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The Return of the Repressed: Religion in the Fictions of Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

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Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, although from two different faith traditions, use fiction as a conduit to re-affirm these faith traditions, one Muslim, and the other Christian.

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The Return of the Repressed: Religion in the Fictions of Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
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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.

Image of Leila Aboulela

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

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.

Oludhe Macgoye

Image of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

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.

Coming to Birth

The main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions

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.

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Professor Mohammed Bakari is the Vice-Chancellor, RAF International University, Kisaju, Kajiado County, Kenya.

Culture

Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya

How racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances can do the most damage.

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Forgotten Histories: Eugenics, Racism and Colonial Mental Doctors in Kenya
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In 1951, a prominent British medical journal on mental disease published the now-notorious account from Dr J.C. (John Colin) Carothers on “frontal lobe function and the African.” While such racist pseudo-sciences were ubiquitous throughout the colonial period, this article contained the rather shocking analogy comparing the brains of “normal” Africans to that of leucotomized (lobotomized) Europeans. Although the original article is lost somewhat to obscurity, its hypothesis has been a mainstay in much of the historiography surrounding the racist science behind what can be called a “colonial psychiatry.”

Since Megan Vaughan’s seminal article on “Idioms of Madness in a Nyasaland asylum” (1983), a robust sub-genre in medical history scholarship has followed suit to explore the concepts, confinements, and rhetorical abuses of colonial institutions across their occupied territories. Kenya, as is often the case, looms large. This is due, in part, to the work of Carothers throughout the 1940s from Nairobi’s Mathari Mental Hospital, which followed on from an ugly eugenicist turn amongst white settler physicians in the 1930s.

The body of work by such physicians appearing frequently within the pages of the East African Medical Journal and the later, more substantial, publications by Carothers in the early 1950s, solidified what came to be known as the East African School of psychiatry with Carothers as exemplar.

Carothers is known for three influential publications; the aforementioned article on frontal lobe function, a widely read World Health Organization monograph, The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953), and a British government commissioned treatise on the Mau Mau rebellion, “The Psychology of Mau Mau” (1954).

Despite his prominence in some quarters, and the expectation that his years of service at the helm of Mathari qualified him as an expert witness on African mentalities, Carothers’ work did not receive a quiet acceptance among his contemporaries. Experts from psychiatry and anthropology weighed in with responses to the WHO monograph with scathing reviews appearing in equally prominent journals. Lest Carothers’ stance on race appear unclear, critics made direct references to his racial and biological determinism—fair play, considering Carothers himself cited his frontal lobe theory in his later works.

Frantz Fanon, critiquing the agony of the colonial situation, referred directly to the sinister nature of the work emanating from Kenya and from Carothers specifically. Although Fanon had many targets, Carothers’ infamy was cited in a summing up of his chapter on “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” in The Wretched of the Earth with commentary on the damage done by the widespread acceptance, even in university teaching, of the “uniform conception of the African.”

“In order to make his point clearer” Fanon wrote, “Dr Carothers establishes a lively comparison. He puts forward the idea that the normal African is a ‘lobotomized European.’”  Unlike Fanon, J.C. Carothers was not actually trained as a psychiatrist (he completed a diploma course in psychology while on leave in the UK). He utilized the patient population of Mathari Hospital and a general armchair anthropological tendency that infected many colonial administrators, to publish his findings about the nature of the “normal and abnormal” African. Although he lacked genuine academic credentials, he did enough to beat out experts like Melville Herskovitz (a prominent figure in the founding of modern African Studies in the US) to win the WHO commission. Despite this intellectual coup, the book was seen as a racially charged blemish on the organisation and was controversial the moment it was released.

Melville Herskovitz’ review warned that the potential damage caused by the publication was palpable. “For where, as in Africa, stakes are high and tempers are short, anything this side of the best scientific knowledge will accelerate existing tensions and make their resolution the more difficult.” The impact of the book might have remained fairly academic; it was, after all, an extended institutional report with a poorly constructed literature review. But it gave Carothers an air of authority as an expert on African psychology amidst a period of turmoil and increasingly violent demands for independence.

