Just as the 9 o’clock curfew kicks in around the country, the crickets fall silent at the approach of stomping footsteps: it is the new witching hour at Sitikho Police Post in Bungoma.
Steel bells clink in rhythm to the monosyllabic sound of the whistle—blown repeatedly in accompaniment to the throaty chants of young women singing and men humming the new corona song:
“Beware the new corona disease”, starts the soloist.
“Keep one metre away”, the chorus roars back.
The band of up to 50 youths crowd together with clubs raised above their heads, peering into each other’s faces in the dark as they shuffle in, circling the police station up to three times before going back to the ceremonial homestead to regale waiting crowds with the new crop of ribald songs that are composed each circumcision year.
The police dare not come out. At the start of this year’s Bukusu circumcision season, which can only occur between August and December every even year, three assistant chiefs, two chiefs and a posse of administration police officers were repelled with sticks and stones from Mechimeru sub-location in Bungoma when they attempted to enforce the nationwide curfew and social distancing measures adopted to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
Messages about social distancing to slow down the spread of COVID-19 have reached every corner of the country, but they are far from lived experience.
Across the country, police have killed at least 15 people since the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions for failing to comply with regulations such as wearing face masks in public and being outdoors after curfew.
Circling the police station at the start of curfew is not only an act of defiance but also a dare to the base commander to step out of his house at the risk of certain forced genital cutting. The base commander at Sitikho Police Post is believed to come from a community widely known not to circumcise males.
Although measures to restrict movement have remained in place since March 27, the advent of the circumcision season has presented an impossible choice between tradition and civil obedience.
Tradition won, and the new crisis in the community is negotiating the impossibility of circumcising a boy from one metre away.
Bukusu circumcision—which mythology claims began with the first woman, Sela, operating on her husband, Mwambu, the first man—is more than the physical cutting of the foreskin. It is a public event invested with ritual and lore that form the core of individual and community identity.
Ancestors are spoken to in cajoling tones from early evening into the night, and animals are sacrificed before the operation at dawn. It is not a dry-eyed daylight affair, but it cannot also be privatised to a hospital surgery without attracting intolerable ridicule. The nightlong ringing of bells, the singing and ribaldry prepare the candidate psychologically for surgery at dawn, performed in the anaesthetising August cold after a visit to the river where the body is caked in mud before an icy walk in the nude to numb the pain and slow the flow of blood when cutting occurs back in the homestead.
Every two years, when the tassels of millet and maize begin to dry and the ears are full in readiness for harvest, boys from 12 years and older begin to smith bells from steel and tie stick holders onto them as well as the sisal strands that will create the visual spectacle in preparation for one of the most important rites of passage.
The bells are the calling card to the ceremony—the boy taking the initiative to travel to distant relatives to inform them that he is ready to face the knife. On the eve of the ritual, he visits his maternal uncle to acknowledge his joint heritage and is often feted with a bull—slaughtered and the rumen hang around his neck.
On the afternoon of August 3, the evocatively poignant sioyaye, a guttural melody that strikes a mixture of trepidation and anxiety in the souls of boys turning into men, rises to meet the road at Bukunjangabo on the outskirts of Webuye Town, as a group of youth and boys sing and chant as they escort a circumcision candidate back home. He is returning from his maternal uncle with the gift of a bullock.
Behind Lukhokho School, in Matete location of Kakamega County, another band of youths are dancing and singing as they walk another circumcision candidate back to his home with his heifer.
The air is replete with social licence. Men who have inherited the spirit of the circumciser get their knives down from the centre pole of their huts and begin to hone them. Once, when I was about 10 years old and learning the esoteric magic of past, present and future tenses, our English teacher heard the stirrings of the sioyaye, the soulful, haunting melody that brings the circumcision candidate home from his uncle—or early in the morning from the river.
