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A National Reckoning: The Unfinished Business of Tom Mboya

7 min read. Mboya’s ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests.

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A National Reckoning: The Unfinished Business of Tom Mboya
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I

Reading Tom Mboya’s memoir “Freedom and After” (1963) is both depressing and irritating. Mboya was one of Kenya’s nationalists, who through his active role in the trade unions in the 1950s, called for an end to British colonial rule. The depressing nature of his memoir is not just about the lofty ideals he so eloquently talked about that never grew wings in post-independent Kenya, but because he became a principal architect in discarding some of those very same ideals. Maybe some of the ideals have been realized in other forms. One could mention a vibrant and freer media (despite accusations of being too cosy to the state) and a robust democracy where citizens now enjoy various rights and liberties. Unfortunately, citizens are still attracted to the idea of ethnic consciousness that often reaches a crescendo, especially during general elections.

One sunny Saturday afternoon on July 5, 1969, Mboya walked out of a pharmacy on Government Road, now Moi Avenue, probably with the lotion he had gone to buy stuffed in his coat pockets, only to be stopped by two bullets fired at close range sending him slumping on the pavement. By chance, a health ministry official – Dr Mohamed Rafique Chaudhri – happened to be passing by and heard the commotion, and, recognizing Mboya’s car, rushed to the scene.

Images that would later horrify the nation are those of a wounded government minister being wheeled to a waiting ambulance, his left hand slightly hanging on the side, his white shirt spattered with blood and eyes dimmed as Dr Chaudhri raced against time. Outside the Nairobi Hospital casualty department, African police officers in shorts and wielding batons pushed a surging crowd heaving in grief, tears flowing freely. Then a man appeared with a large framed portrait of Mboya clad in a suit and skull cap. Time had stopped.

Nyipir in Yvonne Owuor’s novel “Dust” (2013) reminds his daughter, Ajany, that 1969 was a very hard year. Mboya’s assassination from now onwards is transformed into permanent mourning – something like melancholia among his Luo people. It poisons political relations and some even observe, the economic fortunes of his kinsfolk. His death becomes an allegory of national trauma that had started with the ominous signs of authoritarianism, the shift from multiparty to a one-party state, the micro-management of national affairs by a small tribal gang and the cold-blood elimination of political opponents.

The trauma represses what remains of the desires and aspirations of the nation and a new mode of expression is birthed: silence. The 1970s is a decade which nearly everyone burrows their heads below the resounding din of Kenyatta succession politics above. Not that the people condone the climate of fear. There are a number of brave Kenyans who speak out. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, through his theatrical productions, begins to ask difficult questions concerning the state of the decaying nationhood and the dwindling hopes of achieving some of the post-independence dreams. Others such as Meja Mwangi, like a sly hare, manoeuvres his way and slips through the political dragnet that ensnares Ngugi.

Mwangi’s novels: “Kill Me Quick” (1974), “Going Down River Road” (1977), and “The Cockroach Dance” although on the surface pulpy crime fiction, all point to much deeper critiques: the escalating socio-political and economic decay, the marginalization of the poor to the ‘back streets’ of society. The three fictional accounts through their witty titles become stark symbols of the growing disillusionment, cynicism, and dehumanisation seeping into the national psyche. The after-effects of freedom that Mboya had hoped would propel Kenya to the heights of respected nations have turned into a nightmare of chronic unemployment, stiff bureaucracy, cronyism, tribalism, and nepotism. Maina and Meja, the main characters in “Kill Me Quick” cannot secure jobs because nobody knows them. Attempts at freeing themselves from their precarious condition are vigorously thwarted by don’t-care civil servants, and ordinary people survive through trickery and sheer wit. Noticeboards proclaim everywhere: Hakuna kazi!

Mboya’s memoir is a journey of survival and triumph against the colonial enterprise that forced Africans into beasts of burden, a model that the post-independent leaders inherited, and fashioned creatively in the subsequent decades to benefit them. His father is promoted to an overseer (nyapara) after working for fifteen years as a labourer for a white man in a sisal plantation. It is from that crucible of colonial repression mixed with a determined spirit that he decides to “go to a school where I might learn to read and write.” There is palpable excitement in the way he recounts those formative years. For Mboya’s generation, education is not just a ticket to becoming literate, but a means of emancipating oneself and breaking the chains of oppression and bondage.

Early exposure to education in Central Kenya, a land far removed from his family’s ancestral origins in Rusinga Island, affords Mboya the advantage of a multi-ethnic outlook in life. He becomes a polyglot with the ability to speak Kamba and Gikuyu fluently besides Dholuo, English, and Kiswahili. In the conventional sense, from a tender age, he becomes a ‘Kenyan’; that elusive and controversial term that elicits fierce debate. On the one hand, opponents of the idea of ‘Kenyanness’ ask: Why should they identify as Kenyans? Who defines that identity and who benefits (politically and economically) in such an arrangement? Is it the entire nation or just a few communities closer to the centre of power? On the other hand, the proponents counter that ‘Kenyanness’ helps us to rise above ethnic chauvinism. Not that identification with ethnicity is wrong. In fact, Mboya calls it ‘positive tribalism’ – a form of tribalism critical to the formation of national consciousness and is also reflective of African sensibilities and history. He rightly argues that it can be attained through tapping into our respective ethnic cultures and customs, particularly the concept of communality that, despite the onslaught of modernity, and now globalisation, still remains firm among most Kenyan communities.

Throughout Owuor’s novel, Mboya’s death is an omnipresent event that constantly directs us to a traumatic period that has not been mourned. His ghost is that of a repressed collective identity submerged into the nation’s unconsciousness. The repression shields the country from confronting its problems of marginalization of minorities, ethnic domination by a few, and state capture by powerful economic interests who continue to build empires on the haggard backs of a majority poor. In death, Mboya magnifies the lost agency for a Kenyan identity as the primitive accumulation of wealth by the political class continues to wreak havoc. The ethos of ujamaa has virtually disappeared in a politics of the belly devoid of ideology and vision that Frantz Fanon so prophetically warned about in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). Fanon cautioned that unless post-independence leaders remained steadfast against the temptations of narcissism and mediocrity, nothing substantive in form of development and national unity would come out of such nations.

Later at Ruskin College, Oxford, Mboya experiences an awakening. He writes: “It was my first opportunity to taste something of the atmosphere of an academic institution, to meet intellectuals and to read books.” Knowledge is like food. He finds it delicious and immerses himself into intellectual activity, sharpening his thoughts and ideas. He fosters self-confidence and the ability to articulate his arguments with growing clarity and depth. He even flirts with the polemical when the occasion demands. He is only twenty-six years old and soon will start organising funding for the airlifts of Kenyan students to America with the financial assistance of the future American president John F. Kennedy. He rejects Richard Nixon’s offer from the US State Department to keep “the airlift a private programme, rather than turn it into one sponsored by government.”

