The Africanists

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Ilona Eveleens

This is our home, say the Sengwer

the Embobut forest in the west of Kenya

The dilemma whether an indigenous people can live in a forest that is a water catchment area, stares you in the face in the Embobut forest in the west of Kenya. There are only tufts left, while it harbours the source for a river that is important for a large part of Western Kenya. The forest needs urgently to be rehabilitated because Kenya is already struggling more and more with water shortages.

And then there are the Sengwer, a people of what used to be hunters and gatherers, who consider the Embobut forest as their traditional home. Their ancestors found everything they needed in the forest. They ate meat from wild animals which they killed with bow and arrow. They gathered tubers and wild grains with which they supplemented their diet. They also got honey from the bees and used medicinal herbs for diseases.

Elias Kimaiyo, a Sengwer activist, believes that it is not a dilemma but a win-win situation. “We know the forest best. We are the natural guardians. The forestry department must teach us how to restore it.” However, the government does not want anyone in the forest and chases everyone out of it with use of excessive violence.

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How Al Shabaab tears apart Kenya

The two towns belong to the same County in northeastern Kenya. Coastal Lamu town with its Muslim population, and the inland Mpeketoni which is predominantly Christian. Only fifty kilometers lies between these two towns, but what really separates them is the deep chasm of misunderstanding, distrust and jealousy that tears them apart. The terror movement Al Shabaab knows how to effectively exploit these very old problems that exist between the two towns, and drive a further wedge between the Christians and the Muslims. Since a major terrorist attack in Mpeketoni, the tourist resort in Lamu is dead.

LAMU

“Every terrorist attack is a blow to the relationship between Christians and Muslims. It takes a lot of effort to reduce anxiety and mistrust again”, sighs Issa Timamy governor of the region Lamu in Kenya. Seated in a big leather armchair at his residence, the political leader tries to add an optimistic smile to his words. He fails.

The narrow boulevard in front of his house is deserted, the waters of the Indian Ocean lapping gently against it. Gone are the visitors who took walks through the historic town of Lamu which is a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest Islamic settlements in East Africa.

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Information on birth control from the pulpit

They call themselves the male champions. The five ministers from the poor area of Kayole in Nairobi have a double meaning for their name tag. They see themselves as champions in spreading information about family planning. “And we are champions because we all had a vasectomy. We believe that we should not only provide information but also be good examples”, says James Ngugi (56) who is one of the preachers.

Family planning is still in its infancy. Sterilization of men and women is rare. Family planning is entrenched in the constitution but tradition, religion, politics and ignorance constitute major obstacles. In the last few years, however, more and more people appear to take matters into their own hands when determining the number of offspring.

The population in Kenya is growing by a million a year. Especially in rural areas the belief is still that having many children is a good security for old age. Pensions are a rarity and very often not sufficient.  Parents are convinced they have to rely on their offspring. On top of that parents also assume that some of their children would die before adulthood. But today, thanks to improved health care, most children now survive. Alas due to high unemployment many of them fail to secure a job and are not in a position to take care of their parents financially.

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Nigerian Yoruba offer unique glimpse of religious tolerance

Nigeria is often in the headlines because of religious conflicts that have cost thousands their lives and displaced many more.  The extremism contrasts with the religious tolerance among the Yoruba, the largest ethnic group in the country. A perfect and common example is the Koiki family.  Eight brothers and sisters are spread over six belief systems and religion is never a point of controversy.

“It does not matter to us how and where you pray. The important thing is that you believe in God which will give you support in life”, says Iyabo who is preparing snacks with one of her sisters in a house in Lagos. There will be a gathering of Muslims from the neighbourhood to commemorate the fifth year of passing on of the father of the family.   He was a deeply religious man, who together with his wife made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Three of his children are Muslim, one is Catholic, another Anglican, two evangelicals, and the oldest belongs to a spiritual movement.

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South Sudan: extremely poor or ridiculously rich

Surrounded by a series of blue and red suitcases two young women check in for the flight to the South Sudanese capital Juba. Their suitcases are of an expensive brand and their clothing is pricey too. The luggage weighs much heavier than the free baggage allowance but unlike other passengers, they do not plead for exemption. They pay without batting an eyelid a considerable amount for the excess luggage.

“It is mainly presents for family. In Juba it is hard to get nice things unlike here in Nairobi where you can buy almost anything as long as you have a happy back account”, says one of the ladies. The two South Sudanese women study in Kenya where their fathers possess houses besides the homes they own in Juba. They clearly belong to the elite of South Sudan because upon arrival in Juba they do not throw themselves into the mayhem in order to obtain a stamp on their passports or retrieve their luggage. This is taken care of by a man in a dark suit and fashionable sunglasses who sees them through customs with a simple hand gesture, and whisks them away.

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A book on and by gays in Kenya

A fresh breeze is blowing through the gay community in Kenya since the beginning of this year. First, the famous Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet. And now a book is published with stories, letters and poetry by and about gay people in the country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, but there is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for sex between two men or two women.

Kevin Mwachiro is author of Invisible: stories from Kenya’s queer community.  He hopes to combat with his book ignorance about homosexuality, and especially show gay people that they are not alone. “It’s a very lonely time before you dare to come out of the closet. I certainly experienced it like that. But after all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, I realize how smooth it actually was for me”, says the 40 -year-old gay activist and journalist.

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Once again War destroys dreams in South Sudan

Juba, – Kon Kelei and Tong Akot returned three years ago from the Diaspora, full of optimism, back to South Sudan. They had fled as teenagers from the civil war between North and South Sudan, and ended up in the Netherlands where they studied and worked.  In 2010, a year before the independence of South Sudan, they both separately decided to help with the building of their country. After a laborious start they eventually found their niche only to end up in another war in their country, this time between the South Sudanese themselves.

