Ismael Kulubi is a 66-years-old radio production guru with a scintillating voice that is still in great demand even after retirement. Advertising executives in need of an experienced voice hire him to do radio promos. By all measurable standards, Ismail has had a fulfilling career – he is a widely travelled man who has enjoyed life’s successes as a professional media man.
But his advertising and media professional friends have been always been puzzled by Ismael. With all the riches he made over the years and his ascribed social status, Ismael has lived all his life in Eastlands area, the eastern part of Nairobi that every Eastlander seeks to run away from at the slightest hint of money and success.
Eastlands: “No pretensions here”
A practicing Muslim, Ismael grew up in Majengo, the sprawling slum sandwiched between the famous Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, the inner-city neighbourhood that is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived. Women living there were believed to be sex workers who met the sexual needs of the black immigrant labourers employed in Nairobi who were not allowed to bring their families to the city.
After every Friday afternoon prayers, which he religiously observes at Jamia Mosque in central Nairobi, Ismael heads straight to Majengo in his gleaming beige metallic Mercedes Benz, something he has done for many years. His vintage German engineering marvel is still a spectacle to be behold among the ghetto dwellers. But Ismael is considered one of them and his posh car parked outside on Majengo’s main street is as safe as the Kenyan currency locked at the Central Bank building’s underground vaults in Nairobi city centre.
Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived.
“Majengo has the best pilau you can find anywhere in Nairobi,” Ismael tells me matter-of- factly. Every Friday afternoon, his hot pilau, specially catered to his culinary tastes, awaits him. “Majengo made me and it is a place that gives me immense joy, helps me stay firmly grounded and connects me with the people.” For Ismael, the Friday afternoon sumptuous meal served on large dishes called sinia is a social affair: He has his usual group who he eats with that ranges anywhere from five to ten people.
At one time, Ismael earned a salary that was commensurate with what is paid to top executives of blue chip companies. But that never stopped him from driving from the Karen and Lavington suburbs, where his offices used to be, to enjoy a meal cooked in the ramshackle kitchens and restaurants of Majengo. “Good food is a social engagement, it is not so much about how much money you spend on it,” says Ismael. And he can spend a lot. On any given Friday afternoon, Ismael can spend an upward of Ksh5000, depending on the number of people he is eating with. They will eat from the same sinia with their hands, seated on the floor. “There are no pretensions here, we eat together the way we eat in our respective houses,” says Ismael.
As they eat, Ismael’s Mercedes Benz will be attended to by between three to five young men who give it a clean shine like no other. This is another ritual in Majengo. “My car is never washed anywhere else – the boys know it, they have cleaned it for many years, it is like going to the same barber for many years. You do not want to change him because he has learned the nooks and crannies of your bumpy head.” The young men know that every Friday, some good money will come their way. “Ismael ni boy wetu… yuko chonjo…ua anatucheki kitu poa,” (Ismael is our man…he’s cool and pays us real well), say the young men.
After the sumptuous meal, drowned by the freshest of unadulterated juice, Ismael does not leave Kije (Majengo’s popular name). He has his spot outside where he sits with other men to chew gomba (also known as khat or miraa) that is specially delivered to him by his supplier of many years. He will then chew gomba – handas and veve are variants of the same thing – accompanied by copious amounts of black coffee throughout the evening, after which he will drive back home to his house in Buru Buru estate.
“People who live in the so-called leafy suburbs have ghettoised Eastlands,” quips Ismael. “They live in a make-believe world that has blinded them to real-life happenings outside their presumed safe cocoons. They think Eastlands is one huge criminal world. You can imagine what they think of my hood Kije: we are all sons of harlots. That young people here neither have ambitions nor dreams. They are so wrong.” Ismael, whose long dead parents came from Saba Saba location in Maragua, Muranga County, says, “In Kije, the people are real, they have what it takes to live comfortably and decently and they are as informed with local and global current news as the Kenyans of Karen and Lavington.”
If you fly over Majengo slum, you would be amazed by the satellite TV dishes that adorn iron sheet rooftops. Inside some of these mud-plastered houses are some of the latest and funkiest hi-fi equipment and exotic furniture that one can only imagine in a Kileleshwa high- rise flat or in Loresho’s leafy suburbs. These dishes beam news outlets from such channels as Al Jazeera TV, BBC, CNN and France 24 English TV.
I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area.
“If you entered some of the houses here in Kije, you would literally be taken aback,” says Ismael. “There are houses that have 42-inch smart cable TV and Persian Bukhara rags and Turkish carpets that can only be a dream for many of the pretenders to middle class tastes. You know those houses where you have to remove your shoes to enter?” Many of these items are imported from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Yemen.
The traditional suspicion about Eastlands as an area where “dreams are made” and once those dreams are actualised you flee from the area to go and live those dreams elsewhere is a long-held stereotype that persists to date. Indeed some of the Nairobians who started life in the Eastlands estates, dingy or otherwise, comprise a big chunk of the most successful Kenyans who now live on the west side of the city’s spatial suburbs. Their pastime is nostalgically recounting how they are wasee wa mtaa (estate mates). Yet many, having bought into the Eastlands narrative themselves, are publicly embarrassed to be associated with the area.
My recent encounter with a high school chum of many years convinced me that the Eastlands narrative is not fading away in a hurry. Steve Ngotho, who has lived in Pretoria, South Africa, for a long time was in town recently. When he gave me a shout, we met at a restaurant in central Nairobi. After the usual pleasantries, Ngotho, who I had always known to shoot straight, asked where I lived…nowadays. “I live in Buru Buru,” I told him. “Ah, you mean you still live in Eastlands?” he asked. What he really meant was: What in God’s name would you still be doing in Eastlands?
Ngotho grew up in the western side of Nairobi, the general area that is west of Uhuru Highway. Uhuru Highway is the trunk road that cuts across the city centre and links the city to the highways that lead to Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the port city of Mombasa.
I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area. Ngotho, you can bet, is not the only former Nairobian to still harbour the “Eastlands narrative” (even when he lives abroad) – a place for people with failed ambitions and aspirations, where dreams did not take off.
