Connect with us

Culture

The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona

16 min read.

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.

Published

on

The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona
Download PDFPrint Article

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.”

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

Avatar
By

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

Culture

Removing a Dictator

How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?

Published

on

Removing a Dictator
Download PDFPrint Article

In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.

Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.

Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”

The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.

On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.

While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.

A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:

In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.

While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?

In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.

People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.

As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.

One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.

In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.

A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government,  when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”

Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.

These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.

The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.

While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”

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

Continue Reading

Culture

Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”

The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.

Published

on

Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
Download PDFPrint Article

If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.

So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.

The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.

At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.

“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”

The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.

“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.

Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.

“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.

Then, another surprise.

“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.

“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.

Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.

“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.

So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.

On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.

“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.

Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.

“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.

The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.

“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.

“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”

Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense.  So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.

John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”

John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.

Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.

“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.

After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.

James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”

Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.

By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in

There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.

Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.

James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.

Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.

“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.

Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.

Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:

“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”

“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.

Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.

Continue Reading

Culture

Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.

Published

on

Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
Download PDFPrint Article

In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.

The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.

Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.

The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.

In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.

Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.

News and their social epidemics

With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.

In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.

A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?

Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.

Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.

News and confirmation bias

Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.

To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.

Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.

Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.

Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.

Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.

Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).

Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.

The worst must be reported

Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.

Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.

An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.

A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.

“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”

“So why look here?” asks the officer.

“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.

It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.

There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.

The Anatomy of a Stereotype

A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.

There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.

Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.

Continue Reading

Trending