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Knowing Binyavanga

14 min read.

A story of an unlikely friendship, a chronicle of the final years of the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga’s life, from the perspective of a former student activist discovered on the brink of despair and mentored into a writer.

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Knowing Binyavanga
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‘‘I want to go and drink in River Road, where you guys used to drink,’’ Binyavanga told me, wanting to experience Nairobi’s underbelly, where broke University of Nairobi students and those staying in cheap downtown hostels engaged in debauchery. It had all started a month or so earlier. I had shared with him bits and pieces of a memoir on student activism that I had been working on. That story seemed to make Binyavanga want to talk for hours on end, as if wanting to discover a part of Kenya he wasn’t familiar with, including drinking in Nairobi’s dingy backstreet bars.

I had instigated our chance meeting weeks earlier through a random Facebook message. After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda following an untidy spillover of my student activism, I had returned to Kenya in early 2010, broke and broken. Sitting in a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights safe house in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighbourhood, I started writing a memoir, later deciding to share a section of it with someone I considered a literary authority, wanting to know whether it was all just trash. I settled on Binyavanga, at the time Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York. I wrote him one of those possibly irritating I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, suspecting he received tens of those at a time. Luckily, Binyavanga responded in under ten minutes, saying he was busy but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his email address, and asked me to send him a chapter. He emailed back in less than 30 minutes.

‘‘Where are you?’’ Binyavanga wrote, ‘‘Are you safe?’’

Under a month later, upon his return to Nairobi—with loads of emails in-between about his intention to grant me one of the early Achebe Center writing fellowships—Binyavanga and I met for the first time at Divino, a restaurant on Nairobi’s Argwings Kodhek Road, and spoke for ten hours. Towards the end of the evening, Binyavanga told me he had a friend who lived nearby, on Kirichwa Road, whom he thought I should meet. That friend was his contemporary, the writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai, who joined us at Divino. The next weekend, staying true to the spirit of our new friendship, Binyavanga invited me to one of his epic parties at his house in Karen, introducing me to his high-flying literati friends as a promising writer in his usual exuberant way. That day, at that party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.

Eager to learn more about my bleak University of Nairobi days, his curiosity sparked by the writing I had shared with him, Binyavanga decided to immerse himself into the downtown Nairobi scene, which was foreign to him. And so, one Saturday evening, I joined Binyavanga and his stocky, talkative cab driver, Njuki, who took us to the less glamourous part of the city. We drove around downtown Nairobi, to those places with their infamous little pubs with names like Emirates, where music blares out of faulty speakers and the streets are populated with staggering, drunken patrons.

Binyavanga didn’t seem impressed, much as he wanted to be in the depth of it all. Then Njuki took a turn off River Road, landing us at the junction of Keekorok Road and Jaisala Road, next to the better-known Kirinyaga Road. There stood an imposing, modernish building, AJS Plaza, which seemed out of place in the midst of structures that had seen better days, possibly dating back to colonial days. At the rear of the building, on the lower ground floor, was what looked like a kiosk, selling alcohol. There were seats placed in front of a small window from where drinks emerged.

‘‘I think I like this place,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘Let’s sit here.’’

Jaisala Road, which is where the watering hole was located, was quiet and deserted. Sitting on the plastic chairs, we faced a tiny dark alley, which served as the urinal for the little kiosk. Every time Binyavanga stood up, delicately balanced his imposing frame and crossed the street, positioning himself at the edge of the dark corridor to relieve himself, I wondered what I had done, bringing him to these sorts of places.

Before I could explore that thought further, Binyavanga would return, relieved and reenergised, downing his bottle of Guinness, engaging gear-five as Parselelo Kantai would later cheekily christen that moment when an idea hits Binyavanga’s mind and he is shouting and drinking and making his point loudly and urgently. A lot of gear-fives happened at Kantai’s Kirichwa Road backyard at four in the morning as our host asked us to keep it down for the sake of his neighbours.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

Later that night, the only activity on Jaisala Road, other than that originating from our corner of the street, was the steady stream of Congolese nationals, mostly musicians, returning from live performances in places across the city—places like Simmers, that popular city center nightspot—to their rooms at Jaisala Hotel in the building across the road. Or to the cheap lodgings in the upper floors of the buildings on the street.

An idea came to Binyavanga.

‘‘I want to buy a building here,’’ he said, ‘‘one located on a corner, and transform this place.’’

Binyavanga revisited this conversation over the years, his idea of owning a building in that part of Nairobi, where he wanted to establish an arts and culture center, house the Kwani? office, and in so doing collapse the Nairobi art scene’s class divide. To his thinking, those from upper class Nairobi would—in the usual way that gentrification works—be interested in being part of this downtown experience, while those from the less privileged parts of the city would only need to board one matatu and access the venue bila hustle. As our first joint project, that night, Binyavanga gave me a much needed $100—I was dead broke—to scout for a suitable building for such a project.

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’

‘‘Here’s some money,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘I don’t want you to get stuck.’’

At around that time, the literary journal Kwani?, of which Binyavanga was the looming founding editor, was working on its seventh edition, the majuu issue. African writers who lived or had lived in the Diaspora were being asked to tell their tales of life abroad. Having briefly read my Kampala asylum seeking escapades, which I doubt fitted neatly into Kwani?’s Diaspora template, Binyavanga reached out to Kwani’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, introducing yet another of his discoveries, another promising Kenyan writer.

‘‘You have to publish this guy,’’ Binyavanga pushed Billy on the phone, over and over again.

Billy, possibly half curious and partly seeking to get Binyavanga off his back, asked me to send him 10,000 words of my Kampala story. That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I told of sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, thereafter spending months navigating Uganda’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR processes.

Binyavanga went back to New York, staying in touch with me the whole time. He was back in under three months, and would call every other day, asking to meet up for lunch and talk through the evening and into the night. A lover of fine dining, he would ask me to join him at either Le Rustique on General Mathenge Drive, Talisman in Karen or Mediterraneo at The Junction. Whenever I went to meet him, I always found Binyavanga punching away at his MacBook, which almost always had bits of cigarette ash on the keyboard. He would light a Dunhill Switch cigarette in mid-conversation, and when making an important point, lift his cigarette-holding arm up in the air, put the cigarette in his other hand, take a long puff and blow the smoke upwards. He would then engage gear-five, sipping a Guinness, a cappuccino or sparkling water.

‘‘I want to protect you,’’ Binyavanga would say, feeling obligated to give me some form of cover from whoever he imagined had been after me. ‘‘If they think of coming after you, I want them to see me, and know that we can make a lot of noise if anything happens to you.’’

That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I detailed my sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya.

