In Tanzania, music is played everywhere: on crowded, colorful streets, in dala dalas (minibus taxis), and in roadside bars, which serve grilled corn and roasted pistachios. Tanzanians even walk as if they are dancing.
This passion for music comes from the tribes. In this country, with a population of 50 million people, there are more than 120 of them and all of them have different traditional instruments, tunes, and songs. In the cosmopolitan Dar es Salaam, you can hear almost all of them: from the melodies played on the ilimba, an instrument of the Gogo tribe from central Tanzania, to taarab music, akin to sung poetry, and popular in Zanzibar.
Yet the younger generation prefers bongo flava, a local version of hip hop. And the local stars are more and more inspired by their American idols; they imitate their music, gestures and clothing style. No wonder that older musicians fear that, in a few decades, Tanzanians may no longer be able to make traditional instruments or even play on them.
In colonial times, traditional music and dancing encouraged resistance. Today, artists are encouraging resistance against growing western influences to save their rich tradition.
Seventy-two-year-old Warema Chacha is a well-known litungu player, a stringed instrument of the Kurya tribe from north-western Tanzania. The older he gets, the more determined he is to pass on his knowledge and love for music to younger generations.
“I often tell young people that it’s important to value your own culture, because in this way you can know yourself better. You won’t know it by playing bongo flava,” he says at his house in Bagamoyo, 60 kilometers from Dar es Salaam.
“Many times when you don’t appreciate your own things they can disappear. If someone comes to me, I can help and teach him to play the instrument, even making him one for free,” he adds showing a self-made litungu.
He has already encouraged his grandson Ally, who plays on the African drums in a popular band Ze Spirits, to also take litungu lessons.
“The litungu is not well known and we are the only ones who can save it from disappearing and introduce it to the world because we are close to Chacha, who knows everything about this instrument,” says 21-year-old Sajaly Sharif, Ally’s friend from the band that plays afro-fusion, a mix of traditional and modern music. “This can also be a good marketing strategy for us. Like most bands, we also play the guitar, but if you go to America or Europe, you’ll find people who do it better. We can be the kings of the litungu though. And thanks to this, people may be more interested in our music,” he adds.
Chacha is also teaching young musicians that music is not only for entertainment. His songs encourage people to vote in elections and warn against malaria or AIDS.
“What is most important is its educational role and the message it carries,” he says.
Music is also an important element of national identity. In 1964, when President Julius Nyerere united Zanzibar and the mainland Tanganyika to form Tanzania, traditional art gained more significance. His government used the performances of traditional artists from different tribes to break down ethnic differences in the young nation. Chacha joined the national troupe of traditional musicians as a teenager, and played in the group on the litungu for over 36 years.
The Bagamoyo College of Art, near Chacha’s house, was founded in 1981 as a training ground for the national troupes. Today, it is one of a few places where people can learn real traditional music. The conditions for learning are something from a dream: classes take place just a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean and the sound of the waves can be heard from the rooms.
“Students are increasingly interested in tribal instruments, because they don’t want to lose their culture. It is now fashionable to combine traditional and modern rhythms,” says Maulid Mohamed Saleman, a teacher at the Bagamoyo school.
He inherited his musical talent from his parents.
“My mother was a dancer, and my father a musician and a village leader. When he wanted to meet with his people, he called them by banging on the drums. Sometimes I wonder how he would have reacted if he had had the chance to listen to young people mixing the sound of the drums with modern guitars,” Saleman says with a smile.
“In the beginning my family thought that I had lost my mind,” says 34-year-old Msafiri Zawose, son of the late traditional musician Hukwe Zawose who played on the ilimba (an instrument made from wood and thin metal plates) and gained international recognition thanks to his collaboration with the British singer Peter Gabriel. “But now they like my music. It sounds different from my father’s music, but still it’s a traditional melody,” he says at his house in Bagamoyo.
Msafiri has already recorded a few albums, and performed in many countries, including the United States.
Yet some older musicians are a little afraid of the consequences of mixing the styles.
“In 20 to 30 years there will be no pure traditional music. But I think it’s worth paying this price if we save traditional melodies and instruments from disappearing,” says 74-year-old Makame Faki, a famous taarab musician from Zanzibar.
On a hot Saturday night in Nafasi Art Space, a fashionable cultural center in Dar es Salaam, a crowd of young people dance to the music of Ze Spirits. They are drinking local Kilimanjaro beer and eating popcorn.
“Traditional music will evolve but not die. Tanzanians have this music in their genes,” says Rebecca Corey, the director of Nafasi and a co-founder of the Tanzanian Heritage Project, a cultural initiative whose aim is to record traditional musicians, like Chacha.
Chacha has also recently performed on stage at Nafasi Art Space with his grandson and his band. Sometimes, he even listens to bongo flava songs. He admits that some of them are not so bad, but he doesn’t understand why artists dress the way they do.
“Wearing trousers below the waist is not our tradition, wearing glasses is common for CIA agents so that people cannot see their eyes. Sometimes they wear women’s glasses and think it’s fine, and sometimes clothes for women and earrings. I pray to God to help them,” he says, trying to hold back laughter.
However, he might be able to forget about their outfits if they start to take litungu lessons.
“In the end, hip hop sounds almost like the Kurya tribe heroic recitation,” he adds with a smile.
– Written by Monika Rebala, Photos by Myriam Meloni
This project has been funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.
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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’
Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.
By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.
Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.
Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.
Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.
Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.
“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.
Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.
The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.
“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.
Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.
“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.
Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.
When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.
While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.
“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”
Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.
“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.
With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.
“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.
Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.
“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.
The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.
“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.
At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.
“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.
If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.
“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”
An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.
“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.
Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.
“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”
In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.
“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.
Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.
“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”
As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.
With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.
“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”
Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.
Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.
– Marie Shabaya
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