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The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona

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The creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience. Research shows that the culture and creative industry is the next frontier for growth, but there is a need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, and institutions.

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The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona
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Criticism of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement of Sh200 million monthly payouts to artists has centred on mistakenly equating the immediate needs of healthcare workers at the front line of the battle to beat the coronavirus with paying royalties for creative work. This announcement came on the back of his order to lock in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

Completely missed in the ensuing furore was the fact that Kenyatta was only reporting progress on an earlier pledge, when he said: “My administration has projected that a total of Sh200 million every month will be paid to musicians through the system and other platforms. This translates to over Sh2 billion going into the pockets of Kenyan artists. These payments will begin this week in line with the pledge that I made in January.”

Should the president have used the same platform announcing measures to address the crisis, such as setting up of a National COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, getting the seed capital for the Fund from the Exchequer, taxation, and pay cuts to assure the country of continuing entertainment from artistes?

The arts during the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Entertainment is the visible contribution the arts make, but recent local history is replete with examples of how music, performance theatre, literature and visual arts have enabled conversations that built a shared understanding of complex problems to enable the people to find solutions. Song, dance and theatre modelled on the Latin America experience around theatre for development have helped Kenya to confront poorly understood phenomena like the HIV/AIDS pandemic, chipping away at stigma and bringing hundreds of thousands of infected people into care and treatment to blunt its effects on the affected and reduce its impacts on society.

“When one speaks of health communication using art and the role of artists, several creative pieces in different genres come to mind,” Oby Obyerodhyambo, a public health professional and leading author, playwright, actor, noted in an interview. “I think of songs such as Todi by the late Oliver Mutukudzi, Dunia Mbaya by Prince Julie, Attention na SIDA by the late Franco Luambo Makiadi. I am reminded of the images of the late Philly Lutaaya descending the flights of stairs at Entebbe for the last time after he had broken the stigma about HIV in Uganda several years earlier using his music. Music and musicians played a major role in raising awareness about HIV when all that people knew about HIV was the death. Music was not best in terms of providing detailed information about the health continuum from the transmission to treatment but played a huge role in breaking the silence about HIV. The mention of the word UKIMWI was eased by songs like Dunia Mbaya increasing community discourse on HIV was greatly aided by art and artists.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

“However, theatre had a terrible history,” Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “The journey started with the horrific play, Tone kwa Tone, that was among the first HIV dramas staged in Kenya. It was grotesque; diabolic images of skulls, blood dripping, coffins and HIV depicted as a devil, coffins and promiscuity and immortality associated with HIV. The typical play showed the Simon Makonde story of infected today and dead in seven days marked by intense suffering. This enhanced stigma to a very high level.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

Nonetheless the power of using theatre was clearly noted and was thereafter followed subtler plays on HIV, such as Positive Identity written by Oby Obyerodhyambo using the pseudonym Rangóndi Othuon that also won the Okoth K’Obonyo Playwriting Competition that used to be organised by Theatre Workshop Production.

There were several other plays by JPR Ochieng’Odero taken around the country under AIDSCAP project. This USAID-funded programme morphed into the countrywide Theatre for Development or Magnet Theatre projects under the aegis of PATH and FHI. Thousands of shows were staged by the troupe of artists using a Forum Theatre approach inspired by Paulo Freire and Augusto Boan techniques. Around this time we also had Maisha ya Nuru where radio soaps and radio magazine platforms were used.

“At this point, the main role of art/artists was – raise awareness of the REAL cause of HIV and AIDS, promote preventive behaviour (Abstinence, Reduction of Sexual Partners and Condom use),” said Oby Obyerodhyambo, who was at the centre of it all while working with PATH. “It was used to reduce HIV stigma, promote acceptance of PLWHIV [people living with HIV] and promote community dialogue around HIV and AIDS to de-mythologise HIV and give hope to families of PLWHIV (mainly that avoiding opportunistic infections could prolong lives). At this point there were plays that taught that an infected person should prepare for death – there were the Memory Projects with scrapbooks. This was before the advent on ARV [antiretrovirals]. Theatre promoted testing and many people got to know their HIV status courtesy of Magnet Theatre – the MT that we did at PATH would have a very tight referral for HIV testing.”

Apart from theatre and music, graphic art also played a major part, especially the Talking Walls projects where murals were used to engage the community in dialogues. These murals travelled a long way from the grotesque images. In some places, these images can still be seen. Art provided a stark reminder of the ravages of HIV, but also promoted stigma by negative portraying PLWHIV. There were posters that played the same sort of role.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) trained puppeteers and promoted the use of life-size puppets. These travelling, life-size puppet shows were the firsts attempts to objectify the disease with non-real characters who could discuss HIV and being HIV-positive and who could explore real taboo subjects. Puppets actually were the first ones to bring caricature and humour into the portrayal of HIV and AIDS. Their role has been underplayed. Using puppets, the stigmatisation of PLWIV and the mystery around HIV was reduced.

Similarly, these arts— Theatre for Development/Participatory Education Theatre— unlocked emotive conversations in the long search for a new order, contributing to securing Kenya’s constitution-making as one of the most participatory processes in the world.

“The conscientisation of Kenyans towards a new public awareness and education came to the fore in the early 90s with the advent of political pluralism,” Kawive Wambua, an artists and governance expert noted in a seminal paper, “The Artists as the Managers of the Political Transition in Kenya”, presented at the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) Conference on East African Oral Literature in Kisumu in 2005. “CSOs [civil society organisations] such as Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change (4CS), Legal Resource Foundation (LRF), Centre for Governance and Democracy (CGD) and CLARION commissioned plays to be written and engaged artists to go around the country popularising such ‘taboo’ issues as human rights, good governance and rule of law.”

Wambua noted:

Plays that were significant in the 1990s, were such as Professor Kivutha Kibwana’s Kanzala, Wakanyote Njuguna’s Kabla ya Dhoruba, Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kifo Kisimani, Wahome Mutahi’s Mugaathe Mubogothi, Makaririra Kioro, and Mugathe Ndotono among others. Though these plays lack specific merit as Participatory Education Theatre (PET) or even as Interactive Participatory Community Education Theatre (IPCET) texts, they were unconventional (some even compromising style for messagism) and they interrogated difference and diffidence in community leadership. These writers as well were prominent figures in the intellectual and human rights movements and hence had a lot of influence in the course of action on the educational theatre scene. Their plays, among others, were the precursors of the underground NGO movement that came up with the IPCET play. The individual and really forceful activities of civil society organisations like 4Cs, CGD, LRF and a plethora of other organisations suffered the same fate of being but information points for the community. Information, we should note at this point, empowers, but it is only communication that liberates. And this key issue was never sufficiently addressed. Art was severally massacred at the behest of militant advocacy.

“I would like to isolate the 4Cs and say that they started off as a loosely structured lobby group for constitutional reform,” Kawive Wambua added during an interview. “For three years, its single programme was theatre. The theatre group used the rich history of oppression in the country to create a play “Five Centuries”, later to become the name of the group. The play was an interrogation of the suffering and pain the people of Kenya have gone through in the hands of selfish leaders, the fact of an independence that never was, and the need for this century to be a century of nation reconstruction and a new constitutional order. This trend has survived across the years, at times faltering at the intersection of artistic expressionism and political advocacy.”

