There seems to be a resurgence of the kind of genre in the contemporary world where religion, initially thought to be on the wane, is actually reasserting itself in various ways. One of the most conspicuous voices, for example, in contemporary America, is Marilynne Robinson, whose works are followed with keen interest. We however are sceptical that such themes can sustain writers in the long run, and will label them as genre writers. This seems to us as the return of the repressed, in the classical Freudian sense, in the sense that themes that were becoming increasingly repressed in secular societies are finding their way back into the public consciousness through the works of gifted contemporary novelists.
Literature is often a mirror of the period in which a work of art has been created. It is for this reason that we often frame literary texts within the time period that the texts are created. It is this assumption that we neatly categorise within the historical period that they were created. It is for this reason that we describe fictions as say, Victorian, Industrial Revolution, Edwardian, Modernist, and so on. This is particularly true of English literature. Other literary traditions have different ways of categorising literary productions. For example, postcolonial literatures are often categorised on the basis of the trauma of colonialism: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Literatures of the Islamic Middle East have added categories such as post-Ottoman, pre-revolution, revolutionary, apart from the classical jahiliyya and post-jahiliyya periods.
An implicit but unspoken assumption in all these categorisations is that at a deep level, these literatures are underpinned by a certain spirituality, be this Christian, Islamic or Hindu. Behind this assumption is the given that the earliest forms of literary production were saturated with the mystery surrounding creation, institution building and the mores of society. These mysteries gave rise to the earliest forms of literature and mythology. Humans created stories to explain to themselves the incomprehensible and these stories at a certain point became the basis of religious beliefs and philosophical speculation. Without these stories, there would neither have been religious belief, philosophy nor science. The unstructured reality began to take shape only when mythology was created. The gods and goddesses that we created ourselves and then began to worship, were a step towards self-realisation. The earliest gods and goddesses had the same flaws as us human beings, they were assailed by the same weaknesses that we found in ourselves, and they became a sure mirror of the human person, with all his/her frailties. Later, the heroes, during the heroic age, again reflected our own wishful thinking.
With the rise of critical philosophy and the scientific method, there was no attempt to abandon the mythic in human history. It was assumed that, although now we started to think in more abstract terms, not everyone was capable of benefitting from this new worldview. It was taken as a given that, in human societies, there will be those among us who will be unable to make the mental leap from the concrete to the abstract, and for this reason, it was necessary to defend mythology as part of human heritage, a part that has its significance in transmitting ethic and moral values from one generation to the next. As such, discussions of such human values as virtue, justice, friendship, could only be transmitted through the silly stories of mythology. This is well articulated by Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical interpretation and Classical Mythology. This was ol’ time religion.
The Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas brought new kinds of stories, whose underpinning was the construction of new moral orders. The new texts brought in their wake the new religions of Islam and Christianity, but Hinduism, Shintoism and Traditional African and Amerindian religions are still remnants of the primeval spiritual order. There has always been what the British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has called the Persistence of Faith throughout human history, to the present.
In the Western intellectual tradition, the Renaissance is hailed as a New Era, but in fact, it was no more than an attempt to reclaim through the back door the pagan spirituality deriving from Classical and Late Antiquity. The intellectuals of the period, be they artists, creative writers or philosophers, were weary of the stranglehold of Christianity on all aspects of society, and sought to liberate themselves from this straight-jacket. Other, non-Western, societies did the same by creating a discourse counter to that of the religious. That is how the Arabian Nights were born, from ancient India all the way to what is today the Middle East. This was something like a literary carnival, where imagination was allowed to run wild outside the orbit of religion. These were all attempts at circumventing the official discourse dominated by men of religion and sanctioned by the rulers. Contemporary World Literature is incomprehensible without this mythological, spiritual background, because whether we speak of Greek/Roman mythology, African, Hindu or Japanese or Amerindian mythologies, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, these are part of the collective unconscious, and form an important part of the inter-textuality necessary to self-referentiality.
Creative writers have for centuries situated themselves within particular spiritual traditions while creating works of art. This is taken for granted in the West. The medieval period in the West is considered collective because all European societies, without a single exception, went through the long experience of Christianity, from the tenth century all the way to the early twentieth century, with intermission for the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although writers are situated within particularistic traditions, some, because of their intellectual versatility, have dipped into traditions that are not primarily their own, and claimed them for themselves by taking allusions from those external traditions. For example, Dante borrowed from the story of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Heaven as recounted in the Hadith of the Prophet to construct his Divine Comedy. Or, to take a more contemporary figure, in his novel Spider’s House, Paul Bowles uses the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s anecdote about his being protected from his enemies by hiding in a cave on his way into exile in Medina. Spiders form a protective wall with their web which stops his enemies from pursuing him further. Or Salman Rushdie’s constant allusions to Hindu mythology in Midnight’s Children.