By the time the state of emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952, Carothers had already returned to the UK. When the British government called on him to provide his opinion on the psychological impulse behind the Mau Mau rebellion, he was able to oblige from the comfort of home by plagiarizing substantial aspects of The African Mind with added polemics about the “forest psychology” of the Mau Mau. He made a brief government sponsored visit in 1954 to observe the detention camps, and his visit to Manda Island was documented in a scant entry in Gakaara Wa Wanjau’s Mau Mau Author in Detention. The result was a widely read government pamphlet, “The Psychology of Mau Mau,” which not only explained the reasons why Kenyans had resorted to violence, but also laid out a medicalized rationale for what to do about it.

Under the radar, in the mid-1950s, another psychiatrist had a mandate to visit the camps. However, so dominant is the Carothers narrative of East African psychiatry, these two doctors are generally not compared as such. Edward Lambert Margetts was a little-known psychiatrist from Canada who had the distinction of having overseen Mathari Hospital during the Mau Mau war. In stark contrast to Carothers, Margetts made some surprising observations about the trauma of detention camps—although it must be said that he was no sympathizer to the Mau Mau cause.

Despite a penchant for collecting, documenting, and writing, he eschewed any opportunity to write about the Mau Mau war directly, but he too was invited to visit detention camps and to examine detainees brought to Mathari. Camp superintendents had little interest in big picture theories about the African mind, but they were keen to expose specific prisoners who were suspected of feigning mental illness as a means of escaping hard labor.

While some of Margetts’ notes are uncharacteristically cagey, he observed key patterns amongst a small number of detainees held in camps as well as Kenyans living amidst Mau Mau chaos. Most fascinating are medical notes with a term coined by Margetts “Mau Mau perplexity fear syndrome” in which he documented the anguished testimonies or panicked delusions of Kenyans who lived under a constant terror of violence.

For detainees, Margetts made a remarkable observation that while some prisoners might well be “malingering,” others exhibited signs of dissociation caused by extreme trauma related to their confinement. Ganser Syndrome (after Sigbert Ganser, 1898) was also known as “prison psychosis” and included an array of unusual symptoms such as hysterical blindness or the compulsion to give nonsensical answers to easily understood questions. Margetts queried whether some detainees could be considered under this diagnosis—an indication that some of the trauma in Kenya might be attributable to British administration of the war and not the innate savagery of the African personality.

Frantz Fanon also referred directly to Carothers’ “Psychology of Mau Mau,” and to the government’s concurrence that the “revolt [was] the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose reoccurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.” If Fanon was aware of Margetts at all, he would likely have conflated his views with those of his predecessor within the East African School. Fanon noted that Carothers’ work dovetailed with the types of claims made by the North African School. and the credence given to such ideas made the corruption, and “tragedy” of colonial medicine all the more evident.

Although they were contemporaries, these three psychiatrists had little in common, although two of them challenged the “Mau Mau as mental disease” paradigm from the distinct vantage points of clinical curiosity and revolutionary political thought. There are still many avenues to pursue within a scholarship concerned with psychiatry’s entanglement with colonial politics and violence, but perhaps J.C. Carothers output has had a shelf life beyond what it should have done. Edward Margetts’ tenure at Mathari is not unproblematic, but nonetheless leaves a very different intellectual footprint. From his clinical notes and writing, we may apply a bit more nuance and tension to the otherwise flat depiction of Carothers’ overt racism.

The “East African school” represents a paradox between a scientific community that for the most part knew better in the 1950s, and the undeniable influence of racialized intellectual outputs placed in just the right circumstances to do the most damage.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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BBI: Fighting Back Against Our Need to Uproot Uthamaki (White) Masculinity

BBI would have shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas, or that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male.

