Influencer Culture and Food Habits in Urban Nairobi7 min read.
Alice Taabu’s years of pioneering work on television have spawned a growing Kenyan culture of online cooking shows, recipes, and the marketing of new social trends in food consumption.
In June 2002, veteran Kenyan chef Ms Alice Taabu bagged the prestigious Gourmand-World Cookbook Award in recognition of her two-decade-long career on the famed KBC TV cookery show Mke Nyumbani. Founded in 1995 by Chef Edouard Cointreau, the Gourmand Award marked a critical turning point in Kenya’s food conversation as historical dishes found their place on the global stage, and within a fast-evolving online life and culture spaces.
On June 5th Gourmand will be awarding their 2021 winner amidst a shifting influence in global food tastes, in an event that’s dubbed “the Oscars” or “the Olympics” for food enthusiasts, and one that has been increasingly dominated by chefs from the South and East, notably the Chinese. Alice Taabu’s versatile feature on our TV shows marked a gentle and progressive expression of our food habits within inter-webs that in hindsight we take for granted.
And it’s out of Alice Taabu’s years of pioneering work that now there’s a growing Kenyan culture of cooking shows, online recipes, and marketing of new social trends in food consumption in the internet streets. With their origins in broadcast television in Kenya, they have evolved tremendously with the growth and uptake of Instagram and YouTube.
This includes the adaptation of television food show formats onto multi-platform content channels such as Netflix, Pay-Tv, Amazon Prime, brand websites and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Yet, even as the ever versatile chef Alice stuck to the time-tested free-to-air TV model, younger, more boisterous incomers like Arthur Mwai were pushing beverage and culinary options away from the mainstream into newer spaces, including setting up the famed Psys, first on Langata Road and later in Westlands.
Since the mid-2000s the online food culture has evolved and birthed offshoots of Mke Nyumbani with varying shelf lives and scope. Buoyed by both the growing ease of content creation, falling cost of internet connectivity, and increasing demand for more local content and local delicacies, recipes increasingly find their way online and into the watching experience of Kenyans within ever-expanding digital ecosystems.
The 2010s saw the explosion of the online world as local content creators consolidated their influence, benchmarked against each other, and set-up entire platforms for curating similar content. It’s no wonder then that Yummy was launched a year later, in 2012, Eat Like a King in 2013, Kaluhi’s Kitchen in 2014, Get in The Kitchen on K24 in 2015, and Shamba Chef in 2017.
Kenya’s Anita Kerai secured a 7-part food series on Amazon Prime, and published her 170-page Flavours from Kenya cookbook. Then there’s The Great Kenyan Bake Off which is based on the British Version The Great British Bake Off, Ali Mandhry’s Tamu Tamu, and Martin Munyua of Dads Can Cook who pioneered the conversation around the legal protection of food TV formats 2013.
A 2015 survey by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) showed that the country has 64 TV stations, and that a majority of local TV viewers preferred local content to foreign programmes. So starting in mid-2016 onwards, the state agency mandated all local broadcasters to start airing 40 per cent local content, increasing gradually to 60 per cent.
The preferred formats are usually semi-structured discursive models involving cooking competitions, instructional methods, light entertainment, storytelling, global cuisine tours, and celebrity guests.
Food Shopping Apps
Locally, a February 2021 poll showed that nearly 4 in 5 shoppers are spending more on online shopping with data top-ups (92 per cent), clothing (67 per cent) and electronics (56 per cent) topping the list of products bought. Meanwhile services sought online include cooking recipes and techniques, dancing classes, learning languages, and mastering DIY projects. That number has inched even higher as COVID-19 restrictions closed down brick and mortar outlets across the country.
The music/movies segment tops the list of online search content, followed by electronics with fashion in third position. But the food segment is growing rapidly; online food stockists and delivery firms including E-Mart, Glovo, Chandarana FoodPlus, UberEats, Yum Deliveries, as well as Green Spoon and Jumia Food have recorded spikes in their online demand.
Twiga, Kalimoni Greens, Kibanda Online, Gobeba, and a host of other online platforms have embraced digitisation and online payment systems to cater to the expanding palate of a tech-savvy society. As online food shopping gains traction, the numbers are bound to surge forward as consumers develop trust and make buying decisions based on the online visual displays, coupled with a seamless product and user interaction.
The influencer culture covers both cooking shows, shopping, dishes, recipes, and food markets in short simple, accessible TikTok and YouTube clips, and often highlights both exotic and local ingredients.
In typical Mke Nyumbani format, such shows offer useful tips on cutlery, techniques, recipes, hygiene, new appliances, first aid, or even what to do if things go wrong. The foodie culture blurs the lines between the food reality TV show and the everyday feeding choices of people and families at home.
Then there is the rise of “Indomie Twitter”, a subculture on Twitter which promotes the growth in the variety of foods consumed, sharing of recipes, online food delivery stores, and outlets.
