There seems to be a resurgence of the kind of genre in the contemporary world where religion, initially thought to be on the wane, is actually reasserting itself in various ways. One of the most conspicuous voices, for example, in contemporary America, is Marilynne Robinson, whose works are followed with keen interest. We however are sceptical that such themes can sustain writers in the long run, and will label them as genre writers. This seems to us as the return of the repressed, in the classical Freudian sense, in the sense that themes that were becoming increasingly repressed in secular societies are finding their way back into the public consciousness through the works of gifted contemporary novelists.
Literature is often a mirror of the period in which a work of art has been created. It is for this reason that we often frame literary texts within the time period that the texts are created. It is this assumption that we neatly categorise within the historical period that they were created. It is for this reason that we describe fictions as say, Victorian, Industrial Revolution, Edwardian, Modernist, and so on. This is particularly true of English literature. Other literary traditions have different ways of categorising literary productions. For example, postcolonial literatures are often categorised on the basis of the trauma of colonialism: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Literatures of the Islamic Middle East have added categories such as post-Ottoman, pre-revolution, revolutionary, apart from the classical jahiliyya and post-jahiliyya periods.
An implicit but unspoken assumption in all these categorisations is that at a deep level, these literatures are underpinned by a certain spirituality, be this Christian, Islamic or Hindu. Behind this assumption is the given that the earliest forms of literary production were saturated with the mystery surrounding creation, institution building and the mores of society. These mysteries gave rise to the earliest forms of literature and mythology. Humans created stories to explain to themselves the incomprehensible and these stories at a certain point became the basis of religious beliefs and philosophical speculation. Without these stories, there would neither have been religious belief, philosophy nor science. The unstructured reality began to take shape only when mythology was created. The gods and goddesses that we created ourselves and then began to worship, were a step towards self-realisation. The earliest gods and goddesses had the same flaws as us human beings, they were assailed by the same weaknesses that we found in ourselves, and they became a sure mirror of the human person, with all his/her frailties. Later, the heroes, during the heroic age, again reflected our own wishful thinking.
With the rise of critical philosophy and the scientific method, there was no attempt to abandon the mythic in human history. It was assumed that, although now we started to think in more abstract terms, not everyone was capable of benefitting from this new worldview. It was taken as a given that, in human societies, there will be those among us who will be unable to make the mental leap from the concrete to the abstract, and for this reason, it was necessary to defend mythology as part of human heritage, a part that has its significance in transmitting ethic and moral values from one generation to the next. As such, discussions of such human values as virtue, justice, friendship, could only be transmitted through the silly stories of mythology. This is well articulated by Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical interpretation and Classical Mythology. This was ol’ time religion.
The Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas brought new kinds of stories, whose underpinning was the construction of new moral orders. The new texts brought in their wake the new religions of Islam and Christianity, but Hinduism, Shintoism and Traditional African and Amerindian religions are still remnants of the primeval spiritual order. There has always been what the British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has called the Persistence of Faith throughout human history, to the present.
In the Western intellectual tradition, the Renaissance is hailed as a New Era, but in fact, it was no more than an attempt to reclaim through the back door the pagan spirituality deriving from Classical and Late Antiquity. The intellectuals of the period, be they artists, creative writers or philosophers, were weary of the stranglehold of Christianity on all aspects of society, and sought to liberate themselves from this straight-jacket. Other, non-Western, societies did the same by creating a discourse counter to that of the religious. That is how the Arabian Nights were born, from ancient India all the way to what is today the Middle East. This was something like a literary carnival, where imagination was allowed to run wild outside the orbit of religion. These were all attempts at circumventing the official discourse dominated by men of religion and sanctioned by the rulers. Contemporary World Literature is incomprehensible without this mythological, spiritual background, because whether we speak of Greek/Roman mythology, African, Hindu or Japanese or Amerindian mythologies, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, these are part of the collective unconscious, and form an important part of the inter-textuality necessary to self-referentiality.
Creative writers have for centuries situated themselves within particular spiritual traditions while creating works of art. This is taken for granted in the West. The medieval period in the West is considered collective because all European societies, without a single exception, went through the long experience of Christianity, from the tenth century all the way to the early twentieth century, with intermission for the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although writers are situated within particularistic traditions, some, because of their intellectual versatility, have dipped into traditions that are not primarily their own, and claimed them for themselves by taking allusions from those external traditions. For example, Dante borrowed from the story of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Heaven as recounted in the Hadith of the Prophet to construct his Divine Comedy. Or, to take a more contemporary figure, in his novel Spider’s House, Paul Bowles uses the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s anecdote about his being protected from his enemies by hiding in a cave on his way into exile in Medina. Spiders form a protective wall with their web which stops his enemies from pursuing him further. Or Salman Rushdie’s constant allusions to Hindu mythology in Midnight’s Children.
This cross-cultural enrichment does not necessarily mean that writers do not situate themselves solidly within their religious traditions. Indeed they do.
The two writers that we have chosen, Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese novelist currently based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are examples of novelists who still stick to religion as their default mode of literary exposition. Both use fiction to advance their sectarian viewpoints without being offensive to secularists or the non-religious in general.
Leila Aboulela’s spirited spiritual damage control
Leila Aboulela, throughout most of her fictions, novels and short stories, has tried to defend Islam as a spiritual religion, and not a political religion. That she should hold such a position is evident from her own background as a Sudanese. Mystical Islam, with its headquarters at Omdurman, is very much part of the Sudanese landscape. In fact, modern Sudan is dated at the point the Sudanese resisted British colonial encroachment under Lord Gordon Kitchener in the nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad al-Mahdi, Restorer of the Faith, the Sudanese rallied under his mystical brotherhood to push the British out, resulting in the death of Gordon. This millenarianism galvanized the Sudanese into a national consciousness embedded in Islam. Like much of West Africa, society in the Sudan is organised partly around belonging to a brotherhood. The brotherhoods double as communities of self-help and also as spiritual sanctuaries complete with an organisational structure. The main activities of these Sufi brotherhoods are centred on remembering Allah and his ubiquitous presence in the thoughts and actions of individuals.
It is important to stress that Sufi religiosity is based on individual accountability that is ultimately anchored in internal purification as prioritised before the practice of ritual. It tends to de-emphasise the legalistic aspects of the faith, unlike for the Salafis, for example, who give importance to the minutiae of ritual practice. This legalistic emphasis on the part of the Salafis pits them against the purely spiritual emphasis of the mystics.
Leila Aboulela, in her fictions, is at pains to point out that what is done in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, and that those who are prone to violence only do so after they have politicised Islam by demanding, for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, the Khilafah, or Islamic Caliphate. Sufi immersion in God-consciousness is considered a form of escapism from the challenging political and economic realities of the Islamic world. On their part, the Sufis accuse the Salafis of sanctimonious ostentatiousness and consider themselves to be the real upholders of the prophetic message of peace and love, without at the same time holding to the highest standards set by the Prophet himself.
On reading Aboulela’s fiction, one is left with the impression that she tries to compress the whole Islamic ethos and practice within her short fiction, where readers will not only enjoy the storyline, but at the same time gradually learn what the “real” Islam or Islamic practice is. In reading her fiction, we are taken through all the essential, but simple Islamic practices and beliefs without seeming to be coerced. The message is that Islam is such a practical and simple faith that it cannot be distorted or abused without exposing those who want to put the religion to their own nefarious uses. For example, Dr Nizar Fareed, a Salafi character in The Translator, is portrayed as well-intentioned but indoctrinated by rigid Salafi interpretations of the scripture and the practice of the Prophet. He emerges as inflexible, opinionated and self-righteous. He appears as some kind of cardboard character, uncritical and gullible, although kind and intelligent.
