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Twerking as Resistance: Peeling Back the Ethic of Wamlambez

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What if this ratchet music is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular? What if the ratchet offers an insurgent possibility of life after social death, of life beyond nihilism?

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In April 2018, a video of what seemed to be a pair of teenagers having, or simulating, sex at the back of a car – maybe an Uber? – went viral under the hashtag #IfikieWazazi. The girl is sitting on the boy’s lap, the boy is holding a phone in front of them, recording video, selfie-style. The moral panic was swift and shrill – the head-shaking and finger-wagging, the familiar lament watoto wa siku hizi (kids these days), plus the rather grand where are we heading as a society. But what stood out the most for me was the expression on their faces. They – the girl especially – were smiling through it all, looking straight into the camera as they had sex in the back of a moving car in broad daylight. Their joy was both disturbing and complicated: a combination of ordinary teenage mischief and something else, something deeper and more transgressive.

It was play and defiance, an outrageous commandeering of a quasi-public space with lewd behaviour, recorded for posterity and then dispatched directly to parents – ‘ifikiewazazi’ means ‘let this get to [the] parents’. Or maybe, make sure this gets to the parents.

Ratchet: noun, verb, adjective
1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty
2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc
[As defined by producer PhunkDawg on the liner notes of the CD “Do The Ratchet”, featuring rapper Lil Boosie, 2004. Shreveport, Louisiana].

#IfikieWazazi went viral; by now it was not just the video, but also a barrage of images of teenagers posing in highly suggestive positions, arched backs, pouty lips and all. In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

Soon after, the song ‘Lamba Lolo’ by the rap group Ethic was released. None of them seemed a day over 21. They were (obviously) singing about fellatio, over a poorly produced track. The music video, especially, is of the aesthetic that I call Nairobi Grime – dusty streets, mabati shops and unfinished buildings in the background.

In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

They seemed like they just walked out of their houses on an errand to buy milk and a matchbox. It was, in short, scruffy and unpretentious. In the next few months, catching many off guard, came this new wave of Kenyan music, in which the ratchetry was turned all the way up. In most of these videos, it was just a catchy hook, the mtaa backdrop, and lots and lots of twerking. The rest, as they say, is history, but a living kind of history.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the city of Atlanta would come to a standstill once a year with what came to be known as Freaknik. It begun as an event for students from the prestigious, historically Black colleges of Morehouse and Spelman to come together and network during spring break; the suffix “nik” hints it was envisioned that the networking would take place in a picnic-like setting.

But quickly, the “freak” part would eclipse any corporate or straight-laced intentions that the event might originally have had. It evolved into a prolific cultural and sexual celebration, that brought in Black students from all over the country, as well as artists, musicians, and residents of Atlanta from all socio-economic classes, to party hard. Atlanta’s city official government pushed back against the festival with violence, intimidation, and attempts at co-optation until Freaknik was ultimately banned.

That this was happening in the city of Atlanta was highly disruptive to the sensibilities of a city that was known as America’s “Black Mecca”, where a wealthy Black middle-class had emerged as far back as the 1940s. The street where Martin Luther King Jr. had grown up – Auburn Avenue – was called “the richest Negro street in the world.”

King himself was born into a respectable middle-class family that did not struggle materially, unlike the majority of Black families in the US at the time, as James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 profile of King in Harper’s Magazine. The Black bourgeoisie of Atlanta were proper, they esteemed certain ways of dressing and speaking; they were respectable folk and believed that this would allow them to live a life of dignity in the segregated South.

This worked, to some extent – Atlanta was one of the few cities in the South that seemingly “peacefully” transitioned out of segregation, the Black elite had already built substantial wealth and were on hand to integrate into the city structure. Most of all, the Black bourgeoisie cautioned against disrupting day-to-day business even as the Black community pressed for civil rights, writes Sarah Abdelaziz in her thesis Ratcheting a Way Out of the Respectable: Genealogical Interventions Into Atlanta’s Respectability Politics. “They believed that through negotiations, business deals, and moral pleas, they could advance political progress.”

Two decades later, a new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.” In her words:

Cars littered the streets, blocking intersections and highways, as people recreated a city center wherever it suited them. Black women danced on top of cars with or without clothes on and became a central spectacle of the event, defying sexual and racial mores (Thompson, 2007). To the white fear of a singular Black body, Freaknik answered with thousands, not only in numbers, but with a loudness. Freaknikers literally ratcheted up all that capitalism and the project of whiteness fear: the unabashed engagement in sexual leisure at the direct cost of circuits of capital.

