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Reflections

Freeing Our Imagination: Remembering Binya and Life in Kwani

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The Kenya I grew up in felt isolated from the rest of the continent and the world. Kenyan writers were dissidents who lived abroad. Art was something only weird people did. At Kwani, the people and the stories, all that is beautiful, strange, sad, ugly, brave, and exciting about us, things we should not forget, were kept alive.

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Freeing Our Imagination: Remembering Binya and Life in Kwani
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The last time I had a conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina was in 2011 at the Washington DC launch of his book One Day I Will Write About This Place. I had just started my first semester in a creative writing graduate programme. It was a dream that had come true, in big part because of Binyavanga. Just a few years prior to this, I had just about given up on this idea that I would ever be a writer.

In 2005, after completing my undergraduate studies I had started working at Kwani Trust, first as an informal internship that grew into a fulltime job. For a while, this was the most exciting thing to happen in my life. I was working around writers I admired. Before getting this job, I had been stalking Kwani, attending their readings at Yaya Centre and at Paa ya Paa Art gallery. By the time, I came looking for this job I had read Kwani? 01 maybe twice, and Kwani? 02.

The first time I met Binyavanga, I had just followed my friend into a meeting with him. I sat there wondering why everyone was talking in such loud voices.

Kwani was many things – a literary journal, a monthly open mic, a writers’ collective, a physical space for creative people from all backgrounds in Nairobi to think and dream together. The Kwani office, at Queensway House, in the middle of Nairobi City, was a sublet space. It was part of a cyber café with old furniture, the kind of chairs that had to be sat on with care because they were falling apart. For practical reasons, not everyone could be in the office at the same time – there just wasn’t enough room.

When a colleague needed to have a meeting, some of us would have to vacate the space – we would sometimes go on “unnecessary” errands around town. Other times the cyber café needed its chairs back to deal with customer overflow. Still, not all these inconveniences, including the fact that the office had only two computers and a landline that had to be loaded with airtime from those Telkom cards, discouraged me. I knew from the get go that I was taking part in something big.

I was thrilled to be taking part in putting together the Kwani? 03 edition which was a work in progress. I spent days at the Kenya National Archives reading through old articles and advertising copy, looking through images of old editions Viva and Drum magazines from the 1960s to the 1980s, to find and compile images that would be included in the publication. On some days, work involved collecting a CD-ROM with edited drafts from one reviewer at one end of Nairobi and then taking it to another reviewer on another side of Nairobi. Entire days went like this. Other times I could not work because a writer’s handwritten story needed to use one of the computers to type it out.

Kwani Open Mic was a space where college students, med reps, advertising executives, retirees, musicians, actors, artists, filmmakers, lawyers and accountants, people from all kinds of professions participated in the readings and regular open mics. I was often amazed seeing people show up in dull office-wear after work, with hand written poems, sometimes not so good poems, that they wanted to read out to an audience of strangers. Some of them even carried a change of clothes just to look appropriate for their performances. Some got standing ovations.

I could see people working on their craft, rewriting and improving their stage presence, growing. One of my favourite memories is an open mic event where someone did an acoustic rendition of Kalamashaka’s Tafsiri Hii and just about the entire audience at Club Soundd joined in singing all the lyrics word for word. It was wondrous. When “Tafsiri Hii” came out in 1997, singing or rapping in Swahili and Sheng was something that was just so strange, something that was rejected in the mainstream. Here we were, years later singing this anthem.

It was maybe in August 2006, we had this staff meeting, including some writers whose work had been featured Kwani?, where Binyavanga shared the idea to host a literary festival in December. I felt lost when he and others present at the meeting listed names of famous and other unknown writers and editors to be invited. As with everything Binyavanga, it was very urgent, we had less than four months to prepare.

Here’s the thing. The latest Kwani? and other new titles were in the production pipeline to be printed in India for the first time, and launched at this festival. No one in the office had the expertise to handle the many event and travel logistics. A team was assembled; many of the volunteers who showed up were writers or artists themselves, all wanting to make a success of this literary festival. We had people coming from India, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Angola, Cameroon, Canada, the US. It was hectic – frantically working on programmes, seeking event sponsorships, pitching and sounding slightly off kilter using terms like literary landscapes and literary tourism. There were days spent pleading with the immigration department to waive visa fees or make it less complicated for the Africans not arriving from their home countries to attend the festival.

We hardly slept and somehow pulled something off. The writers came, Nairobi’s audiences showed up. There were gatherings in different places in Nairobi, it was a celebration and also included writing workshops. Binyavanga made the strong case to have Jack Nyadundo performing at Club Afrique where Malindi-based artist Richard Onyango shared his story published in Kwani? 01.

