Our African cities, despite their millions of inhabitants, actually harbour very few true urbanites. Most of us are villagers, not permanently living in the city but here only to earn a living. We are to Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa what New York, Dubai, and London are to our African diaspora brothers and sisters. And of course, we are to the lives of our families and extended relations back in the village what our diaspora brothers (they of the remittances) are to our economy—crucial. So we keep houses in Nairobi, but our true north is back in the place where we grew up. I believe that this aspect of our identities and the identity of our cities may have an important bearing on the way that Kenya and other African countries deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
There is a question I ask and get asked a lot that may give some insight into this dual identity villagers experience in the city. “What are you doing in Nairobi?” We understand it to mean, “What is your professional occupation?” Underneath the surface question is a recognition of the temporary nature of our city existence. An affirmation of a non-urban identity and a reminder that one comes to Nairobi for professional purposes, but is not supposed to take root here. Back home, those who take root in the city are described as “lost” to the city. After businesses were shut down and the curfew declared, the question began to bother me and the response soon became the worst answer you could possibly give: nothing. To the villager in the village, that means “nothing good”.
Normally, any villager who answers “nothing” to that question is advised to travel home. The coronavirus pandemic demands, however, that you stay away from others, especially those that you love. We have interpreted this to mean “don’t travel home“. Yet it is costly to do nothing in the city, much more costly than doing nothing at home. And even though you may stay away from the ones you love, can you, can anyone, really stay away from everyone in the city?
The housing block in which I live has been crowded since the government began to restrict movement. Nairobi is like an hourglass in that way; empty downtown Nairobi, and Eastlands housing blocks soon fill up. So the block is buzzing like a beehive all day long now, no off-peak lulls between the parents’ comings and goings when house-helps can converse across the balconies. Stop business in the CBD and the house-helps here have no respite from the laundry, the clotheslines above each other, each set of wet clothes dripping onto the one below. Not to mention that, in some parts of Umoja, Kayole, and Dandora, the blocks are six storeys high, all bedsitters, with shared kitchens and ablutions. Yes, there are families in these houses too. I can see COVID-19 smiling quietly to itself, sitting on a conductor’s fifty-shilling note as he hands back a woman’s change, headed deep into Umoja. How we are playing into danger’s hands.
It might be easier to social-distance in the gated estates and large spacious apartments and bungalows of places outside Eastlands. Easier for families that own a car to travel without making contact with hundreds of people every day. It is not so easy in Eastlands. In fact, there are no circumstances there in which it is possible to escape an enemy like coronavirus. Villagers living in this city are completely vulnerable to its broken infrastructure and this vulnerability has taken on a deadly turn because of COVID-19. I’ll tell you a story to explain.
My friend Vic Janam, handsome, happy-go-lucky, villager extraordinaire, invited me to his house in Tena for some rest and relaxation one Friday evening. I arrived at his house to find him deeply disturbed.
“Hebu fungua hiyo tap, observe for a minute, uniambie unaobserve nini”, he said, pointing me to the kitchen ((Please turn on the tap and tell me what you observe) I went. I turned on the tap, water flowed out. I waited. I frowned. I sniffed. I bent towards the tap to smell the water. In the name of Obong’o Nyakalaga, that water smelt like fresh shit. Not slightly, not moderately but pungently.
“Manze”, he said gravely, “yaani na hii ndio maji mi hukunywa”. (You mean this is the water I drink?). The sewage had entered into the water supply of the entire block.
Vic moved out. Someone else lives there now, and I am afraid that even though they may be social-distancing and obeying the curfew, they are still sitting ducks. I can see the coronavirus sharpening its teeth, swimming through the water pipes headed towards Pipeline, or Tena Estate.
My own place is not much better when it comes to water. I spent most of last week strategising my isolation and lockdown and realised that there was a gaping hole in my plans: water. My block, and several others around, gets water once a week over two days if Nyakalaga is smiling, and only for a few hours on Sunday if he is displeased. When I lived by myself, I was able to save water using a large drum. But I have a housemate now, and the drum is no longer enough for any length of lockdown. We have been buying water every week for a while. The water is brought by mkokoteni, and although we are lucky to have a water point nearby, when it runs dry, we genuinely do not know where the mkokoteni men get their water from. As I set my lockdown budget, the cost of water alone destroyed it; I had not even started listing food items. Many who have managed through sheer privilege to fill their houses with food, and who do not endure the constant water scarcity that we in Eastlands do, are online calling for a lockdown. I can tell you that, for a government without proper plans in place to provide relief, enforcing a lockdown on people with no adequate financial savings and who rely on broken public infrastructure is not a tenable plan. It will expose millions to the flaws and weaknesses of our city infrastructure that now, in a time of COVID-19, could prove fatal if, for instance, a large section of the water supply were to be contaminated; the science says the coronavirus does travel in faeces. I can see that damned coronavirus now, waiting in the sewage, smiling behind its face mask. I do not feel safe. I do not even feel isolated.
