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.
Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.
“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha
Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.
The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.
Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.
Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.
Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.
The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).
Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.
But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.
One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.
Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.
To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.
However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”
Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.
Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.
Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.
The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.
Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.
The Binj, a larger-than-life personality who, through sheer force of will, opened up the literary space for young African writers who have gone on to give us some of the best writing in generations.
In the early noughties, I was working on a project to publish a lifestyle magazine that my team called Miro. “Miro”, deriving from “Amero” or African American, is a word that urban Nairobians of yore used to describe black people. We were hoping to come up with the first urban lifestyle magazine in which Nairobians would see themselves represented as they did in the Ebony and Essence Magazines published in the US.
During that period, I met a guy named Peter Achayo who had a clothing label and believed in what we were doing. He also knew some other guys doing something similar but their focus was mainly literary. He offered to make the introduction and in early 2005, I met the leader of that group, Binyavanga Wainaina, at the Java Coffee House on Mama Ngina Street, a dreadlocked, dark-skinned, heavyset fellow of medium height, sitting in the company of several people. We sat at a booth where I explained to him what my team and I were doing and trying to achieve. He listened keenly, offering several suggestions which I noted. Binyavanga told me that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was in town at his invitation and wondered if an interview with him would be useful. I jumped at the opportunity as I had read the book as a teenager and rated the writer highly.
On the day of the interview, I made my way to Lillian Towers, aka the Nairobi Safari Club, where Binyavanga had me sit at the lobby and wait to meet the great writer. At the time, our magazine Miro hadn’t seen the light of day but he was willing to accord me the same respect that I had seen accorded to journalists who had been around for a while. That respect was something that I carried with me into a career as someone who catalogued the lives of those whom I met. For Armah it was probably just another interview but it forever changed my perception of what being African was.While our efforts at creating a publication failed only months later, I cherished the meetings I had had with this guy with a weird name and with the famous writer from Ghana.
A year later, I founded a new website/blog called NairobiLiving.com (since discontinued) to catalogue a city that was evolving in multiple ways. Some of the hottest gigs at the time were the monthly Kwani Open Mics, an even which was first hosted at the Yaya Centre and later at Club Soundd on Kaunda Street. My reviews of the Kwani Open Mic events got me an invitation to the East African Writers Summit at Lukenya in 2006 organised by Kwani Trust because I was cataloguing the literary revolution that was taking place.
My life was a mess when I received that invitation. My mother had invested a huge sum of money to ensure that I received the best private university education. I had left the country for a year and a half and returned floundering. I was a thirty-one-year old man with no income who had moved back to live with his parents. The magazine project that I had initiated had failed spectacularly and I was desperately looking for something to fill that void both as a career and for income.
I attended the Lukenya writers’ summit and adopted a sort of mute position, one that I would adopt for many years to follow where Binyavanga was concerned. I sat and listened in on the panel discussions by day and, in the evenings, on the conversations that took place by the campfire over copious amounts of alcohol. Listening to Binyavanga, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others discussing the challenges and the opportunities in their writing careers had a marked influence on my life. Binyavanga spoke about the need to write back to the European canon, challenging the writing that defined Africa from the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Joseph Conrad. It was an amazing opportunity for someone seeking purpose in life. That weekend was a turning point for me and I committed to this writing world fully in the months and years that followed.
In making this commitment, I got to know more about this dude who went by the name Binyavanga—or The Binj, or Binya to the many who knew him in the African creative community—and who was central to my making such a life-altering decision. Over the years of a glittering career, his work was featured in many of the world’s most famous publications. Starting with G21, the magazine which had featured his award-winning short story Discovering Home, his work could be read in Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Bomb, etc. At one point he had a regular column in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.
The year I met him, Binyavanga’s essay How To Write About Africa, satirising how European writers talk about our continent, was published in Granta. That essay reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to him railing against those who brought Africa and Africans to disrepute with their writing. It became one of the most shared pieces of writing in that respected literary journal and brought him worldwide fame.
His 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon. It was a memoir of his middle class childhood in his Nakuru hometown, his time as a student in South Africa and, after he return home, his travels across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it onto Oprah’s 2011 Summer Reading List . It was The Binj at his best, showing what English could become in the ownership of a writer with his singular talents.
Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when Binyavanga came out as gay. At the time, several African countries including Nigeria and Uganda were either drafting or passing new laws that would make it very difficult for gay people to be who they were. Outing himself in this “lost chapter of his memoir” and following it up with a series of videos that outlined his views on what was happening to the social fabric of the continent was a revolutionary act.
