As the signature tune for the 9 o’clock evening news floats on the airwaves, Elizabeth Mbatha wearily pushes open the door to her house in Kangemi.
She has just walked 22 kilometres across the city from Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani where she completed her day-long court-ordered community service to sweep the streets because she could not raise the Sh200 fine for “failing to observe social distancing rules” and not properly wearing a mask in public.
Police from Kileleshwa station in Nairobi enforcing public health measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had arrested Mbatha and a dozen other women the previous day at the spot where they habitually sit, sometimes all day, waiting for someone to hire them for a day’s cleaning work.
In this COVID-19 season, webinars have become the middle class replacement for workshops, but on July 15, a different variety of this urban phenomenon occurred as itinerant washerwomen from Nairobi spoke about coping amid the crisis.
On a normal day, Mbatha walks a five-kilometre round-trip from her house to Kileleshwa to wait for work cleaning houses and washing clothes. Often, police order the women who sit waiting along residential streets back to their homes where they have nothing with which to feed their children.
“We face innumerable problems. If you leave your child in the care of a neighbour, she will want Sh100 at the end of the day”, Mbatha said.
Cleaning and laundry work has contracted as employees in the formal sector—grappling with pay cuts and disappearing jobs—stay home and take on the household chores. Live-in domestic staff have been laid off because of fears of COVID-19 infection, and also because households are surviving on reduced incomes.
Some employers called their former domestic staff and asked them not to come to work: Don’t call us, we’ll call you once the crisis is over.
Former live-in domestic workers have now joined day labourers like Mbatha in the search for work.
For some 50 women at each of the 40 waiting spots dotted across the wealthier parts of Nairobi, it is not so much a search for work as it is a game of wait-and-see. According to the Centre for Livelihood Advancement, up to 2,000 women sit in the open around Nairobi waiting for someone to offer them cleaning work, and so far, CFLA has registered 500 of them. Police regularly drive by and order the women to disperse to their homes as part of enforcing anti-crowding regulations. “Do not bring corona to the roadside”, the police bark at the women. “Stay at home until COVID-19 is over”.
Work is irregular, and when it comes, the load is heavy because employers who previously hired once a week are now taking in washerwomen just once or twice a month. It is a headlong dive into the unknown.
Mbatha, a mother of two children, says her husband is on furlough from his contract work in construction. She took the job because sometimes her husband would return home after a day out without finding any work. She has been washing and cleaning for three years.
“Living with an unemployed husband can be very stressful because when you enquire what you will feed the children, fighting can break out—sometimes even in front of the children”, she adds.
Depressed household incomes have forced many people with precarious occupations like Elizabeth Mueni—also a washerwoman—to move houses. “I used to pay Sh3,000 for rent every month but I had to move to a cheaper house. Even here, I had to negotiate to pay the Sh1,800 in instalments”, she adds.
Washerwomen start walking out of Kawangware, Kibera and other informal settlements adjacent to the middle class residential ones early in the morning. They stake out supermarkets, and sometimes road junctions, waiting for people looking for a day’s domestic help.
Employers who offer one-day jobs for Sh500 are of all varieties: homemakers seeking a helping hand with large catering; men who live alone; or people nursing patients and other household members with special needs.
The criteria used to select a washerwoman is capricious: some want plain looks while others are looking for neatness, some seek mature-looking older women while others call up those they have hired before.
“Employers are not the same”, says Rosemary Ambeyi, a widowed mother of five who works as a day-wage washerwoman. “Some [employers] invite the women into their personal spaces so that they can exploit them”, she adds.
Ambeyi has used this work to put two of her children through secondary school and is still educating another three.
“The challenge we have is assuming they want you to work”, she continues. “Once you get to the house, some start to make inappropriate advances, and you get into a fight—meaning you are not able to work. If you do not finish work, your pay is docked”.
The problems in the domestic work sector have persisted for over 12 years, says Mary Kambo, the programme manager for labour and corporate accountability at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. “Domestic staff work in isolation and their social connections are threatened. Raising your voice when you are alone could mean the loss of livelihood”.
Last year, an Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute study estimated that there were some two million people employed in domestic work in Kenya. Although domestic work is not properly documented, the sector is quite significant and plays an important role in driving the country’s economic growth and development.
Nannies, caretakers, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, drivers, and security guards among others, perform important work that makes it possible for professionals and people in business or other occupations to go to their jobs away from home. “The value of domestic work has, however, not been properly recognised”, says Kambo, adding that labour laws in the country have proved to be insufficient in dealing with the issues affecting domestic workers.
Working behind closed doors in gated communities, places domestic workers in personal spaces where they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment without any recourse because the laws of trespass make it difficult for labour officers or rights defenders to check what goes on in homes.
“The employee deals with one employer in a private space. When there is a dispute, it is difficult because they are alone. This type of work threatens the worker’s social connection. They do not know each other’s experience, and so cannot receive community assistance and support”, says Kambo.
For itinerant domestic workers like the washerwomen, the perils are double those experienced by live-in staff.
“You can be summoned and instructed to work from outside the house, working long hours until late”, says Mbatha. “The houses we work in are not the same. There are some places that are okay, and others are so hard but you cannot even speak about it. If you speak out, you will jeopardise future work”.