Freaknik, in her analysis, was a pushback against the surveillance that is demanded by respectability politics that characterised Atlanta, by enlisting in the tactics of “evasion, subversion, play and exhibitionism.” It was an attempt to snatch some joy in a context where neoliberal policies had left the class oppressions intact even as Black people had been granted civil rights, and where mass incarceration was ensnaring more and more Black people in its grim dragnet. And although most Freaknikers may not have been able articulate what they were doing in such elegant political terms, that doesn’t mean it was any less so.

A new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.”

The personal is political, especially if your existence has already been politicized. Sexual energy is life energy, my friend Ciru Ngigi reminds me, and Audre Lorde understood the erotic as not only a sexual pleasure, but as a way to “deeply connect with the self and with others radically, so as to empower the ability to fight for and manifest liberation.”

In moments like this, one escapes, even temporarily, the constraining norms of a society where your worth is determined by how much labour can be extracted out of you, and where existing as Black means that true social worth is always tantalizingly out of your reach. In so doing, there is an insurgent possibility that there can be life after social death, that there can be life beyond nihilism.

It is, the Black Ratchet Imagination – a form of redemption can be grasped as one inhabits one’s body fully and unashamedly, not easily reducible to mere “acting out”, the ratchet is an attempt to “to reclaim space, refuse binary identities, subvert language [and] create economic opportunities with new economies.”

Six months ago, economist and public intellectual David Ndii revisited the Kenya at the Crossroads: Scenarios for our Future report that had been written in 1998, when the Kenyan economy was in free fall. At that time, President Daniel arap Moi was clocking two decades in power, there was public dilapidation everywhere you looked.

Darius Okolla captures the mood of despondency in his article exploring the 1990s deterioration of his hometown Kitale– “it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.”

The premise of the Scenarios project was that “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models”, that is, what Ndii calls an “enclave economy” as set in place during British colonialism – a small corporatized economy of formal enterprises, good schools and prim urban neighbourhoods (it is telling that we call our neighbourhoods ‘estates’, as if in our imagination they are, in fact, country manors ruled over by lords and barons). On the outside of this small elite and privileged core is the “native sector” of the excluded African masses.

After independence in 1963, the privileged core was vacated by the British, and an African elite moved in to replace them. If you had a university education, you went straight to the top of the public or corporate sector and your future was pretty much secured; even with a secondary education you could live comfortably.

However by the end of the 1980s, the formal sector had stagnated and was struggling to absorb the ever-increasing numbers of university graduates. Catastrophe was only averted when the economy was liberalised in the early 1990s, leading to the explosion in the informal sector. The jua kali and mitumba businesses, the second-hand cars from Dubai, the stalls and ‘exhibitions’ were like opening a safety valve on a pressure cooker – they staved off social unrest and bought Kenya a few more years of stability.

Fast-forward three decades, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the economically active population (age 15-64) are 25 million, a five-fold increase from 1990. Yet, as Ndii writes, the formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

Meanwhile, 125,000 students graduate from university every year – an astonishing 63 times the rate three decades ago, yet the formal sector is absorbing less than 100,000 a year. Once again, Kenya is balancing on a delicate precipice, a society of rising tensions where upward social mobility is becoming more and more of a mirage.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it. They live in a city presided over by a governor whose rise to power is only comparable to the plot in a crime fiction novel.

The formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

These teenagers watched as a country celebrated students’ mass failure in national examinations, starting in 2016 when tough-talking Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i defeated the so-called cartels and their shadowy, dormitory-burning ways, and delivered a ‘clean’ examination – just 141 A grades, compared to over 2,000 the previous year. In 2018, more students — 30,840 of them — only managed a grade E (a flat failure) than those who scored a combined A, A-, B+ and B, who total 28,403. This is not a normal distribution – the bell curve of grading would predict that the majority should get an average, C grade. The sharp skew at the lower end is not how normal classrooms perform.

In any sane country, this would prompt a somber reflection, maybe even a day of national mourning. At the very least, any teacher whose class failed her exam en masse would at least have to re-evaluate either the content or her teaching methods. And, if the scripts were being marked by external examiners, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that one’s students are being deliberately made to fail.

