Food and Migration: A Culinary Journey Through East Africa
East Africa has a colourful history, particularly along the sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean coast where Swahili was born. From as far back as 2,500 years ago and as far away as China, this coastal region has been peppered by influences from a whole lot of visitors.
Historically, flavour and ingredients have changed a great deal in Africa. Before intercontinental trade, the most important staples were sorghum, millet, fonio, barley, lentils and, to a lesser extent, rice. In East Africa, Arabs, Indians and Persians influenced the cosmopolitan trend in the local diet, importing dried fruits, rice, sugarcane and spices, thus expanding the region’s palate. As centuries passed, they also added bananas, oranges, lemons and limes from China and India, and, in a weird twist of fate, domestic pigs because their old gods had no problem with the hygiene regimen of their food.
Around 600 CE, a Phoenician fleet sailed south along the African coast. It is believed to have circumnavigated the continent before returning to the Mediterranean three years later. The fleet’s occupants found trees, a bunch of mangrove crabs having a party and the sound of crickets. They didn’t linger. The Egyptians then sailed down the East African coast around 500 CE. They just smiled and waved, anchoring only to refill their water casks, pick out a few berries that appeared safe to eat and subsist their diet with a fat ruminant.
Sometime after 500 CE, a disheveled band of Bantus arrived on the East African coast, having covered roughly 3,500 kilometers for some ancestor-forsaken reason. This was the first wave of what was going to become a full-fledged sub-Saharan Bantu migration. (Bantu is a general label that currently covers more than 100 million people across sub-Saharan Africa who speak upwards of 700 discrete languages.)
For over seven millennia, since the grain was first domesticated from among the wild grasses of the savannah west of the Nile, sorghum has been the single most important food in Africa.
Of Kenya’s three major migrant ethno-linguistic groups, however, the first to arrive were the Cushites, believed to have begun a migration southwards into north and northeastern Kenya from southern Ethiopia sometime between the second and first millennium BC.
Next came the Nilotes down from southern Sudan around 500 BC. However, large-scale Nilotic migrations began in earnest only about five hundred years ago with the arrival of the Luo and the Maasai. They continued south along the plains of the Rift Valley, finally reaching Tanzania in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, pushing the Cushites East.
Until the arrival of the Nilotes, the Cushites occupied a much larger part of East Africa than they do today, extending into the verdant Rift Valley lakes, as well as central and southern Kenya, and displacing or assimilating the hunter-gatherer communities they encountered.
Today, there are over forty different ethnic communities in Kenya, each with their own distinct traditions, cultures, languages and beliefs.
Dinner in Africa in 500 BC was a somewhat subdued affair
For over seven millennia, since the grain was first domesticated from among the wild grasses of the savannah west of the Nile, sorghum has been the single most important food in Africa. Millet, another savannah grass indigenous to Africa, comes a close second in terms of overall importance. One variety, Pearl millet, originated in Western Sahel and slowly made its way to the rest of the continent while Finger millet, a native of Ethiopia and the East African highlands, tended to stay within the region.
Yam is likely the main food that made the early expansion of the Bantu-speaking people down to sub-Saharan Africa possible. It was a hardy plant that could feed a family for days. Later, during the transatlantic slave trade, it was exported from West Africa and became a staple in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Oceania.
Guinea rice, a hardy rice indigenous to Africa, originated in the hot, wet Guinea coast highlands and in the Delta Basin of the middle Niger River. The Asian variety that we all know and love originated in Southeast Asia and was brought to the East African coast by traders who came to these shores using trade winds more than a thousand years ago, after the Arabs had wrested control of the maritime trade routes from the Ethiopians and the Indians. It was regarded by the Swahili, who considered Finger millet mjengo (construction worker) food, as superior.
These cereals were supplemented by edible plants and leaves. However, the recommended vegetable intake was often not achieved. “Hidden hunger” – micro-nutrient deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, and iodine – resulted in an infant mortality rate estimated at over 30 percent. Until recently, the Maasai, for example, did not name their children until the age of three, when the family was certain the child would survive infancy. This made polygynous marriage a practical solution for the preservation of the community.
The Bantu largely consumed bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, millet, wild vegetables, wild berries, taro and meat. Preparation was not elaborate and satiation, rather than enjoyment, was the chief purpose of eating. Admixing with the Nilotes probably made the Bantu lactose-tolerant.
Around the first century, East Africa became a port-of-call along the Indian Ocean trade routes. For the next century or so, the simmering cauldron of heritage was seasoned with Arab and Persian influences as the Bantu population admixed with the traders.
The plains Nilotes subsisted on a diet that revolved around livestock – meat, milk and blood were standard fare. This was subsisted with fruits, roots and resin from several trees. Certain shrubs were eaten as snacks by women, boys and girls when they were in fields.
The Luo made do with sorghum, red millet, wild vegetables, fish and meat. Women avoided the meat of the elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus.