Staking out for work is a dicey game of chance. There are no toilets, and in the event of rain, there is no shelter from the elements. From their stakeouts, many washerwomen often have no way of estimating the amount of work they are signing up for and so cannot charge appropriately for it. They end up working long hours with no food. They can only leave when all the work is done, and sometimes it is too late to walk home.
“No one knows or recognises us . . . All we want is to be recognised so that we are not harassed and can raise our children from there”.
As the country moves to adopt home-based care for the rising number of COVID-19 patients, itinerant domestic workers will likely play a critical role in supporting families to cope. They have to protect themselves in environments where there might not be water or hand sanitisers.
Although the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied mobilises and speaks for workers in domestic service, those who undertake itinerant day-wage labour without the protection of contracts remain undefended.
Kenya has yet to accede to the convention on decent work for domestic workers. The convention requires member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of human rights for all domestic workers, and to respect, promote and realise the fundamental principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. States are also required to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour, child labour, and discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
Attempts at organising domestic work usually run into strong headwinds. People seeking live-in work in the domestic service register in private bureaus where they are required to pay up to Sh500 and asked to wait for a call, which often never comes. Live-in work has long hours—staff are the first to rise and the last to bed, often eating food of low quality. Those in itinerant labour fare worse.
Unlike motorcycle riders—who are largely male, have mobilised into self-help groups and cultivated a saving culture—washerwomen are not organised and do not go beyond making collective savings. Without enough to live on, meeting and organising becomes that much more difficult. On days when work is scarce, washerwomen borrow money from one another to cross into a new day hoping for better luck.
Beatrice Lucas, a washerwoman living in the Gatina area of Kawangware in Nairobi, says none of the relief assistance meant for people impacted by COVID-19 measures has reached her. Washerwomen have missed out on official emergency relief and assistance because local administrators like location chiefs often map urban dwellings under their jurisdiction when the women are out looking for work.
“You can go a week without assistance or work. Food is handed out to the chief for distribution but the names of beneficiaries are never made public”, she adds.
Community activist Ruth Mumbi, who recently led a protest by washerwomen in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi when they were locked out of work by the lockdown, says the government’s COVID-19 bailouts are focusing on big companies, with Sh2 billion going to the hospitality industry, yet the women who do this work are also in the hospitality industry but they have received nothing.
Kambo argues that the COVID-19 emergency response should broaden its definition of vulnerable populations to embrace daily wage domestic workers beyond the usual categories of the aged, orphans, and people with preexisting health conditions.
There is an urgent need to formalise the domestic workers sector, especially daily wage earners. “We need space set aside for us to meet, register and plan our programmes”, says Ambeyi, adding that women have a variety of skills that can be monetised, such as car washing, which they perform as part of their daily labour.
Mary Wambui, who has done laundry work in Upper Hill for years, wants permanent sheds established with washing machines, and a linkage with motorcycle riders to collect laundry and drop it off after it has been cleaned and pressed, thus reducing personal contact and the opportunity for abuse. House cleaning can also be undertaken commercially, together with car washing.
Many government agencies are unaware of the rights violations in the domestic service sector because of poor documentation, leaving victims with no voice. Kambo reiterates that labour laws do not differentiate workers—domestic, office, plantation and the rest. Domestic workers are different and unique, deserving a separate categorisation. A special regulation is required to accommodate the domestic worker because this is the one person who cannot unionise.
And because washerwomen serve fellow workers, they should receive treatment free of charge and have their health insurance and social security protection paid for by the state.
Keeping Hope Alive: A Tribute to the Women Who Are Rebuilding Somalia
The death of Dr Hawa Abdi Dhibwale has highlighted how critical women’s contribution has been to the provision of healthcare and other services in war-torn Somalia. Her work shows that if more women like her had been allowed to govern their country, Somalia wouldn’t still be a dysfunctional state.
On my first visit to Mogadishu in November 2011, what struck me most about the city – apart from the shattered, bullet-ridden buildings and the broken infrastructure – was how visible the city’s women were. Women of all ages – some veiled in black hijabs, others donning colourful headscarves – were all over the city running all manner of enterprises, from selling petrol stored in huge drums (apparently, there were no petrol stations in Mogadishu then) to hawking khat and vegetables from makeshift stands along the roads.
Outside the mayor’s office, there were long lines of women queueing up for jobs, mostly those of street cleaners. The entrance to the office was also “manned” by a few female security guards who obviously had little training but who had been hired nonetheless. Women were literally running Somalia’s capital city.
“Where are the men?” I asked a male Somali aid worker. “Busy having coffee and gossiping about politicians,” he quipped, only half-jokingly.
Throughout Mogadishu, especially in the late afternoon, I would see men gather in coffee and tea shops and restaurants to gossip, chew khat or ponder the future of their war-torn country. Women were not part of these gatherings, I realised, because they were too busy working and taking care of their families
In fact, throughout the civil war in Somalia, it was women who kept the country running. Like in many countries ravaged by conflict, Somali women have developed a deep resilience and a practical business acumen. Women became the main breadwinners during the conflict when battles between clans and “revenge killings” had decimated large sections of the male population. Gender roles became confused and distorted, because physical and social disruptions caused by the conflict had eroded men’s gender roles as providers and protectors. So women took on greater financial responsibilities, but with little authority within the family and community. (Authority in much of Somalia rests with male clan elders, who are considered the leaders and arbiters of their respective clans. Even women who head households have little decision-making powers within their own families.)
