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.
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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p’Bitek
In the first of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the renowned author and wonders whether Okot p’Bitek might have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had Oxford University treated him better.
The weight of the book in my hands registered as alarm, perhaps signalling the symbolism of its intellectual heft, a book the likes of which I had never reviewed in my quarter century in the business.
I had never reacted to a book the way I did to Lawino’s People on that day in a suburb of Kampala when it was handed to me by Kara Blackmore, one of the people at the London School of Economics who fought to ensure that Okot p’Bitek’s Ph.D dissertation, deliberately failed by Oxford university in 1970 and since then hidden from view, would be pulled out and published.
In his introduction, Tim Allen, LSE Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, puts the matter bluntly:
Okot p’Bitek’s D.Phil was actually failed by the University of Oxford in 1970. This was just three years before Talal Asad, another former student of Evans-Pritchard, published his well-known collection of articles by anthropologists, analysing and documenting ways in which anthropological thinking and practice had been affected by colonialism.
Before you have done any substantial reading, a disabling blow has already been delivered. What more can there be?
My own reaction had come before I had even read these words, and what that reaction was, perhaps holds some explanation:
I was instantly reminded of my time as a journalist at the turn of the new millennium, when I came across the most horrifying experience I remember. It was September 2004, and I had gone in a World Food Programme convoy delivering aid to Pajule camp for the internally displaced in northern Uganda. When I asked why five graves had been freshly dug side by side, I was told that no one had died yet, but that the daily death rate in that camp was roughly five.
Killing northerners had become a sort of sport. You tried to explain to all you came across that the modus operandi of the Museveni government was tribalistic, orgiastic murder and they jeered and said you northerners deserve it. You further explained that these same methods will later be turned against you and they said they were all Bantu people after all, the same people. To then watch the rising groundswell of southern activism against the regime after the end of the northern war and the disillusionment with the regime, when some of the dark methods the army learned in the north began to be applied in the south, is to feel sad at the failure to properly understand in time, who and what it was they were dealing with. It was a very dangerous time, and as a journalist, you knew that once you stuck your neck out to write about that war, it was the end of your career, and within only a year after writing the story, I learnt I would soon lose my job as journalist at the paper I worked at back then.
I had moved on from the dangerous years of the war, and now here was a book whipping my attention back directly to the war.
As for the northern war, there was always much talk about it being “a complex war”, but like all such talk, you suspected that those who made such statements really meant to say that very powerful governments, too powerful to name directly in small regional newspapers, had a hand in the conflict. Going to northern Uganda, even understanding the direct culpability of the Museveni power agenda, had felt like half-understanding the causes, with the result that a refulgent, odious, and inexplicable air of conspiracy hung over the topic.
Was this tome, weighing in at over 600 pages, going to reveal something?
All of the above may not be important, but the very existence of the book was already a statement. By publishing it, the London School of Economics academics were directly accusing Oxford University of censorship, and of deliberately destroying the academic career of one of the most pre-eminent African writers.
I understood that my reaction to the book stemmed from my own interest as a writer. But outside of that, very few people would understand why its publication mattered. Sure, the matter of two important scholar silenced by the British government, and by Oxford University, grabs attention. Otherwise, it is a matter that hacks back to a bygone era, a time when Britain mattered and which time is receding beyond living memory. So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation? One big answer is that Okot is a household name. But Frank Girling? You would have had to have scholarly interest in northern Uganda, even as an academic, for the name to mean something.
Was this not breaking some sort of gentleman’s agreement by so public an execution of a fellow British university? There you have the story before you—the liberal/progressive scholars of a liberal/progressive university having a go at the mother of all conservative institutions.
The connection to our own times is perhaps the direct link in the publication of these materials to the zeitgeist, and it follows on from the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign that has seen statues of odiously racist, right-wing heroes toppled, exposing how deeply rooted in slavery and imperialism many otherwise august western institutions are. In this connection, which is a very direct link to Oxford’s less than stellar history, this book is hence not just about colonialism and imperialism; it is about the attempt to cover up the crimes of colonialism and imperialism.