The Eastlands narrative has its roots in the colonial era when some “African” areas were associated with congestion and crime. Hence, Eastlands to date is viewed as a place that does not have the attraction and aura of suburban “posh living”. For Eastlanders, the “leafy suburbs” imply breezy air, lots of jacaranda and pine trees, bungalows and maisonettes with compounds and open spaces that can only be found across Uhuru Highway.
Dr. Mosley Owino, a consultant dentist, likes to remind me that East London, where he trained as a dental surgeon, has many of the same characteristics and reputation as the Eastlands area of Nairobi: It is a place riven with deep poverty and overcrowding and which is not immune from the social problems that afflict such areas – the existence of rival gangs, loafers, social misfits and petty and hardcore criminals.
Buru Buru: “Like a suburban British hood”
Buru Buru estate, where Ismael bought his house in the 1980s, is one of the iconic estates that sometimes still salvages the Eastlands reputation, even as the estate itself, which has five phases, struggles against ghettoisation. Largely built in the 1970s, with the last phase five completed in 1982, Buru Buru was the estate where newly graduated architects, accountants, lawyers, physicians, quantity surveyors, among other graduates, aspired to live and start out because it captured their upward mobility aspirational lifestyle, its Eastlands location notwithstanding.
Construction magnate John Mburu has lived in Buru Buru ever since he graduated from the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. With a yearly turnover of hundreds of millions of shillings, Mburu’s friends in the industry cannot understand why he still lives in the same house he started out in. A shilling billionaire, Mburu says Buru Buru is a suitable place to live in – it does not have the wannabe pretentious suburban lifestyle like many of the new estates that have come up: “It still retains decent, respectable and habitable estate characteristics that represents the lifestyles of people who have progressively grown their incomes.”
Buru Buru is among most famous suburban estates in East and Central Africa. When I first went to Tanzania, a quarter of a century ago, my newly acquired Tanzanian friends would ask me which part of Nairobi I came from. “Ule mtaa ambao unaishi mawaziri na wakuu wa serekali, unaufahamu?” (Do you know the estate that Kenyan ministers and top civil servants live in?) It was amusing to learn that my Tanzanians friends considered Buru Buru to be such a posh estate that only elite government people lived there.
“Buru Buru is very much like a British suburban hood,” says Stacy Wanjiku, who lived and studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. “Even the way people park outside their houses on the roadside is so British.” Wanjiku, who herself lives in Buru Buru, says the picket fencing may have long gone, but Buru Buru still retain its stand-out character with its shopping centres and it semi-detached architectural design uniformity.
Woodley and Kimathi: Civil servant estates
The estate that comes closer to once being a residential area for senior government civil servants is Woodley, which is located in the south-east of Nairobi, adjacent to Moi Nairobi Girls on Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Woodley is a fashionable estate made of a mixture of high-rise flats and bungalow houses with huge compounds and while it was not largely inhabited by cabinet ministers – at least certainly not in the 1980s – for some reason, Woodley was the residence of the senior-most Luo civil servants.
Alex Oduor, who lives in the estate, which is owned by Nairobi County, tells me that Woodley has all the trappings of a proper middle class neighbourhood: his house is in a safe secluded area, has a big compound for kids to romp about and to host a barbeque and is big enough to entertain guests and host visiting relatives from rural areas. Oduor himself lives in the three-bedroomed house once owned by Washington Okumu, the humongous jolly professor who brokered peace between Nelson Mandela of the African National Party (ANC) and Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1990s.
The estate closest in resemblance to Woodley in terms of design and layout is Kimathi estate in Eastlands. It is ensconced between Bahati and Jerusalem estates. Built in the early 1970s, Kimathi is your archetypal middle class neighbourhood that has a family ring to it: an “enclosed” estate with modest houses and little compounds. Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya, kept a house there for the longest time. Up to 1974, he represented Bahati constituency which Kimathi estate was a part of. Hudson Mwangi, a businessman who has lived in Kimathi estate for many years, says the estate is unpretentious and allows him to operate “below the radar”, without attracting too much attention from the prying eyes of gossipers and nosy people.
Kilimani and Kileleshwa: “Lonely jungles”
The estates that were truly classical middle class neighbourhoods were the adjoining suburban areas of Kileleshwa and Kilimani located in the west of Nairobi. They were your conventional neighbourhoods for senior civil servants from 1963 to early 2000s. “But today, these areas have become concrete jungles; the high-rise flats that are coming up daily have completely erased the beautiful memory of the semi-detached bungalow and maisonette residential houses that adorned the area,” says print journalist Oyunga Pala, who grew up in the Kilimani area. “In the days that I grew up in Kilimani, the area was attractive and scenic, the houses had huge compounds for children to safely play and run around in, and the neighbourhood had lots of trees and kaiyaba (Kei apple) fences.”
The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts. Lilian Rice, a British national who lives in one of these flats, told me there is a “fake friendliness” among flat mates living in Kileleshwa. “Every time I visit my friend and workmate in Donholm in Eastlands, I notice the stark differences: the place is bubbly and full of life. The children are running helter-skelter, playing football or hide-and-seek. The neighbours pop in (unannounced) to share a funny anecdote or to enjoy a cup of tea together… I tell you the camaraderie is real and unpretentious.”
Rice says that the corner kiosks and green grocery vibandas (sheds) of Donholm really enchant her. “They serve as meeting points for people to banter and chat.” Rice concludes that Kileleshwa is “a lonely jungle” and Eastlands, with all its “dirt and disorder”, has “variety and vivacity.”
The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts.
This variety of life was best captured for me by Rhoda Mbaya, who was brought up in an old Kileleshwa neighbourhood. When their father, a senior civil servant, died suddenly, the family had to move out of their five-bedroomed government house and relocate to Uthiru, a peri-urban and semi-rural area on the outskirts of Nairobi, 12km west of the city centre, in a place called 87. “Of course, it was at first traumatising, but we quickly adjusted,” said Rhoda. “The thing about living in the old Kileleshwa was that we led a secluded and shielded life, so when we had to move to Uthiru, it was obviously a scale-down, but we soon realised that Uthiru had its own advantages.”