Leila Aboulela encapsulates the whole gamut of Islamic practice and belief in that short novel, The Translator. For example, she describes the cornerstone of Islamic belief as the absolute surrender to Allah in all one’s actions, and believing that He is the one who proposes and disposes of the believers’ every action. They are helpless before His immense omnipotence. Although we may plan our actions, we must never lose sight of the fact that everything is preordained, and we should not be overly disappointed when things do not go our way. God consciousness entails our planning for the future, but not being deluded into believing that things will always go the way we have planned. This is the classical tawheed position, where, tawakkul, or total surrender to the will of God is the pure faith. Tawheed and tawakkul are the twin pillars on the road to sainthood. The fragility of human life makes it necessary for humans to acknowledge the presence of a force mightier than any human society can command. In fact, Sammar, the main protagonist in The Translator, is sustained in her grief by her total surrender to the will of Allah. Her strong faith sees her through unimaginable grief after the loss of her young doctor-husband in a tragic road accident in Aberdeen, Scotland, far from home, where she finds succour and help from absolute strangers whom she only knows through shared faith and belief in Islam. They take over the funeral arrangements, the washing of the body and its transportation to Khartoum for burial, without having known the deceased or the widow. They answer the call of Islam to help one another in a time of need, the true implementation of Islamic teachings. In a poignant scene, Aboulela, using Sammar as her mouthpiece, describes this communal involvement during the arrangements immediately after the death of her husband:
A whole week passed before she got him under the African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the ever–wondering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur’an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed.
Islamic teachings are inserted in a subtle way at appropriate places to create the desired effect. The Hadith of the Prophet are summarised and included as explanatory tropes to affirm Islamic teachings. For example, all the major issues at the core of Islam like tawheed, qadar, or predestination, prayers, charity, the apportionment of inheritance to both male and female inheritors, the etiquette of grieving for widows, are highlighted. These issues are introduced seamlessly without appearing as sermonising. As an illustration, Sammar tries to convince Rae, her new-found love, to recite the declaration of the intention to embrace Islam. She notes the simplicity of the creed itself by getting Yasmin, Sammar’s friend, to say that the creed has sometimes been abused or taken lightly, as some kind of fig leaf to mask relationships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim:
‘I have seen the kind of Scottish men who marry Muslim girls.’ Yasmin went on, ‘The typical scenario: he is with an oil company sent to Malaysia or Singapore; she is this cute little thing in a mini-skirt who’s out with him every night. Come marriage time, it’s by the way I’m Muslim and my parents will not let you marry me until you convert. And how do I convert my darling, I love you, I can’t live without you? Oh, it’s just a few words you have to say. Just say the Shahadah, it’s just a few words. I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messanger of Allah. End of story. They get married, and she might as the years go by pray and fast or she might not, but it has nothing to do with him. Everything in his life is just the same as it was before.’
On Tawakkul and destiny, Aboulela is also discreet in her explanation:
Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic into English was bigger than the supply. ‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as He alone wants them to be.’ To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight.
Further on in the novel, Sammar ascribes her steadfastness and hope to spiritual underpinnings. Her spirituality acts as a shield that protects her from hopelessness and resignation: “She had been protected from all the extremes. Pills, break-down, attempts at suicide. A barrier was put between her and things like that, the balance that Rae [her love] admired”.
Leila Aboulela compares the real rational position of Islam, based on transcendence and the rationalism of the empiricist and positivists of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. In the words of Rae, who hovers between positivism and doubt,
‘In this society,‘ he said, ‘in this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. With exceptions and apart from those who are self-convinced atheists, the speculation is that God has put up this elaborate solar system and left it to run itself. It does not need Him to maintain it or sustain it in any way. Mankind is self-sufficient . . . ’
The rational and plausible Islamic belief system is validated by the, until then, non-Muslim Rae. Having read Islamic religious and other literature, he is gradually won over by this rationality. But he validates Islamic tenets through a third party, Rae’s uncle who “went native” or in Tudor parlance, “turned Turk”. He quotes from Uncle David’s epistolary confession:
David never of course said that Islam was “better” than Christianity. He didn’t use that word. Instead he said things like it was a step on, in the way that Christianity followed Judaism. He said that the Prophet Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets that stretched from Adam, to Abraham through Moses and Jesus. They were all Muslims, Jesus was a Muslim, in a sense that he surrendered to God. This did not go down very well in the letter nor in the essay.
Leila Aboulela takes the opportunity in her fiction to also explain how the Sacred Hadith, or what are better known as Hadith Qudsi, the second most important source of authority after the Qur’an, came about, while dictating to Rae, who gave her the assignment:
She sat on the floor of the landing and read out, over the phone, the notes she had made from the book. ‘A definition given by the scholar al-Jurjani, “A Sacred Hadith is, as to its meaning, from Allah Almighty; as to the wording, it is from the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It is that which Allah almighty has communicated to His Prophet through revelation or in dream and he, peace be upon him, has communicated it in his own words. Thus the Qur’an is superior to it because, besides being revealed, it is Allah’s wording.” In a definition given by a later scholar al-Qari, “ . . . Unlike the Holy Qur’an, Sacred Hadith are not acceptable for recitation in one’s prayers, they are not forbidden to be touched or read by one who is in a state of ritual impurity . . . and they are not characterized by the attribute of immutability”.
This is heavy stuff for the uninitiated, and requires extra work to understand this background, even for an average educated Muslim, let alone one who is completely unfamiliar with the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is the kind of intertextuality that is not easily accessible for western readers who mostly read texts from the Western intellectual tradition, and whose allusions are generally familiar. Postcolonial writers now demand that Western readers also exert themselves in order to benefit fully from their reading, just as non-Western readers have to immerse themselves in the Western intellectual tradition to fully enjoy literature emanating from the West. In a recent collection of essays, Can Non-Europeans Think? the Columbia University Iranian American scholar Hamid Dabashi decried the provincialism of Western intellectuals. He argues that rarely do Western intellectuals bother to educate themselves about the intellectual traditions of the “others”, although they will not shy away from making uninformed pronouncements about those societies that they know little about. He gave the example of Slavoj Zizek, who knows a lot about Marxism and the Western Intellectual tradition, but next to nothing about the Eastern ones. In his view, there is a lot of navel-gazing among them, unable to appreciate other traditions unless they are themselves area specialists churning out papers for policy think tanks, and regurgitating the same orientalist pieties.
Leila Aboulela assumes herself a conscientious and responsible Muslim, whose obligation it is to portray what she believes is the real image of Islam, untainted by its association with the Islamic lunatic fringe hell-bent on wreaking global terror, without any sectarian differentiation. It is through literature that she feels she can best serve her faith. She is conscious of the fact that as a liberal Muslim, she is under constant pressure, like all liberal Muslims to condemn acts of violence perpetrated in their name by their co-religionists. In a column in the British Guardian entitled Why Must Britain’s Young Muslims Live With Unjust Suspicion? she described the double jeopardy of these liberals:
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate [of fear and suspicion] eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is the liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
From the above it is clear that Leila Aboulela took it as her mission to explicate the tenets of Islam to a wider public as a contribution to mutual understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths and other worldviews. A hard sell this, the defence of Islamic values under the present climate of fear and suspicion. One may also wonder how much mileage she can extract from mining this theme, even under these trying circumstances.
