In the year 2003, when I was a second-year student at Kenyatta University, news of Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s assassination broke. It was a time in Kenya when political tensions around constitutional amendments were rising like dark ominous clouds, engulfing the national psyche.
Dr. Mbai was the opposition’s lead in the negotiations that were taking place around the new constitution. It was a quiet day at Kenyatta University before a loud war cry tore through the morning air. Someone must have heard from the news on the radio or watched breaking news on television in the common room that Dr. Mbai had been murdered.
Upon hearing the news, we ran out of our lecture halls onto Thika Road, blocked it, and exploded our anger on innocent unsuspecting motorists. Thika Road was our coliseum, a place where we found some relief from the bloody plays we had with Kenya’s riot police. We needed to be heard by our government, and we were following a script that the government had taught us. To survive, one needed to be faster, more ruthless and more efficient than a government that took pride in its monopoly of corruption and brutality.
In the next few days, Thika road would be full of all sorts of debris, blood and tear gas smoke. We wanted to know why Dr. Mbai was killed, and who was responsible. We would have not protested, but Kenya being a place where justice is as scarce as life-saving medicines in public hospitals, we needed to register our anger somehow.
Most of us did not care much about the details of the constitution. It sounded like a bulky document, too complex and beyond the comprehension of the common Kenyan. It was, like any political tussle, defining the fault lines along tribal affiliations. My major attraction to it was that Raila Odinga and many other progressives were behind it. And that Dr. Mbai had paid with his life for it. And that two of my comrades, one from the same hostel as me, had been shot during these riots. In the midst of all the tear gas and gunshots, I knew I was living some realities that I had only watched on television.
In the following weeks, we succeeded in forcing the university to provide us transport to Mbai’s funeral. At the funeral, we were met by multitudes of people mourning in confusion, anger and loss. Many had walked on foot from afar, in the hot tropical sun, to join in the mourning. I am not sure if these personal sacrifices were inspired by a strong sense of connectedness to the struggle or some form of communal kinship.
At the funeral, I ran into my younger brother, who had traveled from Moi University. There was something eerily familiar at this funeral. I felt like I was walking on a path I was aware of, one that my grandparents and parents had walked before. It was one darkened with an engulfing sense of loss and helplessness of an entire community.
I went home later that day and I sought out my grandfather. As an ardent supporter of multi-party democracy, and by extension Jaramogi Odinga and then Raila Odinga, I wanted to hear his thoughts. I was also seeking comfort in his eyes that had experienced similar pain. We would take turns swimming in the sea of communal grief. He counted on his fingers and toes the numbers of young, industrious and pioneering men from the Luo community who had been assassinated since the community migrated with Odinga into the opposition. This decision would start a quest for power and democracy, a quest that would turn the community into a hunting ground for a bloodthirsty government.
Prior to Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya. I was also aware that prominent members of the Luo community were under active persecution.
In this environment, it was a burdensome task reconciling my national identity with my ethnic identity. Tension was always in the air, in the daily news bulletins, in the local dailies. It was dangling precariously in our household too, ready to drop at the dinner table and explode into emotional political diatribe. I could feel the tension in my father’s vociferous lamentations about the systematic exclusion of Luos from the national government. The people in the government were eating and we were poor. Our time would come. Before that, we needed to consolidate all efforts behind Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Raila Odinga thereafter. The two were the only anointed vehicles for our economic and political emancipation.
I knew that efforts at consolidating an entire community were met by ambivalence in some sections. The debate about opposition politics being a Luo agenda or the Odinga family’s ambition was a topic that was approached with utmost care, lest one slide and fall into the unwanted pile of traitors. This was a no-go zone unless one wanted to pry open community scars, like Tom Mboya’s assassination. This debate also always ended with someone yelling the word traitor at another person. The same word, traitor, was yelled in our household whenever a Luo accepted a cabinet appointment from President Daniel arap Moi during the infamous one o’clock news bulletin on KBC.
