Port cities are melting pots of culture world over. They spur the evolution of new cultures, languages and act as gateways to the world. It is within this context therefore that taarab, a distinct music form that defines East Africa internationally, found fertile ground along the vast coastal strip that was previously the domain of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
The East African Coast has had a profound effect on the hinterland in terms of trade and cultural development and is home of the Swahili civilisation that came into strength during the Daybuli period between AD 900 and AD 1200. It is the Swahili who controlled the region’s trade from AD 1200 and bequeathed modern East Africa its lingua franca, the Swahili language and left their mark on the musical cultures of the inland indigenous peoples.
A sensuous melodic music deriving from diverse cultures that impacted the coastal culture over the years, taarab easily takes centre-stage in Swahili culture. While it is not necessarily amongst the oldest music forms in the region, given that ethnic groups in the hinterland had been creating music on reed flutes and thumb pianos for generations, taarab is amongst the earliest to be recorded commercially and exported from the region. Performed and recorded for nearly a century now, taarab, which has its origins in the Arab court music of nineteenth-century Zanzibar, owes its development to the political class of Zanzibar.
Sultan Said Barghash, who ruled Zanzibar between 1870 and 1888, is credited with introducing taarab to the East African coast and shepherding its growth into the cross-cultural mélange it has become today. Barghash, who loved music, and recognised its power as a social tool, looked to Egypt to develop his own court music, bringing in an Egyptian band to teach local musicians and sending a Zanzibari musician, Ibrahim Muhammed, to study music in Cairo.
On his return, Muhammed formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra to entertain at the palace. The success of Muhammed’s group inspired the formation of other groups, notably Ikhwani Safaa, which continues to be active and popular in the present day Zanzibari music scene.
But the one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.
Siti was a woman of many firsts. She introduced Swahili lyrics to the then predominantly Arab music. She also broke the glass ceiling for female musicians in a conservative Islamic culture and started a revolution. Her Swahili lyrics helped spread taarab to the mainland, as far as Rwanda and Kismayo. Gradually female singers started taking up the lead role, with men playing instruments as backing performers.
In the early 1930s while recording in India for Columbia Music Recording Company, Siti teamed up with Egyptian musician Umm Kulthum in a collaboration that introduced the full Egyptian cello, violin and bass strings section, playing alongside the familiar accordion, oud, qanun zither and ney flute. The result was a string of crossover recordings that attained huge commercial success, turning Siti into a veritable star at home and in India until her death in 1950.
The one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.
Siti’s success paved way for another iconic and controversial Zanzibari female musician, Fatuma binti Baraka, better known as Bi Kidude, who would go on to popularise her “unyago” brand of taarab worldwide, borrowing from her own radical past and characterized by its feminist politics in a conservative Islamic Sultanate. Although she started singing in the 1920s, Bi Kidude’s career remained in limbo for close to 50 years until the mid-70s when she rose to international prominence. In 2005, the cigarette-smoking grandma of taarab was awarded by World Music Expo (WOMEX) in recognition for her contribution to world music as a composer and performer, and is immortalized in Andy Jones’ 2006 documentary, As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude. Although her date of birth is unknown, she was allegedly over 100 years when she passed away in 2013.
Traditional taarab has gone on to spawn more pop-oriented styles such as beni, kidumbak and ‘modern taarab’ that do not necessary adhere to the traditional set structures of composition and arrangement, but lean more towards the dance styles popular on the streets at the time, and whose compositions are often spontaneous and whimsical, oft-times medleys of popular songs by other non-taarab musicians, and which are geared towards making the audience sing and dance along as they have a good time. These new styles often accompany the popular street parades at festivals in modern Zanzibar such as the annual Festival of the Dhow countries and Sauti za Busara.
While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.
As taarab was continuing its dalliance with the Middle East and the Orient in its development, on mainland Tanzania the musicians were being encouraged to look inwards to their roots for inspiration. The phenomenal growth of ‘dansi’ or ‘ngoma’ music on mainland Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s is also attributed to politicians; and like taarab, its umbilical cord is attached to Dar es Salaam along the coast, despite drawing inspiration and musicians from the myriad indigenous cultures of Tanzania. When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth. Nyerere actively set up cultural centres in towns all over Tanzania and encouraged musicians to mine their rich cultural heritage even as they embraced foreign concepts.
