“Memory is short-lived/And more important instead/That streets are well-laid/Flowing and uncongested.” — Jonathan Kariara, Naming Streets in Nairobi
The main road that runs through Kisumu is called Jomo Kenyatta Highway. Named after the country’s first president, the road divides the town in a North-South axis that runs from Patel Flats (where it stops being Kakamega Road) to the State Lodge in Milimani. In fact, one might argue that it is the spine of the city, in the sense of it being the central nervous system and the other roads feeding off it. In other words, cut off this road from either end (at Kondele or at the intersection with Busia Road) and you have killed Kisumu.
During the 2017 electoral period, Jomo Kenyatta Highway was the epicentre of several violent clashes between opposition supporters and police officers. A general election had been held on 8 August and the main candidates in the presidential election were the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party, and Raila Odinga of the NASA coalition. On 9 August, as tallying was ongoing, Odinga announced that the elections database had been hacked and the results were being manipulated in favour of his opponent, and that the hacker had used the credentials of Chris Msando, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) ICT manager who had been murdered less than two weeks to the election. Odinga said, “What the IEBC has posted is a complete fraud . . . to give Uhuru Kenyatta votes that were not cast . . . We have uncovered the fraud.”
In the wake of Odinga’s rejection of the poll results, police officers moved onto the streets, and into neighbourhoods, alleging that they were flashing out the rioters who had hidden in residential areas. There were reports of police officers breaking into houses, and beating innocent civilians. Several residential areas in Kisumu remained in the constant haze of teargas that the police had lobbed in their pursuit of “rioters”. At night, when residents had retired to their houses, police officers went door to door, lobbing tear gas canisters into people’s houses, and attacking people in their sleep. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, On the night of 11 to 12 August, as they carried out their house-to-house operations, police officers killed at least 10 people (a low estimate) in Kisumu, one of whom was Samantha Pendo, a six-month-old baby. Witnesses would later tell Human Rights Watch that, “on August 11th, police violently attacked her family, kicking, slapping, and beating with gun butts and batons everyone in the house, including the baby.” This was at 12.30 am.
In the wake of Samantha Pendo’s murder, Kenyans erupted. Numerous commentators on social media condemned the violence and the grotesque murder of a six-month-old baby. However, in a statement given the very day of the attack on Pendo, Interior Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang’i, denied that the police officers had been using excessive force on civilians. Even as Pendo was in a coma at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu, he dismissed claims of violence being meted out on protestors. Instead, Matiang’i claimed that those who had been injured had been in the midst of looting as police officers tried to prevent them from doing so. He said, “Some criminal elements took advantage of the situation to loot property. The police responded and normalcy has returned to the area.”
After three days in a coma arising from a head injury, Pendo succumbed to the trauma. In the wake of her death, an unknown group of people went up and down Jomo Kenyatta Highway defacing all the road signs carrying that name. They scratched out the nameJomo Kenyatta Highway and in its stead wrote, in green ink, “Bi Pendo Road.”
On 14 February 2019, an inquest led by Kisumu Senior Resident Magistrate Beryl Omolo found five police officers culpable of Samantha Pendo’s murder. In her ruling, she also recommended prosecution against eight GSU officers who had been involved in the operation. Less than four months after her ruling, Odinga, who had since stumbled into an alliance with Kenyatta, urged his supporters to move on from the events of August 2017. He declared that it was the moment of healing and that people needed to forget the wounds of the past.
Kisumu refuses to forget. Two and a half years on from that August night, Bi Pendo Road is the main road running through the city. While, on paper, the road still bears its original name, in reality, the green ink on the road signs refuses to forget. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime Kisumu has had a violent relationship with the state. When Jomo Kenyatta came to open a hospital in Kisumu In 1969, the crowd erupted in anger at the speech he made, and his security detail opened fire, killing an estimated eleven people on the spot, and injuring hundreds. The cycle of violence continued. In 1982. In 1992. In 1997. In 2002. In 2005. In 2007, after the disputed elections, the police shot dead an estimated 115 people. On 30 March 2013, the day of a Supreme Court ruling on the disputed presidential elections, a police officer shouted at a group of youths, saying, “We forgave you people in Kisumu during the 2007-2008 violence. This time we are going to teach you a lesson”. On that day alone, 5 people were killed and 24 were admitted in hospital with bullet wounds.
Kisumu is not alone in using street names as a way of resistance, as a way of refusing to forget. Derek Alderman, an American historical geographer whose focus is on landscapes of public memory, has written about how naming can be used as a way of symbolic resistance. Michael Hebbert has argued about the existence of a relationship between memory and space. In his view, “a shared space such as a street can be a locus for collective memory and can express group identity through architecture, monuments, and street names.” Further, he posits that street names can indicate a community’s desire to remember certain personalities or events.
Road names in Nairobi exist in similar praxes. When, from 1928 to 1936, the British colonial government moved to change street names in Nairobi; from numbered streets, they renamed the streets after figures who were important in their British imagination. In the wake of independence in 1963, the African government in power saw the need to rename these streets. For instance, Delamere Avenue became Kenyatta Avenue, while the four streets branching out of Kenyatta Avenue had their names changed. Originally named after the first, second, third and fourth colonial commissioners who would later become governors — Arthur Henry Hardinge, Charles Eliot, Donald William Stewart and James Hayes Sadler — they were given names of African personalities: Kimathi Street, Muindi Mbingu Street, Wabera Street, and Koinange Street. College Road was renamed Harry Thuku Road, while the road named after the Queen, Queens Way, was rebaptized Mama Ngina Street.
In Nairobi’s Industrial Area, most of the roads had been named after towns in England. These were localised: Edinburgh Road to Enterprise Road, Aberdeen Road to Addis Ababa Road, Birmingham Road to Bamburi Road, Clifford Road to Changamwe Road, Dublin Road to Dakar Road, London Road to Lusaka Road, and Liverpool Road to Likoni Road.
