Monthly Archives: May 2016

write your own hieroglyphs

“Get up out them slave ships/ build your own pyramids/ write your own hieroglyphs”-Kendrick Lamar.


A lot has been written about the genius of Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of the few darlings of rap who is equally accepted by the masses and the people who listen to underground. He has a song that in four minutes tells about a beggar asking him for cash. It warps and wefts between what he and the beggar feel , the anger and the fear, the resentment and curiosity, the sense of entitlement and the beginnings of empathy on both sides. One person wondering why he’s not being helped and the other wondering how help can be demanded. It ends with the beggar declaring himself god. A throwback to another great storyteller telling us “whatever you did to the smallest amongst us i say unto you you did to me.”


Everywhere you look people are writing their own hieroglyphs. There is a proliferation of black writers and movie makers, there are numerous comic books, countless blogs. For the first time in the history of the world even those who would be considered oppressed are telling their stories or having their stories told for them. And, stories are important. Who tells stories is also important. This was one of the points that Chimamanda Adichie made with what I still consider her best book: Half of a Yellow Sun. Before I read that book I had no idea what Biafra was. At the end I was shaken by the war that split Nigeria. I read more and more about it. It was surprising to find out that Chinua Achebe considered himself Biafran that he ascribed to a nationality that split him from the Nigerian one that his popular persona identified itself as.


Let’s make no mistake nationality ascribes a sense of identity. Just as living together on this rock called Africa does. Recently I finished a book called the Fortunes of Africa: a 5,000 year history of wealth, greed and endeavour. The author, Martin Meredtih, had set himself a herculean task. To somehow condense the history of a whole continent into a book. An impossible task that surely called for tough editorial choices as more and more things were culled. It’s impressive that he weaves a coherent story that is almost straight chronological. He takes us from the west to the east and the south to the north and ever forward. Years advance here and there and then he goes back to a region we haven’t visited in a while. He manages to do it in prose so deft that the book never at one time feels like a drag or a text book.


My uncle works for a German television company and I asked if he would be covering the IEBC demos and I was told that they don’t stir themselves unless the death toll reaches 200 people. It’s cold but when reporting on a whole continent there has to be a threshold for the news. You can’t go for every riot. You can’t begin explaining what IEBC is and positioning the major players before the evening news. Context is hard to set because Africa is a vast place and when reporting on it you must make decisions such as wait until 200 people die. This is when reporting on the present of Africa when writing a book on its history hundreds, thousands of small conflicts will fall by the wayside. There are countries that don’t feature because of the examples of peace they are. Botswana is mentioned as a place that successfully flirted with multiparty democracies from the beginning of its independence and because nothing happened there (by the standards of the book) we never check in.


The history of Africa as the history of any place is a history of bloodshed. It is a history of warfare and greed. It is a history of profit and the blackness of the human soul. It is a history of slavery and lost lives. It is history as history usually is. Even the pax romana depended on a ruthless and abhorrent policy of warfare and slavery and punishment for those who were not roman citizens in order to exist and the History of our continent is not an exception. It is admirable what he manages to do in the book. Piecing together as he does what he does here is no easy task.


There’s a reason I put that quote by Kendrick Lamar at the beginning. Martin Meredith is not an African. He’s a Briton and though he seems to write dispassionately about the role of his country’s empire in the suffering of Africa there are parts that seem biased. For a long time he writes in a way to suggest that Britain wanted nothing more than to end slavery in Africa. That it pressed for laws of equality in South African. That it was thwarted by rogue agents. I read this and i was wondering what became of such a benevolent empire that it would eventually go on to have such a brutal reign here. Here in Kenya. A place that saw the heavy hand of the British Empire clamped down on it again and again. There are the King’s African Rifles, Kenyans forced to fight in laws for his majesty. Shipped to die for a country that wasn’t theirs and later in the Second World War to die ostensibly for the freedom from oppression that was represented by concentration camps. Concentration camps that were recreated right here as tens maybe hundreds of thousands of our Kikuyu and Meru and Embu brothers and sisters were denied their freedom, tortured and many killed because of Britain’s imperial ambitions. But perhaps there is not enough space in a 5,000 year history of the continent to include this or to properly explore Britain’s intentions beyond a sentence where Queen Victoria seems very pleased to be reported to a further expansion of her empire. Though that would seem to be contradicted by the number of times we hear about the British Empire fighting the Arabs, Africans, other Europeans to end the slave trade.