And then there is the elephant in the room, or should I say, the elephant in the country; a government no villager trusts anymore. The incumbency has at the moment coopted the opposition and presented itself as a single head, making it collectively even more untrustworthy than its individual parts. The villager normally knows how much to trust their guy, and how much to mistrust the other. Now, with the opposition coopted and few powerful voices offering honest criticism and pushback against possible corruption and bureaucratic mistakes, the villager must take instructions from an inscrutable monolith that has never in the history of its existence truly had our best interests at heart.
I watched footage of people being beaten along Mombasa Road hoping to see a policeman pause to sanitise the tip of his rungu but no, it was brutality as usual. If the coronavirus is the enemy we are fighting, what is the point of ordering a curfew then putting (how ironic) the security forces to work spreading the disease? And even as penalties are discussed for people who willfully or otherwise cause the deaths of others through COVID-19, will we see another set of our political leaders accused of crimes against humanity at The Hague if specific outbreaks of COVID-19 are traced to the orders they will have given? And will “their people” defend them? Because that is precisely the scale of suffering careless governance and enforcement of ill-thought-out directives could cause at this critical time. The villager is expected to believe that this monolith cares for them and is doing its best to help them survive this pandemic. Except that we know this is bullshit. We know because the instructions the government is giving are already killing us even before the coronavirus does.
As the Kenyan government fights to contain the coronavirus pandemic, it might do well to broaden its gaze beyond the confines of Nairobi and other cities and towards the villages. As I mentioned earlier, that aspect of our identities and the identity of our cities that embodies this urban/rural duality of residence may have an important bearing on the way in which Kenya and other African countries deal with the pandemic. Those who fight will tell you that where you stand when you face your enemy, the ground you choose, is a critical strategic choice; it can mean life or death. So far, the government seems to have chosen to stay and fight in the cities—in these transitory spaces where the villagers are at a great disadvantage and the government is in almost complete control. Yet we know the enemy left the cities long ago, cases are already popping up out in the countryside.
It seems to me that the choice to wage the war from the cities, primarily Nairobi, is not a strategic choice for the government but rather, the only one. After decades of mismanagement and embezzlement, the country’s health system is weak and resources of the kind required to manage the crisis hopelessly inadequate and hopelessly centralised in the cities. The villages are defenceless. How do you choose where to fight from? If we are only as strong as our weakest link, it is time the government casts its eye towards the villages to begin public sensitisation campaigns, training of health personnel, recruitment of volunteers, and equipping the health facilities for containment. So far, its efforts have been feeble at best.
Travelling upcountry from Nairobi is eye-opening, and perhaps a little shocking. Social distancing is a vain hope outside Nairobi city. If the villagers are having trouble with social-distancing in Nairobi, that cosmopolitan space where travellers come from every affected land, upcountry villagers seem completely oblivious to the need for it, moving around and associating mostly without taking any precautions. It seems that outside the city, there is a belief that COVID-19 is still a faraway Nairobi thing, that if it is to come this way, there will be loud warning and ample time to take precautions and change social habits. From the conductors at Kisumu’s bustling terminus, shouting and calling, leaning their faces into the vehicle, to the hawker who came to hiss at my window, touting his wares, “Sweeetsssss, creditsssss, power banksssss”, and who recoiled when I hurriedly drew back, clicking his tongue before walking to the next window, they all seem oblivious to the dangers of coronavirus. I could imagine it, that evil bug, sitting on the tip of the hawker’s tongue, jumping onto my face with every sibilant hiss. I’m not ashamed to say that I pulled out my little clear plastic bottle and sanitised my face.
