Pay no attention to De Mathew, Kamande and Muigai

“Be Wild” the banner in the background proclaims as a chap with dyed hair performs an acrobatic leap leap off the ground in what appears to be the start of a dance move. De Mathew then starts his signature “Shama Shama” shout as two voluptuous but unremarkable women dance, with the fellow doing the leaping earlier having recovered to stand between and behind them.

That video is one of three that have been the subject of debate because of the message they attempt to pass, which is rather basic and oft-repeated. It is that Uhuru Kenyatta is a great chap deserving of the presidency and that Raila Odinga does not meet the standard and is therefore not deserving of the house on the hill. Kamande wa Kioi uses the good old Moses metaphor. We can’t tell whether the Kikuyu or the country are the Canaanites, only that Uhuru is the anointed leader and he can  split the Red Sea. There are also accompanying shots stolen from a movie.

It has been suggested that the songs’ content amounts to hate speech and John De Mathew, Kamande wa Kioi and Muigai wa Njoroge should be thrown in jail and the key dropped in the latrine because they are spreading hate speech.

I’d suggest Mzalendo Kibunjia and his crew at the National Cohesion and Integration Commission summon the trio (through the media to make it sexier) have a two-hour sit-down with them and then send them away to think about their lives. Haul them before a judge and threaten them with jail? No. Jail them? Not necessary.

Why? Let me explain.

Kikuyu music videos are rather boring. Most feature three curvaceous women and some dread-locked thin men dancing in the compound of a hotel with green lawns and flowers. The singer also makes an appearance; singing and dancing with the crew at times and often hanging out with friends and family. You can tell it’s all made up because the rest of the guys will be staring at the camera.

Kamande wa Kioi is different, and a little more creative in the video-making department. In the video that is the subject of debate and anger now, he has shots of Uhuru on the campaign trail, at the prayer rally in Gatundu before the first trip to The Hague and poorly synchronised shots of Kibaki, Moi and Raila with other people doing poor imitated voice-overs.

The initial reaction on seeing and listening to these three songs is rightly shock, and sometimes anger, and there has been enough going round. But after a second look at the transcribed lyrics and listening to the songs again, I’d advise the heedful to ignore the bullshit.

Why?

De Mathew performed at the rally in Gatundu. He is loved by his listeners. His other songs are brilliant and well-written ballads about love – Njata Yakwa- lust and Aids- Kiura Kinene- and life- Wendo wa Matiribu.

Ditto Muigai and Kioi.

If they play defiant and fail to heed the warning from the NCIC- they could rightly state it is within their rights to make such music- there will be more of such music from them an from their kind.

When the political season starts- and it started early this time because of The Hague- musicians get hired to perform at political rallies. They sing and dance for the sort of large crowds that show up at these rallies. At Githunguri and Gatundu, where I watched them perform, and could have twitched a muscle in tune, the people were in the thousands, and they roared and cheered to the racy riffs.

When they go ahead and make music to suit the emotions they saw and felt at such meetings, they accomplish two goals; they get themselves more money when the videos are bought  and played  and they get the chance to attract more chances to sing at rallies and get paid.

Every so-called great leader has his praise singers. They might be the mindless MPs who were influenced to vote for The Hague option, influenced again to hate The Hague when it became a reality and then transported to the cold place to sing at the steps. In many cases they are poets and the composers of the sort who made the Muungano Choir songs for Baba Moi.

When they come from the same community as the leader, they make music in his language, often weaving the community’s value systems is the next step.

For the trio, it involves pointing out that Raila is a Luo and suggesting that he doesn’t deserve to be president because he is allegedly not circumcised. A kihii occupies the lowest rung in traditional Kikuyu society. There are also several proverbs to drive this fickle point home.

But circumcision does nothing to make you a man if you cannot feed, clothe and pay for your kids’ education, does it?

These videos and many other of the same ilk are played in bars all over Central Kenya. By making them, these guys could be said to be preaching to the choir. Given the tribalism that flows ever so freely around, those who listen to this tripe are unlikely to vote for Uhuru or anybody he anoints. Not that they’d vote for Raila anyway.

At the height of the Mungiki atrocities in Nyeri, Murang’a and Kiambu, I came across an album of what was said to be Mungiki songs. I don’t suppose that video encouraged youths in those areas to join the sect. They probably joined the sect because it offered a way to get some easy money. Blame here the high youth unemployment rates and poverty.

These videos only go to show the extent of the hero-worship in parts of the country and the failure of our attempts to detribalize.

Well, in the event the blabbering above does not make a point, here is my argument: have the musicians over at Delta House for a long chat, advise them to seek better ways of making a little money or make songs in the mould of the inoffensive Unbwogable and let them go think about it.

Beyond that, pay no attention to these and similar noises.

What’s next for the free Kenyan press

When the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships was established 28 years ago,  the government in Kenya was not the sort that encouraged newspapers to publish whatever they wanted.

There was only one broadcaster, and this state-owned and controlled, so either the TV at home was off or tuned to the national broadcaster, and that was in the habit of giving a detailed account of the president’s day as its chief news item.

Today there are four established national newspapers, numerous magazines, five television stations with day and night news programmes and more than 30 FM stations.There is virtually no limit on what journalists can write about and Kenya is now said by The Huffington Post to be at the centre of one of the busiest new markets for global channels.

But is the media free?

Many observers of the press in Kenya have been quick to mention the raid on the offices of the Standard Group in 2006 whenever we discuss the extent to which journalists in my country have freedom.