Unlike in the fiction of other writers of Islamic faith, where Islam merely forms the background, as in Nuruddin Farah’s later fictions The Closed Sesame and Crossbones, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Leila Aboulela is deliberate in foregrounding Islamic belief system and practice. It is as if she was an author with an agenda, which she turns out to be in this particular fiction. In this regard, her creative work has more affinity with that of Marilynne Robinson who puts her creative energies to wearing her religion on her sleeve, as does Aboulela in The Translator.
The Christian fiction of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who died in December 2015, is a Kenyan novelist of British descent and a lay Protestant missionary. She came to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, fell in love with the country and in 1960 married Dr. Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a local doctor from the Luo tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with whom she had four children. Over the years, she took all the necessary steps to become fully integrated into Kenyan society, and especially completely within the Luo culture; she learned the language to complete spoken and written fluency and accepted almost all aspects of Luo tradition, except those she deemed inimical to Christian values and virtues.
Macgoye is a well-informed and conscientious novelist, having graduated with a degree in English literature from the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and later earned a Masters from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her grasp of Kenyan political history, and the social changes that she has witnessed personally throughout her extended stay in Kenya, put her in the same intellectual league as the most famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In fact, Macgoye’s fiction covers the same terrain as that of Ngugi because they seem to have lived almost the same experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism, and their works are a mirror of contemporary history through their neo-realism.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye arrived in the country when she was barely in her mid-twenties, and lived the next sixty years mostly in Kenya, with a short interlude in Tanzania as the bookshop manager at the University of Dar es Salaam. During her long residence in Kenya, she witnessed almost all the major political events that shaped the nation: the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, the struggle to create a unified nation out of a welter of ethnicities, tribes, religions and political ideologies. As acute observers of the Kenyan political scene, both Ngugi and Macgoye write proletarian fictions populated by perplexed and dislocated rural masses and the lumpen proletariat who have washed up in the urban areas because of colonialism and post-independence mass migration.
Macgoye’s fiction is populated mostly by female characters, strong women who struggle against all odds. They are mostly uneducated but pick up street smarts as they go through life’s trajectory. Female characters like Paulina and Amina are portrayed as strong characters, Amina with her strong entrepreneurial spirit, and Paulina gradually asserting her individuality in the face of constricting tradition.
Perhaps the main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions. In fact, it appears that in the case of this particular novel, many aspects of Luo culture are held up to be antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The novel critiques such time-honoured cultural practices as polygamy, levirate marriages, lavish and extravagant wake and funeral practices and the cultural sanctioning of domestic violence in the form of wife beating.
Although the Luo as an ethnic group is considered overwhelmingly Christian, this Christianity is more a veneer than actual substance. The Luo are portrayed as stuck in the cultural past more than many other ethnic and cultural groups. The Luo are held up and judged by the highest Christian practices and standards, and are ultimately found wanting. But in the tribal world of the Luo, cultural practices were considered more humane than the dictates or demands of Christianity. We see, for example, Paulina, the main protagonist in the novel, going through miscarriages, the harassment of being a childless woman in a society that believes in the strength of numbers, the grief of losing a child obtained outside the matrimonial bed, and the state of limbo that the husband keeps her in because, in Luo culture, once a woman is married, she is married for ever as her husband has a permanent claim on her, however cold the relationship throughout their lives. The husband is never sanctioned for shunning her, physically molesting her and completely neglecting her. Christian values are merely paid lip service. In fact, there is general apathy, if not outright cynicism, towards Christianity among the majority. Martin’s alienation from Christian practice is held up as the general religious malaise afflicting the new generations of post-independence Africans. The narrator notes of Martin that:
He did not regularly go to church any more, though he might go if there was a special speaker or if he felt particularly at odds with Paulina’s having sometimes to work on a Sunday. The climate had changed from the days when you used to say, ’I am a Christian but I am not yet saved.’ To praise the Lord no longer helped you to get a job, and though the top people attended places of worship in surprising numbers they were eager for a quick getaway. It was another way in which light was going out. People talked about religion on buses, in queues, in cafes you heard them talking, but often as though it was something dull, outside themselves.
The celebratory ambience in Luo mourning practices is brought into sharp relief by Macgoye. By letting a comment slip off the mouth of a Kikuyu, a people who are noted for their industriousness in wealth accumulation, the macabre Luo enthusiasm for partying on such occasions is described with a pithy comment from a shopkeeper. In the words of the narrator:
Kano had kept the old hedged homesteads more exactly than the other locations, and also a bigger share of the old plumed headdresses: teams of male dancers bedecked with feathers and bells and intricate chalk patterns were often to be seen going off to the funerals and other public occasions like the Kisumu Festival. Okeyo used to get excited, chattering and pointing till she restrained him, so that the kikuyu shopkeeper remarked somberly, ‘He is a real Luo: more keen on a funeral than anything else’.
Okeyo was the child that Paulina had begotten outside her marriage with Simeon, a clansman of Martin’s, and who was fatefully killed by a stray bullet during the funeral procession of the legendary Kenyan politician, assassinated in broad day light, in one of Nairobi’s busiest streets, on a July day in 1969.
As a counterfoil to Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims are portrayed in a less than flattering light through the characters of Amina and Fauzia; as either whores or parents pimping for their own children for survival and livelihood. Both Amina and Fauzia are held responsible for the loosening ties between the rural import, Paulina and her urbanised Martin. Both Amina and Fauzia come out, not only as femmes fatales, but also as some kind of mercenaries out to fleece Martin and lure him to the temptation of sin in the form of nice food, nice dresses and perfumes. Pauline was later to see with her own eyes what Nikos Kazantzakis described these nubile nymphs as: “This labyrinth of hesitation, this poison that tastes like honey…”. Pauline wanted to find out for herself what life for Martin was like in Amina’s grip:
Amina proved unexpectedly expert with powder and feeding bottle and soon afterwards approached the pastor about baptism for the child but bowed to the rule that since there was no Christian parent, Joyce must make her own profession when she could read and write. The baby made a good pretext for Pauline to come and see Amina from time to time. Little by little she built up a picture of a world quite remote from her own, a world of gay wrappers and jingling bracelets and perfumes and spicy dishes, where slim men with bony features came and went, for what purpose one was not quite aware, and of town houses where these urbane traditions from the coast somehow collected themselves despite the bare crumbling walls and the outlandish cold . . .
Swahili culture is taken as a synecdoche for Islam and all that it stands for, what are perceived as its negative influences among the relatively recent native converts to Christianity. Fauzia was later to be warned of the possibility that he, Martin, might take another wife, but of a different kind:
And so he told her that when he took a second wife she must be a Christian who would leave her hair unplaited and her ears without ornament, who would dig in the fields and plaster walls and leave her children fat and naked. But she only laughed and said she must enjoy herself a while longer.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye seems to believe her duty is not to be even-handed when she has to confront the reality that Islam is a major religion and a rival to Christianity in Kenya. In this regard, she takes the opportunity to show what she considers the superiority of Christianity over Islam. She uses her fiction to re-affirm her own faith and its tenuous hold on the relatively new converts on the African continent. Her last work of fiction, Rebmann, is a celebration of the efforts of pioneer missionaries like Rebmann and Krapf, who ventured into Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century to win the flock for Jesus Christ in what was then unexplored terrain in the heart of Africa, or the Conradian Heart of Darkness, as Africa was perceived then. Macgoye was later to come to Kenya under the auspices of the same organisation that sponsored the German missionary, the Church Missionary Society.