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BBI: Fighting Back Against Our Need to Uproot Uthamaki (White) Masculinity
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It is now fairly well accepted in the public discourse outside Kikuyuland that the  alcoholism and suicide rates among Kikuyu men are related to the soul pact which the Kikuyu community has signed since 1969 to keep the Kenyattas in power. It is a phenomenon that creates a lot of bitterness in the rest of the country, especially within the communities that have most recently suffered large-scale state violence, such as that witnessed in Kibra and Kisumu in 2017 during the protests against the disputed election of Uhuru Kenyatta.

The extremely slow realisation that the Kikuyu are becoming isolated from the rest of Kenya has started to produce a literature in which the Kikuyu are portrayed as having acknowledged the mistake they made in supporting Uhuru in 2017.

This narrative, however, still contains the supremacist blind spot which Kenyans complain about. The realisation of the mistake comes not from a deep regret about the loss of non-Kikuyu life, including the fact that some Kikuyu supporters of Jubilee cheered on the police massacres that largely targeted the Luo community. Rather, the regret comes from a bad business environment, implying that if business was doing well, all things remaining constant, there would be no problem with what happened in 2017. In other words, money is more valuable than non-Kikuyu life.

As one can imagine, this hubris makes many Kenyans livid. But unfortunately, it is not enough to say that the empathy the Kikuyu are seeking is still selfish and narrow-minded. Although it is. Rather, we must analyse how this hubris became entrenched among the Kikuyu, because the mechanisms which have made the Kikuyu collectively oblivious of the national sentiment are actually contained in the BBI which was recently deemed unconstitutional by the High Court.

Embedded in BBI was the disease that has led to the collective zombification and self-decimation of Kikuyu men, and which would have spread to the rest of Kenya. Ultimately, BBI was less about institutional change and more about a change in the collective Kenyan soul. BBI did not call for change in the status quo; rather, it sought a change in our attitude towards the status quo, an attitude that has already taken Kikuyu masculinity captive.

The culture of Uthamakistan

The unstated religion in Kikuyuland is that being a Kikuyu man is the best thing since sliced bread. This religion is reaffirmed at various gatherings (weddings, funerals, church services) where men are encouraged to affirm a manhood that is modelled on the local rich man who owns land and drives around in an SUV, and ultimately on Uhuru Kenyatta himself. This model of masculinity is a Kenyanification of the colonial white settler. In fact, had it not been for technology and independence, the alpha Kikuyu male would have a horse instead of a Prado, and would have called himself Sir Charles or Prince Andrew. I’ve been told that such men do exist in the exclusive clubs formerly frequented exclusively by colonial settlers, but the only one I’ve seen is former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.

The message in Kikuyu country is that there is no other alternative to manhood. In some ceremonies I have attended, even in church, this reification of what one would call Uthamaki masculinity is presented as a cultural obligation. Kikuyu men are told that other Kenyan ethnic groups are proud of their identity, but Kikuyus are ashamed of theirs, and so joining groups like the kiama kia ma is an obligation to not just the ethnic group, but to a pan-African identity as a whole. This narrative is not only widespread, but it is also comprehensive, because it covers property, education, culture, faith, gender and anti-colonialism, making it difficult for an ordinary man without a sufficient grasp of history and political education to resist it.

Inevitably, this model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status. So what are the options for such Kikuyu men who do not own property?

Alcohol and suicide. Alcohol to silence the voices in his head asking him to be what he cannot be, and because he can’t burn down the media houses, Jogoo House and the churches to shut those voices up. After all, the Uthamakistan message is that those institutions are “his” and if he can’t enter them, Muigai is doing so on his behalf. So he can’t fight the institutions that are “his”.

The other option is suicide in order to get out of the system altogether.

And this was the suffocation that Binyavanga Wainaina was fighting against. He was saying that the narrative of the straight pipeline which says “go to school, get a job or start a business” was “crap”. To illustrate, Binyavanga gave the example of someone with two masters’ degrees paying a 300,000 shillings bribe to get a job as a private in the Kenya Defence Forces. Throughout his life, Binyavanga called for a variety of stories and innovations to counter this single story that is strangling Kikuyu men, and ultimately all Kenyans.

This model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status.

