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Widow Inheritance: Throwing out the Baby With the Bath Water

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Wife inheritance has been treated as one of the legacies of past backward African culture but as ADIPO SIDANG’ argues, are we throwing the baby with the bathwater?

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Widow Inheritance: Throwing out the Baby With the Bath Water
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The cremation of the remains of Kibra MP Hon. Ken Odhiambo Okoth contrary to the Luo culture elicited public debate reminiscent of the S.M Otieno case in the late 80s, where the widow, Wambui Otieno battled in court with Umira Kager clan over where to bury the body of the then renowned lawyer. Wambui had wanted to bury her husband at their Upper Matasia home while the lawyer’s clan insisted he had to be buried in his ancestral home in accordance with Luo culture. The wishes of the clan carried the day.

Whereas the cremation of the Hon. Okoth’s remains was contested, it is the pronouncement by a splinter group of the Luo Council of Elders led by Nyandigo Ongadi that drew public opprobrium and approbation almost in equal measure. These elders demanded the inheritance of Okoth’s widow, Monica Okoth, by one of the late legislator’s brothers in line with Luo culture. Social media went ablaze with mixed reactions; those that opposed it caricatured wife inheritance as primitive, immoral and irreligious while those who supported the call felt the practice is an important component of Luo culture to be preserved. Mainstream media joined the bandwagon with sensationalized reporting of the matter that bordered on a mischaracterization of the practice of wife inheritance.

For starters, wife inheritance – also known as levirate marriage, is a customary practice that entails that upon the death of a husband, his brother or a male relative equivalent to a paternal cousin assumes the role of the deceased man by stepping in as the new head of the deceased’s home. The term “levirate” comes from Latin word “levir” which means a husband’s brother. The brother or the paternal cousin of the deceased thus becomes a wife inheritor; the two cohabit and culturally validate the arrangement through consummation which usually happens in the widow’s house. In some situations, the widow has the liberty to identify the man to inherit her from within the clan, while in other cases the widow has little or no power to decide who inherits her thus must remain acquiescent to the voice of the wise elders who make the decision. It is assumed the directive is in the interest of the common good and therefore has a utilitarian function of preserving the name of the deceased, especially if he died without having children. This explains why the Luo elders demanded ex cathedra that Hon. Okoth’s widow must be inherited. Whether this demand was justifiable in the prevailing context is a totally different matter.

For starters, wife inheritance – also known as levirate marriage, is a customary practice that entails that upon the death of a husband, his brother or a male relative equivalent to a paternal cousin assumes the role of the deceased man by stepping in as the new head of the deceased’s home.

The social media reactions relayed the disturbing misrepresentation that has for long perpetuated the narrative that African cultures were or are in some way defective and backward and many Africans have obsequiously submitted to a superior foreign culture. Australian social critic A.A. Philips coined a term for it – cultural cringe, the collective inferiority complex that makes the natives of a country dismiss their culture as inferior to other cultures. The West has largely become the source of our cultural validation. Cultural cringe impairs our ability to question, without feeling inferior, some of our practices, including wife inheritance, from a lived experience that is only unique to ourselves.

It is this inferiority that somehow makes a society peddle falsehoods, fallacies and exaggerations about aspects of its own culture. Therefore, when the debate on wife inheritance heightened on social media, it wasn’t surprising that some views were outrageous and bordered on bastardization of the cultural practice in question. These views are representational of the effects of the cultural servitude we were conscripted to by the West.

Wife Inheritance in the Bible

Wife inheritance, like any other “controversial” aspects of African cultures, is characterised as non-religious and satanic. However, wife inheritance is not exclusive to African traditional or non-religious for that matter. It escapes the critics that the practice is recorded in the Christian bible existing among Hebrews and Jews. Religion was and still is a function of the culture that creates it.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10, for instance, commands a brother to marry the widow of his childless brother to perpetuate the name of the deceased brother. Some of the examples from the Bible are the marriage of Boaz to the Moabite widow Ruth (Ruth 4:9) and the marriage of Onan to Tamar, Er’s widow (Genesis 38:6-10).

The West has largely become the source of our cultural validation. Cultural cringe impairs our ability to question, without feeling inferior, some of our practices, including wife inheritance, from a lived experience that is only unique to ourselves.