So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation?
The more pedantic explanation is that the copyright to Girling’s materials, which belonged to Her Majesty’s government, had expired after 50 years, and therefore it could be reprinted.
Otherwise, there is little doubt that this affair deeply damages the standing of Oxford; it more than deserves this bloody goring from Tim et al. Oxford, the recipient of endowments from more slave ships that sailed under the Union Jack, than any other university you can think of, and one that educated nearly every colonial governor, remains so deeply invested in it’s alternative reality that it refuses to take down the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College.
He was an anthropologist. I first came across his name a long time ago whilst foraging for scholarly material on northern Uganda. Within the small, northern Uganda intellectual circles in which he is known, I have often heard it said that it was he that solidified the name “Acholi” to the group that had not commonly called itself that prior to British creation of tribes. But this claim had always rung hollow. The British delimited communities geographically and put an end to the fluidity that had previously seen clans absorbed and dispersed into different language groups. Local historians dismiss the social reality of tribes, and speak instead of language groups. They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache. All these had happened long before Girling was even born.
What I was not prepared for was the extent to which the British government and the powerful universities of that country went to ensure that Girling’s career was destroyed. Given the self-declared righteousness of Britain on the international stage, so Stalinist an act, practiced with abandon but never reported by the BBC for whom tyranny only happened abroad, is still shocking.
It was not new to me that Oxford had failed Okot’s dissertation. The late Professor Akiiki Mujaju, whom I became close to at Makerere, and who was a contemporary of Okot’s, had told me about the matter. But it was unclear. It seemed that no one saw the offending dissertation. Okot himself had died tragically and young. It was speculated within academic and literary circles that what Oxford had done to him had so demoralised him that it also disorganised his literary output. Might he have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had the university treated him better?
Like all sagas, this one had a long and surprising, highly connected beginning. The story of Girling’s sordid treatment starts with colonial Britain moving to directly incorporate social research as a legislatively created and government-funded undertaking. Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets. You might almost be describing an HBO television series, rather than how such bodies as the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) came into existence.
They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache.
The story begins in the late 1930s, at the very dawn of the war, and is not disconnected from it. This was a repositioning of the place of anthropology in colonial affairs. Much as the discipline has been closely associated with colonialism, it was not as central as it might seem. Within the colonial British government, anthropology had never had the prestige of say Biology, or Botany or Geology. Colonial officials in general held anthropologists at a distance, regarding them as difficult individuals with their own “personal axe to grind”, as British Secretary of State in the late 1930s, Malcolm McDonald, put it.
They had a tendency to go native.
A paradox hence; maligned by anti-colonialists, held in suspicion by colonial officials, can one say that anthropologists made colonialism worse than it already was? It would be far-fetched to assume that fascists and racists first consulted anthropology texts before making up their minds. Rather, the monies for anthropology research had come, curiously, from American philanthropists—chiefly the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. As various scholars suggest, the decision by the British colonial office to consider direct support to social science research may have been from a natural progress in colonial affairs. The empire had by the 1930s been consolidated and reached its fullest extent. Natives were now not seen as just dark-skinned hostiles, but a part of the state. The lobbying impact of the American social research council in creating the New Deal had been immense. They had had data to influence Congress. The British drive to create a welfare system lacked reliable data.
Various sources describe the fascinating meeting at which the foundations for the proposed council were discussed. For the empire, and Africa in particular, the nascent council considered Makerere and Achimota.
Who else but Lord Frederick Lugard himself to be present at the first meeting? The other imperial figure at the meeting, whose own reputation is not fondly remembered in India, was William Hailey, also Lord Hailey, Governor of Punjab in the 1920s. It was as if Darth Sidious and Darth Vader were in one room: It is 1939, and the skies are already darkened with heralds of a war that those present understood would shake their empire so there was some urgency in the agenda. If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting. Although it would not be until the 1960s that the council would eventually receive the government funding it demanded, its ideas were put to work straight away.
Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets.
The council came late to the game, for by then, anthropology had already made its fortunes. After all, by this time, Bronislow Malinowski, a leading figure in the development of Anthropology, was at the dusk of his career and would die a couple of years after this meeting.
In Uganda itself, pioneering work had already been done a generation earlier, with such works as The Baganda: An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs (1911) by Rev. John Roscoe, and The Lango: A Nilotic Tribe of Uganda (1923) by J.H. Driberg.
Coming so late in the empire’s lifespan, what would have been the purpose? Had enough not been written already? Adjusting for the fact that by 1939, no part of the empire had broken off yet, was this perhaps an attempt to respond to what were seen as the more progressive models of the USSR and the USA, which were not based on imperial colonialism but a kind of social and economic “scientificism”? A project of consolidation? Even back then, there was much talk of “development”, in the same manner that the World Bank and IMF speak of it today, a would-be positive term that in reality often means promoting land grabbing, breaking up of communities, punitive labour laws and growing inequalities in favour of settlers. The development of a colony is not good news for natives, then or now.
John Bull Sucks up to Uncle Sam
An old line trotted out to explain British attempts to clean up its colony act was the other matter of the British government’s relationship with the USA. At the advent of the Second World War, the British were skittish about getting their American cousins into the war (favourably on their side). They were not going to beat the Germans by themselves (even with the Americans in, it still remained for the Red Army to bring down the Wehrmacht), but the optics did not look good that, with an empire as vast as the British one, you could not do it yourselves. The USA had not taken the path of overseas colonialism, and opinion in Washington sneered at this European predilection for colonies. Colonialism was looking outdated, no more than a matter of beating up natives. The British were anxious to prove to the Americans that their edition of colonialism was meant for the good of the natives, but the files contained no data to create a coherent development plan. Was this turn in attitude a PR exercise in getting American help against the Nazis? At the time, it pays to remember, Soviet socialism, which was militantly anti-colonial, was visibly more progressive with its “five-year” plan models and it was Western Europe that looked antiquated.
A good man in Africa
It is how Frank Girling arrived in Gulu, as part of the army of government-funded anthropologists fanning out into the continent. At roughly the same time, Okot was getting out of Gulu, going out into the empire.
Girling got down to work with great vigour, a conscientious man out to deliver on his commission and his profession. The discipline, to the extent that anthropology could be so called, had developed a fairly structured approach and presentation. There were the requisite spatial establishing to make, of the geography, the cultural and linguistic locations. Some description of the arts, the industry, political structures, birth, youth, marriage and death rituals of the natives. Where did these natives come from, how did they describe themselves to others and who were their neighbours, what larger groupings did their culture and language belong in? Girling, like all anthropologists, had to answer these questions in his study.
He has arrived in Acholi 50 years after the start of the colonial era. He has come, as he quickly realises, not to carry out an ethnographic study, but a forensic examination. He has come to study, not the Acholi, but the impact of British colonisation of the Acholi. He realizes that he has been drafted as a co-conspirator in crime.
He is a very highly educated man. His intellectual orientation is keener than the lazy, racially self-satisfied fair of the Roscoe of half a century before him. He is a materialist whose understanding of history demands he draw his conclusions from the economic, the interactions between men, and their movement of value across class segments to make an explanation of what is happening.
If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting.
Girling’s conclusion is that the policies adopted since the inception of British rule in Acholi have greatly destabilised the society. He sets the beginning of this phase from the days of the first colonial administrator, John Rutherford Parkin Postlethwaite, accounts of whose actions make him a veritable Mr Kurtz, who decided to uproot a significant portion of Acholi society from their ancestral lands and resettle them in patterns deemed conducive to the production of cotton for the mills of Manchester. Girling examines how this, along with what he euphemistically calls “half-free labour”, and forced taxation, have upturned the social and political structures of the land. To boot, succession lines have been stopped and “commoners” are now in charge. The coming of the East African Railway, the industrial town of Jinja in the south, the coffee and sugar plantations of the south, the preference by the British for northerners to serve in the army, prisons and police, have torn the men away from their wives and children. The able-bodied have been taken away to work for Europeans and Asians and little left for Acholi.
