There was initially a slight conflation between the Afrobeat genre and its later reincarnation as Afrobeats. Recently however, there has been a demarcation between the two genres even though they share certain antecedents of lineage.
Fela Kuti—visionary composer, multi-instrumentalist, radical social activist, cultural renegade, political prisoner and pan-Africanist amongst other things—is regarded as the foremost exponent of Afrobeat and his life and work have been amply documented. Kuti’s brand of Afrobeat emerged after years of experimentation during which he lived in London as a student in the 1950s and 60s and then in Los Angeles in the late 60s. Kuti had studied classical music in England where he also spent time moonlighting in jazz clubs. Jazz, and not classical music, had been his first love. On completing his studies, Kuti returned to Nigeria where he had a stint in broadcasting before going into a full-time career in music.
At the time, West African highlife music was all the rave. Highlife is reputed to have been pioneered by E.T. Mensah, a Ghanaian exponent, but the genre soon gained widespread acceptance all over the West African coast. It was an intoxicating blend of Latin sounds and African polyrhythms served with bluesy horns. Essentially, it was feel-good music with little or no overt political content. It certainly didn’t need to be politically conscious because many African countries were still in a euphoric mood after recently gaining independence from their erstwhile colonisers.
For a while, Kuti dabbled in what he termed highlife-jazz. And then at the end of the 60s, he visited the United States on a musical tour. On getting there, he discovered that he and his band hadn’t obtained the correct visas that would permit them to work. In Los Angeles, he met Sandra Izidore, a young and beautiful African American woman who would change his life.
A student of anthropology, Izidore was also a radical pro-black activist who turned Kuti to the ideology of the Black Panther Party. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous momentum, with black leaders calling for urgent sociopolitical change. Such transformation also meant cultural assertion and empowerment as exemplified by James Brown’s radical cry, “Say it loud, I’m black and proud”. Brown in turn preached his searing political message through a diet of gut-bucket funk. Funk was unapologetically black at its core; the kind of music that in earlier times would be classified as race music. Basically a groove-based music, its energetic, funky drum patterns and heavy bass lines distinguished it as a form that spoke directly to the gut and soul.
Meanwhile, Kuti was taking copious notes on everything, from the strident political messaging to the indispensability of the groove coupled with the hypnotic and electrifying effects of gut-deep funk. There was clearly a lot to be learnt from a culturally resurgent black America.
Although Kuti deeply admired jazz, he still felt it lacked something. In particular, he believed that more obvious elements of African music needed to be added into the mix. These ingredients included powerful ancient West African drumming traditions. Within those illustrious percussive traditions, drummers had discovered a way to make drums “talk” in honouring their deities and forging stronger communal ties.
Kuti promptly set about incorporating those vital elements of West African music into his ever-expanding repertoire. Apart from his own indigenous Yoruba drumming, these elements included Ghanaian styles, highlife textures, jazzy horns and deep funk grooves. He also learnt about the power of African trance music and its innate spirituality. Having selected these assorted sonic elements, Kuti turned to questions of ideology and political message; it was an unlikely combination of ingredients funnelled through a highly idiosyncratic imagination.
Izidore had preached the necessity to develop a clear political vision. In America, political struggle was defined by the imperatives of black empowerment and the language of civil rights. Back in Nigeria, as the euphoric haze of independence wore off, Kuti was confronted by enervating postcolonial anomie. The ruling classes, both civilian and military, had become insufferably corrupt. Instead of real national development, Kuti saw missed opportunities and truncated potential which infuriated him. He started to lambast the decadent ruling classes and soon incurred their wrath. He was constantly harassed, arrested and beaten by military goons.
But Kuti had found a powerfully distinctive musical voice and an equally impressive political message to sit within it. Fastened together, his sonic template and ideological vision became a formidable weapon that attempted several things all at once: sociopolitical transformation, cultural and aesthetic affirmation, spiritual re-discovery and individual liberation.
Kuti came to be viewed as a disconcerting maverick, an irrepressible icon who spoke fearlessly for the disenfranchised masses, a gadfly who constantly taunted and angered the political and economic elites, and finally, a social rebel who championed the causes of countercultural renegades. He blithely broke all the rules, politically, culturally and musically. And within this restless cauldron of rebellion and experimentation, classical Afrobeat was born, with Kuti as its instantly recognisable face. However, there were other musicians, such as Orlando Julius and Remi Kababa, who also favoured the genre.
Within Kuti’s large and revolving band, many musicians are credited with having played pivotal roles in forging Afrobeat’s sonic identity. In this regard, mention must be made of drummer Tony Allen’s contributions in laying down the percussive basis of the Afrobeat sound. Although Kuti was the visionary mastermind who assembled all the elements together, he was generous enough to acknowledge Allen’s vital inputs. Incidentally, Allen died in Paris during the COVID-19 pandemic at the age of 79.
Another crucial figure in the Afrobeat story is baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun who succeeded Allen as band leader when the latter left in 1979 not long after the sacking and razing of Kalakuta Republic, Kuti’s countercultural commune, in 1977. The following year, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s mother and foremost feminist, who had been flung from an upstairs window during the raid on Kalakuta, died aged 78 as a result of her injuries.
Kuti himself was never the same after this ordeal. He gradually became understandably paranoid, distrustful of even his own well-meaning close friends and associates and increasingly reclusive. His oppression at the hands of the military authorities continued and a change in his sonic template became noticeable. For one, the joie de vivre evident in his earlier compositions rapidly gave way to a sombre, meditative tone which aligned with the spiritual turn of mind that came to inform his general outlook.
Kuti died in 1997 during the reign of Nigeria’s most heinous dictator, General Sani Abacha, who himself met his demise the following year. But even before his death, Kuti had been long past his prime, weakened by numerous beatings inflicted by an unforgiving military and HIV/Aids. Sadly, he died a bitter and broken man although ultimately, he had the last laugh. Afrobeat, the genre he pioneered and disseminated against all odds eventually became an attractive idiom, finding proponents all over the world. As this came to pass, his cultural stock increased in value exponentially.