Looking at name use in her Coming to Birth, there is a lingering feeling that Macgoye’s ancestors, probably Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who migrated to England from continental Europe to escape pogroms there, might have converted to the Anglican Christian rite upon their settlement. Female characters are given common scriptural names pointing to Old Testament antecedents, names like Paulina, Rebecca, and Rachel, names popular with people of Jewish background. Again, one of her more obscure fictions set in Kenya is A Farm Called Kishinev, described as “a fairly comprehensive picture of Kenyan Jewish experience”.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s working class background and sympathies enable her to empathise with the plight of the African poor and downtrodden. Her descriptions of the African “great unwashed” is accurate in that it is described as a life of ceaseless want and deprivation. Nairobi is notorious for its “parking boys”, an expression that is a euphemism for abandoned and homeless kids, who are often orphaned and use their street-smarts to survive in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. Their situation is so dire that they have to live off dustbins, and sometimes resort to using human waste as a weapon to extort money from passers-by threatening to smear them with it if they do not respond generously. The tough struggle for survival is described with pathos, in the words of one such street urchin:
So my dad said we couldn’t go on to school for a while because he need all his money to get another woman to look after us. And when he was there she was alright to us, but she started going queer when she got her own baby: then she hated the sight of us and used to beat us for every little thing. And then last year she started saying that she didn’t get married to come and live in a back-of beyond village with a load of kids, and not any rice or hair oil or nice soap like her friends had for their babies, and only seeing her man one day or two in the month, and then she started to drink. And then she didn’t cook everyday, and never early in the morning, and started saying it was our fault that my dad didn’t pay her attention. He only wanted his first wife’s children and all that. In the end my little brother got so hurt he ran off to his granny: she doesn’t have much, but she likes him and tells him stories. But my sister had to stay to look after the baby, so my dad said. But me, she said I didn’t do anything around the place but eat, and so one day when she beat me worse than usual I ran to my friend’s big brother who is a conductor on a country bus, and he talked with his dad and put some ointment on the bad places and gave me a ride on the bus free. That was about two months ago.
‘He didn’t know anything,’ put in Muhammad Ali. ‘Lucky for him I found him wondering about. I showed him the temples, where they give you free food if there is celebration going on. And how to find the eating places, where good food sometimes gets thrown out when they close, and how- well, all sorts of things I showed him. He just didn’t know how to stay alive’.
Macgoye captures the spirit of anxiety and desperation among those living on the edge.
Both Leila Aboulaela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye have used the art of fiction to push their religious agenda, using fiction to both affirm and defend their belief systems in a world that had increasingly come to see religion as dragging us to the medieval bloodletting that so characterised that period. But of late, there has been an upsurge in writers who have unashamedly proclaimed their fidelity to the time-honoured beliefs of their societies and the era in which they are living. This is also an era when we see the rise of militant atheism too, that is challenging the religious discourse and looking for a much wider space than they have ever been accorded. The problem with this kind of genre, where fiction is put at the service of religious sectarianism, is that it soon becomes tiresome in its self-righteousness and tiresome for the secular-minded; these are often people who are also set in their ways of thinking, determined to draw a line between the religious and public space.
Papa Shirandula: The Footballer-Turned-Thespian Who Became a Cultural Icon
Shirandula gently managed to almost single-handedly give voice, representation, and nuance to the talented, pragmatic, modest, blue-collar masculine sub-archetypes that work in the shadows of capital and its structures.
When Charles Bukeko attended Jogoo Road Primary School in the 1970s, it was a bastion of sporting, athletic and academic prowess in an era when the emerging Eastlands urban spaces were orderly, clean, well-tended, and provided a quality environment In which to live.
Bukeko lived in Lumumba Estate, the council estate where many civil servants lived in the 1970s and 80s, and where he developed a love for football above all else.
To be fair though, the football frenzy of the seventies had a psychological grip on the national psyche, and provided the safety valve for a nation that was still reeling from the political mistakes of the mid-to-late 60s. The Abaluhya Football Club (AFC), in particularly, enjoyed a winning streak year after year despite the cancellation of the 1971 national league halfway into the season.
The national team, Harambee Stars, had qualified for the Nations Cup finals in 1972 and at the City Stadium, Gor Mahia had secured a big win in 1975, and Kenneth Matiba had become the Kenya Football Federation chairman. The likes of the double-foot dribbling wizard Chege Ouma, the all-rounder Jackson Aluko, and maestro Livingstone Madegwa were harassing African soccer giants Cameroun, Mali, and Togo in their qualifiers group, setting new precedents in Kenyan football.
It was inevitable then that Papa, who had schooled just down the road from the City Stadium, would give football a shot just like many youths from Mbotela, Maringo Estate, Lumumba, Jericho and along Jogoo Road. ”I’m an ardent fan of AFC Leopards. My dad took me to the field to watch AFC Leopards when I was 4 years old”, Bukeko once remarked. This love of football, a legacy from his father, would grow through the decades and he became an ardent fan of the local leagues, throwing his support behind clubs like Sofapaka and AFC Leopards.
Bukeko was born in Buhalarire in the central Marachi region of Mumias, in Kakamega. The eldest son of Valeria Makokha and Cosmas Wafula, Bukeko first lived in Lumumba Estate before he was transferred to Mumias School, an unsuccessful last-ditch effort by his parents to dissuade him from focusing on football. He went on to play central midfield for Mumias FC in Kakamega, Nzoia FC and Pan Paper FC in Webuye, and for Congo boys in Mombasa. It’s during his stint at the coast that he earned the name Champezi, a transliteration of champion given him by former president Moi’s political kingpin at the coast, the late Shariff Nassir.
Bukeko eventually hang his boots and exchanged the sea and football for a life back in Nairobi, moving to a house in Uhuru Estate next to Kisimenti Building, and right around the corner from where he grew up in Lumumba Estate. Neighbours describe him as an affable man who took over the estate’s security affairs in the 1990s as crime rates rose in tandem with the negative economic impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1990s. Together with his wife Beatrice Ebbie Andega, Bukeko had three children – Anthony, born in 2006, Charlie in 2007 and Wendy in 2009. He was also man of quiet faith, an ardent teacher of the scriptures and a church leader.
Bukeko stumbled onto the stage by sheer fate when working as a halls custodian at the University of Nairobi; the set of a play a friend was staging fell apart, the actors bailed out and Bukeko went stepped in and saved the day. That day in the late 1990s marked his first appearance at the Kenya National Theatre and sparked a flame that became a burning ambition. His friend Patrick Kanyeki remembers Bukeko’s laser-focused, borderline obsessive approach to acting; Papa would write his own scripts, master and rehearse his lines and start his morning trek into the city so that he would arrive at the KNT early in the day.
And so, long before he became Papa Shirandula, Charles Bukeko had established a name for himself at the Kenya National Theatre, working in the late 1990s and early 2000s alongside the likes of David Kinyua, Ben Kivuitu, Fred Muriithi, Patrick Kanyeki and Peter Mudamba, under Pambazuka Productions. He later moved to the French Cultural Centre to work alongside such emerging young talents as Nice Githinji and Shiko Mburu.