He noted: “It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally. Aforementioned groups and others such as 5Cs Theatre were instrumental in cultivating the language of rights and self-liberation by citizens from the government and by women from the clutches of patriarchy. In the mid and late 90s also Theatre for Development (TfD), Participatory Education Theatre (PET) was being used for reproductive health education and HIV and AIDs awareness. CARE-Kenya and other non-profit outfits were big on theatre as a primary methodology of Behaviour Change Communication (BCC). This was to continue in 2003 onwards with Magnet Theatre projects all over Kenya.

“It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally…”

In the run-up to the 2002 election, Gidi Gidi, Maji Maji’s popular song We Are Unbwogable became the rallying call for the nation’s new heroes Those people who had been frustrated by the regime and its machinations came together and sought artists to ignite the fire that would stamp them with confidence and endear them to the electorate. Another song, Yote ya Wezekana, a popular gospel tune, was used to appropriate the political mood and to whip up the mood and empathy of the people from the apparent defeatism and lethargic complacency that had enveloped them after three subsequent defeat upon defeat of those that seemed to be conscientious leaders faced by the misuse of state machinery and resources.

From disease comes great art

“Art has a way of objectifying reality and therefore making difficult topics discussable. This was clearly the case with HIV because of the preponderance of sexual transmission,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “Art very effectively made it possible to discuss the issues around HIV and suggest the steps that could be taken to cope. Objectivity through depiction in art and film such as the iconic movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington dealt with the issues of human rights and stigma associated with HIV. Art and artists worked through their creative expression to raise awareness of HIV; build knowledge about the disease – its transmission, diagnosis, management and prevention strategies and removing myths that fuelled stigma and discrimination; created a more receptive environment by famous musicians coming out as Lutaaya did; then there were those who drew crowds by their fame and did edutainment shows – Prince Jully, Ochieng’ Kabaselle, (many in local languages) and big names like Franco Luambo Makiadi with Attention na SIDA.”

“The spectre of disease, pandemic, and death have been with us since life emerged on this rock. And once we got around to discovering music, homo sapiens (and perhaps Neanderthals, whose numbers were probably drastically culled by disease), began reacting to these periods of widespread sickness with stories, art, and song,” writes Allan Cross, a broadcaster and a commentator for Global News.

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

“The first recorded pandemic hit the people of Athens between 429 and 426 BC,” Cross writes. “No one knew why, other than the gods must have been displeased with mankind. We still don’t know what caused the death of up to 100,000 — Typhus? Typhoid Fever? Some sort of viral hemorrhagic disease? — but it left an unusual mark on the city. Those were the peak years of Greek tragedy, a form of theatre that had tremendous influence on both ancient Rome in a few centuries and the Renaissance more than a thousand years in the future. From disease came great art.”

Science is moving at great speed to educate us about the coronavirus, how it spreads and ways to contain it, which require changes that cannot be enforced by official diktat alone. “The Black Death killed majority of the population in Florence in 1348 (and maybe as much as 60 per cent of all of Europe between 1331 and 1353) yet Florence rallied, becoming a flashpoint of intellectual and artistic evolution that was felt for centuries,” Cross adds. “London was plagued through much of the 16th century and King Henry VIII was forced to self-isolate during the Sweating Sickness of 1529, much in the way we are today and saw a spike in fatalities in the early 1600s. But as England slowly recovered, Shakespeare was somehow inspired to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all in 1606.”

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

Exploring these tragedies, the deprivations they visit upon society and the adaptations that are required to survive is a matter of emotional persuasion as it is of logic. “The artist provides society with emotions, colour, and texture. Scientists think up of ways to make life easier, builders and technicians turn those scientific ideas into tangible objects. These things help us – they blend our foods, put roofs over our heads, make mowing the lawn easier – but they never add real emotion. Artists come in to play on our emotions and subconscious thoughts,” notes Andre Deherrera, a creator/artist for AndreDDesign.

Aziza Atta, founder of Ozoza Lifestyle in Abuja, notes: “Art is the natural way in which we create relationships in the world and also where we build life experiences. Being an artist is to express one’s soul. The responsibility of the artist is to consciously bring about an internal change within us. We cannot bring to the world what we have not ourselves internally absorbed, digested and assimilated. It all starts in the heart and in the mind. Through its emotional outreach, art can affect these transformations. It is a powerful force.”

Besides artists being direct taxpayers, they are also consumers. In a streamlined and transparent system, paying artists the over Sh2 billion (about $20 million) owed to them each year can take away a great deal of pressure on the state to provide relief.

The culture and creative industry

Tapping into the potential of the creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience, beyond just contributing to the national gross domestic product. There is no doubt that this president the others before him have not given the culture and creative industry (CCI) the attention it deserves. However, Uhuru Kenyatta and his team have suddenly woken up to what the CCI stakeholders have been taking about. Gains about the CCI are well documented in reports such as the “Ubunifu Report on the Status of the Creative Economy in East Africa”, the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC)ianalysis report on the trends shaping the entertainment and media industry in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, dubbed “Getting Personal: Putting the Me in Entertainment & Media: Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective, and many other related industry reports.

Champions for CCI have included none other than Hon. Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary- General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), through numerous reports and recommendations and conferences, such as the one that led to UNCTAD’s Nairobi Maafikiano 2016.

In its report, UNCTAD observes: “Trends show the ‘creative economy’ can cultivate meaningful work, make money and help deliver prosperity for all. The creative economy, in some ways, defies definition almost by definition. But its significant 3% contribution to global gross domestic product (GDP) makes it a powerful emerging economic sector that is being strengthened by a surge in digitisation and services.”

Since 2004, UNCTAD has analysed creative industries, providing important insights into its global dimensions. UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Programme, whose focus is on trade in the creative industries, has placed the arts on the world economic and development agenda by imagining a role for them in the growth of developing economies. Its data on trade in creative goods and services provide important insights for understanding the creative economy at a time when many emerging and developing economies are seeking to diversify.

“The creative economy and its industries are strategic sectors that if nurtured can boost competitiveness, productivity, sustainable growth, employment and exports potential,” notes Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s international trade and commodities director.

The creative economy leverages creativity, technology, culture and innovation in fostering inclusive and sustained economic growth and development. Creative economy sectors include arts and craft, books, films, paintings, festivals, songs, designs, digital animation and video games. They generate income through trade (exports) and intellectual property rights, and create new jobs in higher occupational skills, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

UNCTAD’s second report, Creative Economy Outlook and Country Profile Report 2018, notes that the “size of the global market for creative goods expanded substantially more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015.”

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available. Besides the performing arts, visual arts and cultural heritage, Kenyans produce films, videos, television and radio shows, video games, music and books. There is important work being undertaken in the graphic design, fashion and advertising subsectors. These creative activities need to be anchored in political and governmental commitment and concrete support.”

