There are two approaches to exercising your imperial ambitions over others. One is simply to invade their territory with armed force and subjugate them. The other is to bring some of their own leaders, or potential leaders, onto your side with inducements or threats, and so enforce your rule indirectly. The big historical empires usually did both.
Britain, for example, famously ruled India by securing the allegiance of that vast country’s five hundred princely states, step by step. Some were defeated in battle, some were taken over with mutually beneficial trade – beneficial for the rulers, that is. Others were led to accept, even embrace, British dominion through inducements and bribery. London established its rule over the whole subcontinent and beyond even though its fighting men and civilian administrators were always vastly outnumbered by the locals. For every Brit in the “Raj”, there were always well over a thousand Indians. The numbers were only a little more balanced in Kenya, where just 23,000 European settlers dominated a realm of over five million Africans.
Of course, indigenous resistance forced the empires’ retreat and proved the imperial model to be unsustainable. But the Europeans’ belief in their own superiority, and that the rest of the world could and should be manipulated to their own advantage, proved harder to dismantle and may have as many adherents now as it had at the empires’ height.
Conservation is just one area in which colonial control remains embedded, certainly in Kenya and in much of Africa and beyond. About 20 per cent of Kenya’s land is in Protected Areas (PAs) (of which about 9 per cent is state land and the remainder is private) and they are overwhelmingly run by the descendants of white colonists and subsidised with enormous amounts of money provided by conservation NGOs and governments from northern Europe and the USA. Those which make a profit do so off tourism from non-Africans, often rich ones who can afford a minimum $1,000 per person per night for luxury holidays, with only a few crumbs from the table ever dropping into the hands of indigenous Africans. For comparison, the average salary for a Kenyan working in the hospitality industry or as a wildlife ranger is less than US$5,000 a year.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, some well-meaning conservationists finally began to note the criticism that they had been seizing indigenous and other peoples’ lands without consent, or even any pretense at consultation. They began to realise that the traditional concept of African Protected Areas, as zones which exclude local people – including those who had been living there for many generations – was in urgent need of reform. Even those with no interest in changing still recognised the pressing need for rebranding: conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.
At about the same time, some white farmers in Kenya began to think that their land – originally given to them to produce food for the colony – could make them more money if they turned it into Protected Areas and start hosting paying visitors. Overall costs would be small: the properties had been stolen from Africans and handed to the settlers without charge, the houses and other facilities had been built by underpaid locals, and a bevy of servants (now called “staff”) could readily be drawn from the nearby population. On the other side of the ledger, overseas guests would be happy to fork out the same fortunes they were used to paying for luxury accommodation in the Global North, or even more as an experience of “wild Africa” was highly prized and marketable. The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden, populated largely by exotic megafauna, and popularised in literature and film throughout the twentieth century, could be a money spinner.
Conservationists began to realise that they risked losing public support unless they claimed they were working in partnership with the locals, even when they weren’t.
The realisation that conservation dollars might be ripe for the taking seems to have first occurred in the 1980s in Lewa Downs, an old cattle ranch north of Mt Kenya which had been given to the Craig family by the colonial government sixty years before. The Craigs had already leased part of it to an Englishwoman, Anna Merz, who trucked in rhinos from all over Kenya, keeping the animals in – and Africans out – with armed guards and electric fences. Ian Craig, a former big game hunter, decided to landscape the whole ranch around wildlife tourism, bringing in more rhinos and other iconic species that visitors would pay to see.
The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond. Most are promoted by a rather opaque local NGO, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), established by Craig himself in 2004, (although the NRT gives a different account of its genesis, saying the first suggestion came from Francis Ole Kaparo, former speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly) which in turn is heavily supported by the biggest and richest conservation organisation in the U.S., The Nature Conservancy (TNC) (more on that below).
There are now over three dozen conservancies, covering huge swathes of Kenya, totalling about 11 per cent of the country (6.3 million hectares at the last count). They have overtaken national parks in size and are often cited as the vanguard for a conservation reformation which has discarded the old “fortress” model and replaced it with “community-based conservation”, supposedly set up under the control and even ownership of local people. They have become the standard rebuff to critics who point out that wildlife protection remains essentially colonial, run by and for non-Africans.
The former ranch at Lewa has become the driving force for a new wave of Protected Areas, known as “conservancies”, which are springing up throughout Kenya and beyond.
