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Culinary Imperialism and the Hierarchies of Food

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Food has never been about the simple act of eating; food is history, and identity. Hence, colonialism, as a violent process, fundamentally altered the way of life of a people, including their culinary habits.

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Culinary Imperialism and the Hierarchies of Food
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“Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” – Thomas Sankara

The violence that accompanied European colonisation of Africa people was a well-known fact. But while a lot of emphasis has leaned towards the political, military and economic changes forced upon the colonised people, the matter of food – the very source of survival – is seldom considered. Yet food has always been a fundamental tool in the process of colonisation. Through food, social and cultural norms are conveyed, and also violated. Indeed, one cannot properly understand colonisation without taking into account the issue of food and eating.

In 1895, Britain annexed the future Kenya as an East African protectorate. However, the expansion of the British Empire was met with resistance in some parts of the protectorate. The British suppressed the opposition by using different methods, from divide-and-rule tactics to military campaigns, signing treaties with local rulers, and controlling food to quell dissent.

The scorched-earth policy of burning crops and killing livestock proved to be a most effective method for suppressing rebellion and colonising the population. In his book, Kenya Diary 1902-1906, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen describes official policy in matter of fact terms while reflecting on how during his many expeditions the burning of huts, crops and livestock proved to be a very effective means of suppressing dissent and subduing the African native.

Feeding the monster 

Once the British consolidated power in the colony, there was an influx of thousands of European settlers who were invited by the colonial government with offers of huge leases for the most fertile land in the country. The fertile expanses that later became the “White Highlands,” were opened for settlement through the forceful displacement of the previous inhabitants, most of whom ended up in the drier margins of their former homelands. Africans who didn’t find a place to settle became squatters on white farms or worked as labourers for Asian merchants.

The colonial state used white settlers to introduce commercial agricultural production as the mainstay of the colonial economy. The state forcibly seized land, livestock and other indigenous assets from certain communities and households on behalf of the settlers and the colonial administration, systematically marginalising and subordinating indigenous African agriculture.

Among the Kipsigis, writes Dr Samson Omoyo in a paper titled “The agricultural changes in the Kipsigis: A historical analysis”, describes how colonial manoeuvres depleted the native stock critical for the Kipsigis’ economic and social reproduction, clearing the way for the increasing numbers of European settlers. The capital-driven process eroded the Kipsigis’ indigenous land tenure systems and gradually undermined and changed their previous way of life.

By the mid-1930s, about one-fifth of arable land in Kenya was under the exclusive control of the settlers. In addition, the state provided the settlers and corporate capital with the necessary infrastructural, agricultural, marketing, and credit facilities. Above all, the state sought to create, mobilise and control the supply of African labour for capital.

The forbidden fruits 

Cash crop farming quickly became the choice source of income for the settlers, who benefited from the cheap land and the large African labour force that they conscripted. British colonialists forced Africans to work on their farms and this facilitated the introduction of European food crops. Often, African workers in settler farms were paid in sacks of maize due to its high nutritional value that created a strong and healthy labour force and its easy access and availability in the colony.

When the Africans returned to the so-called “reserves”, they introduced maize into their subsistence farming systems, cementing its position as the colony’s primary staple crop, and replacing crops like millet, tubers, legumes, and kale, which were commonly found in traditional farming systems.

In 1923, the government announced that it would promote commercial crop markets in the reserves. Little came of this because African farmers, who were more intent on providing for local food needs, showed little interest in producing for the export market.

By the mid-1930s, about one-fifth of arable land in Kenya was under the exclusive control of the settlers.

Strong opposition to the planned introduction of cash crops led the colonial government to instead subsidise European production in order to maintain the colony’s food security. The indigenous smallholder farmers who attempted to make a living selling cash crops could not compete as a result. Eventually, in 1937, the colonial government reinstated cash crop growing in the reserves as a mainstay economic activity.

As land became scarce, Kenyans increasingly began favouring cash crops in place of subsistence farming. This made peasant household food security a tenuous affair. Commercialisation resulted in the emergence of new types of households: commodity-producing households; labour-exporting households; squatter households; and working-class households. This massive displacement of people not only deprived Africans of food and ceremony, but also of traditional knowledge of food and its preparation as communities became reliant on the new economic system.

Everything from the loss of teachings about indigenous plants to cultural exchanges thorough regional indigenous markets were destroyed. As such, African farming systems were forever altered, traditional practices were lost, and cultural norms were destroyed.

But what the colonial economic system didn’t obliterate, the church did.

Things go bananas

By the 1930s, the missionary schools and other church institutions had made concerted effort to rid local cultures of their traditions. Although earlier travellers and missionaries like David Livingstone had reported on Africans’ healthy diets, many of his predecessors held the racist and eugenicist view that food shaped the colonial body. In other words, the European body differed from that of the African people because the British diet and culinary habits differed from culinary habits of the local Africans. Bodies could be altered by diets—thus the fear that by consuming “inferior” African foods, Brits would eventually become like the “natives”. Only proper European foods would maintain the superior nature of European bodies, and only these foods and British food sensibilities could also civilise the “African savages” to be more like their colonisers.

In their minds, as one Chloe Campbell suggests in her book Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, food not only functioned to maintain the European body’s superiority, it also played a role in the formation of social identity and Britain’s “civilising mission” across its empire.

Everything from the loss of teachings about indigenous plants to cultural exchanges thorough regional indigenous markets were destroyed. As such, African farming systems were forever altered, traditional practices were lost, and cultural norms were destroyed.

The campaign to “civilise” the African was more successful than the missionaries could have ever hoped for. The primary vectors for the cultural indoctrination were the mission schools, churches, boarding schools and public health programmes responsible for educating African youth. These methods of “education” uniformly reduced knowledge related to the cultivation and preparation of traditional and indigenous foods.

Traditional knowledge was devalued as the education of children was shifted from tribal elders to the imperial powers via the church and school. British education encouraged “sophistication”, which included the rejection of traditional foods and ancient methods of food preparation, and an emphasis on British culinary sensibilities and food practices. Traditional cereals, herbs and vegetables were promptly dropped for those with high market value and perceived desirability. Thereafter, traditional foods would only be consumed in secret and infrequently mainly in the African reserves.

