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Finding Lagos: A Jazz Tribute to an African City

11 min read.

Award-winning American jazz singer/song-writer of East African ancestry, Somi, was in Lagos to work on her seventh studio album which will be released in the summer of 2020. Nigerian doctor, poet and music critic, Dami Ajayi caught up with Somi for Sunday brunch.

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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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Dami Ajayi is the co-founder of Saraba Magazine, a medical doctor and, most recently, the author of A Woman’s Body is a Country (Ouida Books, 2017).

Culture

Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg – Beyond, and Against, the Conventional

Heike Becker reviews a book, Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, which speaks to a generation of anti-colonial activists, from Cape Town to Cairo, London and Berlin, who are using a new language of decoloniality, with which they claim radical humanity in struggle and theory. The heart of the book puts Rosa in conversation with thinkers of the Black radical tradition.

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Arundhati Roy once memorably wrote that mass protests, which have been nourished by the memory of generations of repression return with “a kind of rage that, once it finds utterance, cannot easily be tamed, rebottled and sent back to where it came from” (2009, p. 169).  Her words ring true for the decolonial uprisings of a new generation. Inspired by South Africa’s Fallist movements of 2015-16 and in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter surge of 2020, (mostly) young and black protesters have turned against the “thingification” – to which Aimé Césaire equated colonization. This generation of anticolonial activists, from Cape Town to Windhoek, London and Berlin, speaks a new language of decoloniality, with which they claim radical humanity in struggle and theory. They have turned to theorists of the radical black intellectual tradition, such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, and more recently Amilcar Cabral and Walter Rodney. Not all their revolutionary heroes are Black and male, though.

Rosa Luxemburg as a person, thinker and revolutionary is particularly attractive to the postcolonial ‘things’, who stand up against their objectified status, and who have been stirred by radical anticolonial humanist desires. More than a century after her violent death in January 1919 Rosa speaks to young radicalising activists because of the ways in which she went beyond, and against, the conventional and predictable in her writing and activism as much as she followed new pathways in the intimacy of her personal life.

It is thus quite appropriate that a new edited volume has set out to Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg in decolonial perspective. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell have put together an introduction and nineteen chapters by authors from the Global South and North, who come from different intellectual disciplines and traditions but share the view that the coloniality of power permeates capitalist modernity as a worldwide mode of domination.

Gordon and Cornell’s volume aims to revisit Rosa’s perceptive writings through the lens of creolizing theory to demonstrate how timely the Jewish-Polish-German activist-theorist’s insights are right now. They draw their orientation from a concept of creolizing as processes, which join together groups of people in unpredictable, yet recognizable ways. Creolizing as an approach to social, cultural and political theory originated in the Caribbean, yet has since been appropriated in endeavours to understand the ties between those “who were supposed to be radically unequal and separated through Manichean social orderings” (p.1). Creolized elements of life embrace ideas, yet also attributes of everyday life such as, among others, food or music. Gordon and Cornell argue that creolizing takes two primary forms. They summarise these as ‘historical and reconstructive’ and ‘constructive’ respectively. The first aims “to identify relations of influence and indebtedness that have been hidden and obscured. In its constructive mode, creolizing stages conversations that could not have taken place historically but that would have been and still remain generative” (p.1).

The volume speaks to both approaches. In historical and reconstructive perspective, Rosa’s pioneering practice of internationalism, and her efforts to look in her analysis and practice to global circuits that were already evident in local ways, rested in her understanding of revolutionary solidarity. In her seminal work of political economy, she extended the perspective of continuing primitive accumulation in global perspective, and specifically to Africa and Asia. However, her revisionist theorising of primitive accumulation, mass political action and imperialism always insisted on attention to the specificity of suffering. Her cross-species solidarity with her ‘brothers’ is well known, as she referred to the abused and violated buffaloes that pulled a heavy cart into the yard of the prison where she was incarcerated because of her fierce anti-war stance. In a fascinating chapter of Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, Maria Theresia Starzmann extends this (post)humanist view with a discussion of Rosa’s herbalism and plant collecting while imprisoned, which Starzmann pronounces “first and foremost an act of care toward the natural world [and] also a political tool and an archival practice” (p.170).