In the next few years he addresses a Civil Rights rally in Washington, DC alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And in a future televised interview at the University of California, Berkeley, Malcolm X will shower him with glowing tributes in the same sentence with Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Nnamdi Azikiwe. The stage of resistance like a pendulum will swing from local to international back to local as a number of African countries sprint to independence in the early 1960s, that blood-drenched decade of wanton murder and backstabbing of black visionaries.

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s “Coming to Birth” (1987) encapsulates that season of bloodletting as characterized by whispers, whispers, whispers. One of her protagonists called Martin Were, slightly younger than Mboya, struggles to have a child with his wife Paulina. However, the desire for an offspring is consistently disrupted by miscarriages. Their life is a trail of one tragedy after another. Like Mboya’s nationalist and pan-Africanist vision that is now clouded in semi-darkness, Macgoye’s fiction could be said to symbolize a nation increasingly finding itself marooned, held captive, and strangulated of its life. Martin finally goes berserk when he learns that Mboya has been slain in broad daylight.

II

Music is a journey into the recovery of lost memories. Listening to music is to be transported into realms of darkness and light. Music is freedom. In the succeeding decades after Mboya’s assassination, his memory started to find its way into popular culture. Benga music which dates back to the 1950s began churning out dirges praising his famed charisma, his political acumen, his naivety, and his subsequent violent obliteration from national memory. Gabriel Omollo’s song “Tom Mboya” while mining the culturally rich Luo folklore and its animal characters, belted out evocative lamentations asking: “what wrong did we the wretched Luo do to deserve the murder of Mboya?”

Like other earlier benga songs that anchor their themes on hero-worship and death, D.O. Misiani’s “Robert Ouko I &II” also followed the same musical trajectory with his sentimental tone also crying: why us? Emma Jalamo’s song titled “Raila”, a masterful fusion of ohangla and rumba, another creative lament with an air of blues, on the other hand, mourns Mboya, not as a national figure, but a martyr of the Luo community. Death assigns Mboya a new identity. An exclusive ethnic identity so that from now onwards, he becomes ours, not yours. Luo music dedicated to him could equally be said to follow a metaphysical bent detached from the material world of political successions and deal-cutting and of modern-day tenderpreneurs with connections to the state. The music struggles with the darkness of forgetting while constantly rallying the community to remember. Benga music reinvents Mboya’s memory giving us the freedom to remember and celebrate him in numerous ways. Music not only surmounts the silence and the amnesia long associated with his mourning at the national level, but it also reminds us to ask for the umpteenth time:

Who is this big man who ordered the hit?

Mboya’s memoir concludes on a hopeful tone, with his emphatic belief that Kenya will ultimately show up for a dance at the world stage and demonstrate to others what Africans can achieve and accomplish. Underlying the optimism and enthusiasm, he does not reveal the simmering undercurrents of succession politics and his hand in manipulating it to his advantage, a machine that would later immolate him. He neither reflects at length on his political naivete, his unbridled ambition to elbow so many others out of the centre, the digging of the grave. But who has the temerity to admit such personal flaws at the age of thirty-three?

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Amol Awuor is a Master’s candidate in the Department of Literary Studies in English at Rhodes University, South Africa. His research interests include memory studies, contemporary African literature and African popular culture.

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The Boy from Tandale: The Rise of Diamond and his Wasafi Record Label

9 min read. An in-depth look at Bongo Flava’s most well-known artist, and the talents and business acumen that led to the astronomical success of his record company.

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The Boy from Tandale: The Rise of Diamond and his Wasafi Record Label
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Tandale estate is a solid flood-prone flat pan stacked amidst patterned limestone shacks at the heart of Dar es Salaam, just north of Kwa Mtogole and south of Kijitonyama and 7 kilometres from Dar’s famous Coco Beach. It’s also home to a former clothes vendor, Naseeb Abdul Juma and Raheem Rummy Nanji from Iringa.

Raheem, a budding musician, would alongside Tanzanian youthful celebrity Hakeem 5 earn the Nyamwezi-sounding moniker Vijana Sharobaro from the versatile all-time hit-maker Dully Sykes, who then worked under Dhahabu Records. In christening them Sharobaro in the 2000s, Sykes, then a popular bongo musician, seemed to have infused their budding careers with long-sought street cred just as the industry panned out to new sounds and styles.

The clothes vendor Naseeb was meanwhile stuck in blue-collar trade, first in freelance photography, then as a filling attendant, and also had a stint in gambling, while pursuing the ever-elusive money for studio fees. Meanwhile Raheem, now famously known as Bob Junior, would go on to establish Sharobaro Records, a hole-in-the-wall recording studio built for its time, and weirdly successful for its stature.

Back in Tandale, Naseeb’s dalliance with talent manager Chizo Mapene didn’t yield much professional or economic outcomes despite lots of initial prospects after which Naseeb hooked up with producer Msafiri Peter, aka Papaa Misifa, in 2009. Naseeb linked up again with Raheem of Sharobaro Records from where he recorded his first major hit, Nenda Kamwambie. The year 2010 looked promising, and with this debut album, the young Naseeb was introduced to Tanzanians and the East African region.

The album is mushy, existential, soulful, with heart-tugging reflections. It is borderline whiny, yet relatable and includes songs like Kamwambie, a dedication to his unrequited love, and Nitarejea sung alongside the ailing star Hawa. The latter is about a love that his foray into the city for work won’t quench despite the distance.

With the three hits – Kamwambie, Mbagala and Nitarejea – Naseeb, now known by his stage name Diamond Platnumz, harnessed the supple fluency of the local Kiswahili dialect and the poetic idioms of street slang to hog the limelight and introduce himself to the world.

In a region where the wider creative economy largely apes – and where possible solicits – the stature, money and alliances with global (and mostly American hip hop) for traction, Diamond Platnumz’s success has defied the odds both in style, sound, reach and influence. It’s in his 2017 interview with Forbes magazine where he would credit the traction that enabled him to consistently cash in on his musical talent as the mark that transitioned his music from a passion to a career.

No doubt his ability to craft a cultural Bongo Flava moment owes credence to legends like the 1990s Radio DJ Mike Mhagama. Mhagama coined the term Bongo Flava as a distinctive buzzword for the yet-to-be-defined musical genre that arose after the advent of private radio stations in Tanzania in the mid-1990s. Bongo Flava originated in Dar and is derived from a variety of musical genres, including American hip hop, reggae, R&B, afrobeat, and traditional Swahili musical styles, such as Taraab. The phrase, which was meant to delineate Tanzanian hip hop from American hip hop, anchored itself in the country’s showbiz lexicon as a tell-apart and defining tag for Tanzanian pop.

