‘‘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.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Ssenga, Shwenkazi, Shangazi: Adventures in Kiswahili
Kiswahili has not meant the same thing to all Africans everywhere at all times and so the ultimate desired goal behind the drive to adopt it as Africa’s common language has always remained unclear.
The matter of whether Uganda should have a national language, and if so, whether that language should be Kiswahili, is one that comes up for some level of public scrutiny every few years.
The usual outcome when this happens is the same predictable commentary, and then the matter disappears from public view for a few more years.
There is a difference this time, whose significance is yet to be revealed.
Since the last such lurch in that direction, the East African Community trading bloc has more than doubled its population and trebled its size and, at its 21st summit in February 2021, the bloc issued a directive making Kiswahili an official language of the Community. The African Union has also announced the adoption of Kiswahili as a working language.
At its 41st Session in Paris in November 2021, the UNESCO General Conference declared July 7th “World Kiswahili Language Day” (Resolution 41 C/61), citing “the critical role played by Kiswahili in promoting cultural diversity, creating awareness, and fostering dialogue among civilizations.”
On the 5th of July last year, Uganda’s government followed suit with a cabinet announcement that Kiswahili was to now finally be the country’s national language.
Even Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s loudest left-wing party, has spoken volubly on the urgent need for Africa to adopt one language and that the language should be Kiswahili. This could have been in response to the African Union as a whole adopting Kiswahili as its Official Working Language in February 2022.
I doubt if a thing that is not a nation can create a national thing. And if languages create nations, then clearly we already have quite a few nations in existence inside the three, or seven, East African community member states.
In Uganda, the usual and easily invoked objections are around the history of the language as a tool of state repression. And this is the area of objection that critics of Ugandans expressing opposition to Kiswahili usually focus on. They do so because it allows for three politically correct points to be made.
The first is that English, Uganda’s official language, is also colonial, and so those opposed to Kiswahili should be opposed to English as well, which they don’t seem to be.
This enables a follow-on argument that language is a tool and therefore its use for good or bad depends on the motive of the user. And when the objection has specifically come from a native of Buganda, it is pointed out that their language Luganda was also a language of regional domination both before and during colonialism.
And finally it is argued that such objectors are simply locking ordinary Ugandans out of a wider free trade regional market.
Occasionally the point is made about the mythical benefits of accessing Kiswahili’s alleged high culture.
And so it goes, back and forth, in an unedifying spiral of oppression Olympics and republican self-righteousness.
In this back and forth, two important questions are ignored: effect and context. The second is the simpler one, and has already been discussed above—Kiswahili has not meant the same thing to all Africans everywhere at all times and will therefore have varying receptions.
But “effect” is the more fundamental issue. As mentioned, this proposal, or drive, has always remained unclear as to what the ultimate desired goal is. Several explanations exist.
If Africa wishes to build a united common cultural identity, we must first settle the question whether this is an act of rebuilding something that was destroyed, repairing something that exists but is broken, or departing from scratch. Which of the three will the future of African development be based on?
At the economic level, when we talk about integrating regional markets, have we also asked ourselves who owns these markets even in their current, less integrated form? Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?
The issue of cultural identity brought to mind an incident many years ago during an evening stroll in downtown Nairobi in the company of a Tanzanian colleague while attending a workshop in the city. During an encounter with one of the many Nairobi street kids, we had an interesting time observing how he alternated between understanding my crude Kiswahili — which was forcing me to “step up” — and my friend’s sophisticated version — which he was having to “dumb down” — as we asked him a little about his life’s journey thus far.
Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?
After the boy went on his way, we reverted to the English we had been using and ended up in a discussion about homes and homelessness. The point, I think, was about traditional African family structures. At some point, as I was expounding on the concept of the paternal aunt and maternal uncle in Kiganda (and other Bantu) cultures in their once actual role as potential resources for troubled children, my colleague became animated and recalled such relations from his childhood growing up in rural Tanzania, and then a little agitated at the sudden realization that he could no longer recall the specific title used, in the language of his childhood, to name these people.
The point here is whether this was just a loss of a word once spoken, or if it also meant the eventual loss of the role and meaning of the persons and relationships carried by that name. And if it was indeed an erasure, has that been the intended effect of the one-language policy?
What is gained and what is lost in such a process?
Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners. A change of language can therefore be shorthand for the suppression of native identity in an approach to African “nation-building” that the historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, described as being based on “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”.