Rosa Luxemburg: a letter from her prison cell

Oh, Sonyichka [Sophie Liebknecht] …Recently … [a wagon] arrived with water buffaloes harnessed to it instead of horses. This was the first time I had seen these animals up close. They have a stronger, broader build than our cattle, with flat heads and horns that curve back flatly, the shape of the head being similar to that of our sheep, [and they’re] completely black, with large, soft, black eyes. They come from Romania, the spoils of war. … The soldiers who serve as drivers of these supply wagons tell the story that it was a lot of trouble to catch these wild animals and even more difficult to put them to work as draft animals, because they were accustomed to their freedom. They had to be beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war and that the motto now applying to them was “woe unto the vanquished” … There are said to be as many as a hundred of these animals in Breslau alone, and on top of that these creatures, who lived in the verdant fields of Romania, are given meagre and wretched feed. They are ruthlessly exploited, forced to haul every possible kind of wagonload, and they quickly perish in the process.

And so, a few days ago, a wagon like this arrived at the courtyard [where I take my walks]. The load was piled so high that the buffaloes couldn’t pull the wagon over the threshold at the entrance gate. The soldier accompanying the wagon, a brutal fellow, began flailing at the animals so fiercely with the blunt end of his whip handle that the attendant on duty indignantly took him to task, asking him: Had he no pity for the animals? “No one has pity for us humans,” he answered with an evil smile, and started in again, beating them harder than ever. …

The animals finally started to pull again and got over the hump, but one of them was bleeding … Sonyichka, the hide of a buffalo is proverbial for its toughness and thickness, but this tough skin had been broken. During the unloading, all the animals stood there, quite still, exhausted, and the one that was bleeding kept staring into the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child. It was precisely the expression of a child that has been punished and doesn’t know why or what for, doesn’t know how to get away from this torment and raw violence. …

I stood before it, and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face—they were his tears. No one can flinch more painfully on behalf of a beloved brother than I flinched in my helplessness over this mute suffering. How far away, how irretrievably lost were the beautiful, free, tender-green fields of Romania! How differently the sun used to shine, and the wind blow there, how different was the lovely song of the birds that could be heard there, or the melodious call of the herdsman. And here—this strange, ugly city, the gloomy stall, the nauseating, stale hay, mixed with rotten straw, and the strange, frightening humans—the beating, the blood running from the fresh wound. …

Oh, my poor buffalo, my poor, beloved brother! We both stand here so powerless and mute, and are as one in our pain, impotence, and yearning.

Write soon. I embrace you, Sonyichka. Your R.

(Christmas 1917 from Rosa Luxemburg’s prison cell in Breslau to Sophie Liebknecht).

It is such moments of specificity and solidarity, which are at the heart of some of the book’s most fascinating chapters, where authors put Rosa in conversation with thinkers of the Black radical tradition, who she didn’t and couldn’t meet: from W.E.B Du Bois and Walter Rodney, through to Claudia Jones and Lorraine Hansbury.

So why should we be re-reading Rosa Luxemburg from a decolonial, creolized perspective? What does she offer internationalist, anticolonial readers, analysts and activists in the 21st century? In the remainder of this review, I will highlight points made in some of the volume’s particularly perceptive chapters.

Two chapters connect Rosa’s political ‘strategy’ writing on The Mass Strike with 21st century moments of spontaneous mass action, one (by Sami Zemni, Brecht De Smet and Koenraad Bogaert) on the Arab revolution on Tahrir Square in Cairo; the second one (by Josué Ricardo López) on the Central American migrant caravans from 2018 onwards.

