Caught in the crossfire

Kenya: Armed and dangerous

Desperate and ruthless gangs find firearms widely available in Nairobi’s slums, presenting a constant security risk to the city’s residents

A man kicks a banner held by protesters in
Nairobi during an anti-corruption demonstration in April, 2019. Photo: SIMON MAINA / AFP

A message posted on a Kenyan Facebook group known as Dandora Love People on 31 March, 2017 read like the opening lines of a scary movie script. Written by a member under the name of Hesy Wa Dandora, it said: “I won’t get tired to remind you guys, this is a Friday and mostly, such a time until Sunday is when thieves get killed either by mob or bullets.” The writer went on to remind the criminals that the police “hadn’t run out of bullets”. Bullets would be used, he explained, to ensure that law-abiding citizens were protected. He went on to warn the criminals to take care, “lest I post your picture here this weekend”. Signing off the long Facebook post, he concluded: “countdown starts now”. Within about three hours, news went round that the police had killed six suspected gangsters, all of whom were thought to be younger than 20 years old.

Two pistols, an AK-47 rifle with 14 rounds of ammunition, a hand grenade and three machetes were recovered from them. Little more than a week before, on 22 March, police had shot dead four suspected gangsters who had allegedly been committing crime in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. On that occasion, a post on the Dandora Love People page said: “If you are unable to reach your loved one on phone or in any other way, he might be among these ones. They were gunned down last night … He who does not hear an elder’s word breaks a leg”. The members of the group pride themselves on being born and bred in the Nairobi suburb of Dandora, commonly referred to as “D”. Their Facebook page is intended to reflect their suffering at the hands of hardcore gangsters. Maria Mutua, a widow and a mother of six, says she lost her husband in 2012 to criminal activity – yet what happened on that day remains a mystery to her and the children. Her husband was a casual worker with a building firm in Industrial Area, she told Africa in Fact amid tears.

On the fateful day there had been no work, so he had come home early. Later, he had joined friends at a neighbouring “local” – slang for bar. “At around 10pm, I heard gunshots,” says Mutua. “They sounded as if they were being shot from my bedroom. I was scared and shouted to my children to lie down and remain silent.” Outside, gunshots mixed with the intermittent barking of dogs. Mutua thought it might be her family’s final day on earth. Wondering where her husband was, she prayed. When the shooting stopped, she tried calling Baba Jemo, as he was known. His mobile phone rang unanswered. Matua hoped that he had not been caught up in the shooting on his way home, and that he had found refuge somewhere. At around 2.30am she received a text message from a neighbour who owned a tuck-shop nearby. The short message gave her cold shivers. Pole kwa msiba, it read (sorry for your loss). The police later told her that Baba Jemo had been killed by a stray bullet during a gun battle between security agencies and a local gang.

Death is certain for everything that is born, she says, but the random death of her husband was hard to understand. “He was everything to our family. He clothed us, paid rent for our house, and bought food for the family.” Seven years after her husband’s death, Mutua says that little has changed as regards crime in the area. Guns and bullets are easily accessible to youths, many of whom are idle and jobless, she says. Since then life for her family has been a “long, tedious and rough walk”. Three of her children have since graduated from university without finding employment. It’s difficult, she says, to get a job when competence is shut out by ethnicity, nepotism and bribes. Another resident, Winston Kariuki, confesses to running an illicit business to earn a living. The 32-year-old says he finished his degree in actuarial science at the University of Nairobi in 2013 but gave up looking for employment when he was turned away from three jobs, despite emerging as the top candidate in the interviews.

He came close to committing suicide, he says. He was under pressure from his parents and his peers to find a source of income. Then he was introduced to a group of young men who were “looking for opportunities”, especially in relation to commercial banks. They would study the banks’ systems and hack them to steal money, he says. The “business” was lucrative but risky. Sometimes they would intimidate bank IT officials into disclosing critical systems information using firearms bought in Eastleigh, a satellite town near Nairobi dominated by the Somali community. Jacqueline Nafula, an activist in Dandora who advises youths about alternative income sources such as non-formal businesses, says Kariuki’s story isn’t surprising. “How do you expect young, brilliant and energetic people to earn a living if there are no jobs out there for them?” Firearms are widely available in Dandora and other Nairobi slums and therefore represent a constant security risk to residents of the city. It’s not hard to acquire a gun in Nairobi, provided you have money, a police officer told Africa in Fact in confidence.