I knew the region we occupied, the vast Luo Nyanza that straddles the shores of Lake Victoria to the sugarcane belt, was deliberately marginalised. The roads were broken, the hospitals bearing the greatest weight of malaria and HIV were subjects of justification by NGOs for grants to save the people. Kisumu residents, seated on the shores of an expansive lake, were thirsty for liberation and for clean water to drink.
One of these traitors was Ojwang’ Kombudo. When Kombudo expressed support for Moi – an action that required public prostration with effusive praises lathering on Moi – he became a traitor. His support for Moi introduced the community to the good life that came with support for Moi, KANU and the government – his constituents in Nyakach enjoyed a short period of piped water and electricity. Like a pimp, Moi had his hand firmly on the Kenyan cookie jar, opening it to dish goodies to his cronies, with the most subservient getting the most, including opportunities to loot public funds.
Kombudo did not last long. In 1992, a wave of opposition gripped Luoland to the last man. Denis Akumu from Ford-Kenya replaced him. President Moi got into a fit of rage, sent government people in uniform to remove water pipes, including the ones that were at my grandfather’s gate. Electricity poles were not spared either. Once again, like a political pimp, Moi and his government were reminding the Luo community of the costs of supporting opposition. The remnants of broken pipes and vandalised water points, including one just near my grandfather’s homestead, serve as a reminder of the costs of voting against the government of the day.
In addition to marginalisation, there were deaths too. The first one I learned of was that of Argwings Kodhek. (I had an uncle named after him though I did not know the weight of memory that the name carried.) I came to learn of its significance listening to the songs of Gabriel Omolo, a popular Luo musician. In a deep sonorous voice, with each beat punctuated with pain, Gabriel mourned Kodhek. As if his lyrics could bring Kodhek to life, Gabriel pleaded with Kodhek’s killers to let Kodhek enjoy the fruits of his toil. It did not help that my grandfather played this song every other weekend before gazing deeply into the landscape of Nyakach – a landscape at the mercy of soil erosion, its nutrients washing away helplessly, just like the Luo community that was getting wiped out by the ferocious forces of multiparty politics and repression.
This would all end. There was a religious conviction that all these sorrows would be magically washed away when one of our own got into power. It was, therefore, imperative that the community united to the last man in support of the Odingas.
The communal wound from Argwing Kodhek’s mysterious death had not yet healed when six months later, Thomas Joseph Mboya fell to an assassin’s bullet in Nairobi. Mboya’s star shone far beyond Kenya. His wide and deep influence was evident in his friendship with influential Americans, such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Kenyan to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1960. His assassination, therefore, not only sent shockwaves around the country, but internationally as well.
Within Kenya, Mboya’s assassination sent a chilling reminder to young ambitious people that no one would be spared when Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency was threatened. My grandfather bemoaned how Mboya’s rich connections, as well as his prominence in the government and abroad, could not save him. Mboya’s death continues to be one of the biggest “what if” moments for the Luo community. What if he had lived? What if he had never gone to that pharmacy on Government Road (now known as Moi Avenue)? What if he had joined the opposition with Odinga? The threat was real, whether in government or in opposition. It did not matter where one’s star shone. It only mattered that its shine did not threaten the status quo.
The Luo community persisted after these assassinations. There was a shared belief that Kenya needed change in leadership and assassinations would not break their zeal. The differences between Jaramogi and Jomo Kenyatta continued to fester like a cancerous wound. Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of the region, ostensibly to familiarise himself with development projects there. The Luo community, still mourning Mboya, rebelled. Kenyatta’s guards reacted violently, shooting dead 11 protestors.
The extent of communal loss between January 1969, when Argwings died, to Mboya’s assassination in July of the same year and the Kisumu massacre three months later pointed to a systematic attempt at violent subjugation of the Luo community. The occurrences of those days are passed from generation to generation as a slow and painful narration of how the government killed Mboya, then came to our town and killed more when all we needed was to be left alone.
