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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic

14 min read.

In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic
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Oyunga Pala, Curator-in-Chief, The Elephant

Death knocks at your door and before you can tell him come in, he is in the house with you ~ Grace Ogot in Tekayo

Towards the end of January 2020, we discussed the coronavirus outbreak in China during an editorial meeting at The Elephant. At the time, the issue seemed not within the immediate scope of the important world events we should look into. A month later, we published a piece by Nairobi-based writer April Zhu on the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, and the subsequent wave of sinophobia that was spreading faster than the coronavirus. By the third week of March, Kenya was in the grip of the COVID-19 global health crisis. The coronavirus has now become our lived reality in a manner that none of us could have predicted.

Our core mandate at The Elephant is to explain society to the people and the advent of COVID-19 has brought society into extraordinary times; the pandemic has provoked an existential crisis across the world, reordering all facets of life in real time.

At a time when good journalism is constrained by corporate interests, a deluge of fake news, state propaganda and sensationalism, The Elephant seeks clarity for its audience. In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. Even as we adhered to the health protocols of physical distancing, we leaned into the social solidarity of our intellectual community to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

Normal Service Will Not Be Resumed

John Githongo is the Publisher at The Elephant

Across the planet, extraordinary circumstances have been precipitated by an invisible deadly viral threat whose freedom of movement has not only caused illness and death. The fear it has provoked, and the measures taken to contain it, have brought humanity to a unique point of inflection. The asymmetrical challenge the coronavirus has posed to governments has caused them to literally throw their economies at the pandemic in a desperate attempt to slow it down. Previous major pandemics have served to reorder society and this one will be no different. Even as the economic consequences of the coronavirus begin to be felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.

We have come to the stark realisation that, despite the experiments of the past 40 years, governments cannot shirk the responsibility of providing quality healthcare, security and education for all citizens. In the short-term, across Africa, we will have to free up resources to mitigate the economic blast that’s on its way and which will quickly become political if mismanaged. Debt will have to be renegotiated or set aside and if our elites insist on stealing even this, the next extreme stress test will be brought to bear on the security services called upon to manage the revolt of hungry populations. Ironically, the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity to transform our economy and politics in true service to the people. The greatest crisis will not have been the virus itself but rather, a failure of the imagination in the face of the massive disruption it will have caused.

Advent Season of the Virus

Yvonne A. Owuor is an award-winning writer, editor and theoretician

Elements from a surreal landscape we call earth: Wuhan. Wet Market. Dr. Li Weinliang (RIP), Kenyan students and citizens stranded in moving virus epicentres; an Ambassador who resorts to praying for them—turns out she was right: social isolation + moral support as the most effective solution. Animals strolling into humanity’s silenced cities (at least we now know that in the event of our mass demise, the animals who have been watching us, after all, will take over our cities, and nature, it seems, truly does abhor a vacuum), the halting of work as we know it, a new shared grammar; social distancing, COVID-19, curfew. Verbally adept Italian mayors, Mutahi Kagwe, startling Kenyans by being a state official in an entrenched “mediocraty” that looks and sounds competent and coherent.

The likelihood of a post-virus global economic recession and depression. The roles of States (with the primary pimps of Neoliberal Logic revealing themselves to be oddly inchoate now) and how each performed on the “capacity, management and delivery of public goods” scorecard, in the face of this equalising global existential threat, that has also offered the world a common language. (It has caused (for a while) persistent dumb dichotomies–Us/them; West/Other; Developed/Undeveloped… that sought to assert themselves to fizzle away in the face of chilling reality). The masks that concealed so many cracked facades, even in Kenya, are off and in this humanising moment where the only battle is Life vs Death spin only sounds like garble.

Most significantly, COVID-19 is the defining virus for a new generation. That generation watches in terror at the incompetence of their elders whose instinct it is to apply old tested answers to new untested crises. After this storm, the generation is likely to emerge from the womb of darkness furious and frothing, armed with a collectivised will to uproot the status quo by whatever means. They will use the unique grammar of their generation, wired by a preternatural technological savvy, to programme another imagination of being in the world. They will confuse the Emperor-elders, who they see, through the lenses of the virus, have, in reality been buzzing about stark naked even as they preached robes of many colours. That generation did it (as organised netizens) for Dr. Ai Fen’s article by resorting to assorted censor-algorithm-beating language forms. They succeeded. Something is coming: a virus is its herald. Let the games begin.

Racism, Ecology and Conservation Politics

Dr Mordecai Ogada is a writer, conservationist and co-author of the book The Big Conservation Lie

Our warped conservation sector hasn’t been spared the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, I have advised that tourism should be treated as a by-product of conservation, rather than the basis for it, precisely because of the fickle nature of the tourism business. Kenya’s relentless pursuit of tourism at the expense of more resilient indigenous livelihoods like pastoralism, is a fallacy that is only matched by our obsession with tourists of foreign extraction as some kind of validation of our standing as a country. Now that tourism has crashed for the foreseeable future, the weakness of this model has been brutally exposed, with tourism interests begging for donations and bailouts, while livestock production continues unimpeded.