Government commitment and concrete support through the streamlining of the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) and Collective Management Organisations (CMOs) by streamlining the sector can deliver benefits for artists but can also open a new revenue stream for government. In January this year, President Kenyatta directed that KECOBO license digital platforms run by telecommunication firms and media companies to channel payments of royalties to the three CMOs “in order to ensure compensation for all generators of the works”.

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available.

“Content Service Providers who work with digital platforms such as Skiza and Viusasa, will be eliminated because they sit outside the CMOs,” President Uhuru said. “My practical direction on this is to have all rights holders register on the National Rights Registry.”

Additional funds totalling Sh100m from the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage are also to be made available from the Sports Fund during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These new measures will see the rise of tariffs collected and will create immense savings on the processes of collecting royalties,” he added. “It is estimated that the new system will see an increase in collections from a previous Sh200 million per year to an estimated Sh2 billion per year, a tenfold increase.”

The ministry’s perennial underfunding over the years and its general poor performance mean that they need to be watched closely to turn the order into reality. The coronavirus crisis also presents an opportunity. President Kenyatta has ordered KECOBO to gazette new tariffs within 30 days and ensure that public service vehicles, the hospitality industry, and broadcasters apply them.

The arts and COVID-19

The State House Choir has already showed that artists are going to be significant cogs in the fight against COVID-19. Like in the past, artists in various genres will need to come on board to help deal with numerous issues around COVID 19.

“I suggest that art could be used to respond to the misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 and coronavirus,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “To present the facts in a very easy and understandable way that our grandmothers and children under 5 can understand – unlike HIV that was so stigmatising because it involved sex among others this one is less inhibiting. However, it goes to the very core of our cultural practices so we need to explain why we need to social distance, stay at home and be careful about what we touch – to demystify the preventive procedures including donning of masks.”

He added: “We are social animals and greet and hug a lot. We are a ‘touchy’ culture so the idea that we cannot touch – shake hands – is harder than avoiding sex. Basically we are telling people to dehumanise themselves. We can use the art of humour to do this and create a way that we can laugh at this again because it is not as difficult as abandoning sexual partners. Over that we need art to explain the logic of doing what we are doing.”

Through art, we will explain the lockdown so that the punitiveness of it is explained. The idea of curtailing freedom to move and interact is difficult to explain unless some counter-narrative is spun. We must explain to the man or woman who cannot go to the farm or market or visit his relatives how this is for his or her own good.

“Again, there is a need to reduce the fiat that the administration is adopting,” Obyerodhyambo added during the interview. “The ‘or else’ approach is counter-intuitive. How do you explain to me that going out to fetch food for my hungry children is for their own good? Artists need to rally the public around ownership of the response to corona. The way that the globe was galvanised around the movements like ‘Africa for Africans’ where funds were donated to support the victims of famine must be the approach. The arts must tug at the heartstrings of the population, we must show empathy and concern for one another.”

The role of the artist in the world after corona

No one best captures the hopes and aspirations of artists and the art world better than Dalen O’Connell, a theatre artist from Minnesota, USA, when the coronavirus chaos is finally contained. In a Facebook post, Dalen noted that in theatre “we have a tradition – whenever the theatre is empty, we are always sure to leave one light on. Typically on a stand in the center of the stage, this light is known as the ghost light. There are many stories about its origin- but it’s meaning is unmistakable. It means though the theatre is empty, WE WILL RETURN. So here’s to us. The actors, the technicians, the directors, the carpenters, the designers, the dancers, the teachers, the students, the freelancers, those on tour, those at sea, the electricians, the stitchers, the makers, the stage managers — THE ARTISTS. Many of us have taken big hits during this virus. Financial and emotional weights have come crashing down as our entire industry is reduced to nothing but a bunch of ghost lights. But those ghost lights are temporary place holders. They are a sign. We might be down now- but our passion, our creativity, our drive is still center stage. We will be unplugging those ghost lights in no time. Until then- here’s a ghost light – to let the world know we will be back.” (There was an accompanying picture of the ghost light).

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

He notes: “There is no artistic rendition carrying the questions that society is grappling with such as: Where is the money donated by all manner of people going? Why are our facilities so decrepit and our health care professionals unprotected? Why is COVID weaponised so that the police are killing Kenyans in enforcing the Public Health Act and the curfew? Why is the donated testing costing 10,000 shillings and why are people being charged for being quarantined in places they did not choose? Why are police officers corruptly landing people in quarantine? And why are come counties giving masks and why are politicians branding donated hand sanitisers and getting away scot-free?”

“The role of artists DURING the crisis should be of interest because if they are the moral compass and mirror they should be asking these difficult questions,” Oby added during the interview. “Artists should be questioning why Kenyans still do not wear masks and are not physically distancing? Why are people sneaking in and out of the locked-down cities? There should be messages of self-reflection and introspection. Do the artists actually understand the public health issues at play? Can they be allowed to pass on the message they do not understand?”

Like the proverbial Phoenix, artists believe the industry will rise once again and take its place in society – as entertainers, educators and tax payers.

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

“I believe, like Okot p’Bitek, the artist is the ruler,” Kawive Wambua pointed out in a conversation when this article was being written. “Artists have already unravelled the coronavirus and are crooning from YouTube on what the pandemic means for us. They interpret it and entertain at the same time. In the post-corona period, they will puck the husks of our lives and relive our lives on stage, talking about love gone and death visiting but unwanted. They will create for us a log of memory as they help us reflect and recreate a new world – where wealth and power are demystified and life glorified. They will help us imagine a new world.”

In Kenya, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) envisages artists and cultural workers playing a key role in re-engineering our society. It envisages the resourcing and revitalisation of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports to take lead in the rebuilding process. Advocacy and education work using art that will even entail coming to terms with the post-COVID realities will be critical.

The government will need to move beyond talking and tokenism in its effort to strengthen the culture and creative industry. Research shows that this is the next frontier for growth, but there is need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, strengthening institutions and associations, among others.

“Double-digit growth is anticipated for Kenya,” the PwC-backed Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective notes. “Kenya’s E&M market is set to see growth at a 10.3% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) over the next five years, reaching nearly US$3.0 billion in 2023. In 2018 the market rose by 13.0% year-on-year to make US$1.8 billion.”

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Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru is an Arts Journalist with Kymsnet Media Network.

Culture

How Afrobeat(s) Was Hatched: From Kuti to Burna

Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Fela Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations on which the genre stands.

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How Afrobeat(s) Was Hatched: From Kuti to Burna
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There was initially a slight conflation between the Afrobeat genre and its later reincarnation as Afrobeats. Recently however, there has been a demarcation between the two genres even though they share certain antecedents of lineage.

Fela Kuti—visionary composer, multi-instrumentalist, radical social activist, cultural renegade, political prisoner and pan-Africanist amongst other things—is regarded as the foremost exponent of Afrobeat and his life and work have been amply documented. Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat emerged after years of experimentation during which he lived in London as a student in the 1950s and 60s and then in Los Angeles in the late 60s. Kuti had studied classical music in England where he also spent time moonlighting in jazz clubs. Jazz, and not classical music, had been his first love. On completing his studies, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he had a stint in broadcasting before going into a full-time career in music.

