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Humour in a Time of Coronavirus

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Laughter is cathartic, a coping mechanism in the midst of crisis. But humour also has the potential to catalyse analysis and mobilise diverse publics around socio-economic and political concerns.

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Humour in a Time of Coronavirus
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Social media has become a powerful communication platform, used by Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to engage on issues of common interest. In particular, it is used to spread a type of humour that is a form of critical commentary on contemporary issues, Twitter and—more recently—WhatsApp groups becoming conduits for memes, parodies or twitter threads that offer comic relief from the crisis at hand. Laughter is cathartic, a coping mechanism in the midst of crisis. Take Nigerian satirist Elnathan John’s hilarious rendition of a fictional Nigerian James Bond who struggles to succeed at his job because of visa issues. John offers an incisive critique of the prohibitive visa regimes that negatively impact Africans generally and Nigerians specifically. Or Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s #IfAfricaWasABar (what would your country be drinking or doing?) which explores the geo-political dynamics that shape African countries’ relations. Then there is Jim Chuchu’s 2019 parody of the New York Times advert for a Nairobi bureau chief that rehashed colonial tropes of a dark, dangerous continent that is fertile ground for the adventurous and ambitious journalist. Beyond the laughter, humour has the potential to catalyse analysis and mobilise diverse publics around socio-economic and political concerns. Through rumour, gossip, jokes, songs and euphemisms, politics plays out in the public view, but with a double meaning. It is argued that this coded, hidden transcript is always present in the public discourse of subordinate groups. Through humour, the oppressed speak.

Here we look at the three main ways in which humour serves as an avenue for a critique of class and gender relations, and of religious leaders, as African governments galvanise their countries in response to COVID-19. To begin with, the working class has used humour to rebuke the political class and the elites. With the emergence of the coronavirus, the proverbial 40 days that it takes to catch a thief have passed. As one unnamed poet put it, just one “sneeze” and African politicians are flown out to Europe or the United States for medical check-ups. With Europe as the epicentre of the global pandemic, the political elites in Africa have no option but to confront their failure to invest in equitable, quality healthcare systems. The key question now is: “Where will you go now since you did not bother to build local hospitals and the virus seems to be taking the rich first?”. In another stinging joke that takes aim at the middle class, a man who looks poor is crying and asking if he will die from an illness from abroad yet he has no passport. The passport, a signifier of the mobility of middle class Africans, in this case ceases to become a marker of “progress” and becomes instead a purveyor of problems. The problems generated by the economically and socially mobile often have a ripple effect on those whose mobility is curtailed by gaping economic inequalities. COVID-19 has been described as the great equaliser not because everyone can get it but because protecting yourself without securing the protection of others is no security at all. Dealing with the spread of the virus is not about protecting a few to the exclusion of the many. So long as the majority continue to be exposed to the coronavirus the wealthy are not safe. This is the equaliser. In this context, humour is used to re-ignite longstanding critiques of failed leadership. Jokes emerging out of a collective memory of ongoing struggles are used to “revolt” against states debilitated by grand corruption.

Secondly, a series of jokes, memes and videos circulating during this period have brought to the fore the reality of gender inequality and the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes as a driver of inequality. In these jokes, we see gender roles and stereotypes reinforced and often circulated without commentary. A few worth mentioning here include a photo of a man relaxing on a mattress on the roof of what looks like a modest house in a rural area. The photo implies that he is bored of being in the house with his family and chooses to be on the roof as he is constrained at home. A video clip shows a man calculating the cost of items brought home from the market by his wife, arguing that he has finally found time to check how much is being used at home. Images of children making the house untidy as they stay at home with their bored fathers have also been shared. Collectively, they normalise the sexist view that a woman’s place is in the private sphere while a man’s is in the public arena. An important commentary that underpins these jokes about men feeling locked in is a view of heterosexual relationships that construes them to be transactional in nature. These transactions are based on a neat and false dichotomy where women produce children, men provide money, women nag and constrain men’s freedom and there is little else in between. In one video, a man quickly chooses a second, unspoken, option when the first option presented is to go into quarantine with his wife and children. This video illustrates longstanding debates about the perception of marriage as a union that one must subscribe to but which men have a way out of at any given moment. Women on the other hand are required to stay within their marriages and work at them, demanding meaningful communication and companionship, which is viewed as a burden by their male partners.

A final subliminal message communicated in these videos is the issue of domestic violence. Violence against women as we know is not just physical but it can also be psychological, including controlling behaviour. What is passed off as a joke about budget accountability in the household is in fact indicative of potential or actual domestic violence normalised as men needing to see where their money goes.

Other videos offer a commentary on the prevalence of sexual violence in society. In one video, a group of men is praying for a sick woman in the theatrical manner employed in televised miracle healing sessions. They ask the woman, whom they are touching inappropriately, “what are you suffering from sister?”. In a soft, somber voice, she says, “I have coronavirus”, at which point the preachers run away. On the surface this could be viewed as a critique of charlatans who claim to have the power to heal. However, there is another story here, that of sexual abuse in religious institutions. In 2019, #ChurchMeToo and #ArewaMeToo emerged in Nigeria in response to sexual abuse allegations levelled respectively against the head of a Pentecostal church and Islamic schools. Similar charges against “men of the cloth” preying on children have been reported in Kenya, and not just within the evangelical movement; the Catholic church has faced longstanding charges of sexual abuse. The critique of religious institutions extends to a broader engagement with their loud silence on issues that impact citizens. This is the third category of humour we have analysed.

In an image showing four key West African prophets, there is an accompanying text that reads: “In the face of a real virus they are now quiet”. In countries such as Kenya, South Africa, and Central African Republic to name a few, the clergy and the church in general have in the past been a critical voice at specific historical moments. In Kenya, the role of clerics such as Timothy Njoya, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, who used the pulpit and took to the streets in support of the pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, is well documented. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is another notable example of liberation theology at work, where the purpose of religion and scripture is political and social transformation. The commentary in the image depicting silent church leaders, is a critique of a section of society that is often framed as being its “moral compass” but which falls silent when the immoral surfaces in the public domain—from sexual abuse, grand corruption, to irregular extensions of political term limits and extra judicial killings. Religious institutions are in most cases motivated by a desire to benefit from looted national resources and they are loudest when it comes to the regulation and control of women’s bodies. Their failure to be an effective “moral compass” in society is laid bare by weak health systems and poor infrastructure—education, water, transport—that are at the heart of the effective management of the spread of COVID-19. The rise of “religious charlatans” is a by-product of the decadence of the political class.

Humour, as illustrated above, has provided a much needed reprieve in the wake of the lockdowns, quarantine and social distancing measures occasioned by COVID-19. However, in laughter there is also an opportunity to examine where a society stands on specific issues. Humour in such moments as these has the potential to catalyse action against ills that have existed but which are now magnified by circumstances. The sharing of humour through social media mobilises communities which are ordinarily not engaged in professional civil society work or which are not to be found in “policy advocacy” spaces. However, humour can also be an avenue to sustain and reinforce existing biases in the society as is evident in issues of gender inequality. Ultimately we must ask, will the critiques generated by and through humour turn into demands for structural transformation or will society and its leaders laugh their way to their deaths, their coffins carried by Ghanaian funeral dancers?

Note: We have based our analysis on material we received through social media. However, it is often difficult to trace the origin of videos and cartoons that circulate on social media.

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David Mwambari, PhD, is a lecturer in African Security and Leadership Studies at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College, London, United Kingdom. Awino Okech, PhD, is a lecturer at The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, United Kingdom.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

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

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