As I write this, I’m on my third day of the recommended fourteen days of self-isolation. I came home via Kisumu, travelling in the same vehicle with two young women, cousins, both from the coast. I was sitting in front of them, pretending not to listen to their conversation. They too were running home to face the danger from the comfort of a loving place. The younger one, hair cut short, had been let go in a hurry by a boss who had promised to pay her wages before she travelled. Twice, she lied on the phone to him, asking the driver to turn off the radio and pretending that she was at the bus stop waiting for his cash transfer. He kept promising to pay. Between the calls, she narrated how two days before, she and her colleagues were laid off without warning, with the promise of payment within a day. She had nothing then, not a coin, and realised she would have to travel home immediately. She waited, but the pay didn’t come. Broke and desperate, she approached an aunt living at the coast whom she had not visited in a long time to borrow the money for the fare. She narrated how her aunt had told her off for being a bad villager, not visiting until crisis struck. In the end, the aunt bought her a ticket to Nairobi where she received more help from family. She had spent every single coin she could get just covering the distance between her workplace in Mombasa, and the village. I couldn’t help thinking that we were leaving behind millions like her, struggling to survive the untrustworthiness of a corrupt government, unscrupulous bosses, violent partners, the uncertainty of lockdown, and the brutality of curfew, without the financial means to make a different choice.
I am in my simba now. The only sounds I can hear are the chickens clucking outside, the wind whistling through the trees, the tap-tapping on the iron sheet roof, the cooing of a pair of turtledoves up a tall tree. No neighbours, no gunshots, no sirens, no breaking news on someone else’s television making me anxious and tense. I left my house in the city after the curfew was announced and people were clobbered by police on the first night. I headed for the village as soon as I could. So I am home. I feel safe. I feel isolated. I am ready to face the coronavirus now, or just death. It is safer to wait, to fight from here, than in the city.
We must admit as villagers that we occupy the bottom rung in a classist society that is a colonial legacy and that our political elite rely on to continue enriching themselves at our expense. What are we going to do about it? And, more urgently, what are we going to do about the coronavirus? Because here at the bottom of the ladder, we are truly alone; everyone else, even the city’s broken infrastructure, perhaps even the water we drink, is our enemy; the government that we call our own certainly is.
As citizens, villagers or not, we must admit that the great wall of state violence and unaccountability behind which our leaders have hidden for so long to misappropriate national resources and enrich themselves and their elite friends must fall. Even up in their ivory towers, the coronavirus now stalks. I can see it, sitting on a deputy governor’s shoulder, on a statehouse security man’s dirty hand as he opens the limousine door, I can see it waiting to meet the president, as it did the British prime minister.
Until the government proves otherwise with its actions, most of us city villagers are deeply vulnerable, not just to COVID-19, but also to a predictable oncoming wave of crime, hunger, and police brutality. Tragically, these are things we are used to, but the circumstances of this pandemic beg the question: is there ever a scenario, however unique and coincidental, in which our government can enforce its directives without using brute force and callousness against us? Because we are facing an existential threat whose very presence in our midst was caused by political inaction and the ignorance of our leaders, because we are aware just how much the coronavirus pandemic is not our fault as African villagers, because we are being murdered on our doorsteps by our government just for trying to survive, we need to reevaluate our values and our political culture. If it doesn’t kill us all, let us make sure that that wall of unaccountability crumbles in the dust forever and is never built again. These men and women occupy their positions because of us; we must demand that our lives come first. Not the economy, not whatever city, but our lives.
And so I came home despite the warnings, as I know many wise villagers did. But I didn’t come to die here. I came to face death. I simply chose for myself where, like we may all have to if this situation worsens. After watching the last few weeks unfold and seeing the government’s response, I could not trust it to choose for me, for it is clear, as it has always been, that my life is not the government’s priority at all. For me the city was simply no place from which to face such a threat, not in the current state of its infrastructure, of its leadership. If death is unavoidable, the city is definitely not the place in which to die. Now my heart goes out to every villager still stuck in the city, so vulnerable and so far away from home, as death draws ever closer.
My decision is not without danger or personal sacrifice. It has been strange, almost surreal, the little things that must be done differently in order to keep us all safe now that I am still in self-isolation. Like not being able to hold my mother, not even her hand, after not seeing her for so long. Strange having to stay indoors as my nieces play outside, like some registered sex offender, when we have shared so much joy and laughter before. The gifts I brought them lie unpacked, on the edge of my bed. There is an old utensils rack that we have had since I was a child, now rusty and tilting to one side. It stands just outside my door all day, just inside all night. I put my clean plates there, on the top rack, and close the door. My sister heaps bread, nduma, ugali, rice and ndengu, whatever is in the hotpot tucked under her arm. We talk through the glass, or through the partly opened door. I am careful to face inwards. I take the food after she leaves. I am supposed to eat it all. I try. And behind the closed door, I think and I write. And we all wait.
Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.
“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha
Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.
The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.
Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.
Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.
Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.
The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).
Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.
But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.
One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.
Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.
To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.
However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”
Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.
Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.
Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.
The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.
Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.
The Binj, a larger-than-life personality who, through sheer force of will, opened up the literary space for young African writers who have gone on to give us some of the best writing in generations.
In the early noughties, I was working on a project to publish a lifestyle magazine that my team called Miro. “Miro”, deriving from “Amero” or African American, is a word that urban Nairobians of yore used to describe black people. We were hoping to come up with the first urban lifestyle magazine in which Nairobians would see themselves represented as they did in the Ebony and Essence Magazines published in the US.
During that period, I met a guy named Peter Achayo who had a clothing label and believed in what we were doing. He also knew some other guys doing something similar but their focus was mainly literary. He offered to make the introduction and in early 2005, I met the leader of that group, Binyavanga Wainaina, at the Java Coffee House on Mama Ngina Street, a dreadlocked, dark-skinned, heavyset fellow of medium height, sitting in the company of several people. We sat at a booth where I explained to him what my team and I were doing and trying to achieve. He listened keenly, offering several suggestions which I noted. Binyavanga told me that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was in town at his invitation and wondered if an interview with him would be useful. I jumped at the opportunity as I had read the book as a teenager and rated the writer highly.
On the day of the interview, I made my way to Lillian Towers, aka the Nairobi Safari Club, where Binyavanga had me sit at the lobby and wait to meet the great writer. At the time, our magazine Miro hadn’t seen the light of day but he was willing to accord me the same respect that I had seen accorded to journalists who had been around for a while. That respect was something that I carried with me into a career as someone who catalogued the lives of those whom I met. For Armah it was probably just another interview but it forever changed my perception of what being African was.While our efforts at creating a publication failed only months later, I cherished the meetings I had had with this guy with a weird name and with the famous writer from Ghana.
A year later, I founded a new website/blog called NairobiLiving.com (since discontinued) to catalogue a city that was evolving in multiple ways. Some of the hottest gigs at the time were the monthly Kwani Open Mics, an even which was first hosted at the Yaya Centre and later at Club Soundd on Kaunda Street. My reviews of the Kwani Open Mic events got me an invitation to the East African Writers Summit at Lukenya in 2006 organised by Kwani Trust because I was cataloguing the literary revolution that was taking place.
My life was a mess when I received that invitation. My mother had invested a huge sum of money to ensure that I received the best private university education. I had left the country for a year and a half and returned floundering. I was a thirty-one-year old man with no income who had moved back to live with his parents. The magazine project that I had initiated had failed spectacularly and I was desperately looking for something to fill that void both as a career and for income.
I attended the Lukenya writers’ summit and adopted a sort of mute position, one that I would adopt for many years to follow where Binyavanga was concerned. I sat and listened in on the panel discussions by day and, in the evenings, on the conversations that took place by the campfire over copious amounts of alcohol. Listening to Binyavanga, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others discussing the challenges and the opportunities in their writing careers had a marked influence on my life. Binyavanga spoke about the need to write back to the European canon, challenging the writing that defined Africa from the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Joseph Conrad. It was an amazing opportunity for someone seeking purpose in life. That weekend was a turning point for me and I committed to this writing world fully in the months and years that followed.
In making this commitment, I got to know more about this dude who went by the name Binyavanga—or The Binj, or Binya to the many who knew him in the African creative community—and who was central to my making such a life-altering decision. Over the years of a glittering career, his work was featured in many of the world’s most famous publications. Starting with G21, the magazine which had featured his award-winning short story Discovering Home, his work could be read in Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Bomb, etc. At one point he had a regular column in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.
The year I met him, Binyavanga’s essay How To Write About Africa, satirising how European writers talk about our continent, was published in Granta. That essay reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to him railing against those who brought Africa and Africans to disrepute with their writing. It became one of the most shared pieces of writing in that respected literary journal and brought him worldwide fame.