With the three hits – Kamwambie, Mbagala and Nitarejea – Naseeb, now known by his stage name Diamond Platnumz, harnessed the supple fluency of the local Kiswahili dialect and the poetic idioms of street slang to hog the limelight and introduce himself to the world.

Naseeb’s best contribution to the East African artistic scene is through his WCB Wasafi Records platform, for which the wider public has rewarded the company monetarily and brand-wise due to its astute combination of edgy production, track-for-track hits, balanced quality music, and commercial success. These, coupled with entrepreneurial vision, and unyielding versatility, reminiscent of Bigg’s Roc-a-fella or Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc inevitably centred Wasafi as an East African cultural project.  

The 2012 Lala Salama album shifted the recording company from soulful and heart-felt tunes to a flashier Afropop that saw the label pan its wings and doggedly pursue partnerships with Africa-wide celebrities and global brands such as Ishmael ‘Omarion’, and American hip hop star Rick Ross.

Back in Bongo, the musical fan base and their gladiatorial instincts fuelled supremacy wars akin to the imagined rivalry between Ronaldo-Messi in football, or Dar musicians’ Dudu Baya-Mr. Nice’s tiff. The online infractions saw the Wasafi Records founder Naseeb aka Diamond unwittingly pitted against his fellow star and erstwhile rival Ali Kiba. None seemed too pleased by the fan base warfare, which they’ve repeatedly admitted they are unable to quell or contain.

Lizzer Era

Diamond’s 2013 performance in Burundi not only linked the Wasafi founder to Burundian star Lolilo, but also led to a chance encounter with the then Burundi-based influential producer, Kigoma, born Siraj Khamees and stage-named Lizzer Classic.

When Diamond started Wasafi around 2014 – the origins of which came in the midst of a fast-rising career – the Tanzanian music scene had hit a lull after the heydays of Matonya, Mr. Nice and Ray C. His creative and business acumen seems to have chanced upon the realisation that the market yearned for a new sound and style.

From the get-go, reservations arose regarding Lizzer’s sampling of Burundian sounds into Tanzania’s Bongo Flava music. Lizzer, who had fled the 2010 state-sponsored electoral clashes in Bujumbura to Kigoma, was unrelenting and convinced there was place in the Tanzanian market for an updated version of Bongo Flava. He would take his first shot with Rayvanny’s Kwetu, a mushy-tinged serenade whose popularity gave legitimacy to Lizzer’s cross-border musical style.

In the working partnership between Lizzer and Diamond, a rising star met international experience; a mercurial duo akin to the then young Shawn Carter’s co-directorship with the steely Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and the colourful Damon Dash back in 1995.

Wasafi’s rise, like any other cultural moment, exists at the confluence of historical accidents, chance encounters, demand for new sounds, and huge individual effort just at the point where Dar’s audio-visual culture boomed, primarily on YouTube and Vimeo. As Odipodev clarified, the combination of local relatable content, proliferation of smartphones, and YouTube algorithms often helps generate a self-perpetuating model of proliferation and popularity onto what the viewers have already deemed to be superior content.

Lizzer, in his interviews with Bernard Mpangala at the WCB Wasafi offices, modestly remarked that their outsized commercial and cultural success wasn’t anywhere near monopoly, given that lots of their musical stars still work with other producers besides them in producing their albums.

Even then, he’d opine that at least 50 per cent of the album would be produced by Wasafi. Lizzer attributes his updating of Bongo Flava music from its widely varied days in the 2000s to the influence of Korean and Chinese music, of which he is an ardent fan.

The Korean influence on the updated Bongo Flava sounds can no doubt be gleaned from the storylines, the colourful Oriental dressing, and the unsynchronised dance moves of the Korean pop crew BTS in their hit song DNA. The same can be seen in the Chinese pop hits in the strain of NGirl’s Goddess choo choo choo and the Chinese songstress Feng Timo’s sleek improvisations and animated dramatisations, with their parallels in Salome, Zigo, or Mwanza Nyegezi.

Wasafi’s rise, like any other cultural moment, exists at the confluence of historical accidents, chance encounters, demand for new sounds, and huge individual effort just at the point where Dar’s audio-visual culture boomed, primarily on YouTube and Vimeo.

Lizzers’ signature tune Ayo Lizzer is a drop by Diamond edited to obscure his easily recognisable voice. Lizzer claims the tune allows the production team to dissuade artistes from mentioning him in the lyrics while still acknowledging his creative contribution.

Lizzer’s career’s steep ascend in late 2000s in Burundi drove him up the ranks and roped in big regional artistes like Sat B, Big Fizzo, Lolilo, Rally Joe and Emery Sun. Even then, it’s Rayvanny’s Kwetu that earned Lizzer acceptance in Tanzania, and the updated rendition of Saida Karoli’s Salome that set him up as a new sound in East African production.

Let’s make money

The Wasafi ecosystem hit its golden age from 2015, with Rajab ‘Harmonize’ Kahali, their newest signee chugging hit after hit with dizzying commercial success. Then came Mwanajuma ‘Queen Darleen’ and Raymond Shaban ‘Rayvanny’ in 2016, and Richard Martin ‘Rich Mavoko’, Juma Idd ‘Lava lava’ and Yusuph Kilungi ‘Mbosso’’s hits in 2017. Wasafi became a Foxconn of music in which insane work schedules blended with keen and demanding producers, and ever inventive back stage casts.

Director Diamond, as well as managers Babu Tale, Sallam SK, Said Fella, Joseph King, and producers Lizzer and Tuddy Thomas capitalised on the new sounds to feed a frenzied and ever-expanding fan base, while revitalising production wherever their music was heard. The rising popularity, combined with commercial astuteness and a growing band of talented artistes, saw the label dabble in top-selling ringtones, pricey and sold-out concerts, Wasafi Festival tours, royalties, product lines, club and TV appearances, and brand deals.

The Tanzanian record label pursued a multimedia model with the music streaming service wasafi.com launched first, while Wasafi TV and Wasafi FM further widened their reach and offering. This Wasafi ecosystem’s unprecedented savviness also earned them brand endorsements from Vodacom, Red Gold, DSTV, and Coca Cola.

The litany of commercial streams rewarded their work ethic and ingenuity. And while Wasafi’s market capitalisation is fuzzy and its transactional records remain inaccessible, Diamond’s estimated $4.5 million net worth is astronomical by any measure.

Curiously, the Wasafi ecosystem’s numerous rags to riches stories within its ranks is easily traceable to a policy of working with talents from poor backgrounds, something the directors admit to be true and deliberate. The ecosystem’s big acts, Konde boy Harmonize, Chibu Dangote Diamond, and Vannyboy have morphed from bootstrapping a half a decade ago to commanding fees in excess of $10,000 to $70,000 per show and earning upwards of $25,000 from streaming apps monthly.

