What’s #Trending in Pastoralist Kenya?10 min read.
Research by SPARC provides a snapshot of social media trends in pastoralist Kenya and gives a sense of social media’s potential for civic participation, e-commerce and community resilience in the drylands.
You may be familiar with the common myths about drylands—that they contribute little to biodiversity and food systems, that they are unproductive and unworthy of political and economic investment, and their inhabitants are most responsible for this degradation. In the last thirty years, scholars, activists, and other actors have offered comprehensive counter-arguments and counter-narratives to these misconceptions. Here are a few facts: nearly half of the African continent is comprised of drylands ecosystems; twenty million pastoralists and agro-pastoralists live in the drylands of the Horn of Africa; in Kenya, arid and semi-arid lands are 80 per cent of the country’s landmass, inhabited by nearly ten million people. Researchers show that traditional pastoralism is likely one of the most adaptive productive strategies for Africa’s rangelands. There is much to learn from the flexibility and innovation of the resource-efficient communities that are sustaining pastoralism as a resilient livelihood.
Still, vulnerability in the drylands is rising. This is due to a complex mix of factors, including climate change and the economic fallout from COVID-19. Disruptions to the food supply chain together with continued drought—likely the worst in 40 years—are putting lives and livelihoods at risk. In Kenya, the World Food Programme has warned that half a million people are currently on the brink of a hunger crisis, and the number of Kenyans requiring assistance has quadrupled in two years. As governments, community leaders, and humanitarian agencies respond to urgent crises, we must resist longer-term proposals solely predicated upon sedentarization. The agro-centric and teleological perceptions informing these “solutions” are at best incomplete, and destructive at worst. Such a narrow view of pastoralist systems obfuscates the sophisticated social technology which undergirds them. Pastoralism’s core capability of “boosting and amplifying process variance with real-time management strategies and options” enables pastoralists—Emery Roe’s pithy “reliability professionals”—to identify and test new ways to sustain livelihoods uniquely well in contexts of high uncertainty. The system behind such rapid feedback loops of identifying, assimilating and responding to variability and risk is radical. When the source and paths of uncertainty are inconceivable and resulting changes incommensurate— in other words, when even the illusion of prediction and control is impossible— then coping reactively is a moot option. Settled societies would do well to apprentice with pastoralists on “coping ahead”.
Collective ownership and shared labour, in pasture surveillance and livestock protection for example, make long-term resource management through mobility viable. This is what doctoral researcher Tahira Shariff terms the “moral economy” underpinning pastoral production. Shariff cites the Borana proverb “borani wali waheela amalle walii wareega” to illustrate the individual’s loyalty to the group: “I exist because you exist”. Once we fully dispel the correlating myths of pastoralists as culturally outmoded Luddites, isn’t it clear that this is an innovative and sophisticated pastoral (social) technology?
While an important contribution to the popular and policy narratives on pastoralism, cogent explorations of this social technology could also guide other urgent issues of livelihood vulnerability, governance, conflict, and shared resource management. Practically: are early warning tools designed for pastoralist communication strategies? Is how drought is perceived, and talked about, central to drought management projects? How does group decision-making function, and can it be influenced, say to resolve conflicts among pastoralist communities? How and where (or with whom) are inherited pastoralist insights on climate forecasting preserved? Are livelihood decisions affected by changing social networks and hierarchies?
Recent work coalescing around this is exciting: Dr Jaro Arero and Dr Hussein Tadicha make the case for integrating indigenous knowledge for climate information. Community radio stations—Like Fereiti FM, the first Rendille language station in Marsabit—are driven by citizen reporting like that behind the Kenya Pastoralist Journalist Network. Yusuf Ibrahim highlights how the use of indigenous language has enabled community radio to become a reliable source of information. An example of the novel ways mobile phones extend the realm of social networks is the discovery in 2018 that Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania create new social ties through wrong number connections on their phones.
The material and emotional benefits of belonging to a social network, whatever the channel, are immense. The varied aspects linked to the pastoral technology of relating to each other and their ecosystem can be simplified as a factor of communication. Ongoing research under the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crisis (SPARC) programme finds that social media, mostly through mobile phones, is the fast-growing corollary to community radio in pastoralist Kenya. Social media opens up further possibilities to better understand and learn from the communication strategies pastoral communities use to update and transmit their knowledge within social networks. Ingrid Boas, for instance, recently explored how pastoralists in Laikipia use basic phones, smartphones, social media platforms, virtual herding and other combinations of physical and digital strategies.
Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania create new social ties through wrong number connections on their phones.
In SPARC’s research project, the varied exchanges (information, products, and care) possible across radio, phone, and social media platforms set the stage for a focused exploration of the nature and extent of social media use in the drylands, how social media might influence information campaigns and product marketing, and how those new livelihood opportunities could be best tailored for pastoralists. We have partnered with Wowzi, which provides a platform building on social capital and the trust of regular social media users to spark conversation about products, services and information. Since its launch in 2018, Wowzi has enrolled over 50,000 influencers running over 15,000 social media campaigns in seven African countries.
The numbers are in: pastoralists are connecting through social media
SPARC research led by Nendo Advisory synthesises key figures—on Internet penetration, mobile network quality, device affordability, gender-based access to mobile phones and the Internet—with qualitative evaluation of audiences and conversations into a snapshot of social media trends in pastoralist Kenya. We have an initial understanding of who is using which social media platforms, in what ways, and hypotheses explaining these patterns. Importantly, we now have a sense of social media’s potential for civic participation, e-commerce and community resilience in the drylands.
