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Big Fat African Weddings: Commercialisation of Traditional Culture, and Its Consequences

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BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences
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During the early 1800s, the Nuer of South Sudan began pushing out of their traditional homeland and increased their territory four-fold at the expense of their Dinka and Anuak neighbours by the late 1880s. The anthropologist Raymond Kelley described it as one of most prominent cases of tribal imperialism in the ethnographic record. According to his analysis, the Nuer expansion, which involved the acquisition of resources far beyond that required to satisfy their normal material needs, was driven by the rising cost of bride price.

Today we are witnessing a variation on bride price inflation of a different order. The institution of marriage has given rise to a new economic growth sector in the form of the wedding industry. For example, the wedding industry is now estimated to be worth US$ 60 billion in the United States and over $300 Billion globally. The global figures probably do not include Africa, where the wedding industry is a newer but even faster growing phenomenon in many African nations.

An ancient institution

Marriage is the most ancient and stable of human institutions. Anthropologists trace the institution to the need to avoid incest and establish the paternity of offspring.

Stone Age humans formalised the contractual bonding of husband and wife through the exchange of gifts, and most hunter-gatherer societies engaged in ritual courtship. We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.

It is not difficult to see how the institutionalised demands of maintaining a healthy gene pool could make a critical difference in circumstances where humans lived in small and isolated groups. Human bands invested in social networks and developed complex kinship systems, while the cavemen who mated by clubbing a woman and dragging her to his cave became dumb and dumber over time. In any event, marriage became a defining feature of human existence.

One scientific publication described the institution in evolutionary terms as “reciprocal exogamy including the exchange of mates, goods, and services, and involving multiple kin lineages often existing in multiple residential communities”. Anthropologists investigating the roots of the institution note that these parameters have remained relatively unchanged over the millennia.

With the rise of agriculture, marriage came to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, conferring new rights and responsibilities in the process. The celebrations accompanying marriage played a fundamental role in fostering communal identity and solidarity. Before long, marriage was also key factor in building political relationships—a function that was elevated when the rise of royal dynasties saw marriage become an instrument of foreign policy.

This matrix of factors still obtains for marriage in African society. The institution is about much more than formalising the bio-emotional bond between two individuals, which now characterises Western practice. In most societies, it encompasses normative behaviour patterns and traits, including the wedding ceremonies and exchanges that formalise the contract. The marriage itself comes with expectations of relative permanence: shared residence, gender-based division of labour and management of resources, a sexual relationship oriented towards procreation and cooperation in child bearing and training.

While these factors, like the primacy of the nuclear family, are universal, the model based on the contract’s societal benefits has experienced significant attrition during the modern era. The wedding industry is the latest development to complicate the human dimension of marriage, and it appears to be racing out of control.

Conspicuous consumption

During the 1960s, weddings, especially the lavish high-cost version, came to be seen as effete. The contract was increasingly seen as a bond based on the relationship between two individuals. Divorce rates shot up and non-traditional unions between individuals of different backgrounds, including people of different religious, racial or social origins, proliferated. Pairing was about love. The resulting unions did not require an external religious or secular authority to legitimise it; the conventional ceremonial component was passé.

This encouraged the pursuit of innovative weddings, often held in unorthodox settings that appeal to the romantic ideal. The barefoot-on- the-beach wedding was popularised when Becks betrothed Posh in a sarong. The couple showcased several outfits, including bright violet costumes for the wedding party and a matching cowboy hat for baby Brooklyn. David Beckham later admitted that the garb made him look like “one of the guys in Dumb and Dumber” [the movie].

The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

The Beckham extravaganza came after Princess Diana’s 1981 “wedding of the century”, which made celebrity weddings fashionable. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton set a new bar for the 21st century—although, as in the case of the Diana event, most of the reported cost of $34 million was spent on security; the cost of the bride’s dress, at $434,000, was modest in comparison.

In many places, weddings have always provided a stage for conspicuous consumption. The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.

Such extreme examples underscore the meteoric rise of the wedding industry across the planet. Fashionable contemporary weddings across the world now involve a full complement dressmakers, florists, reception halls, event planners, photographers, caterers, limo firms, DJs, bands, and jewellery designers. Few people can match the glass coach, the 25-foot bridal train, and the estimated 750 million television viewers of Princess Diana’s wedding, but many are willing to go into debt to finance a ceremony that is becoming the nuptial version of the arms race.