Used to a subsidised life all her life, Rhoda was gratified to find that Uthiru had a cheaper and affordable lifestyle that was commensurate with her middle class tastes and which did not compromise her family’s social upward mobility. Her five siblings still rent out a five-bedroomed bungalow there, which is much more affordable than a house around the Kileleshwa/Kilimani “posh” areas.
“The vegetables are fresh and cheap, we get the milk straight from the cow, fresh and unskimmed and kienyeji (indigenous) chicken and eggs. The crux of the matter is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” said Rhoda. “Uthiru is teeming with people, we weren’t used to that, but yet again, the people are cosmopolitan, friendly and hospitable…but you know what? We discovered mutura (a sausage-like delicacy made out of stuffed offal) and pork. Uthiru has the best pork place in town.”
The rapid gentrifications of the city’s better known neighbourhoods, says Oyunga, are robbing the city of its iconic suburbs and traditional beautiful look. Kilimani’s expanding gentrification is already encountering opposition. The Kilimani Residents Association is up in arms against Cytonn Investment Company, a real estate private equity firm that intends to mobilise funds and put up a multi-storeyed building in the area.
Eastleigh: “Where dreams are incubated”
Gentrification in Nairobi has not been confined to the western side of the city. The Somali people’s influx in Eastleigh has led to a rapid and haphazard gentrification of the area. High- rise buildings have risen: some magnificent, some ugly and an eyesore. The buildings are both commercial and residential. A couple of years ago, a former powerful cabinet minister was persuaded to visit Eastleigh – a place he himself had confessed he had not visited for “donkey years”. The minister was astounded beyond belief when he found the area was home to two- and three-star hotels, complete with deluxe suites for accommodation and a la carte three-course menus.
Amid Eastleigh’s chaos, confusion, grime, mounting garbage, open sewers and systemic failure of services, there are Somali residents who live like Arab sheikhs in some of the most crowded and ugly flats. When Abdulrahman let me into his house on the top floor of a flat facing Pumwani Maternity Hospital, I was taken aback by the apparent affluence: The large sitting room was bedecked with jewelry and Arabian Nights-like ornaments, an imported sofa and a thick Afghanistan carpet. His prayer room was a wall-to-wall carpet affair. His expensive cutlery was like that of an emir. It was only after I came out of the house that I realised that indeed I was in the shambolic Eastleigh neighbourhood. Inside Abdulrahman’s house, it felt like I was in an affluent flat somewhere in Qatar or Yemen.
One of the areas that has been under perpetual threat of gentrification is Eastlands itself. The vast estates of Bahati, Hamza-Makadara, Jericho, (Lumumba and Ofafa) Jerusalem, Kaloleni, Makongeni, Maringo, Mbotela and Uhuru that make up the “real” greater Eastlands area and whose fame has rested on council houses belonging to the now defunct Nairobi City Council, are being targeted by “private developers” who have been marking them for a long time to bring them down in the name of constructing “better” and more spacious accommodation for the residents.
“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies”
It is true that many of these houses could be past their building life cycle. Their average lifespan is 60 years – Maringo estate was built in 1958, for example.The Kaloleni “bungalows” were built in the 1940s. During the 1960s, this was one of the poshest African quarters. Jericho Lumumba was built in 1962, a year before Kenya got its independence from the British. A beautiful, well-designed and laid-out estate, with ample open spaces for recreation, it still retains its shine despite obvious neglect that includes peeling paintwork that no one remembers when it was last undertaken, uncollected garbage, dilapidated plumbing and open sewers.
Peter Mugo, who is a resident here, allowed me into his “humble abode” for a cup of African tea that has the milk, tea leaves and sugar all boiled together. Mugo’s humble abode is a two-roomed affair but the house is nonetheless as middle class as they come: it has all the gadgets and trappings of modern urban living. He has the latest Samsung smart TV, Sony Hi-Fi music system complete with woofers, stylish settees and an expensive carpet to boot. “My subsidised rent allows me to save enough money to send my kids to quality private schools,” Mugo told me. His youngest 10-year-old son is busy with his play-station, while his second born daughter is on her laptop googling her school homework on the Wi-Fi that her dad has installed in the house.
“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies,” says Victor Ochieng. Before moving to the west of Nairobi, Victor lived in Donholm for several years. “I used Jogoo Road (the trunk road that runs through the major Eastlands estates). All the time I lived in Doni I can tell you the traffic snarl-ups on Jogoo Road used to give me incessant headaches. Doni was also not an easy estate to live in: if it’s not water shortages, its garbage strewn all over. And when it rains, it floods. That was enough stress for me.”
Still, after moving to the west side of Nairobi, he now appreciates that people in Eastlands at least live within their means. “There’s a lot of flush money in places like Kileleshwa and the majority of lifestyles are sustained by credit cards. In essence, people here live beyond their means, all in the name of maintaining class and status.”
The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World
Humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today.
Our human ancestors were using stone tools well before Homo sapiens evolved three hundred thousand or more years ago. Tools have been discovered dating back three million years, no less than ten times older than our species. Considering that some birds and fish use –and even fashion– tools (watch crows making hooks), and that any implements made of wood or other organic material will not show in early fossil records, it would be astonishing if our hominid ancestors weren’t using them well before the earliest stone ones we’ve so far found.
The most important tool of all was fire. Like much in archaeology nowadays, where microscopic analysis is changing earlier guesswork, the first known date for cooking is being pushed ever further into our deepest past. It is hotly debated issue, but some now put it at around a million years ago. Again, that is long before our species evolved – though of course some of those earlier, now extinct, hominid species are our direct ancestors.
In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive.
Many scientists believe that our very evolution could never have happened without cooking. It massively enhanced our calorie and nutrient intake, so enabling our teeth and guts to grow smaller and our brains, which need huge amounts of energy, to grow bigger. Brain size is a tradeoff between enabling women to walk upright (a wider pelvis needed to have even bigger-headed babies would make that impossible),and the inordinately large number of years we have to care for our helpless young, longer than any other species. That both engendered and depended on our enormous capacity for social cohesion, empathy and self-sacrifice. In brief, we made fire and cooked our food and that turned us into people, generally more virtuous than vicious –in spite of our striking inhumanities, and the religious dogmatists and “evolutionary psychologists” preaching otherwise.
