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.
Letter from the New American Pariah State
Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.
American values during the coronavirus pandemic have become a contagion unto themselves. The very ethos of the country has become clear now, crystallised over six horrific months that will only fully have their gravity realised somewhere around October of 2025. To paraphrase James Baldwin, simplicity and immaturity are the values of this country, especially if one is sincere. I’m now 31 years old and throughout my entire life, the all-American concept of “liberty” has been elusive to me. Now, in the age of corona, as I hear it more frequently, I understand that it means ignorance, and because I am a white American exempt from consequence, it is inherently my liberty to refer to “liberty” as a term used exclusively by the ignorant.
The US right now is more clearly the location where ignorance and immaturity intertwine as cultural norms, sustained by the righteous rich to keep us all in line and the world turning as it does. When you look at this country, in its white-enough-for-history-books form, it makes more sense: America as a colony was made up of a bunch of puritans — White Christians — too uptight to remain in 17th century England.
They came here and stewed for years, decades, centuries in their self-righteous stiff ignorance; and let no one impede their ideals, especially those endowed with melanin. That heavy-handed colonialism-tinged brand of Christianity requires one to adhere to it; rocking the boat can get you ostracised, or, if you are non-white, you could face a more sinister fate. When unfettered capitalism grabbed the reins then realised that the two rigid parameters, puritanical Christianity and the profit motive, could be melded, those ideals distilled into a marketing ploy called the American Dream. Buyer beware however; normalcy in the American context is continuation of subservience. Ignorance is bliss as long as someone above you gets “theirs”.
Keep the wheels turning. Die for it. Be a Patriot. Do your job.
All resistance to these parameters must be swiftly struck down by the American soldiers of God. Bucking the system, bucking one’s own ignorance, is not a part of the plan; “How dare you not buy the newest Nikes? How dare you question their methods of slave labour? Are you some kind of subversive?” As we pushed globalisation forward into the late 20th century, it came with some resounding grace: “Through accessing information, we’re closer together than we are apart” while also realising that “since we all have so much in common, everyone on earth can (and should) become addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Clearly, the latter ideal has won during COVID-19.
It is a pandemic that cuts across race and ethnicity, gender and nationality. But that is for future historians. Blacks and other people of colour have less and less access to capital, and this systemically reinforces their position as disposable to the capitalist mantra. They have died in greater numbers during this crisis, forced back to work at corporate entities that are now pushing for protection from any sort of liability from a bought-and-paid-for Republican Senate. The pandemic suddenly became less urgent as it became evident who were the majority that were dying from it. Arguments about wearing masks are still going on in the media while some politicians tell us all is well and we should continue spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need that benefit people infinitely richer than us. Otherwise, we’re too lazy to work at jobs that don’t exist.
Proposals about how to handle the situation have become mired in bickering and weirdness since March, as the richest country in the world nickel-and-dimes the poor for short-term profit margins that don’t actually exist outside of Jeff Bezos and about 157 other random nameless titans of industry. “Economic stimulus, for who? Well, that will disincentivise the poor”. We don’t understand yet that this could be our fall. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it came undone in a generation or so. Machismo and stupidity ushered in the Asian century; cruelty and lies will be America’s exit.
We have done so terribly in this crisis that our once privileged passports are now handled with latex gloves and sanitiser. We are unwanted and deservedly so. For Americans it’s an unfamiliar position — we are used to having doors opened to us, smiles granted, courtesies extended, to being hurriedly ushered through customs checkpoints. At this point, one of the only regions that will accept Americans through their points of entry is East Africa; as of 1 August 2020 we can enter Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Our creeping financial reach carries us through checkpoints but such allowance is disgraceful international relations. It is telling of Kenya, of how deeply the market-capital Kool-Aid has been drunk; only 24 hours after taking America off the non-quarantine list, Americans were back in the good graces of the non-quarantine camp.