All empires are evil though. There’s no question of this. As I read through the book this was the lesson that presented itself to me over and over. All empires are evil. An empire after all is not a nation or a state or a tribe or a village. It is a collection of all of these. It is an ever expanding collection of political units brought in by strength or show of strength or need of strength. Borders are expanded by blood and money. At the end of every war there were slaves taken and sold. If you look at the pyramids of Sudan and Egypt you can be sure that they were built with slave labour. The huge numbers of African shipped out of the continent especially in the last thousand years could not have been possible without local collaboration.


The history of Africa is also the history of eradication of its religions. It becomes a plausible theory that all gods can be killed by the chance at better weapons. At a better life. At more money. At more power. This is what chiefs and kings were offered. This is what they took in order to convert. The promise that you could pack a bigger punch.


Every once in a while the history would be slowed down to examine the actions of an individual and the effects of his life. These were the most touching parts of the books to me. The stories of Africans changing their destiny for whatever reason. An emperor of Abyssinia Mendes Susenyo declared that the state’s religions would no longer be under the Patriarchy of Alexandria but the Papacy of Rome.  His brother , Malka Christos, put together a huge army because of what he perceived as this betrayal of their ancient ways and they clashed. The emperor won and walked the battlefield with his son Fasilidas who said to him:


“The men you see lying dead here were neither pagans nor Muslims over whose deaths we would rejoice, but Christians, your subjects and fellow countrymen, and some of them your own kin. It is not victory that we have gained for we have driven our swords into our own bodies….”


The emperor abdicated the throne and lived his life in depression and repentance for what he had done.


There is another story about the Akan state of Asante. For a long time Akan chiefs had used wooden stools to represent the collective soul of their chiefdoms. In the 1690s a chief called Osei Tutu introduced a Golden Stool in a feat of nation building and public relations that politicians now should pay attention to. He said that this was superior to all the other stools and that it held the souls of all the Akan people. With that symbol of national unity he created an empire where there was so much gold that gold dust was the medium of exchange, “this much dust for a bunch of bananas please”. And here is a gripe i had with the book that i admit may be a function of my bias- it seemed that these great Africans and their kingdoms were only introduced to show how they would eventually be thwarted by the invaders. The story of the golden stool is not a story of who Osei Tutu was or how he got to the point where he did this. It is not a story of how the empire was organised we are just assured it is. It is instead a story of the war of the golden stool as the British demanded it for their queen. It is a story filled with instances of humiliation at the hands of British governors and soldiers, a story of the futility of resistance. This is the end of the story and i wouldn’t’ advocate for the end of the story to be cut out but the end is not the whole story. The beginning and the middle is not a foreword even though it is a prelude to European interference which seems to be the major focus of the book.


We visited South Africa a lot. And i could never get myself to care about what was happening down there. The conflicts and struggles of the Boers were never going to evoke any emotional involvement. Especially since the book did not shy away from showing that the Boer’s independence seemed motivated by a desire to oppress the Africans whose land they had stolen. South Africa was declared independent before almost anywhere else in Africa and yet I find it impossible to think of it as other than a country that gained its independence in 1994. This is true for most Kenyans. We cannot think of a time with apartheid as a time when there was independence. The story of the Boers and the British and their wars with each other did not feel to me like a history of Africa, more a history of Africa’s colonialists. This may not be true and it may not be fair but my book about 5,000 years of African history would have spend very little time down there.


Or maybe it wouldn’t but the lens of the book would have been focused more, much more on the proud history of what happened before colonialism. The proud rebellions during colonialism. All the European interferers would have played a tiny part. Nothing pivotal. Their lives would never have been studied, not until they came back to Africa and their actions back home would not have warranted numerous paragraphs. I know i would have been interested in a different story and strived to give a different portrayal. Perhaps that’s just it that maybe if I was sure enough of myself I wouldn’t have been struggling to give a portrayal of Africa,  I would have been struggling to understand it in order to explain it to myself and to anyone reading it. This is what Martin Meredith was trying to do, to understand our continent by looking at its history. It’s a noble effort but when not carried out by a person born on this little rock there is something missing.