What Binyavanga was calling for was a fundamental reconsideration of what it meant to be human, and for an imagination of what a human Kenya would look like. The status quo responded viciously. Kwani?, the platform for his cultural action, was welcomed with hostility by the academy that called writers associated with him “literary gangsters”. In the end, Binyavanga spent his last days struggling to pick himself up as the legacy he had struggled to build began to decline.

Granted, Binyavanga had not reckoned with the ethnic dimension of what he was fighting against, and often wavered between supporting and opposing the government. But he was onto something, and the seed which he had planted needed the soil, water and sunlight of Kenya’s diversity and creativity to germinate.

And this is not to suggest that Binyavanga was the only one who had this seed. He probably got as far as he did because he was a Kikuyu man. In other areas of Kenya, such seeds never see the light. Culture and arts in Kenya have buckled under the weight of a claustrophobic public life that is hostile to any public gathering of Kenyans outside political rallies or the inevitable weddings, initiations and funerals. And BBI had proposed penetrating even those ceremonies by providing the syllabi to be used at initiations and the material to be used in marriage counselling.

And so the purpose of BBI was two-fold: to not only prevent different imaginations of what Kenya can be, of a Kenya that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male who offers no innovation or social service, but to also suck in the rest of Kenya into this narrow, racist archetype of manhood. BBI sought to infiltrate faith, initiation ceremonies, schools, marriage, history and education to ensure that the seed of the propertied ruling class is planted in every mind in every corner of Kenya.

The Kenyatta head start

The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not. The Kenyattas already dominate the cultural space and imagination of Kenya, and so the proposals in the BBI simply gave them a greater advantage than all the other Kenyan communities, ethnic or not. The Kenyatta name already brands the nation’s major conference centre, the national referral hospital, two universities, the largest international airport, a major street in the capital city and the largest public beach at the coast. The name of Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother, Mama Ngina, is now carried  on the rebuilt waterfront which her son  inaugurated on Mashujaa Day in 2019, a day which was renamed precisely for the opposite purpose, that of divorcing Kenya’s historical memory from its personification in the Kenyattas.

The Kenyattas even have the grave of their patriarch in the central business district, next to where the elected representatives make policy for the rest of Kenya. During the Uhuru presidency, laying a wreath at that grave is a protocol for foreign dignitaries visiting Kenya. Uhuru’s government also used a statue of the president’s father on Kenya’s new bank notes, circumventing the law that stipulates that a human portrait shall not be used. The cynical argument was that the image was of a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, rather than of Jomo Kenyatta himself.

The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not.

The basic message is that Kenya’s national identity is synonymous with the Kenyattas, and is not to be shared with any heroes or historical milestones from the rest of Kenya. Other heroes can be commemorated in the 46 counties but not in Nairobi, which the BBI assigned a special status because of the foreign (read Euro-American) expatriates who live there. If Kenyans wanted to remember Mekatilili, for example, it would have to be done in Malindi and not in Nairobi.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has also sealed any loophole that might be present in the education sector by reducing education to vocational training for children, and by crushing the incentive to the study the arts and humanities by paying lecturers in this field less than lecturers in STEM. And if BBI were to pass, history and ethics would be dominated by the Kenyatta family, since the BBI proposed the position of an Official Historian in the Office of the President.

Basically, what BBI was doing was to shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas.  And since that model of manhood embodied by Uhuru was not accessible to the overwhelming majority of Kenyan men, BBI would have meant that alcoholism and suicide would have become the means of escape from this suffocation.

Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity, and has been waging war against any model of manhood which does not exude the aesthetics of a propertied Kikuyu landowner. The fear of Luo men, including of Raila, is not about initiation. It is a fear of a different manhood whose identity is not attached to state power used for massive and primitive accumulation, a manhood that is different from the colonial settler manhood on which Kenya was founded.

We must all tell our stories

The state’s determination to protect this Kikuyu (white) alpha male is relentless.

That is why the so-called fight for the boy child that was started in Kikuyuland by Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume was started as a war against women, rather than as a war against the white supremacist Kenyan masculinity. The so-called oppression of men does not deal with the fact that the majority of victims of extra-judicial killings are young men, right from the slums all the way to universities.