This outsized influence has come with its own fair share of challenges. For instance, Baraza la Sanaa Tanzania (BASATA) took a moralisng stance against the artistes’ song Mwanza over what it dubbed explicit content. In 2018 BASATA put a leash on two of the label’s defiant big stars, RayVanny and Diamond, who in the end called for a truce owing to the risk of commercial losses that came with the ban.

Mr Kayanda, the agency’s interim executive secretary, brought down the full force of regulatory coercion, which elicited the age-old question of who deems what is explicit and triggered a moral debate in artistic expression. BASATA’s move amounted to predictable flexing, given President Magufuli’s wider crackdown on dissent, including clamping down on media personalities and political dissidents.

The litany of commercial streams rewarded their work ethic and ingenuity. And while Wasafi’s market capitalisation is fuzzy and its transactional records remain inaccessible, Diamond’s estimated $4.5 million net worth is astronomical by any measure.

Despite lacking a clear social cause, the Wasafi ecosystem has latched onto Dar es Salaam’s goal of providing 100,000 additional desks in its primary school classes as part of plugging the 1.4 million desks deficit. Their overall social cause and focus has, however, not been noteworthy outside of scouting for talent among the lowest socio-economic strata. The politically-conscious musician Roma Mkatoliki of the Rostam crew, who is a former teacher, and a dozen other artistes have also jumped onto the donation bandwagon.

The waning years

WCB Wasafi’s ecosystem has managed to inspire a cultural moment, and an ardent fan base, and has surpassed the mere tag of a label or a brand. However, for this ecosystem, achieving collective success has been the easy part while handling individual flaws, infighting, substantial talents, and an ever-growing team and fame has proved to be a challenge.

Rommy Jones, the founder’s kin, who is also Wasafi’s DJ, reckons that the artistes’ love lives and their relations with the female fan base are the main source of trouble for the organisation. In recent months, Diamond publicly fell out with his partner Zari Hassan and hooked up with video vixen Hamisa Mobetto, and then moved on to Tanasha Donna, while Rayvanny has a long talked-about dalliance with a Kenyan socialite.

Meanwhile, Harmonize dumped his lover after an alleged romp with a Caucasian female acquaintance. Rommy faced sexual assault allegations during Diamond’s April 2016 tour of Sweden, which led to Diamond cutting short his performances.

Besides trouble with the national arts council (BASATA), artistes’ exit from the recording firm could either be viewed as them having grown too big for one platform, or as the road to the demise of what’s still the most popular and competitive recording company in the region.

The record company first sign-up, Harmonize, has exited the label while the prodigious Richard Rayvanny is allegedly also on his way back to his former Tip Top Records, citing dissatisfaction with his contract. Mbosso’s manager, Ms. Sandra Brown, checked out, and so did Mr. Joel Vicent Joseph, who complained of poor pay and workplace harassment from one of the big name singers.

In a move reminiscent to Roc A Fella’s 2002 fallout in which Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter and co-director Damon Dash, while enjoying huge creative success, were grappling with behind-the-scenes squabbles, Rayvanny felt relegated to third place as Harmonize took second spot.

Mtwara-born Harmonize, it is said, was unhappy with Chibu’s public revelations of his personal matters. He was also displeased with regards to his contractual obligations, which eventually led him to exit and form the Konde Gang label.

WCB Wasafi’s ecosystem has managed to inspire a cultural moment and an ardent fan base, and has surpassed the mere tag of a label or a brand. However, for this ecosystem, achieving collective success has been the easy part while handling individual flaws, infighting, substantial talents, and an ever-growing team and fame has proved to be a challenge.

Because it is still patronised by great talent managers Babu Tale and Tudd Thomas, and producer Lizzer’s innovative knack, as well as a huge financial chest, and street smarts, the Wasafi ecosystem may survive much longer than the naysayers imagine. Through this ecosystem, Naseeb, the boy from Tandale, has managed to morph local music into likable and popular music, earning it both regional appeal and international stature.

The record label’s rise though has put it at crosshairs with Clouds Entertainment, who though coming in later into the Tanzanian arts scene after DJ Mhagama had launched Bongo Flava, views itself as the bona fide curator of Tanzania’s youthful cultural revolution. The late Ruge Muhataba and Joe Kusaga seemed unamused by the rise of a new media ecosystem outside of their patronage and capacity. This worsened after the altercation between a Wasafi staffer and two journalists from Clouds Media in February 2018 after which Cloud banned all Wasafi music and arts from their platforms.

The ultimate test for the five-year-old Wasafi platform will be managing Harmonize’s transition from the ecosystem since he co-owned Zoom Production Inc with Diamond. Zoom is one of the biggest cogs in the ecosystem and in charge of most of its video productions.

As they straddle between sizeable successes, an insatiable fan base and internal fallouts, the Wasafi ecosystem, ironically, risks getting cannibalised by a cultural moment that it was instrumental in creating.

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The ‘Waswahili’ and Their Hold on East Africa’s Popular Musical Culture

11 min read. Taarab is one of the oldest music forms in the East African region and amongst the earliest to be recorded commercially and exported. From its cradle at the East African coast arose new genres of music and a cast of iconic musicians whose influential contribution to world music continues to receive scant attention in popular literature.

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The ‘Waswahili’ and Their Hold on East Africa’s Popular Musical Culture
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Port cities are melting pots of culture world over. They spur the evolution of new cultures, languages and act as gateways to the world. It is within this context therefore that taarab, a distinct music form that defines East Africa internationally, found fertile ground along the vast coastal strip that was previously the domain of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The East African Coast has had a profound effect on the hinterland in terms of trade and cultural development and is home of the Swahili civilisation that came into strength during the Daybuli period between AD 900 and AD 1200. It is the Swahili who controlled the region’s trade from AD 1200 and bequeathed modern East Africa its lingua franca, the Swahili language and left their mark on the musical cultures of the inland indigenous peoples.

A sensuous melodic music deriving from diverse cultures that impacted the coastal culture over the years, taarab easily takes centre-stage in Swahili culture. While it is not necessarily amongst the oldest music forms in the region, given that ethnic groups in the hinterland had been creating music on reed flutes and thumb pianos for generations, taarab is amongst the earliest to be recorded commercially and exported from the region. Performed and recorded for nearly a century now, taarab, which has its origins in the Arab court music of nineteenth-century Zanzibar, owes its development to the political class of Zanzibar.