At the time, West African highlife music was all the rave. Highlife is reputed to have been pioneered by E.T. Mensah, a Ghanaian exponent, but the genre soon gained widespread acceptance all over the West African coast. It was an intoxicating blend of Latin sounds and African polyrhythms served with bluesy horns. Essentially, it was feel-good music with little or no overt political content. It certainly didn’t need to be politically conscious because many African countries were still in a euphoric mood after recently gaining independence from their erstwhile colonisers.

For a while, Kuti dabbled in what he termed highlife-jazz. And then at the end of the 60s, he visited the United States on a musical tour. On getting there, he discovered that he and his band hadn’t obtained the correct visas that would permit them to work. In Los Angeles, he met Sandra Izidore, a young and beautiful African American woman who would change his life.

A student of anthropology, Izidore was also a radical pro-black activist who turned Kuti to the ideology of the Black Panther Party. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous momentum, with black leaders calling for urgent sociopolitical change. Such transformation also meant cultural assertion and empowerment as exemplified by James Brown’s radical cry, “Say it loud, I’m black and proud”. Brown in turn preached his searing political message through a diet of gut-bucket funk. Funk was unapologetically black at its core; the kind of music that in earlier times would be classified as race music. Basically a groove-based music, its energetic, funky drum patterns and heavy bass lines distinguished it as a form that spoke directly to the gut and soul.

Meanwhile, Kuti was taking copious notes on everything, from the strident political messaging to the indispensability of the groove coupled with the hypnotic and electrifying effects of gut-deep funk. There was clearly a lot to be learnt from a culturally resurgent black America.

Although Kuti deeply admired jazz, he still felt it lacked something. In particular, he believed that more obvious elements of African music needed to be added into the mix. These ingredients included powerful ancient West African drumming traditions. Within those illustrious percussive traditions, drummers had discovered a way to make drums “talk” in honouring their deities and forging stronger communal ties.

Kuti promptly set about incorporating those vital elements of West African music into his ever-expanding repertoire. Apart from his own indigenous Yoruba drumming, these elements included Ghanaian styles, highlife textures, jazzy horns and deep funk grooves. He also learnt about the power of African trance music and its innate spirituality. Having selected these assorted sonic elements, Kuti turned to questions of ideology and political message; it was an unlikely combination of ingredients funnelled through a highly idiosyncratic imagination.

Izidore had preached the necessity to develop a clear political vision. In America, political struggle was defined by the imperatives of black empowerment and the language of civil rights. Back in Nigeria, as the euphoric haze of independence wore off, Kuti was confronted by enervating postcolonial anomie. The ruling classes, both civilian and military, had become insufferably corrupt. Instead of real national development, Kuti saw missed opportunities and truncated potential which infuriated him. He started to lambast the decadent ruling classes and soon incurred their wrath. He was constantly harassed, arrested and beaten by military goons.

But Kuti had found a powerfully distinctive musical voice and an equally impressive political message to sit within it. Fastened together, his sonic template and ideological vision became a formidable weapon that attempted several things all at once: sociopolitical transformation, cultural and aesthetic affirmation, spiritual re-discovery and individual liberation.

Kuti came to be viewed as a disconcerting maverick, an irrepressible icon who spoke fearlessly for the disenfranchised masses, a gadfly who constantly taunted and angered the political and economic elites, and finally, a social rebel who championed the causes of countercultural renegades. He blithely broke all the rules, politically, culturally and musically. And within this restless cauldron of rebellion and experimentation, classical Afrobeat was born, with Kuti as its instantly recognisable face. However, there were other musicians, such as Orlando Julius and Remi Kababa, who also favoured the genre.

Within Kuti’s large and revolving band, many musicians are credited with having played pivotal roles in forging Afrobeat’s sonic identity. In this regard, mention must be made of drummer Tony Allen’s contributions in laying down the percussive basis of the Afrobeat sound. Although Kuti was the visionary mastermind who assembled all the elements together, he was generous enough to acknowledge Allen’s vital inputs. Incidentally, Allen died in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic at the age of 79.
Another crucial figure in the Afrobeat story is baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun who succeeded Allen as band leader when the latter left in 1979 not long after the sacking and razing of Kalakuta Republic, Kuti’s countercultural commune, in 1977. The following year, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s mother and foremost feminist, who had been flung from an upstairs window during the raid on Kalakuta, died aged 78 as a result of her injuries.

Kuti himself was never the same after this ordeal. He gradually became understandably paranoid, distrustful of even his own well-meaning close friends and associates and increasingly reclusive. His oppression at the hands of the military authorities continued and a change in his sonic template became noticeable. For one, the joie de vivre evident in his earlier compositions rapidly gave way to a sombre, meditative tone which aligned with the spiritual turn of mind that came to inform his general outlook.

Kuti died in 1997 during the reign of Nigeria’s most heinous dictator, General Sani Abacha, who himself met his demise the following year. But even before his death, Kuti had been long past his prime, weakened by numerous beatings inflicted by an unforgiving military and HIV/Aids. Sadly, he died a bitter and broken man although ultimately, he had the last laugh. Afrobeat, the genre he pioneered and disseminated against all odds eventually became an attractive idiom, finding proponents all over the world. As this came to pass, his cultural stock increased in value exponentially.

Nollywood, the rough, innovative and adaptable movie industry hatched in the midst of a pulverising economic meltdown and severe sociocultural upheavals soon grew to international prominence on the strength of its DIY ethic. After Kuti’s passing, it was yet another cultural phenomenon that, in spite of all odds, attested to the region’s cultural vibrancy and resourcefulness. It can be argued that the confidence acquired by Nollywood somehow translated to other distinct yet related cultural pursuits such as music. In other words, the same DIY spirit that had birthed Nollywood eventually produced Afrobeats.

Afrobeats, as distinct from Afrobeat, is less political, arguably less musically accomplished or sophisticated and evidently less aesthetically ambitious. Today’s Afrobeats musicians work in a vastly different technological era in which they don’t need to learn to play and master what are considered to be traditional musical instruments. All they need is an adept beatmaker.

However, Kuti’s Afrobeat is an almost impossible proposition in the current economic environment because he often needed what would appear to be orchestras within orchestras to produce his intricate, lavishly textured sound and hence realise his singularly unique musical vision. Technically, this is very difficult to accomplish presently as the sheer logistics required to achieve this kind of feat are simply mind-boggling.

Kuti also believed strongly in the spiritual dimensions of African music; music was, in other words, an avenue to access ancestral life-worlds and establish historical continuity devoid of the frivolities of the present. In addition, there is also a striving to affirm and express the ineffable. Again, this refers to the spiritual component of classical Afrobeat.

Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy are regarded as the current superstars of the Afrobeats scene. And in several ways, they are all very different. Wizkid, one of the first breakout Afrobeats stars, has a distinctively mellow voice and is very skilled at ad libs and groove-laden free-styles. Lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except that he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance floors. In fairness to him, he does not pretend to be a political messiah or to possess a vision of how society ought to be reformed. He has also become part of the global entertainment industry which readily accepts and promotes stars that lend themselves to easy and unproblematic branding.

