Simply Blue Relaunch

Originally posted on Mamba Online on February 7 2017

By Katlego Disemelo

There is something quite refreshing about change and dynamism. And if you are prone to curiosity like I am, you will be drawn towards most things that are new or different. For almost fifteen years Simply Blue has prided itself on providing its patrons with all things distinct to Joburg nightlife and its edgy culture.

And this is precisely why I was excited to attend the Simply Blue Relaunch event late last month. Although I’m quite familiar with Rogers Street in Selby Village, and the various nightclubs that have mushroomed thereabout – Lemon8, V2 and MiHouse – I was both curious and anxious to see what our familiar favourite had in store for us.

After climbing out of my Uber taxi, I skipped up the steps and I was surprised to be greeted by a smiling hostess. I paid the cover charge, complemented her Afro hairstyle, and walked along the red carpet into the main venue. I was then greeted by yet another smiling hostess before I walked into the main area. I had flashbacks from my younger and wilder days as I recognised the comic-strips covering the wall behind her.

I found it intriguing to see illustrations of Wonder Woman complementing the beautiful Miss Simply Blue who was handing out welcome shots to the guests. I then walked in to see the venue as I hadn’t seen it before: high ceilings, clean, white and silver minimalist décor complemented by a pool table, two well-stocked bars, and (the most important features, of course), two disco mirror balls overlooking the wide dancefloor.

By 22:00 the crowd filled up the enormous space. And it was an interesting crowd at that. I met different people from different walks of life who were there to have a good time, and to celebrate Simply Blue’s relaunch. It was great to see the people laughing and chatting on the white sofas or on the silver stools while they looked onto some amazing dance moves.

The welcoming and jovial atmosphere was also kept apace by the eclectic music selection. Few things are as boring as a playlist chiming out the same predictable genre all night. But this wasn’t the case. From the lovers of gqom, pop and RnB, to hip-hop and house music, everyone seemed to have their tastes catered to. They were also treated to entertainment and sat captivated by the live performances from the S.A.T. Divas and the inimitable Dame Zsa Zsa Whitney Gabor Houston.

Having moved from three venues in its previous incarnations, there is something commendable about Simply Blue’s staying power and its ability to draw supportive patronage. In a supposedly “world-class” city like Johannesburg, even a lay person is well aware of just how difficult it is to keep the doors open at any entertainment venue. But Simply has done more than that. It has provided a space for any and every person to feel free to be themselves, and dance until the early hours of the morning. And there is something equally amazing to be have a (much-needed) venue in which a wide variety of gender identities and sexual orientations are accepted and celebrated.

Diversity, fun and acceptance seem to be the name of the game at Simply Blue, and I can safely say I look forward to a many more years of dancing at its new stunning venue.

Hyena Politics: Lessons for local voters from Donald Trump Win

Originally posted on Daily Nation on February 3 2017

 As Trump settles in office, his triumph entrenches the view that politics is a dirty game and the dirtier one is the more likely one is able to win. In Kenya, the hyenas, opportunists and scavengers are in charge of our politics! ILLUSTRATION | FILE

As Trump settles in office, his triumph entrenches the view that politics is a dirty game and the dirtier one is the more likely one is able to win. In Kenya, the hyenas, opportunists and scavengers are in charge of our politics! ILLUSTRATION | FILE

By Dr. Chris Wasike

So, finally after defying all expectations, disapproving figures of election pollsters and literally trumping all the posturing’s of political scientists and media pundits, Donald John Trump was duly sworn on January 20 as the 45th American president.

As Prof Chris Wanjala rightly puts it “politicians are sometimes writers of no mean repute themselves and if not they are good fodder” for provoking novel ways of examining societal phenomena. In many ways therefore, even as polarising as he is, Trump and the rise of Trumpism (or Trumpology if you like) is a clarifying intellectual and theoretical moment that dares us to explore and do things differently even as we constantly search for new theoretical grammar and vocabulary to help us make sense of a fast changing neoliberal world.

Interestingly, as a student of orature, Trumpism has echoes of the hyena motif in African stories. For starters, animals in African folklore are symbolic personifications of human character types ranging from the hare as a trickster, the hyena as the foolish oaf and the lion as a cruel tyrant.

The hyena in our narratives is consistently typecast as a clever but rapaciously opportunistic villain whose appetite for food, instant gratification and sheer greed to scavenge and turn friend and foe into a meal is legendary. Whether as fisi in Swahili, namunyu among the Babukusu fables hiti of the Gikuyu folktale, lalur of the Luo or even nkita ofia of the Igbo mythology in Nigeria, the hyena is roundly reviled across African cultures and even beyond.

Among classical European cultures, hyenas were scorned for being vile grave-robbers that scavenged tombs just for a morsel of human carcass. But in African communities where witchcraft is practiced, folklore has it that hyenas are used as helpmates and rides by sorcerers, night runners and all manner of weird night sports and totemic practitioners.

Mafisi Sacco

In many African cultural discourses therefore, the hyena doesn’t have a good name, just like Trump, and any social metaphor or imagery loosely linked with human personality is always seen as casting aspersions about one’s character.

With the emergence of the techno-savvy generation or what we now popularly call the millennials, the word fisi in Kenya today has acquired very ‘Trumpy’ online etymology so to speak. For the past three or so years, Kenyan youths have repackaged, coined and embraced the hyena motif or Trumpism into an online sexual identity that they cheekily call Team Mafisi Sacco.

A kind of technology-mediated sexual citizenship that alludes to feminist film critic and scholar Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘male gaze’ and scopophilia, the Team Mafisi mantra is a celebration of men who derive pleasure in sexually objectifying female bodies, the love of ogling at them and basically salivating and yearning for female bodies the way hyenas size their prey.

Through social networking sites and media platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others youths have taken to sharing and even transforming sexuality and gender through the internet. Complete with a group symbol/letterhead and anthem, the Mafisi group is not only naughty in its commentary on social ideas online, but has since morphed into an internet outfit for ventilating everything sexual and political to satirising the Kenyan society using tools of sexuality.

The concept of users deploying cyberspace to generate new formations and citizenships of an otherwise fluid sexuality is what scholar Ayu Saraswati calls ‘wikisexuality’. From a Trumpist perspective wikisexuality alludes to a collaborative, fluid and interactive online sexual identity in progress.