Around the first century, East Africa became a port-of-call along the Indian Ocean trade routes. For the next century or so, the simmering cauldron of heritage was seasoned with Arab and Persian influences as the Bantu population admixed with the traders. Slowly, a new culture emerged that was an unlikely melding of language, tradition and skin complexion. The Bantus traded ivory, ambergris, timber and slaves for spices and ceramics.
Here is where another crop that shaped Arica likely made landfall. Varieties of the plantain, which originated in Southeast Asia, quickly became a staple crop in the region and rapidly found its way west. Incidentally, Africa had an indigenous banana, labelled the false banana because even if it looks like the regular banana, it doesn’t bear edible fruit. Its tubers, however were pounded and cooked as a dietary staple, its seeds used as ornaments and for medicine and its stems for ropes in Ethiopia.
Through the centuries, more foods were introduced to the East African coast by subsequent traders. Asian rice was quickly adopted by the Swahili, who preferred it to millet, which they viewed as “farmers’ food”. Pigs were introduced by the Arabs before they discovered their new God who doesn’t take kindly to the close proximity of muck and animals. Sugarcane and peas also arrived with the trade winds.
Pilaf (or pilau, as it is locally known) is an ancient dish whose origins are probably lost in the sands of time. At its most rudimentary level, pilau is not really a dish, but a method of preparing rice, often in stock, combined with spices, meats and vegetables. It is more than likely a precursor to India’s biryani.
While rice had been an Asian staple for millennia, the Persians only began its large-scale cultivation between 1000 BC and 500 BC. Shortly thereafter, some Persian with too much time on his hands – or an overactive imagination – invented the first pilaf. It may be that the technique is originally from India because they’d been eating rice for eons longer, but the name and the historical record that stuck, was Persian.
While on the surface it may seem that pilau was introduced by the Indian immigrants, it is more likely that it predates the Indian presence here. Swahili culture, fused with Persian and Arab culture, likely had already come into contact with the flavourful dish.
Biryani, which is a version of pilau layered with meat, vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, became a popular variation in India and made its way here. Here, though, it is made a little differently. Rather than packing the ingredients on top of each other, the meat is prepared separately from the rice and the rice is brightened with appealing food colour. If there’s no accompanying banana and if it’s not washed down with tamarind juice, then it’s just rice and spicy meat.
While on the surface it may seem that pilau was introduced by the Indian immigrants, it is more likely that it predates the Indian presence here. Swahili culture, fused with Persian and Arab culture, likely had already come into contact with the flavourful dish. To this day, it is still prepared like it was prepared a thousand years ago, especially at the coast, with very little variation. Further inland, its preparation is a little more flexible.
Chapati is another increasingly popular Kenyan staple that made landfall with the Indians. It’s a little difficult to explain. It’s kind of like unleavened bread, but isn’t. It’s also a bit like a wrap, but isn’t. Originally, chapati in the region was made with Atta, a type of whole-wheat flour, but this was gradually dropped in favour of regular wheat flour. Chapati dough is usually made of flour, salt and water that is kneaded and left alone for the gluten to do its dough-strengthening thing. When the dough becomes softer and more pliable, balls are pinched and rolled out on a surface with the palms of the hands and kneaded into long thin ropes. These are then wound into themselves into some kind of tight Fibonacci sequence spiral. The spiral is then rolled out with a rolling pin then fried on a preheated flat cast iron pan. For the longest time in many households, chapati was eaten at home with a variety of stews and sauces, but only during religious holidays or special occasions.
From Sofala in present-day Mozambique to Freddy Mercury’s birthplace of Zanzibar to Mogadishu in the at-present fractious Somalia, a raft of cities sprung up all along the coast. As the centuries flitted by, the cities prospered. Kilwa in Tanzania, Stone Town in Zanzibar and Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya emerged as the big, important trading ports. A strict class system was instituted and, as is wont to happen when that vilest of humans, the career politician, appears, the blissful joy with which slaves were traded and elephants butchered for their ivory dissolved effervescently like a vitamin C tablet in warm water. In no time, none of the big cities were on talking terms.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to pass by the East African coast, ostensibly looking for a sea route to India. In 1499, Vasco Da Gama, with gold bars in his eyes, returned to Portugal with tales of booty that set the King’s heart aflutter. He returned with 19 ships and walked all over the bickering East African cities. The Portuguese went on to take over the trade routes, building outposts from Mozambique to India.
Portugal seeks alternate trade routes (and discover new foods in the process)
On 6th April, 1453, the 21-year-old Mehmed the Conqueror invaded the last remaining bastion of the Byzantine Empire, laying siege to Constantinople. On 23rd May1453, Constantinople fell under a hail of really slow cannon fire, and was renamed Istanbul, becoming the new capital of the Ottoman Empire under “Ceaser” Mehmed II. This marked the end of the last remaining strand of the once great Roman Empire that had lasted for over a millennium and a half, and effectively destroyed Christendom’s hegemony in the Balkans and the Aegean.
Chapati is another increasingly popular Kenyan staple that made landfall with the Indians. It’s a little difficult to explain. It’s kind of like unleavened bread, but isn’t. It’s also a bit like a wrap, but isn’t.