The wedding industry is flourishing across continents and cultures. In China, the $57-billion industry is registering a 7.8 per cent annual growth, but this will soon be trumped by India where the industry is expanding by 25 per cent a year. In the United Arab Emirates, the average cost of nuptials is estimated to be around $80,000. In the US, the average cost of a wedding is equivalent to a year’s salary for many service-sector employees or a year of university education.

These numbers appear to reflect relative differentials in income. The most expensive place in the US to get married is Manhattan, where the average cost is over $76,000, or five times the cost in Utah where the typical wedding expenditure is $15,257. The fact that this state is booming economically points to the influence of culture as well—which may represent the best hope for mitigating the more ominous implications accompanying the commercialisation of marriage and sexuality.

The Big African Wedding

During a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I went to a studio to get some passport pictures. There were several picture albums in the waiting area. They were actually gigantic, hardcover ledgers showcasing glamorous pictures of wedding couples, bridesmaids, best men, and other sundry wedding participants conspicuously adorned in some of the most expensively elegant finery I have ever seen. During the remainder of my visit I began to notice the proliferation of large and small wedding shops across the city.

I initially thought it was an Ethiopian thing. Wrong. Once alerted to its existence, evidence of Africa’s new wedding industry started to pop up everywhere. In Zambia there are weddings that last two weeks. The wedding industry in Kampala has seen the ten event organising companies operating in 2010 to grow to more than a hundred in 2017. Televised weddings provide revenue for Ugandan television stations that now charge 1 million shillings ($330) to broadcast lavish weddings.

Nigeria, true to form, is at the forefront of Africa’s new wedding sector. The industry that some say is fueled by Nigerians’ natural love of celebration probably owes more to their competitive nature. The CEO of one Nigerian wedding planning company explains: “People want their event to be the best. They want it to better than the next person’s so they won’t spare any expense to do whatever they need to do to get it done.”

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills. Although the currency on display under thick glass attracted the attention of Nigeria’s audacious criminal class, it usually ended up back in the bank on Monday morning. Spraying guests with dollars upped the ante in the country’s “go big or go home” stakes.

Kenya’s fast growing wedding industry has spawned hundreds of wedding planners and businesses offering everything from florists to high-end caterers and other related specialists. This service sector actually dates back to the Western infatuation with the wedding as an adventure theme, which has drawn couples from abroad to Kenya to tie the knot. The wedding-in-the-bush is a niche market that is still doing well, based on the number of Kenyan tour companies advertising diverse safari wedding packages. But it is small change compared to the new urban African wedding complex with its complement of service providers, magazines, television shows, and family brokers skilled at maximising the returns on nubile daughters.

This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills.

On the one hand, the industry is a tech-savvy, Internet friendly economic sub-sector, but on the other, it is just another globalised neoliberal cash cow. At least in West Africa the industry is spawning a new fashion industry showcasing creative variations on traditional clothing. Fashionable African wedding attire has even added a few hundred boards to the 38 million and growing Pinterest wedding posts, and its pretty neat stuff. Kenya’s wedding juggernaut, in contrast, is driven by the couples’ marked preference for the Eurocentric “white” wedding.

“White” Kenyan weddings

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset. This line of critique makes Kenya’s first Big Shot wedding a bit incongruous—it was actually celebrated in Maasailand.

Sometime around the mid-1970s, the expansive Maasai Minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, Stanley Oloitiptip, threw an exceptionably exorbitant wedding for his oldest son. Stylistically, it contradicted almost everything Maasai culture stood for. It was certainly as outsized by the more modern standards of the day as the girth of the physically immense politician.

The irrepressible Oloitiptip justified the spectacle as a testament to “the fruits of Uhuru”. This explanation focused public attention on the diversion of state resources to fund the affair, a concern further compounded by the fact that the Honourable Minister had sired 46 other children.

As it turned out, there was no happy ending for the Big Man. In 1985, he suddenly found himself in prison for the misuse of public resources. Like the overpriced wedding gowns at the centre of contemporary weddings, the five normal prison uniforms sewn together to clothe him were used for only one day: he was released on bond the following morning and passed away several days later.

Although the Kenyan public has been treated to the occasional high profile wedding since then, the new big wedding phenomenon is defined by its distribution and scale. This is why some commentators applaud it as a vibrant growth industry and others hype it as symbolic of middle class prosperity—even though a large portion of newly weds don’t have the money to pay for their weddings.