Sultan Said Barghash, who ruled Zanzibar between 1870 and 1888, is credited with introducing taarab to the East African coast and shepherding its growth into the cross-cultural mélange it has become today. Barghash, who loved music, and recognised its power as a social tool, looked to Egypt to develop his own court music, bringing in an Egyptian band to teach local musicians and sending a Zanzibari musician, Ibrahim Muhammed, to study music in Cairo.

On his return, Muhammed formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra to entertain at the palace. The success of Muhammed’s group inspired the formation of other groups, notably Ikhwani Safaa, which continues to be active and popular in the present day Zanzibari music scene.

But the one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.

Siti was a woman of many firsts. She introduced Swahili lyrics to the then predominantly Arab music. She also broke the glass ceiling for female musicians in a conservative Islamic culture and started a revolution. Her Swahili lyrics helped spread taarab to the mainland, as far as Rwanda and Kismayo. Gradually female singers started taking up the lead role, with men playing instruments as backing performers.

In the early 1930s while recording in India for Columbia Music Recording Company, Siti teamed up with Egyptian musician Umm Kulthum in a collaboration that introduced the full Egyptian cello, violin and bass strings section, playing alongside the familiar accordion, oud, qanun zither and ney flute. The result was a string of crossover recordings that attained huge commercial success, turning Siti into a veritable star at home and in India until her death in 1950.

The one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.

Siti’s success paved way for another iconic and controversial Zanzibari female musician, Fatuma binti Baraka, better known as Bi Kidude, who would go on to popularise her “unyago” brand of taarab worldwide, borrowing from her own radical past and characterized by its feminist politics in a conservative Islamic Sultanate. Although she started singing in the 1920s, Bi Kidude’s career remained in limbo for close to 50 years until the mid-70s when she rose to international prominence. In 2005, the cigarette-smoking grandma of taarab was awarded by World Music Expo (WOMEX) in recognition for her contribution to world music as a composer and performer, and is immortalized in Andy Jones’ 2006 documentary, As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude. Although her date of birth is unknown, she was allegedly over 100 years when she passed away in 2013.

Traditional taarab has gone on to spawn more pop-oriented styles such as beni, kidumbak and ‘modern taarab’ that do not necessary adhere to the traditional set structures of composition and arrangement, but lean more towards the dance styles popular on the streets at the time, and whose compositions are often spontaneous and whimsical, oft-times medleys of popular songs by other non-taarab musicians, and which are geared towards making the audience sing and dance along as they have a good time. These new styles often accompany the popular street parades at festivals in modern Zanzibar such as the annual Festival of the Dhow countries and Sauti za Busara.

While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.

*****

As taarab was continuing its dalliance with the Middle East and the Orient in its development, on mainland Tanzania the musicians were being encouraged to look inwards to their roots for inspiration. The phenomenal growth of ‘dansi’ or ‘ngoma’ music on mainland Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s is also attributed to politicians; and like taarab, its umbilical cord is attached to Dar es Salaam along the coast, despite drawing inspiration and musicians from the myriad indigenous cultures of Tanzania. When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth. Nyerere actively set up cultural centres in towns all over Tanzania and encouraged musicians to mine their rich cultural heritage even as they embraced foreign concepts.

It is his steerage that led to the establishment of vibrant performance spaces in Dar es Salaam such as the DDC Social Hall in Kariakoo and the Vijana Social Hall, and the memorable resident bands that played in those venues during events mostly sponsored by government parastatals and corporations. Bands sponsored by individuals also received support from the State, notably mega hit maker Mbaraka Mwinshehe and his Morogoro Jazz whose highlights included representing Tanzania at a World Fair the Osaka 1970 Exposition ( Expo 70) in Japan. Radio Tanzania inundated Tanzanian living rooms with hits from notable bands nurtured by Nyerere’s hand such as the ruling party TANU-sponsored Vijana Jazz Dar es Salaam Development Corporation’s DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, the National Union of Tanzanian Workers’ NUTA Jazz; among others, spurring a veritable sense of patriotism among ordinary Tanzanians.

By the late 1970s Dares Salaam, the country’s musical epicenter, was at its most vibrant, with up to 30 active bands performing in different venues almost every day of the week. A good percentage of these bands were made up of itinerant Congolese musicians who had settled in the city, bringing with them a rich musical experience from Kinshasa via Paris and Brussels, and which further enriched the dansi oeuvre.

While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.

Most multi-national record companies active in the 1970s and early 80s like Polygram and CBS had their regional headquarters in Nairobi. Tanzanian and Congolese bands crossed over to Nairobi to record at the superior studios, influencing the Kenyan bands they interacted with in the process. Nairobi pirates made a kill too, snapping up the hits and inundating the streets with bootleg tapes. The growth of dansi was phenomenal spreading its tentacles from the pleasure halls of cosmopolitan Dar es Salaam to other outback towns all over Tanzania and beyond, spilling Tanzanian bands like Wanyika and its various off-shoots, among them Simba Wanyika, Super Wanyika and Les Wanyika, across the border into Kenya, where they went on to dominate the scene in Nairobi in the late 1970s and 1980s. A notable scion of the Wanyika stable was Issa Juma Singano, who sat in as studio drummer on a number of benga hits recorded at Chandarana Studios in Kericho town in the mid-70s. A drummer dictates the pace of any piece of dance music.

The growth however came to an abrupt end when Nyerere stepped down in 1985, paving way for a new youthful sound, ‘bongo flava’, which drew influences from zouk, reggae, hip-hop and a slew of other foreign musical styles, the lyrics, increasingly abandoning the classic Kiswahili for street slang and the producers maximising digital technology.

But even as the coastal strip continued to exert its influence and dictate the direction the music and popular culture of the modernising East African states, the hinterland remained suspicious of the coast, silently resisting the influence of their culture. It is an old suspicion of the world-wise and mixed-blood ‘Waswahili’ that dates back to the slave-trading days when the kanzu-clad coastals were often at the head of the slave-raiding parties wielding their fire-spitting muskets.

In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini, often seedy tin-roofed rectangular blocks with wattle walls and a thin veneer of plaster built around a central courtyard, and which cluster around a mosque. Often there will be a palm tree or two in the village square that never comes to fruit in the inland climate, a reminder of the residents’ heritage. It is here that you might chance to hear strains of taarab wafting from an open doorway as the khanga-clad housewife busies herself at the jiko preparing kaimati or muhogo wa nazi for sale.

Outside these quasi-urban settlements, the Swahili are still perceived as sly and cunning. It could be the reason why taarab, unlike the rumba-flavoured dansi, has never had a profound effect beyond the coastal strip. Moreso the music’s sensual rhythms appear best suited to the unhurried lifestyle associated with the coast, the lyrics – oftentimes co-wives and mistresses bickering and bad-mouthing over a lover or a shared husband — more at home in a perfumed coastal harem than a sun-baked thatched village inland. The interior, it would seem, pulsates to its own rhythms, which better find expression in the more vigorous and malleable dansi.