This sort of treatment was very common throughout the European empires, but in the case of Uganda, Acholi seems to have been set out for unique dismemberment in ways that say, the Baganda were not. The Acholi Girling runs into question why the British destroyed their political systems but left intact those of the south. There is a racial hierarchy in operation in Acholi, as in all of the colony, with the untouchable whites, the economically favoured Asians. Black people are fair game, as one Gujarati trader openly admits; “we cheat Africans”, but goes on to say white people are not different. They have to bribe British officials from time to time.
An unflattering image of British colonialism arises. Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges. Colonial hierarchies are in full force. The rulers don’t notice black people, who throughout remain faceless.
The Empire Strikes back
The report is scandalous. If this is what the Colonial Social Science Research Council had bargained for, they had not taken seriously enough the view of the Secretary of State, Malcolm MacDonald, that some anthropologists had “a personal axe to grind”.
Girling was a Marxist theorist who did not hide his communist party membership. The report extravagantly affirms the sneering words of the Soviet Union and the USA against European colonialism.
If, as an ideological axe-grind, the prescience of Girling’s warning that British policy in Acholi would be disastrous, would need stronger imageries to counteract what was to follow a generation later, long after the British have left Uganda. We may infer, but it takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.
Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges.
Her Majesty’s government would have none of it. Girling was forced to cut out the damaging chapters of his conclusion. He was forced to edit his work to weed out evidence of British culpability in the destruction of Acholi social systems. What was eventually published was a greatly watered down report, putting emphasis on the ways in which “development” could be achieved.
The ensuing mistreatment of Girling, which ensured his substantial intellect would not have an impact, and his career not go far, did not change his beliefs. To the end of his life, he remained a Marxist, displaying the steadfast courage of the communists without whom the war against Nazism would not have been won. He had in his younger years, volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain after all.
A Black man in Cecil Rhodes backyard
Okot was not a Marxist. But for the system, he was something worse; he was a black man, a native. His presence and his choice to study anthropology at an advanced level were replete with contradictions. On the one hand, the foundation of the exploitative system on which Oxford drew its stipend depended upon the unpaid labour of men like himself. But Oxford was a centre of civilisation, an idea that did not theoretically gel with slavery as its endowments. If anthropology had thrived on a racist assumption about the darker races, how was a black man going to become an anthropologist? The result might have been seen from a mile away; it was a foregone conclusion that a clash was brewing. Okot’s work on the thesis was always going to be a repudiation of the very field he was studying, and so it emerges thus. He had the gall to call out the entire heritage of white scholarship on Acholi/Luo, for getting it wrong.
The work he does is staggeringly exhaustive. He is studying northern Bunyoro-Kitara. But he cannot delimit himself geographically, for he quickly discovers that the ethnic boundaries as spelt out by colonial policy don’t make sense. There is barely any such boundary between the Luo of his cohort and Bunyoro-Kitara. This becomes a source of friction between himself and his supervisors. This is where the two scholars converge. Both were supervised by the same man, Evans-Pritchard, albeit in different decades, but whose role in the ostracism of the two men would be interesting to know in detail.
Okot’s dissertation is positively dripping with disdain for all the big anthropology names that have come before him. He calls out an important source on Luo studies, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, for laziness. He refuses to acknowledge the preponderance of “tribe”, dismissing the idea of “Acholi”, and insisting on seeing the continuum of these concatenated societies with the same language and political ties. He is generally affirming the African version of Africa, which is a political statement in itself.
It takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.