As so often with projects in the Global South – and many in the Global North for that matter – peeling away the propaganda can uncover hidden depths. To start with an aside, though one which resonates deeply with many Kenyans, Lewa’s links with the old colonial power remain celebrated. Prince William spent part of his “gap year” there in 2000 and was boyfriend to Ian Craig’s daughter. The royal heir remains a frequent guest, he proposed to the future queen in one of its tourist “camps”, and they named one of the guest tables at their wedding dinner after it. Ian Craig was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2016. British government ministers, including future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have also visited. If you can pull the right strings, it’s easy to drop by. The largest British army base in Africa is less than fifty kilometres away, just a few minutes’ helicopter hop.
Land use in northern Kenya is key to understanding how the conservancies have been established and the problems they are throwing up. As the cool, fertile slopes of Mt Kenya slope down to a lower plateau which extends 250 miles north to the Ethiopian border, the country becomes hotter, arid, and less conducive to settled farming. This is part of the traditional domain of several peoples who have lived from mobile pastoralism for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They herd sheep, goats, camels and, most famously for the Maasai and Samburu, cattle. At first sight, it seems like an arduous way to live in a landscape which supports little visible vegetation. But in practise, like so many “traditional” lifestyles, it is actually highly – and sophisticatedly – attuned to the environment. It depends on a high degree of mobility, with herds walking large distances to take advantage of regional precipitation, changing seasons, and the appearance or disappearance of surface water. Both herds and herders know where they are heading, and why, applying a complex understanding of the terrain and weather consolidated over many generations.
The landscape gives sustenance to livestock and people, and is then left to regenerate until another herd arrives to take its share; it’s also the stage on which these peoples have their genesis and where their identity is forged. With many different peoples (Rendille, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Pokot, etc., as well as Samburu and Maasai) using the same terrain, there is a perpetual balancing of neighbourship and shared values against the potential for friction, often over competition for grazing and water. National frontiers, drawn with rulers on maps by the colonial powers, are largely invisible and substantially porous, with troubled Ethiopia to the north and war-torn Somalia in the east.
British dominion over this part of Africa had been established for less than thirty years when the end of the “Raj” in 1947 India clearly signalled the sun was setting over the empire as a whole. After several years of armed struggle, which was met with brutal suppression by the colonials, Kenya finally saw the inevitable final lowering of the Union Jack in 1963. The British left a few thousand settlers behind, and many of their core beliefs. One was the mistrust, even hostility and disdain, with which all national governments view peoples who favour a mobile approach to life over a fixed abode: nomads, of course, are always very difficult to tax and control.
The enduring white fantasy of sub-Saharan Africa as an untouched Garden of Eden populated largely by exotic megafauna could be a money spinner.
Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back. This is in spite of the increasing scientific realisation that the ecosystems of the great East African grass plains are actually the creation of grazing animals, which enhance rather than diminish the country. Peoples who live from mobile herding, like others who eat mainly from their hunting and gathering, enjoy a way of life which in reality improves rather than reduces biodiversity, and which has sustained a huge proportion of Africa’s population for millennia. The upper end of estimates count no less than one quarter of the population of all Africa as dependent on herding.
But the colonials saw things differently. Immersed in anthropological prejudice which placed settled agriculturalists at the apex of human evolution, they had long been in favour of reducing, and even ending, pastoralism – and subsistence hunting – altogether. The same bias was inherited by the newly independent Kenyan government which was largely dominated by those from the Gikuyu ethnic group, traditionally farmers who produced Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The herders have faced discrimination for a long time.
The British Crown had originally “given” the so-called “White Highlands”, the higher, cooler, malaria-free centre of the country, to white settlers in the 1920s, particularly to World War I veterans like Ian Craig’s grandfather. When the new landholders started erecting fences, the surrounding herders were forced to adapt, avoiding some areas altogether and grazing others only covertly, often risking arrest or armed violence when they cut fences. However, nomadic peoples, whether herders or hunters, are generally far more agile and versatile than their static neighbours, so they adapted and survived and, by and large, are still there.
After Kenyan independence, one way of continuing to try and press herders into the settled mainstream was to recognise their communal ownership, but only over restricted parts of their grazing. This was shoehorned into existing land legislation really written for peoples who stayed put. The herders, at least some of them, were awarded “Group Ranches”, in which specific kith and kin became the owners of limited areas. To represent their title to the authorities, they had to establish committees, habitually through their councils of elders—most African pastoral peoples have a codified hierarchy in age sets, where important decisions are traditionally referred to older folk.
That is an outline of the complex background of competition for land when white farmers decided to move into wildlife tourism. It was easy enough for them to embrace Craig’s conservancy model for their own farms, but when it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, the Group Ranches owned by the pastoralists, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.