The pie in the sky 

The symbolic nature of food was also seen in the imposition of religion, another destructive aspect of the British conquest. The Bishop of the Church Mission Society (CMS) Robert Merttins Bird, in a letter to the Christians and elders of the pastorate in Kikuyuland, forbade the consumption of local manufactured alcohol on 1st January 1930, deeming it evil and devilish, hence the need for it to be abandoned by all members of the church.

This policy, however, didn’t take into account that many cultures in Kenya had a long tradition of beer-making, the consumption of which was reserved for ceremonies and cultural events. Just as the church demonised the consumption of local alcohol, there was also a concerted effort by the colonial government to control native alcohol consumption to keep the African labour productive. Both of these policies reinforced the racist perception that Africans could not hold their liquor and disrupted production in native cereal grains used in the brews.

Traditional knowledge was devalued as the education of children was shifted from tribal elders to the imperial powers via the church and school.

In 1963, when Kenya gained its independence, a new class of African elites took power. But as Franz Fanon writes in his seminal text The Wretched of the Earth, this class of (mostly) men and women did not reform the colonial state but, in fact, perfected it and exacerbated its venality towards its people. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, in cahoots with his cronies and senior government officials, acquired huge tracts of land and resources as they pleased. While indigenous communities suffered poverty, the confiscated resources became a source of wealth and prosperity for the political and business elite.

The effect of this massive land grab by the elite would consolidate the neocolonial system by replacing “peasant” modes of production with capitalist modes, and the establishment of a new African petit-bourgeois strata within sectors of the economy. Their primary occupation would be in activities of the intermediary type, scheming and hustling, and firmly entrenching their role as mediators for former colonial powers.

These elites, in cahoots with their Western allies, have passed draconian laws, illegally grabbed land, manipulated food and agricultural policies, and engaged in rampant corruption to control the food Kenyans consume. Of these, weaponising corruption has proved to be most effective means. In the maize sector, for instance, since 1965 – when the first maize scandal was reported – the politics of maize (Kenya’s staple) has been used by the political class as a system of reward and a means to pacify or punish communities for political expediency – the same tactics used by the white colonialists to suppress resistance.

A hard nut to crack

Today, there has been growing interest in the battle for control over land, food and even seeds in Kenya. Under the guise of improving food security in Kenya, a new wave of food imperialism is taking shape. A series of public-private partnerships are aggressively shaping a food policy geared towards helping corporations access prime resources and markets within Kenya’s food systems. Farmers are being forced to change from low-cost sustainable traditional agriculture to intensive, industrial farming with intensive application of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and corporate-owned seeds. This domineering framework to control what food people grow, how they grow and consume it, is in contrast to what many are calling food sovereignty.

These elites, in cahoots with their Western allies, have passed draconian laws, illegally grabbed land, manipulated food and agricultural policies, and engaged in rampant corruption to control the food Kenyans consume.

Food sovereignty is about the right of a people to determine their own choices with regard to food and agriculture as opposed to having their food supply subjected to external forces, such as imperialism or the global economic market. Food sovereignty, therefore, according to the U.S Food Sovereignty Alliance, states that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and land, and between food providers and those who eat it. It must go well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs.

Food has never merely been about the simple act of eating; food is history, and identity. Hence, colonialism, as a violent process, fundamentally altered the way of life of a people, including their culinary habits. Since European occupation of Africa, its people have encountered a radically altered food system. Therefore, because food choices are influenced and constrained by cultural, political and economic values, they are an important part of the deconstruction and decolonisation of our social identity.

Indeed, for Africa in particular, food and food production has to go beyond just being about health, well-being, economic resilience and cultural heritage; food must be used to restore a balance of power, restore dignity and re-imagine a better future for its people. Food is power.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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The author is an analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

Remembering Zindzi, the Other Mandela

Zindzi Mandela’s childhood was difficult and tumultuous. However, even with a father in jail and a mother constantly harassed by the authorities, she chose to embrace little pleasures amidst the turmoil.

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On 10 February 1985, the world’s attention was drawn to the courageous defiance of 25-year- old Zindzi Mandela, the youngest of two daughters born to political prisoner Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid revolutionary Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The occasion was a rally at Soweto’s Jabulani Stadium organised by the anti-apartheid caucus, the United Democratic Front (UDF), to celebrate the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Johannesburg’s Bishop Desmond Tutu. In the absence of her parents (Mandela in jail and Madikizela-Mandela banned and banished in Brandfort) anti-apartheid stalwart Albertina Sisulu took the role of guardian, standing next to Zindzi. Zindzi sang, danced and occasionally punched her clenched fist into the air to chants of Amandla!, before reading her father’s historic letter to the nation.

Apartheid South Africa’s President P.W. Botha had used prison back channels to offer Mandela the option of an early conditional release, having served two decades. In declining Botha’s overtures, Mandela sought to respond through a public communique, hence his decision to deploy Zindzi to the front lines.

Zindzi did not disappoint. Having grown into her own as an activist and witness to the barbarism the apartheid state had unleashed on Black South Africans, and especially on the Mandela–Madikizela-Mandela family, Zindzi powerfully delivered the nine-minute message, which was punctuated by recurring recitals of ‘‘my father and his comrades”.  Her chosen refrain meant that Zindzi wasn’t only relaying Mandela’s words, but was also speaking on behalf of tens of political prisoners who lacked a medium through which to engage the masses.

Zindzi, pausing for effect to a roaring crowd, opened her address with the following words:

On Friday my mother and our attorney saw my father at Pollsmoor Prison to obtain his answer to Botha’s offer of conditional release. The prison authorities attempted to stop this statement from being made, but he [Mandela] would have none of it, and made it clear that he would make the statement to you, the people. Strangers like Bethell from England and Professor Dash from the United States have in recent weeks been authorised by Pretoria to see my father without restriction, yet Pretoria cannot allow you, the people, to hear what he has to say directly. He should be here himself to tell you what he thinks of this statement by Botha. He is not allowed to do so. My mother, who also heard his words, is also not allowed to speak to you today.

Through Zindzi, Mandela and his comrades reiterated their loyalty to both the people and their organisation, the African National Congress (ANC). Not wanting to assume that they naturally spoke for everyone, much as they wished to speak for many – the banished, the exiled, the oppressed and the exploited – Mandela and his cohort sought the people’s permission to have the prisoners’ stifled voices be representative of the collective plight of Black South Africans.

