By Muiru Ngugi
In a country where we are used to pigeon-holing people according to their tribal slots based on how they look or talk, Tom Gitaa is an enigma. There is nothing in his voice to suggest his tribal origins. His name, Gitaa, does not say much either, and whatever little suggestions it emits are all misleading. Wrong: he is not a Kikuyu, Taita, Meru. Even his place of birth, Mombasa, does not let the cat out of the bag. And his facial features, at least from a photograph, are mute; they don’t tell a thing.
It is a camouflage that is ideally suited for the task he has set for himself; making sure that Africans in the Diaspora in general, and in particular Kenyans, are informed about themselves and their lives in foreign lands as well as on events in Kenya and Africa.
As the publisher and editor of the three-year-old Mshale, the longest surviving popular publication serving Kenyans in the Diaspora, Gitaa occupies a very unique position indeed.
Through what he publishes or doesn’t publish, a lot of Kenyans will be aided to make decisions as to whether they will remain sojourners in foreign lands or return back to Kenya. Those who choose to remain will find themselves being assisted to assimilate in North America’s famed multicultural society by this 12-page, A-4 sized newsletter. Currently published weekly in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there are plans of converting it to tabloid format by April this year.
Mshale states in its mission statement that its aim is to be the ‘preferred choice for Africans outside of Africa for news unique to them,’ and ‘to provide coverage of African events in the African Diaspora.’ Covering news from Kenya in its hard copy (paper) edition and Kenyan events in the Diaspora in its web-based version, the publication is going about this mission with gusto.
Mshale’s beginnings were hardly auspicious. According to Gitaa, the idea emerged in 1994 following request from many Kenyans for news from home. At that time, he was a member of the emerging Kenyan e-mail discussion lists. His friend, Peter Kegode, was a subscriber to the Weekly Review which both of them used to read passionately, as a result of which they tended to be more informed about events in Kenya than some of the other Kenyans they encountered. Through their contributions to the discussion lists and other interactions with Kenyans, they developed a reputation as newsmongers of sorts, and were always being asked to explain or comment on Kenyan news. In these innocuous requests for news, they smelt a business idea.
In 1995, Gitaa, a marketing student, Kegode, a financial analyst, and Edward Kariuki, a computer student, started Mshale. It had an initial print run of 20, four-page copies reproduced on a photocopying machine and then stapled together. Catering mainly for Kenyans in the Twin-Cities region of Minnesota initially, they realized that there was demand for the publication way beyond the confines of Minnesota. ‘Within a year, we had achieved an enviable name recognition and circulation had climbed to 200,’ says Gitaa. They decided to pan out to the neighbouring states of Wisconsin and Illinois. Today, Mshale is the most stable and best known Kenyan-owned title serving Kenyans in the Diaspora. (see separate interview).
The need for supplying the Kenyan community overseas with news has been around since Kenyans started going abroad. It certainly existed when Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange, perhaps the earliest Kenyans to study abroad, were students in the West in the 1930s. It persisted with Tom Mboya’s famous ‘airlifts’ in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the late brilliant minister brokered a deal with the Kennedy Administration to sponsor Kenyans to acquire an American education. For news about home, these students relied on letters from mainly relatives, and as a consequence, news tended to be what your relatives thought it was. If your neighbour’s cow delivered a ‘grade’ (pedigree) calf which your father thought you should buy before it was too old or was stolen or slaughtered, this is the kind of news you received.
Other sources of news were the Western media, which carried news about your country only when there was civil war, pestilence or some other calamity. No wonder those who studied in the West and experienced first hand this dearth of news and the bias inherent in third world news whenever it was carried at all, became the authors of the New International information Order and other initiatives aimed at warding off what was perceived as cultural imperialism.
In fact, there is a sense in which it could be argued that Hillary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review was founded to assuage this hunger existing both abroad and locally for news of an in-depth, fulsome variety. Although the bulk of the magazine’s readers turned out to be mainly Kenyans based in Kenya, WR’s approach to news analysis in which not only the consequences but also the precedents of events were sandwiched in between highly readable reportage, spawned a popularity for the magazine among Kenyans abroad of a kind that has never been enjoyed by any other publication.
And even now, despite WR’s turn in editorial policy, it has a base of subscriptions abroad that some other Kenyans publications can only dream about.
