There is a children’s game where a message is whispered from one person to the next, down along a single-file line. By the time it reaches the last person, the message is inevitably mangled and barely resembles its original. This game is a schoolyard miniature of the real-life dynamics of rumours; it illustrates what happens when we pass on what we think we hear. In the U.S., we call this game “Telephone”. In Kenya, it is called “Chinese whispers.”
The video starts with a long frame: the door of a construction site office in Kakamega. Pasted on the top and sides of the door are red huīchūn, Chinese New Year banners with auspicious benedictions. In the background, a man says everything you need to know about the rest of the video: “Watu wanasema hawa watu wako na ugonjwa”. They’re saying these people have a disease.
A pick-up truck rolls in, and a young Chinese man hops out, backpack slung over his shoulder. Two Chinese men emerge from another door, each with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. These men are filmed long range, as in wildlife photography. The telephoto lens is long enough to capture their facial expressions—wry laughter while killing time and waiting, gathering for something—but too far to capture anything they’re saying. Silent, inscrutable smiles.
In the same week that a suspected carrier of COVID-19—previously known as the Wuhan coronavirus after the source of the outbreak—flew into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, there were at least two other instances of “coronavirus scares” at Chinese construction camps in Kenya that did not make the headlines. In Kakamega, a rumour about a Chinese man wearing a face mask with blood dripping from his nose prompted someone to alert the Ministry of Health. Medical professionals were dispatched, accompanied by police. The screening process was documented by local news agencies, including the rogue YouTube channel Magical Kenya News, which posted a video entitled “CORONA VIRUS SCARE IN KAKAMEGA”. (Magical Kenya has since taken it down, a representative said, because YouTube does not monetise COVID-19-related content.)
The rest of the video is the familiar molasses drawl of medical bureaucracy: some Chinese men being screened and paperwork filed, but mostly little else happening. In an interview later given by the OCPD (Officer Commanding Police Division) overseeing the screening, health workers screened seven Chinese people, together with Kenyans who had been in close contact with them, but found no flu-like symptoms, nor any history of recent travel to China.
“That’s Li… Chong…” the OCPD says, drawing the vowels into the back of his throat, referring to the young man with the backpack. “He came from China on 17 July”. “And since that time last year, no colleagues of ours have come from China”, said “Li Chong”, shaking his head, compliant but vexed. The OCPD, wearing a mask with only the top straps tied, says, “It’s good also to take precautions. Just like you did when you went to the… with the… with this”—gesturing to the dust mask the Chinese man had worn, which instigated this coronavirus scare—“you were taking precautions”.
But that is precisely the perversity of coronavirus, isn’t it? That, in this instance, no one did anything wrong. Better safe than sorry. It was just a Chinese man wearing a dust mask, but what if it wasn’t? An epidemic raises stakes so that biological risks force us to take actions that we feel are racist but which, we swear, aren’t.
COVID-19 is a diasporic disease—in the sense that it has lit up in its path the global tracks of the Chinese diaspora—but also because of the identities it has activated abroad. The fears the epidemic has stoked have far outpaced its spread, and discussion of the disease’s politics, for better or worse, often outweighs that of epidemiology. Its ripple effects are familiar to anyone in a diaspora: negotiating how much distance to put between yourself and your origin—“origin” being that which others perceive it to be, and what ills they perceive it to embody.
Isn’t it ironic that face masks make us look even more the same than they say we already do?
Five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre” that was meant to be doing something diplomatic. Five years ago, there was no Standard Gauge Railway stretching from Mombasa to Nairobi, built by World Bank-blacklisted Chinese contractors with loans extended by the Chinese Import-Export Bank and tainted with political graft. There was no Xinhua headquarters. No Chinese children at art summer camps. This is no longer the case.
The narrative of the Chinese takeover is a simple story, and simple stories are the strongest, like deep, ready grooves along which individual stories and images slide, all going in the same direction. The Chinese man caning a Kenyan employee melds into frozen Chinese tilapia thawed and sold in Gikomba as Lolwe’s fresh catch melds into “Made in China” vitenge melds into the Chinese man caught on video calling Uhuru a monkey melds into the swarms of passengers unloaded into Kenya twice a week from China Southern Airlines planes that refuse to stop flying.
Five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre”
The invasion narrative derives much of its power exactly from how powerless most Kenyans feel to stop it. What political agency do everyday Kenyan citizens truly have over the looming spectre of “China” in all its forms, political, economic, and demographic? Not very much. The centralised, national nature of Kenya-China negotiation—not to mention the current absence of a cohesive political opposition in Kenya, plus basal corruption within the entire political system—means that, on the whole, there are few avenues for an individual Kenyan citizen to exercise power, to resist.