Guns can be bought – or simply hired for the occasion. Unlike Kariuki, other men face obstacles even getting an education, impacting on their life chances. Alex Nzau, a 36-year-old father of three, was unable to complete secondary school after his parents, who worked at a commercial bank, were killed in the terror attack that targeted the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. Nzau was sitting for his final national primary school examinations at the time. Despite the trauma of his parents’ death, he was determined to perform well, but without money to pay school fees he was unable to progress to secondary school. As the oldest child, he had to give up on the possibility of further education to look after his younger siblings. “I had to make hard choices,” he told Africa in Fact. But how does a boy of 15 look after a family? Nzau says he tried to find ways to earn money, but nothing came of them. “That is how I ended up doing highway robberies,” he says regretfully.

The weapons were leased from merchants in Mathare. He and his gang mates would pay as much as Sh30,000 ($300) for a night. On “dry days” the rent went down to Sh10,000 ($100). “We threatened, we tortured, we maimed, but we never killed,” he told Africa in Fact. “That was our cardinal rule. We only used our weapons when our targets showed resistance. That is one thing I don’t regret.” But earnings from criminal activities dwindled when security patrols were intensified. In 2004, Nzau began to think of leaving the life he had lived for five years, despite threats from his gang mates. The police were letting it be known that anyone in possession of a weapon should surrender it or “face the full force of the law”. Today, Nzau runs a small church in the coastal city of Mombasa. If he has a piece of advice for younger men today it is this: not to be in a hurry in life. It is this desire to get rich quickly that drives youths to crime, observes Netia Khalwange, a social scientist in Nairobi.

“Patience doesn’t kill,” she argues, claiming allegations that corruption, nepotism and ethnic favouritism keep people out of jobs are “baseless”. Young people need to acquire skills that make them employable, she insists. There are also opportunities to keep themselves busy and earn a living – in the informal sector, for instance. The blend of desperation, a desire for quick riches and the availability of guns has seen crime levels skyrocket in recent years. Young men without jobs still have energy and they will use it. Gangs still work their trade, despite the criticism of social workers. The Kayole Gaza Group, for instance, which is said to consist of boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 19, is one of Nairobi’s most ruthless criminal gangs, known for ferocious robberies during which victims are maimed or killed. Members are said to be ready to die. Their activities are so deadly that a specialised police officer has been assigned to track their activities.

The officer, who goes by the alias of Hessy wa kayole, regularly posts photos on different Facebook platforms of Kayole Gaza Group members gunned down during their criminal activities, says another police officer in confidence. The armed youths are apparently setting out to emulate the operations of a secretive gang, Mungiki, which was banned by the Kenyan authorities in 2003 but is still reputed to be one of Kenya’s most ruthless criminal organisations, known for beheading their victims. Following police operations, Mungiki recently seems to have reduced its criminal acts, though it is still prevalent in extorting money from businesses. Classified as a terror group in 2008, Mungiki was at the centre of the post-election violence in 2007. Indeed, a commission, which was set up to investigate the 2008 post election violence in Kenya, blamed Mungiki for perpetrating violence, particularly on Luo and Kalenjin tribes, whose political leaning was towards the opposition.

Residents enduring Nairobi’s latest crime wave suspect that there may be links between the two social media “activists”, Hessy wa Dandora and Hessy wa Kayole and the police, but the authorities have denied any association.

Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the University of Nairobi.

Challenging the patriarchy

Mama Rahma: profile of an African feminist

Child bride at 13 and a victim of female genital mutilation, Kenyan activist Rahma Wako liberated herself to become a powerful advocate of women’s rights

Mama Rahma Wako Photo: supplied

Despite holding up half the sky, African women have for a long time existed within a society that does not allow them to simply be themselves, and prevents them from taking part in important discussions, even when they are affected by them. According to Kenyan Rahma Wako, African women are, more often than not, expected to conform to oppressive controls and are thus condemned to silence. Widely known as Mama Rahma, Wako, who lives in Kiamaiko, Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi’s Eastlands, has established a reputation as a powerful advocate of women’s rights. Her efforts have won both national and international acclaim, including a Mathare Heroes Award and in 2017 a Human Rights Defender of the Year award from the embassy of the Netherlands in Kenya. Walking through Kiamaiko, one passes myriad small businesses, mostly selling street food.