This trauma may just be the “reset” button required to rouse our conservation sector from the slumber that styles the Kenya wildlife service as a tourism organisation under a Ministry of “Tourism and Wildlife”, led by a minister who was a long-term tourism practitioner. A “woken up” Kenya would hopefully come to the realisation that we should conserve first for ourselves and then receive the visitors who come to partake of what we have conserved to serve our own needs. Our obsession with foreign (preferably white) tourists and conservation thinking is what provides fertile ground for the racial prejudice, corruption and unseemly dependence on charity that still persist in this sector. May there be a bright dawn at the end of this dark night.

Pandemics, Tech and the Future of Work

Njanja Mwangi is the founder and Director of Apex College in Sydney City, Australia

The recent discussion online and elsewhere on how the coronavirus will force Kenyan firms to rethink the way work is done, ignores the fact that expectations of a virtual work revolution accelerated by this pandemic are overblown. The optimistic belief is that we will abruptly move into a future where offices and the nine to five workday will be replaced with virtual work and results-only workplaces.

I think this optimism about a revolution around work is premature. Allow me to explain. A question I have often asked any manager I have met over the years is, “What proportion of the workforce would you say is below average to terrible at their job?” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone give me a number of less than 70 per cent. This means that in any workplace or society, 7 out of 10 people can’t be relied upon to consistently understand and effectively execute work instructions.

A number of tools have been perfected over the years to mitigate this reality including in management, human resources departments, offices and work schedules. Talk to any Baby Boomer who owns a business in Kenya and they will tell you that “waKenya ni lazima wakaliwe” (Kenyans must be sat upon, i.e. micro-managed).

This means that, firstly, once this crisis is over, a lot of workplaces will resume business as usual to allow the tools that make up for workplace incompetence to do their thing. Secondly, there definitely will be people who will transition to working from home but I think it would be foolish to assume that this change will not come with a lot of controls, many of which will make working from home much less appealing than it currently appears.

A Braver, Newer World

Rasna Warah is a writer, editor and author of Unsilenced

The coronavirus has heralded an age of uncertainty around the globe, but one thing is certain: the world will never be the same again. After the coronavirus pandemic has run its course, and even after a vaccine against the disease has been developed, a shaken world will be forced to reevaluate its priorities.

We may be forced to ask ourselves difficult existential questions, such as: should we continue ravaging and plundering the earth in the name of profit and economic growth? Can we sustain a world where a tiny number of people own and control the majority of its resources? What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? One where sharing and cooperation are the norm or one where greed and individualism trump compassion and generosity?

What use are armies when a virus like this one can silently and stealthily decimate unsuspecting populations? How do we prepare for such a disaster in the future? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? What really is the meaning of life? Maybe human beings still have a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe now is the time to reassert our collective humanity.

Terror, Security and COVID-19

Abdullahi Boru is a security expert and writer with a focus on the Horn of Africa

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a trifecta of impacts: health, the economy and public order.  All are inextricably interlinked.

In the Horn of Africa where the national health infrastructure is fragile and there are hardly any formal social safety fallback options, the proposed iterations of lockdowns announced by the governments as a means of containing the spread of the virus could ignite public order crises. And considering that some of the countries in the region are landlocked, public disruption in one country could spread to neighbouring countries.

Such vulnerabilities provide a window of opportunity for transnational non-state actors. With the security agencies preoccupied with the local public order crisis, non-state actors like Al Shabaab, while sensitive to public opinion, are not averse to inflicting maximum damage to the state at its point of weakness.

The dawn attacks at Camp Simba in Manda show that Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to soft and hard national military targets, but also target American bases in the region. Moreover, AMISOM bases will be particularly in the group’s crosshairs now that drawdown of the forces has been announced. Over the last few months, Al Shabaab fighters have been seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and some have been arrested while taking flying classes, an indication of the group’s ambition to remain the pre-eminent Al Qaeda franchise internationally.

Tech and Our Lives Post-Corona

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, writer, policy analyst, advocacy strategist and musician

Digital technologies will be a cornerstone of life after the pandemic. Development, investment, policy and governance plans will carry the term “digital” as a prefix.

Today, we may welcome proposals like digitally tracking infected persons’ movements to flatten the curve. The flipside: they are also the building blocks for a surveillance-ridden future. Our consent lies in our desire to see governments “do whatever it takes” to put an end to the rona.

But it won’t be as simple as switching off the apps and algorithms tracking the virus, and by extension, people. These “solutions” are also feeding the appetite that states and tech providers already have for the datafication of every aspect of our lives; to monitor our every move, every transaction, every activity.

The justification to keep the digital surveillance in place will be that there will be other crises for which the activated technology can be put to use. Going cashless today may mean saying goodbye to autonomy tomorrow. Today’s coronavirus victim could be any one of us that will be deemed to be out of line with the system’s rules in the future.

We urgently need narratives and strategies to counter the overwhelming tide of techno-solutionism sweeping in and positioning itself as the silver bullet. Or else, life after the coronavirus will come to imitate our dystopian fictions.

Institutionalised Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Darius Okolla is a writer, editor and curator of audio-visual content at The Elephant 

Many Kenyans will not know that there exists a corpus of colonial-era writings and policies grounded in scientific racism, many of which have been incorporated into the current laws, mindsets and worldviews that govern our public life. The marketisation of basic services – water, education, healthcare – arbitrary application of the law, endemic corruption, and even the theft of blood from our blood banks are the manifestations of this institutionalised racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront the cluelessness and heavy-handedness of a ruling regime that has perpetuated this historical racism which has engendered feelings of cultural inferiority and encouraged anti-intellectualism, elite ineptitude, collapse of moral courage, predatory public instincts, commercialisation of public life, and corruption, particularly in the healthcare sector.