Nollywood, the rough, innovative and adaptable movie industry hatched in the midst of a pulverising economic meltdown and severe sociocultural upheavals soon grew to international prominence on the strength of its DIY ethic. After Kuti’s passing, it was yet another cultural phenomenon that, in spite of all odds, attested to the region’s cultural vibrancy and resourcefulness. It can be argued that the confidence acquired by Nollywood somehow translated to other distinct yet related cultural pursuits such as music. In other words, the same DIY spirit that had birthed Nollywood eventually produced Afrobeats.
Afrobeats, as distinct from Afrobeat, is less political, arguably less musically accomplished or sophisticated and evidently less aesthetically ambitious. Today’s Afrobeats musicians work in a vastly different technological era in which they don’t need to learn to play and master what are considered to be traditional musical instruments. All they need is an adept beatmaker.
However, Kuti’s Afrobeat is an almost impossible proposition in the current economic environment because he often needed what would appear to be orchestras within orchestras to produce his intricate, lavishly textured sound and hence realise his singularly unique musical vision. Technically, this is very difficult to accomplish presently as the sheer logistics required to achieve this kind of feat are simply mind-boggling.
Kuti also believed strongly in the spiritual dimensions of African music; music was, in other words, an avenue to access ancestral life-worlds and establish historical continuity devoid of the frivolities of the present. In addition, there is also a striving to affirm and express the ineffable. Again, this refers to the spiritual component of classical Afrobeat.
Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy are regarded as the current superstars of the Afrobeats scene. And in several ways, they are all very different. Wizkid, one of the first breakout Afrobeats stars, has a distinctively mellow voice and is very skilled at ad libs and groove-laden free-styles. Lyrically and politically, there is very little content to his music except that he is often able to deliver feel-good tunes that fill the dance floors. In fairness to him, he does not pretend to be a political messiah or to possess a vision of how society ought to be reformed. He has also become part of the global entertainment industry which readily accepts and promotes stars that lend themselves to easy and unproblematic branding.
The same can be said of Davido, Wizkid’s compatriot and frequent rival, who hit the limelight about the same time as the latter. Davido’s voice isn’t as charming but he makes up for it with an equally astute understanding of the groove and indigenous African rhythms. Other advantages that serve him well are his relentless energy and cannily precise understanding of his strengths and limitations as a musician.
Burna Boy, his multiple successes notwithstanding, is a slightly more demanding figure. Of the three major Afrobeats stars, he draws more directly from Kuti’s immense artistic legacy. He has sampled so many of Kuti’s compositions that detractors began to question his originality. Incidentally, Burna’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, legendary jazz aficionado and broadcaster, had been Kuti’s manager in the 60s. So Burna comes from an artistic and ideological pedigree that can be traced right back to Kuti. His most recent musical offering entitled Twice as Tall comes barely a year after the Grammy-nominated and BET award-winning album, African Giant.
Burna has consistently attempted to infuse socially conscious lyrics in his music, an obvious connection to Kuti’s aesthetic. Interestingly, his mother, Bose Ogulu, is a producer of his latest album along with US luminaries P Diddy and Timberland. His sister works on his label as artistic director. Ensuring that his family participates in his artistic journey also chimes with Kuti’s understanding of the communal nature of music. However, being transformed into an unproblematic global star entails a more discreet packaging of his overt political agenda. If Burna gets too strident about his political message, sponsors and brands may balk at promoting him.
At the same time, there is clearly an inclination to present himself as a credible artist and not just a dance floor-filling flavour-of-the-month singer. It would be interesting to see how the contradictions between being a true artist and being merely an entertainer in the current music business climate play out. It is a bit early to predict how Burna intends to confront this dilemma as he tries to portray himself as an artist cut from the Kuti cloth while also having an eye on gorgeous video vixens who could make his visuals more interesting. His growing political awakening has to contend with the very real limitations within the music industry and the realities of becoming a veritable global icon.
Meanwhile, performers from all over the world continue to hop onto the Afrobeats wagon, from Beyonce, Drake, Chris Brown, H.E.R., Stormzy, Summer Walker, Wale, Jorja Smith, Sam Smith, Pop Smoke, Teyana Taylor to Afro B and many other globally acclaimed stars. And the morphology of Afrobeats has begun to reflect this astonishing diversity in terms of sound, presentation and potential.
Unlike Nollywood, Afrobeat(s) generally have had greater success as African cultural exports. In his heyday, Kuti almost immediately won over influential fans like the famed jazz pianist Randy Weston, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ginger Baker, Gilberto Gil, Roy Ayers, Hugh Masekela and many other major industry players. There are Afrobeat combos playing in the Kuti mode in Europe, Asia, North and South America. Arguably, there are also more Kuti tribute bands playing abroad than on the African continent. Even before his death, in countries like Colombia, there were numerous cover versions of his songs that Kuti himself probably knew nothing about.
Fela!, the broadway musical composed by Bill T. Jones and sponsored by Jay Z and Will Smith in 2008, went on to have a successful international run taking in Europe and Africa. Since then another Fela-inspired musical extravaganza produced in Nigeria has gone on tour internationally. There are frequent festivals in France, Britain, the United States, Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria celebrating Kuti’s life and work.
Kuti’s discography is somewhat confusing for a number of reasons. He was extraordinarily prolific during his almost four-decade long career beginning from the early 60s. He privately established a plethora of record labels and also released many albums through mainstream companies such as EMI and Decca. Some estimates claim he released one hundred and thirty-three albums during his lifetime excluding almost two dozen masterpieces he simply refused to put on wax due to his eventual disillusionment with the music business and societal politics.
As for Afrobeats, in May 2020, US mainstream music outlet, Billboard Magazine, ran a special feature on the global rise of the genre profiling Davido, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. Both Davido and Savage have performed on the US TV Jimmy Fallon show. Mr Eazi entertained US fans alongside Burna Boy in 2019 at the impactful Coachella Festival. His 2020 hit single, Oh My Gawd features Major Lazer and Nicki Minaj. Afrobeats has firmly taken root in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy supported by a large African diaspora population and enthusiastic European audiences. It is certainly not a mere passing fad but an increasingly durable fixture on the cultural calendar. Only this year, the UK launched its official Afrobeats music chart. And there are now festivals exclusively devoted to Afrobeats.