This year marks fifty years since those fateful events. The people who lived through that period, like my grandfather, have very hardened souls and a very strong suspicion of the government. It does not help that during each election cycle, regions occupied by the Luo community become over-policed and over-militarised and young people of the community become fair game when elections results are disputed.
I was only six months old when the coup failed. A good number of the soldiers involved were from Nyakach, my maternal grandfather’s home. And their misguided ambition had thrown the community into the dark underbelly of Kenyan politics.
As expected, the failed August 1982 coup entrenched government paranoia of young Luos. President Moi’s government essentially implemented systematic exclusion of young people from Luoland and other communities perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition from recruitment into the police and armed forces. This was a big blow to the quotidian life of the community. In a struggling economy with a rapidly growing population, the armed forces and the police provided sources of income and employment to healthy young people. By blacklisting young men and women from the Luo community, the government imposed a form of official economic depression on this community as an additional tool aimed at forcing them into political subjugation.
There were other deaths of note at the time when Raila was placed in detention after the attempted coup. The most prominent of these in the mid-1980s was that of the Gem MP, Horace Ongili. The immediate former area MP, Otieno Ambala, one of the leading suspects, was arrested and charged with the murder along with six other suspects. However, after a few months in jail, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. There was a feeling within the community and across the country that he too was killed to shield the real killers.
Nonetheless, this tragedy robbed the Luo community of two prominent leaders within a span of six months. This was a scary déjà vu moment, since Kodhek and Mboya had been assassinated approximately six months apart. The community felt that the government was eliminating prominent Luo males or imprisoning them in order to subdue the community’s will to fight. The government seemed to be reading from the same script that the colonialists used against the Kikuyu and other communities fighting for independence in Kenya.
In the early 1990s, as the opposition was gaining a very strong foothold in western Kenya, Dr. Robert Ouko’s star started rising within President Moi’s government. Dr. Ouko’s presence in the government meant that Moi had started looking at Luos in a slightly better light. He began visiting schools and dishing money in big brown envelopes during harambees and to delegations that visited him at State House. The benefits of “having our own” closer to the presidency was becoming evident.
This did not last long. In February 1990, Dr. Ouko was abducted from his home and killed in one of the most gruesome cases Kenya has ever witnessed. The Luo community’s grief was palpable. I was only eight years old and I remember violent riots in the streets of Kisumu. I remember my dad pacing, gesturing and talking with my uncle, who was a university student then, late into the night, angry at something. All universities were closed as rioting students burned their grief and rage in bonfires of lament. When Moi decided that he would forcefully attend Ouko’s funeral accompanied by hundreds of armed riot police officers, university students chanted to Moi, “You killed him, you burnt him, now eat him!” Another prominent Luo, Hezekiah Oyugi, who was the Minister for Internal Security, died in mysterious circumstances two years later, in June 1992. Ouko and Oyugi, like Mboya, were not spared, despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of the government.
In 2007, I directly witnessed loss in the form of post-election violence resulting from disputed elections. My job as a public health researcher in Kisumu exposed me to untold community suffering. In the free medical camps that had been organised by local NGOs, men and women, thousands in numbers, would show up with bodies broken and maimed by bullets. It was like a scene from what I imagined a war-torn country to be. I did not talk about these horrors with my grandfather because they overwhelmed me. They were close, inescapable and frightening.
During the 2017 elections, not much had changed. The violence continued, with over 300 people, even young children, dying from police violence. Several hundreds were shot and maimed too.
A couple of weeks before the August 2017 elections, Chris Msando, an ICT Director at Kenya’s election commission, was abducted, tortured and killed before his body was dumped in a forest. Again, there was another chilling reminder that there was a price to pay by anyone who was perceived to be an impediment to the status quo. This was almost fifty years after Kodhek and Mboya’s assassinations, and targeted killings have not stopped.