Pastoralist use of mobile phones and Internet is growing, but so might the gender gap
Mobile phones have become integral to the lives of many pastoral communities. In Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs), the percentage of households using a mobile phone at least once a year increased from 45 per cent in 2009 to more than 80 per cent in 2015. Similar diffusion rates are observed elsewhere. Broadly in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), mobile subscription grows 4.6 per cent per year on average. The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) expects SSA to record over 600 million mobile subscribers—approximately half the population—by 2025. The economic potential is significant; in 2018 alone, for instance, mobile technologies and services in SSA generated US$144.1 billion, roughly 9 per cent of the region’s GDP. Even with these gains, SSA’s mobile Internet coverage gap is more than three times the global average.
Mobile phones have become integral to the lives of many pastoral communities.
Major 3G and 4G rollouts in West and East Africa have resulted in a five percentage-point reduction in the coverage gap between 2019 and 2020. More than a quarter (28 per cent) of the population in the region are now using mobile Internet—doubling the usage level in 2014. The coverage gap is amplified in the drylands. In Kenya, for example, there is 63 per cent mobile ownership in the drylands but Communications Authority data reveals that only 3 to 16 per cent of these owners use their mobile devices to access the Internet. Feature phones continue to dominate because of affordability, durability and battery life. Financing plans such as Safaricom’s Lipa Mdogo and second-hand markets are enabling drylands customers to shift to entry-level smartphones. However, with this change, smartphone users in these regions—and digital content and service providers—must navigate the triad identified by Nendo elsewhere: Bundles, Battery, and Bytes. Given their core capability as “reliability professionals”, pastoralists may be uniquely adapted to the flexible improvisation required in rationing bundles, for instance.
2G and 3G tend to underpin the mobile network infrastructure on the continent, and the rise of 4G is unevenly distributed—in Uganda, for example, rural and drylands areas are locked out of the 4G clusters.
The mobile phone’s portability, and the capability for oral communication lends itself well to transhumance. Drawing on recent research, Nendo identifies specific ways pastoralists currently use mobile phones: exploiting information and communication services in herd management to gain information on water resources and forage, weather conditions and veterinary services—researchers have found that a small proportion of pastoralists in Isiolo, Wajir and Marsabit are exploring mAgriculture; virtual herding where “elite pastoralists” use mobile phones to access information on their herds and make payments for labour and inputs, among other uses; obtaining market information by exchanging updates on livestock prices and volumes; contacting medical assistance and veterinary or extension services as well as providing local health workers with information on population structures, pregnancy outcomes and migration patterns; acting as warning systems by exchanging information on hotspots for conflict, such as banditry, or sightings of dangerous animals; pastoralists in East Africa have, for example, used phones to warn each other of sightings of dangerous animals, thus reducing human/animal conflict.
Pastoralists’ use of mobile phones is also contributing to community growth and participation through social connection—keeping in touch with family and relatives (and even making new ties through “wrong number connections”) through audio calls and voice notes; through trading and finance—making payments, and accessing credit; through activism and politics, particularly the use of WhatsApp groups that share videos and voice recordings as well as live-streaming national TV channels on YouTube; and in local and regional planning where phones are used to provide authorities or project planners with information to support evaluation and improvement of programmes or services.
Certainly, variance in infrastructure such as consistent grid electricity and cellular networks constrains the frequency and extent of mobile usage. Importantly, despite growth in mobile phone ownership, gender parity in Internet access lags behind in several countries. As in other regions, a gender gap persists as women have lower access to devices and Internet use. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a retraction of some of those gains in technology access for women.
Maasai women in northern Tanzania, however, illustrate the possibilities of redressing the mobile phone gender gap. They are using phones to keep in contact with hired herders, as a tool in organising their home duties, and as a way to collectively advocate for their rights to education, among others. Here, the mobile phone’s radical potential lives on. Regrettably, social media platforms reflect and amplify the gender gap. For example, Facebook is popular in Kenya but 60 per cent of the membership is male, and half the Facebook population is based in the capital city.
What is happening in pastoralist digital communities?
How else are pastoralist communities utilising those precious call minutes and mobile data? Launched in their 2019 The State of Mobile Data report, Nendo’s 5S’s framework remains one of the continent’s reference points in capturing and explaining behaviour around Internet data usage: Search—with Google as Africa’s most visited website and Google’s Android as the #1 smartphone by market share, search is a mainstay of the online experience; Sport—Sports betting has taken on a meteoric rise in the last eight years. Using mobile money (M-Pesa) in particular, this vice has led to millions coming online and participating in deeper ways, consuming sports-related content with football dominating; Social—Facebook is Kenya’s largest social network with over 11 million users. Facebook is only outranked by instant messaging app WhatsApp. Instagram tends to rank high as a leading visual social network alongside newcomer (but fastest-growing) TikTok. Twitter maintains influence but remains mainly used by urbanites; Sex—in many African countries (with almost no exceptions) adult websites rank in the top 10 most visited websites; Stories—YouTube, local blogs/vlogs, mainstream media, and content creators are emerging as a crop of African storytellers and publishers create content and grow audiences.
SPARC’s working hypothesis is that the drylands have a similar consumption breakdown, inflected by connectivity levels. Nendo notes that streaming of local and international music may be a favoured pastime, if the number of drylands creators in YouTube’s “Trending” section is any indication.
Online behaviour can further be understood by analysing the types of people that use the Internet. Nendo’s 5S’s framework explains what happens on the Internet, while the Kantar/TNS framework explains why and how the online users spend their time on the Internet. Functionals are limited by data, Observers have time and data but don’t post. Connectors post often but are limited by megabytes and time. Leaders and Super Leaders create the content.