Nonetheless, Afrobeats musicians and music audiences around the world are immensely indebted to Kuti for the enormous sacrifices he made to lay the solid foundations for a multi-faceted sonic future, the possibilities of which are yet to be exhaustively explored. Kuti was hardly able to reap the benefits of his astonishing work during his scandal-prone life. Indeed, he was an uncommonly courageous and uncompromising artist who often spurned the advances of international entertainment cartels just as he offended local political elites. And so in order to pursue his work, he had to build his own platforms and networks from scratch which entailed finding his own performance spaces, establishing his own record labels and developing independent channels for the appreciation and distribution of his music.
Kuti fought many battles on multiple fronts and, of course, due to his unyielding stance, he incurred great financial and reputational losses. For instance, he once famously turned down Motown’s attempt to buy his diverse back catalogue. But those very losses and sacrifices are what made it possible for Afrobeats to be born. Kuti almost single-handedly charted an aesthetic terrain that is full of yet to be explored musical riches.
Shot After Curfew – the Death of “Vaite”
The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles.
If for no other reason than to chart for present and future generations the story of Kenya’s march to independence, 1st June is an important date. On this day in 1963, Kenya was granted Madaraka (internal self-rule) by its then colonial master, Britain. The question of how Kenyans would govern themselves was no longer an abstract aspiration that thousands had been tortured, bled and died for. On that day, I would imagine, it must have felt glorious for many who watched from the margins of Kenya’s society. The lives and rights of black men and women in Kenya would be a concern for the true owners of the country to unravel. The targeted violence of a foreign ruler’s police force would be replaced by a police force whose motto was “utumishi kwa wote”, Swahili for service to all. Or so the dream went.
So, the shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name. In fact, on the evening that he died, his death was introduced to Kenyans as the death of a homeless man named “Vaite” – a colloquial name for the Meru ethnic community that James hailed from. The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown. Still, he was a Kenyan whose death, his neighbours, friends and rights organisations are certain was at the hands of a system not made to serve him. His killing was allegedly by members of a police force that, history shows, acts with brutality towards the poor in Kenya. He was killed in the early days of the enforcement of a dawn to dusk curfew, imposed on March 27th to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the story of James’s journey to the grave.
The last years of James’s life were spent existing on those very same margins of society trodden upon by the poor generations before him, except he was a Kenyan with full rights – not one existing at the pleasure of the crown.
At 7 am on the 9th of June, 2020, the skies above Nairobi opened for a brief but intense interval of rain. The days before it and after would be sunny, but on this morning only rain and a dull grey sky would do. On this day, James Muriithi would be laid to rest. Slates of rainfall seemed especially heavy at Nairobi’s city mortuary as his younger brother Jamleck Njagi dashed between the hearse they had hired and the mortuary’s cold room to talk to a mortuary attendant. I was standing under a gazebo a short distance away. The rain made it hard for me to hear what Jamleck was telling the mortuary attendant, but it was clear that he was upset by his response. I went over to find out what was wrong.
“The attendant says he can’t find James’s body!”
The morgue attendant would repeat the same to me, then make a call to a colleague who had been handling James’s remains the day before. When I identified myself as a journalist who was covering James’s funeral, the attendant, now joined by an older female colleague, made a performance of his suddenly remembering which compartment James’s body had been stored in.
“OOOOH! I remember now! Give me a few minutes,” he said.
Five minutes later his colleague invited us into the mortuary. James’s corpse had been laid on a slab naked, with large stitches along his forearms and thighs, and across his stomach. They looked crudely done. His body seemed shrivelled, and his mouth was slightly open and twisted in a pained expression. James’s skin was deep grey, almost black – matching the clouds above the mortuary. The rawness of what we were seeing would be hard to erase, not least for Jamleck. A question from the female mortuary attendant yanked us back to the logistics of the day.
“Do you have his clothes?” she asked. Jamleck gave her a blue paper bag with the clothes they had bought to dress him up in.
Then, another surprise.
“This body hasn’t been embalmed. We need some money now to prepare his body. You, (gesturing to Jamleck) give me 1000 shillings,” she shot back. No matter that James’ body had been lying at the mortuary for seven days, or that his family had already paid the mortuary fees for his embalming and preparation for burial. By now it was clear that the goal of all of these delays and late-breaking problems was for Jamleck to bribe the mortuary attendants.
“Why would we pay you when you were paid to do your job?” Jamleck hissed back at the attendant. He was seething, as we all were, at this final insult to a man whose death and the days after it had already been so traumatic. She capitulated, and minutes later James’s body was dressed and being placed in the back of the hearse.
Jamleck had help carrying James’s coffin from the driver of the hearse and John Benson Anaseti. John owns a kiosk in Mathare 3C, the same place where James would do odd jobs to earn enough to eat, and, on many occasions, drink. John knew James well. James would sweep John’s storefront for him almost every morning for four years. In that time, they became good friends.
“The first time I met him, he was drunk. He used to pass by my store every day and I’d make fun of him. He was a funny guy,” John remembers.
So, funny that among the nicknames that he had was “Mapeei”, sheng (a slang lingua franca used across Kenya) for gap-toothed. He joked, laughed and smiled often. Over the years their friendship deepened.
On the 1st of June, as usual, James would come by John’s shop to sweep it and get rid of the trash that had been binned the day before.
“I was with him that morning. We joked around as usual. After he threw the stuff away and I paid him, he left. That was around 10am; I think he went drinking after that. That was the last time I saw him. In the evening, I closed up shop early and went home,” John recounted to me. Even if John lives close to his store, he wanted to be in his house by 7pm.
