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The Evolving Politics of Death in Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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Thandika Mkandawire: In Memory of a Beautiful Mind

Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza celebrates the life of his friend and mentor Thandika Mkandawire, remembering his devotion to Pan-Africanism and the diaspora, his deep sense of globalism, his lifelong and unromantic commitment to progressive causes, his generosity in mentoring younger African scholars and his unwavering faith in Africa’s historic and humanistic agency and possibilities.

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Thandika Mkandawire: In Memory of a Beautiful Mind
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Thandika Mkandawire, the towering Pan-African Malawian-Swedish public intellectual died on March 27, 2020. The world of social thought, as Samir Amin, another departed luminary, called it, is so much the poorer that he has left us, but so much the richer that he lived for eight decades. Through his copious writings, engagements in numerous forums, and teaching in various universities, he incited and inspired minds and imaginations for generations across Africa, the diaspora, and the world at large with his extraordinary intellectual insights and incisive and surgical critiques of conventional, sometimes celebrated, and often cynical analyses of development and the African condition, to use a beloved phrase of the late Ali Mazrui, the iconic man of letters.

Thandika, as we all fondly called him, has joined our illustrious intellectual ancestors, whose eternal wisdom we must cherish and embrace in the continuing struggle for the epistemic, existential, and economic emancipation of our beloved continent.

When I think of Thandika many images come to my mind: of the luminous beauty and brilliance of his mind; his passion for rigour and impatience with lazy thinking; his bountiful joy of living; his love of music and the arts; his devotion to Pan-Africanism and the diaspora; his deep sense of globalism; his lifelong and unromantic commitment to progressive causes; his generosity in mentoring younger African scholars; his exemplary leadership of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD); and his remarkable modeling of the life of a principled public intellectual.

He is simply one of the most brilliant people I have ever known in my life. As my wife observed on several occasions, Thandika was the only person she witnessed who I was so enthralled by that I could sit and listen to for hours! To be in his company was to marvel at the power of the human mind for extraordinary insights and the joys of living, for he was a bundle of infectious joviality, humour and wit. The breadth and depth of his intellectual passions and unwavering faith in Africa’s historic and humanistic agency and possibilities was dazzling.

I had known Thandika years before I met him in person. I had heard of this fiery Malawian intellectual who as a young journalist had been at the forefront of the nationalist struggle. Like many of us born before independence, his personal biography encompassed the migrant labour political economy of Southern Africa: he grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. And like many smart and ambitious young people of his generation in the early 1960s, he went to the United States for higher education as there was no university in Malawi at the time.

He was a student in the United States in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, and as an activist Thandika immediately saw the intricate connections between the nationalist and civil rights movements in Africa and the Diaspora. This nurtured his profound respect and appreciation of African American society, culture, and contributions, which was a bedrock of his Pan-Africanism in the tradition of Kwame Nkrumah and others. Also, like many activists of his generation, the trajectory of his life was upended by the political crisis in Malawi, known as the “Cabinet Crisis”, that erupted a few months after independence in 1964.

The conservative and authoritarian Malawi leader, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, fell out with his radical younger ministers who preferred democratic politics and more progressive development policies. They were forced to escape into exile. Thandika was suspected of sympathising with the “rebels” as Banda’s regime vilified them, and his passport was revoked. Thus began his long personal sojourn into exile and the diaspora, and professional trajectory from journalism into academia. His exile began while he was in Ecuador on a project and, unable to return to the USA, he got asylum in Sweden.

His experiences in Latin America and Sweden globalised his intellectual horizons and reinforced his proclivities towards comparative political economy, a distinctive hallmark of his scholarship. They also reshaped his interests in economics, pulling him away from its dominant neo-classical paradigms and preoccupations, and anchoring it in the great questions of development and developmental states, areas in which he made his signature intellectual and policy contributions.

Thandika also immersed himself in the great debates of the 1960s and 1970s centred around Marxism, dependency and underdevelopment, African socialism, and the struggles for new international orders from economics to information.

The intellectual ferment of the period prepared him well to participate in African debates about the state, democracy and development when he joined the newly established Institute for Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s in the immediate euphoric aftermath of Zimbabwe’s liberation victory. In 1985, he became the head of CODESRIA as Executive Secretary.

He joined CODESRIA in the midst of the draconian anti-developmentalist assaults of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed on hapless and often complicit authoritarian African states by the international financial institutions working at the behest of the market fundamentalism ideology of neo-liberalism propagated by conservative governments in Washington, London, Berlin, Ottawa, and Tokyo.

Through his own comparative scholarship on regional economic histories, development paths, and the patrimonial state in Africa and other world regions, especially Asia, as well as national and multinational projects commissioned by CODESRIA, he led the progressive African intellectual community in mounting vigorous critiques of SAPs and offering alternatives rooted in the historical realities of African economies and societies, the aspirations of African peoples, and the capacities of reconstructed African democratic developmental states.

In the late 1980s, when the gendarmes of neo-liberalism and apologists of Africa’s bankrupt one-party states were railing against democracy and the struggles for the “second independence”, Thandika unapologetically called for democracy as a fundamental political right and economic necessity for Africa. He was particularly concerned about the devastation wrought on African capacities to produce knowledge through the willful dismantling of African universities and research capacities.

At a conference of Vice-Chancellors in Harare in 1986, the World Bank infamously declared that Africa did not need universities. Mendacious studies were produced to show that rates of return were higher for primary education than for tertiary education. Rocked by protests against tyranny and the austerities of SAPs that dissolved the post-independence social contract of state-led developmentalism, African governments were only too willing to wreck African universities and devalue academic labour.