This cross-cultural enrichment does not necessarily mean that writers do not situate themselves solidly within their religious traditions. Indeed they do.
The two writers that we have chosen, Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese novelist currently based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are examples of novelists who still stick to religion as their default mode of literary exposition. Both use fiction to advance their sectarian viewpoints without being offensive to secularists or the non-religious in general.
Leila Aboulela’s spirited spiritual damage control
Leila Aboulela, throughout most of her fictions, novels and short stories, has tried to defend Islam as a spiritual religion, and not a political religion. That she should hold such a position is evident from her own background as a Sudanese. Mystical Islam, with its headquarters at Omdurman, is very much part of the Sudanese landscape. In fact, modern Sudan is dated at the point the Sudanese resisted British colonial encroachment under Lord Gordon Kitchener in the nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad al-Mahdi, Restorer of the Faith, the Sudanese rallied under his mystical brotherhood to push the British out, resulting in the death of Gordon. This millenarianism galvanized the Sudanese into a national consciousness embedded in Islam. Like much of West Africa, society in the Sudan is organised partly around belonging to a brotherhood. The brotherhoods double as communities of self-help and also as spiritual sanctuaries complete with an organisational structure. The main activities of these Sufi brotherhoods are centred on remembering Allah and his ubiquitous presence in the thoughts and actions of individuals.
It is important to stress that Sufi religiosity is based on individual accountability that is ultimately anchored in internal purification as prioritised before the practice of ritual. It tends to de-emphasise the legalistic aspects of the faith, unlike for the Salafis, for example, who give importance to the minutiae of ritual practice. This legalistic emphasis on the part of the Salafis pits them against the purely spiritual emphasis of the mystics.
Leila Aboulela, in her fictions, is at pains to point out that what is done in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, and that those who are prone to violence only do so after they have politicised Islam by demanding, for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, the Khilafah, or Islamic Caliphate. Sufi immersion in God-consciousness is considered a form of escapism from the challenging political and economic realities of the Islamic world. On their part, the Sufis accuse the Salafis of sanctimonious ostentatiousness and consider themselves to be the real upholders of the prophetic message of peace and love, without at the same time holding to the highest standards set by the Prophet himself.
On reading Aboulela’s fiction, one is left with the impression that she tries to compress the whole Islamic ethos and practice within her short fiction, where readers will not only enjoy the storyline, but at the same time gradually learn what the “real” Islam or Islamic practice is. In reading her fiction, we are taken through all the essential, but simple Islamic practices and beliefs without seeming to be coerced. The message is that Islam is such a practical and simple faith that it cannot be distorted or abused without exposing those who want to put the religion to their own nefarious uses. For example, Dr Nizar Fareed, a Salafi character in The Translator, is portrayed as well-intentioned but indoctrinated by rigid Salafi interpretations of the scripture and the practice of the Prophet. He emerges as inflexible, opinionated and self-righteous. He appears as some kind of cardboard character, uncritical and gullible, although kind and intelligent.
Leila Aboulela encapsulates the whole gamut of Islamic practice and belief in that short novel, The Translator. For example, she describes the cornerstone of Islamic belief as the absolute surrender to Allah in all one’s actions, and believing that He is the one who proposes and disposes of the believers’ every action. They are helpless before His immense omnipotence. Although we may plan our actions, we must never lose sight of the fact that everything is preordained, and we should not be overly disappointed when things do not go our way. God consciousness entails our planning for the future, but not being deluded into believing that things will always go the way we have planned. This is the classical tawheed position, where, tawakkul, or total surrender to the will of God is the pure faith. Tawheed and tawakkul are the twin pillars on the road to sainthood. The fragility of human life makes it necessary for humans to acknowledge the presence of a force mightier than any human society can command. In fact, Sammar, the main protagonist in The Translator, is sustained in her grief by her total surrender to the will of Allah. Her strong faith sees her through unimaginable grief after the loss of her young doctor-husband in a tragic road accident in Aberdeen, Scotland, far from home, where she finds succour and help from absolute strangers whom she only knows through shared faith and belief in Islam. They take over the funeral arrangements, the washing of the body and its transportation to Khartoum for burial, without having known the deceased or the widow. They answer the call of Islam to help one another in a time of need, the true implementation of Islamic teachings. In a poignant scene, Aboulela, using Sammar as her mouthpiece, describes this communal involvement during the arrangements immediately after the death of her husband:
A whole week passed before she got him under the African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the ever–wondering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur’an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed.
