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Unleash the Bulls!

13 min read.

Stanley Gazemba sets out to unveil the myths that surround bullfighting, a sport with a huge following among the Kisa, Idakho, Isukha, Banyore and Batsotso sub-tribes of the greater Luhya community, and meets with grizzled veterans of this popular blood sport.

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Unleash the Bulls!
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I watched a bullfight at the famous Malinya Stadium in Shinyalu, Kakamega, one Saturday morning. For all the hype around the preparations for the bullfight, it turned out to be a brief affair that lasted barely thirty minutes. I hardly caught any of the action because of the surging, twig-waving crowds and the billowing dust. Having woken up at dawn to catch the fight, I was a bit disappointed to have it end so abruptly but what did register from that war-chanting crowd was the adrenaline. It was a living thing that you could feel pulsate in the air. Many of the spectators had stayed up most of the night drinking traditional busaa beer in anticipation of the fight and as they led off the winning bull, dancing to the beat of the isukuti drums, I knew it was going to be a long day of binge drinking and debauchery, going by the content of the songs they were singing. It is the reason why I decided to find someone to take me to meet some of the figures behind the bullfighting.

Our quest for the bullfighters starts at the Eregi Road junction on the Chavakali-Kakamega highway where my guide and I mount boda bodas and set off down the dusty murram road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The ten-minute ride through the sleepy village centres along the route ends at a popular busaa-drinking place called Handshake, a large mud-walled, tin-roofed enclosure in Chandumba village on the border of Vihiga and Kakamega counties where I presume all the boda boda fares are headed since very few of the bikes go beyond this point. A cool breeze blows from the scenic Mlimani hills overlooking the rolling valley in neighbouring Ishiunira.

We talk politics for a while and sample the brew and pork as we wait for the old veteran we are here to meet, a devout Catholic, like most of the people in the area, who never misses the first mass. After a while the churches start emptying and one by one the faithful saunter in, still in their Sunday whites – both men and women – to spend Caesar’s coin. Our contact turns out to be a frail old man in a sagging old tweed coat who surveys us with a squint as we shake hands. He is in the company of another old man who walks with a pronounced limp, leaning rather heavily on his well-worn walking stick. I am intrigued. I can hardly picture the two rallying a well-fed champion bull to lock horns with a rival’s in a packed stadium. The image they conjure up is that of smalltime traders at a village market, or village headmen.

I soon learn that bullfighting is a sport that is almost as old as the Luhya tribe, specifically the Idakho, Isukha and Batsotso sub-tribes who neighbour each other. The bulls are revered by these communities, and their owners are held in very high regard. When we later leave Handshake to visit the home of one of the veterans, Mzee Mukoto, in neighbouring Mativini village I witness a unique spectacle. The owners actually speak to their bulls, and the bulls understand them. As we walk through the village, we come across a young man leading to pasture a young bull that is being bred to fight. The young man is not carrying a herding stick, but instead keeps whispering instructions to the bull as they walk along the road, telling it to turn this way and that, which it does. We pass a market centre and we expect it to charge at the women traders seated by the roadside, and who seem not at all alarmed as the bull comes in their direction. The herdsman overhears our fears and smiles. “It won’t harm them”, he assures us. And sure enough, he guides it by the mouth steadily through the rickety stalls without damaging a tomato. It is something to behold.

I soon learn that bullfighting is a sport that is almost as old as the Luhya tribe, specifically the Idakho, Isukha and Batsotso sub-tribes

There are many myths associated with the bulls, some of which are revealed to me, though from the looks that are exchanged, I can tell that others are being withheld. For one, it is taboo for an owner to engage in sex the night before a fight. Bull owners believe that if this taboo is broken the consequences on the day of the fight can be grave. The bull could run berserk and plow into the crowd or even turn its deadly horns on the owner. Others claim that breaking a taboo can also cause the bull to lose focus and end up gored to death by its rival. They all agree that when such a disaster befalls an otherwise well-bred bull, there must be an underlying reason.

The other cause for disaster in the arena is if two bull owners who carry a grudge against each other – a past disagreement over a business matter or a long-running family feud – agree to a fight. It is believed that this affects the performance of the bull, since it shares the feelings of the owner and can communicate with him through a form of telepathy. An owner who agrees to such a bout is signing the death warrant of one of the bulls. It is extremely important for the rivals to have a clean heart when they shake hands on a deal.