For example, the Luganda version of the word that was lost to my erstwhile Tanzanian colleague is Senga (sometimes spelled Ssenga). Its meaning is very specific: the female sibling of one’s father by the same father, or set of fathers. In other words, being first and foremost of the same totem as your father. It is a clan institution operating at the family level and responsible for various things, such as overseeing her brother’s daughters’ personal lives, (including marriage, as extemporized in the book Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi), as well as installations of family heirs.
Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners.
A more revealing variation of the same institution exists in the culture, and therefore language, of Banyankole of Uganda. In one case it is call Shwenkazi, which is a verbal conflation of the term sho-enkazi (“sho” being “your father”, and “kazi”, being “female”). Quite literally, “your father the woman”, or more directly, “your woman-father”.
It is not reducible to the word “aunt”; it means paternally-descended paternal aunt, but not merely as a label but as a title that carries a specific cultural function.
In the ordinary Kiswahili being promoted, the word Shangazi means aunt.
One can clearly see a similarity with Senga and Shwenkazi. However, Shangazi functions only as a family label in the same way that aunt, uncle or brother do in English, such that the paternal aunt is “Shangazi wa baba”, and the maternal one “Shangazi wa mama”. I am unclear if any cultural function existed or still exists attached to the name (although I suspect it might, at least in some perfunctory form).
A series of critical questions emerge from this. Clearly, the three words Senga, Shwenkazi and Shangazi bear a common root. But did they at some point also carry the same function? How come the function-name seems to be clearer (and also similar) in Luganda and Runyankore, and not in Kiswahili, where it is a flat label indiscriminately applicable to any female sibling of any parent?
Was there a time when Shangazi also meant Senga in both name and function? If so, by what process was this lost?
Therefore, the main point is this: if one is to substitute Luganda, or Runyankore with Kiswahili, or even just make it primary to them, then the meaning of this institution — quite central to how the extended family system operates here — will be lost. And so will the practice, and therefore eventually, the culture.
This feeds into the question of what kind of future the advocates of Kiswahili-for-all envisage. A lot of cultural activism in Africa is hemmed in by either a preservation mentality, or a profusion one.
Kiswahili advocacy suffers from both. On the one hand, Swahili culture is seen as a culture worth preserving in the memory of its “highest” forms (which are really just a celebration of the Arab-informed city-states of the coast, built as assimilationist fixtures of a spreading Arabist culture headquartered somewhere in Arabia to the north-north-east). This means leaving it with the erasures and distortions fully embedded. This is because the dominant version of modern Pan-Africanism conceptualizes its task as one of building from scratch. The past does not matter at all, and the present matters only as the place where the future is being planned.
On the other hand, the language has been allowed to grow variously, based on needs and circumstances. In the case of Tanzania, for example, it was part of the inheritance of the German colonial erasure that became useful in the Basil Davidson description.
This is a problem of legitimacy. Cultures, and the languages they produce, have owners. It is these owners that should hold the ultimate right to curate the direction in which their language goes, because they have the original, and greatest stake in it. Between the governments of Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya, on top of the respective language institutes in those countries, it is unclear who has the ultimate say over matters of vocabulary, syntax and general linguistic development. What is clear is that any or all of those centres carry a bigger voice than the indigenous Bantu people of the East African coast who birthed the language.
The problem is larger than one might think. State-owned Kiswahili (which is the Kiswahili formally taught in schools) tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth. It is common for English and other language words to be simply dropped, as if through a trapdoor, into the language. For example, doctor is rendered “daktari”, clinic “kliniki”, and picture “picha”. This happens in many languages to some extent. But with Kiswahili, it seems to be almost a matter of policy, because this is done even in cases were a native word already exists, or could be organically created from the existing vocabulary. And this is only complicated by the reality of the differences in dialect among the various coastal peoples anyway. In short, it is not one authentic Kiswahili that is being ignored and distorted, but several of them.
State-owned Kiswahili tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth.
The immediate effect is to place a larger than usual memory burden on the learner or speaker, as there is no organic source within the language for those nouns. In Luganda, for example, the word for clinic or hospital is taken from the verb to be ill. This is the rule for a large number of words and it makes it much easier to recognize or recall the word, or even to develop other words, especially adjectives, around it.
What word, then, will be used in Uganda? And will the state setting the Kiswahili exams be willing to make an accommodation, or insist on language orthodoxy, such as it is?
The purpose of any valid Africanist exercise would be to build up the African identity, but this can only work if understood as a task of recovery, as opposed to reinvention.