Answering Botha directly, Mandela wondered:

What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts…Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

Before her famous 1985 appearance – which pundits, after her passing on July 13 at the age of 59, said was the defining moment in Zindzi’s life– Zindzi, her sister Zenani and their mother Madikizela-Mandela travelled a tumultuous journey of deprivation, being eternal targets of the apartheid state. Speaking to the former New York Times Johannesburg correspondent Rick Lyman in Manhattan in 2013 at the launch of her father’s Idris Elba-played biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Zindzi recollected her earliest memory being of her sitting in a vehicle outside a police station as her mother delivered food to a jailed Mandela.

“I was 18 months old,’’ Zindzi told Lyman of her 1962 recollection, ‘‘but I can really remember that moment, sitting in the car, waiting for my mother to return. I must have sensed somehow that there had been some sort of trauma, and I was very scared. It was taking her so long.”

Lyman, writing about what he called the long arc of Zindzi’s life, juxtaposes her stark apartheid induced-realities in Soweto against the splendour of their meeting place in New York. ‘‘Ms. Mandela was recounting this memory [of her and her mother at the police station] while sipping a cranberry soda beneath the imposing columns of the Pierre Hotel’s elegant main bar in Manhattan, more than half a century later,’’ he wrote.

‘‘I had no notions back when I was a girl in Soweto or a young woman involved in the struggle,’’ Zindzi said of the drastic change in circumstance, ‘‘that I would one day go from that place to spending my life in rooms like this.”

“I was 18 months old,’’ Zindzi told Lyman of her 1962 recollection, ‘‘but I can really remember that moment, sitting in the car, waiting for my mother to return. I must have sensed somehow that there had been some sort of trauma, and I was very scared. It was taking her so long.”

Granted, there were no pretences in Zindzi’s sense of surprise at the drastic turn of events in her life and that of the Mandelas. The apartheid regime didn’t allow Zindzi and her elder sister Zenani to attend school. Speaking at the National Museum in Copenhagen, where she was South Africa’s Ambassador to Denmark from 2015 until her demise, Zindzi narrated the ordeal of how whichever school her mother enrolled them at, the head teacher got hounded by state security agents until the school had to let go of the Mandela girls. Wherever Madikizela-Mandela turned, the apartheid state followed, forcing her, with the assistance of benefactors, into sending her daughters to a Catholic school in Swaziland.

‘‘My mother learnt to be creative to try to keep us educated, and so she developed a trick of straightening our hair and changing our names, and taking us to so-called coloured schools,’’ Zindzi remembered. ‘‘And the same thing would happen there. The system would catch up with us, intimidate the principal and threaten them with detention, and we would have to leave the school. So at the age of five I was at home, not able to go to school. And my sister, just over six, was also stuck at home. Until someday somebody heard about our plight and offered my mother the option of taking us to school in Swaziland. That’s how we ended up in boarding school, at a place where she couldn’t come to visit us because she was under house arrest.’’

But as Zindzi posits during her Copenhagen speech, much as her life had its many tribulations, she chose to define it not according to her suffering but by how she overcame it, and nothing signifies this spirit of reclaiming her childhood, dignity and humanity more than how she chose to tightly embrace the little pleasures she experienced amidst the turmoil.

Writing in City Press, the chef and food anthropologist Anna Trapido chooses to remember Zindzi in a piece titled Zindzi Mandela: An Egg to Say Goodbye, where she revisits an egg-making recipe Zindzi passed on to her, a technique which Zindzi picked from one of the homes of her parents’ comrades where she and Zenani spent a considerable portion of their childhoods in their parents’ absence.

‘‘A plan was made whereby Dr Ntato Motlana, Fatima and Ismail Meer, Helen Joseph and Ilse Wilson were on standby to provide emergency parenting, which is where the eggs come in,’’ Trapido writes. ‘‘These arrangements weren’t always easy. Fatima Meer remembered that Zindzi and Zenani “were rarely happy with the arrangements and often complained or became the targets of their benefactors’ complaints”.

And yet, in later life, Zindzi chose to focus on positive remembering: “We loved Aunt Fatima’s curried eggs – well, they were actually Uncle Ish’s eggs, Aunt Fatima doesn’t cook. I now know they are great for a hangover too – they work wonders, especially on toast. But back then during school holidays, if mummy was locked up we would go to Aunt Fatima. Uncle Ish showed us how you fry an egg with grated onion, chopped up chillies and masala. In recent years my kids have added a twist of putting grated cheese on top, but that’s not in the original.”

Aside from anecdotes about Uncle Ish’s eggs, Trapido bares testimony about the friend she knew, Zindzi the person, insights which reveal more of what the Mandela daughter carried to her grave – her desire to protect her parents, more so her mother, whose victimisation Zindzi witnessed at close proximity.

‘‘More than anything, Zindzi was motherly. When I subsequently encountered Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zindzi together, I often thought that the daughter mothered the mother, at least as often as the other way around,’’ Trapido writes. ‘‘Theirs was an intense bond. As a tiny girl Zindzi saw her mother repeatedly persecuted and alone.’’

Yet Trapido’s Zindzi Mandela story isn’t a sad one, just like Zindzi’s telling of her own story was never about surrender. ‘‘She carried her pain with such a good grace that it was often overlooked and underestimated. She told endless funny stories about her dreadful experiences, and did great impressions of both her parents,’’ Trapido writes. ‘‘She avoided painful thoughts and generally chose to focus on those who brought comfort amid the confusion.’’

When Mandela left prison and became a darling of especially the Western press, there seemed to be an irresistible urge to vilify Madikizela-Mandela in an effort to further elevate him, and it was in such instances that Zindzi lived up to what Trapido describes – not just a mother and daughter mothering each other but of two comrades in arms. The newly freed Mandela was fashioned as the father of the Rainbow Nation, while Madikizela-Mandela and the likes of Chris Hani, who believed there cannot be peace without justice, were painted as unruly.

‘‘More than anything, Zindzi was motherly. When I subsequently encountered Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zindzi together, I often thought that the daughter mothered the mother, at least as often as the other way around,’’ Trapido writes. ‘‘Theirs was an intense bond. As a tiny girl Zindzi saw her mother repeatedly persecuted and alone.’’

