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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

16 min read. Naipaul’s racism appears to have been transactional right-wingery by one who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound. By A.K. KAIZA

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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)
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The first and only time I saw him, Sir Vidia looked frail. Face like a mask, pudgy fingers suspiciously handling the microphone, and eyebrows firmly chiseled in place, he looked as though he had been dragged to school on a day he would have rather stayed home in bed. That day, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was at Makerere University, replaying the character he had played four decades earlier, as misanthrope in residence. The Naipaul event was immediately after lunch on a late March afternoon. The sun was beaming down directly over the equator and I remember the hall being hot with precipitation.

It’s a decade now since that March 2008 afternoon. Looking back, it seems that V.S. Naipaul, sitting there in Makerere University’s Main Hall, looked like a piece of wood carving. Like one of those giant Chinese wood reliefs, there was his grand magnificence. The brilliance of his finish was outstanding. And this magnificence, this brilliance, was all the more magnified because he was forever on the verge of becoming, tantalising the audience with the possibility that this rendering might come alive.

Arrested in 2D by a physique in distress, Naipaul’s dyspeptic mien marked the entire afternoon. He kept sinking into his chair, till at the end of the event we could only see his head and shoulders. Perhaps he had come expecting a hostile audience. Perhaps it was the heat and the stuffy air. Maybe he had been unwell. Maybe it was the sight of us, a room full of black people.

A farcical afternoon. Exhibit A: What was Naipaul doing in Makerere? Who comes to Makerere anymore?  Even ten years before that, when I had been a student there, we had not thought we could rate a writer, even a third-rate one. And here was a Nobel laureate, Sir Vidia, in person.

Had he come to mock us – again? But seated there in plain sight, Mr. Naipaul looked done with mockery. He had mocked Trinidad. He had mocked India. He had mocked Africa. He had found Ugandans disgusting. He had been the founding CEO and majority shareholder of the flourishing global literary corporation of jibing sneers.

That was back in the day when he looked chipper, when Makerere – the university – had been of enough value to make a killing out of mocking.  By 2008, Makerere (“Maka Ray Ray” as Naipaul reportedly pronounced it) was too far gone for anybody to be interested in mockery or disdain. By 2008, the mocking of black people for profit had been tarnished for a while, which meant that the days of Naipaul’s unqualified standing as a brilliant truth teller were behind him. “Controversial” had replaced “brilliant”, “controversial” being what you call an oaf you are too fond of to let go despite mounting evidence of his oafishness. Even in its time, “brilliant” had been used by certain British right-wing media in a way that you felt meant Naipaul gave the n****rs what they deserved.

We, the few hundreds of us, and Naipaul, who we had all come to stare at, could not have been more mismatched. Right there you could understand why the first time round in the 1960s, Mr. Naipaul had been unenthused about actually having to live in Makerere.

We, as no doubt our fathers’ generation had been then, were not very impressive specimens. Too black for our own good, we were too frayed around the racial edges. We squatted at the university, unable to fit in with the masonry and the woodwork, which had been cut for Europeans.  Unaware of the value of glass windows and flush toilets, we had run down a once famous university. We came from the bush to line up for maizemeal and boiled beans in dining halls built for three-course meals with salad dressing.

There was everything imperfect about us. We had not invented the wheel. We had never manufactured steam locomotives. We still imported, rather than made, paper, which meant that we were still attempting to beat out novels on drums. Yes, we still did that, make drums, and still beat them. Civilisation was wasted on us. And outside the hall, footpaths crisscrossed the once immaculate green lawns laid out in the 1930s and 1940s by Oxbridge visionaries. Six decades after Prof. C.S. Turner transformed the technical school founded in 1922 into a university, tribalism had long become the most important criterion for staff appointments.

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

His was a complexity of prose, rather than of ideas, so why the effort? If he was gathering material for a book, why fly so far when he was already in his 70s?

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

And us? Why did we turn up? We had never been enthralled by any of the things he had said about us. The admiration we had for his prose style outstripped our love for his books. But we had admired him because we wished that the people with power liked us as much as they liked him. We wanted his good luck (which can look like agreeing with him). Were we self-flagellating too? Could we not have simply read his comments from the safety of our houses? Or was some sado-masochist strain still alive within us?

The collision was utterly unavoidable, a true literary crash. A room filled with the undesirable, coming to an unwanted event to see an unpleasant guest. And that, more rather than less, summarises Naipaul’s oeuvre. In this iteration, hostile questions from the audience: a university lecturer asking a clever question about Tagore, and Naipaul, sensing his Indian roots intruded upon, rapidly slaps it down. Poor chap, he had spent his life teaching V.S. Naipaul books, and had stayed awake all night choosing which question would be best for the event. Next, a Ugandan of Asian descent takes too long with the mic, speaking up too fondly, getting on Nadira’s nerves and deserving what was coming his way; Lady Naipaul cuts him cold and says, next question?

If nothing else, this ping-pong moment was it. Naipaul was in town, game on. Right on cue, Lady Naipaul took charge. She had become the moderator, leaning forward all afternoon while Naipaul slunk back in his chair. The real moderator must have wondered if he had come to the wrong stage.

Naipaul murmured his responses. One thing he said still rings clear in my memory. He said “Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.”

And then the hall emptied. Naipaul shuffled out. The thick entourage that had brought him in taking him out.

Like everyone else present, my journey to that afternoon had begun long ago, albeit in my case, not far away from that hall. Two decades earlier, I had gone to secondary school at Makerere College School, tucked inside the university itself, and read my first Naipaul book there. On the morning of his visit, I had packed my copies of Naipaul’s books, just like you do when you go to a speaking event and the author will be present, and afterwards you line up and confess your besotted heart, and the author, having to wear a droll, heard-it-all-before face, nonetheless signs the books with a flourish. I looked at my collection: a 1957 edition of The Mystic Masseur that I had procured from a flea market and the still fresh-smelling Enigma of Arrival reissued after the Nobel Prize of 2001. I recollected the contents of that, and of another book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (hatchet job on Naipaul by one-time disciple, the American writer, Paul Theroux).

I then remembered how the opening of The Middle Passage had alerted me to something alarming about Naipaul that only expanded in later books and became all you saw in him. Some things not even magnificent prose could conceal.

I left the books on the top of the workbench in my workshop and headed out for Makerere. Naipaul’s wife Nadira and the university’s literature department staff staged a praetorian guard around him, an impenetrable phalanx of reverence. Asking him to sign books was impossible. Naipaul looked like he would suffer a mental breakdown if an African spoke to him. By day’s end, he looked like he needed to see a doctor. Still, he might have persevered and signed the books, and you would have had to throw them away later.

There was something terribly Naipaulish about the university that stuffy afternoon. Eighteen years before, at the age of 14, when my journey to that afternoon commenced, I had read my first Naipaul, Miguel Street, on Makerere hill at Makerere College School. The edition I read had a foreword by Laban Erapu that mentioned Naipaul’s time in Uganda. I had assumed then that Naipaul was Ugandan.

Miguel Street – that sardonically cheerful primer, of which there had not been that many copies in the school – had exchanged hands many times among us kids and we talked much about it. It had been something of a staple. You had to know Miguel Street. Elias and the posse of Bogart et al, their comical putter, the mother with as many husbands as children.  A sing-song toned collection of stories, curious names, absurd accents. Miguel Street was the book from a man who had a twinkly view of life as a thing to be had to the full. We related to these tales. We laughed.

It was in this mind-frame that five years later, in 1995, I had picked up from the university library an old copy of A House for Mr. Biswas. I half-expected to find in this book the loveable characters from Miguel Street. Certain things were similar. Mohun went off to England, to study, as Elias had dreamt.

Back in the 1990s, with Empire still within striking cultural memory, we too had dreamt of going to English universities. We were starting off from the same place as Naipaul, his clutch of characters so recognisable to us, their sense of the future our own. You understood that fever in A House for Mr. Biswas.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts. What a Sir Hathorn Hall committed in Aden, or Trinidad, he repeated in Uganda – serial murderers leaving tell-tale signatures of their deeds dotted along the grim, imperial trail.

Naturally, we got Trinidad.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts.