The same model of masculinity accounts for why any man whose political thinking is different from that of the state is vilified in Kenya as being uncircumcised, womanly, gay or insane. That is if they are not expelled on a plane, beaten or shot in the streets by the police. That would answer Gathara’s pondering “why some Kenyans seem to imagine that being called either a woman or a homosexual is an insult.”

And unfortunately, the Kenyan church became coopted into this corruption of Kenyan masculinity through embracing the “family values” of the American evangelical right. The church did not recognise that even as evangelicals talk of nuclear families, they have a separate narrative of black male pathology, because white supremacy does not consider black (or African) men capable of belonging to stable families. The narrative of black male pathology is necessary to explain why black people are poor and disenfranchised. The Kikuyu elite justify Uthamakism with a similar rhetoric, arguing that poor Kikuyu men are a social problem created by empowered women or the “girl child”.

Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity.

The way ahead is not to decide which family is a real family. It is to send a strong message to the state that it has no business dictating what is in our bedrooms, our homes, our cultural spaces and in our education. The BBI proposed to extend the tentacles of the Kenyan state into marriages, initiation ceremonies, ethnicity, art and history, so that the Kenyan state would be re-made in the image of the Kikuyu (white) alpha male.

The solution is to tell our stories, and to fight against the state being the only decision-maker about who tells stories and what stories we tell. Even the position of prime minister proposed by the BBI was a means of alienating people from telling their stories, because it sought to prevent citizens from having a direct say in politics.

It is also important that we do not hate disenfranchised and culturally miseducated Kikuyu men so much that we fail to see that it is precisely that model of citizenship and manhood that was being prepared for all Kenyans. We need to resist the efforts of state to dictate our stories. We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.

And we must free our cultures and identities from the shackles of ethnicity. Since colonial rule, Kenyans have made the mistake of restricting culture to ethnicity, forgetting that culture also includes information, education, technology and art.

As Dan Ojwang explains, even Kenyan intellectuals have drowned in this medieval narrative of self-contained and rigid ethnic groups, and ironically in the name of fighting against the colonial project whose cultural model the intellectuals apply.  Yet in history, Ojwang argues, there is ample evidence of hybridity even within ethnic groups before colonial rule. By contrast, BBI stuck to the ethnic lines drawn by colonialism, confining culture to ethnicity, and then bringing all other forms of cultural production under the direct control of the state.

We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.

But most of all, we need a new, deep Kenyan story, such as that of freedom, of a brave and proud people who defied oppression to assert our humanity. MekatililiSyokimauPio Gama PintoDavid MunyakeiChelagat MutaiChris Msando, Onyango Oloo and Kioko Mang’eli are just a few of our heroes whose names should be on our buildings, in our awards and in our history books.

To call for a diversity of human accomplishment must not be reduced to facilitating women and non-Kikuyus to compete for the narrow definition of masculinity embodied in the colonial state and in the Kenyattas.

If that model of manhood is already proving to be deadly for the men from the president’s backyard, and for the women who innocently love them, how much more deadly would it be for the rest of Kenya?

Rest in oblivion, BBI. We rejoice at your demise.

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A Moran’s Meal and Other Changing Fortunes

As frequent droughts and famines wreak havoc and the ravages of climate change are felt, nomadic herders have had to rethink their economic livelihoods.

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A Moran's Meal and Other Changing Fortunes
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My friend is having a Samburu traditional wedding and I attend in earnest glee; food was not the centre of that wedding. I remember how after waiting an inordinate number of hours for any signs of food preparation, at around 1 p.m. my friend said “there goes your stew” and I saw some way from us a few morans leading a goat towards the acacia thicket by the dry riverbed. A moran pilau was hastily put together. We were served in Jerry cans that had been cut in half. The morans used their knives to cut spoons out of tree bark and we ate like men about to go to war. We then lay under the trees as the morans sat in pairs preening their looks and adjusting their hairpins. Later they danced under the acacias, the morans in their colourful socks jumping endlessly well into the wee hours of the next morning, fuelled by the pilau from lunch. No wonder the morans were trim, without any superfluous flesh on their wiry bodies.