So while men sat around in cafés sipping tea, gossiping or jostling for power or influence in Somalia’s highly dysfunctional clan-based federal government (whose capacity to provide basic services is almost nil; most services, such as education, are provided by private individuals or Islamic charities), women were taking the lead in providing essential services, such as healthcare.
Although provision of healthcare is scanty or virtually non-existent in many parts of Somalia, in places where there are health facilities, you are likely to find women running them. The reason, I believe, is because when there are no healthcare facilities, women suffer the most, because not only do they need these services more than men (especially in their childbearing years), but also because they are the primary care providers for their children and families. Hence, they have a vested personal interest in ensuring that these services are available.
One woman’s hospital
The death of Dr Hawa Abdi Dhibwale in Mogadishu this month at the age of 73 has highlighted how critical women’s contribution has been to the provision of healthcare in Somalia. Dr Hawa Abdi was born in Mogadishu when Somalia was still a United Nations Trusteeship under British administration. (After the Second World War, Italy lost its colonies in Africa, including Somalia.) In the 1960s, after Somalia gained independence, she studied medicine in Kiev, which was then part of the Soviet Union. After obtaining her medical degree in 1971, she returned to Mogadishu where she worked as a physician while studying law at night. (The decision to study law was made after she learned that Somali laws prevented female relatives from inheriting land.)
In 1983, she set up a one-room clinic on her family-owned farm 20 kilometres outside Mogadishu, where she provided free obstetric and gynaecological services to rural women. In an interview, she said she decided to open the clinic because she couldn’t believe that rural women in Somalia had almost no access to neonatal services. The clinic eventually evolved into a 400-bed hospital and relief camp. During the 2011 famine in Somalia, the camp housed 90,000 drought-stricken people on the 1,300 acres surrounding her hospital.
Working in Somalia was, of course, fraught with difficulties. She faced constant pressure and threats from the terrorist group Al Shabaab, who in 2009 tried to shut down her hospital. Many of her experiences of running the hospital under precarious circumstances are captured in her 2013 memoir, Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman, 90,000 lives.
Dr Hawa Abdi’s amazing work in a hostile and difficult environment gained her recognition and awards internationally. In 2016, the University of Pennsylvania awarded her an honorary Doctor of Science degree. The following year, she received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Harvard University. In 2012, Dr Hawa Abdi was also on the shortlist of nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. If she had won, she would have been the first Somali to have ever been awarded this honour.
Dr Hawa Abdi’s two daughters, Deqa and Amina, who are also medical doctors, are continuing with her work through the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation.
Providing maternal care in Somaliland
It is interesting – but perhaps not so surprising – that Somali women are leading the campaign to provide healthcare to their people. In Somaliland (which broke away from Somalia in 1991 but has still not gained international recognition as a sovereign state), Edna Adan Ismail, who qualified as a nurse-midwife, established a maternity hospital that has gained international acclaim.
In a part of the world where maternal and child mortality rates are extremely high, and where there is a high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) – which makes childbirth complicated, if not life-threatening – Edna Adan’s maternity hospital in Hargeisa provides much-needed assistance to thousands of pregnant women.
Adan, who was circumcised when she was just eight years old, also campaigns against FGM, though she does not talk openly about it like many Western feminists might because it is still a delicate topic, and being so widespread (it is estimated that almost all Somali women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone this painful procedure), it is difficult to broach the subject in a way that will not offend the women she is trying to reach.
I met this remarkable woman at the Hargeisa Book Festival in 2014. I found her not only to be extremely articulate and fluent in English (she was once Somaliland’s foreign minister), but very committed to her work and vision. She spoke about her well-equipped maternity hospital that has trained more than 1,500 nursing students, and the need for more women to go into the field of medicine.
When I asked her about what she was doing to eradicate FGM, she did not answer directly; instead, she handed me a brochure, which had detailed drawings of the procedure, and which explained why it was a health risk for women and girls. (It was only later that I became aware about why most Somali women do not like to talk about their personal experiences of FGM. It is because, as one female Somali writer based in the UK told me, “Somali women don’t like to be reduced to their vaginas”.)
The obsession with FGM and hijabs also obscures the fact that women’s oppression is structural and systemic – women and girls will be raped, violated or oppressed even if they stop undergoing FGM and even if they throw off their hijabs. As the Sudanese women’s rights activist Hala Al-Karib noted, “Most Northern institutions reduce women’s rights and violations against women to a one-dimensional fight against FGM . . . In this context, the rhetoric of gender mainstreaming becomes a box-ticking exercise while minimising the root causes of women’s subordination and the politics behind the subordination. The few publicly-aware activists become the outsiders, bearers of bad news, and are often labelled difficult – too political.”
There are many Somali women living abroad who have decided to go home and contribute to their society. It seems astonishing to me that so many of these women in the diaspora would choose to do this, given the dangers and risks involved and given that Somalia is a highly patriarchal society where the threat of sexual discrimination and violence are ever-present. Hodan Nalayeh was one such woman.
Hodan, a Canadian citizen and broadcast journalist, returned to her homeland in 2014 to make a documentary about Mogadishu. She said she made the decision to leave Canada and go back to Somalia because “nobody looked at me like I was strange, nobody cared if I had a dark complexion . . . And we never had that belonging in the diaspora”. More importantly, she came back because her “country needed her”.