Empire had taught us to believe in the same things and we had come to believe in them. We dreamt of red letter boxes. Oh, but these lucky red letter boxes lived in London.

As I read deeper, I began to protest. A House for Mister Biswas got heavy. Some leaded weight pulled down the mirth of Miguel Street to darker places. Still you soldiered on, expecting some lift, a sliver of sunlight. Yes, you would always remember Mrs. Tulsi. One day I thought I found her running a bakery in Kampala. And then I thought I met Mr. Biswas himself nursing big-time literary ambitions as a sourpuss editor in a newsroom.

The darkness in the novels was piling up, getting heavier, in that way readers know when the plot has advanced to that point where you size up the remaining pages and determine them too few for the story to work its way back to a different tenor.

I was young and not entirely appraised of what novels were capable of. As young readers tend to, I simply thought I had landed on the wrong novel. Another Naipaul might bring back that Miguel Street thing. In the meantime, A House for Mr. Biswas was teaching me just how serious novels could be. They could also detail stark-real ugliness. The novelist did not have to imagine, as a pot boiler author had to; he could simply observe. Mr. Naipaul made you see how it was possible to weld art into social reality. He made half a millennium of globalising history his material.

Naipaul could be called the Anti-Jane Austen. Miss Austen had examined the same history; you must see through her writing to know it is detailing crimes of history. But she had seen only the other side: the English manors, the indolence, the unbelievable wealth that the slave trade had made possible in the English countryside. She never questioned where the wealth of the characters in her novels came from. She never asked what those young men in need of a wife did when they went overseas. Naipaul laid out the exhibits.

The exhibits – the deformed progeny of Empire’s victims, the craven, the dehumanised – were his material (a Naipaul word). He looked with the dispassionate temper of a forensics expert. These novels were not for escapist reading. It seemed to me that this was as serious as writing would ever get. Naipaul’s craft made everybody else seem to be winging it, wanting it, sleight-of-hand bathos that quickly drained you of interest. Others write so their brilliance could be praised. Naipaul? His was meditation, a haloed temple of letters. He had convened a one-man caucus and solely written a constitution of looking. To have not seen the world as Naipaul had seen it was to have been guilty of sheer unconstitutional acts. The writer was chief justice, high priest.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

At the age of 20, when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, I could not as yet tell what that thing was, what had made Naipaul’s voice so stately, for I was sure that it was a stately voice. I had not found any of Miguel Street in it. Rather, I emerged from A House for Mr. Biswas overawed by grandeur. The plunge to pathos happened with the steadiness of a murderer strangling his victim. An unrelenting vision of dystopia.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

I was in my 20s when I got the full measure of Mr. Naipaul. By then, Uganda had begun to normalise; books were available once more and we had been liberated from borrowing dog-eared texts from friends and relatives. That was when I began to tell that the early books of Naipaul were fundamentally different from his later books, books of he wrote between his late 30s and into his 50s.

The overriding themes of the early books is escape from the colony. The barbs of later years were already there, the mockery, the casual racism; except back then Naipaul thought of them as jokes. The later books are about settling in, and once that project got underway, the books became about the world, its expansiveness. But also about sharpening. Mr. Naipaul begins to grind and file and sand his prose, the sharp defining of edges, the details focused on. His prose knows what to search for, with just the right emphasis, a few strokes that hint at a larger form without overstating. He was becoming a master craftsman.

The novels carry something extra, a certain uncheerful enjoyment even. Ralph Singh, the protagonist narrator of The Mimic Men, has that quality. The Mimic Men signalled the arrival of the man who would later write The Enigma of Arrival.

And then there were the travel writings. The Middle Passage brings to life the Caribbean in ways you, as an outsider, are grateful to Mr. Naipaul for, even though you have a pile of indictments against him. Then in India, in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul goes for broke. He writes with an urgency he has hitherto not displayed, nor will again. One feels, reading the travelogue, that Mr. Naipaul writes faster than he sees. He arrives in Bombay like a tightly-packed grenade, the ejector of a lifetime’s hearing, reading, expecting, ready to go off. This book defined Naipaul like no other. In comparison, there is something processional about The Middle Passage, a processionalness you find in his Caribbean books, novels and travelogues. Explosions, of theme and prose, don’t go off. But they contain the toxins and poisons that came out of Naipaul whenever he met black people.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

His first book on India may have been his most connected (Naipaul was drawn to India), but it was written by a man trapped in a certain view of colonial peoples. Even from the depth of Africa, we could tell that Naipaul failed to see that India was a bigger place than his commentaries offered. Jivan’s refusal to stop sleeping on the pavements despite having a job and owning a taxi is interpreted by Naipaul as India’s foolhardy attachment to the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text. To the rest of us, Jivan was displaying an imperviousness to colonialism’s and capitalism’s crass anti-metaphysics. For me, this vignette of Jivan was too two-dimensional. After all, by the 1960s, Naipaul’s view of “conquered” peoples was already antiquated, even amongst the ranks of colonial anthropologists, who had a more nuanced view of colonised peoples.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

In Naipaul’s world, we Africans are “Negroes” with “physique”, “nursing racial injustice”. There is always the hint of violence towards us when we appear in his books. In The Mimic Men, we show up at the British Council, garishly dressed up, the gold-rimmed spectacles Naipaul places on us are there so that they can clash against the darkness of our skins. We expect “sex” like a tribute, a right, because we are racially wronged. But that’s in the diaspora. In Africa, in A Free State (so now we come to Uganda, although the reason Mr. Naipaul came to Uganda in the 1960s was so he could write The Mimic Men), we are deeply indolent, with our bush ways and our lazy eyes. We are a backdrop to Europeans lives, and often the backdrop to breaking European marriages.

Deep into his career, Mr. Naipaul, like Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystique Masseur, adopted the identity of an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent that replaced his Caribbean intonation. Ganesh, the shape-shifting artist, remains an enigma in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Who is he? What does he mean? What indeed do these middling characters in Naipaul mean? They people his writing entirely, the Jimmy’s of Guerrillas, the characters upon whom instances are mounted? As if of necessity, the author is decidedly nasty to these sorts. They are de riguer (a la Naipaul), angry, pretentious, dangerous, always without fail, dark-skinned. Naipaul is afraid of them. He is also violent towards them.

Is understanding these mid-level characters key to understanding the politics of Naipaul? Why is Naipaul afraid of them? One clue, but no overall explainer, is that they have a politics. They are confronting Empire. They are the reverse of the Naipaul hero, if that is not an oxymoron. They are not enthusiastic about Oxbridge accents. They are not changing names from Ganesh Ramsumair to G. Ramsay Muir (a typical Naipaul joke of the earlier books). They are changing names from James to Haji or Ngugi.

But do we have a right to be brutal in our assessment of Mr. Naipaul? He was born at a time when Empire looked like extending and consolidating, rather than crushing. How deep did the psychology of that go? For him to have written as he did, to see the world through only one measure (Britain, Europe) – a measure in which other races failed to measure up, a measure in which being African (“bow and arrow people”), Arab (“Mr. Woggy”) was failure in itself, speaks of something other than penetrative insight. To not allow for the validity of a different world is to have been immensely delimited. But might Mr. Naipaul have escaped it? Was it necessary for him to have been the writer and the man he was in order for him to see with clarity?

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

It could be as simple as this: Mr. Naipaul was that all-too-typical, but special, victim of Empire, the favoured colonial subject. There was divide and rule – some colonised people were considered less savage than others, people who displayed almost-white qualities. These divisions marked the entire breadth of Empire, from the aristocrats of Buganda (convinced into collaboration by effusive British praise), to the Tutsi of Rwanda (whose position the Belgians tragically imperiled by calling them semi-white Africans), to the Singhala of Sri Lanka (treated more favourably than the black Tamils). In the Caribbean, the indentured Indian labourers were taken to the Atlantic, not as slaves, as the black Africans had been. It is very important to remember that. It was this thin substratum of Empire that tended to oppose liberation movements. They actively collaborated, often virulently, as in the case of Kenya, against fellow Africans, in the fight for independence.