Mwai Kariuki runs a kiosk just down the road from John. On that day Mwai had closed up early as well. The enforcement of the dawn to dusk curfew in their neighborhood had been yet another context for heavy handed policing that had turned deadly. According to residents of Mathare, the police would even shoot in the air to warn people to get off the streets.
“Since the curfew began it has become a trend. Sometimes they will fire more than ten shots into the air so that the person at the furthest corner of Mathare knows that the curfew is in effect,” Mwai told me as we walked towards the scene of James’s killing. It is less than 100 metres from his kiosk. He told me that James was shot a few minutes to 8 pm. The nationwide curfew started at 7 pm.
The shooting to death of 51-year-old James Muriithi, presumably by the police exactly 57 years to that day bears reflecting upon. James was homeless. He drank a lot. At the time of his death, no one knew if he had a family or not, and no one knew his name.
“That evening though, it was different. The moment the bullet hit (James) we heard it. It was really loud.” Mwai expected that the shooters would pass by his kiosk (his kiosk is a few metres away from the turn off onto a major road) but on this day, they went in the opposite direction.
“We listened for an indication that they had left. When they did we rushed over and found (James) on the ground, bleeding profusely. We tried to give him first aid but by bad luck, he died.”
Mwai would take out his tablet and take photos of James’s corpse. Soon, word had spread that he had been killed. James was known to be a jolly man who would stumble in and out of the many drinking dens in Mathare, but would never cause any trouble or offense. So, when residents realized who had just been killed, they set old tires on fire and began protesting.
John would be the first among James’s friends to learn about his death: “I received a phone call at six minutes past eight. I was told, ‘Eh! Your friend has been shot and it looks as if he is badly injured!’”
John decided to risk being caught by the police, ducking through side-streets and alleys to get to the scene, confirming that indeed “the old man” had been killed. Protests were intensifying at that point – a contingent of police that had been dispatched to the scene were repulsed by protestors. James’s body was carried off and hidden; residents wanted to carry his body to the nearest police station during the day, under the glare of the sun and TV cameras, to prove that James had indeed been murdered. The police would return in numbers and with sniffer dogs, and after two hours of running battles the riot was over, and James’s corpse was in their custody on the way to the Nairobi city mortuary.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in. It had been weeks of the same indignation online, as news of the killing and brutalization of Kenyans by the police for breaking curfew came in from around the country.
Two months, earlier on the 30th of May, 13-year old Yassin Moyo was shot while playing on the balcony of his parent’s home. A police officer had shot in the air to “disperse a crowd” when the bullet he fired hit Yassin in the stomach, according to Kenya Police Service spokesman Charles Owino. Yassin died on the way to hospital – his parents having to plead with police officers to get past roadblocks that had been mounted on the way. Yassin’s parent’s home is less than three kilometres away from the spot where James would be killed two months later. By the time of James’s shooting, 15 people from across Kenya had been killed by the police, according to statistics from the Kenya Police reform working group, a number that Kenya’s government disputes. The group comprises of various civil society organisations that have been working on the issue of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. By their count, 103 people were either killed or disappeared by the police between January and August 2020. For context, by the end of 2019, 144 people were dead in similar circumstances, putting 2020 on track to being the deadliest year of police killings in over a decade. A majority of these deaths and disappearances occurred in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi. Most of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 35. Nearly all of them were male.
“Some of these police officers are young and drunk on the little power that they have,” Charles Owino, the police service’s official spokesman said of the reports of killings at the hands of the police. He said this in an interview on a local television station’s newscast, two days after the killing of James Muriithi. In that same interview, Owino also alleged that James may have been shot to death by criminals, not the police. Putting distance between the crimes of individual officers and the institution of the police has been deployed elsewhere. In the United States, police departments across the country are struggling with the impact of policing tactics against minorities. The brutality has led to deaths of hundreds of young black men and women across the country, with mounting evidence of these tactics tied to an institutional understanding of how to police certain communities that has roots in racism. The killing of George Floyd was a reminder of the same. The killing of James Muriithi in Kenya served as yet another anecdote to the brutalization of the poor in Kenya, but it isn’t yet fully accepted as such, not least within police circles. In that same interview, Owino claimed that James was killed in Dandora, nearly 7 kilometres away from the spot where he actually was murdered. According to Owino, several people witnessed James’s killing and that the police were “investigating the matter”.
After leaving the scene of James’s death, John scrolled through his phone, looking to get in touch with James’s family. John would often lend James his phone so that he could keep in touch with his family who live in James’s home county of Meru, which is 300 kilometres east of Nairobi. His estranged wife Christine Mumbua would answer the phone.
James’s younger brother Jamleck would be the one to bear the burden of witnessing his post mortem. He emerged from it visibly upset. “The police were refusing me to witness my brother’s post mortem even though it is my right! The officer there was even trying to tell me that my brother had not been shot.” Jamleck would also tell of the hours spent pleading with the police to enter his brother’s death into the occurrence book – a register maintained by every police station of crimes, complaints and incidents, which is also the basis for the opening of an investigation by the police. “I am worried about whether we will get justice for Muriithi. Even if he was living on the streets he is somebody.”
Fortunately, James’s post mortem did happen. Pathologist, Dr Peter Ndegwa showed us a copy of the post mortem report. It makes for a scary anecdote of just how intimate the killing was. All of the three bullets that hit him were fired from less than 20 centimetres away. His killer was facing him. The bullets “went through the abdomen and lacerated the liver…and were lodged on the back of the right chest cavity, between the 11th and 12th ribs, which were actually fractured (by the impact of the bullets)”. Together, the wounds from all three gunshots ensured that James didn’t survive the night.
By 10 pm, news of James’s killing had hit the internet and was trending on Twitter. #JusticeForVaite was the top trending hashtag just hours later, as thousands of tweets denouncing his killing streamed in
There were no signs on James’s body that he tried to fight off his killers. The person who pulled the trigger melted into the darkness that evening, but one of the three bullets he fired could hold the key to solving James’s killing. The one lodged between James’s ribs. After removing it, Dr Ndegwa handed it over to Festus Musyoka, an officer from the Department of Criminal investigations (DCI), for a ballistics examination to take place. At the time of writing this, results from that report are still in the hands of the DCI. Neither has there been any official word on the progress of the investigation beyond a statement in the news from the police spokesman days after James’s death.