She then launched the popular Integration TV on YouTube to tell “positive stories” about Somalia. After visiting Kismaayo (once the stronghold of Al Shabaab), for example, she posted images of its beautiful beaches and stunning sunsets. She told the BBC that her mission was to “uplift the spirit and inspire young Somalis around the world to take charge of their destinies”.
Hodan and her husband were tragically killed last year in an attack on a hotel in Kismaayo believed to have been carried out by Al Shabaab. She was 43 years old and pregnant at the time. After her death, a Twitter user posted: “I don’t know a single Somali who didn’t fall back in love with Somalia through Hodan Nalayeh’s broadcasts”.
Giving women a voice
Hodan’s death was a tragedy, but her resilience and spirit reflect the desire of so many Somali women to see their country become a functioning state. I truly believe that if more women like Dr Hawa Abdi, Edna Adan and Hodan Nalaye took over the running of their country, Somalia wouldn’t be in the mess it has been in for the last thirty years.
The civil war in 1991 devastated Somalia, but rebuilding the country has been an almost impossible enterprise due to clan divisions, corruption, and Islamic fundamentalist forces that are sustained through extortionist practices (such collection of “protection money” – a form of taxation imposed on people who live in Al Shabaab-controlled areas) and foreign meddling and financial support to regressive forces within Somalia.
I don’t mean to generalise, but I do feel that if there were more women entering Somalia’s very divisive and corrupt politics – where clan and gender often determine who gets what position – the country would have more schools, more hospitals and better services.
Women would also ensure that regressive legislation that is harmful to women and girls, like the “Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill” that was tabled in Somalia’s parliament recently, would not see the light of day. This bill, if passed, will not only allow child marriage once a girl’s “sexual organs are mature”, but would also allow forced marriage “as long as the family gives consent”. Critics say the bill would weaken protection for victims of sexual violence, especially girls, and would contravene international human and women’s rights conventions.
Anarchy and lawlessness in Somalia have embedded a culture of violence that allows men to rape with impunity. A survey by Trust Law, a project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, found that Somalia was one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. There have been cases of women being ostracised and even killed when they report having been raped.
Therefore, male-dominated governing bodies in Somalia, including clan elders’ councils, cannot be trusted to ensure that women and girls in Somalia are protected and get the services they – and all Somalis, including men – need. Women should be given a voice in the running of their country because, being the “invisible clan”, women are more likely than men to unite their divided, clan-based country, and bring about a semblance of sanity, gender-sensitivity, order and accountability in the country’s nascent governance and administrative structures.
Papa Shirandula: The Footballer-Turned-Thespian Who Became a Cultural Icon
Shirandula gently managed to almost single-handedly give voice, representation, and nuance to the talented, pragmatic, modest, blue-collar masculine sub-archetypes that work in the shadows of capital and its structures.
When Charles Bukeko attended Jogoo Road Primary School in the 1970s, it was a bastion of sporting, athletic and academic prowess in an era when the emerging Eastlands urban spaces were orderly, neat, well-tended, and provided a quality environment In which to live.
Bukeko lived in Lumumba Estate, the council estate where many civil servants lived in the 1970s and 80s, and where he developed a love for football above all else.
To be fair though, the football frenzy of the seventies had a psychological grip on the national psyche, and provided the safety valve for a nation that was still reeling from the political mistakes of the mid-to-late 60s. The Abaluhya Football Club (AFC), in particular, enjoyed a winning streak year-on-year despite the cancellation of the 1971 national league halfway into the season.
The national team, Harambee Stars, had qualified for the Nations Cup finals in 1972 and at the City Stadium, Gor Sirkal had secured a big win in 1975. At the same time Kenneth Matiba had become the Kenya Football Federation chairman. The likes of the double-foot dribbling wizard Chege Ouma, the all-rounder Jackson Aluko, and maestro Livingstone Madegwa were harassing African soccer giants Cameroon, Mali, and Togo in their qualifiers group, and setting new precedents in Kenyan football.
It was inevitable then that, Papa, who had schooled just down the road from the then Jogoo Road Stadium (now City Stadium), would give football a shot, just like many youths from Mbotela, Maringo Estate, Lumumba, Jericho and along Jogoo Road. ”I’m an ardent fan of AFC Leopards. My dad took me to the field to watch AFC Leopards when I was 4 years old,” Bukeko once remarked. This love for football, a legacy from his father, would grow through the decades and he became an ardent fan of the local leagues, while throwing his support behind clubs like Sofapaka and AFC Leopards.
Bukeko was born in Buhalarire in the central Marachi region of Mumias, in Kakamega. The eldest son of Valeria Makokha and Cosmas Wafula, Bukeko first lived in Lumumba Estate before he was transferred to Mumias School, as an unsuccessful last-ditch effort by his parents to dissuade him from focusing too much on football. He still went on to play central midfield for Mumias FC in Kakamega, Nzoia FC and Pan Paper FC in Webuye, and for Congo boys in Mombasa. It’s during his stint at the coast that he earned the name Champezi, a transliteration of champion, given to him by former president Moi’s political kingpin at the coast, the late Shariff Nassir.