He was particularly concerned about the devastation wrought on African capacities to produce knowledge through the willful dismantling of African universities

Under Thandika CODESRIA valiantly sought to protect, promote, and project an autonomous space for African intellectual development, for vibrant knowledge production. That is how I finally met Thandika in person. In 1989, CODESRIA established the “Reflections on Development Fellowship”. I was one of about a dozen African scholars that won the fellowship. My project was on “African Economic History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. This resulted in the publication of A Modern Economic History of Africa. Volume 1: The Nineteenth Century in 1993, which went on to win the prestigious Noma Award for publishing in Africa in 1994. Some regard this as my most important book.

Thus, like many other African scholars who experienced the devastation of African universities during the continent’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s, I am deeply indebted to Thandika and CODESRIA for ensuring our intellectual support, networking, sanity, and productivity. This is at the heart of the outpouring of tributes by African scholars since his passing. Thandika was not only one of the most important African intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but he was an architect of an African intellectual community during one of the bleakest periods in the history of the African knowledge enterprise His intellectual and institutional legacies are mutually reinforcing and transcendental.

Under Thandika CODESRIA valiantly sought to protect, promote, and project an autonomous space for African intellectual development

In August 1990, the recipients of the “Reflections on Development Fellowship” met for nearly two weeks at the Rockefeller Conference and Study Center, in Bellagio, Italy. It was an intellectual palaver like no other I had experienced before. Thandika dazzled the fellows, who included several prominent African scholars, with his incisive comments and erudition, legendary humour, and striking joyousness. Meeting him at Bellagio left a lasting impression on me. His brilliance was accompanied by his uncanny ability to put very complex thoughts in such a pithy way, rendering an idea so obvious that one wondered why one hadn’t thought about it that way before.

Thandika was an architect of an African intellectual community during one of the bleakest periods in the history of the African knowledge enterprise

Thandika was one of those rare people who effectively combined institutional leadership and intellectual productivity. This was the praxis of his reflexive life, in which administrative challenges inspired academic work. While at CODESRIA he pioneered and produced important studies on structural adjustment, development, and African universities and intellectuals. In 1987 he edited the ground-breaking collection, The State and Agriculture in Africa; in 1995 he edited the comprehensive collection on structural adjustment, Between Liberalisation and Oppression; and in 1999 he co-authored, Our Continent Our Future. His articles included “Adjustment, Political Conditionality and Democratisation in Africa” (1994).

After he joined UNRISD, he continued with his old intellectual preoccupations as he embraced new ones as reflected in his journal articles and book monographs. The latter include the co-authored, African Voices On Structural Adjustment (2002); and the edited, African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development (2005). Soon after joining UNRISD, which he led from 1998 to 2009, he launched a program on social policy that increasingly reflected his growing research interests. The articles include, “Thinking about Developmental States in Africa” (2001); “Disempowering New Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty” (2004); “Maladjusted African Economies and Globalisation” (2005); “Transformative Social Policy and Innovation in Developing Countries” (2007); “‘Good Governance’: The Itinerary of an Idea” (2007); “From the national question to the social question” (2009); “Institutional Monocropping and Monotasking in Africa” (2010); “On Tax Efforts and Colonial Heritage in Africa” (2010); “Aid, Accountability, and Democracy in Africa” (2010); and “How the New Poverty Agenda Neglected Social and Employment Policies in Africa” (2010).

In 2009, Thandika was appointed the inaugural Chair in African Development at the London School of Economics. This gave him space to expand his intellectual wings and produce some of his most iconic and encyclopedic work as evident in the titles of some of his papers: “Running While Others Walk: Knowledge and the Challenge of Africa’s Development” (2011); “Welfare Regimes and Economic Development: Bridging the Conceptual Gap” (2011); “Aid: From Adjustment Back to Development” (2013); “Social Policy and the Challenges of the Post-Adjustment Era” (2013); “Findings and Implications: The Role of Development Cooperation” (2013); “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections” (2015); and “Colonial legacies and social welfare regimes in Africa: An empirical exercise” (2016). He also published monographs including the co-authored, Learning from the South Korean Developmental Success (2014), and a collection of lectures he gave at the University of Ghana, Africa Beyond Recovery (2015).

Following my encounter with Thandika at Bellagio, our personal and professional paths crossed many times over the next thirty years. The encounters are too numerous to recount. Those that stand out include CODESRIA’s conference on Academic Freedom, held in November 1990 and at which the “The Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility” was issued; and numerous CODESRIA conferences, workshops, and general assemblies including the one in 1995 where I served as a rapporteur. These forums were truly invigorating for a young scholar meeting the doyens of the African intelligentsia. Like many of those in my generation, I matured intellectually under the tutelage of CODESRIA and Thandika.

Thandika was one of those rare people who effectively combined institutional leadership and intellectual productivity

In return, when I relocated from Canada to the United States in 1995, I invited Thandika or played a role in his invitation to conferences in the US including the 25th Anniversary of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois in 1995, where I served as director of the center, and to the 1996 US African Studies Association where he gave one of the most memorable addresses, “The Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola Distinguished Lecture”. The lecture, later published in the African Studies Review entitled, “The Social Sciences in Africa: Breaking Local Barriers and Negotiating International Presence”, was a veritable tour de force. It brilliantly traced the development of social science knowledge production on Africa and offered a searing critique of Africanist exclusionary intellectual practices.

Later, when Thandika was head of UNRISD, he invited me to join the nine-member Gender Advisory Group to work on a report on the implementation of the United Nations Fourth World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995. Out of this conference came the report, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World published in 2005 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Beijing conference. Also, in return, I invited Thandika to contribute to my own edited collections, including The Encyclopaedia of Twentieth Century African History to which he contributed a fine essay on African intellectuals.