In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive. It sounds about right.
When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank.
This all started happening hundreds of thousands of years ago. Fire, manipulated by our ancestors, changed the world, and cooking was just one part: Regular undergrowth burning had the other big impact. It’s enormously beneficial: It prevents scorching wildfire conflagrations (look at California or Australia today), and also massively increases biodiversity, however counter-intuitive that may sound to urbanites. It enriches the soil, encourages fresh plant growth, enables wind-blown seeds to germinate in the nutrient-rich ash rather than wither in the undergrowth, and so favors some species over others. All this attracts herbivores, which are followed by predators.
When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank. Aboriginal burning was far from destructive as the Europeans thought. It actually enhanced biodiversity and the food supply.
Several key principles have been noted for Aboriginal burning. Neighbors were always forewarned and agricultural lands were fired in rotation at specific times of year when the bush was in the right state and the weather favorable. This limited the fire’s intensity, allowed animals to move out of the way, avoided particular growing seasons, and stimulated particular seeds to germinate under the resulting hot ash.
Needless to say, the British banned the practice in many parts of its empire, teaching that undergrowth firing was a destructive and primitive local custom.[i]Some scientists remain schooled in such colonialist prejudice today. The ban on undergrowth burning is still in force in much of India and continues damaging the environment. The Soliga people in India, for example, say that the recent massive rise in forest fires in Karnataka would not have happened if they had been advising on forest management and allowed to continue their traditional burning.
People deliberately start fires in many environments and have done so for a very long time. For example, there is evidence that it’s gone on in Southeast Asia for at least forty-five thousand years.
Today, the Xavante in Brazil take careful note of wind and rain before setting their ceremonial fires to assist hunting. The fires remain low and not overly hot because they are lit so regularly that undergrowth is not allowed to grow up year after year. Fire-resistant plants can easily regenerate, and animals have plenty of time to move away. Fire can obviously be destructive, but that includes getting rid of species no one wants, such as deadly disease-bearing insects like the tsetse fly in Africa and the Loranthus tree-killing parasite in India. It also brings new plants and animals in its wake.
Regular burning is key in the various “slash-and-burn” methods of farming tropical forests. It is also called “swidden,” but journalists unfortunately favor the more dramatic name, which has become pejorative. Whatever one calls it, the practice is still widely denigrated and even criminalized by some conservationists, who could not be more wrong. Other scientists, sticking to the evidence, now see it as, “an integral part of many, if not most, tropical forest landscapes that are crucial to biodiversity conservation in all the remaining large tropical forests: Amazonia, Borneo, Central Africa.” The Hanunoo people in the Philippines grow over 280 types of food with swidden, and an even greater variety can be found elsewhere.
If undergrowth burning led to cooking, which seems logical, then it dates back over a million years. Considering that some birds not only make tools, but also actually manipulate bushfires by dropping burning twigs to help their hunting – something Australian Aboriginal people have long known – then it’s likely that our ancestors were changing the world with fire more than a million years ago. Science is unlikely ever to be precise about the timing, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the ancient world has long been shaped by women and men.
Human-made clearings, whether opened up with fire, axe, or both, modified the local fauna by changing animals’ food and distribution. There’s evidence from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple reserve in India that tiger numbers increase in areas where tribal people still live –if, that is, they’re not threatened with eviction and so retain an incentive to maintain their environment. When the people move their fields to leave some dormant, they also abandon the ponds they made for drinking water. The clearings, remnant crops and water attract boar, deer, and other creatures. The big cats then thrive on the easy hunting found in the open spaces. When tribes are evicted “for tiger conservation” the authorities know they have to keep similar clearings open. As a Baiga man told Survival International, “If you remove us, the tiger will disappear as well.”
An increase in tiger numbers clearly impacts the cats’ prey. Deer are less plentiful, but they are healthier than they would be were they never hunted: Sick animals soon become tigers’ lunch. The smaller deer population in turn brings more tree growth which encourages different insect and bird life, and so on and on. It is all a shifting, interconnected balance that has included human beings as a key environmental shaper for many thousands of years.
When scientists asked them about beluga whale loss in the Arctic, the Inuit explained that warmer temperatures had brought an increase in the beaver population. The beavers took more of the fish, which the whales depended on, and so whale numbers had diminished. It simply hadn’t occurred to the whale experts to include beavers in their research, but the Inuit had observed and interpreted these connections as and when they were developing.
Western science has only begun to describe the depth and complexity of such associations over recent centuries, but other “non-scientific” ways of looking at our surroundings have been articulating it for a very long time.
Among the best known is the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime in which every geographical feature, every river, rock, plant, animal, even celestial bodies, and of course all the different tribes of humans, are descended from ancestors who emerged from the earth, and travelled around it in a series of adventures which are remembered and reenacted – and actively “re-created” through such reenactment– today. They capture an essential view of the world and our place in it which science seems to have largely bypassed in making its own invaluable discoveries.
Everything really is connected but, needless to say, the Dreamtime version was derided as primitive superstition by the European invaders who brought very different priorities from the British Isles. As well as massacring the native people, they infamously imported rabbits to shoot for sport. The creature immediately spread faster than any other mammal monitored anywhere and is now thought to have caused more species and habitat loss than anything else throughout the continent.
In brief, humans have been an integral part of the jigsaw of the planet’s ecosystem for thousands, even millions, of years. It is true we did eliminate some species, including the huge and dangerous auroch, bred by our ancestors into docile domestic cattle. However, prior to industrialization, it seems to be the case that we enhanced biodiversity rather than reduced it, at least in many places. Moreover, humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today. Whether it fits in with one’s beliefs or not, humans have always been changing the environment, for better or for worse.
The worse part is obvious, and is not confined to rabbits destroying Australian biodiversity. Massive urbanization and industrialization have made life easier for some over recent centuries, but have also created rampant environmental degradation, with escalating –in some cases permanent – damage to the health of significant flora and fauna, including humans. There is no shortage of warnings, studies, and prophets sounding that alarm. We can only pray it starts being properly heeded.