The moral of the Oliotiptip story dovetails with other qualities associated with the big wedding trend. Close to a quarter of the couples opting for these bling weddings go into debt to finance them, and the majority of them regret the expenditure soon afterwards. A more disturbing statistic: the bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage.

Even so, the trend persists. One Ugandan professional stated that he has saved 50 million shillings for a big wedding. He says he only wants to have a wedding that befits his status as an educated man. If he can’t afford that, he’d rather not have a wedding at all. No wedding is now the norm for many, and no marriage at all is increasingly common. One regional study found that 50 per cent of young couples were living in free unions and another 25 per cent of women were raising children as single mothers.

Traditional communitas versus wedding bling

Weddings have long served as a vehicle for conspicuous consumption and the spread of consumer culture. The fact that both the rich and the middle classes now own fancy cars, TVs and designer handbags has raised the status-generating power of one-time social events like weddings. Wedding planners say that the industry is driven by women’s desire to be a Queen, and the center of attention albeit for one day. Men play along for reasons of status and prestige.

Traditional ceremonies were ritualised communal affairs imbued with layers of symbolism and meaning. The primary functions of many ceremonies, such as weddings, were to mark passage to a new stage of the life cycle and to foster unity within the community. The anthropologist Victor Turner’s classic study on African ritual and ceremony focused on the deep properties of these phenomena, and the universal role of liminality and communitas.

Liminality refers to the beginning or transitional stage in a process. The person at the centre of the transition is often regarded to be in a weak and dangerous or inauspicious state. Rituals based on the society’s spiritual, magical and religious traditions generate a state of communitas to insure the safe transition of the person in this liminal state.

The term communitas is associated with sharing a common experience that takes a whole community to the next level. Rites, rituals and ceremonies designed to temporarily negate differentials of rank and status create a social space based on homogeneity, equality and anonymity. This promotes a sense of group wholeness. Individuality is submerged in unity in a manner facilitating transformation. The way the spirit of a harambee fund-raising event induces you to contribute beyond your planned contribution is an example of the same.

The public ceremony is, in this sense, not an event, but part of a social process that facilitates the safe transition of the liminal individual, be it from girl to woman, boy to man, or candidate to group chief and leader. The state of communitas it engenders imbues the group with a lasting sense of unity and solidarity that allows society to function despite its internal conflicts and inequalities of wealth and status.

Turner describes how the process works in the case of the appointment of a new chief among the Ndembu of Zambia. After a period of sexual abstinence, the new candidate and is wife are housed in the specially constructed kafu, or death hut. They are dressed in rags and made to assume a submissive position. While in this state of liminality, elders revile the future leader: “Be silent! You are a mean and selfish fool, one who is bad-tempered! You do not love your fellows, you are only angry with them! Meanness and theft are all you have! Yet here we have called you and we say that you must succeed to the chieftainship.”

The couple are abused and forced to stay awake all night while commoners are invited to berate them for any misdeeds large or small. They are beaten and rubbed with special herbs. After this ordeal, the chief-to-be is instructed in his duties:

We have desired you and you only for our chief. Let your wife prepare food for the people who come here to the capital village. Do not be selfish, do not keep the chieftainship to yourself! You must laugh with the people, you must abstain from witchcraft! You must not be killing people! You must not be ungenerous to people! Today you are born as a new chief. If you were mean, and used to eat your cassava mush or your meat alone, today you are in the chieftainship. You must give up your selfish ways, you must welcome everyone, you are the chief!

The ritual results in the figurative death of the liminal candidate and his rebirth as a leader. Turner goes on to detail how many other ceremonial processes across cultures, including the coronation of Popes, display many of the same structural attributes.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions, and most cultural and religious weddings display similar dynamics to sanctify and bless the marriage contract.

In my own case, prior my own wedding, the idea of getting married was a remote and distant prospect. I was living in Lamu, and the process started as an idea suggested by close friends who told me, “Marrying is easy and since you are here you should give it a try even if just for a week.” The idea evolved into an experimental possibility that in turn led to a proposal to marry, arranged in the usual manner.

The only request from my side was that the marriage ceremony would be a small, private affair. Swahili weddings, in my view, were carnival style affairs that did not fit my style. I wanted a closed personal ceremony to go with the already exotic circumstances.

“Sure, we will do it that way if that’s what you want,” my future in-laws told me. Although I did not know it, at the time, I was totally out of my depth, in a liminal state of ignorance, weakness, naiveté, and vulnerability.