A similar renaming was attempted in Kileleshwa, a neighbourhood popular with the emergent African elite. As with Industrial Area, roads which bore names that reflected localities in England were renamed to reflect the new reality of independence. According to Peris Teyie, an academic at Maseno University’s School of Planning and Architecture, the initial plan had been to name the roads in alphabetical order, like in Industrial Area. However, the planners got lazy. “They got tired of trying to do them alphabetically, and started naming them randomly.” This is why Siaya Road, Gusii Avenue and Oloitoktok Road are to be found in the same zone.
It must be noted here that not everyone agreed with this process of writing away the colonialists. One James Kangangi Njuguna was reported to have argued for the preservation of history in the renaming process, even though it could remind Kenyans of negative experiences.
In their renaming, the ruling government revealed its politics in the patterns that the new road names followed. First, the road names were predominantly male, and remain so to this day, with Mama Ngina Road and Wangari Maathai Road being the only major roads in the city named after women. (Tubman Road, contrary to popular belief, is named after William Tubman, the 19th President of Liberia, and not Harriet Tubman) This is noteworthy, considering Wangari Maathai Road is a recent addition, and Mama Ngina Road is all about patriarchal patronage. Secondly, as Melissa Wangui Wanjiru and Kosuke Matsubara note, “the naming of streets was biased towards the Kikuyu (the largest community in Kenya),” and there was a dramatic “erasure of Indian street names”.
Walking through Nairobi’s streets, one notices several names that are conspicuous by their absence from the politics of commemoration, names that in other realities would have been present: Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia, Masinde Muliro, Achieng’ Oneko . . . all of them socialist-leaning politicians. Wanjiru and Matsubara argue that, “Such was the case for many who were considered heroes in Kenya’s fight for freedom, but who were vilified and alienated both in the colonial and post-colonial periods.”
Pio Gama Pinto’s case is an interesting one. After his death, there was a quest to rename Victoria Street after him. Vershi, a resident of Nairobi, suggested that the street be renamed after the Kenyan-Goan politician who had been one of the leading members of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). His request was ignored by the naming authorities, and the street was not renamed after Pinto. Instead, there followed a mass expunging of Indian names from Nairobi’s streets. In 1973, 58 of the streets in the Central Business District bore Indian names. All of these were replaced, with the exception of Aga Khan Walk. For instance, Jeevanjee Street, which had been named after Alibhai Mula Jeevanjee, an Asian-born citizen who owned most of the buildings on that street, was renamed Mfangano Street. Moreover, the 21 streets in Ngara that bore Indian names had their names replaced with African names, as did the 19 streets in South C Estate, despite these areas being occupied mostly by Indian-Kenyan families. Streets whose names were changed include Jamnagar Avenue (to Idado Avenue), Hoshiarpur Road (to Mukarati Road), and Alamgir Avenue (to Muhuti Avenue).
That Aga Khan Walk survives is a testament to the power the Aga Khan wields in this country. Aga Khan is a title held by the Imām of the Nizari Ismaili Shias. Since 1957, the holder of the title has been the 49th Imām, Prince Shah Karim al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV. The Aga Khan’s influence is most felt through his ownership of the Nation Media Group, although he also has interests in, among others, Diamond Trust Bank, Farmer’s Choice Ltd, Jubilee Insurance, The Aga Khan Education Service, and Serena Hotels.
A street in Westlands was later named after Pinto. This is interesting given how Goans have, for the most part, been written out of Kenya’s history. Pinto, Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro and Francis Xavier D’Silva are the only Goans who have places named after them in Nairobi. Ribeiro was the doctor who first diagnosed an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city, while D’Silva, better known as Baba Dogo, earned plaudits for his generosity towards impoverished whites who lived in Murumbi, an area later renamed Baba Dogo.
However, there was an ethnic over-representation of the Kikuyu in the naming of the streets and, on 8 December 1970, in a session titled the “Colonial Names of Nairobi Streets,” Tamason Barmalel, the MP of Chepalungu Constituency, took the government to task over this issue, asking how the government would “ensure that future street names would represent all ethnic groups in the country.” The assistant minister in charge of the naming process, Nathan Munoko, assured him that the street names were mainly based on suggestions from the public, before they were analysed by the street naming sub-committee to ensure equitable distribution, before being forwarded to the minister for approval.
Four years after Pinto’s assassination, Tom Mboya was shot dead on Government Road. After his death, there was a lot of clamour about how to memorialise him.. Since he had been killed on Government Road, it made sense to rename this road after him, and Jaffer, a resident of Mombasa, suggested this. He also suggested that Kilindini Road in Mombasa be named after Mboya, as well as one street in each town in Kenya. James Mbori, the Kasipul-Kabondo MP, led the charge in parliament, and during a parliamentary session titled “Change of name of Government Road to Tom Mboya Road”, he asked the Minister for Local Government, Dr Gikonyo Kiano, whether this would happen. Dr Kiano demurred, saying that government policy was to rename those roads which bore names reminiscent of the colonial era, and Government Road was not one of these roads. In any case, he argued, it was not appropriate to rename Government Road since it was a symbol of the Government of Kenya.
However, it was thrown back at him that Government Road had been named thus by the colonial government, and therefore it was evocative of the British colonial administration. Upon Dr Kiano’s further resistance, Mbori went on the offensive, implying that the road’s name had been reserved for someone else. He asked, “Mr. Speaker Sir, would the minister deny that the name of Government Road is reserved for some future naming?”
Tom Mboya’s supporters were aggrieved, and attempts were made to find another street to bear his name. St. Austin’s Road was proposed, but it was turned down on the grounds that it wasn’t important enough a road to bear the name of a man of Mboya’s stature. This road was later renamed James Gichuru Road. Government Road remained Government Road, and the less important Victoria Street, the same one which had been denied Pinto’s memory, was renamed after Mboya. In 1978, Government Road was renamed Moi Avenue, rendering Mbori’s prediction true.
Then there are the Shifta roads, named after victims of the Shifta War: Wabera Street, formerly Elliot Street, named after Daudi Dabasso Wabera, whose assassination a week after Kenya had been granted independence sparked what became known as the Shifta War; and Lt. Tumbo Avenue, formerly General Smuts Avenue, named after Lt. John Charles Tumbo Kalima, who led the Kenyan military effort against the insurgency and was killed in an ambush between Garissa and Wajir.