The latest episode in the attempt to deliver news to Kenyans abroad starts in the early 1990s with a handful of Kenyan students based at Ivy League colleges in the United States forming Kenya-net, a mailing list first catering for Kenyans at the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was later expanded to included Kenyans in other colleges around Boston, including Harvard. Key players at this stage were Erastus Njage, Zeeky Bukhala, Mburu (John) Gichora, Ayisi Makatiani, Luvisia Bakuli (University of Boston),Karanja Gakio, and later Dennis Okumu Ouma. The first Mail-master was Ayisi Makatiani.
They registered an NGO in the state of Massachusetts called Kenya Association for the Advancement of Computer Technology (KAACT) charging it with the mission of getting news from home, amongst other objectives. The idea was to make the delivery of such news more organized until that time, it was left to individual members to forward news from Reuters, Nando-net, and other sources.
The nucleus group decided to expand the group beyond the borders of Massachusetts. Among other computer science majors they found were Matunda Nyanchama based in London, Ontario, and Amos Omondi based in New Zealand. Shem Ochuodho was introduced by Zeeky Bukhala, who had met him at University of Nairobi. From this group the idea of forming KAACT was hatched, and it was subsequently registered as an NGO in the state of Massachusetts. After Makatiani’s graduation, Karanja Gakio took over the technical responsibilities. Various Committees of KAACT were formed with much input from Matunda Nyanchama, Dennis Ouma, Makatiani, Ochuodho, Amos Omondi, Gakio, Erastus Njage.
When Ochuodho returned to Kenya after completing his graduate studies in Britain, he was very active with Kenya Computer Institute, the precursor to the Computer Society of Kenya. His return was seen as a boon to the Kenyan community abroad since, as one who understood both the condition of the Kenyan abroad and the potential for the new media to be used for news delivery, he could be relied upon to summarize Kenyan news which he would then forward to the discussion list for the members’ benefit. Kenya-net members kept in touch with him and encouraged him in setting up a FIDONET node, a telephone-based node which Ochuodho used to forward news summaries to Kenya-net.
A few years later, the Kenya-net had attracted the likes of Daniel Obam, Fulbert G. Namwaba (popularly known as Papa F) Prof. Ronald Edari, Omondi Orondo, Kigenyi Mwai, Muiru Mucane, and Kotesh Sanjay. All this was happening at a time when swirling, fast-succeeding political events in Kenya excited every Kenyan. On Kenya-net, these news would then be commented on by the likes of Kegode, James Sang, Peter Marwanga, Justus Ogembo, Faith Gichuiri, Margret Kiromo, an American by the norm de plume ‘Paula,’ Joseph Rugutt, and many others based in USA, Canada and Great Britain.
What transpired thereafter is not clear, but it would appear that the project floundered on acrimony resulting from selfishness and peer rivalry. Instead of working together, different people formed their own business organizations, driven by the profit motive rather than the notion of public interest on which this whole idea had been foisted. Ochuodho went on to form the African Regional Centre for Computing (ARCC) which took on the responsibility of providing Kenyan news at a cost and also diversified into consulting, Internet service provision, and general advocacy for technology adoption. When Ochuodho formed ARCC, it was generally thought to be an extension of KAACT, according to sources familiar with this saga. Its initial directors were KAACT officials.
But it became clear that ARCC although a non-profit organization was – as one KAACT official put it – ‘Ochuodho’s baby’, and this was one source of acrimony. As further prove of its autonomy from KAACT, ARCC was contracted to supply news by KAACT. Members were required to contribute $20 each to finance their annual subscription to this news.
To a lot of Kenyans, this rate appeared to be reasonable since no Kenyan newspaper had established a presence on the internet. But KAACT members remained highly critical of Shem’s management, although there was a lot of goodwill and understanding amongst members that the first indigenous electronic media corporation should not be undermined.
Nyanchama, on his part, incorporated Nsemia Information Technologies Ltd., a computer consultancy firm with offices in Kenya and Canada.
Makatiani and Karanja founded AfricaOnline, which was fashioned closely along the lines of AmericaOnline. It was initially called Karisi, a name formed from joining the first few letters of the name Karanja and last few of the name Ayisi. They approached Amolo Ng’weno, Hillary Ng’weno’s daughter, and a fellow Ivy leaguer, to join the venture, as well as Katherine Toure, an American married to a West African, who was detailed to head AfricaOnline’s tentacle in West Africa. It is generally considered that the entry of Amolo and Katherine led to the change of the company’s name to AfricaOnline in order to remove the company from intimate identification with individuals.