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Alarming rate of suicides in peaceful Northern Uganda

“We later learnt that they went from house to house in Katikati as
well, taking all boys and girls around your age with them. They
said that the rebels would train the children to fight. Train them
to lure other children. Join the big war to save the Acholi. Oust
the government. Overthrow Museveni’s government. We didn’t
know what that meant. We didn’t want to ask anyone. What we
knew was that we didn’t want our children to get involved in that

war.”

 

Thousands of families in northern Uganda recognize themselves in the words of writer Beatrice Lamwaka. The region, which had for some twenty years been terrorized by the Lord’s Resistance Army, is now afflicted in peacetime by an unusually high number of suicides. Silence is a national character trait of the northern residents. It proved not to be a solution for trauma.

Lamwaka describes in Butterfly Dreams the return of a teen, abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which had kidnapped more than 20,000 children and transformed them into killing machines. The short story is based on the abduction and return of her 13 year-old brother. He never talked about his experiences. His family did not ask. They also did not tell him that his Tipu, his soul, had been buried according to tradition.  Everyone assumed he was dead. This was to happen two years later when he died of pneumonia.

“We, Acholi, do not talk about what others know. Nobody wants to talk about a child who had been kidnapped. Such a child was a killer.” says the 35 year old writer about her people which form the majority tribe in northern Uganda.

The LRA left Uganda some five years ago in a significantly reduced number, and moved to the Central African Republic and Congo. The people left the displaced camps in which they had gathered for protection and tried to resume their lives. But that proves not to be easy.

In 2012 more than fifty people took their lives in and around the town of Gulu, a region of 400.000 inhabitants. “We fear that the number is twice as high. Families prefer to keep it secret because suicide is a taboo in our culture,” said Francisco Watdok Awori, a local councillor who helped with research into the suicides. “Last year it was more or less the same number, usually people aged between 25 and 40 years.” Research shows that trauma, poverty and alcohol abuse are the main reasons for suicides or attempts.

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Mali conflicts undermine economic growth

Horses, cars, donkey carts, motorbikes and pedestrians compete with one another over the limited space on the narrow quay of Mopti. Market stalls, lining the quay and overlooking the small harbour on the Niger River, offer mainly unrefined salt in hefty slices or smaller chunks. Previously the product was transported on camel caravans to Mopti from the north of Mali; nowadays it’s by four-wheel drive. The town is an ancient trading post on the dividing line between north and south of Mali.

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Coniferous trees and centipedes: basic commodities for revival of nature.

Australian pine and red-legged centipedes were the basic necessities to revive a dead limestone quarry and transform it into a lush park.  In the Haller Park, near the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, an impressive variety of trees, shrubs and plants grow and flourish on which feeds a host of animals.  Already parking is often difficult at the entrance to the park because one has to manoeuvre between the long legs of giraffes while they nibble unperturbed on tree leaves. A herd of Oryx antelopes, with their long and slightly curved horns, always seem to take the right of way on the walkways.

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Run up to Kenyan elections already bloody

Eric Kioko is in seventh heaven. He has been working since the first of January as ‘DJ Talanta’ with the popular radio station Ghetto Radio in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. It’s the first time he has a job since he lost an arm during the election violence of 2008.

Kioko is one of the thousands of victims of the orgy of violence that erupted after the election results in Kenya. He lives in Maathare, one of the slums that almost encircle Nairobi. It was one of the places where things went terribly wrong in 2008. The ethnic origin of the then 25 year old Kioko made him a target for his attackers. “Since then the government has done nothing to reconcile rivalling tribes. The tension has not been eased. On the contrary, tension is growing in the run up to the elections”, says Kioko in one of the narrow alleys of Maathare. The empty sleeve of his T-shirt moves softly in the wind.

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Touareg, scapegoats of Mali’s misery

Mohamed Moctar is packing his belongings. There is not much is his room besides a sleeping mat, a blanket, a small sound system, a teapot, two cups, and a heap of cloths. All of it is on the floor. “I will return to Timbouktou now it is liberated”, says Moctar a teacher at a primary school in the legendary city in the north of Mali.

He fled his hometown last year after the Islamic extremists occupied the north of Mali. “In the beginning we hardly noticed them”, remembers Moctar while he is brewing a cup of bitter tea that Malians sip all day. “Slowly though crazy rules were introduced. Children were not allowed to play football and smoking became forbidden. They stopped you on the street to check the ringtone on your mobile phone. When it was music they destroyed your sim card and gave you a new one with verses from the Koran.”

Within months the rebels had introduced the strictest form of Sharia, the Islamic law. “We were commanded to public places to witness the cutting of hands of thieves and whipping and beatings for other offences. It was sheer terror.” It all became too much for Moctar, a Touareg, and he left for the capital of Bamako in the south of Mali.

He was not received with open arms. Mali has some twenty different tribes and most of them have issues with the Touareg. It was the MNLA, a secular Touareg militia that had started a year ago an uprising against the army.  Aim was the creation of Azawad, an independent state in the north of Mali.

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Native inhabitants of Lamu see new port as threat

Old Town of Lamu ©Ilona Eveleens

A wide, dusty road ends in a gaping hole in the mangrove forest through which the water of the Indian Ocean is visible. A man appears from the remaining forest of trees that grow in the shallow, salty water along the coast. He carries a bag with two live crabs. “There are abundant crustaceans between the mangroves. But they will soon disappear when the new port of Lamu will be constructed”, he says.
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Africa can solve its own problems

“We are not immature, poor, backward people. We Africans have our own ideas about how to solve our own problems”, says Kenyan business woman Atia Yahya. The proof lays in her innovative ideas to create access to affordable healthcare for millions of her country folk. She sees fertile fields where others see dry savannas.

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