There is a cacophony of noise and smells. Also noticeable are signs of a flourishing Islamic culture and lifestyle. From the languages spoken, it’s clear most of the population consists of people from pastoralist communities such as the Borana and Burji from northern Kenya and Ethiopia. The district is known for its goat’s meat markets and you pass slaughterhouses everywhere. Mama Rahma says her younger years were filled with joy and positive energy. When her parents moved to Mathare she was six years old and had the whole world before her. But she found that she was among thousands of other young Muslim girls denied access to school. “It wasn’t until a Christian missionary, who was known as Father Glory, came to Kiamaiko and took us in, that young girls like me here were able to access sufficient food, clothes and shoes, as well as a basic education,” she says.

“I was beginning to have dreams of a future. I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up.” Wanting to be a lawyer, she now feels, probably stemmed from the urge to stand up for her friends when the need arose. But her father felt that books would be of no benefit to a girl child and would probably give her a “hard head” and lead her to disrespect men. He was a staunch traditionalist who later forced her to leave school, believing that she would be “swallowed up” by Father Glory’s beliefs. Her father didn’t want her becoming like one of the “spoiled Christian girls”, who he detested. She was barely 13 when she was suddenly married off to a 50-year-old man. “I do not remember feeling more betrayed in my life,” she says. That week she had noticed that the family home was unusually busy, with family members arriving from far and wide.

Some kind of ceremony was being prepared, but neither Mama Rahma nor her siblings had any idea what it was about. As children, they were not allowed to poke their noses into older people’s business. Then her parents sat her down for a quick pep talk. They had brought her new clothes for some reason, she did not understand why. Her father and some of her uncles kept holding two fingers up to her face, as if making the peace sign, and asking her to choose a finger; one represented a blessing and the other a curse, they said. “Guess which I picked.” She was to become the bride of a man who had been married three times already, and with whose children she had played. Since they were in the city, the guests did not bring cows and goats as gifts. Instead, they paid her father “a lot of money”, which was seen as a dowry. “I was being sold and it was not my place to say no.”

Rahma felt that her newly found passion for school and her hopes of being a lawyer were being taken away from her. “My whole world was caving in,” she says. “I am not sure how capable I was then of falling in love or knowing what love felt like, but I can still remember literally feeling that my dreams were being snatched away from me.” Worse still, she knew that no one would rescue her. Not even her mother was able to object. The view was that girls were old enough to marry at 12, and that they should be sold into marriage at that age “before the world could corrupt their morals”. Her duty was simply to understand this and accept her new duties as a wife. A woman should be seen, not heard. Father Glory’s stories about Jesus the saviour receded into the distance. Soon she was pregnant, and gave birth to twins. But her mother-in-law took them away from her, saying she was too young to raise children.

“Again, I struggled to fathom what this all meant,” Mama Rahma says. “My husband beat me every day. He beat me and demanded babies, but I never got to be with my children. After every delivery, my mother-in-law would come and take the babies, and my husband would continue with the beatings and the demands.” Sometimes it crosses her mind that her life would have been different if she had chosen to be “the meek, obediently cooperative wife who was unconditionally in love with a monster,” as she put it. “The one thing most people never “The one thing most people never saw beyond my husband’s masculinity was how readily he would flaunt it any chance he got, how ruthlessly he would beat me, and how deeply he scarred me both within and without.” She bears the scars of old knife wounds on her head, arms and thighs from the daily assaults that were inflicted on her.

She would run away, but he would come looking for her. “I could tell how it was going to end. I knew that script all too well. The trauma was overwhelming.” When they took away her second set of twins she felt she could no longer accept the maltreatment. She decided to speak up for herself and took her abusive husband to court, asking to be given her children. But for doing this, she was treated as an outcast by her family. “Father Glory’s messiah must have arrived during this period,” she comments. “He had been very late but at least I won the case and was reunited with my kids.” Nothing else mattered. Demanding to be divorced immediately, she was on her own. Her parents disowned her, as did her sisters. She had betrayed the ways of her people, she was told, and she was despicable. She had brought misfortune to her family. When she died, no one would bury her.