His 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon. It was a memoir of his middle class childhood in his Nakuru hometown, his time as a student in South Africa and, after he return home, his travels across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it onto Oprah’s 2011 Summer Reading List . It was The Binj at his best, showing what English could become in the ownership of a writer with his singular talents.
Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when Binyavanga came out as gay. At the time, several African countries including Nigeria and Uganda were either drafting or passing new laws that would make it very difficult for gay people to be who they were. Outing himself in this “lost chapter of his memoir” and following it up with a series of videos that outlined his views on what was happening to the social fabric of the continent was a revolutionary act.
While his own writing career was significant, his biggest contributions came from his ability to influence others with his larger-than-life personality, his compassion and his sheer determination. It started with the winnings from the Caine Prize, part of which he used to set up the Kwani Trust, jolting the literary establishment in Kenya and across the continent. Before he showed up, there was no Kenyan literature in the true sense of the word as, for a quarter of a century, the industry had been hobbled by anti-intellectual dictator Daniel Arap Moi. At the time the publishers association was a text book lobby that focused mainly on selling books to school children while onn the continent, there was a lull in African writing after the glory years of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the 1960s and 70s.
The appearance of Binyavanga Wainaina signified a shift not only in Kenya but across the continent. After many years of inactivity, the “literary desert” got a new lease of life with the publishing of the literary journal Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the years that followed, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community like the aforementioned Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Forster, Billy Kahora, Andia Kisia, and many more that became the foundation of the literary community that we all look up to today.
With Binyavanga editing Kwani?, he challenged the idea of what literature looked like, what it sounded like or even in what language it was expressed. Experimentation was the name of the game and nothing demonstrated this as well as his association with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau which many considered the biggest hip hop group to come out of Kenya. Led by the inspirational Kama (Kamau Ngigi), young artists who came mainly from Dandora could be spotted at the Kwani? offices huddled around an office assistant who was typing their poetry and other musings. These musings, written in Sheng—a constantly evolving urban language made up of Kiswahili, English and many other Kenyan languages—ended up in the journal much to the consternation and fury of those in academia who considered themselves the arbiters of good literature.
When not ensuring that their work was immortalised in his preferred literary medium, Binyavanga also influenced the young artists as the executive producer of the 2016 Dandora Burning album. He raised money for studio time as well as for living expenses for the artists who featured on the album like Juliani, Kitu Sewer, and a whole host of others.
It wasn’t just experimenting with language that became a trademark of the journal under The Binj. Stories refused to follow any familiar patterns, with fiction, nonfiction and poetry mixed in with everything one could imagine, being published in the smaller version Kwanini when the journal wasn’t in publication. For a long time, there had been a yearning for something new and exciting and the breath of fresh air that was Kwani? was welcomed by those who had been rejected elsewhere. There was now a new space in which to showcase their talent. The new methods were however not as welcomed by those in publishing and academia, with one commentator famously calling the Kwani? writers “literary gangsters”.
One of the methods that the Kwani?, team employed to share their work with the Nairobi audience was the Kwani Open Mic. At the beginning, the events were hosted away from the Central Business District at the Yaya Centre Café Crème and at Kengeles in Lavington. Writers would read from their current or forthcoming entries to the Kwani? Journal, the readings interspersed with poetry and music including from the aforementioned hip hop artists who were part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. The open mic events were a occasions where some of the city’s well-heeled residents met some of the least well off, continuing on a theme that had been prevalent in the wake of the 2002 “revolution” where everything was possible without Dictator Moi; even the rich could sit with the Dandora boys.
The open mic events eventually moved to Club Soundd which was located in the Central Business District. People coming to Club Soundd had convenient access to public transport until the late hours and so more people attended and stayed longer. The events became a spectacle, with the person on stage having to be extremely compelling with whatever poetry, prose, or rap they were presenting or else the audience would switch off and turn to conversation with whoever they were with. Showtime at the Apollo had the Sandman; Kwani Open Mic had a crowd that became easily bored and tuned out.
As the years went by, it became the stage on which many of the poets of the last decade and a half cut their teeth. It was an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships, both professional and personal, were forged that endure to this day. That open mic spawned what became Nairobi’s vibrant poetry scene.
Eventually, Binyavanga had to leave the day-to-day running of the organisation to other people as he took up writing gigs “in the abroad”. He was the writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 2007 and in 2008, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. He then became director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York state. While not physically present at the organisation, Binyavanga sat on the board, giving valuable energy and input.
