To the frustration of many, the world’s media is engaged in the gripping reality show-cum-soap opera surrounding Oprah’s interview of the Sussexes last week. To such people, it is a waste of the world’s energy and resources to focus on private matters. Instead, they say, we should discuss important issues affecting ordinary people and the planet.
However, British royal family matters are as political as it gets. Not because it matters who gets married and how many children are born, but because the whole performance of the intrigues of the British royal family is a part of the cultural system that legitimises global capitalism. As John Davis wrote in Counterpunch last year, the royal family serves a political purpose, which is to justify “Britain and its cruel inequities”. Through the fanfare of royal rituals, tabloid frenzy and fairy tale weddings, the royal family “stifles overt class dissent, forever bubbling beneath the surface of British society.”
But it is not only in British society where this class dissent bubbles under the surface. The peoples of the global south also have a bone to pick with the British monarchy for the extractive oppression and poverty under which they still live. That would explain why the hostility of the royals and the British press towards Meghan Markle is particularly annoying to people of African descent.
More enraging are the childish tantrums of the British press. Ever since it was announced to the public that Meghan was Harry’s fiancée, the press has attacked her with racist and sexist tropes—calling her a Jezebel, a gold-digger—all the while denying that these attacks have anything to do with her skin colour. To add insult to injury, Meghan’s slanderers refuse to be reminded that the inauthenticity of which they accuse Meghan barely compares to the crimes committed by Britain, or to Prince Andrew’s close links to a convicted sex offender. The trauma could not get worse when we find even Kenyans taking the same position.
The British royal family serves as the cultural custodian of the global system of inequality and exploitation.
This amnesia and split consciousness is not an accident but part of the deliberate strategy to turn attention away from the harmful impact of the British monarchy. As Davis writes, the royal family’s display of grandeur and tradition accounts for the spectacular dissonance between the British Empire’s rhetoric and its actions. And once we accept that an insanely wealthy family is separate from the exploitation on which that wealth is built, we go down the slippery slope of excusing all manner of injustices which were necessary for the royal family to gain that wealth.
The lengths to which the defenders of the British royal family would go to attack Meghan also proves that the British monarchy’s identity is not only racial. It is also so fragile that a drop of black blood in Meghan’s children is enough to give the House of Windsor migraines. But this fragility is familiar. It has been lived in the “one drop rule” that governed slavery in the United States, where any hint of black parentage automatically meant enslavement.
It is also told in the European fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea, about a queen who confirmed that a young woman was a princess worthy of marrying her son after the young woman passed the test of delicateness. The test was to sleep on a heap of soft mattresses under which a pea had been hidden. The next morning, the young woman innocently complained of a restless night, proving that she was delicate enough to have been an aristocrat. In the same way, the British monarchy is extremely sensitive to race, because race is the foundation of the hierarchy which decides who works and is disposable, and who enjoys the fruit of that work.
This fragility entails a life of cruelty, even for members of the royal family. Every human aspect of the lives of the members of the royal family must be controlled, down to the last detail. The misery is masked by a cult of mannerisms and traditions, regularly pumped into the public discourse by the British press. But beneath the glamour, the quaint mannerisms and the stories of decadence, members of the royal family suffer cruelty and betrayal. This is the misery which Princess Diana unhappily lived and from which she tragically died. Diana’s son and his mixed-race wife Meghan are now the next in line, after Diana, to refuse this mistreatment.
However, this is the same cruelty that billions of people of colour around the world have suffered through kidnappings, dispossession, impoverishment and discrimination for at least four centuries so that the British monarchy can live in luxury.
The British monarchy is extremely sensitive to race, because race is the foundation of the hierarchy which decides who works and is disposable, and who enjoys the fruit of that work.
This latest royal family drama is therefore of interest to Kenyans, because it allows us to reflect on the absurdities that dominate our life, even decades after supposedly attaining independence. It so happens that at this very moment, Kenyans are being bulldozed into accepting, through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a return to the aristocratic colonial system where power and wealth are distributed based on inheritance.
In addition, the government has replaced the 8.4.4. system of education with an aristocratic competency-based curriculum (CBC) education system which basically seeks to condemn the bulk of Kenyan children who attend school to a future of semi-skilled labour. This shift back to the aristocratic system is being facilitated by a new Kenyan upper middle class which is consolidating its power through the cruelty of neoliberalism and managerialism. There are parallels between what is happening with the Sussexes and what is happening in Kenya with BBI and CBC.
