Who would have ever imagined that the church would one day be closed? This has been the question that I have repeatedly heard among the clergy and worshippers that I have interacted with during this coronavirus pandemic. The disruption was abrupt and precise – nobody saw it coming, no one was prepared for such an eventuality, and the clergy and Christians alike are all agreed on this.
In a hyper-religious country like Kenya, religious activities, like going to church or praying in a mosque or temple, had been taken for granted so much that when the coronavirus crisis happened, it created a sense of confusion and panic. The “responsorial psalm” has been: Why would we even think of contingency measures when such a thing could never ever happen. Not the government, not any (evil) force, not even the devil himself can stop us from going to church.
So, when the global pandemic – an invisible contagion that is threatening the very existence of human life – came to Kenya’s doorstep, it completely upended centuries-old religious practices. “The Church, as currently constituted, will never be the same again,” said a Catholic priest. And when I say the Church, I mean the entire church fraternity, including the Catholic Church”.
Some people, said the clergyman, will never go back to church again. “I’m not sure whether some of my fellow Catholic clergymen are aware of that. The fear among many Christians that if you fail to go to church continuously it would cumulatively lead to going to hell has been debunked. The people have realised, ‘oh, so if you don’t go to a church to perform the Sunday ritual, I’ll not end up in purgatory’ has very much liberated the people from the clutches of the control freak clergy”.
The missionary priest who cannot be named because he is not authorised to speak on behalf of the Kenyan Catholic Church, observed that what the coronavirus crisis had done is to alter the relationship between the clergy and the laity. “This has really scared the priests. The power the priest wields over the laity is so enormous, he is literally a god unto himself: He threatens fire and brimstone, he gives favours – whatever favours they may be. He orders the laity around. As he gives favours, he also demands the same from the laity.”
The thought of the priest not being the central figure in religious activities has become very scary: “How do you exercise control over people who are not physically in the church? How do you demand offertory, for instance, from people who are not physically present?”
The priest, who is also a university don, noted that coronavirus had created a “new normal” that is threatening the very fabric of Catholicism globally, and especially in continental Africa, where Catholicism is believed to be growing exponentially. “Our church demographics shows the church attendance is over 65 per cent youth. Their Catholic faith is not as entrenched as their parents’, who are a dwindling lot. If they get something to distract them from not going to church, they will gladly oblige. They are tech savvy and social media had come define to their lives. Not so the clergy.”
The thought of the priest not being the central figure in religious activities has become very scary: “How do you exercise control over people who are not physically in the church? How do you demand offertory, for instance, from people who are not physically present?”
Rev. Francis Omondi of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) agrees with this assessment. “The Church, as currently constituted, is not ready for change. It is not ready for the new normal, because the priest is still stuck to the idea that he is at the centre of religious activities. The priest has failed to realise that online churches could be the churches of the future. The institution of the church, as we know it, will collapse.” What coronavirus has done is to expose the vulnerability of the Church, said the clergyman.
“For the longest time, the expression of Christianity has been the Church – what coronavirus has just done is to teach the contrary,” explained Rev. Omondi. “The Church has frozen, it has no idea what to do…the presence of coronavirus has shaken the very foundations of its reigning theological thinking…so the Church is at a gridlock. And the tragic thing about all this is that the Church is not preparing to change…it is not ready to change.”
“The study of theology, unfortunately, teaches you not to think critically, not to question your subject matter, as well as not to confront the reality of your worldview with an opposing view,” said the Catholic priest. “Theology is the only academic discourse where students are not required to interrogate their central subject: God. You begin from the premise that God is unquestionable, He cannot be criticised or faulted. What is said of him is infallible and true.”
With this kind of training and in the wake of the global pandemic, said the Catholic priest, the Catholic clergy suddenly feels like a fish out of water, like an endangered species. “What do you expect to be the reaction of such a person when confronted with a global phenomenon of the proportion of the coronavirus that shakes his very existence and foundation? First, is to be confused. After the befuddlement has settled, he interprets the events of the day as the work of the forces of the devil, out to wreak havoc and contest God’s domain.”
