How refugees bring along their music and culture, creating a melting pot

Thursday November 25 2021
Refugees in Kenya.

Some refugees living in Kenya perform a play in Nairobi highlighting the plight of refugees in camps. After decades of cultural exchanges driven mainly by music, art and conflict, the East African region now has stars who can be considered truly regional. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


One of the most popular shows in the Kenyan corner of the internet this year has been the three-part YouTube series Wash Wash Biziness.

In case you haven’t watched it, the series stars Kenyan comedian Terrence Creative playing the part of Papa Fred, a Congolese con man who wears a lot of makeup and swindles unwitting Kenyans and foreigners in elaborate get-rich-quick schemes.

In the first part of the series, he and his team are selling a “kemikal” that is supposed to turn fake cash into something you can use to pay your bills.

The second episode is an elaborate land fraud that involves helicopters, boats, fleets of cars, and crafty sleight of hand. Nairobi is depicted at its architectural and hedonistic best, with German cars and posh short-term rental houses.

Papa Fred is clearly a creature of Nairobi city, but you wouldn’t know it from his mixed lingo of English, Kiswahili and Lingala, with a smattering of French, which ends up making his sales pitches all the more convincing. The language is the best part of the series for the Congolese who have watched it.

A news story in October quoted Kenya-based Tanzanian musician Mr Nice saying that Congolese fans were hounding him with questions about the series and the man behind it during his recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.


The surprising popularity of this Kenya-made series with Congolese features is the story of our time. After decades of cultural exchanges driven mainly by music, art and conflict, the East African region now has stars who can be considered truly regional.

Ugandan comedienne Anne Kansiime is a household name in Kenya, and Kenyan comic Eric Omondi is in the third season of his dating show, Wife Material, a riotous gathering of women from the region. The show has attracted attention and some censorship. Much of this exchange now seems to happen online, with Nairobi as the melting pot of numerous social and cultural threads. But its roots lie much deeper, primarily in conflict.

Lasting impact

While what comes to mind for most Kenyans when they consider the influence of refugees on their society are the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, the truth is that the constant stream of people fleeing political conflict over decades has had a deep and lasting impact.

In the first three decades after Independence, refugees flowed into Kenya mainly from Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. Ugandan teachers became a common feature in Kenyan schools until Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi reportedly poached a few of them to teach in his schools in Kabarak.

Many refugees ended up in national schools and other centres of learning, often employed below their education levels. It also reportedly helped that, as migrant workers, they did not take up side hustles the way their Kenyan colleagues did, and were therefore dedicated to their duties.

Dadaab, the great refugee camp

In the years after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986, new streams of refugees flowed across the border into Kenya.

There were controversial characters like Alice Lakwena, the warrior priestess who founded the Holy Spirit Movement, and some of her supporters. She escaped to Kenya in the late 1980s after her resistance group was defeated by Uganda’s military. She appears in a footnote in the report of an international aid group as leading a protest in Thika, 45 kilometres from Nairobi, in 1987. That could be how she ended up encamped, and presumably closely monitored, in the Dadaab refugee camp until she died in 2007.

Another claim Lakwena has to history is her familial relationship with Joseph Kony, the fugitive leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) sought by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Remnants of Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement were said to have been among the founding members of the United Holy Salvation Army, which later became the LRA.

In the two decades Lakwena lived as a refugee in Kenya, she must have witnessed the expansion of the Dadaab camp, with a swelling its population. From the early 1990s, the number and countries of origin of people seeking asylum in Kenya increased to cover nearly every neighbouring state and beyond. Refugees flowed in from Ethiopia, Sudan, the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda.

Kenya’s northeastern neighbour Somalia became the primary country of origin for refugees when it descended into chaos in the early 1990s, and many migrant Somalis in the West and elsewhere trace their journey from the country through Kenya. Even more settled in the country, they transformed the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi. They established successful enterprises and careers, and exposed Kenyans to ideas such as the Hawala money transfer system.

East African beat

The influx of refugees from the DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda had cultural outcomes. One of Nairobi’s most successful musicians today is Burundian Jean-Pierre Nimbona, better known by his nickname and stage name Kidum. Kidum made his way into the country through Tanzania, on his father’s insistence, in the mid-1990s.

He left his home country with only $60 and a nascent career as a drummer, and ended up at Kakuma refugee camp. In the years since he moved from the camp and started writing music in Kiswahili, he and his Boda Boda Band have grown into one of the most highly sought-after acts in the city.

Kidum’s success mirrors that of Congolese musicians, many of whom started their journey to Nairobi as refugees and migrants, some as far back as in the late 1950s. Even more followed in the decades after Independence as they escaped conflict or political repression at home. They made Lingala music immensely popular across East Africa.

In 1974, for example, the Super Vox band moved its base to Nairobi and changed its name to Super Mazembe. It was among the renowned musical acts of its time, engaged in fierce competition with other Congolese bands making waves in East Africa from their bases in Tanzania and Kenya. They incorporated other sounds such as Benga and dominated the music scene.

Ugandan star Jose Chameleone began his career in Kenya, after he was smuggled across the border, and signed on with the music producing outfit Ogopa Deejays. Ogopa also produced stars such as Bebe Cool of Uganda and Kenya’s Redsan, who gained popularity in the region in the 2000s.