Sometimes this might have involved genuine consultation with, and consent by, the community; in other cases, it didn’t. The elders, or sometimes just a few individuals picked up by NRT and driven to its meetings, would be asked to agree terms on a 30-year lease which gave away designated parts of their land to an “investor”, a company which would build visitor accommodation geared around wildlife viewing. In exchange, the African landowners would be given a few, largely menial, paid jobs in and around the “lodge” or luxury camp, but they would also have to provide security around its perimeter and clear any necessary roads and infrastructure, all without any further payment. The Group Ranch would receive a small fee for each night a tourist stayed, unless the visitor were an associate or family member of the investor, in which case there would be no payment. What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation. The herders had no experience in securing their own legal advice, and the contracts made no reference to Group Ranch members having access to any audited figures to check whether or not they were being correctly remunerated.
When it came to getting land which was under African communal ownership, more inventive means had to be deployed to press the case for turning productive grazing into private tourist parks.
Such agreements are not made public or translated into any local language. They would never pass scrutiny for fairness, or even legality, which is probably why copies of the contracts were not made available to some communities, and why some remain confidential to the investor decades after they were signed (Requests to be shown copies of contracts were ignored but I have nevertheless read some from confidential sources.) Moreover, when the lease ends, some are liable to be renewed automatically for another thirty years on the same terms.
“Agreements” like these are barely disguised land grabs. The herders lose part of their land for little return, with the investor taking possession to build high-end accommodation. The tourist business can then truck in some big animals, and start raking in handsome profits from rich tourists whose expectations of being waited on by bedecked, colourful African “warriors” and women are fulfilled. The waiters and cleaners are of course the rightful landowners.
In this way, self-sufficient, independent, and resilient herders have been turned into a servant sector entirely dependent on an industry which is, in turn, dependent on the whims of tourist fashion (and which has proved particularly unsustainable because of travel curtailments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic).
Another way the NRT has begun to erode pastoralism has been to establish its grip over the regional economy. It has formed a business, buying the livestock of favoured herders (but not that of critics) and selling it on to the food industry. NRT can presumably afford the financial risk because any losses can be offset by tourist profits and conservation grants from wealthy backers like The Nature Conservancy which are in turn subsidised by Western governments. Such economic domination has undermined regional markets and elevated NRT into a key economic driver of northern Kenya – all supposedly for the benefit of the local population.
Old-fashioned conservationists invariably see herders as parasites on the environment, draining it of sustenance and giving nothing back.
NRT can get away with all this partly because the leases are between a particular investor and a Group Ranch: NRT claims its role is merely as hands-off adviser, and denies liability for any unfairness as it’s not itself a formal party to any of the contracts. It advises the investor certainly, but any claim that it can give advice which is in the best interest of the herders at the same time is clearly not true.
Its annual reports don’t show any audited figures, as NGOs in Kenya are not legally required to produce independently verified accounts in the way they are in Europe or the USA. Requests to see them are rebuffed or ignored; how it sources its funds is vague. It can, in other words, make whatever unsupported claims it likes: the possibilities for creative accounting, to say the least, seem great.
It’s understandable that knowledgeable Kenyans are suspicious of such an opaque NGO gaining effective control over much of northern Kenya and directly impacting the lives of millions of Africans. When a white Kenyan with close links to the former colonial master’s head of state is pulling the strings, such concerns are likely to be amplified, even more so when TNC’s involvement is considered – especially given some conservationists’ stated desire to stop all meat eating (aside from chicken) throughout the continent, for supposedly environmental reasons!
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars. Its headquarters are less than six kilometres from the White House in Washington, and it was headed by investment banker Mark Tercek until 2019. He used to be a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs until the financial collapse of 2008 when his bank’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis exploded. Together with Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs was a major player in the mess which led to job losses for nine million Americans. This was the time that Tercek left banking for conservation, though the switch may not have involved much transformation in his worldview, or been too onerous a sacrifice for that matter: there’s little reason to think he started flying economy class, and his basic TNC salary in 2015 was $765,000. Tercek left TNC in 2019 after a sexual harassment probe into the organisation’s leadership.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) should be better known outside the USA, if only because it is the wealthiest conservation NGO in the world, with an annual income of over a billion dollars.
It’s easy to see why rich Americans getting control of pastoralists’ land in Kenya, via a local NGO with intimate ties to an old colonial élite which still keeps its army on site, is not wholeheartedly welcomed when herders debate in the shade of their thorn trees. Not being given sight of the contracts they are told they once agreed to naturally raises anxiety. There are a few young men who benefit from the jobs, and who understandably might find these developments more agreeable, but opposition remains high. It can be expressed quietly, with those herders who dislike NRT keeping their voices muted for fear that the authorities are listening out for hostile opinion which they think is seditious. Critics have been threatened, and conservationists who question NRT can find career paths shut off.