In her conversation with Rick Lyman of the New York Times, more context emerges as Zindzi defends Madikizela-Mandela’s and other ANC activists’ revolutionary ways, making the case that freedom was fought for and not given as a gift. Lyman reports that Zindzi ‘‘was angry with him [Mandela] for coming out of prison with a message of reconciliation rather than the military triumph that she and her mother and many other township activists craved.’’ Lyman quotes Zindzi saying “I just didn’t believe that people could change their minds overnight” in reference to the softened stance of battle=hardened uMkhonto we Sizwe founders and soldiers.

And yet, Zindzi was equally loving and protective of Mandela, even if she didn’t fully agree with everything he espoused, as Lyman narrates. ‘‘Now, she said, she rarely talks about those difficult years with her own children or the many other Mandela grandchildren,’’ he wrote, ‘‘worried that it might somehow betray her father’s policy of reconciliation.’’

For Zindzi, her parents’ humanity came first, and she took it upon herself to present them as the complicated individuals they were, having had an equally unusual marriage and relationship. In part, her efforts debunked the myth that her father was a saint and her mother was a sinner.

“He is a human being,’’ Zindzi told Lyman. ‘‘An extraordinary one, but a human being.”

As she wrote about Zindzi’s egg recipe, Anna Trapido similarly wondered what Mandela’s absence on the home front meant for his young children, who were all under the age of 16 and so weren’t allowed to visit inmates. How much did this absentee parenting impact Zindzi and Zenani?

‘‘The horrors of the adult Mandela experience of parenting in extremis have been better articulated and appreciated than those of the children who lived in the same context but with less autonomy and understanding,’’ Trapido writes on the kids’ predicament. ‘‘We know from prison letters that the problems of explaining a complex political struggle to very young children weighed heavy on Madiba’s mind and conscience. We know much less about the experience of the children he was worrying about…Zindzi and Zenani lived through the darkest days of their parent’s persecution with nothing but written contact with their father.’’

Meanwhile, Zindzi and Zenani’s other parent was either being arrested, banned or banished.

Taking this to account allows one to see Zindzi’s frustrations especially with Mandela in a different light, like when the New York Times’ Lyman writes that Zindzi ‘‘was quite bitter with her father for leaving the family and disappearing into the ANC underground and then prison. And even after he was released, pressing duties kept him away from the family.’’

This is understandable, since all Zindzi wanted was to have a father and a normal family life. But even as she made these poignant reflections, Zindzi’s characteristic it’s-serious-but-it-isn’t nature popped up as she told Lyman, “I used to joke that, at least when he was in prison, I was guaranteed two visits every month.” Sometimes, all a girl wants is to have her father to herself.

It was therefore not accidental that throughout her life, Zindzi was almost always reduced to either being her father’s spokesperson, courtesy of her reading his 10 February 1985 speech, or her mother’s defender, a role that dominated her adult life – like when she appeared in the Pascale Lamche film Winnie (2017) and stood by her mother against Archbishop Tutu’s request that Madikizela-Mandela apologise to South Africa during hearings of the Truth and Justice Commission for oversights during the struggle, or when there was an attempt to downplay Madikizela-Mandela’s final acts of love towards Mandela during his final hours.

After her famous parents died, Zindzi seems to have upped the ante on her activism. Disregarding all diplomatic courtesies, Zindzi took to Twitter on 14 June 2019 and expressed what has been considered support for the clamour for land expropriation without compensation. ‘‘Dear apartheid apologists, your time is over,’’ she wrote. ‘‘You will not rule again. We do not fear you. Finally.’’ #TheLandIsOurs was Zindzi’s hashtag of choice.

It was therefore not accidental that throughout her life, Zindzi was almost always reduced to either being her father’s spokesperson, courtesy of her reading his 10 February 1985 speech, or her mother’s defender, a role that dominated her adult life…

As if that hadn’t stirred things up enough, Zindzi followed up with a half-teasing rejoinder, deploying the #OurLand hashtag. ‘‘Whilst I wine and dine here…’’ she tweeted, ‘‘wondering how the world of shivering land thieves is doing.’’ South Africans on Twitter went berserk.

According to those who took offence, Zindzi shouldn’t have written what she wrote. Others had issue with her tone, while many more saw nothing wrong with Zindzi’s opinions or how she expressed them.

The ANC government chose to play it safe, at least in public. International relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, told the press she had spoken to Zindzi about the sort of conduct expected of a serving diplomat, and saw no reason why any further sanction should be instituted against the ambassador. However, in an op-ed commiserating with the Mandelas on Zindzi’s passing published in City Press, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema suggested that Pretoria was not comfortable with Zindzi’s public stance on the land question, and that her impending redeployment to Monrovia just before her passing was some form of demotion, punishment for unbecoming behaviour of a diplomat.

‘‘We remember that even when many of her generation, from the comfort of post-apartheid state positions and careers remained silent at the call for land expropriation without compensation, Mama Zindzi did not,’’ Malema wrote. ‘‘These ignorant peacetime cowards tried to intimidate and threaten her, even by deploying her to Liberia as a way of silencing and shaming her. In their ignorance, they could not see that intimidation would never quieten the fierceness of Zindzi, who had braved so much from a tender age to resist the ruthless apartheid regime. Her ambassadorial office would never weaken or compromise any of her convictions, particularly when it came to the total emancipation of her people.’’

In the end, it all came down to Zindzi’s stance on the land question.

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Culture

How Afrobeat(s) Was Hatched: From Kuti to Burna

Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Fela Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations on which the genre stands.

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There was initially a slight conflation between the Afrobeat genre and its later reincarnation as Afrobeats. Recently however, there has been a demarcation between the two genres even though they share certain antecedents of lineage.

Fela Kuti—visionary composer, multi-instrumentalist, radical social activist, cultural renegade, political prisoner and pan-Africanist amongst other things—is regarded as the foremost exponent of Afrobeat and his life and work have been amply documented. Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat emerged after years of experimentation during which he lived in London as a student in the 1950s and 60s and then in Los Angeles in the late 60s. Kuti had studied classical music in England where he also spent time moonlighting in jazz clubs. Jazz, and not classical music, had been his first love. On completing his studies, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he had a stint in broadcasting before going into a full-time career in music.