These 18-year-olds instead saw the country cheer as some subjects record a failure rate of 90 percent and higher. They have been watching as a hairdresser carted away millions of shillings of public funds in sacks, and as reports of poisonous (poisoned?) sugar, maize, milk and meat flood TV headlines and nothing substantial happens. They have been watching as political leaders shift alliances without batting an eyelid, and with such speed that it can give you whiplash, where someone condemned as the devil and an ogre today can be described as “my friend” and “a safe pair of hands” tomorrow.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it.

It is a bleak new dispensation. We have been telling them to work hard, be God-fearing, modest, respectful and focus on their education, but kwa ground vitu ni different.

It is against this backdrop that we now must consider the chants of wamlambez, wamnyonyez. If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own. It is, in fact, appropriate to regretfully mutter wazazi wa siku hizi ( Today’s parents). And it is not like every generation doesn’t have its own lustful excesses – many of today’s horrified parents did the same, or worse, at Jam Sessions or Safari Sevens. They sang along to Nampenda John and Manyake, all sizes. The only difference is that there were no camera phones then.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral. The young people of today are gleefully forcing that hypocrisy to collapse on itself, by intentionally being as ratchet as possible – so over-the-top and outrageous that they becomes impossible to ignore. Because really, what’s the worst that could happen? “Shame and embarrassment is not the worst thing. We’ve experienced worse. What is there to protect?” she said to me. It is, as Kalundi Serumaga once wrote, that poverty is the worst violence, the greatest shame and the constant embarrassment.

Like Freaknik in Atlanta a generation ago, the wamlambez wave – by this I mean the wave of this extremely ratchet music – is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular. Kwa ground ni different: social amenities like public parks, playgrounds and social halls have grabbed or left to decay, jobs and opportunities are hoarded for the politically connected, and there is the constant exhortation to entrepreneur oneself out of structural poverty.

It leaves one, then with only the Internet and one’s body as the last arenas that one can live, not just exist, but really live, with the all the thrill and joy that capitalism, classism and racism tells us will never be ours. This is the possibility of alternative life that the ratchet offers — a way of being in the world that seeks to live in pleasure, purpose and joy – full humanity, and that above all refuses to participate in the fraudulent prescription that in Kenya, of all places, personal comportment and sexual restraintwill define one’s life chances and opportunities. Anyone who went to an upmarket private school in Nairobi knows how ratchet wealthy children can be, with no lasting consequences.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral.

In the end, however, the ratchet in isolation will not save us either. The personal transgression of mores governing dress, speech, sexuality and decorum do not make a revolution – the oppressive structures that corral black life into nihilistic corners are a product of laws, politics, the justice system, theology and economics, all of which should be engaged with, for the purposes of expanding freedom. And although Freaknik was banned by the city of Atlanta, that was not before it started losing its own appeal because of increasing incidents of sexual harassment and even assault during the festival, in contrast to its playful and liberating beginnings.

In the end, the ratchet cannot be an end in itself. It is only a means of carving out new ways of relating to ourselves, and each other. The ratchet only offers possibilities, as Abdelaziz concluded, “we would be mistaken to not pay attention to these gasps of alternative life in our present predicament.” The emphasis is mine.

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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has written on a wide range of subjects. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and more. Currently, Christine is the curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public interest storytelling.

Culture

Removing a Dictator

How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?

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Removing a Dictator
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In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.

Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.

Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”

The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.

On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.

While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.

A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:

In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.

While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?

In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.

People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.

As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.

One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.

In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.

A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government,  when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”

Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.

These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.

The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.

While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”

The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.

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If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.

So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.

The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.

At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.

“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”

The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.

“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.

Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.

“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.

Then, another surprise.

“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.

“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.

Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.

“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.

So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.

On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.

“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.

Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.

“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.

The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.

“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.

“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”

Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense.  So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.

John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”

John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.

Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.

“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.

After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.

James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”

Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in

There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.

Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.

James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.

Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.

“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.

Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.

Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:

“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”

“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.

Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.

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Culture

Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.

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Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
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In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.

The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.

Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.

The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.

In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.

Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.

News and their social epidemics

With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.

In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.

A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?

Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.

Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.

News and confirmation bias

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.

To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.

Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.

Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.

Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.

Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.

Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).

Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.

The worst must be reported

Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.

Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.

An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.

A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.

“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”

“So why look here?” asks the officer.

“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.

It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.

There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.

The Anatomy of a Stereotype

A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.

There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.

Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.

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