To support herself and her children, she began making and selling Chang’aa, a local illicit spirit distilled from grains. Moreover, the activity was completely unheard of, given her religious background. Meanwhile, people kept assuring her that she would be unable to raise her children without a man in her life. “I was determined to prove them wrong,” she says, “all of them! Finally, I had become (a kind of) lawyer, as I wished as a little girl. I was standing up for myself against the whole world, and feeling more alive than I had ever been before.” When she began her new life as an independent woman she felt that it was time to declare her opinions about the treatment of women. She was all too aware that other women in Kiamaiko were vulnerable and might end up in the same situation in which she had found herself. She had been subjected to genital mutilation and was disgusted that so many girls in the district were still put through it.

She was also aware that other women were subjected to domestic violence. “I was done with self-pity and felt the urgent need to talk about many difficult, important issues, but I wasn’t sure I would do it well. I needed to keep my family and community with me, yet addressing ‘controversial’ topics made that difficult, if not impossible.” Her aim now was to help as many people as possible while angering as few as possible. Her great fear was that she might end up helping a few and angering many. Nevertheless, she felt that even if the latter happened, starting conversations about these topics would be worthwhile. People would get over their anger. If they didn’t, they would only think less of her. But their displeasure would be a small price to pay if she helped even a few.

Mama Rahma and four friends went on to found a local community women’s parliament, called Bunge La Wamama Mashinani, (Grassroots Women’s Parliament), which identified patriarchal power as a fundamental source of injustice and inequality, and called for a deconstruction of gendered power relations. “To my surprise, many women joined the movement,” she says. “We were about 300 women from across the nine villages of Kiamaiko, aiming to challenge the system of sexist oppression, which is deeply entrenched in many societies and into which we had all been born.” Everyone who joined had been witness to the devastation inflicted on girls, but there had never been a safe space where they could speak out. Bunge La Wamama Mashinani became a sanctuary that allowed them to protest against all discrimination against women in Kiamaiko, which included behaviours related to sex, gender, class and ethnicity.

Members of the women’s parliament encountered violence and stigmatisation, but they continued to stimulate conversations around abuse and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Over time, cases of both became less common in the community. Now, Mama Rahma visits local schools to mentor young girls and teach them alternative values. She tells her school audience that practices such as child marriage, wife beating and FGM are not “okay”, even when tradition and religion sanction them. Rahma’s message is that submitting to such practices is a choice and that they should always demand to be heard if they don’t want to undergo them. She is particularly opposed to FGM. Recently, she says, a young girl in Kiamaiko died undergoing FGM. She was operated on by an old woman who could not see very well. “People said the poor girl’s death was due to fate. God had decided, and her day had come.

Can you imagine the blood-sucking nonsense?” In recent years, Mama Rahma has found that the community that rejected her for supposed heresy has begun to accept her as an internal influence – partly because of the recognition she has received from outside it, she feels. “I fought hard for values I believed in and I helped bring important discussions back home,” she says. “If anything, that has made me stronger.” Now she is a member of a male-dominated elders’ council in her village – the first woman allowed to participate. She sees her inclusion as an example of humanity’s potential to change. Meanwhile, the man she divorced all those years ago has never gone to the local Kadhi courts – part of a system of subordinate Islamic courts with authority over family, inheritance and succession – to accept the documents associated with their divorce, and still claims that she is his wife.

“His clan, the Dhigalu, still holds my clan, the Warjidha, accountable and indebted for the dowry paid for my early marriage,” she says. “They insist on calling me their ‘cow’. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.”

Kanyi Wyban is a young writer and musician based in Nairobi. He is the founder of Heroes of Mathare, a storytelling project aimed at telling beautiful narratives and celebrating heroes from the community otherwise branded a “slum”. He is also coordinator of the Mathare Green Movement, an ecological justice campaign aimed at reclaiming the humanity of Mathare by planting trees and making it green

Hostile terms

Africa: ‘tribalism’

Over a century of deeply racist Western literature continues to influence notions of ‘blackness’ and what it means to be an African

Joseph Conrad. Image Wikimedia Commons

By Milton Allimadi

When I wrote my master’s paper at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in the 1990s I showed that the literature of 18th century demonisation of Africa—in order to justify the conquest and colonial rule eventually formalised with the 1884 Berlin Conference—has a strong and enduring influence on contemporary Western writings about Africa. European so-called explorers used the word “tribesmen” interchangeably with “savages”. Here’s what Samuel Baker, author of “Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile”, (1866), said about African “tribesmen”: “I wish the Black sympathiser in England could see Africa’s innermost heart as I do, much of their sympathy would subside … Human nature viewed in its crudest state as pictured among African savages is quite on a level with that of the brute, and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog.” The German traveller, Georg Schweinfurth, also warned in “Heart of Africa”, (1873) that: “The first sight of a throng of savages, suddenly presenting themselves in their naked nudity, is one from which no amount of familiarity can remove the strange impression; it takes abiding hold upon the memory, and makes the traveller recall anew the civilisation he has left behind.” The “tribalised” image of Africans has endured thanks to passages like this one from Joseph Conrad’s celebrated “Heart of Darkness” (1902): “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We would have fancied ourselves the first men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled around a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grassroofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”