Bukeko’s first big break came when he acted in playwrite JPR Ochieng’-Odero’s The Film Doesn’t Film, earning Sh30,000 for a minor role at a time when cast members regularly took home Sh300 at the day’s end.
The veteran ecologist and thespian Ochieng’-Odero would become Bukeko’s first director before he moved on to the Phoenix Theatre and met producer Ian Mbugua, the man who introduced him to the legendary Scottish ex-serviceman and sailor-turned-thespian, James Falkland, who had founded Phoenix Theatre with his partner Debonnaire. Bukeko spent three years at the Phoenix working with Falkland and friends James Ward and Kenneth Mason and it was around this time that he started putting together his own shows under Mbalamwezi Productions in collaboration with producer Peter Mudamba.
Faces for TV
Enter the celebrated filmmaker Bob Nyanja of Cinematic Solutions who had been a literature undergraduate at the University of Nairobi when Bukeko was employed there as a Halls custodian. Bob had returned from South Carolina with a Master of Fine Arts in film in the late 90s ready to transition Kenya’s stuttering creative arts onto the screens.
Nyanja first featured Bukeko as a night guard in the 2007 film Malooned! in which Peter Ndambuki aka Churchill played the role of a street urchin. “We walked all over town looking for a guard’s uniform that would fit Papa”, Nyanja remarked in a tribute to Bukeko. Bob Nyanja was also the muscle behind the massive TV comedy hit Redykulass.
It was during the opening of Malooned! at the Junction Mall that Royal Media Services director Wachira Waruru proposed the idea of expanding the role of the guard into a television series. Bukeko, sensing the opportunity to do something remarkable, wrote the first scripts of what went en to become a hugely successful showand Papa Shirandula was born.
There was a visionary zeal to try out new programming for local audiences in the mid-2000s pioneered by Wachira Waruru, Bob Nyanja, Catherine Wamuyu and a band of local directors, filmmakers and producers. This risk-taking paid off and released a tide of relatable content that beat back the dominance of foreign soap operas.
For Bukeko, Papa Shirandula was the culmination of nearly 12 years of stage productions at the Kenya National Theatre, Braeburn Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, and dozens of screen productions. Asked about his big breaks Papa remarked, “My breakout role was when I was cast as Herod for the play, Nativity at the Braeburn Theatre”.
The name Shirandula is made up of the Wanga words khurandula vurandula which loosely translate as tenacity. It’s clear why Bukeko would go for that moniker given his own personality. The name’s resonance with the public also spoke to his impressive ability to transform seemingly mundane acts and phrases into social currency.
As a thespian, Bukeko embodied a dogged determination and constantly decried the youth’s desire for quick success. While he often spoke about the urban youth’s predicaments, he didn’t shy away from criticising their impatience and the effect it had on their young acting careers. As a testament of his belief in the youth, Bukeko, now Shirandula, was the first guest at the Churchill Show set up by his contemporary Peter Ndambuki to show-case emerging talent.
His own show, Papa Shirandula, fed into the emerging classist posture of Kenya’s viewership at a point where Mexican soaps like La Mujer De Lorenzo, Cuando Seas Mia, the South African TV series Reflections, and Asian acts like Kyunki and Kahaani had dominated the screens. By the early to mid-2000s, the Vioja Mahakamani, Vitimbi, Sokomoko and Tausi had long been edged out, while the Boomba Train youth culture of the early 2000s was, was demanding yet-to-be figured out screenplays.
At the outset, Papa Shirandula’s viewership was limited to its blue collar origins and brand but soon developed crosscutting audience appeal, partly because of Bukeko’s performance where his persona and his alter-ego blended deeply as both fed off each other. On screen, Bukeko would give way to Papa Shirandula, this security guard who has three wives and a white girlfriend and who manages to hide his true profession from them all. Bukeko seamlessly morphed into Papa Shirandula, a burly guard in a red uniform, an impostor who sustained his double life as patriarch, polygamist, elder, doting father, and scheming character across a series that ran for 13 years.
As Kazungu Matano (Captain Otoyo) recalls, outside his inner circles Papa’s weight was a sensitive topic and something he privately admitted to struggling with and, indeed, the 1990s build of an athletic man changed as the years progressed.
In South Africa, Papa was well known through the viral Vodacom ad in which he played the role of a dictator, evoking the role of Joseph Olita, the man from K’ogelo who had played Amin in The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981). The ad is hilarious, comical and very relatable across the continent, a feat only matched by his signature Brrrrrr! moment in the 2007 global Coca Cola advert. Papa went on to feature in the internationally acclaimed Fernando Meirelles book-to-film adaptation, The Constant Gardener (2005), in Malooned! (2007), and in The Captain of Nakara (2012).
The Cultural Phenomenon
In losing Shirandula we have lost something more than a thespian of great prowess and an industry trailblazer. He also mainstreamed a kind of Kenyan blue-collar masculinity which previously had little representation in our popular imagination where the preacher and the politician are the epitome of masculinity. Out of these two flow all the sub-archetypes that dominate the public imagination of what it means to be a Kenyan man and, therefore, Shirandula’s blue-collar, masculine sub-archetype rarely received the kind of visibility that a lot of other urban sub-archetypes in this country do.
And so, throughout the 80s and 90s, we see a masculinity where the man would comfortably live in the tea estates of Kericho, or Kaloleni—as Marjorie Oludhe chronicled in Coming To Birth —while his family lived on the land in Whisero, or Kanyadhiang. Guess who had done that decades earlier?
Bukeko played into the paradoxical stereotype of the Luhya man as a potbellied guard which fits a little too well with the all too familiar portrayal of Luhyas as dominating the private security sector, Kalenjins the police, Luos the handicrafts sector, Kikuyus trade, and Kambas as loyal civil servants and juniors to Asian bosses.
Ethnic stereotypes range from the funny to the downright disrespectful; a trope which papa had to fight as he exemplified the stigma associated with the job of a security guard. Shirandula gently managed to almost single-handedly give voice, representation, and nuance to the talented, pragmatic, modest, blue-collar masculine sub-archetypes that work in the shadows of capital and its structures. He explored the struggles of that type of man to fit in, the black tax that those men paid, and their complicated relationship with the Juma Andersons (his boss) of capitalist racketeering.
Papa made the careers of many along the way, famous of them all Felix Odiwuor (Jalango), his counterpart, Kazungu Matano (Otoyo), Papa’s onscreen wife Jackie Nyaminde (Wilbroda), Daisy Odeko (Naliaka), William Juma (Juma Anderson), Jackie Vike (Awinja) and Kenneth Gichoya (Njoro), all of whom have also had significant success on radio, on YouTube, as MCs and as comedians.
So when the news of his demise reached the Kenyan newsrooms, a strong sense of loss engulfed the public, a rare occurrence in this age of posthumous flagellations. We haven’t just lost Bukeko, we’ve lost Shirandula, the embodiment of the work ethic of the blue-collar worker, his tenuous relationship with the city—the tough underbelly of capital—and his struggle for dignity and identity.
In a country where the most dominant masculine sub-archetypes are inadvertently generated by the idealised preacher and the politician, Shirandula succeeded in giving voice and nuance to a whole masculine sub-archetype, and to working-class families, and that’s no mean feat. Go well Charles Bukeko.
The Death of Kerbino
Was the former child soldier and businessman-cum-philanthropist killed for harbouring political ambitions?