Through social media platforms and their website Mafisi youths and even like-minded adults continue to share all manner of viral raunchy, cheeky and sexually suggestive photos and videos including leaked sexual tapes, photos of prominent male figures surreptitiously caught ogling at female backsides, nude photos or sometimes audio recordings of sexual acts such as the “Mollis I Sullenda” case.

Sexual Predators

What is significant in all these exchanges is that the men, just like Trump, appear to celebrate sexual predatory escapades, masochism and general glorification of their chivalry, chauvinism and sexist bigotry. Unknowingly or deliberately, Team Mafisi members crudely sanction the gross notion that female bodies are always available for men and the male species is tacitly egged on to grope and grab every opportunity to devour their catch, the same way fisi the animal dismembers its prey.

This attitude cuts across all spheres of Kenyan public life and especially in politics.

But during the recent US election campaigns the Hyena mantra was clearly at play when a few days to the voting date Republican candidate Trump was roundly condemned when an online video of him boasting about groping, grabbing and sexually assaulting women circulated in all forms of media.

In the video Trump was shown openly gloating and bragging how he could grab women’s private parts and get away with it because he was celebrity. Now that he has been sworn in as president, one can argue that the American people tacitly legitimised his actions for being a typical sexual predator (hyena) enjoying what any Mafisi member would love to do.

As Trump settles in office, his triumph entrenches the view that politics is a dirty game and the dirtier one is the more likely one is able to win. In Kenya, the hyenas, opportunists and scavengers are in charge of our politics! The Hyena that never wins in our folktales won in America. Should we be wary of the rise in Trumpism in our midst?

Slam That #Ethnography – The pleasures of academic life

Originally posted on Allegra Lab on October 21 2016

 Photo (cropped) by Carla da Souza Campos

Photo (cropped) by Carla da Souza Campos

By Eileen Moyer

The pleasures of academic life are many. Getting paid to read books I like, to hold conversations with people from life worlds radically different from my own, and to contemplate creative modes of sharing what I learn in the process: writing, filmmaking, photography. I really do think it is amazing that such a profession exists, and I try to remind myself from time to time to be grateful that I get to live this life. There are moments, however, when no reminder is needed, when I’m simply overwhelmed by the joy of what I do.

In the past few months I have had the pleasure of being knocked flat, more than once, by the pleasure of watching PhD students and colleagues bravely experiment with new writing voices and tackling the tough, emotional topics that so often remain beyond the pale in academic writing.

This pleasure—well, pleasures really—emanate from an ethnographic writing workshop in which I was recently involved as organizer, lecturer, workshop leader, and audience member. The first pleasure came when the student co-organizers, Tanja Ahlin and Silke Hoppe, approached me in mid-2015 to propose that I work with them on “some kind of writing class for PhDs.” Like them, I thought it strange that students were offered so little guidance on writing at the University of Amsterdam. Given that we are so often told that the thing we do most as anthropologists is write, one would think that more time, money and effort would go into thinking about and teaching techniques of ethnographic writing. Because much of my work is, like Tanja’s and Silke’s, situated in medical anthropology and science and technology studies, it also seemed to me that some sort of coaching should be made available to students who were expected to write for multiple audiences in the domains of (medical) anthropology, public health, global health and health policy. In our department, students also have the possibility of writing a dissertation based on articles or a book-length manuscript, yet they are not given training in these different modes of writing.

 Photo by Liam Kearney

Photo by Liam Kearney

Having previously taught a course on ethnographic writing that was cut due to budgetary constraints—despite students rating the class highly and asking that it be taught again—I was truly pleased when Tanja and Silke approached me to organize ‘something’ to address their desires to improve their writing. Although I was not thrilled that we were expected to do this ‘extra-curricularly,’ in our own time, I was happy to hear that there was a small fund we could draw upon to invite external lecturers. Together, we drew up a proposal that was eventually funded, we identified and invited two great writers of ethnography known for their generosity toward students (Julie Livingston and Robert Desjarlais), and began to plan the workshop. We knew we wanted to keep the class size small, so that we could workshop the writing in the way creative writing courses do. Given the great demand (more than 30 people signed up in a week!) we decided to offer plenary lectures in the morning and work in three groups of 10 (eventually 11 to accommodate the desperate to attend) to workshop ideas and writing samples in the late morning and afternoons.

For me, the workshop offered many additional pleasures, and I’m not just talking about the nice food in the beautiful Villa Mattern. Most importantly, I enjoyed getting to know the PhDs better. In my day to day work, I tend to focus most of my energy on ‘my’ PhDs, which brings its own pleasures, but hearing about the projects of other PhDs in the department made me more aware of the depth and breadth of our department.

I listened with wide open ears as students talked about their struggles to write up the densely packed ethnographic research materials they had collected.

We laughed and cried together as people shared paragraphs about chronic illness, growing old, physical impairment, drug addiction, loneliness, loss, love and death. Others, first year students mostly, attempted to develop an ethnographic voice that sounded both reflexive and informed. All in all, scary business. I was at times overwhelmed by the bravery of students who dared to experiment in front of their peers, not all of whom were friends.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the greatest pleasure of all: The Friday morning Ethnography Slam Event! Although we had conceived the event as a way to get people to experiment with writing styles and to practice performing rather than simply presenting their research, the truth is, we didn’t really think too much about it.  Or at least I didn’t. I rather suppose that Tanja and Silke did a lot more work on this front. I remember that on the morning of the event I drank a triple espresso before leaving the house, assuming that I was going to have to work hard to appear attentive during the four hours of scheduled back-to-back presentations in front of me. The night before, most of us had had a bit too much to drink at the closing social event of the week, and I was certainly a bit foggy brained. I’d been warned in advance from several participants that I should not expect much. I was told some people were even angry at me (at me??) for insisting that they perform publicly, that they didn’t feel safe. Also, they didn’t have time to prepare; the night before over drinks nearly everyone said they weren’t at all ready.