Bukeko eventually hang his boots and exchanged the sea and football for a life back in Nairobi, moving to a house in Uhuru Estate next to Kisimenti Building, and right around the corner from where he grew up in Lumumba Estate. Neighbours describe him as an affable man who took over the estate’s security affairs in the 1990s as crime rates rose in tandem with the negative economic impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the early 90s. Together with his wife Beatrice Ebbie Andega, Bukeko had three children – Anthony, born in 2006, Charlie in 2007 and Wendy in 2009. He was also man of quiet faith, an ardent teacher of the scriptures and a church leader.
Bukeko stumbled onto the stage by sheer fate when working as a halls custodian at the University of Nairobi; the set of a theatre play that his friend was staging, fell apart, the actors bailed out and Bukeko stepped in and saved the day. That act in the late 1990s marked his first appearance at the Kenya National Theatre and sparked a flame that became a burning ambition. His friend Patrick Kanyeki recalls Bukeko’s laser-focused, borderline obsessive approach to acting; Papa would write his own scripts, master and rehearse his lines and start his morning trek into the city so that he would arrive at the KNT early in the day.
And so, long before he became Papa Shirandula, Charles Bukeko had established a name for himself at the Kenya National Theatre, working in the late 1990s and early 2000s alongside the likes of David Kinyua, Ben Kivuitu, Fred Muriithi, Patrick Kanyeki and Peter Mudamba, under Pambazuka Productions. He later moved to the French Cultural Centre to work alongside such emerging young talents as Nice Githinji and Shiko Mburu.
Bukeko’s first big break came when he acted in playwright JPR Ochieng’ Odero’s The Film Doesn’t Film, earning Sh30,000 for a minor role at a time when cast members regularly took home Sh300 at the day’s end.
The veteran ecologist and thespian Ochieng’ Odero would become Bukeko’s first director before he moved on to the Phoenix Theatre and met producer Ian Mbugua, the man who introduced him to the legendary Scottish ex-serviceman and sailor-turned-thespian, James Falkland. Falkland, had just founded Phoenix Theatre with his partner Debonnaire. Bukeko spent the next three years at the Phoenix working with Falkland and his friends James Ward and Kenneth Mason. It was also around this time that he started putting together his own shows under Mbalamwezi Productions in collaboration with producer Peter Mudamba.
Faces for TV
Enter the celebrated filmmaker Bob Nyanja of Cinematic Solutions who had been a literature undergraduate at the University of Nairobi when Bukeko was employed there as a Halls custodian. Bob had returned from South Carolina with a Master of Fine Arts in film in the late 90s ready to transition Kenya’s stuttering creative arts onto the screens.
Nyanja first featured Bukeko as a night guard in the 2007 film Malooned! in which Peter Ndambuki aka Churchill played the role of a street urchin. “We walked all over town looking for a guard’s uniform that would fit Papa”, Nyanja remarked in a tribute to Bukeko. Bob Nyanja was also the muscle behind the massive TV comedy hit Redykulass.
It was during the opening of Malooned! at the Junction Mall that Royal Media Services director Wachira Waruru proposed the idea of expanding the role of the guard into a television series. Bukeko, sensing the opportunity to do something remarkable, wrote the first scripts of what went on to become this hugely successful show, and Papa Shirandula was born.
There was a visionary zeal to try out new programming for local audiences in the mid-2000s pioneered by Wachira Waruru, Bob Nyanja, Catherine Wamuyu and a band of local directors, filmmakers and producers. This risk-taking paid off and released a tide of relatable content that beat back the dominance of foreign soap operas.
For Bukeko, Papa Shirandula was the culmination of nearly 12 years of stage productions at the Kenya National Theatre, Braeburn Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, and dozens of screen productions. When asked about his big breaks Papa remarked, “My breakout role was when I was cast as Herod for the play, Nativity at the Braeburn Theatre”.
The name Shirandula is made up of the Wanga word khurandula which loosely translates as tenacity. It’s clear why Bukeko would go for that moniker given his own personality. The name’s resonance with the public also spoke to his impressive ability to transform seemingly mundane acts and phrases into social currency.
As a thespian, Bukeko embodied a dogged determination and constantly decried the youth’s desire for quick success. While he often spoke about the urban youth’s predicaments, he also didn’t shy away from criticising their impatience and the effect it had on their young budding careers. As a testament of his belief in the youth, Bukeko, now Shirandula, was the first guest at the Churchill Show set up by his contemporary Peter Ndambuki to show-case emerging talent.
His own show, Papa Shirandula, fed into the emerging classist posture of Kenya’s viewership at a point where Mexican soaps like La Mujer De Lorenzo, Cuando Seas Mia, the South African TV series Reflections, and Asian acts like Kyunki and Kahaani had dominated the screens. By the early to mid-2000s, the Vioja Mahakamani, Vitimbi, Sokomoko and Tausi had long been edged out, while the Boomba Train youth culture of the early 2000s, was demanding for a yet-to-be figured out screenplays.
At the outset, Papa Shirandula’s viewership was limited to its blue-collar origins and brand but soon developed crosscutting audience appeal, partly because of Bukeko’s performance where his persona and his alter-ego blended deeply as both fed off each other. On screen, Bukeko would give way to Papa Shirandula, this security guard who had three wives and a white girlfriend and who manages to hide his true profession from them all. Bukeko seamlessly morphed into Papa Shirandula, a burly guard in a red uniform; an impostor who sustained his double life as a patriarch, polygamist, elder, doting father, and scheming character across a series that ran for 13 years.