Kenya: the white man’s country
The curse of Kenya is not only to have been colonised, but to have been colonised by British colonists who were elites in their own country. Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne while on a visit to Kenya. Even within the tiny European community in Kenya, the class differences were stark. When Kenya became a colony in 1920, writes Bruce Berman, the colonial government was markedly aristocratic, because the British government recruited the bulk of its colonial administrators from the upper levels of British society, and especially from Oxbridge and public schools. Before then, colonial administrators had been largely drawn from members of the British lower and middle classes who had either been staff of the Imperial British East Africa Company, or had served in the Boer War in South Africa.
This class difference also applied to land allocation. The only British settlers allowed to settle in Nanyuki and the surrounding areas came from aristocratic backgrounds. Lower class British nationals and Boers could not own land there, and the few who lived there did so as squatters. The area is still largely inhabited by these elites, and to this day, a British Army Training Unit is stationed in Nanyuki to protect this class. Most of the conservation industry—whose access to land is embedded in colonial tropes about saving Kenyan wildlife from Africans—is located around that area. The icon of that industry is the Craig family, founder of the Lewa Conservancy. Their daughter Jessica Craig is Prince William’s ex-girlfriend.
The class bias of the colonial elites against lower class British settlers is evident in the British government’s opinion of the latter as “unnecessarily arrogant, high-handed and brutal in dealings with Africans”, and in one colonial governor’s reference to them as “cowpunchers”. The lower class British settlers often complained of discrimination by the colonial government, for example in the employment of British-born Europeans as opposed to Kenyan-born ones. The tussle for power within the European community produced the absurd situation where each side claimed that they were the real defenders of African interests and African culture.
The curse of Kenya is not only to have been colonised, but to have been colonised by British colonists who were elites in their own country.
This colonial legacy has meant that the Kenyan elite are not simply colonised; they are decidedly aristocratic in their thinking. Even as they pay lip service to African culture, they voice racist attitudes towards fellow Kenyans. Meanwhile, English afternoon teas are returning to Kenyan hotels, and African Kenyans even attended teas hosted as watch parties during the Sussexes’ royal wedding.
And Kenyan institutions remain viscerally cruel to ordinary Kenyan citizens. For instance, the recruitment of the Kenyan police still includes the demeaning slave-auction habits of inspecting the teeth of recruits, which produces that unsurprising result that poor young Kenyan men literally suffer the same murder at the hands of the Kenya police as blacks do in the United States. Similarly, it is not uncommon for government policies to be announced to the public with demeaning lectures and threats. In the months following the COVID-19 pandemic, the bulk of the coronavirus casualties among the Kenyan poor were those who had been killed by the police in the enforcement of the lockdown.
Kenyan public life is extremely cruel. It is a daily dose of violence that combines physical force with death by a thousand small cuts. Daily interactions cannot proceed without Kenyans first asking insidious questions about one’s name or where one grew up in order to determine where the other is positioned on the class hierarchy. Social and gender roles have become such hot potatoes that mention of gender descends into bile, insults and fights. It is so bad that when a woman was hacked to death in public in Eldoret, there was no public mourning or introspection about the loss of our soul and the loss of somebody’s life. What followed, instead, was a debate about the oppression of men and the devaluation of women’s lives.
Most of Kenya’s schools are still modeled on elite British schools such as Eton and Winchester, even though most schools can hardly afford to provide the bare minimum to ensure decent living standards for students. The discontent of teens living in poor conditions leads to frequent—and often deadly—student riots. And even though adolescents die from injuries inflicted by bullying or fires, the government and the parents remain committed to protecting the elite system, probably due to pressure from the alumni of those schools, many of whom now dominate the corridors of state power.
The icing on the mud cake is that we have now installed a new school system whose philosophy is spectacularly similar in orientation to what the British wanted for Africans in the 1920s. The Kenyan government has openly articulated its desire for an education system in which 60 per cent of children are condemned to a future of low paying, semi-skilled labour, and this has been met with celebratory compliance from the Kenyan middle class.
This colonial legacy has meant that the Kenyan elite are not simply colonised; they are decidedly aristocratic in their thinking.
In legal circles, the British horsehair wig returned to the Kenyan justice system in 2016, after having been temporarily retired by the first chief justice under Kenya’s 2010 people-centred constitution. As the second chief justice was sworn in wearing the full British regalia, the president of the Law Society celebrated in a tweet: “The honour of robes and wigs for learned friends is back”. In response to enquiring members of the public, he said that they had no social standing to “determine the regalia for advocates and judges” because law “is not menial work”.
Perhaps the most blatant evidence of British upper-class sensibilities in Kenyan institutions and public life is in tourism. The Kenya government still uses 19th century colonial tropes to advertise the country as a tourist destination, including offensive phrases such as “ancient tribes” to refer to the Maa peoples, and celebrating colonial settlers such as Karen Blixen. “Safari” now means tourism for rich whites seeking to fulfil fantasies of shooting wildlife in an African continent with no Africans, or with only Africans whose attire suggests separation from modernity. During her visit to Kenya in 2018, Melania Trump was taken on the stereotypical safari adorned in a pith helmet, itself “a symbol of how race and colonialism ghosts shape the African landscape when it comes to safari, poaching and trophy hunting”.