In imposing a curfew and partial lockdown, the state should have taken into account our communal existence, particularly our conception of space, social relations, interdependencies, and supply chains. How, for example, does this lockdown shape night travel? Marikiti 4 a.m. agro-purchases? Where on the scale of essential services do critical “non-essential” ecosystems like Gikomba fit given their place in the crucial informal economy? Thus far, however, the state’s haphazard policies have only served to precipitate the chaos and pushback that happened in Likoni, the defiance of curfew in Eldoret, and the citizen violence against the police in Malindi.

We need to intellectualise more and securitise less, using a pandemic mitigation advisory panel consisting of epidemiologists, urban planners, public interest lawyers, urban anthropologists, public health teams, virologists, economists, and the clergy to craft county-specific lockdown policies. This pandemic should be a road back to crafting human-centred, data-informed public policy.

Tech, Pandemics and Viruses

Alan Kawamara is a techie and a software developer at The Elephant

With the world quickly realising the benefits of digital-ready workspaces and teleworking, COVID-19 has handed digital transformation evangelists a huge opportunity to spread the tech gospel further and faster. Everywhere in our digital spaces, online workspaces hitherto unknown are mentioned, shared and applied with a new-found zeal as workplaces try to find new ways of keeping the work going.

Going forward, organisations will rethink their working models, embracing Cloud technology and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) solutions to cushion themselves against future disruptions. Therefore, in many ways COVID-19 can be said to be as much a tech virus as it is a biological virus. It has unleashed a disruption similar to the infamous Stuxnet virus, the world’s first digital weapon.

Having gone through the challenges of having to perform in the unpredictable time of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals and organisations will have to embrace cultures of experimentation, being willing to quickly adapt, scale or drop tech solutions depending on new and fast-changing variables.

With greater digitisation, reliance on data and analytics for decision-making will become key, with managers keen on obtaining almost real-time measurement of team and work efficiencies. Governments will make more determined investments in internet infrastructure, allowing for faster and cheaper access to connectivity as an enabler of this new way of working.

Pandemics, Power and Foreign Lands

Shingai Kagunda is an MFA graduate student at Brown University

Isn’t it much harder to write when the speculative possibility of a globalised pandemic becomes reality? The worldwide scourge and its ramifications have now become this bottomless anxiety sitting in our being, making itself comfortable. COVID-19 has ensured that many aspects of national and racial existence now carry with them clear or tacit signs that say “Not welcome here”.

This is an even much more personal loss for those of us who are so far away from home facing so many unknowns. And it was even more strongly felt as I watched the last flight leave New York for Kenya, leaving a sense of “so now?” hanging in the air.

Currently, out here in the US, we have to stay home, and where possible take walks—six feet away from other bodies—and turn to Zoom for classes. This is a whole re-education of our lives. We have to rely on multiple video chats to speak to family and friends at least once a day. Ideally, this is an opportune time to dream up alternative ways of being because the pandemic has interrupted capital, supply chains, human connection, and life as we know it.

We must now begin to imagine what this will mean for the long haul and what our world and lives will be after the pandemic. No doubt, we must prepare for a radical shift of priorities in the after. We will need to set terms that will, and must, gain momentum in healthcare, redistribution of resources; we must choose life over profit. In the end we must sit and reflect and read and write and work and rest and draw and notice the earth breathing.

A New Philosophy of Man

Joe Kobuthi is a philosopher and a curator at The Elephant

For all creation, gazing eagerly as if with outstretched neck, is waiting and longing to see the manifestation of the sons of God. Romans 8:19

The scientific and technological advancements, the military-industrial complex, the sophisticated economic, social and political arrangements of the western hegemonic model now appear futile in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humanity and nature have been groaning with eager expectation for something other than this five-hundred-year European experiment that has revealed itself to be rapacious and genocidal where the world is concerned. The West now lives at such a crazy, reckless speed that it has lost all reason and moral authority as it sinks into the abyss.

Here in the global south, we must no longer benchmark with this edifice as the standard for human advancement. No, we do not want to catch up to anyone. What we want is to move forward in the company of all men. It is now time for the peoples at the periphery to begin a new history for mankind.

After COVID-19, if our desire is human progress, we must create other ways of being. For Mother Nature and for humanity’s sake, we must rebuild from the ruins, think anew and attempt to set afoot a new philosophy of man. 

Coronavirus and a Changing Media Landscape

John Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and team lead of Africa Uncensored

I’m hoping that mine will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I see a media landscape that will be changed by the virus, in many ways for the better. What we are observing in the face of the pandemic is the resurgence of expert opinion from actual experts, a curiosity and hunger for fact by some (not all) journalists and a deeper appreciation for the importance of quality information by the public. So in that respect, the bones of journalism are relatively intact even if they have been weakened over time.

What is much harder to establish is how journalism will survive. COVID-19 has thrust upon almost every country that it has touched economic strain unseen in the 21st century. The value chains that supported journalism that were already imperiled now seem like they almost certainly will break, and more than ever, media houses in Kenya will have to find a way to ensure a future for themselves. This could be done through decentralising the news cycle and moving resources to create a plethora of news products and a more robust ecosystem. Swanky news studios may either have to become more spartan or be used as much as possible to generate new income.