When the government finally announced that all churches must shut down in the wake of coronavirus, the Catholic clergy’s immediate reaction was to be furious at the state, said the missionary priest. “Who are they to close the Church? Are they God? Only God himself can tell us not to go to church,” was their reaction. For the clergy to imagine they could lose their control over the laity in what they consider to be their ultimate realm was unfathomable. For a church that believed it was so powerful that not even the government would issue a decree on Christian matters without consulting it was astounding, according to the clergy.
“The Church had become imperial,” said Rev Omondi. “Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Yet today the Church in Kenya finds itself in a bind. The government has found a way of dealing with the imperial Church.” The reverend said that from henceforth, the government will be dictating to the Church, what it should be and how it should operate. “It is high time religion was deinstitutionalised”
The onset of coronavirus is a wake-up call for Christians. Can one be Christian without the institution of the Church? The reverend believes this is possible: “The strength of the Islamic faith is that, unlike Christian evangelists, pastors and priests, the imam is not the centre of Muslims’ religious activities. The Muslim is not dependent on the imam to practise his faith. The Muslim faithful prays at home, at work, when he is traveling, wherever he is, essentially. The Muslim is his own imam; he leads prayers for himself, for the family. He doesn’t need to go to the mosque if he doesn’t have to,” explained the reverend. “Muslims do not rely on the government to be told how to go about religious activities in these times of coronavirus,” he explained.
The reverend observed that Muslims had not been affected by the coronavirus or the government edicts on the pandemic. “It is true the Anglican Church has been gravely affected by the pandemic: financially the church has been hit hard – giving of offerings has gone down, leading to some churches closing some programmes that were on their agenda. You cannot demand money, whether in the form of offering or tithe, from people who are not coming to church, from people whose income is no longer guaranteed or who have lost their jobs entirely.”
“The strength of the Islamic faith is that, unlike Christian evangelists, pastors and priests, the imam is not the centre of Muslims’ religious activities. The Muslim is not dependent on the imam to practise his faith…”
The mosque, unlike the church, does not rely on offerings and tithe of Muslims to run their operations, said Rev Omondi. “When a Muslim gives charity to the less fortunate members of his community, it is an act of giving his offering.”
“Some of my brother priests have been holding secret masses for the people, in total defiance of the government’s order,” revealed the Catholic priest. “This was even before the government relaxed its rule and limited the number of people who could attend religious holy places to 100, which they were not been happy with. I thought this was dangerous and stupid. Why would someone, because he has been bestowed with some powers, endanger the lives of so many people? Don’t these priests care about the people’s well-being?”
This situation is not helped by the fact that one fairly young Catholic bishop claimed that the government had no jurisdiction over the Catholic Church. “If people can be allowed to shop at supermarkets, why can people not be allowed to attend church?” questioned the bishop. In a bizarre argument, he countered that the Church had holy water, which it would sprinkle the congregants with, hence protect them from the coronavirus.
“Without a complete mental shift, the Church will find it very difficult to not only combat the pandemic, but also fit into the new normal. With this kind of thinking coming from its supposedly top echelons, does anybody really need to be convinced not to go to church? Yet the laity is also not blameless. Conditioned to observe religious rituals every Sunday, some of the Catholic faithful have been encouraging their priests to hold secret masses,” said the priest.
The Catholic Church, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has been beaming masses live on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and Capuchin TV. “Yet,” said the priest, “some Catholics have been coming to me and saying, ‘Father, can we hold mass for so and so, who my son is named after? Father, my grandmother has not received the Eucharistic sacrament for three weeks and she would like you to preside over a mass for her to feel better’”. Used to not missing mass, some Catholics have been looking for every excuse to relive the experience of an actual mass service by enticing priests to go against coronavirus protection.