It is his steerage that led to the establishment of vibrant performance spaces in Dar es Salaam such as the DDC Social Hall in Kariakoo and the Vijana Social Hall, and the memorable resident bands that played in those venues during events mostly sponsored by government parastatals and corporations. Bands sponsored by individuals also received support from the State, notably mega hit maker Mbaraka Mwinshehe and his Morogoro Jazz whose highlights included representing Tanzania at a World Fair the Osaka 1970 Exposition ( Expo 70) in Japan. Radio Tanzania inundated Tanzanian living rooms with hits from notable bands nurtured by Nyerere’s hand such as the ruling party TANU-sponsored Vijana Jazz Dar es Salaam Development Corporation’s DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, the National Union of Tanzanian Workers’ NUTA Jazz; among others, spurring a veritable sense of patriotism among ordinary Tanzanians.
By the late 1970s Dares Salaam, the country’s musical epicenter, was at its most vibrant, with up to 30 active bands performing in different venues almost every day of the week. A good percentage of these bands were made up of itinerant Congolese musicians who had settled in the city, bringing with them a rich musical experience from Kinshasa via Paris and Brussels, and which further enriched the dansi oeuvre.
While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.
Most multi-national record companies active in the 1970s and early 80s like Polygram and CBS had their regional headquarters in Nairobi. Tanzanian and Congolese bands crossed over to Nairobi to record at the superior studios, influencing the Kenyan bands they interacted with in the process. Nairobi pirates made a kill too, snapping up the hits and inundating the streets with bootleg tapes. The growth of dansi was phenomenal spreading its tentacles from the pleasure halls of cosmopolitan Dar es Salaam to other outback towns all over Tanzania and beyond, spilling Tanzanian bands like Wanyika and its various off-shoots, among them Simba Wanyika, Super Wanyika and Les Wanyika, across the border into Kenya, where they went on to dominate the scene in Nairobi in the late 1970s and 1980s. A notable scion of the Wanyika stable was Issa Juma Singano, who sat in as studio drummer on a number of benga hits recorded at Chandarana Studios in Kericho town in the mid-70s. A drummer dictates the pace of any piece of dance music.
The growth however came to an abrupt end when Nyerere stepped down in 1985, paving way for a new youthful sound, ‘bongo flava’, which drew influences from zouk, reggae, hip-hop and a slew of other foreign musical styles, the lyrics, increasingly abandoning the classic Kiswahili for street slang and the producers maximising digital technology.
But even as the coastal strip continued to exert its influence and dictate the direction the music and popular culture of the modernising East African states, the hinterland remained suspicious of the coast, silently resisting the influence of their culture. It is an old suspicion of the world-wise and mixed-blood ‘Waswahili’ that dates back to the slave-trading days when the kanzu-clad coastals were often at the head of the slave-raiding parties wielding their fire-spitting muskets.
In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini, often seedy tin-roofed rectangular blocks with wattle walls and a thin veneer of plaster built around a central courtyard, and which cluster around a mosque. Often there will be a palm tree or two in the village square that never comes to fruit in the inland climate, a reminder of the residents’ heritage. It is here that you might chance to hear strains of taarab wafting from an open doorway as the khanga-clad housewife busies herself at the jiko preparing kaimati or muhogo wa nazi for sale.
Outside these quasi-urban settlements, the Swahili are still perceived as sly and cunning. It could be the reason why taarab, unlike the rumba-flavoured dansi, has never had a profound effect beyond the coastal strip. Moreso the music’s sensual rhythms appear best suited to the unhurried lifestyle associated with the coast, the lyrics – oftentimes co-wives and mistresses bickering and bad-mouthing over a lover or a shared husband — more at home in a perfumed coastal harem than a sun-baked thatched village inland. The interior, it would seem, pulsates to its own rhythms, which better find expression in the more vigorous and malleable dansi.
When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth.
Which may explain, why the few times taarab has been embraced by the people of the interior it has had to adapt to their rhythms’. There was a revolution on Zanzibar Island in 1964 when the Swahili populace decided they had finally had enough of the Arab overlords. The bulk of these Swahili people, were freed slaves brought in from the hinterland called ‘wangwana’, who served the Arab traders as carriers, soldiers, gun-bearers and interpreters on the slave and ivory-raiding forays that had penetrated as far inland as Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika by 1830. They were also instrumental in the success of David Livingstone’s 1856 expedition and those by Henry Morton Stanley into the Congo in 1876. The majority ‘wangwana’ wanted to have a say not just in the politics of the island, but its culture as well. It is this revolution that ushered the more eclectic beats of the hinterland into the island’s music, and which would later bear off-shoots of taarab like kidumbak and beni that were more danceable.