Islamic teachings are inserted in a subtle way at appropriate places to create the desired effect. The Hadith of the Prophet are summarised and included as explanatory tropes to affirm Islamic teachings. For example, all the major issues at the core of Islam like tawheed, qadar, or predestination, prayers, charity, the apportionment of inheritance to both male and female inheritors, the etiquette of grieving for widows, are highlighted. These issues are introduced seamlessly without appearing as sermonising. As an illustration, Sammar tries to convince Rae, her new-found love, to recite the declaration of the intention to embrace Islam. She notes the simplicity of the creed itself by getting Yasmin, Sammar’s friend, to say that the creed has sometimes been abused or taken lightly, as some kind of fig leaf to mask relationships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim:
‘I have seen the kind of Scottish men who marry Muslim girls.’ Yasmin went on, ‘The typical scenario: he is with an oil company sent to Malaysia or Singapore; she is this cute little thing in a mini-skirt who’s out with him every night. Come marriage time, it’s by the way I’m Muslim and my parents will not let you marry me until you convert. And how do I convert my darling, I love you, I can’t live without you? Oh, it’s just a few words you have to say. Just say the Shahadah, it’s just a few words. I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messanger of Allah. End of story. They get married, and she might as the years go by pray and fast or she might not, but it has nothing to do with him. Everything in his life is just the same as it was before.’
On Tawakkul and destiny, Aboulela is also discreet in her explanation:
Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic into English was bigger than the supply. ‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as He alone wants them to be.’ To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight.
Further on in the novel, Sammar ascribes her steadfastness and hope to spiritual underpinnings. Her spirituality acts as a shield that protects her from hopelessness and resignation: “She had been protected from all the extremes. Pills, break-down, attempts at suicide. A barrier was put between her and things like that, the balance that Rae [her love] admired”.
Leila Aboulela compares the real rational position of Islam, based on transcendence and the rationalism of the empiricist and positivists of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. In the words of Rae, who hovers between positivism and doubt,
‘In this society,‘ he said, ‘in this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. With exceptions and apart from those who are self-convinced atheists, the speculation is that God has put up this elaborate solar system and left it to run itself. It does not need Him to maintain it or sustain it in any way. Mankind is self-sufficient . . . ’
The rational and plausible Islamic belief system is validated by the, until then, non-Muslim Rae. Having read Islamic religious and other literature, he is gradually won over by this rationality. But he validates Islamic tenets through a third party, Rae’s uncle who “went native” or in Tudor parlance, “turned Turk”. He quotes from Uncle David’s epistolary confession:
David never of course said that Islam was “better” than Christianity. He didn’t use that word. Instead he said things like it was a step on, in the way that Christianity followed Judaism. He said that the Prophet Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets that stretched from Adam, to Abraham through Moses and Jesus. They were all Muslims, Jesus was a Muslim, in a sense that he surrendered to God. This did not go down very well in the letter nor in the essay.
Leila Aboulela takes the opportunity in her fiction to also explain how the Sacred Hadith, or what are better known as Hadith Qudsi, the second most important source of authority after the Qur’an, came about, while dictating to Rae, who gave her the assignment:
She sat on the floor of the landing and read out, over the phone, the notes she had made from the book. ‘A definition given by the scholar al-Jurjani, “A Sacred Hadith is, as to its meaning, from Allah Almighty; as to the wording, it is from the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It is that which Allah almighty has communicated to His Prophet through revelation or in dream and he, peace be upon him, has communicated it in his own words. Thus the Qur’an is superior to it because, besides being revealed, it is Allah’s wording.” In a definition given by a later scholar al-Qari, “ . . . Unlike the Holy Qur’an, Sacred Hadith are not acceptable for recitation in one’s prayers, they are not forbidden to be touched or read by one who is in a state of ritual impurity . . . and they are not characterized by the attribute of immutability”.