Around Kibra (very importantly not Kibera), several streets bear Nubian names. A meeting of the parliamentary street naming sub-committee held on 30 March 1971 suggested ten street names for the Kibera Government Housing Scheme: Ihura Road, Toi Road, Kambui Road, Sara-Ngombe Road, Chief Suleman Road, Lemule Road, Apollo Road, Kambi Muru Road, Laini Saba Road and Adhola Marongo Road (CCN 1971). With the exception of Ihura and Kambui Roads, all the other names are of Nubian origin. The Nubian community is being remembered. Only, Nubian leaders would argue differently, given that the Nubian community occupies only 700 acres of land in Kibra, with the rest of the land, some 3498 acres, having been forcibly taken over by the post-colonial government with no compensation offered. The recognition of the Nubian community is, as Wanjiru and Matsubara state, superficial, since the real demands of the Nubian community were mostly ignored.
Street names in Nairobi, and in Kenya, have also been used as arenas for reputational politics. For instance, going through Kakamega is an immersion into Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, Masinde Muliro Gardens . . . the man from further North in Bungoma, being commemorated in Kakamega. It is the same with Oginga Odinga in Kisumu and Siaya, Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, and Daniel Moi in Eldoret. In Nairobi, several streets were named after Pan-Africanists, but these were almost all Pan-Africanists with whom Jomo Kenyatta had interacted or personally admired. He and Ralph Bunche in London in 1936, and Bunche had visited Kenya at Kenyatta’s behest two years later; Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and W. E. B. Du Bois had also interacted with Kenyatta in London. Dennis Pritt had represented Kenyatta at the Kapenguria Trial in 1952 while William Tubman, Mokhtar Daddah, Albert Luthuli and Haile Selassie were, together with Kenyatta, all part of the Pan-African movement in the 1960s.
The battle of reputations came about with the proposed renaming of Enterprise Road to Kibaki Road. When the proposal was made, it was opposed on the grounds that government policy prohibited naming streets after living personalities except for heads of state. Yet Mama Ngina was, and still is, a living personality, and was not, and still isn’t, a head of state. Still, much can be inferred from the fact that the road given her name was once known as Queens Way.
One of the main roads running through Mombasa is Mama Ngina Drive, which used to be Azania Drive, renamed at independence after a person who again, was, and still is, a living personality, and was not, and still isn’t, a head of state. In 2019, there was a furore over a move to name a recreational park along the road Mama Ngina Waterfront Park. According to Okoa Mombasa, a coalition that led the opposition to the proposed name, this was a “gross deletion and obfuscation” of local history, and an attempt to “inscribe a historical memory alien to the place and local inhabitants”.
All these years later, the big reputation in the landscape of naming remains KANU, chama cha baba na mama. According to David Lowenthal, the landscape is not just a product of human actions in the past, but rather a tangible symbol of people’s attachment to the past. The main road to Eastlands, Jogoo Road, bears the symbol of the long-time ruling party of the country. One might argue that it is a symbol of the cockerel of the national court of arms, but then, one would have to think about why the symbol of KANU is on the national court of arms.
Wandia Njoya has written about how the Kenyatta family has taken control of national symbols, and has argued for the need to delink the family from national symbols and ideals. When Princess Elizabeth Way was renamed Uhuru Highway, the intention had not been to switch the name from the ruler of the Kenyan colony to the ruler of independent Kenya.
In the wake of the farcical 2017 electoral process and the subsequent violence, there was a violent renaming of things in Kisumu. Bi Pendo Road, yes, but also Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground, where several signs were defaced, and Jubilee Market, which was renamed Orengo Market, and where, as with Jomo Kenyatta Highway, the signs with that name were defaced, and a new name inked over, a name that still stands to this day.
That Bi Pendo Road exists is not merely a monument to Samantha Pendo. Rather, it is an affirmation of Kisumu’s refusal to forget, to move on from the victims of police brutality in 2017, in 2013, in 2007, and in all the other years, as Odinga urged in 2019, and continues to urge through the Building Bridges Initiative.
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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Heresy of Okot
In the third and final part of a review of Lawino’s People: The Acholi of Uganda by Okot p’Bitek and Frank Knowles Girling, A.K. Kaiza concludes that it is Okot’s writing on the religion of his Central Luo that may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way, and the reason why he was failed by Oxford University.
“I think Okot p’Bitek stopped giving thought to Oxford. He understood the colonial venture quite clearly and he believed that we Africans needed to sort ourselves out. In any case, by the time they asked him to revise the thesis (after which they would fail it again) he had already been a successful poet and cultural icon in his own right — setting up arts festivals in Kisumu and Gulu as well as being the first African director of the National Theatre in Kampala.” Juliane Okot Bitek
“Woko, Wi-lobo and Ru-piny were not deities, not spirits or powers. They were not worshiped, no sacrifices were offered to them. And when a man cried ‘Wi-lobo,’ he was not calling on anybody or anything. They were not a prayer or supplication. They were descriptive of the sad predicament of human existence.”
These words, lying deep in the book, after so much has been said and said so passionately, are not the most dramatic in a 625 page-strong tome. But if you were to choose which ones best capture the spirit of this publication, they would not be a bad place to start.
They sound a fairly representative note of the intellectual locus of the man who wrote them. A world view you likely first encountered in Song of Lawino, that gently insistent, powerfully cultured note has since become so much a part of the literary furniture of postcolonial Africa that attributing them to Okot is no longer necessary.
The phrase “sad predicament of human existence”, may sound like any pithy observation that makes instant sense, but after 511 pages, at which point they appear, you as an African reader are desperate for the insight this brings.
Why was the thesis failed?
The sidelining of the academic and scholarly works of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek by Oxford University under the supervision of Prof Evans-Pritchard remains a scandalous event, at least to those of us who expected better from British higher learning. In his introduction to the double publication, Tim Allen, Professor and director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE, writes that “In the case of Frank Girling, it is obvious why his work is neglected. Although he managed to secure his D. Phil in 1952, he had fallen foul of the Protectorate authorities in Uganda . . . in contrast, the overlooking of Okot p’Bitek’s anthropological contributions is harder to understand.”
