Somi is running late.
It is the Sunday morning after the February 2019 presidential elections that saw President Muhammadu Buhari returned to office and Lagos has endured a wet weekend. The roads have become flooded with rainwater escaping out of blocked drains, carrying with it styrofoam, plastic, non-recyclable waste and reusable debris. Traffic is what results. Traffic of short tempers and selfish driving, traffic of potholes and murky water, traffic that validates Fela’s claim in his tune Go Slow, traffic that traps Somi in an Uber taxi from where she sends a text message, “I am running late.”
I find her courtesy rather unusual. My experience of artistes in Nigeria is that being late for appointments is typical and not showing up is the rule. Somi apologises effusively when she finally arrives, hurriedly walking in, looking gorgeous in her flowing blue Adire gown.
“You just walk around and everyone is in their best and they just seem to try and find courage to face the next week. I introduce my song, with words about a woman who dared to dream, despite having a difficult life”, Somi says in a restaurant full of people in their Sunday best.
We are at the Cactus Restaurant on Victoria Island, an upscale diner popular for its Sunday brunch. The clientele is mostly elaborately dressed Christians just from church; middle-aged, bespectacled, brocade-wearing men sporting Yoruba caps and holding teenage daughters by the hand, mothers in George or Velvet or Ankara and elaborately styled headgear, strutting with the kind of confidence associated with ownership, bespectacled teenage sons, gangly and pimply, walking in their wake.
Somi lives in New York. She is visiting Lagos for pre-production meetings for her seventh album, recording rough demos and workshopping ideas with Cobhams Asuquo, the producer with whom she made her iconic fourth album.
Her seventh album is yet to be titled, but she says it is in conversation with her stage play, Dreaming Zenzile, which is about the life, the times and the music of the late South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba.
“My new album is in conversation with my play,” Somi says as she flips the menu, considering breakfast options. She makes her order and asks for extra avocados on the side.
Somi is no stranger to Cactus. She is also no stranger to Lagos. She had first been invited to Lagos in 2010 by the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival, but they were tentative about their dates—their major obstacle being the upcoming 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence celebrations.
By sheer happenstance, Somi was visiting friends in Lagos when the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival finally settled on dates, but the timing was still off. Lagos would be deprived of the magic of Somi and her five-man band but, providentially, Somi would comb the city on her own terms, flitting between working class and upscale areas, the Mainland and the Island, and falling in love with Yaba, an iconic part of the megacity.
Another opportunity to visit Lagos came soon enough; a seven-week International Art Residency at Kwara State University in Ilorin, in collaboration with New York University. Somi had been recommended by Professor Awam Amkpa of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, who had remembered how fond she was of Lagos.
“I came back to teach in Ilorin for seven weeks since that was all the time I had available. I remember looking up Ilorin and it was like a million, two million people . . . I love the idea of going to an African city that is not really like the centre,” Somi reminisces. She planned on spending three days a week in Ilorin and four in Lagos. To her dismay, her teaching at Ilorin was sabotaged by incessant union strikes.
“They kept going on strike and I taught once a week and I was to teach there for seven weeks. So I felt like I didn‘t get to spend time with the students as we all anticipated but it was still lovely. And you know at some point after much thinking, I decided to stay.”
Somi stayed in Nigeria for 18 months. She wrote, workshopped and recorded the songs that would become her fourth album, The Lagos Music Salon.
I experienced Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon (TLMS) on Ethiopian Airlines’ inflight entertainment in 2015. Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos.
Lagos is a conundrum of a city. Lagos is where the dreams of most Nigerians berth, optimistic that they shall come to pass. But like most cities, Lagos also engenders disappointment in the long run. Dreams may take their time to fruition, and so the citizens of Lagos are best classified thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.
The cover art on the TLMS album is of an elegant black woman wearing an Ankara dress leaning against shabby wooden panelling. The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened.
Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos
Every song on TLMS keys into the Lagos experience. Eighteen songs lasting a bit beyond an hour. The impression is an eternal one. One is in awe of the possibilities of powerful vocal cords and intricately curated music exploring the boundless complexity of a city that over twenty million people call home.
TLMS is a contemporary album in conversation about the city, but within the ethos of the city’s past as well as her musical traditions. Following a brisk introduction, the album pays homage to juju music—the soundtrack of the city through the 70s—with the vibrant up-tempo love song Love Juju #1 teasingly conflating the existing misconception about the nomenclature of that variant of palm-wine music. Juju here could mean the music whose name is possibly derived from the onomatopoeic Yoruba verb “to throw”, or an intense romantic affection that could be the consequence of hypnosis. Somi plays both sides with talking drums and the steel pedal guitar.
Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages. Somi is so fascinated by the way life happens in Lagos and her panoramic gaze eschews class, sex, gender and occupation; she is inexhaustibly preoccupied with what it means to be every kind of human in Lagos.
The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened
Listen to Somi’s Brown Round Things and you are thrown into the devastating beauty of Lagos nights. Accompanied by Ambrose Akinmusire’s piquant trumpet notes, the song knifes through the night and beautifies the nocturnal mundanity of the sex work that animates certain aspects of the city. Admiralty Way, Lekki. Sanusi Fafunwa, Victoria Island. And Allen Avenue, the Mecca of the Lagos Red Light District.
The album’s interludes and skits are byte-sized aural delights of certain sounds characteristic of Lagos. Yet, the most accomplished of these songlets is Somi’s visitation of Nelly Uchendu’s Love Nwantintin which enjoys the gospel feel of the acapella group In His Image—a sultry tribute to Lagos by way of the River Niger.
The victory of Somi’s album lies in how it curates Lagos’ sounds and kinetics in a manner that is both recognisable and satisfactory. Four years since its release, this album is still the most extensive jazz album detailing the Lagos experience and the most original interpretation of the city since Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Google Somi and you are likely to fall upon another Somi, a Korean-Canadian singer and songwriter who broke out through Produce 101, an M-Net survival reality show.
This Somi’s full name is Laura Kabasomi Kakoma whom Wikipedia describes as an “American singer, songwriter and actor of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage”.
Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages
Somi was born in Illinois to a Rwandan academic father and a Ugandan mother. Her family would relocate to Zambia when she was aged three. In the late 80s, her father took up a professorship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Somi studied Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois and has a postgraduate degree in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
“Writing was always a private art for me as a child and I‘ve always been a writer of some sort, but it is private, more like catharsis”, Somi says, adding that, “Singing too was a private thing. Like a lot of people, I used to sing as a child and then when my family and I moved to the States, I experienced culture shock and racism. I had an experience with a teacher who was so hostile to me and she shut me up when I was to present a piece I had won an award for and that kind of affected me . . . She was like ‘are you reading or not, just know no one even cares’ . . . I couldn’t sing publicly. Which for me is another reason I decided to play the cello, as I just needed an outlet that didn‘t involve me singing.”
In 2003, Somi released her first album in New York called Eternal Motive, an 11-track album with a monochrome portrait of Somi on the cover. The internet has all but forgotten these first steps but a review of a later work describes it as “electric soul jazz”, a nod at Somi’s love for genre-blending and bending.
Four years later, she independently released Red Soil in My Eyes. Jeff Tamarkin of the All Music Review glowingly remarks, Red Soil in My Eyes is all elegance and awe, and attempting to reduce Somi’s pan-globalism and command of her artistic environment to a single genre or purpose would be a fruitless endeavour. She skates easily between worlds, touching on both smooth and raucous neo-soul, nuanced jazz expression and more than a dollop of East African tradition until something else altogether emerges.”
Ingele, a Swahili song that was a finalist in the world music category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, is a moving delight that touches the core of anyone who knows that music is indeed the undertow of the soul. But Somi did not set out to become a Jazz singer: “I wasn‘t setting out to be a jazz singer. I just wanted to be a songwriter and poet. I’ll say I am very inspired by jazz regardless”. Perhaps Somi meant that she had a crush on Jazz and once the inspiration came, it was impossible to resist.
After the release of Red Soil in My Eyes, Somi’s father fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer.
“For me, it put my work on hold and I had to travel to my parent‘s home in Illinois to have time off. It was really a hard time for me at that point and writing the album.”
The songs she wrote through this dark period would become If The Rain Comes First, her third studio album released by Obliqsound at about the time her father passed away.
“It‘s actually an album about how we perceive the challenges in our lives, and in the West, the rain is seen as a negative thing. Where we are from, my mother always talked about how the rain was a blessing.”
The eponymous song achieves an auditory equivalent of petrichor, the sweet smell that comes with the rainfall that Somi sings about. And beyond the varying perceptions of what rain seems to signify, If The Rain Comes First feels like a rite of passage, a washing away, if you will, of pain and grief. This quality spreads throughout the meditative album which also features South African jazz vocalist, trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Hugh Masekela—fondly called Uncle Hugh by Somi—on the hypnotic Enganjyani, which means “most beloved” in Rutooro, Somi’s mother’s language.
All About Jazz qualifies the achievement of her third album thus: “With If the Rains Come First, Somi’s songwriting has taken on a new sophistication and depth. Surrounded by a cast of virtuosic collaborators who understand precisely where she’s going and how to get there, Somi burrows deeply into her words and ultimately something transcendent emerges.”