Our personal encounters were even more frequent and deeply gratifying. In the 1990s, I used to go to Dakar quite often, sometimes several times a year. On many occasions, Thandika hosted me or took me out to sample the incredible culinary delights and vibrant music scene of Dakar nightlife. I recall one night going to a club where Youssou N’dour was playing. It was an indescribable treat. In his customary insightful and pithy way, he made me understand the social vibrancy of Dakar: it was an old city whose residential patterns and social geography were embedded in the rhythms of local culture in contrast to the apartheid cities of Southern Africa from which we were alienated and relegated to the townships.

Another memorable encounter was Christmas in the early 2000s where our two families and close friends spent the entire day at the lake in Malawi. As usual, he regaled us with jokes interspersed with acute observations on Malawian history, society, economy and politics. And last December, he and his dear wife, Kaarina, were in Nairobi. What had been planned as a luncheon turned into an engagement that lasted till dinner and late into the night. We hadn’t seen each other for several years, although we had been in touch, so there was so much to cover. We excitedly discussed his forthcoming 80th birthday celebration, and the possibility of him joining our university as a Visiting Distinguished Professor.

It turned out to be our last meeting. But what a special day it was. Thandika was his usual self, affable, hilariously funny, and of course he made brilliant observations about African and global developments. Thank you Thandika for the privilege of knowing you and your beautiful mind. I was truly privileged to call you a friend. You will always be a shining intellectual light for your generation, my generation, and generations to come of committed, progressive African, diaspora and global academics, researchers, thinkers and activists.

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The Life and Lens of Mohinder Dhillon

A.K KAIZA, one of the writers who worked with the late Mohinder Dhillon on his autobiography, My Camera, My Life, recalls the special moments he shared with this remarkable cameraman.

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The Life and Lens of Mohinder Dhillon
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“You cannot write about Mohinder without first mentioning his fundamental humanity – the abiding reality that he is an all-round lovely man.” — Jon Snow, presenter, Channel Four News

It was August 7th, 2008. The time would have been a little past 11 in the morning, the usual coffee, tea and cakes break hour at the literature festival in Nairobi that I was participating in. We had come out of the Braeburn School room onto the lawn for coffee, and also for the sun. And there, standing with his back to the sun, the sunlight turning his white hair into a shiny glow, was Mohinder Dhillon – ramrod straight, despite the walking stick. He carried about him the air of something profound about to happen.

The Braeburn School was on holiday and that had left it open for Kwani to hold the Kwani LitFest. A gathering of writers, guest speakers and would-be writers was holed in at the place. To an outsider, as I was, Nairobi was a little jarring. People seemed to get over-excited when talking, too shrill, too waxed. It was a society, as I later understood, that had never experienced civil war, and was struggling to find stability after the post-election violence of 2007/2008 that had shocked the nation.

Later that evening, at a drinking session with fellow writers, including Binyavanga Wainaina, Tom Maliti, Billy Kahora and Kalundi Serumaga, the Kenyan writer and journalist Parselelo Ole Kantai said, “There is this incredible fellow in my class. He has the most unbelievable story. He was a cameraman who went everywhere.”

This “incredible fellow”, Kantai continued, had been to the Congo, to Vietnam. He had also almost been shot at by a firing squad in 1964. He wanted to write a book about his life.

If I did not think about the “incredible fellow” that evening, in barely a month – and for the rest of my years in Nairobi – I was to think of little else. It took me a while to appreciate that the man who I spoke with at least once a week for twelve years had been one of the pioneers of international television news. Many of the places he went with his camera had never been filmed before.

He led a unique life.

Lunch at Sir Mohinder’s

Events seemed to have moved very fast after that August. In September, I moved to Nairobi and would stay there till the end of 2011. A week later, I was asked if I would meet a certain man the syllables of whose name came in one ear and went right through the other.

We were to meet him for lunch, somewhere in Westlands. We drove up to his house, in a place I was to know as Brookside Drive, which abuts the dipping curve of Lower Kabete Road as it begins the rise to Spring Valley. The house was a bungalow set on a half-acre suburban plot. What struck me, going up the rising drive, was the garden, its gaiety of colour, the bright birds of paradise, the heliconia whose deep red seemed otherworldly, the powder puff trees, marigold aplenty, a bud or two of amaryllis, and the roses, and yet more roses.

Mohinder was waiting for us outside. I notice that he has keen eyes and that up close, he is a giant of a man. But he carries a certain humility. The smile on his face is the smile of a man not totally sure of himself.

This “incredible fellow”, Kantai continued, had been to the Congo, to Vietnam. He had also almost been shot at by a firing squad in 1964. He wanted to write a book about his life.

He leads us into his house and to the circular dining table very heavily laden for just three guests. And in what I would later learn was his child-like fascination with everything, and a party trick he doubtless liked to put on show for his guests, he reaches out and gives the table a twirl. It is one of those dining tables with a swivel top. And as the table rotates, the aroma of salad dressing, grams, and mutton permeates the air.

A fellow foodie! Where had I been all my life when Mohinder’s house was the place to be?

This septuagenarian, in this very neat and attractive house, with the beautiful, tiny figurines and artworks that you are unlikely to run into daily, was saying, relax, be yourself, start from there.

I look out of the window, and see a bird feeder outside next to a wind chime. It is not only us humans who come to lunch at Mohinder’s. And when the sunlight streams in through the corner window, you can see in the light the shades of the flowers outside that the sun picks and dashes about on the walls. Whatever this writing assignment, my heart and soul have already said yes before Mohinder has even asked if it was possible. There is something rip-roaringly alive about him.

Leaving India

Food was a constant motif in the story of Mohinder’s life as we wrote it. Of the many facets of a life lived intensely, it was always food that came to mind as the thread running through a long, eventful life. There had been the street food in Vietnam that Mohinder described with such relish that I grew jealous of him. There was the dinner he had in Korea which he spoke about in such tones that the taste of it crept onto my tongue, as if it was just last week, rather than three decades back in 1974. There was the butter in Retla that his grandmother made. “She broke the milk,” was the way he described it.