On another occasion, amongst the Gabra whose marriage calendar falls twice a year, with hundreds of traditional weddings being held across the land on the same day, goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.

In the north, guided by the moon and the seasons, it was ritual that largely dictated the slaughter of goats. During the circumcision ceremonies late last year, thousands of goats were slaughtered within the span of a few days. At an age set transition ceremony amongst the Rendile a few years ago, everyone who was transitioning slaughtered a goat, thousands of them in just a couple of days. A friend ran behind a thicket and brought me back a badly roasted whole goat’s hind leg and a moran’s knife. This was how pastoral nomads partook in goat and beef consumption.

Goats died en masse during Almado and Sorio and then the rest of the year people subsisted on milk, porridge, boiled maize and ilkitegee ugali with dollops of fat and sugar. The calendar of these ceremonies coincided with important seasonal changes. The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.

Goats were slaughtered in such numbers that for a few days afterwards you could not look at beef or goat meat with any appetite.

In this land of uncertainty, complex safety nets had emerged to distribute risk and guard against uncertainty. Meals reflected this spirit of sharing at the micro level; one never ate alone, and food was served in large sinias with six people sitting around a single plate. Aphorisms like “if shared, a flea can make two bites” were often repeated.

Yet, with climate change, the image coming out of northern Kenya is one of starvation. Extreme seasonal changes have increased uncertainty and the frequency of drought-induced famine. This year, the March-April long rains were dismal and already stories of looming hunger are beginning to circulate, with 40,000 people said to be facing starvation in Marsabit.  

Flanked on one side by the Kenyan highlands, which are known for large-scale cash crop plantation agriculture, and by the teff and corn-growing Ethiopian highlands on the other, one wonders why the dominant image emerging out of this large swathe of low shrubland is one of starvation.

Over the years though, efforts have been made to transform this image without however taking into account the complex dynamics at play. The common policy response has always favoured — or has been geared towards — changing pastoral nomadism by introducing crop agriculture. For a country like Kenya, where agriculture contributes a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, crop agriculture seems to be the government’s default setting and in this mode, pastoral nomadism has been vilified as both outdated and as unsustainable as a means to a livelihood. Unending efforts have been dedicated to bringing change and NGOs compete with each other in handing out greenhouses and irrigation equipment. Youth groups are trained in modern poultry farming methods and women’s groups are given beehives to start beekeeping. Wreckage from these efforts dots the landscape.

Sedentary meals

As nomads became increasingly sedentary, new economic pursuits emerged which demanded a massive dietary readjustment. Caloric needs increased and palates developed new tastes. As people settled and moved to salaried and wage labour, food security at the household level improved greatly. Rice, spaghetti, chapati and macaroni served with beans, meat and potatoes were the meals consumed in most towns in northern Kenya throughout the year. Most of these were foods were lacking in fibre, leading to unique health problems. Bowel movement is hampered and many suffer from hemorrhoids in secret; it is a common health complaint in the urban centres that is further exacerbated by miraa consumption.

With food security achieved for the settled populations, more meat was consumed in the urban centres, a big departure from the pastoral dietary habits. “If a meal doesn‘t have meat in it, is it even a meal?” seems to be the unasked question sitting unanswered on each plate. The Marsabit Integrated Smart Survey of 2019 showed that consumption of animal protein-rich foods was so high that health practitioners warned Marsabit residents against eating too much beef.

A history of farming in Marsabit

According to the Marsabit Statistical Abstract published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), 16,000km² around Marsabit is arable land. Mr Woche Guyo, a historian from Marsabit, has been keenly following the agricultural patterns in the region and says, “Those who remembered the history of farming in N. Kenya would recall the British were very much interested in N. Kenya food sufficiency. Up to 1914 the British (colonial administrators stationed in northern Kenya) were buying food directly from Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known then. The death of Emperor Menelik and the SUCCESSION struggle complicated matters for the British.) The permanent solution came in 1920. The Burji AND the Konso provided a permanent solution.” 