This is heavy stuff for the uninitiated, and requires extra work to understand this background, even for an average educated Muslim, let alone one who is completely unfamiliar with the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is the kind of intertextuality that is not easily accessible for western readers who mostly read texts from the Western intellectual tradition, and whose allusions are generally familiar. Postcolonial writers now demand that Western readers also exert themselves in order to benefit fully from their reading, just as non-Western readers have to immerse themselves in the Western intellectual tradition to fully enjoy literature emanating from the West. In a recent collection of essays, Can Non-Europeans Think? the Columbia University Iranian American scholar Hamid Dabashi decried the provincialism of Western intellectuals. He argues that rarely do Western intellectuals bother to educate themselves about the intellectual traditions of the “others”, although they will not shy away from making uninformed pronouncements about those societies that they know little about. He gave the example of Slavoj Zizek, who knows a lot about Marxism and the Western Intellectual tradition, but next to nothing about the Eastern ones. In his view, there is a lot of navel-gazing among them, unable to appreciate other traditions unless they are themselves area specialists churning out papers for policy think tanks, and regurgitating the same orientalist pieties.
Leila Aboulela assumes herself a conscientious and responsible Muslim, whose obligation it is to portray what she believes is the real image of Islam, untainted by its association with the Islamic lunatic fringe hell-bent on wreaking global terror, without any sectarian differentiation. It is through literature that she feels she can best serve her faith. She is conscious of the fact that as a liberal Muslim, she is under constant pressure, like all liberal Muslims to condemn acts of violence perpetrated in their name by their co-religionists. In a column in the British Guardian entitled Why Must Britain’s Young Muslims Live With Unjust Suspicion? she described the double jeopardy of these liberals:
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate [of fear and suspicion] eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is the liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
From the above it is clear that Leila Aboulela took it as her mission to explicate the tenets of Islam to a wider public as a contribution to mutual understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths and other worldviews. A hard sell this, the defence of Islamic values under the present climate of fear and suspicion. One may also wonder how much mileage she can extract from mining this theme, even under these trying circumstances.
Unlike in the fiction of other writers of Islamic faith, where Islam merely forms the background, as in Nuruddin Farah’s later fictions The Closed Sesame and Crossbones, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Leila Aboulela is deliberate in foregrounding Islamic belief system and practice. It is as if she was an author with an agenda, which she turns out to be in this particular fiction. In this regard, her creative work has more affinity with that of Marilynne Robinson who puts her creative energies to wearing her religion on her sleeve, as does Aboulela in The Translator.
The Christian fiction of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who died in December 2015, is a Kenyan novelist of British descent and a lay Protestant missionary. She came to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, fell in love with the country and in 1960 married Dr. Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a local doctor from the Luo tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with whom she had four children. Over the years, she took all the necessary steps to become fully integrated into Kenyan society, and especially completely within the Luo culture; she learned the language to complete spoken and written fluency and accepted almost all aspects of Luo tradition, except those she deemed inimical to Christian values and virtues.
Macgoye is a well-informed and conscientious novelist, having graduated with a degree in English literature from the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and later earned a Masters from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her grasp of Kenyan political history, and the social changes that she has witnessed personally throughout her extended stay in Kenya, put her in the same intellectual league as the most famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In fact, Macgoye’s fiction covers the same terrain as that of Ngugi because they seem to have lived almost the same experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism, and their works are a mirror of contemporary history through their neo-realism.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye arrived in the country when she was barely in her mid-twenties, and lived the next sixty years mostly in Kenya, with a short interlude in Tanzania as the bookshop manager at the University of Dar es Salaam. During her long residence in Kenya, she witnessed almost all the major political events that shaped the nation: the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, the struggle to create a unified nation out of a welter of ethnicities, tribes, religions and political ideologies. As acute observers of the Kenyan political scene, both Ngugi and Macgoye write proletarian fictions populated by perplexed and dislocated rural masses and the lumpen proletariat who have washed up in the urban areas because of colonialism and post-independence mass migration.
Macgoye’s fiction is populated mostly by female characters, strong women who struggle against all odds. They are mostly uneducated but pick up street smarts as they go through life’s trajectory. Female characters like Paulina and Amina are portrayed as strong characters, Amina with her strong entrepreneurial spirit, and Paulina gradually asserting her individuality in the face of constricting tradition.
Perhaps the main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions. In fact, it appears that in the case of this particular novel, many aspects of Luo culture are held up to be antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The novel critiques such time-honoured cultural practices as polygamy, levirate marriages, lavish and extravagant wake and funeral practices and the cultural sanctioning of domestic violence in the form of wife beating.
