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Reflections

In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest

14 min read.

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.

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In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
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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.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Reflections

The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid

Now there are vaccines. But many are begging the universe, screams of grief erupting within them, with no one to hear. Elsewhere there are enough vaccines to cover each citizen many times over.

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The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid
Photo: Spencer Davis on Unsplash
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Thousands of people gathered in Wembley, going to the stadium for the Euro 2021 match between England and Denmark.

The fans returned to one of the homes of football, echoing the wider situation in the UK as things return to “normal”.

Many restrictions have been lifted, people can socialise, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants. Schools are open and so are shops.

All that remains is for the masks to come off collectively, to be able to travel to any part of the world without needing to quarantine upon return and for social distancing to end (although that rule seems to be out of the window without the government’s consent).

Normal.

The calls and messages from friends and family asking to meet up.

Normal.

The discussions over which vaccine you had.

Normal.

The sigh of relief at knowing your parents and other vulnerable loved ones are fully vaccinated and can resume some semblance of a life.

Normal.

The word formed part of one of the most used phrases during this pandemic; “new-normal” is it not an oxymoron of some sort. How can the ordinary and mundane suddenly be new?

Is it like a celebrity singer making a comeback? New look, new branding, new genre of music?

Or a product which is now packaged differently, shiny wrapping, bold letters: NEW NORMAL, NOW EVEN BETTER THAN BEFORE, GETS RID OF STAINS FASTER THAN EVER!

As I watch people embrace this return to normality (that which existed before the “new normal”, I question how.

My normal has been altered forever as I go out into a world that no longer includes the three family members I lost to the virus and the loved ones who passed away during that time whom I was not able to mourn properly.

I am not the only one.

How to resume life when there are human-shaped holes everywhere we look?

There are so many topics which form part of the “reunion discussions” here as people sit opposite those they have not seen in months, everything from love lives, to what you watched during lockdown, to which vaccine you had.

But there are also those of us who will gather, carrying loss and you wonder, who should offer their condolences first? Will we say in unison, “I am sorry for your loss?”

Death

In September 2020, my younger grandad in Dubai was hospitalised with COVID-19. Days later, my uncle, the one my mother referred to as her “twin”, was also taken in.

For days on end, the family WhatsApp groups were a hive of activity as everyone kept checking in with each other on whether there had been any updates on them.

Getting into bed would leave many of us gripped with terror as we kept the phones right next to us, ringer on, willing it to not ring in fear that the news of loss would arrive.

The days merged into one, phrases and words such as “oxygen level”, “ventilator”, and ”lung function” became a part of everyday conversation.

And we waited.

Because that really is what this pandemic has been about for so many of us.

One big wait.

Just waiting.

Waiting in a queue to get into the supermarket.

Waiting to feel like a human being again.

Waiting for (an often inept) government to tell you what next.

Waiting for the international community to act on vaccine nationalism, on supporting the hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been destroyed as a result of problematic pandemic policies, on all the global injustices and oppressions which continue to be ignored or treated with a vile indifference.

Waiting to find out if people you love will make it. If you will ever experience those elements of them that your mind and body have connected to, a unique chemical reaction which can never be replicated.

Every year on the 9th of October, my younger grandad would call my mum to wish her a happy birthday, later in the day a bunch of flowers and a card would arrive.

On the 9th of October 2020 the phone rang, and this time it brought the news of his death.

In the days that followed, I watched my mother wrestle with a creature that was invisible to the rest of us, that which morphs into existence following the death of a parent or a parental figure.

While grief sat gently on our shoulders, we clung on to hope with our hands that my uncle would be ok.

The primary coping mechanism became conversations with family members and friends which would feature anecdotes of other people they knew who had contracted the virus and fallen severely ill and somehow made it through.

On the 3rd of November I met with my best friend for breakfast, it was my birthday, and as I bit into my celebratory waffles, my phone rang.

My uncle had passed away.