The best coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a window into what could be. The very nature of the pandemic is such that the numbers being tracked change every day, and the lack of clarity about when it will end means that journalists have to think deeply about how to make their stories less and less perishable. Hopefully, this will lead to institutional thinking about the kind of investment that must be made for news to be useful.  Otherwise, even more media space will be captured by those who can pay for it.

Alternative media will flourish in the short term, but to survive, boutique media houses will have to search for partnerships that allow them to collaborate on content and share resources. Finally, what I hope for is that people recognise that good journalism is a public good, and fight for a national broadcaster that reports for the nation, not for the holders of office whom we have confused for the overlords of this precious public commodity.

Post-coronavirus and the need for communal solidarity. 

Betty Guchu is a writer and editor

I am returnee, a former long-term remittance woman (in the sense that I was doing the remitting, gladly). I came back, jaded by the world of international development cooperation, where the cooperation seems to benefit only the highly paid functionaries and the development experts that hang on to their coattails, earning a handsome fee with every contract. The waste of resources, the corruption, the nepotism and the cronyism finally got to me and the racism that one day asserted that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, to justify the exclusion of the views of the so-called beneficiaries, was the final straw. I started casting about for another way to live and to earn a living. More simply and more meaningfully. Before it was too late.

Out in the Kenyan countryside I have found such a life, in a community where we are each other’s social safety net. A hospital bill is shared, not just among friends and family, but within the community. As is the cost of a burial. My neighbour watches out for me and it doesn’t take long to know who the chicken thief is. Tools are borrowed and lent and seeds and seedlings exchanged. Advice is freely given, some of it old wives’ tales until you find out that it is not, having skeptically applied it. New ideas are welcomed and knowledge freely shared. Projects are initiated, funds raised and labour provided, elected officials showing up at the tail end to bask in the reflected glory. As is their wont.

It is not that folk here are nicer or more generous than folk anywhere else; it is that the environment is less alienating, that the inter-generational relationships are still quite strong, that the gap between the better-off and the less so is not a yawning chasm. But also, it is the realisation that “there, but by the grace of God, go I” that spurs the solidarity, the acknowledgement that unless we help each other, we all sink together. May the coronavirus bring all of us everywhere to that happy realisation.

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The Lies They Tell Us About Education, Work, and the Arts

Society pays a heavy price when the arts are not about human beings but about institutions. We become an autocratic society, and a society without soul.

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The Lies They Tell Us About Education, Work, and the Arts
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In my open letter to Kenyans, I talked about how the arts are a divine calling. The arts make us human, because the arts provide a space for us to be social and individual at the same time. With the arts, we accept what we can’t change and change what we can, while producing something creative and sometimes new.

Let me give an example of what I mean. The rituals we perform when someone we love dies help us accept death as something we all must face. However, we cannot raise our hands and say death is inevitable, because if we do, we would not have reason to live our lives to the fullest. So the arts is where we deal with that contradiction. When Amos and Josh sing “Tutaonana baadaye”, they are singing, “We accept your going is inevitable, but until we join you, we must still live our best lives, love with all our hearts.” And from this deep truth, Amos and Josh and King Kaka produced a beautiful song.

​That’s what the arts are – beauty that carries deep truth.

This beauty that carries deep truth is not liked by the people who want power. For them to be powerful, they must block us from the truth, and so they block us from the arts. The people in power combine the force of education, religion, business and media to make sure that either they block us from the arts, or they distort the arts so much that the arts don’t lead us to the truth but to a false impression of the truth.

So I’m going to talk about how education boosts this system.

The thing to remember is that the school system hates the arts for the same reason that the government hates them. Schools have structures of power, like principals, who in turn have their deputies and middle-level managers. The power they exercise is no different from that of the state, and in fact, in many instances their appointments are made by the state.

So the education system hates the arts for the same reason as politicians, the clergy and business people: arts will make teachers and students start asking questions about the education system, including questions about content and whether we must use violence to educate. For this reason alone, schools do not want arts education because it would make teachers and students less easy to control.

And how does the education system fight against the arts? By capturing and telling lies about three things: education, work, the arts.

Lies about education

The biggest lie that has been told to us is that schooling = education. I’m sure you know this, because I hear artists saying it, except that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Let’s start by defining education. Education is the formal way in which people expand their knowledge and refine their skills. In other words, education is done deliberately. This means two other truths that Kenyans, including artists, seem not to fully understand.

One, that people can expand their knowledge and refine their skills unconsciously, through life, habit and experience.  In this letter, I will call that process “culture”. In other words, you may learn to dance not because you deliberately decided to learn, but because dancing was happening around you and you also learned to dance. The fact that you did not learn your knowledge or skill consciously with the purpose of becoming a dancer does not mean that your knowledge and skill are less important than what others learn in the formal school. Culture was just another way of learning for you.

Two, formal learning is not restricted to going to school alone. Formal learning includes apprenticeship and mentorship. When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher, and then getting a certificate for it. One of the reasons why I used to invite artists to meet my students is because I wanted my students to hear that even other artists put time into learning their craft from others. So we heard from Juliani that he learned his craft from Ukoo Flani, or from Suzanna Owiyo that she learned to play the nyatiti from her grandfather.

So it is extremely important, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that artists must learn from others. When our artists are not being mentored artistically by anybody, we have reason to worry.