The organisation he once led came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011 to identify the next big writing stars from the continent and it delivered the motherload. The shortlist from the hundreds submitted included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. The Kwani? Manuscript Prize was ultimately won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, arguably the biggest starin Ugandan writing today.
Binyavanga was involved in other projects with varying degrees of success. In 2010, he led a team of writers in the Pilgrimages project where 14 African writers travelled to 13 African cities and to one city in Brazil to explore the complexities of disparate urban landscapes. From this experience, the writers were to create 14 works of non-fiction about their trips, capturing each city against the backdrop of Africa’s first World Cup. In the list of writers were Chris Abani, Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, Alain Mabanckou, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The much-hyped works never saw the light of day; even the charismatic Kenyan couldn’t always deliver on the hype.
The Binj did deliver on many other occasions though. One of these was the Hay Festival/World Book Capital Africa39 list, a project to identify the writers, under 40 years of age, most likely to influence African writing in the future. That project, for which Binyavanga did most of the initial research, gave us a list of writers who would theoretically influence African writing in the future. Many on that list like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Shadreck Chikoti, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Zukiswa Wanner continue to live up to its premise. Binyavanga was also the biggest supporter of the 24 Nairobi book project which showcased Nairobi as a modern African city through the eyes of its own photographers.
Away from his hits and misses, Binyavanga was plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, suffering a major stroke in 2015 from which he never truly recovered. He announced that he was HIV positive in 2016 and battled with his body until it all ended on the evening of May 21, 2019.
There were two Binyavanga Wainainas; the man before and the man after the 2015 stroke. After he recovered, Binya as I knew him, was not the the same force of nature that he had been. The man who was clumsy in an endearing sort of way was now having that clumsiness seep into all of his life, and it showed. He spent many hours on social media sharing whatever he was thinking and doing while getting into unnecessary virtual battles with perceived or real enemies.
The Binyavanga I wanted to remember was The Binj of before 2015 who showed up one day and changed the game by sheer force of will. I remember meeting him two weeks after being hired as an editor at the Star newspaper in Nairobi in 2011 and was invited to his birthday party where we chatted and he encouraged me, reminding me just how important the work that I did was. This coming from him was a boost that drove me for a long time. I knew that, being in an influential space, I had to ensure that the literary arts occupied their place of honour in Kenya.
We met on and off over the next few years until he was hospitalised by illness. His last words to me were, “You’ve grown a beard”. I laughed and said, “Yes”. They were the last words we shared.
The last time he was at my house, he took a nap in my living room then woke up and dominated the conversation at the smoking area at the backyard. I could tell that he could be a bit frustrated with his speech but he still held his own on in a wide variety of topics. That night showed me the best and the not-so-great of the great man. Being down because of a physical challenge but still coming to the conversation, opening with his signature, “you knowwwww…”
Thank you Binya. You saved me, and many like me.
Rest in Peace Binya. Rest in Power.
You can find a gallery of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing at PlanetBinya.org.
The Capture of Kabuga Frees Me to Hope Again
A Kenyan investigative journalist reflects on the capture of a genocidaire in Paris after 26 years on the run and its significance to the families of the victims left in his wake.
May 16th, 2020 1:43 pm
News of the arrest in Paris, France of Felicien Kabuga, the man long accused of funding the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda 26 years ago, has now reached a one-bedroom house in Pangani estate, Nakuru, Kenya. Josephat Gichuki, the tenant in this threadbare home, calls me to ask if I have heard the news. We talk now and again, our conversations mostly prompted by the slightest of wisps of news about Rwanda’s octogenarian outlaw. Today I can hear excitement in his voice. I ask to interview him on his thoughts and call back eight minutes later.
“I am very, very happy. This is important to me because there is no office I have not gone to seeking justice”, he says. Josephat has cause to be happy. His younger brother, Kenyan journalist William Munuhe was murdered hours before he was set to lead Kenyan and US authorities to Felicien, Kabuga on January 16th 2003. Kenyan Police first claimed that he had killed himself by lighting a charcoal burner and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. Yet the evidence found in his Karen home told a completely different story.