“Coronavirus is the great disruption that nobody could foretell, or predict,” said a senior pastor at the Maven Church. “Never did we imagine that the Church would ever be closed for whatever reason, but here we are, this is the new normal and let’s be candid, things will never be the same again for the Church. It is the Church that will be forward-looking that will survive the tumultuous times of the coming years. We cannot pretend COVID-19 has not hampered our church operations, the way we relate with Christians and the impact we’d like to have on our community.”
For the Mavuno Church leadership, the coronavirus crisis has become a catalyst for scenario-building that the church had already begun exploring: How can the church move from being just a Sunday service ritual to being a church that is lived daily within the hearts and minds of Christians? What will the church be like in the next 15, 20 or 30 years from now? As the church is intent on growing exponentially, how should that growth be? What should dictate that growth? What kind of a Christian is the church looking forward to in the coming years? Who will be an integral part of its formation?
“These discussions, which began two or three years ago, were difficult conversations among the Mavuno Church community. Not only among the worshippers, but also among the pastors and deacons,” explained the pastor, who asked that his identity be hidden. “There were Christians who felt they were being involved in matters that don’t concern them. ‘I faithfully come to church, I give my offering, I pay my tithe regularly, what else does the church demand of me?’ posed some worshippers. The church leadership position was that there was more to a Christian than just giving his offering and observing the commandments of Malachi 3:10.”
For the Mavuno Church leadership, the coronavirus crisis has become a catalyst for scenario-building that the church had already begun exploring: How can the church move from being just a Sunday service ritual to being a church that is lived daily within the hearts and minds of Christians?
The pastor told me that the coronavirus pandemic had taught the Mavuno Church leadership a lesson on the problems of a bifurcated church: the dichotomy between the gathered versus the scattered church. “We would like to be the scattered church, a church that, in a manner of speaking, is not tethered to one place. A church that grows organically, that is found in the hearts and minds of our people, a church that perhaps in the next 30 years or so should really transform into a movement.” The pastor added that in their discipleship programme, they hoped their followers would see the interconnectedness of action, practice and the Word.
“Take the example of the big congregation churches that host anywhere from 5000 to 20,000 worshippers. Right now they are not in a good place. Why? They just cannot meet. Because they are used to meeting in one place and they know no better. Even after the government relaxed the rule on the right to attend church and allowed 100 people, it brought even more confusion. Who do you admit and who do you leave out? And just how many services can you hold on a Sunday?”
The other difficult discussion the church had way before the onset of the coronavirus was the issue of bi-vocational obligations – church workers, including its corpus of pastors and deacons, should look for an additional job or business to supplement their incomes and be productive when not busy with church work. “This was the most difficult discussion: so what if you couldn’t get an additional job? What if you are not business oriented? Was the church suggesting it couldn’t fully take care of its workers?”
Rev Omondi said the Anglican Church was now grappling with this very question: “How do we encourage our priests to look for alternative productive engagement to supplement their church income? Because coronavirus has just shown that it will be increasing untenable for the church in the future to guarantee prompt salaries to its clergy and other workers. The priest said that many Anglican priests, over time, came to view the Church’s work as full-time employment. “This shouldn’t be the case – church work should be a vocation, not a career.”
Away from canonical conversations, and on a more practical note, the Mavuno Church pastor said the church had taken practical measures to mitigate and vitiate the coronavirus crisis. “We decided we’ll not send any worker home, but they will take a pay cut. The senior pastors took a 45 per cent pay cut, while the other workers took a 10 per cent cut. We also initiated a programme called ‘Spread the Hope’ where the church community members are encouraged to give relief food to the less privileged in their respective localities.”
The pastor said their annual June assembly of nearly 3,000 people dubbed, “The Fearless Summit”, usually held at the Hill City campus in Athi River, had gone virtual. To the surprise of all, the one-week online meeting that had attendees from all over the world attracted a virtual total viewing of over 18,000. For a church that has a 30-year-old vision, the coronavirus crisis was a wake-up call to consider alternative possibilities.