Prof. Tim Allen explains that another Evans-Pritchard student and Oxford alumni, Talal Asad, published a collection by well-known anthropologists expounding the very views Okot had postulated. This was the view that British anthropology had played handmaiden to colonial injustice, providing the justificatory, academised loot that made the whip and chain wielders feel less guilty. Allen goes on to say that by the late 1960s, Okot was angry (as a black man, being called “angry” is not flattering), and defiant.
He explains that the offending thesis itself is moderate in tone. So, Okot could not be accused of going rogue activist in the haloed temple of academia.
“It was even more of a casualty of British anthropology’s colonial encounter,” he writes, addressing and at the same time, not addressing, the intrigue.
It has been five decades since the event and we still don’t know why. But after 625 pages, does resolution come?
As far as the Okot part of the publication is concerned, there is nothing really new in the way Girling’s bit is. The central attraction in the Okot section, The Religion of the Central Luo, was published in 1971 by The East African Literature Bureau and went on to have its stellar moment in thinking on African societies.
This resurrection renews the work, and Allen’s introduction along with the shattering clarity of Girling’s materialist approach to anthropology, opens the secret socio-political chambers hidden in the rites and rituals Okot describes here.
The two transform Okot’s text into a crime scene. We approach it, sleuthing tools in hand, ferreting in the undergrowth of scholarly nuance for that stray error that exclaims, aha! Got you!
It is so very much like Okot to come back from the grave to give us once again that frisson of novelty and courage.
But the stigmata is visible. There is an odd, incompleteness in it. We already encountered this oddity in Girling’s part of the book. The explanation for that, we were told, is that the colonial authorities and their academic mentors in Oxford cut Girling’s work with one year left in it so any publishing can only stitch mismatching body parts on.
This affects Okot’s work at a structural level. He describes well the history and politics of Jo Paluo and Alur in the opening chapters. He is starting to establish a historical particularity for his subject. He is also challenging the idea of tribes by showing the cultural-political continuum across colonially tribalised communities.
In Chapter 2, he glancingly connects these to Bunyoro, but we assume that was outside his scope, or he did not have the time to delve much into that, although we can infer from the long line of queen mothers of Bunyoro-Kitara rulers (Abakama) taken from the Luo-speakers, and the tracing of its lineage to Labongo, that this is the case. In any case, the politics of Bunyoro and that of the Central Luo, particularly the Payira Clan, who are also Babiito, like the rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, which filial connections cover the other kingdoms in the country, were so interwoven that calling them allies would be an under-description.
Okot ropes the Lango into this Central Luo grouping whilst acknowledging the difficulty of saying so with certainty. The Lango too had their tight military alliances with Bunyoro-Kitara.
But we note a glaring omission. Okot talks at length about Acoli religion and religious practice when the section arrives. He does not do so with that of the Jo Palwo, Alur or Lango. Could the frustrations he met at Oxford have prevented further work? What emerges sounds more like the religion of the Acholi than of the Central Luo. Is it even remotely possible that Okot did not see such a thing, so that his failure to recognise the obvious failed his D.Phil?
Going after Driberg, Crazzolara, Roscoe et al
One of the most important contributions Okot makes to African studies is on ethnicity. Where his errant antecedents Driberg, Crazzolara and Roscoe wrote of “tribe” in such a way that Africa is transformed into an archipelago of hostile communities, Okot raises out of the colonial abyss the many connecting cultural bridges, so that the familiar fact which prompts Africans when they meet fellow Africans to declare “we really are one people,” emerges. Had Oxford given its imprimatur to such a view, might the likes of Kwame Appiah have written a less discreditable book than In My Father’s House, a book with an annoying colonial view that Africans are disparate tribes?
Okot lends powerful evidence to the position of many black scholars who insist that African societies are language, rather than tribal groups. But it is in Okot on the religion of his Central Luo that one instinctively feels that his work may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way.
Okot goes to War
It is a lively, closely observed section running to six chapters. He opens by examining theories of Jok, then the variations on the idea, and expanding on the African pantheistic concept of deism. He next turns attention to worship places, the Abila, or Kac, the family shrines. He looks at spirit-possession, witchcraft and sorcery, then that social institution of lam, kir and kwong which he calls curses but can also be expansively seen as invocations, and which we need to hear more of for it is a literary genre of African societies which in our time has been brought dramatically to life by Stella Nyanzi. But that is another topic altogether. As these topics follow one after the other, a pattern starts to emerge. He tackles first the idea of God (Jok), and gradually works down to practices that have a filigree of the religious but are otherwise quasi-spiritual and mostly having nothing to do with worship but have been erroneously attributed so.
Take Chapter 9 on Woko, Wi-Lobo and Ru-Piny. As he explains them, these concepts are philosophical, prepositional; Wi-lobo as boundarisation of existence, “Wi, on top of, above, and the common noun lobo, earth. Literally it meant on the land above the soil or earth. But in the context in which we are discussing it, Wi-lobo meant the state of being alive on the earth, being in this world.”
Wi-lobo approximates to what other philosophical traditions refer to as Being. Woko, literally translating as outside, is synonymous with Wi-lobo but as Okot explains it, the idea is something like becoming, a state of transience from, into and beyond. There is much ambiguity about Ru-Piny. It means dawn, dawning, which on the face of it is the passage from darkness to light, the burnishing of the night. And yet, it is also about the exchange of the woes of darkness with those of the light, the double-facedness of existence — an existentialist notion.
Okot puts it better in his inimitable way: “Against Wi-lobo and Ru-Piny, man was impotent. They knelt on their victims and crushed them. There was nothing you could do to prevent them from carrying out their cruel schemes . . . because Wi-lobo, Woko and Ru-Piny were also deaf, blind and senseless.”
These concepts are far-reaching and are to be found as the framing concepts of Luo arts and music, the protagonists of much music and theatre flung into the face of inscrutable fate. Mr Crazzolara, and you benighted Boccassino, this is about art and philosophy, not religion!