One late afternoon, after a visa renewal appointment at the American embassy in Nairobi, Binyavanga called and asked me to join him at the Java Coffee House in Gigiri, where I found him later that evening. The moment I settled in, I noticed something strange was happening to him. He was punching on his MacBook keyboard relentlessly, his level of concentration higher than what I was accustomed to. He seemed somber and quieter, yet peaceful, and smiled whenever he looked up from whatever he was writing. Then he spoke.

‘‘I am resigning from the Achebe Center,’’ he said, without giving the reason why he was walking away. ‘‘I will send the letter before boarding my flight to New York later tonight.’’

When he returned from New York a fortnight later, Binyavanga made me a proposition. He was now talking about spending more time in Africa, as if overcome by a new sense of agency. He had originally wanted to grant me an Achebe Center fellowship that would give me time and space to write. Now that he was no longer at the Center, he had an alternative.

‘‘Can you live in Nakuru?’’ he asked me one afternoon. ‘‘There is a house. My father’s house.’’

I had never lived in Nakuru, and didn’t know what life was like there. But seeing how keen Binyavanga was to have me find a space to clear my mind and get on with the writing, I immediately said yes. We had gotten to a place where I felt he knew exactly what was good for me, because why else would he keep at it when he had other important things he could spend his time on? He wrote a brief email introducing me to his siblings—Jimmy, Ciru and Chiqy—telling them that I would house-sit their home for three months. I was soon off to Nakuru.

I arrived in Nakuru’s Milimani neighbourhood to find a five-bedroom mansion, a small detail Binyavanga had omitted to mention. The plan was that I would receive a stipend for groceries and Binyavanga would make trips down to Nakuru to check on me. Whenever he came around, we spent hours talking politics, writing, Africa, and in the evenings we would make our way to downtown Nakuru, where he would take me on a tour of old pubs with history. He would stay for up to a week.

My routine was simple. Wake up, bask with Tony the dog, get some writing done, make lunch with Vincent the gardener, write some more, take a long evening walk, have lunch leftovers for dinner, write again, then sleep. When the loneliness got too much or the writing wasn’t working, I would go to the backyard and have the occasional smoke, promising myself not to make a habit of it. On Fridays and Saturdays, I went to Rafikis, the happening nightspot in Nakuru at the time. I stood alone at a spot near the entrance, and drank till morning, speaking to no one. Frequenting Rafikis was my way of seeing other humans other than my two constant companions, Vincent, who was always busy pruning the hedges, and Tony the dog. Before I knew it, I had lived in Nakuru for a year and it was time to move back to Nairobi.

‘‘Come to Karen,’’ Binyavanga told me as I left Nakuru. ‘‘I’ve got an extra bedroom.’’

I got to Binyavanga’s Karen home after nightfall. I knew the place from my visit a year earlier when he had invited me over for the party at which he had introduced me to his writer friends. The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades. Books, and what I imagined were printed copies of submissions from across Africa, littered the place. I sat quietly in a corner and watched them work. Later that night, Binyavanga showed me to the extra bedroom which I would occupy for the next two years.

Barely a month after my arrival in Karen, on the night of 17 January 2014, we were sitting in the cold living room, working as we always did, everyone facing the page. On the stroke of midnight, I looked up, uttering the first words spoken for the better part of that night.

‘‘Happy birthday, Binya,’’ I said.

‘‘Thank you,’’ he replied, barely looking up.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

Binyavanga’s cell phone was ringing off the hook. Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, among a myriad other international news outlets, all wanted an interview. We were riding in a taxi, as we always did, going I can’t remember where, when Binyavanga, seated in the front passenger seat, holding a cigarette out the window, turned and looked at me.

The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades.

‘‘Man, I need your help,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you help me handle these media inquiries? There’ll be chums.’’ And just like that, I started working as Binyavanga’s occasional assistant, before it became a full-time firefighting gig not without its dramatic moments, like being pulled out of writing workshops to make calls to embassy officials to sort out incomplete visa applications.

From dealing with his literary agents in London and New York, to maintaining his calendar, booking flights and planning airport drop-offs and pick-ups in Nairobi, to replying to requests for interviews and such, finding a place for them in his crowded diary, this gig-on-steroids also involved buying groceries, dealing with the landlord, making visa applications, and tracking bill payments. It was a full-on engagement, all the while trying to maintain a friendship and a social life. I became Binyavanga’s friend, assistant, housemate, confidant, and bodyguard even, all rolled into one.

The distress call came on a Friday night—the 24th of October 2015—catching me midway through dinner. I was attending the farewell party for the African Writers Trust editorial workshop somewhere in Bugolobi, Kampala, keen on partying away the remainder of the night. The caller was Binyavanga’s closest high school friend, whom I knew well but not in an I-can-call-you-on-a-Friday-night-just-to-say-hello way. I left the loud banquet room and went outside.

‘‘Isaac, are you in Nairobi?” he asked.

‘‘No. I am not,’’ I replied. ‘‘I am in Kampala, but will be back by tomorrow midday.’’

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share. Disoriented, I ended up drinking a little too much—to the point of almost missing my early morning ride to the airport—keeping the news to myself. I landed in Nairobi, dropped off my bags at the house in Karen and made my way to Karen Hospital.

‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning, the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.

I found Binyavanga in the ICU, looking healthy and awake, but having difficulty with his speech. It seemed temporary, as if he would undergo a procedure or two and then everything would go back to normal. Before the stroke, Binyavanga had embarked on a crazy European run—Toronto, London then Paris, or something like that—attending a series of events before jumping on a plane and flying off to the next city. Seeing how tight his schedule had been and how much he had had to do, I thought this was all short-term, a product of the fatigue. Once out of ICU, Binyavanga would call me every morning, asking me to go and be with him at the hospital. I would tell him I was already on my way anyway, that he didn’t need to call for me to go to him.

‘‘Call so and so,’’ he would mumble from his hospital bed. ‘‘Tell them I’ve had a stroke.’’

It was as if we had moved his living room to his hospital room; he refused to slow down. We worked every morning, replying to emails, making phone calls, cancelling speaking and other engagements. Binyavanga was nothing if not painfully stubborn, never surrendering, insisting on acting as if everything was normal, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone. From Karen Hospital, it was Nairobi Hospital after a very brief break, before a group of friends and his family worked out a plan to get him to India, where his writer friend Achal Prabhala had recommended a solid post-stroke recovery programme. The idea of leaving the country appealed to Binyavanga.

On the day Binyavanga was leaving for India, I was returning from a Commonwealth Writers event in Malta, which I had attended as an East Africa stringer. As I was coming out of arrivals, I spotted a Nairobi Hospital ambulance parked outside the international departures gate and, recognising some of our mutual friends standing next to its open door, I walked over and saw Binyavanga lying on a stretcher, waiting to be wheeled onto the runway to board his flight. We exchanged pleasantries before I wished him good luck and said goodbye. A few weeks later, Binyavanga started sending emails to me and to the group of friends, asking that I travel to India. He became persistent, and soon, I was off to India.