At the time, West African highlife music was all the rave. Highlife is reputed to have been pioneered by E.T. Mensah, a Ghanaian exponent, but the genre soon gained widespread acceptance all over the West African coast. It was an intoxicating blend of Latin sounds and African polyrhythms served with bluesy horns. Essentially, it was feel-good music with little or no overt political content. It certainly didn’t need to be politically conscious because many African countries were still in a euphoric mood after recently gaining independence from their erstwhile colonisers.

For a while, Kuti dabbled in what he termed highlife-jazz. And then at the end of the 60s, he visited the United States on a musical tour. On getting there, he discovered that he and his band hadn’t obtained the correct visas that would permit them to work. In Los Angeles, he met Sandra Izidore, a young and beautiful African American woman who would change his life.

A student of anthropology, Izidore was also a radical pro-black activist who turned Kuti to the ideology of the Black Panther Party. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous momentum, with black leaders calling for urgent sociopolitical change. Such transformation also meant cultural assertion and empowerment as exemplified by James Brown’s radical cry, “Say it loud, I’m black and proud”. Brown in turn preached his searing political message through a diet of gut-bucket funk. Funk was unapologetically black at its core; the kind of music that in earlier times would be classified as race music. Basically a groove-based music, its energetic, funky drum patterns and heavy bass lines distinguished it as a form that spoke directly to the gut and soul.

Meanwhile, Kuti was taking copious notes on everything, from the strident political messaging to the indispensability of the groove coupled with the hypnotic and electrifying effects of gut-deep funk. There was clearly a lot to be learnt from a culturally resurgent black America.

Although Kuti deeply admired jazz, he still felt it lacked something. In particular, he believed that more obvious elements of African music needed to be added into the mix. These ingredients included powerful ancient West African drumming traditions. Within those illustrious percussive traditions, drummers had discovered a way to make drums “talk” in honouring their deities and forging stronger communal ties.

Kuti promptly set about incorporating those vital elements of West African music into his ever-expanding repertoire. Apart from his own indigenous Yoruba drumming, these elements included Ghanaian styles, highlife textures, jazzy horns and deep funk grooves. He also learnt about the power of African trance music and its innate spirituality. Having selected these assorted sonic elements, Kuti turned to questions of ideology and political message; it was an unlikely combination of ingredients funnelled through a highly idiosyncratic imagination.

Izidore had preached the necessity to develop a clear political vision. In America, political struggle was defined by the imperatives of black empowerment and the language of civil rights. Back in Nigeria, as the euphoric haze of independence wore off, Kuti was confronted by enervating postcolonial anomie. The ruling classes, both civilian and military, had become insufferably corrupt. Instead of real national development, Kuti saw missed opportunities and truncated potential which infuriated him. He started to lambast the decadent ruling classes and soon incurred their wrath. He was constantly harassed, arrested and beaten by military goons.

But Kuti had found a powerfully distinctive musical voice and an equally impressive political message to sit within it. Fastened together, his sonic template and ideological vision became a formidable weapon that attempted several things all at once: sociopolitical transformation, cultural and aesthetic affirmation, spiritual re-discovery and individual liberation.

Kuti came to be viewed as a disconcerting maverick, an irrepressible icon who spoke fearlessly for the disenfranchised masses, a gadfly who constantly taunted and angered the political and economic elites, and finally, a social rebel who championed the causes of countercultural renegades. He blithely broke all the rules, politically, culturally and musically. And within this restless cauldron of rebellion and experimentation, classical Afrobeat was born, with Kuti as its instantly recognisable face. However, there were other musicians, such as Orlando Julius and Remi Kababa, who also favoured the genre.

Within Kuti’s large and revolving band, many musicians are credited with having played pivotal roles in forging Afrobeat’s sonic identity. In this regard, mention must be made of drummer Tony Allen’s contributions in laying down the percussive basis of the Afrobeat sound. Although Kuti was the visionary mastermind who assembled all the elements together, he was generous enough to acknowledge Allen’s vital inputs. Incidentally, Allen died in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic at the age of 79.
Another crucial figure in the Afrobeat story is baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun who succeeded Allen as band leader when the latter left in 1979 not long after the sacking and razing of Kalakuta Republic, Kuti’s countercultural commune, in 1977. The following year, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s mother and foremost feminist, who had been flung from an upstairs window during the raid on Kalakuta, died aged 78 as a result of her injuries.

Kuti himself was never the same after this ordeal. He gradually became understandably paranoid, distrustful of even his own well-meaning close friends and associates and increasingly reclusive. His oppression at the hands of the military authorities continued and a change in his sonic template became noticeable. For one, the joie de vivre evident in his earlier compositions rapidly gave way to a sombre, meditative tone which aligned with the spiritual turn of mind that came to inform his general outlook.

Kuti died in 1997 during the reign of Nigeria’s most heinous dictator, General Sani Abacha, who himself met his demise the following year. But even before his death, Kuti had been long past his prime, weakened by numerous beatings inflicted by an unforgiving military and HIV/Aids. Sadly, he died a bitter and broken man although ultimately, he had the last laugh. Afrobeat, the genre he pioneered and disseminated against all odds eventually became an attractive idiom, finding proponents all over the world. As this came to pass, his cultural stock increased in value exponentially.

Nollywood, the rough, innovative and adaptable movie industry hatched in the midst of a pulverising economic meltdown and severe sociocultural upheavals soon grew to international prominence on the strength of its DIY ethic. After Kuti’s passing, it was yet another cultural phenomenon that, in spite of all odds, attested to the region’s cultural vibrancy and resourcefulness. It can be argued that the confidence acquired by Nollywood somehow translated to other distinct yet related cultural pursuits such as music. In other words, the same DIY spirit that had birthed Nollywood eventually produced Afrobeats.

Afrobeats, as distinct from Afrobeat, is less political, arguably less musically accomplished or sophisticated and evidently less aesthetically ambitious. Today’s Afrobeats musicians work in a vastly different technological era in which they don’t need to learn to play and master what are considered to be traditional musical instruments. All they need is an adept beatmaker.