He had fond childhood recollections, from his birth in 1931 in Punjab, in a hamlet called Babar Pur, named after the first Moghul emperor, but which was previously known as Retla. There had been the kite flying. He told me to watch the movie, The Kite Runner (which in 2008 was all the rage), to get an idea of the value placed on this activity/sport. He had been the kite flyer, and his brother, Jindi – later a Kenyan Olympian in the 1956 Sydney event, and now a British medical doctor – had been his kite runner. There had also been the game known as kabadi.

Food was a constant motif in the story of Mohinder’s life as we wrote it. Of the many facets of a life lived intensely, it was always food that came to mind as the thread running through a long, eventful life.

Then there was Raja, his champion fighting cock. In later years, Mohinder regretted keeping a fighting cock. But he and Raja, as is the case with pastoralists and their livestock, were soul mates. What hurt Raja hurt Mohinder even more. But Raja was not for eating. A neighbour, whose fighting cock had been decimated by Mohinder’s, had lured Raja to his place and broken his leg. The inconsolable Mohinder reset Raja’s bones, and fed him tumin and almonds till he got well. His grandmother complained about the extravagance on a cock. As I got to know more about her, I realised that his grandmother had shaped Mohinder’s life the most.

But the cloistered life he led during his childhood, so long ago, so far away in Punjab, would never return. His father had worked for the Uganda Railways from 1917 and decided to move his family to Kenya. The 1940s world in which Mohinder came of age was totally different. It was not until Mohinder came to East Africa that he learnt that there had been a World War. He first heard of Mahatma Gandhi when he was settled in Nairobi.

He remembered setting sail for Africa with his family from Bombay (now Mumbai):

“The bustle of Bombay – the first big city I had ever seen – was overwhelming. I was afraid to cross the road. On reaching a street, I’d just stand there, transfixed. Bombay was awe-inspiring. Everything was new to me. There was almost nothing in Bombay we could relate to, except the vegetables.”

In Mombasa, once the Khandala, a coaling ship, had deposited the family, he set out with one of his brothers, Inderjeet (later a media personality in Kenya who died in a tragic accident), and they followed, pied piper-like, men with stoves and clinking cups and the strong aroma of some strange drink that smelled like almonds. He was to discover much later, once settled in Nairobi, that it was on the streets of Mombasa that he first smelled coffee.

And so I had found the point of gravitation with Mohinder. This was not a story of woe and strife. Mohinder’s life story, and the book it would birth, I could see, would best be started off as a memoir of an enchanting childhood. How else, when the best memories of Mohinder’s life were those of the wide-eyed pleasure he experienced when seeing something for the first time?

***

When the Khandala drew close to the shores of Mombasa, Mohinder saw strange men in white furiously swinging sticks. They just kept swinging, as if sword-fighting, but against no one.

“David,” Mohinder tells me, his voice rising. “We knew nothing. That was my first time seeing golf being played.”

On the day they left Mombasa for Nairobi, on the train, his father, Tek Singh (fondly referred to in the home as Bau Ji) off-handedly commented on the strange, lopping bird out on the savannah. He said that one of its eggs could make an omelette for an entire family. It was the first time Mohinder had seen an ostrich.

“An omelette for the entire family? Father, what is an omelette?”

“That over there is a lion.”

“A lion?”

“Father, does a lion lay eggs?”

“The lion is the king of the jungle. It can do whatever it likes.”

Above all, Mohinder was a comedian, with perfect timing. We spent many afternoons digging up and dishing out jokes.

His first camera, when he started taking television news footage, was heavy. But he did not know it.

“It was a studio camera but I never felt the weight,” he said. “I grew up drinking buffalo milk.”

“There was one from 1979, oh, I already told the one about matooke at the Sheraton? How about fingernails?”

“Which one?”

“Oh, the ITN reporter I was with he said to me, ‘Mohinder, look how fertile Uganda is. You can put your finger in the ground and the nails grow instantly.’”

Idi Amin and the media circus

There was more than one from 1979. There was an entire world of experiences condensed into that year.

For Mohinder, 1979 was a very important year. It was, I sensed, the year when he made up his mind about many things.

The media circus. There was plenty of that. He had known Idi Amin all of the nine previous years. He had been genuinely scared of him, and even more scared of his henchmen. And so, upon the coup that felled his regime, they rushed to Makerere University where a British newspaper had reported that Amin’s soldiers had lopped off female students’ breasts.

“David, there were many terrible things Amin did,” he told me. “But the warden we approached told us, ‘Don’t make up stories about Amin. No girls had their breasts cut off.’”

For the international media, the “Third World” was fair game.

“It was a studio camera but I never felt the weight,” he said. “I grew up drinking buffalo milk.”

One day, Mohinder told me that Ryzard Kapuscinski had sat down with him and told him stories about famines and huts and snakes. In the great Polish writer’s books appear minute details of what Kapuscinski had encountered in his journeys across Africa – details that mirrored Mohinder’s own journeys, which made one wonder whether Kapuscinski might actually have been describing Mohinder’s experiences.

My real job, as it quickly became clear, was to sit and listen.

Babar Pur. India. Vietnam, Robert Mugabe, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo.

Talking about Mugabe brought in Nyerere, as if to clear the air. Mugabe, the most complex character Mohinder ever turned his camera lens on, back in 1979-80. A man so wily, it was thought that not even the British, who spent so much time profiling him, could not tell what he was up to.

“What about Mobutu?”

“A fop, dressing to the nines.”

“And Patrice Lumumba?”

“I only met his son, a sad-faced young man, when he came to commission a bust of his father in Nairobi.”

“Laurent Desire Kabila?”

“I did not make much of him. It was in the 60s. He sat there saying nothing in the presence of Somialot.”

“Kenneth Kaunda?”