In those last hours they tried to get as many people on the phone as possible to say goodbye. When it was my mother’s turn, she simply asked him not to leave. She reminded him of the way they would argue over things as kids and promised that if he just stayed, she would never bicker with him again.

My mother’s posture is different now.

She carries loss on her shoulders.

How to put down that burden?

Grief

In my culture, like in many others, coming together and performing certain rituals following the death of a loved one is the norm.

There is the funeral and then during the 12 days after there are communal prayers while people come to offer their condolences.

Some aspects of this coming together can be challenging for some; the copious amounts of tea to be made for the guests, the lack of comfort some get from phrases like “he’s in a better place now” or “it was God’s will”.

Simultaneously however, for many people there is comfort to be found in being surrounded by loved ones. Some bring food, others give well-meaning words of comfort, stories are shared about the person who has passed away and there are moments when the touch of an aunt or uncle or cousin provides momentary respite.

Due to travel bans, limits on the number of people allowed at a funeral and the risks around holding large gatherings, people were denied the opportunity to partake in this communal grieving, the pandemic not only taking our loved ones, but also denying us access to spaces of comfort.

The “zoom funeral” has been among the most peculiar experiences for me.

Watching the last rites being performed and swinging between gratitude for technology and utter disbelief that this last goodbye involves you sitting in front of a screen as if you are watching a film or a Netflix show.

And then. It’s all over.

As other people begin to logout, you stare at the “leave” button, daring yourself to click it.

The decision gets taken out of your hands as a notification pops up, telling you that the “meeting” has ended.

What next? You switch off the laptop, go put the washing machine on, open the mail, call the mechanic to book an MOT and start preparing lunch, while swallowing down a grief that burns the back of your throat?

How can someone just no longer exist?

In the months that followed, I lost more loved ones and loved ones lost loved ones and on and on it went.

Login to social media and there were posts every day in which people shared that someone they love had just died of the virus, and in between these would be those featuring headlines stating, “xxxxxxx number of Covid-19 deaths recorded today”.

These formed some kind of pattern, a reminder that people are not statistics and that behind each number was a living, breathing human being whose death had felt like the end of the world for someone.

Grief laid bare, tears spilling out into the social media feeds, all of us drowning in sorrow.

And now.

Amid all this, a number of countries began rolling out Covid-19 vaccines. At home in the UK, those in the high-risk category began to receive their first shots in early 2021. Suddenly, hope was in the air.

The start of the pandemic saw the slogan “we’re all in this together” being bandied about worldwide. However, the perceived exit point, a vaccine, revealed that this not to be the case.

As countries like the UK return to “normal”, many countries in the global south, including those on the African continent are experiencing the opposite as they once more go into lockdown.

Mortuaries in Namibia are at full capacity, 16 doctors in Uganda have died from the virus in the space of 14 days, lockdowns in countries including South Africa and Rwanda mean that people’s lives and livelihoods are once more severely affected.

Addressing a media briefing on the 1st of July 2021, World Health Organisation Regional Direction for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said, “The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before.”

That same week World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was asked about vaccine hesitancy in Africa and that his response was “there is no vaccine so why do we even talk about vaccine hesitancy. Those who have vaccines are getting better and opening up their society, those who don’t are facing serious Covid-19 situations. We need vaccines in Africa now.”

Speaking at the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit on the 22nd of June 2021, Strive Masiyiwa, African Union Special Envoy to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said that when he approached vaccine manufacturers in December 2020, he was told all capacity for 2021 was sold, “The people who bought the vaccines and the people who sold them the vaccines knew that there would be nothing for us.”

Ironically, in December 2020, Business Insider reported that Canada “has enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to cover each citizen five times over”.

18-months-ago the global sentiment being pedalled was one of “standing shoulder to shoulder” in facing the pandemic, but it has become increasingly clear that there is a group of entities for whom preserving global inequalities which allow them to stand on a self-created pedestal is far too important.

As Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola tweeted in response to an announcement that the United States will purchase and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union, over two years, “We asked for justice. They are giving us charity.”

Vaccine consignments through the COVAX facility and other donors arrive in dribs and drabs, the International Monetary Fund saying, “The vaccine rollout in sub-Saharan Africa remains the slowest in the world. Less than 1 adult in every hundred is fully vaccinated, compared to an average of over 30 in more advanced economies”.

There has been another pandemic running parallel with COVID-19, that of injustice.

I think back to those anguish-filled days when my uncle and my grandad were in hospital, the numerous moments of bargaining with the universe to just make them ok and the feeling of the floor falling away from me when I was told they had gone.

At that time, talk of vaccines and rollouts was not widespread.

Now, there are vaccines.

Yet there are many begging the universe as I did back then. There are those sat in front of a screen being forced to say a final goodbye with the click of a button, screams of grief erupting from within them, with no one to listen.

And there are those, double-vaccinated, who walked into a football stadium, their screams in unison with a thousand others, heard all over the world.

Normal?

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Reflections

South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.

To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time in South Africa. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what South Africans do between this fire and the next.

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South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.
Photo: Pawel Janiak on Unsplash
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Two of South Africa’s most populous provinces are on fire. Others teeter on the brink. Together with many others who are observing this iteration of the smoldering blaze, I am caught in the confluence of all kinds of emotions. My sisters and their children live at the center of the fire that is raging in Pietermaritzburg. They are terrified. Even though I am observing the fires from Maputo, their horror at the destruction is an affect that they have drawn me into as well. Social media is flush with the devastating images. Acquaintances have lost businesses that they remain mired in debt over. I have internalized the fear of my family and others whose terror I watch on Twitter. In moments of life altering change, we are usually counseled to sit respectfully and to learn from the experience. For this reason and because I am depleted by the effects of COVID-19 on African lives, and as a consequence of the conflicting emotions jostling within me, I had decided to be quiet and to learn.

Over the past decade, I have been thinking of the rogue emotion of collective rage that occasionally surfaces and sweeps us in its wake. For this reason, Pumla Gqola tweeted asking that I remind tweeps about the work of collective rage in this moment. I write in response to this invitation to think through the lessons of rage and its fires. To begin with, we might think of rage as intentional and networked anger rather than as a free standing emotion. Rage builds on sedimented anger but it is not reducible to anger. It transforms individual grievances into shared problems and structures anger into collective action. In the words of Fred Motem, rage is love and care under duress. This is because it forces the downtrodden to choose themselves and assert their presence even when the world has blotted them out.

To rage is to say, “fuck it, I love myself too much to allow this.” Steve Biko reminded us that we are either alive or dead and when we die, we don’t care anyway. Rage is patterned on history because the grievances build up over time and their expression finds resonance with old and evolving forms of protest. I do not have to remind the reader of just how deep South Africa’s protest history goes and how it folds into and out of social sanction and respectability—attributions of good and bad. Following the old feminist adage, the personal (anger) becomes political (rage). Because of what it represents and does, property has always been the target of rage.

These protests and looting bare the hallmarks of rage. Unemployment sits between 60 and 80 percent among black youth. Many are unemployable. They watch us live comfortably and they see the excess of jet setting Moet lives. Businesses come to squarely represent excess. They’ll never get jobs at a shopping centre or mall from which they are routinely chased out and seen—with justification at times—as potential thieves. In Pietermaritzburg there are tons of young men that sleep on the streets, in parks, under shop awnings, bridges, road overpasses, and the city’s cemeteries. Everyone knows to look out for the “paras” despite this being the seat of the unseeing provincial government. The “paras” broke into my sister’s house twice while the family slept. The children are traumatized. The “paras”want food. Some take drugs to numb the pain. And then they need money to buy the drugs. Because they already live in the street, their fate is not tied to the cashiers and waiters who work at the burning shopping centers. This is to say that if their mothers and cousins lose their jobs as a consequence of a burned shop, this will not have material bearing on their overlooked lives. And those who are not homeless already live precarious lives. They see the dimness of their futures.