For himself, the irony wreathing Okot and his Ph.D attempt brims with drama he himself might have smiled at. He already carried degrees. He had studied law at Aberystwyth University. He was a big name in world literature. He had been a footballer; now he wants to become Dr Okot. But of anthropology? For one of the lesser beings to self-gaze is comical enough in itself. As has been said of the legions of black anthropologists (an oxymoronic enough construct), Okot was studying himself, observing his own peculiarity, his own beastliness, self-othering himself, like being your own dentist, like auto-erotica or self-disembowelment.
Okot’s work vigorously repudiated the double-faced act of imperial colonialism. But he is subtle, and capable enough that he does not glorify Africanness. You cannot accuse him of something as crude as that. He places his people’s experiences in a realistic dialectic, pointing out ironies, discontinuities and historical contradictions inherent in his own people’s polity. It is a first class work of scholarliness. By and of itself, Ph.D theses have not often been so well written.
His timing was wrong. Decolonisation was in full swing. Losing an empire was humiliating enough. But the 1960s is seeing an ever-increasing number of natives acquiring doctorates, writing books and making films directly challenging centuries of the western canon. Deconstruction and structuralism are questioning the foundations of such universities as Oxford. We can only imagine how the colleges of Oxford felt besieged by the likes of Okot.
But you would have to be close enough to both Acholi and Bunyoro colonial experiences to glean something darker in both the British government and Oxford’s hands in the proscription of Okot and Girling. Okot’s study of Bunyoro-Kitara and Acholi was coming too close to a scene of crime; the British had committed a horrendous genocide in the very locale that Okot was studying and had his dissertation been approved, how long would it take before others began to ask what the British had done in Bunyoro?
The Changing Face of Kisii as Smallholder Agriculture Wanes
Sub-division of ancestral land has all but wiped out farming in Kisii, driving poverty and malnutrition and pushing the population into migration in search of greener pastures.
When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.
Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.
Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.
Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.
What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.
Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.
On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times
While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.
Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.
Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.
Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.
Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.
Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.
Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.
First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.
Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.
The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.
That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.
Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.
Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.
Changing Dietary Patterns
Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.
Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.
However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.
Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.
Mass exodus and generational interdependency
According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.
Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.
Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.
Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.
The climate change factor
In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.
When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.
When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.
Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.
However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.
“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.
Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.
Mental Health in Kenyan Women Activists
In the first of a three-part series on mental health and activism in Kenya, Noosim Naimasiah writes about the pandemic of mental health breakdown in Kenya. She notes how activists respond increasingly to distress calls, extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse, fatal domestic violence, and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Naimasiah writes how communities once connected by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal system registering only exchange value.
Women activists in Nairobi are struggling with mental health problems, further aggravated by the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic. As part of the larger community of African activists, I comprehend in sharper relief the myriad ways that women activists suffer. Caring for others and ourselves is a balance most struggle to strike, so that in the end many activists have become overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and resentful.
The manifestation of living in a patriarchal society, the culturally alienating effects of colonization compounded by the suffering inflicted by a highly unequal neoliberal society melt into each other to form a toxic political amalgam. Talk therapy or ‘self-care’ is extended at a prohibitive cost, holding the possibility of healing at bay and leaving most activists depressed and dystopic. It also reinforces individual healing which though important, cannot be isolated from context of the dis-ease. Short retreats or mental health workshops might provide temporary reprieve, but do not address the issues holistically or with long-term healing in mind. Dysfunctional and destructive coping mechanisms like alcoholism have become common coping strategies.
In this three-part series for roape.net, I will be exploring how alienation is manifested in the context of Kenya women activists. The first part will look at how national mental health documents and statistics remain ensnared in imperial hegemony and therefore do not reflect the reality on the ground. The second part will contend with activism as labour and look at how patriarchal structures in the home and the influence of NGOs have further alienated the labour of women activist historically. The third part looks back at African mental health structures before western hegemony and examines colonialism as a watershed period during which cultural structures and social networks were violently discontinued. The conclusion proposes that African methodologies and practitioners should form communities of healing practice to address mental health problems not just for activists, but for the larger African public.