Also referred to as the “Wikipedia Rule”, the 90-9-1 rule states that 90 per cent of users will be “lurkers” who do not engage (observe but do not contribute, like, retweet, share, or engage). Nine per cent will be contributors who observe and occasionally contribute while 1 per cent are the heavy contributors and creators. In the drylands, like elsewhere, content creators range from influencers with large followings to micro- or nano-influencers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Like citizen journalists and storytellers using community radio in pastoralist regions, these social media users are circumventing any language barriers tied to global platforms by creating content in their own languages. According to Wowzi’s typology, only a small fraction of creators will be “super influencers” and the greatest membership and audience of social media platforms is users with less than 300 followers.
As a corollary to the Wikipedia rule, the engagement rates for large creators tend to be lower as their numbers of lurkers tend to weigh higher and lower the engagement scores of the contributors. Wowzi’s core insight is that audiences find their connections with fewer follower counts (“nano-influencers”) to be more trustworthy content creators than more established celebrity brands. This nano-influencer segment might be an untapped engine of social capital. Since its launch in 2018, Wowzi has enrolled over 50,000 influencers running over 15,000 social media campaigns in seven African countries. It may be cause for celebration, then, that nano-influencers are the largest segment of social media users in the drylands.
Could social listening influence pastoralist futures?
What’s trending on Facebook among the 59,000 users in Garissa, or the 43,000 in Isiolo? The patently false myths of pastoralists as low-tech or anti-tech notwithstanding, the global push for transparency and accountability from Big Tech and social media platforms is justified. After failing to stop the dissemination of paid hate speech in Myanmar, Ethiopia, and around the Kenyan elections, Facebook came under pressure to tackle election disinformation ahead of the Brazilian elections in October 2022. As TIME magazine’s recent exposé Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop and Quartz Africa’s series on the gig economy show, platform capitalism and digital work—jobtech—is far from utopian. Gig work is subject to the same inequalities in offline or traditional labour markets—whether informally on social media or governed by e-markets like Jumia. Even so, when the Nigerian government bans Twitter, or Ethiopia and Uganda shut down the Internet, their actions reflect a recognition and fear of their digital citizens’ collective power. Certainly, Kenyans on Twitter—#KOT—continue to show the power social media has for connection, group mobilisation and advocacy. In forecasting the livelihood potential of social media, SPARC’s 2021 report, Resilient Generation, offers recommendations on supporting young people’s prospects for decent work in the drylands of East and West Africa.
It may be cause for celebration, then, that nano-influencers are the largest segment of social media users in the drylands.
Imagine activating pastoralist digital communities in marketing dryland-specific services, in intra-pastoralist organising, and regional advocacy. Practical campaigns testing this model could inform how innovation and resilience are calibrated by dryland inhabitants themselves, while challenging technology providers to transform their platforms and offerings to integrate flexibility and inclusion more broadly. To do so well, we require analytical frameworks, specialised analysts and computing power—or, social listening technology. We could use such tools to monitor online conversations and collect publicly available data from different social media networks, highlighting broader demographic information as well as audience sentiment to drive meaningful engagement. Apart from SPARC’s current partnership with Wowzi, we could not identify any other social listening technologies designed for or applied in pastoralist regions.
In the interim, politicians and leaders can use social media to complement their engagements with historically marginalised populations, such as those in northern Kenya. Like Wowzi, more businesses could explore opportunities to acquire new staff and customers in pastoralist regions through similar channels. Global investment is primed to scale such commitments. The United Nations declared 2026—three years from now—the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists. 102 countries and 308 organisations now support the IYRP! 2021 kicked off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
We welcome your suggestions and examples for social media in the drylands. You might start with SPARC’s digital dashboard mapping over 40 innovative solutions designed with and for pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) and Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS). In addition to addressing immediate shocks and stresses, we are keen to hear what innovations, including those leveraging social media, could stimulate and sustain economic and other well-being outcomes for pastoral communities over the long-term.
SPARC, a programme of Cowater, ODI, the International Livestock Research Institute and Mercy Corps, aims to generate evidence and address knowledge gaps to build the resilience of dryland pastoralists and farmers to the effects of climate change.
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Understanding the Crisis in Northern Kenya
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors
On the 14th of February 2023, Kenya held a national prayer day in accordance with our government’s habit of holding ‘prayers’ when certain stressors reach an unbearable level on a national scale. Currently, there are many factors triggering national stressors, and one of them is a complex security issue loosely termed “banditry”, for which our government has no viable solution. So, we pray, declaring war on our people, instead of reflecting on and addressing the root causes of the crisis.
Over the years, these theatrics, which reflect the inadequacy of the government’s policies in dealing with our challenges, have occurred in different forms including ‘prayer breakfasts’, ‘national prayers’, ‘crusades’, and other forms of supplication. And while these functions are met with a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from approval to derision, depending on people’s spiritual or political leanings, it is crucial for us as citizens to realize that as much as these may be expressions of faith at our leaders’ personal level, at the political level they are basically ‘time-outs’ or pressure release valves. Where one has a strategy, time-outs create room for the implementation of plan ‘B’ or ‘C’. However, in the absence of a strategy, time-outs are called in the vain hope that the adversary or adversity at hand will somehow lose momentum.
