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AFRICA AND THE WORLD CUP: A Beautiful Tragedy

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AFRICA AND THE WORLD CUP: A Beautiful Tragedy
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2nd July 2010. Soccer City, Johannesburg. The score is 1-1 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup quarter-final between Ghana and Uruguay. In the 120th minute, Ghana have a promising free kick at the edge of the box. Some panicked Uruguayan defending, a proper goalmouth melee. Hang on, what’s this? It’s a penalty. Luis Suarez just saved a certain Ghanaian goal. The only problem is he’s not a goalkeeper, but a forward. He is shown a red card for his troubles.

Asamoah Gyan steps up. Could this be the moment an African nation goes to the semi-final, in Africa’s World Cup? Gyan is Ghana’s top scorer at this World Cup, with three goals – two of which were penalties against Serbia and Australia in the group stages. If there was someone you could bet on to have the sangfroid and the cojones to do it, Gyan was that guy.

The weight of a continent’s expectation is on his shoulders. He fires a shot, which cannons off the crossbar. Instead of winning it, he condemns Ghana to a needless penalty shootout which they late go on to lose – John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah miss for Ghana and Sebastian Abreu hits a cheeky Panenka to send Ghana out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

This memory is so vivid because I watched every heart-rending minute of that match, cursing at Suarez- the ready-made pantomime villain who dashed a continent’s hopes; but more so at Asamoah Gyan? How could he miss? Why was he such a choker?

This is the story of Africa and the World Cup as we have always known it. A tale of the valiant underdogs who, like Icarus, flew too near to the sun and paid the price with their naivete. It is also a tale of self-sabotage, incompetence, gulfs in class and institutional racism.

***

The story of African football is about politics.

In 1934, Egypt became the first African country to participate in the World Cup, which was hosted by Italy. They qualified for the sixteen-team tournament by beating Palestine (then under a British mandate) and Turkey (who withdrew from the qualification round). In the World Cup, Egypt lost 4–2 in the first round against Hungary. This was to be the last time an African team participated in the World Cup, until Morocco did so in 1970.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many African nations became independent and naturally, as independent nations, they joined global bodies, like the United Nations, and of course, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which at the time was dominated by northern European and South American nations. This posed an existential threat– the FIFA Congress operated on the basis of one nation, one vote, irrespective of footballing ability. The Kenyas and Zambias, in the eyes of FIFA, had an equal say in world football, the same as two-time world champions Brazil, Uruguay and Italy.

Paul Darby, in Africa and the ‘World’ Cup: FIFA Politics, Eurocentrism and Resistance published in the International Journal of the History of Sport (Vol. 22, No. 5, September 2005, 883 – 905) observed that the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)“made several attempts during the late 1950s and early 1960s to introduce a pluralist voting system that would more adequately reflect their self-perceived standing in world football”. When these efforts failed, they chose to assert their dominance in the FIFA World Cup. FIFA’s Executive Committee decreed that to qualify for the 1962 World Cup, Morocco, the winners of the African preliminary round would have to play a further qualifying match against Spain – a match they duly lost. In 1964, they made it worse by marginalising the Asians and Africans by pitting them against each other: the winners of the African zone would play the winners of the Asia/Oceania zone to qualify for future World Cup Finals.

Kwame Nkrumah, the-then Ghanaian president and pan-Africanist, persuaded CAF (Confédération Africaine de Football) to have its members boycott the 1966 World Cup. CAF’s Secretary General, Mourad Fahmy, argued that “the allocation of one World Cup slot to three continents (with more than 65 members)was absurd and did not adequately reflect the prevailing situation in world football.”

In 1974, João Havelange, a Brazilian, ran for the FIFA presidency on a pledge to improve the situation of Asian and African football – by increasing the World Cup final places from sixteen to twenty-four, and by increasing funding to improve infrastructure in African and Asian countries. He won handily, beating the incumbent, Sir Stanley Rous, who was widely resented by African nations for, among other things, supporting the inclusion of South Africa in the FIFA family despite their apartheid policy.