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis. We may want to describe Naipaul in elevated terms, but his own unease once in India (he finds the land of his forefathers too unhygienic) speaks of this. The elevated elite in Empire knew that once they accepted the bribe of racial elevation, they would become accomplices. It was hence in their interest to perpetuate colonial rule, for once it ended, their position would become terribly exposed. The liberation fighters whom Naipaul mocks were a threat against the collaborator class.

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis.

When the worst came, the bargain was to choose the racialist humiliation because the patronising treatment at least guaranteed some goods. Mr. Naipaul’s English reviewers perhaps understood this – a brown man acknowledging the hegemony, affirming that the Empire was appreciated by the middle races (hence at least intelligent) as civilisation. They praised his books at a time when they were fighting a losing battle against their black subjects.

You could understand the racism of Joseph Conrad. But Naipaul? The relationship of his narrators to Europeans is telling. It is always to prove how they are better than white people. There are the clueless young white people whom his narrators are proud to dominate intellectually. The white women in his books have to be degraded; the violence and contempt with which his characters treat them appears like the acting-out of suppressed rage. White people are his main audience and he must show them how he is neither Negroid nor Indian. These are the people who either granted or denied scholarships to the Eliases of Miguel Street.

It was thus easy to be bullied into calling V.S. Naipaul a brilliant writer. But you had to have occupied his very position – to have had an ambivalent position towards the colonial project – to have called him so.  What you needed was just that much politic education to see that the 20th century was changed by the men and women despised in Mr. Naipaul’s books. To understand the minds of those who imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, you have to absorb Naipaul. His was one of the attitudes that had to be defeated for people of colour to become free.

It was important for me to go through Mr. Naipaul’s books after his death. But the realisation that I was reading him the last time in this involved manner, with the heat with which I once did when the writing was not yet done, when he was still around, was hard.

Now Naipaul’s forced racism – for it feels like that – does not really feel like that. Rather, it appears to be transactional right-wingery by a certain savvy type who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Politics

Why Colonial-Era Edicts Will Not Defeat the Coronavirus in Kenya

8 min read. In tackling COVID-19, the Kenyan government appears to be oblivious to the needs of the majority of citizens. What do “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” mean in urban areas where slum dwellers share a single room with half a dozen family members, and where the majority of people work in the informal economy?

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Why Colonial-Era Edicts Will Not Defeat the Coronavirus in Kenya
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Abraham Maslow once said that to those who only have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. The reactions of world governments to the coronavirus pandemic is proof of this. Around the globe, it appears that a one-size-fits-all basket of prescriptions – from closing borders to locking down societies – seems to be all the rage. Catchphrases like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” abound in international media reports and political speeches and proliferate all over social media.

Not to be left out, African governments have followed suit. Last week, the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, ordered all schools closed, forbade entry into the country to all but a few foreigners with residence permits and urged citizens to work from home, to wash and sanitise their hands, and to avoid crowding in public spaces, including transport. A few weeks ago, these measures would have seemed extreme. But not today, as the global advance of the virus sparks a stampede for the global system’s exits.

However, while the government’s rhetoric may make sense when viewed from a public health perspective, a closer look reveals the dangers inherent in blindly following the crowd. Take, for example, the situation in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Here, two-thirds of the city’s 4.4 million people are crammed into informal settlements, which cover just 6 percent of its land area. Within these crowded slums, entire families are forced to share single-room dwellings. With no running water, conditions are unsanitary and disease is rampant. Many slum residents work in the informal economy, running small businesses or providing casual labour to nearby rich and middle-class housing estates or to factories in the industrial areas. Few have job security or get sick leave.

The city’s public transport system is similarly crowded, unsanitary and chaotic. It is dominated by matatus – privately owned minibuses in which passengers are routinely packed shoulder to shoulder for journeys that, thanks to the city’s horrendous traffic, rarely last less than an hour. Another popular means of getting around are boda bodas or motorcycle taxis, where passengers share filthy helmets (when available) and can sometimes squeeze three to a bike.

In these circumstances, what do concepts such as “social distancing” mean? How practical is it to ask people to work from home? How exactly is someone who shares a single room with half a dozen other family members be expected to “self-quarantine” if they were to fall ill with symptoms associated with COVID-19? How are they to avoid infecting their neighbours or make it to the city hospitals – themselves hopelessly overcrowded and unsanitary at the best of times – without spreading the infection?

These practical considerations do not appear to have troubled President Kenyatta and his mandarins as they regurgitate the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), which seems to take Western lifestyles as a template for life in the rest of the world. Perhaps this is because the government is fond of issuing “directives” when dealing with social issues, rather than consulting with its citizens. For example, researchers have noted that “approaches to reducing exposure to air pollution in informal settlements…have very little input from the people they target. As a result, they may have a low rate of acceptance”.

The people making decisions exhibit little awareness of or acquaintance with the realities of everyday life for the majority of urban Kenyans. Safely ensconced in their gated estates, accustomed to having the roads cleared for them and to being treated in well-equipped private hospitals (when they have opted not to fly abroad for medical treatment), these folks have no qualms about simply repeating the dictates from global elites. From where they sit, it can seem quite reasonable to propose that those in self-imposed quarantine have their own separate room and bathroom at a time when access to a flush toilet and piped water is a luxury for many of their fellow countrymen.

Public health in the colonial economy

The lack of appreciation for the circumstances of their fellow citizens stems from the fact that for over a century, Kenyan elites have been happy to exploit their poor neighbours for their cheap labour while doing little to invest in public services. The model was made during the colonial period. European authorities were not overly concerned with the health of the African population. In a 1987 paper titled “The 1920s Anti-Yaws Campaigns And Colonial Medical Policy In Kenya”, Marc Dawson notes that prior to 1920, “colonial medical officials were not responsible for the health of the bulk of the African population, only for caring for the health of government employees and European settlers and ensuring that epidemic disease did not disrupt the colonial economy”.

These practical considerations do not appear to have troubled President Kenyatta and his mandarins as they regurgitate the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO)…Perhaps this is because the government is fond of issuing “directives” when dealing with social issues, rather than consulting with its citizens.

Thus the focus of the colonial government was on ensuring that Africans did not carry diseases to work and did not threaten the health of Europeans, not that they were themselves healthy. For example, the outbreak of plague in Kisumu in the first decade of the 20th century elicited a quick response because of the potential for economic disruption, as well as the threat to the small European population. One can see a similar dynamic in the treatment of the poor in Nairobi’s slums today. Like the Africans in colonial Nairobi, their presence in the city is only tolerated because their labour is required. While typically their lives are blighted by disease and squalour, the government is not interested in them unless their illness poses a threat to the economy.

The response of the colonial authorities to the Third Plague Pandemic, which broke out of China’s Yunnan Province in the mid-19th century and spread globally via European steamships and merchant routes, is also illustrative. The pandemic reached Nairobi in 1902, where an outbreak led to the burning down of the Indian Bazaar, the city’s first business district. Nairobi would suffer frequent plague outbreaks over the next two decades. The persistence of the plague, according to Owaahh, “stimulated the first official town planning efforts for Nairobi, although most of the efforts were to segregate Indians whose sprawling townships were thought to be breeding grounds for carrier rats”.

In 1914, a report prepared by Prof. W. J. Simpson proposed not just the segregation of residential and commercial centres, but also, according to the book Indians in Kenya by Sana Aiyar, a “neutral belt of unoccupied land of at least 300 yards around European areas to ensure the healthfulness of the locality”. Following the outbreak of plague in Kisumu in December 1904, according to Health, State, and Society in Kenya by George Ndege, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies declared that “great care should be exercised in the selection of sites for settlements, in keeping the native and European locations well apart”. Over the years, this segregation of the races has morphed into the class segregation that is a feature of Kenyan cities today.

To tackle the plague, the colonial authorities imposed harsh measures, including forced vaccinations, house burnings and quarantines. The Africans who bore the brunt of these measures were rarely consulted and quickly became loath to cooperate or to report plague cases in their homesteads, knowing it meant the destruction of their homes. This tendency to talk down to the people and to issue directives rather than consult with the citizens has been inherited by the current Kenya government.