There is more to the “banditry” phenomenon than meets the eye
There have been violent conflicts of many kinds in northern Kenya for many decades, some driven by terrorism, ethnic animosity, resource conflict, cattle rustling and other factors. Since 2017, however, many Kenyans have had greater awareness of the fact that the violence in northern Kenya isn’t just mere disorder; people have come to terms that there are definite geographical, economic and social patterns to, and causes of, the violence. The ongoing sporadic skirmishes of violence and cattle rustling in the North Rift area are exacerbating the difficulties that the communities there are already facing as a result of a debilitating drought. Most tragically, the violence in the region has led to the death of 16 security personnel and over 100 civilians in 6 months, a period largely overlapping with the first 5 months of H.E. President William Ruto’s time as the president. Sadly, over the years, Kenya had become largely inured to this slow-burning war due to its long duration and the boorish mentality that made the majority of us see certain parts of the country and pastoralists as somewhat ‘backward’ or ‘lesser’ beings. The most harmful effect of this attitude has been the inability or unwillingness of Kenyans to understand the root of this problem.
Things came to a head on the 11th of February 2023 when a group of security personnel on patrol were ambushed on the Lodwar-Kitale highway resulting in the death of 3 officers and the loss of guns, ammunition and patrol vehicles. This daylight highway attack was a huge affront to the authorities, resulting in instant opprobrium from citizens all over the country who wonder why our much-vaunted security agencies still couldn’t subdue these “bandits” after all these years.
Such attacks were turning into exasperating feelings of déjà vu because we see the same places, roughly the same seasonal conditions, the same kind of weapons, and even the same meaningless terminology and knee-jerk government reactions time and again. In every other part of Kenya, when laws are broken, they are investigated and addressed all along the chain from perpetrators, enablers, participants and beneficiaries. Most of the time, cases are brought to logical conclusions, but not in this case. Why?
Insights into the depth of this particular problem came from a very knowledgeable (if unexpected) source. The Governor of Trans-Nzoia County, Mr George Natembeya, came out at the National Prayer Day with a hard-hitting statement, asking the President not to let people around him “shield” him from the realities on the ground concerning the “banditry” in the North Rift areas. He went on to detail the woes of the security personnel working in the area, claiming that they were being sent into a veritable war zone without adequate allowances, equipment and even food supplies. I was personally taken aback because the previous operation took place when Mr Natembeya was the Rift Valley Regional Coordinator (RC), a position he held until last year when he resigned to run for a political office. Ironically, the office of RC is a very senior position in the executive arm of the Kenya Government that placed Mr Natembeya in direct charge of deploying the security personnel who suffered the same deplorable working conditions he was now lamenting about. In a show of cognitive dissonance that is so typical of Kenyans, the Governor was widely praised for his ‘straight talk’ and honesty in ‘speaking truth to power’. Obviously buoyed by this newfound adulation, he went on to hold a press conference where he robustly advocated military involvement in the operation against bandits, firmly stating that the civilian security apparatus (where he spent the majority of his career before moving into politics) is inadequate to protect Kenyans. This advocacy was worrisome because the use of the loose term ‘banditry’ betrays a lack of knowledge of the identity or objectives of the adversaries.
The first major cause for alarm was the haughty ‘pre-devolution’ tone with which Mr Natembeya pronounced himself on the deployment of the military. He proceeded to even give recommendations on the orders that need to be issued, stating that they should be instructed to “decimate” the bandits. This is a startlingly cavalier term when used by a senior public servant in reference to citizens who haven’t been positively identified in any way. It is a term that could be useful in the primitive theatre of war, where opponents are positively identified by uniforms, positions or other means, but sustainable solutions to the security problems in the North Rift region invariably require more sophisticated approaches that would ensure that innocent citizens are protected and not “decimated” alongside. It would have been much easier for us ‘spectators’ to dismiss these statements as hot air emitted by someone who failed in his earlier responsibilities, but we lost that option when the government moved with speed to implement these external ‘instructions’.
The main cause of a complex issue
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors. If it was simple, it would have been solved a long time ago through any of the heavy-handed responses deployed by successive governments against it. My work as a conservationist has given me unique insights into one aspect of it which seems to have been ignored by many.
Northern Kenya has a roughly 5-year drought cycle, and 2017 was a drought year. As a consequence, pastoralists moved south into Laikipia county in search of pasture. They invaded private ranches and provoked an inevitable state response, which resulted in the death of many ranchers, pastoralists, security personnel, and hundreds of livestock.
I headed a team of consultants tasked by an indigenous rights NGO to study Marsabit, Isiolo, Laikipia, and Samburu counties in a research project aimed at uncovering the dynamics and drivers of the southward transhumance and the resultant conflicts. We collected data from hundreds of respondents, including ranchers, pastoralists, government personnel and NGO practitioners. Three things stood out in our findings. The first was the sheer distances covered by the pastoralists with their animals, and the second was the fact that almost all the (government-designated) livestock movement routes have been blocked by private landowners. The most compelling finding, however, was that a vast majority of the pastoralists were from homelands that were now ‘wildlife conservancies’ controlled by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT),( -a conservation NGO. The pastoralists had lost access to their dry-season grazing areas.
After completing our fieldwork and analysis, we planned and held a validation workshop in Nanyuki on the 14th of June 2017. The findings of our report presented at the workshop resonated well with the community members who attended the workshop, some of whom provided us with further insights into the crisis. Our views on NRT were also ‘validated’ by a dramatic moment when my presentation was interrupted by their Laikipia county director, Mr Richard Kasoo, who literally screamed at me to stop vilifying NRT and had to be ejected from the room by the elders present. The top NRT management later called a more cordial meeting at a Nanyuki hotel, asking me as the team leader to expunge certain items from the report, which they felt portrayed them in a ‘negative light’. Much to their chagrin, I declined to do so, out of respect for my team and our respondents. This entire experience was a cameo of what ails us in this arena. Man-made stressors are routinely met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity until we invariably take ‘ruthless’ steps to ‘decimate’ the people we should have engaged before the fighting broke out. As such, those of us who observed the violent resource conflict in 2017 know that it wasn’t brought to an end by any human intervention. The drought ended, the rains came, and people who were fighting simply went back home.