But what of the other side, how have people since antiquity made the world “better?” I’ve described the increased biodiversity, and that tigers seem to prefer it when they are around tribal people; it turns out that forest elephants do too. Baka “Pygmies” in the Congo Basin, for example, are characterized as “hunter-gatherers” but they also spread food plants around the forest, which attract animals. That is not just good for elephants: abandoned camps, fertilized with ash and waste, make good habitat for primates. In the Salonga National Park researchers think there may be up to five times more bonobo where the Iyaelima tribe live than where they don’t. The people were unusually allowed to remain inside the park because they too were classified as “wildlife”!
Reverence for elephants is widespread in Africa. The Baka, for example, think they have an intimate spiritual connection with the animals – which includes sustainably hunting them for food and ritual. This can seem anathema to those urban Europeans and North Americans for whom wild animals (big ones at least), are anthropomorphized and considered nicer than us, untrammeled by our supposedly unique sin and guilt.
If anyone doubts the level of misanthropy to which such “Disneyfication” of nature can sink, they might read the comments accompanying internet stories about poaching. Extremist animal rights advocates repeatedly put animal life far above that of their fellow humans, particularly when the victims are African or Asian.
Unfortunately, this often goes unchallenged by those moderates who also value people. Extrajudicial killing, so-called “shoot on sight” is routinely applauded, even if some of the wounded and dead “poachers” include children, and were never criminals but simply poor people looking for food or even firewood or medicinal plants on what was once their land. Those accepting this as mere “collateral damage” in a righteous war against poaching are rejecting human rights, often gleefully.
Noble Savages and Other Myths: What Indigenous People Can Teach Us about Biodiversity
The prehistoric environment was created by humans who enhanced biodiversity, altering the plants and animals to suit themselves. Contemporary tribal peoples are still doing this today. The fact that they are the world’s best conservationists is not a “noble savage” romantic fantasy; it can now be proven. Yet the conservation industry is destroying these peoples and forcing them out of the territories they made and could save. However, as STEPHEN CORRY argues, if we stop this, everyone will benefit, along with the environment.
“If we were to leave this jungle, then it would be difficult for it to survive. There is forest and water because we are here. If we were to leave, then come back in a while and look, there will be nothing left.”
~ Baiga tribesman, India
The noted environmentalist, Robert Goodland, was an early torchbearer of the warning that if you cut down a lot of Amazonia, it is destroyed forever. He explained that the rainforest lies on extremely poor soil and grows largely off its own detritus. When very large areas are felled, the trees aren’t able to grow back as they can’t produce the wet and rotting vegetation needed for the forest to regenerate.
Science has now figured out that this highly fertile soil is not a “natural” phenomenon. It was made by people – the result of countless generations of indigenous women and men discarding food and waste and enriching the soil in other ways.
When I started working for tribal peoples’ rights nearly fifty years ago, I often referred to Goodland’s work:
“RaceAmazonia, and it’s gone, destroying not only its indigenous inhabitants but much of the rest of the world besides, because the resultant increase in carbon in the atmosphere would accelerate climate change (as it would eventually come to be called), raise sea levels and drown cities like London, New York and San Francisco”
Goodland was broadly right, but he omitted one aspect of a vital thread in the complex web connecting all life – prehistoric humans. Mysteriously, Amazonia has some zones of rich humus called “dark earth”. Although Western scientists have only started studying it fairly recently, dark earth has been known about for at least a couple of centuries. After the Civil War, it was even cited as enticement for American Confederates to emigrate to Brazil, where slavery was still legal.
Science has now figured out that this highly fertile soil is not a “natural” phenomenon. It was made by people – the result of countless generations of indigenous women and men discarding food and waste and enriching the soil in other ways. It’s come as a surprise to many that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Amazonia had such an impact on their environment.
The first European explorers reported seeing cities of thousands and “fine highways” along the rivers they descended. This used to be dismissed as a sixteenth-century invention, but scientists are finally recognising that human habitation of Amazonia was so extensive, starting ten thousand years ago or more and rising to a population of perhaps five or six million. When the Spanish arrived, most areas had been cleared at least once, while leaving the surrounding forest intact and so avoiding Goodland’s total collapse prediction. It wasn’t just along the big rivers either; satellite imagery, backed by traditional archeology, is now revealing extensive prehistoric habitation in the forest interior as well.
It turns out that Amazonia doesn’t match at all with the image Europeans have projected on it in recent centuries. It was never a “wilderness” inhabited only by a few people leaving little impression on the landscape, at least not for thousands of years. On the contrary, the ecosystem has been shaped – actually created – by communities who adapted their surroundings to suit their taste.
These early “Indians” hunted hundreds of animals and birds and doubtless made pets of others. They used thousands of different plants for food, medicine, ritual, religion, hunting and fishing tools and poisons, decoration, clothing, building, and so on. They cultivated some close to their dwellings, and planted others along distant hunting and fishing trails. They spread seeds and cuttings, carrying them from place to place.
They significantly altered the flora, not only by moving plants around – their ancestors, for example, may well have carried the calabash, or bottle gourd, all the way from Africa – but also by changing them through selective breeding. Science has, so far, counted 83 distinct plant species that were altered by people in Amazonia, and the region is now recognised as a major world centre of prehistoric crop domestication.
Europeans brought catastrophe to the Amazon rainforest in the sixteenth century. Within just two or three generations of first contact, probably more than ninety per cent of the indigenous population was dead from violence and new diseases against which they had no immunity.
An easy and obvious way to improve plants is to use only seeds from trees producing the biggest fruits and always to leave someone the tree to reproduce, but other modifications went much further. For example, manioc, the most common foodstuff, barely survives without human intervention. A typical Amazon tribe recognises well over a hundred distinct varieties of this single species (and doesn’t need writing to remember them). Now it’s one of the world’s main staples, sustaining half a billion people throughout the tropics and beyond, yet it produces very few viable seeds. Manioc generally survives and spreads only if people plant its cuttings. Like other fully domesticated plants, it’s a human “invention”.
Europeans brought catastrophe to the Amazon rainforest in the sixteenth century. Within just two or three generations of first contact, probably more than ninety per cent of the indigenous population was dead from violence and new diseases against which they had no immunity. Proportionally, it was one of the biggest known wipeouts of the last thousand years, though most people have never heard of it. It wasn’t total though: Some Indians survived both the epidemics and the subsequent, and still ongoing, colonial genocide.