When Ochuodho, in a huff, refused to bid for the supply of news to KAACT’s Kenya-net, AfricanOnline rose to the occasion, making arrangement with veteran journalist Horace Awori who compiled news summaries for the Diaspora under the auspices of Africa News Features Service. Africaonline also provided extensive links to news sources and organizations on its website. Of these competing ventures, Africaonline faired better, impressing many suitors in the process.
Before long, it was taken over by Prodigy, a leading global Internet company, before being bought by a UK company. It is currently associated to AmericaOnline. Its founders have grown rich, powerful and silent, corporate culture dictating that they speak only through the actions of their own corporation.
Enter Dr. Mukiri wa Githendu. With the provision of news from Kenya and the whole project of bringing Kenyans in the Diaspora together threatened by the defection of the erstwhile founders to business, Githendu, a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) scientist then studying at IOWA state, got the entire Kenya-net e-mail list and started his own discussion list and electronic news service using Iowa State University servers. He called his outfits Onlinelist and OnlineAfricanews, the former being a discussion list and the latter a feature news service with a monthly subscription fee of $3.00.
Githendu justified this move on the basis that Kenyans needed a forum to discuss politics and other issues away from Kenya-net’s restrictions, one of which was that a member must be an East African. But KAACT members saw Githendu’s motive as being simply to profiteer from the raging chaos by duplicating the efforts of KAACT and AfricaOnline. There were accusations that he was poaching Kenya-net news and distributing it on his list for a fee. Although Onlinelist did catch on and was very active for about a year (1995-96), it collapsed after the return of Dr. Githendu to Kenya in 1996. Many were piqued by Githendu’s unceremonious exit, particularly because he appears not to have concerned himself with how Onlinelist could survive his departure.
But one initiative largely credited to Githendu did survive and is still going strong. On the eve of his return to Kenya, Githendu had organized a fete for Kenyans and floated the idea of forming an organization for Kenyans living abroad. At around this time, Kenyan in the US organized well-attended anti- government demonstrations in Washington DC where the idea of forming the Kenya Community Abroad was discussed at length. The idea was later implemented by Dr. Kariuki Njenga, a scientist at Mayo Clinic research laboratories in Minnesota, and Nyanchama, who went on to become the first president of the Kenya Community Abroad.
With the communication initiative of the Kenyan Diaspora in deep trouble, it was left to well-wishers to salvage it. Fortunately, by this time, these Kenyan discussion lists had proved to Kenya lovers, Africanist scholars, and global intelligence services to be important sources of information and a vital barometer for measuring the direction and force of elite Kenya opinion in an uninhibited environment.
Those who are familiar with the medium of the e-mail, and discussion lists in particular, know that despite pretenses of civility and protocol, anything goes. Few of the contributors know each other by face, making it easy for combatants to throw everything at their faceless protagonists. Interactivity tends to bring out the worst – and occasionally the best – from a homogeneous audience. Insults, grit, rumour, fact, fiction and hardcore pornography mingle with brilliance, misunderstood irony, humour and scholarship.
Here is a medium where only the most verbal, voluble, versatile, and virulently conceited can survive. Each of the big names on these e-mail lists – Prof. Edari, Prof. Atieno Odhiambo, Papa F, James Sang, Justus Ogembo, Carey-Francis Onyango, John Muoria, Margret Kiromo, Mourad, and others – exhibit several of these traits.
The manner in which the discussion list was salvaged is a study in chance. An American lady who had been a participant in the discussions approached Prof. Anorld Lisakar, a physicist at St. Cloud State University, for assistance in ensuring the survival of KenyaOnline, the successor to both Kenya-net and Githendu’s Onlinelist. Although he had only little prior contact with Kenyans, Prof. Lisakar agreed to host the discussion list on the web servers of his university.
This is now the home of Kenyaonline. Those wishing to subscribe may do so at:http://walt.stcloudstate.edu/KenyaOnline/.The discussions on this list are archived by Gitaa’s Mshale at:http://www.mshale.com/kol.html,under a project sanctioned by the list owner.