Another colonial trait is the preference for quick, short-term fixes rather than long-term investments. When the first mass health survey of the African population was carried out in 1915 in the form of medical examinations of male conscripts for the Carrier Corps, the results sufficiently alarmed the authorities about the poor health situation in the African reserves from where they drew their labour. The main culprits were yaws and heart disease. The long term and more expensive solution would have been to improve the quality of life, especially as yaws has been described as a disease of poverty.

To tackle the plague, the colonial authorities imposed harsh measures, including forced vaccinations, house burnings and quarantines. The Africans who bore the brunt of these measures were rarely consulted and quickly became loath to cooperate or to report plague cases in their homesteads, knowing it meant the destruction of their homes.

However, while the 1920s anti-yaws campaign represented a first attempt by colonial medics to expand provision of healthcare beyond government employees to rural Africans, the government and physicians still chose to do it on the cheap. As Dawson notes, “rather than raising the living standards of the rural population (prevention), the colonial authorities tried to cure the population of yaws with injections of a drug of uncertain property”.

Similarly, to date the government has done little to raise living and sanitary standards in the slums. The big promises of slum upgrading have turned out to be little more than either looting schemes or empty talk. Many of the informal settlements that sprung up to house unwanted Africans when the colonials ran Nairobi persist to this very day. And while there will undoubtedly be a concerted effort to combat the coronavirus outbreak, it is unlikely that there will be any determined effort to improve livelihoods and eliminate slums.

The Spanish flu in Kenya

The next big foreign-born disease to hit Kenya in the colonial period was the Spanish flu, the deadliest pandemic in history. Originating in the United States and transported to the killing fields of World War I by American soldiers, the pandemic circled the globe, infecting between 3 and 5 per cent of the world’s population, including people in remote Pacific islands and the Arctic. It cut life expectancy around the world by about 12 years.

An interesting similarity with the current coronavirus epidemic is that the disease at the beginning was “mild, the mortality not unusually high”. Preoccupied with the events of the war, the first wave of the flu went largely unnoticed and it wasn’t until it started killing people in large numbers that the world paid attention. But by then it was too late. By the time it was brought under control, it had killed about 50 million people, more than had died in the war. And remember, this as all before the age of international commercial air travel.

The flu hit East Africa in two waves, the first beginning September 1918 and another in late 1919, killing at least 155,000 people, or an estimated 5.5 percent of the African population in Kenya. Again the reaction of the colonial authorities was largely driven by concerns over the loss of African labour. For example, as related by to Kirsten Moore in her 2013 paper, “Placing Pandemics: History of the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemics in Kenya and Uganda”, “the District Commissioner of Voi cited the influenza epidemic in arguments for a permanent native hospital, saying, ‘it is absolutely essential that adequate hospital provision be made to deal with sick labourers from […] Estates and Railways.’ A native hospital was up and running in Voi by 1921”. She points out that the pandemic was killing off African labour, “just as an influx of British settlers came to establish large, labour-intensive estates. Facing significant war debts and the prospect of bankruptcy, the administration depended on these new plantation enterprises to revitalise the economy”.

Again, it is clear that concern for the health of the natives was not the driving force behind the colonial provision of medical care to Africans. A century later, facing another epidemic, the Kenyan elite is showing itself to be similarly oblivious to the needs of the African majority and is really only concerned about its own economic and political interests.

Sink or swim together

Ironically, just as the colonials imported plague and influenza pandemics into Kenya, it is largely the wealthy, those with the means to travel abroad, who have brought the COVID-19 pandemic back to Kenya. Yet, as with the previous diseases, it is the poor, who did nothing to bring on the crisis, who will get to bear the brunt of both the disease and the government efforts to contain it.

However, there is a critical difference. As the pandemic exposes the systemic weaknesses in Kenya’s healthcare system, the shutdown of the global system means there is no escape for the wealthy who have profited from the plunder and neglect of public services. They will share the fate of the rest of the society. Thus, allowing the pandemic, whether through negligence or incompetence, to become established in the slums, will inevitably be fatal for the elite themselves.

A century later, facing another epidemic, the Kenyan elite is showing itself to be similarly oblivious to the needs of the African majority and is really only concerned about its own economic and political interests.

Since the virus threatens all, both rich and poor, it will require a whole society effort to confront it. Top-down directives will not suffice. In any case, after decades of hollowing out the state from within, the ability of the governing elites to enforce them is severely compromised. Thus it will be critical to work with communities to translate WHO advice into practical protocols that cater to the daily realities of the majority of the population rather than to the global imaginings of a privileged few.

In the short term, it is likely that the political elite will get its act together and do what is necessary to contain the pandemic. However, it is hoped that the lessons of history will not be quickly forgotten once the pandemic has passed. Maintaining a system predicated on inequality and the neglect of public services endangers everyone, not just those at the bottom of the pyramid. Kenyans, regardless of their station in life, will all sink or swim together. They can no longer afford to keep a colonial system where so few get so much at the expense of so many.

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Religion in the Age of Coronavirus

13 min read. If we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is that the miracle and faith-healing industry in Kenya is nothing but a sham and that prayers alone will not solve the country’s imminent health crisis.

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Religion in the Age of Coronavirus
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Our world, as we know it, has been turned upside down by the coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus has not just exposed our fragility as human beings, but has also raised our awareness of our interconnectedness as people sharing one planet with viruses and microbes.

First identified in China in November 2019, COVID-19 has since spread to more than 100 countries worldwide, including Italy, the USA, UK, Germany and 24 African countries so far.

The magnitude of this pandemic, as well as its fast geographical spread, has not only paralysed both rich and poor nations, but also caused global panic, creating gripping fear for our lives. On March 11, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 a pandemic. At the time of writing this article, the pandemic had killed 8,000 people and infected 200,000.

The virus, which experts says is most certainly passed from animals, in this case the bat, has already infected seven people in Kenya, if the government reports are anything to go by. Other African countries that have reported its presence include South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. For many Kenyans, it was not a matter of if, but when the virus would strike. The country is a major travel hub in East and Central Africa, with nearly every major global airlines stopping at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi.

After seemingly dilly-dallying for some time, President Uhuru Kenyatta, finally, on March 15, ordered schools and institutions of higher learning to close. He also banned political rallies and religious gatherings.

However, despite the ban, on Sunday, March 15, Kenyan churches were packed to capacity with throngs of people, apparently oblivious of the coronavirus pandemic and the risk of spreading the disease. They (the churches) dulled the congregants’ fears and cried to God for protection. My neighbours even held a prayer fellowship in my neighbourhood to pray against the demonic virus as many have christened it, except that COVID-19 is not a demon.

In a country whose easy dalliance with the supernatural is legendary, this is not surprising. In moments of political, social and ecological crises, Kenyans turn to God, supposedly for guidance. Such challenges are seen through the prism of religion. In a country with a highly educated and exposed population, pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDs are still said to be caused by the devil and other dark forces. Even when science is very clear on the genesis of the viruses, the majority of Kenyans and other people elsewhere will still interpret them as the invention of the devil. Not surprising in a country where nearly 85 per cent of the population is Christian.

Kenya, in particular, is a highly religious country with diverse religious groups with high levels of religious participation across various religious traditions. Belonging and participating in various religious activities is essentially important to many people across the country. A 2015 study showed that for 95 per cent of Kenyans, faith informs how they conduct their daily lives.

Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic that has already heavily impacted all of us. Already, the virus has killed 19 priests in Italy, which sadly means that no one is immune from the virus, not even our religious leaders.

Similarly, no amount of prayers and faith healing could cure this virus. African Christians have been praying for a cure for AIDS/HIV and Ebola for decades not but not a single person has certainly been cured of these dangerous viruses. The same logic should apply to COVID-19.

This is not to say that prayers and faith don’t work. Neither does it mean they have no significance in the lives of people. Faith is the glue that holds people together in moments of crisis like this. It is also a purveyor of hope in moments of immense anxieties and fears. Yet, in times of global pandemics like the coronavirus, science and medicine would seem the more reliable solution. After all, it is science that has continually sought cures for these epidemics. The antiretroviral drugs and the Ebola vaccine (not prayers and demon-bashing) have given a new lease of life to millions of people around the world. It is also science that will come up with a cure for COVID-19, not miracles and faith healing.