When someone strikes a match and invites them to take from the shops, the young people are more than ready to rage and eat. Even if for a day or two. The feeling of fleeting control is priceless. To watch the things that taunt and mock you go up in flames is to finally experience the adrenaline of living. It is to turn the world upside down so that we can all feel the destabilizing effects of marginality. With or without shops in the neighborhood, they will always experience hunger and humiliation. So they don’t believe that they are cutting their own noses. Today is their day. For today, it is we who are terrified and uncertain. Tomorrow they will watch us rummage through the ashes. They know the feeling too well. They live in urine stained ashes.

With reference to the Vietnam war, Spike Lee’s protagonist in Da 5 Bloods says “No one should use our rage against us. We own our rage.” It is apt here. Jacob Zuma and his children have attempted to own the rage of the unemployed. Those they forsook and overlooked when they led the rampant feeding at the trough of political patronage. Now they seek to use the rage of the forsaken to fight the reckoning that must follow reckless and wanton corruption that robbed the poor and swelled the ranks of the unemployed. They lit the match and tossed it. It has landed on dry tinder. Now the flames are engulfing us.

On this precipice, we too have to sit with the warning. “No one should use our rage against us.” As the middle classes and the tenuously employed working classes, do we hit out at the raging youth or do we help in closing the growing gulf between the poor and the wealthy. Not through slogans about old Stellenbosch money, but our own money, political decisions, and privilege that we use to build walls around our properties. Even if we got our hands on all the white Stellenbosch money and imprisoned apartheid generals and war mongers, our problems will not be overcome. Not to use the rage of the unemployed calls on us to end our problematic relationship to property and to recenter the public good. It is insufficient to take care of our families and to complain about black tax. It is to take seriously that the raging youth own their rage and that it is an expression of their self-love under duress. We might condemn their destruction of property but to take rage seriously is to reconsider the social role of property not as enrichment but as public good. This moment is one of reckoning. It shines the spotlight on the government’s ineptness, the fissures between us, and the violence of property.

Perhaps the rage will die down in a few days. Rage always burns itself out. But all it needs are reckless political feeders who thrive on attention and self-importance to light the kindling. Proxy political battles, xenophobes, fascists and others will fill the yawning fissures of inequality. We will return to this place again. We have been here before. Those old enough to remember the fires of the 1980s and the transition years know the fires of rage. Those who came of age in the 1970s nurse the burns of the Soweto and Langa uprisings. The Durban strikes. And earlier still, in the 1960s, the Mpondo revolt and Sharpeville massacre had their own fires. The women who marched on the Union Buildings know the heat of rage.

To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what we do between this fire and the next.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Reflections

The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun

Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.

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The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun
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After months of preparations, and weeks at sea, a delegation of the Zapatistas has touched down in Europe. The “reversed conquest” has well and truly begun.

It was a genuine surprise when the Zapatistas published their communiqué “A Mountain on the High Seas” on October 5, 2020, announcing a tour of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) across five continents, starting with Europe. Even though the Zapatistas have not shied away from organizing initiatives in Chiapas and across Mexico — the March of the Color of the Earth just 20 years ago is a case in point — it is basically the first time since 1994 that they are leaving the borders of their homeland behind.

Then, on January 1 of this year, they published a Declaration for Life, co-signed with hundreds of individuals, collectives and organizations, outlining the objective of this voyage: making a contribution to the effort for anti-capitalist struggles — which are inseparable from the struggles for life — to converge in full consciousness of their differences and unhampered by homogenizing or hegemonizing forces.

In the past six months, extensive organizing has taken place at the European level, as well as in each individual country or “geography,” according to the Zapatista vocabulary. For instance, a francophone coordinating body has been established, which includes eight regional federations of collectives and local initiatives.