The fall also gradually eroded the Silk Road. Old Mongol treaties that had ensured safe passage of goods and traders along the road were now useless, making travel and trade fraught with peril.
European kingdoms (on the back of a number of very bad years that included a couple of black plague outbreaks, the Crusades and the sustained advance of Islam) were essentially broke, tired and depleted. Driven by a need to entrench their respective imperialisms and economic competition among themselves, and unable to get their favourite perfumes via the Silk Road, they began to look outwards for solutions
Portugal’s John II jump-started the country’s somnolent imperialising, and got Bartolomeu Dias to sail around South Africa to look for a route to India. Portugal and Spain, the two biggest European superpowers at the time, both figured that whoever controlled the maritime trade routes would be king of the hill.
In 1488, Columbus had this idea that he could sail west around the world and appear in the East Indies. He approached John II to fund the voyage but as Dias had just returned from a trip around the southern tip of Africa, John II figured he’d much rather work with the tried and true over the speculative and refused to fund the expedition. A tad miffed, but otherwise undeterred, Columbus approached the Spanish Crown a couple of times and finally convinced Queen Isabella I and her political advisors that it was a viable plan. He set sail in 1492 but didn’t quite get to Japan because there was an entire continent in the way. He claimed these territories for the crown of Castille.
When he returned in 1493, he made a point of dropping by John II to royally rub it in. John dusted off the Treaty of Alcacovas previously signed with Spain and off-handedly pointed out the clause that said that basically everything Columbus discovered belonged to Portugal. Before Columbus had even arrived at Isabella I of Castille’s palace, John II had already sent a letter to her threatening to send a fleet over and claim whatever it is that Columbus had found across the sea for Portugal. Spain thought it prudent to negotiate and met with Portugal. They worked out a new treaty, the Treaty of Tordesillas, that more or less split things evenly between the two.
In 1497, Vasco Da Gama set out from Lisbon around the southern tip of Africa to the East African Coast where, in Malindi, he picked up a navigator to guide him to India. And in 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral set off and landed in Brazil. By 1503, a colony had been set up. This same fleet went on to explore the East African coast and head onwards to India. In 1549, with permanent settlement in Brazil, Portugal put the industrial machine into gear and began large-scale sugarcane production powered by native, and in short order, African slaves.
Although they didn’t discover the vast caverns full of gold that they were hoping for, the Portuguese discovered a treasure trove of pau-brazil, Brazilwood, from where Brazil gets its name, and a cache of New World crops that would become inexorably linked to Africa, forever redefining its future. Maize, cassava, beans, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, sesame and bell peppers all originated from the Americas but have become so entrenched and ingrained in the African palate that one would be forgiven for thinking that they originally came from Africa. These crops mitigated the infant mortality rate among African peoples and triggered a population increase that likely led to the various migrations that began spontaneously.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese brought maize (called milho in Portuguese and maíz in Spanish) to Mozambique. High yields and a neutral, borderline sweet taste quickly made it a staple, preferred grain. Unlike sorghum, its seathed compact cob protected it from birds and made it easy to store in large granaries. In comparison, sorghum seeds had to be kept in fragile baskets. By the 19th century its slow, inexorable and erratic spread had reached the shores of East Africa.
Ancient Peruvian pottery inscriptions show Native Americans holding beans in one hand and maize in the other, proving that githeri, or nyoyo, is really an ancient Americas recipe. Potatoes, carrots, cabbages and Royco Mchuzi Mix are recent ingredients incorporated by a certain ethnic community in Kenya that has a tendency to ..uh.. drill down food preparation to its most basic form.
Today, maize has all but replaced sorghum as the preferred grain in Africa, and in some parts of Africa, cassava has overtaken the yam.
Cassava quickly gained a foothold in the Equatorial rainforest and the poor soils in West Africa, fast becoming a staple throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa by the 19th century. Like the banana, and unlike sorghum and maize, cassava requires little land and labour which, coupled with its drought tolerance, make it an ideal food crop.
Maize, cassava, beans, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, sesame and bell peppers all originated from the Americas but have become so entrenched and ingrained in the African palate that one would be forgiven for thinking that they originally came from Africa.
It is more than a little ironic that it was the push for expansionism by the Portuguese, and the subsequent economic competition, that necessitated transporting millions out of Africa to the New World as slaves. Crops brought in from the New World injected the nutritional deficit that had plagued the African diet. Had this not happened, Africa would probably have become another United States of people-from-everywhere-else and I’d have spent my life compulsively gambling at a reservation in the middle of some infertile land far away from the nearest city.
In 1729, the Portuguese were finally evicted from East Africa’s expansive coast by the Arabs but no sooner were they gone than a new threat emerged.
The British are coming (and going)
When Europe began its process of “informal imperialism”, traditional societies and cultures across the world suffered violent and catastrophic change. Far from being the “civilising” influence apologists extol it to be, this was likely the most destructive socio-economic event ever to have occurred among the hapless communities it steamrolled over, often obliterating vast indigenous communities. Cultures that survived the shock of the upheaval lost much of their traditions and identity, which were violently uprooted and destroyed forever. These changes cannot be unmade.
