Somewhere between 2007 and 2012 Kenya underwent a symbolic transition—from analogue to digital. Comedian Smart Joker became the spokesperson for this transition. It was funny that a jester who amplified the confused-villager-in-the-city motif, the staple of Kenyan comedy, was the one declaring that Kenya had migrated to the digital world. A utopia. The rap verses in his song Tumetoka Analogue Tuko Digital referenced MPesa and mobile phones. Kenya had entered the digital age under the Silicon Savannah moniker. Internet infrastructure was rapidly expanding, cheap internet, the advent of social media and the growing ubiquity of smartphones made 2010 a critical turning point not just for Kenya but for the world. Edward Mendelson even said, “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”
In this digital transition, one of the fundamental changes was how Kenya engaged with itself and the manner in which Kenyans experienced themselves and each other. #KOT was born and thrived.
Some interesting things are happening on the cultural front. In Kenya the use of design software technologies is being used to metamorphosize oral stories into online legends. Vast digital landscapes have been brought to the fore where old depictions are being reimagined; cue the Afro-future genre where Maasais are imagined in space sitting atop alien disks, and Afrobubblegum, which celebrates itself for being fun, fierce and frivolous. Films that disrupt colonial narrative structures and depictions have been made, traditional settings have been incorporated into online games while traditional board games are being digitised. Beyond making Kenyan (hi)stories accessible, however, a critical examination of the affordances and limitations of the digital space is needed, especially in terms of authenticity, diversity and complexity in representation.
Technology is spoken of in heraldic, near-biblical terms, a promised land where a techno-fix will provide correction for all past narratives, attitudes and inefficiencies. The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers. In some cases, political problems are being surrendered to technical solutions. This attitude ignores the fact that technology integrates assumptions and preferences about culture, places, people and values and that it can reproduce and reinforce inequities and lead to new forms of dispossession. Caution against such unchecked hopes has been voiced but the debate regarding the finer details of this analogue-digital migration is confined to tiny circles of experts.
There was something disquieting about the frenetic pace of the analogue-to-digital migration. It was more than the basic burden of migratory logistics. A country like Kenya came to technology with a certain mind-set and the technologies being adopted also came with their baggage of bias and assumptions. Simply adopting or merely imitating how others were using them was not going to work. Some habits have to go, some new ones have to be adopted; success in the digital age comes in iterative baby steps not in the rushed manner in which certain projects have been undertaken. The movers, the systems that allowed the migrations, were all borrowed. Certain cultural and imaginative needs of the people were missing from the existing technologies and had to be built from scratch.
On the cultural and heritage fronts, the debates around digitization have thrown up interesting dilemmas. The events that whisk us from the digital optimism of the early 2010s to the digital cultural depictions of the 2020s are many and follow many threads. They all begin offline, with good intentions and a clear need to meet, a remedy to apply or an aspect of society to include. Measures are then put in place. Take the question of national heroes and memorialization. In 2007, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage set up a Taskforce on National Heroes and Heroines whose mandate was “countrywide data collection on criteria and modalities of honoring national heroes and heroines”. After five months the taskforce came out with a report that, among other things, identified the modalities of scoring and awarding hero points. The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists:
“The national heroes and heroines square should be the highest symbol and point of reference of the perpetuity of our nationhood. It should represent and depict the national core values, goals and principles to which all Kenyans aspire. The place should symbolize all the shrines held sacred by various Kenyan communities. It should be a place revered and treated with utmost respect by those who work, enter and visit the square. As a national shrine it should embody the country’s pride, hope, spiritual and cultural aspirations and national unity. This concept should be reflected in the architectural design, management and administration of the square.”
In short, the manufacture of a holy shrine that, by existing, induces nostalgia, pride, and a deeply symbolic respect for Project Kenya; an Arcadia of sorts, Kenya’s own Shangri La where memories of heroes and heroines live on forever.
Now take this intention, add a software programme and unchecked and uncritical enthusiasm, bring in the National Museums of Kenya, add tracts of digital real estate through the Google Arts and Culture Project, stir for a few years then add frames and the perfect Kenyan heroes soup is ready for serving up on a digital platter. This is what happened recently when Kenya National Museums—through the Google Arts and Culture Project—embarked on a project similar to the watercolour sketches of Kenyan men and women commissioned from Joy Adamson by the British colonial government in the 1950s.
The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted global inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers.