Under Havelange, Africa got two World Cup spots, which later became five under the expanded 32 team format that began in 1998. But it was under his protégé, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, that the African continent came to the fore. For all his faults, Blatter ensured that the dream of an African country hosting the World Cup became a reality. He backed South Africa over Germany in 2006. He backed it again in 2010. It later emerged that the win was not entirely legitimate; the 2015 indictments of FIFA officials by the United States’ Department of Justice showed that Jack Warner, a FIFA Vice President had accepted $10m from South Africa in 2008. Danny Jordaan, the chairman of the 2010 Local Organising Committee clarified it was not a bribe but a contribution towards the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football- of which Warner was President at the time) “development fund.”

***

The story of African football is about incompetence.

Zaire’s team, the Leopards, were Africa’s representatives at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The reigning African champions had been funded lavishly by the kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga; he had given each member of the team a house and a green Volkswagen. Things had looked promising when they lost 2-0 to a Scottish team with the talents of Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner and Dennis Law. But it was the next match against Yugoslavia that will live on in infamy.

Before the match, Mobutu, or one of his minions, had assumed that the team’s coach, Blagoje Vidinić, a Yugoslav, of planning to deliberately throw away the game so as to favour his home team, so he was “secluded” from the team for that match. It later transpired that the players had not been paid their allowances – a story that will become all-too familiar – and they were in fact planning to strike before the match. The team lost 9-0 in the second-worst World Cup performance of all time (el Salvador holds the dubious record, losing 10-1 to Hungary in the 1982 World Cup, held in Spain).

Mobutu, predictably, was not amused. He gave the team an ultimatum: don’t bother coming home if you lose by more than four goals to Brazil. That was the Brazil – the defending champions who had thrilled the world with their canary yellow shirts and an exuberant display of swashbuckling football. Zaire creditably lost 3-0, not without its mishaps and led to arguably the most bizarre moment in World Cup history – Mwepu Ilunga rushed out of the wall and hammered the ball away before Rivellino could take the free kick. BBC match commentator, John Motson, termed it, “a bizarre moment of African ignorance.” But that was not the truth; Ilunga later claimed he was wasting time because Mobutu’s threat was all too real. In fact, on the team’s return to Kinshasa, they were briefly detained at the presidential palace for four days while Mobutu decided what to do with them, before he eventually released them. Minus their allowances, of course.

The singularly African spectre of disorganisation always seems to strike at the World Cup. In 2014, the Ghanaian team refused to train and were actually contemplating going on strike before their match against Portugal unless they received their bonuses. It took the personal intervention of President John Mahama Dramani, who ensured that the players received their money – in cash. The players did not trust their officials to bank it for them, so the cash (all $3 million of it) was put on a chartered flight to Brazil and delivered to the players in a police convoy. Later, Ghana’s star midfielders, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, who had shone so brightly in 2010, were kicked out of the squad for “vulgar verbal insults.” Cameroon also threatened to go on strike at the same World Cup and duly delivered another bizarre World Cup moment – Alex Song’s bizarre elbow on Croatia’s Mario Mandžukić. Nigeria went on strike and boycotted training too, and despite their woes, they made it to the last 16.

Which begs the question: why always Africa?

Endemic corruption is a way of life in Africa, and this extends to football. The sums of money in football make it a particularly lucrative feeding trough: during the 2011-2014 financial cycle, FIFA gave each member association an extraordinary Financial Assistance Programme (FAP) payment of US $ 1,050,000. Such sums in the hands of local football officials find more convenient uses. A week before the start of the 2018 World Cup, Ghana’s FA President, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was implicated in a corruption expose by Ghanaian journalist Anas. He has since resigned. Aden Range Marwa, a Kenyan assistant referee who was due to officiate at the 2018 World Cup, was also netted in the sting for allegedly taking a bribe of $600.