The book is loved by millions of Europeans—and Africans—yet Chinua Achebe correctly concluded that Conrad was “a thoroughgoing racist” in “Hopes and Impediments” (1988). Conrad’s Africa shaped the mindset of professional journalists who started covering Africa in the 20th century. European enforcers of colonial regimes exploited this “tribal” perception of Africa, as demonstrated when Albion Ross, a New York Times correspondent, interviewed Gabriel Teixeira, governor general of Portuguese Mozambique. Ross’s article was published on April 22, 1954 under the headline “Portugal Accepts African Equality”. “We do not believe in superior and inferior races,” the governor told Ross. “The black man in Africa is simply where the white man began thousands of years ago. You cannot rush that sort of thing.” “A native vote is absurd,” Teixeira added. “These people’s grandfathers were sometimes cannibals. How do they vote? What do they vote for?” Ross did not challenge any of the governor’s assertions nor interview Africans to hear what they had to say. There is no question that the personal prejudices of the reporters and editors were reflected in the stories published about Africa, as I discovered from letters they exchanged that I found in the Times’ archives. “I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics,” Homer Bigart, a famous New York Times reporter wrote in a letter to his editor Emanuel Freedman from Ghana in early 1960. “The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.” (Henry Wallace was an American segregationist politician who wanted black people deported to Africa.)

Bigart’s favourite terms for describing Africans in his articles were: “barbaric”, “macabre”, “grotesque”, and “savage”. Typical of the prose that he and Freedman enjoyed was an article by Bigart, published on January 31, 1960 under the headline “Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria”. “A pocket of barbarism still exists in eastern Nigeria despite some success by the regional government in extending a crust of civilisation over the tribe of the pagan Izi,” Bigart wrote. He added, “A momentary lapse into cannibalism marked the closing days of 1959, when two men killed in a tribal clash were partly consumed by enemies in the Cross River country below Obubra. Garroting was the society’s favored method of execution. None of the victims was eaten, at least not by society members. Less lurid but equally effective ways were found to dispose of them …” Freedman, encouraged this type of “journalism”, writing to Bigart in a letter dated March 4, 1960: “This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public … By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in the New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?” When the Times’ editors felt articles lacked the “tribal” element, they simply concocted them. After Lloyd Garrison, a New York Times correspondent who was based in Nigeria read the version of his article published on May 31, 1967 he sent off a letter dated June 5, 1967 complaining to the editors about a fabrication added to his story: “The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves’ is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression there are a lot of tribes running around half naked … Tribesmen connote the grass leaves image … Plus tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn’t fit, and is offensive to African readers who know damn well what unwashed American and European readers think when they stumble on the word …”

Sometimes Western writers play off different ethnic groups against each other. This was certainly the case during the inter-ethnic war between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority in Rwanda after Tutsi exiles backed by Uganda invaded on October 1, 1990. In “Rwanda’s Aristocratic Guerrillas” published in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 1992, Alex Shoumatoff wrote that Tutsis were “refined” while Hutus were “short, stocky” and “broad nosed”. “In the late 19th century,” Shoumatoff continued, “early ethnologists were fascinated by these ‘languidly haughty’ pastoral aristocrats whose high foreheads, aquiline noses and thin lips seemed more Caucasian than Negroid, and they classed them as ‘false negroes’. In a popular theory of the day, the Tutsis were thought to be highly civilised people, the race of fallen Europeans, whose existence in Central Africa had been rumoured for centuries.” It is not difficult to imagine which side the article intended for Western readers and policy makers to empathise with and favour in the war. The war dragged on for four years. Then suddenly on April 6, 1994 the conflict turned into apocalyptic massacres after the plane carrying Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana—and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira—was shot down, killing both. The genocidal killings claimed an estimated 800,000 to one million lives of Tutsis and Hutus. In an article about the massacres in Rwanda, Time magazine in its April 25, 1994 edition claimed the killings were fuelled by “tribal bloodlust and political rivalry”.