But even as the Mavuno Church toys with the idea of infinite possibilities, Rev Omondi observed that with the advent of coronavirus, the Christian religion has lost it power and mystique. “At a time when Christians hoped their religion would come to them in their greatest hour of need, it has failed them: it cannot perform miracles, it cannot not cast away the pandemic, its clergy have failed to exorcise the demons of the devastating coronavirus, pastors who claim to pull miracles have just vanished.”
Hassan Mwadzaya believes that the coronavirus pandemic has shown why going to a mosque is not so crucial to Muslims. “During the existence of Islam, Muslims have been faced with floods, plagues, even torrential rains that made attending prayers in a mosque impossible and risky. So this is not the first time mosques have been closed because of a situation where going to the mosque might endanger the lives of believers. Throughout their lives, Muslims are taught that Islam is a way of life – fiqh – and therefore nothing should stop a Muslim from observing the tenets of Islam.”
The pastor told me that the coronavirus pandemic had taught the Mavuno Church leadership a lesson on the problems of a bifurcated church: the dichotomy between the gathered versus the scattered church.
Once the coronavirus became a global crisis, the Muslim world responded accordingly and promptly, said Hassan. “Way before many countries thought of shutting down their religious places of worship, Kuwait was the first Islamic country to implement the standard operating procedures in dealing with the pandemic – it ordered all mosques closed and from then on, the adhan, the call to prayer, ‘hayya alal swalah’, which means come to prayer, became, ‘aswattu min bayyutukum’, which means pray in your homes.”
Here in Kenya, said Hassan, just like in Kuwait and all the over the Islamic world, the adhan hayya alal swalah became aswattu min bayyutukum. At Jamia Mosque in the centre of the capital city Nairobi, where he goes for his prayers, “the mosque was soon shut down, not really because the government said all religious places should be closed, but because the mosque’s central committee had already consulted Muslim doctors who had advised that the mosque would have to close down”.
“We Muslims are not afraid of the coronavirus,” said Hassan. “The World Health Organization, and indeed the Ministry of Health of Kenya guidelines on the measures to curb the pandemic are not anything new to us Muslims and therefore do not affect us. The Muslim way of life in itself is a life of cleanliness and observance of greater hygiene. As a Muslim, I’m required to wash my hands, my face and feet 15 times a day, that is five times three, every time I go to the mosque. Water is a prerequisite in all mosques. The coronavirus pandemic may be a disruption, but it has not stopped the Muslim from going on with his religious life and observing his religious obligations like giving zakat (alms) and sadaqa (charity).”
“The mosques will remain closed until such a time that the Muslim experts – religious and medical – and not the government,” said Hassan. “A mosque is not only a place of prayer, but a place also for brotherhood and camaraderie. You cannot decree that only a 100 people should attend a mosque. How do you select who should attend and who shouldn’t, for instance? So at Jamia Mosque, we have decided the mosque will remain closed to all people until it is safe to be opened to every Muslim.”
Christians in Kenya seem to be learning from the Muslim faithful; many are choosing to pray at home or wherever they happen to be. “Even with 100 people being allowed to go to church, people have refused to go back,” said Rev Omondi. “People have found new ways of doing church and the priests and pastors better prepare for this stark reality.”
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Tea, Receipts and the Tabloidization of Kenyan Culture and Society
A slew of blogs is eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media, one-man online tabloids spreading salacious gossip that are highly sought after by digital marketers.
To Kenyan millennials in urban spaces and on digital streets, Edgar Obare needs no introduction. The Instagram sensation is known for having converted his digital media account into a platform for salacious gossip, popularly known as “tea”. Screenshots of text messages and images are presented as evidence supporting his exposés to the 729,000 followers of Nairobi Gossip Club. The evidence presented is colloquially referred to as “receipts”. So popular has Edgar become that his presence on the Kenyan social media landscape has introduced the words “tea” and “receipts” into the Kenyan online lexicon.