The longest section of Gordon and Cornell’s 500 pages book is dedicated to Rosa’s revisionist analysis of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, starting with an insightful contribution by the late historian Jeff Guy on, what he calls, “a rousing and provocative treatment of South Africa [with which] Rosa Luxemburg applied aspects of her theoretical arguments on the necessary structural links between capitalist and non-capitalist systems to the contemporary imperialist world” (p. 269).

Apart from a few exceptions, such as Patrick Bond’s and Ahmed Veriava’s chapters on the resonances of Rosa’s critique of political economy for contemporary South Africa, the volume tends to lean towards close considerations of her radical humanism. Many chapters speak to the enduring significance of Rosa’s thinking for contemporary concerns, including anticolonial nationalism, a decolonial and anti-racist approach to a critique of political economy, and in the final, particularly strong section of the book, articles on reading decolonial-socialist feminism with Rosa. These are the discussions at the heart of some particularly insightful chapters.

Jane Anna Gordon reconsiders Rosa’s thinking of the role of slavery and shows how she went beyond the conventional Marxist parameters in consistently including the connections between imperialism and capitalism. Gordon concludes that “many contemporary theorists of racial capitalism are tied genealogically to Rosa Luxemburg and her indispensable insights and orientation” (p. 143).

Siddhant Isser, Rachel H. Brown and John McMahon take this thread further in their important discussion of ‘race’-making in their chapter on ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the Primitive Accumulation of Whiteness’. They turn to Rosa’s reworking of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation to theorize the relationship between capital accumulation and constructions of ‘race’ and whiteness as a continuous component of capitalism, across its history. Their writing speaks directly to Silvia Federici’s socialist feminist approach to the primitive (ongoing) accumulation of capital as ‘an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule’ (2004, p. 63).

The development of the concept of primitive accumulation as an accrual of racialised and gendered social relationships is crucial for pushing radical theorizing that generates incisive accounts for feminist anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist practice. The book’s concluding chapters by Paget Henry and LaRose T. Parris on reading – and creolizing – Rosa Luxemburg through the Black Radical Tradition, illustrate this in fascinating close conversation of Rosa and her – imagined – encounters with thinkers and activists Claudia Jones and Lorraine Hansberry.

Rosa Luxemburg dedicated her life to intellectual reflection and political mobilisation because she could not tolerate injustice of any kind. She expressed and lived solidarity with all who suffered under exploitation and oppression – humans, and members of other species. Her yearning for a more human world undoubtedly resonates with today’s thinkers and activists in the movements for radical humanism in the Global South and North. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell must be thanked for bringing together a captivating collection of articles that look at Rosa’s beguiling legacy for our times.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Culture

Back to the Future: The Infamous Dangerous, Ugly and Dark Days of “Nairoberry” Are Back

Criminal incidents in Nairobi are on the rise. The bad, dangerous and ugly days of “Nairoberry” are back. With elections looming, the Jubilee government has all its guns trained on the impending tumultuous polls. An economic meltdown, an underpaid and agitated police service and the election fever — it’s a free-for-all, which has seen the city’s crimes soar to the detriment of its habitats.

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In the last years of President Daniel arap Moi’s Kanu rule, the central business district of the capital city Nairobi, become a bad, dangerous and ugly town. Nairobians were being mugged left, right and centre. It didn’t matter what time of day, one was being robbed, so long as the opportunity availed itself.

During the day the town was unpoliced, or let me put it this way, the police (both plain clothes and uniformed) become part of the problem. They watched as people got hassled and those who didn’t watch, participated in the hassling.  The alleyways were unkempt and unpassable. Few street lights worked, so once dusk set in, the town was thrown into an abyss of darkness. From then on, anything went.

Hordes of marauding hoodlums and muggers prowled the CBD unfettered, searching for their victims. It was a horrendous time to be a Nairobian.

The expatriate community was weary of venturing out and if it did, it moved in groups and certain specified areas. It created its own security arrangements, whereby, it collected data for everyone who was in its circuit, hence easy to keep track of its members.