Is this natural paranoia towards a national invader much different from that towards a pathological invader? After all, disgust is our bodies’ evolved reaction to the trespassing of boundaries, argues geographer Theo Aalders, PhD candidate in Environmental Social Science at the University of Gothenburg. Whether the boundaries are those of our own physical bodies or those of a nation, things that are out of their place, things that can move into our own space, can trigger the primary, deep emotion of disgust.
We fear COVID-19, this mysterious, invisible, deadly pathogen that enters bodies without permission, precisely because—short of very extreme measures—we are almost powerless to stop its entry. COVID-19 and China: both foreign contagions, carried by air, indifferent to borders and boundaries, indifferent to the bodies they enter and “colonise,” yet capable of wreaking havoc on core functions.
However, if disgust results from the trespassing of boundaries, then this emotional reflex to invasion is not inherently bad. “On one hand, this reflex is at the root of every anti-colonial movement of every revolution against foreign invaders, so it’s something very progressive, something extremely liberating”, says Aalders. Take the proposed Lamu Coal Plant, for example: its promoters steamrolled past the voices of the local communities its construction would threaten and whose livelihoods it would destroy, a coal plant whose construction would ravage the rich archive of Swahili culture that is Lamu Town. The activists and communities that organised to defeat the coal plant—and ultimately did—drew from a form of repulsion at neoliberal development, at conquest, at invasion of their “boundaries.” But they were able to do this without sliding down the grooves of a simple “Chinese invasion” narrative. The remedy to sinophobia is not sinophilia; it is nuance.
What political agency do everyday Kenyan citizens truly have over the looming spectre of “China” in all its forms, political, economic, and demographic?
But once the scale shifts from a national level to an individual level, according to Aalders, then suddenly this potentially very liberating emotion or reflex turns into its own opposite. That “disgust” is now projected towards an individual, perhaps a Chinese man wearing a mask.
It was the second Sunday in a row that we all had to wear masks to church in Nairobi. I have been attending a Chinese immigrant church in the small rented room of an office building—vacant on Sunday mornings but for us—with grey plastic picnic chairs, a blue carpet over-ripening to brown, a projector for lyrics and sermon PowerPoints, but very little else. At the door, the usher politely requested us to take one light blue surgical mask from a plastic box, plus a pump of hand sanitiser. As we sang, the masks would cling to our faces as we breathed in, and puff out as we breathed out: words pulsing in and out on blue masks like heartbeats on our faces.
The first week that we wore masks in church, the pastor told us that the masks did not symbolise a lack of faith. The church headquarters in Taiwan had suggested that its congregations begin taking extra precautions because they were diaspora churches after all, comprised of people travelling from greater China, especially right after Chinese New Year. COVID-19 had wrought chaos and tragedy on what ought to have been a celebration comprised of millions of family gatherings, many hard-earned after a year of migrant work far from home. But now, because of limited flights from China and general uncertainty, people were travelling in disorganised spurts from China back to countries like Kenya where they usually worked. Now, Pastor said, we must make use of the means God has provided to protect ourselves.
But the second time we wore masks in church, the pastor told us we needed to take a vote. Direct flights from China to Kenya were still running, and although the Chinese Embassy in Kenya had suggested travellers from China self-quarantine for 14 days upon landing in Kenya, many were still going about their normal lives, frequenting grocery stores, offices, restaurants. Perhaps we should consider worship from home for the next two Sundays, Pastor said. He gave us a couple of minutes to pray about it.
“Ok now, who is in favour of suspending meeting at church temporarily for the next two weeks?” Eyes darted around. Four hands. “Don’t look at others!” A couple more hands. “And who is in favour of continuing to meet here?” It was a tie.
COVID-19 and China: both foreign contagions, carried by air, indifferent to borders and boundaries, indifferent to the bodies they enter and “colonise”
The pastor asked one woman how her husband, who had just left to use the bathroom, would vote, and she said she didn’t know. But just then he walked in and, chuckling as he realised he was to break the deadlock, said, “Zài jiā bei”. Let’s just stay home.
After the worship service was over, one man who had voted to keep coming to church—a northerner whose voice resonated within his stout, square body and throughout the room—was yelling. Not at anyone in particular, just about the situation, about the strictures that were hemming in his life. “Masks, masks, wear here, wear there!”. He wanted to will normalcy into being. A Taiwanese brother tried to soothe him, saying that he too had never worn masks until now, and see how he even had to take his off while singing because it was bothering him, but at the end of the day we still needed to be careful.
The northerner sighed. “They’re saying we have to wear them everywhere, even in front of black people”. Even in its absence—or perhaps because of the potential of landfall, that fear of coronavirus which outpaces coronavirus itself—the disease was demanding that we change our movement and gathering. Those light blue masks that we hated, in the eyes of those around us, were ironically omens of the very disease from which we were trying to protect ourselves. We manage our lives against gazes.