I also did not realise that the coast was home to the region’s most developed indigenous wedding industry. As the time approached, I was informed of a series of unanticipated developments: a bus arrived with furniture and other trappings; the next day another came from Mombasa with a posse of musicians, a boat arrived with guests from the islands, and so on. This build-up countered my expectations of a small intimate wedding.

A week before the actual event, people started addressing me as Bwana Harusi. Lamu’s normally shy ladies began to accost me with propositions, and several times women dragged me into their homes as I passed through the town’s narrow alleys. My “handlers” told me that as Bwana Harusi I was fair game for such mischief until the formal marriage; it was best I stay indoors. They were otherwise helpful but not very informative. Among other things, they did not explain that a proper wedding is mandatory for a girl’s first marriage, and that the arrangements were the exclusive province of the bride’s family.

Three days of robust wedding celebrations ensued. I became caught up in the spirit, and consented to options for the groom’s side, like holding the kirumbizi stick fighting dance and the all-night kesha party. My father surrogate arranged for the kirumbizi, which coincided with the district secondary school sports tournament. The presence of the archipelago’s most athletically inclined youth insured it was the most fiercely contested kirumbizi stick fighting in Lamu’s modern history. Swept away by the spirit of this communitas, I ended up splurging on food, miraa for my Somali friends, and a Bajuni msondo dance followed by what became a public party while the bride’s taarabu music echoed through the other side of time.

After sunrise I was married in the kind of simple ceremony I had originally requested, although there was still one last surprise.

I had paid the conventional dowry for that time of several thousand shillings. But when the actual moment came, I was confused when I heard the town’s most respected sheikh ask me the formulaic question: Do you agree to marry Safiya binti Mohammed Ali for the mahari of 50 Kenya shillings?

This was repeated three times. Though mystified and bewildered, I managed to utter “kabeitu, or “I agree” in Arabic. Only later did I learn that the small sum substituted for the dowry proper, often referred to as mahari ya Kiarabu, is designed to protect the family, which typically ends up spending more than the dowry on the wedding. The provision comes into effect if the marriage fails or the groom has legitimate cause for rejecting the bride and reclaims the mahari proper. The dowry proper, in any case, goes to the wife, and not her father.

In the evening I was escorted to the bride’s house where, according to the Swahili tradition of fungati, we spent the next week in the wedding suite where we were treated as royalty. We were both all so liminal at the time, although for different reasons. By the end of the week’s seclusion I was integrated into the extended family and emerged as a culturally validated member of Lamu society.

Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions

As individuals, my wife and I were and still are very different people from totally different backgrounds. I am not sure if our union would have survived if it began as the private affair I originally envisioned. It took a while, but I came to understand how the process of public communitas and internal family bonding contributed to the fact that forty-one years later we are still together.

There is a broader moral to this love story.

The impact of commercialised weddings

Victor Turner observes that liminality and communitas are essentially phenomena of transition. His analysis explains why many modern phenomena, from millenarian movements and the counter-cultural quest for alternative lifestyles to the rise of Nazism, borrow much of their mythology and symbolism from traditional rites de passage, either in the cultures in which they originate or in the cultures with which they are in contact. Turner documents many forms of these phenomena from once-a- generation ceremonies to the rituals of everyday life.

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear. Lela Anwar, an administrator with the coast’s Donge Charity Network, offers the following commentary on Mombasa’s changing wedding complex.

A typical wedding in Mombasa now costs more than an average citizen’s salary, yet they are getting bigger and more dramatic. The Nikkah, the nucleus of any Islamic wedding, is a straightforward and inexpensive affair because it mainly involves a recitation of wedding vows followed by attendees sharing a quick repast of coffee and haluwa in the mosque. It is also a mainly male event, complemented by a smaller gathering of female relatives and close friends in another room. Even though the nikkah is the most essential part of the wedding, the reception consumes the majority of time, financial, and human resources. The reception, known as kupamba in Swahili, is an extravagant women-only event featuring an often evening of loud music, outlandish hairdos and makeup, jewel-studded dresses, and multiple servings of fancy food and drinks. Local women view the kupamba through the lens of social class: the fancier the reception is, the more status conferred on the family. Curiously, the kupamba celebration can exert more leverage on social class than actual wealth. A family that hosts an outlandish wedding is regarded as ‘high class’ even if the wedding was funded by loans and donations from extended family and friends.