Josephat has been searching for the truth for the last 17 years. Just like that, he very possibly could get the closure he has sought for close to two decades. Pushing for the Kenyan government to provide him with the answers his family needed hasn’t been good for the Gichukis. His father passed away in 2018. Gichuki says that his father was “distraught” that he “struggled so hard to raise a child only to see him killed” and no one to answer for it. “Heartbreak killed my father”, he says. Almost as if his mouth was working on muscle memory, he fires off nearly every attempt he has made to get a response from the government, as well as every missed opportunity.
“[Former President] Kibaki was a guest of the Rwanda government in 2004. We expected him to say something. He didn’t. In 2014 at the 20th commemoration of the genocide, [President] Uhuru was a guest of the Rwanda government. We expected him to say something. He didn’t”.
Neither one of us would be surprised by this. The Kenyan government has long denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of Felicien Kabuga and the crimes that have been linked to him. The day of his capture doesn’t seem to inspire any volunteering of information either. “He isn’t our criminal”, I can almost hear some local public relations spin doctor say. Would Kabuga’s arrest matter to a population whose median age is 19 anyway? It should, in the way that all life-altering events do matter.
May 16th, 1994
A situation report issued daily by the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) rattles off statistics on food, water and fuel rations, a rundown of the fighting between the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) and the RGF (Rwandese Government Forces) on this day. Fighting between current President Paul Kagame’s forces (RPF) and government troops was focused in the north of the country and in Kigali, the small nation’s capital. Journalists had visited various refugee camps to look into distribution of food rations. A meeting brokered to discuss a ceasefire took place at the Hotel Diplomat. The RPF didn’t send any representatives. It makes for a mundane reading of the facts about one of the worst tragedies to have ever taken place on the face of the earth. Yet every detail is important. This one line sticks out:
“HA (Humanitarian activities) team held a meeting with the OPS (operations) officer of the Gendarmerie, GSO II of the RGF and representative of the Interahamwe and the militia, concerning the evacuation of orphans from Giimba and Gitega. Numerous problems were posed regarding the evacuation of orphans”.
This statement meant two things: first, that any humanitarian aid organisation working in Rwanda at the time had to work with the approval of the Rwanda government. That is normal. Secondly, a representative of the Interahamwe, a brutal, bloodthirsty militia responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus was also at the table. That should strike out any doubts of how central it was as a player in the civil war.
26 years later, in the middle of the second month of Rwanda’s Kwibuka commemorations, it also spotlights how important the arrest of the Interahamwe’s chief benefactor Felicien Kabuga is bringing the arc of history that much closer to the endgame; bending it towards justice. Kabuga bought hundreds of thousands of machetes that were given to these men. He owned media houses that trumpeted the “cut down the tall trees” narratives that captured a misled public’s imagination that their brothers and sisters were actually vermin. He was at the heart of the plans to eliminate more than 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population. He was a rich man whose money bought him 26 years of freedom – in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and France.
Few people have walked the earth freely after committing the crimes that he is accused of. Many of the main actors in the holocaust were arrested, tried and hung. Dictators responsible for bringing untold suffering to their citizens have risen and fallen in the time since Felicien Kabuga escaped imminent capture (and possibly a similar fate) by the RPF in the early days of June 1994, starting a 26-year life on the run that ended on May 16th 2020.
Kabuga traveled to Switzerland first, where he was denied entry, before coming to Kenya. Here, he was received with open arms. He and his family bought properties in Kilimani, owned fancy cars and lived quiet lives between 1994 and 1997. His children went to school here. He registered his businesses here and was well on the way to gaining a foothold in the Kenya-Rwanda logistics industry when he was arrested and jailed at the Kilimani Police Station. He was released at the behest of very senior Kenyans including a current Member of Parliament. He would go underground, and official accounts denying his presence in Kenya would begin.
May 16th, 2012
My wife and our two children had just moved into what would be our home for the next one month. I had been investigating Felicien Kabuga’s whereabouts and my sources and I had begun receiving threats. We were in the process of getting passports for our two young children just in case we would need to leave the country. We had already pulled them out of school and my wife had to take leave from work. Meanwhile, I needed to keep on the track of the story. I had turned in the first draft and it was decided that I would need to travel to Rwanda to deepen it.
I had picked up the thread of Kabuga’s sojourn in Kenya in December of 2011. I would read about the man whose money and beliefs sowed bitterness in the hearts of his countrymen through his radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the years before the start of the genocide. I visited Kigali Prison to speak to a woman who worked for Kabuga at RTLM as Rwanda commemorated 18 years since Kabuga and senior Rwandan government officials plotted a genocide.