Okot’s focus on this triad is, in my opinion, the key that provides entrance into what the religious belief of the people was and what it was not; it is also the key that frees African theology from the demonic incarceration imposed on it by imperial Christianity and anthropology. But before we have arrived at this point (chapter 9) we have been through six prior chapters during which Okot took on the establishment of western scholarship on African religion.
Our Simple Minds
In few places has the black man been more traduced than in his relationship with God. In sexuality, industry, politics, science, commerce, marriage and health, the entire heritage of the black man came under attack by the amassed battalions of enslavers, colonisers and free traders. These attacks follow a template, which is that what is African is dirty, at a primitive stage, without order and purpose.
The other name they used for black people, besides savages, is heathens, kafir, as though our souls (when allowed that we had any) were properties of the devil already.
Okot’s thesis here charges explorers, imperial agents, scholars and missionaries for not only refusing to understand African religions, but for calling whatever they saw happening as so much animist garbage. Africans were accused of worshiping forests, rocks, streams and lakes; we had no idea of a supreme being, no idea of an afterlife.
The Heresy of Okot
Okot calls up one at a time, the big names that misled the world about African spirituality:
Sir Samuel Baker, John Roscoe, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Renato Boccassino, Godfrey Lienhardt, Jack Herbert Driberg, Captain Ernest Grove, John Beattie, Bere, Hayley, Kitching, Tarantino, Taylor Tempels, Middleton, Menzies, Southall, Gray, and many more quoted here, had the same approach — the Africans did not know what they were saying; pay no attention no matter how intelligent they appear to be; study his ways and draw conclusions from that.
Anthropology, in a way, is the fine art of not listening.
Crazzolara best captures this attitude when he writes of what went on in the conversion enterprise: “Natives were urged with tiresome questions to make a choice as to which of the Jok among the many had created them. Such questions implied suppositions which probably never occurred to their simple minds . . . they answered that they did not know, which was more near the truth.”
On the back of a single observation in Equatorial Province, Baker, the pugnacious explorer-colonial agent, concluded that Africans had no religion nor conception of a deity. Baker had a theological debate with a man he names as “Commoro”, in Lotuko, over the existence of a being superior to mankind. This debate, done via a Lotuko translator who understood Bari, to a Bari translator who understood Arabic henceforth to Baker, is recorded by Baker whom we can only take at his word. It is comical. After intense, very patronising exchanges, the man Commoro replies to Baker (of good and bad people): “If they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”
The statement is startling with its raw, irreproachable realism. But Baker, Okot charges, was only interested in affirming his own beliefs and not learning that of Commoro.
The approach they took was to strip-search Africans for spiritual beliefs and feed what they found into a bonfire of racism, an act of culturecide. But there was a challenge to overcome. People don’t let go of their beliefs like that. To make it stick, the Christian god they carried with them (in much the same way African rulers carried Jok from one place to another) had to be disguised as an African deity — a bizarre minstrel act in which Jahweh wore blackface — and faked an African accent. This necessitated taking an existing African deity, emptying it of content and replacing it with Roman-Christian theology. This gave conversion the feel of a smooth segue, with converts often not feeling the jab.
And this is the violence Okot rails against. Through this mendacity, African pantheism was replaced by a monotheistic ethos. The senatorial Republic of gods was superseded by a tyrannical, fili-deist, Augustan imperialism, a one family-rule religion. Rubanga was bleached white, right here in the tropics. The function of African gods disappeared under the harsh colonial regime. Black gods like Mungu, Nyasae, Katonda, Ruhanga, Ngai, Nzambe and Rubanga, worshiped long before the White Fathers and Church Missionary Society arrived, became colonially reconstructed évolués, front-company enterprises; like Liberian flags of convenience, they concealed the real, tax-dodging paymaster in the background. They had become spiritually possessed by an invasive spiritual species.
Among his Central Luo, the missionaries settled on an import from Bunyoro-Kitara, the Luo-ised “Rubanga” (also Lubanga/Obanga) from “Ruhanga”. This was one god among many, picked out because one missionary caught a whiff of the word “mold”, synonymous with create. In similar vein, in Buganda, the missionaries alighted on the Kiganda god of fabricants, Katonda, a lesser deity compared to Lubaale, also from the root verb okutonda (to fashion) as Jahweh’s tropicalised incarnation there. In the case of the Luo, the missionaries did not listen long enough to know that they saw Rubanga as an unpleasant god that afflicted man with tuberculosis of the spine. The name stuck, much to the amusement of South Sudanese writer, Taban lo Liyong, who has had much to say about it.
Trees, forests and rocks
These scholars did not listen to what the Africans were saying about their beliefs. They chose to infer instead and came up with such ideas as “supreme being”, “life force”; their African sources said they had nothing of the sort. They next looked to the places where worship took place, in “forests”, rocks, along rivers and lakes and said Africans worshiped these; the Africans said this was not true. The Africans, they decided, were too daft to know their own minds.
What kind of defence can one start to mount? Okot presents the many ways in which African religious practice was misrepresented. The central pattern in all these is that the interlocutors had come to impose their beliefs and truth is always an inconvenience to imperial enterprise.
Outside of the monotheistic framework, getting a handle on gods gets complex. But Okot is also entering very dangerous territory. Any African knows just how dangerous it is to even express knowledge of pre-colonial gods; even if you know, you must pretend ignorance. Even the most highly educated feels the pressure to pay lip service to the Christian god. At Makerere, Okot would have walked past the Main Hall flanked by two Christian churches, his own faculty under the shadow of the Protestant St. Francis Church. It need not be said that academia, as the British brought it to Uganda, must first acknowledge the primacy of the Christian doctrine. Throw away the cloak of academia from colonial anthropology and you can clearly see the medievalism in the saga. Growing up in Lango, I was aware that the word Jok was associated with the unsayable, not exactly the devil himself, but the dark and the demonic. And yet next door to the Luo speakers, among the Ateker, the very word itself denotes goodness and sanctity: in Teso we used to sing “Ejok na Edeke” – God is good. In Lango itself, a song sang to children wishing them a prosperous future mentioned Jok, “Jo’jok amalo do/Atini dong roman do,” as a line went, so it was also a word associated with the good among the Luo, for who wishes demons upon her baby?