However, Kuti’s Afrobeat is an almost impossible proposition in the current economic environment because he often needed what would appear to be orchestras within orchestras to produce his intricate, lavishly textured sound and hence realise his singularly unique musical vision. Technically, this is very difficult to accomplish presently as the sheer logistics required to achieve this kind of feat are simply mind-boggling.

Kuti also believed strongly in the spiritual dimensions of African music; music was, in other words, an avenue to access ancestral life-worlds and establish historical continuity devoid of the frivolities of the present. In addition, there is also a striving to affirm and express the ineffable. Again, this refers to the spiritual component of classical Afrobeat.

Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy are regarded as the current superstars of the Afrobeats scene. And in several ways, they are all very different. Wizkid, one of the first breakout Afrobeats stars, has a distinctively mellow voice and is very skilled at ad libs and groove-laden free-styles. Lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except that he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance floors. In fairness to him, he does not pretend to be a political messiah or to possess a vision of how society ought to be reformed. He has also become part of the global entertainment industry which readily accepts and promotes stars that lend themselves to easy and unproblematic branding.

The same can be said of Davido, Wizkid’s compatriot and frequent rival, who hit the limelight about the same time as the latter. Davido’s voice isn’t as charming but he makes up for it with an equally astute understanding of the groove and indigenous African rhythms. Other advantages that serve him well are his relentless energy and cannily precise understanding of his strengths and limitations as a musician.

Burna Boy, his multiple successes notwithstanding, is a slightly more demanding figure. Of the three major Afrobeats stars, he draws more directly from Kuti’s immense artistic legacy. He has sampled so many of Kuti’s compositions that detractors began to question his originality. Incidentally, Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, legendary jazz aficionado and broadcaster, had been Kuti’s manager in the 60s. So Burna comes from an artistic and ideological pedigree that can be traced right back to Kuti. His most recent musical offering entitled Twice as Tall comes barely a year after the Grammy-nominated and BET award-winning album, African Giant.

Burna has consistently attempted to infuse socially conscious lyrics in his music, an obvious connection to Kuti’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his mother, Bose Ogulu, is a producer of his latest album along with US luminaries P Diddy and Timberland. His sister works on his label as artistic director. Ensuring that his family participates in his artistic journey also chimes with Kuti’s understanding of the communal nature of music. However, being transformed into an unproblematic global star entails a more discreet packaging of his overt political agenda. If Burna gets too strident about his political message, sponsors and brands may balk at promoting him.

At the same time, there is clearly an inclination to present himself as a credible artist and not just a dance floor-filling flavour-of-the-month singer. It would be interesting to see how the contradictions between being a true artist and being merely an entertainer in the current music business climate play out. It is a bit early to predict how Burna intends to confront this dilemma as he tries to portray himself as an artist cut from the Kuti cloth while also having an eye on gorgeous video vixens who could make his visuals more interesting. His growing political awakening has to contend with the very real limitations within the music industry and the realities of becoming a veritable global icon.

Meanwhile, performers from all over the world continue to hop onto the Afrobeats wagon, from Beyonce, Drake, Chris Brown, H.E.R., Stormzy, Summer Walker, Wale, Jorja Smith, Sam Smith, Pop Smoke, Teyana Taylor to Afro B and many other globally acclaimed stars. And the morphology of Afrobeats has begun to reflect this astonishing diversity in terms of sound, presentation and potential.

Unlike Nollywood, Afrobeat(s) generally have had greater success as African cultural exports. In his heyday, Kuti almost immediately won over influential fans like the famed jazz pianist Randy Weston, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ginger Baker, Gilberto Gil, Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela and many other major industry players. There are Afrobeat combos playing in the Kuti mode in Europe, Asia, North and South America. Arguably, there are also more Kuti tribute bands playing abroad than on the African continent. Even before his death, in countries like Colombia, there were numerous cover versions of his songs that Kuti himself probably knew nothing about.

Fela!, the broadway musical composed by Bill T. Jones and sponsored by Jay Z and Will Smith in 2008, went on to have a successful international run taking in Europe and Africa. Since then another Fela-inspired musical extravaganza produced in Nigeria has gone on tour internationally. There are frequent festivals in France, Britain, the United States, Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria celebrating Kuti’s life and work.

Kuti’s discography is somewhat confusing for a number of reasons. He was extraordinarily prolific during his almost four-decade long career beginning from the early 60s. He privately established a plethora of record labels and also released many albums through mainstream companies such as EMI and Decca. Some estimates claim he released one hundred and thirty-three albums during his lifetime excluding almost two dozen masterpieces he simply refused to put on wax due to his eventual disillusionment with the music business and societal politics.

As for Afrobeats, in May 2020, US mainstream music outlet, Billboard Magazine, ran a special feature on the global rise of the genre profiling Davido, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Both Davido and Savage have performed on the US TV Jimmy Fallon show. Mr Eazi entertained US fans alongside Burna Boy in 2019 at the impactful Coachella Festival. His 2020 hit single, Oh My Gawd features Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Afrobeats has firmly taken root in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy supported by a large African diaspora population and enthusiastic European audiences. It is certainly not a mere passing fad but an increasingly durable fixture on the cultural calendar. Only this year, the UK launched its official Afrobeats music chart. And there are now festivals exclusively devoted to Afrobeats.

Nonetheless, Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations for a multi-faceted sonic future, the possibilities of which are yet to be exhaustively explored. Kuti was hardly able to reap the benefits of his astonishing work during his scandal-prone life. Indeed, he was an uncommonly courageous and uncompromising artist who often spurned the advances of international entertainment cartels just as he offended local political elites. And so in order to pursue his work, he had to build his own platforms and networks from scratch which entailed finding his own performance spaces, establishing his own record labels and developing independent channels for the appreciation and distribution of his music.

Kuti fought many battles on multiple fronts and, of course, due to his unyielding stance, he incurred great financial and reputational losses. For instance, he once famously turned down Motown’s attempt to buy his diverse back catalogue. But those very losses and sacrifices are what made it possible for Afrobeats to be born. Kuti almost single-handedly charted an aesthetic terrain that is full of yet to be explored musical riches.

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Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu

The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking?

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Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu
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I met Isaac Juma in May 2006 at HOVIC — Hope for Victoria Children — a street children rehabilitation programme I was employed by as a social worker. HOVIC was established in 2002 to provide essential services to Kisumu’s street children as well as rehabilitate and reunite them with their families. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 children and young adults working and living on the streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities. When HOVIC’s drop-in centre opened its doors we had a running register of up to 400 children, with about 120 children visiting daily for food and various other services.

