Papa Shirandula: The Footballer-Turned-Thespian Who Became a Cultural Icon7 min read.
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.
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Kenyan Digital Avatars: Cartoonification of Culture and Heritage
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that result in depictions of traditional and cultural diversity that are inauthentic and historically inaccurate.
Somewhere between 2007 and 2012 Kenya underwent a symbolic transition—from analogue to digital. Comedian Smart Joker became the spokesperson for this transition. It was funny that a jester who amplified the confused-villager-in-the-city motif, the staple of Kenyan comedy, was the one declaring that Kenya had migrated to the digital world. A utopia. The rap verses in his song Tumetoka Analogue Tuko Digital referenced MPesa and mobile phones. Kenya had entered the digital age under the Silicon Savannah moniker. Internet infrastructure was rapidly expanding, cheap internet, the advent of social media and the growing ubiquity of smartphones made 2010 a critical turning point not just for Kenya but for the world. Edward Mendelson even said, “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”
In this digital transition, one of the fundamental changes was how Kenya engaged with itself and the manner in which Kenyans experienced themselves and each other. #KOT was born and thrived.
Some interesting things are happening on the cultural front. In Kenya the use of design software technologies is being used to metamorphosize oral stories into online legends. Vast digital landscapes have been brought to the fore where old depictions are being reimagined; cue the Afro-future genre where Maasais are imagined in space sitting atop alien disks, and Afrobubblegum, which celebrates itself for being fun, fierce and frivolous. Films that disrupt colonial narrative structures and depictions have been made, traditional settings have been incorporated into online games while traditional board games are being digitised. Beyond making Kenyan (hi)stories accessible, however, a critical examination of the affordances and limitations of the digital space is needed, especially in terms of authenticity, diversity and complexity in representation.
Technology is spoken of in heraldic, near-biblical terms, a promised land where a techno-fix will provide correction for all past narratives, attitudes and inefficiencies. The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers. In some cases, political problems are being surrendered to technical solutions. This attitude ignores the fact that technology integrates assumptions and preferences about culture, places, people and values and that it can reproduce and reinforce inequities and lead to new forms of dispossession. Caution against such unchecked hopes has been voiced but the debate regarding the finer details of this analogue-digital migration is confined to tiny circles of experts.
There was something disquieting about the frenetic pace of the analogue-to-digital migration. It was more than the basic burden of migratory logistics. A country like Kenya came to technology with a certain mind-set and the technologies being adopted also came with their baggage of bias and assumptions. Simply adopting or merely imitating how others were using them was not going to work. Some habits have to go, some new ones have to be adopted; success in the digital age comes in iterative baby steps not in the rushed manner in which certain projects have been undertaken. The movers, the systems that allowed the migrations, were all borrowed. Certain cultural and imaginative needs of the people were missing from the existing technologies and had to be built from scratch.
On the cultural and heritage fronts, the debates around digitization have thrown up interesting dilemmas. The events that whisk us from the digital optimism of the early 2010s to the digital cultural depictions of the 2020s are many and follow many threads. They all begin offline, with good intentions and a clear need to meet, a remedy to apply or an aspect of society to include. Measures are then put in place. Take the question of national heroes and memorialization. In 2007, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage set up a Taskforce on National Heroes and Heroines whose mandate was “countrywide data collection on criteria and modalities of honoring national heroes and heroines”. After five months the taskforce came out with a report that, among other things, identified the modalities of scoring and awarding hero points. The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists:
“The national heroes and heroines square should be the highest symbol and point of reference of the perpetuity of our nationhood. It should represent and depict the national core values, goals and principles to which all Kenyans aspire. The place should symbolize all the shrines held sacred by various Kenyan communities. It should be a place revered and treated with utmost respect by those who work, enter and visit the square. As a national shrine it should embody the country’s pride, hope, spiritual and cultural aspirations and national unity. This concept should be reflected in the architectural design, management and administration of the square.”
In short, the manufacture of a holy shrine that, by existing, induces nostalgia, pride, and a deeply symbolic respect for Project Kenya; an Arcadia of sorts, Kenya’s own Shangri La where memories of heroes and heroines live on forever.
Now take this intention, add a software programme and unchecked and uncritical enthusiasm, bring in the National Museums of Kenya, add tracts of digital real estate through the Google Arts and Culture Project, stir for a few years then add frames and the perfect Kenyan heroes soup is ready for serving up on a digital platter. This is what happened recently when Kenya National Museums—through the Google Arts and Culture Project—embarked on a project similar to the watercolour sketches of Kenyan men and women commissioned from Joy Adamson by the British colonial government in the 1950s.