I travelled to India on my birthday in December 2015, arriving in Bangalore, where Binyavanga was recuperating, at four in the morning. I made my way to the three-bedroom serviced apartment on Ulsoor Lake, where Binyavanga was staying with his sister Ciru, and a friend of theirs, Tango, who showed me to my room. At about eight in the morning, Binyavanga knocked on my door. I opened, we hugged, and he welcomed me to India. And that is how my eventful one-month stay in India began.

The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share.

It was back to routine. We would wake up and have breakfast in the restaurant situated within the apartment building, by which time the taxi driver was already waiting in the basement parking. I would accompany Binyavanga to hospital for his sessions—speech therapy, physiotherapy, the works—after which we would go for lunch together and then spend the better part of the afternoon at a high-end gym. (I sat outside the building, people watching.) Then we would go back to the apartment, from where we all went out for dinner or something like that, and the next morning we would start all over again.

From Bangalore, and having regained much of his physical strength, Binyavanga was briefly back in Kenya, before leaving for Berlin to take up a DAAD fellowship for a year. Berlin was difficult. He encountered racism, and found himself having online scuffles with all kinds of people, including Kwani?. Thereafter, he briefly moved to South Africa, before returning to Kenya in 2017. I made a point of visiting him at least once a week. We spoke about anything and everything, just like in the old days, the only difference being that he couldn’t speak with the same vigour, ease and speed as before. The dreams grew even bigger, and every time I visited there was either an improvement on a concept, or a totally different idea he wanted to pursue. On the weeks when I couldn’t make it to see him, he would call asking why I hadn’t visited. At other times, he called and said he was lonely.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany Binyavanga to Kigali. I couldn’t ascertain whether he was fit to travel, and wondered why none of those around him wanted to make the trip with him. I kept avoiding him, sometimes not taking his calls, feeling that I was in a Catch 22 situation—wanting to be there for him, but worrying about his health. However, on the eve of the trip, Binyavanga did what Binyavanga did best: put me in a situation where I couldn’t say no.

‘‘I’ve bought two tickets, mine and yours,’’ he said on phone, ‘‘We’re going to Kigali kesho.’’

The first sign that Binyavanga wasn’t his best self was at the security screening at the airport in Nairobi; I had to step in to assist him with every step of the process. Inside the aircraft, the passenger seated next to him, noticing that he might need assistance during the flight, offered me his seat so that I could be with Binyavanga. We arrived in Kigali and got in touch with his cousin Brenda, who directed us to a hotel across the street from the Rwandan Parliament. We booked adjacent deluxe rooms on the fifth floor, each the size of an apartment. It was typical Binyavanga, always going over the top, be it with fashion or restaurants.

Binyavanga would wake up every morning and knock at my door, asking me to help him get ready for the day. On the day of the funeral I took him to his uncle’s home, where he paid his last respects and reconnected with his maternal cousins. We attended the requiem mass at a Catholic cathedral in central Kigali, sitting at the back of the church. I was born a Catholic and as I participated in the rituals, Binyavanga kept giving me a sideways look that seemed to say, “I thought I knew you”. We attended the burial at a cemetery in the outskirts of Kigali, before taking our flight back to Nairobi the following day.

‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’

It was during that Kigali trip, his last trip outside Kenya, that I last saw Binyavanga walking unaided. A few weeks later, he was back in hospital, staying for a couple of weeks, having suffered another stroke. He was discharged and underwent a lot of physiotherapy, regaining much of his physical strength. I visited him two to three times a week, and mostly found him lying on the couch, watching Netflix on his MacBook. He would sit up, trying to have a conversation, before asking me to recommend shows or movies on Netflix. I would mention a show or a movie, read him the synopsis, after which he would say yes or no. We would speak, yet again, about his desire to do a PhD in Literature at Princeton, with him asking that the writer Andia Kisia and I work on his application. He would repeat his wish to study the work of Kojo Laing, since to Binyavanga’s mind, no one wrote better than Laing.

Just weeks later, Binyavanga was back in hospital, never to make it out alive. I visited him in the ICU one afternoon. Standing there, alone, watching him through a glass barrier—no one was allowed any closer—I felt my knees giving way, almost collapsing to the floor. We looked at each other. I felt that he wanted to speak, to ask me to do something for him, or to pass a message to someone, as it had always been with us. He couldn’t utter the words. After the longest, the frailest, eye contact, he slowly closed his eyes and slept. It felt like goodbye.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Culture

Kenyan Rugby and the Olympics: A (Long) Look into Kenya’s Rugby Roots

Kenya’s Shujaa and Lionesses stand on the shoulders of a rugby community stretching back more than 100 years.

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Kenyan Rugby and the Olympics: A (Long) Look into Kenya’s Rugby Roots
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A 1968 photo of Jomo Kenyatta wearing a sombrero and grinning from ear to ear as he receives Kenya’s Olympic contingent from Mexico speaks volumes about what the Olympics meant for Kenya five years into independence.

Kenya’s third Olympic outing, its second since independence, had returned an impressive nine-medal haul, demonstrating that not only were Kenyans equal to the world’s sporting scene but they were also highly competitive. The lessons from 1968 are still valid and valuable for rugby, a recent entrant into the Olympic family.

In colonial Kenya, the 12,000-capacity African Stadium on Donholm Road, as Jogoo Road was then known, would often be packed out during athletics and football meets. Other than beerhalls, supplied generously by the colonial government, and social halls, there were few options for an African looking for weekend entertainment. To the north of the city, Asians played racquet sports as well as hockey and cricket, while to the west, in the European part of Nairobi, whites played bowls, golf and raced horses.

In the strange relationship where Europe had awarded itself conservatorship over Africa, everything was divided by race. Kenya’s colonial commentator, Elspeth Huxley, described a further hierarchy in Nairobi’s settler social scene; the well-to-do and Nairobi’s senior government officials went to the Nairobi Club and Muthaiga Club while the working class, civil servants, train drivers and farm managers, enjoyed a lower level of social and sporting life. Perhaps because of its nature, rugby — a game that required few inputs: boots, stockings, shorts, a shirt, quorum and a spirit of adventure — fell into the working class level of colonial life at the Parklands Sports Club, the Railway Club and the Civil Service Sports Club.

Once it got going, the Rugby Football Union-Kenya was quick to make a reputation for itself. Founded in 1921, the union lay dormant “due to a lack of enthusiasm and support”, wrote a 1929 account of Kenya’s rugby history, until 1923 when a meeting of players at the Stanley Hotel kicked the union into action. Chaired by a Reverend Orr, the meeting had started out to form one playing club but voted instead to split Nairobi into two clubs. Within a decade, local competition grew to eleven playing clubs in towns along the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu and its branch lines, and on the East African coastline.