Poor youth development also plays a key role in Africa’s underperformance at World Cup. This is a direct result of poor investment in coaching and infrastructure. African teams are usually powerhouses at under-17 and under-20 level – Nigeria and Ghana have won FIFA tournaments several times. Football at the Olympic games are considered an under-23 event. Nigeria won the gold in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Cameroon followed suit in Sydney 2000. However, there doesn’t seem to be a clear transition for most of the youngsters into the main national team. Take the 2005 U-20 final between Nigeria and Argentina: only John Obi Mikel can be said to have had a successful career. The Argentine side, on the other hand, had Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay and Lucas Biglia, who are bona fide global superstars today. Here’s another interesting statistic, Nigeria won the U-17 World Cup, beating Spain in the final. None of the Nigerian players have been capped to date. That Spain side had David de Gea in goal. Only Ghana’s U-20 side of 2009 seems to buck the trend – some of the youngsters formed part of the successful 2010 squad.

Another reason could be the perception that sport should not be taken seriously in Africa; it is usually a means to pass time or a political tool. This is why you can have a whole Sports Principal Secretary claiming that Kenya was ready to host the African Nations Championship (CHAN) because “we had the best hotels and roads, the only thing we lacked were the stadiums.” This attitude is hard to eradicate and shows up at the most inopportune moments. Sven-Goran Eriksson, a former England manager, was appointed as Cote d’Ivoire manager for the 2010 World Cup. Eriksson was appalled by the general disorganisation surrounding the preparations. An hour before a warm-up game in Switzerland, the players had no kit. One of the players couldn’t play because the kitman forgot his boots at the hotel. His captain, Didier Drogba, fresh from winning the Double with Chelsea that season, was not surprised. “Sven, it’s Africa. It’s like this.”

Which brings us to another question: why do African teams always prefer foreign coaches? Most African teams that make it seem to have foreign coaches. Of the African teams participating in the 2018 World Cup – only Tunisia (Nabil Maâloul) and Senegal (Aliou Cisse – captain of the 2002 Senegal side) are local. The perception by our football administrators, is that African coaches do not seem to know what they are doing. Yet, there are instances which prove that, with the right support, local coaches can hold their own. Egypt’s Pharaohs were led to three consecutive African Cup of Nations (AFCON) titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Stephen Keshi, the legendary Nigerian defender, won the 2013 AFCON and reached the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup with the Super Eagles. Kenya qualified for the 2004 AFCON under a local coach, Jacob “Ghost” Mulee. Kenya achieved its highest ever FIFA ranking, 68th, under a local coach, Francis Kimanzi. This is another interesting fact for you – to date, no foreign coach has ever won a World Cup.

***

The story of African football is about triumph in the face of adversity.

Some of the most memorable moments in World Cup history have been by African teams. Can you forget Ghana in 2010, who carried Africa’s torch brightly in 2010 in Africa’s World Cup? But before Ghana, there was a Cameroon at Italia ’90 with the iconic Roger Milla celebratory jigs at the corner flag during Italia ’90. Those were the lasting moments of Italia ’90 – neither Paul Gascoigne’s tears nor Toto Schillaci’s prolific form for the home side came anywhere close. François Omam-Biyik’s header at the San Siro against the world champions, Argentina, led by the captain, leader, legend and once-in-a-lifetime genius of Diego Maradona, was the biggest upset in World Cup history. This was bigger than the United States beating England 1-0 in 1950. Much bigger than West Germany beating the Magical Magyars of Hungary in the miracle of Berne. This was an African team, from you know, Africa. Beating Maradona’s Argentina with nine men – two deserved red cards for playing typical “African” football). Roger Milla, all 38 years of him, was summoned by Paul Biya (he’s still President to date) and in true African dictator fashion, ordered to play at that World Cup. Their preparations were shambolic- Cameroon’s training camp was rocked with the usual complaints of allowances not being paid. Their goalkeeper, Joseph-Antoine Bell, was an egomaniacal divisive force.