While his own writing career was significant, his biggest contributions came from his ability to influence others with his larger-than-life personality, his compassion and his sheer determination. It started with the winnings from the Caine Prize, part of which he used to set up the Kwani Trust, jolting the literary establishment in Kenya and across the continent. Before he showed up, there was no Kenyan literature in the true sense of the word as, for a quarter of a century, the industry had been hobbled by anti-intellectual dictator Daniel Arap Moi. At the time the publishers association was a text book lobby that focused mainly on selling books to school children while onn the continent, there was a lull in African writing after the glory years of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the 1960s and 70s.
The appearance of Binyavanga Wainaina signified a shift not only in Kenya but across the continent. After many years of inactivity, the “literary desert” got a new lease of life with the publishing of the literary journal Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the years that followed, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community like the aforementioned Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Forster, Billy Kahora, Andia Kisia, and many more that became the foundation of the literary community that we all look up to today.
With Binyavanga editing Kwani?, he challenged the idea of what literature looked like, what it sounded like or even in what language it was expressed. Experimentation was the name of the game and nothing demonstrated this as well as his association with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau which many considered the biggest hip hop group to come out of Kenya. Led by the inspirational Kama (Kamau Ngigi), young artists who came mainly from Dandora could be spotted at the Kwani? offices huddled around an office assistant who was typing their poetry and other musings. These musings, written in Sheng—a constantly evolving urban language made up of Kiswahili, English and many other Kenyan languages—ended up in the journal much to the consternation and fury of those in academia who considered themselves the arbiters of good literature.
When not ensuring that their work was immortalised in his preferred literary medium, Binyavanga also influenced the young artists as the executive producer of the 2016 Dandora Burning album. He raised money for studio time as well as for living expenses for the artists who featured on the album like Juliani, Kitu Sewer, and a whole host of others.
It wasn’t just experimenting with language that became a trademark of the journal under The Binj. Stories refused to follow any familiar patterns, with fiction, nonfiction and poetry mixed in with everything one could imagine, being published in the smaller version Kwanini when the journal wasn’t in publication. For a long time, there had been a yearning for something new and exciting and the breath of fresh air that was Kwani? was welcomed by those who had been rejected elsewhere. There was now a new space in which to showcase their talent. The new methods were however not as welcomed by those in publishing and academia, with one commentator famously calling the Kwani? writers “literary gangsters”.
One of the methods that the Kwani?, team employed to share their work with the Nairobi audience was the Kwani Open Mic. At the beginning, the events were hosted away from the Central Business District at the Yaya Centre Café Crème and at Kengeles in Lavington. Writers would read from their current or forthcoming entries to the Kwani? Journal, the readings interspersed with poetry and music including from the aforementioned hip hop artists who were part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. The open mic events were a occasions where some of the city’s well-heeled residents met some of the least well off, continuing on a theme that had been prevalent in the wake of the 2002 “revolution” where everything was possible without Dictator Moi; even the rich could sit with the Dandora boys.
The open mic events eventually moved to Club Soundd which was located in the Central Business District. People coming to Club Soundd had convenient access to public transport until the late hours and so more people attended and stayed longer. The events became a spectacle, with the person on stage having to be extremely compelling with whatever poetry, prose, or rap they were presenting or else the audience would switch off and turn to conversation with whoever they were with. Showtime at the Apollo had the Sandman; Kwani Open Mic had a crowd that became easily bored and tuned out.
As the years went by, it became the stage on which many of the poets of the last decade and a half cut their teeth. It was an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships, both professional and personal, were forged that endure to this day. That open mic spawned what became Nairobi’s vibrant poetry scene.
Eventually, Binyavanga had to leave the day-to-day running of the organisation to other people as he took up writing gigs “in the abroad”. He was the writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 2007 and in 2008, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. He then became director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York state. While not physically present at the organisation, Binyavanga sat on the board, giving valuable energy and input.
The organisation he once led came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011 to identify the next big writing stars from the continent and it delivered the motherload. The shortlist from the hundreds submitted included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. The Kwani? Manuscript Prize was ultimately won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, arguably the biggest starin Ugandan writing today.