Wife inheritance was for centuries practiced among the Nilotic Luo peoples of Western Kenya, Northern Uganda and the Mara region of Tanzania as part of the metaphysics of their cultures. Like other practices, it echoed the unwritten laws of the ancestors who acted as the interceders to the gods. The Luo of Kenya for a long time termed the practice “tero” or “lako” to mean the rite of inheriting a widow. Wife inheritance also obtains among other Nilotic groups such as the Dinka, Nuer, Atuot and Anywaak of South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The practice was also common among Bantu tribes of East Africa such as the Abaluhya (Maragoli, Bukusu and Samia) and Abagusii of Kenya and the Bagwere people of Uganda. It was strongly present among Southern Bantus of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and South Eastern Bantus of Malawi. All these tribes in their separate ways regarded wife inheritance as an institution of widow care chiefly established to protect the widow and children of the deceased.

In Malawi, for instance, the Sena people practise kulowa kufa in which a widow is married to another man or brother of the deceased husband to protect the name of the deceased and care for the widow and children.

In West Africa, wife inheritance was practised by the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani of Nigeria and the practice is still common in rural areas. Customary laws of the three tribes require that upon the death of her husband, a widow must be inherited by a male relative of the late husband. In Yoruba culture, if a polygamous man died, his youngest wife would be inherited by the eldest son of the deceased man. This arrangement was also common among the Luhya of Kenya even though the practice has principally been abandoned, unlike among Yoruba people where it is supposedly still in force. To a non-Yoruba, this would look like institutionalized incest, a practice that was fairly common among European royal blood lines only that in the latter, marriages happened between first cousins.

An article appearing in National Geographic magazine in 2010 titled “The Risks and Rewards of Royal Incest” delved into the reality of inbreeding among royals like the Bourbons of France, Hawaiian royals, Hohenzollerns of Prussia and the British royal family. In the British royal family, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married her maternal first cousin Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia then later married her paternal first cousin Duke of Hesse, in line with the wishes of her grandmother Queen Victoria who happens to be a great-great grandmother to Queen Elizabeth II. Incestuous marriages led to the end of the Spanish Hapsburg royal family with the death of King Charles II in 1700. King Charles II, popularly known as El Hechizado or the Hexed (Bewitched), was practically a sickly king with serious mental and physical health disabilities as a result of centuries of inbreeding.

Ironically, while the colonialists were quick to label African practices and tribes as retrogressive, inbreeding among European royals was labeled more as a health risk than as a retrogressive practice.

Communalism or Patriarchy

It is pure ignorance to claim that wife inheritance as culturally practised by various African and even Asian tribes, like Hunnish tribes of Central Asia and Pashtuns of Afghanistan, was retrogression. Just as inbreeding sought to keep the royalty within families, wife inheritance sought continuity of one’s bloodline. The caring for widows and continuation of the bloodline of a deceased man is guided by an underlying philosophy and is part of a governance structure of a society.

In the Luo community, two things stand out which are common in most communities that practised wife inheritance and African communities in general; the first is patriarchy. The directive by the Luo Council of Elders to Hon. Okoth’s family demonstrated the extent to which elders created social and political order and defined the economic structures including control of property. Among the Luo community, elders were revered as the decision makers on most cultural affairs; they monopolized wisdom and guided their people and protected the interests of their people first. Whereas the community was patriarchal, widows (and married women) inherit land rights by virtue of marriage and farm land nearly in the same manner as matriarchal African societies like the Owambo people of Namibia or the Serer people of Senegal.

Just as inbreeding sought to keep the royalty within families, wife inheritance sought continuity of one’s bloodline. The caring for widows and continuation of the bloodline of a deceased man is guided by an underlying philosophy and is part of a governance structure of a society.

With the corruption of the institution of wife inheritance, there has been increased hostility towards widows. In the 90s, wife inheritors among the Luo of Kenya became popularly known as “terrorists” – a pun curved out of the word “tero” (the practise of wife inheritance), and which symbolized a casual bravado by male relations who had abused and corrupted the hitherto cultural institution of caring for the widow’s welfare and the family of the deceased.

As a result of this, wife inheritance has been treated as one of the legacies of patriarchal dictatorship among the Luo community and feminist scholars have launched their campaigns against the practice from that viewpoint.