Although the Luo as an ethnic group is considered overwhelmingly Christian, this Christianity is more a veneer than actual substance. The Luo are portrayed as stuck in the cultural past more than many other ethnic and cultural groups. The Luo are held up and judged by the highest Christian practices and standards, and are ultimately found wanting. But in the tribal world of the Luo, cultural practices were considered more humane than the dictates or demands of Christianity. We see, for example, Paulina, the main protagonist in the novel, going through miscarriages, the harassment of being a childless woman in a society that believes in the strength of numbers, the grief of losing a child obtained outside the matrimonial bed, and the state of limbo that the husband keeps her in because, in Luo culture, once a woman is married, she is married for ever as her husband has a permanent claim on her, however cold the relationship throughout their lives. The husband is never sanctioned for shunning her, physically molesting her and completely neglecting her. Christian values are merely paid lip service. In fact, there is general apathy, if not outright cynicism, towards Christianity among the majority. Martin’s alienation from Christian practice is held up as the general religious malaise afflicting the new generations of post-independence Africans. The narrator notes of Martin that:
He did not regularly go to church any more, though he might go if there was a special speaker or if he felt particularly at odds with Paulina’s having sometimes to work on a Sunday. The climate had changed from the days when you used to say, ’I am a Christian but I am not yet saved.’ To praise the Lord no longer helped you to get a job, and though the top people attended places of worship in surprising numbers they were eager for a quick getaway. It was another way in which light was going out. People talked about religion on buses, in queues, in cafes you heard them talking, but often as though it was something dull, outside themselves.
The celebratory ambience in Luo mourning practices is brought into sharp relief by Macgoye. By letting a comment slip off the mouth of a Kikuyu, a people who are noted for their industriousness in wealth accumulation, the macabre Luo enthusiasm for partying on such occasions is described with a pithy comment from a shopkeeper. In the words of the narrator:
Kano had kept the old hedged homesteads more exactly than the other locations, and also a bigger share of the old plumed headdresses: teams of male dancers bedecked with feathers and bells and intricate chalk patterns were often to be seen going off to the funerals and other public occasions like the Kisumu Festival. Okeyo used to get excited, chattering and pointing till she restrained him, so that the kikuyu shopkeeper remarked somberly, ‘He is a real Luo: more keen on a funeral than anything else’.
Okeyo was the child that Paulina had begotten outside her marriage with Simeon, a clansman of Martin’s, and who was fatefully killed by a stray bullet during the funeral procession of the legendary Kenyan politician, assassinated in broad day light, in one of Nairobi’s busiest streets, on a July day in 1969.
As a counterfoil to Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims are portrayed in a less than flattering light through the characters of Amina and Fauzia; as either whores or parents pimping for their own children for survival and livelihood. Both Amina and Fauzia are held responsible for the loosening ties between the rural import, Paulina and her urbanised Martin. Both Amina and Fauzia come out, not only as femmes fatales, but also as some kind of mercenaries out to fleece Martin and lure him to the temptation of sin in the form of nice food, nice dresses and perfumes. Pauline was later to see with her own eyes what Nikos Kazantzakis described these nubile nymphs as: “This labyrinth of hesitation, this poison that tastes like honey…”. Pauline wanted to find out for herself what life for Martin was like in Amina’s grip:
Amina proved unexpectedly expert with powder and feeding bottle and soon afterwards approached the pastor about baptism for the child but bowed to the rule that since there was no Christian parent, Joyce must make her own profession when she could read and write. The baby made a good pretext for Pauline to come and see Amina from time to time. Little by little she built up a picture of a world quite remote from her own, a world of gay wrappers and jingling bracelets and perfumes and spicy dishes, where slim men with bony features came and went, for what purpose one was not quite aware, and of town houses where these urbane traditions from the coast somehow collected themselves despite the bare crumbling walls and the outlandish cold . . .
Swahili culture is taken as a synecdoche for Islam and all that it stands for, what are perceived as its negative influences among the relatively recent native converts to Christianity. Fauzia was later to be warned of the possibility that he, Martin, might take another wife, but of a different kind:
And so he told her that when he took a second wife she must be a Christian who would leave her hair unplaited and her ears without ornament, who would dig in the fields and plaster walls and leave her children fat and naked. But she only laughed and said she must enjoy herself a while longer.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye seems to believe her duty is not to be even-handed when she has to confront the reality that Islam is a major religion and a rival to Christianity in Kenya. In this regard, she takes the opportunity to show what she considers the superiority of Christianity over Islam. She uses her fiction to re-affirm her own faith and its tenuous hold on the relatively new converts on the African continent. Her last work of fiction, Rebmann, is a celebration of the efforts of pioneer missionaries like Rebmann and Krapf, who ventured into Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century to win the flock for Jesus Christ in what was then unexplored terrain in the heart of Africa, or the Conradian Heart of Darkness, as Africa was perceived then. Macgoye was later to come to Kenya under the auspices of the same organisation that sponsored the German missionary, the Church Missionary Society.