These findings and my views have since been shared with several senior state officials and several non-state actors as well (including the protagonists), but have been invariably met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity. This is not to suggest that this is the only set of causes because the bloodletting certainly predates wildlife conservancies, which only started around 2004. Ethnic animosities that exist in this and other parts of Kenya are realities that we must factor in. The displacement and loss of access to resources also eliminated a lot of the geographical space that typically limited contact and conflict between some communities, resulting in more frequent flare-ups. However, the negative impact of conservation practices on the communities’ ways of life is definitely one of the easier drivers to deal with, so it is difficult to imagine that anyone is dealing with the more intractable and socio-politically fractious ones.
Most notably, the alacrity with which government authorities have embraced the advice of a former RC with a less-than-stellar record to handle a crisis is a worrying indication of not having a plan. One doesn’t need to be an expert to know that militaries aren’t trained to investigate, arrest or prosecute, so we could be courting numerous extrajudicial killings. The Interior Minister speaking in January, added his voice to the frightening miasma, saying that the Government will be ‘ruthless and brutal’ in this operation. We don’t seem to have had a plan for what we are doing now, so it cannot be easy to envision any plan for managing the inevitable fallout of such violence either. We are at war with ourselves in pitch darkness, struggling to finish ‘the other’ before dawn because the light of day might reveal who we really are.
This article was first published by The Pan African Review.
Notes From Uganda’s Sexual Culture War
As Christians fall out over gay rights, the Ugandan state, built on martyrs resisting alleged homosexuality, has some soul-searching to do.
The journalist’s approach to any topic is to seek out those caught up in the story and get their views. This is not that kind of a story. The wires are replete with anecdotal despatches of African “homophobia” in which for the past decade in East Africa, Uganda has become Ground Zero.
The latest flashpoint is a new bill tabled in parliament last week containing proposals to further criminalise homosexual acts. This move has followed what, a decade after the introduction of the first bill entrenching the colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality, has become a familiar script.
A decade ago, a letter of sympathy and condemnation written by then President Obama was read out at the funeral of a gay activist found battered to death in his home. Western governments ratcheted up the pressure through issuing public warnings to African governments that their anti-homosexual attitudes and policies were unacceptable.
This time around, it is clerics at the highest levels of Christian mother-churches in Europe that re-opened the schism. In quick succession, the Church of England and the Pope have expressed support for LGBTQ communities. While the Archbishop of Canterbury and the CoE’s synod only went as far as blessing same-sex unions (rather than endorsing them outright), the Pope expressed his full sympathies with homosexuals – a major development in the Catholic Church’s position on the issue.
The leadership of the Anglican Church in Uganda, as well as many Evangelical groups, stand at a polar opposite. Their fulminations against this “abomination” dominate the airwaves, consultative seminars, and the pulpit.
Feeling trapped, the Ugandan government resorts to some complex tap-dancing. Last time round, the president assented to the bill, and then performed outrage when it was quashed in the courts due to a previously “unforeseen” but very visible parliamentary error in the process of its passing.
This time, there was some initial hemming and hawing at the finance ministry which is legally obliged to scrutinise any proposed legislation and clear it (or not) via an instrument known as a Certificate of Financial Implication (read in this case as: “what if the donors actually cut off the money this time?”).
At the best of times, human sex can be a complicated issue and remains a bone of contention in societies all over the world. Tales from the North attest to this. Two decades ago, the Bishop Gene Robinson controversy, in which the openly gay Episcopalian priest was made a full bishop, precipitated a full-blown schism, first within the US Church (where Anglicans are known as Episcopalians), and then in the global Anglican communion. New iterations of this controversy around homosexuality continue to split Anglicans to this day.
This is the conundrum that Uganda’s civil society – to the delight of the dictatorship – cannot unpick. African despots’ recitations of 20th century European history – showing women being allowed to vote just 90 years ago, poor people maybe another 20 before that, and sexuality being fully legalised less than 30 years ago – makes them ask why their 60-year old countries are being denied the right to a similarly leisurely democratic evolution.
The discourse is further confounded by the perceived Western mindset of being obsessed with sexual matters that is then transmitted globally as “normal” as a result of its global cultural dominance.
Only the native voice is truly silent. Public discussion about sex is not the done thing in most African societies. This is not to say that sex is never discussed; there are many culturally-designated spaces where the most explicit expositions on sexual matters are held.
This differentiation held until the pressures of the War Against AIDS broke down the barrier between the private and the media-tised space, creating a European-like free-flowing sexual media-fest.
But that is not all. Like most former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is an institutionally racist contraption that started life as an a war of conquest against African natives. The mission-school trained elite that inherited the colonial governor’s seat has maintained the colonial’s muzzling of native opinions over a whole range of policy issues such as land and governance. It is, therefore, not logical to expect that native voices would be magically included in this debate either.
Uganda is not a democracy. It retains the organisational logic bequeathed it by its roots in the colonial project. The state is apexed by powerful interest groups descended from the various African warlord factions that secured the colony for Britain. Prime among these are the Anglican Church, one of the biggest landowners in the country, owner of nearly half the country’s schools, some hospitals and rural clinics, and, until the eve of independence in 1962, the one religious group whose members had the exclusive and legal right to rise to the very top of the civil service by dint of their religious denomination.
Uganda’s ruling NRM party, the donor community, the powerful Christian factions, and human rights activists all bear perspectives that seek no benefit in hindsight but dominate the debate to the point of silencing all other voices.