Secondly, the Luo community – like most African communities, had very strong clan structures that influenced how communalism was interpreted. For Luos, communalism inspired a unique social welfare system that transcended the living world to the ancestral. Communalism not only guided kinship and relations but also how the living viewed and related to the “living dead” and the ancestors. Life was a shared experience driven by cultural truths that inspired collective consciousness for the other. It is this cultural organization that partly inspired the institution of widow care among Luos. When you married a woman, she became a daughter of the community in the same way her husband was a son of the community.

Racism the Root of Cultural Colonialism

While advancing their Western patriarchal values, the West significantly disrupted African communal systems. This agenda was driven by the patronizing colonial view of Africa, as a cultural space inferior to Western culture. Western scholars went to the great extent of intellectualizing this racist ideology. German scholar GWF Hegel (1770-1831) without ever traveling to Africa, fascinatingly described that Africa (South of Sahara) was “Africa proper”, “a land of childhood…enveloped in the dark mantle of night”, and without any relevance to world history because Sub-Saharan Africa was characterized as having neither a history nor civilization. According to Hegel, Africa had no history because to have history is to have reason – a capacity deficient among Africans. These radical views influenced the growth of the racial ideology that bedeviled Africa and Africans across continents and devalued the significance of our cultures in the eyes of the world.

Through deliberate restructuring of African cultures to adhere to the modern (read European/American) dictates of civilization, some African cultural practices like wife inheritance were declared immoral, and as a result have been targeted on the grounds that they are immoral and backward. Thanks to neo-liberalism – the “new world order”, the rise of secular democracy has significantly re-organized the socio-political and economic structures of African societies as it tramples upon any cultural considerations. Religion and colonialism enhanced the slavery narrative that Africans were inferior. Religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian religion, established an anti-culture evangelization project to overthrow cultural practices conveniently labeled Satanic. More specifically the Christian ethics of Protestant tradition is partly responsible for the capitalist economic (dis)order due to its emphasis on individual achievement and the religious adulation of the same; Max Weber extensively speaks about this in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Colonialism, on the other hand, reinvented African societies by dismantling and destroying the existing socio-cultural structures then supplanted them with a new set of cultural ideologies. The result was a disintegration of communal structures which has contributed to abandonment of our communal values. The individualistic-cum-capitalist Western culture invaded our communalism and consequently post-independent African societies have since been atomized as people seek individual survival and happiness over communal welfare and social values. This atomization was enhanced in the 1960s and 1970s with the abandonment of the idea of common land ownership, among other things, and later in the 1980s and 1990s people began to migrate, like everywhere else, from rural to urban centres away from their communities.

Cultural Gigolos and HIV Prevalence

Social critics have portrayed wife inheritance as a form of subjugation of women but this must be viewed within the context of wife inheritance as practised today which continues to defy the relevant cultural expectations of the community. In fact, it is contested that what is practised today cannot pass for wife inheritance as it is contrary to the very idea of widow care. This is because the corrupted version has become synonymous with plundering of the wealth and property of the widows.

Under this corrupt regime of wife inheritance, in place of responsible brothers-in-law are “professional” wife inheritors who gallivant from one funeral to the next in search of bereaved and vulnerable widows. This crop of men mostly are opportunistic individuals not only without the means to take care of themselves let alone the widows they intend to inherit but also devoid of a reasonable sense of direction that adulthood affords normal human beings. They abandon their marriages – if they have any, to become “cultural gigolos”. In the process, they infect or re-infect the widows with HIV, or get infected or re-infected, before they move on to their next victim.

Colonialism, on the other hand, reinvented African societies by dismantling and destroying the existing socio-cultural structures then supplanted them with a new set of cultural ideologies.

This cultural sleaze can be attributed to weak communal structures, coupled with poverty and ignorance, which have enabled people to exploit cultural loopholes to their own immoral benefit. A clan like Uyoma along the shores of Lake Victoria, Siaya County, has witnessed all sorts of “terrorists”; most if not all cases do not meet the widow care threshold. Men come from across the lake as far as Uganda in search of greener pasture only to retire as serial wife inheritors in this or that village.