In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid 1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success. Vidonge was a massive hit that was redone by Nairobi-based Congolese band Virunga. But there was something unique about ‘Vidonge’, and which may have been its selling point, especially in the hinterland; it wasn’t pure taarab in the traditional sense. Instead it was heavily laced with chakacha rhythms from the Bantu-speaking Mijikenda people who live along the Kenyan coast.
Likewise, when Malkia Rukia attained pop stardom with her taarab hit ‘Penzi Kwetu’ her producer, the fabled Andrew Burchell, better known as Rais Madebe of Mombasa’s Jikoni Records had to do the unthinkable, adapting the music to a hip-hop beat and inviting rapper Buda Boaz to rap over her smooth taarab lyrics in order for it to find favour with the mainstream club DJs. It proved to be scandalous in the staid Muslim culture that could not accommodate crude slang expressions like Buda Boaz’s ‘shusha dada’ (literally ‘let slip, sister’) and their euphemisms in a taarab song, causing Malkia marital problems; but it worked, going on to feature on Charlie Gillett’s popular ‘World of Music’ on BBC World Service.
Other Mombasa taarab artistes would later follow suit, including Nyota Ndogo and Prince Adio, who both found success with a mainstream listenership doing sassy street-savvy taarab music to a hip-hop beat, as opposed to the way it was traditionally done.
In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini.
Beyond taarab and dansi, the coast has had a profound impact on other genres of Kenya’s popular music as well, with Mombasa artists often occupying the centre-stage of new developments on the urban music scene. In the experimental funky 1970s when young urbanites were trying to come up with a fashionable and youthful musical sound that they could not only dance to in the disco halls but also claim, it is the musicians from the coast in Mombasa who led the way. Names like Slim Ali, Kelly Brown, Faisal Brown, Ishmael Jingo, Steele Beauttah and Sal Davies set the capital’s disco floors on fire, with Sal Davies and Kelly Brown venturing further abroad, both finding success in the UK and Germany respectively.
In the hip-hop era of the 1990s and it is Mombasa street emcees Buda Boaz and Fundi Frank who again pioneered, hawking out home-made mix-tapes in which they experimented laying Swahili lyrics over electric grooves lifted from the tapes they had sourced from US marines who had docked over in Mombasa. Nairobi’s latter-day bad boy of rap, Poxi Presha, was a Mombasa product. All these talented musicians had to shift base to Nairobi to earn fame because that is where all the studios, record labels and media houses were.
One of the most recognisable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band. Composed of the Harrison siblings hailing from Kaloleni in Mombasa, and the brainchild of the eldest, Teddy Kalanda Harrison, Them Mushrooms had everything in place to propel them to their place in history as Kenya’s first successful musical export internationally.
In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid-1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success
Hailing from a middle-class family in Tudor, Mombasa, the Harrison siblings were bitten by the musical bug early in life, cutting their teeth doing covers of the dansi and Congolese classics that dominated VOK (Voice of Kenya) radio. With a loan from their supportive mother in 1976 they bought their first drum-set and turned professional, joining the lucrative Mombasa beach hotel circuit where they landed their first contract with the Eden Roc Hotel. It is at the beach hotels that Them Mushrooms gradually started defining their individual style, settling for a cross of reggae, zouk and high-life laid over benga, rumba or the chakacha and nzele rhythms of their native village in Kaloleni., They called this sound ‘mushroom soup’. It is this style that they would later popularize at The Carnivore restaurant when they moved to Nairobi, where they were the resident band from 1986 till 1989.
The chart-topping and decorated band exhibited unmatched discipline and versatility during their prime and took their social responsibilities seriously. In 1988 they released a song about AIDS at a time when the condition was still very much a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health went on to use their song ‘Ukimwi ni Hatari’ extensively in their public-awareness campaigns. Sadly, the band never received a cent from the government in royalties, nor did they receive official recognition for their role.
Of all Kenyan bands, it is Them Mushrooms that has made the most forays abroad. In 1990 they were officially invited by the Ethiopian government to play at a conference in Addis Ababa. This would later sire a month-long tour that took them to diverse regions of the country, and which earned them a solid fan-base in Ethiopia. They would later follow up with successful sojourns in the Middle East in the mid 90s, touring Djibouti, Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and many other Emirate states before deciding they were ripe enough to try and conquer Europe, thanks in large to their smash hit ‘Jambo Bwana’ that had not only grown to become the unofficial anthem for promoting Kenya abroad as a tourist destination, but had also made it to the silver screen, with the slogan “Hakuna Matata” from Jambo Bwana featuring in the Walt Disney movie ‘Lion King’, catapulting the band to international stardom.