Others avoided both disease and killing and retreated away from the big rivers. Well over a hundred such “uncontacted tribes” have survived. Where their land hasn’t been stolen, Amazon Indians – now totaling over a million – are still enjoying their own, human-made environment, and not any invented “wilderness”. They don’t live like their ancestors did (no one does, not even the uncontacted tribes) but many seem to have kept some of the same values.
Research is revealing that practically everywhere you look, the solid ground on our planet has been changed by humans for thousands of years, if not longer. Although this isn’t what is generally taught, it’s really little more than common sense. As in the Amazon Basin, prehistoric people would obviously have favoured food plants with the best yields wherever they could, and would have carried them from place to place. The “pristine” hunter-gatherer who has practically no impact on the environment is as much a myth as any “untrammeled wilderness.”
Nowhere is the prehistoric shaping of landscape clearer than in Australia, where the long-accepted narrative is now being turned on its head. Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for at least 65,000 years, or perhaps up to twice as long (which would upset current “out of Africa” theories). They were there well before our species turned up in either the Americas or Europe. Like Amazon Indians, they too have long been described as small bands of “hunter-gatherers” having practically no impact on the “wilderness”.
It turns out that, as in Amazonia, this isn’t true in Australia either. The early British explorers reported seeing vast areas that reminded them of English estates. There were cultivated grasslands, cleared of scrubby undergrowth but scattered with stands of trees giving edible fruits and shade. It’s now thought that some 140 different grasses were harvested. One surveyor noted, “The desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field…we found the ricks or hay-cocks extending for miles.” He recorded how the Aboriginal people made “a kind of paste or bread” and grindstones some 30,000 years old have been found. That’s well over twice as old as humankind’s supposed “discovery of agriculture” in Mesopotamia.
Aboriginal people preserved and stored food, including tubers, grains, fish, game, fruits, caterpillars, insects, and much else. Harvests of both grain and edible insects brought together large congregations, doubtless to trade, to perform ceremonies and rituals, and to forge new liaisons and alliances.
The Europeans also reported finding quarries near villages, and towns of numerous stone-built houses. One is reckoned to have provided housing for 10,000 people. They also came across dams, irrigation systems, wells, artificial waterholes – stocked by carrying fish from one to the other – and fish traps, which might well be the first human structures so far found on Earth. One archaeological team thinks they are at least 40,000 years old.
Aboriginal people preserved and stored food, including tubers, grains, fish, game, fruits, caterpillars, insects, and much else. Harvests of both grain and edible insects brought together large congregations, doubtless to trade, to perform ceremonies and rituals, and to forge new liaisons and alliances.
The world’s oldest edge-ground axe found so far comes from Australia and dates back to at least 46,000 years, but irrespective of whether they had such tools or “discovered” agriculture before others, it now seems clear that the Aboriginal people of Australia were changing the landscape at least as much as anyone else around the world.
Just as in Amazonia, the European newcomers quickly destroyed all this. In many areas, their imported sheep destroyed the ground cover within just a few years. Overnight dews became less humid; the earth hardened, less rain was absorbed and so flowed into the rivers which then flooded, washing away topsoil. It was all completely contrary to the settlers’ conviction that they were introducing sensible and productive land use. Rather, the earth’s fertility, which had been carefully husbanded over countless generations, was eroded in a single short human lifespan. The colonists understood nothing of what they found in Australia.
An extraordinary map showing how much of the continent was once covered within the Aboriginal grain belt, as compared to how little is nowadays, should surely feature in every Australian school. It shows the quite extraordinary degree of ecological loss that the attempted destruction of Aboriginal Australia brought in its wake.
In some Australian coastal areas, killer whales and dolphins were observed, apparently working in tandem with people. They drove other whales and fish towards the shore where they could be easily harvested, with both people and dolphins taking their share. This astonishing partnership was noted by several early explorers but doesn’t seem to have been recorded elsewhere in the world as far as I know.
It’s certainly likely, however, that our ancestors in many places have long lived in a beneficial symbiosis with animals, including “wild” ones, just as tribal peoples do today. For example, the Hadza in Tanzania have long located honey though a whistled exchange with a species of bird which, though wild, has learned to lead the hunter to the right tree.
It’s certainly likely, however, that our ancestors in many places have long lived in a beneficial symbiosis with animals, including “wild” ones, just as tribal peoples do today. For example, the Hadza in Tanzania have long located honey though a whistled exchange with a species of bird which, though wild, has learned to lead the hunter to the right tree. The man climbs to the hive and smokes out the bees. The groggy insects focus on rescuing enough honey to move elsewhere, and so don’t attack. The hunter collects the honeycomb, while the bird, smaller than a blackbird, waits patiently to claim its share. Both its common and scientific name acknowledges its job – greater honeyguide (indicator indicator).
No one can ever know how long ago this sublime relationship first developed. We are certain, however, that other animals have not only been deliberately moved long distances but also, like plants, turned from one species into another. For example, European ancestors were breeding dogs from wolves at least 15,000 years ago, and likely more than twice that (though today’s dogs don’t seem to be directly descended from the earliest examples so far found).
Dogs extend a human’s hunting range and ability, inevitably altering the balance of predators and so modifying other fauna and flora in turn. It’s simple: If people hunt more wild pigs, say, as a result of having dogs, then more plants which the pigs eat will grow to fruition. This alone will change the flora – though it won’t be noticed by Europeans, who imagine all landscapes are “wild” unless they’re farmed European-style.
Their error is partly rooted in the enduring, though entirely mistaken, belief in the so-called discovery of agriculture. However, much it is repeated as an article of faith. This didn’t take place in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, and didn’t result in a leap forward in the quality of life. (In fact, it’s now thought that the resultant increase in sedentarism and animal-to-human disease transmission initiated a great increase in human suffering. The fictions first emerged in the early twentieth century at a time when “scientific racism” was widely accepted in Northern Europe and America.