To restore an original building, one needs the original bricks. And then to repair them individually before rebuilding.
As one remnant of a wider family of remnant languages coming out of one wider language, Kiswahili is just one such brick. The problem is that the modern pan-Africanist Kiswahili advocates believe it, or just intend to make it, to be a whole wall.
Which also leads to the economic question: Beyond the 50 or so Kenyan cents my Tanzanian friend and I gave to street kid, how did our common ability to speak in Kiswahili help him? And to what extent had the idea of new protections from the state helped erode the viability of the family-level cultural institution that failed him? How much Kiswahili spoken by the Maasai Tanzanians of Loliondo will become enough for their right to reclaim the land they have just been evicted from by the Tanzanian state in order to make way for Middle Eastern Big Game-hunting corporations?
What are the risks that may come with making African cultures less internally culturally cohesive and more dependent on citizen protections backed ultimately by a former colonial state? And are they indeed seen as risks?
Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance. Many languages, especially those at the receiving end of colonial, or genocide-extermination, or genocide-assimilation experiences, have gone through the same.
But the problem is this: Kiswahili is being promoted as a meta-language, rising above other Bantu (and even wider African) languages. In reality, it is just another Bantu language, with its own particular history of external impacts and distortions. It is part of a whole, coming with its own particular missing parts. A convenient means, first for the establishment of the coastal slave plantations and trade, and later for the European explorer missions — the human resource required to mobilize a trade or exploration caravan inland would have recruited from a lot of the people found along the coast.
Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance.
I think we have seen enough to be able to recognize that Bantu languages are all parts of a missing whole.
This is the central point made by Cheikh Anta Diop, when he speaks of the cultural unity of Black Africa. This is the difference between a word being borrowed, as has happened with Kiswahili Arab and state use, and a word being inherited. And also therefore, the difference between a whole language being borrowed, as the post-colonial states have done and seek to further do, and inherited, as post-Egyptian languages seem to have done.
In summary, instead of seeking to repair and develop all the bricks of their gaps and erasure so as to rebuild the wall of the original African meta-language, the advocates of Kiswahili seek to pick out one of the incomplete bricks and impose it, with its specific defects, on the speakers of all the other languages. It is an act of double-erasure.
Swahili needs to address its own historical identity crisis as part of the process of African cultures everywhere also addressing their own setbacks.
The Remarkable Revival of Ugandan Football
Uganda has never qualified for the World Cup, but at a continental level it is making a comeback. So is its club football.
As the prospect of the FIFA ban on Kenyan football being lifted improves, it might be a good time to look at the example of neighboring Uganda, and how the football sector in that country managed to pull itself out of a deep crisis. A decade ago, the state of Ugandan football looked highly discouraging: after years of internal wrangles and conflicts between the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and some of the country’s powerful clubs, as well as match manipulation, and financial accountability problems, many fans and sponsors turned their backs on the sector. The public image of both FUFA and club football was poor, and public trust and confidence were low. Meanwhile, the popularity of the English Premier League (EPL) among Ugandan football enthusiasts was on a steady rise.
In 2022, however, Ugandan football is thriving, and it is increasingly successful internationally: The U20 male national team qualified for the 2023 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations; the winner of the last season’s Uganda Premier League (UPL), Vipers SC, reached the group phase of the CAF Champions League—only the second club in the country’s history (after Kampala Capital City Authority FC, KCCA) to achieve this milestone; the senior women’s national team won Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) competition and thus qualified for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations 2022 in Morocco (where the team went out in the group stages); the winner of the FUFA Women Super League (FWSL) 2022, She Corporate, made it into the final at the CAF Women Champions League Zonal Qualifiers (where they lost to Simba Queens from Tanzania); and Ugandan coach Charles Ayiekoh Lukula (who was in charge of She Corporate at that tournament) was hired as head coach by Simba Queens and led the club to the semi-final of the CAF Women’s Champions League in Morocco, the first time a CECAFA team reached that stage and the first time a Ugandan coached a team at this tournament.
In domestic competitions, there are many positive dynamics as well. The UPL is broadcast on live TV by Chinese multinational StarTimes, as part of a 10-year contract. There is also a revival of football in the various regions of the country outside the traditional football area of greater Kampala. The UPL clubs based in the north-western city of Arua and Jinja in the east did well last season and some of these teams have been competing for top UPL spots. Jinja-based BUL FC (thanks also to strong management and sponsorship) is atop the UPL table currently, and won the Stanbic Uganda Cup last season (against Vipers SC).