The British brought Burji farmers from Ethiopia and settled them around Mt. Marsabit to start farming on the lush montane. The Burji came with their cereal-rich meals like fiqe, kurkurfa, qanchebello, qita, thabo, buthena, and they introduced the moringa tree — shalqetha became the flag by which Burji households were identified.

The slaughter of goats in large numbers played an important role in creating an ecological balance as this eased the pressure on pastureland and water resources.

The variety of foods Burji farmers brought to Kenya introduced an important change to the food habits of the pastoral nomads, adding cereals and grain to their staple diet of milk and meat. This was achieved long before relief food became a fixture in the north’s uncertain food calendar. These culinary changes also forced the pastoral nomads in Marsabit and Moyale to diversify into small-scale mixed agriculture. Back in Ethiopia, the Burji are still expert farmers. On a trip to Burjiland a few years back, I was invited to a wedding where I sat with elders and we were served bean stew and anjera made from brown teff, which we washed down with barley beer. In Kenya Burji weddings were affairs where meat and rice had to be served.

By the 1980s, with increasing droughts, Mr Woche was writing articles about farming with titles like Making the Desert a Land of Plenty and Rendile Put Down Farm Roots for the daily newspapers. Through these articles, he traced the history of nomads branching into crop farming in Marsabit.  “By the end of the second world war, Marsabit was becoming the granary of the Northern Frontier District,” he wrote in 1982. “Main crops grown are maize, wheat, coffee, pigeon peas, cow peas, njahi, Ethiopian finger millet, teff, sorghum, sweet potatoes and cassava”. Everything can and did grow in Marsabit.

But the frequent droughts and famines were wreaking havoc. More and more destitute nomads were shifting from pastoralism to crop farming. Every drought came with its own feeding centre which eventually grew into a settlement. The main intervention at these feeding centres was to place a hoe in the hands of the newly destitute. The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.

Nomadic herders have also been forced by climate change to rethink their economic livelihoods, and by adopting crop agriculture, many have risked alienation in order to fit into their new way of life. These pioneers have become true agro-pastoralists, adding to their resilience cap the feather of dynamism.

Songa, an agricultural Rendile village, was started in 1979 and was by the 1990s feeding itself and selling surpluses of kales, tomatoes, and juicy mangos in Marsabit town. The Songa exemplar is repeated in Badassa, Drib Gombo and Gabra Scheme areas. Much of the 16,000km² arable land has however been abandoned with most of it now lying fallow or planted with the evergreen miraa trees.

Farming success

Farming became so successful that storage for cereals in Marsabit was inadequate and tonnes of maize from the region were stored at the Cereals Board in faraway Meru. Bananas from Marsabit won prizes at agricultural shows in Embu for their world-class quality.

“My father and his friends were bringing in tractorfuls of maize over several days,” says Woche, “but that was in the good days when the climate was okay.”

In those years Marsabit received rain almost all year round, making it hard to dry maize and forcing those growing it around the town to take it to the lowlands for drying, 30 kilometers away. Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now. Yet there was no investment in the agricultural sector then. Even now, many decades later, the same problems persist in the crop agriculture sector; hardly any technology is in use and few investments are made.

The settlement pattern around Mt. Marsabit can be traced to past famines and feeding schemes.

NGOs have led the efforts in food production and in Garissa individuals have established irrigation schemes along the Tana river, which has led to an explosion of farming activities. This in turn has led to an influx of farmhands, with hundreds of Luhya labourers from western Kenya working on farms in Garissa. In Marsabit the more experienced and effective farm labourers are from Meru and even the Burji, who used to do all the work on their farms themselves, now hire Merus to work for them.

Cushioning against social shocks

Funerals in the north offer an interesting crucible through which to examine how social safety nets work. At a funeral, a cow is slaughtered and its meat is boiled in large chunks with no spices added lest one develop a taste for the meal and start wishing for regular funerals. After the burial, hundreds of people head to the household of the bereaved and for a brief moment funereal gloom turns into a gloomy feast as people eat, joyless looks on their faces as they roll morsels of white, spiceless rice with their fingers and partake of the boiled beef.

