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!