I have heard some artists say on TV that they didn’t learn their craft from anyone. I find that upsetting, because even if they didn’t go out deliberately to learn from elders the way Juliani and Suzanna Owiyo did, they were learning from what was being played in the house or what they heard or did as children. By saying they did not go to school, they are basically dissing their cultures and backgrounds. Or they don’t know them at all.

When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher.

But the second reason why that statement is upsetting is because it means that such artists see no value in creating arts traditions or archives. It means that if you didn’t learn from anyone, no one needs to learn from you. That means that we will always start our arts from scratch, over and over again. It means that with the arts, we are always reinventing the wheel. And the people in power like that, because the larger society never builds an archive of knowledge.

And without an archive of knowledge about the arts, society has no obligation to respect the arts as work that people spend their time doing, or that it is a skill they learn. And I’m sure you can know the rest of the story. But I’m going to go over it.

Lies about work

The second lie that the education system tells us is that going to school is for employment, and employment is for national development. And we artists know the second part of that lie: to develop, we don’t need the arts; we need STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

And to support these lies, the educators and the media tell us junk like 80 per cent of students are in arts subjects. It’s not true. Let me just give the worst example of arts education in Kenya: out of 70 universities in Kenya, only six universities teach music. Only one university teaches fine arts. There is no Master of Fine Arts degree in Kenya.

But the other problem with the lie about employment is that without arts education, we are not able to teach generations of Kenyans to appreciate the importance of arts in society, whether they become artists or not. We need to teach arts education to create a society that will support artists. In other words, if we want the Kenyans to buy your albums, your books and your paintings, to go to the cinema to watch your films and to the theatres to watch your plays, they need to have grown up learning the importance of the arts for their own lives and for society as a whole. They need to understand the importance of protecting public parks and social halls where musicians can perform. They also need to understand the work that goes into art, so that they stop negotiating with you to pay almost nothing, if they pay you at all.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education, so that the next generation of farmers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers will not spend their resources paying for your work. In other words, you are encouraging people not to see your work as work that needs to be paid for. So please think again before talking badly about schools.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education.

Also, when the school system says that the only work worth respect is the work you went to school for, we are encouraging schooling-based discrimination. There is a lot, a lot of work done in Kenya, not only by artists, but also by people who did not get certificates in order to do it. The rich still profit from that work, but they pay even less for it because the workers did not learn it in school. That is why the government is actively discouraging people from pursuing university education. They want Kenyans to learn university level work but not pay them for the value of their work. This problem is no longer about artists alone. It’s affecting all young people.

So the lesson here is 1) value your education, even if you did not get it in the school system, and 2) do not diss the school system as irrelevant to the arts.

Lies about the arts

This third lie about the arts is repeated by artists so much, it’s embarrassing. The lie that the arts are about “talent”. The problem with “talent” is that it suggests that arts is not work that takes skill and time. In fact, businesspeople exploit artists precisely because of the attitude that “Why do you want me to pay for just shaking your body around or splashing colour on a canvas? Si it’s just talent? Even I can do the same work if I wanted to.” For them, performance has no rehearsals, painting has no sketches, and writing has no drafts. You’re just talented. Your art required no work or skill.

This lie was picked up by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, so that you believed the government when it said that Competency-Based Curriculum is different because it will have a pathway for the “talented” students who do not do well in the sciences. How on earth could you accept such madharau as “arts education”? And yet, as I explained on Citizen TV, the “talent” pathway is where they are going to throw the kids who are poor or needed extra help from teachers. In other words, the arts are the place to dump the students let down by the education system.

With that kind of attitude expressed about the arts, we should not be surprised that professionals coming out of the school system don’t see the arts as worth paying for.

But there is another insidious thing happening within the education system that should make us very worried. We are producing periphery professionals without the core artistic skills. Universities, for example, are producing film-makers who don’t learn to tell stories, journalists who don’t learn language or how to write, conflict experts who have no knowledge of history, politics and anthropology, or musicians who cannot play instruments. How is this acceptable?

It is acceptable because the universities have bought the lie that the arts are not “marketable” and are not investing in teaching these subjects. So universities are cheating students that they will produce good films and produce good music without learning story-telling and composition work.

And as a country, we pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map. For instance, Hollywood makes its biggest and most award-winning films from stories of real people, or from their own novels and plays. Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar for a film based on a real-life story.

But year after year, Kenyan film-makers guilt-trip us into watching local films but are yet to produce the story of Wangari Maathai or Syokimau or Elijah Masinde on screen. We have few of our oral stories in cartoons, and instead we watch Lion King. By now the column “Surgeon’s Diary” should be an ER-type series, “Mwalimu Andrew” should be a sitcom. But why can’t Kenyan filmmakers think like this? Because they don’t study stories. They study cameras and scripting and Western film festivals. Remember what I said about “reinventing the wheel?” That is what we do.

The last concern I have about education is the most serious of all. This one pains me.

Arts in Kenyan education is taught like science. Literature, the most prominent example, is taught so badly, that students leave school hating it. They are not taught to enjoy stories for what they are.

There are three main ways in which literature is taught. One is to cut up literature scientifically into themes, characters, style and other details and make students repeat those analyses without ever enjoying or understanding the story. The other is to insist on morals, a development agenda or a specific anti-colonial story. The last is to shame students into saying they have no identity because they don’t know the songs their great-grandparents used to sing.

