In January 2009, members of the Concerned Kenyan Writers collective (CKW) learned that the Boys Choir of Kenya had been invited to perform for Barack Obama’s inauguration, and were going to perform “Jambo Bwana.” Outrage erupted, with one member of CKW terming the song an example of Kenyan “minstrelsy.”
“Jambo Bwana” sits in the repertoire of “tourist classics.” When I stayed at the Kenyan coast in the mid-1990s, the local band sang it every night to welcome newly arrived tourists. It is a song that articulates relationships, creating the distinction between native and tourist, host and guest, and relying on a fantasy that “all is well,” one that both the host and tourist need. For the host/worker in the tourism industry, the reassurance that all is well attempts to guarantee ongoing business. And since tourism is so vital to Kenya’s industry, accounting for 10% of the GDP according to the Ministry of Tourism, it is vital that Kenyans, especially those in the tourist industry, maintain a façade that all is well. For tourists, the repeated assurance that all is well helps to allay fears that might be generated by rumors and fictions about foreign countries as sites of disease and death, and especially rumors and fictions about African foreign countries in the tropics, home to malaria, cholera, and civil strife. The upbeat “Jambo Bwana” allows hosts and tourists to inhabit a fantasy of reciprocity, no matter how tenuous.
And this reciprocity is tenuous, once we examine the form and content of the song within Kenya’s histories. To map, briefly, what follows: I provide a “standard” reading of the song, advancing this argument through a poem by Kenyan poet and activist Shailja Patel. I then, in a clumsy, roundabout way, perform a counterintuitive reading of the song—more for my own pleasure rather than to advance an argument. Finally, I examine the significance of this song as used during the inauguration: how did it position Obama in relation to Kenya and vice-versa, how, especially, did it, even unwittingly, contest and revise the ideas of Luo-ness and Kenyan-ness that had been used to frame Obama? In this final section, I am interested in mapping the relationship between Obama as benign/uninformed tourist and Obama as U.S. president.
How are you?
Visitors, you are welcomed
Has no troubles
“Jambo Bwana” is suffused with ambivalent colonial nostalgia, and this nostalgia pivots on the word “bwana.” Within colonial histories, the term “bwana” demarcated racial and class distinctions: white men were “bwana” and white women “memsahib.” The implicit distinction was between colonizer men as rulers and colonized boys as servants, an ideological as opposed to chronological distinction. I invoke the ambivalence of colonial nostalgia following William Bissell, who has examined the significance of formerly colonized populations expressing nostalgia for colonialism. By using the term “bwana,” this song enables a “return” to colonial racial tropes—significantly, domestic tourism is generally not strong, so the song appeals to foreign-born tourists, interpellates them into a broader imperial nostalgia, in which the black servant is so crucial.
Tourism allows for and even encourages the re-circulation of historically unequal structures as Jacqui Alexander has shown in the context of the Bahamas. In this instance, “bwana” allows the fantasy structure of colonial/imperial nostalgia to proliferate, recreating, if only during “brief holidays,” the racial-gendered structure of colonialism, mitigated, in part, by the income generated, though unequally shared—and here I defer a longer discussion of how much different actors in the tourism industry earn, formally and informally.
If the term “bwana” conjures up one compelling site of colonial/imperial nostalgia, the closing line of the refrain, “hakuna matata,” emphasizes the ostensibly trouble-free, ahistorical fantasy aspect of colonial/imperial nostalgia. There are “no troubles” in Kenya—let’s recall the country was named Kenya in 1920, when it shifted from being the East African Protectorate to the Kenya Colony. And there are “no troubles” in this host/tourist interaction. “Hakuna matata” erases the past that would trouble the term “bwana” with its colonial associations and the present that troubles the term “bwana” with its neo-colonial, imperial, and imperial nostalgia associations. We are in the suspended time captured with stunning accuracy in Disney’s Lion King, where the phrase “hakuna matata” lubricates and enables a space and time out of space and time, a trouble-free fantasy available in a disembedded social space.
In her poem, “Hakuna Matata,” Shailja Patel stages an ideological unmasking and critique of this song. In full, the poem reads,
If I could hang, draw and quarter a song, I would do it to this one.