Other noteworthy media in this vein include the New Kenya Vision, a socialist on-line journal edited by Onyango Oloo, former University of Nairobi student leader and ex-political prisoner. For the last one year, however, no new issues have been forthcoming and Mr. Oloo has kept a rather low profile.
In November last year, the KCA launched their own internet-based newsletter, called Sauti ya KCA. Sources said there are plans to publish a hardcopy version of it.
But not all attempts of informing Kenyans have been restricted to electronic means. Newsletters of varied provenance have appeared sporadically, a notable example being ‘Sauti,’ a few issues of which were published by the Kenyan Community in Atlanta two years ago, and has since ceased publication. The Kenya Christian Fellowship in America, founded in 1992 by the Birmingham, Alabama-based Joe Chege Karogi, publishes Mshirika, which is edited by Dr. Samuel N. Nagi of Columbia, South Carolina.
It features such stories as ‘God’s faithfulness in the midst of a crisis,’ and readers such as ‘concerned sister’ have occasion to write complaining that eligible Kenyan men abroad are hastening to import wives from Kenya without giving Kenyan women abroad an equal chance to bid. ‘I am concerned because I want to know: what is wrong with us?’ she asks in a recent issue.
Another Kenyan publication abroad is Pambana, a newsletter published in Melbourne, Australia by Ndungi wa Mungai, Rev. Richard Wootton, and Damien Sweeny. Virulently socialist, it is not clear if this version is related to the Pambana pamphlets that were said to have appeared in the country in the 1980s leading to indiscriminate jailing of anyone suspected to be anti- government.
Those who are served by this media are a motley lot. Estimated to number between 5,000-10,000 in North America alone, they have come here for all kinds of reasons – to study, to teach, or take up professional jobs (particularly computer experts, doctors, nurses and clergy), or through marriage. Others have been attracted by programmes such as the US-government sponsored Diversity Visa Programme, through which hundreds of Kenyans come to America every year.
Leaving Africa, these immigrants find themselves existing in a weird intersection of concentric and conflicting loyalties. Being only slightly more than paper North Americans, they tend to be deeply aware of their threatened and diminishing Africanness. They cannot simply break the cultural umbilical cord that ties them with their countries of origin. At the same time, they cannot whole-heartedly immerse themselves into North American way of life as it is not only alien but is also, on the whole, disjointed and hence radically different from the ordered, predictable African culture. Here, life is experienced in fragments, snippets and bits.
As sociologist Donald N. Levine of the University of Chicago has written in his Visions of the Sociological Tradition: Videos roll images; TV watchers flip channels. Symphonies become packaged themes. Art becomes collages of ingredients. Tourists buy copies of segments of monuments. … Computers reckon in bytes, politicians in sound bites.
The immigrants watch the weather on TV as they collapse onto their sofa after a demeaning day at the office or the myriad menial jobs open to immigrants; catch a glimpse of the headline news from the newspaper vending machine as they rush to catch the commuter train; listen to a recorded book as they go through the motions of a thoroughly routine job, and; return home to see the world news summarized in a minute on TV.
This ‘fragmentation of experience’ leaves an empty feeling in the stomach, leading the immigrant in search of news and information that is relevant to his/her origins and cosmos as a way of communing with his/her compatriots. It is this need that the immigrant media has emerged to satisfy.
The rise of the diasporic media is also directly related to the deteriorating socio-economic conditions obtaining in Africa. It used to be that Kenyans went to school abroad and returned home promptly after completing their studies. Indeed, in comparison to Nigerians, Ghananians and Ethiopians, Kenya is still under-represented in international jobs because Kenyan experts for a long time saw no need to leave the country to work abroad. Those were the days when there was still a lot to come back to – jobs, opportunities of all kind, a certain future.
Of late, the decision by any Kenyan who travels outside the country to return back is made only after very serious personal deliberations. The poor state of the Kenyan economy, lack of jobs, corruption, inefficiency and inertia in the delivery of social services, the poor state of physical infrastructure – all have conspired to discourage an otherwise highly qualified cadre to return home.
Talking to them, however, one gets the feeling that they all would like to return once things take a turn for the better. For the majority of these people, keeping in touch with events back home is a way of preparing to return. These new media are helping them both to prepare to return and to prepare to live abroad. If you must know, the man who most personifies the efforts to inform the Kenyan Diaspora was born a Kisii, raised a Kenyan, considers himself an African, and is slowly but surely changing into an American.
Muiru Ngugi may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org