The purpose of all these methods is to prevent the type of arts I talked about in the previous letter. It’s to prevent individual enjoyment and expression through the arts. It’s also to reinforce the idea that the arts are not for us, human beings, but for grades (the school), the church (morals), the state (development) or politics (limited to anti-colonialism).

We pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map.

This view of the arts explains some disturbing things I notice in my classroom. Our students can’t enjoy art or talk about real life. For instance, when I recently gave some love poems for students to analyze, they said that the praise of a loved one was a lie or an exaggeration. These days, when we are in class, students will tell me about fascinating things in society, but when they hand in the write-up, I find they have not written what they said in class, but have written notes like a schoolteacher. One class finally got what I was complaining about when I said that in Kenya, if I wear a nice dress, people will not say, “That dress is beautiful” or “You look nice.” They will give an analysis: “I always find kitenge dresses very smart.” That’s how disconnected the Kenyan psyche has become. We’ve lost our human warmth.

When the arts are not about us, human beings, but about institutions, then we become an autocratic society. When the arts are treated in this way, it gives permission to the government to censor us, to businesses to exploit us, to churches to condemn us, and to society to not value us. And the price the whole society pays is the loss of our soul.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops

Ten years ago this month Kenyan troops invaded Somalia. Coverage of the incursion by the Kenyan media has consistently and uncritically favoured the Kenya Defence Forces.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops
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Precisely ten years ago, Kenyans woke up to the news that about 2,000 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had been deployed to fight al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group.

In an invasion dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, the troops made their way into southern Somalia through the semi-arid porous border that divides the two neighbouring nations. The deployment followed news reports that al-Shabaab was behind abductions targeting aid workers in northern Kenya and tourists along Kenya’s coast.

But while there is no shortage of reports on the hidden reasons behind this decision, analysis of how the Kenyan press has constructed the narratives about the conflict for its audiences is limited. Scholars and analysts have scrambled to put forth solid analyses of the dynamics of the Kenyan elites, al-Shabaab, and other actors involved in Somalia yet few have attempted to address the question of how the Kenyan mass media mediates this war.

Further, researchers have undertaken the essential task of informing us how media outlets in the global north cover wars involving troops from their countries’ perspectives. However, analysis on how invasions in countries like Somalia are mediated by news media organizations from invading countries like Kenya remains minimal.

Wars and the news media 

The intersection of news media and conflict is complex. There is consensus in the existing academic research that journalists throw away their professional hats when covering wars involving their home countries. This is explained by the fact that they are guided by military elites who control the information coming in from the frontline. The shared cultures and ideologies with soldiers on the battlefield render journalists sympathetic to their governments’ interests. In short, they remain patriotic and loyal.

As primary agenda setters, the news media remains a powerful force. In Kenya, the existing digital divide reminds us that the traditional press still dominates the dissemination of information across the country. This requires that we explore what shapes the decisions of Nairobi-based editors when bringing the war in Somalia to Kenyan living rooms.

The KDF has participated in numerous peacekeeping missions across the world since its inception. From the Bosnian war in the 90s to the Sierra Leone civil war that ended in the early 2000s and Sudan’s Darfur conflict, the Kenyan government has generously contributed its military troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions. These missions largely go uncovered by the Kenyan press since the country is effectively not at war, and also because distance discourages editors from spending resources on these countries.

However, the October 2011 decision to invade Somalia, a country that shares a border with Kenya, was unprecedented. The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country. And for the first time, Kenyan journalists were covering a war in which their own country was prominently involved.

Undoubtedly, Kenya’s hasty decision to invade Somalia cemented al-Shabaab’s prominence as one of the deadliest terror groups in the continent. Helped by Kenya’s weak security system which was a result of rampant corruption and limited resources, al-Shabaab executed some of its worst attacks in the country.

The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country.

The group was behind the killing of over 4,000 people across East Africa in 2016 alone. The Garissa University terror incident in early 2015 that led to the deaths of 147 students and staff remains the deadliest attack by the group in Kenya. Inside Somalia, the group was behind the January 2016 massacre in El Adde and the 2017 attacks in Kulbiyow that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of KDF personnel. Thus, the Kenyan mass media found itself covering a war that was killing military personnel in Somalia and Kenyan citizens across the country.

KDF and the media

It is almost impossible not to think about patriotism when discussing the intersection of the Kenyan mass media and the country’s military institutions. Even before its invasion of Somalia, the KDF consistently enjoyed favourable media coverage and, with the exception of the people of northern Kenya who carry the scars of attacks such as the Wagalla massacre perpetrated in Wajir in 1984, Kenyans’ perception of the KDF was positive.

The Kenyan media’s uncritical treatment of the KDF when the invasion commenced was therefore not surprising. Kenyan journalists share cultures and ideologies with the troops and this creates a bias in how they view this war.

We have often seen how citizens of African countries—with Kenyans leading by example—react to Western media misrepresentations of their stories. From #SomeoneTellCNN to #SomeoneTellNewYorkTimes, Kenyans have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to vociferously criticise how the Western press covers terror in their country. And while pushback against misrepresentations and negative portrayals by foreign media is necessary, it is equally important to question how our own news media portrays war and terror in Somalia.

It is common knowledge that US reporters tend to interpret foreign news with American audiences in mind. But this is not only true of Western reporters; journalists across the globe tend to behave this way when they cross their borders to report on a war led by or involving their own country.