 Photo by Zeal Harris

Photo by Zeal Harris

Yet, from the first presentation, I was enthralled. I felt like a proud parent as writer after writer got up and performed—yes, PERFORMED—his or her ethnographically-informed theatre piece. Poems, multi-media presentations, short essays and just-so stories delivered with great ceremony and aplomb.  Who ARE these people, I wondered? Are these really my students, my colleagues? Are these the people I pass in the hallway and nod at? The people I chat with at the coffee machine about methods and deadlines? Before the first hour was up, my phone and Cloud storage was full. No more room for videos and photos. Devastating. Devastating beauty, that is. When the performances came to an end, Tanja asked me if I or one of the other lecturers/teachers would say a few words, to reflect on the day.

But there were no words. We all agreed. It was impossible to follow such exceptional talent, emotion, and bravery with a mundane academic round-up.

The pleasure did not end there. In the days and weeks following the workshop, I was regularly approached by participants and their PhD supervisors. It seemed the effects of the workshop were already visible in dissertation and article manuscripts, that students who had been blocked before the workshop were finally writing again. Many were even enjoying it. Recently, I had the chance to watch one of the workshop participants deliver a paper-academic style. I felt deeply proud (even had a tear in my eye) as she opened with a vignette that she had begun crafting in my workshop a few months earlier. She’d honed it to perfection and everyone was on the edge of their seat. How grateful I am to have played a small role in helping an amazing woman find her voice and gain the confidence to use it. The definition of pleasure.

Slam That #Ethnography – Bridging Distance: Letter writing

Originally posted on Allegra Lab on October 19 2016

 Photo by Hernán Piñera

Photo by Hernán Piñera

By Sarita Fae Jarmack

It is always nerve-racking to perform at a panel, but I figure if I have followed the standards guided by those before me, tested amongst peers, and refined with the help of editors, surly not too much damage can be done reading all those blocks of words out loud. Academic papers have rules. They are formulated to conclude. They are structured into fact-packed and squared off paragraphs. As they generate currency, they have purpose, a destination. But a year into my PhD, I was wondering where is the space to explore the unconventional content, to experiment with unfinished content? Should I tuck it away for rainy Sunday mornings, pretending to separate it off from the process that goes into writing conference papers? As I am interested in blurring these boundaries, I took this ethnography slam as a space to do so. Under a group topic Dialogue, I shared about a fun habit of mine during fieldwork: letter writing. In some small way, through my practice I hope to continue experimenting with challenging this panel reading tradition.

———————————————————————————————————–

…and for those days when writing just doesn’t seem so fun, making a recording of work is a nice alternative.

Sliding my hand across the paper in micro movements, my muscles contract with each hand-written letter. Can you see my hesitations between the words or the smudged trails of ink on the ends of sentences? I sulk in my horrendous spelling with scribbles here and there and purposely shmooshed together letters to hide my lack of commitment to awkward words. Pausing to warm my hands on the coffee cup, I set it down leaving a ring – a signature of its own on the papers of my life. The candles dance on the table while the hum of chatter and coffeehouse music plays in the background. My fingertips touch the corners of each paper, letting the sharp edge crease my skin.

Pulled from my core and spewed out as a canvas of thought, my hands slowly breathe life into my affection for those of whom the letters are received by. I meditate on your existence as I write. An extension of my being, bridging space and time with those at a distance. This letter is a place for others to mingle between the crevasses of my brain, the intimate contradictory thoughts of which my daily shortcomings are made of. I wish for it to be a dialogue of play between the realities in which you and I live amongst.

Those letters, with their unique fold, penmanship, smell, and touch; They go beyond the impact of which any email or text could possibly hold. They are tangible and travel with me, a piece of you and thus a piece of me in return, saved for years, left as windows into our lives and sealed with our own spit.

 

Slam That #Ethnography – Doctor's Slam

Originally posted on Allegra Lab on October 18 2016

 Photo by Bea Mahan

Photo by Bea Mahan

By David Bukusi

No one’s gonna talk to me
Coz I’m The Daktari,
Get an appointment
Yeah, get in line!

Yet here I am in Amsterdam
Where the Sun don’t shine,
Men are in Trouble
Men are on the line!

There is a Prozac bubble
Some call it mental Health
But when you want to kill yourself
It may be lack of wealth

20 years of HIV
And nothing new coming through
I’m kinda tired of WHO
Telling me what to do

I’ll be replacing objectivity with reflexivity
I’m sorting out my psychiatry with anthropology

I don’t want to continue talking about myself
No no no, let’s focus on mental health
I want to get into the field
To make sure I get the yield

I want this info
To help figure out why
Men do as they do
And why sometimes they die

How do I do this?
Through Ethnography
With all its ways, means and methods
It’s great for stories, tales and records

How will I report it,
I ask myself softly?
I do have some clues,
I’ll work them out nightly

But others here are telling me
To take some liquor
Coz this will help the lines
Flow faster and quicker

Now I really need this info
Do you get my drift,
Coz I’m the Daktari
And I’m on my shift!!!

Slam That #Ethnography – Introduction

Originally posted on Allegra Lab on October 17 2016

 Photo by Steve Johnson

Photo by Steve Johnson

By Eileen Moyer, Silke Hoppe and Tanja Ahlin

Have you ever been in a conference room, listening to one presentation after another, only to realize that they all seemed strangely similar? As in, following the same structure, being read (!) in the same monotonous tone? The words didn’t really come to life in front of your eyes, but rather blended all together into some kind of thick fog. You left the room and looked out the window of the conference building, into the sun, or rain, and the sunrays or the raindrops were so close you could almost touch them, but there was this thick, cold glass between you and life. You felt something was missing, so many things remained unpronounced, caught in the rigid net of academic (re)presentation. You intuitively knew that many of the presenters, too, must have felt somehow unfulfilled. No matter how often they rehearsed the familiar refrain, “it is complicated,” you felt that justice had not been done to the multi-layered experience of fieldwork in which both research participants and researchers feature as multi-faceted human beings. Is there a way to break the mold that constrains academic writing, through that conference building glass that confines us to pro forma stylizations?

With this and other writerly questions in mind, we organized a week-long ethnographic writing workshop for PhDs at the University of Amsterdam, which took place in late May 2016.