In 1884, during the Berlin Conference that set the stage for the “Scramble for Africa”, Kenya was named a British protectorate, opening the proverbial floodgates as thousands of British settlers descended on the country to improve their lot by relocating the Africans settled on prime land to dry, barren reservations.
Cash crop farming quickly became the choice source of income for the settlers, especially with the large nearly-free labour force that they conscripted and the dirt cheap land. British colonialists forced Kenyans to work on their farms in virtual slavery and made it illegal for them to grow their own food. The colonial government also subsidised settler produce to drive out indigenous smallholder farmers who attempted to make a living selling cash crops. These farmers were only allowed to grow certain crops for sale at the local markets so that they could be taxed. This was the beginning of cash crop agriculture in Kenya. Some of these cash crops, such as tea, coffee and pyrethrum, remain Kenya’s leading exports today.
British colonialists forced Kenyans to work on their farms in virtual slavery and made it illegal for them to grow their own food.
With the British came Christianity to save us all from our collective impending doom. A concerted effort was made to rid local cultures of their traditions because one true God and his bearded, robe-wearing, miracle-performing son demanded it. The concerted campaign was more successful than the missionaries could have ever hoped for. It has taken less than a century and a half for a near-total abandonment of the old ways across the country, save for pockets of resistance that are slowly but surely succumbing to the unstoppable juggernaut of Jesus-ism. Traditional cereals, herbs and vegetables were promptly dropped for those with high market value and perceived desirability; if they were consumed, they were eaten in secret and infrequently, mainly in the reservations.
Often, Kenyan workers in settler farms were paid in sacks of maize. When they returned to their newly allocated reservations, they took some of this maize with them. At some point in the late 1800s, a mysterious disease decimated millet and sorghum and drastically reduced yield. This was the foothold that maize needed. Until well within the 20th century, maize wasn’t the mainstay of the diet in most of Eastern and Central Africa; in fact, it seems to have been unknown in Uganda even as late as 1861. Today, it is probably the single most important food and cash crop across Africa. Although one would be forgiven for assuming it has been here since God created the heavens and the earth because of how deep its tentacles have rooted themselves in Kenyan tradition.
Ugali, or sima, has been eaten with reckless abandon by just about everyone in Kenya for the last half century. It is also a little difficult to explain. It’s a mix of finely ground maize flour and water cooked to a semi-solid consistency and eaten with an accompanying vegetable or meat dish. Some savages blaspheme by adding butter or margarine in the maize flour/water meal while cooking or, even more scandalously, milk, but thankfully, cases of this are few and far between. People have divorced their significant other and more than one fight has erupted because of the incorrect preparation of this seemingly simple meal.
People have divorced their significant other and more than one fight has erupted because of the incorrect preparation of this seemingly simple meal.
With land now a scarcity, and at a premium, Kenyans increasingly began favouring cash crops as opposed to subsistence farming. This erosion of the peasant household made food security a tenuous affair, especially because resistance against colonial rule was taking place at that time. The capitalist labour needs resulted in the emergence of new types of households: commodity-producing households, labour-exporting households, squatter households and working-class households that wholly relied on this new economic system.
In January 1960, the British suddenly decided to up and leave Kenya to its own devices, confounding everyone, not least the resistance. This came with some perks. The new, indigenous government could now resettle the landless and large-scale commercial farming could continue on select plantations. Food production improved as more land was opened up for cultivation. The government was able to improve roads in the schemes to help farmers transport their goods. People from different parts of the country and from different communities were able to live together in joy and harmony, thereby creating national unity.
Today, there has been a resurgence of traditional vegetables – at my local supermarket, there’s an aisle full of plants and herbs that I’m unfamiliar with, some pungent, some broad-leafed, some that make me sneeze, and all labelled with the wholly useless tag of “assorted vegetables”. Rows of arrow roots, yams and cassava sit right next to artichokes, celery and button mushrooms. This was not the case a mere 20 years ago.
Increasingly, foods that were considered “high-brow” have become more readily available. Chapati no longer holds its hallowed position as the go-to celebrity meal, the prices of meat and chicken are (more or less) affordable for many and an influx of fast-food chains (a direct marker of a middle income market that can sustain these franchises) have introduced Kenyans to the pizzas and the burgers and the foot-longs of the First World. Even the beers on the shelves have increased to the point where we have local artisanal beers.
All we need now is for sorghum, millet, teff, barley and African rice to make a resurgence. Then we’ll have come full circle.
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Race and Empire: How Scientific Racism Shaped Kenya
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date.
Maureen was in labour when it happened. The stern nurse needed an answer, but she was in too much pain to think. Her body and mind were fighting each other by that point. Twenty-two years old and lying on a stretcher outside the theatre at Kakamega Hospital, she had never felt more alone. And the nurse wouldn’t let her be wheeled in until she signed the bloody forms.