When the HOVIC programme started there seemed to be no methodology developed to undertake a census of Kisumu’s street children. A number of NGOs had tried to establish registers by organising parties at the Kisumu Sports Ground where the children and the youths would enjoy a meal and receive the gift of a t-shirt but these events always descended into chaos as fights broke out. To track the children we catered for, HOVIC created a database and register with the basic description and photographs of the children who came to the drop-in centre. The register was kept by a burly staffer aptly named Bouncer whose job it was to keep the children from hurting one another during the fights that frequently broke out at mealtimes. We had obviously underestimated the challenges of having in one closed environment hundreds of children and youths who were accustomed to solving their problems using violence.

I was fresh from university when I took the job at HOVIC, heading the rehabilitation programme. I was idealistic and overwhelmed by a strong sense of community and a desire to give back. The programme was run from the heart of Kisumu in an old concrete building that still harboured the ghosts of the one of the town’s first wealthy families. It was surrounded by Indian shops and open-air mechanics operated from a nearby Jua Kali yard filled with the carcasses of vehicles and ancient jalopies. The salary was paltry and any positive rewards of the job were counterbalanced by the depression that came with daily witnessing the reality of the children’s lives on the streets.

People brought their vehicles for repair in the sprawling yard. Women brought meat, tomatoes, onions and maize meal to the makeshift restaurants that dotted the yard. Crisp new notes and old ragged ones exchanged hands. Vehicles left happier than they had come. Some stayed longer. To be resuscitated or to die. Young boys, their bodies blackened by a life lived on the streets, collected the old oil that haemorrhaged from old engines. They scavenged discarded pieces of metal and plastic which they would take to the weighing scales of scrap metal dealers. All scrap metal had value but copper and aluminum were at a premium. On a good day, a kilogram of either would guarantee a meal. Plastic bottles were not of much value though; it would take hundreds of them to move the needle on the scale. The children moved through the sprawling yard like vultures, cleaning this ecosystem of waste. For food. For money. And for the occasional expression of sympathy.

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

Sympathy came mostly from people who had never before encountered humans in that state of existence. These people wondered what was wrong with the children’s homes, with their parents. How could they allow their children to wallow in waste? But expressions of sympathy were few and far between. More frequently, the street children were at the receiving end of the anger of those whose cars couldn’t be fixed quickly enough. Or who found the cost of repair too exorbitant. Or who felt that the mechanics were cheating them out of their money. Or those who simply needed someone to vent their frustrations on.

The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children – some as young as five – survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking? Their bodies absorbed the abuse hurled at them, and like human sponges, they soaked in the hate and the oil in equal measure.

Kisumu’s street children came mainly from Nyanza and the western region. Most were orphans, left under the care of relatives when their parents died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Others had run away from violent parents and yet others to escape punishment from their guardians for petty crimes. But whatever the reasons, they all pointed to a deteriorating social order.

But even as the influx of street children grew, child protection services shrunk and soon the existing children’s homes within Kisumu could not accommodate them all. There are those who oppose the existence of children’s homes, believing that they act as magnets for street children, increasing their numbers on the streets. But from my experience, and having visited hundreds of families, the homes were sanctuaries for desperate children and filled the gap left by the government to provide child protection services. In effect, the government’s default setting was to send children to the Kisumu juvenile detention centre for crimes committed in the streets or for loitering in the streets at night before releasing them back into the very same streets with no attempt being made to locate their homes and reunite them with their families.

The hope was that the hardship suffered at the detention centre would act as a deterrent and motivate the children to return to their homes but my observation is that detention only hardened the children. To go through the police cells became a badge of honour and juvenile detention a rite of passage before the return to the streets.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

In the meantime, the community hoped that the street children would one day disappear as if by magic, that the government would find a solution to the “menace”. Many were adamant that it was for the parents to take care of these children and hoped that this could be enforced legally to keep the children off the streets.

Instead, their numbers just kept growing. The streets provided these children with a space in which to discover themselves – through necessity and adversity. It could build them. Or break them. Had they been at home, chances were that they would be sober, in school, helping with family chores, teasing young girls at the watering hole while herding cattle. But instead they were here. And Kisumu streets were different and their darkness also different. It had teeth and it was biting off huge chunks of these children’s lives, leaving nothing but the basic instinct for survival. And hope.

The reality of street life was most manifest when night fell, when the good people retreated behind the reinforced doors that kept thieves at bay, that protected their television sets, their stereos, their microwaves, their flourishing lives away from the ghettos of Nyalenda and Obunga.

I once visited the places where the street children retreated to at night and found human beings folded into various shapes, bent into various forms, inside sacks that served as blankets and covers against the darkness and the mosquitoes, the full moon lending a surreal quality to the scene. They were lost in deep slumber, as if without a care in the world, some clutching plastic bottles to their breasts, the shoe glue that conjured up a more bearable reality, an alternative reality to help them navigate their waking nightmares and their sleeping terrors.

Some children were squeezed together into a single sack. Like twins in a womb. Forced together by circumstances not of their own making. Others had bigger sacks to themselves. Queen size sacks. King size sacks. Even here in the streets there was a hierarchy of power and influence. I looked over to Isaac, catching his face in the moonlight. This is how they start learning how to love each other. To protect each other. Brotherhood. This is also how they feel the initial warmth of their comrades. Kiss each other. Touch each other. Sometimes abuse each other, Isaac said matter-of-factly, pointing at the bodies that were tightly welded together in one sack. The older ones sometimes prey on the younger ones, Isaac continued, emphasizing each detail. As if concerned that I was missing important points.

Kisumu is hot. The ground absorbs heat from the sun like a loyal lover and when it is full, it vomits the excess heat into the environment. The doors of HOVIC would open to a frenzy of old faces and newcomers, each child bringing with him a thick layer of sweat from the heat and the story of their young life. The story of their families and their homes. Of a narrow escape from the police last night. Some came with fresh wounds inflicted by their peers. Or by the police. Or by dogs.