As Kazungu Matano (Captain Otoyo) recalls, outside his inner circles, Papa’s weight was a sensitive topic and something he privately admitted to struggling with and, indeed, the 1990s build of an athletic man had changed drastically as the years progressed.
In South Africa, Papa was well known through the viral Vodacom ad in which he played the role of a dictator, evoking the role of Joseph Olita, the man from K’ogelo who had played Amin in The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1981). The ad is hilarious, comical and very relatable across the continent, a feat only matched by his signature Brrrrrr! moment in the 2007 global Coca Cola advert. Papa went on to feature in the internationally acclaimed Fernando Meirelles book-to-film adaptation, The Constant Gardener (2005), in Malooned! (2007), and in The Captain of Nakara (2012).
The Cultural Phenomenon
In losing Shirandula we have lost something more than a thespian of great prowess and an industry trailblazer. He also mainstreamed a kind of Kenyan blue-collar masculinity which previously had little representation in our popular imagination, where the preacher and the politician are the epitome of masculinity. Out of these two flow all the sub-archetypes that dominate the public imagination of what it means to be a Kenyan man and, therefore, Shirandula’s blue-collar, masculine sub-archetype rarely received the kind of visibility that a lot of other urban sub-archetypes in this country do.
And so, throughout the 80s and 90s, we see a masculinity where the man would comfortably live in the tea estates of Kericho, or Kaloleni—as Marjorie Oludhe chronicled in Coming To Birth —while his family lived on the land in Whisero, or Kanyadhiang. Guess who had done that decades earlier?
Bukeko played into the paradoxical stereotype of the Luhya man as a potbellied guard which fits a little too well with the all too familiar portrayal of Luhyas as dominating the private security sector, Kalenjins the police, Luos the handicrafts sector, Kikuyus trade, and Kambas as loyal civil servants and juniors to Asian bosses.
Ethnic stereotypes range from the funny to the downright disrespectful; a trope which papa had to fight as he exemplified the stigma associated with the job of a security guard. Shirandula gently managed to almost single-handedly give voice, representation, and nuance to the talented, pragmatic, modest, blue-collar masculine sub-archetypes that work in the shadows of capital and its structures. He explored the struggles of that type of man to fit in, the black tax that those men paid, and their complicated relationship with the Juma Andersons (his boss) of capitalist racketeering.
Papa made the careers of many along the way, famous of them all Felix Odiwuor (Jalango), his counterpart, Kazungu Matano (Otoyo), Papa’s onscreen wife Jackie Nyaminde (Wilbroda), Daisy Odeko (Naliaka), William Juma (Juma Anderson), Jackie Vike (Awinja) and Kenneth Gichoya (Njoro), all of whom have also had significant success on radio, on YouTube, as MCs and as comedians.
So when the news of his demise reached the Kenyan newsrooms, a strong sense of loss engulfed the public, a rare occurrence in this age of post-humous flagellations. We haven’t just lost Bukeko, we’ve lost Shirandula, the embodiment of the work ethic of the blue-collar worker, his tenuous relationship with the city—the tough underbelly of capital—and his struggle for dignity and identity.
In a country where the most dominant masculine sub-archetypes are inadvertently generated by the idealized preacher and the politician, Shirandula succeeded in giving voice and nuance to a whole masculine sub-archetype, and to working-class families, and that’s no mean feat. Go well Charles Bukeko.
The Death of Kerbino
Was the former child soldier and businessman-cum-philanthropist killed for harbouring political ambitions?
On 14 June 2020, a Sunday afternoon, a young South Sudanese entrepreneur-turned-insurgent died a macabre death in the Lakes region. By Monday morning, gruesome pictures of Kerbino Wol Agok had already circulated on social media, especially in the WhatsApp groups of South Sudanese all over the world and soon, from Adelaide in Australia to Boston in the United States, to Khartoum in Sudan and Nairobi, Kenya, speculation was rife about who had killed him. But outside South Sudan and South Sudanese circles, not many people had heard of Kerbino, a soldier-turned-businessman who had lived in the United States and had trained with the American Special Forces.
One gruesome picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground in the bush surrounded by men in military garb, with a man who seemed to be their leader taking a photo of the dead Kerbino with his smartphone as his colleagues looked on. Another was a close-up of Kerbino’s face showing a bloodied hole in his left cheek, a jungle cap next to his balding head. A third picture was of Kerbino lying on the ground, dressed only in a sweatshirt and boxer shorts.
The official explanation by the South Sudan government is that Kerbino was an insurgent who had been killed in a skirmish with the government security forces. According to the army spokesman, “SSPDF [South Sudan People’s Defence Force] had succeeded in containing a rebellion in its infancy”.
But my interviews with South Sudanese nationals living in Nairobi and South Sudan paint a different picture altogether. Examining the ghastly pictures with a South Sudanese medical doctor in Nairobi, the consultant physician said that the hole on his left cheek suggested Kerbino may have been shot by his captors at close range, the bullet entering the right side of the head and exiting through the left cheek.