How will letting red-blooded Americans back into East Africa go in the coming months? Don’t worry about it, they have dollars to spend. Other nationalities have money, so what is so special about American dollars? From every corner there is new money and old, black market and “market share” money. The paradigms have shifted since March 2020 and it is hard to see them rapidly changing back to the global “norm”, at least in any sort of respectable sense. That’s where the globalisation bandwagon of the latter half of the 20th century can get ugliest; we were just too good at marketing our failing model.
The dramatic shift over the past year begs heavy questions, ones that the “developing” world will hopefully learn from and flee as though they were the coronavirus itself. These questions range from “what if one ethnicity gets to ask constant questions while another gets beaten for merely raising their hand?” all the way to “is everything in the modern system a lie?” Because things are impossibly worse than you ever thought possible.
In this doomed nation, 199,000 had died by the 21st of September. Meanwhile we are mired in our own filth; the richest economy in the world decries public assistance even as we are lapped by nations like Germany, New Zealand and Rwanda.
At the right Nairobi embassy party, a keen eavesdropper will hear frequent mention of the Singapore model, a “developing state” becoming a first world economy in one generation. Do-gooder development types speak of Singapore as though it is a miracle; “How could they impress, adhere to and benefit the West? What a progressive little country they are”.
The inverse is much more plausible and frequent; ask a Kenyan about the differences between Moi in 1979 and the 1989 incarnation of the same man, paranoid and sliding deeper into ill-fated financial dealings.
The only difference? That Americans literally have a theory of thought called “American Exceptionalism” that is easy to instill when you give examples of mediocre daddy’s boys somehow turning 35 million dollar fortunes into 50 million dollar caches.
In that sense, the Trump administration is the most quintessentially American of all; Trump is us at our most base. He is the embodiment of deadly privilege wielded through stupidity and a misplaced sense of manifest destiny. The Trump administration represents global entitlement just as white America does — a gathering of aging idiots who think the stripper is really into them. Our desire to be special has led to global norms becoming horrific injustices; masks-turned-fascism, lockdowns-turned-atrocity, public good-turned-Stalinist Russia. Inconvenience doesn’t equal oppression unless you make it so.
The very awkward leader of our doomed little experiment has to date held the biggest indoor gathering since the pandemic hit in March. Stalin himself once plucked a chicken alive, leaving it writhing in pain, only to lead it begging and bleeding around the room by feeding it stale bread crumbs. The masses, he explained, would put up with any injustice just as long as you gave them something little. Millions of Americans have long considered kernels as grand gestures, ones that they probably don’t deserve.
During all of this, schools are looking to open in many districts, often at the urgent behest of a Republican leadership calling for “normalcy” in vastly odd times, clinging to the belief that “normalcy” in the modern context is a good thing. The next six months will bring this government’s dereliction into sharp focus; the Republicans will probably lose in about six weeks, then immediately sit on their hands and blame the Democrats for winning. For some, the strategy will even work, but the damage may just be too great to bear this time round. Make America Great Again, surely.
I must admit that it is a strange feeling to have my dark blue American passport looked at with suspicion. it was an undue golden ticket in the age of globalisation, opening any door I knocked on as long as I could make the nut to afford a flight. Now, the hoops are mounting, rapidly and consequentially. And deservedly so.
If for nothing else, it may be prudent to start to look at what the future of global travel will look like. Not in any “tech” sense but in terms of the biases that travellers face. If as of August 13th anyone can fly into Rwanda provided they can provide negative COVID-19 certificates, isn’t that a model worth following? The merit of one’s health and ability should trump nationality, and now that the cat may be out of the bag as some nations beg to regain a tourism foothold, it is unlikely to go back.
Even now, as schemes and plans come together, anyone seeking to leave the US feels like a rat escaping a sinking ship where all the passengers remain stuck in denial. Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.
East Africans must have been reading the tea leaves of the last four years of American politics with a feeling of “I-told-you-so”. But in the US it was never understood — as the people of this region have long been aware — that no one is beyond the grip of a truly corrupt system. I used to get side-eyes from a wide swath of American acquaintances with my constant compare-and-contrast-Trump-with-various strongmen but such people are now sheltering in place, out of a job or being forced back to one.