There is something that an African writer would bring to such a project that it is impossible for anybody else to. The innate knowledge that for all our lives we have been Africans. The frustrations of this place was not something that was happening over there but something taking place in our souls and at our feet. Something that has been happening to us. The fact that this is not a place we developed a passion for in high school or university but one from whom we have been bequeathed vast cultural and institutional memory. The things we would see are very different than those anyone else would. The book ends on a very pessimistic note. The last chapters speak about our new wars. The ones a person my age would remember. The rise of Boko Haram, Post election violence in Kenya, the mess in Libya, Egypt’s inability to move past its pharaohs. Yet this is the tone that pervades most of the book. Sadness and fatigue. The quest for the fortunes of Africa corrupting everybody who was born on the continent or happened to come into contact with it.


This is a legitimate take on Africa. Exhaustion and wondering if we will ever shed our history of bloodshed. Our history of dependence as the final chapter points to a growing dependence on China. Our history of dependence on people not from here to attempt the epic tasks of writing down 5,000 years of Africa.


It’s a book I would recommend anyone to read. Thoroughly researched, well-written, eye-opening. Good. Really good. But here I am hoping that someone like Owaah will undertake such an endeavour one day.



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who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?

Jacob Juma was born. Jacob Juma amassed a ridiculous amount of money in a short time. Jacob Juma, while doing this, gathered a lot of enemies. A few months ago Jacob Juma informed the world of a government plot to kill him. Last week Jacob Juma was assassinated. An unknown number of people stopped Jacob Juma’s car and shot at it. When they realised the windows were bulletproof they took out a blunt object and smashed them. This is our first series of signs that Jacob Juma was assassinated and not just killed. Somehow they stopped the car. They shot at it and when they realised the windows were bulletproof they did not lick their wounds, count their losses and slink away. No. They took out a blunt object and proceeded to hit the windows until they broke. No matter what people whisper snidely or what information they may claim to posses, it was not in the general Kenyan public’s general knowledge that a bullet proof window could be broken with a blunt object. Not until now. But that determination and knowhow existed in the minds and hearts of the people who assassinated Jacob Juma.


One of the origins of the word assassin attributes it to al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah also known as the old man of the mountain. It is said that he would take young boys and hop them up on hashish. When they awoke they would find themselves in a beautiful garden with music playing in the background, succulent foods, sweet juices and beautiful, willing young women. The boys would enjoy these fruits of paradise for a while believing that was where they were. Then they would receive the rude shock of finding themselves back in the real world. The old man of the mountain would task them with killing a person of his choosing if they wanted to go back to heaven. With this in mind the boys would go out and do whatever they could to kill the target of the old man of the mountain. If this was true do we really think that bulletproof windows would stop these young boys?


Jacob Juma seemed to know his life was on the line. With all he had at his disposal he threw the blame at the Jubilee Government and specifically William Ruto. His accusations were as sensational as any accusations warranting an assassination have to be. He said he had proof of who stole our Eurobond billions and how. He said that this money was being used to bribe the judges at the ICC so that they would find a way to drop the case against William Ruto. A few months after making these sensational claims he was assassinated and Ruto’s case had been dropped in the ICC. I was recently reminded of a logical fallacy Post Hoc ergo Proctor Hoc-after it therefore because of it. We tend to think that things happen because of what came before them. We believe in cause and effect just that much. Jacob Juma saying the government would assassinate him and then him being assassinated by somebody does not fall neatly into this bow. However just because he said the government wanted to kill him does not mean the government did kill him. Just because Ruto was let go by the ICC does not mean Jacob Juma’s stories about bribes to the judges there were true.