On 14 June 2020, a Sunday afternoon, a young South Sudanese entrepreneur-turned-insurgent died a macabre death in the Lakes region. By Monday morning, gruesome pictures of Kerbino Wol Agok had already circulated on social media, especially in the WhatsApp groups of South Sudanese all over the world and soon, from Adelaide in Australia to Boston in the United States, to Khartoum in Sudan and Nairobi, Kenya, speculation was rife about who had killed him. But outside South Sudan and South Sudanese circles, not many people had heard of Kerbino, a soldier-turned-businessman who had lived in the United States and had trained with the American Special Forces.
One gruesome picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground in the bush surrounded by men in military garb, with a man who seemed to be their leader taking a photo of the dead Kerbino with his smartphone as his colleagues looked on. Another was a close-up of Kerbino’s face showing a bloodied hole in his left cheek, a jungle cap next to his balding head. A third picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground, dressed only in a sweatshirt and boxer shorts.
The official explanation by the South Sudan government is that Kerbino was an insurgent who had been killed in a skirmish with the government security forces. According to the army spokesman, “SSPDF [South Sudan People’s Defence Force] had succeeded in containing a rebellion in its infancy”.
But my interviews with South Sudanese nationals living in Nairobi and South Sudan paint a different picture altogether. Examining the ghastly pictures with a South Sudanese medical doctor in Nairobi, the consultant physician said that the hole on his left cheek suggested Kerbino may have been shot by his captors at close range, the bullet entering the right side of the head and exiting through the left cheek.
Kerbino had the muscular body of one who took his exercise regime seriously. He was born in 1982, just before the rebellion broke out in southern Sudan in 1983, and would later join the “Red Army”, the child-soldiers who were used in the war against the dominance of the North.
In 2010, five years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, Kerbino, went back to South Sudan and founded Kerbino Agok Security Services (KASS), headquartered in Juba and which by the time the of his death had spread its operations to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nairobi. He had also started Kerbino Executive Conferences, as well as a philanthropic organisation, The Nile Foundation. In total, Kerbino’s organisations employed about 2,000 people.
Despite not being well-known outside the borders of South Sudan, Kerbino was a fast-rising star, at least, according to many South Sudanese who live inside and outside South Sudan. They may not have entirely agreed with his modus operandi, but many of the South Sudanese I interviewed agreed on this one thing: the 38-year-old man was destined for greater things.
Kerbino’s problems seem to have started when he was detained in April 2018, held incommunicado at the Chinese-built Blue House, the headquarters of the National Security Services (NSS) in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.
In a recorded testimony, American academic Robert A. Portada, who had forged a lasting friendship with Kerbino, said that, “on April 27, 2018, Kerbino was arrested without charge and incarcerated inside the infamous and notorious Blue House. Despite getting closer to signing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the summer of 2018 saw the arbitrary arrests, most prominently of the political activist Peter Biar Ajak in July”. Ajak was a PhD student at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Ajak, who has been in Nairobi since his release alongside his friend Kerbino, told the BBC on 24 July 2020 that Kerbino was captured and executed by government security forces. He also said that the National Security Service (NSS) has been sending him threatening messages telling him that they will kidnap and send him back to Juba. That NSS officers roam the streets of Nairobi is an open secret. Two years ago, they kidnapped some South Sudanese youth from the streets of Nairobi and ferried them back to Juba, where it is believed they were imprisoned and tortured. Their crime? They had been posting criticism of President Kiir on their Facebook timelines.
Kerbino was among seven detainees at the Blue House who faced trial. In the “Testimony of Kerbino Wol”, Portada, an Associate Professor of political science at Kutztown University, wrote: “Since March 21, 2018 seven prisoners have sat for trial in Juba. From their cells in the Blue House, the headquarters of the NSS, they are escorted to and from the courtroom while closely guarded by the NSS officers. Among the seven is Kerbino Wol, the young South Sudan entrepreneur and philanthropist. Though the trial is being held in a civilian court, each day NSS soldiers surround the building, armed with automatic weapons. NSS officers are stationed at all entrances to the court, and roam the courtroom during the proceedings”.
Portada also wrote that, “adding to the repressive environment in which the seven prisoners are being tried, the United Nations released a report on April 30 stating that it is highly probable that Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the opposition SPLM-IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition], were abducted and killed by the NSS in 2017. It is no secret that the NSS has committed atrocities with impunity in South Sudan. But now, Kerbino Wol and his fellow prisoners must sit for trial in the full presence of a national security agency revealed to have executed and disappeared nonviolent activists”.
South Sudanese sources that cannot be named because of the sensitivity of the information they shared and to protect their identities, alleged that Kerbino was executed by NSS officers. “Kuol Fidel, head of NSS, which also acts as the internal security bureau, and one his officers known as Akol Khor, did not get along with Kerbino. They had always been thinking of how to neuter him. So, when news came through that he had been found dead and considering the circumstances that had led to his confrontation with the NSS, many South Sudanese couldn’t fail to immediately connect Kerbino’s death with NSS”. Why would Kerbino pick a quarrel with top ranking NSS officers? Kerbino, Kuol and Akol are all Dinkas who come from Tonj, which is north of Lakes region.
“Kerbino as a civilian was rising all too fast. It was suspected he had political ambitions in his home region of Lakes. Kuol, too is believed to harbour political ambitions, if the peace agreement between Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar holds, there could be a general election in 2023”. With his rising star, popularity, youth, access to big money and international connections, Kerbino posed a threat to certain individuals were he to choose to contest the governorship of Lakes region, for example.
One of the first things that Kuol and Akol are alleged to have done, as they continually harassed Kerbino, was to close his businesses before throwing him into detention. Portada’s testimony says that “Kerbino Wol’s businesses and bank accounts were shut down by NSS”. In justification, the NSS alleged that Kerbino was supplying arms to Riek Machar. “But this is a spurious allegation”, said a South Sudanese source in Nairobi. “All this time Kerbino is alleged to have been sending arms to Riek, he was holed up in South Africa. It is evident and obvious that there are some people in the NSS who were hell-bent on nailing Kerbino”.
“On September 27, 2018”, wrote Portada, “the President of the Republic, H.E. Salva Kiir Mayardit, issued Republican Order Number 17, ordering that all political prisoners be released with immediate effect under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nevertheless, detainees including Kerbino and Peter were locked in the Blue House”. The next time the world would hear of these cases and of Kerbino in particular was during the prison break incident that took place on 7 October 2018 “to call attention to their illegal detentions”, said Kerbino during his trial.
“The Blue House already had earned a notorious reputation as one of the several sites where NSS authorities had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, and ill-treated people to the point of death according to a report released by Amnesty International”, explained Portada’s testimony. “On October 7, for the first time, prisoners in the Blue House were able to communicate with the international media and testify to these conditions themselves”.
What happened at the Blue House on 7October 2018? Some South Sudanese who knew Kerbino’s character well said Kerbino had become increasingly incensed with his continued detention and harassment by some of the NSS officers, and had demanded that they either release him or charge him so that he could defend himself in a court of law. “On this day, a fracas ensued at the Blue House and Kerbino is believed to have staged a kind of a Rambo-style prison break in which he led a group of fellow prisoners into storming the warehouse which also acted as an armoury”.
In his notes, Portada says that, “though the state security responded by encircling the Blue House and repeatedly firing on the compound, the nonviolent prisoners negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff”. It is after the “prison break” that the state now decided to take Kerbino to court and charge him with the criminal offence of causing a skirmish within the NSS precincts”, explained my South Sudanese interlocutor. That now became his main charge. “Kerbino was taken to court in April 2019 and charged with causing mayhem on 7 October 2018”.