It was in later years that I came to understand that the fear of jok was itself the shame we had in our own material past, which shame the priests reminded you of each Sunday morning, and via a catechism you learnt by rote. Those of us who dodged catechism classes for confirmation were forbidden from the Eucharist, and can never marry under the Christian banner. These catechism classes are the forges in which black people are still daily taught to be ashamed of their blackness. It will never end, for the forced conversion accuses us of a sin we can’t help but commit; it accuses us of being black.
Okot’s unacceptable truths
Okot starts his dissection of Jok by going into the myths of their genesis. The Jok came in various ways. But one interesting one is that it was the founding leaders of the various Acholi states (chiefdom is a reductive colonial term) that also brought the Jok, as indeed Constantine imposed Christianity on Rome. The founder of Patiko, Atiko himself (we learn from Okot that the many Acholi states starting with “Pa” follow after their founder. Hence, Atiko founder of Patiko, Aweli founder of Pawel, etc.); so that this Jok becomes thought of as the god of Atiko, as others can speak of the god of Abraham.
The Jok of Patiko were Baka and Alela. The complexity here is that Baka and Alela then gave names to hills, so that when he came to Patiko, John Beattie concluded that these hills were considered the father and the mother of the people. Okot sought out a priest of Baka who he said laughed at the idea and said Jok Baka and Alela merely resided in caves in the hills.
He examines the Jok of Koc, called Jok Lokka. It is recognisable in many religious founding myths when the Acholi of Koc, after they fled hunger and crossed the Nile (not the first people in religious mythology to cross the Nile in search of bounty) to Bunyoro, say that one Ojwiya disappeared into the wilderness and returned transformed and started performing miracles, including for instance, multiplying the number of chicks. They called the Jok of Ojwiya Jok Lokka because he came from across the Nile. A people with a religious myth like this can only be converted for political, not religious, reasons. In truth there was little daylight between the religion of it in these parts and the biblical accounts.
As Okot writes, he refamiliarises to you the African reader, what colonial ethnographers had alienated. But he also puts these religious beliefs squarely within the locus of what all religions appear to have — founding myths, miraculous births, disappearances into the wilderness. But religion is politics, and imperialism commanded that savages cannot have a past similar to that of the conqueror.
These anthropologists never imagined that black people would ever read what they wrote. Open any anthropology text and the statement is always there. This may have emboldened them to print any balderdash they cooked up. But could these scholars also not have considered that people were forbidden to discuss their religion with strangers and that the answers they received were wilfully diversionary? Was Okot told the truth because he was himself a local?
Okot also discusses totems and food prohibitions. Although these are closely held, they are not gods, Okot insists, for these totems were so interpreted by colonial scholars who henceforth said that because say an elephant or leopard totem was given near-human potency, it indicated worship. They ought to have followed the matter to discover that those of the elephant clan considered it one of them but not above them.
Okot also states that keeping an ancestral shrine (Abila), and making sacrifices to ancestors did not indicate ancestor worship.
Ala, Omarari and Abiba
It gets more intricate, and as the unfurling of Jok continues, it begins to appear that the term was indeed very widely conceived. It seems to go beyond the idea of a deity. Take the so-called “cults” of Ala, Omarari and Abiba. Omarari is said to have appeared at the end of the First World War. Ala came earlier, Abiba around the Second World War.
It is on the question of “cults” that it starts to become hard to call colonial anthropology an academic discipline. Even Okot’s own reaction is problematic. Could they and he not see what was right there in their face?
The “cults”, said to have “followers” and that feel different to the earlier “jok”, are Ala, Omarari, Abiba and others but I will concentrate on these three.
Take Ala. The “cult” performance of Ala consisted of wearing long white robes and turban and pronouncing Arabic words. We already start to see where this is heading. The “followers” of Abiba are said to have believed that a “witch” sent kites into the sky which had fire in their anuses. There is less description of Omarari except to say it followed an epidemic.
Each of these “cults” follow major events and intrusions into these societies. And then they disappear as quickly. What they appear to be are memorialization and communication, performance arts that mark their epoch.
Were these gods, cults or simply pieces of theatre and performing arts, in the manner of masquerade ceremonies? Do plays and films that gain cult status signal worship? Does Elvis Presley following, sightings, costuming, festivals or re-enactments of the American Civil War signal religion? Is the one a god and Gettysburg worshiped? Are the ritualized practices of psychotherapy to heal soldiers returning from war witchcraft? The so-called Abiba cult, a presentation of bombers in mythologised form, was precisely that, albeit by African experts to heal black soldiers returning from Burma (the painting, Guernica, had its own way of portraying this terrifying new power).
There is reason to believe that the “cult” of Ala was a way of dealing with the trauma of Arab slavers from Sudan, for they invoked “Allah” when they attacked Africans.
As with Woko, Wi-lobo, Ru-piny, and Bala and Alela rocks, the notion of the cult reveals the pugnacious impatience imperial scholars had towards the ways of the people they had come to occupy. Those who waited a minute to really try and understand Africa, like Girling, were accused of going native. White people who disagreed with imperialism were severely ostracized. Nuances that would have separated philosophy, legalities (we have not even talked about the manner in which African laws were reduced to taboos), performance arts from religion were cruelly traduced.
To worsen it, The Witchcraft Act was passed which broadly illegalised the people’s beliefs, arts, philosophies and psychotherapy practices. Missionaries established missionary villages at which children were held captive and punished if found to have learnt their culture.
The amassed ranks of colonial scholars are today a disgraced lot. Few if any in Africa take them seriously. Colonialism and its colour bars had artificially kept their magic alive. Decolonisation meant western universities had to tread carefully and, in an interesting twist, many Western scholars are today at the forefront of the defence of African history, as witness the publication of this book. But the hegemony persists, for rather than colour bars, new barriers like travel restrictions mean that western research maintains its extractive practice. The kind of access western scholars have to Africa, African scholars cannot have in their countries. In this industry, we remain native informers. The prosthetics of censorship such as Okot suffered may have kept their respectability for only so long, but the damage they and universities like Oxford did to people of colour will endure for a very long time.