As is still the case today, competition revolved around the Enterprise Cup, a trophy gifted by a visiting team from the HMS Enterprise. The ship had arrived at the port of Mombasa to provide naval security during the visit of Britain’s Prince of Wales to the colony in 1928. Led by the ship’s chaplain, Harold Stevens, a boxing and rugby team had toured the colony, going along the coast and following the railway. The Enterprise Cup, a handsome trophy, kept local competition buzzing, and teams visiting the colony would follow the path beaten by the HMS Enterprise’s sporting party.

Strategically situated between the UK and South Africa, East Africa made a convenient stopover for visitors arriving by ship, and when flying became increasingly more common than sea travel, Nairobi replaced Mombasa, an equally convenient stopover between North and South.

Of greater importance was the Kenyan rugby experience. Landing at Mombasa or Nairobi, visiting teams were whisked around the country by rail, or in shared cars on Kenya’s unpredictable roads, staying in billeted accommodation, the tour party split up into the homes of hosts. A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.

Rugby visitors kept coming: the Combined South African Universities, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, and a combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities team. In 1954, the RFU-K became the Rugby Football Union of East Africa, a strategic move that concentrated its efforts on building its own grounds on Ngong Road, administering representative matches, and running its beloved Enterprise Cup. The results were soon evident as well-known visitors turned up: Richmond RFC, a combined UK and Pretoria Harlequins tour, the British Lions, South Africa, the Barbarians and Wales.

A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.

Around the same time as the RFU-K was restructuring into the RFUEA in 1954, Kenyan political activity escalated with the Mau Mau’s aggressive attacks targeting mainly African agents of colonialism, and political and labour union agitation restricted by the government to district level. Together with international pressure from within Africa, and voices of reason within Britain, the British government changed its outlook on its colonies. By 1961, social pressure had reached Kenya’s rugby community.

In 1961 Kevin O’Byrne, East African scrum half and teacher at the multi-racial Strathmore School, raised a side that impressively drew 12-12 with Kenya Harlequin’s second team, its “A XV”. In the same year Strathmore played Kagumo Teachers College, a national college for African teachers in Nyeri, in a curtain raiser match for the Nairobi District Championship, losing to Kagumo by 11 points to 3 “in promising style” according an article in the East African Standard. While Strathmore had prepared by playing against the Royal Technical College, which would later become the University of Nairobi, Kagumo had played matches against Njiri’s High school at Fort Hall, now Murang’a, coached by R. Hughes, and the United Services Second XV side at Eastleigh. Strathmore, Kagumo and the RTC later came under the ambit of the Eric Shirley Shield, an “A XV” competition, and soon after, an African Nyeri XV played “A XV” matches as Nyeri settler players retreated up the road to Nanyuki RFC.

It was through a different route that African rugby gained traction; from within former European secondary schools which opened their doors to Africans while maintaining the higher school fees that kept the majority of Africans out after Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Young school leavers would be welcomed into European rugby clubs, often by their sports teachers who played at the clubs, and in the following years, Ted Kabetu, John Muhato and Chris Onsotti were playing representative rugby against visiting teams.

As African participation increased, the often-asked question was how fair the selection for local and representative sides was. The years between 1976 and 1980 were the time of rugby’s “Africanisation”, as the major barriers to equal participation were challenged.

Miro RFC was the first African call for a representative side. Miro, the slang word for an out-of-town African who could not pronounce the name of the chocolate-flavoured drink “Milo”, had become a term of self-endearment. An announcement in a daily newspaper called for African players to attend an “All Black” training session at Impala club in 1974. Miro’s progress was slow, losing its initial matches, including a game to Lenana School, but it steadily gained momentum and a representative opportunity in 1976 against Roma Algida RFC, a visiting side from Italy. “Miro played attacking rugby from the get-go,” recalled Richard Njoba, Miro’s secretary and first African captain at Kenya Harlequin, speaking of Miro’s 20-12 win. The other representative side, the Scorpions had lost 16-13 to Roma Al Gida. Miro had made a point.

A year later, Mean Machine was formed. Named after a fictional prisoners’ American football team that played a match against its warders in the movie The Longest Yard, which had been screened in Nairobi cinemas, Mean Machine gained entry straight into the league’s top division. The team consisted of players who had for years considered leaving their clubs and forming a side. There was a union concession that gave Mean Machine the upper hand, perhaps out of the assumption that theirs would be an average performance — all other teams in the Kenya Cup competition played with equally split sides while Mean Machine were allowed to field a single side.

Playing out of their home ground at Lenana School, Mean Machine made it to the semi-finals, playing the Nondescripts Tigers. In their usual fashion, a boisterous busload of Machine supporters descended on Lenana. Mean Machine thrashed Nondies and beat Impala Boks the following weekend to clinch the Kenya Cup in their first attempt.

After their performance, Mean Machine players, many in their last year of study, did not want to go back to their old clubs. At the KFC on Kenyatta Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Kipande House — a grim reminder of the restrictions Africans faced in colonial times when they were required by law to carry pass-books — Mwamba RFC, the Rock, was born. The team took up grounds at the Railway Club near the city centre and the door to playing rugby was thrown wide open. G.B. Mills, the chairman of the KRFU wrote that “he was not convinced” that Mwamba’s formation was in the best interest of rugby.  In his reply, Mwamba’s captain, Absalom Mutere, wrote that, “it is meaningless to talk about Kenyan rugby without using Kenyans as a reference point.” With easy access by public transport, anyone could walk into the Railway Club and play rugby. No longer did one need a school, university or close connections to play. Rugby was open to the public.

Miro were given another opportunity against visiting Blackheath in 1979. “Blackheath blacked out”, read the next day’s headline in the Standard newspaper about Miro’s 39-12 win.

The press had taken sides in the battle between Mean Machine and Mwamba and the other teams. “Nondies out to fix the new machine” said a cartoon mechanic holding a spanner, before Nondescripts played Mean Machine. As David Francombe, a Nondescripts stalwart and Kenya international put it simply years later, “It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”

In 1979, East Africa XV, or the Tuskers as they were called on tour, travelled to Zambia fielding a mainly African side, and in 1980 Kenya played Zambia at the RFUEA grounds under the new rule that players had to be citizens. It had taken a further 16 years for the first Kenyan side to take the field using citizenship as a criteria.