“Too emotional. The smallest thing about Zambia set him crying. The reason he kept a handkerchief constantly was so he could wipe away the tears. There was a joke in which Zambia rhymed with some beer. The drinking in his country made Kaunda cry too.”

“Idi Amin?”

On Idi Amin, there was not a straightforward a response, except that Amin liked to clown around as a kind of diversion. When he sentenced men to be executed during Ramadhan, the Saudis got upset so Amin faked a coma. They said he was hospitalised and there was going to be an operation. It turned out to be a cyst in his backside.

Names from a bygone era, Talbot, Indira Gandhi, the Queen Mother, Emperor Haile Selassie, a portrait gallery from the dawn of the Cold War.

Food and famine

Mohinder always had stories about food, laid out as state dinners, or as history-makers.

The 20th century, a century of great famines. The food that ran out.

In 1964, when what was meant to be a few days of getting images of the Simba rebellion in Eastern Congo, turned into a two-week nightmare in what was then Albertville, now Kalemie, on the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was two weeks during which he met a young man named Laurent Desire Kabila who turned up with Simba rebel leader, Somialot. Locked out, and with no transport over Lake Tanganyika, they ate fish and hard, inedible French bread.

There was the dinner in Kurdistan and in Afghanistan, with hosts he never forgot who were under Soviet and Iranian attack.

There was the crisis of the El Molo whose single diet of fish had ravaged the community, which Mohinder had captured on camera decades ago.

“Too emotional. The smallest thing about Zambia set him crying. The reason he kept a handkerchief constantly was so he could wipe away the tears. There was a joke in which Zambia rhymed with some beer. The drinking in his country made Kaunda cry too.”

And above all, there was the failure of harvest, in 1984, when an entire nation, Ethiopia, had no food.

The darkening of Mohinder’s vision of the world from 1984 left a shadow that hung over his head till the end of his life. Till his last months, whenever Mohinder spoke of the Ethiopian famine, he started to shake, as if he was going to go into convulsions. The image of the old man carrying a lifeless child to bury, and Mohinder, ever the witness, unable to properly carry his camera because tears are flowing down his own face. And in a charter plane doing the documentary, African Calvary, about the famine, Mohinder walks over to Mother Teresa and she takes his hand and consoles him, “My son, it is Calvary.” And so they name the film.

There had been the famine in Karamoja before that, in 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, the images that Mohinder captured on camera had inspired thousands of people to donate millions of dollars to buy food for famine victims.

Then there was too much of the wrong food: the matooke in Kampala in 1979 that they could no longer stomach. Kampala had been in lockdown following the Tanzanian invasion that flushed Idi Amin out of Uganda and the markets were shut. (Somehow, Mohammed Amin, a friend and rival, with whom Mohinder’s name had been intertwined in the 1970s and ‘80s, managed to get hold of some steaks and joints.)

The decline of Empire 

There was the scale of time, of history and the insurmountable bulk of an empire that lay between me and Mohinder. He was already 44 years old when I was born; when he died this year, I was 44. Life experiences too vast to comprehend, even when explained.

He had along the way been given a knighthood, which is why he was Sir Mohinder. Well into his 80s, he received an honorary Ph.D, Dr. Mohinder Dhillon.

He counted in his circle an emperor, presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates. He had been the personal cameraman of Emperor Haile Selassie in the waning days of his life, when the Emperor was starting to become senile.

He had been there when Belgium crashed out of the Congo. He had been there for the independence of nearly all African countries, and there too, when the dominos continued to collapse as the structures of colonialism crumbled and gave way to newly independent states.

There he is, on 26th January 1971, a morning in Kampala. Idi Amin, likely drunk, on the morning after the coup, speech slurring, not yet fully comprehending what his coup means.

There he is as Belgian missionaries catch the last planes out of the Congo.

***

The last meal I had with Mohinder was a hasty breakfast on Riverside Drive, his last home, in 2019. I was in a hurry to catch a bus to Kitale. Mohinder insisted I first eat something. I gulped down a cup of coffee and snatched a banana. It had been many years since that lunch in 2008.

He counted in his circle an emperor, presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates. He had been the personal cameraman of Emperor Haile Selassie in the waning days of his life, when the Emperor was starting to become senile.

By then, his health had deteriorated. He barely left the house. But the big lunches had continued. Lunchtime, I had grown to learn, had been a favourite hour to visit Mohinder, as attested by the endless stream of guests who dropped in. Peter, his long-time cook, had been one of the most popular people in Nairobi, judging by the very eminent calibre of people who dropped in on Mohinder: academics, human rights lawyers, environmentalists, international television correspondents, Hollywood film stars, activists, chief justices. And as each came in, and sat at the rotating table, there was Peter, apron on, beaming, his forever-oily face advertising the goodness coming out of the kitchen.

But I sensed too that the reason Mohinder paid attention to meals, and taking care of his guests, was to keep alive the memory of his wife, Ambi, who died during the meningitis epidemic of 1990. It was she who had trained Peter. By all accounts, she had been a woman worthy of Mohinder, and when she died, he and his son Sam lost the pillar in their lives.

He greatly loved life, but he also longed to see Ambi again.

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Khaligraph Jones and Emerging Hip Hop Futures in Kenya

Kenya’s hip hop scene has been nothing but a graveyard of mixtapes which, while offering a glimpse of spirit and experimentation, deny listeners the beauty of intention, coherence, and completeness. Testimony 1990 is a New Age album, warm and optimistic. It does not lament. It chronicles contemporary challenges besetting a young man in Nairobi.