These dynamics are replicated politically through proposed constitutional reforms that are designed to secure the entitlement of the Kenyan elite. The reforms are being bulldozed by the current president, a blue-eyed boy born to a wealthy landowner who was Kenya’s first president. The president has also filled the top posts in his administration with families whose patriarchs, like his own, enjoyed privileges under colonial rule.
Kenya is simply one of many countries and territories worldwide where Britain has exported its form of social organisation. Centuries ago in the US, the framers of the constitution publicly expounded on the values of liberty while also voicing aspirations for English aristocratic manners, values, consumerism and style, all of which were funded by the labour of enslaved Africans.
In China, the British aristocratic model in education has become so successful that British elite schools have found a market there.
The British royal family therefore serves as the cultural custodian of the global system of inequality and exploitation. As David Graeber observed, Britain has attained this status because it is the country whose ruling class has seemed to best stave off what almost every other power in the world lives in fear of: the democratic will of the people. From the days when Edmund Burke developed a political rationality to ensure that the French Revolution did not cross the English Channel, Britain’s monarchy has maintained a rigid class system side by side with a semblance of democracy.
The Kenyan government has openly articulated its desire for an education system in which 60 per cent of children are condemned to a future of low paying, semi-skilled labour.
Most monarchies in continental Europe—distant relatives of the House of Windsor—have not been as successful in maintaining the British formula. They have conceded much more to popular government and socially driven policies than Britain has. Their royal weddings do not mesmerize the world, although Sweden does try to catch the world’s attention once a year using the Nobel Prize (see my article The Nobel Prizes, Racism, and the Economy of Prestige). As aging monarchs in continental Europe abdicate rather than die on their thrones, the British nonagenarian monarch remains firmly seated on hers.
Graeber also identified British class privilege as responsible for the growth of the world’s rentier class, and of the City of London’s status as the world’s financial capital. London is the city where people make profits from rent (real estate or patents), speculation, or stashing the wealth in tax havens, safe from the vagaries of democracy. In other parts of the world, Graeber argued, magnates live under the spectre of social challenge to their wealth, but in London, “you can get Mary Poppins, you can get the nannies, the maids, the butlers . . . they really know how to do that. They do it with a smile.” Similarly, Peter Jukes, commenting on the British media, observed that, “For all our rebelliousness, we are quite an obeisant and sycophantic society. We are a monarchy, after all.”
Meghan’s pushback against the monarchy therefore appears to be a pushback against an unjust system that exploits the world’s black and brown peoples. But regardless of the catharsis we derive from seeing equally powerful centres of power square it off, it is important to remember that the Sussexes are not challenging the monarchy from the outside. Rather, they are reforming it from their base in America.
The Oprah Effect
The Sussexes’ interview with Oprah had more significance than just media ratings. As Ash Sarkar brilliantly put it in her interview with Novara Media, the message which Meghan and Harry sent with this interview is that they had crossed from one aristocracy into another. But this intra-aristocratic spat is not a split, as the hysterical British press, parasitic reporters of the royals, would have us believe. Rather, the tension across the pond is a sibling rivalry between the British monarchy and the American billionaire aristocracy.
Even before the marriage, the British royals and the American billionaire and cultural elites have enjoyed mutual relations. British royalty still featured in the pages of American entertainment news, attended Hollywood gala events, and as Prince Andrew did, kept company with the wealthy US underworld. American billionaires such as Bill Gates have been knighted at Buckingham Palace. Even the flamboyance, especially the ball gowns designed by haute couture designers, is an American adaptation of European court fashion.
However, as Sarkar noted, there are differences between the American and British aristocracies. Entry into the American aristocracy is still largely decided by industry as opposed to the UK where it is decided by birth. The American aristocracy is therefore more multi-racial than the British one. And while the British aristocracy maintains a stiff upper lip, the American one engages in fun with Ellen or goes to Oprah for confession.
If anything, it appears that Meghan’s expectation upon joining the royal family was that the cultural weight she brought from Hollywood—with stars such as Oprah, Gayle King and Serena Williams on the Sussexes’ wedding guest list—was going to be the substitute for not being white and British. And that probably explains Oprah’s dramatic reaction in the interview when Meghan talked of queries about the skin colour her unborn child. After all, for people like them, skin colour remains the only obstacle between them and complete assimilation into racialised capitalism, as opposed to most people of colour who have to face, in addition, barriers such as poverty, limited education and police violence. For Oprah, a horrifying experience of racism was being snubbed at a Swiss luxury goods shop, where an attendant declined to show her a bag costing $38,000 because the attendant thought that a black woman could not afford it.