When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth.

Which may explain, why the few times taarab has been embraced by the people of the interior it has had to adapt to their rhythms’. There was a revolution on Zanzibar Island in 1964 when the Swahili populace decided they had finally had enough of the Arab overlords. The bulk of these Swahili people, were freed slaves brought in from the hinterland called ‘wangwana’, who served the Arab traders as carriers, soldiers, gun-bearers and interpreters on the slave and ivory-raiding forays that had penetrated as far inland as Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika by 1830. They were also instrumental in the success of David Livingstone’s 1856 expedition and those by Henry Morton Stanley into the Congo in 1876. The majority ‘wangwana’ wanted to have a say not just in the politics of the island, but its culture as well. It is this revolution that ushered the more eclectic beats of the hinterland into the island’s music, and which would later bear off-shoots of taarab like kidumbak and beni that were more danceable.

In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid 1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success. Vidonge was a massive hit that was redone by Nairobi-based Congolese band Virunga. But there was something unique about ‘Vidonge’, and which may have been its selling point, especially in the hinterland; it wasn’t pure taarab in the traditional sense. Instead it was heavily laced with chakacha rhythms from the Bantu-speaking Mijikenda people who live along the Kenyan coast.

Likewise, when Malkia Rukia attained pop stardom with her taarab hit ‘Penzi Kwetu’ her producer, the fabled Andrew Burchell, better known as Rais Madebe of Mombasa’s Jikoni Records had to do the unthinkable, adapting the music to a hip-hop beat and inviting rapper Buda Boaz to rap over her smooth taarab lyrics in order for it to find favour with the mainstream club DJs. It proved to be scandalous in the staid Muslim culture that could not accommodate crude slang expressions like Buda Boaz’s ‘shusha dada’ (literally ‘let slip, sister’) and their euphemisms in a taarab song, causing Malkia marital problems; but it worked, going on to feature on Charlie Gillett’s popular ‘World of Music’ on BBC World Service.

Other Mombasa taarab artistes would later follow suit, including Nyota Ndogo and Prince Adio, who both found success with a mainstream listenership doing sassy street-savvy taarab music to a hip-hop beat, as opposed to the way it was traditionally done.

In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini.

Beyond taarab and dansi, the coast has had a profound impact on other genres of Kenya’s popular music as well, with Mombasa artists often occupying the centre-stage of new developments on the urban music scene. In the experimental funky 1970s when young urbanites were trying to come up with a fashionable and youthful musical sound that they could not only dance to in the disco halls but also claim, it is the musicians from the coast in Mombasa who led the way. Names like Slim Ali, Kelly Brown, Faisal Brown, Ishmael Jingo, Steele Beauttah and Sal Davies set the capital’s disco floors on fire, with Sal Davies and Kelly Brown venturing further abroad, both finding success in the UK and Germany respectively.

In the hip-hop era of the 1990s and it is Mombasa street emcees Buda Boaz and Fundi Frank who again pioneered, hawking out home-made mix-tapes in which they experimented laying Swahili lyrics over electric grooves lifted from the tapes they had sourced from US marines who had docked over in Mombasa. Nairobi’s latter-day bad boy of rap, Poxi Presha, was a Mombasa product. All these talented musicians had to shift base to Nairobi to earn fame because that is where all the studios, record labels and media houses were.

One of the most recognisable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band. Composed of the Harrison siblings hailing from Kaloleni in Mombasa, and the brainchild of the eldest, Teddy Kalanda Harrison, Them Mushrooms had everything in place to propel them to their place in history as Kenya’s first successful musical export internationally.

In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid-1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success

Hailing from a middle-class family in Tudor, Mombasa, the Harrison siblings were bitten by the musical bug early in life, cutting their teeth doing covers of the dansi and Congolese classics that dominated VOK (Voice of Kenya) radio. With a loan from their supportive mother in 1976 they bought their first drum-set and turned professional, joining the lucrative Mombasa beach hotel circuit where they landed their first contract with the Eden Roc Hotel. It is at the beach hotels that Them Mushrooms gradually started defining their individual style, settling for a cross of reggae, zouk and high-life laid over benga, rumba or the chakacha and nzele rhythms of their native village in Kaloleni., They called this sound ‘mushroom soup’. It is this style that they would later popularize at The Carnivore restaurant when they moved to Nairobi, where they were the resident band from 1986 till 1989.

The chart-topping and decorated band exhibited unmatched discipline and versatility during their prime and took their social responsibilities seriously. In 1988 they released a song about AIDS at a time when the condition was still very much a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health went on to use their song ‘Ukimwi ni Hatari’ extensively in their public-awareness campaigns. Sadly, the band never received a cent from the government in royalties, nor did they receive official recognition for their role.

Of all Kenyan bands, it is Them Mushrooms that has made the most forays abroad. In 1990 they were officially invited by the Ethiopian government to play at a conference in Addis Ababa. This would later sire a month-long tour that took them to diverse regions of the country, and which earned them a solid fan-base in Ethiopia. They would later follow up with successful sojourns in the Middle East in the mid 90s, touring Djibouti, Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and many other Emirate states before deciding they were ripe enough to try and conquer Europe, thanks in large to their smash hit ‘Jambo Bwana’ that had not only grown to become the unofficial anthem for promoting Kenya abroad as a tourist destination, but had also made it to the silver screen, with the slogan “Hakuna Matata” from Jambo Bwana featuring in the Walt Disney movie ‘Lion King’, catapulting the band to international stardom.

So successful was ‘Jambo Bwana’ internationally it was redone by the European pop band Boney M. This, and the response from their European fans who frequented The Carnivore, convinced the band that they were ready for Europe. They first toured Italy before winding up in Germany on the invite of a friend.

One of the most recognizable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band.

Bristling with youthful energy, they tried to find gigs, crossing the border to Switzerland, where another friend, cabaret singer Joe Mwenda, had landed them a temporary gig. Frustrated, they moved to London, where they attempted to find work with the assistance of Osibisa band’s Teddy Osei. But their attempt to find a foothold in the competitive European showbiz circuit was to prove disastrous in Germany, thanks in part to unscrupulous dealers who took advantage of their naivety and the fact that they were foreigners.

Fortune may have evaded the band in Europe, just like it has their compatriots at home, but musicians from the coast continue to play a crucial role in the direction popular music in Kenya takes today, their rich heritage cemented in the country’s national anthem, which borrows from a Miji Kenda folk tune.

Them Mushrooms three-month sojourn in Europe is winding and heart-breaking, but the short of it is that this was one band that was well-placed to make a success, had they received just a fraction of support – mostly logistical — from their own government, like the Tanzanian dansi bands did.