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Khaligraph Jones and Emerging Hip Hop Futures in Kenya
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A talent emerged with a vociferous, shrill and piercing cry deep in the heart of Kayole on June 12, 1990. It was an uncertain time. Agitations for multiparty democracy clouded the air amidst arbitrary detentions, torture and killings. Still, a mother – freed from the listlessness of a third trimester – rocked a plump newborn. As the cries of Robert Ouko’s assassination tapered, it was only fitting that the mother in Kayole thought it wise to name her new hope – Brian Ouko Robert – perhaps as a silent resistance against the dictatorial regime. I do not know. I have not asked. But I know we use names to resist erasure.

Brian Ouko Robert – aka Mr. Omollo aka Khaligraph Jones – was welcomed by a troubled country of barely 20 million people. Exactly 28 years later, this baby released a debut album, Testimony 1990, and give us a chance to look back not only at this baby who has now become a man, but at a country whose population, just like its troubles, has doubled. Let us talk about the music of this prodigious talent.

Testimony 1990

Testimony 1990 is a testimony of Kaligraph Jones’s life, his troubles, and those of his country. Khaligraph is not an overnight celebrity. His success is not the product of the modern viral phenomenon, where the gods of the internet choose to crown a new artist with a million views on Youtube for some mumble rap. He is not the product of accidental fame but of tenacity.

His interest in music began at an early age in elementary school. He attended Imara Primary School and Brucewood Secondary School, and at 13 his love of music was visible and palpable. It helped that his older brother loved music too. Together they released their first rap track in 2004.

But Kenya has one of the most unforgiving hip hop music ecosystems. There are only two options for an artist: have the right connections and money, or be willing to toil for years through venom-infested underground rap battles to gain recognition.

Khaligraph made his bones the hard way.

In 2009, The Channel O Emcee Africa tour, sponsored by Sprite, came calling in search of the premier freestyle MC. They dubbed it the Channel O MC Challenge. At the heart of the competition was the desire to initiate awareness of “street life” as a sociocultural context captured by local hip hop music. Khaligraph, then a 19-year-old lad, laced his gloves and threw himself into the ring.

Let us recount the day.

A Saturday night. June 6 2009. The venue is Club Clique. The finals for the Emcee Africa Kenya edition. Early that day, over 50 MCs flocked to Baricho Road to register for the competition. The fans were your typical pre-skinny-jeans hip hop crowd. Baggy jeans, hoods, Timbaland, bling bling – fake no less – and a gangsta attitude to boot. The judges: Mwafreeka, Abbas Kubaff aka Doobeez, and Nazizi. Three notable voices with sledgehammer disc tracks to their names.

Kenya has one of the most unforgiving hip hop music ecosystems. There are only two options for an artist: have the right connections and money, or be willing to toil for years through venom-infested underground rap battles to gain recognition.

The judges have their ears tuned for isolating the dope from the whack rappers. During the auditions, Mwafreeka is reported to have told a hopeless contestant to say aloud how whack they were. This nitbit reminds me of my primary school teacher, Mr. Odede, who, when we could not get our mathematics right, admonished us, en whole, to shout, to the world how sheep we were. Sheep most were.

A line-up of 10 MCs is selected to battle for the top spot. They are: Point Blank. Long Jon. Lethal Dynamic. Oluchina. Khaligraph. Kip. Kimya. Bizzle. O.D. And one female MC, Xtatic. I lioness out to destroy the cabal of bloody manes.

It was simple: get to the stage and showcase your lyrical prowess, spitting spur-of-the-moment rhymes, either acapella or on beat boxing, or you could prompt the judges to give you a topic if you thought you had mad skills. Eliminations pitted Point Blank vs Khaligraph for the big prize = $10,000. That is, 780,000 Kenya shillings. (A dollar was going for 78 Kenyan shillings in 2009. It goes for 100 Kenya shillings today. A weaker shilling.)

Point Blank floors Khaligraph. Everybody agrees. But this would mark the beginning of Khaligraph’s ascendancy. In that list of 10 MCs, 10 years later, none has been as industrious as Khaligraph. None can challenge him to the throne of Kenya’s top MC today. None dominates the airwaves like he does today. Testimony 1990 is a testament of his focus, the fire lit that Saturday night in 2009.

It is a New Age album, warm and optimistic. It does not lament. It chronicles contemporary challenges besetting a young man in Nairobi. It is not belt out in broody lyricism, perhaps because Testimony 1990 comes from an artist who has achieved remarkable success. It is not a chronicle of his status now, as an artist, but a sort of reflection of a past lived through, of battles won. It is unlike the legendary Kalamashaka with their gritty rhymes and the personal catastrophe of jumping a thousand hurdles and still not making it to the Promised Land.

The album opens with “Testimony” featuring Sagini, a quintessential recap of the spirit of the album, and “Blessings” – a track thanking God. The warmth and reflection is a manifestation of the prevailing mood in the hip hop world today. One can say most albums released in 2018 sailed in a sea of positivity. Warm dynamic performances packaged with the versatility of moods and styles. “No chance, featuring the immensely talented Fena Gitu, is a clean introspective lay of wisdom. It is a combination of rapping and singing, away from the old times when rappers laid two or three verses on a solo cut. Instead we have a fluency where rap is blended neatly with song, interacting much more than you’d find in the two-dimensional hook-led templates of old.

It is customary to catch an older cat being mentioned, or a style or voice aped, sometimes temporarily. It is paying homage when a rapper references an older rapper or quotes a line. It is a nod of influence. An acknowledgement that the old wordplay still lives, that it has been connected to the present. Not sure whether anybody realized it, but even in that track with Msupa S, Khaligraph pulled a little of Johhny Vigeti: that raspy voice. He does it again in “For Life”. If you love Mr Vigeti, you can pick Khaligraph channeling him Vigeti from mid second verse.

The album opens with “Testimony” featuring Sagini, a quintessential recap of the spirit of the album, and “Blessings” – a track thanking God. The warmth and reflection is a manifestation of the prevailing mood in the hip hop world today.