The same can be said of Davido, Wizkid’s compatriot and frequent rival, who hit the limelight about the same time as the latter. Davido’s voice isn’t as charming but he makes up for it with an equally astute understanding of the groove and indigenous African rhythms. Other advantages that serve him well are his relentless energy and cannily precise understanding of his strengths and limitations as a musician.

Burna Boy, his multiple successes notwithstanding, is a slightly more demanding figure. Of the three major Afrobeats stars, he draws more directly from Kuti’s immense artistic legacy. He has sampled so many of Kuti’s compositions that detractors began to question his originality. Incidentally, Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, legendary jazz aficionado and broadcaster, had been Kuti’s manager in the 60s. So Burna comes from an artistic and ideological pedigree that can be traced right back to Kuti. His most recent musical offering entitled Twice as Tall comes barely a year after the Grammy-nominated and BET award-winning album, African Giant.

Burna has consistently attempted to infuse socially conscious lyrics in his music, an obvious connection to Kuti’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his mother, Bose Ogulu, is a producer of his latest album along with US luminaries P Diddy and Timberland. His sister works on his label as artistic director. Ensuring that his family participates in his artistic journey also chimes with Kuti’s understanding of the communal nature of music. However, being transformed into an unproblematic global star entails a more discreet packaging of his overt political agenda. If Burna gets too strident about his political message, sponsors and brands may balk at promoting him.

At the same time, there is clearly an inclination to present himself as a credible artist and not just a dance floor-filling flavour-of-the-month singer. It would be interesting to see how the contradictions between being a true artist and being merely an entertainer in the current music business climate play out. It is a bit early to predict how Burna intends to confront this dilemma as he tries to portray himself as an artist cut from the Kuti cloth while also having an eye on gorgeous video vixens who could make his visuals more interesting. His growing political awakening has to contend with the very real limitations within the music industry and the realities of becoming a veritable global icon.

Meanwhile, performers from all over the world continue to hop onto the Afrobeats wagon, from Beyonce, Drake, Chris Brown, H.E.R., Stormzy, Summer Walker, Wale, Jorja Smith, Sam Smith, Pop Smoke, Teyana Taylor to Afro B and many other globally acclaimed stars. And the morphology of Afrobeats has begun to reflect this astonishing diversity in terms of sound, presentation and potential.

Unlike Nollywood, Afrobeat(s) generally have had greater success as African cultural exports. In his heyday, Kuti almost immediately won over influential fans like the famed jazz pianist Randy Weston, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ginger Baker, Gilberto Gil, Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela and many other major industry players. There are Afrobeat combos playing in the Kuti mode in Europe, Asia, North and South America. Arguably, there are also more Kuti tribute bands playing abroad than on the African continent. Even before his death, in countries like Colombia, there were numerous cover versions of his songs that Kuti himself probably knew nothing about.

Fela!, the broadway musical composed by Bill T. Jones and sponsored by Jay Z and Will Smith in 2008, went on to have a successful international run taking in Europe and Africa. Since then another Fela-inspired musical extravaganza produced in Nigeria has gone on tour internationally. There are frequent festivals in France, Britain, the United States, Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria celebrating Kuti’s life and work.

Kuti’s discography is somewhat confusing for a number of reasons. He was extraordinarily prolific during his almost four-decade long career beginning from the early 60s. He privately established a plethora of record labels and also released many albums through mainstream companies such as EMI and Decca. Some estimates claim he released one hundred and thirty-three albums during his lifetime excluding almost two dozen masterpieces he simply refused to put on wax due to his eventual disillusionment with the music business and societal politics.

As for Afrobeats, in May 2020, US mainstream music outlet, Billboard Magazine, ran a special feature on the global rise of the genre profiling Davido, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Both Davido and Savage have performed on the US TV Jimmy Fallon show. Mr Eazi entertained US fans alongside Burna Boy in 2019 at the impactful Coachella Festival. His 2020 hit single, Oh My Gawd features Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Afrobeats has firmly taken root in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy supported by a large African diaspora population and enthusiastic European audiences. It is certainly not a mere passing fad but an increasingly durable fixture on the cultural calendar. Only this year, the UK launched its official Afrobeats music chart. And there are now festivals exclusively devoted to Afrobeats.

Nonetheless, Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations for a multi-faceted sonic future, the possibilities of which are yet to be exhaustively explored. Kuti was hardly able to reap the benefits of his astonishing work during his scandal-prone life. Indeed, he was an uncommonly courageous and uncompromising artist who often spurned the advances of international entertainment cartels just as he offended local political elites. And so in order to pursue his work, he had to build his own platforms and networks from scratch which entailed finding his own performance spaces, establishing his own record labels and developing independent channels for the appreciation and distribution of his music.

Kuti fought many battles on multiple fronts and, of course, due to his unyielding stance, he incurred great financial and reputational losses. For instance, he once famously turned down Motown’s attempt to buy his diverse back catalogue. But those very losses and sacrifices are what made it possible for Afrobeats to be born. Kuti almost single-handedly charted an aesthetic terrain that is full of yet to be explored musical riches.

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Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu

The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking?

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Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu
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I met Isaac Juma in May 2006 at HOVIC — Hope for Victoria Children — a street children rehabilitation programme I was employed by as a social worker. HOVIC was established in 2002 to provide essential services to Kisumu’s street children as well as rehabilitate and reunite them with their families. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 children and young adults working and living on the streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities. When HOVIC’s drop-in centre opened its doors we had a running register of up to 400 children, with about 120 children visiting daily for food and various other services.

When the HOVIC programme started there seemed to be no methodology developed to undertake a census of Kisumu’s street children. A number of NGOs had tried to establish registers by organising parties at the Kisumu Sports Ground where the children and the youths would enjoy a meal and receive the gift of a t-shirt but these events always descended into chaos as fights broke out. To track the children we catered for, HOVIC created a database and register with the basic description and photographs of the children who came to the drop-in centre. The register was kept by a burly staffer aptly named Bouncer whose job it was to keep the children from hurting one another during the fights that frequently broke out at mealtimes. We had obviously underestimated the challenges of having in one closed environment hundreds of children and youths who were accustomed to solving their problems using violence.

I was fresh from university when I took the job at HOVIC, heading the rehabilitation programme. I was idealistic and overwhelmed by a strong sense of community and a desire to give back. The programme was run from the heart of Kisumu in an old concrete building that still harboured the ghosts of the one of the town’s first wealthy families. It was surrounded by Indian shops and open-air mechanics operated from a nearby Jua Kali yard filled with the carcasses of vehicles and ancient jalopies. The salary was paltry and any positive rewards of the job were counterbalanced by the depression that came with daily witnessing the reality of the children’s lives on the streets.