Binyavanga was involved in other projects with varying degrees of success. In 2010, he led a team of writers in the Pilgrimages project where 14 African writers travelled to 13 African cities and to one city in Brazil to explore the complexities of disparate urban landscapes. From this experience, the writers were to create 14 works of non-fiction about their trips, capturing each city against the backdrop of Africa’s first World Cup. In the list of writers were Chris Abani, Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, Alain Mabanckou, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The much-hyped works never saw the light of day; even the charismatic Kenyan couldn’t always deliver on the hype.
The Binj did deliver on many other occasions though. One of these was the Hay Festival/World Book Capital Africa39 list, a project to identify the writers, under 40 years of age, most likely to influence African writing in the future. That project, for which Binyavanga did most of the initial research, gave us a list of writers who would theoretically influence African writing in the future. Many on that list like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Shadreck Chikoti, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Zukiswa Wanner continue to live up to its premise. Binyavanga was also the biggest supporter of the 24 Nairobi book project which showcased Nairobi as a modern African city through the eyes of its own photographers.
Away from his hits and misses, Binyavanga was plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, suffering a major stroke in 2015 from which he never truly recovered. He announced that he was HIV positive in 2016 and battled with his body until it all ended on the evening of May 21, 2019.
There were two Binyavanga Wainainas; the man before and the man after the 2015 stroke. After he recovered, Binya as I knew him, was not the the same force of nature that he had been. The man who was clumsy in an endearing sort of way was now having that clumsiness seep into all of his life, and it showed. He spent many hours on social media sharing whatever he was thinking and doing while getting into unnecessary virtual battles with perceived or real enemies.
The Binyavanga I wanted to remember was The Binj of before 2015 who showed up one day and changed the game by sheer force of will. I remember meeting him two weeks after being hired as an editor at the Star newspaper in Nairobi in 2011 and was invited to his birthday party where we chatted and he encouraged me, reminding me just how important the work that I did was. This coming from him was a boost that drove me for a long time. I knew that, being in an influential space, I had to ensure that the literary arts occupied their place of honour in Kenya.
We met on and off over the next few years until he was hospitalised by illness. His last words to me were, “You’ve grown a beard”. I laughed and said, “Yes”. They were the last words we shared.
The last time he was at my house, he took a nap in my living room then woke up and dominated the conversation at the smoking area at the backyard. I could tell that he could be a bit frustrated with his speech but he still held his own on in a wide variety of topics. That night showed me the best and the not-so-great of the great man. Being down because of a physical challenge but still coming to the conversation, opening with his signature, “you knowwwww…”
Thank you Binya. You saved me, and many like me.
Rest in Peace Binya. Rest in Power.
You can find a gallery of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing at PlanetBinya.org; it has been curated by his onetime personal assistant and writer Isaac Otidi Amuke.
The Capture of Kabuga Frees Me to Hope Again
A Kenyan investigative journalist reflects on the capture of a genocidaire in Paris after 26 years on the run and its significance to the families of the victims left in his wake.
May 16th, 2020 1:43 pm
News of the arrest in Paris, France of Felicien Kabuga, the man long accused of funding the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda 26 years ago, has now reached a one-bedroom house in Pangani estate, Nakuru, Kenya. Josephat Gichuki, the tenant in this threadbare home, calls me to ask if I have heard the news. We talk now and again, our conversations mostly prompted by the slightest of wisps of news about Rwanda’s octogenarian outlaw. Today I can hear excitement in his voice. I ask to interview him on his thoughts and call back eight minutes later.
“I am very, very happy. This is important to me because there is no office I have not gone to seeking justice”, he says. Josephat has cause to be happy. His younger brother, Kenyan journalist William Munuhe was murdered hours before he was set to lead Kenyan and US authorities to Felicien, Kabuga on January 16th 2003. Kenyan Police first claimed that he had killed himself by lighting a charcoal burner and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. Yet the evidence found in his Karen home told a completely different story.
Josephat has been searching for the truth for the last 17 years. Just like that, he very possibly could get the closure he has sought for close to two decades. Pushing for the Kenyan government to provide him with the answers his family needed hasn’t been good for the Gichukis. His father passed away in 2018. Gichuki says that his father was “distraught” that he “struggled so hard to raise a child only to see him killed” and no one to answer for it. “Heartbreak killed my father”, he says. Almost as if his mouth was working on muscle memory, he fires off nearly every attempt he has made to get a response from the government, as well as every missed opportunity.