Edgar’s latest exposé about the high-rolling life of Kilimani’s young “flamboyant businessmen” whose wealth is of dubious origin was a trending topic in late August and early September 2021. The “receipts” showed the nature of their businesses to involve treachery, the sale of fake gold, bank card fraud, money laundering, and defrauding unsuspecting members of the public.
Edgar claims that his exposé led to his main account being deactivated. Public pressure forced the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) to start investigations into the young men whose lavish lifestyles Edgar had exposed but few in the public have any faith that anything will come of the investigations.
Harsh criticism was reserved for Kenya’s mainstream media. Brian Mbunde, a radio personality and leading member of Kenya’s Twitterati, posted, “I am sorry for sharing this but it’s dumb af for media houses to report about Edgar Obare losing his account and not the content he posted.”
The evolution of digital tea and receipts
Edgar is not the first Kenyan to curate an online space publishing scandalous gossip and content that passes for investigative journalism in the Kenyan mainstream media. Robert Alai became a household name when he posted photos of individuals engaging in sex at the Muliro Gardens in Kakamega Town a decade ago. Alai’s Kahawa Tungu blog became the go-to site for salacious content involving politicians and personalities in the entertainment industry. He became famous on Facebook and made himself an even bigger name on Twitter.
Then there was Bogonko Bosire’s Jackal News which was known for combative and confrontational content that targeted people in high places. Before his disappearance in 2013, Bosire had positioned himself as the leading voice in the Kenyan blogosphere.
Blogs were quite popular in the early 2010s but as Twitter took root, Media Madness gained popularity with its exposés of the rot in the Kenyan media industry in the mid-2010s. Then came Cyprian Nyakundi who, depending on who you ask is the best investigative reporter, the boldest journalist, an extortionist, a rabble-rouser or a muckraker.
Now Edgar is the man of the moment on Instagram, the social media platform of the moment. It is a generational thing. The medium changes but the stories will always be told, one way or another. Some of his more memorable “teas” include an exposé of a governor’s sexual escapades, the hedonistic ways of a certain “boys’ club”, and the infidelity of local musicians and online personalities.
The rise of online ‘tabloids’
Asked why people love Obare, Lillian Mokeira, a digital influencer said, “I guess people and mostly women love him just for entertainment purposes. Who else serves tea like Edgar?’’
Edgar has receipts and we trust him, and people feel confident sharing these stories with him.
Entertainment. Evidence. Trust.
In Kenya, media organisations ventured into tabloid journalism with the expansion of the economy under President Kibaki. As Boniface Mwangi recently explained in an episode of Cleaning the Airwaves on YouTube, The Standard’s Pulse magazine, launched soon after Kibaki came to power, birthed the celebrity culture in the country.
Pulse was a cocktail of gossip, suggestive photos of women, and entertainment features. The Nation launched Buzz and Daily Metro (which folded within two years), before bringing out Nation News (which still has an online presence although the print version was discontinued). The Standard launched The Nairobian in 2013. It peaked well but has since plateaued as the hunger for salacious gossip and scandalous stories is sated by the likes of Edgar Obare. A slew of blogs such as Ghafla and Mpasho also moved into the space, eating into the monopoly of the mainstream media. While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
There is something dishonest about the Kenyan psyche. A part of us is steeped in Christianity and a certain Victorian puritanism that aspires to a cleaner, morally upright society. And then there is that part of us that shows us for who we are: human, animal, corrupt, dirty-minded. And this is the part that enables the existence of Obare, those who came before him and those who will come after him.
While tabloid newspapers have not picked up in Kenya, online tabloids have performed very well, producing some of the biggest scoops.
This is the part that explains Obare’s 700,000+ Instagram followers. It is what has made Obare not just any other social media influencer but a one-man army with a mission: to profit from spreading gossip much in the manner of a tabloid. Speculation about how much he makes is rife, but in late 2020 and early this year, his platform was one of the most sought after by digital marketers.