People brought their vehicles for repair in the sprawling yard. Women brought meat, tomatoes, onions and maize meal to the makeshift restaurants that dotted the yard. Crisp new notes and old ragged ones exchanged hands. Vehicles left happier than they had come. Some stayed longer. To be resuscitated or to die. Young boys, their bodies blackened by a life lived on the streets, collected the old oil that haemorrhaged from old engines. They scavenged discarded pieces of metal and plastic which they would take to the weighing scales of scrap metal dealers. All scrap metal had value but copper and aluminum were at a premium. On a good day, a kilogram of either would guarantee a meal. Plastic bottles were not of much value though; it would take hundreds of them to move the needle on the scale. The children moved through the sprawling yard like vultures, cleaning this ecosystem of waste. For food. For money. And for the occasional expression of sympathy.

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

Sympathy came mostly from people who had never before encountered humans in that state of existence. These people wondered what was wrong with the children’s homes, with their parents. How could they allow their children to wallow in waste? But expressions of sympathy were few and far between. More frequently, the street children were at the receiving end of the anger of those whose cars couldn’t be fixed quickly enough. Or who found the cost of repair too exorbitant. Or who felt that the mechanics were cheating them out of their money. Or those who simply needed someone to vent their frustrations on.

The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children – some as young as five – survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking? Their bodies absorbed the abuse hurled at them, and like human sponges, they soaked in the hate and the oil in equal measure.

Kisumu’s street children came mainly from Nyanza and the western region. Most were orphans, left under the care of relatives when their parents died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Others had run away from violent parents and yet others to escape punishment from their guardians for petty crimes. But whatever the reasons, they all pointed to a deteriorating social order.

But even as the influx of street children grew, child protection services shrunk and soon the existing children’s homes within Kisumu could not accommodate them all. There are those who oppose the existence of children’s homes, believing that they act as magnets for street children, increasing their numbers on the streets. But from my experience, and having visited hundreds of families, the homes were sanctuaries for desperate children and filled the gap left by the government to provide child protection services. In effect, the government’s default setting was to send children to the Kisumu juvenile detention centre for crimes committed in the streets or for loitering in the streets at night before releasing them back into the very same streets with no attempt being made to locate their homes and reunite them with their families.

The hope was that the hardship suffered at the detention centre would act as a deterrent and motivate the children to return to their homes but my observation is that detention only hardened the children. To go through the police cells became a badge of honour and juvenile detention a rite of passage before the return to the streets.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

In the meantime, the community hoped that the street children would one day disappear as if by magic, that the government would find a solution to the “menace”. Many were adamant that it was for the parents to take care of these children and hoped that this could be enforced legally to keep the children off the streets.

Instead, their numbers just kept growing. The streets provided these children with a space in which to discover themselves – through necessity and adversity. It could build them. Or break them. Had they been at home, chances were that they would be sober, in school, helping with family chores, teasing young girls at the watering hole while herding cattle. But instead they were here. And Kisumu streets were different and their darkness also different. It had teeth and it was biting off huge chunks of these children’s lives, leaving nothing but the basic instinct for survival. And hope.

The reality of street life was most manifest when night fell, when the good people retreated behind the reinforced doors that kept thieves at bay, that protected their television sets, their stereos, their microwaves, their flourishing lives away from the ghettos of Nyalenda and Obunga.

I once visited the places where the street children retreated to at night and found human beings folded into various shapes, bent into various forms, inside sacks that served as blankets and covers against the darkness and the mosquitoes, the full moon lending a surreal quality to the scene. They were lost in deep slumber, as if without a care in the world, some clutching plastic bottles to their breasts, the shoe glue that conjured up a more bearable reality, an alternative reality to help them navigate their waking nightmares and their sleeping terrors.

Some children were squeezed together into a single sack. Like twins in a womb. Forced together by circumstances not of their own making. Others had bigger sacks to themselves. Queen size sacks. King size sacks. Even here in the streets there was a hierarchy of power and influence. I looked over to Isaac, catching his face in the moonlight. This is how they start learning how to love each other. To protect each other. Brotherhood. This is also how they feel the initial warmth of their comrades. Kiss each other. Touch each other. Sometimes abuse each other, Isaac said matter-of-factly, pointing at the bodies that were tightly welded together in one sack. The older ones sometimes prey on the younger ones, Isaac continued, emphasizing each detail. As if concerned that I was missing important points.

Kisumu is hot. The ground absorbs heat from the sun like a loyal lover and when it is full, it vomits the excess heat into the environment. The doors of HOVIC would open to a frenzy of old faces and newcomers, each child bringing with him a thick layer of sweat from the heat and the story of their young life. The story of their families and their homes. Of a narrow escape from the police last night. Some came with fresh wounds inflicted by their peers. Or by the police. Or by dogs.

Others came high, floating on the cloud of euphoria that the shoe glue created in their minds. Glue was the street children’s opium. They bought it from cobblers who, like smalltime drug dealers, measured out glue meant for shoe repair into small bottles which they sold to the street children, a sticky yellow mess that seared the nostrils, numbed the brain and killed the hunger pangs and the pain. Sleep came easily, the hard ground now as soft as a downy mattress and safe as any home. Hypnotised into an alternative reality, they became quick to anger and violence was never far away.

One evening Isaac told me he had defaulted on his TB medications. He told me this with a smile on his face. Like it was something funny. I raised my head from my desk and asked him to repeat what he had said. “I have defaulted on my TB drugs. This is the second time I am defaulting.” Silence. I tried to look outside. I couldn’t see outside. The windows of my offices were so high. This building had not been built for office use. It had been built as a workshop for repairing old buses. “I know if I default again. I may get MDR-TB.”, Isaac continued. MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was wreaking havoc within Kenya’s healthcare system. I quickly made an appointment with the nurse who worked part-time at HOVIC.

Isaac could not keep track of his medication while living on the streets. He would lose his medication from the constant cat and mouse games with the police at night. On the other hand, the hospital needed him to account for every pill before he could get a refill. When he failed, they told him he needed to show up every day and take his pills at Kisumu District Hospital in the presence of nurses. And at each visit, he would have to go through the script of his life. And then the question he dreaded most would be thrown at him: “You are so smart. What are you doing in the streets? Why are you destroying your life in the streets?” He would soon get fed up and not go back.

To live, to survive, Isaac needed housing. Living on the streets is a complex affair. It gets even more complicated when one has a debilitating disease like TB. Survival starts with housing and food. We had figured out food. Children and youths could drop in at the rehabilitation center and get a warm meal. They could shower. The could get basic healthcare. But in the evening they would go back into the world, to the humming underworld of Kisumu Bus Stop. We needed safe housing.

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

There are many theories as to why children leave their homes to live and work in the streets. I have learned that it takes a lot for a child of seven years to decide to leave home for the streets. In one of the counselling sessions we held with the children, Isaac came along with a seven-year-old called Frederick Omondi. Or Freddie. Freddie had arrived in Kisumu from Gem. He had gotten into a matatu and somehow made it to Kisumu. He had never been to Kisumu before. He had no idea what Kisumu had in store for him. He was travelling by faith, the belief that a random stranger would hear his story and give him a chance at a life better than the one he was running away from. Isaac implored me to take Freddie home with me. I was living with my mother and my siblings. I obliged. Mostly out of fear for Freddie’s well-being than anything else.