The production of some of the tracks is a nod to the prevailing styles ruling the market. “Gwala”, like “Yego”, is trap music, same as “Taking it all” with Timmy Blanco, same as “Don’t Know” with KO. All nods to the South African contemporaries, that up here in East Africa, we can do it just like you do. “Beat It” channels the pop icon Michael Jackson. “Make Babies” is a typical Khaligraph lyrical flexing: just shouting from the rooftops that he can accelerate if he wants to. He channel’s Eminem’s flow towards the end.

“Instagram Girls” and “Superwoman” are storytelling tracks. “Aisee” with Ray C is a light danceable beat. Ray C was the sultry goddess of our teenage years. She peppered our adolescence with sexual provocation. As a playlist, the album, with its solid lyrical releases, reflects an artist who has grown and is comfortable with his voice, an artist who is ready to put Kenya’s hip hop on the international map.

On the other hand, there are concerns over the lack of politically-conscious hip hop in Kenya.

Hip hop as a political force

Hip hop is inherently political. With its roots traced to the militant spoken word by groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, hip hop has always delivered political missives from the front line. In the 1980s, hip hop chronicled and reacted to the policies of US President Ronald Reagan, which called for widespread tax cats, decreased social spending, increased military spending and the deregulation of domestic markets. Reaganomics led to massive cuts to social programmes and widened income inequality, consequences which were particularly worse for African American families.

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five captured this devastation in “The Message” in 1982. Robert Hilburn of Los Angeles Times described the single as “a revolutionary seven-minute record that is a brilliant compact chronicle of the tension and despair of the ghetto life that rips the innocence of the American Dream.”

These hip hop forefathers opened the door for younger fiery voices. When Public Enemy came to the fore, they earned the moniker Black America’s CNN. Public enemy centered political and cultural consciousness in a sonic experimentation infused with skilled poetic rhymes. They were ferocious unlike anything that had been seen before.

Hip hop is inherently political. With its roots traced to the militant spoken word by groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets, hip hop has always delivered political missives from the front line.

Life outcomes were no better in Kenya. The economy collapsed from a nominal GDP of USD 7.265 billion in 1980 to USD 6.135 billion in 1985. Even worse, Kenya became one of the first countries to sign a Structural Adjustment Programme loan with the World Bank. The trade liberalisation experience was a gross disappointment and threw the early 1990s into great uncertainty. But before the ship could be directed away from the high waves, Kamlesh Pattni, as the chief architect of what became known as the Goldenberg Scandal, in collaboration with the top operatives in the Moi government, including the president himself, raped the country, stealing billions from the public coffers. An ignominy that lost the country the equivalent of 10% of GDP.

The economic devastation created fertile ground for the emergence of one of the most influential hip hop acts in Kenya, Ukoo Flani, in 1995. The group’s music flourished as a form of protest – authentic, gritty, and startling in its boldness. Ukoo Flani historicised slum life, using Dandora as a poster child for the effects of endemic corruption, breakdown of public service delivery, rampant crime and police brutality, and immense suffering during the Moi dictatorship. Hip hop, belted out in Sheng – to escape the censor of the police state– became a tool for the disenfranchised young men in the sprawling ghettos to voice their dissatisfaction and dissent.

Over the past two decades, hip hop has oscillated from social and political commentary to easy-going party jams, or a mix of both. In America, subgenres such as gangsta rap brought news styles to socio-political commentary, as reminiscent in NWA’s “F**k the Police”. But this was clouded by portrayals of masculinity, sexuality, and materialism in ways that seemed anti-ethical to the messaging of the preceding decade. In Kenya, artists, particularly those in the Underground, continued to rail against urban violence and dysfunction, police brutality and extrajudicial killing of young men in slums.

Khaligraph’s music attempts to carry both social and political commentary and easy-going party jams. While a majority of his tracks are fashioned for the club, a few explore social and political themes. The track “Gaza” is a song about Nairobi’s notorious criminal gang by the same name. The track juxtaposes a dialogue between two people – a living gang member and a deceased one, with the threat of Hessy – Nairobi’s super cop – in the middle. The living gang member, as most are wont to be, is steeped in anger, crime and violence, spewing threats at Hessy for cutting down the gang friend, and vowing revenge. In slow, introspective storytelling, the dead gang member feeds the living member with sober, down-to-earth advice to let go of the idea of meting out revenge on the cop, or they’ll eat copper – Sheng’s euphemism for the rampant extrajudicial killings of young men perceived to be members of criminal gangs.

Hip hop, belted out in Sheng – to escape the censor of the police state– became a tool for the disenfranchised young men in the sprawling ghettos to voice their dissatisfaction and dissent.

“Chali ya Ghetto” (2017) is a narrative of life in the ghetto, one that extols the virtues of hard work and focus. The central message is that fortitude is the only path ghetto youth have for getting out of the slums alive, for social mobility. Such tracks, however, do not detail the extent of systemic marginalisation that not only pushes young people to drugs and gang violence but also effectively imprisons 60% of Nairobi’s population in informal settlements.

The question of whether hip hop can become a political mobilising force beyond the restrictions of personal protest is an old one. Most rappers start their musical career with an outrage against a system of oppression. As their careers progress, most tone down their lyrics to gain mainstream approval. It is only those who persist in the Underground that model their entire career on social and political commentary. In the modern marketplace, post-2000s, mainstream hip hop, inspired by gangsta rap, features the symbols of crass materialism – from gold chains, souped-up cars, toxic displays of masculinity, and sexual objectification.

Thanks to the Kanye West era, which began with the College Dropout in 2004, hip hop has succeeded in breaking down the old impregnable wall between commercial and socially-conscious hip hop. As Common told Fader in 2016; “Kanye kind of brought in a thing where it was like, you can rap about getting money and ‘Jesus Walks’. You can be down with Jay Z and Mos Def. Kanye brought together those different worlds.” This is the seismic shift that made Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly” or Childish Gambino’s “This is America” possible.