“It is what it is”. I don’t think Trump has ever spoken truer words throughout his entire wretched political career. Now he floats ideas like banning Americans from returning home — with the obvious subtext of suppressing the vote of those at large.
Now steeped in our jingoism, it is impossible to look inward. It is impossible for us to distinguish that the “profit motive” that drives capitalism is the same motive that keeps us turned inwards, ignoring our greatest problems whilst elevating our lesser ones. Blissful ignorance has never been quite so putrid. Modern America is to be studied as a cautionary tale as the world shifts away from coronavirus towards a more equitable future. Beware a failed experiment.
In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
The Oromo Liberation Front leadership views Kenya as an important player and believes that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia.
A Kenyan Journalist was arrested in Addis Ababa in the wake of the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular Oromo musician. Yassin Juma was arrested alongside prominent Oromo opposition political figures like Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromo Media Network. Juma was later charged with “incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials”.
A court freed him but the police continued to hold him.
Yassin Juma is perhaps the only Kenyan journalist to show interest in the Oromo liberation movement. In Kenya, both the media and government functionaries view the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a security threat, with journalists rehashing half-baked arguments about what the OLF means in the region’s conflict.
It was Yassin Juma who introduced the Oromo cause to a larger Kenyan audience with his TV documentary, Inside Rebel Territory, 10 years ago. In it we follow Yassin as he goes in search of OLF fighters: “It was a journey that finally yielded [the] faces of one of Africa’s longest albeit low-key rebellions . . . the OLF was for decades a mystery”.
Inside Rebel Territory earned him the respect of the Oromo and the ire of Meles Zenawi’s regime. Five months ago he was invited to Finfinnee Radio’s 5nan Show where he spoke about the state of the media and reflected on his coverage of the Oromo movement.
My reason for being here is to make a follow-up documentary to [. . .] Inside Rebel Territory . . . I am doing a documentary about the rebels I met then, their life now, after Dr Abiy took over [as Ethiopia’s prime minister] . . . how they find life and so forth.
We can already guess what the new Ethiopia looks like. Guracho, who featured in Yassin’s documentary, is now in jail. Falimatu, a woman he had interviewed, may have been killed two or three years ago. He was in Addis Ababa when Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed and the country erupted into violence. Ethiopia prefers to hide its face from the roving cameras of the likes of Yassin Juma.
On Finfinne Radio Yassin reveals who he is, how the story he had done on the OLF was almost killed. How he was offered $150,000 by the Zenawi regime to kill it. How he had received threats. How the owners of Nation Media Group had not been happy with that coverage. How it had caused a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia. How it triggered a series of events that eventually led to his leaving NTV. How since then his life and that of his family has not been very secure: “In 2009 I was almost shot dead twice in front of my house . . . In 2016 I had to move to Uganda for three months for helping to organise Oromo protests in Kenya”. He was officially banned from entering Ethiopia.
Yassin Juma had covered the Oromo Liberation Front at a time when the movement badly needed the coverage. Ethiopia’s notorious media laws, stemming from the US-backed antiterrorism law, had forced its outspoken journalists into prison. That coverage was important on many counts; it came out at a time when the Oromo cause was transitioning from armed rebellion to an ideological youth- and artists-led movement at around the same time that Haacaaluu was breaking onto the music scene. A scroll through Yassin Juma’s Facebook page shows how important a player he had become in the Oromo cause; he is seen posing with Jawar and Haacaaluu and appears in most Oromo events held in post-revolution Ethiopia.
Kenya, Ethiopia and the Oromo question
For Kenya, Ethiopia is a landlocked market of 100 million people, a destination for goods from its ports and, more recently, a partner in the LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport) corridor project. In this context, complex stories such as Yassin Juma sought to tell were to Kenya an unwelcome initiative, going against sixty years of close cooperation built around keeping Somalia’s aggression in check. For their part, both the OLF and successive Ethiopian regimes have recognised the strategic importance of Kenya.