Meanwhile, the EZLN confirmed that a large delegation of more than a hundred members, three-quarters of which are women, was getting ready. The delegation is also said to be accompanied by members of the National Indigenous Congress–Indigenous Council of Government which unites Indigenous struggles across Mexico, as well as a contingent of the People’s Front in Defense of Land and Water of Puebla, Morelos and Tlaxcala which is fighting against the installation of a massive power plant that is threatening to divert water resources indispensable to the peasants in the region.

The Voyage for Life — Europe Chapter

On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, they announced the departure of the first party of the Zapatista delegation, destined to make its voyage by sea. We had expected to see them leave the caracol of Morelia that day, where the members had been preparing themselves for months. A formal ritual was performed for the occasion, with traditional music, incense and purifying acts (“limpia”), upon a life-size model of a ship’s prow.

But the group did not set out on their journey right away: first they went into a 15-day quarantine to ensure that no one leaves the Zapatista territory carrying any other virus than that of rebellion. This decision is in line with the EZLN’s resolution to take all the required precautionary sanitary measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 upon themselves and outside of state mandates. This had led them to issue a red alert and close off access to all Zapatista caracoles since March 15, 2020.

The maritime delegation was baptized “Escuadrón 421” because it is composed of four women, two men and one transgender person (“unoa otroa” in the Zapatista lexicon), who were individually introduced in a communique of Subcomandante Galeano.

After another farewell party on Sunday, April 25, accompanied by the exhibition of numerous paintings and sculptures, encouraging speeches by the Council of Good Government and a communal ball, the delegation departed the next day from Morelia. From there they reached the Mexican harbor at Isla Mujeres where a ship named “La Montaña” was awaiting them and they set sail for the Atlantic crossing on May 2.

The Escadron 421 is now at the mercy of the ocean’s wiles, under the capable seamanship of the ship’s crew. They should be within sight of the European coast at the port of Vigo in Spain in the second half of June.

Simultaneously smaller celebrations were organized by the sound of drums and all sorts of encouragements to accompany the departure of other members of the Zapatista delegation, leaving their villages in the Lacandon jungle, at times using canoes to descent the rivers of this tropical region close to the Guatemalan border. They are part of different groups of the Zapatista delegation, which will reach the old continent, by air travel this time, from the beginning of July onwards.

So will begin months of intensive activities, meetings and exchanges all over Europa for the Zapatistas. Thus far they have received and accepted invitations from a great number of “geographies”: Austria, Basque Country, Belgium, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sardinia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK and Ukraine.

Hundreds of meetings and activities have been proposed to the Zapatistas, which are currently being coordinated. These events will be made public by the organizing collectives when the time comes. This might also include larger gatherings/rallies, around all current struggles: from the Gilets Jaunes to ZAD’s, in the case of France, and other resistance groups fighting destructive mega projects; feminist collectives, migrant support initiatives, groups struggling against police violence, as well as movements aiming to undo colonial forms of domination; mutual aid networks based in cities and rural areas as well as those involved in building alternative ways of living; not forgetting the critical mobilizing efforts compelled by, as the Zapatistas emphasize, the bloody tragedies of our wounded planet. The list — incomplete here — is long in the vast constellation of rebellions against capitalist brutality and struggles for other, more desirable worlds.

Above all, the Zapatistas have explained that they are coming to exchange with — that is, to speak, and even more so, to listen to — all those that have invited them “to talk about our mutual histories, our sufferings, our rages, our successes and our failures.” Especially in grassroots meetings so there is enough time to get to know and learn from one another.

The Zapatistas have long since argued for our struggles not to remain isolated from each other, and have underlined the importance of constructing global networks of resistance and rebellion. There is no need to enumerate all the international events that they have organized in Chiapas from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism (also referred to as “Intergalactic”) in 1996 until the Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra seminar in 2015. But in August 2019, while announcing the recent advancement in local self-government with the establishment of four new autonomous communes and seven new Councils of Good Government, the Zapatistas had made it clear not to be organizing any large events anymore. Instead they were planning to take part in “meetings with groups, collectives, and organizations that work [struggle] within their geographies.”