These shifts have also been replayed in Kenya. The mixing of commercial success and socially-conscious hip hop is what has made it possible for a commercial artist such as King Kaka to release “Wajinga Nyinyi” (2019) – one of the most impactful political protest tracks in recent years. It is not that the track tells Kenyans what they don’t know; rather, King Kaka serialises what is discussed daily on social media, and what is splashed on the front pages of daily newspapers. The lyrics translate the dysfunctions of a nation – clothed daily in civil terms – into the raw, unadorned, unpretentious language of the streets. #WajngaNyinyi tells Kenyans to stop being stupid and start holding the system accountable.

Urban colonial identity

This is the music culture that Khaligraph grew into, one in which hip hop was broadcast news from the ghetto, the hood. Rappers repped their hoods. Ukoo Flani made Dandora the capital city of Kenya’s hip hop, decked it with rhymes depicting an unforgiving cityscape for adult males and a space of tough love as Zakah na Kah depicted in the eponymic “Dandora L.o.v.e.”

When Khaligraph came of age, he began to identify with Kayole. Kayole 1960. The origins of the estates and route numbers, and the pervasiveness of these bus routes in Kenyan hip hop relate to the vital role recorded music plays in the construction of personal and collective cultural memory. While these bus route numbers evoke nostalgia over the years when the city was efficiently managed, the carrying forward of this colonial heritage in modern hip hop imagination shows the extent to which our collective memory and identity bears the remnants of the colonial state.

The bus route numbers go back to pre-independence years. Overseas Transport Company of London established the first local bus in Kenya in 1934, with a fleet of 13 buses plying 12 routes. The City Council of Nairobi, in 1966, awarded Kenya Bus Service (KBS) a monopoly franchise to run the country’s first formal means of public transport. The heydays of KBS was a demand-driven, efficient and predictable transport system. Fares were regulated.

The design of route numbers was in three dimensions. Route numbers above 100 series were for peri-urban routes, routes below 100 were intra-urban and urban, with the exception of 1, 2, and 3 which were peri-urban. All peri-urban routes terminated at Machakos Bus Station and all buses ending with the 100 Series terminated at the Bus Station. The addition of a letter to a route number signified that there were shorter routes that did not reach the specific destination, or they deviated from the original route then later joined it. Other routes, such as 9 and 6, were circular routes. A vehicle heading to Eastleigh, number 9, would use route 6 when coming back to town. Some of these route numbers have changed, others remain. Route 1 used to be from the City Centre to Dagoretti Corner. Routes 61 and 60, plying the City Centre to Kayole, are no longer in operation, and were changed to Route 1960 and 1961. Hence Kayole 1960.

Nazizi, the First Lady, was the first of Kenya’s MCs to chronicle the route number phenomenon in urban rap through the track “Kenyan Girl, Kenyan Boy”, and the recent “Mat Za Ronga” by Tunji ft Khaligraph Jones follows that age-old feature of Nairobi’s urban rap. Octopizzo, Khaligraph’s longtime rival to Kenya’s King of Rap throne, reps Namba 8 – Kibera.

Music marketplace

Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence of political themes in hip hop albums. Kendrick Lamar’s vignettes capturing the African-American life is the poster political-hip-hop-album for the decade. Juliani’s 2016 album Mtaa Mentality is a definitive entry for politically-conscious albums in Kenya.

For the most part, away from the pioneering hip hop albums of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kenya’s hip hop scene has been nothing but a graveyard of mix tapes which, while offering a glimpse of spirit and experimentation, deny listeners the beauty of intention, coherence, and completeness. Kenya is home to “superstar” musicians without music albums. Music singles, which had hitherto been known as a precursor to an album, have in most cases been the only output Kenyan fans have received from their musicians.

Given the predominantly club-banger focus of a music single, it is often difficult to chart the trajectory of a musician from the perspective of their thematic concerns. However, the album Testimony 1990 is a condensed piece of work that offers us coherence, a singular thematic focus, and a snapshot of the career progress of the artist.

Sheng, as a practice of moving across languages, has always been the choice for urban youth to resist and to engage in socio-political commentary and protest. But with the breaking down of market boundaries through the dominance of a few US-based music streaming platforms, language is once again becoming a significant indicator for capturing the international market.

For young African artists, the future belongs to those who can blend local languages and the lingua franca with the dominant language of business, in this case English. It is the reason why Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz, while capturing the local East African market on the back of Swahili lyrics, resorts to English when doing collaborations with American artists such as Rick Ross and Omario. Khaligraph is the evolution of that trend, and it will not be long before he begins hustling for that big collaboration with a major American artist.

The album Testimony 1990 is a condensed piece of work that offers us coherence, a singular thematic focus, and a snapshot of the career progress of the artist.

There is a new legion of internet-born artists, genre-bending productions and visuals, serving digital native fan bases with exciting single tracks. The Gengetone – perhaps the most significant development in Kenyan music in years – is already stealing the airwaves from maturing acts such as Khaligraph, Octopizzo, and King Kaka. The new wave is characterised by explicit content, with song lyrics promoting violence and misogyny, and videos promoting the sexual objectification of women.

However, as writer Barbara Wanjala notes: “Kenyan artists have been experimenting to see what will capture the youth. The contemporary sound landscape runs the whole gamut, from songs that speak about debauchery to conscious lyricists rapping with conviction. Other artists straddle both worlds, producing output that has commercial appeal as well as tracks that are socially responsible.”

It remains to be seen whether, in addition to documenting, socio-politically conscious hip hop can engender political mobilisation and drive political change in Kenya. Perhaps Wakadinali’s “Kuna Siku Youths Wataungana” (2020) – which explicitly calls on youth to organise, mobilise, and take political action – is an encouraging direction for the new decade.

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