The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted global inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers.
The project is described on the Google Arts and Culture page as a celebration of “a journey of 400 years of history and geography” and we are invited to “meet 61 historic heroes of the Kenyan communities” and engage in their “remarkable stories”. The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino”. In almost all of them, a simplistic macho effect is achieved through creased brows. And they are inspired by the erroneous official simplification that “Kenya has 44 communities who all have heroes” in a move to make culture, diversity, identity history and even pride accessible and available for display. A gamified section invites us to “discover your super alter-Ego” by “taking a quiz”.
The digitally imagined Chief Mukudi adorned in ostrich feathers and the offline analogue reality of the late chief adorned in Mumia Kingdom’s official kanzu, black coat and king’s medals.
This fantastical rendering of Chief Mukudi psychically displaces and forces one to think at once that there was an ancient civilization and that the many marks on his body held mysterious powers. Nostalgia for a fictionalized past looms large in this cartoonish idiocy.
It becomes even harder to look beyond these aesthetic distortions to consider and appreciate the effort put into the project since the aesthetic style erases and overshadows the substance of the stories. This leads to an alienating abstraction of reality.
In moves only possible in the digital space, the project also allows for an immense lore dump. We are not allowed to move gradually through each hero but are forced to contend with tens of heroes and heroines from diverse cultures in an undifferentiated mass in the virtual world. The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
The project achieves two things: Firstly, it is a symbolic reversal of the manner in which Kenya has approached the controversial question of who is to be celebrated and how. Secondly, it is a celebration of diverse traditional oral stories that further complicates the foundational stories of this country.
The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists.
But the actual product falls short of these intentions because the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
Even though this project tries to bring a conceptual shift, its lynchpin is simplistic and flawed. Tinkering with and tweaking the diverse Kenyan cultural heritage in this simplistic manner was never going to bring successful reversals to the old prejudiced attitudes. There is no power or heroism in the depictions of the paused agile leap or the ready-to-pounce poses. This is not a digital revolution overturning old conceptions but a further distortion of reality. A phoney simulation.
To escape from that nativist prison is not possible with Western media and software, and vector elements and stock images conceived in Silicon Valley. Ancient lore can be repurposed for modern digital needs but if it is used to serve narrow nationalistic agendas, a mutually reinforcing and equally destructive process is embarked upon—national image-making on a straitjacket platform.
For a country in search of sources of pride, anything seems to go in reconciling the disparate narratives of national being and becoming. Historical inaccuracies are embraced, regional characters are incorporated without qualms. The mad Mullah can be passed as a Kenyan hero as the stories cross ethnic, cultural and geographical boundaries and vault over their rural origins, acquiring a transcendental quality.
The pastoral 13th-17th century Ajuran sultanate is accessorised, ignorantly, with Mediterranean marble pillars. Its “hero” is an ascending figure bathed in light, holding a sword, and wrapped up like a Tuareg dervish straight from a teenager’s dream in an Ibrahim Al-Koni novel. Moving towards Southern Ethiopia, the almost 600-year-old Borana governance institution of the Gada—that from 1548 has had 72 Aba Gadas—is represented by one image titled Aba Gada; his name and the years of his reign are surplus to the needs of Kenya National Museums.
Some heroes and their stories are asynchronous to their actual histories. Take for example the story of Kote Golo who is depicted as a young Rendille moran. A respected Sakuye elder says that he died in 1913 but KNM places Kote Golo’s stories in the 1930s and beyond. What are we to make of references to Cuban and Soviet Union support? And the Ogaden war? A lone ranger’s story created by KNM.
The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino.”
In this project fictive kinship is conjured at will. The Burji for example, are depicted as “farmers of the desert” even though they are not found in any desert. Their mythical story of origin has villains who shift according to the prevailing relationship or the needs of the narrator. The Burji, Konso and Borana are distinct and unrelated and passing them off as cousins or “the three brothers” is careless. KNM erroneously claims that, “The Burji swore to be farmers, to feed the Borana who had chased them away from Liban, with grains of life.”
Kenya National Museums wants to force the stories to triumph over structural issues and vault above politics, above economics and above context. Women are depicted as hormonal, men are gladiators. The project is largely an attempt to apply heavy nationalist makeup but the anachronistic collapse and fictional rendering fail to achieve the attempted nationalistic unification. Such stories, if not told in all their different dimensions, are best left alone.
Reconciliation with Western imaginaries of heroism
The traditional myths and legends being rescued and bathed in gold and light have been imbued with Western superhero motifs. Most of the images have gilded renderings, the avatars have dead-set serious eyes and flawlessly toned bodies.