Why do we love and loathe tabloids?
Those who love tabloids may love them because of the human’s innate inclination to prurience, that dark and unhealthy obsession with sexual matters and other obsessions that feed the dark haunts of our psyche.
Edgar, therefore, is Kenyan society come full circle. From pretentiously prudish, where creators of salacious content are spurned by the blue chips, to a single blogger commanding a huge online following of potential consumers.
Edgar is a one-man tabloid enterprise. He has succeeded where tabloids have failed. He is only comparable to Uganda’s Red Pepper (whose influence has predictably dwindled due to social media). In Uganda though, there is no hiding that people love their Red Pepper. In Kenya, we can be prissy.
Journalism 101: one of the things that makes anything newsworthy is prominence. We tend to focus on the lives of prominent people. In the past, it was monarchs, royalty, philosophers, artists. Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Human beings have always placed the talented, the gifted, or those bestowed with special attributes on a pedestal. We celebrate their rise to the top and with schadenfreude, enjoy their humiliation and their fall from grace.
We like and admire the famous, and increasingly, the not so famous, because they offer a window into our own souls, into our own dark urges. As comedian Lori Ann Rambough (stage name Sommore) observed when talking about braggadocio in rap music, “It is a fantasy one cannot live.” The famous also allow us to participate vicariously in their lives, real or staged. We empathise when they are winning, and experience schadenfreude when they are losing.
Gossip as a function of power
Gossip is a function of power. Those without power use it as a tool of social protection, to galvanise into action or to cushion against an oppressor. Those who are powerless often turn to gossip as a way of trying to make meaning of their mundane lives. Since gossip often cannot be verified, it offers a veneer of protection to those who propagate it, while still passing on information.
There is a reason gossip is common with women, as Twitter user @disciplepati observed when she commented recently that historically, women have used gossip as a form of social protection and a means of spreading information about possibly predatory people, while men have demonized it because it is used as a safeguard against them.
Today we have personalities who are famous for being famous, the socialites and those other social media personalities who cannot describe what they do in five words.
Gossip, if efficiently deployed, can also be used by the powerful to malign their competitors, and to manipulate people using misinformation and propaganda (the Cambridge Analytica approach is one example). Rumour and gossip have been used by the powerful to damage the reputations of others. In Kenya, gossip was used to end the careers of the once all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and Kenya’s fifth Vice President, Josephat Karanja.
Two deaths and how the grapevine shaped their reportage
But gossip has not just been used politically to end careers. It has also been used to sow seeds of doubt about high profile assassinations. Thirty-three years ago, the remains of a 28-year-old British wildlife photographer were discovered in Maasai Mara. She had disappeared a few days earlier. In her brilliant book A Death Foretold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila underscores the role the grapevine played in the aftermath of the murder.
When mainstream/traditional media cannot facilitate information flow, the public fills in the void with speculation and conspiracy theories. And since the authorities are sometimes not trusted by individuals, gossip easily fills the information void.
An investigative story requires time and resources. It must also be cleared of the risk of libel. Whereas bloggers have a similar obligation to be truthful, few people who have been the subject of scandal are usually interested in suing, given that few bloggers can actually pay the hefty fines. If they have access to power, most of those exposed will intimidate the bloggers, gag them. A few have gone missing, or had their sites mysteriously taken down.
A year and four months after Ms Ward’s remains were found, Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Dr Robert Ouko was murdered in similar fashion. The two murders provide a good demonstration of how gossip works.
In both cases, the Moi regime was highly implicated in the cover up. Following Ouko’s murder, the death of witnesses in unclear circumstances led to speculation and gossip about what had really occurred.
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive. In the case of Ms. Ward, the son of a powerful government official was implicated but the political atmosphere of the time was such that no journalist, or anyone else, could freely mention the name of the suspect.