And yet, they hung on, match by match and were merely a Gary Lineker penalty in extra time from doing the impossible – reaching the semi-final. The Indomitable Lions inspired a whole new generation of footballers, both in Africa and elsewhere – Bell was dropped for the relatively low-maintenance, Thomas N’kono, who had a superb tournament and inspired the legendary Gianluigi Buffon to become a goalkeeper. In fact, Buffon named his son, Thomas, after N’kono.

Do you remember Senegal following an eerily similar script in 2002? The Lions of Teranga, making their first appearance in the World Cup, humbled France – defending World and European champions in Seoul with Pape Bouba Diop scored the scrappiest of goals to cause yet another upset. A Henri Camara golden goal in extra time against Sweden took Senegal to the quarter-final against Turkey, where the Lions too, succumbed to a golden goal. Fate, it seems, had a touch of cruel irony.

***

The story of African football is about hope.

Despite all the challenges that football in Africa faces, never have I been more optimistic about its future. A lot of good things are happening: Nigeria’s 2018 World Cup kit, manufactured by Nike, was sold out within three days of its launch; which goes to show that there is money to be made in the African game if things are done properly. Mohammed Salah, Liverpool’s Egyptian King running down the wing, is one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it talents. He could potentially be the first African Ballon d’Or winner since George Weah, now President of Liberia.

Gianni Infantino has pledged to expand the World Cup further. The 2026 World Cup, to be held in the United States, Mexico and Canada, will have 48 teams, with Africa having 9 teams and Asia 6 – not a bad start to his presidency. He has also promised to end the culture of corruption at FIFA, but this is to be taken with a pinch of salt – after all, Blatter is still attending the 2018 World Cup as President Vladimir Putin’s guest.

For youth development and a solid technical foundation, we can look to Germany and Belgium for assistance. These two nations rebooted their whole approach to youth development, investing in coaching and better facilities. Germany’s squad which won the 2014 World Cup, demolishing home favourites Brazil 7-1 along the way, was the fruit of careful planning. England have caught the bug a bit too late, but they are catching up. All African countries should follow suit. Maybe we should do one of those benchmarking trips, with actual results.

Finally, we should get more organised and drop the “this is Africa” mentality. Oh, and stop the looting.

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Martin K. Maitha loves getting funky haircuts and tweets about football banter. When he is not too distracted by the latest Spongebob meme, he creates the time to practice law as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and occasionally write pieces like this one.

Reflections

Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports

7 min read. Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

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Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports
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Once every few decades comes a sports hero, a legend, who transforms and ignites their discipline far beyond its traditional boundaries to inspire millions of people who would otherwise have little interest in that sport.

In football, we had the remarkable Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pele, and the mercurial Diego Maradona. In boxing, we had the poetic Muhammad Ali and the rage of “Iron” Mike Tyson. In basketball, we had the versatile Michael Jordan. In athletics, we had the exciting sprinter Usain Bolt. In golf, the resilient Tiger Woods. In tennis, the dominant sisters Venus and Serena Williams. In the marathon, we now have the philosophical Eliud Kipchoge.

12th October 2019. The time is 8am, the temperature is 9 degrees centigrade at the Reichsbrücke (German for Imperial Bridge) in Vienna, Austria. Eliud and seven members of his elite team of pacemakers jog up and down a 50-meter stretch behind the starting point of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge Race on the gentle slope of the bridge. To their left, the 119-year old St. Francis of Assisi Church can barely be seen through the mist lifting slowly from Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube.

Hundreds of excited fans make their way through the grey chilly morning to the bridge. Thousands more line up the race route on both sides of the iconic Hauptallee in the Prater park, known to local runners as “the green lung of Vienna” due to the fresh air from the trees along the 4.3 km straight avenue. The anticipation among the fans is palpable as they seek vantage positions before the start of the race.

Many are convinced that they are on the verge of witnessing a once in a lifetime sporting spectacle. Among them are scores of Kenyans who have travelled from neighboring countries and others all the way from Kenya, eager to cheer their national legend.