Kenyan news media gatekeepers <> through the lens of nationalism when reporting conflict across the border and within the country. Moreover, whether it be the shifta war, the atrocities in Somalia, the Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp, the Kenyan mass media places Somalia and northern Kenya within the same frame, and the published stories are perceived as synonymous with Kenya’s policy in Somalia. Kenyan reporters write these stories with Kenya in mind, creating the ideal environment that enables Kenyan citizens to accept and approve of the conflict.

After conducting a content analysis of how the Daily Nation and Standard newspapers have covered the war, Cliff Ooga and Samuel Siringi conclude that the Kenyan press has “relied a lot on the news from government agencies instead of residents and eyewitnesses accounts of the combat in Somalia.” This cements the argument that the sources used in covering the conflict frame the KDF as the winning side and shape a favourable public opinion that approves the mission.

My findings of an analysis of over 200 articles in Kenyan and US newspapers about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack were consistent with those of scholars who had examined other attacks such as the Garissa University and Dusit Hotel terror attacks. More than 70 per cent of the sampled articles received episodic framing, meaning they were covered as a single event.

This type of framing doesn’t inform the audience about why these attacks are occurring. It lacks in-depth analysis, nuance, and thematic demonstrations of how Kenya found itself in the conflict. Tellingly, these findings were synonymous with how American newspapers covered the same attacks.

Embedded journalism 

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism. This type of journalism occurs when reporters are invited and attached to military personnel in the battleground to cover conflicts. This approach defeats critical journalistic values—fairness, neutrality, and impartiality are replaced by patriotism, loyalty and empathy. The value of ethical journalism and independence on the battlefields is lost since military personal provide security to these reporters.

Moreover, the military covers the journalists’ costs and sets the ideal timing for combat. The location of the coverage, how and who is interviewed,  these are strategically structured so as to portray Kenya as winning the war, a classic example of public relations through the mass media. Kenyans are presented with news coming in from the battlefield wrapped in such headlines as KDF, No Retreat, No Surrender in Somalia Operation, and The Frontline: KDF Continues to Combat al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The concept of embedded journalism flourished in the 2003 Iraq war. The US military was eager to control information coming out of the oil-rich country. The use of this tactic by American military elites was motivated by the embarrassment it experienced in the Vietnam War, often referred to as the “first television war”. The advent of television technology took journalists to the frontline, a perilous yet enticing undertaking that brought with it recognition among their peers and prestigious prizes that acknowledged their prominence in the realm of journalism.

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism.

With unrestricted coverage, positive reportage of the Vietnam War soon turned to critical reporting that portrayed the government in a bad light. With journalists having free access to the affected communities, bloody images of innocent victims of the war found their way onto television screens in American living rooms. The footage contradicted “the official war narrative and undermined public support for the war effort” and calls by anti-war activists for the American government to end the war in Vietnam escalated. This is why military elites in Washington DC view the unfettered access of news media to the frontline as a threat that needs to be contained.

In 2003, embedded journalism played a significant role in advancing the interests of the US in the Middle East and beyond. Reporters were given protection by the military in cities across Iraq. This is little more than tourism on the battlefield, where the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Imitating the West, the KDF employed this tool to deal with the news media. Coverage of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia is Kenyan-centric, with sources comprising of military personal and the personal views of the journalists. Somalis are completely disregarded and the few who are interviewed are beneficiaries of KDF-driven humanitarian efforts such as free medical camps and distribution of foodstuff.

A culture change is needed

How can the Kenyan news media change this culture of violating journalistic values? Can Kenyan journalists redeem themselves by giving us a clear picture of the KDF’s engagement in Somalia?

These questions need immediate attention as we enter the second decade of Kenyan military activity in Somalia. We have witnessed how the lack of critical coverage of war and terror in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has derailed efforts towards finding durable solutions to end these wars.

Kenyan journalists need to acknowledge that their coverage of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has uncritically embraced the government’s position and that Kenyans have not been given an accurate picture of the ongoing conflict. Their editors, the decision-makers in the newsroom, should strive to allocate resources for journalists to be deployed independently to cover this conflict. This essential element in the news production process is key to a fair, impartial, and critical coverage of Kenya’s engagement in Somalia.

This is tourism on the battlefield and the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Journalists covering these stories should strive to reach out to different sources. Including the voices of those in the local communities who face the wrath of both the KDF and al-Shabaab would be a bold step towards constructing clear narratives for citizens in Kenya and elsewhere.

Newsrooms should also hire full-time, Somali-based journalists to cover the conflict; deploying journalists from Nairobi who lack contextual knowledge will make it difficult to produce fair and impartial reporting. Perhaps engaging properly remunerated local correspondents would address some of the challenges of the last ten years.

When news of the invasion was announced a decade ago, elites in Nairobi were quick to promise that it would be a short war. However, our troops are still “fighting terror” that has killed thousands of Kenyans inside and outside Somalia. It is conceivable that critical news coverage of this war by the Kenyan mass media would lead to the long-overdue exodus of KDF from Somalia.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah

Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah
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This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.

​I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint-hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced depression or panic attacks. A number of us have been shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.

When we work as artists, our work is demeaned. It is treated as “talent” and therefore not requiring any pay. We are cheated out of our earnings by not being paid at all, or by accountants lying to us that the cheques are not yet signed so that they can buy more time to play with our hard-earned money. When we are asked “What do you do for a living?” and we say that we are writers or painters or photographers or musicians, we are told, “That’s fine, but what do you do from 8 to 5?” When we say that we are studying the arts, we are asked, “So where do you hope to get a job with that?” One of my students studying music was once advised to have a back-up plan.