Given the important role of religion in the lives of millions of people, it is important that we change how we practise our faiths in the face of this global pandemic…

Yet, science and religion are not enemies, neither are they in competition with each other. There is nothing wrong with people praying and casting out the demons of disease if that is how they understand it, even as they wash hands, self-isolate, self-quarantine and maintain social distance, as advised by science and medical practitioners. Faith and science should not be in contradiction with each other. Each plays important and significant roles in our lives. Faith and prayers hold us together in hope and community while science tackles the virus in scientific and practical ways.

Yet, the easy resort to religion and prayers as the only solution during times of crisis like this is not only problematic but is also risky and reckless. It takes away our focus from holding our negligent governments accountable. The Kenyan healthcare system has been struggling for decades, but the ruling elite does not care because it can afford to seek the best medical care abroad. Our blind religious faith does not allow us to question the massive inequality in our healthcare system, in particular, and in Kenyan society in general. We also do not ask why the poor lack sanitation and why they live in dehumanising conditions.

The national day of prayer and other diversionary tactics

This is not a far-fetched assertion: Every time we are faced with a crisis as a country, the government, in collusion with religious leaders, call for prayers. Saturday, March 21, 2019 was slated as a national day of prayer by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who asked Kenyans to pray for forgiveness. Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?

It seems to me that the government wants to divert attention from its inept and tardy response to the pandemic, while religious leaders are seeking for relevance and respectability at a time when the virus has rendered them impotent. The national prayer day called by the government is meant to dull our anxieties. It is a diversionary tactic to manage the public’s fears and soothe our anxieties as we are socialised not to squarely put the blame where it belongs: on the government.

Kenyans who have suffered years of neglect and broken healthcare systems must ask what we are repenting for. Who between Kenyans and the government should be repenting for the sins of the nation, for the inaction, corruption and bad governance that have seriously put our health at risk for decades?

Across the world, religious leaders are making hard and painful decisions to close their worship sanctuaries. Because religious services, by their very nature, bring together large groups of people, houses of worship in Africa are potential hubs for virus transmission. In developed democracies, religious leaders are scrambling to understand the COVID-19, even as they as find ways of protecting their congregations, while African clergy are either denying the virus or praying against the demons that cause the virus.

In Saudi Arabia, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca’s holy sites have been substantially reduced. The Vatican is streaming mass on television. Rabbis in many parts of the world are discouraging their followers from hugging and shaking hands. These are hard and painful decisions, but practical and important measures to keep followers alive.

Secondly, there is evidence in South Korea that the virus spread quickly because of the social interactions of the worshippers. South Korea was the first country to report significant coronavirus infections outside of China. In New Rochelle in New York, a synagogue, as reported by Slate.com, was the centre of an outbreak of coronavirus that eventually led to the summoning of the National Guard.

In Houston in the US, the world-renowned Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, which attracts upwards of 50,000 people, has closed his church. Similarly, the famous megachurch pastor T.D Jakes of Potters House suspended church services for his thousands of followers.

Church business as usual in Kenya

While there were only seven confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kenya, by the time of writing this article, there was general panic in the country, which suggest that everyone should avoid crowds. Yet, religious leaders across the country have yet to cancel church services. Only the All Saints Cathedral, Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Nairobi Chapel, Mavuno church and Jamia Mosque had suspended mass worship by the third week of March. Instead, many have provided water and soap for members to wash their hands at the entrances of the church compounds. While washing hands has been suggested as one of the ways to fight the virus, it does not cancel the benefits of social distancing. Are religious leaders feigning ignorance about the latter, or are they simply turning a blind eye to this important measure? I posit a number of theories to explain this lackadaisical behaviour.

First, church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities. This is the logic that underlies the majority of spiritual spaces, especially those that are prosperity gospel allied, where the church founder’s main concern is not to build a community, but to make money.

Second, Kenyan churches are generally small and crowded in mostly poorly ventilated buildings and semi-structures. Except for mosques, and the more established mainstream churches, the majority are in bad condition. Many Pentecostal/evangelical church services, for example, are held in tents or shelters made of iron sheets and with poor sanitation. These are hotbeds for the spread of the disease.

Why are the majority of Kenya’s popular churches in such dilapidated conditions? Why don’t tithers demand for safe and healthy spaces of worship? Don’t the poor tither have dignity? These are questions that the Kenyan religious population need to interrogate!

Church spaces in Kenya are not about people; they are about the church founders who use the tithes and offerings to enrich themselves and live a life of luxury. They are never about people-centred theologies or a gospel of social justice, but about personalities.

The majority of Pentecostal clergy rarely invested in building decent churches because they don’t think about the comfort and welfare of their members, but only about offering and tithes. Prophet Owuor of the Ministry of Repentance and Holiness, for example, hires school venues and tents, where his followers meet on Sundays. The reason he has given his followers for not building a permanent sanctuary is that Jesus Christ is coming back to rapture the church, hence there is no need for a physical church. However, he built himself a palatial home, complete with a bunker, where he can self-quarantine himself, while the millions of his followers who live a life of squalour can easily die from the coronavirus infection. Many other big and smaller churches have not invested in building decent spaces of worship yet their founders live in opulence and luxury. It is about them, not the people.

Yet the behaviour of the clergy in Kenya is hardly surprising. Rather, it mirrors class divisions in a country where religious elites, just like their political counterparts, have created heaven on earth for themselves, while ordinary Kenyans live in hell. The Kenyan clergy, just like our politicians, does not care for its members. It uses them to ascend to power (political and religious) and respectability. This is why the status of our churches mirrors the status of our public hospitals and schools and informal settlements. Many of our public facilities, just like many houses of worship, are in terrible condition, with no running water and poor sanitation. Yet pastors rarely raise the issue of the sorry state of our broken healthcare systems, even though some churches have built a semblance of health clinics to provide some form of medicare.

More importantly, religious leaders do not want to call off church services because they will be rendered irrelevant. Many a clergy use the pulpit, not just to mint money, but also to prop up their egos and advance their social status. The clergy are in the business of making money. Many churches in Kenya, particularly those of Pentecostal and charismatic church inclinations, are run like business enterprises, so closing a church has serious financial implications. In Africa, the church is an enterprise, just like the stock market: and their owners are afraid that their business empires will crash like stock markets.

Third, there is a fear that COVID-19 will expose the clergy’s dark underbelly and call to question Africa’s faith-healing and miracle industry. For so long, religious leaders have trafficked in miracles and faith-healing. COVID-19 has rendered them incapable of healing the sick and incapable of praying away the coronavirus. In fact, the virus has rendered them impotent and fragile; they have no power to pray away the disease or perform dubious miracles.

Fourth, the clergy has been averse to scientific discoveries because science makes their miraculous shenanigans questionable. Prayers for healing have not calmed a shocked and scared populace. Many a clergy has frowned on science, medicine and theological education, instead spiritualising even non-spiritual matters as serious as the coronavirus pandemic. Science shakes the foundation of their spiritual teachings. After all, and in the case of this pandemic, science has proved to be more practical and reliable than faith.

These fly-by-night pastors have also trafficked in guilt and false prophecies to shock people into a particular way of being religious. Self-proclaimed Prophet Owuor has trafficked in fear-mongering threats, and has even claimed that he had prophesied the pandemic. He also said it would kill people in Asia because the continent rejected his prophecy. In Kenya, a section of the public has cajoled him to unleash his “mighty prophetic powers” to fend off the virus. They have also called on him to pray it away.

Apostles James Maina Ng’ang’a’s video on coronavirus – where he is unable to pronounce the word coronavirus – showed not just his sheer ignorance, but also how ill-equipped he and his ilk are when it comes to offering solutions to such complex 21st-century problems.

A Meru-based Pentecostal clergyman with a huge following angered many Kenyans when he said that coronavirus is a global hoax and that God has instructed him not to cancel church service because there is no coronavirus.

Fifth, many of the clergy have not built an infrastructure that would enable them to continue their ministry in times of crisis like this. While many pastors have invested in TV stations, radio frequencies, social media pages, YouTube and websites, the intention has always been to win souls and tithes that will make them more powerful. Investing in sound infrastructure that would have allowed them to go online or on radio or televised church services at times of crisis like this was never part of their plan because their short-sightedness does not allow them to rethink about ministry for 21st-century challenges, including climate change and its links to our health. The available infrastructure has been mainly directed at international audiences, not local congregations. It has also never been about their congregations but about how they can use such platforms to minister to gain respectability, online audiences and donations.

