very calculating, and nothing, even the most minute detail that happens around the wildlife sector in Kenya is random. As is apparent from the composition of the task force, the substantive members all share a connection to capital interest in conservation, and that’s where the danger to our societies lies. The wildlife in question here does not fly in the air, but lives in lands shared by rural indigenous Kenyan communities. If any of this is implemented, they will lose their land, for the simple safety reason that it won’t be possible to graze your animals or go about your livelihoods in the same place where this avaricious global elites will be indulging their bloodlust. It is worth noting that this plan didn’t begin in 2018, it began nearly a decade earlier, and how it was thwarted by the former President Mwai Kibaki is a story for another day.

The lesson here is that the conservation colonial project is committed. They are relentless and well-endowed with resources. That is why for the last few years the office of director-general of KWS has been so thoroughly protected from being occupied by anyone who can intellectually participate in this discourse and fully understand the goings on in the sector.

The late historian Patrick Wolfe wrote in 2006 that settler colonialism is “the process in which the exogenous settlers displace Indigenous peoples for access to their lands and resources”. This is such an elegant definition of the conservation colonial project that he may as well have been writing about the miasma that is Kenya’s conservation sector. The most important part of Wolfe’s findings is that settler colonialism is a structure with ongoing effects rather than a single or past series of events. In this manner, the Wildlife Utilization Task Force Report is simply a proposed structure for conservation colonialism in Kenya.

The members of Wildlife Utilization Task Force have attempted to facilitate the blatant colonization of our lands through wildlife management chicanery. Whether their respective roles were deliberate conspiracy, or unwitting, remains to be seen. However, we will never forget their names. We Kenyans deserve better and should never accept this shame they have visited upon us. Neither intellectual vacuity nor dishonesty are acceptable in the stewardship of our natural heritage. Whatever opprobrium accrues now and in the future to everyone involved in this is richly deserved.

Continue Reading

Trending