Recently, I spoke to some of my expatriate friends who live in the Westlands suburbs of Nairobi, and they told me the “Nairoberry” days are back, where after a very long while, they are now having to rethink about their safety and security, especially in the evenings.

Then, police disguised in civilian clothes, were mugging people openly. In 2001, a professional journalist colleague one evening was going to catch a matatu as he headed home. It was just about past 7pm. On crossing the famous Kenya Cinema on the other side of Moi Avenue, he was met by a mob of men who stripped him of nearly every valuable item, including his belt and spectacles and a feature mobile phone which was in vogue then.

The “Nairoberry” days are back, where after a very long while, [people] are now having to rethink about their safety and security, especially in the evenings

In a split of a second, he was on the ground, shorn off everything. Describing the efficiency with which he had been robbed, we suspected it must have been the work of trained hands. For the next three months, we investigated the incident and true to our fears, it was a group of criminally-inclined policemen who were robbing people in the CBD.

Those times are back: Between January and April, 2022, mugging incidents from people that I know alone, have been staggering – from a university don being robbed by uniformed police right in the middle of the CBD late in the evening, to boda boda riders mobbing a man to rob him off his personal effects, including the prized mobile phone in broad daylight, to hoodlums snatching ladies’ handbags and just slithering away, unperturbed that they could apprehended.

In January, an international news agency that has offices in Nairobi and that had just employed a new foreign correspondent was warned that Nairobi is full of “pickpockets and street-smart hoodlums” and therefore he was being warned to be extra careful. Hardly would a news agency that itself deals in reporting newsworthy information, miss to report on an aspect that it considers to be of concern to its employees.

Of course, the CBD has mutated from those terrible Moi days of dangerous boulevards and streets, where it was not uncommon to have potholes in the middle of avenues that no one could remember the last time they had fresh tarmac.

Today, many of the thoroughfares are in better conditions, the street lights, by and large are operational and on the face of it, well, the CBD is a wee cleaner. The CBD is apparently manned by CCTV cameras, but guess what, the mugging instead of decreasing, has actually gone up. What was the point of installing those cameras?

But beneath the cabro works, which are mostly to be found in the uptown, the entire CBD is not a safe place to be, uptown or otherwise. Chatting with a friend outside the Stanley Hotel, next to the newspapers and magazines kiosk, which is at the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue, a boda boda passenger brazenly nicked a man’s mobile phone as he was making a call and rode away, onto Kenyatta Avenue. It was a 1pm, a hot, sunny day. It must have been a team effort, some boda boda riders move around, pretending to ferry passengers, but in real sense are they are just muggers.

The CBD is manned by CCTV cameras, but the muggings instead of decreasing, have actually gone up

The hotel’s security guards told us the area around the five-star was no longer safe, rogue boda boda riders had become a menace to unsuspecting passers-by exposing their mobile phones as they wait to cross the zebra-crossing, either on Kimathis Street, or Kenyatta Avenue. The Stanley Hotel environs should be one of the safest areas in the CBD, but not anymore. I asked the hotel’s security detail what happened to the plainclothes police that are always a whistle-stop away. “It looks like it’s a free-for-all nowadays,” said one of them.

A university lecturer on his way home was recently accosted by regular police on Muindi Bingu Street, near Jevanjee Gardens. It was about 7.30pm. At gun point, they forced him to go a Mpesa (mobile phone money banking) agent and withdraw all the money he had on his mobile phone. He lost KSh30,000 in total. The street wasn’t dark like Moi days, in fact, at the point where he was mugged by the police, there are CCTV camera, at the junction of Muindi Bingu and Moktar Dada Streets, but just like in Moi days, the rogue police are back. They were most probably from Central Police Station, because the station covers that area of the CBD.