He bounded over the low wall where space had been left for a future window, and cut across the football field faster than any of his stripling pupils could follow. He reached the candidate’s homestead a kilometer away where the hired circumciser calmed him by letting him hold the knife in his quivering hands.
Once the circumciser’s spirit is upon someone, he is not responsible for what will happen next. And the same licence often applies to others who may not themselves be circumcisers.
Local legend in Lugari rehashes the story of a senior manager at the large National Cereals and Produce Board depot who disregarded the counsel to take leave in August and was seized one Saturday as he attempted to rush the day’s collection from the store sales to the bank. A motley crowd collected around him, divested him of his clothing and took him to the river through the market to demonstrate that, indeed, he was in need of surgery. A circumciser alerted by the singing of the sioyaye ran to the scene and performed the surgery in seconds.
Although the matter ended up in court, no conviction was entered, and this has emboldened this form of cultural bullying that sees many teachers and public servants who may not fit in with the culture take leave during the season of temporary madness.
Night after night, village and sub-county administrators have to pretend to be in deep sleep as youths roam the land singing ribald songs as they keep the circumcision candidates awake before the dawn reckoning. It is a fight the government has no stomach for.
During the months when movement into and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Mandera was limited by government edict, the Bukusu Council of Elders briefly considered whether or not to postpone this year’s circumcision activities, which would throw a spanner into the age set naming. After a little prevarication, it appeared that the rite would proceed because within the community, circumcising during an odd year can attract bad omens.
The only other time the idea of postponing circumcision was publicly broached was in 2008, in the aftermath of the 2007 election crisis in which over 1,000 people were killed. Some elders at the time felt that it would not be wise to launch a new generation of adults into the world with the stain of that year’s bloodshed, but they eventually overcame their fears.
The cultural pressure to conduct traditional circumcision among the Luyia communities living in Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Trans Nzoia and Vihiga counties generally, and the Bukusu in particular, had been obviated by a growing influence of churches which discourage heavy emphasis on traditional rites and sacrifices because they compete with Christian teaching. The church, however, is no ally of the government in the COVID-19 war. The restriction on congregations in places of worship has embittered church leaders and congregants in the region.
Public sympathy for health regulations to contain the spread of the coronavirus has also been severely eroded by restrictive orders around burial, another significant rite for the communities in western Kenya.
Funerals, which would previously be arranged for days and are important sites for performing public politics, are typically concluded in a day, with burials as early as 8 a.m. if the family is poor and cannot stand up to the bullying of the provincial administration and county officials. It is a source of great bitterness, resulting in families secretly exhuming the hurriedly buried dead in order to give them a befitting send-off.
At Kuywa market in Bungoma, a pastor of the Holiness Pentecostal Church was preaching to the bereaved, limited to just 15 as the government had ordered, when the Holy Spirit reportedly descended and threw official social distancing plans into disarray.
Schools remain closed across the country, with the youth roaming villages and hamlets. In public transport across the western Kenya region, the wearing of facemasks is mandatory but at markets, traders and buyers carry on without any of the new encumbrances.
Although the number of COVID-19 cases has reached 30,120 nationally, the five counties where the communities are in the grip of the circumcision dilemma have a combined total infection count of just 837 cases. Busia, the inland gateway to Uganda, has recorded the highest count of COVID-19 cases at 770, but this is believed to be on account of truckers crossing the border into Uganda. The neighbouring counties of Bungoma and Kakamega, Trans Nzoia and Vihiga have recorded under 20 cases each.
For as long as the spirit of circumcision hangs in the air in the five counties, curfew remains impossible to observe and enforce.
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The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.
Recent movements like Rhodes Must Fall, Faidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”
To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!
Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.
As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?
There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.
Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.
In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.
The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”
He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”
Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.
We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”
This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.
Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.
Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”
Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.
At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”
In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”
Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”
Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”
It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”
The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.
Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo
The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.
On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.
Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.
Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.
Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.
With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.
Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.
It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.
As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.
Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.
For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.
That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.
While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.
Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.
Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.
An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?
Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.
Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.
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