The myths are intertwined: The archeologists saw themselves as descendants of the first agriculturalists, and were convinced they were responsible for the most advanced civilisation on Earth. Europe, they believed, had forged ahead when the other (supposed) “races” lagged behind.
It turns out that the really hurtful fantasy is the invention of this “superior white man” rather than any “noble savage.” The truth is that people were taming, domesticating or moving plants and animals long before the proliferation of grain crops in any imagined “cradle of civilisation.”
‘Nita Ride Boda Boda’: How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya
The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew.
“And you, do you go on a bicycle?”
“I do go on a bicycle, yes.”
The question was meant to be an insult but there was no comeback to the answer. Tom Mboya had just interrupted Martin Shikuku’s speech in Parliament to ask him whether he was any different from others who “…change cars everyday…” Shikuku’s answer, even then in 1964, was shocking – and even true to an extent. A few years later, he would be cycling to Parliament in a bid to encourage his colleagues to follow suit and “meet the people”. It clearly never caught on.
Shikuku had reason to be concerned. Everyone in the independence generation had grown up in a time where the bicycle was the most accessible means of transport. In their varied careers in the colony, they had cycled to school, work, social events, and political meetings. As soon as they could upgrade to motor vehicles, they ditched their bicycles and became part of a capitalist class with a penchant for conspicuous consumption. In the years just before and after independence, this newly minted political elite engaged in a race to purchase the best cars they could find. The only rule was to not get cars, or a fleet, better than the president’s.
As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”.
In 1963, an American businessman gifted Jomo Kenyatta a Lincoln Convertible to add to his fleet, which included a Mercedes 300 SE and a Rolls Royce, setting the bar quite high. By 1966, he had yet another Mercedes, but ordered a Rolls Royce meant for the mayor of Nairobi returned to London. This acquisition spree by men, many of whom had been careless just a few years earlier, was a waste of public funds. It was also a psychological coup, a statement of a new class that did not want to be associated with poverty in any form.
As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”. This critical symbol of a new nation was now limited to the select few who could afford, by virtue of their political and economic positions, to drive. To fly it on a bicycle was sacrilege. The bicycle was now what shecyclesNairobi calls “a strong symbol of poor man’s mobility in Nairobi, second to walking.”
In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story “Wedding at the Cross”, the (Raleigh) bicycle features prominently as a symbol of poverty that was not acceptable to the “Christian and propertied class”. The protagonist, Wariuki, has to lose his bicycle, and himself, to become what he thinks society needs him to be, and to show his parents-in-law that he is good enough to marry their daughter, Mariamu. By the time he meets them again after independence, he is a rich businessman driving a new Mercedes Benz. In another of Ngugi’s short stories, “A Mercedes Funeral”, a poor man’s funeral planning becomes the epicentre of political competition. One politician offers a Mercedes to transport the corpse, trumping his competitors. The implication in these postcolonial tales is the same: the bicycle had lost its cool.
The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew. It was still significantly smaller than the Ugandan market, where a cycling craze was well underway by the mid-1920s. Of the 4,852 bicycles that were imported in 1927, for example, only 1,719 of them were meant for the Kenyan market. At the time, overall demand in both countries had been falling steadily from a short-lived peak of nearly 24,000 bicycles two years earlier.
By 1930, demand had dipped to 1,295 bicycles. It recovered, clocking 14,003 units by 1936. Despite these fluctuations, bicycles were still outselling all other forms of mechanised transport. They were an expensive purchase only affordable to a select few who had jobs that paid well enough to save up. This cost element also meant that only men, who had actively been forced into wage labour since the early 1900s, could afford them. In the migrant labour economy, a bicycle was the fastest way for them to get to work, and for some, to get the work done.
Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school.
Even when more women were employed in formal wage labour, they were mostly limited to resident agriculture and low wage employment. Combined with pre-existing perspectives on gendered roles, cycling emerged as an exclusively male space. It explains why nearly all the major stories involving bikes from this time involve male riders, from Kenyatta’s famous bicycle in the 1920s to the story of Kamawe Musungu, whose murder led to the first (and only) execution of a white man in Kenya. A forgotten detail of the assassination of Chief Waruhiu, which triggered the State of Emergency, is that his bodyguard was not in the car with him because he (Waruhiu) had forced him to cycle back on his friend’s bicycle.
Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school. Before long, in the 1940s and 1950s especially, women were riding too, although female riders never became as prevalent as male ones. This was partly because, as bicycle use became an almost exclusively rural form of transport, cultural views on female riders did not change. They extended not just to riding, but also to usage, as a by-law requiring women to sit sideways, introduced in the Kisumu County Assembly in 2013, shows.
The safety bicycle
Bicycles were still a rather recent innovation at the start of the colonial conquest of the African continent. A German man, Baron Karl Von Drais, filed the first patent of the modern bike’s ancestor in 1818. His design was inspired by the “Year without a Summer” (1816), which followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Considered the worst eruption in recent history, it lowered global temperatures and ruined crop harvests for several years. The ensuing famine killed humans, and more importantly for this story, horses. That presented a transport problem for which Drais had an answer.
His invention, the Laufmachine (“running machine”) was a wooden, human-propelled, two-wheeled machine. It had no gears or pedals, which would take another five decades to invent. But it, and later variants, caught on. One of those variants was called The Boneshaker because it had a wooden frame and metal tires, making for an uncomfortable ride. Others had one massive wheel and a much smaller one. Still, they had the same basic problems as Drais’s machine; they were heavy, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Such variants informed the perception that the bicycle was a toy for daring, wealthy young men.
All that changed in 1885, when the “safety bicycle”, as we know it today, with its metal frame and two same-sized wheels, was invented. Two years later, a Scottish veterinarian called John B. Dunlop experimented with pneumatic tyres on his son’s tricycle. He filed and got a patent for the tyres, although he lost it two years later because another Scotsman had filed a similar patent four decades prior. Combined, these inventions triggered a cycling craze in the 1890s that led to more affordable bicycles and eventually, their presence in the colonies. Colonies became even more important markets after bicycle demand stalled in the United States as Americans ditched other forms of transport for Henry Ford’s Model T.