Two years after Kenya played Zambia, a group of rugby players got together and, through Cliff Mukulu, a former Mean Machine captain working in the Emirates, organized a Sevens tour to Dubai. Unable to get union financing, the team called themselves Watembezi Pacesetters RFC. “They were expecting an expatriate team”, explained Denis Awori, who went on to chair the Kenya and Uganda rugby unions. A hot favourite among Dubai locals, who rooted for the expat beaters, Watembezi would have to win the tournament for three years consecutively before clinching the top prize, a slot in the revered Hong Kong Sevens. This time round the Sevens team toured as Kenya, complete with a Watembezi 15s side cheering them on.

If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee. A quicker, shorter game whose winner is declared within a day or two of the competition. All these qualities made sense to the touring Watembezi, who raised funds to tour annually, and after Dubai, played in the Singapore Sevens, always taking a schoolboy player with them.

Over the next decade, the International Rugby Board World Cup qualifying rounds took precedence over waning international tours and the focus of international rugby turned to African international matches, mainly against Uganda and Zimbabwe.

“It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”

More disruption came in the form of a change in Kenya’s school system that had far-reaching consequences, even for rugby. The A-level system was not accessible countrywide, creating a bottleneck for the few available place. The new 8-4-4 system redistributed the two A-level years, lengthening primary school and university education by a year, and, theoretically, creating a more practical approach. Gone was the rugby hierarchy of playing teams by year and weight, the tradition of the first XV and house rugby on multiple pitches. Pub conversations predicted the end of rugby in Kenya.

There was a twist, however, that turned that argument on its head. Soon after Mean Machine was formed, Kenyatta University College — Nairobi University’s constituent college 17 kilometres up the road — raised its own side, later known as Blak Blad, that played in the second division, but rose to the occasion to give Mean Machine a run for its money. Blak Blad’s old boys formed Damu Pevu, mature blood, a team that played a regular fixture against the incumbents. Blak Blad’s teachers took rugby countrywide, with Damu Pevu following in their wake running rugby clinics, teaching and preaching rugby. By the time the first cohort of the 8-4-4 system had completed its secondary cycle, in 1990, rugby was on the Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association’s annual calendar. With a development support system from the KRFU and the support of the International Rugby Board (IRB), the door to rugby was now well and truly open.

The Rugby Patrons, a reconstituted support organization that had guaranteed Rugby Football Union’s loan to the RFUEA for its grounds on Ngong Road in 1954, came once again to the rescue when local rugby was running out of steam, launching the Safari Sevens. Calling up Kenyan rugby’s old friends, mainly teams from the United Kingdom, an international Sevens tournament was started in 1996 that gave the game a much-needed shot in the arm.

By the time the IRB was launching a Sevens circuit in the 1999-2000 season, Kenya had ticked all the boxes. Not only had Watembezi set the Sevens pace, showcasing Kenya’s playing ability, the Safari Sevens had demonstrated a high level of organization, and nothing beats a good word from happy teams that have enjoyed Kenyan hospitality. Once in as a part-time participant, Kenya Sevens bootstrapped its way into full participation in the circuit, a system now maintained by relegation rules.

The IRB also strongly encouraged women’s rugby, a programme that was eagerly taken up by Kenya’s ladies, partnering with local rugby to run a women’s competition and playing their first fifteens international against Uganda in Kampala in 2006, and registering their first win, also against Uganda two years later in 2008.

After the IRB’s bid for the Olympics fell through in 2005, the IRB pulled all the stops, bringing in Kipchoge Keino, who had played rugby for the Kenya Police in the sixties, and Humphrey Khayange, Kenya Sevens long-serving captain, to the Olympic bid committee.

The IRB’s journey to the Olympics has been Kenya’s journey. It was fitting that both Kenya’s men and women qualified for the first tournament that was played in the Brazil Olympics in 2016.

When Kenya’s three gold medal winners came off the plane in 1968 to take Jomo Kenyatta’s handshake, their futures took three different tangents. Naftali Temu, Kenya’s first Olympic gold medallist — who had failed to finish his race in the 1964 Japan Olympics, coming in 19th position in the marathon — was gifted a shamba in North Mugirango to  which he returned before he passed away from cancer in his fifties at the Kenyatta Hospital.

If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee.

Amos Biwott, still a schoolboy, and the only athlete with dry feet after the 3,000m steeplechase race, received a school fees grant to continue his education at Njoro Boys High School, after which he joined the Prisons Department, losing his job in 1978. After years of unemployment, Biwott found a job as a night watchman at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, where he worked for 16 years before retiring to his shamba. Kenya’s captain, Kipchoge Keino, had not qualified for the 1,500m final in ’64 in Japan, but he went on to beat the favourite, Jim Ryun, using compatriot Ben Jipcho as the rabbit to tire Ryun out, before powering through to the finish. Of the three, Keino went on to a stellar career, joining the Olympics Committee and chairing the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association in his senior years while running a children’s home.

The future lives of the Mexico Olympics gold medal athletes are prescient of those of today’s Kenyan athletes. From reliable sources, over the span of the IRB Sevens, national players have earned between KSh15,000 and 150,000 a month, money which is sometimes paid up to four months in arrears. It’s easy to point a finger at the Union, but sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill. It follows then that if a career in rugby, or in any sport in Kenya, is not coupled with another solid income — like a profession or a business — then the chances of long-term financial success are extremely slim. The government foots the Olympic bill, but the point is worth considering in the context of enabling athletes to pursue careers in sport.

Another consideration is winning strategies. Amos Biwott’s awkward jump that propelled him clear of the water, and Kipchoge Keino’s and Ben Jipcho’s rabbit strategy led by Kenya’s athletic coach, Charles Mukora, were strategies that provided the winning edge.

It will be up to Kenya’s brain trust to provide a working plan to secure victory. It doesn’t have to look good. There are lessons to learn from Biwott’s ungainly jumping style which got him across the finish line with dry feet and a gold medal. In this regard, Kenya’s win in the 2016 Singapore Sevens, to date the country’s lone success in the World Rugby Sevens Series, is worth a review.

Starting out in their third final, playing against Fiji who were in their 59th, it looked like a story already told. The final score was six unconverted tries to Fiji’s lone try. Six unconverted tries and the usual number of handling errors. The big difference that day in Singapore was Kenya’s relentless drive over the rucks. Ben Ryan, the Fijian coach, implored his side at half time to stop Kenya’s damage at the ruck, but it was too late. Kenya’s route one approach was the game changer.

Kenya’s poor performance in Brazil the same year can be put down to inexperience — Kenya’s Lionesses finished 11th and Shujaa 12th. Now that both Shujaa and the Lionesses have qualified for Japan, we expect a gold medal despite the odds. But we’ll accept any medal and might let our team off if they reach the quarter-finals. Deep down we know what we are capable of.

Sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill.