“We have eaten so and so’s rice” often remarked after the death of a friend means “he is finally gone”. The finality of their existence and departure is captured in the partaking of that rice.

Yet the beef and white rice business at funerals is a new affair for the Burji. Even as late as the mid-1990s, when someone died people prepared meals and took some of it in bowls to the household of the bereaved. There was no pressure to bring anything fancy and one brought their usual meals. Rice, qita, fiqe, githeri, kurkurfa and buthena dishes prepared in different households were brought and served to the relatives of the bereaved for a whole week. This practice was referred to as bochocha by the Burji, a tradition they had brought with them from Ethiopia, a safety net that meant that funerals didn’t require substantial resources or put the bereaved in any unnecessary debt.

But as new urban prosperity emerged so too did new funeral rituals. Shumo, boiled maize, was rejected and a cow had to die no matter the status of the departed, leading to high send-off costs and debts to be repaid. Instead of pooling food, now people contributed 50 shillings for any community member who died.

Stories of food donations being taken from the Marsabit Cereals Board granaries to places like Malawi are told with a touch of nostalgia now

There is an ongoing debate about the slaughter of cows at funerals. It started from Wahhabist quarters, sparked by sheikhs from the new mosques who argue that there is a need to keep funeral costs down, that people who are in mourning should not be involved in the logistics of sourcing for cows, rice and firewood, that no fire should be lit in the household of the bereaved, and that no debts should be incurred.

This suggestion to change funeral traditions has the ecologists amongst us arguing for the ecological role played by the killing of cows at funerals, that in this manner a necessary balance between the human population and the cow population is achieved. The mercantilists argue that the livestock trade depends on funerals and marriages; funerals have evolved to play a big part in the demand-side of the livestock trade in the region. Yet others argue for the army of destitutes who keep an ear to the ground for news of funerals where they can eat a decent meal and carry some food back home in paper bags.

Food changes, changing foods

The landscape changes, the tractors in the rapidly vanishing farmlands upend the ox-drawn plough, Meru youths with their pangas working in pairs replace groups of Borana men as cheaper, more experienced labour. The panga and the agility of its user bring a more convenient efficiency as does the demand of an impatient urban dweller to whom a meal of cooked beans packed in a paper bag is sold.

The stoic if philosophical look of the nomad in the grasslands besides his/her goat alters its shape in the town. The role that traditional waist beads played in measuring the nutritional and health status of children has now been left to community health workers or volunteers who go around the villages with MUAC tapes taking arm measurements and prescribing Plumpy’Nut.

In the arable lands of Marsabit, old fruit and moringa trees are cleared and farms subdivided into tiny plots to meet the growing demand for housing. This changing land utility parallels the changing diet in the region.

Taboo foods

In the past, some clans did not eat poultry meat and in parts of Marsabit poultry was kept only for trade. But these taboos are lifting and we are seeing an increase in the consumption of traditionally forbidden foods, further contributing to food security. For many years, the region didn’t provide the necessary market for fish from Lake Turkana which ended up in markets as far away as Burundi and Congo. But this too is changing as the communities continue to embrace new foods.

Facing the future

Northern Kenya has seen a significant rise in population in the last 50 years. The demographic changes that have emerged with education, the growth of towns and changing lifestyles have led to a bigger change in crucial survival strategies which are the result of a combination of the NGO-led introduction to crop agriculture, the agriculture-oriented income-generating activities of youth and women groups, and kitchen gardens. Slowly, northern Kenyans are acquiring practical skills in a region that had previously never engaged in crop agriculture. Kina in Isiolo has become an irrigation farming haven.

Opening up the road networks means that vegetables from the Kenyan highlands can now reach hitherto inaccessible areas, with boda bodas and probox vehicles crisscrossing the northern plains with fresh goods every morning, although Ethiopia also offers a cheaper alternative to Kenyan agricultural produce.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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