As an immediate neighbour, Kenya was important for the Oromo cause—as a refuge for thousands of fleeing Oromos and as transit territory for Oromos escaping oppression at home. Kenya’s importance in the Horn’s geo-politics, it’s appeal as a regional “bastion of peace” and as the regional capital for all manner of international media outlets and posh western think tanks, as well as Kenya’s role in Somalia’s pacification efforts and its shuttle diplomacy in South Sudan’s independence, have fuelled the Oromos’ desire to secure Kenya as an important ally. But how Kenya perceived and portrayed the Oromo struggle spoke volumes about the liberation movement’s international image.
In Kenya, the roots of the OLF rebellion were whitewashed and a truncated history was often told, the Oromo liberation struggle being portrayed as a threat to regional peace. The Kenyan media has reduced the OLF in the Kenyan mindset to illegitimate militias out to destabilise the region. Ethiopian ambassadors have reinforced the local political and media narrative that the Oromo cause is a quest to establish an Oromo super-state stretching all the way to Tana River, a narrative intertwined with other stories about the skirmishes between the Gabra and Borana in Marsabit. The OLF thus became the regional insecurity scapegoat, blamed for the October 1998 Bagalla Massacre in which 140 people were killed in Wajir and the July 2005 Turbi Massacre in Marsabit in which almost 90 people perished, and for the proliferation of arms in the north, for banditry, and even for livestock rustling.
Yet, this conclusion glossed over the complexities at play; the Ethiopian army’s harassment of Kenyans at the border was either ignored or the frequent abductions, killings and harassment of Kenyans by the Ethiopian military were dismissed as being the work of locals.
Following the Turbi Massacre, the OLF’s Dr Fido Ebba said that the OLF’s image was wrongly tainted and that the problem in Marsabit is two-fold, some of the raids are purely tribal. They pit civilian communities against each other over scarce resources and cattle. The rest are diversionary tactics by militias engaged by authorities within Ethiopia’s ruling class. They aim at inciting communities on the Kenyan side and possibly the government into fighting the OLF back.
Ethiopia also issued a similar counter-argument, for example in April 2006, when the OLF was blamed for the killing of two herders in Dukana. Ethiopia’s then acting ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ajebe Ligaba Wolde, insisted that it is the OLF that provokes and incites people along the border with Kenya. “They [OLF] put on Ethiopian soldiers’ uniforms to defame Ethiopia . . . OLF is not only a threat to peace in Ethiopia, but also to Kenya and the whole region. They want to destabilise the region”, said Mr Wolde.
Oromo Liberation Front ideologues and leadership view Kenya as an important player to whom they look with hope, believing that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia. “If Kenyans mediated between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo they would understand the problems better, just like they did with Sudan and Somalia”, said Dr Fido Ebba.
Ethiopia, which contributed to the liberation of Kenya’s struggle for independence (and was gifted an embassy in appreciation), has enjoyed a long, peaceful diplomatic relationship with Kenya, having signed a defense pact and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in the 1980s. Dr Fido Ebba wishes that the OLF could have its administrative base in Kenya, and not in the US (Washington) as is currently the case. “Our push for liberation would then be coordinated from close proximity”, he says.
Incursions into Kenyan territory by the Ethiopian army in search of the OLF are very common. In 2015 the Ethiopian army crossed into Kenya six times, once even taking over a police station in Illeret, Marsabit. Cross-border massacres—like the March 1997 Kokai Massacre in which 80 people including 19 police officers were killed—have been raised with the Ethiopian regime.
The OLF pointed an accusing finger at the Kenyan government and army, claiming that the Kenyan army has supported the Ethiopian army to wage war against the OLF, that Kenya had broken with several international protocols to abduct and repatriate legitimate Oromo refugees and that Oromo activists have been assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on Kenyan soil.
The decades-long struggle and the fraught relationship between Kenya, the OLF and Ethiopia seemed for a brief moment to be water under the bridge when the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was launched in Nairobi in the wake of the Qeerroo revolution. During the launch, Jawar Mohammed said:
I have come to this place many times before. I had to change my name and look. I am happy that we now can reveal our names and faces to each other. We didn’t plead for this . . . We fought for it . . . We threw those who made us hide our faces in a hole and came out . . . It’s not play that brought us here . . . We lost people like Jatani Ali to arrive here . . . I would like to say thank you to the government of Kenya even though they were not open and fully supportive of our struggle . . . There cannot be liberation for Oromos or for Ethiopia without its neighbours.