There is far more to play for than pride. There is a legacy that stretches further back than that line drawn in the sand in 1980 when players had to be Kenyan citizens, further back than independent Kenya, further back than that 1924 players’ meeting at the Stanley. It’s all a part of our history, and a compliment to those who participated, especially those that remained after independence. A glowing tribute must be also paid to the “Miro era”, and the outstanding athletes who opened the door of opportunity, and to Damu Pevu and Kenya’s teachers — rugby’s missionaries. And we have Benja Otieno to play for, an icon of Kenyan rugby who passed away in May. Caught in the net cast nationwide by the KSSSA games as a student in Maseno School, Benja was a part of the Kenya Sevens that won the Safari Sevens for the first time in 1998. He went on to play in the IRB circuit, coaching Kenya to their 2016 Singapore win and leaving a legacy that Impala, his home club, and Kenya can be proud of. Together, Kenya’s Shujaa and Lionesses stand on the shoulders of a rugby community stretching back over 100 years.

Guided by what has always turned out to be solid governance, the Kenya Rugby Union, or one of its several names over the years has, sometimes reluctantly, listened to the voice of its players and followed the democratic cycle of governance. The union has never been afraid to make key decisions, such as developing its own ground, raising a representative side, and getting differing factions to sit down. Perhaps because of the nature of the game, disputes can always be settled on the field, always within the rules.

When the Kenya Sevens came back from Singapore they visited President Uhuru Kenyatta, lifted him in a mock lineout, and gifted him a replica of the team’s rugby shirt. Hats off to Shujaa’s Andrew Amonde, who has been appointed as the Kenya Olympic captain. Maybe Shujaa and Kenya Lionesses will bring back a similar gift from Japan.

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On the Question of Political Belonging

In his new book, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argues that breaking cycles of violence requires collective action. He finds hope in the unfinished project of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

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On the Question of Political Belonging
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Mahmood Mamdani’s work is always provocative. In August 2017, I watched with some glee as Mamdani told an audience at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that “it is no exaggeration to say that Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonizing initiative on the African continent,” and that the language was in large part the product of a vast affirmative action program. Mamdani’s point was to explain why no postcolonial government elsewhere on the continent had elevated indigenous languages to languages of science or humanities, beyond what he described as “folkloric.” So I expected that Mamdani’s new book would at least get us talking.

I first encountered Mamdani’s work as a graduate student completing a master’s degree in political science at Northwestern University in 1995. (I have one clear memory of him speaking about Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, upstairs at the famed Red Lion Pub; the owner’s mother had been an African Studies scholar.) By the time I returned to South Africa one year later, Mamdani had been appointed as director of UCT’s Center for African Studies (CAS). What happened there is now well known—just search for “the Mamdani affair,” the name given to his clash with the university over its core curriculum. Mamdani had proposed a new curriculum that challenged the university and South Africa’s relationship to the rest of the continent. At the time, African Studies essentially meant studying black South Africans. (At one point, Mamdani referred to CAS as the “new home for Bantu education.”) Mamdani eventually left UCT to take up a tenured position at Columbia University in 1999, but while he was still at UCT, he gave an inaugural lecture organized around this question: “When does a settler become a native?” And as he writes in his new book, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, his answer was the same then as it is now: never.

Mamdani has been returning to this question of political belonging repeatedly in his books covering South Africa, Rwanda, and Darfur (he is quite prolific; he seems to write a new book every 3 to 4 years). In his latest book, he expands the canvas to include the United States and Israel. He also returns to his earlier focus on Sudan and South Africa.

By way of summary, Mamdani’s book makes three main contributions. One is the obvious contribution to revisionist political history: Mamdani makes settler colonialism and the story of native peoples in the United States central to any understanding of the country in a way that few similarly synthetic accounts do. He identifies the US as the first settler colonial state (which many US scholars still fail to do) and highlights the colonial status of native people in the United States: they are still stuck outside the polity, reduced to bantustan status in their “reservations.”

Since the book’s publication, a number of prominent Native American scholars, most notably Dina Gilio-Whitaker (author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock) and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States), have pointed to the importance of Mamdani’s contribution in this regard.

Mamdani also offers insights into the study of comparative politics. Here, I am referring to his taking up the challenge of making the connections between the US, Germany, South Africa, and Israel obvious, a comparison in which he uses the US—usually the exceptional state—as the norm. This presentation of the world from a non-Western-centric perspective—in a discussion of the US, no less—is even more impressive given that Mamdani is a Third World scholar (or, as some prefer, a scholar from the Global South).

Mamdani makes settler colonialism and the story of native peoples in the United States central to any understanding of the country in a way that few similarly synthetic accounts do.

But the book’s overarching contribution is how he brings South Africa back into the discussion. For Mamdani, South Africa represents an interesting starting point for imagining ideas about the nation other than permanent majorities and minorities. And here it is important to note that Mamdani is not saying that post-apartheid South Africa is a utopia (in fact, he spends some time engaging with that criticism of this aspect of his argument), but rather that it points to the terms of a viable political future. South Africa is not perfect, but it prevented one civil war in 1994 and—for all its problems since—it is not currently in danger of falling into another.

Mamdani’s framework of “the lessons from South Africa” for Israel is especially useful. I say this partly because South Africa dominates my own scholarship and it is a country in which I have a personal stake, but also because I think he is right about South Africa’s potential for imagining ideas about the nation beyond those of permanent majorities and minorities.

And this is also where I think Mamdani’s work challenges us.

The first challenge Mamdani offers relates to his notion of survivors. Mamdani proposes that all victims, perpetrators, beneficiaries, bystanders, and exiles be included in an expanded political process; here, Mamdani refers to the usefulness of constitutional negotiations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. This goes against much of the contemporary debate in South Africa, in which the TRC is just reduced to a “betrayal” or “sellout.” Mamdani is also not enthusiastic about the use of criminal prosecutions (the Nuremberg option) as a way out of cycles of violence.

Mamdani is right that during and since the negotiations to end apartheid rule, the idea that South Africa belonged to “those who already lived in it” was the one issue on which the white minority and the liberation movements already agreed. In the view of both parties, the struggle against apartheid was contested by South African nationals, and the nation to come belonged to those who had declared it for themselves during that struggle. This was the case whether they were victims, perpetrators, beneficiaries, bystanders, or exiles.

South Africa represents an interesting starting point for imagining ideas about the nation other than permanent majorities and minorities. And here it is important to note that Mamdani is not saying that post apartheid South Africa is a utopia (in fact, he spends some time engaging with that criticism of this aspect of his argument), but rather that it points to the terms of a viable political future.

So it follows, then, that what binds black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on their shared experience of colonialism and apartheid. But here’s the catch: that kinship doesn’t extend beyond the nation-state’s borders or to any new arrivals. It manifests as xenophobia toward these new arrivals, especially Africans from elsewhere on the continent. As South African writer Sisonke Msimang, writing on this site, has put it so well: For South Africans, “foreigners [in South Africa] are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.” (Moreover, that tag of “foreigner” in South Africa is applied exclusively to black migrants from elsewhere on the African continent. Increasingly, South Asian migrants—Bangladeshi or Pakistani traders who have opened informal stores, spazas, in black townships in the last fifteen years or so—have been added to the mix.)