Jack Nyadundo’s distinct ohangla style was so different from what I imagined was the aesthetic we were creating. I did not see how this could work, and yet it did. For me it was a lesson in not being stuck in ideas of what is cool or what forms of expression are important. Bring everything. We sold many Richard Onyango prints that day. Doreen Baingana and Chimamanda Adichie headlined a poorly attended event at University of Nairobi. M.G. Vassanji got interviewed on KBC radio. There were writing workshops. The final leg of the festival was in Lamu, and when we got there, things thankfully slowed down, and the whirlwind ended with a public reading at the Lamu Fort. My colleague Mike Mburu and I often joked that it was as if we had gone through all of that drama to organise a friends’ get together. This was the general feeling.

These linkages had always existed but the Kenya I grew up in felt isolated from the rest of the continent and the world. Kenyan writers were dissidents who lived abroad. Art was something only weird people did. It certainly was not real work. Moi’s propaganda and my 8-4-4 education had been effective. Perhaps Binyavanga’s insistence that each individual had to be included showed us that Kwani Trust was not so much a pioneer, but another writing collective, maybe creating its own niche, maybe looking to be included in a much longer literary lineage. Femrite in Uganda, Chimurenga in South Africa and Farafina in Nigeria were also doing something similar. Transition started in Uganda and Black Orpheus in Nigeria, though now defunct, was a predecessor.

Before Kwani?, Pan Africanism in my mind had been something people had done to end colonialism on the continent. It was a weekly URTNA broadcast on KBC TV and serious meetings at the African Union Headquarters in Ethiopia. These gatherings, helped many artists who had been working in isolation find community both in Kenya and around the world, and people who could support and encourage them. I certainly found my people.

For me, a lot of it was the learning. The cover of Kwani? 03 has a quote from Shuka Mistari by the rapper Kitu Sewer,

Badala ya aerial, ekeni sufuria niwapee food ya ubongo”.

I won’t translate this phrase from Sheng to English – it will lose the whole vibe. Suffice it to say, it is about food for the mind. This was true about Binyavanga as it was true about any edition of Kwani? You were going to learn something. I learnt about what Nyayo House torture chambers – not as a rumour, but as very recent Kenyan history of people with ordinary names and faces. I learned about David Sadera Munyakei, about Ukoo Flani’s work at Maono, about Enoch Ondego, about Jogga’s murals, about Joseph Muthee, about Bessie Smith, about Brenda Fassie, about St Kizito High school.

Here, the people and the stories, all that is beautiful, strange, sad, ugly, brave, and exciting about us, things we should not forget, were kept alive.

With Binyavanga, everything was urgent. Even when he was teaching in the US, his Kwani-related email correspondence often had the word URGENT in the first paragraph. I would know that Binya was back in Kenya not because he had been in touch but because of the surging phone calls, or people who came to the office looking for him. It was futile explaining that I didn’t know where he was or that Kwani Trust the organisation and Binya were separate entities. I probably came off sounding territorial or like a gatekeeper. Anyway, I probably suffered from this same affliction – the organisation and the individual had happened at the same time for me.

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Leaving Kwani in late 2008, it felt like I had done three years of nonstop running. There had been many successes and loads of disappointment. I did not think I would ever write – having witnessed different cycles of the ever unpredictable and sometimes-brutal publishing process, I never wanted to risk sharing my messy first drafts. Or maybe this work had become my biggest excuse for not writing. In 2010 after lots of nudging, I emailed a draft of something I had written to Binyavanga. On the day he called with feedback, I was having one of those “Where are you nowadays?” conversations with an acquaintance at the car park in church. On the phone, Binyavanga was laughing that big laugh and sounded happy about what I had sent him. He said I needed to work on the edits. It was, of course, urgent. I hang up the phone and told the person I was talking to, feeling quite smug, that my editor had called and I needed to leave immediately. The piece was later published in Kwani? 06.

When I told him I wanted to go to graduate school, Binyavanga went the extra mile. He, alongside other writers I had met or worked with at Kwani helped me work on my applications. The support was overwhelming. Over the years I had seen Binyavanga link other writers with similar opportunities. If I had ever doubted it, in this instant I knew I was valued and cared for. This was the fresh start I needed.

I’m not sure why I never reached out to catch up with Binyavanga when I got back to Kenya in 2014. Parts of me wanted to make something of myself apart from my identity as of Kwani. Parts of me just never got over the ways I had felt swallowed at Kwani and the multiple ways we in this now much bigger vibrant writing community that nurtured my dreams have wounded and continue to harm each other. I want something else, not this.

When I think about Binyavanga’s YouTube series, “We must free our imagination”, I recognise how many of the responses to his public life, his homosexuality, and his death, are the same demonology he talks about in this series.

Binyavanga Wainaina set us on a path to do some very necessary and vital work. We have to free our imaginations.

Thank you Binya.

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Lutivini Majanja is a fiction writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

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.

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When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection
Photo: Anthony Tei Mutua
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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.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

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.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

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.

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Reflections

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.”

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Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
Photo: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
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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.

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Reflections

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.

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Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Photo: Gov. of Madagascar
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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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