The question is, where is that spiritual power to perform miracles and heal people of coronavirus when we really need it? Prophet Owuor, who claims to have caused the virus because the world has rejected his gospel of fear and threats, is impotent. A couple of Sundays ago, he preached without an interpreter, as many of his followers wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other for fear of catching a disease he supposedly brought to the nation for rejecting his message. His sermons have always been fear-inducing. He preachers about a dreadful God who kills people on a whim. It is interesting that a man who claims that the clouds clap for him and the glory of God descends on him while preaching cannot pray away a global pandemic that can infect him and his retinue of thousands of followers in Kenya and beyond.

More importantly is that religious leaders are no longer the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the nation and defenders of social justice. It is about them and not the vulnerable. I have not seen any statement or press conference by the interreligious forum or the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) or the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya or the Conference of Catholic Bishops to assure a nation in a moment of deep fear and frustrations.

Yet, many leaders have the audacity to force members to go to church. Where is the voice of religious leaders in Kenya? Who will call out the government’s bluff for putting the lives of Kenyans in extreme danger? Where is Prophet Owuor, Kenya’s “spiritual president” who “resurrects the dead” and claims to have prophesied about COVID-19? Where are the miracle workers who claim to have the powers to delete HIV/AID, cancer, and diabetes? The refusal of many churches to cancel church services must be questioned by all. But even more importantly, the Kenyan religious community must defy their clergy and stay at home for their own health and that of their families and communities. I suggest that in light of this moment of great social anxieties, all religious activities must be cancelled to help contain the spread of the disease.

Exposing the sham

If there is anything we have learned from this experience, it is that the miracle and faith-healing industry is nothing but a sham. No religious leader has the power to heal you. Science is our only hope. Going to church right now is not just the height of spiritual carelessness, but also an act of foolishness. When the virus is under control, we can all troop back to our houses of worship.

In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus. They have asked communities of faith to change not just their usual religious practices, but their worship as well. Parishioners are not only conducting mass online but offering online prayer support and educating congregations about the scientific ways of mitigating the virus.

More importantly, they have come up with spiritual resources to help their followers remain spiritually connected during such times. These clergy and churches are institutions that are congregation-centred, not individual-centred. They have invested in infrastructure for a coronavirus pandemic and 21st-century challenges. For such churches and congregations, God is not found in a physical church, but everywhere and God does not speak to the clergy alone.

There is need to deinstitutionalise the church and question our high dependence on the so-called men and women of God. We must re-evaluate their moral and intellectual standards, and we must critically debate the theological foundations of the church in Kenya.

In developed countries, pastors have been at the forefront of ministering to their congregations at home. Many have come up with innovative ways of being Christian in the age of the coronavirus.

The Kenyan Christian needs to be socialised not to depend so much on the clergy. God does not live in church but is everywhere. No clergyman has the monopoly and direct line to God. God lives in our minds and hearts. We can have church with ourselves and our families. The pastor has no magic to ward off coronavirus. He is as afraid as you are. But he can be a voice of hope and reason.

Many churches and clergy have denied science and climate change. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are the fastest growing churches in Africa, Latin America and Oceania, have always been at odds with science and climate change. One of the effects of climate change is the spread of pandemics like this. As human beings, we share the world with viruses and they attack us. Yet we have refused to be good stewards of the environment and we have denied climate change despite tremendous scientific evidence about its links to our human body.

The sheer magnitude and fast spread of the virus has paralysed the world and caused huge fear and confusion. For many religious people, it has caused an ecclesiological conundrum. Fear and confusion have taken over reason. Yet scientific data available calls us to do things differently; wash hands, minimise unnecessary travel, stay home while sick to reduce infecting others, keeping social distance, avoiding large crowds, such as church services, and maintaining social distance.

Different ways of being religious

What does it mean to be church in the age of coronavirus? How much should it matter that we continue to physically gather in spaces of worship in the midst of a pandemic that by its very nature is anti-crowding? Isn’t it the wise thing to do that the clergy should call off all religious activities to save lives and avoid mass spread of the pandemic? Is it not a death sentence to encourage people to go to church at such a time as this? Does it make any sense at all for people to continue to troop to churches, and other spaces of worship for prayer, fellowship and community making, when such actions put people in serious danger? Why do pastors have such a hold on peoples’ abilities to think? Is God only found in churches and mosques? Why are Kenyan churches clergy-centric and not people-centric? Can the African and Kenyan clergy spring to action and guide their congregations and provide the much- needed leadership in an era of crippling fear and uncertainties?

For many religious people, this time calls for many ways of being. It calls on us to deinstitutionalise faith and rethink innovative ways of being spiritual communities. It calls on us to decentralise the role of a clergy that does not think about us but about themselves. It calls on us to give science a chance, even as we continue to pray and hope and take care of each other. Taking care of each other is a spiritual exercise. This is the time to be good neighbours. This is the time for us to think about compassion and empathy, After all, science and faith are not in contradiction with each other.

Now is the time to ground ourselves in a gospel of social justice, not fake miracles and questionable cures.

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Unfair Trade: How Dutch Rose Growers Avoid Paying Taxes in Kenya

14 min read. Dutch growers who dominate the flower sector in Kenya were already in the news because of environmental violations and poor employment conditions. Now, as investigative journalists Romy van der Burgh and Linda van der Pol found out, they are also being accused of avoiding taxation in Kenya while proudly wearing the “fair trade” badge.

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Unfair Trade: How Dutch Rose Growers Avoid Paying Taxes in Kenya
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A wide tarmac road winds around the freshwater Lake Naivasha, about a hundred kilometers away from the capital city of Nairobi. A stream of heavy traffic manoeuvres from one side of the road to the other in order to avoid the large potholes – sometimes half a meter deep. Drivers of matatus (minibuses) often prefer the dirt tracks on either side of the road, where the chance of a tyre blowout is less likely. Occasionally, individuals are spotted putting their lives at risk pushing a wheelbarrow with stones onto the road to seal a pothole.

The condition of Moi South Lake Road stands in contrast with the well-paved roads that branch from it and lead into fenced compounds manned by armed guards. The flag of Dutch professional football club, Feyenoord, flutters behind one of those gates. The flower farms that are nestled in between Moi South Lake Road and Lake Naivasha are mostly owned by Dutch farmers and appear to be in perfect condition.

In the Netherlands, rose cultivation has decreased spectacularly in recent decades. Between 2000 and 2019, the area under rose cultivation in the Netherlands dropped from 932 hectares to 200 hectares. Many Dutch growers moved their companies to African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Labour, energy, water and land prices are lower in Eastern Africa than the Netherlands and the Eastern Africa climate is favourable for rose cultivation. Roses thrive in sunlight and warmth. The cut flower has since become the largest export product in Kenya and the sector offers work to 500,000 Kenyans. However, the flower industry in Kenya has faced criticism in recent years due to poor working conditions, the large-scale use of toxic pesticides, and the negative impact on the environment, including the pollution of Lake Naivasha.

In light of these past controversies, a new one arises: Flower companies are avoiding their tax liability in Kenya, the Dutch investigative journalism platform Investico revealed. A search through registrations and annual reports show us how flower companies are evading local taxes through export companies in the Netherlands and trusts located in tax havens such as the Cayman and British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein and Jersey. Others sell their revenue to sister companies in Dubai for an artificially low price, which means that profits do not fall at the Kenyan farm, but at a foreign entity where the profit tax is also much lower than in Kenya.

Of the 32 companies we investigated, of which at least 13 have Dutch origins, 45 per cent can be linked to tax havens. Almost all Dutch growers who went to Kenya transferred part of their business to a Dutch company. Companies that set up an international group of several companies can transfer and settle profits and losses within that group. This way they can ensure that the profit is as low as possible in the country with the highest tax rate. Because Kenya has a high profit tax, this model is attractive for companies that operate there. The Netherlands has tax treaties with many other countries. This makes it easier to channel money through the Netherlands to a tax haven than from Kenya.