“I can see in your file that you are HIV positive,” the nurse said again, unmoved, “You must have tubal ligation since HIV positive women are not supposed to give birth.” So she took the pen and signed, and then zoned out. When she came to, she was a mother. A few hours later, the child was dead. In her pain, she had signed away her right to ever have another baby.
That was in 2005.
Forced sterilizations of HIV-positive pregnant women first came to light in 2012, although it had been happening for decades. The report, Robbed of Choice, carries multiple stories like Maureen’s. Almost all the cases documented were of poor women in public hospitals and non-governmental clinics. It was our modern form of eugenics informing unofficial policy with real consequences; an attempt to clean up the gene pool by getting rid of those we deem unfit, or at least take away their right to reproduce.
Derived from Darwin’s theories and given its modern name by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in the 19th century, eugenics is more about class than race. Although the concept preceded that era, it gained a new, organised lifeline that only began ending in the late 1930s. In its origins it was about getting rid of the undesirables, not just based entirely on skin colour, but also on socioeconomic status. Among its pioneers was Frederick Osborn who viewed eugenics as a social philosophy deserving of some form of proactive action. To actively do this in politically sensitive times required tact, such as deliberately under-developing certain areas, refusing to invest in education and healthcare, and sometimes undertaking outright sterilization. Although it never gained mainstream government approval as the governing philosophy in the colonies, it influenced and provided propaganda for many racially-driven policies.
It was a eugenics organization where scientific racism would thrive, designed to prove that blacks were inferior.
In the utopia the colonial project envisioned, Kenyans would always be at the bottom of the social pyramid, with whites at the very top, and Asians in the middle as a buffer. But because Kenya attracted the British aristocracy, the class element was also important to the immigration policy regarding poor whites who were seen as undesirable. With hordes of eugenicists driving the colonial project, their ideas on class and social control infused themselves into the colonies in such core ways that they never left.
In July 1933, 60 white men and women gathered in a boardroom at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. Among them were medical doctors, executives, government officials, journalists, scientists and other prominent white people. There were also a few Indians in the room. Their common goal was to formalize a eugenics group that ended up with the lengthy name Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI).
Of the 60 people in that room, two emerged as the mouthpieces of the group. Henry Gordon and Dr FW Vint were both medical doctors who tried to use science to prove that whites are superior by nature. This was already at the core of the eugenics movement, but in Kenya it was only one part of the core structures of colonialism, which were built on the similar concept of “the white man’s burden”. Gordon was in charge of Mathari Mental Hospital, the only mental health institution in the country at the time. Even within the institution—established in 1910 as the Lunatic Asylum—access to facilities had always been segregated on the basis of race. Kenyans occupied the worst facilities in the 675-bed hospital, and Europeans the best. Up until the 1960s, all the members of the medical staff were European.
One of the main motivations behind the formation of the KSSRI was the growing clamour for better education for Kenyans.
While the group included people from many backgrounds and professions, it was medical science that provided it with the most potent propaganda; the group’s vice chairman was Dr James Sequeira, who was also the editor of the influential East African Medical Journal. The dominance of medical science and pseudo-science in Kenya’s eugenics movement was a result of the growth of British medical care in Kenya in the 1920s, as white doctors became essential to keeping Africans healthy so they could work for settlers and pay taxes.
In Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, Chloe Campbell explores how Gordon and Vint used science to try and prove that Kenyans did not possess sufficient innate mental capacity and hence should not be educated at the same level as their European colonizers. In one study, Gordon studied 219 Kenyan boys housed at the Kabete Reformatory. He concluded that 86 per cent suffered mental conditions, but even the rest couldn’t be considered okay without creating several grades of “European ideas of normality”.
In another study, Gordon tested 278 Kenyans—112 of whom had already been diagnosed with mental illness—for the venereal disease syphilis. When he found that more than half the group with mental conditions suffered from the disease, he concluded that it was the racial differences, and not the social and economic differences in the new colony, that caused the disparity.
This particular argument was not new; in a 1905 book, a settler had blamed Indians and Swahilis for the rise of venereal diseases in Kenya. He’d offered that “the healthiness of a place is greatly increased by not allowing any native habitations within a given distance of the white settlement”.
As a government pathologist, Vint focused his studies on correlating skull size with intelligence. He studied 100 skulls and arrived at the conclusion that Kenyans had lighter skulls and smaller pyramidal cells. In 1934, he concluded that Kenyan brains could not grow past the age of 18 years, and that they started decreasing in size after that. That was the same year primary education became mandatory for white children, while investments in the education of African children remained paltry. Vint’s work was meant to prove that there was no need of educating Kenyans because they did not have the capacity to grasp complex concepts.
After Gordon wrote about some of their findings in The Times, Louis Leakey responded with a letter attacking their methods and their conclusions, but not their premise. Instead, the Kenyan-born anthropologist argued, the feeble mindedness of the “African mind” should be attributed to “the lack of stimulation in the normal conditions of African life and to the fact that sexual activity began at a younger age, somehow inhibiting mental development,” Campbell writes.