Freddie’s home, like Isaac’s, was a world filled with nothingness. Freddie’s home had rocks. Big rocks. And his parents’ graves. His parents had died when he was very young. He barely knew them. He was left in the care of his uncle who, not knowing what to do with his life in that environment, resorted to drinking copious amounts of the local brew. I met him once. Drunk. Tall. Incapable of coherent speech. He was burdened by the loss of his relatives and took this loss out on his wife. Not knowing what to do, the woman took out her frustrations on Freddie. The cycle of violence was established. From the strongest to the most vulnerable. Until one day Freddie decided to run to Kisumu, and was brought to HOVIC.

Freddie’s journey to Kisumu was guided by a conspiracy of coincidences and good fortune. A lot could have gone wrong. He was lucky to make it to Kisumu with no bus fare. His aunt could have killed him. He could have ended in another town. He also arrived at a time when Isaac was friends with a young Australian man called Peter Dunkley. In his own unique way, Peter was looking to give back by helping to sponsor a destitute child. Isaac met Peter at Kisumu Sports Ground and struck up a conversation with him. The fact that all these random factors aligned is pure luck.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

Isaac’s home on the other hand consisted of one room and one bed. His paraplegic brother, his other brothers, his mother, were all confined in this one tiny space. They were happy to see us. His paraplegic brother was trying to speak. His seizures were worsening and they were struggling to buy him the monthly supply of phenobarbitones. Isaac had also left home young. He wanted to save his family. He left to look for help.

People living in the streets are perceived as liars right from the word go. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Part of my job as a social worker was to conduct home visits. To witness and document the realities of the home environments and the circumstances that compel children to come to the streets. The realities of the homes the children came from always hit me hard, without warning. They came in the form of Freddie’s uncle. His alcoholism. In the form of Freddie’s aunt. She stood at a distance from us when we visited the home. In fear. Overwhelmed that the first white person she was encountering in her life had been brought to her home by a child she had persecuted violently. A child she had thought was long dead. What was the chance of that? It was a revelation of biblical proportions to all of us. We decided that Freddie was not remaining in that home.

The image of Isaac’s paraplegic brother brought home to me the reason for Isaac’s decision to leave home. Risking everything. Leaving the love of his family and abandoning some degree of predictability within the confines of poverty, for the unknown of the streets. He was barely a boy. What have we become as a society? Why does it take us so long to see that it takes a lot for these children to be on the streets? To put their lives at risk? It certainly wasn’t for fun. Or for adventure. These children had seen things we have not seen. The nightmare they faced on the streets was in many instances lesser than the nightmare they faced at home.

I have since stopped slicing up my brain trying to understand these children and I feel no shame in keeping the company of those who have spent a part of their lives in the streets.

It’s the 23rd of July 2019. I am seated across from Isaac in his house in that concrete jungle teeming with humanity that is Kahawa West. Isaac is talking to me about politics. His time abroad. His work at an international NGO, and his plans to finish his post-graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. I am not sure what would have become of Isaac or Freddie if they had not made the decision to run away from home and seek help in the streets.

But Isaac and Freddie are exceptions. They had the will to stay away from drugs and from the other temptations of street life. Isaac had a very clear vision of who he wanted to be, and how his success would be channeled to help his family. He has achieved that vision. Freddie is on track to achieving his vision too.

I still encounter some of those who were on the streets with Isaac and Freddie back in 2006 and 2007 every time I walk down Oginga Odinga Street. They are now adults. Many of the others have died; killed during the cycles of post-election violence or succumbed to disease or drowned in Lake Victoria. A few lucky ones were helped to return home by relatives or well-wishers, or through street children programmes.

I cannot point to one singular factor that would explain why some make it out of the streets and others do not, except perhaps a chance encounter with the right people, a strong will to survive. And luck.

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The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya

In Kenya, rising water levels in lakes along the Great Rift Valley have forced thousands of people from their homes, submerging huge areas of farmland. Schools, hospitals, roads and water pipes have been destroyed. Crucially, there is a real fear that Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, one fresh and the other saline, will contaminate each other. Ferdinand Omondi writes about this threat of an ecological disaster.

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It was an easy Wednesday morning when the phone call came in. I was seated in my study, pitching ideas, studying for my semester exams and trolling the net for news. The COVID-19 pandemic has us working from home and away from offices and fieldwork unless absolutely necessary. My producer, Joe, told me there was a situation developing down in Baringo that fitted the “absolutely necessary” description.

Early the next day, I packed up to leave Nairobi for the first time since March, an overnight stay. Risk assessment? Check. Equipment? Check. PPE? Check. Headphones? Check. Waterproof shoes? I forgot to buy those.

The Landcruiser meandered its way down the winding highways and picturesque scenery of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Up at Mau Summit, Mount Longonot’s imposing mass upon the lowlands reminded me of the breath-taking scenery that is Great Rift Valley’s gift to Kenya. But this marvel of nature has been sending warning signs lately. Two years ago, the ground split open at Suswa, leaving a giant crack several kilometres long and forty feet deep in some areas. Geologists wondered whether Africa was beginning to split again, whether two tectonic plates were moving away from each other. Thousands of people were forced to relocate.

This August it was the lakes in the Rift Valley, some 280 kilometres north of Nairobi, that had us heading out to investigate. Our drive to Baringo was uneventful, except for a stop in the middle of Marigat to move a tortoise off the road. The noise of passing vehicles had driven it to recoil into its shell in the middle of the highway. Baringo is teeming with wildlife.

We eventually pulled up at Kampi ya Samaki, a sleepy lakeside fishing and tourism settlement. A group of excited young men crowded the windows and aggressively tried to get our attention.

“No hotel here sir, they are all flooded. I take you somewhere else. Please. Good price”. I hear the words, but can’t figure out who spoke.

“All of them?”

“Yes. All of them. The flood is very bad. All the good hotels are gone”.

These young men are tour guides, starved of revenue since lakeside resorts in Baringo became submerged under water. One of them identifies himself as Rama. Rama says it has been months since he last had a good day’s pay. We are standing at the green gate of what would have been the entrance to Robert’s Camp. The entire facility is flooded. Every structure is under water. It was a beautiful lakeside resort with cottages and tents, camping grounds and a bar. We would probably have spent the night here. But today we will have to make do with the Tamarind Garden, situated several hundred metres away and across the road that runs alongside the lake. It is modest, clean and basic. The rooms are a bit claustrophobic, but the service more than assuages my insecurities. We retire for the night, to begin a fresh day in the early morning and really digest the extent of the damage caused by a lake that is aggressively extending its boundaries.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
The sun is just rising over the hills, the rays beautifully reflecting on the calm water. It is early morning, and we have hired the services of Julius, a boatman whose thriving tour business now depends on ferrying stranded locals from one end of the lake to another, and occasional visitors like us. Dickson Lenasolio, a middle-aged local, is taking us to the place he used to call home, which he says is now all under water. As we weave through the trees and shrubs that were once Robert’s Camp’s lush gardens, I am warned not to trail my bare hands in the water. This is crocodile territory.