Back to the 9th of June, the date of James’s funeral. We had long since left behind the rain in the hubbub of Nairobi, and had travelled 300 kilometres east to Meru county, and to James’s home village, Nkubu. As soon as the hearse carrying him crept into his household, plastic chairs were taken out and set two metres apart. James’s coffin was set out in the centre of a sparse semi-circle of family and friends. Everyone else had to peer through Napier grass on the edge of their property. There were less than twenty people in the compound – almost unheard of for a Kenyan funeral, but COVID-19 protocols have upended even the most closely followed traditions here. There was little time to waste. The master of ceremonies, James’s uncle, began calling people up to say a few words. He called on me first. Surprised and not knowing what to say, I fumbled through a speech that in part passed my condolences and part explained why I was there in the first place. Silent acknowledgement greeted every one of the six speeches made that afternoon. In twenty minutes, we were at his graveside. A shovel was thrust into the mound of red soil next to the grave, and attendees were asked to grab a clump and toss it into the grave once James’s coffin was lowered in. All of this happened in silence. James’s second-born son, Martin, tossed his clump in whilst looking away. His hard, expressionless face broke and from under it escaped creases, wrinkles and a well of tears just about to stream onto his face. He walked away so no one could see him cry. Young men from the neighbourhood then each grabbed a shovel, and a few minutes later, James was buried.
James’s estranged wife Christine Mumbua and their first born, Edwin, spoke to me afterwards. They were overcoming the shock of his death, but more than that, trying to figure out how to live on without him. Both said they were shocked that James lived on the streets in Nairobi. When Christine and James first met, he used to hawk clothes. She didn’t go into the details of the troubles that led to him becoming homeless, nor did anyone else, except for a vague explanation that “things went wrong for him.” His eulogy, barely a page long, spoke of him having a diploma in automotive engineering and having a string of jobs including a directorship in a mechanical engineering company.
Edwin spoke of how James would call him using different phone numbers from time to time, asking about school. On one occasion Edwin was sent home for a lack of fees and needed 8000 Kenya shillings (80 dollars) to be allowed back.
“After a week, my dad sent me the money,” he said.
Remarkable for a man who earned 300 shillings (3 dollars) a day from odd jobs.
Everyone was in agreement that no matter what he did, or where he lived, he had a family and therefore wasn’t homeless. The last two lines of his eulogy were also unequivocal:
“The late James Muriithi was a hustler until 1st June 2020 at 7:30 pm when he was brutally murdered at Mathare in Nairobi. We loved you but God loved you most.”
“I ask myself, why, why, why? Even if he was out past curfew, was he the only one that was out for the police to shoot?” Edwin asks through gritted teeth.
Why indeed. James Muriithi was many things, both good and bad – a dutiful father and a drunk. A source of laughter living a life with little humour. He was no more and no less a man than we all are. May he rest in peace.
Kakamega and the Making of Bizarre News
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters.
In the everyday human stories, away from the mainstream media-which often functions as the sanitiser and theatre of the elite—the wider Kakamega region dominates the locus of what would pass for interesting cultural news.
The swath of off-the-cuff social and cultural news sways wide, from the death of an entire lineage, tales of bullfighting, chicken kills child, cockfighting episodes, and the recent tragic student stampede. There’s the birth of strange calves, man marries sister, walking corpses, wife swaps, and unexplainable phenomena. Kakamega County, it is said, is the Florida of Kenya, and the home of peculiar news.
Granted, one is guaranteed to encounter weird happenings where people exist, but year on year the region has consistently functioned as the gold standard. It could also be that local issues, secluded from the mainstream narratives of society, ends up being given faulty interpretations and tagged as abnormal.
The origins of Kakamega’s cultural tipping point could easily be traced to the infamous James Mukombero’s 2001 murderous spree. On a rainy Sunday night in late April 20 years ago in Bulira village, Kakamega, 43-year-old Mukombero had dinner with his wife, three sons and a daughter before going to bed. His sons retired to their Itsimba, built next to their father’s house.
In the middle of the night, Mukombero crept out of his bed, picked up a machete, and hacked his pregnant wife Susan to death. He then entered his sons’ house and killed the three — Evans, Oscar and Alusiola. His murderous binge was far from over, as he woke up other family members claiming that his wife was unwell and needed to be rushed to hospital. He killed them too, as his brother fled and hid in the maize plantation.
Mukombero killed nine people in a ghastly rage that shook the clan and gripped the nation. From then on, Kakamega solidified its reputation as the country’s purveyor and arena of weird news. Mukombero’s homicidal orgy united a voyeuristic media and a shocked citizenry in a country where the grapevine and cultural literacies long replaced state-controlled narratives, and where rumours function as a sense-making, socialising and interactive medium.
News and their social epidemics
With the largest rural population in the country, coupled with a hugely diverse set of ethnic subcultures, Kakamega County is unsurprisingly a crucible of diverse and competing versions of cultural intrigues.
In the Tipping Point, sociologist Malcom Gladwell talks about the power of context to set off a chain reaction of events, cultural signals, and cues that normalise certain behaviours and beliefs of the kind often reported about Kakamega. The point at which a wide and varied set of complicated cultural news becomes a behavioural epidemic depends on a set of specific personalities, events and spatial conditions.
A large rural-based population like Kakamega’s is by nature much more conservative, culturally complex, rooted in local social politics and taboos, has largely observable behaviour and would gladly embrace tales about events that are out of sync with what many would consider normal. However, this isn’t unique to the region. So that still begs the question: why this one region? And why this one county in the region?