Beyond the pre-existing issues with race, there had been another more immediate reason for the formation of the KSSRI in 1933. Just a few months before, the colonial government had hanged a 19-year-old white man, Charles William Ross, for the brutal murders of two young white women. Ross, who was born in Kenya, had killed the two women, thrown one body in the Menengai crater, and left the other at the top. As part of Ross’s defence, Gordon used an X-ray photograph of Ross’s skull to assert that he was criminally-liable because of “pronounced mental instability” that placed him somewhere between “feeble-minded” and “moral-deficient.” He was found guilty anyway, and hanged on 11 January 1933.
This were the same explanations Gordon and other psychiatrists applied to the entirety of the black Kenyan population, more so when they were involved in crime.
With the economic depression of the 1920s and the increasing education of Kenyans, crime rates had shot up in urban areas. Juvenile delinquency was of particular interest, and Gordon would go on to claim that the majority among his subjects in the study at Kabete had some education. The point was that they had been overwhelmed by British education. This was the “feeble-minded” argument, which also drove racially-motivated policies in the economy, healthcare and other facets of life, including the justice system. From the outset, the colonial system had set to educate Kenyans to be church-going technical workers and manual labourers, not free-thinking intellectuals.
The parliamentary discussion on the law that made sexual assault a capital offense laboured on whether it should be applied to non-Kenyans as well.
Interestingly, eugenicists also considered urbanisation to be one of the reasons for the increase in crime and psychiatric cases. In their thinking, urbanisation “detribalised the African and made him unmanageable”. It was part of the thinking that the African mind simply couldn’t handle too much change because it was not genetically wired to do so. Change destabilised their feeble minds and led them to crazy thoughts that they could ever upend the social pyramid. This thinking preceded and survived the official eugenics movement in Kenya which lasted from 1930 to 1937.
On the Christmas Eve of 1911, for example, the Machakos district commissioner wrote a lengthy report on “the mania of 1911”. It was the story of Siotune Kathuke and Kiamba Mutuaovio, who had led several acts of rebellion. Their sermons had supposedly inspired a widespread mania, as more people began to question the ordained order of things. Another good example is the commitment of Elijah Masinde, the founder of Dini ya Msambwa, in 1945. He was committed at Mathari for pretty much the same reasons that Siotune and Kiamba were exiled to the coast. When he was released in 1947, Masinde promptly went back to preaching the end of white rule.
Campbell notes that although the government didn’t fund the eugenicists’ work or officially base its policies on their work, it showed its support in other ways. One was the continued underdevelopment of Kenyans, and the other was more subtle, like giving Gordon a three-month leave from his work to go and try to win support from other eugenicists in London. The members of the KSSRI were also well connected; shortly after they founded the organisation, a group of them went to a ball held at Government House (now State House), which is the opening scene in Campbell’s book. But the movement could not have chosen a worse time to try to push for eugenics, as Hitler’s Nazi Germany employed similar ideas to devastating effects. Thus, the prominence of eugenicists in Britain and in colonies like Kenya diminished in the late 1930s for political reasons, but the ideas survived.
Another prominent figure in the pseudo-science of “African intelligence” was a retired doctor called JC Carothers, who succeeded Gordon at Mathari. He had submitted a widely-read paper on African intelligence to the World Health Organization when the colonial government turned to him to write what became “The Psychology of the Mau Mau”. Published in 1954, the report shows a slight change in the racist perspective regarding African intelligence. Where Gordon had focused on biology alone, Carothers expanded his scope to include environmental issues.
In resisting a common electoral roll, settlers argued that it was unfair to be forced to wait for Kenyans to catch up on the civilisation scale.
Turning his focus to the Kikuyu, who made up the majority of the Mau Mau ranks, Carothers thought that since the Kikuyu had had greater contact with their colonizers, “Kikuyu men have envied this power, not unnaturally, and have tried to capture it by learning.” Kikuyu women were not part of this because Carothers thought that “Her life … has suffered little change,” that her focus was still on agriculture and child-bearing, meaning she had lost her men who “have found themselves with money and powers which have virtually turned their heads. Power has come quickly to folk who are not … familiar with it”. These were Gordon’s ideas, with a dash of flair and some added flavour.
Louis Leakey was another instrumental scientist in that decade, helping counter-insurgency efforts in many ways. His best known effort was on oathing, arguing that the Mau Mau was led by brilliant psychopaths who had changed the oath’s meaning and even particulars. His counter-insurgency research and work may have actually escalated the war in 1952, which was one of his goals. Leakey thought that if he made the problem big enough, then it could be quickly addressed. He used his personal and anthropological knowledge of Kikuyu culture to devise a counter-oath that would free those who had taken the Mau Mau oath, and was core to the psychological counter-insurgency.
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date. They were notoriously anti-poor and anti-Kenyan, offering tokenism and hiding behind legalese. The Witchcraft Act, for example, banned many cultural practices by purporting to regulate them. It even made it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor.