The project is described on the Google Arts and Culture page as a celebration of “a journey of 400 years of history and geography” and we are invited to “meet 61 historic heroes of the Kenyan communities” and engage in their “remarkable stories”. The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino”. In almost all of them, a simplistic macho effect is achieved through creased brows. And they are inspired by the erroneous official simplification that “Kenya has 44 communities who all have heroes” in a move to make culture, diversity, identity history and even pride accessible and available for display. A gamified section invites us to “discover your super alter-Ego” by “taking a quiz”.
The digitally imagined Chief Mukudi adorned in ostrich feathers and the offline analogue reality of the late chief adorned in Mumia Kingdom’s official kanzu, black coat and king’s medals.
This fantastical rendering of Chief Mukudi psychically displaces and forces one to think at once that there was an ancient civilization and that the many marks on his body held mysterious powers. Nostalgia for a fictionalized past looms large in this cartoonish idiocy.
It becomes even harder to look beyond these aesthetic distortions to consider and appreciate the effort put into the project since the aesthetic style erases and overshadows the substance of the stories. This leads to an alienating abstraction of reality.
In moves only possible in the digital space, the project also allows for an immense lore dump. We are not allowed to move gradually through each hero but are forced to contend with tens of heroes and heroines from diverse cultures in an undifferentiated mass in the virtual world. The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
The project achieves two things: Firstly, it is a symbolic reversal of the manner in which Kenya has approached the controversial question of who is to be celebrated and how. Secondly, it is a celebration of diverse traditional oral stories that further complicates the foundational stories of this country.
The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists.
But the actual product falls short of these intentions because the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
Even though this project tries to bring a conceptual shift, its lynchpin is simplistic and flawed. Tinkering with and tweaking the diverse Kenyan cultural heritage in this simplistic manner was never going to bring successful reversals to the old prejudiced attitudes. There is no power or heroism in the depictions of the paused agile leap or the ready-to-pounce poses. This is not a digital revolution overturning old conceptions but a further distortion of reality. A phoney simulation.
To escape from that nativist prison is not possible with Western media and software, and vector elements and stock images conceived in Silicon Valley. Ancient lore can be repurposed for modern digital needs but if it is used to serve narrow nationalistic agendas, a mutually reinforcing and equally destructive process is embarked upon—national image-making on a straitjacket platform.
For a country in search of sources of pride, anything seems to go in reconciling the disparate narratives of national being and becoming. Historical inaccuracies are embraced, regional characters are incorporated without qualms. The mad Mullah can be passed as a Kenyan hero as the stories cross ethnic, cultural and geographical boundaries and vault over their rural origins, acquiring a transcendental quality.
The pastoral 13th-17th century Ajuran sultanate is accessorised, ignorantly, with Mediterranean marble pillars. Its “hero” is an ascending figure bathed in light, holding a sword, and wrapped up like a Tuareg dervish straight from a teenager’s dream in an Ibrahim Al-Koni novel. Moving towards Southern Ethiopia, the almost 600-year-old Borana governance institution of the Gada—that from 1548 has had 72 Aba Gadas—is represented by one image titled Aba Gada; his name and the years of his reign are surplus to the needs of Kenya National Museums.
Some heroes and their stories are asynchronous to their actual histories. Take for example the story of Kote Golo who is depicted as a young Rendille moran. A respected Sakuye elder says that he died in 1913 but KNM places Kote Golo’s stories in the 1930s and beyond. What are we to make of references to Cuban and Soviet Union support? And the Ogaden war? A lone ranger’s story created by KNM.
The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino.”
In this project fictive kinship is conjured at will. The Burji for example, are depicted as “farmers of the desert” even though they are not found in any desert. Their mythical story of origin has villains who shift according to the prevailing relationship or the needs of the narrator. The Burji, Konso and Borana are distinct and unrelated and passing them off as cousins or “the three brothers” is careless. KNM erroneously claims that, “The Burji swore to be farmers, to feed the Borana who had chased them away from Liban, with grains of life.”
Kenya National Museums wants to force the stories to triumph over structural issues and vault above politics, above economics and above context. Women are depicted as hormonal, men are gladiators. The project is largely an attempt to apply heavy nationalist makeup but the anachronistic collapse and fictional rendering fail to achieve the attempted nationalistic unification. Such stories, if not told in all their different dimensions, are best left alone.