Studies show that societies where wife inheritance is practised have recorded high HIV prevalence, whether or not practices align with cultural requirements. A 2018 Government of Kenya HIV/AIDS prevalence report showed that counties in Nyanza region of Kenya where wife inheritance (safe to say the corrupted version since the institution of widow care has since died) is still rife recorded a prevalence rate ranging from 7.7% to 21.7% which was way above the national prevalence rate of 4.9%. In 2004, a UNDP report dubbed “Human Development Report for Nigeria. HIV and AIDS: A Challenge to Sustainable Human Development” found that the practice of wife inheritance was one of the leading causes of HIV in Nigeria. In 2006, Women UN Report Network observed there was high HIV rates in Mzimba District, Malawi North due to chokolo (wife inheritance). HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are high in other cultures where this practice is still rife including the Congo, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda and Tanzania.

The only thing that these studies don’t tell us is that the institution of widow inheritance has since been overthrown and what reigns is the corrupted version of wife inheritance. Whereas some stakeholders have registered reservations about the veracity of statistics, it is vital that we assess from a cultural point of the utilitarian value of widow care from a health risk perspective now that what is left of it is an imitation of the institution.

Under this corrupt regime of wife inheritance, in place of responsible brothers-in-law are “professional” wife inheritors who gallivant from one funeral to the next in search of bereaved and vulnerable widows.

In my view, the health risk arising from the corruption of the practice would be the only sound argument against the traditional institution of widow care; and we lose nothing really because the institution has largely been abandoned and, in its place, an unfortunate debauched practice installed. I would, and actually have advocated the end to wife inheritance on grounds that as it is practised today, it has increased HIV prevalence; but I wouldn’t push for its ban on the flimsy premise that it is antithetical to Western cultures and the Judeo-Christian omni-God, or because it doesn’t fit within the philosophy of radical feminists.

On utilitarian grounds therefore, the Luo community and other communities that practised wife inheritance, should assess the challenges the institution has gone through in light of the needs, safety and security of widows at a time where HIV prevalence is growing. It is my proposition that our communities can replace widow care with widow empowerment initiated by a communal support system that involves the support of government under a National Safety Net Program which I believe would go a long way in enabling young widows with little or no income to become independent. Both county and national governments can work with clan elders to build priorities around supporting poor and uneducated widows as a strategy of combating HIV prevalence. Widows should then be free to choose to whom they get remarried to without being victimized or discriminated by the late husband’s relatives or even by fellow women. It must not be lost on us that a majority of widows in our communities are semi-literate and struggle to eke out a living increasing their sense of vulnerability and unlike Monica Okoth, their individual plight may never generate social media debate in their defense and or in defense of culture.

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Adipo Sidang’ is an award-winning author, poet, playwright and consultant on governance and culture issues. His first work of fiction was a collection of poems titled Parliament of Owls published by Contact Zones Series Nairobi in 2016. The title poem Parliament of Owls was adapted into a stage play and staged in Nairobi by Agora Theatre. His second work A Boy Named Koko, a novella, won the 2017 Burt Awards for Young Adult Literature and was shortlisted for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature (Young Adult) in 2019. Sidang’ was part of the jury for Goethe Institut’s 2018 Afro Young Fiction Competition for young adult fiction from Africa. He’s currently working on a number of projects including a collection of poems in his mother tongue titled Abaramach which will be out in March 2021. Email: adiposidang@gmail.com

Culture

Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society

A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.

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To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.

Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.

Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.

Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”

The evolution of digital tea and receipts

Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.

Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.

Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.  

Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.

The rise of online ‘tabloids’

Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’ 

Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.

Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.

In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.

Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.

While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.

This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.

Why do we love and loathe tabloids?

Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.

Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.

Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy. 

Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.

We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.

Gossip as a function of power

Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.

There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.

Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.

Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.

Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage

But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.

When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.

An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.

A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.

In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.

Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”

In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.

Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.

But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives  – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.

Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.

The future of Kenya’s grapevine 

The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.

Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.

And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.

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Culture

The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema

In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?

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With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.

The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.

African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.

In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.

Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”

For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.

Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra KaiThe Karate KidAmerican History XThe Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The MercenaryThe African DoctorThe Boy Who Harnessed the WindTsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.

Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and  editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.

There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.

Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.

Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.

On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.

As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.

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

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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

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