So successful was ‘Jambo Bwana’ internationally it was redone by the European pop band Boney M. This, and the response from their European fans who frequented The Carnivore, convinced the band that they were ready for Europe. They first toured Italy before winding up in Germany on the invite of a friend.
One of the most recognizable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band.
Bristling with youthful energy, they tried to find gigs, crossing the border to Switzerland, where another friend, cabaret singer Joe Mwenda, had landed them a temporary gig. Frustrated, they moved to London, where they attempted to find work with the assistance of Osibisa band’s Teddy Osei. But their attempt to find a foothold in the competitive European showbiz circuit was to prove disastrous in Germany, thanks in part to unscrupulous dealers who took advantage of their naivety and the fact that they were foreigners.
Fortune may have evaded the band in Europe, just like it has their compatriots at home, but musicians from the coast continue to play a crucial role in the direction popular music in Kenya takes today, their rich heritage cemented in the country’s national anthem, which borrows from a Miji Kenda folk tune.
Them Mushrooms three-month sojourn in Europe is winding and heart-breaking, but the short of it is that this was one band that was well-placed to make a success, had they received just a fraction of support – mostly logistical — from their own government, like the Tanzanian dansi bands did.
By denying Them Mushrooms support, the intransigent interior, had once again scored a hit at the ‘Waswahili’, putting paid to the Swahili saying that a prophet is never appreciated in their hometown.
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The Remarkable Revival of Ugandan Football
Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup, but at a continental level it is making a comeback. So is its club football.
As the prospect of the FIFA ban on Kenyan football being lifted improves, it might be a good time to look at the example of neighboring Uganda, and how the football sector in that country managed to pull itself out of a deep crisis. A decade ago, the state of Ugandan football looked highly discouraging: after years of internal wrangles and conflicts between the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and some of the country’s powerful clubs, as well as match manipulation, and financial accountability problems, many fans and sponsors turned their backs on the sector. The public image of both FUFA and club football was poor, and public trust and confidence were low. Meanwhile, the popularity of the English Premier League (EPL) among Ugandan football enthusiasts was on a steady rise.
In 2022, however, Ugandan football is thriving, and it is increasingly successful internationally: The U20 male national team qualified for the 2023 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations; the winner of the last season’s Uganda Premier League (UPL), Vipers SC, reached the group phase of the CAF Champions League—only the second club in the country’s history (after Kampala Capital City Authority FC, KCCA) to achieve this milestone; the senior women’s national team won Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) competition and thus qualified for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations 2022 in Morocco (where the team went out in the group stages); the winner of the FUFA Women Super League (FWSL) 2022, She Corporate, made it into the final at the CAF Women Champions League Zonal Qualifiers (where they lost to Simba Queens from Tanzania); and Ugandan coach Charles Ayiekoh Lukula (who was in charge of She Corporate at that tournament) was hired as head coach by Simba Queens and led the club to the semi-final of the CAF Women’s Champions League in Morocco, the first time a CECAFA team reached that stage and the first time a Ugandan coached a team at this tournament.
In domestic competitions, there are many positive dynamics as well. The UPL is broadcast on live TV by Chinese multinational StarTimes, as part of a 10-year contract. There is also a revival of football in the various regions of the country outside the traditional football area of greater Kampala. The UPL clubs based in the north-western city of Arua and Jinja in the east did well last season and some of these teams have been competing for top UPL spots. Jinja-based BUL FC (thanks also to strong management and sponsorship) is atop the UPL table currently, and won the Stanbic Uganda Cup last season (against Vipers SC).
The fan base is growing and vibrant in a number of clubs and there are many examples of improved relationships between fans and club management. Many clubs manage to sign deals with sponsors, including those in the lower divisions and outside the UPL. Currently, more than 40 sponsors are engaged in the UPL.
The KCCA FC, which plays in the capital, just announced that it would start floodlit night games in the second half of the UPL season, thanks to the support of the club’s newly signed jersey sponsor, Chinese multinational CHINT Electric Uganda, an energy solutions company. FUFA started its own TV channel in 2022 and is broadcasting live games from various competitions (women and men; senior to school level), press conferences, and various other activities. The social media presence of FUFA, clubs, players, fans, journalists, and pundits is extensive, innovative, and captivating.There is a range of very strong and popular amateur competitions, especially in Kampala, usually played over the weekend. Artificial turf grounds have been constructed, and this supports the football of amateur teams, competition organizers, schools, academies, and communities. Arua Hill SC is building a stadium that is integrated into a larger shopping mall complex, which also has plenty of office space and hotel facilities. The club offers fans and other members of the public a real estate product—a plot and house in Kongolo Sports City. Clubs such as Vipers and KCCA made some good money from players’ sales in recent years and this helped cover the club running costs and development initiatives, such as improvements to stadium infrastructures. Finally, football competitions at secondary school and university levels are popular with students and fans and attract significant media attention.