Perhaps this is not a discussion about sexuality. Perhaps it is about theology and the organisation of knowledge. Perhaps it is about the weight of history. Perhaps it is just about good manners. Or voyeurism.
A conflict between history and motives
The Adventurer John Hanning Speke was a man of his Victorian times. Such men would never take orders from an ordinary woman, let alone an African one.
Speke was in pre-Uganda in 1862. He was seeking African assistance to be shown the location of the Nile’s source (so that he could then “discover” it immediately thereafter).
In his review of Speke’s journal, Sean Redmond comments on the practicalities the adventurer had to deal with:
“Speke provides a truly valuable, day-by-day account of life at an African royal court…Speke found himself in turn caught between Muteesa and the Namasole (the queen-mother) as they manoeuvred for prestige and power. The two were jealous of each other over Speke’s company, so he favoured now one, now the other, visiting them in turns, trying to cajole their permission to continue on to the Nile….”
In that passage we learn that there was a woman of considerable institutional power in the African court.
Reflecting on the evidence in African systems of “gendered political power” in her essay “Queen Mothers and Good Governance in Buganda”, American researcher Holly Hansen states that African women are “one of history’s most politically viable female populations”.
Such voices were not heard with the appointment in 1997 of the first female Vice-President in Uganda. Presaging the donor-driven excitement at the election of Liberia’s first female president, commentators promoted the idea that these ascensions to neo-colonial office were ground-breaking developments – that African women were holding political power for the first time.
There is more. Native religion in Buganda has always been heavily dominated by women priests. Put another way, the notion of a woman taking a leading role in religious matters is not a conceptual problem for some African cultures. This reality should be contrasted with the schism that threatened to break the Anglican Church when the issue of ordaining women priests was tabled for the first time a decade before the current controversy over women Bishops that also shakes the global Anglican Church today.
And more. A form of female same-sex marriages was a practice among the Igbo, and remains so among the Kikuyu and Akamba in Kenya today. Whether sexual in nature or not, the mere fact of its existence shows a scope of conceptualisation of marriage in African minds, that did not exist within the Judaeo-Christian one.
Like the Nile discovery and sexual discourse, until the European hand has been placed on African events, they have not happened.
How will any aspect of African life be understood when Africa as a whole, in her actual manner and customs, has never been fully acknowledged?
Many small tragedies of mind and method flow from the failure to answer that question. An understanding of sexuality may well be the biggest casualty.
Sexual Imperialism: a brief history
3 June is Uganda Martyrs Day. A public holiday, it attracts pilgrims from all over the region.
It commemorates the day in 1886 when a toxic nexus of politics, death sentences, and Western condemnation over sexual matters was first brewed in this region. Christian missionaries brought down Buganda’s King Mwanga, publicly denouncing him as a homosexual after he burned scores of young Anglican and Catholic converts at the stake for resisting his alleged advances.
Beatified by Pope Benedict XV on 6 June 1920 and canonised by Pope Paul VI on 18 October 1964, the martyrs, 45 in all, are recognised as the first Christian martyrs on the African continent. From Dakar to Mombasa, the name St. Kizito – the face of the martyrs – has become synonymous with Catholic schools, hospitals, and churches.
The execution of the converts became a major proselytising tool and forms the very ideological foundation of the Anglican and Catholic churches in the entire East African region. To be clear: the growth of the Christianity in East Africa is rooted in the very homophobia its planters now condemn.
The Christianity that liberated Africa from her ancestral darkness has left many of its African followers bewildered. They fail to understand how global theology changed while the founding Bible stayed the same: “Did the Uganda Martyrs die in vain?” asked a dismayed African cleric at the 1998 Anglican global summit in Lambeth.
The question arises: was Canterbury’s shift motivated by the Holy Spirit, or by prudent compliance with the new European legal regime, now dressed up in theological arguments?
In industrial Europe, as labour was forced off the land and absorbed by the factories in the cities, the workplace became the site of legislation against racial and gender discrimination, and sexual exploitation. Abuses and injustice at the workplace, because they affected a significant percentage of the population, had an immediate negative impact on individual livelihoods.
This may explain why such uber-progressive legislation was not a pressing issue in the face of other concerns, even one century after the close of The Enlightenment. The poet, Alfred Douglass, is found musing about “the love that dare not speak its name” in 1894. Was it not reasonable enough then?
In effect, countries like Uganda are now under pressure to abandon the European liberation implanted here by mission Christianity for a new kind of liberation championed from the same source, but without the ideological wiggle-room to navigate the same transition achieved at its source.
In its almost 40-year stranglehold of state power, Uganda’s ruling party has more than a little blood on its hands, from the battlefields of northern Uganda, to the well-documented state torture chambers in the capital, the devastated villages of eastern Congo, and most recently, in the streets of Kampala, turned into a bloody pre-election theatre in 2020 by state security agents. Its record of human rights abuses, which attained truly spectacular levels at the height of the aid-giving, has left some government opponents wondering why this particular bill attracted direct donor intervention a decade ago and prolonged Western anxiety in its second iteration this past week.
Further examples of the usual habits of a dictatorship – media censorship, detentions without trial, suppression of demonstrations, and election-rigging – are rife in Uganda, and well-documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The Ugandan government remains, however, a mainstay of Western grand strategy in the region. Over the past 37 years, President Museveni has been feted by no less than three US presidents, and has been the willing ally of every single administration in Washington in securing their interests in the Great Lakes. In exchange, Uganda has been allowed to live off donor money.