Kakamega could simply be said to constitute higher levels of culture-bound syndromes than other similar enclaves of rural modernity in the country. In The Culture-Bound Syndromes, cultural anthropologist Charles C. Hughes lists 200 localised psychiatric, cultural and physical behaviours that have, at one time or another, been considered culture-bound syndromes. While many of these psychiatric and cultural behaviours are based on local beliefs, many carry with them normalised psycho-spiritual explanations. Culture-bound syndromes especially of the social and behavioural kind are rooted in these unique local anthropologies.
Kakamega’s cultural realities could also be explained by the fact that it borders six other counties, including three of the most populous, with over seven million people existing right within its proximity. Being a transit county, there’s a lot of opportunity to interlink subcultures, widen demographics, and incubate quirky cultural ideas. Hughes and Simon further elucidate that, in theory, culture-bound syndromes are those practices in which alterations of behaviour and people’s experience feature prominently. In actuality, however, many are not actual syndromes at all. Instead, they are local ways of explaining any of a wide assortment of traits and occurrences.
News and confirmation bias
Within the political dysfunctionality of this country in which the media revels in the sensational, Kakamega seems to have produced more than its fair share of colourful characters. The county’s consistent stream of cultural news is one of the nation’s underrated cultural comedies, with the entire county acting as the punchline.
To be fair, it could be that the region is typecast based on the concept of availability heuristics, a cognitive method by which our brain uses shortcuts to process news and draw conclusions. Having been fed a staple diet of editorial news from the region laced with spooky taboos, beliefs and ideas, we may have unconsciously learnt to view the region through a stereotyped lens.
Within these contested editorial narratives, the county’s massive utility value to the wider estern Belt stands in contrast to the largely rural docility that defines its public life. Kakamega region’s political significance is often counterbalanced and even neutered by its ethno-political peer, Bungoma County, which hosts the second largest Luhya subtribe, the Bukusu. Hence, the editorialised cultural and social news inevitably reigns more prominently than the low political bandwidth that the region adds to national politics.
Buoyed by the Kisumu-Webuye highway, Kakamega hosts 8 of the 18 Luhya subtribes, and makes up the second most populous county after Nairobi, close to 2 million people holed up in a mere 3,000 square kilometers of land. It could therefore be that the diversity of the county, the huge rural population, and self-perpetuating mythology is what fuels this comical disrepute.
Kakamega has been among the biggest beneficiaries of devolution, with the region boasting increased trade thanks to the 85-kilometer Kisumu-Kakamega-Bungoma-Webuye highway. A Sh120 million Shirere-to-Lurambi street electrification plan, a ten-year municipality spatial expansion plan from 12,108 acres to 30,394 acres, a park facelift and a Sh400 million World Bank-funded streets upgrade, have anchored the region as the bastion of rural modernity.
Even then, in this theatre of journalistic absurdity, one has to wonder, is the county merely the punching bag of a media that revels in the most ridiculous of news? This is a persistent conundrum that no one can satisfactorily explain.
Just late last year alone, a pastor got bitten while flashing out a beaded snake in Lumakanda, matatu crew kidnapped a cop in Mumias, identical Kakamega twins accidentally met online and Lurambi locals demanded the renaming of a school from Mwangaza (light) to its former name, Ebuchinga (place of fools).
Mukombero’s shocking tragedy may have faded from the nation’s collective memory but the media has continued to inundate us with tales of crazy news including the December incident of a dead man who allegedly refused to be buried. A lot of the county’s news stories range from the silly or weird to the cringe-worthy, to straight-up felonies, to the tragic. Not all the gripping tales from the county are comical although, in Kakamega, the farcical tragedy often wears the mask of comedy.
The worst must be reported
Interestingly, a casual search of Kitale, Kisumu or Meru could easily bring up equally strange tales of sexual, criminal, economic and social deviance similar to Kakamega stories. So that still leaves us with the mystery of why the county is such a hotbed of weird news stories. It could partly be that for news bureaus located in far-flung places the only news worth including in national bulletins is that which falls right off the alley of everyday normal issues. But then, that’s not the preserve of one county, constituency or region.
Could it then be that, as the most advanced county in the region, with great infrastructure and ethno-cultural diversity, the county is simply the best muse a newscaster could wish for? A crucial explanation could be the classic case of the streetlight effect.
An old parable ascribed to 13th Century witty Turkish philosopher Mulla Nasreddin tells the story of a drunkard searching under a street lamp for keys (or wallet depending on who is telling) that he had lost.
A cop on patrol spots the drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him what he could be searching for at this godless hour. The visibly inebriated gentleman replies that he is looking for his keys and the officer offers his help for a few minutes before he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped near the lamppost.
“No,” he replies, “I lost it somewhere across the street.”
“So why look here?” asks the officer.
“The light is much better here,” the drunken man responds.
It could also be that the phenomenon is primarily pegged on the power of a self-perpetuating viral effect and observation bias. In 2018, a section of Twitter planted the idea that weird things happen in Kakamega, and christened it the Florida of Kenya. In observation bias, the suggestion entrenches the mindset, after which you tend to notice news that confirms the bias.
There’s no definitive proof that the county is culturally weirder than any other county. According to the 2016 Kenya police annual crime records, Nairobi and Mombasa top in theft, while Kiambu and Meru lead in overall crime prevalence, Lamu leads by crime index followed by Meru and Kiambu then Isiolo. In none of the listed crime categories—vehicle and other thefts, theft by servant, dangerous drugs, stealing, criminal damage, economic crimes or homicide—does the county feature in the top five. This is replicated in the 2017 and 2018 reports in which the region’s image would pass for that of a pretty peaceful and uneventful county — only that culturally it isn’t.
The Anatomy of a Stereotype
A pertinent downside of the Streetlight Effect is that local newscasters parade simplistic headlines, from man killed over ugali, to corpse protests over unpaid dowry, to man sells wife for Sh500, to corpse refuses to be buried. These editorialised models of stereotyping and curating Kakamega’s regional news reveals the policed ways in which modern media forms engage cultures that defy the stated norms.