Our goal was to shake up ideas and assumptions (or lack of them) about ethnographic writing and presenting, to reflect on the different styles of writing that anthropologists might employ in different contexts, and to reflect on what writing culture might specifically mean to medical anthropologists.

Julie Livingston, author of Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (2012), kicked off the week with an inspiring lecture to a group of 33 students and staff members that focused on finding a balance between the spectacular and the mundane in ethnographic writing. Using her own work as an example, she demonstrated the ways that attention to detail can help readers to contextualize and make sense of so many of the spectacles we witness when working in places where poverty and precarity shape the realities of health and sickness. In a series of afternoon workshops, she had us crunching numbers, making us re-think where the numbers we use in our texts come from, how are they produced and what they do when we use them in ethnography.

In his lecture, Robert Desjarlais, author of Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World (2016), described in detail his writing method, from collecting data to writing field notes and analyzing them, to the final written outcome. In his workshops, he also challenged us to think about the vision we each had for our writing: in the manner of Italo Calvino and his Six Memos for the next Millennium, which six words would you characterize your ethnography with?

The third lecturer, Eileen Moyer, reminded us to attend to time and space in our texts, and quoted poets and fiction writers to inspire us to think about writing style when reading academic texts as well as fiction and other creative forms. In her workshop, she led us through a process of finding our own voices as writers, to reflect on the conditions we each need to find a flow, and to practice different narrative voices to reach different audiences, be they anthropological, public health or otherwise.

 Photo (cropped) courtesy of pixabay.com

Photo (cropped) courtesy of pixabay.com

A week of lectures, discussions and concentrated writing time culminated in a morning of ethnographic slam on Friday morning. During the slam, workshop participants were encouraged to present something creative drawing on their anthropological work that they had written during the short, intensive period.

But what is an “ethnographic slam”?

Thinking of a creative way to highlight the work done during the week and to encourage creativity, we proposed an improvised experiment to bring together writing informed by ethnography with the form of a poetry slam, a type of performed poetry. Poetry slam was established in the 1980s by the Chicago poet Marc Smith, who was tired of poetry being trapped within the confines of a small, elitist establishment that made poetry inaccessible to the outside, non-literary world, and also unbearable to listen to at a live reading (sound familiar?). Smith’s solution to passionless, exclusive poetry readings was slam, a vivid, energetic performance in which the poet engages with the audience and together they form a community engaged in a lively dialogue. In the Introduction to his book Take the Mic: The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam and Spoken Word (2009), Smith urges aspiring poets:

Please don’t be one of these soul-sucking zombie poets. Reach deep inside, pull out your pulsing heart, and fling it on the stage. Make the audience listen. Grab it by the throat…figuratively speaking, of course. Use your voice, your eyes, your body, your heart, your soul, and your mind to fire to life the passion, sense, and subtleties of the poetic words you toiled over past midnight, affixing them to the page. Make faces, stomp, gesture, whisper, yell! Do whatever it takes …

Given the enthusiasm and engagement that is invested into such events, it comes as little surprise that poetry slam quickly grew in popularity. First it took over the United States, where it gave rise to poetry slam masters such as Sarah Kay, Robb Q. Telfer, Tim Stafford and Dan Sullivan. Since then it has been spreading ferociously around the world.

The ethnography slam we created at the end of our workshop was meant to take us a similar direction, to break the molds of rigid academic writing and presenting, real and imagined. A written text, performed in a way that makes the audience actually listen, with their whole body, not just the mind. Since this was a new territory for us to explore, there were few rules and instructions, but there were some: Take this opportunity to learn how to take the stage. Keep it short, two to five minutes at the most, but take your time, there’s no need to rush, there won’t be any Q&As, no discussions at the end. Use your body, play with your hands, what can they express that escapes the words? Be creative, use your imagination however you can, let yourself go, just this one time it’s allowed. And if you can find a way to make 33 people laugh at any point, all the better.

As in poetry slam, creativity, imagination and fun were at the core of our ethnography slam, to be used, to paraphrase Marc Smith (2004), as tools to expand rather than limit the possibilities of the written word. But there was one crucial difference between the two. Though initially set up as a variety show, poetry slam has eventually developed into a form of competition, whereby the audience evaluates the performance by clapping and the best poets are finally awarded (“but not always,” reminds us Smith in his book).

In ethnography slam, however, competition was not our focus. We all experience enough of that when we’re applying for scholarships, grants and positions. Even more importantly, competition breeds perfectionism, which is often exactly what curbs creative expression. Instead of trying to be perfect, the ethnography slammers were encouraged to create a ‘safe space’ for each other, a kind of soft cushion, couched in acceptance rather than judgment.
Because the week was intensive—structured around morning craft lectures, afternoon group work and two public keynotes—there was little time to prepare for the ethnography slam. This, and the fact that none of us had ever done an ethnography slam before, created a bit of anxiety: How to choose what to write about? When to find the time to write the text? And how to prepare for the presentation? Working in three smaller groups of eleven people was helpful for many when trying to find answers to those questions. To make the process of choosing the topic of the piece easier, each group chose a theme: Difficulty, Silence, Dialogue. Then, we brainstormed within our groups about the possibilities of what might be included in a presentation: Change of voice? How about some acting? Playing instruments? Showing short clips? Finally, we helped each other fine tune the words we used as well as to practice the performance itself. All this may sound like a lot, but because we had little time, we all managed to pull it off in a couple of hours.

 Scene from the video Dance your PhD

Scene from the video Dance your PhD

And how did it turn out, in the end? Despite the constraints of time limits and insecurities related to diving into the unknown, the ethnography slammers rose to the challenge brilliantly. Set in a wonderful theatre space on the university campus rather than in a lecture room, the performances brought out laughter, tears, tensions and silences. Surprisingly, many stories dealt with troublesome issues or concerns that ethnographers faced when entering, staying in, or leaving their field. To paraphrase Kristine Krause, one of the ethnography slam performers, we go out to the field to find certain stories, but we can never think about the kind of stories that will find us. On the day of the ethnography slam, it was these stories in particular that finally found their outlet.

Cheryl Maddalena (2009: 230), a poetry slammer, writes that while it may begin “with an inspiration and the simple impulse to perform original, heartfelt work on stage,” poetry slam often entails a certain kind of personal transformation.[2] Or, as the poet Natalie Jordan put it, “performing from the heart improves the soul.”[3]

If the ethnography slam had to be described with a single word, “transformative” would certainly be it.