Both Ward and Ouko were reported to have committed suicide, an explanation that no one could believe. “In this environment of suspect and suspicious state truths, Kenyan publics following the case actively sought, created and circulated their own versions of the truth behind the tragedy through the grapevine, some of which made their way into local print media and back,” writes Musila, adding, “For Kenyans, the various rumours regarding the murder provided material with which to map out the circumstances surrounding it, which in turn could be used as a fairly reliable index of the levels of brutality and violence of the Moi regime, among other things.”
In every such murder, there is the official version that many people don’t believe and the rumours that thrive.
Musila outlines the mutual paranoia of the state and citizens, made worse by the fact that state institutions and state-owned media took to self-censorship. In the 1980s and 1990s, many independent magazines operated by human rights activists and lawyers such as Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki and Pius Nyamora were also shut down because of repression and a toxic environment in which they simply could not thrive.
But social media cannot be easily controlled in similar fashion without the country becoming a pariah state. Although the arrests have not stopped – Obare, Nyakundi, Alai and other bloggers have spent nights in police cells because of what they post, others have lost their social media accounts, some have gone missing or lost their lives – Kenya is freer, the democratic space has widened.
Musila cites Kenyan scholar and author Keguro Macharia who has noted “the relationship between temporality – when something is published, edited, revised, deleted – and circulation, through reblogging, as a link, as a forward. . . .” Unlike a magazine, which could be closed down to contain the spread of damaging news, a controversial post at risk of being pulled down is screenshot and saved in the event that it disappears.
The future of Kenya’s grapevine
The media will continue to move online. Social media has democratized information and the mainstream media can no longer lay claim to a monopoly to information. Some media personalities have a larger following and a larger readership/viewership/listenership than traditional media.
Bloggers and social media personalities are now more trusted, especially where—like Obare and his “receipts”—they have built up their credibility. Where institutions are afraid of libel, intrepid social media personalities suffer no such limitations.
And so, even as the tools evolve and new social channels appear—Snapchat, TikTok—the online grapevine will continue to be a platform for citizen journalism, whistleblowing, mudslinging and cheap gossip.
The Pitfalls and Potentials for African Cinema
In the era of market-driven streaming, what are the pitfalls and potentials for African cinema?
With COVID-19 further impeding the stability and growth of cinema across Africa, it is imperative to promote self-expression and look to the work of filmmakers such as Bassek ba Kobhio and Alain Gomis as models that already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. If global streaming giants want to stand out as promoters of diversity, equity and inclusion, they must invest more resources in African cinema to compensate for the shortcomings of a purely commercial approach to streaming.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly be felt for years to come. Like elsewhere, African countries have seen cinema closures, shoots shut down, unpaid actors and technicians, and additional job losses. As African Film Festivals streamed online across North America and Europe and streaming platforms expanded, questions around the future of African cinema have taken new forms. Let’s look more closely at what streaming could offer African cinema in the future; but also, why Euro-American global business models may have serious shortcomings.
African cinema refers specifically to the seventh art—that of cinema—which has historically been crafted on celluloid film by its directors, or auteurs, whose aims have been for Africans to project images of Africans and to inspire thoughtful reactions from viewers, as opposed to Hollywood filmmaking, which is meant to entertain. Nollywood, which emerged as a popular industry in the 1990s, has stood in stark contrast to auteur filmmaking for its video format and aim to entertain.
In many ways, streaming would appear to be the most viable solution for disseminating and screening movies as well as series and other TV programming at once across and beyond the African continent. It is not surprising that global media giants, such as Netflix, have capitalized on confinement and expanded their subscriptions by millions. Meanwhile, other streaming platforms, including Showmax, Iroko TV and TV providers Canal+ Afrique have tried to remain competitive during the pandemic despite layoffs. However, the Netflix approach may have negative impacts for African cinema’s future for several reasons.
Currently, many people who have Internet access on the continent (only about 22% of the total population) may have insufficient bandwidth to stream and/or the money to subscribe to streaming services. As Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis has wisely stated: “International success often masks realities on the ground.”