By now, we are wondering where Lawino and her song comes in. Very closely indeed. It appears to have its roots in the worship and prayer ceremonies to jok, which is fitting, for arts everywhere are largely secularised religious rites. Okot being Okot, we expect him to move beyond the turf war with European scholars and celebrate the social and religious side of his Central Luo. He does so with aplomb. His thesis settles frequently into enjoying the beauty of Acholi culture. The most humorous part for me is the quotation of the prayer offered by the people of Palaro to their Jok, Lapul. It bears quoting at length for there is the suggestion that this is the prototype for the Lawino-Okot joust:
Pule oh (Pule is pet name of Lapul)
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyaka mutero coo i rok
The girl who marries a man outside the chiefdom
Mor wange woko
Explode her eyeballs
Anyaka ma deg awone Palaro
The girl who rejects men of Palaro
Anyaka me mito lu-rok
The girl who loves foreigners
Nek Wang cware woko
Kill her husband’s eyes
Nek cware woko
Kill her husband
The men had had their say before God. Now the women stepped forth:
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyira wai bene litinni
The girls are also your children
Wegi bolli no
Your children with the spears (penis)
Bene gukelo anyira rok
Have also brought foreign girls
Ci pe ineko wanggi
But you have not killed their eyes
Wan bene gin ma neko wang wa peke
We too nothing will kill our eyes
Okwong ki la-lam
Let it (misfortune) begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Wek okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Mukelo anyira rok
Whoever brings a foreign girl
Nek wange woko
Kill his eyes
Nek dako-ne woko
Kill his wife
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic, konywa
Pule (daughter) of Lacic, help us
The Existential Crisis Created by Humanity’s Addiction to Plastic
The materials used to make every day plastic items are harmful to human health yet we still make plastic because we need it. It is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else.
The late American comedian George Carlin had a hilarious routine where he made fun of our existential crisis about plastics and the environment. “The planet . . . is a self-correcting system,” he’d say, “The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed.” Then he’d add, “And if it’s true that plastic is not biodegradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic.”
We might as well be living in that reality now—of the earth plus plastic. In the same way different eras of human history are named for the materials that most defined them, like the Iron and Bronze Ages, some geologists now refer to our time as the Plasticene—The Age of Plastics. We’ve never mass produced or distributed any other synthetic substance at so large a scale across the world as we have plastic. With it has come vast plastic pollution, finding the solution to which is hampered by the fact that we created plastic and now need it despite the dangers it poses to every living thing on earth.
Plastic, broadly defined as “a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers”, is a relatively modern invention. Although its history dates back to the 19th century, we didn’t start large-scale production of completely synthetic everyday materials until the 1950s. And we’ve never stopped.
In the seven decades since the ‘50s, human beings have created more than 9 billion metric tons of plastic, more than half of them in the last two decades alone. That’s billions of tons of a material we know to be essentially non-biodegradable.
Some optimistic estimates by organisations such as UNEP are that we have recycled about 9 per cent of it, while environmental activists say it is a lot less than that. Either way, it means that most, if not all, the plastic ever made is still around, and every year, we add nearly 400 million tons more. A lot of it is single-use plastic, destined to be used once and thrown away.
“We currently dump 11 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said recently, adding, “In 2018 alone, impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least US$6-9 billion globally.”
Plastic was originally good for the environment. When it was first invented in the mid-19th century, it was primarily made from cellulose, the basic building block of all plants. Its biggest selling points, even then, were that it was malleable, meaning it could be moulded into different shapes and designed for different uses. In fact the word plastic—from the Greek word “plastikos” which means to “grow” or “form”—initially referred to this capacity to be deformed without rupturing. A derivative type of that early plastic made in the 1860s soon found use as an alternative to ivory, which was harvested off slaughtered elephants and used to make everything from piano keys to billiards.
Modern hydrocarbon-based plastics trace their history back to 1907, when Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, invented a fully synthetic plastic, the first of its kind, and called it Bakelite. Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later. Unlike the cellulose-based plastics that had come before, Bakelite was cheap to make and could be easily mass-produced. But it would be another four decades before plastics spread across the globe. In that time, research focused on making new plastics and finding uses for them. Plastic and other related inventions of the pre-World War II era, such as nylon, soon found uses on the war fronts, increasing demand and boosting production.
Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later.
We still make plastic because we need it. Plastic is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else. It’s in our homes, our offices, our cars, our computers and phones, and in nearly every aspect of our lives. It makes toys, pipes, building materials, furniture, medical equipment and countless other things. For example, by the time Kenya banned single-use plastic carrier bags in 2017, the plastic industry was supplying an estimated 100 million plastic bags to supermarkets every month.
A prevailing defence by Big Plastic is that when it comes to transporting food, beverages and other essentials to 8 billion people, plastic has the lowest carbon footprint compared to alternatives. The main problem though, is that its relatively short useful lifespan does not justify how long it persists in the environment. Even worse, most consumer plastic is designed to be used only once and discarded; US magazine advertisements in the 1950s pushed plastic as better than existing reusable products because it was cheap and easily replaceable.
Such overt advertising of the most visible pollutant we’ve ever made would not work today. The reason is that in the last six decades, plastic has progressively lost its lustre. It is unclear when plastic began losing the crowd, but one aspect of this decline in reputation was the very things that made plastic such a popular material in the first place. Plastic is cheap, so the word ‘plastic’ soon acquired a new use, as a word used to describe something that is cheap (in quality), and fake. By the late 1960s, it was increasingly clear that plastic was here to stay, and that it was not good for the environment. The growth and impact of the anti-plastics movement in the next two decades triggered questions about how the situation could be salvaged, hence the birth of recycling campaigns from the early 1970s.