One of my early childhood memories is when Raila Odinga was released from detention in 1988. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s surprise that Raila did not die in prison. Most people, having known how ruthless Moi’s regime was, had expected Raila not to survive jail. I could sense massive euphoric relief when Raila walked out of detention alive. My grandfather regaled me with tales of how Raila’s magical powers saved him. How he could turn into a fly on a wall in State House and listen to plans to assassinate him. They said he would then fly back to prison and surprise his killers with his knowledge of their plans beforehand, throwing them into total confusion.
Then there was the swearing-in ceremony of 2018, and the lack of charges against Raila when others like Miguna Miguna continue to be forcefully exiled. Was this also due to Raila’s magical powers? Or was it a result of a savvy politician levering fanatical support from the community as insurance and a bargaining chip for personal political ambitions? This is where the lines get blurred. When we cannot clearly delineate the boundaries of communal ambitions and individual ambitions, it is hard to tell what we are giving our lives for.
And at the end of the road, when we weigh all the losses – both physical and emotional – and place them on a scale, and then measure them against the recent handshake and the public display of brotherly love between Raila and Uhuru, do we see a perfect balance? No, there is no balance. And there will be no restitution. Not even an apology or acceptance of blame for all these deaths.
The weight of communal loss is always borne privately, silently and sometimes in shame by the poor. There are no monuments that can adequately capture all the losses the Luo community have experienced in the last fifty years.
And what if the community would have known that the path to this political and economic utopia could be forged by a handshake? Would the community have protected their youth better? Would they have stopped them from the suicidal choices of fighting with memory, anger and stones on sisal slings? Standing bare-chested before barrels of Kalashnikovs held by government-sponsored killers?
But then again, what options did we as a community have? At the end of the day, we are all Kenyans, burdened by our peculiarities, such as the ability to accept anything and move on to the next tragedy.
That is what happened after the handshake – everyone put a bandage on old and fresh wounds. The magical mantra “accept and move on” is being repeated again and again until everything looks like a distant memory.
But I can’t stop knowing what I know.
When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection
On the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba day, grassroots human rights defenders and allies held a protest and appeared in way that was not sanctioned by the authorities to confront state power and exercise their right to be seen and heard.
On the thirtieth anniversary of the massive pro-democracy Saba Saba day ( 7th July) demonstrations in Kenya, Tuesday’s People’s March began in the very places where state violence is still laid bare: Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Nairobi. From as early as 7AM that grey cold-season morning, human rights defenders at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and allies from the community began preparing for their march. They lined posters and banners along the front of the centre. They raised up large flags, one in each hand, and spun, watching the fabric billow. They tested loudspeakers. They sang and danced to protest music together.
Thirty years ago, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city centre, led by a coalition of pro-democracy political leaders, to demand multi-party democracy and the end of authoritarian rule under President Daniel arap Moi. On Tuesday, grassroots human rights defenders organised a People’s March—a leaderless event that was, on principle, neither branded and sponsored by any organisation, nor “approved” beforehand by authorities—to demand a set of basic human rights necessary to live a dignified life.
Ironically, in 1990, the first Saba Saba demonstration under Moi’s dictatorship was able to at least get within the vicinity of the Kamukunji grounds, though it was eventually met with lethal police force. This time in 2020, before demonstrators were able to even leave Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Kayole, and other meeting places, clots of police officers had already begun blocking their passage and arresting leading organisers. Only minutes after demonstrators at the Mathare Social Justice Centre began singing, police shot tear gas at them.
After the inaugural plumes of tear gas cleared from the front of MSJC, Mama Victor walked up to me, gave me a long embrace, looked to where the police were gathered, and abruptly said, “I’m going there to take tea.”
Mama Victor has a face like calm waters, smooth and serene like one of Picasso’s monumental women. Like the other members of the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors who had gathered at MSJC to participate in the march, she wore a white gown over her clothes, like those for baptisms. Written on the front of all of the gowns were the names of loved ones killed by police. She clenched in her hand the poster she had intended to march with: a large photograph of a young man, with the words “Victor Okoth Obondo. 1994-2017.”