“[Former President] Kibaki was a guest of the Rwanda government in 2004. We expected him to say something. He didn’t. In 2014 at the 20th commemoration of the genocide, [President] Uhuru was a guest of the Rwanda government. We expected him to say something. He didn’t”.
Neither one of us would be surprised by this. The Kenyan government has long denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of Felicien Kabuga and the crimes that have been linked to him. The day of his capture doesn’t seem to inspire any volunteering of information either. “He isn’t our criminal”, I can almost hear some local public relations spin doctor say. Would Kabuga’s arrest matter to a population whose median age is 19 anyway? It should, in the way that all life-altering events do matter.
May 16th, 1994
A situation report issued daily by the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) rattles off statistics on food, water and fuel rations, a rundown of the fighting between the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) and the RGF (Rwandese Government Forces) on this day. Fighting between current President Paul Kagame’s forces (RPF) and government troops was focused in the north of the country and in Kigali, the small nation’s capital. Journalists had visited various refugee camps to look into distribution of food rations. A meeting brokered to discuss a ceasefire took place at the Hotel Diplomat. The RPF didn’t send any representatives. It makes for a mundane reading of the facts about one of the worst tragedies to have ever taken place on the face of the earth. Yet every detail is important. This one line sticks out:
“HA (Humanitarian activities) team held a meeting with the OPS (operations) officer of the Gendarmerie, GSO II of the RGF and representative of the Interahamwe and the militia, concerning the evacuation of orphans from Giimba and Gitega. Numerous problems were posed regarding the evacuation of orphans”.
This statement meant two things: first, that any humanitarian aid organisation working in Rwanda at the time had to work with the approval of the Rwanda government. That is normal. Secondly, a representative of the Interahamwe, a brutal, bloodthirsty militia responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus was also at the table. That should strike out any doubts of how central it was as a player in the civil war.
26 years later, in the middle of the second month of Rwanda’s Kwibuka commemorations, it also spotlights how important the arrest of the Interahamwe’s chief benefactor Felicien Kabuga is bringing the arc of history that much closer to the endgame; bending it towards justice. Kabuga bought hundreds of thousands of machetes that were given to these men. He owned media houses that trumpeted the “cut down the tall trees” narratives that captured a misled public’s imagination that their brothers and sisters were actually vermin. He was at the heart of the plans to eliminate more than 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population. He was a rich man whose money bought him 26 years of freedom – in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and France.
Few people have walked the earth freely after committing the crimes that he is accused of. Many of the main actors in the holocaust were arrested, tried and hung. Dictators responsible for bringing untold suffering to their citizens have risen and fallen in the time since Felicien Kabuga escaped imminent capture (and possibly a similar fate) by the RPF in the early days of June 1994, starting a 26-year life on the run that ended on May 16th 2020.
Kabuga traveled to Switzerland first, where he was denied entry, before coming to Kenya. Here, he was received with open arms. He and his family bought properties in Kilimani, owned fancy cars and lived quiet lives between 1994 and 1997. His children went to school here. He registered his businesses here and was well on the way to gaining a foothold in the Kenya-Rwanda logistics industry when he was arrested and jailed at the Kilimani Police Station. He was released at the behest of very senior Kenyans including a current Member of Parliament. He would go underground, and official accounts denying his presence in Kenya would begin.
May 16th, 2012
My wife and our two children had just moved into what would be our home for the next one month. I had been investigating Felicien Kabuga’s whereabouts and my sources and I had begun receiving threats. We were in the process of getting passports for our two young children just in case we would need to leave the country. We had already pulled them out of school and my wife had to take leave from work. Meanwhile, I needed to keep on the track of the story. I had turned in the first draft and it was decided that I would need to travel to Rwanda to deepen it.
I had picked up the thread of Kabuga’s sojourn in Kenya in December of 2011. I would read about the man whose money and beliefs sowed bitterness in the hearts of his countrymen through his radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the years before the start of the genocide. I visited Kigali Prison to speak to a woman who worked for Kabuga at RTLM as Rwanda commemorated 18 years since Kabuga and senior Rwandan government officials plotted a genocide.
I pored over documents linking Kenyan military officers to a cabal of Kabuga’s protectors in Kenya. I interviewed former senior government officials in confidence about the man’s whereabouts. I read books about the genocide, spoke to foreign correspondents and senior Kenyan journalists who had covered the genocide. I spoke to genocide survivors, broke bread with young Kenyans working in Rwanda and watched in horror news of a helicopter crash that would kill, among others, Kenya’s internal security minister, George Saitoti. I had planned to interview Saitoti when I got back to Kenya on the subject of Kabuga. I chased leads that led nowhere, and received some that opened up even more information about what Kabuga was up to while in Kenya.