None of them have been able to explain why the possible fate of an estimated 500,000 gay Ugandans weighs more on their conscience than the actual fate of those Ugandans and Congolese who in their uncounted numbers have perished at the hands of this regime.
Such contradictions must provide grim satisfaction to Africa’s dictators.
In discussing the prospects for progress, we can all now deploy, when the need arises, a certain users’ lingo: euphemisims and code-words such as “challenge”, “marginalisation”, “intervention” come readily to mind. We can all link our dilemmas to various UN-endorsed resolutions calling for their alleviation. We know where the websites and the libraries are located when we need the intellectual ammunition to back up our positions. The flip chart, the marker, the workshop microphone and the Twitter handle: these are the implements that keep us ensconced in our natural habitats.
Activism now has a format and a lexicon. It used to even have a dress code, in the heady kitenge gown-and-matching headdress-wearing days of the UN Decade for Women.
In just over a century, we have thus moved from a situation where Western dominant opinion politically condemned homosexuality and overthrew an African government because of it, to one where it denounces those African governments that condemn it today.
Power does not need to justify itself.
If African society here is indeed now rigidly opposed to any arrangement that deviates from a monogamous heterosexual universe with clearly demarcated boundaries for women, it is European Christianity that has made it institutionally so, and not necessarily the native cultures, where the evidence points to a more nuanced – some might say, more complex – approach to these issues.
This is a story of how the future of African sexuality has become a hostage to two traditions of the European Enlightenment.
As a writer, I should have followed the normal path, and relayed the stories of people embroiled in the tale, but this has refused to be that kind of story. The details are not at issue. Oppression and discrimination exist. But this is not new, and it is not limited to any one group. It is the way Ugandans are condemned to live.
Nobody who should be able to could explain why nobody’s position made sense, except the native position that nobody except the native knew existed.
This is essentially a quest for an all-encompassing view on marriage, sexuality, gender, religious leadership, and a conceptualisation of what is and what is not generally useful in the realm of civic coda.
Nobody who should seemed to know that.
Endings, and Beginnings
A thought is not a real thought until a white mind has also thought it. Once it has been thus endorsed, it then becomes his thought. Once it is his thought, then it is the only thought worth having, and all other thoughts must step aside.
The presumption seems to be that the complexities of human sexuality were discovered only when the Western world encountered them, and as the Western world reached its conclusions about them, then these now stand as the only Valid Thoughts.
In the end, societies must decide for themselves how they want to live. Uganda’s governing processes have never been inclusive enough to capture that. The three-way debate between the secular elite, donor governments, and the Christian establishment – all very well-funded – is narrower still.
The questions, like the oppressed citizens, remain impoverished.
This article was first published in African Arguments.
Kenya: No Country for Women
Capitalists love us because they know the lives and welfare of our own will always come a distant last to their needs and wants.
On the 20th of February 2023, BBC’s ‘Africa Eye’ programme ran a harrowing exposé, chronicling the details of sexual abuse and exploitation in Unilever and James Finlay tea plantations in Kericho, Kenya. This was a severe moral jolt to many people in Kenya and abroad, living, as we do, in an era where broad claims about adherence to human rights and ‘fair trade’ principles are de rigueur amongst producers of consumer goods. However, for Kenya as a nation, the most embarrassing aspect about these revelations is that the only reason why they have been widely talked about locally relates to the fact of their currency, coupled with the fact that the companies involved are household names and the perpetrators’ names and faces were exposed for the entire world to see. If the BBC crew didn’t do this, we wouldn’t care at all because the moral fabric of our society doesn’t have the ethical space to do so.
Close observers of Kenyan social history will admit that Kenya can be considered the ‘model postcolony’ that measures success with regard to how closely individuals, institutions and the nation can adhere to norms introduced to by Victorian England. These are norms that no longer hold sway even in the UK today, outside the stunted feudal institutions of aristocracy. These antiquated norms are aggressively patriarchal and never made allowance for women’s rights. When colonialism, capitalism and racism were added into this already putrid cauldron, one of the outcomes is the extreme toxicity that exists in Kenya’s ‘plantation economy’. How can we possibly address the violation of workers’ rights in these tea estates, if we cannot even deal with the violent mass displacement of locals – some of whom are still alive – that brought these plantations into being? As a country, we generally abhor the truths. An uncomfortable truth about Kenya today is that, while we may claim that women’s rights nay, HUMAN rights, exist in our country, the toxic mix of capitalism and other western ideals that our society aspires to simply do have the moral bandwidth to deal with those issues.
It is not surprising then that the two alleged sexual predators in the tea estates, Messrs Chebochok and Yiebei, displayed a startling level of impunity. Indeed, they were both taken aback by the reluctance of the undercover reporter who exposed their abuses to comply with what they obviously felt were pretty routine (if depraved) demands in exchange for a job. To put it frankly, it would be patently dishonest for any Kenyan to claim that these sexual predators’ behaviour was out of the ordinary.
True to the Kenyan style, the outrage that followed the harrowing revelations is well-diluted with strenuous attempts to make the issue ‘go away’ in one way or another because Kenya cannot let sexual abuse allegations sully our reputation as a premier tea producer. The watering down began in the National Assembly where the case was brought before the parliamentary committee on labour, rather than justice and legal affairs. When did abuses against women move from being a crime to being a labour issue? Pray, if the abuse occurs out on the street, or in educational and religious institutions, would it be brought to the labour committee?