Mental health – a Kenyan retrospective
The meteoric rise in mental breakdown cases in Kenya is symptomatic and catastrophic. Symptomatic because they signal an inner implosion provoked by the unbearable conditions of being today. Catastrophic because it seems, rather suddenly, that intimate relations of the self, of lovers and families, friends and communities are the prelude to a crime scene; for suicide and gruesome murders. As the advance guard in our communities, activists experience a double burden. They not only have to contend with the escalating violence in our local communities but also to deal with the manifestation of this social upheaval in their own lives.
Activists at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library who are also linked with the social justice movement across the city are permanently attending to distress calls, mostly of a violent nature. The severe cases of extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse – even of minors, fatal domestic violence and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of horizontal violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Lack of toilet facilities for instance, are the precursor to recurrent urinary tract infections. Or rape. Medical services were privatized since the advent of SAPs in the 1980s and continue to be unaffordable to most working-class people. Gendered relations are buttressed by a capitalist system, making them increasingly transactional and culturally alienated from their history and context. Political systems that held communities together by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal and punitive schema registering only exchange value.
It is easy to censure Covid 19 as the primary cause, but the pandemic is a strawman for the complex historical layers that have created a monstrosity whose soft white underbelly was exposed in the last few years. Jobs that were already precariously held were lost. Labouring bodies enervated by decades of consuming pesticides, new age diseases and the liberalization of public hospitals were easily asphyxiated by Covid. And tragically, the fragile conditions of African minds long deracinated by colonialism were crippled further by debt and failed aspirations.
A recent continent-wide study carried out by the African Women Development Fund in 2020, found that 73 million women in Africa were affected by mental health conditions with more than 25 million suffering from neurological conditions. In Kenya specifically, the crisis is escalating with a reported 483 suicide cases and 409 cases of grievous assaults in just three months April – June, 2021, compared to 196 cases in all of 2019. Domestic violence and homicides in Kenya are soaring, with a conservative estimate of at least three people killed by a family member every day, according to statistics compiled from the Nation and police news reports.
For women activists, this trend has been exacerbated with the onset of Covid 19, where personal burdens both at home and in the frontlines of providing support and security, especially for women have been compounded. The UN Women has labelled these incidents the ‘shadow pandemic’ where more than one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence since the pandemic began. Though the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta noted the seriousness of this crisis and committed millions of funds to address it, little had changed on the ground.
In a recent study on the wellbeing of Kenyan women activists, 200 WHRDs (Women human rights defenders) in the informal settlements reported that they experienced serious mental health challenges. On a list of possible disorders including depression, anxiety, paranoia and PTSD, the women acknowledged experiencing at least 80% of these conditions. They cited the lack of a regular income, the trauma generated by their work, the physical and sexual harassment sometimes from the community and co-activists, a general sense of dystopia because of the injustice perpetrated by the criminal justice system and the strenuous effect on families and intimate relationships as the precursors for their mental health problems. This recent study is important and illuminating on the general situation of WHRD. However, a political typology of the activists was not articulated, the ‘list of mental illnesses’ was pre-emptive as it was presented during the research and might have undermined the possibility of engaging with the formulations of illnesses as experienced rather than as referenced. Categories are derivations of pathologies researched and articulated elsewhere, in a historically consistent display of colonial dominance over indigenous knowledge systems.
Part One: Imperial Games of Numbers and Manuals
The current national statistics on the prevalence and character of mental illness in Kenya are elusive. Old research data is recycled, presenting a false diagnosis on a vastly altering social and political terrain. Health policies are xeroxed from WHO with little cognizance of the prevailing history and context. Recommendations reveal no engagement with indigenous modes of healing and make the exact same appeals presented more than 40 years ago. We are generating imperial neuro-scapes, effacing the real portrait of a continent in distress.