That was how Robert Desjarlais referred to it immediately after the event, and that is what, hopefully, will also become clear from the posts that will be published in this blog series over the coming week. Some of these posts have been slightly edited and adapted from the presentation to the written form. While it might have been best to see these presentations with one’s own eyes, we decided against filming the slam in order to really make it a safe space for personal expression. Publishing online is, of course, a very different endeavor, as the virtual world is far from what could be called a safe space. Nevertheless, we hope that the blog readers will be able to catch some of the energy that ran though that day.

For those curious and courageous enough to try ethnography slam, this is our advice: infuse the event with kindness, have loads of fun, and let yourself be surprised.

References

Smith, Marc. The Spoken Word Revolution (Slam, Hip Hop & the Poetry of a New Generation). Ed. Mark Eleveld. Naperville: Sourcebooks Mediafusion, 2004 (p. 116).

Maddalena, Cheryl J. “The Resolution of Internal Conflict Through Performing Poetry.” Arts in Psychotherapy 36.4 (2009): 222-230.

I Speak Verbatim; Now Here is the Ultimatum by Natalie “Olivia Moore” Jordan

Eating in Turns: The beef season and tales of food in our politics

Originally posted on Daily Nation on September 30 2016

 How Uhuru’s unfortunate remark at Ole Ntimama funeral fans the winds of hatred and exclusion in a very divided country. ILLUSTRATION| MUNENE

How Uhuru’s unfortunate remark at Ole Ntimama funeral fans the winds of hatred and exclusion in a very divided country. ILLUSTRATION| MUNENE

By Dr. Chris Wasike

Drawing from her seminal research in her book My life with Chimpanzees, anthropologist and primate expert Jane Goodall recently made interesting arguments by comparing political contests with supremacy battles among primates and chimpanzees in particular.

Referring to the current American Republican party presidential candidate Donald Trump, Goodall alleges that watching Trump in public debates and campaign rallies reminds her of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals. To impress rivals and seek to rise to the top of group hierarchies, male chimps “perform spectacular displays by stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches and throwing rocks”. Ultimately, the more vigorous and imaginative the antics, the faster and more likely for an individual chimp to graduate to the top of the troop and even maintain the position for long.

'Chimp-Like Political Dominance Rituals'

Recent cranking up of political rhetoric in our Kenyan public sphere as we fast move towards the next general elections in this country appears to lend weight to Goodall’s analogy of politics. At the late politician William ole Ntimama’s funeral, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Cord leader Raila Odinga, the two leading protagonists in our now familiar ‘chimp-like political dominance rituals’ that Kenyans have come to be accustomed to, were at each other’s jugulars again.

In his signature style, the opposition leader, who somewhat always finds a way to get under the President’s skin in public spats, baited the Head of State by claiming that Ole Ntimama was an unwavering supporter of ODM party even though he had at one point rallied a group of Maasai leaders for ‘an eating visit’ to State House to pledge support for the President come 2017.
Visibly riled and piqued by the son of Jaramogi’s taunts, Jomo’s son, in his usual regrettable fits of anger, hit back thus: “Endeleeni kumeza mate, lakini nyama tutakula” (You keep on salivating, but we shall continue eating the real meat).

In a political arena where the trivial always transcends the more serious issues, these words have since become the rallying call and symbolic refrain for politicians and a metaphor of our public discourse. What began as a moment of political ideology difference or ‘beef’ has since morphed into a political sound bite that has all the ingredients of defining the nature of our politics.

For those who have been around long enough, Uhuru’s callous and careless statement has echoes from the past. Political folklore has it that at one point after independence, the founding father President Jomo Kenyatta exhorted his political and ethnic cohorts to sharpen their knives and ‘share meat because he had the bull by its horns’. Although such claims are couched in all manner of exaggerations, in a country that runs on ethnic stereotyping, half-truths and rumours, the President’s ‘meat metaphor’ has all the elements of invoking such memories and stoking hard-core ethnic resentment.

Poignantly, the economic situation like ours where any form of meat is a rarity at many families’ dinner tables, let alone getting three square meals in a day, the statement is both spiteful and insensitive. By constructing a political schema of ‘hunger for the opposition’ and ‘satiety for those in the ruling class’, Uhuru is confirming, almost in a vulgar way, Taban Lo Liyong’s assertion that leaders are ‘eating chiefs’ and governance is not servant leadership but ‘a turn to eat’ as British author Michela Wrong rightly puts it in her John Githongo-inspired text on Kenyan corruption.

Father's Script

Indeed for Kenyans who feel excluded from the current political dispensation, Uhuru could be reading from his father’s script on ethnic favoritism and government corruption as public servants continue to ‘sharpen knives’ and carve morsels of ‘public meat’ as the common citizens look on helplessly ‘salivating’.

To be sure, metaphors and idioms of food are not strange to our political grammar. Hunger and food has been part of the way societies, since time immemorial, construct their realpolitik or what is called ‘politics of the belly’. Right from serikali ya nusu mkate (the half loaf government) catchphrase during Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga grand coalition government, politicians have always found a way of raucously weaving ‘food’ in their campaign figures of speech.

But perhaps, the father of African literature Chinua Achebe in his classic Things Falls Apart offers very germane proverbs which capture the link between food, humility and politicking that our current crop of politicians could learn from. In a story that revolves around Okonkwo, a traditional Igbo man who excels in wrestling, war and farming, Achebe paints a picture of a dynamic but humble African culture through two memorable proverbs; (i) If a child washed his hands he could eat with kings and (ii) Proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten.

Powerful Symbol

These two proverbs underscore the fact that food as a powerful symbol in communication should always be used to evoke affection, empathy and belonging instead of being applied as a figure of capitalistic greed and primitive eating from state largesse. When a child is counselled to ‘wash their hands in order to eat with elders,’ it is a reminder that eating is an occasion of respectable and humble communion with others, and not a chance to gloat and brag to those who can’t afford such diets.

Similarly, when Achebe says ‘proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten,’ he is urging humility, moderation and level-headedness in our aliments and dietary habits but even in the way as leaders we speak in public.