After independence, the power and social dynamics espoused by racism switched back to class their roots, this time driven by a black, mostly Western-educated elite. The White Highlands went to a new class of supremacists, who quickly passed the Vagrancy Act in 1968. Under this law, you could be arrested and placed in a rehabilitation home if you were found walking in a posh estate with no money in your pocket and no known source of income. The Act had existed as the Vagrancy Regulations in the colonial system, only to be formalized when Kenyan elites started replacing settlers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it survived in our laws until it was repealed in 1997.
Using the lessons learned during the decade of the Mau Mau war, the new government launched a similar counter-insurgency against a secessionist movement in Northern Kenya. The model of brutality, concentration camps and spirited propaganda fit in the ’60s as it had in the ’50s, with added efficiency.
Combined with other laws and institutions such as the police, the colonial view of the base of the pyramid survives. It is why the introduction of free primary education and maternity healthcare as public goods was such a big deal. Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order. The paternalistic relationship between the individual and the state is still intact, as becomes clear whenever there is an internal threat to social order.
The forced sterilizations report points to how institutionalised eugenics survives. They were happening with tacit government approval, and targeted a class of “undesirables”. The sterilizations probably thrived in the first decade of HIV/AIDS in Kenya when there was official and social denial of the extent of the problem. We might never know their true extent, although a few of the institutions named in the report should not come as a surprise.
Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order.
One is Marie Stopes International, named for British author Marie Stopes. While Stopes is today regarded as a feminist pioneer, the major driving aspect of her birth-control advocacy was eugenics and not women’s rights. Her ideas about the poor are particularly worrying, as that is whom her clinics targeted from the onset. She was a lifelong eugenicist, who even disinherited her son Harry because he married a short-sighted woman. The other institutions named in the report—government hospitals—are still wallowing in under-investment and neglect.
Infused in post-colonial Kenya was not eugenics as a concept, but as a form of social control. It is many other things now by many other names, but it seems focused on further impoverishing those who are already poor while enriching those already endowed. A few might cross that socioeconomic divide, but many never will.
Kenyan Digital Avatars: Cartoonification of Culture and Heritage
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that result in depictions of traditional and cultural diversity that are inauthentic and historically inaccurate.
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.
Davido’s Timeless Misses the Dial
No longer the self-proclaimed Goliath of the Afrobeats scene, Davido’s latest release reveals a waning star in a crowded firmament.
The West African Afrobeats scene is no longer the same as when Nigerian megastar Davido, popped up more than a decade ago. When he first appeared, he was on top of his game and dominated the Afrobeats scene so completely that Wizkid was the only truly competitive rival. Unlike his considerably more mellow rival, Davido bristled with unparalleled energy, intensity and ambition. Now heavily thronged with countless talented stars, rather than being defined by a pyramidal structure headed by a few notable names, the Afrobeats game is currently driven by a daunting, horizontal array of heavy-hitters. It’s much harder to make headway let alone stay in the game for any significant length of time.
Timeless, Davido’s major release since 2020’s A Better Time, features 17 tracks beginning with a mildly reflective Over Dem, a track almost futilely proclaiming his dominance over the music game with continuous allusions to the biblical David and Goliath. In short, the life and death struggles that mark the scramble for survival.
Feel is quite lacklustre and by Davido’s lofty standards, lacking in the characteristic fire. In the Garden, a love-focused number featuring Morravey, does not fare much better in terms of vocal flames or inspiration. Godfather is unmistakably a throwaway track. The lyrics are almost unbearably lame and the amapiano trimmings definitely unconvincing. In Unavailable, he hooks up with South African amapiano star Musa Keys, who does much to lift the joint out of rank mediocrity. Bop with Dexta Daps is also embarrassingly weak. Indeed, the less said the better. E pain me is about a broken heart that probably should remain broken on account of the song’s corny words, sentiments and thread-bare beats.
A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point.
Away is directed at his perceived detractors and haters and his drive to rise above the negativity coming his way. Again, there’s little to commend itself here. At first, it would seem Precision lacks originality, power and sonic appeal. However, on the chorus, Davido is amply supported by a host of stirring backing voices that give the track unexpected buoyancy.
Kante features super-talented Nigerian Afrobeats songstress, Fave, whose inclusion brings much needed fire and relief. Na Money receives help from The Cavemen—Davido’s frequent Afrobeats collaborators—and Angelique Kidjo, Benin Republic’s multiple Grammy award-winning multi-genre diva. On this calypso-inflected joint, Davido momentarily emerges from his uncharacteristic lethargy, no doubt inspired by his more adventuresome associates.
(U)juju, featuring Skepta, slumps back into the doldrums. Once again, this cut is meant for a love interest who undoubtedly would remain unconvinced by this uninspiring offering. No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
Picasso, which features Logos Olori, is not crafted with any ambitious artistic goals in mind apart from its understated reggae vibes. In other words, its title is simply misleading. In For the road, Davido continues his explorations of Caribbean grooves and sensibilities. Clearly, his past collaboration with Jamaican reggae/dance hall artist Popcaan is being cashed in on.