One could go on at length about the various current problems in Ugandan football—the issue of players’ welfare for example, but there is value in exploring what is behind the regained popularity and positive trends in the game in Uganda? How was the turn-around achieved? I have explored these questions as part of a research project into the effects of the commercialization of football in Uganda and Kenya.
The leadership of the current national football association president, Moses Magogo (in power since 2013), marked the beginning of the revival of both FUFA and the sector. This was a very gradual process that had shortcomings, limitations, and setbacks. However, judging by the situation in late 2022, it was remarkably successful. Key components of this revival included FUFA being more open and responsive to external criticism; a strengthened media team; a focus on professionalization of the sector via significant capacity-building (running various training programs for clubs, coaches, sponsors, media and other professional groups that operate in the sector); a more inclusive sharing of the benefits of these programs across regions; an enlarged set of well-organized competitions (including beach soccer and the like); a boosting of women’s football; promoting commercialization efforts; successes in attracting sponsorship; and an improvement in the relationship with government.
This trend is particularly evident in the strengthening of media/PR units in many clubs (that was accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdown months when clubs had to find a way to reach and stay in touch with fans at home, for instance via the launch of club TV). Social media handlers are the norm now and the work of these committed, skilled and enthusiastic, young handlers ensures that teams provide updated, detailed, and slick mix of texts, pictures and videos about the latest happenings in their clubs, on all sorts of platforms: from Tik Tok to Twitter. Other parts of club operations, such as accounting, marketing, fan affairs, talent recruitment & development, or players’ transfers have been professionalized too.
There is “more balance and better coexistence”—as one marketing professional put it—between EPL and UPL and Ugandan football generally. Dedicated fans now prefer to go to live matches rather than watch EPL games on TV. There is a significant and increasing sense of fan culture (in terms of identity, pride, rituals and off-pitch activities), self-organization, and desired engagement with the club management. Fans reportedly buy and increasingly wear the shirts of their local club also thanks to the “wear your local jersey” initiative, and other promotional activities. For example, one club gives free access to home games this season to all undergraduate university students who show up wearing the club’s 2022/23 jersey, while another club offers free access for women and students. Fans also spend money more readily on merchandise. There is also increasing demand for easily accessible and detailed information, statistics, data and updates. The drive for, interest in, and use of statistics and data (by fans, coaches, pundits, journalists, scouts and agents) is a major feature of the sector’s development. This is also due to the influence of betting that relies on people having access to stats.
Ugandan football is remarkably broad-based and linked to various values and aspirations: love and passion for the game; pride in one’s city, region, country and culture; professional opportunities, jobs, business, incomes, and profits; uniting communities and strengthening identities; showcasing, supporting and celebrating talent ; inspiring youth through being a role model in one’s home community; and putting all regions on the map of national attention.
Finally, many sponsors are joining the football sector, and/or renewing their engagements with it. Sponsors are varied and include firms from across the economic spectrum. Major sponsorships from multiple large brands are seen as crucial to inject money, vitality, and confidence into the game and the future trajectory of football in the country. There is no overreliance on betting firms in terms of sponsorships.
Uganda is not an outlier in the region given positive developments too in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi for example. Second, in Uganda it is not just football that is on a significant upward trend but the sports sector as a whole, including in netball, basketball, rugby, boxing and athletics. Multimedia company Next Media just launched NBS Sport, a 24-hour sports-dedicated channel, to extensively broadcast local sports including live-action and talk shows. Joseph Kigozi, Next Media’s Deputy Group CEO and NBS Sport General Manager reportedly noted: “We have put together a platform where Ugandan sport can leave the back pages and small segments of daily content … Sport can be a source of income for all stakeholders … We look forward to working with all involved to make this a success.”
Masculinity in Kenya: The Pressure to Provide and Perform
Heterosexual Kenyan men are unhappy and they are desperately looking for explanations for the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women.
Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.
Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labour migrant from western Kenya
During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalised east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo men from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on “city girls” who were portrayed as materialistic “slay queens” who “finish” men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their “Beelzebub nails”, as Wellington called the colourful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear repeatedly expressed by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or “contract marriages” that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. Once, on his way back to our shared apartment, my flatmate Samuel—a student of economics who is divorced from the mother of his baby son—passed a neighbour’s house where a group of women were celebrating a birthday. He shook his head and sighed: “We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.”
Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline had decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing FIFA videogames, or catcalling “brown-skinned” Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man cut his girlfriend’s throat and tried to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting his wife’s actions and character as the reason for his attempted suicide. Anything appeared better than spending time with the “daughters of Jezebel” who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding that they engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with, as expounded upon by Wellington:
“When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair. To me this is nonsense because that is not romantic love. I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.”
The burden of economic and sexual performance was not only felt by poorer migrant men, however. Rather, as shown by articles in Kenyan newspapers (see, for example, here and here), it is a nationwide pandemic affecting men from different classes. On a two-day-long men’s meeting on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in mid-2022 which I attended and which was organized by Chomba Njoka and the self-help book authors and masculinity consultants Silas Nyanchwani and Jacob Aliet, for instance, a male lawyer, a psychologist, and a land surveyor, among others, lamented about similar issues. Sitting around a bonfire drinking cold beer in the damp cold of Mt. Kenya, one man after another told a story about a girlfriend who cheated with a financially better-off man, a wife who emptied the marital home of all valuables and left with the children, or young women who come to Nairobi to be seduced by the city’s material promises and men in suits with “deep pockets” who flock the bars of places like Pipeline looking for teenage girls with dreams of big cars, shiny clothes, and expensive hair pieces. Initially the stories were told hesitantly; one could feel that the men telling them were afraid to be blamed. Was I not man enough to provide for a family? Was I responsible for my wife leaving me? But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life. Maybe, we began to think, it was not our fault. But whose fault was it then?
“Nairobian girls, man, acha tu (Kiswahili, “just leave it”)! If some hapless guy with disposable income and sensible behaviour shows some interest, the girl will put her acting mask on, and can easily fool the man proper. Nothing wrong with that, as life is a game. You play. They play. We play each other”, writes Nyanchwani in his book 50 Memos to Men, a collection of his Facebook posts on gender relations in contemporary Nairobi. When I first met Silas in a café in Nairobi’s central business district, a calm and soft-spoken guy over six feet tall and father of a girl, he told me that men had been left behind in Kenya’s economic and cultural development of the last two decades, perpetuating local discourses about the “neglect of the boychild”. Most development aid interventions were targeting the girlchild, and women were increasingly empowered economically. Who, however, was there to tell men what to do, to give men a voice and guidance? Aliet, an imposing man with an authoritative appearance, shared Nyanchwani’s sentiments. Known as a writer of Sci-Fi novels, Aliet decided to write his book Unplugged: Things our fathers did not tell us after many of his male friends had shared stories with him about the pressure to provide, the burden of performance, women’s ungratefulness, and men’s inability to know how to respond to what women and society demands of them. If the raving reviews by both men and women on the homepage of the Nuria bookstore are anything to go by, the book has helped many male readers to find relief and new hope by receiving guidance on what it means to be a man in contemporary Kenya.
But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life.
Yet neither Nyanchwani nor Aliet rule over Nairobi’s booming masculinity consultancy scene where one can find controversial figures such as former radio host Andrew Kibe among more moderate voices such as Pastor Simon Mbevi who counsels men and couples or Onyango Otieno who openly talks about his experience as a male rape victim and advises men to allow themselves to be vulnerable. The most famous personality, however, is Amerix, a medical doctor from western Kenya who gives advice to Kenyan men on Twitter and through other social media channels. Although Aliet, Nyanchwani—the former writer of The Retrosexual column in The Nairobian that is now written by Brian Guserwa—and Amerix align with the global red pill movement, part of a global backlash against feminism or some of feminism’s social consequences, they do so to different degrees. While they all agree that the world has become “femicentric” and that men need to swallow the red pill to be “unplugged” from the false truths of feminism, Amerix has a more radical take on Kenya’s gender relations and not only offers answers that aim to change the totality of his adepts’ daily lives but also openly admires Paul Kagame’s autocratic style of leadership and dreams of a world where strong “Afrikan” men subdue obedient women. In his chat groups, young Kenyans are not allowed to write using “effeminate” emojis or incorrect English while dreaming about a reinstated patriarchal order and implementing Amerix’ advice by practicing semen retention to accumulate testosterone, fasting for days, lifting weights, and avoiding processed food as well as the imperial ideology spread in NGOs and churches by white men and women. Being pressured to perform economically and sexually, young men all over Nairobi beg Amerix to “continue to mislead” them by warning against get-rich-quick schemes and by ridiculing women’s expectations of large penises and pornographic sexual performances.