Eliud Kipchoge, the world marathon record holder is once more set to make athletic history. At precisely 15 minutes past 8am, the announcer counts down the clock by 15 seconds. The crowds cheer, and the race is on.

One hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds later, Eliud spectacularly sprints through the finish line at the Prater park becoming the first man in history to run a marathon in under two hours. The watching world collectively bursts out in celebration peppered with a sense of relief. Athletics’ last great barrier has been shattered, paving the way into a new frontier no one can quite define.

For several months, the event organizers have rallied behind Eliud’s personal philosophy that “no human is limited” to galvanize the world around a profound idea, an experiment in stretching the capabilities of the human body. The one thing that was never in doubt among supporters and cynics was that if there was anyone capable of running a marathon in under two hours, it had to be Eliud Kipchoge.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man and founder of INEOS, expressed his confidence and trust in Eliud’s ability to run a sub-two marathon right from the announcement of the 1:59 Challenge Race in May 2019.

“Eliud is the best marathoner there’s ever been, and he’s still getting better. He’s the only man currently who can break the 2-hour barrier,” Sir Ratcliffe said.

During the same occasion, Eliud had no hesitation in saying that he was equal to the task. “My mind is saying that I’m going to do it. So my heart and mind is on 1:59. The secret is believing and trusting in my capabilities that I can do it,” he explained.

In writing himself into the history books, Eliud ran an average speed of two minutes and fifty seconds every kilometer across the entire 42-kilometer course. That this feat that would commence at the Reichsbrücke was even more fascinating for someone described by sports commentators as the greatest marathoner of all time.

On 1st October 1976 shortly before five in the morning, the imposing bridge, one of the most trafficked in Vienna, unexpectedly collapsed into the river Danube killing one person. The main reason given for the collapse was structural failure in the bearings, which was not spotted during inspection due to the massive granite mantle that surrounded them. A new bridge was re-designed and formally opened on 8th November, 1980. It remains an impressive structure used by 50,000 vehicles each day with six lanes of traffic, U-Bahn tracks, two footpaths, two-cycle paths and two utility tunnels.

Eliud’s stellar athletic career faced a near collapse in 2012, when he incredibly failed to qualify for the London Olympics as an accomplished 5,000-meter runner. In a radical decision that would prove to be a game-changer, he switched to road running that same year starting out in the half marathon before winning the 2013 Hamburg Marathon in a course record time. From that win, Eliud’s marathon career took off into the stratospheres.

He has won 10 of the 11 marathons that he has participated in. In 2016 he took the Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in a race where he was seemingly under no threat from the competition. He currently holds the official world record of 2:01:39, set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In contemplating Eliud’s extraordinary triumphs over the last six years, it’s clear that the world of sports has once more produced an iconic figure, transcending cultures, race and languages to redefine the boundaries of human achievements and inspire billions across the globe. Only a few personalities come to mind when one reflects on the scale of what this means. We may even have to look outside the arena of sports to find such inspiring individuals.

The world of music carries a comparable transcendent power to sports, and it therefore provides a notable personality we can briefly examine to comprehend Eliud’s influence on millions across the globe. The late pop-musician Michael Jackson immediately stands out.

His musical talent and genius were undeniable, enriching the global music industry for decades during his lifetime. Through his music, Michael Jackson managed to transcend racial barriers to inspire millions of adoring fans across different cultures and different generations. Shortly after his death in June 2009, American evangelist Al Sharpton described him as a truly historic figure.

It may be too early to make lofty comparisons between Eliud Kipchoge and the late King of pop, but the greatest marathoner in modern times does provide some profound and inspiring insights from his athletic achievements. To truly understand the driving force behind this fascinating man, we need to go back and examine a few of his past philosophical thoughts and musings.