Accompanying a friend to the station to report about his stolen items, which included credit cards and of course his mobile phone, all forcibly snatched by boda boda riders’ in broad daylight, one of the officers, a burly policeman, manning the crime desk, laughed uproariously and said; “hahahaha, welcome to Nairobi. Hii Nairobi iko na wenyewe,” this Nairobi has its owners. unabahati haukunyoroshwa sana, you’re lucky you got off lightly, it could have been worse.”

The Kenya police become very sensitive when the media reports of its iniquities, against the very people they are supposed to protect. But on the streets of Nairobi, they are known to abet crime and collude with CBD thugs. If you want to know, just talk to the multitude of the downtown street hawkers. “Pickpockets, bag-snatchers and petty thieves are always roaming these streets, we know them, the police know them, they are always going about their business unrestricted, how come the police don’t arrest them?” Poses a hawker on Tom Mboya St.

The Stanley Hotel environs should be one of the safest areas in the CBD, but not anymore

“It is because the police and the thugs work together, in partnership, in a fellowship of some kind, where the thugs share their stolen loot with the police afterwards. Many of the police patrolling Tom Mboya St for example, are always in plainclothes, we see them, also walking up and down, just like the pickpockets, oftentimes crisscrossing each other, but no arrests are made. It is what it is. On these streets, everybody minds their own businesses, that way you don’t cross anybody’s path.”

At the tail end of his regime, Moi was sucked up by succession politics more than possibly the security concerns of a big city like Nairobi. Already a lame duck President, even the police could afford to be rogue and not fear the consequences. In any case the police always seem to have a leeway, especially the Kenya Police, who are known to be involved criminal activities.

Less than 100 days to the much-awaited succession presidential elections, the Jubilee government has all its guns trained on the forthcoming tumultuous polls. The Nairobi city crime incidents have always been with us, but with an economic meltdown, an agitated police service that is aggrieved because of its unfulfilled remunerations’ promises, the election fever, it’s a free-for-all, which has seen the city’s crimes soar to the detriment of its habitats.

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Tegla Loroupe: Defying Patriarchy to Become an Agent of Social Change

Patriarchy has always undermined the involvement of women in athletics, discouraging them from meaningful involvement in sports. But trailblazers like Tegla Loroupe have defied gender stereotyping and used sports to bring change to their communities.

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Tegla Loroupe: Defying Patriarchy to Become an Agent of Social Change
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Kenya’s general appreciation of the role of sports in national and individual development notwithstanding, the exemplary performance of Kenyan women in athletics and in sports generally, including related social enterprises, has been inadequately recognized. Even when they achieve notable successes, the low representation of women in sports leadership over the years testifies to their exclusion. Their marginalization is mainly based on their gender and geographical regions, rendering their participation in sports nearly incidental, if not inconsequential. Female athletes continue to bear the brunt of gender stereotyping and cultural practices and traditional values that define gender roles still deter women from participating meaningfully in sports.

Alarmingly, despite recent global and government efforts to promote the freedom of women to participate in sports and to protect their sovereign choices and their lives, they are still subjected to discrimination and continue to be targets of gender-based violence.

Running has undoubtedly been an essential feature of Kenya’s history. However, even with the involvement and achievements of female Kenyan athletes in every Olympics since 1968,  studies of Kenyan sports have focused on men; women’s participation in sports has only just started to generate interest in historical accounts within East Africa Athletics. The impediments and successes of East Africa’s sportswomen have only been sporadically noted and the concept of gender is rarely employed.

Susan Sirma, Sally Barsosio, Tegla Loroupe, Pamela Jelimo, Susan Chepkemei, Hellen Obiri and Sabina Chebichi have all brought home track and field medals from international competitions. Chebichi’s name came to the fore in 1973, when at a Brooke Bond-sponsored meet in Kericho she won her first race. Nicknamed the “Petticoat Princess” for running barefoot dressed only in a green petticoat, the 14-year-old from Mlimani Primary School near Kitale was given her first kit after winning that race. Chebichi’s wins that year were record-breaking as she recorded some of the fastest times in Africa for 800 metres and 1,500 meters. Chebichi also won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, becoming the first female from Kenya to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. However, she soon dropped out of athletics following a pregnancy.