Where do we stand when it comes to the T-word in this the 21st century? What the late Ugandan scholar and author Okot p’Bitek wrote about the word “tribe” in “African Religions in Western Scholarship” (1970) remains true. “Western scholarship sees the world as divided into two types of human society,” p’Bitek wrote, “one, their own, civilised, great, developed; the other the non-western peoples, uncivilised, simple, undeveloped. One is modern, the other tribal.” This is the same logic that applied when the international community basically stood by during the Rwanda massacres; presumably because Africans were simply quenching their “tribal blood lust”, to borrow Time magazine’s words.

Milton Allimadi attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia where he won the prestigious James Wechsler Memorial Prize award in international journalism. He was a freelance reporter for The New York Times, a reporter and deputy managing editor with The City Sun, before founding The Black Star News. His book “The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa” is forthcoming.

Creole rising

West Africa: new languages

Pidgin and creole emerged to serve trade, but what of their longer-term use and acceptance?

By Simon Akam

When I lived in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, my house had a collection of books on the shelves on one wall. There were copies of the Sierra Leonean government gazette, for my landlord had once run the national printing concern. There was also a Bible, but its title hung on the edge of intelligibility: Gud Yus f Clman. It was written in Sierra Leonean Krio—a creole, a kind of language formed when multiple tongues collide. Krio is not the only linguistic blend in Africa. Such languages are politically significant on the continent. Yet creole and pidgin languages generate intense controversy. Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the topic is “rife with prejudices”. One reason is that creoles and pidgins embody, in linguistic form, the encounters between European and African cultures. According to the traditional theory, when groups of individuals with no common language interact with each other, usually for trade, an initial “contact pidgin” emerges. This vernacular cannot express ideas as complex as those which its users gloss in their respective native languages, and its grammar is scant. According to Joseph Opala, an American historian who spent much of his adult life in Sierra Leone, more than two languages must be involved if a pidgin is to emerge. With just two languages, one group chooses, or is forced, to learn the other’s. During the initial period of European contact with West Africa, Portuguese, English, French and Scandinavian traders and slavers probed the coastline. Malaria kept most Europeans from penetrating inland, but their demands spurred an extensive trading network away from the coast.

The Europeans never saw this system, but its African protagonists had to transect multiple other kingdoms and statelets with whom they shared no language. So West African Pidgin English (WAPE) emerged, a colourful language in which Noah would be said not to have built an ark but an “Elder Dempster”, after the British shipping line that long served the West African coast. In the traditional theory, the first, rough contact pidgin gradually coalesces into a lingua franca pidgin, whose lexis and grammar can convey any idea that the speaker’s native language can frame. The language of the economically dominant culture, in West Africa usually English, serves as the “lexifier”, providing most of the vocabulary, but not the grammar. Examining a comparable situation in Haiti, the anthropologist Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, in the 1930s, argued that the local vernacular comprised Ewe, an African language used today in Ghana and Togo, spoken with French vocabulary. In Sierra Leone, Krio’s vocabulary includes words that reflect the nautical background of the first English speakers to explore the coast. Ian Hancock, a linguist at the University of Texas, says that the word for “kitchen”, “gyali”, derives from the English word for the galley on a ship. “Mo”, from the English verb “to moor” [a ship], means to keep someone rooted to the spot. “Swaba”, from “swabber” is a term of abuse. “Kyapsay”, from “capsize”, describes anything that tips over. John McWhorter, another linguist at Columbia University, says the usual exception to lexifierorigin vocabulary in pidgin languages involves things from the cultural realm, including items from nature, “private things”, art, music and food.