I pored over documents linking Kenyan military officers to a cabal of Kabuga’s protectors in Kenya. I interviewed former senior government officials in confidence about the man’s whereabouts. I read books about the genocide, spoke to foreign correspondents and senior Kenyan journalists who had covered the genocide. I spoke to genocide survivors, broke bread with young Kenyans working in Rwanda and watched in horror news of a helicopter crash that would kill, among others, Kenya’s internal security minister, George Saitoti. I had planned to interview Saitoti when I got back to Kenya on the subject of Kabuga. I chased leads that led nowhere, and received some that opened up even more information about what Kabuga was up to while in Kenya.
I also interviewed the former Prosecutor General of Rwanda, Martin Ngoga, about Kabuga’s whereabouts. Earlier in the year I had received a photograph of a man who my sources claimed was Kabuga. I showed it to Ngoga, as well as to the lady I interviewed in Kigali Prison, and to a doctor who it was claimed had treated Kabuga in Nakuru, among other people. With the exception of the doctor (who passed away weeks after my documentary aired), everyone else was agreed on the identity of the man in the photo. It was the photo that would cast doubt on a story I had toiled so long to tell.
The man in this photo was produced at a press conference addressed by former Kenya Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe. Daniel Ngera, a businessman from Isiolo, had been forced into the frame by what Kiraithe called shoddy journalism on my part. I couldn’t respond because I wasn’t there to do so. My wife, our children and I had left the country the Friday before the story ran, and were just settling into life on the run. My heart sank and my stomach turned. I could never have imagined that an error on my part would serve as a distraction from the existing facts about one of Rwanda’s most dangerous men.
The month that followed was one of the darkest in my life. I spent it fighting anxiety attacks. Would I have a job to come back to? My wife had already lost her job because she couldn’t explain in detail why she had to be away from work for three months. All through this, I was trying to reassure my wife that everything would be alright. To be honest, she did most of the reassuring.
Fortunately, I had a boss—Linus Kaikai—who stood by me, and (I hope) believed in the integrity of my intentions and the rigour I had applied to the story. I will always regret having exposed Mr Ngera, a man I had never met, to that kind of ridicule—even if I hadn’t set out to do so, much less plot to pass him off as a genocidaire. Yet for all the efforts that my team and I made, or the shame that Mr Ngera was exposed to or the anxious days and weeks that followed, this was the least important part of the story of Kabuga’s life as a fugitive.
Kabuga’s freedom, enabled by people in different countries across the world, was a slap in the face of every Rwandese citizen; those who lost lives during the genocide, those who have endured life without loved ones, even those who were brought to justice years before he will see the inside of a courtroom. The soil that turned red and the rivers in which bodies floated, the churches that were turned into slaughterhouses, all of the history that heaves with the weight of this dark chapter deserves a twist like this one. The hilltops from where the cries of the innocent rang out 26 years ago should hear news of Kabuga’s capture loudly beamed.
Back to May 16th, 2020
My day draws to a close with a call from my mother. She called to say she’d seen the news about Kabuga’s arrest, and that she was proud of me for playing my part in bringing to justice an evil man. “You may not have succeeded, but you did your best—and I feel vindicated on your behalf”. Those words wrung out a bitterness I’ve carried for eight years because of how my attempt to find a bad man ended. If only for tonight, I feel a lightness I haven’t felt whenever I have thought about Kabuga. Earlier, Josephat had ended our call with the same note of hope that he had had for answers 17 years ago. Maybe the request for a public inquest into his brother’s murder will be heeded now that the chief suspect in that murder is behind bars. Maybe not. All he and his family have wanted is justice. Josephat was 33 years old when his younger brother William was murdered because some people in Kenya chose to stand on the side of a butcher than with the millions for whom Kabuga’s crimes can never be fully atoned. His hope may have wavered many a time, but on this day, May 16th 2020, his ageing eyes opened to see the day when an ageing criminal’s luck ran out. The end of Felicien Kabuga’s freedom has freed Josephat and I to nurse the hope that justice does not have a sell-by-date. I know we must nurse this flame with care and not shout too loudly, lest we extinguish it before we have fought the many other battles ahead of us. Hope, it seems, may actually spring eternal.
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