Women have recorded many achievements in sports despite inadequate support, and deserve more from all stakeholders and from Kenyans in general.  “There is a need for all to celebrate all Kenyan female athletes including Agnes Tirop to whom we are paying tribute today who has always shone on track events and won many medals at the Olympics and other competitions at the international and continental level,” Kenya’s Supreme Court Judge, Njoki Ndung’u said during the memorial of murdered cross-country champion Agnes Tirop.

Northern Kenya’s sporting fortunes

Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, northern Kenya — and especially the northeastern region,  which comprises Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa counties — has “remained silent, almost forgotten” as far as sports and its development are concerned. There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the region, particularly girls.  

In July 2020, Athletics Kenya acknowledged through its senior vice president Paul Mutwii the “more than enough struggles” that northeastern Kenya has faced, including in pursuing its dreams in athletics, and in sports in general. Girl athletes were almost impossible to find in the region ten years ago despite the right of women and girls to participate in sports having been affirmed in 1979. Like in other historically marginalized parts of the country, various upcoming athletes and their promoters in northern Kenya advise that youth empowerment must include recognizing that mistakes have been made. This would encourage all stakeholders to embrace current and future challenges and forge stakeholder synergies and possibilities for corrective measures. Such measures would include aligning Kenya’s efforts with the global ground-breaking initiatives of various agencies, including UN Women-run projects such as One Win Leads to Another, to empower women and girls in order to achieve regional and gender inclusivity in sports.

There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the area, particularly girls.

Tellingly, there is not a single training camp in northeastern Kenya. Athletics enthusiasts can only meet at the Northeastern National Polytechnic grounds in Garissa. Athletics Kenya (AK) North-Eastern region chairman, Abdullahi Salat, notes that raising athletics standards in the region is a major challenge and that poor sporting infrastructure has further distanced many budding athletes from the sport as they only depend on the Polytechnic grounds which do not even have a standard track. Climatic conditions in the region have also inhibited the growth of the sports, as it is very difficult for athletes to train during the day because of the heat. As such, it should be made possible for athletes from northern Kenya to train in other cooler regions.

The possibilities

For the residents of Kapsait in Lelan, West Pokot County, news of the birth on 9 May 1973 of another daughter to a local family just like any other in the area would have been no more than the addition of a new sibling to the 24 children of a polygamous Pokot household.

When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children. He could not suspect that his “useless” child would one day break world records, that together with fellow retired former world record-holders Haile Gebresellasie of Ethiopia, Paula Radcliffe of Britain, and Kenyan distance running legend Paul Tergat, his daughter would be inducted into the New York Road Running Hall of Fame (NYRR). There is no such a hall in West Pokot County or in Kenya.

That child was Tegla Chepkite Loroupe.

When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children.

Neither her father nor the people of her village had any idea that she would turn out to be a world A-Lister in long-distance track and road races. And so it came to pass that during the course of her life, that child (who first ran barefoot to school and later, symbolically, in several races early in her career, including one 10,000 meter-race a day after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, explaining to the international media that she had done so “out of a sense of duty to all the people taking her as a bearer of hope in her home country”) became a truly phenomenal woman in many respects.

Social-cultural struggles

Tegla’s decision to pursue her dream in athletics was met with solid resistance from her father and the male members of her family.  “Those days, they don’t reckon much with women because they see sports as men’s affairs, especially in my community. No one was willing to support me except for my mother and late sister who stood by me through it all. I have always been determined and I believe I have something special in me,” she noted.

Like women the world over, Kenyan women and particularly those in northern Kenya, have had to endure social-cultural struggles for decades, especially against patriarchy. Patriarchy has always undermined the involvement of women in athletics, the sort of patriarchy that discourages them from participating in sports and instead directs them to reproductive roles. It is the type that insists on the gender socialization of roles, a practice that continues to exclude many women from meaningful involvement in sports, especially those that yield monetary and other material rewards.