Like food and wine, words have to be eaten in moderation. Feasting or fasting, nutrition or malnutrition, hunger or binging, all have downsides. And for those who are eating now, be wary of the hungry man. Akin to the ‘chimp dominance ritual’ hunger, yearning and deprivation feeds ambition and today’s hungry man is preparing his turn to eat tomorrow!

When the Artiste Becomes the Ruler: How gospel singer Bahati pushed boundaries

Originally posted on Daily Nation on September 16 2016

 First Lady Margaret Kenyatta watches as singer Bahati performs during the launch of the Jubilee Party on September 10, 2016. The artiste’s act of sitting on the President’s seat as he serenaded the First Lady has drawn more discussion than what the President said at the event. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

First Lady Margaret Kenyatta watches as singer Bahati performs during the launch of the Jubilee Party on September 10, 2016. The artiste’s act of sitting on the President’s seat as he serenaded the First Lady has drawn more discussion than what the President said at the event. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Dr. Chris Wasike

In my traditional Lubukusu idiomatic parlance, we have a popular saying that loosely translates to, “He who walks with a king is better than a digger”.

Like many wise anecdotes, this saying alludes to the idea that those who keep the company of royalty are likely to reap from the trappings of such positions by design or default.

A deeper reading of this oral axiom reveals its allusion to the general African cultural contempt associated with handy farm work, and is also a clever statement pointing to the  role of musicians, artistes, orators, and poets in the realm of political leadership.

Last Saturday, Kenyan musician and award-winning gospel sensation, Kevin Bahati, was literally gifted with a rare moment of fame and a ‘walk with royalty’ when he did a headline performance at President Uhuru Kenyatta’s much-hyped Jubilee Alliance Party launch.

His energetic, ebullient and certainly boundary-breaking stage act at the Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, is now the subject of public discourse.

There are those who argue that the young man, who has never hidden the fact that he grew up from a poor background, overreached himself, was ‘disrespectful’ and crossed lines of protocol.

Other people, most of them the youth, have congratulated Bahati for his dare-devil feat of subverting the political power matrix and for ‘normalising’ the presidency. The youth have said this on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook .

The disjuncture between the two sides provides a rare chance for creative scholars and society to interrogate the role of music in political campaigns and voter mobilisation.

From the Greek classical times of Cicero to the royal African courts of Kings like Shaka of the Zulu, Sundiata of the Mali, and the Kabakas of Uganda, history is replete with narratives of leaders who depended on musicians and creatives to legitimise or validate their authority.

Franco Makiadi

The late Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko effectively used musical legend Franco Makiadi to rejuvenate his one-time plummeting popularity.

Kenyans literally sang through Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s 24-year reign, and Mwai Kibaki owes it to Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s song, Unbwogable, for winning the 2002 elections.

Across the seas in America, Hilary Clinton has been mobilising the women’s’ vote using musicians like Kate Perry, while Donald Trump has carved himself into a Benito Mussolini-like fascist leader by playing rock music at his political rallies.

In many ways, there is incontrovertible evidence that music can, indeed, pull and sway crowds and even win votes.

The election of President Barack Obama has proven that a combination of music and social media is the best recipe for mobilising the youth vote. Because of increased voter apathy among youths, politicians have taken to musicians and social media platforms to help them appeal to and engage with millennial or the xaxa YouTube generation as opposed to mbuyu old analogue generation. President Kenyatta and his Jubilee team clearly know that youths form the largest section of voters and little wonder they had to invite a celebrity youthful Bahati to perform at their launch. The President himself has always fashioned the demeanour of a xaxa leader and social media enthusiast. And this was clearly evident at the launch.

Sporting what the urban youth would call a hip casual look in faded light blue jeans, T-shirt and a college jacket with stripped collars, the President certainly looked at ease in youthful company of performer Bahati who donned a trendy all-white outfit.

In the heat of the occasion when Bahati summoned the bravado to invite the President to join him on stage in youthful dance moves as he took over the ‘royal seat’ to effusively serenade the First lady with love-like ballads, the ‘lucky’ singer  was in charge of his performance. In that short moment, ‘the artist became the ruler’ as the late Okot P’Bitek would put it, and even the President and his deputy were reduced to ‘ordinary citizens’ eating from his palms. By “unseating” the President and his deputy in dramatic fashion reminiscent of a well-choreographed stage act, Bahati playfully deconstructed and subverted political power as we know it.

Meanwhile, the President, who was taking no offence, was enjoying every second of the whole act and was relishing a chance to be as xaxa and youthful as he could be. On his part, Bahati was astute and strategic like most modern hip-hop artists who are always aware that a modern musician feeds on such moments of fame, controversy and publicity. Remaining true to his name, he rode his luck by milking maximum premium from the occasion by stretching the boundaries.

For me, the incident was beneficial to the both politician and musician and in many ways everybody got what they wanted. Bahati is now a bigger and larger-than-life gospel celebrity with immense media traction among youths after trending on social media as the shortest serving Kenyan President.

He will be the next hottest gospel act for some time to come in Kenya. President Uhuru on his part remains the most appealing leader among youths and he might just have consolidated the xaxa vote come 2017!

Reggae and Weed: Coffee shop encounter at Funky Munkey

Originally posted on Daily Nation on June 24 2016

 Amsterdam is widely considered as the “Sin Capital” of Europe with everything on offer from sex to weed and hash. PHOTO| COURTESY

Amsterdam is widely considered as the “Sin Capital” of Europe with everything on offer from sex to weed and hash. PHOTO| COURTESY

By Dr. Chris Wasike

Apart from its sonic discourse, one of the reasons I love reggae music is because of its poetic style. Indeed good reggae music is pure poetry and nothing beats a good sing-a-long classic like the legendary Bob Marley’s Get up, stand up.

And for those who teach poetry, dancehall crooner Coco Tea’s 18 and over not only personifies the voice of what Kenyans now call “a sponsor” reprimanding a 16-year-old girl to desist from engaging in underage or cross-generational sex, but it’s also a vivid example of rhyme in poetic rendition.

Incidentally, the term reggae only came into use in the late 1960s and has since been variously used to refer to that style of music that originated from the Caribbean Island of Jamaica.