 Muslims are aware that the Prophet Muhammad recommended simple weddings yet despite the religious incentive for sticking to the sunnah traditions, the scale and costs of Swahili weddings continue to rise. This phenomenon is linked to attributed gender dynamics, and specifically to gender roles that are socially enforced in traditional Swahili societies. There are certain female social activities that are frowned upon even though it is fairly acceptable for men to go clubbing or spend long hours away from the family consuming miraa or pursuing other forms of entertainment. Swahili women who deviate from their prescribed roles are, in contrast, given negative labels and may be castigated as being promiscuous or prostitutes. Unlike men, you rarely see women spending hours with friends partaking in social activities outside the home. With almost no outlet or spaces available to women for entertainment, weddings are now the default venues where they can dress up and enjoy an evening of music and fun within a socially acceptable environment. Weddings are an outlet for self-expression; an opportunity for the traditional Swahili woman to morph into a glamour queen. They are a welcome respite from her daily, culturally prescribed cocoon.

Weddings are so important that now invitation cards are sold for as much as Ksh. 7000 by invitees unable to attend. The downside of this commercialisation is that increasingly large numbers of urban and peri-urban youth are finding it difficult to marry. This has provided an entry point for radicalisation and terrorist recruitment as two recent studies on the coast of Kenya have documented.

 The wedding industry, as discussed in the first section of this essay, in many ways contradicts the role of traditional cultural processes. Weddings as events emphasise the conspicuous expenditure of resources for the sake of prestige and competition. Instead of transforming the couples to live in harmony and contribute to the public good, bling weddings condemn many of them to an uphill struggle to survive as a pair.

More traditional wedding ceremonies, as the passage above indicates, offer Swahili women a degree of gender-based communitas. The contemporary coastal wedding, however, also reinforces structural inequalities contributing to the radicalisation of both male and female youth. Sex is a powerful and dangerous force that easily leads one into a state of liminal danger. The wedding industry taps into this for material gain. Jihadi radicals effectively exploit the negative aspect of the same social change to recruit individuals who for various economic and ideological reasons fall outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam.

The role of such factors, including constraints associated with the commercialisation of weddings, have been documented by researchers on Kenya’s coast and elsewhere. In the meantime, it turns out that a range of high profile players in the West have discovered the value of communitas and other spiritual techniques that help merge the individual “I” into the collective “We”. Advocates include the top echelon of Google and other Silicon Valley executives, some of most decorated US Navy Seals team leaders, and other copacetic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. The 2017 book, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, reports how these players are seeking out ways of replicating the ecstatic sense of unity embedded in the African rituals studied by Victor Turner and others. In the words of the authors, “This feeling tightens social bonds and ignites enduring passion—the kind that lets us come together to plan, organize, and tackle great challenges.”

The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear.

For the techies, entrepreneurs and soldiers who have adopted pursuits from yoga and bio-feedback meditation to psychedelics and extreme sports, getting into this zone is about enhancing productivity and their cutting edge. It is hardly surprising that the bad guys have developed their own form of communitas to do the same. In any event, society needs more of the problem-solving passion the world’s top entrepreneurs are seeking to cultivate than the competition driven by the bling of the wedding industry—especially when it comes to some of the human surrogates now being generated by artificial intelligence technology.

The rise of the wedding industry bookends one side of a larger neoliberal trend of inequality and social polarisation; developments on the other side of the spectrum have given rise to the technologically enabled sexbot, first predicted in the original 1975 version of Stepford Wives and updated in more recent films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. One blogger summed up the implications for marriage and the family as an existential threat to humanity: “This will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”

A return to the ritually-reinforced social bonds that made the celebration of marriage a universal rite of passage is needed to sustain the family unit as the most basic human institution. Creative variations on the modern wedding may yet provide a platform for adaptive cultural innovations on this front. For example, last December, Laabied Mohammed Gurcharan of the Donge Network established a new precedent for Mombasa’s wedding scene. Instead of the usual by- invitation-only event, he shared his wedding feast with the children of the Mama Dhahabu Orphanage.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Culture

The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History

Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.

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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
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The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.

The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.

The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.

On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.

Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.

I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.

The toppling of the statue 

At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.

For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.

The trial

The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.

The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.

The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.

One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.

Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.

In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”

The wider significance

The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.

Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.

The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.

The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.

This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.

In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.

One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.

These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”

Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.

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The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.

Recent movements like Rhodes Must FallFaidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”

To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!

Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.

As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?

There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.

Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.

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In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.

The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”

He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.

We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”

This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.

Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.

Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.

At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”

Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”

Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”

It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”

The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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