Traditional costumes have been wilfully replaced with the accoutrements of heroes of Western heritage and the digital bric-a-brac of online game cultures and depictions of power that borrow trinkets and magical orbs and wands from Harry Potter movies. There are other related accoutrements of this world such as fancy swords and blazing spears. A proper scrutiny of the images may even reveal Black Panther’s vibranium hammers.
To suture the resulting inconsistencies and to imbue them with digital depictions of power, the project bathes everything in neon lights of a golden hue and streaks of lightning. Depictions from Greek mythology and those in the Kenyan heroes project are so similar that one could conclude that Zeus no longer reigned from Mt. Olympus and had allowed his energy of lights to be borrowed for use in the digital afterlife of Kenyan oral stories. Mekatilili wa Menza could pass for Hera.
Institutions and responsibilities
Historical narratives are often complicated, and bear the contradictions of reality. The process by which real people are turned into comic book heroes, shorn of all historical and cultural realities, has been enabled by the enthusiastic use of digital tools and existing digital templates and environment; this carries some of the blame for the iconographic distortions.
Nationalistic self-flattery goes through many layers of bureaucratic approval that all carry the blame for the historical inaccuracies in this project: the funders, the cast of actors that include the heritage minister, and the president who gave it the full blessing of the state. The project has an impressive-sounding list of contributors—Director General, senior curators and research scientists, designers, archivists, photographers and marketers—some of whom have PhDs to their names.
The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
Kenya National Museums is not a stranger to Kenyans and has people capable of a nuanced preservation and depiction of cultures in their full, authentic complexity. That they did not see the fundamental problems with this project demonstrates either wilful ignorance or vested interests with regards to the project funds.
Nothing, not even the desperate drive to reinvent KNM, justifies this level of distortion and and show of disrespect to Kenyan communities. The difficult question of national culture cannot be answered through a linear rendering of history, culture and identity. This refashioning of cultural identities and collapsing of individual uniqueness into a national whole with a homogeneous past only creates a mess. Even when midwifed by Google or the mimicked aesthetics, it is bereft of the true body and material cultures of the depicted communities. When not attempting to create this narrow nationalism, Kenya’s heritage department seems preoccupied with how to add value or use the cultural heritage of Kenya’s communities for some form of economic gain; packaged and ready for investors and tourists. This project is the latest attempt to turn heritage and the diverse cultures into digital cultural capital.
The museum has an impressive collection of material culture. But in this Google Arts and Culture Project, everything is everywhere. The head gear of community X adorns community Y. Things are interchangeable and decontextualized.
These concerns are directed at software designers and at the cultural enthusiasts feeding in instructions into the software to remedy old questions of identity. But the institution that brings together unchecked enthusiasm and flawed programs without care for safeguarding measures carries the bulk of the blame.
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that often do not have—especially in slack, inexperienced hands—the manoeuvrability needed for accurate depictions. To use Western tools to fight old imperial framing needs other supportive industries where items like free and diverse stock photos, digital elements and assets can be sourced. Digital platforms where African and traditional material cultures can be found need to be set up.
I spoke to graphic designers who all contend with the lack of the tools and elements necessary to ease their work. “Sometimes what is in the mind and what comes out of a design process are miles apart,” says George Ngechu, founder of Sura Images, a stock image agency whose platform is designed to provide cheap and accessible images of anything from well-adjusted Africans in the workspace to basic material culture. “We get a lot of queries for a diverse range of images; the demand is a lot but we can’t meet it”.
There are few high resolution images for their use and even those that are available are watermarked or ridiculously expensive. Designers have to resort to paid stock image sites or render their own images, a painstakingly slow process that involves finding models and photographers, organising a shoot, editing and then embarking on designing a small poster depicting the realities of their surroundings. Those who commission the design do not understand that this leads to a borrowed, virtual aesthetic.
“If you search for stock pictures of Africans doing anything you won’t find them easily,” says Job, a graphic designer with a local newspaper. “Search, for example, for an African couple having dinner and you will struggle. But when you look for just ‘couples having dinner’, a million images of white people are available and for free.”
The images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum.
I talk to Chief Mukudi’s great-grandson, a journalist and designer, and we laugh at the image of his great-grandfather. He too acknowledges the challenge in the hands of the designers. “One time I was designing a campaign poster that needed to have a broom in it. All the vectors I got were the witch brooms, I had to go find a broom and make it usable for my needs”.
It takes immense effort and work for a designer to find basic things like akala sandals, brooms, guards, traditional cooking pots or any other commonly available item of material culture on the internet.