The fan base is growing and vibrant in a number of clubs and there are many examples of improved relationships between fans and club management. Many clubs manage to sign deals with sponsors, including those in the lower divisions and outside the UPL. Currently, more than 40 sponsors are engaged in the UPL.
The KCCA FC, which plays in the capital, just announced that it would start floodlit night games in the second half of the UPL season, thanks to the support of the club’s newly signed jersey sponsor, Chinese multinational CHINT Electric Uganda, an energy solutions company. FUFA started its own TV channel in 2022 and is broadcasting live games from various competitions (women and men; senior to school level), press conferences, and various other activities. The social media presence of FUFA, clubs, players, fans, journalists, and pundits is extensive, innovative, and captivating.There is a range of very strong and popular amateur competitions, especially in Kampala, usually played over the weekend. Artificial turf grounds have been constructed, and this supports the football of amateur teams, competition organizers, schools, academies, and communities. Arua Hill SC is building a stadium that is integrated into a larger shopping mall complex, which also has plenty of office space and hotel facilities. The club offers fans and other members of the public a real estate product—a plot and house in Kongolo Sports City. Clubs such as Vipers and KCCA made some good money from players’ sales in recent years and this helped cover the club running costs and development initiatives, such as improvements to stadium infrastructures. Finally, football competitions at secondary school and university levels are popular with students and fans and attract significant media attention.
One could go on at length about the various current problems in Ugandan football—the issue of players’ welfare for example, but there is value in exploring what is behind the regained popularity and positive trends in the game in Uganda? How was the turn-around achieved? I have explored these questions as part of a research project into the effects of the commercialization of football in Uganda and Kenya.
The leadership of the current national football association president, Moses Magogo (in power since 2013), marked the beginning of the revival of both FUFA and the sector. This was a very gradual process that had shortcomings, limitations, and setbacks. However, judging by the situation in late 2022, it was remarkably successful. Key components of this revival included FUFA being more open and responsive to external criticism; a strengthened media team; a focus on professionalization of the sector via significant capacity-building (running various training programs for clubs, coaches, sponsors, media and other professional groups that operate in the sector); a more inclusive sharing of the benefits of these programs across regions; an enlarged set of well-organized competitions (including beach soccer and the like); a boosting of women’s football; promoting commercialization efforts; successes in attracting sponsorship; and an improvement in the relationship with government.
This trend is particularly evident in the strengthening of media/PR units in many clubs (that was accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdown months when clubs had to find a way to reach and stay in touch with fans at home, for instance via the launch of club TV). Social media handlers are the norm now and the work of these committed, skilled and enthusiastic, young handlers ensures that teams provide updated, detailed, and slick mix of texts, pictures and videos about the latest happenings in their clubs, on all sorts of platforms: from Tik Tok to Twitter. Other parts of club operations, such as accounting, marketing, fan affairs, talent recruitment & development, or players’ transfers have been professionalized too.
There is “more balance and better coexistence”—as one marketing professional put it—between EPL and UPL and Ugandan football generally. Dedicated fans now prefer to go to live matches rather than watch EPL games on TV. There is a significant and increasing sense of fan culture (in terms of identity, pride, rituals and off-pitch activities), self-organization, and desired engagement with the club management. Fans reportedly buy and increasingly wear the shirts of their local club also thanks to the “wear your local jersey” initiative, and other promotional activities. For example, one club gives free access to home games this season to all undergraduate university students who show up wearing the club’s 2022/23 jersey, while another club offers free access for women and students. Fans also spend money more readily on merchandise. There is also increasing demand for easily accessible and detailed information, statistics, data and updates. The drive for, interest in, and use of statistics and data (by fans, coaches, pundits, journalists, scouts and agents) is a major feature of the sector’s development. This is also due to the influence of betting that relies on people having access to stats.
Ugandan football is remarkably broad-based and linked to various values and aspirations: love and passion for the game; pride in one’s city, region, country and culture; professional opportunities, jobs, business, incomes, and profits; uniting communities and strengthening identities; showcasing, supporting and celebrating talent ; inspiring youth through being a role model in one’s home community; and putting all regions on the map of national attention.
Finally, many sponsors are joining the football sector, and/or renewing their engagements with it. Sponsors are varied and include firms from across the economic spectrum. Major sponsorships from multiple large brands are seen as crucial to inject money, vitality, and confidence into the game and the future trajectory of football in the country. There is no overreliance on betting firms in terms of sponsorships.