The raid featured masked men storming into the newsroom of The Standard newspaper and KTN, a TV station, carting away equipment  and smashing computers. They also forced the TV station to go off air, harassed employees  and generally did the kind of stuff you would expect from goons out to make a scary impression. At the newspaper’s press, they made a bonfire out of the papers due the following day. There was naturally a furore about that. It didn’t help that the minister involved told reporters the media house had rattled a snake, which had naturally bitten it.

It’s fitting and proper to mention that rare incident because it provides a perfect backdrop against which we can see the ability of the press in Kenya to bounce back.

Last month, two journalists from the Standard Group produced a series of TV features about a bunch of foreigners who were involved in that raid and the connections in government and with drug barons that made all that possible.

It is instructive to note that apart from a feeble statement of denial from the Kenyan police, Mohammed Ali and Dennis Onsarigo have remained free – there was an apparent attempt to prosecute Ali over a stolen phone but that is minor.

There exist no guarantees but there is little chance a similar raid can happen in the light of the new Constitution with its wholesome Bill of Rights.

Still, there are limits and ongoing debates related to hate speech, libel and slander and continuous attempts to gag the press via statutes.

Kenya’s press can be said to be free. Covering Parliament, we get access to all manner of documents, can attend and report about an overwhelming number of meetings and often get the chance to ask policy-makers questions.

But judging from what I have observed at The Kansas City Star, we could still take this freedom further.

Take the case of Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Representative. One of the reporters at The Star picked up a report in April that the representative guaranteed a loan that his business is unable to pay.

It naturally took a lot of calls (and a fair amount of expletives on those calls) to get the story out and to put the man on the spot for this $1.3 million that the taxpayer would eventually have been forced to pay.

The reporter was able to get the information because of the ease of access to government records. He certainly did not have to harass a clerk at the state headquarters to get it.

In another recent case, when the county medical examiner refused to comment on a case, the information was obtained via a Missouri Open Records request.

Last year, when Olympics marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru died, the Government Pathologist allowed the media to watch when he visited the scene as part of his investigations.

But it was virtually impossible to get him to speak about the matter on the record. Without any legal tools to compel him to even produce the report on Wanjiru’s cause of death, we often found we were running up against a wall on the story.

It is just one case where a press that is free finds soft shackles exist in the form of public servants who simply refuse to talk or provide documents that are not in any way secret or matters of security.

There have indeed been credible suggestions that the necessary legal tool would be in the form of a statute on Freedom of Information. It would be handy to compel government and other public bodies to release information that is due to citizens.

That, so far, seems to be the way to expand the freedom the press so rightly enjoys.

+++++

The last two weeks have been mostly been spent working on a story about a cowboy. Daryl Levings, the editor in the Features Section, was of the idea that the story should be told with snippets of the writer’s point of view.

It is about a cowboy who has been a sort of guardian for some five kids from his neighbourhood by training them on caring for horses and eventually on team roping.

That story was partly the reason my stay at Features was lengthened by a week. It should be published in a week or so.

It mainly taught me there are many ways to tell a story and there are therefore many ways to write a feature.

There was also another about mountain lions, otherwise known as cougars or pumas, that have been travelling up to 1,000 miles to get to Missuori. Although the reporting for this was entirely on phone and online, the responses have been interesting.

“I know I was not going mad the other day when I saw a mountain lion near the lake at Raytown last weekend,” he said in a voicemail message. “I thought I had seen a large dog but after looking at the picture in your story, I know what I saw was a mountain lion.”

Rodeos and Dust

Colleague Jill Toyoshiba shows Aaron Harvey (with kid) and Bubba Reynolds how they look on her camera.

Reporters know that when the editor shows up at your desk with a printed copy of your story and requests an audience away from the open-plan newsroom, there is something serious brewing.

The reporter is mostly in a spot of trouble for bungling a story so badly it will need a complete rewrite- and editors prefer editing stories to rewriting them altogether.

So last Wednesday, when one of the editors at the Features section showed up at my desk with a printed copy of my story and a request to go into a meeting room, I assumed trouble lay ahead.

Last week, the editor gave me an assignment on a cowboy who trains boys on team roping and takes them with him to rodeos, where they get the chance to win some money.

He has become a father figure to the boys, the eldest of whom is half his age, and has kept them away from the range of vices inner city youths easily fall into when school is out and they have lots of time to spare.

We had driven out 32 miles to Tonganoxie in Kansas to get the pictures and interview some of the boys and experience a bit of the rodeo.

Apart from the experience of watching the rodeo live- I had only seen it on TV or in movies- it was a bit like much of the feature writing I had been doing before I started at the Features desk.

In fact, getting to Features, I was wondering what else would be done different given most other stories I have covered here ended up us features of sorts.

But the editor had a different idea. Why not get a little more detail from the source and inject a bit of the author in there, he suggested. It’s not usual to have a Kenyan who has never been on a horse writing about men who spend hours every day riding around in the fast and strong animals.

It’s still a work in progress but it could certainly teach me a whole lot about feature-writing, which is one of my goals for the fellowship.

I’m also learning about the editing process as it turns out I had the words “roping, riding and handling horses” too many times in a story that was about roping, riding and handling horses.

Feature writers also need to be good fishermen, the editor said, because they spend a lot of time developing the hook that will draw the reader into the story before their eyes stray off the page.

Writing features has also come with the opportunity to wade into the unfamiliar world of movies and movie-makers.

The first, and only other story I have done on this desk was about “Dust”, a feature film that was shot here in Kansas City, and which will be screened for the first time on Thursday evening.

Out at the rodeo, the photographer, Jill Toyoshiba, told me about Eye-Fi, technology that makes it possible to tag and send photographs to a remote server while still in the field.

It combines with a smartphone, which acts as the hotspot for sending the photos, and the camera needs to have two slots for memory cards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let us expound on Eye-Fi later and concentrate on the rodeo now.