I imagined what someone in the hallway would see, looking through the window into our little, dim, grey church with a telephoto lens, our mouths moving silently, our faces ever inscrutable.
Diaspora has its own set of physics. It distorts us through the gaze of those around us, just as I, growing up in America, have always been more Chinese than I have ever wanted to be, only to find when I go to China that I had been seeing myself through a diaspora funhouse mirror and will never be Chinese enough.
The relationship between “homeland” and present-land determines how big or small you appear in the mirror, and this changes completely depending on where you happen to be. In Kenya, as if with a tilt of the head, my image changes in an instant. No longer an ethnic minority in a white country, I am, rather, an unwilling participant in a story of exploitation. My face represents a force against which Kenyans feel they have no power.
Surely sinophobia does not map in the same way in every country. Surely the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, complicit, whether we want to be or not, in some form of exploitation, does not experience sinophobia in the same way that the Chinese living in Italy do. The phobias that orient those of us in places far from home—sinophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia—are barely sufficient to describe these shapeshifting spectra of power and shades of unbelonging.
Sometimes when we feel too much a stranger, we look for something familiar where we are. What a precious little paradox, to seek small replicas of home that comfort us even as they remind us how far away we really are. It was only when I began reporting on the coronavirus epidemic that I began regularly attending the Chinese church in Nairobi.
I had been to this particular office-building-church before. Its congregation included white- and blue-collar Christians from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Chinese immigrant churches are in many ways all cut from the same cloth, and for me, this little church—in its particular smallness and messiness and diversity, and its big post-service Chinese lunch—was very similar to the churches that I had grown up in, Chinese churches that—with no significant time spent in China—were my only point of reference to the homeland.
I had spent at least a couple of weeks reporting on COVID-19, especially around the first suspected case in Kenya, writing about everything from how test kits work to the situation of Kenyan students trapped in Wuhan. Tweeting about coronavirus filled my mentions with snakes, bats, and go-homes, which was neither surprising nor unbearable. Coronavirus has become a racialised problem everywhere in the world, and Kenya is no exception. But the entire process left me feeling alienated in ways I did not want to admit to myself. Something, in the end, turned me towards “home,” which, in the absence of actual home, meant church.
Those light blue masks that we hated, in the eyes of those around us, were ironically omens of the very disease from which we were trying to protect ourselves
That first Sunday when we had to wear masks, in the bridge of one of the songs, the slide said “individual worship”, and everyone prayed aloud by themselves. The man behind me, a Beijinger who always wore the same black jacket and pants to church, prayed loudly. Loud, but not just so others could hear. This I knew because his sentences were elliptical; they didn’t make sense strung together. He begged God to draw near. He prayed for Wuhan, for China. For Kenya. Protect us, Lord. Every so often, he would pause, inhale, and, on the exhale, breathe out: “Zhǔ ah”, O Lord. Draw near.
Perhaps it was the dry cracks in his voice, or how loud he prayed to Someone who already knew his heart. Maybe it was because it sounded like a solo cutting through a chorus of other solos, or the fact that all our words were a little muffled by our masks. I started to cry.
I realised then that, though I was for a long time steeped in everything coronavirus—numbers, policy, statements, projections—as well as the thick, thorny political discourse about it online, this was the first time I had been exposed to people who were merely, truly grieving. People who, between breaths of begging God, entreating with small sentences simplified by pain, were hurting on behalf of those who had been rent apart by this disaster. People who were themselves rent apart.
In the polemic and racism weighing down this diasporic disease, I thought, the missing timbre has been grief. For as much as sinophobia maps differently around the world, there is one thing it requires all of us in the Chinese diaspora to do: consider how we are seen. And, in a time of coronavirus, this means that others’ gaze has shrunken the space within which people can grieve.
This, perhaps, is the cost of speaking in “Chinese whispers.”
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Removing a Dictator
How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?
In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.
Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.
Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”
The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.
On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.
While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.
A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:
In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.
While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?”
In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.
People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.
As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.
One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.
In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.
A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government, when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”
Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.
These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.
The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.
While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”
Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.
If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.
So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.
The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.
At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.
“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”
The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.
“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.
Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.
“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.
Then, another surprise.
“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.
“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.
Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.
“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.
So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.
On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.
“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.
Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.
“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.
The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.
“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.
“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”
Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense. So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.
John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”
John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.
Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.
“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.
After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.
James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”
Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in
There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.
Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.
James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.
Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.
“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.
Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.
Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:
“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”
“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.
Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.
Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.
In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.
The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.
Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.
The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.
In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.
Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.
News and their social epidemics
With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.
In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.
A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?
Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.
Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.
News and confirmation bias
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.
To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.
Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.
Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.
Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.
Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.
Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).
Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.
The worst must be reported
Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.
Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.
An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.
A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.
“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”
“So why look here?” asks the officer.
“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.
It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.
There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.
The Anatomy of a Stereotype
A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.
There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.
Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.
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