In his testimony, Portada says, however, that “following the October 7 incident the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU), working with friends and associates of Kerbino Wol, immediately brought his case before the East Africa Court of Justice (EACJ), seeking justice for his unlawful arrest and illegal detention. In suing the Government of South Sudan, PALU asked the EACJ to order GoSS to produce Kerbino Wol before a competent and impartial court, and to restore to him his properties and stop attacks and seizure of Kerbino’s businesses. Though GoSS acknowledged the authority of EACJ by sending a representative to a hearing on March 25, 2019, they have not produced Kerbino before the regional court nor accounted for the circumstances of his incarceration or seizure of his property”.
Instead, what the court in Juba did was to begin the prosecution’s case on the same day the EACJ asked that Kerbino be presented before it. On 25 March the South Sudan government representative said the Juba trial removed the necessity for adjudication in the EACJ.
“Called to the witness stand by the defence at the Juba court, Kerbino spoke in both Arabic and English as he delivered his testimony”, said Portada. On 11 May, after two weeks of imprisonment, NSS officers accused Kerbino his security company to conspire against the state. The NSS placed Kerbino in solitary confinement with the threat that, “we have other means of getting the truth”. But in a surprising twist of events, President Kiir offered a presidential amnesty to Kerbino.
Kerbino went home, but something had been implanted in his mind, said a South Sudanese who knew Kerbino personally. “Kerbino started toying with the idea of forming a movement that would agitate for political change. He called his movement 7th October”. Friends and foes have faulted Kerbino for seemingly acting in a rush. A South Sudanese who knew Kerbino told me that “Monydiar Maker, the youth leader of the ethnic group called Rup, duped Kerbino that he could mobilise young men for him to form a ragtag army and it seems Kerbino, in his unprocessed anger against what he considered to be inhuman treatment from the state, believed he could orchestrate change by forming a guerilla army in present day South Sudan”.
Monydiar was killed four days before Kerbino’s sudden death, possibly by the same people who killed Kerbino.
Trapped in the bush and possibly realising his folly that forming a guerilla army is not the same as starting a security company, Kerbino contacted one of his friends for help. “It is believed that Kerbino reached out to a friend, one Omar Isaak, and asked him to hire a helicopter to airlift him to Khartoum”, said my South Sudanese source. “Kerbino could have given Omar upward of $200,000 for the job”. Many South Sudanese believe Omar betrayed Kerbino and that is why he was captured.
The circumstances leading to Kerbino’s death reflect those of the death of George Athol Deng. Deng was a Dinka from Jonglei state. Short of stature but a lethal soldier, he was a favourite fighter of John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).. In 2010 Deng, who was in his 50s, ran for the Jonglei governor’s seat. When he lost the election he returned to the bush, but is believed to have been captured by government forces and summarily executed.
Despite the return of Riek Machar, leader of the SPLM-IO, to his old job as Vice President – which has however been split into five positions – South Sudan is a country still very much ill at ease with itself. “As we are talking, the country is on fire”, said a South Sudanese in Nairobi “Militia gangs are roaming South Sudan with abandon, because Kiir is a lame duck president. He does not have the control of the country beyond Juba”.
My friend said South Sudan is currently on fire: “There could be at least 10 – 15 internecine wars going on in South Sudan. The greater Dinka of Gumuruk and Pibor is at war with Murle. The Murle, who are viewed as a war-like ethnic community in South Sudan hence, always seen as an aggressor community is at war with a coalition of Dinka and Lou Nuer”. The South Sudanese also said the internecine wars have not spared intra-community’s wars.
“The Dinka sub-clans of Apuk and Aguok that come from the President’s home county of Gogrial are at war with each other. The intra-communal war among the Agar people has been going on for nearly 20 years. The Nuer of Bentiu are busy fighting the Dinka Twic Mayardit”. The Nuers, observed my friend, just like the Dinka have been fighting among themselves. “The Nuers from Bentiu have been warring with the Nuers from Warrap state. So, if the ethnic communities are not fighting between themselves, they are fighting among themselves. These inter-state fights and unrests, have made South Sudan seem ungovernable”.
Said the South Sudan national: “As if the internecine wars inside South Sudan are not enough, there has been unrest between Sudan and South Sudan. “The Malual Dinka have been quarrelling with the Missinya Arabs of Sudan. The picture coming from South Sudan is not good at all. It is from this backdrop that Kerbino met his untimely death”.
Racist Undertones in the Media’s Reporting of COVID-19’s Origins
News reports claiming that “wet markets” in Asia are the source of the coronavirus obscure the fact that the consumption of wild animals is common in the West. How can the Western media condemn “unacceptable” animal consumption practices in the global South while maintaining studious silence on the same in the global North?
In pre-colonial Africa, before the Berlin conference that led to the “Scramble for Africa” among European countries and the subsequent creation of arbitrary territorial boundaries we now refer to as countries, “states” were defined by some form of shared heritage, not just in the form of hard tangible artefacts, but in culture – practices and knowledge that are acquired by peoples in situ. When populations moved, they carried this heritage with them and adjusted it to fit in with the new realities they encountered in their new homelands.
The current crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 global pandemic has severely restricted travel for recreation and business and the sharing of experiences and ideas across the world. In a manner of speaking, it has put globalisation on “pause” as countries must look inwards for ways to mitigate its impact on health, social, and economic systems.
The complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic lies in the fact that there is still no universally accepted approach to its mitigation or management. Individual countries have, therefore, been compelled to draw on their own intellectual and material resources to address the impact of the pandemic, with varying levels of success. Some countries have taken a reactionary approach, while others struggle to find direction, illustrating the need for us to retake control of our living heritage and re-imagine ourselves in the light of our own needs and aspirations.
The true origins of this pandemic may never be known, so those of us who are lay people take what the media give us. The spectre of a zoonosis “jumping” from wild animals into humans through the consumption of their meat and the sheer speed of communication (or mis-communication) about this are among the most startling features of this pandemic.
When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment. It was only a matter of time before the racist dog-whistle “bush meat trade” hit the airwaves (nauseatingly familiar to those of us who work in the conservation sector).
I have often spoken about how the portrayal of the consumption of wild animals is one of the most overt and widely accepted expressions of racial prejudice in our times. It has long been an accepted norm that the meat of wild animals must be described in genteel terms when it is consumed by white people, as is the killing of all manner of creatures. The nature of conservation discourse has normalised the use of the different terms “game meat” and “bush meat” even to describe consumption of flesh from the same animal species, based on the ethnicity of the procurer. Slaughter is routinely described as “sport” and dignified as ““noble” all over the world when perpetrated by white people, and occasionally elites of colour. After 20 years as a conservation practitioner, I am familiar with the cult-like manner in which we pursue the cause. It is considered above reproach, and all manner of ills can be visited upon human societies as long as they can be demonstrated to be serving some environmental conservation goal.
When the pandemic started, the media were instantly awash with (frankly revolting) images of people of Asian descent eating whole bats in soup. Suddenly, newly-used terms like “wet markets” were de rigueur in news bulletins, as were images of Chinese markets with live and dead creatures of all kinds for sale, either whole, live, or in various stages of dismemberment.