I also interviewed the former Prosecutor General of Rwanda, Martin Ngoga, about Kabuga’s whereabouts. Earlier in the year I had received a photograph of a man who my sources claimed was Kabuga. I showed it to Ngoga, as well as to the lady I interviewed in Kigali Prison, and to a doctor who it was claimed had treated Kabuga in Nakuru, among other people. With the exception of the doctor (who passed away weeks after my documentary aired), everyone else was agreed on the identity of the man in the photo. It was the photo that would cast doubt on a story I had toiled so long to tell.
The man in this photo was produced at a press conference addressed by former Kenya Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe. Daniel Ngera, a businessman from Isiolo, had been forced into the frame by what Kiraithe called shoddy journalism on my part. I couldn’t respond because I wasn’t there to do so. My wife, our children and I had left the country the Friday before the story ran, and were just settling into life on the run. My heart sank and my stomach turned. I could never have imagined that an error on my part would serve as a distraction from the existing facts about one of Rwanda’s most dangerous men.
The month that followed was one of the darkest in my life. I spent it fighting anxiety attacks. Would I have a job to come back to? My wife had already lost her job because she couldn’t explain in detail why she had to be away from work for three months. All through this, I was trying to reassure my wife that everything would be alright. To be honest, she did most of the reassuring.
Fortunately, I had a boss—Linus Kaikai—who stood by me, and (I hope) believed in the integrity of my intentions and the rigour I had applied to the story. I will always regret having exposed Mr Ngera, a man I had never met, to that kind of ridicule—even if I hadn’t set out to do so, much less plot to pass him off as a genocidaire. Yet for all the efforts that my team and I made, or the shame that Mr Ngera was exposed to or the anxious days and weeks that followed, this was the least important part of the story of Kabuga’s life as a fugitive.
Kabuga’s freedom, enabled by people in different countries across the world, was a slap in the face of every Rwandese citizen; those who lost lives during the genocide, those who have endured life without loved ones, even those who were brought to justice years before he will see the inside of a courtroom. The soil that turned red and the rivers in which bodies floated, the churches that were turned into slaughterhouses, all of the history that heaves with the weight of this dark chapter deserves a twist like this one. The hilltops from where the cries of the innocent rang out 26 years ago should hear news of Kabuga’s capture loudly beamed.
Back to May 16th, 2020
My day draws to a close with a call from my mother. She called to say she’d seen the news about Kabuga’s arrest, and that she was proud of me for playing my part in bringing to justice an evil man. “You may not have succeeded, but you did your best—and I feel vindicated on your behalf”. Those words wrung out a bitterness I’ve carried for eight years because of how my attempt to find a bad man ended. If only for tonight, I feel a lightness I haven’t felt whenever I have thought about Kabuga. Earlier, Josephat had ended our call with the same note of hope that he had had for answers 17 years ago. Maybe the request for a public inquest into his brother’s murder will be heeded now that the chief suspect in that murder is behind bars. Maybe not. All he and his family have wanted is justice. Josephat was 33 years old when his younger brother William was murdered because some people in Kenya chose to stand on the side of a butcher than with the millions for whom Kabuga’s crimes can never be fully atoned. His hope may have wavered many a time, but on this day, May 16th 2020, his ageing eyes opened to see the day when an ageing criminal’s luck ran out. The end of Felicien Kabuga’s freedom has freed Josephat and I to nurse the hope that justice does not have a sell-by-date. I know we must nurse this flame with care and not shout too loudly, lest we extinguish it before we have fought the many other battles ahead of us. Hope, it seems, may actually spring eternal.
Who’d have thought it?
Reflections1 week ago
The Capture of Kabuga Frees Me to Hope Again
Op-Eds1 week ago
What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders
Ideas1 week ago
Visibility of The Church in the Wake of COVID-19: The Case of the Anglican Church of Kenya
Op-Eds1 week ago
Fanon’s Project Remains Unfinished—and Still Relevant Today
Ideas1 week ago
Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
Reflections1 week ago
Reflections on the Brutalisation of Hon. Francis Zaake
Op-Eds1 week ago
Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries
Reflections4 days ago