Kerbino had the muscular body of one who took his exercise regime seriously. He was born in 1982, just before the rebellion broke out in southern Sudan in 1983, and would later join the “Red Army”, the child-soldiers who were used in the war against the dominance of the North.
In 2010, five years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, Kerbino, went back to South Sudan and founded Kerbino Agok Security Services (KASS), headquartered in Juba and which by the time of his death had spread its operations to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nairobi. He had also started Kerbino Executive Conferences, as well as a philanthropic organisation, The Nile Foundation. In total, Kerbino’s organisations employed about 2,000 people.
Despite not being well-known outside the borders of South Sudan, Kerbino was a fast-rising star, at least, according to many South Sudanese who live inside and outside South Sudan. They may not have entirely agreed with his modus operandi, but many of the South Sudanese I interviewed agreed on this one thing: the 38-year-old man was destined for greater things.
Kerbino’s problems seem to have started when he was detained in April 2018, held incommunicado at the Chinese-built Blue House, the headquarters of the National Security Services (NSS) in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan.
In a recorded testimony, American academic Robert A. Portada, who had forged a lasting friendship with Kerbino, said that, “on April 27, 2018, Kerbino was arrested without charge and incarcerated inside the infamous and notorious Blue House. Despite getting closer to signing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the summer of 2018 saw the arbitrary arrests, most prominently of the political activist Peter Biar Ajak in July”. Ajak was a PhD student at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Ajak, who has been in Nairobi since his release alongside his friend Kerbino, told the BBC on 24 July 2020 that Kerbino was captured and executed by government security forces. He also said that the National Security Service (NSS) has been sending him threatening messages telling him that they will kidnap and send him back to Juba. That NSS officers roam the streets of Nairobi is an open secret. Two years ago, they kidnapped some South Sudanese youth from the streets of Nairobi and ferried them back to Juba, where it is believed they were imprisoned and tortured. Their crime? They had been posting criticism of President Kiir on their Facebook timelines.
Kerbino was among seven detainees at the Blue House who faced trial. In the “Testimony of Kerbino Wol”, Portada, an Associate Professor of political science at Kutztown University, wrote: “Since March 21, 2018 seven prisoners have sat for trial in Juba. From their cells in the Blue House, the headquarters of the NSS, they are escorted to and from the courtroom while closely guarded by the NSS officers. Among the seven is Kerbino Wol, the young South Sudan entrepreneur and philanthropist. Though the trial is being held in a civilian court, each day NSS soldiers surround the building, armed with automatic weapons. NSS officers are stationed at all entrances to the court, and roam the courtroom during the proceedings”.
Portada also wrote that, “adding to the repressive environment in which the seven prisoners are being tried, the United Nations released a report on April 30 stating that it is highly probable that Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the opposition SPLM-IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition], were abducted and killed by the NSS in 2017. It is no secret that the NSS has committed atrocities with impunity in South Sudan. But now, Kerbino Wol and his fellow prisoners must sit for trial in the full presence of a national security agency revealed to have executed and disappeared nonviolent activists”.
South Sudanese sources that cannot be named because of the sensitivity of the information they shared and to protect their identities, alleged that Kerbino was executed by NSS officers. “Kuol Fidel, head of NSS, which also acts as the internal security bureau, and one his officers known as Akol Khor, did not get along with Kerbino. They had always been thinking of how to neuter him. So, when news came through that he had been found dead and considering the circumstances that had led to his confrontation with the NSS, many South Sudanese couldn’t fail to immediately connect Kerbino’s death with NSS”. Why would Kerbino pick a quarrel with top ranking NSS officers? Kerbino, Kuol and Akol are all Dinkas who come from Tonj, which is north of Lakes region.
“Kerbino as a civilian was rising all too fast. It was suspected he had political ambitions in his home region of Lakes. Kuol, too is believed to harbour political ambitions, if the peace agreement between Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar holds, there could be a general election in 2023”. With his rising star, popularity, youth, access to big money and international connections, Kerbino posed a threat to certain individuals were he to choose to contest the governorship of Lakes region, for example.
One of the first things that Kuol and Akol are alleged to have done, as they continually harassed Kerbino, was to close his businesses before throwing him into detention. Portada’s testimony says that “Kerbino Wol’s businesses and bank accounts were shut down by NSS”. In justification, the NSS alleged that Kerbino was supplying arms to Riek Machar. “But this is a spurious allegation”, said a South Sudanese source in Nairobi. “All this time Kerbino is alleged to have been sending arms to Riek, he was holed up in South Africa. It is evident and obvious that there are some people in the NSS who were hell-bent on nailing Kerbino”.
“On September 27, 2018”, wrote Portada, “the President of the Republic, H.E. Salva Kiir Mayardit, issued Republican Order Number 17, ordering that all political prisoners be released with immediate effect under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nevertheless, detainees including Kerbino and Peter were locked in the Blue House”. The next time the world would hear of these cases and of Kerbino in particular was during the prison break incident that took place on 7 October 2018 “to call attention to their illegal detentions”, said Kerbino during his trial.
“The Blue House already had earned a notorious reputation as one of the several sites where NSS authorities had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, and ill-treated people to the point of death according to a report released by Amnesty International”, explained Portada’s testimony. “On October 7, for the first time, prisoners in the Blue House were able to communicate with the international media and testify to these conditions themselves”.