“You know, the majority of Kenyans assume that beads are the same. We do not know that they contain important cultural meaning. And also, since we do not have reference points, we approximate or just round off to the nearest item available … If your community isn’t serious in putting itself in the digital space, the distortions, misrepresentations and being left out is inevitable,” says Job.
Digital products have to be groundtruthed yet the data available for the production of the necessary traditional materials is from stereotyped tropes—borrowed, inauthentic simulations or low quality. It is even difficult to crowdsource such elements because, as one of the designers said, “Designers on the continent are not producers but consumers.” The need to contribute to platforms where stock images and vectors are stored was mentioned by many of the designers I spoke to but Joe Nzomo says, “So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
There are ongoing conversations that try to solve this problem by establishing platforms with African material culture assets, elements and stock images such as Picha Stock, the previously mentioned Sura Images, and Leso Stories’ digital asset library.
Leso Stories, for example, uses technology to give an immersive storytelling experience and notes that interactivity is a “key ingredient missing from even the best books or adaptations of African cultural works”. The platform has taken “fundamental care to ensure that not only the storyteller but also the storytelling environment are all authentic and faithful to when, where, how and why these stories are shared.” Leso Stories has managed to achieve this through “Virtual Humans” or what they call Embodied Conversational Agents. However, Leso Stories’ revolutionary contribution is creating 3D models and digital assets to be used by other creators. It is one way to counter the domination of Western digital vectors.
Lessons and responsibilities
The key lesson for us from Leso Stories’ digital asset library, Picha Stock and Sura Images is that technology demands the efforts of individuals who have foresight and passion to effect change. But the support of institutions and the responsibility of those in positions of power are necessary. The institutions at the heart of such efforts like KNM and even global players like Google and stock image behemoths like Getty and Shutterstock have a responsibility for inclusive and accurate cultural depictions.
The true power of traditional symbols of power lies in their proper, respectful and contextual depictions. To help designers and creators, the KNM could have digitised the many items that are stored and displayed in highly colonial forms at the Nairobi archives. Maybe then Harry Potter wands and magical orbs would not be as ubiquitous as they are in the Shujaa project.
Leso Stories is bold and has reimagined how African oral stories can be told without losing their participatory elements.
From production to consumption, the levels at which we have to engage with the use of software are various. In the artificial digital domain, the use of technology has to be groundtruthed. Digital technologies and software are mediums of an unequal power relationship. What is visible online as vectors is mirrored offline by beads, shawls and bakoras. Their enthusiastic adoption needs to strike a balance between prioritising faithfulness and awareness of what might be gained or lost in the cultural translation of oral, contested, continuous, cultural and non-linear histories into permanent, one-dimensional inauthentic and simple depictions.
Fidelity to the truth is key and it cannot be achieved by hurried half-commitments.
When kids who have grown up on comic vines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars turn their gaze from the marvel universe to their environment and search for such characters, they have no tools to analyse, appreciate or objectively appraise their own body cultures, legends, and myths.
In the age of artificial intelligence where simple text prompts and instructions can generate cultural images, the problem of authenticity and complexity is further compounded.
Let us for a brief moment turn to the judgment of the crowd of consumers. Take my friend Basele, a techie and digital enthusiast who shared on This is Africa’s Twitter page text-generated images that he had made on an AI platform—three images necessary for our appraisal of digital depictions.
“So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
Basele used the text prompt “Calm and colourful image of a Samburu girl from Norther Kenya” and this is the image that the AI platform generated.
In Laisamis, the possible home of this digitally rendered cultural “calm and colourful” image, I show the AI mage to two friends and I ask for their reaction. One of the two is an anthropologist. He looks at the image, immediately notes that the lady is adorned with, among other things, “ostrich egg shells” and “modern earrings”. With confusion on his face, he asks, “Could she be Pokot?” Even the distant similarity to Lupita Nyong’o lurking in the image doesn’t help the image to pass the cultural authenticity test.
Here Basele has used AI to generate a “calm and colourful image of a Rendille girl from Northern Kenya.”
My friends compare the nose size with a standard Rendille nose and laugh. But what does the software know? In a third image my friend sent me, the lady has aluminium beads and modern earrings. “Which culture is this?” ask my friends in Laisamis.
The anthropologist in Laisamis says, “The pastoralists’ material culture is lean,” noting that it has to be very sparse and specific: “Remember you carry everything with you.”
But with my friend’s curious commands, even with the AI-generated artificial glow and flawless skin, the images do not pass the authenticity test. It is not satire, it is not caricature. These are the depictions of soulless machines.