Looking at name use in her Coming to Birth, there is a lingering feeling that Macgoye’s ancestors, probably Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who migrated to England from continental Europe to escape pogroms there, might have converted to the Anglican Christian rite upon their settlement. Female characters are given common scriptural names pointing to Old Testament antecedents, names like Paulina, Rebecca, and Rachel, names popular with people of Jewish background. Again, one of her more obscure fictions set in Kenya is A Farm Called Kishinev, described as “a fairly comprehensive picture of Kenyan Jewish experience”.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s working class background and sympathies enable her to empathise with the plight of the African poor and downtrodden. Her descriptions of the African “great unwashed” is accurate in that it is described as a life of ceaseless want and deprivation. Nairobi is notorious for its “parking boys”, an expression that is a euphemism for abandoned and homeless kids, who are often orphaned and use their street-smarts to survive in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. Their situation is so dire that they have to live off dustbins, and sometimes resort to using human waste as a weapon to extort money from passers-by threatening to smear them with it if they do not respond generously. The tough struggle for survival is described with pathos, in the words of one such street urchin:
So my dad said we couldn’t go on to school for a while because he need all his money to get another woman to look after us. And when he was there she was alright to us, but she started going queer when she got her own baby: then she hated the sight of us and used to beat us for every little thing. And then last year she started saying that she didn’t get married to come and live in a back-of beyond village with a load of kids, and not any rice or hair oil or nice soap like her friends had for their babies, and only seeing her man one day or two in the month, and then she started to drink. And then she didn’t cook everyday, and never early in the morning, and started saying it was our fault that my dad didn’t pay her attention. He only wanted his first wife’s children and all that. In the end my little brother got so hurt he ran off to his granny: she doesn’t have much, but she likes him and tells him stories. But my sister had to stay to look after the baby, so my dad said. But me, she said I didn’t do anything around the place but eat, and so one day when she beat me worse than usual I ran to my friend’s big brother who is a conductor on a country bus, and he talked with his dad and put some ointment on the bad places and gave me a ride on the bus free. That was about two months ago.
‘He didn’t know anything,’ put in Muhammad Ali. ‘Lucky for him I found him wondering about. I showed him the temples, where they give you free food if there is celebration going on. And how to find the eating places, where good food sometimes gets thrown out when they close, and how- well, all sorts of things I showed him. He just didn’t know how to stay alive’.
Macgoye captures the spirit of anxiety and desperation among those living on the edge.
Both Leila Aboulaela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye have used the art of fiction to push their religious agenda, using fiction to both affirm and defend their belief systems in a world that had increasingly come to see religion as dragging us to the medieval bloodletting that so characterised that period. But of late, there has been an upsurge in writers who have unashamedly proclaimed their fidelity to the time-honoured beliefs of their societies and the era in which they are living. This is also an era when we see the rise of militant atheism too, that is challenging the religious discourse and looking for a much wider space than they have ever been accorded. The problem with this kind of genre, where fiction is put at the service of religious sectarianism, is that it soon becomes tiresome in its self-righteousness and tiresome for the secular-minded; these are often people who are also set in their ways of thinking, determined to draw a line between the religious and public space.
Removing a Dictator
How did popular music become the battlefield of Uganda’s future? And what are the consequences?
In the campaign for Uganda’s presidential election, 2021 has started where it left of in 2020. The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, His Excellence Ghetto President Bobi Wine aka Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as well as his team and supporters, are being harassed, arrested, violently deterred and blocked from campaigning by Ugandan authorities bent on ensuring that President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, stays there.
Bobi Wine and his People Power Movement are not unlike other youth-driven protest movements across Africa that are making their voices heard by organizing through digital media. But while the international community celebrates the emancipatory potential of these new young voices, the complexities of their political engagements as well as the consequences of the abuses that participants face seem to fade from view. In Uganda, specifically, the emergence of cultural figures in politics is rooted in how the role of popular musicians changed in the elections of 2011, which coincided with the height of Bobi Wine’s musical career.
Bobi Wine rose to fame in the mid-2000’s Kampala, as an Afro-pop star inspired by global icons like Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Bobi took on the title Ghetto President and his Firebase crew jokingly became the “ghetto government” of Kamwokya, the neighborhood was where he was from. Though Bobi released socially conscious songs advocating for “the ghetto people,” the crew considered formal politics in Uganda as dangerous and would warn ignorant friends, like me, not to “get mixed up in politics.”