Others came high, floating on the cloud of euphoria that the shoe glue created in their minds. Glue was the street children’s opium. They bought it from cobblers who, like smalltime drug dealers, measured out glue meant for shoe repair into small bottles which they sold to the street children, a sticky yellow mess that seared the nostrils, numbed the brain and killed the hunger pangs and the pain. Sleep came easily, the hard ground now as soft as a downy mattress and safe as any home. Hypnotised into an alternative reality, they became quick to anger and violence was never far away.

One evening Isaac told me he had defaulted on his TB medications. He told me this with a smile on his face. Like it was something funny. I raised my head from my desk and asked him to repeat what he had said. “I have defaulted on my TB drugs. This is the second time I am defaulting.” Silence. I tried to look outside. I couldn’t see outside. The windows of my offices were so high. This building had not been built for office use. It had been built as a workshop for repairing old buses. “I know if I default again. I may get MDR-TB.”, Isaac continued. MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was wreaking havoc within Kenya’s healthcare system. I quickly made an appointment with the nurse who worked part-time at HOVIC.

Isaac could not keep track of his medication while living on the streets. He would lose his medication from the constant cat and mouse games with the police at night. On the other hand, the hospital needed him to account for every pill before he could get a refill. When he failed, they told him he needed to show up every day and take his pills at Kisumu District Hospital in the presence of nurses. And at each visit, he would have to go through the script of his life. And then the question he dreaded most would be thrown at him: “You are so smart. What are you doing in the streets? Why are you destroying your life in the streets?” He would soon get fed up and not go back.

To live, to survive, Isaac needed housing. Living on the streets is a complex affair. It gets even more complicated when one has a debilitating disease like TB. Survival starts with housing and food. We had figured out food. Children and youths could drop in at the rehabilitation center and get a warm meal. They could shower. The could get basic healthcare. But in the evening they would go back into the world, to the humming underworld of Kisumu Bus Stop. We needed safe housing.

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

There are many theories as to why children leave their homes to live and work in the streets. I have learned that it takes a lot for a child of seven years to decide to leave home for the streets. In one of the counselling sessions we held with the children, Isaac came along with a seven-year-old called Frederick Omondi. Or Freddie. Freddie had arrived in Kisumu from Gem. He had gotten into a matatu and somehow made it to Kisumu. He had never been to Kisumu before. He had no idea what Kisumu had in store for him. He was travelling by faith, the belief that a random stranger would hear his story and give him a chance at a life better than the one he was running away from. Isaac implored me to take Freddie home with me. I was living with my mother and my siblings. I obliged. Mostly out of fear for Freddie’s well-being than anything else.

Freddie’s home, like Isaac’s, was a world filled with nothingness. Freddie’s home had rocks. Big rocks. And his parents’ graves. His parents had died when he was very young. He barely knew them. He was left in the care of his uncle who, not knowing what to do with his life in that environment, resorted to drinking copious amounts of the local brew. I met him once. Drunk. Tall. Incapable of coherent speech. He was burdened by the loss of his relatives and took this loss out on his wife. Not knowing what to do, the woman took out her frustrations on Freddie. The cycle of violence was established. From the strongest to the most vulnerable. Until one day Freddie decided to run to Kisumu, and was brought to HOVIC.

Freddie’s journey to Kisumu was guided by a conspiracy of coincidences and good fortune. A lot could have gone wrong. He was lucky to make it to Kisumu with no bus fare. His aunt could have killed him. He could have ended in another town. He also arrived at a time when Isaac was friends with a young Australian man called Peter Dunkley. In his own unique way, Peter was looking to give back by helping to sponsor a destitute child. Isaac met Peter at Kisumu Sports Ground and struck up a conversation with him. The fact that all these random factors aligned is pure luck.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

Isaac’s home on the other hand consisted of one room and one bed. His paraplegic brother, his other brothers, his mother, were all confined in this one tiny space. They were happy to see us. His paraplegic brother was trying to speak. His seizures were worsening and they were struggling to buy him the monthly supply of phenobarbitones. Isaac had also left home young. He wanted to save his family. He left to look for help.

People living in the streets are perceived as liars right from the word go. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Part of my job as a social worker was to conduct home visits. To witness and document the realities of the home environments and the circumstances that compel children to come to the streets. The realities of the homes the children came from always hit me hard, without warning. They came in the form of Freddie’s uncle. His alcoholism. In the form of Freddie’s aunt. She stood at a distance from us when we visited the home. In fear. Overwhelmed that the first white person she was encountering in her life had been brought to her home by a child she had persecuted violently. A child she had thought was long dead. What was the chance of that? It was a revelation of biblical proportions to all of us. We decided that Freddie was not remaining in that home.

The image of Isaac’s paraplegic brother brought home to me the reason for Isaac’s decision to leave home. Risking everything. Leaving the love of his family and abandoning some degree of predictability within the confines of poverty, for the unknown of the streets. He was barely a boy. What have we become as a society? Why does it take us so long to see that it takes a lot for these children to be on the streets? To put their lives at risk? It certainly wasn’t for fun. Or for adventure. These children had seen things we have not seen. The nightmare they faced on the streets was in many instances lesser than the nightmare they faced at home.

I have since stopped slicing up my brain trying to understand these children and I feel no shame in keeping the company of those who have spent a part of their lives in the streets.

It’s the 23rd of July 2019. I am seated across from Isaac in his house in that concrete jungle teeming with humanity that is Kahawa West. Isaac is talking to me about politics. His time abroad. His work at an international NGO, and his plans to finish his post-graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. I am not sure what would have become of Isaac or Freddie if they had not made the decision to run away from home and seek help in the streets.

But Isaac and Freddie are exceptions. They had the will to stay away from drugs and from the other temptations of street life. Isaac had a very clear vision of who he wanted to be, and how his success would be channeled to help his family. He has achieved that vision. Freddie is on track to achieving his vision too.

I still encounter some of those who were on the streets with Isaac and Freddie back in 2006 and 2007 every time I walk down Oginga Odinga Street. They are now adults. Many of the others have died; killed during the cycles of post-election violence or succumbed to disease or drowned in Lake Victoria. A few lucky ones were helped to return home by relatives or well-wishers, or through street children programmes.

I cannot point to one singular factor that would explain why some make it out of the streets and others do not, except perhaps a chance encounter with the right people, a strong will to survive. And luck.

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