Despite their sophistication, lingua franca pidgins are languages with no native speakers; everyone who uses them speaks another mother tongue. When native speakers emerge, the conventional theory holds that pidgin becomes a creole language. This “evolutionary model” of the development of such languages has come in for criticism. An alternative school of thought argues that environment is a more important influence, with pidgins developing around isolated trading posts and more elaborate creoles requiring plantations with longer periods of enforced cross-cultural interaction and slower turnover. Hence the emergence of both French and English-lexifier creoles on Caribbean islands, while the Niger Delta, which was heavily slaved but minimally settled, birthed pidgin. Salikoko Mufwene, a Congolese linguist at the University of Chicago, suggests that Sierra Leonean Krio is a Caribbean language that returned to Africa when freed slaves settled in Freetown from the 18th century onwards. Others acknowledge the Caribbean influence: contemporary Krio has numerous words of Jamaican origin. But there are differences. Jamaican Maroons visiting Sierra Leone have to speak English with their Kriospeaking hosts, reports Hancock. Some critics question the idea that there is any difference in the way creoles and pidgins developed and the emergence of, for example, French and Italian from Latin in Europe. DeGraff calls this idea “the fallacy of creole exceptionalism”. The Krio people in Sierra Leone, the descendants of freed slaves for whom Krio is the native language, today amount to around two percent of the country’s population, and are concentrated on the Freetown peninsula.

Yet Krio serves as a lingua franca with inland groups who speak languages such as Mende and Temne. There are radio broadcasts in Krio. The president speaks it, and can modulate between Krio and English. Until the 1930s Sierra Leonean Krio was often called “Broken English”. The Krio elite, who favoured arcane English garb including top hats and tailcoats, despite the heat, strongly resisted attempts to classify it as a “proper language”. Thomas Decker, a Sierra Leonean journalist born in 1916, was pivotal in driving acceptance. He wrote poetry in Krio and, in the 1960s, performed Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Krio translation (“Juliohs Siza”) to a packed audience at State House in Freetown. Independence provided further impetus, as the Krios saw that a Britishderived group identity was no longer desirable. Eventually the language came to be called Krio, rather than being dismissed as a creole. A written system emerged, including the and , which baffled me when I encountered them in my house. When I worked in Sierra Leone I found that Krio served as an effective barometer of expatriate attitudes to the country. Old lags always spoke it, but new arrivals who were determined to embrace it marked themselves as NGO idealists. Western ambassadors or agency heads found that it was important to deliver speeches, or at least introductions, in enthusiastic, if halting, Krio. In academic circles there is broad consensus that pidgin and creole in West Africa are largely a phenomenon of the Anglosphere. French-lexified creoles are widespread elsewhere, notably with Kreyòl in Haiti, but not in Africa.

The French spoken in Senegal, for instance, is so clear that firms from metropolitan France outsource call centres there. The notable exception is Nouchi in Cóte d’Ivoire, which is French-based but includes words from indigenous Ivorian languages as well as some English: “Je me wash” is one hybrid. Côte d’Ivoire had 30 years of relative stability post-independence and a fairly adept educational system—one possible reason French was disseminated widely enough there to blend. Coleman Donaldson, a Ph.D student in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, working in West Africa, says that, unlike in Abidjan, French is much less likely to be heard at street or market level in other ostensibly Francophone West African countries such as Niger. Criticism, both internal and external, of creole and pidgin is longstanding. In 1935 Geoffrey Gorer, an English anthropologist, suggested in his book “African Dances” that its use infantilised Africans. Last year a popular YouTube video by Freetown Tok focused on the phenomenon of Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora, particularly in the US, pretending to not speak or understand Krio. These prejudices extend elsewhere in the region. Musician Mensa Ansah, one half of the duo FOKN Bois, who grew up in Ghana, recalls that his “Broken English”, as pidgin was then known, was taboo at his boarding school. Though it was universally understood, it was considered a threat to the “Queen’s English”. Like other Ghanaian musicians, he tried to rap like Americans, but found he could express himself better in the old home language. The result, a collaboration with his partner Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu aka Wanlov the Kubolor, was, as they put it, “the world’s first pidgin musical”.

In Nigeria, pidgin has a sustained following in popular music. When I worked in West Africa the Nigerian duo P-Square scored a pan-regional hit with “Chop My Money”. Recently, Nigerian pidgin has gone upmarket: Helen Isibor-Epega, a British-Nigerian who performs as The Venus Bushfires, last year premiered “Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera”. Isibor-Epega says she encountered some criticism from older Nigerians, who grumbled about a language they viewed as base. Most, though, were enthusiastic.

Simon Akam worked in Sierra Leone as a correspondent for Reuters between 2010 and 2012. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian and other publications.