Reconciliation with Western imaginaries of heroism
The traditional myths and legends being rescued and bathed in gold and light have been imbued with Western superhero motifs. Most of the images have gilded renderings, the avatars have dead-set serious eyes and flawlessly toned bodies.
Traditional costumes have been wilfully replaced with the accoutrements of heroes of Western heritage and the digital bric-a-brac of online game cultures and depictions of power that borrow trinkets and magical orbs and wands from Harry Potter movies. There are other related accoutrements of this world such as fancy swords and blazing spears. A proper scrutiny of the images may even reveal Black Panther’s vibranium hammers.
To suture the resulting inconsistencies and to imbue them with digital depictions of power, the project bathes everything in neon lights of a golden hue and streaks of lightning. Depictions from Greek mythology and those in the Kenyan heroes project are so similar that one could conclude that Zeus no longer reigned from Mt. Olympus and had allowed his energy of lights to be borrowed for use in the digital afterlife of Kenyan oral stories. Mekatilili wa Menza could pass for Hera.
Institutions and responsibilities
Historical narratives are often complicated, and bear the contradictions of reality. The process by which real people are turned into comic book heroes, shorn of all historical and cultural realities, has been enabled by the enthusiastic use of digital tools and existing digital templates and environment; this carries some of the blame for the iconographic distortions.
Nationalistic self-flattery goes through many layers of bureaucratic approval that all carry the blame for the historical inaccuracies in this project: the funders, the cast of actors that include the heritage minister, and the president who gave it the full blessing of the state. The project has an impressive-sounding list of contributors—Director General, senior curators and research scientists, designers, archivists, photographers and marketers—some of whom have PhDs to their names.
The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
Kenya National Museums is not a stranger to Kenyans and has people capable of a nuanced preservation and depiction of cultures in their full, authentic complexity. That they did not see the fundamental problems with this project demonstrates either wilful ignorance or vested interests with regards to the project funds.
Nothing, not even the desperate drive to reinvent KNM, justifies this level of distortion and and show of disrespect to Kenyan communities. The difficult question of national culture cannot be answered through a linear rendering of history, culture and identity. This refashioning of cultural identities and collapsing of individual uniqueness into a national whole with a homogeneous past only creates a mess. Even when midwifed by Google or the mimicked aesthetics, it is bereft of the true body and material cultures of the depicted communities. When not attempting to create this narrow nationalism, Kenya’s heritage department seems preoccupied with how to add value or use the cultural heritage of Kenya’s communities for some form of economic gain; packaged and ready for investors and tourists. This project is the latest attempt to turn heritage and the diverse cultures into digital cultural capital.
The museum has an impressive collection of material culture. But in this Google Arts and Culture Project, everything is everywhere. The head gear of community X adorns community Y. Things are interchangeable and decontextualized.
These concerns are directed at software designers and at the cultural enthusiasts feeding in instructions into the software to remedy old questions of identity. But the institution that brings together unchecked enthusiasm and flawed programs without care for safeguarding measures carries the bulk of the blame.
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that often do not have—especially in slack, inexperienced hands—the manoeuvrability needed for accurate depictions. To use Western tools to fight old imperial framing needs other supportive industries where items like free and diverse stock photos, digital elements and assets can be sourced. Digital platforms where African and traditional material cultures can be found need to be set up.
I spoke to graphic designers who all contend with the lack of the tools and elements necessary to ease their work. “Sometimes what is in the mind and what comes out of a design process are miles apart,” says George Ngechu, founder of Sura Images, a stock image agency whose platform is designed to provide cheap and accessible images of anything from well-adjusted Africans in the workspace to basic material culture. “We get a lot of queries for a diverse range of images; the demand is a lot but we can’t meet it”.
There are few high resolution images for their use and even those that are available are watermarked or ridiculously expensive. Designers have to resort to paid stock image sites or render their own images, a painstakingly slow process that involves finding models and photographers, organising a shoot, editing and then embarking on designing a small poster depicting the realities of their surroundings. Those who commission the design do not understand that this leads to a borrowed, virtual aesthetic.
“If you search for stock pictures of Africans doing anything you won’t find them easily,” says Job, a graphic designer with a local newspaper. “Search, for example, for an African couple having dinner and you will struggle. But when you look for just ‘couples having dinner’, a million images of white people are available and for free.”
The images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum.