The only time we get recognized in Kenya is when we succeed abroad or get recognized abroad. Even here, because the politicians have grabbed the cinema halls, the playgrounds and the social halls, we cannot find anywhere where people can gather to watch or listen to a performance. Instead, we find ourselves running to the halls built by foreign embassies in the Central Business District, far from the neighbourhoods where we live.

Why is being an artist so abusive?

I will tell you why. In Kenya, the state, businesses, the church, the media and the education system (the hegemony) are united in making our lives as artists a living hell.

Divine calling

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules. In the arts, we privilege listening to God and the universe over listening to human power. When we dance, for instance, we switch off our consciousness about who is looking at us. We concentrate our minds on following the beat and on being in sync with other dancers. This means that, for that moment, we are focused on the arts – we suspend what the church thinks, what the government thinks, what the school thinks or what the media thinks.

In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka says ritual (or what I will call here the arts) is the space in which human beings collectively come to terms with their place in the world. Through the arts, we accept life as it is, both the good and the bad, and at the same time – not like an accounting balance sheet. We accept pain and love, life and death, as inevitable. We also accept that despite being human, the world operates on rules that even we humans cannot change. In the arts, Soyinka argues, we are even allowed to collectively call the gods to account, as Mother Nature and the gods also hold humanity to account.

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules.

So the arts is the space where we bend the rules and break the barriers. It is where we reset the cosmic balance and provide justice to the vulnerable and clip the powers of the mighty. In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

All these things I have described defy the human institutions of the hegemony. That is why the hegemony fights back at the arts.

The autocratic foundations of Kenya

In order to understand why Kenya is this way, it is important to understand that Kenya was constructed on a very narrow agenda – to control the resources (including us) for the profit of the few who did not even live here.

How do absentee plantation owners control a proud people with their own histories, identities and livelihoods? By creating a fiction or stories about how we are such degraded human beings who can only be helped to survive by the very same people who get rich from exploiting us. The arts inevitably became the enemy of our exploiters because the arts are where we can suspend these rules and connect to ourselves and to each other as human beings.

If you understand how power was handed over at independence, through careful selection of the Kenyan colonial sympathizers who joined the colonial civil service, then you’ll understand why that system has remained intact to this day.

The colonial rules which we never got rid of are still constructed on a narrow path to “success”, namely going to Western schools, getting employment, joining politics and becoming rich and displaying that wealth with cars, houses, children in foreign schools and other symbols of Western consumerist wealth.

For this system to continue, it also needs the stories that the colonizers told our ancestors. In church, we’re told that God loves the exploiters and that God is disappointed that we are not like them. In school, we are told to learn so that we become the next generation of exploiters, and that the only purpose of learning is to join the market. In the media, we are told that those who are successful are those who make the most money, not those who do the best for society. Meanwhile, the government sees its only role as setting laws and policy to rule us and sending us the police to punish us.

In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

As you probably know, the system supported by these stories is brutal. In school, children are on their feet from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the workplace, the more we work, the more we are insulted and the less we are paid. In the media, we are told that we are irrelevant to development. At church, we are told that God is disappointed in us. The government calls us immoral and the politicians patronizingly call us “talented youth”.

Many Kenyans who go through this brutal system make peace with it. But we artists don’t. And often, that’s not even a decision that we make. It’s just that the fire of God and the universe that burns inside of us is so strong, that we start to ask questions like, “What if God is not as brutal and punitive as we are told? What if we had another definition of success? What if I love the person whom the politician is telling me to hate? What if I dance instead of being miserable? What if I wear orange instead of brown? What if I sing instead of being quiet? What if I admit that I am sad? What if. . . .”

And that scares the people in power, because their power depends on us thinking we have no alternatives. And so, at the pulpits, on the airwaves, in the classroom, at the workplace and in government offices, people are taught to hate us for being different and for refusing to conform. We grow up being told that there is no future in a career in the arts and that we are responsible for immorality and underdevelopment. We are lied to that 80 per cent of students in university are in arts programmes, when the number is below 20 per cent.

Team Courage

So I want to encourage you not to give up. You are on the right track. The road may be difficult now, the system may be abusive, but we are suffering because we reveal the truth about the powerlessness of the system. If we try to suppress the creativity God put in our hearts, God will send a fish to swallow us and spit us out with the command that we must be artists. So we have no choice but to see this through.

We must see our calling through because society depends on it. The arts are the soul of a people. Without the arts, we will feel powerless to change anything, or too much in despair to hope. The arts are the quintessential space for democracy and freedom, because in the arts, we come together collectively but at the same time express our individuality. It is this magic that we know as freedom.

Think of a painting with different colours, or a choir with different voices. Although each colour or each voice is unique on its own and remains unique in the painting or in the singing, the combination of colours produces a sight that is pleasing to the eye and the combination of voices produces a sound that is pleasing to the ear.

That is what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

I know that this encouragement does not mean much when courage does not pay the bills or put a roof over our heads. But in my further letters to you, I will explain what we can do to resist the abuse. We have a lot of work to do in terms of education, media, economy and faith. I will talk about how each sector abuses us, but also how we also are sometimes complicit in the abuse.

Joy will come in the morning.

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