We need to appreciate the motivations that compelled him to take on the challenge of running a marathon in under two hours, succeeding on the second attempt two years after the Nike Breaking2 project where he fell short by just 25 seconds. Immediately following that pioneering event of May 2017, the philosopher king of the marathon simply quipped: “The world is just 26 seconds away.”

At a press briefing hosted by his local sponsors Isuzu East Africa on 4th September, 2019 in Nairobi, Eliud powerfully explained why he was going to Vienna to make athletic history.

“I am going to Vienna to inspire a whole generation. I am going to Vienna to sell the idea that no human is limited. I am going to Vienna to inspire the human family. I want to inspire that journalist, lawyer, engineer, teacher, driver that when they wake up they can do more. It’s not about setting a world record but it’s about making history and inspiring the human race.”

The world of business can certainly learn a great deal from this excellent athlete’s training methodology, personal discipline and winning mindset. Take for instance his radical decision to switch from his favorite track event the 5,000M to the marathon. Jim Collins in his best-selling book Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make The Leap, provides two compelling approaches practiced by these successful companies that one can discern in Eliud’s career.

First, Jim Collins asserts that companies that made the shift from being good to later become great institutions, started by developing within their organizations the ability to confront the ‘brutal facts’. They created a climate or environment where employees were consistently encouraged to speak up and share truth in their day to day operations, no matter how unpalatable it was to their leaders.

Secondly, in that bold process, these companies came to the realization that if their core business did not propel them to be the best in their sectors, then they needed to change to what they could be best at, not what they were competent to do. Finally, the companies needed to build an absolute belief in their ranks that they could become the very best in their business. They nurtured an unfailing faith, an iron-willed self-belief that they could achieve their goals no matter how ambitious, insurmountable or wild they at first appeared to be.

In failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, Eliud had to confront the brutal reality that he was not the best in the 5,000M track discipline. While he was competent in the event, having won Olympic medals and a world championship in his career, he was yet to realize his full athletic potential. He had to make a choice between continuing in an event where he would likely not rise to dominance, or courageously try out something new where he had a chance of truly excelling. The switch to the marathon resulted in a stunning change of fortunes for Eliud which culminated in the enthralling sub two-hour performance in Vienna.

In the lead up to this memorable event, Eliud once more clarified his intentions for taking on an epic race challenge that he well knew would not be recognized as an official marathon record.

“I want to be able to show the world that when you focus on your goal, when you work hard, and when you believe in yourself, anything is possible,” he said.

The element of self-belief came out consistently in Eliud’s statements when confronted with the epic 1:59 Challenge Race. From the moment he announced to the world his intention to mirror what British athlete Roger Banister had achieved in 1954 running the mile in under four minutes, Eliud’s simple conviction regarding what a human being could achieve with the right mindset was amazing.

“Any human being can go beyond their thoughts, but self-belief is crucial. I totally believe in myself, and in my team-mates and my training,” he said.

Indeed, no other human endeavor demonstrates the power and benefits of teamwork as well as sports does. One of Eliud’s most cherished training principles is anchored around his team-mates and what they have enabled him to achieve.

“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. 100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the team,” he often asserts.

Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

In Kenya, Eldoret was the epicenter of excitement with ripples of celebration going right across the country. For one tantalizing day, we forgot our petty differences as we applauded our gallant son for making history and swelling our hearts with national pride.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Eliud’s achievement that Saturday morning inspired the thrilling performances of Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei the following day at the Chicago Marathon. They were the male and female winners of the race with Brigid winning in a world record time of 2:14:04, shattering Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year old record of 2:15:25.

Without a doubt, there is no better case for increasing our national sports budgets, county budgets and corporate sponsorships to deliberately invest in our rich sporting talents across the country. Building on the lessons from our successful track athletes, we have in recent times also seen the immense potential in our football, rugby sevens and women’s volleyball teams. We stand to gain immeasurably as a nation from this untapped goldmine that can radically transform the fortunes of our young people. As Eliud has shown us, there are no limits to what we can achieve as Kenyans if we set our minds to this noble undertaking.

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Reflections

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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