Recycling was never going to work, and the proof of this is that it was a compromise solution driven primarily by the plastic industry. After a major oil spill in the United States in 1969 kindled political pressure to act on the environment, the plastic industry lobbied heavily against drastic action. Their solution was to push for recycling, although everyone involved already knew that it would not work because the technology to do it effectively did not exist at the time.
Recycling has improved since the 1980s, but it is still an ineffective way of managing all the plastic waste produced each day. Another very problematic aspect of recycling is the global waste trade, which sees countries in the West send their plastic waste to poor countries to be sorted and recycled.
We’ve always known that the hydrocarbons we so lucratively mine from the earth and transform into fuels and plastics are not just polluting the planet, but could also be affecting our health. Part of the reason for the slow pace in dealing with the threat posed by plastics, despite the fact that their ubiquity means that any potential harm could be widespread, is that the “war on plastics” has focused mainly on where discarded products end up, and the indirect impact on health. In a 2018 report, UNEP reiterated the known risk that “By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of diseases like malaria.”
However, a growing body of research now shows that plastic is not just in the environment around us, it is also inside us. Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch. We eat seafood and land animals that have consumed plastics. For example, a 2018 study by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) found plastic bags (and nylon strings and synthetic hair) in the stomachs of more than half the animals slaughtered in three major abattoirs.
“Marine and other species ingest plastics and absorb the chemicals within them,” says Erastus Ooko, Plastic Project Engagement Lead for Greenpeace Africa, “and then we ingest them. It has been clear for a long time that the toxins in their bodies are going up the food chain but it is hard to quantify in practice.”
Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch.
Further, chemicals such as Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, which is used to harden plastics and is found in a number of consumer products, including drinking containers, baby bottles, and the linings of infant formula and food cans, have also been shown to leach into foods and beverages. Thus the question is not whether we are consuming plastic, but how much of it we are consuming and with what impacts.
Although plastic is non-biodegradable in that it takes a long time to degrade, it does break down with time and usage into smaller particles known as microplastics, which can also degrade over time into even smaller particles known as nanoplastics. Most of the plastic we consume is in this micro and nano form, making it hard, but not impossible (in the case of microplastics), to detect or even study. A 2020 study found that infants consume millions of microplastic particles per litre when fed using polypropylene (PP) infant feeding bottles. PP is a common household plastic, and other studies have shown PP microplastic release from food containers, kettles, and other everyday items.
That we eat a substantial amount of microplastics is not itself a surprise—we also inhale and consume dust, sand, insects and other minute things unknowingly every day. The difference is that microplastics are synthetic and pose direct risks as foreign bodies in our bodies, and because of their chemical makeup.
We most likely excrete most of these micro plastics. But there is a significant gap in research on the damage they do to our bodies, and in what gets absorbed into the body. What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways. A 2020 report by The Endocrine Society found that “one hundred and forty-four chemicals or chemical groups known to be hazardous to human health are actively used in plastics.”
The dose makes the poison
One of these is BPA, a known endocrine disrupting chemical that interferes with normal hormonal function. These effects are not minor; studies have suggested that the disruption can lead to birth defects, developmental problems in children, cancers, and immune system suppression.
The key challenge in assessing just how badly this chemical group has affected human health is that within plastics, which are complex polymers, BPA is a benign addition. It can, however, be released as plastics wear down, or are heated repeatedly, meaning that it’s hard to trace just when and where it enters the human body and what damage it leaves behind.
Another chemical, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is a suspected carcinogen and potential endocrine disruptor. DEHP was the most common plasticiser for decades, mainly used in the making of Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) but is slowly being replaced with alternatives due to concerns about its toxicity to multiple organ systems, including the reproductive system and thyroid function. A recent study compared the levels of DEHP and two other chemicals in dog testes from several regions in Europe and found a parallel between high DEHP and testicular conditions. The study suggests that this may be indicative of the situation among human males, because dogs and human beings share the same everyday environment and are exposed to the same household contaminants.
What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways.
The most obvious place to begin when assessing the direct effects of plastics to human health is with those who make them. Since the 1970s, for example, scientists have suspected, and subsequently confirmed, that vinyl chloride, the building block of PVC, is a carcinogen that can and has led to occupational cancers. A 2011 study found a link between high DEHP concentrations in the air breathed by workers in PVC plants with negative effects on sperm motility, among other adverse effects. Another exposed group, Ooko says, are communities who live around plastic manufacturing plants, who could be suffering health conditions due to the fumes and other chemicals released during the manufacturing process.
For these and other reasons, the European Union has banned DEHP and two other chemicals from all plastic items that children might put in their mouths, such as toys, since 2007. Under new rules that came into force in 2020, this ban is now extended to all other consumer products, regulating the amount of DEHP and other potentially harmful chemicals that people come into contact with. “There has been a huge knowledge gap in how plastics affect human health. Things get attention when direct connections can be made, and the direct connections between plastic and health conditions came in at a later stage,” Ooko explains.
Similarly, chemicals used to make styrofoam products such as styrene monomer and benzene are suspected carcinogens. Then there’s the heavy metals, water repellents, and flame retardants used in the making of plastics. Although heavy metals such as lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, and bromine are found in nature, our current exposure to them is primarily through synthetic things like plastic. Some research has shown that not only are these metals, which in substantial quantities are detrimental to human health, present in plastics, but they can also be absorbed by microplastics from the environment.
In the 2000s, as our appetite for plastic exploded, scientists began focusing more and more on the health effects to human beings and animals beyond just marine life. Bans such as the DEHP bans in Europe and single-use plastic bans in Kenya and other places are driven not just by environmental concerns, but also by human health ones. This transition is still slow, because the research on health effects is still scant, and is held back by complications such as how to determine what harm plastic is doing to our health when it is present in the body of nearly every living human being.
Carlin’s comedy set ends with the idea that perhaps plastic was the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned in the first place. “It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.” Then he’d add, “Could be the answer to the age-old egocentric philosophical question: ‘Why are we here?’” It is an answer that may be slowly poisoning us.
Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.
Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.
That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.
Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.
The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.
Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.
I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.
Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.
There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.
Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.
My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.
On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.
On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.
Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.
Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.
In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.
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