So if Mamdani’s book leaves us with a challenge, it is how to move to an understanding of South Africa that extends beyond the nation-state. For me, this involves treating colonialism, apartheid, and capitalism in South Africa as transnational phenomena. Capitalism in South Africa was always a multinational affair; South Africa was never exceptional, it was also part of a regional capitalism that started with slavery and moved through mining capital, industry, and agriculture. These industries are all built on multinational workforces. At times, even apartheid had to come to terms with this. In the late 1980s, apartheid South Africa had no choice but to extend resident status and even citizenship to those workers from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and Zambia who had worked its mines and industry, thus confirming the multinational nature of local capitalism. It is also no revelation that workers from elsewhere Southern Africa were equally at the heart of the three major strikes of the twentieth century in South Africa—the strikes of 1946, 1973, and 1987—that played a significant role in ending apartheid.

Similarly, resistance to apartheid involved the whole region. The African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) camped out in Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, and Angola. Countries on South Africa’s border paid the price for its support of the liberation struggle; think of the brutal attacks by the South African military on Mozambique, Botswana, and Lesotho. Namibia was basically a South African colony, and the apartheid army occupied parts of southern Angola for long stretches. South African writer William Shoki puts it bluntly: “There are no truly indigenous South Africans; there conceptually cannot be any. What we now call the nation-state of South Africa is a modern invention that has always been a land of foreigners.”

But it is perhaps Mamdani’s rereading of the 1970s in South Africa that stands out the most to me. Here, his argument is that anti-apartheid resistance took a creative turn in the 1970s: that period was the first time that resistance did not reproduce the architects of apartheid inside the resistance itself. Before that, resistance to apartheid and racial capitalism was organized through separate organizations for different racial groups: the ANC for Africans, the Indian Congress for Indians, the Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats, and so on. (Not to belabor the point, but it is not much talked about these days that the ANC maintained these racial lines in its own organization into the mid-1980s. For example, only in 1985 did the ANC open its national executive committee to people of all “races” other from “Africans.”)

Mamdani is right that during and since the negotiations to end apartheid rule, the idea that South Africa belonged to “those who already lived in it” was the one issue on which the white minority and the liberation movements already agreed.

Mamdani’s argument is that the key initiative came from the student movement. Black students broke from the white student movement and went to reorganize themselves collectively as the Black Consciousness Movement, reinventing blackness as a political identity that was dynamic, contingent, and rooted in material conditions. They also revitalized township protests, which had gone dormant after the state clamped down on internal resistance by the mid-1960s and forced the major liberation movements into exile. Radical white students broke with the white National Union of Students and went to organize workers to develop transhistorical identities subject to struggle. We can then read what followed—the 1976 student uprising, the broad left politics of the 1980s of the United Democratic Front, and the Congress of South African Trade Unions with its alternative media, its theater groups and its sports associations—as the formation of new identities based on shared struggles. Mamdani may overstate the ontological break of the early 1970s, but his point holds. (By the way, some critics may take Mamdani to task for treating the UDF in two paragraphs, but, as he has during one of the launch events for the book, he had to leave some things out.) That popular energy of Black Consciousness, the 1973 strikes and later the UDF, the unions, and the student movement, would all eventually cede leadership of the struggle (and with it leadership during formal negotiations with the apartheid government) in pursuit of reimagining the basis of postapartheid South Africa. But it can’t be denied that they contributed considerably to rethinking the idea of political community.

While the ANC, like most postcolonial states and ruling parties, has tried to corral these energies (when the ANC was unbanned, it stood at the lead of negotiations with the apartheid state and demobilized the UDF), it hasn’t been entirely successful. The sporadic upheavals, organizing, and mass protests evidenced by the social movements of the early 2000s (the AIDS treatment movement, the various anti-privatization movements, shack dwellers, and others) and, more recently, Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall from 2015 to 2017, suggest that some of that tradition is still alive. What’s interesting about all of these new social movements and student uprisings are that they’re all concerned with crafting new political subjectivities and doing so from below.

It is here that I think Mamdani is onto something, and we should think about ways to describe it in more dynamic terms.

What continues to fascinate me about South Africa is how resistance plays out. For me, what is promising is the way that South Africa and South Africans reinvent the political community through struggle. And struggle is crucial for this because it is an education in exercising control over your life and having the power to remake your world. Genuine self-determination is a revelation, not just what’s promised as an empty abstract ideal by most nationalisms.

There are no truly indigenous South Africans; there conceptually cannot be any. What we now call the nation-state of South Africa is a modern invention that has always been a land of foreigners

To consider how this happens beyond state forms and legal structures would bring in questions of mass movements, of culture, of popular culture, and it would expand the terrain on which the forms of solidarity that Mamdani describes—or wishes for—can become possible.

Earlier this year, we saw nascent signs of this new kind of politics again. Young people across university campuses in South Africa revived the protests of Fees Must Fall (and, by extension, of the “education crisis committees” of the 1980s, the Soweto uprising, and Black Consciousness) to demand that all eligible students—even those with historical debt owed to the university—are allowed to enroll. The protests are over for now. Police intimidation and repression were a big part of their dissolution. At one demonstration outside Wits University in Johannesburg, one person was shot and killed by the police.

What is striking, however, was how a prominent slogan of the protests was “Asinamali,” which in isiZulu means, “We have no money.” This slogan plays a starring role in Mamdani’s account of the epistemic break of the 1970s. Students were central to the movements of the 1970s just like they are now.

The protests failed of course, but as Shoki argued at the time about these kinds of pop-up protests: by adopting this symbol, “the protesters demonstrate their potential to not only address the barriers to entry of the increasingly commodified university, but the barriers to living in an increasingly commodified world.” And as Shoki adds, many have called the first #FeesMustFall protests from 2015 to 2017 the most serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order while also pointing out that their vital limitation “was an inability to connect to broader working-class struggles.” But those links may still be forged again in a way that wasn’t there before. For Mamdani, the question of belonging is not who is a settler or who is a native. Instead, he suggests that rather than imagined, the political community ought to be a concrete one of our own making. The South African story at least gets us some of the way there. What South Africans, and others, can learn from Mamdani’s book is that only through collective action can the nation-building project be restarted or put back on a more fulfilling path.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya

How racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances can do the most damage.