There was no question back then of touring the five continents, but it could be — among many other reasons to set out on such a journey — a way to initiate this very process. If such an approach may indeed resonate with the widely felt need to weave stronger bonds between existing struggles, this requires not only an exchange to identify the commonalities and differences but especially a human-to-human encounter that can forge interconnection.

The Zapatistas are calling this journey the “Voyage for Life,” and it will present an opportunity for a vast number of people to meet the Zapatistas and learn more from their experiment in autonomy and dignity, persevered against overwhelming odds for over a quarter century. And, hopefully, many will allow themselves to be won over by the virus of rebellion of which the Zapatista are contagious carriers.

Let’s also hope that all those who identify with the Declaration for Life and for whom the autonomy of the Zapatista is a shining source of aspiration and inspiration will be ready to welcome them, support their itinerant initiative and participate in a manner best suited to each and every one on this Voyage for Life.

The Continent Renamed “Slumil K’Ajxemk’Op”

Returning to the Escadron 421. Since the first announcement, the Zapatistas have talked about their voyage towards Europe as a reversed process of conquest. The idea of the inversed invasion — this time with consent — amuses them. Obviously, it is said in jest — but are we entirely sure? When the delegation left, scale models ironically alluded to the caravels of Christopher Columbus: “No soy una Niña” and “Santa Maria La Revancha”; but it was also clarified that it is only if the members of Squadron 421 manage to land on European soil that it can be truly said that “the invasion has started.” If all goes well, they will be in Madrid on August 13, 2021, to celebrate in their own way the quincentenary of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by the army of Hernan Cortés.

The Indigenous population of Chiapas, like all those on the American continent, have for five centuries suffered the implications of colonization, including all the forms of internal colonialism and racism that extend it. The Zapatistas have made it clear, however, that they are not coming to Madrid to get a formal apology from the Spanish state or the Catholic church. They reject the essentialist condemnation of the “West” as evil and fully assimilated to the colonizers, as well as the attitude that relegates the colonized to the role of victim. On the contrary, they are intending to tell the Spaniards “that they have not conquered us [and] that we are still resisting and in fact in open rebellion.”

To make this voyage in reverse is to nuance a history that has assigned deeply entrenched and unambiguous positions to the vanquisher and the vanquished, and unlock the possibility for an alternative history.

When the maritime Zapatista delegation reaches Europe it is Marijose, “unoa otroa” of the Escadron 421 that will go ashore first. The following is how Subcomandante Galeano described the scene in advance; an inversion of the gesture by which Christopher Columbus — who disembarked on October 12, 1492, neither as a conqueror nor as a discoverer, since he was only seeking to find the already known lands of Japan and China — rushed to plant his cross and impose the name San Salvador on the island of Guanahaní:

Thus, the first foot that will set on European soil (that is, if they let us disembark) will not be that of man or a woman. It will be the foot of another.

With what the deceased SupMarcos would have described as “a slap with a black stocking in the face of all the heteropatriarchal left,” it has been decided that the first person to disembark will be Marijose.

As soon as they will have planted both feet firmly on European ground and recovered from seasickness, Marijose will shout out:

“Surrender, pale heteropatriarchal faces who persecute that which is different!”

Nah, I’m joking. But wouldn’t it be good if they did?

No, on stepping out on land the Zapatista compa Marijose will solemnly declare:

“In the name of women, of children, of men, of elders and, of course, of other Zapatistas, I declare that the name of this land, which its natives today call 

“Europe” will henceforth be known as: SLUMIL K’AJXEMK’OP, which means “Rebel Land,” or, “Land that doesn’t yield, that doesn’t fail.”

And thus it will be known by its inhabitants as well as by strangers as long as there is someone who will not abandon, who will not sell out, and who will not capitulate.”

Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by ROAR magazine. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international

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