Gendered ‘unfreedoms’

Women in athletics ought to be viewed as indicative of development, freedom, and choice. Amartya Sen’s theory of freedom as “both the primary end and as the principal means”, and as understood in the context of social choices theory, is instructive. In Iten, a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, women’s success in running has seen them return home with Olympic medals and prize money totalling more than US$1 million. Their visibility has inspired other women not just to run, but also to set up businesses. These women have seen that their well-being can be improved by making entrepreneurial choices that are outside the roles traditionally assigned to them.

When asked whether she would like her daughter to become a runner, Kathleen Chepkurui’s answer was representative of many responses in Iten. She highlighted what Pamela Jelimo, the first Olympic gold medal winner in Kenya, has accomplished (Jelimo earned over US$1 million on the athletics circuit during her widely publicised four-month streak of victories in Golden League competitions across three continents) saying, “When I saw Pamela Jelimo, I said ‘I will support my children’. They can all be runners – my daughters. So, I would like my daughters to be runners.”

Female athletes have used their income to develop Iten. As Caroline Jeptoo notes, “Female athletes help Iten to grow more…. Building schools, churches. Piping water to those places. And especially helping the needy people in society to pay fees, food … and some many things”.

Kenyan women, and especially those in the northern part of the country, are far less likely to pursue running as a career than men. Several barriers in both formal and informal spheres militate against women’s participation in sports. First, parents in the region are more likely to take boys rather than girls to school, which limits girls’ chances of accessing choice-giving forums. This in turn limits their access to coaching and mentorship services. Second, an uncooperative partner or husband can be a hindrance and, third, poverty and limited resources often restrict women.

“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports. Of course, I will choose him,” confesses a female athlete.

Lydia Stephens-Okech, an Alliance Girls High School alumni who was one of three female athletes to represent Kenya when women were first included in the country’s Olympic team at the 1968 Games in Mexico, corroborates the evidence of the tribulations of female athletes. “Some of the problems we faced still impede our female athletes’ advancement today and better ways must be found to help them.”  Stephens-Okech notes that lack of education, sexist male officials and traditional views on marriage remain major stumbling blocks for Kenyan girls aspiring to become athletes.

Goodwill and leadership

Standing barely five feet tall, demure, humble, and unassuming, Tegla Loroupe emerged to become the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon after being initially rejected by Athletics Kenya (AK) because of her small frame.

An encounter with Tegla Loroupe reveals an ordinary Pokot woman, her “super-achiever” status not immediately apparent, yet she is royalty in the world of athletics. Tegla is a member of Champions for Peace, a group of 54 famous elite athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport with the support of Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization. Tegla was named United Nations Ambassador of Sport in 2006 and is also an Ambassador for the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and UNICEF.

“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports.”

Tegla was Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year in 2007 and in the same year became Oxfam Ambassador of Sport and Peace in Darfur together with Elias Figueroa, Katrina Webb, George Clooney, Joey Cheek and Don Cheadle. Tegla maintains good friendships with Prince Albert of Monaco and Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

If leadership is a position of influence that enables a person to motivate, inspire, and to set the direction for the purpose of achieving certain goals, then Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, and Hellen Obiri, amongst other outstanding Kenyan female athletes, fit the bill.

While research reveals the important roles women play as agents of change, Kenya exhibits a markedly low representation of women in sports leadership. It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports. Baron de Coubertin, for instance, envisioned the modern Olympic Games as a celebration of masculinity, saying, “Women’s proper place was in the stands as appreciative observers and not participants”.