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Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya
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In 1951, a prominent British medical journal on mental disease published the now-notorious account from Dr J.C. (John Colin) Carothers on “frontal lobe function and the African.” While such racist pseudo-sciences were ubiquitous throughout the colonial period, this article contained the rather shocking analogy comparing the brains of “normal” Africans to that of leucotomized (lobotomized) Europeans. Although the original article is lost somewhat to obscurity, its hypothesis has been a mainstay in much of the historiography surrounding the racist science behind what can be called a “colonial psychiatry.”

Since Megan Vaughan’s seminal article on “Idioms of Madness in a Nyasaland asylum” (1983), a robust sub-genre in medical history scholarship has followed suit to explore the concepts, confinements, and rhetorical abuses of colonial institutions across their occupied territories. Kenya, as is often the case, looms large. This is due, in part, to the work of Carothers throughout the 1940s from Nairobi’s Mathari Mental Hospital, which followed on from an ugly eugenicist turn amongst white settler physicians in the 1930s.

The body of work by such physicians appearing frequently within the pages of the East African Medical Journal and the later, more substantial, publications by Carothers in the early 1950s, solidified what came to be known as the East African School of psychiatry with Carothers as exemplar.

Carothers is known for three influential publications; the aforementioned article on frontal lobe function, a widely read World Health Organization monograph, The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953), and a British government commissioned treatise on the Mau Mau rebellion, “The Psychology of Mau Mau” (1954).

Despite his prominence in some quarters, and the expectation that his years of service at the helm of Mathari qualified him as an expert witness on African mentalities, Carothers’ work did not receive a quiet acceptance among his contemporaries. Experts from psychiatry and anthropology weighed in with responses to the WHO monograph with scathing reviews appearing in equally prominent journals. Lest Carothers’ stance on race appear unclear, critics made direct references to his racial and biological determinism—fair play, considering Carothers himself cited his frontal lobe theory in his later works.

Frantz Fanon, critiquing the agony of the colonial situation, referred directly to the sinister nature of the work emanating from Kenya and from Carothers specifically. Although Fanon had many targets, Carothers’ infamy was cited in a summing up of his chapter on “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” in The Wretched of the Earth with commentary on the damage done by the widespread acceptance, even in university teaching, of the “uniform conception of the African.”

“In order to make his point clearer” Fanon wrote, “Dr Carothers establishes a lively comparison. He puts forward the idea that the normal African is a ‘lobotomized European.’”  Unlike Fanon, J.C. Carothers was not actually trained as a psychiatrist (he completed a diploma course in psychology while on leave in the UK). He utilized the patient population of Mathari Hospital and a general armchair anthropological tendency that infected many colonial administrators, to publish his findings about the nature of the “normal and abnormal” African. Although he lacked genuine academic credentials, he did enough to beat out experts like Melville Herskovitz (a prominent figure in the founding of modern African Studies in the US) to win the WHO commission. Despite this intellectual coup, the book was seen as a racially charged blemish on the organisation and was controversial the moment it was released.

Melville Herskovitz’ review warned that the potential damage caused by the publication was palpable. “For where, as in Africa, stakes are high and tempers are short, anything this side of the best scientific knowledge will accelerate existing tensions and make their resolution the more difficult.” The impact of the book might have remained fairly academic; it was, after all, an extended institutional report with a poorly constructed literature review. But it gave Carothers an air of authority as an expert on African psychology amidst a period of turmoil and increasingly violent demands for independence.

By the time the state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952, Carothers had already returned to the UK. When the British government called on him to provide his opinion on the psychological impulse behind the Mau Mau rebellion, he was able to oblige from the comfort of home by plagiarizing substantial aspects of The African Mind with added polemics about the “forest psychology” of the Mau Mau. He made a brief government sponsored visit in 1954 to observe the detention camps, and his visit to Manda Island was documented in a scant entry in Gakaara Wa Wanjau’s Mau Mau Author in Detention. The result was a widely read government pamphlet, “The Psychology of Mau Mau,” which not only explained the reasons why Kenyans had resorted to violence, but also laid out a medicalized rationale for what to do about it.

Under the radar, in the mid-1950s, another psychiatrist had a mandate to visit the camps. However, so dominant is the Carothers narrative of East African psychiatry, these two doctors are generally not compared as such. Edward Lambert Margetts was a little-known psychiatrist from Canada who had the distinction of having overseen Mathari Hospital during the Mau Mau war. In stark contrast to Carothers, Margetts made some surprising observations about the trauma of detention camps—although it must be said that he was no sympathizer to the Mau Mau cause.

Despite a penchant for collecting, documenting, and writing, he eschewed any opportunity to write about the Mau Mau war directly, but he too was invited to visit detention camps and to examine detainees brought to Mathari. Camp superintendents had little interest in big picture theories about the African mind, but they were keen to expose specific prisoners who were suspected of feigning mental illness as a means of escaping hard labor.

While some of Margetts’ notes are uncharacteristically cagey, he observed key patterns amongst a small number of detainees held in camps as well as Kenyans living amidst Mau Mau chaos. Most fascinating are medical notes with a term coined by Margetts “Mau Mau perplexity fear syndrome” in which he documented the anguished testimonies or panicked delusions of Kenyans who lived under a constant terror of violence.

For detainees, Margetts made a remarkable observation that while some prisoners might well be “malingering,” others exhibited signs of dissociation caused by extreme trauma related to their confinement. Ganser Syndrome (after Sigbert Ganser, 1898) was also known as “prison psychosis” and included an array of unusual symptoms such as hysterical blindness or the compulsion to give nonsensical answers to easily understood questions. Margetts queried whether some detainees could be considered under this diagnosis—an indication that some of the trauma in Kenya might be attributable to British administration of the war and not the innate savagery of the African personality.

Frantz Fanon also referred directly to Carothers’ “Psychology of Mau Mau,” and to the government’s concurrence that the “revolt [was] the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose reoccurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.” If Fanon was aware of Margetts at all, he would likely have conflated his views with those of his predecessor within the East African School. Fanon noted that Carothers’ work dovetailed with the types of claims made by the North African School. and the credence given to such ideas made the corruption, and “tragedy” of colonial medicine all the more evident.

Although they were contemporaries, these three psychiatrists had little in common, although two of them challenged the “Mau Mau as mental disease” paradigm from the distinct vantage points of clinical curiosity and revolutionary political thought. There are still many avenues to pursue within a scholarship concerned with psychiatry’s entanglement with colonial politics and violence, but perhaps J.C. Carothers output has had a shelf life beyond what it should have done. Edward Margetts’ tenure at Mathari is not unproblematic, but nonetheless leaves a very different intellectual footprint. From his clinical notes and writing, we may apply a bit more nuance and tension to the otherwise flat depiction of Carothers’ overt racism.

The “East African school” represents a paradox between a scientific community that for the most part knew better in the 1950s, and the undeniable influence of racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances to do the most damage.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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