Between a rock and a hard place

Swaziland: monarchical abuse

Childhood links to the motherland seem to require a certain patriotism, yet the country is troubled by a self-serving ruler

Young Bheki with Mom and Dad in 1972.
Photo supplied

By Bheki Mashile

From a young age I came to admire the notions of “for God and country” and, of course, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While the first was used to prepare men to go to war and the second— made famous by American president, John F. Kennedy—calls on everyone to focus on contributing to the building of their nation, both represent the embracing of patriotism. Yet they also make me feel guilty whenever someone brings up the subject of my being a Swazi. My father served as a diplomat for Swaziland at the UN and at the embassy in Washington DC. However, my mother was a South African Sotho from Barberton, where they met. This combination—Swazi father, South African mother—has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. But it’s left me with a dilemma. Well, not just a dilemma but also a problem that has seen me battling feelings of guilt. While my family returned to Swaziland after my father’s ten-year diplomatic posting, I remained in the States to attend varsity and I subsequently worked there too. However, when I returned in 1996, due to my father’s death, I did not return to Swaziland, but to Barberton. So I have faced accusations of abandoning Swaziland—a country that gave me the opportunity to be educated in the “great” America. Worse yet, my American twang and associated mannerisms were a clear indication that I’d forgotten my roots. At first these comments were annoying; later I found myself asking the same questions. It was often easy enough to ignore the comments, since they mostly came from people who were inebriated or envious of the fact that I grew up in America.

The view seemed to be that I’d gone there as the son of a diplomat father, and should therefore live in the kingdom and repay my good fortune by serving it in some way. The comments always closed with: “You’re a Dlamini; a Swazi. Don’t you forget that.” I never lost sight of or appreciation for my Swazi heritage, despite arriving in the States at the age of eight. I couldn’t have, in fact, even if I’d wanted to. We were always in the company of Swazis, whether they were in the States on business or because they were members of the royal family who were visiting for one reason or another. Anyway, my mother would never have allowed it. She did everything to ensure my brother and I did not become too Americanised. Pap was not replaced by pizza or spaghetti. Though she did once go a bit too far, by dressing my siblings and me in shorts on our first day of school. This gave our new schoolmates the opportunity to introduce us to the sensation of snowballs pummelling our exposed legs. (We arrived in New York one early November.) There were also the mandatory holidays back home every three or four years—which were intended to give the foreign affairs contingent the opportunity to personally brief the king on their work and progress in the US. I remember my father saying that these trips were not just holidays or compulsory briefing sessions: His Majesty King Sobhuza II had insisted on them, to ensure that the family, more especially the children, did not lose touch with their Swazi heritage. So I never really turned my back on my Swazi background then. The same questions sometimes come up, however, in this part of my life, because I’ve chosen to settle just across the border in Barberton. In fact, it doesn’t really feel as if it isn’t Swaziland. The population of this little mining town, and indeed a good portion of Mpumalanga, is predominantly Swazi, with all that comes with that: language, culture and traditions.

Choosing to stay in Barberton on my return in 1996 had more to do with the desire to be in the wider environment offered by South Africa, with its bigger economy, and cultures and languages, rather than the small environment represented by the tiny kingdom. Many of my Swazi compatriots prefer to come to South Africa, seeking greener pastures. They range from professionals to illegal miners. All the same, most remain fiercely loyal not only to the “motherland” but also to the monarchy—despite the widely publicised excesses of the current monarch, King Mswati III. This is why I see my being born in South Africa as something of a blessing. My fellow Swazis, who are often in South Africa without work permits, must return to the kingdom at the end of every month because of the 30-day entry limitation imposed by South African immigration authorities. Needless to say, I’m glad I’m spared this. Heritage aside, what do I feel about my “motherland”? Well, as one of my professors at varsity said: “How you feel and what role you play in the society you live in must be determined by your understanding of its social, economic and political realities.” I have to say that the current monarch, and particularly his effect on the kingdom’s economy, doesn’t inspire much patriotism. This is a view I share with many fellow Swazis. Our catch-22 reality is that, while most of us, including myself, fully support our monarchical heritage, we have been let down by the sitting king. When my father’s diplomatic stint ended in 1983 he was appointed principal secretary of foreign affairs. In that position he had regular interactions with King Mswati, who was crowned in 1986. When he got to know the king better he commented to my mother one day: “Under this boy Swaziland is in trouble. All he seems to care about are the benefits of being king.” Sadly, my father’s observation has come true.

Bheki Mashile, a journalist and editor of a community newspaper, the Umjindi Guardian, won a Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism in 2009. He is a regular contributor to the Cape Town-based investigative magazine Noseweek. He is also a farmer.