Mohammed spoke of how the OMN would lead to the establishment of a bridge between the two countries by bringing the Oromos in Kenya together and by connecting the Oromos in Kenya with the Oromos in Ethiopia through listening to the OMN.
In the constructed narrative, this talk could easily be misconstrued as alluding to the establishment of an Oromia republic stretching into Kenya.
The Oromos of northern Kenya
When Dr Abiy Ahmed became the Ethiopian premier, there were celebrations in Nairobi and in the streets of Isiolo, and a commemoration for all the slain Oromo people was held in Marsabit.
The Marsabit County Woman Representative, Safia Sheikh Adan, organised a memorial day for slain Borana heros and waxed lyrical about the Oromo liberation—Bilisumna—weeping as she recited a poem and read the names of leaders slain through political machinations.
But one name was repeated again and again by Governor Mohammed Ali, by Jawar Mohammed and by the Woman Representative. Mebastion Jatani Ali Tandhu, the former Provincial Governor of Borana Province in Southern Oromia who was assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on 2 July 1992 at Tea Zone Hotel in Nairobi. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been in Kenya to seek political asylum from Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Over the past three decades, he has become an Oromo political liberation martyr and cultural icon, his words revisited in songs and Oromo protest poetry. In commemoration, a message was carried in Kenya’s Daily Nation on the 10th anniversary of his death: “Exactly 10 years since you were brutally murdered by the operatives of Tigre Peoples Revolutionary Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary “Democratic” Front (EPRDF). The course for which you died is still alive”. With Abiy in power, his glory was resurrected and an equestrian statue was installed in the centre of his hometown of Yaballo. New songs were composed in his praise. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been buried in Marsabit and when Abiy came to power, his grave at the Marsabit cemetery was repainted.
It was Safia Sheikh Adan who financed the commemoration day. She spoke about Jattani Ali Tandhu’s contributions and mentioned other prisoners like Jatani Kunu who she said was still being held in an underground prison in Ethiopia. “We have lost many brave and strong people . . . Jatani Ali Tandhu, Galo Wolde, Qala Waqo, Sheikh Hassan, Hussein Sora Agole, Mohammed Halakhe Fayo and Hersi Jatani”.
In her overly sentimental tributes, Safia Sheikh Adan mentioned the names of slain former Kenyan parliamentarians like Guyo Halakhe, Philip Galma and Isacko Umuro. Their assassinations, like that of Daudi Dabasso Wabera (the first African Colonial District Commissioner who was assassinated by the Shifta in 1963), were unrelated to anything Oromo.
But the poem Safia Sheikh Adan recited, her tears and her actions were out of sync with the local politics and current feeling. A few understood her but most people watched her and wondered where her emotions were coming from and her efforts were finally without significance or consequence, dismissed as part of the initial euphoric joy that an Oromo was finally the Ethiopian premier.
Marsabit, music and protest poetry
When popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed on 29 June 2020, our hearts were broken and the sense of grief that engulfed us had a familiar weight. As Ethiopia descended into mourning and chaos, in Marsabit I listened to Haacaaluu’s albums anew. My friend and I paused and replayed certain songs to try to decipher what he meant and our sadness was deepened by the raw honesty of the injustice he described. That this was the soundtrack of a now stolen revolution added to the feeling that Ethiopia was a place of great injustice.
I remembered the image of Haacaaluu bursting onto the music scene about 10 years ago, a skinny boy in oversized shirt and trousers. We spoke about his music and his political education, his 5-year jail term when he was just 17 years old. We revisited the words of the Oromo liberation struggle as if we were reminiscing, as if it was about us. And we said aaaayyyiii, expressing the turmoil in our hearts. But at the end of the day, none of the political pathos and calls to action were about us, and nor were they happening on our doorstep. The deep articulation of the injustice that we listened to was in our own language but that struggle was not ours.