By denying Them Mushrooms support, the intransigent interior, had once again scored a hit at the ‘Waswahili’, putting paid to the Swahili saying that a prophet is never appreciated in their hometown.

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Finding the Zone: Billy Kahora Takes Charge

11 min read. Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence.

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Finding the Zone: Billy Kahora Takes Charge
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There is a driven, will-to poignance in the posturing of the friends Chiri and Juli, which captures a trenchant motif threading the writing of Kenyan writer, Billy Kahora, as seen in the recently released The Cape Cod Bicycle War, bringing works published over 15 years in one book.

A bathetic self-dramatisation whose more pathetic disposition conceals a desperate desire for a steadfast life, Chiri and Juli are that seeming paradox of African middle – why the self-inflicted misery when you really have everything?

The motif is immediate, and everlasting, and defines Chiri and Juli as it does the other characters created by Billy Kahora, who was a longtime editor of the literary collective, Kwani?. Take the statement by Juli:

“Even in Bibilia, Old Testament, wheat was God’s crop”.

Is the seeming grandness of this statement egged on by the place he says it in, the expansive, majestic landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, just gone past a laga where they had a glancing, violent run-in with a young, uncircumcised Maasai herdsboy? The Rift Valley can seem, and has been said to be, where God lives. Except Chiri (Eddie Muchiri Kambo) and Juli (Julius Rotiken Sayianka) are impressively, but irredeemably, given over to the profane. Their invocation of the Almighty must not be seen as anything other than a manner of speaking.

So is it money, the knowledge that this crop of heaven, and the Narok variety no less, when well-tended, can give two harvests in a year? If so, why would they go on a drinking binge which may well scuttle the entire enterprise? Not by any stretch of terminology are these characters saints. But they are not sinners either, at least, not for heavily indictable sins.

Even if all of the above were true, we the readers aren’t going to judge these characters that extremely. It is that kind of life then, pushing things too far because the worst isn’t going to come for them, after all, and even if it did, mummy and all the network of class and tribe will catch them when they fall. It is the summation of upper middle class cloud cuckoo land.

Chiri and Juli are after all, full of life, which in the long history of literature (and literature’s affinity for zestful sinners is well-established) is the closest you can come to saintliness. We follow in either direction (saintliness and devilry) only so far as metaphor allows. It is imperative we take it as given: A crop of the gods it is, two young men going out to sow it and this means we must start off by thinking their’s an ecumenical quest. And if there is a pile of dosh at the end of this, then is it any the less an evangelical affair to grow rich?

These questions and the twists therein serve a higher purpose; they may not make Juli and Chiri better humans, but they make them thoroughly enjoyable literary characters. Literature, with its sometimes contrary-wise moral alignment to everyday life, ought to come with the caveat to not try this at home.

Which is a tortuous way of saying that we have in our hands here, a book at the heart of which is satire. It is there in the life of Jemimah Kariuki; cynicism – satire’s evil twin – at full stretch is what holds together the life of Kandle Kabogo Karoki (arguably one of the more impressive literary creatures to come out of Kenya) in the story about Nairobi as the fallen city, Zoning; in the life of Khalid Ibrahim Hussein, in The Unconverted, an examination of religion and ethnicity, it darkens considerably; in the life of Alan Muigai, strutter extraordinaire in Shiko, the cynicism masticates, getting too edgy. And in the coming of age, campus fiction story, Motherless, it is the cynicism of others that presses into and threatens to scupper the life of Maish Boi.

Is this thread, the satire and the baked-in cynicism running through this compendium, what is possible in the public and private life of Kenya as Billy Kahora sees it? His writing, as we have seen it in Kwani? and in other places – and the stories here have also variously come from other publications – has surveyed these psychological realms. In his writing, things press at people. From youth, they are forced to navigate a world extensively sullied by bad faith and bad form; growing up, they are acquiring various degrees of deformity. At the fullness of life, there they are, bonkers already, or going bonkers, ex-ministers, retired professors. Their children are running away from the family name (‘Maish Boi’ is actually Joseph Mungai, son of disgraced ex-Moi minister), drinking themselves to bits, talking politics “through jiggling chins and stomachs,” the old men “with heaving man tits from goat meat and forty years of independence”.

Even for an uncompromising vision of a country, this is bare-knuckled stuff. What else, this vision has seemed to say, can emerge of such a history but lives lived in cynical disregard for decorum?

If there was decorum, no one here seems to know what it was. So keen are they on the business of taking and avoiding being taken advantage of, that you give up hoping for some good in anyone and marvel at the nerve of it.

The etymology of such a world view, when you have mined the writing of Billy Kahora, is that a shit-storm of some magnitude happened at some point just as the characters were being born. Hence, this supposed turbulence, which cleared the land of whatever moral rectitude had been standing, and which broke the embankments of propriety that had kept the life above board, happened to their fathers’ generation. It is in Billy Kahora’s writing, inherited infraction.

Whether or not this mining unearths an accurate account, the conclusion is not news to the characters that his work. To varying degrees, they are people who have already accepted that the best you can expect from the world is a messed up life that at least should not leave you too finished to not like your favourite whisky.

With the exception of a Maimouna Munyakei (who is not fictional and an aberration in this collection), Fr. Kamau and Komora Kijana Wito, Billy Kahora’s characters are hustlers because they must avoid being hustled. In literary terms, this would be something like incurable realism.

In the fifteen years he has been published short story writer, the code has been there, holding on steadily: accept that yours is a corrupt nation, that promises will be broken; they will come to take from you; your best friends, including your own family, will take from you. Fathers can’t be relied on, they are impotent. If your mother is a strong woman, you are lucky. Only mothers can really love you, although even they have a habit of turning up drowned and bloated down river. 

Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing. Combined with the writing chops, the knowledge of the language by which the sense of contemporary Kenya is passed along, the Kiswahili predilection for wisdom peppering his writing, there arises a vital sense of groundedness. There is the vocabulary of the drinkscape (booze flows through the writing in quantity enough his prose could be designated a distillery). There is the near-casual psychological violence committed on almost every page. It is a tough place, Nairobi. There is the practiced awareness of how far to push things, and none excels at this more than Kandle Karoki in Zoning, who has become a master at working a few weeks in a year and not getting sacked for it.

Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing.

Billy Kahora’s technical approach to writing works at several levels. His stories show consistency in this regard. First, he posits a big picture, like a painter priming a canvas to decide whether to work from light to darkness, or darkness to light, before making tentative, thematic daubs. He starts to work at sketching out the elements that will later receive fuller treatment.

Take The Red Door, the story where Chiri and Juli appear (shortlisted for and published in the 2013 Caine Prize collection). It is a complex story told as character study. But it is also plot-heavy, bucolically-trained to the cultural nuances outside of Nairobi. It gets its Sheng working. It is the story of inter-ethnic, Kenyan settlement, in the crowded, fought-over Rift Valley. There Is the sheer magnitude of detail, like a Richard Onyango painting, an ambitious piece of work.