Psychology of food influencer marketing
The question still remains though: why and how does the psychology of food influencer marketing work? What makes Mke Nyumbani, or Dads Who Cook, Shoba’s Cookouts or Indomie Twitter such a social phenomenon. The short answer is that influencer marketing plays directly into the human desire to belong. It amplifies our proclivity towards that which we already are familiar with.
Behavioural psychologists and neuromarketing experts call this the Mere Exposure Effect. All else being equal, the more we’re exposed to something that’s relatable, the more we like it. And fascinatingly, this preference for the familiar often appears to operate outside of our consciousness.
It appeals to our need for social conformity, and our mental processing functions. Basically, our brain is wired to respond to stimulation from influencer marketers whom we already trust at a virtual interaction level. We find their persuasion more authentic, more fun, and more attractive than other types of persuasions. The link is optimised when the awareness and affinity of the consumer gels with the creativity of the influencer.
Hence, for example Shoba Gatimu’s earthy humor, the ingenuity of the Indomie Twitter crew, Hannah Thee Baker’s digital influencing makes food products look good on set, given they are agile chefs who’re good at their craft.
The psychological terrain of the food influencer market is what happens when social users follow friends and famous users rather than corporate brands. These consumers turn to social platforms to connect and find out how people they look up to build their lifestyles and to look for relatable figures to help them filter through the hundreds of choices in the online markets. In turn they consume lots of visual content which food influencers are primed to optimise.
Research shows that well thought-out visual influencer marketing in the food industry incentivises an engagement rate of 7 per cent and can imply conversion rates of up to Ksh7 for every shilling spent. Ultimately, the partnership between brands and influencers is built on the social ingredient that their personas brings, while building up significant returns on investment (ROI).
To understand the psychology of persuasion, author Robert Cialdini places the construction of influence under six metrics: Reciprocation – the internal pull to repay what another person has provided us with. Consistency – we work to behave consistently towards a choice we’ve already made. Social Proof – when we are unsure, we look to similar others. Liking – the propensity to agree with people we like and the desire for others to agree with us if we like them. Authority – we are more likely to say “yes” to others who are authorities. Scarcity – we want more of what is less available or dwindling in availability.
The overall group psychology that happens ends up creating consumer tribes in which the pursuit of consumption of certain meals or dishes built into our ethnic, class, religious or moral influence is reinforced. This isn’t hard given that the need for social conformity is already hardwired into our brain’s reward system.
The evolution of the kitchen influence
An even bigger influence in group-wide food tastes and preferences among Kenyans stems from social sharing. Influence at that level is therefore built into our deep networks of trust, approval, love, companionship and even identity. The most enduring influence on our food tastes therefore comes from the social affections that we’ve built with our friends within family and friendship set-ups.
In the modern family kitchen, efficiency has gradually eroded camaraderie, as technology reorients and at times replaces our cooking traditions. Meanwhile convenience has become king, as cookware, countertops, drawers, ovens and cabinetry signal the gradual evolution of both the home, the consumer society, and technology.
Your typical modern Kenyan kitchen now bears little resemblance to the home kitchens of old. Before the dawn of modernity, human life revolved around the kitchen and the farm, and the roles that defined kitchen life were often assigned to the women in the community. This lent the home life to critical contestation at the dawn of modernity as family life shifted away from those two domains and into the urban environment.
The traditional designation of the kitchen as a place for mothers and women in general was challenged by the industrial revolution that drove the locus of civilisation away from the kitchen — and by extension the home — and into the milling factories miles away.
And as Ally Matsoso opines, “As men began to accumulate excess wealth and power, they gained freedoms women lacked. Survival and family stability were no longer their sole motivators. Women, as Nourishers of the family, decreased in influence as the family’s importance decreased, crowded out by commerce. Local bakers could now supply our bread. The spiritual center, the home, had to compete with a material culture, capable of satisfying needs the home once met, and of creating new needs as well.”
What we are seeing at the tail end of capitalism as we know it, is a major shift in food cultures and the nuances built around them. Male chefs grace our TV shows and Instagram food influencers represent a wide range of ages, gender, sexes, class, and persuasion.
There is increased diversity in meal plans, and orthorexia is now a prevalent habit that is defined as a genuine and critical concern about what someone eats. This could range from giving up sugars or oils or meat as a matter of preference. It can also be seen in veganism, vegetarianism or pescatarianism, diets that are adopted either because of health concerns, ecological issues, religious beliefs, or a myriad other social, cultural, moral or personal desires. Entire groups like Hindus, Adventists, Muslims have given up certain foods for one or more of the aforementioned reasons.
Recipes are getting increasingly local as health concerns, and choice of nutrition over taste gives preference to local delicacies once considered not cool enough for our social media streets. Nduma, ngwaci, boiled/roasted maize, bean bread, osuga, banana bread, githeri, chicken and ugali, fish, groundnuts, vegetable dishes, irio, kimanga, cassava and bean mash, matoke, mbaazi, njahi, porridge — to name just those — are sneaking their way back onto our dinner plates, Tiktok, YouTube, and Gram.
In this sense, the growth of cookery shows and food influencers is not so much the ultimate co-option of the home kitchen by modernity, as it is an imperfect recreation of what was, until the dawn of modernity, the soul of the home.
At the end of the day, the ultimate food influence in our lives may not be the familiar and likable chefs on TV, but our mothers and fathers, their recipes, the dinner table, and the food rituals in our family kitchen.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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Davido’s Timeless Misses the Dial
No longer the self-proclaimed Goliath of the Afrobeats scene, Davido’s latest release reveals a waning star in a crowded firmament.
The West African Afrobeats scene is no longer the same as when Nigerian megastar Davido, popped up more than a decade ago. When he first appeared, he was on top of his game and dominated the Afrobeats scene so completely that Wizkid was the only truly competitive rival. Unlike his considerably more mellow rival, Davido bristled with unparalleled energy, intensity and ambition. Now heavily thronged with countless talented stars, rather than being defined by a pyramidal structure headed by a few notable names, the Afrobeats game is currently driven by a daunting, horizontal array of heavy-hitters. It’s much harder to make headway let alone stay in the game for any significant length of time.
Timeless, Davido’s major release since 2020’s A Better Time, features 17 tracks beginning with a mildly reflective Over Dem, a track almost futilely proclaiming his dominance over the music game with continuous allusions to the biblical David and Goliath. In short, the life and death struggles that mark the scramble for survival.
Feel is quite lacklustre and by Davido’s lofty standards, lacking in the characteristic fire. In the Garden, a love-focused number featuring Morravey, does not fare much better in terms of vocal flames or inspiration. Godfather is unmistakably a throwaway track. The lyrics are almost unbearably lame and the amapiano trimmings definitely unconvincing. In Unavailable, he hooks up with South African amapiano star Musa Keys, who does much to lift the joint out of rank mediocrity. Bop with Dexta Daps is also embarrassingly weak. Indeed, the less said the better. E pain me is about a broken heart that probably should remain broken on account of the song’s corny words, sentiments and thread-bare beats.
A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point.
Away is directed at his perceived detractors and haters and his drive to rise above the negativity coming his way. Again, there’s little to commend itself here. At first, it would seem Precision lacks originality, power and sonic appeal. However, on the chorus, Davido is amply supported by a host of stirring backing voices that give the track unexpected buoyancy.
Kante features super-talented Nigerian Afrobeats songstress, Fave, whose inclusion brings much needed fire and relief. Na Money receives help from The Cavemen—Davido’s frequent Afrobeats collaborators—and Angelique Kidjo, Benin Republic’s multiple Grammy award-winning multi-genre diva. On this calypso-inflected joint, Davido momentarily emerges from his uncharacteristic lethargy, no doubt inspired by his more adventuresome associates.
(U)juju, featuring Skepta, slumps back into the doldrums. Once again, this cut is meant for a love interest who undoubtedly would remain unconvinced by this uninspiring offering. No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
Picasso, which features Logos Olori, is not crafted with any ambitious artistic goals in mind apart from its understated reggae vibes. In other words, its title is simply misleading. In For the road, Davido continues his explorations of Caribbean grooves and sensibilities. Clearly, his past collaboration with Jamaican reggae/dance hall artist Popcaan is being cashed in on.
No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
LCNC finds Davido vainly reaching out for the distant stars that once jealously guarded him. But they don’t appear to need him anymore. What a shame. Here, he sings “Legends can never die/shooting up for the stars/dem no fit play my part.” True, but not when he seems to be deliberately trashing a painstakingly built legacy.
Champion Sound—the 17th track on this disappointing album featuring South African amapiano star Focalistic whom Davido had thrust into the international limelight—is probably the best cut. Arguably, this has even less fire than their previous collaboration on the Ke Star re-mix that had a huge continent-wide impact.
When Davido first made his appearance on the scene, he was full of beans and appeared unstoppable. He did everything and went everywhere. It seemed as if he didn’t know or understand the agonies and frustrations of creative burn-out. He was firing on all cylinders because, being the son of a billionaire, the primacy of strenuously maintaining one’s hustle is ingrained in him; failure is not the result of a tired and denuded imagination but the outcome of not trying hard enough.
Davido went on frequent headlining global tours in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Caribbean not minding the state of his voice or his nerves. He finds it difficult to stop long enough to get adequate rest as he is also the active CEO of a record label that is home to other stars such as Mayorkun, May Day, Peruzzi, Lola Rae and others. He is also constantly embroiled in hair-splitting public drama with his lover, Chioma Rowland. At some point, it all gets too much and this is evident in perhaps the worst album Davido has produced.
His previous offering, A Better Time, suggested that Davido may no longer be in full command of his creative powers. Released the same year heavy-hitters like Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Olamide offered major albums, A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point. In truth, it packs some power and also juggles some lovely ideas which are eventually lost beneath the detritus of unneeded tracks and fillers. His lack of concision sees his efforts wasted and ultimately floors him.
With seventeen mostly tired or under-done tracks, Timeless demonstrates that even the great Davido is sometimes capable of simply missing the mark. Obviously, he needs to learn how to chill, kick back, restore his voice and wait patiently for fresh ideas to visit him. In this way, he could have a much longer and also a more inspiring career. For the first time in his storied journey, it seems Davido is falling off because he still hasn’t figured out how to pace himself.
Timeless is undeniably thin, most probably because Davido is concerning himself with far too many pursuits that have nothing to do with music. His matter-of-fact approach to creativity, which initially may have propelled him to the heights of his game, has now become his nemesis.
No doubt there are a few bright spots in this largely underwhelming effort. The Dammy Twitch shot video of the viral song Unavailable explores the rich natural beauty of the South African landscape. Alongside a delectable bevy of babes bopping to the beats of Davido’s collaborator, Musa Keys, there are also the stunningly beautiful South African amapiano duo TxC and Johannesburg dancer, Uncle Vinny, dishing out head-turning moves.
Outside the recording studio, Davido has been busy with controversies around paternity issues. Women have come out claiming he is the father of their children. Kemi Olunloyo, a podcaster-turned bugbear has kept on Davido’s case, trying to reduce him into a R. Kelly kind of guy, a serial abuser of womenfolk. Rumours of drug abuse, violence and death have also beclouded his reputation. And these, rather than his bangers, have begun to gain more traction.
Sometimes, even in interviews, it is clear Davido’s hectic pace is catching up with him. He often sounds hoarse, strained, at a point of dissolution. He’s essentially a singer and not a rapper, and that being the case, the timbre of his voice as an instrument ought to be preserved at its best quality. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem as though Davido is bothered; he seems more concerned about the boisterousness of his hustle, the implacability of his grind, which might translate into great business but is not always the wisest of artistic choices. He has obviously been neglecting his primary instrument and also failing in the creative department as the world-wide bangers have slowly dwindled to a trickle.
Also, the competition within the Afrobeats scene has become infinitely more fierce, with the daily arrival of new stars—Rema, CKay, Tems, Buju, Pheelz, King Promise, Eugene Kuami, Fireboy DML, Naira Marley, Asake, Simi, Adekunle Gold, Pantoranking, Ayra Starr, and so many others. This development makes it almost impossible for an individual to exert complete dominance over a scene that is experiencing various kinds of differentiation, identities and trends. After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Musically, over the years, the frenetic pace of his life has also been captured in song and in rambunctious performances across the world. He has collaborated with an astonishing welter of artists from different parts of the globe, including US players Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Lil Baby, Young Thug, Keyana Taylor, Summer Walker, Casanova, Meek Mill, South African artists Mafikizolo, Sho Madjozi, Focalistic, Abidoza and Musa Keys, and UK rapper Skepta.
After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Initially, a few of these collaborations—such as those with Brown and Popcaan—seemed well-conceived. And then such efforts were rapidly reduced to clout chasing exercises. It also seems that Davido had begun to envisage a life beyond music and this is also reflected in the diminishing inspirational potency of his creative output. Of course, Davido might be the last person to realise or acknowledge this vitiation but let’s hope this gradually fading star has the grace, wisdom and courage to age with style and adequate forethought. This would go a long way to preserving his unquestionably impressive legacy.
‘Babygirling’ and the Pitfalls of the Soft Life Brigade
For black women in particular, the individual pursuit of a soft, consumption-driven life is a fragile approach to securing social justice.
The charm of the strong black woman is fizzling out as we enter the era of the soft black girl. This is a phrase used to describe a black girl or woman who intentionally pursues an easy and peaceful life. Strong black womanhood, laden with aches and responsibilities, now represents a hard life. Whereas to be a black girl imbued with softness is to view the world as a playground. It is to enjoy an existence marked by fewer burdens or none.
The term soft life first emerged among social media users in Nigeria who expressed their desire for a gentle life, unburdened by the effects of poor governance in their country. While Africans, especially Nigerians and South Africans, still actively employ the term, it is largely black women residing in the USA and UK who have co-opted both the term and its current practice.
It has become impossible to disentangle the notion of soft life from black women. Some black women claim men cannot enjoy or benefit from a soft life. This is because such a lifestyle rests fundamentally on the use of feminine energy and the repudiation of masculine energy. Such binary thinking presents soft life as a hyper feminine phenomenon. It foists it upon black women in a manner never intended by the original architects of the soft life imagination. Because of this, a growing number of black women see a soft life as a necessity and a crucial element of black feminist practice.
Many soft life enthusiasts stress the importance of softness, of practicing self-care. To justify the soft life trend, they quote Audre Lorde’s famous saying: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” I recognize the value of encouraging black women to care for themselves and cultivate a lifestyle that enables inner peace. But I question if a soft lifestyle, in its common expression, bears the same liberatory politics as Lorde’s feminist call to nurture the self. Lorde does not remove her awareness of the need for social transformation from her promotion of self-centeredness.
The notion of self-preservation as political warfare underlines the subversive potential of self-care. It can be understood as a proactive effort against the subjugation of the self in a world that is brazenly anti-black, classist, and patriarchal. This manner of caring for the self is a form of confrontation. It is an audacious critique of oppression and exploitation as the status quo. Soft life may be a contemporary practice of self-care that enables self-preservation. But it seems devoid of political warfare, the kind that seeks to challenge exploitation. Concerned with aesthetic practices and the buying of experiences, a soft lifestyle preserves the spirit of consumerism. Soft life is a product of capitalism—that “many-headed monster” as Lorde describes.
With its mass appeal and promotion on Instagram and TikTok, soft life represents what the cultural critic Sarah Sharma calls “selfie-care.” It is a life pursued not because of its radical potential but because it can be shared online and used as a branding tool. Excessive consideration is given to consumerism as a solution to the social challenges endured by black women. In a recital titled “Soft Life Manifestations,” the spoken word artist Koromone characterizes softness as luxurious objects and experiences. This includes first class air travel, “champagne flute with strawberries,” “foreign men with an accent,” and Burberry blankets.
A soft life is one that gives off “money, green vibes.” The dangerous amalgamation of capitalism and feminism drives this phenomenon. The black women advocating for their right to softness acknowledge the need for respite in black women communities. But there is often little critique of the conditions that make it necessary for black women to prioritize rest in the first place.
There is also little regard for complexities in identity and social circumstance. The overwhelming focus on softness as hyper femininity and luxury consumption presents the soft life as accessible only to financially privileged black women, and boxes women into a consumerist identity. What seems to be overlooked in popular discourse about soft life is that the version of soft life so heavily marketed and championed online requires a significant amount of work to initiate and sustain. According to media representations of it, a soft life is fundamentally a costly life, it requires deep pockets and undue labor.
The complexities and contradictions embedded in the soft lifestyle are reflected in its extension of hustle culture, which is popularly understood as working long hours or striving for multiple income streams. There are soft life enthusiasts who acknowledge that, given the highly consumerist nature of a soft life, it can be difficult to bring such a lifestyle into fruition. Their solution to this problem, however, isn’t to completely discard aspirations for a soft life but build wealth and work multiple jobs if necessary. Accordingly, living a soft life represents rather paradoxically a hustle against hustle culture.
Soft life enthusiasts and practitioners who advocate working hard(er) to fund a life of superficial softness are ultimately proponents of neoliberal feminism or what bell hooks called “faux feminism.” The feminist scholar Angela McRobbie describes neoliberal feminism as an “unapologetically middle-class feminism, shorn of all obligations to less privileged women or to those who are not ‘strivers’.’’
Striving for softness seems to be the new feminist directive. While it is not the same as striving to break through the glass ceiling, it still greases the wheels of capitalism. It makes it possible for industries and corporations to exploit an emerging group of lifestyle conscious consumers. Catherine Rottenberg, another critic of neoliberal feminism, notes that in the imagination of neoliberal feminists, “the notion of pursuing happiness is identified with an economic model of sorts in which each woman is asked to calculate the right balance between work and family.”
In the case of the soft life, it constructs the pursuit of happiness in relation to economic capacity. But the desired balance is not necessarily between work and family since caring for family is increasingly viewed as laborious. Instead, soft life as a neoliberal feminist desire entails creating a balance between work and self-indulgence. The irony, however, is that mainstream expressions of self-care are founded upon relentless exertion. In a widely watched YouTube video on tips for living a soft life, the content creator claimed, “soft life requires planning and preparation.”
Towards the end of the nine minute video, the following warning is rendered in relation to the tips offered: “Just because I’m saying you don’t need to do everything doesn’t mean I’m saying never do anything.” Such a claim appears to be delivered with benevolence. It gives the impression that the insistence on doing at least one soft life activity reflects a genuine concern for viewers’ well-being.
However, presenting a series of luxurious, yet physically demanding and relatively expensive, activities as necessary for respite simply justifies continuous labor under capitalism. It does little to improve well-being. Popular depictions of the soft life reveal how capitalist structures work to extend the logics of labor to private and personal realms of being. Rest is no longer a simple phenomenon characterized by inaction or stillness; it has become a tedious performance.
The idea of a soft life is not one I am entirely opposed to, but I frown upon its consumerist manifestations. One should not have to buy a life of ease and nor should it be Instagram worthy. It shouldn’t be limited to indulging oneself but encompass what Lynx Sainte-Marie calls a “community care practice and politic.” It should ensure that others too can experience comfort and peace in their lives which enables a continuous sharing of softness.
Dominant representations of the soft lifestyle impede our collective survival of the harshness of capitalism. For black women in particular, the individual pursuit of a soft, consumption-driven life is a fragile approach to securing social justice. Real softness may find us through a radical reimagination of care. We may encounter it through a stronger awareness of the fact that the route to a life of ubiquitous tenderness is more easily and safely traveled through a collective stride.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Who Was Fred Kago?
Exploring the legacy of writer Fred K. Kago, his Wĩrute Gũthoma books and the teaching of African languages in the school curriculum.
Tawa wa Kahara
Cege Rehe itete
Hihi ini nĩ rĩhĩu
Moko ma komo
To some Kenyans, the above verse is pure gibberish. However, to others, myself included, the first line alone is enough for lips to remember the words as the mind embarks on a journey into the past, back to childhood, unearthing vivid memories of where they were, when and how they learnt to sing them. So much so that eyes begin to water.
Seventy-one years after it was first published, that verse now encapsulates a place, a year and a time in Kenya’s history. It has also become a badge of honour for many seeking to reclaim their pride in their culture, identity and language.
It is a verse in a Gĩkũyũ alphabet rhyme that appears on page 11 of the now famous book, Wĩrute Gũthoma – Ibuku Rĩa Mbere (Learn to Read – Book 1) by Fred K. Kago. Published in May 1952 by the now defunct Nelson‘s Kikuyu Readers, it was one in a series of three books that became the first ever of their kind to be written entirely by an African teacher for the learning and teaching of an indigenous African language in the school curriculum.
For years now, Kago has continued to both confound and arouse a great curiosity in many Kenyans. A dearth of his beloved series, which went out of print a decade ago, has left many searching online. There are inquiries on social media platforms about where one might procure copies, even as others post content from the books to either reminisce or demonstrate a sense of pride in having learnt their mother tongue in school.
Yet a search online will turn up his work but nothing about who he was, what he looked like, where he grew up, where he was educated, what kind of person he was, what drove him to write textbooks for teaching indigenous African languages in the late 40s. More importantly, there is little to tell the story of his profound impact, which went well beyond the teaching and learning of African languages in schools.
Kago’s Wĩrute Gũthoma series has had a profound effect on my life, not just as a native of the culture but also, and more significantly, on my work as a Gĩkũyũ digital language advocate and a poet who writes and performs in her mother tongue.
The complex history of indigenous languages in Kenya’s education system
The role of the mother tongue, Kiswahili and English in the domain of education in Kenya was first discussed during the United Missionary Conference in Kenya in 1909. The conference then adopted the use of the mother tongue in the first three classes in primary school, Kiswahili in two of the middle classes, while English was to be used in the rest of the classes up to university.
Since then, during and after the colonial period, some key commissions were set up to review education, including the Phelps-Stokes Commission of 1924. Some of these endeavours had a bearing on language policy. In his paper Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony published in The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2009, W. Nabea writes:
The colonial language policy was always inchoate and vacillating such that there were occasions that measures were put in place to promote or deter its learning. However, such denial inadvertently provided a stimulus for Kenyans to learn English considering that they had already taken cognizant of the fact that it was the launching pad for white collar jobs.
The freedom struggle after the Second World War, however, prompted a paradigm shift in the colonial language policy that hurt local languages. This shift began as the British colonialists started a campaign to create a Westernized, educated elite in Kenya as self-rule became imminent. Thus, English was reintroduced in lower primary and taught alongside the mother tongue. Kiswahili started being eliminated from the school curriculum.
Kago wrote the manuscript of what became the Wĩrute Gũthoma series in the late ‘40s while Kenya was still a British colony and more than a decade away from gaining its independence. At the time, command of the English language was considered the badge of the educated and civilized native and African indigenous languages were fast being shunned in schools as many began seeking education. They were regarded as second-class languages and the hallmark of how primitive people spoke. Kago was clearly swimming against some heavy currents.
The freedom struggle after the Second World War, however, prompted a paradigm shift in the colonial language policy that hurt local languages.
However, for children who grew up in rural Kenya in the 60s, 70s and 80s, learning indigenous African languages in the early years of primary education (from nursery until grade 3) was mandatory. For them, Kago became synonymous with that experience. However, the use of indigenous African languages in the early years of primary education has had a complex history.
Since the United Missionary Conference in Kenya of 1909, the decision to include or remove the teaching of Indigenous African language in the language policy was either at the whim of the political climate at the time or based on the interests of the missionaries.
Kago joined government service in 1931 as the Phelps Stoke Commission of 1924, which advocated for both quantitative and qualitative improvement of African education, was well into its implementation. According to the academic paper titled The Treatment of Indigenous Languages in Kenya’s Pre- and Post-independent Education Commissions and in the Constitution of 2010, the commission recommended that,
The languages of instruction should be the native language in early primary classes, while English was to be taught from upper primary up to the university. Schools were urged to make all possible provisions for instruction in the native language. However, the Commission recommended that Kiswahili be dropped in the education curriculum, except in areas where it was the first language. Kiswahili’s elimination from the curriculum was partly aimed at forestalling its growth and spread, on which Kenyans freedom struggle was coalescing.
Throughout Jomo Kenyatta’s reign and well beyond Daniel Arap Moi’s presidency, the post-colonial commissions such as Gachathi (1976), Koech (1999) and Odhiambo (2012) all recommended that a child should be taught using the pre-dominant language in the school catchment area and Kiswahili should be used only in schools with a heterogeneous school population. The supremacy of English in the Kenyan educational system entrenched by the Gachathi Commission of 1976 continued even as Kiswahili and indigenous languages received inferior status in the school curriculum.
The Wĩrute Gũthoma series was translated widely and used by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development in teaching other African languages. He had a virtual monopoly on the market in the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods.
Who was Fred K. Kago?
For a man whose books have nurtured more than four generations of learners, and one who has made immense contributions to the development of the post-independence school curriculum—including the setting up of numerous training colleges and developing their teaching materials— very little is known of Kago.
Until his demise in July 2005 at the age of 92, Kago was both a polymath and an outlier. He was a footballer, a bugle player (horn played during boy scout troop meetings), an organist, a piano player, a writer, a hospital administrator, a talented teacher and a scholar. Fondly known to his friends and relatives simply as F.K., the late Fred Karanja Kago was born in Thogoto village, Kikuyu Division, Kiambu District in 1913. He was the first-born child of Kago wa Gathatu and Eva Murugi.
He had a virtual monopoly on the market in the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods.
Kago grew up in a typical Kikuyu traditional homestead at a time when education was not really a priority for many families. It was by pure luck that he started attending school in 1920 as his parents viewed education as a disruption to the roles traditionally assigned to young boys—primarily grazing their father’s sheep and goats. Kago only became enrolled after his half-sister Wambui died following the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic (Kĩmiiri). Back then, the missionaries required that each homestead send one child to school. Kago became her replacement because he was quite small for his age compared to his younger brothers who were much bigger and much stronger workers on the family land.
Described as a reluctant schoolboy in the November 1986 edition of The Weekly Review Magazine, it is Kago’s who took him to the mission school every day. As a child, Kago was innately bright and had a curious mind, excelling in anything he took an interest in. As soon as he settled down to school life, Kago was excelling in football, and in the boy scout brigade where he became the designated bugle player to mark key moments during troop meetings.
In March 1926, Kago was admitted to the newly established Alliance High School. As reported in his eulogy, Kago’s only other classmate was the late James Mbotela (father to Leonard Mambo Mbotela). While at Alliance, Kago joined the newly formed first African Boy Scouts troop where he soon became the Senior Troop Leader. He also learned how to play the organ.
At the end of 1931, having passed the final government school examination, and with no money to send him abroad for further education, Kago taught briefly at Alliance and then joined government service.
He was posted to the Veterinary Training Centre at Ngong where he taught for thirteen and a half years before joining Waithaka Junior Secondary (later renamed Dagoretti High School) in 1944 as principal for the next three years.
It was, however, three government scholarships and the ensuing promotions that were to mark a turning point in Kago’s life from a teacher and trainer to a prolific writer.
Kago the pioneering author in indigenous African languages
Kago pioneered the writing and publishing of books in indigenous African languages. He authored numerous books—over 30 titles—that were published not just in his native language but also in English, Kiswahili, Dholuo and Kikamba. Besides the Wĩrute Gũthoma series and its respective teachers’ guides (translated into Kiswahili, Kikamba and Dholuo), Kago also wrote The Teaching of indigenous African languages – A Handbook for Kikuyu Teachers; Ciumbe cia Ngai (God’s creation); Hadithi za Konga Books 1,2 and 3; Mango’s Grass House; Lucky Mtende; and The King’s Daughter. Kago also adapted and had the Longman’s (now Longhorn) Shona Readers Books 1 and 2 translated into Kikamba, Kikuyu, Dholuo and Kiswahili and the Highway Arithmetic textbook and The Three Giants storybook into Kikuyu.
The start of Kago’s journey into writing was purely experimental. It was while attending the University of London’s institute of education in 1947 to study for a teaching diploma on a government scholarship that Kago decided to try his hand at writing textbooks for primary schools.
Growing up, Kago had learnt traditional Kikuyu stories, riddles and songs at his father’s feet, learning the richness of his language through the expression of idioms, proverbs, riddles and phrases. As an educator, he had witnessed first-hand the dearth of textbooks in African indigenous languages.
Kago pioneered the writing and publishing of books in indigenous African languages.
Armed with his first draft manuscripts of what would become the Wĩrute Gũthoma series, Kago approached Thomas Nelson and Sons publishers (now Thomas Nelson) in London who agreed to publish his books. During the holidays, he would find time to put together his manuscript for the three-book series and also write the teachers’ guides.
When he returned to Kenya, Kago was promoted to the position of African Inspector of Schools. This position gave him great influence as Kago had always been an advocate for the use of the mother tongue not just in schools but also at home during a child’s formative years. As he quickly rose through the ranks to join the Ministry of Education in charge of the teaching of indigenous African languages, Kiswahili, and religious education, Kago now had the power to not only directly influence how these subjects were taught, but also what learning materials the learners and teachers used.
It was while he was at the helm that the Kenya Institute of Education produced the TKK (Tujifunze Kusoma Kikwetu) series in various indigenous Kenyan languages including Dholuo, Ekegusii, Kikamba, Kalenjin, Kiswahili, Ateso, Luhya, Kigiriama and Kimeru.
Kago the man behind teacher training colleges
Kago was innately multitalented, versatile and an over-achiever whose hands left an indelible mark on whatever they touched, not just as a writer but also as a scholar, an education policy maker, and a teacher trainer.
Kago had begun his teaching career at his high school alma mater. In 1950, shortly after his return from England, he was posted to the teacher training college at Kangaru, in Embu, as the assistant area commissioner. What followed were a series of scholarships and subsequent promotions. A second scholarship to Santa Barbara in the US for a year in 1959 was followed by an appointment as Education Officer in charge of Kirinyaga District, and another scholarship to Australia for a course for school inspectors from developing countries in 1966 led to his appointment as the first African principal of Thogoto Teachers Training College a year later. He had served in an acting capacity at the same position in 1962.
As an educator, he had witnessed first-hand the dearth of textbooks in African indigenous languages.
Little is known of the close relationship between Kago and Kenya’s second president Daniel Arap Moi, and how a directive issued by Kago in 1949 while he was at the helm as an African Inspector of Schools would alter the course of Moi’s life. Moi was so indebted to Kago that in 1986 he directed that indigenous African languages be used in the early years of primary education.
Upon retiring from Thogoto Teachers Training College, Kago joined PCEA Hospital Kikuyu as a hospital administrator where he remained until 1976.
The controversial Beecher Report of 1949
Kago’s life was hardly linear or bereft of controversy. Like many Africans who received higher education during the colonial era, despite his belief in the use and teaching of the mother tongue in schools, Kago was a member of the Westernized African elite whose position and influence as an agent of the government was used to propagate the interests of the establishment as it weaponized education to serve the colonial agenda.
Following the paradigm shift in the colonial language policy after the Second World War, a committee headed by Leonard J. Beecher, a missionary, was set up. Much like the report of the Phelps-Stokes Commission and the Ten-Year Developmental Plan before it, the Beecher report of 1949 reinforced the argument for the provision of practical education for Africans, with an emphasis on vocational or moral training.
Moi was so indebted to Kago that in 1986 he directed that indigenous African languages be used in the early years of primary education.
At the time the Beecher report was being discussed for adoption and implementation, Kago had just been appointed as an African Inspector of Schools and he became one of its most vocal proponents.
In his PhD dissertation titled “Old Wine” and “New Wineskins”: (De)Colonizing Literacy in Kenya’s Higher Education published in August 2006, Dr Mwangi Chege, then a student of the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University, noted how, in a speech, Kago attacked Africans who viewed the “Beecher Report” as failing to address the literacy needs of Africans. Chege quotes Kago as having stated, in defence of the colonial government:
“You should realise the fact that all that Government wants to do is for our benefit and for the benefit of our children and we should unite together to build up a very good foundation right from the beginning and I am sure Government is ready to give us all the assistance we require.”
Chege’s critique of Kago was scathing:
“Thus, it is safe to conclude that Kago and his colleagues hailed the “Beecher Report” not because it was actually beneficial to their fellow Africans but because they were agents of the colonial system.”
In his book, A History of Education in Kenya, 1895-1991. S.N. Bogonko writes,
“The African view of the report was that it was to lead to Europeanization rather than Africanization of education and it sought to maintain the status quo of keeping Africans in low-wage positions. In addition, the report recommended that Kiswahili be the language of instruction and literature in primary schools in towns. However, provision was to be made for textbooks in indigenous African languages in rural areas and indigenous African languages were to be the medium for oral instruction in rural areas.”
The Beecher Report’s recommendations formed the foundation of the government’s policy on African education until the last year of colonial rule.
A hall with no hall of fame
Apart from the hall at the Thogoto Teachers Training College where there is a plaque with some letters missing, there is no hall of fame for Kago. Few in his hometown remember him or his contributions to his community, culture and the teaching fraternity.
The Beecher Report’s recommendations formed the foundation of the government’s policy on African education until the last year of colonial rule.
Most of Kago’s books have become so rare that they are now collectors’ items. Nelson East African Publishers (a subsidiary of Thomas Nelson & Sons UK) was acquired by Evans Brothers who later wound up their African operations in 2012. As Evans Brothers did not have any local shareholding, their entire catalogue went out of print, with the rights reverting back to the authors.
Little is left of the legacy of a man who always believed in the use of the mother tongue in schools and one who watched with dismay as English and Kiswahili took over as the languages of instruction in schools. Yet, Kago did prove that it is possible for our education system to implement the learning of African languages in schools; he created the blueprint for introducing indigenous languages as an area of learning in schools. If Kenya’s Ministry of Education is serious about actualising the National Language Policy within the competency-based curriculum (CBC), then they need not look too far.
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