This low representation suggests a society with pre-set gender roles that perpetuate male hegemony in sports leadership. Such low representation can be attributed to several factors that may be historical, social, organizational, and political. They  include the perception of women as frail and inferior, male masculinity and dominance, cultural beliefs and gender stereotypes, feminine modesty, lack of institutional support, gender role expectations, work-family balance, lack of a social network and role models, lack of education and experience and organizational structures that inadvertently promote men over women. Generally, in Kenya, the entrenched and unchanging organizational cultures that favour male leadership are the major impediments to women’s progress into spheres leadership.

It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports.

If any efforts have been made in Kenya to institute inclusivity in sports, the progress of women into leadership roles has been slow at best. It was, however, refreshing to see Catherine Ndereba lead the Gender, Welfare and Equality Committee in Sports. President Uhuru Kenyatta had directed that the committee dedicate itself to analysing “women inclusion in teams and federations’ management, existing challenges and opportunities for corrective improvement.” Among other things, the committee recommended stringent action against perpetrators of Gender-Based Violence (GVB).

It is hoped that the recently launched Trailblazer Programme of the State Department for Gender will meet its objective of facilitating women pioneers and icons to play a role in mentoring the youth. Rose Said Rutin, a family counselor and Director of Praise Celebrations, a Christian worship movement in Nairobi says, “All stakeholders, including state departments must work together to cast aside the constraints that have hemmed female athletes in … we must deal with a society in which honest merit is held back, a talent passed over and patriarchy arrogantly allowed to usurp the prerogatives of all. Let the cynic ask by what right we condemn it all. We condemn it at the altar of conscience, equity, and democracy”. Rutin adds, “Our women athletes have been carrying the sedan chair for others. They should sit on the sedan chairs themselves.”  For Rutin, athletes like Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, Brigid Koskei, and Hellen Obiri have what it takes to ensure that women athletes are treated with dignity and are allowed the freedom to play their meaningful roles in society.

Sports for peace and development

While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society. Sports were not entirely her end but a means to serve humanity, a way station, not a destination. “For me, sport is not just about competing and winning or achieving fame and glory. Rather, I see sport as a worthy platform that can help unite the world, bring peace where there is war and help foster the spirit of brotherliness.” Tegla explains her involvement with Sport for Development and Peace (SDP), saying that it is an intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development and peace objectives.

But way before the 5 May 2010 Inaugural Plenary Session of the United Nations that approved the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG), Tegla Loroupe had started using sports to effect social change in communities, having established the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation (TLPF) in 2003, whose aim was to put an end to the conflict between Kenya’s pastoralist communities. The foundation’s mission is based on three pillars: peacebuilding, education and supporting refugee athletes.  From 2003 to date, the Foundation has sponsored a series of annual Peace Marathons dubbed “Peace through Sports”. With the support of Prince Albert of Monaco, Tegla has also established the Kapenguria Peace Academy that takes in children from conflict areas in East Africa.

While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society.

Tegla was named the 2016 United Nations Person of the Year and in the same year was featured in the Olympians for Life exhibition for her work in promoting peace. Tegla was also the Chef de Mission of the Refugee Team, leading the first Refugee Olympic Team to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio to “remind the world of the sufferings and perseverance of millions of refugees around the world.”

Using sports as a tool to bring about social transformation in relation to conflicts, education, health, and the plight of refugees has elevated Tegla’s standing in Kenya, in the region, and globally, and brought her accolades. A unique woman who originates from a society in which men may themselves be the instigators and prosecutors of conflict and war, her effectiveness and that of fellow elite athletes is increasingly becoming a subject area for social movement theorists. It has been noted that their mobilization of resources, the pursuit of political opportunities, and devising a collective action frame have been possible not just because of the extant positioning of the athletes in the impacted communities, the active involvement in and personal investment of the athletes in the outcome of the peace-promoting activities, but also because of the unique Olympic ethos driving their action.

Tegla and others like her are described as “social movement entrepreneurs”. They do not just appear as mere “evangelists” who only demonstrate their solidarity with a cause by their “presence” at an event but act as businesspeople who must see results; as others “preach with their occasional presence”, they do more.

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