By the 1930s, there were several brands battling for the East African market. Almost all were British, and the most prestigious of them was Raleigh. The introduction to the 1932 Raleigh Sales Catalogue claims that the Baganda were so enthralled with the bicycle that “the name has been adopted as their common definition of quality, and should a necktie, cap, or any other object meet with their enthusiastic approval, immediately it is dubbed ‘Raleigh’.”
The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!”
The competition, which had brands such as Humber, Hercules, and BSA, was still formidable. Bicycles, unlike gramophones (the other luxury item of the day), had a primary appeal beyond prestige. They offered mobility in an economy that was increasingly demanding it, with few public options in place.
The bicycle economy
The bicycle that caught on was the single-speed, steel-frame roadster. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, it came in black. It was relatively within reach, economically, and to some extent, durable. It also needed to be registered, and over time, modified to add parts, such as reflectors, as road rules evolved. But bicycles offered an unmatchable utility because they could perform many other roles, including as economic and social tools.
The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!” Raleigh used different variations of this idea in most of its artwork, incorporating a man, a lion, and a bicycle. A BSA bicycle ad from around the same time shows a smartly dressed man cycling, and two ladies in the background checking him out. A slightly more forward-thinking Raleigh billboard depicts a man riding a bicycle in the foreground, and two ladies cycling in the background. Its copy reads “Be Modern Ride a Raleigh.”
This primary market also spawned off another source of employment – bicycle mechanics. Bicycle mechanics were a unique class at the time because they were mostly self-employed, and their primary customers were black. The competition among them drove down repair prices so that if you owned a bicycle by the 1940s, you didn’t need to pay a herd of cattle to get it repaired, as Nabongo Mumia had done in 1910.
Mechanics and bicycle owners got their spares from Asian-owned shops, which thrived as bicycle usage increased. In 1936, for example, bicycle tyre imports were ten times higher than the number of bicycles imported. This trade built a few Indian tycoons, such as Kassam Kanji Rahim Varsi, who got a loan from his father-in-law and opened a bicycle parts shop in Nairobi. By the 1950s, Bata and the Avon Rubber Company made bicycle tyres in Kenya, but other parts still had to be shipped in.
While many of the bicycle’s earliest users used it to commute to and from, and during, work, people found other economic uses as well. The most resilient of these is transport, which grew out of a demand for transport services at the Kenya-Uganda border. The bicycle was also used to transport food, at times animals, tools, and other materials. Others modified their bicycles to create mobile business units, such as mounting a knife-sharpening stone oh the bicycle.
The prestige and utility of cycling also meant bicycles were a frequent target for burglary. Bicycle theft was such a problem in East Africa in the 1950s that Dar es Salaam had a special Bicycle Squad within its police force and Uganda had a Bicycle Thefts Committee around the same time. In Kenya, it was often listed among the most common thefts of property, and magistrates regularly whipped young offenders who were caught with stolen bicycles. Early administrators in Nairobi also employed vagrancy laws to arrest people for a vaguely described offence called “misuse of bicycle”.
The Wabenzi class
In the post-war period of the late 1940s, thousands of demobilised soldiers sought transport licences. Many bought lorries and cars, but the bicycle remained the most frequently used form of transport in the country, especially in rural areas. As more people joined a fledging white collar class in the late 50s and the early 60s, the bicycle remained a symbol of the blue-collar worker and ultimately, poverty. The only black people who had cars before the 1950s were colonial chiefs and a few enterprising businessmen.
The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space.
Before long this cadre of car owners would include independence politicians, who bought them for campaigns and travels. They quickly ditched the small cars they had acquired in the late 50s and early 60s and switched to fuel guzzlers. What mattered now was what type of car one drove, hence the rise of the “Wabenzi” – a generation that even included at least one high profile theft of a Mercedes Benz from a showroom in Nairobi.
The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space. In a discussion about Daniel Arap Moi’s retirement benefits in 2003, one of the main issues was why his bodyguards and watu wa mikono also needed Mercedes Benzes. The alternative, of course, was not bicycles.
For this class, bicycles were only good as toys for children. This was not a view limited to Kenya or East Africa, as the global bicycle market was struggling as more people opted for cars. Bicycle manufacturers had to find new ways of selling them, which pushed them back to the original sales pitch of the bicycle as a children’s toy and a tool for extreme sports. The single-speed roadster was now a product more popular for its function over form, and its users invisible to the “cultured” classes.
Still, as grown-ups moved to cars, bicycles for their children became a major class distinction. In the 1970s and 1980s, owning a BMX was a middle-class status symbol. Ironically for these classes, the car craze meant that cyclists were forgotten in infrastructure and budget planning. Private cars and motorways took over, and riding a bicycle in an urban centre increasingly became dangerous. This meant that children who grew up in cities and towns were not allowed to ride bicycles on the roads because of the dangers cars represented.
The implication for the majority of bicycle users was far worse, as they were seen as a nuisance on the roads. Bicycle lanes were not a priority, and even essential things like proper bicycle parking were only available in some colonial-era structures. Import duty remained prohibitively high (in some years as high as 90 per cent) until the government started systematically reducing it in the mid-1980s. Even before then, bicycles remained an important economic tool for a silent majority who could not afford private cars or even the expense of public transport.
The end of the bicycle’s run as a symbol of prestige was to be expected, but it did not end its usage among the working class or even the lower cadres of government employees. In 1990, for example, the government imported 525 bicycles to be issued to field agricultural extension staff on loan basis. Bicycles were bought for local government employees, and even health workers working in HIV/AIDS prevention in the early 2000s. They’ve even been used in political campaigns as recently as 2017, before being quickly replaced with fuel-guzzlers that constitute the welcome package for our legislators.
The true threat to the bicycle’s run as the wheels of the people was not the car, but its motorised descendant. There were only 525 registered motorcycles in Kenya in 1963, and only 4,136 in 2004. By the time duty on motorcycles below 250cc was waived in 2007, these numbers had grown to 16,923. Today, there are closer to a million bicycles, serving different functions but primarily as boda bodas (bicycle taxis).
But the single-speed roadster is still remarkably popular, mostly because of the same reason it has always been popular – it doesn’t need fuel, and it is cheap to repair. Plus, it’s good exercise.
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