One would even say that at the core of Meghan’s treatment is the possibility that the Windsors sense that what is at stake is not simply a visibly black child; it is also a collapse of the feudal logic of the aristocracy. The battle of the Sussexes is, in fact, a battle for supremacy between the feudal and the commercial logics of Anglo-American capitalist aristocracy. From the 19th century, the British monarchy has avoided being submerged by the rise of the industrial-commercial aristocracy by maintaining its hold on the symbolic power of awards, costumes and rituals at old institutions such as prestigious universities. However, this symbolic power has also remained essentially white.
Entry into the American aristocracy is still largely decided by industry as opposed to the UK where it is decided by birth.
But there is a practical convenience in the identity of European aristocracy being white. By remaining white, the aristocracy could stave off revolution from its white working classes by convincing them that the latter were superior to exploited blacks and therefore need not seek solidarity with them. The US may have blacks like Oprah and the Obamas ascend to the aristocracy, but it compensates for this leeway with more violence, such as the incarceration of predominantly black people, and more vicious union-busting to prevent working class solidarity across race. As the fate of the political campaigns by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn attests, both countries remain united in crushing any political mobilisation by the working classes.
For the British royal family, therefore, the skin colour of Meghan’s children has political implications. Allowing black blood into the British aristocracy potentially breaks the racial pact of white supremacy which sustained slavery and empire, thereby releasing the white working class to find multi-racial class solidarity as the aristocrats have found with the marriage of the Sussexes.
Marriage across the pond
On the other hand, one could also read the Sussexes’ interview as the consolidation of the two aristocracies. Anglo-American capitalism is badly in need of cultural legitimacy. The wealth of the world’s top handful of people still remains immorally equivalent to the bottom half of the world’s population, and this cruel system is crushing the ability of the planet to host human beings. For Americans who proclaim the principle of pulling oneself by the bootstraps, defending this inequality is getting increasingly awkward. American capitalism needs a cultural justification that goes beyond the humour of Ellen and the cuddling from Oprah, into love and family life.
That would explain two series being aired on Netflix: The Crown which glosses over the atrocities of the British Empire, and Bridgerton, the brainchild of yet another black queen of television drama, Shonda Rhimes. As argued in the Oprah magazine (no surprise), Bridgerton multi-racialises European aristocratic culture, with the promise that a multi-racial aristocracy is no different from a multi-racial professional office. That argument is essentially asking black people to substitute their memory and current lived experience for the audacity of hope to one day live like the Oprahs and the Obamas of the world.
A multi-racial global aristocracy is no substitute for the reality of global inequality that remains thoroughly racialised. Moreover, racial inequalities do not disappear under neoliberalism, despite having a generous sprinkling of people of colour at the top.
Allowing black blood into the British aristocracy potentially breaks the racial pact of white supremacy which sustained slavery and empire.
Marketisation and bureaucratisation, the American route into the aristocracy, are very deceptive. While the American version does allow more people of colour to rise to the top through achievements in politics, education and culture, it simultaneously reduces the racial diversity at the entrance. One cannot rise up the ranks without getting their foot in the door first, and what neoliberalism does is to block the doors of the temple of social mobility by privatising all social services, forcing people into low pay, gig jobs, and the burden of debt. For every Oprah, Beyoncé, Obama and Serena, there are millions of black people whose similar work ethic and equal excellence are crushed by difficult living conditions and limited opportunities.
In other words, while we must call out the racist treatment of the Sussexes, we must also add that their plight is an intra-aristocratic, and fundamentally Anglo-American sibling rivalry. With more blacks like Meghan, their refuge Tyler Perry, and their confessional priest Oprah, all now connected to Buckingham Palace from the “promised land” of a black former US president and a current black and female vice-president, it is tempting to believe that defending Meghan against racism is also asserting the dignity of the majority of the people of colour.
The reality is almost anything but. We still live under a cruel economic system that squeezes more out of us and makes us more miserable, while the rich accumulate more wealth, and the planet continues to send distress signals. The tragedy across the world, including Kenya, is that the neoliberal ideology has created a new middle class that is committed to enforcing a system of cruelty from behind the scenes, away from the gossip, glamour and glare of aristocratic life, while displaying their sorrows and angst on public media. The good news is that all these shifts are a sign of the continued decline of the Anglo-American empire.
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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?
Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders
Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.
Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.
Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.
After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’
What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’
Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.
The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.
‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’
Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’
Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.
Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.
After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.
Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.
On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.
Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.
But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.
As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.
Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.
‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’
In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’
Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’
Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.
Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.
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