I talk to Chief Mukudi’s great-grandson, a journalist and designer, and we laugh at the image of his great-grandfather. He too acknowledges the challenge in the hands of the designers. “One time I was designing a campaign poster that needed to have a broom in it. All the vectors I got were the witch brooms, I had to go find a broom and make it usable for my needs”.
It takes immense effort and work for a designer to find basic things like akala sandals, brooms, guards, traditional cooking pots or any other commonly available item of material culture on the internet.
“You know, the majority of Kenyans assume that beads are the same. We do not know that they contain important cultural meaning. And also, since we do not have reference points, we approximate or just round off to the nearest item available … If your community isn’t serious in putting itself in the digital space, the distortions, misrepresentations and being left out is inevitable,” says Job.
Digital products have to be groundtruthed yet the data available for the production of the necessary traditional materials is from stereotyped tropes—borrowed, inauthentic simulations or low quality. It is even difficult to crowdsource such elements because, as one of the designers said, “Designers on the continent are not producers but consumers.” The need to contribute to platforms where stock images and vectors are stored was mentioned by many of the designers I spoke to but Joe Nzomo says, “So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
There are ongoing conversations that try to solve this problem by establishing platforms with African material culture assets, elements and stock images such as Picha Stock, the previously mentioned Sura Images, and Leso Stories’ digital asset library.
Leso Stories, for example, uses technology to give an immersive storytelling experience and notes that interactivity is a “key ingredient missing from even the best books or adaptations of African cultural works”. The platform has taken “fundamental care to ensure that not only the storyteller but also the storytelling environment are all authentic and faithful to when, where, how and why these stories are shared.” Leso Stories has managed to achieve this through “Virtual Humans” or what they call Embodied Conversational Agents. However, Leso Stories’ revolutionary contribution is creating 3D models and digital assets to be used by other creators. It is one way to counter the domination of Western digital vectors.
Lessons and responsibilities
The key lesson for us from Leso Stories’ digital asset library, Picha Stock and Sura Images is that technology demands the efforts of individuals who have foresight and passion to effect change. But the support of institutions and the responsibility of those in positions of power are necessary. The institutions at the heart of such efforts like KNM and even global players like Google and stock image behemoths like Getty and Shutterstock have a responsibility for inclusive and accurate cultural depictions.
The true power of traditional symbols of power lies in their proper, respectful and contextual depictions. To help designers and creators, the KNM could have digitised the many items that are stored and displayed in highly colonial forms at the Nairobi archives. Maybe then Harry Potter wands and magical orbs would not be as ubiquitous as they are in the Shujaa project.
Leso Stories is bold and has reimagined how African oral stories can be told without losing their participatory elements.
From production to consumption, the levels at which we have to engage with the use of software are various. In the artificial digital domain, the use of technology has to be groundtruthed. Digital technologies and software are mediums of an unequal power relationship. What is visible online as vectors is mirrored offline by beads, shawls and bakoras. Their enthusiastic adoption needs to strike a balance between prioritising faithfulness and awareness of what might be gained or lost in the cultural translation of oral, contested, continuous, cultural and non-linear histories into permanent, one-dimensional inauthentic and simple depictions.
Fidelity to the truth is key and it cannot be achieved by hurried half-commitments.
When kids who have grown up on comic vines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars turn their gaze from the marvel universe to their environment and search for such characters, they have no tools to analyse, appreciate or objectively appraise their own body cultures, legends, and myths.
In the age of artificial intelligence where simple text prompts and instructions can generate cultural images, the problem of authenticity and complexity is further compounded.
Let us for a brief moment turn to the judgment of the crowd of consumers. Take my friend Basele, a techie and digital enthusiast who shared on This is Africa’s Twitter page text-generated images that he had made on an AI platform—three images necessary for our appraisal of digital depictions.
“So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
Basele used the text prompt “Calm and colourful image of a Samburu girl from Norther Kenya” and this is the image that the AI platform generated.
In Laisamis, the possible home of this digitally rendered cultural “calm and colourful” image, I show the AI mage to two friends and I ask for their reaction. One of the two is an anthropologist. He looks at the image, immediately notes that the lady is adorned with, among other things, “ostrich egg shells” and “modern earrings”. With confusion on his face, he asks, “Could she be Pokot?” Even the distant similarity to Lupita Nyong’o lurking in the image doesn’t help the image to pass the cultural authenticity test.