There is need for cultural literacy that is pegged on a reimagined way of understanding contexts and peoples in ways that help us to question media grammar and stereotypes. Alternatively, local digital platforms could, and as often as possible should, replace the failed cultural imagination of the mainstream media, and supplant it with nuanced cultural explanations of these “bizarre” news.
Not all these issues are explainable though and the region’s unique demography, cultural symphony, political place in the national discourses, and media voyeurism will lend it to the editorial muse for the foreseeable future. The verdict is still out there whether Kakamega County truly is the Florida of Kenya.
Reel Lives: How Indian Cinema Shaped East Africa’s Urban Culture
The 60s, 70s and 80s are often described as the Golden Age of Indian cinema and Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu had a large number of cinemas devoted to showing films made in Bombay.
At a time when “social distancing” is becoming the norm due to the coronavirus pandemic, it may appear self-indulgent to reminisce about a period when going to the cinema was a regular feature of East African Asians’ lives. But perhaps now that the world is changing – and many more people are watching movies at home on Netflix and other channels – it is important to document the things that have been lost in the war against COVID-19 and with the advent of technology. One of these things is the thrill of going to the cinema with the family.
What has also been lost is an urban culture embedded in East Africa’s South Asian community – a culture where movie-going was an integral part of the social fabric of this economically successful minority.
Those who pass the notorious Globe Cinema roundabout, which is often associated with pickpockets and street children, might be surprised to learn that the Globe Cinema (which no longer shows films but is used for other purposes, such as church prayer meetings) was once the place to be seen on a Sunday evening among Nairobi’s Asian community. I remember that cinema well because in the 1970s my family used to go there to watch the latest Indian – or to be more specific, Hindi (India also produces films in regional languages like Telegu, Bengali and Punjabi) blockbuster at 6 p.m. on Sundays. Sunday was movie day in my family, and going to the cinema was a ritual we all looked forward to. The Globe Cinema was considered one of the more “posh” cinemas in Nairobi; not only was it more luxurious than the others, but it also had better acoustics.
As veteran journalist Kul Bhushan writes in a recent edition of Awaaz magazine (which is dedicated entirely to Indian cinema in East Africa from the early 1900s to the 1980s), “Perched on a hillock overlooking the Ngara roundabout, the Globe became the first choice for cinemagoers for new [Indian] releases as it became the venue to ogle and be ogled by the old and the young.”
Indian movies were – and are – the primary source of knowledge about Indian culture among East Africa’s Asian community. The early Indian migrants had little contact with the motherland, as trips back home were not only expensive but the sea voyage from Mombasa to Bombay or Karachi took weeks. (At independence in 1947, the Indian subcontinent became two countries – India and Pakistan – hence the reference to Indians in East Africa as “Asians”.) So they relied on Indian films to learn about the customs and traditions of the country they or their ancestors had left behind.
Exposure to Indian languages and culture through films was one way Indians abroad or in the diaspora retained their identity and got to learn about their traditions and customs. I got to learn about the spring festival of Holi and goddesses such as Durga from watching Indian films. I also learnt Hindi, or rather Hindustani – a mix of Hindi (which is Sanskrit-based) and Urdu (which is also Sanskrit-based but which borrows heavily from Persian and Arabic) – which is the lingua franca of Northern India and Pakistan, and which is the language most commonly used in the so-called Hindi cinema.
On the other hand, the sexist culture portrayed in the majority of Indian films also reinforced sexual discrimination among East African Asians. The idea that women are subservient to men, and that it is the woman who must sacrifice her own needs and desires for the “greater good” of the family/community, were – and still are – dominant in Indian cinema. Love stories portrayed in films – where young lovebirds defy societal expectations and cross class, religion or caste barriers – were not supposed to be emulated; they were considered pure entertainment and not reflective of a society where arranged marriages were and still are the norm. I heard many stories of how if an Asian woman dared to cross racial, religious or caste barriers she was severely reprimanded or stigmatised.
Watching Indian movies was also one way of keeping up with the latest fashions. Men and women often tried to copy the hairstyles and clothes of their favourite movie stars. When the hugely successful film Bobby was released in 1973, many girls adopted the hairstyle of the lead actress (who was barely 16 when she starred in the film) Dimple Kapadia. (I used to have a blouse at that time that was a replica of the one the actress wore in the film.) When the famous film star Sharmila Tagore dared to wear a revealing swimsuit in the 1967 film An Evening in Paris, she opened the door for many Indian women to go swimming without covering themselves fully.
Since music often defined the success of a film, top playback singers, such as Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Muhammad Rafi, were held in high regard, and people flocked to watch their live concerts in Nairobi. Wealth and opulence were in full display at these events.
The Golden Age
The 60s, 70s and 80s are often described as the Golden Age of Indian/Hindi cinema. Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, where there were large concentrations of Asians, had many cinemas devoted to showing films made in Bombay (now Mumbai) – often referred to as Bollywood. This was the time when actors and actresses like Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi became superstars.
Cinemas in Nairobi were always full, especially on weekends when Asian families flocked to the dome-like Shan in Ngara, to Liberty in Pangani, or to the Odeon or the Embassy in the city centre. (except for Shan cinema, all the others are no longer cinema halls but are used for other purposes. Shan was rescued from decrepitude by the Sarakasi Trust, which changed its name to The Dome; it is now used for cultural activities.) Over the years, an increasing number of Africans began watching Indian films. Oyunga Pala, the chief curator at The Elephant, recalls going to the Tivoli cinema in Kisumu, where he first got to see Amitabh Bachchan in action.
“Right next to the Liberty Cinema was situated the clinic of a very popular Indian doctor,” recalls Neera Kapur-Dromson in an article published in the Indian cinema edition of Awaaz. “The small waiting room was always crammed with patients. But that never deterred him from taking ample breaks to enjoy a few scenes of the film being screened…”
But for Asian teenage girls and boys in Nairobi, the place to be seen on a Sunday evening was the Belle Vue Drive-In cinema on Mombasa Road. Young Asian men would show off their (fathers’) cars and young women would display the latest fashions – all in the hope of catching the attention of a potential mate. Food was shared – and sometimes even cooked – on the gentle slopes of the parking spots. Going to the Drive-In was like going for a picnic. And as the lights dimmed, the large bulky speakers were put on full volume so that everyone (usually father, mother, and three or four kids in the back seat) in the car – and beside it – could hear the dialogues. Fox Drive-In cinema on Thika Road was also a popular joint, but mainly with the younger crowd who preferred watching the Hollywood movies which were a regular feature there.