It would be easy to ridicule the absurdity of some of the advice given by Amerix or to call out Aliet and Nyanchwani as toxic men. Yet, over one million people are following Amerix on Twitter, and both Aliet and Nyanchwani are typical Kenyan men who, despite harbouring patriarchal inclinations, care about their children and their spouses. None of the men I met on the slopes of Mt. Kenya dreamt of enslaving women, and all agreed that a return to their fathers’ world was not desirable. However, after three years of fieldwork, I can count on the fingers of one hand those men who confided to me that they are in happy relationships or marriages. Heterosexual Kenyan men, in other words, are unhappy, and, as attested by Amerix’ fame, they are desperately looking for explanations for their experience of economic, romantic, and sexual pressure and the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women more generally. Many Kenyan men feel side-lined and, despite their willingness and attempts to provide, are unable to meet what they imagine to be—or what sometimes indeed are—the unrealistic expectations of women, which compels them to look for advice from fellow Kenyan men who seem to be the only voices resonating with the problems they face “on the ground”. Mark, an unemployed Luo migrant with a degree in physics who survived by writing essays for Chinese students with substandard English skills, responded to my question about the role of Amerix in his life with excitement:
“Amerix is talking about why shouldn’t we be us? Why do you have to be dictated by a woman? Let the woman decide whatever you have to do? Be away from friends she does not want? Do whatever she wants? You see that? So, we were like, give us this shit. […] From the first day, we were all into Amerix’ thing. […] There are some people who argue that Amerix is misleading the men, but then if you understand what Amerix is talking about, it is the real thing, the real situation on the ground.”
In such an impasse, Western journalists, social scientists, and development aid practitioners should ask themselves what social, economic, and conceptual benefits for both men and women could be generated from working with more moderate masculinity consultants such as Nyanchwani. Although they neither agree to notions of the social construction of gender nor share beliefs in the necessity to dismantle all patriarchal gender roles, they have access to the minds and hearts of Kenyan men such as Wellington, Mark, or Samuel. While I disagree with the red pill movement’s evolutionary naturalization of gender roles and its simplistic use of biological assumptions—such as female hypergamy—to explain human social relations and strongly believe that a more political-economic approach would allow men and women to attack some of the common enemies that deprive them of economic development, I also think that honest debates that include the voices of various masculinity consultants could open a conceptual space beyond, on the one hand, the capitalistic and colonial notion of the male breadwinner and provider that necessarily produces pressured men who desperately want but cannot provide for their loved ones due to the structural conditions of Kenya’s capitalistic economy, and, on the other hand, the largely still unacceptable notions of men as vulnerable and dependent that only resonate with a few middle-class Kenyans. Such progressive, open-minded, and creative debates might help to repair what appears to be a social constellation characterized by mutual misunderstanding and heightened mistrust between men and women.
TRUST: The Power of Storytelling to Explain the Utility of Technology
Chief Nyamweya and Anne Connelly’s graphic novel and motion comic imagines an alternative African future using storytelling and blockchain technology.
Last month, Freehand Studios, an African digital arts and social impact studio based in Nairobi, released a graphic novel and motion comic whose story aims to inspire young Africans to imagine and build an alternative African future using blockchain technology.
Set in a fictitious African republic, TRUST tells the story of Moraa, a young female activist who, together with a group of techies called the Sankofa Collective, use the power of blockchain technology to stand up to Max—a land-grabbing oligarch whose greed threatens their communal land, their culture and the entire pastoral community.
Outside of the crypto bubble, most people—even the smartest and most sophisticated—don’t understand what blockchain and cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are, or what their utility is in everyday life.
By writing the graphic novel, co-authors Chief Nyamweya and Anne Connelly have used the power of storytelling to focus more on the utility of the technology and less on the intricacies of how it works, while creatively exploring the themes of corruption, cultural and ecological preservation, historical injustices, communal trust, and land ownership.
In the novel, Moraa, the story’s protagonist, is an activist who has never heard of technologies such as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organisations), Bitcoin and blockchain. However, when she meets Akinyi and the Sankofa Collective, she is taught about these technologies and how they work using relatable analogies. Later on in the story, we learn why they built the Wahenga DAO and why they were fundraising using bitcoins.