The aftermath of Haacaaluu’s death and the blowback in Oromia leads me to thoughts about what the Oromo struggle means to those of us who have come of age under its shadow.
To grow up in a liminal space like Marsabit is to be in an endless interregnum of something not quite yours. The earliest memory of the Oromo liberation struggle for me dates back to when I was six years old in mid-1990s Marsabit. Back then, a tape of a poet would be shared across the town, and we would listen alongside our parents, picking up words that sounded funny and made no sense to us.
It was hard, then, to link those words to concepts like oppression and injustice. But over the years, the OLF became the subject of whispers in Marsabit. OLF stories circulated in the manner of a secret; tales of disappearances were told, of men whose wives were taken in the night, of people whose lips had been cut off for snitching. The whisper was a mix of many fears, of the Kenyan Special Branch, of District Commissioners who had lists of OLF sympathisers, of the OLF itself, of Ethiopian spies. In Marsabit some of the murders in the town were linked to these fears.
In our home, the land of our grandparents’ past, Ethiopia, was the unspoken and unacknowledged thought. But its music was the future we aspired to; our heartbreak, our love, our longing for elusive dreams were in those lyrics.
Once, my dad came home with a small OLF flag, with the tree in the middle and the star above it. He stuck it up one side of our wall. It was the first symbol of the OLF as something good that was forbidden.
Many years later, I asked my Dad what that flag had meant to him and where he got it from. He had been in a car heading to Nairobi when he met a man who had engaged him in talk, telling him how liberation for the Oromo would benefit us all, how my dad in Kenya had to be conscious too, how the war being fought needed him.
My inquiry was short but in my father’s clipped answers I found an explanation I could relate to. I knew what his words meant and I knew what his silences meant. He had, like me, grown up on the poetry of Oromo oppression and on the songs of their hopeful salvation. Yet this long political induction had never called him to any action.
What did the Oromo of Kenya want for Oromia?
Calls for independence have a liberatory romance about them that is inviting to sympathisers. And nowhere is the Oromo call for liberation, and the reason for this call, and the status of this call, as articulated as it is in the music of the Oromo. The Oromo songs we listened to in Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo and Nairobi arose from the liberation struggle. They were songs and poetry that articulated Oromo suffering and encouraged resistance. Through the songs, the turmoil and suffering of the Oromo was transmitted to us in Kenya. But in Kenya, we seemed to run away from it all, not learning how to speak of the injustice that followed us.
In Marsabit we carried other stories of Ethiopia in our hearts, stories of an unacknowledged past as we forged new Kenyan identities, stories of the Amharas and how the gabbar system had forced our grandparents out of Ethiopia. Stories of slavery and of Abyssinian expansionism into southern Ethiopia.
We followed the Qeerroo protests keenly and vouched for them. But stolen revolutions break the heart even more. Haacaaluu’s murder was testament to a stolen revolution, an encore to the 1974 Derg, when the army through Mengistu stole another revolution. How many of the men in Marsabit escaped conscription in Ethiopia’s many wars with Eritrea and on its own people? How many had had hopes that their suffering would come to an end before the revolution was stolen from them in 1974, in 1991 and again in 2018?
I sit with a local musician in Marsabit and try to understand the influence of Oromo music on the Borana music produced and consumed in Kenya. How devoid of politics the songs in Kenya seem. I ask, “how come Borana musicians from Kenya haven’t contributed to the Oromo protest tradition?”
He says, “birds from different places speak a different tongue”.
It is a common saying about how things that look similar can be unrelated. In his answer, I understood so much. It is the caged bird that sings better of freedom.
A social-cultural state that defied the Westphalia model did exist in a section of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. A cultural state called Oromia did exist but, more than political aspirations, it was language, music, traditional political institutions and contiguous populations that marked its boundaries.
Is the Oromo cause over? Is it legitimate? How has their struggle progressed? Which parties speak for the Oromo? Where are they? What’s happening in Ethiopia? Asking Kenyan Borana/Oromo these questions is asking them far too much. None of these questions have been considered before. Yet somehow, a version of the Oromo pain has been inscribed in the psyche of the Kenyan Oromo through the Oromo music and protest tradition. The revolutionary spirit is appealing but there is no substance beneath the thin veneer of solidarity.