“It is not really a duel”, explains Mzee Mukoto. “You see, if I own a bull that you feel can square off with yours, what happens is that you approach me as a friend and we talk over the matter maybe over a pot of beer. When we are in agreement that our bulls can face off we then agree on a date and a figure for the winning bull, say ten thousand or above. Our friends can either chip in or place wagers. Sometimes a wealthy patron will come in and place a good sum on the winning bull. The fans are also important because they have to agree to the contest, otherwise it will have to be called off. If there is the slightest doubt in the mind of either owner the contest must similarly be called off. That is because if it proceeds against the wishes of one party then it will result in disaster”.

“Both sides having agreed we then shake hands and go off to prepare the bulls for the big day. Depending on the popularity of our bulls, word will often spread very quickly and everyone in the neighbouring villages starts to anticipate the big day. We look at it as a gentleman’s agreement, and not really a contest as such. And the money is only a motivator and not really the main aim; often the winning owner will spend most of the prize money entertaining his friends and village mates after the victory. It is something we do because of the love, and not really a business where you expect to make money”.

Preparing a bull for the fight is a craft shrouded in mystery. The bull is mostly fed and bred in isolation from the rest of the herd, with a special paddock and a zero-grazing unit set aside for it in the homestead. To preserve the bull’s virility, mating with the rest of the herd is discouraged. Its isolation is also meant to drive the bull wild at the sight of its rival.

There are many myths associated with the bulls, some of which are revealed to me, but from the looks that are exchanged, I can tell that others are being withheld

About three days before the fight, in addition to choice foliage, the owner starts to feed his bull on maseke, the millet residue from the beer brewing process. On the eve of the fight he prepares a special concoction called dawa, wraps it in a maize leaf and asks a favourite son to feed it to the bull at dawn. I probe for the contents of the dawa but I am met with sly smiles. “Everyone has special herbs in their family or clan that they have traditionally used to prepare the bulls”, is all my host will divulge. But as the conversation progresses, attracting the input of the other villagers, they soon reveal that it is common practice to feed cannabis to the bulls or make them inhale the smoke on the morning of the fight to make them more aggressive.

As the conversation with Mzee Mukoto progresses, it emerges that the thrill of the sport is in the savagery exhibited in the arena by the fighting bulls, the sight of a 500-kilo beast pawing the ground, grunting deeply as it sizes up its opponent before hunching its massive shoulders, lowering its head and launching into the charge, slamming headfirst into its equally massive opponent. It is the height of virility that is on display as the beasts grapple with each other, muscles rippling, coats shiny with sweat, mirroring the law of the African savanna, where the strongest male emerges as the ruler of the herd, driving the vanquished off his turf. It is this sexual undertone that is at the heart of the sport, and which the fans celebrate after victory as if to say to the opposing village that they are the more virile.

And as happens in the wilds of the savanna, there is always the threat of danger, both to the contestants and the spectators. Like old soldiers, most of the veterans I talk to carry the scars of their bullfighting days. My host pulls back his shirtsleeve and extends his arm, inviting me to feel the lump in the ulna bone. “My bull broke this arm. Unfortunately it wasn’t set properly by the bone-setter, which is why you can feel it didn’t heal properly”, he explains, the gleam of an old soldier at a veteran’s reunion in his eyes. I try to discern any hint of sadness or regret in the depths of his eyes but there is none there, only pride. He appears to wear his wounds like a badge of honour.

Mzee Mukoto then turns to the old man with a limp, who has hardly spoken so far, opting to listen and nod along as he partakes of his beer, the frown on his face deepening occasionally. “I got off lightly. This man’s bull gored him very badly in the genitals. It would have killed him”.

At last I have an explanation for the limp. An uncomfortable silence descends after this disclosure, with everyone staring into their glasses and tins. I can tell that the memory is still very fresh in their minds. I want to ask what could have caused the beast to turn on its trusted keeper but instinctively realise that I will cause offence, since he is an elder who is held in high esteem by his mates. I am left to warrant a guess from the explanations I have been given.

“People have been killed when the bulls turn wild”, adds my host in a lowered voice. It reminds me that we are discussing a blood sport here, and not a casual game of rounders in the school yard. As we were walking through the neighbouring Ilanaswa village I had noted an unusually high number of graves in the front yards of the homesteads and I’m left to wonder how many of those lying there are victims of the bulls.

Although the fight I witnessed was brief and quickly resolved, I am told that some stretch on for hours and sometimes there’s no clear winner, with the weary beasts having to be forcefully separated when it becomes clear that they are equally matched and are going to tear into each other to death. All the same, the fight is dictated by the bulls and not manipulated by man.