We move slowly along the edges of the lake. We sail past a building half submerged in water, only the green roof protruding above the morning waves. This was the fisheries department, and just beyond it was a health centre. All around me used to be dry land on which a community once thrived. There were homes, farms, schools, and hospitals. Much of that has been submerged.  As we speed up, another tourist resort comes into view. The Soi Safari Lodge, a striking 74-room hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool stands desolate and ghostly. It was deserted after the lake flooded the ground floors. I am told the owners had only recently made renovations in preparation for tourists.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
We speed up across the lake, past a dead crocodile floating in the water. After about twenty minutes, the boat slows down as we approach Dickson’s former village. I can see the protruding roofs of houses where people used to live. I can make out sections of maize plantations from the extended stems of dying maize plants swaying in the waves. I can make out paddocks and homestead fences from the dangerously sagging wires and posts that are threatening to stall our boat. Dickson is now guiding us through the maze of roofs, trees and weeds, his wrinkles too prominent for one aged only 54. As he points to the spot where his house once stood, he tells us he was once a wealthy dairy farmer, before Lake Baringo swelled and swallowed up all his material wealth and he lost everything.

“I had Sahiwals [a breed of high-yield dairy cows]. I sold milk to the locals and it was good business. I would sell milk every day, and I had lots of grass in my farm”.

Dickson goes on to describe what he lost.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“My farm here was wire-fenced. We were using solar power to keep out wild animals. But when the water approached and we kept thinking it will recede, it did not, until it became impossible to retrieve the wire. Now it’s all below here, and the wire was very expensive. One roll is over 200 dollars. I fenced over 40 acres with it. My brother fenced 60. All of that is gone. It’s had to get it out because you can hardly even see the posts. These were 9-foot posts”.

“It wasn’t just me. There were other farmers who also did the business. They kept cows either for beef or milk. We suffered heavy losses. Because all the farms are now under water. We had no means of preventing it. At first, we thought we could seal the farms off. But, no. The lake kept rising night and day. Until it covered all the farms and we moved”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
Dickson says they have never seen the water levels rise like this since they were born. Not even his father, who he says is now 92. He recalls how the flooding began during the heavy rains back in March and everyone thought it would ease off with time. It did not.

“I brought down my buildings and so did my neighbours”, says Dickson. “We moved up about 800 metres. We started living there, and the water still got to us. We pulled our homes down. Now many have moved up the hill, to Marigat, Leberer, all the way up. Unfortunately, when we moved the animals up there, away from the grass they were used to, they fell sick and died”.

“Our father lived here. Our grandfathers lived here too. But now we have no hope. We don’t see the water receding because it has risen to unprecedented levels”.’

We drop Dickson off as close to his new home as possible, and he alights and wades off into the distance. He fears he may have to relocate his home for the third time.

The flooding has also cut off essential services. Power, transport, health. A building that used to be a clinic sits lonely among the tall dead trees in the still water. We watch as sick women are brought in by boat. They wade to the shore in search of medication. They will meet nurse Emily, who provides free health care in a little green tent, from where she has noticed a surge in crocodile attacks.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“We were treating burns, wounds and snake bites”, says Emily. “We also helped women with family planning and gave HIV/AIDS support. Since the flooding, our work has been affected because many people can’t get to us because they used to come on foot. Others fear travelling over water because there are crocodiles and hippos”.

Next to Emily’s small tent a group of women are sifting quality grass seeds. The seeds would have been planted on the land which is now underwater. The health facilities and grass are provided by RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments), a trust that helps local people turn arid land into sustainable pasture. The social enterprise runs a project called “Nyasi ni Pesa” – grass is money – which provides the locals with indigenous species of dryland grass which can survive the area’s arid conditions. This is the grass that Dickson’s purebreds thrived on. After harvesting, RAE then buys back the seeds, giving the women and their families a healthy income too. But the whole model is now under threat.

Murray Roberts, a Kenyan of British ancestry, runs the RAE project. He has lived in Baringo his whole life, and has watched the water levels rise and rise. Roberts shows me an extraordinary family photo taken in the 90s. It’s a photo of his two sons jumping off a cliff outside his home. It appears to be at least 30 feet high. We take another boat ride to the place where the photo was taken; the entire cliff face is now below the water.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
But Murray has an even bigger fear than the loss of land and livelihoods. Less than 40 kilometres south of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria. The highly saline lake is home to a famous colony of flamingos and is a gazetted national park. But Lake Bogoria is also rising. I learn that the Kenya Wildlife Service has moved its main gate three times, each one submerged as the lake expands. Senior KWS Warden James Kimaru has been quoted saying that the water levels increased within one month from a width of 34 km2 to 43 km2. We see one of the KWS buildings in the distance, half submerged in water. New roads into the reserve are being constructed after previous ones were also covered by the water. As the lakes expand in width, the distance between them shrinks. Murray is concerned that with both Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria rising, the two lakes could eventually contaminate each other.

“The thing that is really worrying me about this situation is if Lake Bogoria starts flowing into Lake Baringo. What would be the outcome of that because Bogoria is a highly alkaline lake and it will be an ecological disaster. Once that water reaches Lake Baringo it will affect the fish, it will affect the bird life, it will affect the aquatic life”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
It is a concern that the Baringo County government shares. A post-floods report published in June by the Kenya Inter-Agency Rapid Assessment Mechanism concluded that the Rift Valley is becoming the most flood-prone region in Kenya. Much of that water ends up in the lakes, which inevitably swell. The report attributed the flooding to a combination of poor land use practices, deforestation and accumulation of silt. In May, the government counted over 200 deaths from flooding, with at least 800,000 people affected countrywide, Much of the destruction happened along river and lake settlements like Lake Baringo and its feeder rivers. Outside the Rift Valley, Lake Victoria was reported to have risen to its highest levels in over 50 years.

Helen Robinson, a geologist with extensive experience in East Africa, explained to me that when it is hot and dry for a long time the soils becomes so dry that they cannot absorb water. Then when it rains, huge amounts run along the surface to the rivers, then the lakes. Robinson explained that if the soils had some moisture content, much more of the rainwater would drain into the groundwater system. Trees help soils to retain moisture, but Kenya’s forest cover is only 7% of its landmass, 3 per cent less than the 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
All these points reinforce the concerns that human activity is contributing to the extreme changes in our climate. The UN says climate change is a reality, and that human activity is the main cause. Scientists have stressed the importance of lowering our carbon emissions to limit the impact we’re having on our planet. Robinson said that if we don’t try harder, the damage could become irreversible including melting ice at the poles, rising sea levels, more climate extremes, loss of habitats and mass extinctions.

Baringo is experiencing extreme weather changes and destruction to its habitat. But across the Rift Valley, similar swellings were recorded in Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha this year, and even in Lake Turkana in the north, with the varying levels of destruction pointing to a pattern. Whatever the causes, it is a race for survival, and at the moment, nature is winning.

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