More worrying, however, are the high stakes and high risks produced by the fact that such AI-generated depictions are being used in videos to tell oral stories. Their simplistic rendering becomes embedded in other AI platforms where they are used as the groundtruth for further and future AI work. A self-reinforcing loop of distortion.
A third project
Kunta Content, a Kenyan online gaming company, has created a Maasai hero named Hiru. In the game trailer, a Maasai village is depicted well and the landscape is accurate. But Hiru is shown always running, killing a lion within the short two minutes of the trailer. In another trailer, he he kills a poacher armed only with a bow and arrow. Huri has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka. At their heart the codes that run him are the same ones that are powering the Western gaming industry. An anomaly with the story is the traditional gaming industry villain, a slayer bearing two massive axes who is taken down by the dextrous manoeuvre of Hiru’s spear, which is held and used like a cane. Salim, Kunta Content’s creator, describes the merger of media and gaming as “old storytelling which tries to tell an experience, an emotion”.
Digital inclusion needs more than design sensibility to obtain accurate and complex depictions. Other aspects such as an understanding of history, awareness of forms of self-depiction, a grasp of design tools, an honest imagination, understanding language and the power of stories, some anthropological depth, a sense of geography and an appreciation of cultures and spirituality need to be in place. These are not only to be considered but they need to be actively cultivated and implemented. An assemblage of supporting and intersectional expertise such as writers, designers and critics, as well as platforms for dissemination like the Internet, television, books and, most importantly, the resources to undertake the necessary iterative experimentation and learning have to be availed.
Clicking away swiftly
Kenya’s culture and heritage ministry is encouraging communities to compile, document and register their traditional knowledge. As heritage officials from the ministry traverse the country facilitating this rush to develop biocultural protocols, the question of the technology behind them has not been fully considered. So far, the discussions seem to be centred around traditional attire, food, herbal medicine, heritage sites, rites of passage, and so on and so forth. The intention is to codify and keep traditional knowledge in a database somewhere where it will be stored for eternity and where communities can access it with just a few clicks.
He has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka.
But we must not forget that dispossession and exploitation have often been a deliberately baked-in problem. The risk with such databases lies in the fact that entire communities’ traditional knowledge can be erased from such systems or replaced without consequence. Aside from structural issues like software developer bias that can show up in their codes or the risk of hackers, the whole idea is foreign and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
The above efforts to bring traditional African cultures into the digital space seem to be simulations of what authentic pre-colonial traditional backgrounds should look like; in South Africa, experiments at 3D oral storytelling were set inside a cave. Their intention is almost always to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage. The inclusion of ambient audio sounds like chirping birds, lowing cows and crowing cocks don’t guarantee their integrity. The villages shown are untouched even by such simple “technology” as iron sheet roofs, yet Kenyan villages today are places where solar lights, mobile phones, plastic water Jerry cans, radios and even TVs compete for visibility with shukas and lesos.
Aside from the structural issues, the idea of taking and storing is colonial and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
Digital space and technology is a transitional medium that can evolve into a space of shared memory. As it is currently instituted, however, it has major limitations in depicting the rich African cultural tapestries. So far, the depictions of traditional and cultural diversity are inauthentic and historically inaccurate. The portrayals of complex diversity, nationhood and even conflict are problematic.
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the Kenya National Museums in Kenyan public life. However, as enthusiasm for the heritage industry grows, more than any other institution, KNM offers a chance to meet its needs. But to do this, it needs to go through a phase of introspection and to rethink its role.
To tackle the inaccuracies and elisions of African material cultures from the digital space, efforts are necessary from several fronts: individual artists, institutional commitments and the design of the technology itself. This should be a serious and deliberate endeavour as the risks of reanimating colonial logics of extraction and over-simplification lie in wait.
Davido’s Timeless Misses the Dial
No longer the self-proclaimed Goliath of the Afrobeats scene, Davido’s latest release reveals a waning star in a crowded firmament.
The West African Afrobeats scene is no longer the same as when Nigerian megastar Davido, popped up more than a decade ago. When he first appeared, he was on top of his game and dominated the Afrobeats scene so completely that Wizkid was the only truly competitive rival. Unlike his considerably more mellow rival, Davido bristled with unparalleled energy, intensity and ambition. Now heavily thronged with countless talented stars, rather than being defined by a pyramidal structure headed by a few notable names, the Afrobeats game is currently driven by a daunting, horizontal array of heavy-hitters. It’s much harder to make headway let alone stay in the game for any significant length of time.