It was, therefore, a feeling of déjà vu when the tone taken by the Western media portrayed the outbreak almost as some kind of “divine retribution” visited upon the Chinese people for the consumption of meat from wild animals. (This was before the virus spread globally and stopped being regarded as a Chinese problem.) Indeed, scientists were falling over themselves to look for coronaviruses in all manner of trafficked animals, like pangolins. Racial undertones have always been part of global conservation practice, and that is the reason why Europe and the United States have largely escaped the opprobrium that has been visited on China for the ivory trade, despite it being third globally behind the former two in this vice.
When wildlife is used as food in the global South and East, it draws near universal revulsion in the West with regards to the “cruelty” of the activity. Those who have visited the United States, however, are familiar with the seasonal hunting and eating of deer, elk, moose, squirrels, opossum and rabbits, not to mention turkeys, ducks, and other wild birds.
Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol. It takes around two weeks to collect the required number of snakes for the festival, during which time the captive reptiles are kept in the dark without food or water. Come the weekend of the festival, the entertainment of visitors will include the ritual decapitation of snakes and the participants (including children) competing to strip skins off the still writhing snake bodies and flaying them for meat (which is served on site and consumed with a variety of drinks). Children also engage in making murals from hand prints in snake blood, amongst other activities.
A close observation of the reportage on this reveals the degree of effort put into “cleansing” this strange ritual, notably its description as a “celebration of culture” that brings in $8.4 million into the town of Sweetwater, Texas. The scale of the carnage hit a record high in 2016 when 11 tonnes (24,262 pounds) of rattlesnakes were reportedly harvested. The reporting didn’t specify that this represented around 10,000 snakes (calculation made from the average weight of a rattlesnake).
Those who are so irked by “wet markets” would do well to familiarise themselves with the “rattlesnake roundup”, an annual activity in the state of Texas in the United States. The roundup is a display of extraordinary cruelty where thousands of rattlesnakes are collected from the wild, mostly by being flushed out of their dens with petrol.
How then does the Western media contrive to maintain this critical focus on “unacceptable” animal consumption practices in the global South while maintaining studious silence on the same in their own countries? What then is a “wet market”? Can the Texas rattlesnake roundup be described as such, and if not, why not?
Characterising the consumption of reptiles, rodents, chiroptera (bats), marsupials (opossums) as “Asian” traits is simply racial prejudice. Similarly, the capture, caging and sale of wild animals in Asian markets is described as cruel whereas sport hunting, whaling, and foxhunting by Caucasian peoplesare accepted, celebrated, and even defended robustly, when need be.
Conservation, tourism and dietary tastes
Personally, as an individual with very conservative (some might say pedestrian) tastes in food, travelling is full of challenges in terms of foods that I encounter around the world. I remember particularly an incident of a Maasai colleague being perturbed by a dinner offering of “venison” at a lodge in rural Quebec in Canada. I had to clarify to him that venison is deer meat.
The Maasai are traditionally livestock producers and are known to frown upon the consumption of meat from wild animals. But this was a relatively mild challenge for him, compared to various raw meats, raw fish, marine crustaceans, and snails that he and I have encountered on our travels to different continents.
The variety of dietary tastes and preferences around the world are one of the most prominent indicators of human diversity, and have long been celebrated and studied by travelers and scholars. This pandemic, however, has upset the genteel veneer with which we present our differences and has left our class, racial, and cultural prejudices ruthlessly exposed. If indeed the slaughter of wildlife is a vile aspect of human nature, then why is Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 hunting safari in Kenya so celebrated by a conservation body (The Smithsonian Institution) over a century later? This expedition was a bloodbath, where the hunters killed and trapped more than 11,000 animals, including multiple specimens of the “big game” species that Roosevelt took particular pleasure in killing.
Conservation and tourism have long been an arena that struggles with racism and classism, and my country Kenya has for the last 100 years been the poster child for what is good and wrong about the nexus of conservation and tourism in Africa. Due to travel bans and lockdowns, tourism in the country has largely collapsed. The obsession with foreign tourists (referred to lovingly as “arrivals”) has left established facilities struggling to appeal to indigenous and local clients for whom they had very little time under normal circumstances.
The real tragedy, however, is in the wildlife conservancies, where conservation NGOs had been going out of their way to convince and coerce previously resilient pastoralist communities to spurn their livelihoods and identities (that were based upon livestock production) and to share landscapes with wildlife. The narrative was that livestock was bad and their numbers had to be suppressed. The landscape didn’t belong to the people, but to the wildlife, and the wildlife had no intrinsic cultural value. It was for tourists, and pastoralists’ livelihoods would reside in service to the tourists.
To be a “good” (read: compliant) community worthy of handouts, the community needed to move to the periphery of their lands, leaving the best parts for tourism They had to reduce their herds (or move them away to go and overgraze someone else’s turf), and learn to serve (be a waiter, ranger, cook, or beadwork maker) at the altar of tourism.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, reports from community conservancies invariably feature penury – communities struggling to make a living and depending on food handouts, all due to the collapse of tourism. For those who understand the livestock economy, pastoralist communities depending on food handouts is unthinkable in a year that has seen such abundance of rainfall and pasture growth. The conservation cult had succeeded in compromising the resilience of entire communities.
The language of environmentalism and assistance
Students of political history will experience déjà vu; 200 years after its initial foray, Western neoliberalism is once again bringing rural Africa to its knees by destroying resilience and creating dependency. The only difference is that this time it is hidden in the language of environmentalism and assistance.
The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult. Nonagenarian Westerners like Sir David Attenborough routinely prescribe future goals to young populations in the global South (backed by environmental cinema that deliberately excludes human populations from the frame). As our youth struggle with the visions of old Westerners, our leaders are confronted with advice and “guidance” from a European teenage girl, delivered with the glib assurance of someone who doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge required to confer a modicum of self-doubt.
As African students of environmental sciences strive to make their voices heard in academia, they get confronted by ludicrous theories like the half-earth theory, proposed by E. O. Wilson, a pioneer of ecology from Harvard University, one of the pinnacles of academia. This theory proposes that half the earth should be “protected” for the survival of biodiversity.
The world today needs to wake up to the threat to social stability posed by the global environmental movement fashioned in the West. The pursuit of its goals is relentless, and has the hallmarks of a cult.
However, what proponents of this theory don’t state is that this biodiversity will be protected mostly in the tropics, because the temperate lands do not have biodiversity worth protecting in such a drastic manner. Any attempt to actualise such a move would amount to genocide, but the world routinely accepts such fascism when environmental reasons are used to support it.
Indeed, the United Nations and other global bodies like the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) have taken up the cause, proposing to raise the recommended percentage of land under protection, from the current 14 per cent to 30 per cent. The voices pushing this movement are varied, but two uniformities persist – the voices are of white people and they say nothing about the difference in consumption patterns between themselves and the global South.
So-called “global” environmental targets must be tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of individual nations, or we run the risk of imperialism. Yellowstone National Park was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but it is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later, and celebrated as a world heritage site.
For generations, our consumption patterns have never been spoken about globally, because to do so would be to acknowledge that we in the global South have always been sustainable societies. Logic dictates that our consumption patterns shouldn’t now be used to vilify us as the source of a scourge, which strangely appears not to have affected us in the way the global North expected.
The term “new normal” has been bandied about ad nauseam to describe the post-COVID19 world. In reality, the manner in which the people and the environment of the global South have been exploited by the Occident over generations has been abnormal. The coronavirus crisis may have just set a few things right.
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