If I could tie a 50 pound weight around a song and drop it off into the murkiest, most sewage-laden depths of the Indian Ocean, it would be this one.
If I could put a song through a shredder, and put the shreddings through a meat grinder, and put the paste through a blender, and put the result in an incinerator, I would do it, three times over, to Hakuna Matata.
Every gifted African musician who’s ever been forced to churn out this festering putrefaction of a lyric, to a bunch of grinning tourists, on a hotel terrace, deserves compensation for psychological damage.
Everyone who’s ever lived the reality, the complexity, the day-to-day humanity of East Africa, as opposed to the tourist hotel fantasy package, and then had the tinny simplistic sugary crap of Hakuna Matata forced on their eardrums, deserves a free detox treatment at the spas of the same hotels. (reproduced with the poet’s permission)
Patel points to the implications of performing this song—and the fantasy it embodies—to Kenyan artists. The “gifted African musician” is a metonym for the many enterprises sutured to tourism, and thus “forced to churn out” market-oriented art. “Jambo Bwana” represents the truncated and foreclosed opportunities for African artists, whose modes of survival have become joined to the tourist industry.
This oft-repeated song—played every single night for the five nights I visited the coast, for instance—also grinds down those individuals forced to work in the tourist industry. And, here I defer the more extended description of how tourism has foreclosed other local industries, creating formal and informal labor pools that “serve” tourists. I will briefly point to—and defer—a more extended description of how sex tourism is the best metonym for all tourism to Kenya.
And now a clumsy, counterintuitive reading.
If the term “bwana” conjures up colonial-era race relations, the ideas of ownership invoked by “wageni” and “Kenya yetu” situate this song firmly in post-independent space and time. The relationship posited between tourist and host (as opposed to tourist and laborer) is staked on the grounds of ownership. The citizen-host welcomes the tourist-guest and reminds this figure that “bwana” is a colonial relic used by citizen-hosts as a generic honorific. Kenya is owned collectively by its citizen-hosts. The extent to which this claim for ownership is itself a fantasy deserves a more extended reading than I can provide here.
Another clumsy transition, to Obama.
When the Boys Choir of Kenya performed “Jambo Bwana” during Obama’s inauguration, they contested Kenyan narratives that claimed Obama as “one of our own” by framing him as a tourist-guest. At the same time, the song attempts to mitigate his potential influence over Kenya by insisting that Kenyans own Kenya.
As has been well documented, in the run-up to Obama’s election, Kenyans claimed him, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga invoked the bonds of kinship by terming Obama a “cousin.” These claims of “kinship,” especially “Luo-ness,” were meant to interpellate Obama into a system of Kenyan-based patronage, in which ethnic alliances shape political strategies. In part, this invocation of kinship was also meant to create a narrative of intimacy that would supplant the political narrative between Kenya and the U.S.
Despite claims of “kinship,” the Kenyan government did not receive an invitation to the inauguration, a powerful rebuke to Kenya’s ongoing wrangling parties. Obama’s grandmother received an invitation. Kinship was asserted as intimate and private and divorced from ethnic patronage.
In singing “Jambo Bwana,” the Boys Choir of Kenya positioned Obama as a tourist-guest in relation to Kenya, not a lost son, not a cousin, not even a distantly positioned relative. He was a tourist-guest, one whose access to resources and ability to disburse resources merited the racial-colonial term “bwana,” and one who could be welcomed to Kenya by its citizen-hosts. The song registered what official and unofficial Kenyan discourse had been unwilling and unable to do: it foregrounded Obama’s political obligations and kin-citizenship attachments as distinctly U.S., not Kenyan, his abilities and promises as first and foremost to the U.S., not Kenya, while insisting on Kenya’s sovereignty, even a sovereignty rooted in acting as citizen-hosts to tourist-guests.
To end on a note of over reading: it is, of course, ironic, that a group whose members range in age from 13-24 are termed “boys” and that they performed a song suffused with colonial tropes of development and underdevelopment for Obama, the new “bwana.”