Three years ago, Mama Victor lost both of her sons on the same day. It was August 9, 2017, when post-election unrest led to violent police crackdowns in informal settlements across the country. Victor, 22, and Bernard, 25—the son of her deceased sister, whom she raised as her own—were on their way home to Mathare when they were caught up in protests contesting election results. Police shot live bullets. Bernard was shot in the head and died instantly; Victor was shot in the stomach and died before he reached the hospital.
At the time, Mama Victor’s shock and grief was forced into the confines of a politically charged election. Victor and Bernard’s burials had to be rushed, but, in her account to journalist Isaac Otidi Amuke, she says she was “fortunate” to even have that. Other mothers, grandmothers, widows, and relatives, are often denied the “privilege to mourn,” as people can be arrested for even holding vigil for those killed by police.
“In the beginning, I would just wake up, see the photo of my sons, and cry,” she says. But as the once-searing pain subsided with time, she realized that it was only people like her who could sit with other mothers of victims and “share the pain we feel.” So she and a few other core members formed the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors.
The word “activist,” and the cynicism around it, often obscures the fact that some like Mama Victor never chose to be activists. Rather, it was the decision of some police officers sent to control “riots” on August 9, 2017 to pull the trigger—and Mama Victor’s refusal to accept impunity as an answer—that has landed her here. Taking tea in front of police officers on Saba Saba day.
Right off of the main road where over a dozen police officers were gathered, behind a kiosk selling medicinal herbs, was a breakfast kibanda. Mama Victor sat down on the mbao-bench to take chai and chapati. On the bench next to her, she set down the poster of Victor and another poster of Yassin Moyo, the 13-year-old boy who was shot in Kiamaiko on March 30 by police enforcing curfew, while he stood on the balcony of his family’s house.
Almost immediately, two policeman approach Mama Victor. They ask her what she is doing, and she says drily that she is taking tea. One orders her to get up and leave. “I can’t,” she says, “because I am taking tea.” They say no “gatherings” are allowed here—referring to the protest songs that had just been silenced by tear gas—and once again she says she is not gathering anything, she is just taking tea.
The humiliating interrogation continues. One officer asks her why she is wearing white, to which she responds that those are her clothes. He sees her facemask, draped loose on her neck, and with his wooden baton, prods at the human rights logo printed on it: “What is this?” Even with his stick pointed at her neck, Mama Victor didn’t let her chin drop. She raises her voice and reaffirms that she is not doing anything wrong by wearing her own clothes and drinking tea. She takes two cups and pours the hot, milky tea from one cup into the other, in a long, white cascade, to cool it.
Mama Victor is not naive about dealing with the police. As a human rights defender at MSJC, she collects evidence to document police brutality in Mathare, which means that, like other grassroots organizers unprotected by international institutions, in the past, she has received threats from anonymous callers and been followed for days by strange men. If she talks back to police, it is not because she believes she is untouchable.
One police officer orders Mama Victor to remove the white robe and throw away the posters of Victor and Yassin. A crowd gathers around this image of a thousand words: a policeman with his stick, standing above a woman seated on a wooden bench, trying to take her breakfast. Mama Victor refuses to throw away the posters and, her shouts reaching a fever pitch, she points to the poster of Victor on the bench next to her and asks the wrenching, simple question: “Can I not even take tea here with my child?”
Despite the fact that the state has already heaped layers of violence on this woman—murdering her sons, denying her justice, leaving her to solve her own children’s murders, plus the baseline systemic neglect that Mathare and other informal settlements suffer—the state has denied Mama Victor the dignity of even appearing before the Kenyan public by choking the Saba Saba day demonstration before it started.
They cannot, however, strip away the eternal truth that she is—and always will be—Mama Victor. Victor Okoth Obondo, frozen forever in that crouch, his arm resting on his knee, with a cool, easy smile. Her baby.
Mama Victor grabs the poster and, breaking into a flow of Dholuo, speaks straight to Victor. “Victor, you were so handsome, everyone said. You were kind, hard-working. We shouldn’t have come to Nairobi. Perhaps if we were home….” Another woman in the back begins to wail, and the police slink away.