It was thus easy to romanticise the struggle itself. To hung posters of Lemma Megersa in khat shops while not knowing which party speaks for who. Yassin Juma had tried to put a story to this romantic idea of a political rebellion.
The Kenyan government’s choice of silence as a strategy and its hush-hush attitude towards the Oromo or the Ethiopian army’s repeated aggression on the border is just a convenient excuse, as is the simplistic idea peddled by security analysts that Kenyan Oromo also desire an Oromia super-state. It is reading too much into a romantic idea.
I know now that sympathy for—or identification with—the Oromo cause became intertwined with local politics as early as the 1990s, and allegations that local politicians had begun enlisting the services of OLF fighters were rife in Marsabit and that that there was some truth to these allegations.
For the states of the East African region there is a need to understand the Oromo cause and what is happening in Ethiopia. The Oromo call and the Ethiopian regime’s response to it should not be considered inconsequential, for the response is an indicator of how oppression, inclusion and participation of the marginalised are viewed in those states.
The old pattern in the region’s attempts at reform has been to gain one kind of political progress and lose another. To allow for the judiciary to be pseudo-independent but to cut it back when it does its work. Extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, clamping down on the freedom of association and freedom of speech, the arbitrary arrest of journalists, torture and detentions without trial, draconian and controversial laws like the social media tax in Uganda, the controversial hate speech law in Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns in Uganda and Ethiopia, declaration of a state of emergency to suppress legal and peaceful protests, all these speak of identical regional infirmities. For activists, pseudo-revolutionaries and politicians there are lessons here on the pitfalls of revolutionary nationalism in mainstream politics.
For the people of northern Kenya, whether viewed as potential citizens of a future “Oromia” or as relatives of disenfranchised, broken OLF fighters, or as the inhabitants of places invoked in Oromo songs, the sooner Ethiopia addresses the Oromo plight the better for the region. But even as Ethiopia sorts out its politics, the region also needs to formulate the ways in which the armed fighters are going to fit back into the community and not become a security threat by being enlisted to serve Marsabit politics.
In August 2017, four days after Ethiopia lifted its 10-month state of emergency, and as Kenya was in the throes of post-electoral violence, I crossed the border into Ethiopia at Moyale. In southern Ethiopia, in towns like Mega, Yaballo and Soyama, I counted a few T-Shirts adorned with the portraits of gubernatorial contestants in Marsabit. My grand-aunt was very worried that Kenya would burn with her daughter in it. After 10 days of drinking copious amounts of Ethiopian bunna in many towns and even in a restaurant at Akaki Kaliti, a sub-city of Addis Ababa, I returned to Kenya. On the way to Yaballo, political campaign songs about Marsabit’s politics played on the matatu’s stereo.
Back to Yassin Juma
It is in this larger context that Yassin Juma found himself in a prison in Ethiopia. He has since been released and is back in Kenya and we are waiting for his documentary about what Ethiopia is doing to its youth.
Parallels can be drawn between the struggles in Ethiopia and the situation in Kenya, how a minority wields economic and political power, keeping out the majority of citizens by means of elaborate political machinations. Keeping Kenyan youth in check with guns is not any different from the Ethiopian government’s incarceration of its youth and its heavy-handed reaction to dissent.
But there is something markedly different in the civil response in Ethiopia; 10-year-olds are active in the streets of Ambo.
It was important to observe Kenya’s reaction to Yassin Juma’s arrest and his release as this could be a signal to northern Kenya of a change in the government’s attitude towards the killings and assassinations that have been perpetrated in the name of the OLF in Kenya, and that the border regions will finally be treated with the seriousness they deserve.
Policing Black Women’s Hair
The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school.
The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”
Black women’s hair has been big news in South Africa over the last several years. In 2016, protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.
The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.
My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.
When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.
I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.
No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.
Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.
Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.
The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”
My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”
By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.
As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.
With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.
Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).
But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”
To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?
Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?
Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.
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