The British army is there in force with various objectives. It’s obviously found a useful training ground, but the official reasons are to combat terrorism, support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and also to help rangers “protect elephants from poachers”. It’s true that many British taxpayers might well support their army protecting elephants, but it still raises uncomfortable questions about the merging of the roles of soldiers, police, and wildlife rangers – especially given that some of the latter are private militias employed by rich white landowners to guard their very expensive properties and wealthy tourists. The minimum price to stay a few days in one luxurious conservancy, Ol Jogi, just thirty kilometres from the army base, is over $34,000. The conservancy has nevertheless received money from a British charity, Save the Rhino, with some of the funds going to ranger training.
What this amounted to was that the herders would get a few jobs and very little money in exchange for giving away a substantial part of their land for a generation.
Concerns are growing over how valuable this land might be aside from its tourist potential. Northern Kenya was always important geopolitically in the slicing and dicing of Africa. It was a cushion between Britain and its colonial rivals, France and Italy, and it remains a buffer between mainly Christian Kenya and war-torn Somalia, the launch pad for violent incursions by al-Shabab militants. These have been going on for years and can meet with sympathy in Muslim parts of Kenya. There is wealth under the ground too – fossil fuels, minerals, and aquifers. All stand to be more easily and profitably exploited were local African landowners to be undermined or removed. After all, Protected Areas in other parts of Africa are often leased out to oil, gas, minerals or diamond companies. It’s possible that getting rid of people from conservation zones is as much about future profits as it is about the 19th century northern European and American belief which elevates divine Nature above sinning humankind.
Even a cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them (Kalepo, Meibae, Nannapa, Narupa, Naapu, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Central, Sera, and Biliqo Bulesa), which could affect Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, and Borana. All have, or have had, mining concessions inside their boundaries.
Whatever the reasons behind the growth of the conservancy model, at first sight it’s a win-win for conservationists. They can claim the communities are equal partners, when of course they’re not; yet more of the country can be fenced off into Protected Areas for profit; and the assault on mobile pastoralism – which has long been a key refrain in conservationists’ myopic and ultimately destructive vision of “nature” without humans (except them) – can be fortified.
It’s clever, but as well as its reliance on unsustainable tourism, it embodies another key flaw which may eventually prove its undoing: it doesn’t reckon with the profound relationship many herders have with how they live with and from their animals. They have weathered droughts and conflicts over numerous generations and pastoralists know their way of life is supremely sustainable. Conservancies don’t take into account their resilience and toughness; herders don’t like being pushed around and are prepared to cut fences and risk violence when necessary to protect their livestock and future.
A cursory comparison between maps of mining applications and the conservancies indicates that there could be mineral wealth under at least nine of them.
Real solutions, benefiting both people and the environment, demand discarding deep-seated prejudice, which is always the primary obstacle to real change. The stranglehold of wealthy “landowners” must be loosened. Both conservationists and the government should recognise the importance of nomadic pastoralists as valued stewards of the country’s ecosystems, and stop trying to finish with them. They should approach the herders with respect, offering resources only when asked for, which should be passed into the control of locals represented by their own spokespersons. Of course such a new approach would bring complications, especially with growing competition for resources. However, things are complicated now, and they are marching in the wrong direction.
Unless things change, it seems likely that pastoralists will reoccupy their grazing lands, by force if necessary, and so bring to an end the reign of Protected Areas altogether. Many pastoralists are now seeing that there’s less harassment where there’s less tourism. There are already protest killings, where wild animals are slaughtered, not for tusks, horns, meat, or even because they are a danger to livestock or people, but as retaliation against the land grabs which have dogged these Africans since Europeans first turned up and told them to settle down, get “civilised”, and accept their place in the divine and established order – as landless workers and servants.
I am grateful to Dr Mordecai Ogada for leading me to the problem of the conservancies through his book, The Big Conservation Lie, Mbaria & Ogada, 2016, and for commenting on this article.
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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.
Our Words Must Count
Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.
On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.
That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”
Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.
How is this contradiction possible?
I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.
This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.
The violence of language
These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.
Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.
Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.
When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.
It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:
When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak
When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made
When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge
When we question, we are ungrateful
When we lament, we’re not providing solutions
When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable
When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals
When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence
When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility
When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally
When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution
When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others
When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves
The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think
But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?
What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?
These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.
This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.
“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”
In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.
Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?
Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:
- Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
- Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
- Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.
These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.
As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.
Our words must count
The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.
Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?
Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.
The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.
So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?
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