Somi returned to teach at Kwara State University, Nigeria, before the release of her fourth album, a live album titled Somi Live at Jazz Standard. A 10-track compilation of her songs plus covers of Abbey Lincoln’s Should’ve Been and Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, Somi’s live album was recorded over two days at New York City’s Jazz Standard.
“Raw at Jazz Standard might have been a better title, since the hour-long performance so vibrantly captures the unfiltered, unvarnished Somi freed from studio wizardry,” writes Christopher Loudon. Eight years after its release, that experience of being transposed into the past, into the presence of that emotive music stirred by pitch-perfect instrumentation and the majesty of Somi’s vocals and East African languages still happens.
“I actually didn‘t come to Lagos to write a new album, I was actually trying to work on another album”, says Somi. Trust Lagos to wrestle any competition out of your mind. Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems.
On the evening of Sunday June 3, 2012, Flight 992, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft belonging to Dana Air and carrying 153 souls from Abuja to Lagos, crashed into buildings in Lagos while attempting an emergency landing. All the passengers and crew on the aircraft and six people on the ground perished.
Somi wrote a poem that became Last Song, for a woman she had fleetingly encountered at a jazz festival a week before the plane crash.
“I met this young lady, we became friends, and I got to know she also just moved back, as a single woman in Lagos . . . I kept thinking about her and sadly we didn‘t exchange numbers . . . So on that Sunday, I was hanging out with some friends when one of them got news that she was among the people that died in the plane crash.”
Last Song is Somi’s tribute to an acquaintance she wished she had known better. It is a poignant re-imagination of how fleeting moments could pass innocuously into the void, how existence is a transient thing, how goodbyes could be ephemeral or eternal.
Somi’s vision often imagines a singular person as opposed to a herd of people. But once she has achieved that emotional resonance with one person, the bigger picture becomes easier to populate.
“After I lost my dad and I didn’t feel understood by the people around me, I decided to take a break and I chose Lagos . . . I had a lot of friends in Lagos from Nigerian friends abroad.”
From around 2010 a lot of Nigerians in the diaspora had returned on account of the prospects of the booming economy. While in Lagos, Somi went around with a digital recorder documenting everything—conversations, traffic sounds, protests and even her own laughter.
Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems
When she realised that a body of work was in the offing, she began to workshop the new material. Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of African Artists Foundation, then located at Raymond Njoku, Ikoyi, graciously provided the space where Somi began to do a monthly series, showcasing songs with a band strung together by Cobhams Asuquo. A good number of those songs found their way into The Lagos Music Salon.
Somi’s sixth album, Petite Afrique, is to Harlem, New York, what The Lagos Music Salon is to Lagos.
Harlem, a historic place, populated by Africans and African-Americans alike, becomes a field for a sonic survey. Somi, the vocalist, anthropologist and virtuoso performer hits closer to home this time, even if the scope of her theme has grown wider.
Petite Afrique means “Little Africa” and it is a tribute to a cohort of African immigrants, mostly from Senegal, who reside on New York’s 116th Street. Much as it is about migrants, it is also about the implicit and explicit tension between Africans and African-Americans as is manifest in the kind of conversations they have with each other. The myriad of issues that populate these discussions include xenophobia, islamophobia as well as gentrification—but Somi’s powers shine through in how her message melds seamlessly into the music.
Speaking about how the album came about, Somi says, “It started in Harlem, I think, after The Lagos Music Salon. I lived in Harlem for about ten years . . . Then there was this friction between Africans and African-Americans, and the whole idea of gentrification and the need for unity between these two. So naturally for me, I felt a need to connect with the people of Harlem, having stayed there for a while, so Petite Afrique was my own way of giving back to Harlem . . .”
What Somi achieves in fifty-two minutes and fourteen songs is a triumphant exploration of the black experience. Little wonder then that Petite Afrique received the Outstanding Jazz Album award at the 49th National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards.
Somi’s career has gone way past her brief stay in Lagos but the city will remain a critical reference point in her career. The Lagos Music Salon changed her career and Lagos will always remain home to her.
As she says, “I love New York, but the thing in Lagos is, if you can make it in Lagos, you can make it anywhere, the city is hard, but when you show up for the city, the city shows up for you.”
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The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?
With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.
African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.
In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.
Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”
For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.
Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra Kai, The Karate Kid, American History X, The Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The Mercenary, The African Doctor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Tsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.
Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.
There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.
Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.
Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.
On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.
As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.
The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.
Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.
Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.
After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’
What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’
Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.
The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.
‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’
Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’
Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.
After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.
Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.
On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.
Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.
But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.
As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.
Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.
‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’
In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’
Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’
Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.
Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.
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