The more than 100 artists and music industry professionals that I interviewed throughout the 2000s were, with a few exceptions, not into politics. They had grown up in the 1980s war-time Uganda, and saw the emerging, largely informal, music industry as a chance to cast off the burdensome ties of kin and ethnicity that seemed to rule politics. They rather saw themselves as entrepreneurs and brand names in a global market for music; as individual stars lighting up the skies above Kampala. Wine and his fellow superstars like Chameleone and Bebe Cool instead politicked in diss-songs and beefs about being the biggest name, the most famous artist, in the country. Not many would have imagined that beef would one day challenge President Museveni. But as anthropologist Kelly Askew duly warned, in Eastern Africa “economic and political practice need not be conceptualized as distinct from aesthetic principles.” New forms of “bigness” and power emerged around the young musicians with digital means of production and the aesthetics of entrepreneurship.
On July 7, 2010, the extremist group Al Shabab, which had been operating in East Africa, attacked several night-time venues in Kampala. Insecurity and cumbersome new security measures meant empty concert halls and night clubs, and this was bad business for artists. Around the same time the election campaigns for the 2011 elections were taking off, and musicians now found work performing at rallies and allowing politicians to use their hits as campaign songs. “After all, I am a business man, and there’s too much money in politics,” said one of my friends who was on the campaign trail for the ruling NRM of Museveni. But this did not mean that singers were now the clients of the “big” men and women of politics. Rather, they framed their relationship with politicians as a market transaction, as just another sponsored show. The Firebase Crew too performed at rallies for candidates of opposed parties in 2010, and one crew member commented: “If I go for his [the politician’s] show, then he has to pay me. Then voting is something else.” In this way, they enforced their status as street-wise, self-made men and women, hustling the old, political elite without being caught in their patrimonial networks of political allegiance.
While career politicians in Uganda usually emphasise belonging and legitimacy with voters in election campaigns through direct exchange and by engineering relations of mutual dependence to gain influence, pop artists make their livelihoods and fame through mediated connections to fans and consumers. The relational form of their “bigness” can neither be characterised as relations of political activism, nor as patronage, nor as pure market relations. Rather, young musicians here operate as kind of cultural brokers within the tensions of all three forces at once.
A second way that artists brokered between music, market, and politics in the 2011 elections was as candidates for political office. As the industry grew, artists and celebrities in Uganda were beginning to show the same material properties as the more traditional elites. They built mansions and drove cars more extravagant than any politician; they owned businesses, as well as the means for the production of their “bigness”—studios, night clubs, and concert grounds. One of these candidates was Eddy Yawe, musician, producer, studio owner—and Bobi Wine’s older brother. As a candidate for Member of Parliament, he remarked that musicians had so far been considered as bayaye (hoodlums, hustlers) only to be used by the elite as entertainers in formal politics, but this was about to change:
In the eloquent imagery of what the political scientist Jean-Francois Bayart referred to as the “the politics of the belly,” Eddy explained how artists could broker their fame beyond the kitchen, where power is cooked, for a seat the dining table and a bite of the national cake. He was neither singing praises, nor protesting an increasingly authoritarian regime, but rather sought to extend his sphere of influence as an artist by entering into politics. Though Eddy Yawe had a big turnout at rallies, he did not win the election, according to some, because of electoral fraud.
While musicians brokered their fame in the field of politics, some politicians also sought to extend their power through the field of music. If there had been any doubt about the political elite taking the music of the new generation seriously as an effective means to mobilise voters, it was put to rest when President Museveni launched his own campaign rap song, “Do You Want Another Rap?”
In early 2017, a parliamentary seat opened up in Kyadonddo East. Wine shaved off his dreadlocks and ran as an independent candidate, with a campaign based largely on music and social media. His stance was clear: he was not a politician, but had come to politics as a musician to represent the young generation, the Ugandans whose interests were being ignored by the government. He won. When the political platform, People Power – Our Power, formed by Bobi in the struggle against the removal of the presidential age-limit which allowed Museveni to rule for life, it was not a political party but a movement. He released the People Power anthem “Freedom” and continued to host shows at his concert grounds One Love Beach. When his driver was shot and Wine himself arrested and tortured in August 2018, protests broke out across Uganda and fellow artists came out to support People Power in songs and social media. In the following months the Ghetto President started hinting at a run towards presidency in both interviews and quite direct diss-songs against Museveni.
People Power launched the party the National Unity Platform as their political wing in July 2020 and Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu as their leader and presidential candidate. Using social media and beef tactics from the music industry to gain traction in politics, Bobi Wine successfully insisted on his integrity as an artist. But this also drew the music industry into politics in ways that made music the battleground for the future of the country.