It was the same in Kampala. Vali Jamal, recalling his youthful days in Uganda’s capital city, says that the Sunday outing to the Drive-In was the only time there was a traffic jam in Kampala. “Idi Amin got caught in one of them, driving back to Entebbe with his foreign minister Wanume Kibedi,” he writes. “‘Where are we?’ quoth the president, ‘In Bombay?’ And the expulsion happened.”
He continues: “Well, let me not exaggerate, but South Asian wealth was on display on the Sundays accompanied by their notions of exclusion, and let us not forget that those two variables – income inequality and racial arrogance – figured heavily in Amin’s decision to expel us.” (In August 1972, President Idi Amin expelled more than 70,000 Asians from Uganda.)
In her book, Reel Pleasures: Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in Twentieth Century Urban Tanzania, Laura Fair describes how the Sunday evening shows became a focal point of urban conversations among Tanzania’s Asian community. They were meeting points, like temples, mosques or churches, where people sought affirmation.
As in Kenya, Sunday shows in Tanzania were family and community bonding events. “Cinema halls were not lifeless chunks of brick and mortar; they resonated with soul and spirit. They were places that gave individual lives meaning, spaces that gave a town emotional life. Across generations, cinemas were central to community formation,” says the author. Indian cinema thus played an integral role in the social lives of the South Asian community in East Africa.
It all started in the 1920s when Mohanlal Kala Savani, a textile trader, imported a hand-cranked projector and began showing silent Indian films in a rented warehouse in the coastal town of Mombasa. In 1931, when two brothers, Janmohamed Hasham and Valli Hasham, built the Regal Cinema, he began renting the venue to show Hindi films. Two years later, he built his own 700-seat Majestic Cinema in Mombasa, which showed Indian films and also hosted live shows.
The late Mohanlal Savani was a man of vision, recalls his son Manu Savani in an article chronicling how his father expanded movie-viewing in East Africa. “As time progressed Majestic became an established cinema on the Kenyan coast. The owners of Majestic also became fully fledged film distributors with links stretching, to start with, to Uganda and [what was then known as] Tanganyika.”
Famous Indian movie stars began gracing these cinemas in order to increase their fan following. Notable among these were the legendary Dilip Kumar, a 1950s heartthrob whose portrayal of jilted lovers set many a heart fluttering, and Asha Parekh, who made her name in tragic love stories such as Kati Patang.
Indian cinema had wide appeal not just in Kenya, but also in neighbouring Zanzibar, where the urban night life was dominated by Indian movies. Many a taraab tune came directly from the hit songs of Indian movies. As opposed to Western movies (often referred to as English movies), Indian films appealed to Swahili sensibilities, with their focus on values such as modesty, respect for elders and morality.
In Zanzibar, Lamu and other coastal areas where segregation between the sexes was strictly observed, there were special zenana (women-only) shows, where women dressed up in their finest to join other women in watching Indian and Egyptian films. For many Asian and Swahili women, the zenana afternoon show was a rare opportunity to leave their cloistered existence and let their hair down, and also to meet up with friends outside the confines of their homes. (I once went to a women-only show at Nairobi’s Shan cinema on a Wednesday afternoon with my grandmother when I was about eight or nine years old and I can tell you there was less movie-watching and more talking and gossiping going on during the show.)
Unfortunately, the old cinemas in Zanzibar are no more, which is surprising because the island is host to the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Cine Afrique, the only standing cinema in Zanzibar when I visited the island in 2003, was a pale shadow of its former shelf, with its cracked ceiling and broken seats. I believe it has now been demolished to pave way for a mall. The Empire, another famous cinema on the island, is now a supermarket and the once impressive Royal Cinema is in an advanced stage of decay.
The decline of the movie theatre
There are many reasons for the decline of Indian movie theatres in East Africa, among them piracy, declining South Asian populations and technologies that allow people to watch movies from the comfort of their homes. The introduction of multiplex cinemas in shopping malls has also lessened the appeal of a stand-alone cinemas, and made movie-going less of an “event” and more of something that can be done while doing other things.
Indian cinema has also evolved. Unrequited love, family dramas, good versus evil and the “angry young man” genre popularised by Amitabh Bachchan – constant themes in the “masala” Indian films of the 70s and 80s – have been replaced by more sophisticated and nuanced plots, perhaps in response to a large Indian diaspora in the West which is more interested in plots that are more realistic and reflective of their own lives. The escapism of the Indian cinema of yesteryear has given way to realism, which makes cinema-going less “entertaining”.
Indian actors and actresses are also getting more roles in films made in Hollywood, and American and British films are increasingly finding India to be an interesting backdrop or subject for their movies, as evidenced by the huge success of films like Slumdog Millionaire. This has expanded the scope and definition of what constitutes an “Indian movie”.
Some would say that Indian cinema has actually deteriorated, with its emphasis on semi-pornographic dance routines and plots revolving around upper class people and their angst. So-called “art cinema” produced by award-winning directors like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, which portrays the lives of the downtrodden and addresses important social issues, or distinctly feminist films like Parama (directed by Aparna Sen), which explores the inner worlds of Indian women, are few and far between.
But as any Indian movie buff will tell you (and I include myself in this group), the experience of watching an Indian film in a cinema cannot be matched on a TV or computer screen. Indian cinema in its heyday was a feast for the eyes. If you wanted to enter the magical world of Indian cinema, complete with elaborate and well-choreographed dances, heart-stirring music and emotion, you saw Indian films in a movie theatre.
Alas, those days are fast disappearing thanks to terrorism, technology and now COVID-19. And along with this, a distinctly East African urban culture has been lost forever.
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