Scholar David Moskowitz reminds us that as a trans-Caribbean genre, reggae is categorised into three subgenres; the roots, dancehall and ragamuffin. 

There are many spin-off versions of contemporary dancehall/ ragga as a result of American hip hop merging with reggae leading to contemporary styles such as lover’s rock, reggaeton, rap, fusion riddim and many others. Among the outstanding raga/dance hall artists that Kenyans are familiar with includes Shaggy, Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and Cocoa Tea, among others.

But for me, the most influential and certainly most poetic, is the traditional roots reggae. Made popular by Robert Nesta Marley, Peter Tosh and The Wailers in the 1970s it was distinct in its use of the ska-style horns, the slow-down beat of rock steady, a bit of shuffle from the American rhythm and blues and African nyabinghi ritual drumming infused with the signature “skanking” rhythm and bass guitars.

True to Its Link

True to its links, roots reggae was linked to Black social movements of the time. One such phenomenon was the Rastafari, a quasi-religious black consciousness movement linked to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

Its adherents or rastas sport dreadlocks, smoke weed or ganja, which they call the ‘spiritual herb’, and are generally critical to any form of oppression. To the Rastafarian, any oppressor is synonymous to the biblical Babylon the Great and in the Nyabinghi spirit of struggle (Ugandan goddess, ‘who possesses many things’) all must be summoned to bring death to the oppressor.

As a student of Black Aesthetics, many things fascinate me on the link between reggae music, Rastafarianism and ganja smoking. There is transnational connection to how cultures travel across the global space and acquire new meanings.

While ganja smoking in Kenya is generally associated with rugged reggae-loving youths, I recently came face to face with a different concept of it in a European city.

For those not in the know, Amsterdam is widely considered as the “Sin Capital” of Europe with everything on offer from straight sex in the Red Light District, gay sex in Blue Light and Coffee shops offering weed and hash! All these are legal under Dutch law and attract taxes from the government, with over 500 shops throughout the country and 200 in Amsterdam alone.

My chance to sample an Amsterdam coffee shop, which is a licensed seller of cannabis products, came a Friday ago. I was up and about town on my Gazelle (bicycle) as usual, sampling the cultural spaces and theatres of the city.

Suddenly, on Marnixstraat 333, I noticed a conspicuous billboard with a picture of Bob Marley emblazoned on it, complete with the Rastafari colours of red, gold and green. Underneath the reggae legend’s image were the words Funky Munkey Coffee shop.

Obviously, I was intrigued by how a weed-selling joint was brazenly using reggae culture to advertise itself. But hey, it was a warm weekend afternoon, and I was clearly in the mood for some “monkey business”.

I mustered courage, locked my bike outside and sauntered into Funky Munkey with the comportment of a veteran. I am on a queer mission here and I figured its time I cracked this Coffee shop mystic somehow.

Inside, the white man at the counter was friendly enough to exchange pleasantries as he offered the menu and chattily explained how the coffee shop laws work. A typical menu here includes weed and hash in pre-rolled joints or msokoto, “space cakes” and muffins. There are also brownies, cookies and shakes all laced with marijuana. However patrons are warned to avoid the cakes because they are “lethal”.

The potency and prices of products vary, but a gram of cannabis sativa or indica weed goes for up to 13 euros (about Sh1, 500). Funky Munkey menu has funky names like White Widow, Bubble Gum, Amnesia, Silver Haze, Jamaican and Skunk among others.

There are always lots of people here, I learnt. I saw two or three blacks like me, the rest white. There were the happy and sad, jolly and holy. Some were high, others flat stoned. In the background, Marlon Asher’s number Ganja Farmer was cooing invitingly as if to egg on this cultural fusion of reggae music and “free-spirited” ganja imbibers in Europe’s “Sin City”.

Taming my Bicycle and 'Eating Plains' in the City of Bikes

Originally posted on Daily Nation on June 17 2016

 In the City of Bikes is Jordan’s story of how he came to the Netherlands in 2002 to study how American cities back home could learn from the Dutch how make their own urban spaces more bicycle-friendly to ease traffic congestion. In a carefully woven plot, the author relates how he fell in love with biking in a city that loves bicycles. PHOTO | FILE

In the City of Bikes is Jordan’s story of how he came to the Netherlands in 2002 to study how American cities back home could learn from the Dutch how make their own urban spaces more bicycle-friendly to ease traffic congestion. In a carefully woven plot, the author relates how he fell in love with biking in a city that loves bicycles. PHOTO | FILE

By Dr. Chris Wasike

In the collection of essays, What is Man? and Other Essays, American author and humourist Mark Twain wrote one of his most hilarious essays titled “Taming a bicycle’’. In it we encounter vintage Twain as he recounts in amusing fashion his personal experiences of learning how to ride a bicycle. From referring to his bike as not “fully-grown” but a mere “colt” that is
skittish, he compares his difficulties in learning how to ride a bicycle to learning how to mount a horse.

In his typical humour he narrates how he fell and crashed several times while dismounting the now antiquated high-wheel bicycle even though he had enlisted the services of an expert to teach him. Eight days later, and with a hospitalisation in between, he triumphantly declared, “I can steer as well as I want to, now…” However, he has a warning to would-be bicycle learners then and even now, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.”

The story of Mark Twain has literally been my story in Amsterdam lately, albeit with minor variants. The moment I landed in Amsterdam, I was immediately taken in by the sheer seamless and effortless ways in which the Dutch were beholden to their bicycles.

Everywhere I went I was enthralled by how cycling is not just a subculture or fashion statement but literally the way to do things here. Urban anthropologist Prof Eileen Moyer told me that biking for the Dutch is literally like the human act of breathing in and out, or simply put, “walking without looking at your feet.” And so in the queer ways for which I have been known lately, I set out to “tame this bicycle thingy!”

Beautiful Village Damsel

To begin with, I bought myself two things; a second-hand Gazelle bicycle just to get myself into the Amsterdam swagger and a copy of Pete Jordan’s In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist which I initially thought was one of those what-to-do texts that one has to read to understand cycling in Amsterdam.

As an avid reader of things cultural, Jordan’s book turned out to be more than what I had bargained for. Framed as part memoir, part historiography but in many ways a narrative tour of the street style in Amsterdam. In the City of Bikes is Jordan’s story of how he came to the Netherlands in 2002 to study how American cities back home could learn from the Dutch how make their own urban spaces more bicycle-friendly to ease traffic congestion. In a carefully woven plot, the author relates how he fell in love with biking in a city that loves bicycles and was later joined by his wife, Amy Joy, who has since discovered her own passion as a bicycle mechanic.

For those historically inclined, Jordan’s book retells the beginnings and evolution of Dutch cycling as part of the upper class pastime in many European cultures in the 1890s up until the fashionable craze of biking in the 1920s, and more significantly, the role of bicycles in Amsterdam city’s resistance to Nazi occupation in the Second World War. As a precaution, Jordan also spares a moment to warn anyone new in the city of bikes to beware of what the Dutch call zwijntjesjagers – or simply bicycle thieves. Yet in so many ways Jordan’s memoir and Twain’s essay appear to speak to a lot of Kenyan audiences.

For anyone who grew up in rural Kenya in the 1960s, through the 80s, the bicycle harbours nuggets of nostalgia. That exhilarating moment when one learnt how to balance and ride on two wheels remains unforgettably etched in our memories forever. As teenagers seeking validation of our young male egos, knowing how to ride a bicycle was the first step in becoming men and doing something for ourselves.

In my heyday, getting the eye of a beautiful village damsel required one to perform crazy antics on a bicycle just to get noticed. Much like Odili Samalu in Achebe’s classic A Man of the People, I remember as teenagers how we all loved ‘to eat the hills’ and fly through the valleys on bicycles much to the glee of our cheering siblings.

Fast forward to 2016 and I am literally reliving my childhood memories. Like Twain, I have gotten a bike and I don’t regret it. I relish every moment as I ‘eat away the plains’ in the City of Bikes, pedaling and ‘taming my Gazelle’ each morning across the Amstel River!

Isn't It Time We Faced the Elephant in the Room on Homosexuality

Originally posted on Daily Nation

 Interestingly, the term queer has fascinating etymologies ranging from the ‘odd, strange, peculiar, bizarre, eccentric and weird’. From the banal, though, queer is derogatory and an insult like the effeminising term shoga in the Kenyan context.PHOTO | FILE

Interestingly, the term queer has fascinating etymologies ranging from the ‘odd, strange, peculiar, bizarre, eccentric and weird’. From the banal, though, queer is derogatory and an insult like the effeminising term shoga in the Kenyan context.PHOTO | FILE

By Dr. Chris Wasike

In the past two months or so I have been in a sort of queer mode. From struggling with the queer Dutch language and culture, to learning to navigate the queer public transport conundrum all the way to getting regular warnings on queer sexuality and social life of Amsterdam night life, it has been queer all through.

So when I arrived here on a generous six-month visiting research fellowship at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, little did I know that I was literally on queer sojourn. Amsterdam is basically a cycling city. Everyone here loves biking including their politicians who can easily be spotted happily whistling their way to work every morning on a bicycle. Understandably, this new culture has been part of becoming a man in Amsterdam, even as I go about my daily research activities under the aegis of the appropriately named “Becoming men project” at UvA. And you guessed right, I have acquired a bicycle just to belong in this queer culture!

But on matters sex and socialisation, the Dutch fame on permissiveness is legendary and needs no introduction. From the Red Light District to the licentious coffee shops that sell ‘weed’, it’s all legal and queer here.

And so as I’ve been trying to make sense of my queer sensibilities, in a queer culture and city called Amsterdam, I  have suddenly drifted into reading a lot on queer theory, queer authors, queer lawyers, queer gospel singers, queer politicians and just about everything that sounds and looks queer.

Gay Meaning

When I am not cycling away in the woods and negotiating the canals of Amsterdam to breath in the summer tepid air, I have all of a sudden taken to rereading Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, TS Elliot, Alice Walker, Federico Garcia Lorca and James Baldwin. Plato’s The Republic certainly has new meaning, and Nikolai Gogol, Honore’ de Balzac and Langston Hughes’ works have a kind of new freshness when read from a queer perspective knowing the authors were gay.

Interestingly, the term queer has fascinating etymologies ranging from the ‘odd, strange, peculiar, bizarre, eccentric and weird’. From the banal, though, queer is derogatory and an insult like the effeminising term shoga in the Kenyan context.

Teresa De Laurentis coined the term ‘queer theory’ in 1990 with reference to sexuality studies that highlight mismatch between sex, gender and desire. The term has since been linked largely with bisexual, lesbian and gay people. Queer anthropologist Cymene Howe notes that the term applies to “alternative configurations of sexuality, gender and desire” and it is all about destabilising the heteronormative categories and pushing the boundaries on sexual identities. In her words, queer theory is deconstructionist in the sense that it is a “continuous exercise of interrogating sexuality as manifested in social relationships, identifications, affective practices and political positions”.

But apart from deep theory, my queer wondering mind has also led me to relook at our very own Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina’s works. I have been rereading his  One day I will Write about This Place, How to write about Africa and being ‘a lost black man’ in a queer European city, I have been reading his ‘Lost chapter’, “I am a homosexual mum”.

I particularly like the essay How to Write about Africa because in Europe it comes in handy as a talk back weapon to many thoroughgoing racist professors who still believe Africa is a “heart of darkness”.

But “I am a homosexual, mum” is my favourite. Apart from the ‘sexy way’ he used it to come out of the closet and to declare his ‘in-love’ with gayness, I like the way the author deploys the self as a protagonist in an emotional narrative that highlights the psychological turmoil that many young Kenyans have to undergo in order to ventilate about their different sexuality in a culture that criminalises such difference.

This got me thinking about my kinsman and self-declared gay activist/gospel singer George Barasa otherwise known as Joji Baro from Bungoma. Since the young man decided to confess his homosexuality, he has encountered homophobic threats to a point he once contemplated suicide. Unlike Binyavanga, who had the luxury of coming out like a celebrity, my village mate Baro was “smoked out” by gay haters who continuously  visited violence on him and vandalised his house just to spite him for being ‘unAfrican’.