They soon reveal that it is common practice to feed cannabis to the bulls or make them inhale the smoke on the morning of the fight to make them more aggressive

When one of the beasts has been badly gored it is usually led off the arena straight to the abattoir. If the wounds are less severe then it will be led back to its pen to undergo treatment at the hands of traditional herbalists. Sometimes the owner will donate the meat to the festivities that are to follow as he comes to terms with his loss. As for the victorious bull, regardless of its injuries, it will still have to be paraded through the villages on the way home to the accompaniment of thunderous singing and dancing.

The other veteran I meet is Mzee Christopher Mukoto, popularly known as Shanga Shanga in the bullfighting circles, and who sheds even more light on what the first Mukoto has told me. He is also from Ilanaswa village, and we meet at a busaa joint called Nasa in Shikuli village, a stone’s throw away from Handshake.

According to Shanga, before the bull goes out to a contest, it is important for the wife of the owner to strike it on the back with her leso wrap skirt, uttering the words, “Go and fight bravely and bring back victory”, so that when the bull faces its opponent, it will remain steadfast as it has received the backing and blessings of its owner and the fans accompanying it to the fight.

“If you are successful it is very important to share the prize money with the fans”, says Shanga. “You have to make them know that you appreciate the support they gave you. Also, when you return home after the victory you have to hand over a portion of the prize money to your wife and tell her this is what our bull brought us. As the person responsible for cleaning the cow pens every morning, she also needs to share in the success. Otherwise, if you spend the money alone, next time you take out the bull to another contest you will lose”.

On the day of the fight the fans assemble in the homestead early in the morning and dance an isukuti jig around the bull while it is still tethered in its pen. The singing is mostly in praise of the bull and also to encourage it to be victorious. Thereafter the owner untethers the bull and they head out in a dancing procession.

Mzee Shanga reiterates that it is not only important for the bull owner to refrain from sex the day before the fight, but that the same also applies to his trusted head handler who will be responsible for the bull as they head for the contest.

Some of the preparations before the fight include sharpening the horns of the bull to a point with a file. On the night before the fight, the owner collects fodder and chops it finely inside the manger just after midnight. The bull owner and his minder keep vigil the rest of the night feeding it until they are satisfied that it is well fed. “If feeding is overlooked and the bull faces an opponent the following day on an empty stomach it will end up getting tossed around inside the ring like a piece of paper”.

Quality fighting bulls do not come cheap, averaging anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 shillings at the local livestock market depending on how well-built they are. Some people opt to acquire a fighting bull from the cattle market and then groom it for the contest. For Mzee Shanga this is a huge gamble. The old hands like himself prefer to buy a young bull that they have observed fighting in the ring, and then fatten it themselves for a bigger contest in the future. That way you do not risk placing your money on a loser.

It is also important to consult the fans when the owner wants to sell his fighting bull. Mzee Shanga cites a recent case where the owner of a popular fighting bull from the village nicknamed Nasa was sold off by the owner without the consent of the fans. The fans were so enraged they burned the special uniforms that they wear on the day of the fight.

The lowest wager that can be placed on a good fighting bull is 7,000 shillings but those in the top league command anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 shillings. This money is handed over to the minder of the bull before the fight. It is only if his bull emerges victorious that the owner will take the money and decide how to share it out amongst his team.

One of the toughest fights Mzee Shanga remembers was against former Kakamega Senator Dr Boni Khalwale’s famous bull Shikhuma. His bull gored the former senator’s bull so badly it had to be stitched up by a vet after the fight. He recalls the senator calling him after the match to congratulate him on breeding a champion bull. The former senator even bought him a celebratory drink in a practice known as khusura – an important show of sportsmanship even as the vanquished tends to his injured bull.

In case of a bad injury following a fight, it is the duty of the owner of the injured bull to control the emotions of his fans so that they don’t vent their anger on the rival fans. Should a bull gore a spectator to death, it is slaughtered right there in the arena and the meat shared amongst the spectators.

Some of the famous bulls in the sport’s hall of fame include a bull called Luchidio owned by Mzee Imbuti from Ilanaswa and another called Sub-chief owned by Mzee Aliero of Shisecheri village. These bulls were famed for what would be a technical knock-out in boxing terms because they often ended their fights by tossing their opponent high in the air in a clean defeat. Mzee Mukakanga from Shisecheri and Mzee Kendi from Malava were among the earliest elders to breed fighting bulls. From Bunyore was Mzee Mulima and from Kisa Mzee Kubasu. The Idakho and Isukha were the first Luhya sub-tribes to engage in the sport before other sub-tribes like the Kisa, Batsotso and Banyore joined in.