Kenya has the highest digital currency adoption rate in Africa
Three years ago, If you had walked up to a random stranger on the streets of Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, woman or man, young or old, and asked them if they knew what crypto or blockchain technologies are, let alone if they had ever used them, you would most likely have been met with blank stares.
That has since changed.
In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.
Out of a population of 53.7 million Kenyans, 4.25 million individuals possess digital currencies, the highest adoption rate in Africa according to a United Nations research report.
Nigeria has the world’s highest share of active crypto traders, a report published this year by global research firm Morning Consult found. With more than 50 per cent of monthly active adult crypto traders, Nigeria topped the list of countries with the highest share of adults that trade crypto once a month.
In just three years, the continent has once again lived up to its name as a leader in technology adoption.
Despite the directive of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) banning crypto transactions in 2021 and the subsequent fining of three banks for allegedly facilitating cryptocurrency transactions the same year, Nigerians went on to trade at least N77.75bn ($185m) worth of Bitcoin in the first three months of the year. About 33.4 million Nigerians still trade or own crypto assets.
In 2021, Nigeria was reported by Google trends as the country with the highest number of bitcoin searches globally, revealing the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency in the country.
Four million South Africans own cryptocurrencies according to Finder’s Cryptocurrency Adoption Index which ranked the country 18th out of 26 countries for crypto adoption.
But more needs to happen.
Blockchain and crypto technologies have a storytelling problem
Blockchain has a storytelling problem.
Emily Parker, the co-founder of Longhash, presented an essay on the Unchained Podcast titled Blockchain Tech’s Storytelling Problem and How to Solve it. In the episode, she explains,
“I have had countless versions of this same interaction. Step outside of the crypto bubble and say the word ‘blockchain’, and you will often hear smart and sophisticated people say things like, “I tried to understand it . . . but then I gave up.” This mental block, so to speak, has real implications for an industry whose success largely depends on network effects and public participation.”
This is a larger industry problem that continues to plague one of the most complex mass market technologies in history. As Parker further notes, the lack of a clear storyline may not have mattered during the 2017 crypto boom. However, a lot has changed since then and for a technology whose growth and future are dependent on having as many people as possible use it, it’s doing a poor job at onboarding or even creating goodwill among the public.
Some of these problems are legitimately hard to solve. But at the same time, the cryptocurrency industry is not helping itself. Instead of trying to communicate a larger vision, many are consumed by petty infighting about which tokens are best, Parker notes.
Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault. In offering some solutions on how the blockchain industry can remedy these seemingly insurmountable challenges Parker notes,
“Some of the most important work may lie with entrepreneurs and developers. For blockchain technology to truly touch ground, it needs to be applied to products that people actually use. If a start-up can’t concisely describe its product and the problem that it is attempting to solve, then does the world really need that product?”
Her solution lies at the very heart of why Nyamweya and Connelly wrote the TRUST graphic novel.
The blockchain industry continues to be white and male-dominated. This is a problem that could threaten the technology’s global adoption. It is a status quo that enthusiasts such as Connelly who have seen the industry grow since its inception are hell-bent on challenging.
TRUST — A story rooted in young Africans’ hunger for a decentralized African future
Connelly, who teaches Blockchain for Social Impact at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, first suggested the idea of writing a graphic novel to Nyamweya when the two met at Singularity University.
Nyamweya — a Kenyan writer and illustrator best known for his masterfully ink-illustrated graphic novels that address history, science and most recently, the future of education — did not understand what blockchain was before meeting Connelly. However, it did not take him long to appreciate its potential and what this power, placed in the hands of young Africans, could help them do in building their future.
Most people globally do not know and cannot explain what blockchain is and it’s not their fault.
“Young Africans are hungry for a vision of an African future rooted in trust, sustainability and freedom from unaccountable state power. It is the desire to satisfy this hunger with a story of a practicable grassroots alternative that led us to create this transmedia project called ‘TRUST’. We wanted to use the power of storytelling to speak to readers and viewers about blockchain technology, inspiring them to see a decentralized future rooted in justice and ecological sustainability.” remarked Chief while speaking at the book’s launch.
Emerging three years later is a story beautifully told in black and white illustrations that are relatable to any African familiar with the frustrations of living in a capitalistic society and dealing with centralized power.
Connelly and Nyamweya’s vision for TRUST is that millions of young Africans will have access to inspiring and culturally relevant stories that allow them to reimagine their own futures. The two believe that with new technologies such as blockchain, young Africans can build that future by claiming their seat at the table.
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