Uganda is not an outlier in the region given positive developments too in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi for example. Second, in Uganda it is not just football that is on a significant upward trend but the sports sector as a whole, including in netball, basketball, rugby, boxing and athletics. Multimedia company Next Media just launched NBS Sport, a 24-hour sports-dedicated channel, to extensively broadcast local sports including live-action and talk shows. Joseph Kigozi, Next Media’s Deputy Group CEO and NBS Sport General Manager reportedly noted: “We have put together a platform where Ugandan sport can leave the back pages and small segments of daily content … Sport can be a source of income for all stakeholders … We look forward to working with all involved to make this a success.”
Masculinity in Kenya: The Pressure to Provide and Perform
Heterosexual Kenyan men are unhappy and they are desperately looking for explanations for the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women.
Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.
Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labour migrant from western Kenya
During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalised east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo men from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on “city girls” who were portrayed as materialistic “slay queens” who “finish” men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their “Beelzebub nails”, as Wellington called the colourful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear repeatedly expressed by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or “contract marriages” that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. Once, on his way back to our shared apartment, my flatmate Samuel—a student of economics who is divorced from the mother of his baby son—passed a neighbour’s house where a group of women were celebrating a birthday. He shook his head and sighed: “We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.”
Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline had decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing FIFA videogames, or catcalling “brown-skinned” Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man cut his girlfriend’s throat and tried to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting his wife’s actions and character as the reason for his attempted suicide. Anything appeared better than spending time with the “daughters of Jezebel” who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding that they engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with, as expounded upon by Wellington:
“When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair. To me this is nonsense because that is not romantic love. I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.”
The burden of economic and sexual performance was not only felt by poorer migrant men, however. Rather, as shown by articles in Kenyan newspapers (see, for example, here and here), it is a nationwide pandemic affecting men from different classes. On a two-day-long men’s meeting on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in mid-2022 which I attended and which was organized by Chomba Njoka and the self-help book authors and masculinity consultants Silas Nyanchwani and Jacob Aliet, for instance, a male lawyer, a psychologist, and a land surveyor, among others, lamented about similar issues. Sitting around a bonfire drinking cold beer in the damp cold of Mt. Kenya, one man after another told a story about a girlfriend who cheated with a financially better-off man, a wife who emptied the marital home of all valuables and left with the children, or young women who come to Nairobi to be seduced by the city’s material promises and men in suits with “deep pockets” who flock the bars of places like Pipeline looking for teenage girls with dreams of big cars, shiny clothes, and expensive hair pieces. Initially the stories were told hesitantly; one could feel that the men telling them were afraid to be blamed. Was I not man enough to provide for a family? Was I responsible for my wife leaving me? But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life. Maybe, we began to think, it was not our fault. But whose fault was it then?
“Nairobian girls, man, acha tu (Kiswahili, “just leave it”)! If some hapless guy with disposable income and sensible behaviour shows some interest, the girl will put her acting mask on, and can easily fool the man proper. Nothing wrong with that, as life is a game. You play. They play. We play each other”, writes Nyanchwani in his book 50 Memos to Men, a collection of his Facebook posts on gender relations in contemporary Nairobi. When I first met Silas in a café in Nairobi’s central business district, a calm and soft-spoken guy over six feet tall and father of a girl, he told me that men had been left behind in Kenya’s economic and cultural development of the last two decades, perpetuating local discourses about the “neglect of the boychild”. Most development aid interventions were targeting the girlchild, and women were increasingly empowered economically. Who, however, was there to tell men what to do, to give men a voice and guidance? Aliet, an imposing man with an authoritative appearance, shared Nyanchwani’s sentiments. Known as a writer of Sci-Fi novels, Aliet decided to write his book Unplugged: Things our fathers did not tell us after many of his male friends had shared stories with him about the pressure to provide, the burden of performance, women’s ungratefulness, and men’s inability to know how to respond to what women and society demands of them. If the raving reviews by both men and women on the homepage of the Nuria bookstore are anything to go by, the book has helped many male readers to find relief and new hope by receiving guidance on what it means to be a man in contemporary Kenya.
But more and more of the men present told similar stories, cathartic laughter breaking out after yet another man narrated a ridiculous incident in his life.