Here Basele has used AI to generate a “calm and colourful image of a Rendille girl from Northern Kenya.”
My friends compare the nose size with a standard Rendille nose and laugh. But what does the software know? In a third image my friend sent me, the lady has aluminium beads and modern earrings. “Which culture is this?” ask my friends in Laisamis.
The anthropologist in Laisamis says, “The pastoralists’ material culture is lean,” noting that it has to be very sparse and specific: “Remember you carry everything with you.”
But with my friend’s curious commands, even with the AI-generated artificial glow and flawless skin, the images do not pass the authenticity test. It is not satire, it is not caricature. These are the depictions of soulless machines.
More worrying, however, are the high stakes and high risks produced by the fact that such AI-generated depictions are being used in videos to tell oral stories. Their simplistic rendering becomes embedded in other AI platforms where they are used as the groundtruth for further and future AI work. A self-reinforcing loop of distortion.
A third project
Kunta Content, a Kenyan online gaming company, has created a Maasai hero named Hiru. In the game trailer, a Maasai village is depicted well and the landscape is accurate. But Hiru is shown always running, killing a lion within the short two minutes of the trailer. In another trailer, he he kills a poacher armed only with a bow and arrow. Huri has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka. At their heart the codes that run him are the same ones that are powering the Western gaming industry. An anomaly with the story is the traditional gaming industry villain, a slayer bearing two massive axes who is taken down by the dextrous manoeuvre of Hiru’s spear, which is held and used like a cane. Salim, Kunta Content’s creator, describes the merger of media and gaming as “old storytelling which tries to tell an experience, an emotion”.
Digital inclusion needs more than design sensibility to obtain accurate and complex depictions. Other aspects such as an understanding of history, awareness of forms of self-depiction, a grasp of design tools, an honest imagination, understanding language and the power of stories, some anthropological depth, a sense of geography and an appreciation of cultures and spirituality need to be in place. These are not only to be considered but they need to be actively cultivated and implemented. An assemblage of supporting and intersectional expertise such as writers, designers and critics, as well as platforms for dissemination like the Internet, television, books and, most importantly, the resources to undertake the necessary iterative experimentation and learning have to be availed.
Clicking away swiftly
Kenya’s culture and heritage ministry is encouraging communities to compile, document and register their traditional knowledge. As heritage officials from the ministry traverse the country facilitating this rush to develop biocultural protocols, the question of the technology behind them has not been fully considered. So far, the discussions seem to be centred around traditional attire, food, herbal medicine, heritage sites, rites of passage, and so on and so forth. The intention is to codify and keep traditional knowledge in a database somewhere where it will be stored for eternity and where communities can access it with just a few clicks.
He has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka.
But we must not forget that dispossession and exploitation have often been a deliberately baked-in problem. The risk with such databases lies in the fact that entire communities’ traditional knowledge can be erased from such systems or replaced without consequence. Aside from structural issues like software developer bias that can show up in their codes or the risk of hackers, the whole idea is foreign and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
The above efforts to bring traditional African cultures into the digital space seem to be simulations of what authentic pre-colonial traditional backgrounds should look like; in South Africa, experiments at 3D oral storytelling were set inside a cave. Their intention is almost always to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage. The inclusion of ambient audio sounds like chirping birds, lowing cows and crowing cocks don’t guarantee their integrity. The villages shown are untouched even by such simple “technology” as iron sheet roofs, yet Kenyan villages today are places where solar lights, mobile phones, plastic water Jerry cans, radios and even TVs compete for visibility with shukas and lesos.
Aside from the structural issues, the idea of taking and storing is colonial and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
Digital space and technology is a transitional medium that can evolve into a space of shared memory. As it is currently instituted, however, it has major limitations in depicting the rich African cultural tapestries. So far, the depictions of traditional and cultural diversity are inauthentic and historically inaccurate. The portrayals of complex diversity, nationhood and even conflict are problematic.
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the Kenya National Museums in Kenyan public life. However, as enthusiasm for the heritage industry grows, more than any other institution, KNM offers a chance to meet its needs. But to do this, it needs to go through a phase of introspection and to rethink its role.
To tackle the inaccuracies and elisions of African material cultures from the digital space, efforts are necessary from several fronts: individual artists, institutional commitments and the design of the technology itself. This should be a serious and deliberate endeavour as the risks of reanimating colonial logics of extraction and over-simplification lie in wait.