No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
LCNC finds Davido vainly reaching out for the distant stars that once jealously guarded him. But they don’t appear to need him anymore. What a shame. Here, he sings “Legends can never die/shooting up for the stars/dem no fit play my part.” True, but not when he seems to be deliberately trashing a painstakingly built legacy.
Champion Sound—the 17th track on this disappointing album featuring South African amapiano star Focalistic whom Davido had thrust into the international limelight—is probably the best cut. Arguably, this has even less fire than their previous collaboration on the Ke Star re-mix that had a huge continent-wide impact.
When Davido first made his appearance on the scene, he was full of beans and appeared unstoppable. He did everything and went everywhere. It seemed as if he didn’t know or understand the agonies and frustrations of creative burn-out. He was firing on all cylinders because, being the son of a billionaire, the primacy of strenuously maintaining one’s hustle is ingrained in him; failure is not the result of a tired and denuded imagination but the outcome of not trying hard enough.
Davido went on frequent headlining global tours in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Caribbean not minding the state of his voice or his nerves. He finds it difficult to stop long enough to get adequate rest as he is also the active CEO of a record label that is home to other stars such as Mayorkun, May Day, Peruzzi, Lola Rae and others. He is also constantly embroiled in hair-splitting public drama with his lover, Chioma Rowland. At some point, it all gets too much and this is evident in perhaps the worst album Davido has produced.
His previous offering, A Better Time, suggested that Davido may no longer be in full command of his creative powers. Released the same year heavy-hitters like Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Olamide offered major albums, A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point. In truth, it packs some power and also juggles some lovely ideas which are eventually lost beneath the detritus of unneeded tracks and fillers. His lack of concision sees his efforts wasted and ultimately floors him.
With seventeen mostly tired or under-done tracks, Timeless demonstrates that even the great Davido is sometimes capable of simply missing the mark. Obviously, he needs to learn how to chill, kick back, restore his voice and wait patiently for fresh ideas to visit him. In this way, he could have a much longer and also a more inspiring career. For the first time in his storied journey, it seems Davido is falling off because he still hasn’t figured out how to pace himself.
Timeless is undeniably thin, most probably because Davido is concerning himself with far too many pursuits that have nothing to do with music. His matter-of-fact approach to creativity, which initially may have propelled him to the heights of his game, has now become his nemesis.
No doubt there are a few bright spots in this largely underwhelming effort. The Dammy Twitch shot video of the viral song Unavailable explores the rich natural beauty of the South African landscape. Alongside a delectable bevy of babes bopping to the beats of Davido’s collaborator, Musa Keys, there are also the stunningly beautiful South African amapiano duo TxC and Johannesburg dancer, Uncle Vinny, dishing out head-turning moves.
Outside the recording studio, Davido has been busy with controversies around paternity issues. Women have come out claiming he is the father of their children. Kemi Olunloyo, a podcaster-turned bugbear has kept on Davido’s case, trying to reduce him into a R. Kelly kind of guy, a serial abuser of womenfolk. Rumours of drug abuse, violence and death have also beclouded his reputation. And these, rather than his bangers, have begun to gain more traction.
Sometimes, even in interviews, it is clear Davido’s hectic pace is catching up with him. He often sounds hoarse, strained, at a point of dissolution. He’s essentially a singer and not a rapper, and that being the case, the timbre of his voice as an instrument ought to be preserved at its best quality. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem as though Davido is bothered; he seems more concerned about the boisterousness of his hustle, the implacability of his grind, which might translate into great business but is not always the wisest of artistic choices. He has obviously been neglecting his primary instrument and also failing in the creative department as the world-wide bangers have slowly dwindled to a trickle.
Also, the competition within the Afrobeats scene has become infinitely more fierce, with the daily arrival of new stars—Rema, CKay, Tems, Buju, Pheelz, King Promise, Eugene Kuami, Fireboy DML, Naira Marley, Asake, Simi, Adekunle Gold, Pantoranking, Ayra Starr, and so many others. This development makes it almost impossible for an individual to exert complete dominance over a scene that is experiencing various kinds of differentiation, identities and trends. After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Musically, over the years, the frenetic pace of his life has also been captured in song and in rambunctious performances across the world. He has collaborated with an astonishing welter of artists from different parts of the globe, including US players Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Lil Baby, Young Thug, Keyana Taylor, Summer Walker, Casanova, Meek Mill, South African artists Mafikizolo, Sho Madjozi, Focalistic, Abidoza and Musa Keys, and UK rapper Skepta.
After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Initially, a few of these collaborations—such as those with Brown and Popcaan—seemed well-conceived. And then such efforts were rapidly reduced to clout chasing exercises. It also seems that Davido had begun to envisage a life beyond music and this is also reflected in the diminishing inspirational potency of his creative output. Of course, Davido might be the last person to realise or acknowledge this vitiation but let’s hope this gradually fading star has the grace, wisdom and courage to age with style and adequate forethought. This would go a long way to preserving his unquestionably impressive legacy.
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