Timeless, Davido’s major release since 2020’s A Better Time, features 17 tracks beginning with a mildly reflective Over Dem, a track almost futilely proclaiming his dominance over the music game with continuous allusions to the biblical David and Goliath. In short, the life and death struggles that mark the scramble for survival.
Feel is quite lacklustre and by Davido’s lofty standards, lacking in the characteristic fire. In the Garden, a love-focused number featuring Morravey, does not fare much better in terms of vocal flames or inspiration. Godfather is unmistakably a throwaway track. The lyrics are almost unbearably lame and the amapiano trimmings definitely unconvincing. In Unavailable, he hooks up with South African amapiano star Musa Keys, who does much to lift the joint out of rank mediocrity. Bop with Dexta Daps is also embarrassingly weak. Indeed, the less said the better. E pain me is about a broken heart that probably should remain broken on account of the song’s corny words, sentiments and thread-bare beats.
A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point.
Away is directed at his perceived detractors and haters and his drive to rise above the negativity coming his way. Again, there’s little to commend itself here. At first, it would seem Precision lacks originality, power and sonic appeal. However, on the chorus, Davido is amply supported by a host of stirring backing voices that give the track unexpected buoyancy.
Kante features super-talented Nigerian Afrobeats songstress, Fave, whose inclusion brings much needed fire and relief. Na Money receives help from The Cavemen—Davido’s frequent Afrobeats collaborators—and Angelique Kidjo, Benin Republic’s multiple Grammy award-winning multi-genre diva. On this calypso-inflected joint, Davido momentarily emerges from his uncharacteristic lethargy, no doubt inspired by his more adventuresome associates.
(U)juju, featuring Skepta, slumps back into the doldrums. Once again, this cut is meant for a love interest who undoubtedly would remain unconvinced by this uninspiring offering. No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
Picasso, which features Logos Olori, is not crafted with any ambitious artistic goals in mind apart from its understated reggae vibes. In other words, its title is simply misleading. In For the road, Davido continues his explorations of Caribbean grooves and sensibilities. Clearly, his past collaboration with Jamaican reggae/dance hall artist Popcaan is being cashed in on.
No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
LCNC finds Davido vainly reaching out for the distant stars that once jealously guarded him. But they don’t appear to need him anymore. What a shame. Here, he sings “Legends can never die/shooting up for the stars/dem no fit play my part.” True, but not when he seems to be deliberately trashing a painstakingly built legacy.
Champion Sound—the 17th track on this disappointing album featuring South African amapiano star Focalistic whom Davido had thrust into the international limelight—is probably the best cut. Arguably, this has even less fire than their previous collaboration on the Ke Star re-mix that had a huge continent-wide impact.
When Davido first made his appearance on the scene, he was full of beans and appeared unstoppable. He did everything and went everywhere. It seemed as if he didn’t know or understand the agonies and frustrations of creative burn-out. He was firing on all cylinders because, being the son of a billionaire, the primacy of strenuously maintaining one’s hustle is ingrained in him; failure is not the result of a tired and denuded imagination but the outcome of not trying hard enough.
Davido went on frequent headlining global tours in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Caribbean not minding the state of his voice or his nerves. He finds it difficult to stop long enough to get adequate rest as he is also the active CEO of a record label that is home to other stars such as Mayorkun, May Day, Peruzzi, Lola Rae and others. He is also constantly embroiled in hair-splitting public drama with his lover, Chioma Rowland. At some point, it all gets too much and this is evident in perhaps the worst album Davido has produced.
His previous offering, A Better Time, suggested that Davido may no longer be in full command of his creative powers. Released the same year heavy-hitters like Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Olamide offered major albums, A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point. In truth, it packs some power and also juggles some lovely ideas which are eventually lost beneath the detritus of unneeded tracks and fillers. His lack of concision sees his efforts wasted and ultimately floors him.
With seventeen mostly tired or under-done tracks, Timeless demonstrates that even the great Davido is sometimes capable of simply missing the mark. Obviously, he needs to learn how to chill, kick back, restore his voice and wait patiently for fresh ideas to visit him. In this way, he could have a much longer and also a more inspiring career. For the first time in his storied journey, it seems Davido is falling off because he still hasn’t figured out how to pace himself.
Timeless is undeniably thin, most probably because Davido is concerning himself with far too many pursuits that have nothing to do with music. His matter-of-fact approach to creativity, which initially may have propelled him to the heights of his game, has now become his nemesis.