And it was only a matter of time before the sport attracted politicians who at some point realised that it had an even bigger following than the church. It is now common for politicians to sponsor fights between famous bulls in order to take advantage of the large turnout to do their campaigning.

“This sport can bring in a lot of money,” said Shanga. “The problem is with the people who organise contests. Often they are dishonest, and want to exploit the contest to make more money than that given to the owners of the fighting bulls. When that happens we pull out our bulls and tell them to take their contest elsewhere”.

According to Shanga, the bulls have killed many people, especially in Khayega and Malinya areas. “Usually the deaths happen after a fight. At that time a bull is wild, and the fans are supposed to give it space and keep to a distance. Usually the vanquished bull will be running away from the fury of the opponent’s horns. At that time if a spectator happens to be in the way it will gore him and toss him in the air. There are some that will simply single out one of the spectators and go for him. Sometimes this is caused by the herbs that will have been fed to the bull before the fight. There’s a famous herb here in Idakho called msala kwi isimbwa [herbal treatment for dogs]. If you give that to a bull it can even turn on the owner, becoming wild and unmanageable. There are also some that can be given cannabis, and others not, depending on how they react to it. There are those that you will give bhang and they become stupefied instead of wild. And others will do the opposite. It all depends on how you have conditioned your bull and how you treat it”.

Should a bull gore a spectator to death, it is slaughtered right there in the arena and the meat shared among the spectators

In 2008 there was a spirited campaign by a section of parliamentarians from western Kenya to bring the sport to Nairobi. Fronted by the then Kakamega County senator, Dr Boni Khalwale, an ardent supporter and a regular participant in the sport, they argued that it had the potential to attract cultural tourists to the western Kenya region and generate revenue. But their attempt to bring the bulls to face it out at Nyayo National Stadium in the heart of the capital faced stiff opposition from local animal rights groups and activists. Some of the opposing legislators termed it a barbaric sport that should not be encouraged in this modern age. Some of the villagers in Western Kenya were also against taking the sport out of the region where it is traditionally held and the plans were eventually dropped. Although the revenues that could be generated by the sport have never been quantified, there is no doubt that bullfighting has a huge following.

All the same, the debate highlighted the potential of the sport as a cultural heritage and social function in the western Kenya region, and succeeded in attracting funding to the tune of 12.5 million shillings from the county government to develop Malinya Stadium in Shinyalu Constituency for bullfighting. It remains to be seen whether subsequent governments will support the full development of this traditional sport to attract the much needed tourism revenue to the country and conserve this age-old culture of the Luhya people.

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Stanley Gazemba is an award-winning author and his breakthrough novel, ‘The Stone Hills of Maragoli’, published by Kwani? won the Jomo Kenyatta prize for Kenyan Literature in 2003. He is also the author of two other novels: ‘Callused Hands’ and ‘Khama’, he has written eight children’s books. A prolific writer, Stanley’s articles and stories have appeared in several international publications including the New York Times, ‘A’ is for Ancestors, the Caine Prize Anthology and the East African magazine. Stanley lives in Nairobi and his short story ‘Talking Money’ was recently published in ‘Africa 39’, a Hay Festival publication which was released in 2014. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, ‘Africa 39’ features a collection of 39 short stories by some of Africa’s leading contemporary authors. Stanley is also in the process of working on an array of creative literary projects.

Culture

The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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

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Culture

Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders

Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.

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Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
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Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.

Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.

After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’

What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’

Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.

The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.

‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’

Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’

Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.

After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.

Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.

On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.

Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.

But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.

As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.

Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’

Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’

Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.

Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.

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Our Words Must Count

Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

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Our Words Must Count
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On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.

That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”

Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.

How is this contradiction possible?

I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.

This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.

The violence of language

These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.

Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.

​It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:

When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak

When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made 

When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge

When we question, we are ungrateful

When we lament, we’re not providing solutions

When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable

When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals

When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence

When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility

When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally

When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution

When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others

When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves 

The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think

But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?

What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?

These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.

This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.

“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”

In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.

Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?

Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:

  1. Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
  2. Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
  3. Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.

These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.

As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.

Our words must count

The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.

Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?

Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.

When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. ​That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.

So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?

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