Our legislators fully facilitated the cover-up by allowing James Finlay’s Corporate Affairs Director, Mr Daniel Kirui, and his Human Resources Colleague, Mr Sammy Kirui, to make a waffling presentation on all their human resources issues, including drug abuse, alcoholism and financial impropriety without focusing on the abuse of these women, which made the hearing veer away from the criminal acts committed into questions about the lack of female supervisors. As a result, the miscreants are well on their way to escaping justice and despite the mutters of legal action pending against them, many of us would bet that nothing would come out of it.
It is also worth noting that neither of the women legislators from Kericho (Ms Beatrice Kemei and Ms Linet Chepkorir) where these crimes occurred felt that it merited their attention or involvement in any way. And Kenyans do not consider it callousness on their part. They are simply fitting into a state system that regards its people as chattel, not having any intrinsic value beyond what foreign interests will pay to exploit or ‘acquire’ them in some way. It is an unfortunate fact that as Kenya continues to ignore human rights violations, our women would continue to suffer even more because they bear the displaced anger of the oppressed male population in addition to the overarching exploitation.
Furthermore, the reason why the problem seems so intractable is that the oppression of women is one of the prejudices that are so deeply ingrained in Kenyan systems that we even forgot how to regard it as a problem of principle. Qualitative thinking on this issue has become anathema across our society, resulting in clumsy attempts to address it quantitatively. These include legislating on the number of women in parliament rather than creating a political level playing field where they can thrive. The private sector routinely tout the number of women on their boards rather than create genuinely women-friendly workplaces, such as providing baby crèches and adequate maternity leave. Kenya has sadly declined socially to a primitive level where we care about ‘women statistics’, not their qualities, needs, aspirations, or welfare.
Since our state regards us as commodities, Kenya routinely trades in bodies (especially female bodies) in several sectors. We routinely receive foreign tourists and dignitaries with the ‘gift’ of dancing women. Indeed, there has never been a Kenyan booth in the numerous world tourism fairs without dancing women. Put in another perspective, our governments ignore the array of wonderful biodiversity, arts, philosophy, landscapes and business opportunities Kenya has to offer, preferring to spend money to transport women to go and dance in marketplaces to attract visitors. Worst still, Kenya’s biggest exports are female domestic workers to the Middle East, where they are routinely abused and often killed without any intervention from our government. Our industrial and agricultural production sectors are littered with similar rights violations over the years, including the recent incidents in the tea estates. For instance, in 2011 and 2015, female workers in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Athi River went to court to seek justice against the managers they accused of abusing and sexually harassing them in return for jobs. Kakuzi PLC, another foreign-owned agribusiness supplying the UK market was taken to court by Kenya Human Rights Commission in November 2020 for violations including beatings, blockage of public roads and rape of a 14-year-old girl by their guards. The malaise is so deep and widespread that instances can be found in virtually all companies.
The bitter truth is that today women in Kenya face an uphill battle when it comes to accessing justice, because all too often, this ends up being a battle against an avaricious, violent capitalist system, not just an individual offender. For instance, the rampant sex tourism on the Kenyan coast has been a well-known problem since the publication of a 2006 UNICEF report on the same. The silence around it to date is a clear indicator of acceptance despite regular media attention to the vice. Similar to the case of the agribusiness, EPZ, this silence is enforced by capitalism and the need for precious foreign exchange. The list is endless. In Laikipia and Samburu, there have been numerous cases of violence (sexual and otherwise) against local women by British Army trainees, without any tangible action. In March 2012, a local Nanyuki woman, Agnes Wanjiru, was killed by British Army soldiers on a night out, a crime that the perpetrator and his colleagues later bantered about on social media and confessed to back in the UK, seemingly without any fear of retribution. The consensus to belittle and cover up the crime was total, involving even the media who refer to the perpetrator as ‘soldier X’ rather than by name. The victim and her family seemingly didn’t merit such protection with references to her as a ‘sex worker’ to enhance the perception of ‘disposability’. Despite this, our authorities have always decided to renew the military training agreements time and again while justifying their decisions with capitalist considerations, such as the ‘jobs created’ by the training unit. These injustices aren’t new and have persisted for decades, judging from the number of mixed-race adults around these rural British army training areas and murder cases involving US Navy sailors in Mombasa dating back to the 1980s.
The wildlife conservation and safari tourism sector isn’t left out either from the ‘trade in women’. Many practitioners (myself included) have agitated for years, highlighting the toxic mix of racism and patriarchy, which has dominated our conservation discourse for years, and now conservation NGOs have now begun to use black women as ‘bait’ to attract newly-aware donors in Kenya and beyond, rather than change their policies. This includes the creation of “all female ranger squads”, some of whom are unarmed, while those who are wielding rudimentary or antiquated weapons are useless if the poaching is the sort of ‘war’ these same organizations say it is. None of them are trained through the state law enforcement systems. There are numerous other examples of black women being exploited to advance the most profitable agenda of the day.
Basically, Kenya is run like a plantation, and capitalists love us because they know the lives and welfare of our own will always come a distant last to their needs and wants. We have elevated window dressing to an art form, creating ‘sexual exploitation offices’ in companies, reserving seats on boards and legislatures for our preferred women, etc. but we haven’t changed in any meaningful way. Sadly, we are a long way from changing because we do not even recognize that we have a problem, since we have become so inured to our everyday violations of (the rights of) our women. We are strangely proud of the proportion of women we have in our legislatures, even though the majority of them are ‘installed’ there by our constitution rather than elected by our society. We loudly crow about their representation, yet they are routinely ejected from the house for wearing sleeveless dresses while their male counterparts can dress in traditional ‘shukas’ (togas).
We are Kenya, a proud stoic plantation with perfectly whitewashed fences, slave quarters and farmhouses. To the external gaze, it is a beautiful vista. As you were.
This article was first published by The Pan African Review.
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