Tribute to the poem "Let the lions roar no more" by Shamit Patel
There are two stories that my father tells in his upcoming autobiography that always make me sentimental. One is the story of his mother, Wandia, whom I’ve been trying to emulate through his stories, since I never got to meet her.
I never got to meet Wandia because she died when Baba was a child. She was sick, and she was taken away by relatives and never came back. My father’s family did not get a chance to mourn her or bury her.
The second sentimental story is a funnier one. My great-grandfather, Murere, did everything by the customary book, including setting aside some meat over to acknowledge the ancestors every time he slaughtered an animal. On this one occasion when he slaughtered a goat, Murere senior explained the ritual to Murere junior as putting aside some meat for God. A few minutes later, Baba saw a mongoose come and take the meat away. For the longest time afterwards, Baba thought that God was a mongoose. In his autobiography, he talks more about the metaphysical and spiritual dimensions of this worldview that saw God as inhabited not only in human beings, but in the rest of God’s creation.
For me, these two stories and later on, many African oral narratives with animals, entrench for me the worldview that we Africans do not see ourselves in opposition to nature. One of the most beautiful Kenyan novels I’ve read, written by Henry ole Kulet, depicts animals as literal prophets who indicate to human beings when they are doing something wrong to the environment.
Even in our languages, animals share the same pronouns as people; in Kiswahili, they belong to ngeli A-WA. They are not considered inanimate and assigned to other ngeli like KI-VI which is for objects. By contrast, the English language taught and spoken in Kenya uses “it,” rather than “he” or “she,” to describe animals. True, we’ve seen Americans refer to their dogs and cats as “she” or “he,” but usually it feels less of a recognition of animals’ equal place in the universe, as it is in African languages, and more like a humanizing of animals, which is, ultimately, disrespect for animals. Kissing animals, feeding them on honey and ice-cream like I saw in one dog “reunion” held in State College, Pennsylvania, where I was a student, feels more like failure to respect animals for who they are unless they can be defined in human terms.
That is why in my view, the recent mistreatment of lions that have escaped from the Nairobi National Park is an anathema to our African worldview. When animals move out of their normal habitat, the responsibility of humans is not to do away with the animals, but to ask what it is that we human beings are doing that Mother Nature is complaining about. Last year, the Nairobi Greenline initiative had indicated that human beings were misbehaving by grabbing the land for private land development and for public infrastructure, polluting the park with plastic and effluences, and polluting the air.
What makes running the southern by-pass through the park more painful is that the private houses that were built on the road reserve were preserved, rather than demolished. The houses must be owned by well-connected individuals, because the houses along the flight-path in Syokimau were ruthlessly demolished.
Sadly, some Kenyans are cynical and saying that animals shouldn’t take priority over human beings and development. However, if we think the way our forefathers trained us to, we would know that there’s nothing like priority of people over animals. In the African worldview, there’s no hierarchy in the cosmos. As Wole Soyinka so wonderfully articulated in Myth, Literature and the African World, the cosmos is a balance of competing interests, and often, African art and rituals are the spaces where the communities reset the imbalance that may have been caused by the gods, the ancestors, living beings and even nature.
So the responsible thing for human beings to do is not to blame wild animals for being themselves; it is for us Africans to be our human selves, which means using our brains to think and invent more environmentally-friendly ways to develop. To claim helplessness over wildlife and suggest closing the park is an abandonment of our humanity because it is our refusal to use our brains and think, and to take care of the world God gave us.
But more than that, the agenda to close the Nairobi National Park is an insult and an injustice. Many Kenyans don’t believe that the animals innocently strayed out of the park; they believe that there is an orchestrated effort to demonize the national park, close it and use the prime land for development.
Yet ordinary Nairobians with little recreation space defend relocation of the park in the name of “development,” oblivious to the fact that the dominance they assert over animals is the same one that our ruling class asserts over us. Like the lions, we too are squeezed into walking along the roads because there are no footpaths next to the wide roads. We are forced to relax in an overflowing Uhuru park, on roundabouts and undeveloped spaces, while land grabbers drive by in air-conditioned vehicles, on their way to the golf clubs to walk in the open green spaces, and or to the airports to fly to the beach or to the Mara.
But it is not surprising that many of us think this way. For the longest time, preservation of wildlife has been linked to tourism, which in the minds of Kenyans, means money from Europeans for local hoteliers. Politicians tell us to preserve wildlife for foreign tourists, not for Kenyans. Yet so many years ago, Frantz Fanon warned us that relying on tourism is essentially pimping African nations to their former colonial masters, because it makes politicians rely on what the good Lord gave Africa, rather than turn politicians into leaders who inspire and facilitate Africans to use their brains to invent and their muscles to work.
And sure enough, this ethic of pimping has extended from our wildlife being paraded to foreigners, rather than protected, to the pimping of communities living around tourist attractions at the beaches of the coast and the plains of the national parks. Revenues earned from these areas were used to develop not these communities, but the capital city and the surrounding areas, which the infamous Session paper no. 10 of 1965 prioritized because the areas farmed cash crops. And in the coast, it is not only the beaches and livelihoods of communities that are pimped, now even children and women are part of the abuse from criminal tourists. At a national level, we voters are pimped by politicians in ethnic voting bargains, and as taxpayers, we are pimped when revenues earned through our sweat and tears are stolen by politicians. Whatever we do to animals, has ended up being done to us as well.
So we should stop saying we’re protecting our wildlife to protect tourism. We should protect our animals and their habitat because who we are as Africans is intimately intertwined with the environment that Mother Nature gave us. Maybe if we are more sensitive to animals, we would be more sensitive to the marginalization of the communities through flawed economic policies. We would be more sensitive to women and not pimp our children. And we would be more outraged by the wanton theft of public resources.
So when lions of Kenya roar, they roar not just for themselves. Their roar is the sound of our ancestors who shared this continent with animals and told us stories about them. Their roar is our connection to our past, to God and to those who went before us. It is the sound of justice for the most vulnerable in our nation in the face of the greed, rape and exploitation by politicians. The lions of Nairobi National Park must roar in Nairobi National Park, and nowhere else.