While the growers are avoiding paying tax in a country like Kenya, where 36 per cent of the population lives in poverty, they still call their business “fair trade”. In fact, more than half of all the companies that we investigated have a Fairtrade certificate. Fairtrade, a premium label that stands for fair trade between the West and African countries, presents a blind spot for tax avoidance. “Fair trade – that is an oxymoron,” says Alvin Mosioma, director of Tax Justice Network Africa. “There is nothing fair about this trade. Not to the workers who cut the flowers, nor to the government.”

***

In a small hall at Oserian Primary School in Naivasha, parents scramble to get hold of plastic chairs with “Oserian Church” written on the back of the chairs. They have been borrowed from a nearby church and placed in neat rows. During this ceremony, the ten best performing students of the national exam from last year are being honoured: one of them may even join the top five hundred students in the country and soon journalists will swarm around him for soundbites. But first the school principal opens the proceedings with a prayer and in one breath he thanks God and the Oserian flower company for the brilliance of the students.

Oserian is a huge company with Dutch roots: it was founded in 1969 by ex-marine Hans Zwager and is now one of the largest exporters of roses and cut flowers in Africa. A million roses are processed every day. A portion is transported by air to Schiphol to be traded at the auction in Aalsmeer (Netherlands); the rest is delivered directly to European supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s. More than four thousand employees work at the nursery, and hundreds at the rest of Oserian’s estate.

“Fair trade – that is an oxymoron,” says Alvin Mosioma, director of Tax Justice Network Africa. “There is nothing fair about this trade. Not to the workers who cut the flowers, nor to the government.”

Oserian is the banner of the Kenyan flower industry. It puts a lot of effort into conserving wildlife and on its grounds are schools, a hospital and houses for the staff. Founder Hans Zwager was decorated by recently deceased former president Daniel Arap Moi for his pioneering work in the Kenyan horticulture industry and for socially responsible entrepreneurship.

From the Moi South Lake Road there is a view of a palace with white spiers that protrude above the tree line. It once belonged to the colonial British family Delamère and is now occupied by the Zwager family.

“Oh, you disappear in life there,” says Fredrick, 46, a former employee of Oserian, as he digs into a plate of fish. Cafe Hollywood, located a few kilometres from the flower nursery, is full in the evening. The space is heated by charcoal mounds on which freshly caught tilapias are baked. “Oserian provides all facilities. When I was on vacation, I didn’t know where to look, as if there were no more worlds outside the company.”

For nearly twenty years, Fredrick ensured that the rose buds were fertilized. He now works for himself: he repairs and rents out bicycles. Fredrick initially worked for the flower company for 12,000 Kenya shillings (around 110 euros) a month, but people with that salary were slowly being phased out, he says. New employees earn half that amount. This figure is confirmed the next morning when we chance upon a new rose cutter at Oserian and give her a lift. She confesses that she only gets 59 euros for a month’s work. A third employee, whom we speak to when we deviate from the route during a tightly guided tour of the sorting center, speaks of the same amount – which is roughly equal to the minimum wage for unskilled personnel in Kenya. However, Mary Kinyua, the administrative director of Oserian, claims that the average salary of an Oserian worker is 167 euros.

In 2017, Oserian split the company on paper in two. Some activities, such as the packing of roses, were transferred to a new company. That company is evading the sector CAO (Collective Labour Agreement) that requires a salary of 10,000 shillings (91 euros). In practice, there appears to be little difference in employees from one or the other company. In the pale-green greenhouses, which extend as far as you can see, employees of both companies interact. Both groups do not come close to the living wage calculated by Hivos in Naivasha, which is 2.852 euros per year. Nevertheless, Fairtrade currently agrees with both the minimum wage and the sector CAO.

Dutch flower farmers moved to Africa because of the prosperity that was promised. But in Kenya that landscape has since changed considerably; flower cultivation is also in decline there. “My sixteen hectares in the Netherlands yields more than the seventy in Kenya,” says flower farmer Arie van den Berg, who is farming both in the Netherlands and in Kenya. Dutch roses in Europe are still available for a few euros every Valentine’s Day at the florist, but African roses are sold at Lidl (a European supermarket chain) for a dumping price of 1.99 euros per bunch. Sometimes auction prices are so low that it is more beneficial to destroy a load of roses than having to pay for the flight costs to send it to the auction in the Dutch Westland that revolves around horticulture.

Competition is increasing worldwide and African countries are trying to outdo each other: Ethiopia has begun to compete by offering so-called tax holidays – and there is no question of a minimum wage at all. Another problem is the tax, which is high in Kenya for foreign entrepreneurs: the corporation tax is 37.5 per cent. In a market where every cent counts, some companies do everything they can to get out of that tax burden.

A few years ago, in 2012, Oserian FC and Karuturi Sports football teams, sponsored and named after two competing rose nurseries, competed against each other in the Premier League, the highest football division in Kenya. The “derby of Naivasha” was a crowd puller. Barely two years after this high point, fortunes took a dramatic turn and the players of Karuturi Sports had to hang up their boots in 2014. The Karuturi site has since been abandoned. The vacant greenhouses stretch hundreds of meters. The iron structures occupy one’s view for as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the occasional individual plucking a stray rose from the wild growing plants in the abandoned greenhouses.

Dutch flower farmers moved to Africa because of the prosperity that was promised. But in Kenya that landscape has since changed considerably; flower cultivation is also in decline there.

Five years after the bankruptcy, a former employee still lives in a hut at the entrance of the company premises – hoping that he will be paid the three-month wages that he is owed, plus his accrued pension. “In the last months before the nursery closed, the working conditions were terrible. There was no longer any protection against the pesticides and the face masks we had on were not even really suitable for dust, let alone poison,” he says.

But the closure of Karuturi was not due to its pesticide use. The company was found guilty of evading more than 18 million euros in taxes. Although Karuturi and the tax authorities came to a settlement of 4 million euros, it turned out to be enough to bankrupt the company. Roses were systematically exported at an extremely low price to their own company in Dubai, from where they were further distributed throughout the market. The Kenyan branch turned into a loss, while the branch turned green figures in the Emirates. But Karuturi paid no tax on this profit: the United Arab Emirates have no income, profit, or dividend taxes and no import duties on transit goods. While 37.5 per cent tax is charged in Kenya, tax in Dubai is 0 per cent.

Dubai is a new tax haven. Free zones, where the official language is English and foreign entrepreneurs may be the full owners of a company, are advancing. Three Dutch nurseries in Kenya have already found a home in the Emirates, according to various annual reports from the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, including the large Oserian, which opened a logistics center, Airflo FZE (Free Zone Enterprise), at Dubai airport.

In addition to low taxes, Dubai offers far-reaching confidentiality to business owners: annual reports are not mandatory and requesting them is impossible. That is why we cannot verify whether Oserian applies the same rulebook as Karuturi. Karuturi was ultimately unsuccessful because it had to disclose more information as a listed company in India. The Dutch companies do not have to disclose financial records to the public because they are not registered on the stock exchange.

***

We track the offshore trade and walk of Dutch companies for the first time via the FlowerCompanies.com database, founded by a Dutch entrepreneur. Out of 21 African companies, the country of establishment does not state Kenya or Ethiopia, but the Cayman Islands, a sunny place, but without a single mega farm.

“No idea why this is, how crazy. This is a bug in the website,” the founder says when we have him on the line. After a few hours, the addresses were removed from the website, but we discovered through other means that the majority of those companies do indeed have branches in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands. It is more difficult to prove that they pay little or no tax in Kenya.

By law, all Kenyan residents have the right to request data from government agencies and private companies. Because we are not Kenyan residents, a tax law student in Nairobi helped us to view annual reports of Dutch growers in Kenya. During his first visit to the Kenya Chamber of Commerce, he was summoned to communicate his choices via the internet. During his second visit, he was only given an empty file. During his third visit, he finally got the Oserian file. He paid more than six euros for inspecting it.