In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that for Black people in 2014’s BLM protests to show up in the way they did was for them to “appear as Black in a way that is not codified by white supremacy.” To “appear,” he writes, is to confront state power that says, “Move along, nothing to see here,” and to demand to be seen. To “appear” is to be grievable, worth grieving, and to force others to look.
All of the grassroots human rights defenders and allies who weren’t already arrested by 10AM and furtively hopped onto matatus into town, knowing that scores of police would be waiting for them there too, understood this. They rejected the idea that a demonstration could possibly be first approved by the government, and they claimed—as victims of structural violence themselves—their right to “appear.”
Human rights defenders on Tuesday’s Saba Saba day, knew that Kenya’s comfortable class is not ignorant of plight of the poor but, rather, chooses to ignore it. Like Black civil rights activists of the U.S. in the 1960s, they knew that the most powerful message would have to be communicated through the medium of their own bodies: kneeling together, unfazed and fists up, within a storm of tear gas, or proclaiming “Whatever happens, I am not afraid” while being dragged by officers into the boot of a car.
It worked. Photographs and videos from Tuesday show the full, militarized force of the state concentrated onto the unarmed, vulnerable bodies of the city’s poorest, bodies which already bear the violence of living in districts with no water, going to bed hungry, loving people who were murdered by serial killer cops.
Mama Victor says that, when she reached the city centre, she was followed closely by several police officers—so closely that other organizers arranged for a cab to take her directly home. That is how much the state fears a middle-aged woman wearing white and holding a poster of her son, whose smile can never fade anymore. Even though the state had stripped Mama Victor of every other opportunity to express her grief and demand justice, the one they could not take away—her own self, the mother of two men they killed—is indeed the most powerful.
At first, this particular kind of protest seems like a paradox: how can leaning into one’s vulnerability possibly be an expression of power? But if you think about it a bit more, it makes intuitive sense. In a widely shared video from Tuesday afternoon, MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira is cornered between two parked cars, surrounded by several armed police officers attempting to arrest her. Without flinching, she says she will not cooperate and asks them, “Why are you arresting me?”
One officer asks back, “Why are you protesting?”
“Because you’re killing us!”
“Who is killing you?”
“You! Police!” The officer begins to walk away, and she continues: “You are killing us in our communities! Poor communities!” Both Wanjira and Mama Victor display no fear, and they lean into her identity as the victims of police violence in the face of police themselves.
The police leave Wanjira alone. She turns to those around her, throws her fist in the air, and shouts, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” Her courage doesn’t come from the security of privilege, but rather defiance even in the face of her own vulnerability, as someone who faces the real risk of being disappeared or executed, a tragic fate that has met many other Kenyan human rights defenders.
Those with a lived experience of state violence have the most powerful things to say to the government. Indeed, even if they marched silently in town, their bodies would speak volumes. Perhaps that is what the state fears most—people who see not only their own scars but also see clearly who inflicted them. Perhaps that is why police coordinated so thoroughly to block demonstrators from even stepping foot on the road to the city centre.
This completely counters how certain newspapers reported the day’s events: that the Saba Saba demonstrations were shut down, somehow failed, or didn’t happen at all. Ultimately, the entire country witnessed the physical violence that police officers inflicted on peaceful protestors. But, more than that, they witnessed how this violence was doled out on people who already bore state violence within their own bodies.
People like Mama Victor, a living testament to the bloodied hands of the state. Her survival is resistance. Her dogged commitment to documenting extrajudicial killings is resistance. Her sitting down to take tea with her son in front of those who killed him—that, above all, is resistance.
Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”
Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.
That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.
Landscape with a naked man in the snow.
I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.
Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!
I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?
Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.
An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.
And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.
We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.
I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.
That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.
The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.
A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.
I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.
In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.
There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.
[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.
I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.
Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.
Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.
Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.
Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.
Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.
Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.
These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.
No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.
It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.
Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.
The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:
We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants
The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”
Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.
Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.
Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.
There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.
Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.
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