So how to hold it all together? One way, effectively, is symbolism. Wheat and a combine harvester get collared as the effective glue. We clue in on this early on. At some point, it reads less like a short story than long-prose with the late-stage introduction of Eastleigh and a wily Somali trader-kind, and a peerless satirical treatment of money-worship.

The Mirrors in Treadmill Love, a subtly heartbreaking story, introduce spine to the story as narrative aid and mental unguent to Kung’u who needs soft, mental cushioning. Buruburu, aka the country, got to him, in that Francis Imbuga obiter dictum, “when the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to call the man mad”.

In We are Here Because We are Here, the war between the Indian Ocean and the Tsana River, by which the Indian ocean tsunami threatens to wash away African hinterland, only for the Tsana (Tana) river to push back, this application of symbol as plot device is transparently on show, at the expense of the consummate complexity that drives other stories. But as a symbol, the struggle between the ocean and the river is tantalising. Are we talking here about African history, of the colonialising, mercantile, force, the trade winds blow onto its coast, and the seemingly weak, yet resilient force with which the continent has always pushed back?

The bicycles in the title story are the more overt symbols offering us a ride through the story.

And the lived-in knowledge of middle-Kenya? This is the fraught element in Billy Kahora’s writing. Given the depth of ethnic feeling in Kenya, a Kenyan writer can never escape the charge of ethnicity. The divide et impera mechanism built into the nation’s DNA to make British exploitation of the country more effective might never go away. The country in Billy Kahora’s writing is only Kenyan by extension. He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”. The challenge of writing, is to find out how there not, rather than looking for how, there are differences. We therefore squirm through the presentation of otherness in We are Here Because we Are Here and in Commission. Really? You cannot help but ask. Is there such a thing as difference, and should we assume others speaking in childish voices because they are from another ethnic background, and hence less “normal” “us”? If I were the editor, I would have left out the two stories for further development. And more than that, I can see how this fact might make some uncomfortable accountability on the part of Mr. Kahora as a Kenyan writer.

But where it is concentrated, in middle class Kikuyu life, Billy Kahora is in his true element. The prose where he is not looking for the others’ voice goes with few glitches. Perhaps the most ambitious story Billy Kahora has thus far written is The Gorilla’s Apprentice. There is something of The Tin Drum about The Gorilla’s Apprentice. A heartbreaking rendering of dystopia, without the sentimentality that often mars such attempts, it may well be one of the most effective stories written of the post election violence of 2001/08. The narrative, prima facie, is of a dying gorilla, and of a boy’s (Jimmy) desire to speak to him, which brings him close to the darkly mysterious Professor Charles Semambo. But we become aware that the shouts, fires and smoke through which the story strives to move forward, but which our narrator does not pull to the foreground, is of the most serious Kenyan crisis since the Mau Mau uprising. Like with Gunther Grass’ book, the innocence and curiosity masks unhinging darkness, amplifying it.

There is the author’s cold distance from his subjects. Bright-eyed hopes are best taken with caution. In the tight universe of his writing, there exists a place, not quite a sin bin, not really a hell, in which characters with too much hope in life are sent to fester in. Kandle Karoki has found that place, the Zone. He got over it. Now he prowls through Nairobi like he owns the place. In literature, there are characters you will be eternally grateful meeting. Think May Kasahara in Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Count Kaburagi in Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colours. Anti-heroes brighten up literature. Kandle aspires to that status. He leads a fallen life. He is not trying to get up. Why should he when fallen looks so good on him? He wears this status with such suave, commanding steadiness you must do a second take to be reassured the author is not pulling our legs and this is an actual, handsome devil. Literature can never have enough of handsome devils. Kandle lied to his manager at the bank. He has not shown up for work in forever. He took out a loan to service his time in the Zone. They know he has lied. He knows they know. They have cornered him. But Kandle was born a human corner. He knows his Nairobi too well to believe that anyone can be upright.

Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence. This is when the underlying psycho-social background of the characters and their stories stir. There was a promise made, however implicitly, that independence would bring a better world. Young men and women – the fathers and mothers of the characters Billy Kahora writes about – threw their lot at this promise; the awakening moment of black self-determination, the scholarship to Makerere, the elevation to a British university, that degree, that coveted job back home and then, the beginning of mortgages and property. The beginning, also, of a very rapid unraveling. It is against this national-domestic backdrop that our characters are born.

He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”.

Billy Kahora condenses this history into the founding of an estate. Buruburu as synecdoche set to represent the country, as the Promised Land in which mortgages and social security would flow like milk and honey. (In a way you feel, that if that is what they thought independence amounted to, then they really deserved the whacking after all. But that is another matter). Buruburu, ground zero for the characters created by Billy Kahora. The lives in these stories start in the sprawling Nairobi estate sold, post-independence, as a glorious opening to the good life. Buruburu more than fell. It decayed, translating, once putrefaction was underway, into the ashen dystopia it become, a refuse heap for ill-conceived dreams.

The independence generation that bought into the promise of Buruburu quickly reached the conclusion that with Moi in power, the best option was to send their children away. The well-off send their progeny to British and American universities. The non-winners – but by no means poor Kenyan families – send theirs to South Africa, to Rhodes, to Cape Town. It is where we start to meet them in Billy Kahora’s writing.

As to why there are mostly no fathers in his work, or if present, then barely alive, the grasping Professor Mundia in Motherless, a story set in the university town of the Eastern Cape, Grahamstown South Africa, offers some explanation: “Because of what Moi did to the country,” he says. “Moi destroyed the possibilities that were open to my generation”. But was it that straightforward? Or was the idea of independence grossly oversimplified? Did they expect that the exploitative structures of colonialism would painless stretch into independence? There were other players beside Moi, for it takes many hands to ruin a nation. He may be a victim of a regime, but Professor Mundia is not altogether a pleasant figure. As a professor, he wields his office with unbecoming power, a corruptor of young souls.

While the trajectory of Billy Kahora’s writing is a forensic aperçu into middle Kenya, it is also a continuation of a long-running African narrative, the encounter with empire, coming back to the continent uneasy, dislocated, falling to corruption. As with the 1960s generation of literary characters, here, return is the moment of disillusionment. As well-told in the story Shiko, and glancingly in The Red Door, the second generation knows they are going to have to learn to game the system in order to survive. Those who fail at it envy those that succeed at it. A trusting man is a dead man walking. World Pawa presents the fallen life as a semi-comical, tragic entreaty, in Zoning as macabre vitality.

The Cape Cod Bicycle War is published by Huza Press

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