Taking photos is not allowed at the Chamber of Commerce and security cameras dissuade visitors from doing so. Our “informant” is reluctant to use a hidden camera. Calling the Netherlands, he browses through the book, which contains an independent Deloitte audit, in which Oserian’s revenue for 2013 is estimated at 2.7 million euros. Below the line, only 3,910 euros of profit remains on their own financial statements, of which Oserian paid just under 1,041 euros to the tax authorities.

We wrote, in accordance with the law, a letter to the Kenya Chamber of Commerce, asking for copies of the file – but the papers that the Kenyan student saw a few days before suddenly got “lost”. The company also refuses to transfer any information about its finances.

The Zwager family, owner of Oserian, built a whole web of companies around the nursery that together cover the entire chain, from breeding to sales and distribution. A company in the Netherlands is concerned with “sales and marketing of cut flowers”. The Dutch company of Peter Zwager generated a gross turnover of 47 million euros in 2010. Most employees, according to the LinkedIn reference, simply work from Kenya. That cannot be otherwise, because there are no workplaces in Amsterdam: the company was transferred to Align trust office.

The ultimate stakeholder in all these “Dutch” companies is Mavuno Group Holding Company Establishment, a trust in tax haven Liechtenstein, which is again managed by a trust office. No country in Europe charges as little tax as Liechtenstein, and above all, it is not open to public scrutiny. The only two shareholders that we identify are a company at the same address in the principality, and one near the picturesque harbour of Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands, which in turn owns a whole range of companies, including a Florida real estate company.

Other branches of Oserian also end up vanishing in the smoke of vague shareholders and directors on tropical islands where neither annual reports nor ultimate owners are made public. We identify New Zealand, the Bahamas and Jersey.

“We do not sell anything in Liechtenstein, we do not trade there, we certainly do not get a tax advantage there – it is just a trust,” explains administrative director Mary Kinyua. “The owner of Oserian, Peter Zwager, puts his assets in.” When asked why Oserian in Kenya only makes about 2,000 euros in profit, she has no answer.

“This is super signing. It is very clear that we are trying to evade taxes here,” says Vincent Kiezebrink of the Research Foundation for Multinational Enterprises (SOMO) when we present the drawn-up corporate structure of Oserian. “It looks like she can try to get the most out of it,” he chuckles. “All tax ports come by. You don’t need so many havens to evade tax. Many large companies nowadays invest in their public image: they no longer settle in the Bahamas but in lesser known tax havens such as Ireland or Cyprus, because they still claim to levy about 15 per cent tax. I do not see that consciousness here. It would not surprise me if this company thinks: ‘The closer to zero, the better.’”

We wrote, in accordance with the law, a letter to the Kenya Chamber of Commerce, asking for copies of the file – but the papers that the Kenyan student saw a few days before suddenly got “lost”.

A world full of crafty lawyers and accountants unfolds around emigrating farmers who show them around in Kenya and, where necessary, help them with agricultural land and tax constructions. The fulcrum in this is the law firm Raffman Dhanji Elms & Virdee based in Nairobi. On its website, the law firm states: “The Firm has been heavily involved in advising the flower and horticultural industries over the last decade in particular with foreign investment into this country and the methods to acquire land and the corporate structures required. This has led to joint ventures between Kenyan and overseas investors and the protecting and balancing of the respective interests.”

Controversial city lawyer Guy Spencer Elms was one of the three names given to us. He was once infamously associated with a multitude of corruption scandals in Kenya. Nonetheless, he has never been convicted and maintains in his defence of a plot by a criminal cartel to always paint his image in a bad light. Guy Spencer Elms says he arranges the tax planning of various Dutch nurseries himself, and he also helps farmers with agricultural land transactions. When we present him with the offshore constructions, he says: “People immediately think of something bad like hearing about a trust in Liechtenstein or the British Virgin Islands, but often it is just a way of’ estate planning. Trusts are not necessarily a bad thing “.

***

“Tax is Life!” reads the slogan celebrating 100 years of income tax in Kenya. The luxurious Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi is the location of the tax conference organised by the University of Nairobi. Joan, a student, takes a credit note from her bag, and points to the 16 per cent VAT. “This is why I think tax is so important. Taxes can pull Kenya out of the mud,” she says.

Students speak of tax obligations in glowing terms; they see it as the future. Where that change must take place is something that everyone agrees with: the government. Tax guru Attiya Waris, a professor of tax law, points out the loopholes in tax collection throughout Africa. According to the OECD, Africa misses 46 billion euros in tax revenues every year from evasive multinationals. The United Nations estimates that amount to be 92 billion euros. Waris did research for a long time on flower companies in the country. “Kenya transfers its land to foreign companies, but the profit they make falls elsewhere. It is not a win-win situation,” she says.

Other branches of Oserian also end up vanishing in the smoke of vague shareholders and directors on tropical islands where neither annual reports nor ultimate owners are made public. We identify New Zealand, the Bahamas and Jersey.

The Dutch company Berg Roses received 1.8 million in income tax with retroactive effect. The company was accused by the Kenyan tax authorities of conspiring with its parent company in the Netherlands. The Kenyan branch would sell most of its flowers for extremely low prices to the parent company in the Netherlands so that the profit is not realised in Kenya, but in the Netherlands.

The lawsuit is still ongoing because Van den Berg challenged the matter. “We ensure that we make fifty percent profit in Kenya and fifty percent in the Netherlands. We think that is fair. If we lose this case, it will be the death blow for our company.” Van den Berg knows of companies that channel the profit away to offshore trusts and, according to him, we never hear about it.

“Not only in the sector, but also in government is it only in terms of profit, not what is good for the country,” says tax expert Waris at the end of the celebration. She pulls her colourful scarf a little tighter around her shoulders and continues in a whisper when a duo of armed guards walk past. It should be a moral obligation to pay taxes in a country whose land, water and people you use, she says.

But monitoring the flower industry often leaves much to be desired because business and the political elite are intertwined – a euphemism for corruption. That became clear, for example, in the Paradise Papers – leaked files from the law firm Appleby – which show that Sally Jemngetich Kosgei, the former Head of Civil Service, and owner of a flower nursery in Kenya, bought a luxurious apartment in London through an offshore company based in Mauritius. Kosgei told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that she bought the apartment with her personal funds.

Fair trade organisations do not see tax ethics as their responsibility. The cover page of a recent issue of Fairtrade International is adorned with a photo of the Waridi Limited nursery, which is almost entirely in the hands of a company in the Virgin Islands. Almost all Dutch nurseries in Kenya are in possession of the Fair Trade quality mark, which stands for good conditions.

According to the OECD, Africa misses 46 billion euros in tax revenues every year from evasive multinationals. The United Nations estimates that amount to be 92 billion euros.

“Oserian sells 14 per cent of its production as a Fair Trade rose,” says Tara Scally, the spokesperson for Fair Trade Netherlands. Part of the proceeds from Fair Trade roses, which are often more expensive, are returned to a pot that employees of the farm can dispose of themselves: for example, they invest it in education or in the salary of a doctor.

Fairtrade’s focus is on the position of farmers and workers, says Scally. Tax constructions are not part of this. Moreover, tax research requires a lot of specialist knowledge and financial resources, she adds. She fears that companies will no longer participate in the programme if they are required to disclose what is in their books. “The consequence may be that workers lose part of their income. We would rather not see that.”

A ridiculous line of reasoning, counters Alvin Mosioma, founder and director of Tax Justice Network Africa. “Wear a Fair Trade label while not paying your taxes? That is an oxymoron.” Mosioma regards Fair Trade as a marketing gimmick:

“People don’t buy a rose with blood on it. Social responsibility is part of the brand of these companies. They build hospitals, schools. That gives the consumer who buys such a rose a good feeling – the idea that they are making a contribution to the development of such a country. Nothing is further from the truth. These people work under very precarious conditions for a minimum wage. It is rather paternalistic: you give them jobs, and a school. But you also buy people around with it. They are happy with such an investment. ‘Look,’ they say to the government, ‘this company takes care of us, the government does not do that’. No, that’s because the government has no money for that, and also because the same companies are engaged in aggressive tax evasion.”

This article was previously published in the Dutch language in the Netherlands in the following papers/ online: (frontpage) daily paper Trouw, weekly paper De Groene Amsterdammer and online investigative journalism platform Investico

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