Kings and the priests in their realm have always had a turbulent relationship. The time comes when the priest recognises a higher authority than even that of the king. On November 3oth  1170 King Henry II of England increasingly exasperated by the obstinancy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett turned to his court and said “what sluggards, what cowards I have brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their lord. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Thanks to the words of the king Thomas Becket did not see the next year. On 23rd August 2000 Father John Kaiser was found dead. He was a catholic priest from America. He decided to dedicate his life to the service of the Lord he believed in. In 1964 the Mill Hill missionaries sent him to Kenya. He was here for almost all the Kenyatta years and almost all the Moi years. After our first multi-party elections there was as tends to happen post-election violence. The Maela refugee camp in Ngong was opened to take in what 3 election cycles later would have been called IDPs and this was his diocese until it was forcibly closed. Father Kaiser believed that the election violence happened because of a land grab by then President Moi and other senior members of his government. He spoke out. He was beaten. In 1998 there was a commission of inquiry known as the Akiwumi commission. Father Kaiser gave his testimony. He pointed his fingers and nothing happened. Later he helped some young girls who had accused Julius Sunkuli the current senator of Narok County of rape. The police took the side of the then minister and the girls were intimidated. The case went nowhere. Then on that night in  August of the two thousandth year of our Lord somebody assassinated Father John Kaiser. We cannot say who it is because there is no proof but there are situations where post hoc ergo proctor hoc is true. This may be one.


Jacob Juma was assassinated last week. The product of his assassination was an outpouring of anger and cynicism. Let us look at the cynicism first. A lot of people I have talked to, people whose intelligence is unquestioned and whose opinions I respect have said that he called it on himself. They have pointed to his shady lifestyle and all the people he crossed. They have pointed to the fact that he could not keep his mouth shut. I have been reminded that other billionaires just have their billions and do not feel the need to agitate-those billionaires I am told are still alive to enjoy their billions. The person to blame for Jacob Juma’s assassination in other words is none other than Jacob Juma. I’m a tad liberal so it’s difficult to convince me that a person deserves to die for his sins. Death could be permanent for all we know. Who are we to judge? Who are we to take lives? If we are to judge though, if we are to take lives we should only do it in the most extreme of circumstances. A person who kills. A person who kills many. A person who’s had some shady dealings? I don’t think so. A person who has angered people in power? Surely not. A person who has spoken out of turn about the way things are in the government? Isn’t that all of us.


In the last eight years or so warfare has changed forever. This happens every once in a while. When men smelted bronze and made spears. When bows that could shoot further and faster were introduced. When horses first took to the field. The advent of the gun. The tank. The plane. Every step of the way took us to where we stand in the age of the drone. War can now be waged from thousands of miles away by a person completely safe from any of its physical effects. America in its great Second War against the World (that of terror) has quickly put aside most of the other weapons in its arsenal. Obama as president has made it normal for children in Pakistan and Yemen to hear drones buzzing above their heads. It’s normal but not something you can get used to. This incessant sound that can rain down death on you and yours. With drones thousands and thousands of terrorist targets have been assassinated. It’s being written that no president has ever waged war by killing enemies one by one, targeting them individually for execution, wherever they are.  This is the world we live in. A world where a man that most of us believe is a moral man looks at lists of people and decides whether they should die. Decides more than that, he decides whether their death is so important to his nation’s safety that those around them can die. Not even the legendary old man of the mountain wielded such power.


It’s a possibility that Jacob Juma was killed by our Government. These things, let us not kid ourselves are always possible. I would not be so irresponsible as to say that its truth but we all know it’s possible. It’s possible that he was killed by any number of people that he wronged on the way to his billions. All those shady deals can turn around on you. What is clear though is that whoever wanted to kill Jacob Juma wanted to send a message. The target of the message may have been you and I as Kenyans. The target of the message may be one person somewhere who was playing the same game as Jacob Juma was and will now clean up his act. Julius Caesar, incidentally a victim of a political assassination, divorced his wife on the mere suspicion that she had committed infidelity. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. We don’t seem to hold our government to the same high standards as Caesar held his wife. Our government is not above suspicion. All of us have thought privately and written on encrypted whatsapp that chances are Jacob Juma was killed by the government. Perhaps we have chased this thought away but with great difficulty. This is the government we have. The people we chose to lead us. We have so little faith in them that a man would shout from the rooftops that the government plans to kill him for what he’s seen and for what he’s known. And when that man then dies in suspicious circumstances-circumstances that say he crossed powerful people- despite the inoculation against state sanctioned murder that the accusation was we believe almost immediately that it was the government. This place where we trust our government just that little is our home. If that doesn’t make you angry what the hell will?



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