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The Life and Mind of Ali Zaidi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was so much fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have not read Marx,” he stated.

I protested.

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

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

“Stop telling lies. Read Marx.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Culture

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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“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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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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