For instance, in one of the continent’s largest economies, Nigeria, streaming services cost the equivalent of USD8 per month, which is enough to buy more than 14 pounds of rice. In the DRC, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, there is almost no capability for streaming throughout most of the country—an example of broadening, rather than narrowing, economic inequality.
Programming is predominantly Hollywood or European content, similar to what France exports through its Canal+. In Senegal, for instance, Netflix shows Kobra Kai, The Karate Kid, American History X, The Fast and the Furious, or French crime films like Balle perdue. One of the few African films streaming on Netflix in Senegal is French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s misrepresentative adaptation of Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog. Even Netflix’s Africa Originals are dominated by Western media formats, such as police thrillers, dramas, or romantic comedies. Further, the vast majority of the Africa Originals are not getting to Netflix subscribers on the continent, in spite of Netflix Head of Africa Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba’s statement that Netflix Africa’s aim is, first, content for African subscribers and, second, for the rest of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. Of the more than 30 countries where films like The Mercenary, The African Doctor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Tsotsi and Mati Diop’s Atlantics are streaming, none of them is available on Netflix in any African country with the exception of South Africa.
Pandemic or not, African cinema continues to face the two-pronged issue of production and distribution today, 60 years since its beginnings. This has to do with the larger problems of lack of (cinema) industry and financial support for the development of cultural institutions and regional collaborations, such as the short-lived Inter-African Consortium of Cinematic Distribution (CIDC), which shut down in the early 1980s. Specifically, training facilities are lacking not only for camera operators, actors, writers and directors, but also for editing and editing and production equipment (studios). Movie theatres were already few and far between before COVID-19.
There is much churning and abuzz with regard to cultural production on the continent, which would flourish if given more funding. There is barely support from governments in Africa and the situation is now even worse because of COVID-19. Further, Abderrahmane Sissako notes that with Europe’s closed borders, it is quite hard for Africans to go there and develop filmmaking techniques, skills, and education. Models that are primed for such developments already exist and would benefit from funding to build and maintain editing and production studios. The closest today are described, like Gomis does, as a collaboration of “government officials and professionals from the film and audiovisual field” and are the fruits of intense work and networking over decades in some cases. For instance, Bassek ba Kobhio’s Écrans Noirs festival, which over the past 23 years has grown and had success not only as a festival, has also been instrumental in training actors and directors, promoting local cinema in the Central Africa region, as well as from across the continent.
Taking a similar approach in building the Yennenga Center in Dakar, Gomis makes the point that only local Senegalese who have international connections are likely to make it in the industry, whereas one of his goals is to achieve options even for those who are not able to study or train internationally. Gomis underscores that teaching and training must be experiential, particularly in the context of the differences between learning cinema in France and in Senegal, where in the former one learns in the classroom and eventually has plenty of movie theaters to show their films yet in the latter the situation is but theoretical and must be translated to the needs of Senegal.
Some government programs, such as USAID’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), have contributed positively to the development of the cinema industry on the continent. In Niger, for instance, Aïcha Macky, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founding CEO of production company, Production Tabous (Taboo Productions) has benefited from such funding support. In turn, her organization has donated several films to Nigerien television during the pandemic.
On policy and promotion of culture, as Alain Gomis points out, “if film and cultural property are considered to be mere opportunities for financial gain or success, they lose their impact.” Furthermore, as he indicates, diversity on the screen “makes cultural diversity possible.” It is also a good way to recognize African contributions to culture through art, and to elaborate on how African Americans have inspired Africans and vice versa.
As we consider possible futures, including streaming, for African cinema, it is essential to acknowledge that developing such industry in African countries is a complex endeavor, which requires institutions to be built, education and communications technology to be enhanced, with the ultimate goal of supporting filmmakers and valuing human life through telling human stories.
The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19
Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.
I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.
Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.
By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.
In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”
Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”
In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.
With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).
The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.
Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,
discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.
This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.
Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”
Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.
Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).
This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?
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