Case in point: the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya. This committee was a presidential directive in 2019 that set out to assess the mental health challenges in Kenya and advice government on resource allocation. They visited health facilities in the major towns and held sector-specific meetings and in total, ‘held discussions with 1,569 Kenyans, received 206 memoranda (submitted 121 on emails, 73 hard copies and 12 on Taskforce website)’. They also stated, with certainty; ‘It was clear that at least 25% of outpatients and 40% of inpatients in different health facilities had a mental illness, and an estimated prevalence of psychosis stated as 1% of the general population’. Yet, there was no reference.
I had encountered this very statistic on another government funded institution – the (KNCHR) Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report on mental health – written in 2011. In turn, this KNCHR presents these very statistics as if they were current, but a cursory look at the reference reveals a paper written in 1979! Professor David M. Ndetei and Professor J. Muhangi conducted this research 40 years ago in a day clinic (the 40% inpatient statistic hence a strange addition) and articulated their findings in an article in which the neurological, cultural, social and political context were expressly demarcated. Firstly, class was a fundamental lens through which psychiatric illness was assessed. The setting was Athi River, a suburban area at the time consisting mainly of immigrant who worked as labourers in the factories, who were low-income earners and a minority peasant Kamba and pastoralist Maasai population existing mainly in a subsistence economy. Secondly, parameters were elaborate, expansive and historical – a psychiatric history which included family histories, personality development, sexual activities, sleep patterns, bowel functions and appetite rather than preemptive. Thirdly, the criterion of culture was a crucial basis for analysis, where an earlier article, was referenced showing how patients with psychiatric disorders had culturally specific symptoms – the more rural and non-literate patients exhibited symptoms related to the gut and the more urban population had more-head related symptoms. Limitations like lack of laboratory investigations were cited. This signals a regression in the way of research capacity and critical analysis.
Why were the obvious ‘laboratories’ for research like the local hospitals, local healers and the police reports that generally serve as the first points of contact for the mentally unwell not consulted? Instead, the usual liberal rhetoric on ‘declaring national emergencies and national health months’ were pronounced. More aggravatingly, a commission on national happiness was recommended, in tandem with the World Happiness Report, with highly subjective criterion, none of which, of course, were generated in the continent. For instance, generosity, cited as one of the indicators for happiness in the survey, is premised on a question of whether one has donated money to a charity in the past month?! In a context where the social relations that bolster generosity have not been fully institutionalized, this is a strange and socially adulterated question.
The definition and determinants of mental health in Kenyan policy though in some ways comprehensive are quoted directly from the WHO manual. Public participation is a farce, the notion that policy interventions were developed through a consultative process are not reflected in the content of the policy. As always it seems, history is censored. Strategies that include reviewing legislation, developing guidelines and standards, investing in finance, technology, human resources, service delivery and developing Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks are generic functions that are unlikely to facilitate genuine local engagement.
Like the WHO mental health manual, the very basis of mental health diagnosis in Kenya – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is developed by the American Association of Psychiatry. These are western cultural documents, predicated on American notions on ‘what constitutes a real disorder, what counts as scientific evidence, and how research should be conducted’. Psychiatric disorders make dramatic appearances, are declassified as illnesses, changing into pharmaceutically curable ailments reflecting shifts in western social and political contexts. Even when non-western populations are engaged and assessed, the primary criterion for psychopathy are those developed within western subjects. The criterion for health, the distinctions between disorder and normal responses to distress, and the ideas of personhood superimpose foreign categories producing a social dissonance and political disarticulation in local communities.
This very process of mental and medical imperialism is likely a primary basis for mental disorders. The understanding of western diagnostic criteria as ethnopsychiatry is crucial in dismantling western medical hegemony. Even in their own territory, questions abound on over-diagnosis in the pursuit of pharmaceutical profits. It is not a coincidence that the two institutions producing global data on mental health, the WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, are both heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Concerns have been advanced on the lack of transparency on the methods and data used by the institute, as well as the lack of a variety of independent views by scientists that could deflect from the political and economic objectives of the foundation.
Even in seemingly benign accounts of health like statistics, imperial machinations remain afoot, preventing us from developing local concepts for research, screening, and diagnosis of mental illness.
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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