No doubt there are a few bright spots in this largely underwhelming effort. The Dammy Twitch shot video of the viral song Unavailable explores the rich natural beauty of the South African landscape. Alongside a delectable bevy of babes bopping to the beats of Davido’s collaborator, Musa Keys, there are also the stunningly beautiful South African amapiano duo TxC and Johannesburg dancer, Uncle Vinny, dishing out head-turning moves.
Outside the recording studio, Davido has been busy with controversies around paternity issues. Women have come out claiming he is the father of their children. Kemi Olunloyo, a podcaster-turned bugbear has kept on Davido’s case, trying to reduce him into a R. Kelly kind of guy, a serial abuser of womenfolk. Rumours of drug abuse, violence and death have also beclouded his reputation. And these, rather than his bangers, have begun to gain more traction.
Sometimes, even in interviews, it is clear Davido’s hectic pace is catching up with him. He often sounds hoarse, strained, at a point of dissolution. He’s essentially a singer and not a rapper, and that being the case, the timbre of his voice as an instrument ought to be preserved at its best quality. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem as though Davido is bothered; he seems more concerned about the boisterousness of his hustle, the implacability of his grind, which might translate into great business but is not always the wisest of artistic choices. He has obviously been neglecting his primary instrument and also failing in the creative department as the world-wide bangers have slowly dwindled to a trickle.
Also, the competition within the Afrobeats scene has become infinitely more fierce, with the daily arrival of new stars—Rema, CKay, Tems, Buju, Pheelz, King Promise, Eugene Kuami, Fireboy DML, Naira Marley, Asake, Simi, Adekunle Gold, Pantoranking, Ayra Starr, and so many others. This development makes it almost impossible for an individual to exert complete dominance over a scene that is experiencing various kinds of differentiation, identities and trends. After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Musically, over the years, the frenetic pace of his life has also been captured in song and in rambunctious performances across the world. He has collaborated with an astonishing welter of artists from different parts of the globe, including US players Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Lil Baby, Young Thug, Keyana Taylor, Summer Walker, Casanova, Meek Mill, South African artists Mafikizolo, Sho Madjozi, Focalistic, Abidoza and Musa Keys, and UK rapper Skepta.
After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Initially, a few of these collaborations—such as those with Brown and Popcaan—seemed well-conceived. And then such efforts were rapidly reduced to clout chasing exercises. It also seems that Davido had begun to envisage a life beyond music and this is also reflected in the diminishing inspirational potency of his creative output. Of course, Davido might be the last person to realise or acknowledge this vitiation but let’s hope this gradually fading star has the grace, wisdom and courage to age with style and adequate forethought. This would go a long way to preserving his unquestionably impressive legacy.
‘Babygirling’ and the Pitfalls of the Soft Life Brigade
For black women in particular, the individual pursuit of a soft, consumption-driven life is a fragile approach to securing social justice.
The charm of the strong black woman is fizzling out as we enter the era of the soft black girl. This is a phrase used to describe a black girl or woman who intentionally pursues an easy and peaceful life. Strong black womanhood, laden with aches and responsibilities, now represents a hard life. Whereas to be a black girl imbued with softness is to view the world as a playground. It is to enjoy an existence marked by fewer burdens or none.
The term soft life first emerged among social media users in Nigeria who expressed their desire for a gentle life, unburdened by the effects of poor governance in their country. While Africans, especially Nigerians and South Africans, still actively employ the term, it is largely black women residing in the USA and UK who have co-opted both the term and its current practice.
It has become impossible to disentangle the notion of soft life from black women. Some black women claim men cannot enjoy or benefit from a soft life. This is because such a lifestyle rests fundamentally on the use of feminine energy and the repudiation of masculine energy. Such binary thinking presents soft life as a hyper feminine phenomenon. It foists it upon black women in a manner never intended by the original architects of the soft life imagination. Because of this, a growing number of black women see a soft life as a necessity and a crucial element of black feminist practice.
Many soft life enthusiasts stress the importance of softness, of practicing self-care. To justify the soft life trend, they quote Audre Lorde’s famous saying: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” I recognize the value of encouraging black women to care for themselves and cultivate a lifestyle that enables inner peace. But I question if a soft lifestyle, in its common expression, bears the same liberatory politics as Lorde’s feminist call to nurture the self. Lorde does not remove her awareness of the need for social transformation from her promotion of self-centeredness.
The notion of self-preservation as political warfare underlines the subversive potential of self-care. It can be understood as a proactive effort against the subjugation of the self in a world that is brazenly anti-black, classist, and patriarchal. This manner of caring for the self is a form of confrontation. It is an audacious critique of oppression and exploitation as the status quo. Soft life may be a contemporary practice of self-care that enables self-preservation. But it seems devoid of political warfare, the kind that seeks to challenge exploitation. Concerned with aesthetic practices and the buying of experiences, a soft lifestyle preserves the spirit of consumerism. Soft life is a product of capitalism—that “many-headed monster” as Lorde describes.
With its mass appeal and promotion on Instagram and TikTok, soft life represents what the cultural critic Sarah Sharma calls “selfie-care.” It is a life pursued not because of its radical potential but because it can be shared online and used as a branding tool. Excessive consideration is given to consumerism as a solution to the social challenges endured by black women. In a recital titled “Soft Life Manifestations,” the spoken word artist Koromone characterizes softness as luxurious objects and experiences. This includes first class air travel, “champagne flute with strawberries,” “foreign men with an accent,” and Burberry blankets.
A soft life is one that gives off “money, green vibes.” The dangerous amalgamation of capitalism and feminism drives this phenomenon. The black women advocating for their right to softness acknowledge the need for respite in black women communities. But there is often little critique of the conditions that make it necessary for black women to prioritize rest in the first place.
There is also little regard for complexities in identity and social circumstance. The overwhelming focus on softness as hyper femininity and luxury consumption presents the soft life as accessible only to financially privileged black women, and boxes women into a consumerist identity. What seems to be overlooked in popular discourse about soft life is that the version of soft life so heavily marketed and championed online requires a significant amount of work to initiate and sustain. According to media representations of it, a soft life is fundamentally a costly life, it requires deep pockets and undue labor.
The complexities and contradictions embedded in the soft lifestyle are reflected in its extension of hustle culture, which is popularly understood as working long hours or striving for multiple income streams. There are soft life enthusiasts who acknowledge that, given the highly consumerist nature of a soft life, it can be difficult to bring such a lifestyle into fruition. Their solution to this problem, however, isn’t to completely discard aspirations for a soft life but build wealth and work multiple jobs if necessary. Accordingly, living a soft life represents rather paradoxically a hustle against hustle culture.
Soft life enthusiasts and practitioners who advocate working hard(er) to fund a life of superficial softness are ultimately proponents of neoliberal feminism or what bell hooks called “faux feminism.” The feminist scholar Angela McRobbie describes neoliberal feminism as an “unapologetically middle-class feminism, shorn of all obligations to less privileged women or to those who are not ‘strivers’.’’
Striving for softness seems to be the new feminist directive. While it is not the same as striving to break through the glass ceiling, it still greases the wheels of capitalism. It makes it possible for industries and corporations to exploit an emerging group of lifestyle conscious consumers. Catherine Rottenberg, another critic of neoliberal feminism, notes that in the imagination of neoliberal feminists, “the notion of pursuing happiness is identified with an economic model of sorts in which each woman is asked to calculate the right balance between work and family.”
In the case of the soft life, it constructs the pursuit of happiness in relation to economic capacity. But the desired balance is not necessarily between work and family since caring for family is increasingly viewed as laborious. Instead, soft life as a neoliberal feminist desire entails creating a balance between work and self-indulgence. The irony, however, is that mainstream expressions of self-care are founded upon relentless exertion. In a widely watched YouTube video on tips for living a soft life, the content creator claimed, “soft life requires planning and preparation.”
Towards the end of the nine minute video, the following warning is rendered in relation to the tips offered: “Just because I’m saying you don’t need to do everything doesn’t mean I’m saying never do anything.” Such a claim appears to be delivered with benevolence. It gives the impression that the insistence on doing at least one soft life activity reflects a genuine concern for viewers’ well-being.
However, presenting a series of luxurious, yet physically demanding and relatively expensive, activities as necessary for respite simply justifies continuous labor under capitalism. It does little to improve well-being. Popular depictions of the soft life reveal how capitalist structures work to extend the logics of labor to private and personal realms of being. Rest is no longer a simple phenomenon characterized by inaction or stillness; it has become a tedious performance.
The idea of a soft life is not one I am entirely opposed to, but I frown upon its consumerist manifestations. One should not have to buy a life of ease and nor should it be Instagram worthy. It shouldn’t be limited to indulging oneself but encompass what Lynx Sainte-Marie calls a “community care practice and politic.” It should ensure that others too can experience comfort and peace in their lives which enables a continuous sharing of softness.
Dominant representations of the soft lifestyle impede our collective survival of the harshness of capitalism. For black women in particular, the individual pursuit of a soft, consumption-driven life is a fragile approach to securing social justice. Real softness may find us through a radical reimagination of care. We may encounter it through a stronger awareness of the fact that the route to a life of ubiquitous tenderness is more easily and safely traveled through a collective stride.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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