Yet neither Nyanchwani nor Aliet rule over Nairobi’s booming masculinity consultancy scene where one can find controversial figures such as former radio host Andrew Kibe among more moderate voices such as Pastor Simon Mbevi who counsels men and couples or Onyango Otieno who openly talks about his experience as a male rape victim and advises men to allow themselves to be vulnerable. The most famous personality, however, is Amerix, a medical doctor from western Kenya who gives advice to Kenyan men on Twitter and through other social media channels. Although Aliet, Nyanchwani—the former writer of The Retrosexual column in The Nairobian that is now written by Brian Guserwa—and Amerix align with the global red pill movement, part of a global backlash against feminism or some of feminism’s social consequences, they do so to different degrees. While they all agree that the world has become “femicentric” and that men need to swallow the red pill to be “unplugged” from the false truths of feminism, Amerix has a more radical take on Kenya’s gender relations and not only offers answers that aim to change the totality of his adepts’ daily lives but also openly admires Paul Kagame’s autocratic style of leadership and dreams of a world where strong “Afrikan” men subdue obedient women. In his chat groups, young Kenyans are not allowed to write using “effeminate” emojis or incorrect English while dreaming about a reinstated patriarchal order and implementing Amerix’ advice by practicing semen retention to accumulate testosterone, fasting for days, lifting weights, and avoiding processed food as well as the imperial ideology spread in NGOs and churches by white men and women. Being pressured to perform economically and sexually, young men all over Nairobi beg Amerix to “continue to mislead” them by warning against get-rich-quick schemes and by ridiculing women’s expectations of large penises and pornographic sexual performances.
It would be easy to ridicule the absurdity of some of the advice given by Amerix or to call out Aliet and Nyanchwani as toxic men. Yet, over one million people are following Amerix on Twitter, and both Aliet and Nyanchwani are typical Kenyan men who, despite harbouring patriarchal inclinations, care about their children and their spouses. None of the men I met on the slopes of Mt. Kenya dreamt of enslaving women, and all agreed that a return to their fathers’ world was not desirable. However, after three years of fieldwork, I can count on the fingers of one hand those men who confided to me that they are in happy relationships or marriages. Heterosexual Kenyan men, in other words, are unhappy, and, as attested by Amerix’ fame, they are desperately looking for explanations for their experience of economic, romantic, and sexual pressure and the impasses they find themselves in financially, socially, and with regard to their relationships with women more generally. Many Kenyan men feel side-lined and, despite their willingness and attempts to provide, are unable to meet what they imagine to be—or what sometimes indeed are—the unrealistic expectations of women, which compels them to look for advice from fellow Kenyan men who seem to be the only voices resonating with the problems they face “on the ground”. Mark, an unemployed Luo migrant with a degree in physics who survived by writing essays for Chinese students with substandard English skills, responded to my question about the role of Amerix in his life with excitement:
“Amerix is talking about why shouldn’t we be us? Why do you have to be dictated by a woman? Let the woman decide whatever you have to do? Be away from friends she does not want? Do whatever she wants? You see that? So, we were like, give us this shit. […] From the first day, we were all into Amerix’ thing. […] There are some people who argue that Amerix is misleading the men, but then if you understand what Amerix is talking about, it is the real thing, the real situation on the ground.”
In such an impasse, Western journalists, social scientists, and development aid practitioners should ask themselves what social, economic, and conceptual benefits for both men and women could be generated from working with more moderate masculinity consultants such as Nyanchwani. Although they neither agree to notions of the social construction of gender nor share beliefs in the necessity to dismantle all patriarchal gender roles, they have access to the minds and hearts of Kenyan men such as Wellington, Mark, or Samuel. While I disagree with the red pill movement’s evolutionary naturalization of gender roles and its simplistic use of biological assumptions—such as female hypergamy—to explain human social relations and strongly believe that a more political-economic approach would allow men and women to attack some of the common enemies that deprive them of economic development, I also think that honest debates that include the voices of various masculinity consultants could open a conceptual space beyond, on the one hand, the capitalistic and colonial notion of the male breadwinner and provider that necessarily produces pressured men who desperately want but cannot provide for their loved ones due to the structural conditions of Kenya’s capitalistic economy, and, on the other hand, the largely still unacceptable notions of men as vulnerable and dependent that only resonate with a few middle-class Kenyans. Such progressive, open-minded, and creative debates might help to repair what appears to be a social constellation characterized by mutual misunderstanding and heightened mistrust between men and women.
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low
Op-Eds1 week ago
Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
Politics1 week ago
Southern Cameroon: War and No Peace
Op-Eds1 week ago
We Must Democratize the Economy
Politics5 days ago
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Op-Eds1 week ago
No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
Politics2 days ago
The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
Politics2 days ago
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy