Prof. Ebrahim Hussein: Kiswahili, Poetry and Freedom7 min read.
The Anthology of the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize 2014–2020 is a great achievement for Prof. Ebrahim Hussein in the creativity it has inspired in ordinary Tanzanians who have shared the poetry in them through this prize.
Prof. Ebrahim Hussein—poet, playwright, author—is a powerful teller of Tanzania’s and Africa’s story, a relentless chronicler of the African post-independence condition and a towering figure of the arts and literature in East and Central Africa. His works—Kinjekitile (1965) in particular—are studied across the region by university students and are set texts for high school students studying Kiswahili. His plays Mashetani (1971) and Jogoo Kijijini (1976) are also famous across East Africa. The Anthology of the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize 2014–2020 is a collection of poems submitted towards the award of the prize that bears the professor’s name in 2014, 2015/6, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Kinjekitile tells the story of the defining Maji Maji uprising against the Germans in Tanzania between 1905 and 1907. It uses the African voice and perspective of the leader of the uprising, Kinjekitile Ngwale, to reconstruct the epic struggle between the coloniser and the colonised in Tanzania that delineated the contours of Tanzanian nationhood and spoke to similar struggles across Africa. A student of Hussein’s explained: “We found Kinjekitile far more accessible than Mashetani … but Prof Hussein was unapologetic—in that way he resembles Wole Soyinka in attitude—it was up to you to travel the journey of knowledge and enlightenment with him. If you didn’t understand him that was up to you.”
Students of Hussein are energised just hearing that an article is being written about him. The impact he has had on those he taught is palpable whether one speaks to Tanzanians, Kenyans or other students that he taught. “Kinjekitile is a profound, biting and rich exploration of the process of African freedom from colonialism”, one of his students from the 1980s explained, “Mashetani is a deeper and more sophisticated critique of Ujamaa and Mwalimu Nyerere’s government… Prof Hussein taught me how the mechanics of Kiswahili provides enlightenment for Africans seeking to understand themselves. Intellectually Hussein is a person of rare and great depth who is not limited to a narrow field but would have something wise to say if you asked him about politics or nuclear physics.”
Ironically, despite being most likely the world’s most influential thinker and author in the Kiswahili language, Prof. Hussein, remains largely unknown outside the vibrant and growing ecosystem of Kiswahili speakers—because he writes in Kiswahili. Unlike others, however, Prof. Hussein has never engaged in advocacy about the use of language and accessibility. Implicit in his life and politics—for lack of a better term—is the centrality of African culture and thought in everything he does. The use of Kiswahili for Hussein is as close as one gets to manifest truth. Debate is unnecessary for, in life, Kiswahili’s dominance in the most enduring narratives of the African reality is unquestioned and, with the passage of time, this has become even more true. Hussein’s notable fellow writers in their African tongues include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from Kenya (1938- ), who writes in Gikuyu, Peninah Muhando, from Tanzania (1943- ), who writes in Kiswahili as did the late Shabaan Robert from Tanzania (1909-1962), Euphrase Kezilahabi (1944–2020), also from Tanzania, Ben R. Mtobwa, from Tanzania (1958–2008), and Kenya’s Ken Walibora (1965-2020). Except for Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has been based in the US for decades, the rest of this accomplished community is largely unknown outside East and Central Africa.
Kenyan Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha—former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Egerton University, former executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, currently chair of the Commission for University Education in Kenya, an educationalist, playwright, Kiswahili scholar and contemporary of Professor Hussein, explained: “Hussein is a profound creator of knowledge in the Kiswahili language whose contribution to literally discourse has helped Kiswahili penetrate the politics realm across the African continent.” Prof. Chacha fondly remembered the time in the 1980s when they almost succeeded in getting Prof. Hussein to spend time teaching in Kenya, something the academic bureaucracy unfortunately moved too slowly to make possible. Hussein was, however, able to spend some time in Kenya with students at Kenyatta University who have strong memories of him to this day.
Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes. The Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize honours Prof. Hussein and the language whose authenticity and immediacy he has implicitly championed all of his life. For hundreds of years Kiswahili was considered a mongrel language —a mixture of Bantu languages and Arabic—and its speakers similarly a hybrid nation produced of Bantu and Arab blood. This early fake news has been debunked comprehensively and the Swahili nation is today acknowledged as one of the East Coast of Africa’s oldest people, cultures and language.
Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes.
So, the true richness in the latest anthology rests in the fact that it publishes the original Kiswahili poems alongside their English translations. Kiswahili allows the most painful subjects to be handled respectfully and with an African nuance, unavailable in English, and with the kind of ease the cross-section of poets achieve. They tackle everything from the challenges of leadership in Africa to paedophilia, rape, female genital mutilation and other anxieties and complexities of rapidly changing societies.
Most of the poets in the anthology are men but women provide the most touching and interesting works. Their poems are powerful, personal, immediate and handle the most uncomfortable subjects. The themes are ones that speak to those that have preoccupied Prof. Hussein all his artistic life, from African culture to nationhood and leadership. But it is when they explore the issues only women have to contend with as they hold communities together that their art is most compelling in the anthology. Their every day struggles are society’s most enduring challenges. In my opinion they make for the most powerful poems in the anthology. It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.
Kiswahili is now Africa’s most powerful indigenous language. It is spoken as far north as Oman and as far south as South Africa where the language was approved to be taught in schools in 2018. Kiswahili is a national language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and South Sudan. In 2019, Kiswahili was designated an official working language in all of the 16 member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). It is also an official language of the African Union.
It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.
As I have observed above, Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally. He speaks rarely and is known most for his plays and books published in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, it would seem that one of his last appearances in public was to launch the poetry prize named in his honour after which he has rarely been seen. Interestingly, he is actually best known and studied in the region as one of the founders of African experimental theatre. While his reputation as a dramatist overtakes his renown as a seminal theoretician and observer of the African condition, this has changed considerably over the last two decades. Hussein’s PhD dissertation completed at East Berlin’s Humboldt University in 1973 was titled: “On the development of theatre in East Africa”.
His works explore the major political themes of the age and while clearly a committed Pan-Africanist, his most political work—Jogoo Kijijini (1976)—was understood to express disappointment with Tanzania’s defining Ujamaa policy. Hussein has incessantly surveyed refrains of Africa’s post-independence situation, nationhood and the resilience of colonial patterns of political and economic organisation after independence from colonial rule. Ironically, he met Canadian filmmaker Gerald Belkin (1940-2012) when the latter was himself immersed in Ujamaa, studying African socialism in the rural villages of the Tanzanian countryside in the 1960s. The bond the two forged saw Belkin bequeath seed capital of US$57,000 that became his way of honouring his friend and, ultimately, the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize. The prize and the organisation around it were supported by the Gatsby Trust, now the Tanzania Growth Trust, among others. Hussein also helped teach Belkin Kiswahili, first when Hussein was still based in Berlin but later when he joined Belkin and his wife Paule in Ngamu Village, Singida Region. The story of how the award brought together organisations and individuals committed to poetry, to Kiswahili and to honouring Prof. Hussein is thus far unheralded but it is noteworthy that no other such prize exists in the entire region.
Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally.
It is uncommon to see collections of poetry published in Africa featuring not notable authors but ordinary citizen poets. The book is a great achievement for Prof. Hussein in the creativity it has inspired through the prize named after him in Tanzania. What is compelling about these collections of poems from the competition named after him are the bios of all the poets. Among them are many teachers but also academics, drivers, miners and others—ordinary Tanzanians with poetry in them that they have shared through this prize. The disproportionate number of teachers is fascinating in and of itself. I cannot pretend to even have an elementary explanation for this; only to observe how interesting it is. Still, locals explain that as part of Tanzania’s founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy of using Kiswahili for nation-building, Tanzanians attending national schools study in Kiswahili from pre-school until the final exam before graduating to high school. In high school they are subsequently taught in English. Kiswahili is now a global language but nowhere in the world is it spoken better and studied more intensely than in Tanzania. Few countries can produce such a large and totally organic cohort of citizen poets in Kiswahili as Tanzania has.
Tanzania is also home to the Bagamoyo school and tradition in the performing arts. The country’s top dramatists and poets therefore have a range of indigenous avenues for expression not available in many other countries. Taasisi ya Saana na Utamaduni Bagamoyo (TaSuBa) or the Institute for Arts and Culture Bagamoyo—formerly the Bagamoyo College of the Arts—is the only dedicated institution of its kind in the region and serves students and practitioners from all countries in the region.
At the end of this work, I was left wondering: What’s next? What’s the plan for the prize, the poets and their impressive work?
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Kupangwa, Kupangiwa na Kujipanga: A Nairobi Exodus
Nairobi is only a place in which you live because you can’t leave. It also is the kind of place in which you stay until, suddenly, you don’t anymore.
Everything is a mess. And by everything, I mean Nairobi. And by a mess, I still mean Nairobi.
I grew up in the aughts, when E-Sir and K-Rupt were hailing the virtues of Nairobi and PiliPili was spicing the airwaves. When repping your hood was what’s good—“Twende tukawake; huko Nairobi West!” “South C’s finest.” “Na wasee tumetoka Githurai!” Remember those salad days? “Napita Mama Ngina nasikia… nipe shilingi!”
That was the time when being a Nairobian (coming from Nairobi didn’t necessarily equate to being Nairobian) was the stuff. But that kind of saccharine reflection has lost its lustre. Nothing lasts forever, and it’s obvious now—Nairobi is messy. It’s all over the place in an annoying way, like finding out your plane ticket is scheduled for 12 midnight tonight and not tomorrow night as you had thought.
Recently, M, a close buddy of mine gave up the Nairobi ghost and moved back to Kakamega, twisting the knife in my back. He, a 30-year-old man, got tired. (I’ll tell you how the knife got there: Last year, a colleague had wedged said knife in my back, moving to the coast and occasionally sending me pictures of himself in a dera—he says it’s a kanzu but it’s his word against mine).
But I get it. I really do. I too have flirted with the idea of moving out, seduced by the lofty callipygian hills of Nanyuki, the morning mist of Mt Kenya fluttering its eyelashes and catching my eye. And it’s not just because of Nairobi’s rent prices, which I’ll have you know are the highest in Africa—but this city is one busy blink-and-you-miss-it construction den. This is the epitome of a city as a construction site—a community slipping down a precipice towards urban demise.
The Maasai must be irked, having named Nairobi, “Enkare Nairobi” (meaning a place of cool waters, which Nairobi was apparently known for). Now Nairobi is all but a city of sharp elbows, of dealmakers who (allegedly? Likely?) file nil returns, of Sauvage Dior-smelling soothsayers—a different kind of cool—dotted with hotheads and an expansive skyline, its urban planning cracks filled with high-rise buildings that epitomise the phrase premium mediocre. Nairobi is chilling with the big boys.
This is the gift of Nairobi, but also its curse. It’s always undergoing makeup; ring lights, sound, camera, action! We’re constantly moving things here, moving things there, changing this, sky-lifting that. Always building something, somewhere, sometime, somehow. It feels like a country within a city.
When M left, followed by a distant cousin (who has now become even more distant, literally and metaphorically) in one of those tangled-branched family trees, I wished them both well as they departed what was to me—at one time—the greatest city in the world, simultaneously enamoured of their decision and incensed by it. Like so much else in modern life, the pathos of that departure was concealed by a seemingly robust exoskeleton of decorum.
Nairobi makes you listless—teetering between restlessness and recklessness, more often than not languishing in the valley, waiting for another peak. But where do you go? How far do you go? Location, location, location.
When my friends moved out, it made me think of where I stand with regards to my erstwhile beloved Nairobi. What am I still doing here? Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Lavington are no longer what they used to be. If you squint carefully, Kilimani is now just Pipeline in a Gucci belt. When you are not grappling with an acute water shortage, water bowsers offering ‘Clean Water Services’ snaking through the neighbourhoods like hungry ants, it is the fluctuating weather: Nairobi has been getting hotter. And then, we all know it’s raining, and so, flooding. Sometimes, nothing happens and yet it feels like everything has. It’s a restless city, it can break your heart, or back. Something has to give.
If you squint carefully, Kilimani is now just Pipeline in a Gucci belt.
And that is before we take a ride into the boda boda world, or as my editor likes to call it, the nduthiverse. And there’s still so much more to process. The expressway, the SGR, the matatus… But that would be pretentious, because I personally navigate this city using a nduthi. I am appalled by traffic jams, I possess the Biblical hair-trigger temper—let’s face it, who doesn’t?—and I am almost always late going anywhere. There is no hurry in Africa? Then why does it seem like we are always rushing somewhere?
(All this reminds me of an excerpt of ‘Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos’ by Igoni Barret. “And only after paying a heavy fine and settling the bill for mandatory driving lessons and a psychiatric evaluation, this last a precondition for allowing one back into the madness of Lagos Roads.”)
Nai Ni Ya Who?
I have a theory: Nairobi is only a place in which you live because you can’t leave. It also is the kind of place in which you stay until, suddenly, you don’t anymore. Nouveau riche or hoi polloi, the sybarites and the scavengers, the wananchi recognising the wenye-nchi. This is a city that bleeds with people who sell, who buy to sell, who sell themselves to later go out and buy, and people who sell themselves without being able to buy anything. This is Nairobi. This is my Nairobi. I believe that every Nairobian has their own version of Nairobi, inside and outside themselves: Is it you who is speaking to the city or is it the city of Nairobi, KaNairo, Nairoberry, that is flirting with you?
Nairobi flaunts its self-flagellation, and has a putrid, pungent smell. But it endures—once the green city in the sun, now a contractor’s wet dream. Neighbours refer to each other by their profession, title or quirks. Some are journalists, others are civil servants, most are hustlers. If you have nothing, or are nothing, then your peculiarity will define you: “Ule jamaa Kibogoyo?” “Ule Mkisii?” “Mama Caro mwenye halipangi deni?” Of course, all this can change, if you change where you live. Location, location, location.
This is a city that bleeds with people who sell, who buy to sell, who sell themselves to later go out and buy, and people who sell themselves without being able to buy anything.
Nothing divides opinion like Nairobi. To its official boosters, “If you make it in Nai, you can make it anywhere.” To detractors, it is a sunlit mortuary where “you can rot without feeling it”. And in so doing, Nairobi often plagiarises Lagos where, as Demi Ajayi writes in Finding Lagos A Jazz Tribute to an African City, dreams (may) take their time to fruition. And so the citizens of Lagos are best classified thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.
Enter the government
On 7 November 2013, then president Uhuru Kenyatta sought to fast-track the work of Morpheus, the god of dreams, by establishing Huduma Centres that aimed to improve services to citizens so that you could dream from any part of the country. For a long time, Nairobi was the nerve centre—anyone who needed anything had to know someone who knew someone who could do some things fast. The Huduma Kenya program took a multichannel approach, combining brick-and-mortar centres with digital service platforms to ensure that “citizens with differing levels of literacy and access to the Internet are reached while still keeping pace with the latest technological developments”. I know a pipe dream when I see one so despite applying for my driving licence at the GPO, I actually picked it up in Thika, just to game the system. Coincidentally, I went there (GPO not Thika) recently to take a brother, and for the last two or so months, the government has not lost any sleep in reminding me “the printer has broken down”. Of course, that could be code for anything: from the printer actually breaking down to someone somewhere needing his/her/their hands greased, and not by the national oil.
That’s another thing about Nairobi. You could get away with anything in this city if you knew what to say, and to whom, and perhaps crucially, how. Corruption suddenly seems more palatable when you call it “lobbying”. Prostitution? Sex work. Conman? No. How about businessman? If you are on the younger side, and people (or you) cannot explain your wealth, how about jumping on the Jesus bus and giving glory back to the Lord. How did you make all this wealth at 30 years old? “Ni God.” This is another way for Nairobi to exert itself, an appraisal of its moxie: success breeds largesse.
In his magical realism novel, Transparent City, Angolan writer Ondjaki (Ndalu de Almeida) deftly evokes the collusion of corrupt politicians and businessmen, the city’s ruling elite thus: “Whatever one of them understood about opening doors, the other knew about financial strategy, and if one of them immersed himself in national political intrigues, the other became a distinguished analyst of the nation’s economy.” He might as well have been referring to Nairobi’s who’s who, where everyone, it seems, is on the make, all trying to just live their lives, beat the system or grab a piece of the pie that is Nairobi.
This is the city of my father’s youth, and even the few remaining trees hold up their arms, yelling to God to save them but God is preoccupied with the president. And the deputy president. And the office of the spouse to the deputy president, and the office of the spouse to the president, and the office of the spouse to the Prime Cabinet Secretary. (If that doesn’t convince you that marriage works, nothing will.)
Nai iko restless, Nairobi has never settled
Everyone is worried about money in Nairobi. It’s our ugly personality trait, our anxiety buried deep under the second-hand Gikomba carpet. Some need it, some don’t need it, but everyone is worried. Experts are ignored, conmen are trusted, money is Jesus, corporations demand authenticity, the religious are, often, the most evil and the evil are, often, the most successful. Nairobi doesn’t have an anxiety disorder; it has a reality disorder. If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.
The Maasai may have named it “Enkare Nairobi” and taken the credit, but it is the colonialists who, with a clairvoyant touch, knew that this city was doomed from the start. (The Uganda Railway officials had not agreed on a name for the place as they were laying the railway. This was a site meant to serve as a depot before the engineers tackled the highlands and the Rift Valley—linking Mombasa and Uganda. It was simply called Mile 327—that is until an inscription on a signboard announced the place to be “Nyrobe”, borrowed from the Maasai, the name later metamorphizing to Nairobi.) A 1902 letter written by Sir James Hayes Sadler, the then Commissioner of the East Africa Protectorate, read in part: “Doctors are unanimous in condemning this site. They pointed out that it was a depression with a very thin layer of soil and the decomposition of animal matter was abnormally slow. It should be removed.”
Kenyan historian and journalist John Kamau posits: “The original city fathers wanted the place moved. Shortly after the swampy conditions induced a plague breakout in 1901, colonial medical officer Dr. W.H. MacDonald worried that the city was in the wrong place. In May 1903 Dr. Moffat, principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.”
Experts are ignored, conmen are trusted, money is Jesus, corporations demand authenticity, the religious are, often, the most evil and the evil are, often, the most successful.
By 1906, Nairobi had a population of 11,512. In 1969 Nairobi just had 500,000 people. The current metro area population of Nairobi is 5,325,000, a 4.02 per cent increase from 2022 which was 5,119,000, a 4 per cent increase from 2021. (The current population of Kenya is 55,100,586, a 1.99 per cent increase from 2022.)
Chosen for its centrality between Mombasa and Kampala, its network of rivers and its high altitude, Nairobi was the perfect place to house not only the British settlers, but also the thousands of Indian labourers brought to Kenya as cheap labour to work on the railway line. With such a flattering location, Nairobi grew big enough to become the railway’s headquarters. From then on, Nairobi, like a hooting train on a windy rail, has never taken a day off. Nairobi was stuck. Nairobi is stuck. Location, location, location.
Now, more than a century later—124 years if we are being pedantic—Nairobi is box on box, beside box. Once known as the green city in the sun, now Nairobi is one large mall with several smaller malls inside it, suffering from gigantism, constructionism and capitalism, a national inferiority complex, a monument to acute small penis envy. Nai is overcrowded, noisy and smells like a mass graveyard of stolen dreams.
Of course, Nairobi doesn’t entertain dreams. Nairobi is hurt people hurt people. Nairobi is that meme, emotional damage, a long con—nobody “wins” Nairobi. Remember that childhood game, “Simon Says”? Well, Simon says Nairobi provides the fire but you are the sacrifice.
Following job losses and the restlessness of living in cramped, tiny apartments during the lockdowns, some city dwellers packed up and moved to less crowded towns with spacious houses, greenery, and new opportunities. On Saturday 25 July 2020, my friends—and influencer couple—Ramzzy and Shiko Nguru announced that they had permanently moved from Nairobi to Kilifi. It’s cheaper too. Kilifi, my go-to town, charges me KSh10,000 for a one-bedroom. A decent studio apartment (née bedsitter) in Nairobi, with a window and (working) shower would demand I add KSh2,000 on top as well as a garbage fee, a security fee, a convenience fee… Nothing in this town is for free. According to the latest property listings in Meru, the rent for a spacious one-bedroom house in the Milimani area—the leafy suburbs—ranges between KSh8,000 and KSh10,000. An old flame of mine who lives in Nanyuki—and who I hope is not reading this—is paying KSh40,000 for a four-bedroom maisonette while I am paying half of that and then some for half her bedrooms. Which is making me reconsider… the rent, not the relationship. Location, location, location.
Once known as the green city in the sun, now Nairobi is one large mall with several smaller malls inside it.
Now I live in Nairobi as Nai also lives through me. From Ukoo Flani’s Dandora to Khaligraph Jones’s Kayole; Kalamashaka’s Eastlando to Camp Mulla’s NBO, Bamboo’s Buru Buru to Buruklyn’z Boyz Location 58, my Nairobi lives in music verses—Dynamq’s ‘Remember dem days in Nairobi, life was so nice you just had to see”; to Mayonde’s “Ain’t no city like my city Nai Nai Nairobi, mahustler na madame supu” to Bensoul’s Nairobi: “Naaaaiirobi, yule anakupea, pia anaipea, akikuletea, ananiletea, sote tunshare ogopa sana Nairobi.”—from a time when Nairobi was still in love with itself.
“Tulikam na dream ya kutoka kwa block
Yaani to get rich, tuomoke in short.”
The dream is to make it in Nairobi, where money buys nothing but comfortable suffering, then leave for another city. If you love something let it go—but would Nairobi even notice I am no longer around? Does it even care? Because everything has to have that subterfuge here. Nairobi’s lingua franca has become this tedious little code, which prevents anyone from ever saying exactly what they mean; for instance:
“Naenda hivi nacome.” “Tutafutane.” “Si ni me nakushow.”
This is the strange idiom of the city, like a liturgy with no service. Nairobi is a church without a God. And that’s really the great tragedy of this situation—that as Nairobi has become emptier and soulless, so have the people. But Prezzo had it right the first time. This is just how we do it. This is how we get down. I ain’t going nowhere. I am as much a part of the story of Nairobi as Nairobi is a part of my story. This is My City, My Town.
As I hailed a nduthi back home, I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful Nairobi day it is. Even the sun was gorgeous. All it lacked was a smile. In a way it was the perfect photograph for the human condition: we have been residents of Nairobi for many years, yet we are outsiders. So much so that the Treasury has formally proposed changes to the Employment Act, 2007 (in the Finance Act of 2018) to allow deductions of three per cent from employees’ basic pay to help fund President William Ruto’s ambitious plan to build low-cost homes. Both employers and employees will be required to each make a contribution of 1.5 per cent of the employee’s monthly basic salary to the fund provided that the combined contribution does not exceed KSh5,000 per month. Those not in formal employment or who are non-citizens may contribute a minimum of KSh200 per month. This is the ethos of a city (and government) that will trap you in a Chinese finger lock, so whether you move out or not remains inconsequential. This city will break you if you let it. Come in, make your money then leave. Get in, get it, get out. This is part of the city’s imprimatur. The wheel may be turning but the hamster is dead.
Fidel Castro and the African Dream
Under Fidel Castro’s leadership, Cuba found its mission and played its part in the African continent’s struggle for freedom and independence.
In late December 1961, a ship flying the Cuban flag docked in Casablanca, Morocco. In the Bahia de Nipe‘s cargo hold were 1,500 rifles, 30 machine guns, four mortars, and an undisclosed amount of ammunition. On board was a small medical team. Once the passengers disembarked and the cargo was unloaded, the Bahia started its journey back to Cuba, this time carrying 76 wounded Algerian FLN rebel soldiers and 20 war orphans.
Fidel Castro’s imprint is on almost every major revolutionary effort in Africa after 1959. To him, the anti-colonial dream was “the most beautiful cause of mankind”. As the 1959 revolution was sweeping through Havana, only two Sub-Saharan African country were independent: Ghana and Guinea. Within the next decade, tens of others would join them. Several would have to first battle colonial powers and then fight Cold War and regional proxy wars.
In these chaotic theatres of war, Castro made allies, and in turn Cuba became a key player in Africa’s future through military and humanitarian help.
The Bahia de Nipe, the ship that started it all, was built in Wilmington, California, in 1945. Just months before the Algeria mission, its captain and ten-man crew had diverted it to Virginia, United States and asked for asylum. The ship became the subject of a court case because it was carrying tonnes of sugar formerly owned by the poster child of American capitalism in Latin America, the United Fruit Company, whose plantations Castro had seized.
Even before he started sending boots to Africa in support of socialist revolutions, Castro was already an enigma who intrigued and scared Americans in equal measure. They became obsessed with killing him but failed to understand his motives until it was too late. His dedication to revolutions in Africa and Latin America was, to them, driven by a messianic attitude and an addiction to the adrenaline of revolutionary wars. But this was only partially true. Castro wasn’t just interested in conflict for its own sake; he also wanted to increase the theatres of revolutionary war against imperialism, reducing the focus on Cuba herself.
Castro found fertile ground for revolution in Africa’s anti-colonial wars and, in the Cuban leader, African rebels and governments found a friend who was sometimes too willing to help.
In 1963, for example, Cuba sent Algeria a 55-person medical team on such short notice that there was no one at the airport to meet them. The team didn’t have passports when they left Havana on 23 May 1963, and landed in the North African country without any warm clothes. They also had to fend for themselves for the first few weeks before everything, including their pay, was sorted out.
Cubans were scary because, one American negotiator would say years later, “they were as ready for war as they were for peace”.
Even countries such as Kenya—which by 1959 were already well on their way to independence—sent delegations to Cuba in the early 1960s. They had a different ask: help in training technocrats to handle the delicate, long-term work of statecraft. Despite making first contact in 1962, Kenya quickly became the bastion of capitalism in Eastern Africa, and distanced herself from Cuba and the Soviet Union. In fact, the East African nation only established proper diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2001, and opened an embassy in Havana in September 2016, after the US signalled a shift in relations.
In late 1964, the other icon of the Cuban revolution, Argentinian doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara, visited seven African countries, including Tanzania. In Dar-es-Salaam, Guevara met the leaders of the Simba Revolution—Laurent Kabila and his men. They were the survivors of slain Congolese icon Patrice Lumumba’s once popular support.
They planned to overthrow the new CIA-backed regime in Zaire. With a small unit of Cubans, Guevara joined them on the front but they lost once the CIA sent in mercenary forces from other countries. The well-documented defeat was one of the first major proxy wars between Cuba and the US. Guevara would later write that they lost because Kabila and his forces were unprepared and undisciplined.
Cubans were scary because, one American negotiator would say years later, “they were as ready for war as they were for peace”.
After the Zaire debacle, Cuba’s focus then shifted to Guinea-Bissau where, with Cuba’s help, rebels kept the Portuguese colonial government busy until 1974. Focus then shifted again, this time to another Portuguese colony in southern Africa: Angola. The immensely rich nation went into civil war immediately after attaining independence.
Three competing revolutionary movements jostled for power: the Soviet-backed MPLA found itself fighting the Zaire-backed FNLA and the South African-backed UNITA. Other countries, including Britain, East Germany, Yugoslavia, France, Romania Israel, China, North Korea, and the United States joined in what became a proxy war for southern Africa’s future. Although the MPLA was in power, it was losing control of large swathes of the south and the south-east to its enemies.
Faced with an existential crisis, the socialist MPLA asked Cuba for help. They had already done so once, in May 1972, when they met Castro and his war cabinet as he toured five African countries. His commitment was wavering until Zaire and South Africa invaded Angola in August 1975.
When Cuba began sending forces to Luanda, the Americans and South Africans mistakenly thought Castro was doing the Soviet Union’s bidding. They predicted that the Cuban effect would be minimal, so the only thing they did was to make countries deny Cuban flights landing rights to refuel. In response, Cuban planes flew lighter, making the 9,000km non-stop Transatlantic journey from Havana to Luanda. Most of them carried military and medical supplies.
Over the course of just three months, Cubans made 70 such flights to Luanda, and sent several ships to join in the war. Thousands of Cuban soldiers flooded into Angola on MPLA’s side, bolstering its position and shocking the South African fronts, who realised they had underestimated Cuba’s commitment. About this Castro would later say, “Given the distance between Cuba and Angola, our motto was: if we need one regiment, let’s send ten.” By early 1976, MPLA’s fortunes were changing; there were 36,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola, a staggering number that was a deliberate form of psychological warfare.
In the early 1960s, European and American spies failed to spot the Cubans because Castro sent mostly black Cubans on mission. They blended in well, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau, and the only quirk that gave them away was the growing popularity of beards and Cuban cigars.
Jonas Savimbi, the iconic leader of the rebel group UNITA, saw the intervention as “Cuban colonialism”. Unlike the other great powers however, Cuba didn’t seem to have any imperialist intentions. In fact, once the guns went silent, Cuban numbers reduced to 12,000 within months. Those who stayed were there to bolster the MPLA’s position as South Africa and Zaire remained hostile.
The apartheid government continued supporting insurgencies in Angola, and intervened again to help its allies in the 1980s. In August 1987, Castro again bolstered Cuban forces in the country, increasing them to 15,000 soldiers. The war culminated in the Battle of Cuito Canavale, a town in southern Angola, in 1988. With the help of South African forces based in Namibia, UNITA beat back the MPLA across the Cuito River and tried to pin them in the small town.
When South Africa blew up an important bridge over the Cuito River in January 1988, the Cubans built a wooden one that they called Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death). It was a play on one of Castro’s favourite quotes (and he had many in his famously long speeches): “Once a struggle begins there is no choice other than victory or death.” More than 4,000 Cuban soldiers would die in Angola’s battlefields, their greatest loss on foreign soil to this day.
There is little agreement on who actually won the battle of Cuito Canavale, and positions often depend on the point of history from which one is looking at the fighting. South Africa technically managed to attain its immediate goals, but soon realised that it was a war of attrition which it would lose either way. For South Africa, it had never been a war over Luanda, but over Namibia.
The apartheid government continued supporting insurgencies in Angola, and intervened again to help its allies in the 1980s.
For such a small country, Namibia carried the future of Southern Africa. A colony of South Africa at the time, it provided the buffer the apartheid government used to keep communism at bay, and busy, in Angola. South Africa rightly feared Luanda would become a base for rebel movements against the still existing colonies in the region. So the battle for Namibia—and southern Angola—became the true battle for the region. Throughout the war, the apartheid government made it clear it would only withdraw from Angola if the Cubans left. On the other hand, Angola demanded that South Africa leave both Angola and Namibia before the Cubans could leave.
Eventually, in June 1988, South Africa retreated and Namibia became an independent country. By November 1989, half the Cuban troops in Angola had left. In May 1991, two months before schedule, the last Cuban soldier boarded a flight back home. Three years later, South Africa also became independent, a process many believe was speeded up by the Battle of Cuito Canavale.
For Nelson Mandela and southern Africa’s true liberators, Cuban intervention in the Angolan war destroyed “the invincibility of the white oppressor”. Almost immediately after he was released in 1991, Mandela travelled to Cuba to personally thank the small island nation for its unparalleled help to Angola, and by extension “…the struggle for liberation of southern Africa”. His friendship with the symbol of militant socialism was criticised by those who saw him as a hero of nonviolent struggle, which in fact Mandela wasn’t. (Note that despite the lionising of Mandela in the West, the US kept him on its terror watchlist until July 2008.)
Like all revolutionaries, Castro was far from perfect. His legacy, especially political and economic, in Cuba itself is controversial but his dedication to the ideals of freedom make him one of the most important revolutionaries of his time. One person’s revolutionary is another’s terrorist.
For Nelson Mandela and southern Africa’s true liberators, Cuban intervention in the Angolan war destroyed “the invincibility of the white oppressor”.
Fidel Castro’s most conflicting legacy in Africa is his intervention in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict over the Ogaden region. Cuba and the Soviets helped wrest the Ogaden Plateau from Somalia in 1977; Cuba had 17,000 soldiers fighting for Ethiopia under Haile Mariam at the time. Even ignoring the controversies of the war itself, and how it impacted Somalia’s chaotic future, Ethiopia was at the time a colonial power at war with her subject, Eritrea. The presence of Cuban soldiers and Cuba’s tacit support kept the bullets flying, a clear contradiction for a man whose life’s work was to destroy imperialism.
History is conflicted about characters like Fidel Castro, who straddled two generations and did so much that it is hard to box them in. Here was a man, born into relative privilege, who chose to fight for a cause. From a small, mixed-race island nation, he promoted that cause against a global giant and her allies with little money and a poor economy undergoing excruciating economic sanctions. Castro made a mark in history that cannot be erased.
Of course, some countries such as Angola to whose cause Cuba sacrificed so much are under a new form of oppression. But that’s the thing about revolutions; one doesn’t mean universal and infinite freedom. It doesn’t mean the new powers will be perfect, and that a society will never again need a revolution.
Each generation has its own mission, and is cursed to find its own revolution. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba found its mission and played its part. Not just for itself, but also for a significant chunk of the African continent.
When he stood trial in 1953, Castro swore that history would absolve him. I think it already has.
Race and Empire: How Scientific Racism Shaped Kenya
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date.
Maureen was in labour when it happened. The stern nurse needed an answer, but she was in too much pain to think. Her body and mind were fighting each other by that point. Twenty-two years old and lying on a stretcher outside the theatre at Kakamega Hospital, she had never felt more alone. And the nurse wouldn’t let her be wheeled in until she signed the bloody forms.
“I can see in your file that you are HIV positive,” the nurse said again, unmoved, “You must have tubal ligation since HIV positive women are not supposed to give birth.” So she took the pen and signed, and then zoned out. When she came to, she was a mother. A few hours later, the child was dead. In her pain, she had signed away her right to ever have another baby.
That was in 2005.
Forced sterilizations of HIV-positive pregnant women first came to light in 2012, although it had been happening for decades. The report, Robbed of Choice, carries multiple stories like Maureen’s. Almost all the cases documented were of poor women in public hospitals and non-governmental clinics. It was our modern form of eugenics informing unofficial policy with real consequences; an attempt to clean up the gene pool by getting rid of those we deem unfit, or at least take away their right to reproduce.
Derived from Darwin’s theories and given its modern name by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in the 19th century, eugenics is more about class than race. Although the concept preceded that era, it gained a new, organised lifeline that only began ending in the late 1930s. In its origins it was about getting rid of the undesirables, not just based entirely on skin colour, but also on socioeconomic status. Among its pioneers was Frederick Osborn who viewed eugenics as a social philosophy deserving of some form of proactive action. To actively do this in politically sensitive times required tact, such as deliberately under-developing certain areas, refusing to invest in education and healthcare, and sometimes undertaking outright sterilization. Although it never gained mainstream government approval as the governing philosophy in the colonies, it influenced and provided propaganda for many racially-driven policies.
It was a eugenics organization where scientific racism would thrive, designed to prove that blacks were inferior.
In the utopia the colonial project envisioned, Kenyans would always be at the bottom of the social pyramid, with whites at the very top, and Asians in the middle as a buffer. But because Kenya attracted the British aristocracy, the class element was also important to the immigration policy regarding poor whites who were seen as undesirable. With hordes of eugenicists driving the colonial project, their ideas on class and social control infused themselves into the colonies in such core ways that they never left.
In July 1933, 60 white men and women gathered in a boardroom at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. Among them were medical doctors, executives, government officials, journalists, scientists and other prominent white people. There were also a few Indians in the room. Their common goal was to formalize a eugenics group that ended up with the lengthy name Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI).
Of the 60 people in that room, two emerged as the mouthpieces of the group. Henry Gordon and Dr FW Vint were both medical doctors who tried to use science to prove that whites are superior by nature. This was already at the core of the eugenics movement, but in Kenya it was only one part of the core structures of colonialism, which were built on the similar concept of “the white man’s burden”. Gordon was in charge of Mathari Mental Hospital, the only mental health institution in the country at the time. Even within the institution—established in 1910 as the Lunatic Asylum—access to facilities had always been segregated on the basis of race. Kenyans occupied the worst facilities in the 675-bed hospital, and Europeans the best. Up until the 1960s, all the members of the medical staff were European.
One of the main motivations behind the formation of the KSSRI was the growing clamour for better education for Kenyans.
While the group included people from many backgrounds and professions, it was medical science that provided it with the most potent propaganda; the group’s vice chairman was Dr James Sequeira, who was also the editor of the influential East African Medical Journal. The dominance of medical science and pseudo-science in Kenya’s eugenics movement was a result of the growth of British medical care in Kenya in the 1920s, as white doctors became essential to keeping Africans healthy so they could work for settlers and pay taxes.
In Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, Chloe Campbell explores how Gordon and Vint used science to try and prove that Kenyans did not possess sufficient innate mental capacity and hence should not be educated at the same level as their European colonizers. In one study, Gordon studied 219 Kenyan boys housed at the Kabete Reformatory. He concluded that 86 per cent suffered mental conditions, but even the rest couldn’t be considered okay without creating several grades of “European ideas of normality”.
In another study, Gordon tested 278 Kenyans—112 of whom had already been diagnosed with mental illness—for the venereal disease syphilis. When he found that more than half the group with mental conditions suffered from the disease, he concluded that it was the racial differences, and not the social and economic differences in the new colony, that caused the disparity.
This particular argument was not new; in a 1905 book, a settler had blamed Indians and Swahilis for the rise of venereal diseases in Kenya. He’d offered that “the healthiness of a place is greatly increased by not allowing any native habitations within a given distance of the white settlement”.
As a government pathologist, Vint focused his studies on correlating skull size with intelligence. He studied 100 skulls and arrived at the conclusion that Kenyans had lighter skulls and smaller pyramidal cells. In 1934, he concluded that Kenyan brains could not grow past the age of 18 years, and that they started decreasing in size after that. That was the same year primary education became mandatory for white children, while investments in the education of African children remained paltry. Vint’s work was meant to prove that there was no need of educating Kenyans because they did not have the capacity to grasp complex concepts.
After Gordon wrote about some of their findings in The Times, Louis Leakey responded with a letter attacking their methods and their conclusions, but not their premise. Instead, the Kenyan-born anthropologist argued, the feeble mindedness of the “African mind” should be attributed to “the lack of stimulation in the normal conditions of African life and to the fact that sexual activity began at a younger age, somehow inhibiting mental development,” Campbell writes.
Beyond the pre-existing issues with race, there had been another more immediate reason for the formation of the KSSRI in 1933. Just a few months before, the colonial government had hanged a 19-year-old white man, Charles William Ross, for the brutal murders of two young white women. Ross, who was born in Kenya, had killed the two women, thrown one body in the Menengai crater, and left the other at the top. As part of Ross’s defence, Gordon used an X-ray photograph of Ross’s skull to assert that he was criminally-liable because of “pronounced mental instability” that placed him somewhere between “feeble-minded” and “moral-deficient.” He was found guilty anyway, and hanged on 11 January 1933.
This were the same explanations Gordon and other psychiatrists applied to the entirety of the black Kenyan population, more so when they were involved in crime.
With the economic depression of the 1920s and the increasing education of Kenyans, crime rates had shot up in urban areas. Juvenile delinquency was of particular interest, and Gordon would go on to claim that the majority among his subjects in the study at Kabete had some education. The point was that they had been overwhelmed by British education. This was the “feeble-minded” argument, which also drove racially-motivated policies in the economy, healthcare and other facets of life, including the justice system. From the outset, the colonial system had set to educate Kenyans to be church-going technical workers and manual labourers, not free-thinking intellectuals.
The parliamentary discussion on the law that made sexual assault a capital offense laboured on whether it should be applied to non-Kenyans as well.
Interestingly, eugenicists also considered urbanisation to be one of the reasons for the increase in crime and psychiatric cases. In their thinking, urbanisation “detribalised the African and made him unmanageable”. It was part of the thinking that the African mind simply couldn’t handle too much change because it was not genetically wired to do so. Change destabilised their feeble minds and led them to crazy thoughts that they could ever upend the social pyramid. This thinking preceded and survived the official eugenics movement in Kenya which lasted from 1930 to 1937.
On the Christmas Eve of 1911, for example, the Machakos district commissioner wrote a lengthy report on “the mania of 1911”. It was the story of Siotune Kathuke and Kiamba Mutuaovio, who had led several acts of rebellion. Their sermons had supposedly inspired a widespread mania, as more people began to question the ordained order of things. Another good example is the commitment of Elijah Masinde, the founder of Dini ya Msambwa, in 1945. He was committed at Mathari for pretty much the same reasons that Siotune and Kiamba were exiled to the coast. When he was released in 1947, Masinde promptly went back to preaching the end of white rule.
Campbell notes that although the government didn’t fund the eugenicists’ work or officially base its policies on their work, it showed its support in other ways. One was the continued underdevelopment of Kenyans, and the other was more subtle, like giving Gordon a three-month leave from his work to go and try to win support from other eugenicists in London. The members of the KSSRI were also well connected; shortly after they founded the organisation, a group of them went to a ball held at Government House (now State House), which is the opening scene in Campbell’s book. But the movement could not have chosen a worse time to try to push for eugenics, as Hitler’s Nazi Germany employed similar ideas to devastating effects. Thus, the prominence of eugenicists in Britain and in colonies like Kenya diminished in the late 1930s for political reasons, but the ideas survived.
Another prominent figure in the pseudo-science of “African intelligence” was a retired doctor called JC Carothers, who succeeded Gordon at Mathari. He had submitted a widely-read paper on African intelligence to the World Health Organization when the colonial government turned to him to write what became “The Psychology of the Mau Mau”. Published in 1954, the report shows a slight change in the racist perspective regarding African intelligence. Where Gordon had focused on biology alone, Carothers expanded his scope to include environmental issues.
In resisting a common electoral roll, settlers argued that it was unfair to be forced to wait for Kenyans to catch up on the civilisation scale.
Turning his focus to the Kikuyu, who made up the majority of the Mau Mau ranks, Carothers thought that since the Kikuyu had had greater contact with their colonizers, “Kikuyu men have envied this power, not unnaturally, and have tried to capture it by learning.” Kikuyu women were not part of this because Carothers thought that “Her life … has suffered little change,” that her focus was still on agriculture and child-bearing, meaning she had lost her men who “have found themselves with money and powers which have virtually turned their heads. Power has come quickly to folk who are not … familiar with it”. These were Gordon’s ideas, with a dash of flair and some added flavour.
Louis Leakey was another instrumental scientist in that decade, helping counter-insurgency efforts in many ways. His best known effort was on oathing, arguing that the Mau Mau was led by brilliant psychopaths who had changed the oath’s meaning and even particulars. His counter-insurgency research and work may have actually escalated the war in 1952, which was one of his goals. Leakey thought that if he made the problem big enough, then it could be quickly addressed. He used his personal and anthropological knowledge of Kikuyu culture to devise a counter-oath that would free those who had taken the Mau Mau oath, and was core to the psychological counter-insurgency.
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date. They were notoriously anti-poor and anti-Kenyan, offering tokenism and hiding behind legalese. The Witchcraft Act, for example, banned many cultural practices by purporting to regulate them. It even made it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor.
After independence, the power and social dynamics espoused by racism switched back to class their roots, this time driven by a black, mostly Western-educated elite. The White Highlands went to a new class of supremacists, who quickly passed the Vagrancy Act in 1968. Under this law, you could be arrested and placed in a rehabilitation home if you were found walking in a posh estate with no money in your pocket and no known source of income. The Act had existed as the Vagrancy Regulations in the colonial system, only to be formalized when Kenyan elites started replacing settlers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it survived in our laws until it was repealed in 1997.
Using the lessons learned during the decade of the Mau Mau war, the new government launched a similar counter-insurgency against a secessionist movement in Northern Kenya. The model of brutality, concentration camps and spirited propaganda fit in the ’60s as it had in the ’50s, with added efficiency.
Combined with other laws and institutions such as the police, the colonial view of the base of the pyramid survives. It is why the introduction of free primary education and maternity healthcare as public goods was such a big deal. Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order. The paternalistic relationship between the individual and the state is still intact, as becomes clear whenever there is an internal threat to social order.
The forced sterilizations report points to how institutionalised eugenics survives. They were happening with tacit government approval, and targeted a class of “undesirables”. The sterilizations probably thrived in the first decade of HIV/AIDS in Kenya when there was official and social denial of the extent of the problem. We might never know their true extent, although a few of the institutions named in the report should not come as a surprise.
Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order.
One is Marie Stopes International, named for British author Marie Stopes. While Stopes is today regarded as a feminist pioneer, the major driving aspect of her birth-control advocacy was eugenics and not women’s rights. Her ideas about the poor are particularly worrying, as that is whom her clinics targeted from the onset. She was a lifelong eugenicist, who even disinherited her son Harry because he married a short-sighted woman. The other institutions named in the report—government hospitals—are still wallowing in under-investment and neglect.
Infused in post-colonial Kenya was not eugenics as a concept, but as a form of social control. It is many other things now by many other names, but it seems focused on further impoverishing those who are already poor while enriching those already endowed. A few might cross that socioeconomic divide, but many never will.
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