As the 2021 elections approach, the Ugandan government has used a progressively more violent repertoire of strategies to repress Wine’s run for president and stifle the music industry. On one hand they confirm Wine as a legitimate candidate and the political power of music, but they also point to the limits of the cultural brokerage and “bigness” of artists in the face of state repression and violence.
One strategy is the use of legislative power to block political opponents. Since 2018 the police have systematically denied security clearances to venues and shows that include Bobi Wine, the Firebase Crew as well as other singers associated with People Power. While Bobi Wine flew abroad to perform, less known singers now effectively became clients of People Power as their livelihoods as artist-entrepreneurs had been undermined.
In early 2019 the parliament sought to update the “Stage Plays and Public Entertainment Act Cap 49”—hitherto a legislative, colonial leftover from 1943. The act requires all music, stage and film producers to be licensed by Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), limits touring and number of performances by singers, and requires them to submit their lyrics, music, and visual material for approval at a government censorship board. The enforcement of such a law would, naturally, devastate the cultural industries in Uganda. Further, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world in 2020, the authorities have weaponized the emergency for repressing political opposition and militarizing public space.
A second strategy was co-optation. In the second half of 2019, music stars and celebrities who had been People Power supporters and critical of NRMs politics were invited to visit personally with Museveni and were gifted large sums of money to change sides. For some, the switch seemed voluntary, while the musicians I interviewed in December 2019 described being both cajoled, intimidated, and threatened into publicly accepting money “gifts” and entering into a patron-client relationship with the president. At the same time Museveni attempted to appropriate the imagery of the Ghetto Government, when he hired former Firebase Crew member Buchaman as his special “ghetto” advisor, launched new initiatives in Kampala’s slums as well as a paramilitary group of crime-fighters, the “ghetto army.”
Thirdly, the violence that the Ghetto President’s campaign has been subjected to demonstrates that beefing with the president of Uganda is no joke. Bobi Wine was arrested minutes after submitting his presidential nomination forms, and this led to riots across the country, with more than 50 civilians losing their lives, and many more injured, in November 2020. Members of Bobi Wine’s campaign team have been shot with rubber and live bullets, knocked by cars, killed, ambushed, and arrested. On December 30, 2020, the entire campaign team of more than 90 people were arrested and their cars impounded. Firebase Prime Minister and signer Nubian Li, Producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddy Mutwe and 46 other civilians were court marshaled on January 8th based on dubious evidence collected four days after their arrest.
These violations have been documented by Facebook Live and YouTube channels run by young men with cameras, at times just mobile phones. The daily streams allow both Ugandan and international audiences to participate in the campaigns, but is also a strategy to Bobi Wine and his team safe from harm.
The NRM government has a history of controlling Ugandan media and shutting down the internet during elections and protests. But in December, the Uganda Communication Commission reached all the way to Silicon Valley and requested Google and Facebook to shut down eight of the social media channels for inciting violence. Meanwhile, both Ugandan and foreign journalists have been injured and their credentials revoked. “We don’t have guns to fight, but use the camera as our weapon,” Bobi Wine said as a reaction to this in a press conference on December 15, 2020.
While his entire campaign and security teams are incarcerated and his campaign suspended by the country’s Electoral Commission, Bobi Wine has filed a complaint with the International Criminal Courts against Museveni and Minister of Security Elly Tumwiine (also an artist), among other officials, for crimes against humanity. During a video call with international press about the ICC case, he was assaulted by police officers. After returning to the video call a visibly affected Bobi Wine, with running eyes from the tear gas, commented: “I am a presidential candidate. But as you can see, if I can be harassed like this, you can imagine what is happing to Ugandans who don’t have a voice.”
Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.
If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.
So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.
The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.
At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.
“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”
The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.
“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.
Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.
“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.
Then, another surprise.
“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.
“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.
Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.
“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.
So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.
On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.
“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.
Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.
“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.
The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.
“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.
“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”
Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense. So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.
John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”
John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.
Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.
“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.
After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.
James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”
Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in
There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.
Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.
James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.
Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.
“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.
Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.
Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:
“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”
“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.
Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.
Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.
In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.
The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.
Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.
The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.
In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.
Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.
News and their social epidemics
With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.
In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.
A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?
Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.
Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.
News and confirmation bias
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.
To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.
Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.
Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.
Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.
Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.
Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).
Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.
The worst must be reported
Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.
Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.
An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.
A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.
“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”
“So why look here?” asks the officer.
“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.
It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.
There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.
The Anatomy of a Stereotype
A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.
There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.
Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.
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