What happened at the Blue House on 7October 2018? Some South Sudanese who knew Kerbino’s character well said Kerbino had become increasingly incensed with his continued detention and harassment by some of the NSS officers, and had demanded that they either release him or charge him so that he could defend himself in a court of law. “On this day, a fracas ensued at the Blue House and Kerbino is believed to have staged a kind of a Rambo-style prison break in which he led a group of fellow prisoners into storming the warehouse which also acted as an armoury”.
In his notes, Portada says that, “though the state security responded by encircling the Blue House and repeatedly firing on the compound, the nonviolent prisoners negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff”. It is after the “prison break” that the state now decided to take Kerbino to court and charge him with the criminal offence of causing a skirmish within the NSS precincts”, explained my South Sudanese interlocutor. That now became his main charge. “Kerbino was taken to court in April 2019 and charged with causing mayhem on 7 October 2018”.
In his testimony, Portada says, however, that “following the October 7 incident the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU), working with friends and associates of Kerbino Wol, immediately brought his case before the East Africa Court of Justice (EACJ), seeking justice for his unlawful arrest and illegal detention. In suing the Government of South Sudan, PALU asked the EACJ to order GoSS to produce Kerbino Wol before a competent and impartial court, and to restore to him his properties and stop attacks and seizure of Kerbino’s businesses. Though GoSS acknowledged the authority of EACJ by sending a representative to a hearing on March 25, 2019, they have not produced Kerbino before the regional court nor accounted for the circumstances of his incarceration or seizure of his property”.
Instead, what the court in Juba did was to begin the prosecution’s case on the same day the EACJ asked that Kerbino be presented before it. On 25 March the South Sudan government representative said the Juba trial removed the necessity for adjudication in the EACJ.
“Called to the witness stand by the defence at the Juba court, Kerbino spoke in both Arabic and English as he delivered his testimony”, said Portada. On 11 May, after two weeks of imprisonment, NSS officers accused Kerbino his security company to conspire against the state. The NSS placed Kerbino in solitary confinement with the threat that, “we have other means of getting the truth”. But in a surprising twist of events, President Kiir offered a presidential amnesty to Kerbino.
Kerbino went home, but something had been implanted in his mind, said a South Sudanese who knew Kerbino personally. “Kerbino started toying with the idea of forming a movement that would agitate for political change. He called his movement 7th October”. Friends and foes have faulted Kerbino for seemingly acting in a rush. A South Sudanese who knew Kerbino told me that “Monydiar Maker, the youth leader of the ethnic group called Rup, duped Kerbino that he could mobilise young men for him to form a ragtag army and it seems Kerbino, in his unprocessed anger against what he considered to be inhuman treatment from the state, believed he could orchestrate change by forming a guerilla army in present day South Sudan”.
Monydiar was killed four days before Kerbino’s sudden death, possibly by the same people who killed Kerbino.
Trapped in the bush and possibly realising his folly that forming a guerilla army is not the same as starting a security company, Kerbino contacted one of his friends for help. “It is believed that Kerbino reached out to a friend, one Omar Isaak, and asked him to hire a helicopter to airlift him to Khartoum”, said my South Sudanese source. “Kerbino could have given Omar upward of $200,000 for the job”. Many South Sudanese believe Omar betrayed Kerbino and that is why he was captured.
The circumstances leading to Kerbino’s death reflect those of the death of George Athol Deng. Deng was a Dinka from Jonglei state. Short of stature but a lethal soldier, he was a favourite fighter of John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).. In 2010 Deng, who was in his 50s, ran for the Jonglei governor’s seat. When he lost the election he returned to the bush, but is believed to have been captured by government forces and summarily executed.
Despite the return of Riek Machar, leader of the SPLM-IO, to his old job as Vice President – which has however been split into five positions – South Sudan is a country still very much ill at ease with itself. “As we are talking, the country is on fire”, said a South Sudanese in Nairobi “Militia gangs are roaming South Sudan with abandon, because Kiir is a lame duck president. He does not have the control of the country beyond Juba”.
My friend said South Sudan is currently on fire: “There could be at least 10 – 15 internecine wars going on in South Sudan. The greater Dinka of Gumuruk and Pibor is at war with Murle. The Murle, who are viewed as a war-like ethnic community in South Sudan hence, always seen as an aggressor community is at war with a coalition of Dinka and Lou Nuer”. The South Sudanese also said the internecine wars have not spared intra-community’s wars.
“The Dinka sub-clans of Apuk and Aguok that come from the President’s home county of Gogrial are at war with each other. The intra-communal war among the Agar people has been going on for nearly 20 years. The Nuer of Bentiu are busy fighting the Dinka Twic Mayardit”. The Nuers, observed my friend, just like the Dinka have been fighting among themselves. “The Nuers from Bentiu have been warring with the Nuers from Warrap state. So, if the ethnic communities are not fighting between themselves, they are fighting among themselves. These inter-state fights and unrests, have made South Sudan seem ungovernable”.
Said the South Sudan national: “As if the internecine wars inside South Sudan are not enough, there has been unrest between Sudan and South Sudan. “The Malual Dinka have been quarrelling with the Missinya Arabs of Sudan. The picture coming from South Sudan is not good at all. It is from this backdrop that Kerbino met his untimely death”.
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