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East of Uhuru Highway: Inside Nairobi’s Most Iconic (And Much-Maligned) Neighbourhoods

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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods
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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 gombahandas 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.”

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Culture

Cosmopolitan Africans, Before Imperialism

Africa’s engagement with the world before European colonialism holds unexpected episodes of un-colonial power relations.

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Cosmopolitan Africans, Before Imperialism
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Colonialism structures how we think about the history of Africa’s relations with the world. This is often true even among those who protest reductionist understandings of the continent. The flawed assumptions that oppression was inevitable and power dynamics were invariable between people from both continents loom large in the popular imagination. Subordination can be taken as a timeless norm that explains, in turn, slavery, oppression, and racial injustice in the Americas, Europe, and further afield.

Audre Lorde presciently noted that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” One consequence of that deficit is how hard it can be to imagine a time when people of African descent related to the wider—and whiter—world in very different ways than we have come to expect in the modern era. Has it always been so? Have Africa’s encounters with the world always followed the rhythm of domination and dispossession? It is important to find out.

Psychologists have found that the region of the brain that activates when we think about the past is the same part that lights up in relation to envisioning the future. They found that subjects “place their future scenarios in well-known visual-spatial contexts,” suggesting that the past is the imaginative landscape upon which we situate the future in our minds. Histories that do not conform to the current pattern of relating can serve as the substrate upon which new and more promising futures can be envisioned and designed.

By overlooking what Howard Zinn called “the past’s fugitive moments”—that is, histories that suggest possibilities other than the world we have come to inherit—we consign ourselves to a future that reenacts a limited sense of the past. Moreover, the dangers of presentism, of our propensity to interpret the past through the lens of the present, are well known to historians. Without an awareness of anachronistic assumptions, there can be a sense that how things are now is also how things always have been and, as a consequence, how things always will be. But what if the present is markedly different from the past and, therefore, the future might be very different from the present?

We know that the people and nation-states of the continent have been diverse and variable over time. It makes little sense, therefore, to speak of them in the singular. We also know Africans, like other humans, have been thinking and acting in ways that gestured at belonging to an international human community long before the colonial occupation. We know, too, that these international relations, for lack of a better word, were embedded into everyday realities of African elites, traders, and ordinary people.

Take, for example, the Kingdom of the Kongo: a sovereign, Kikongo-speaking nation-state that spanned modern-day northern Angola, western Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and southern parts of Gabon. In the Kongolese kingdom, Catholicism became an established religion on its way to domestication early in the sixteenth century—not by conquest or force, as historian John Thornton notes in The Kongolese Saint Anthony, but through voluntary conversion, most notably of King Nzinga a Nkuwu, baptized João I of Kongo in 1491, and his son King Mvemba a Nzinga, also known as Afonso I.

While Italian missionaries from a Franciscan order of European monks, the Capuchin, are often credited, incorrectly, for the spread of Catholicism in the Kongo, it was the kingdom’s elites, particularly Afonso I, who did the most to seed and domesticate the religion. According to Thornton, they saw it as a source of diplomatic power.

It was clear early on that the exercise of this power would not be easy, and it was the Capuchins who made it especially difficult for Kongo’s rulers: Thornton notes that from the time of Alfonso I and for much of the next century, the kingdom’s rulers faced intransigence on the part of both the Capuchins and the Portuguese, who controlled the colony of Angola to the south, when they tried to appoint clergy, control bishops, and establish an independent church—the latter turning out to be an aspiration never realized before the kingdom’s end.

That is to say, had Kongo’s rulers had their way, the kingdom would have been more thoroughly—and, most of all, autonomously—Catholic. This cuts against the commonly held view of Christianity as the intellectual justification for European’s civilizing mission across the continent. Christianity certainly did serve the colonial project in this way at certain times and in parts of the continent, lowering indigenous spiritual practices and beliefs to the status of heathenism that had to be stamped out.

But the reasons for Kongo’s rulers’ full-throated embrace of Catholicism was—and it bears repeating—to access the religion’s diplomatic power. They understood the threat of the Portuguese to the south, more so after fending off a series of invasion attempts early in the seventeenth century.

Historian Linda Heywood argues that the Kingdom of the Kongo mastered “European-style diplomacy” to “ensure that Kongo be regarded as a Christian power with the same status as European powers.” Having established an embassy in Rome as early as 1488 and a resident ambassador in Lisbon in the 1530s, a few Kongolese elites studied in European capitals, mastering languages that facilitated the deepening of diplomatic ties. Alongside economic and political power, participation in the Christian commonwealth granted Kongolese elites access to cosmopolitan lifestyles that seldom draw attention.

Another important instance that complicates received knowledge of colonialism as inevitable is the kingdom of the Asante, in modern-day Ghana, which ruled at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Asante had longstanding trade and diplomatic relations with European states. Today, along Ghana’s Atlantic coast, there remain a few dozen forts, castles, and other outposts—some of them, like in Elmina and the Cape Coast, in excellent condition—that are perfectly rendered examples of late medieval European architectural technology.

Visitors often take these fortifications to be symbols of European conquest. But in reality, they were meant to secure access to the Asante Kingdom and, if possible, prevent other European countries from doing so. That different states built forts in that part of West Africa attests to the importance of the trade and the political power of the local authorities that determined who could trade there and under what terms.

The Asante at the time were wealthy, trading in commodities such as gold, ivory, and enslaved people by sea and by land. This wealth was won and preserved through military might, of course, but it was furthered by a masterful foreign policy that exploited the needs of European visitors.

Art historian Fiona Sheales records one such performance by Asante King Osei Tutu Asibey Bonsu on September 7th, 1817, the day the first Anglo-Asante trade treaty was ratified. According to British records, on that day, the Asantehene, or Asante king, appeared wrapped in a cloth perhaps not dissimilar to the style of kente cloth—but made of flags of European nations sewn together.

Flags played a key role in trade and diplomacy for Asante and European alike. But whereas the latter presented flags to the former in the hopes it would lead to formal diplomatic relations, the former displayed flags for the latter, as the Asantehene did that day, to demonstrate the breadth and reach of the Asante kingdom. The Asante king, explains Sheales, was aware of and not above playing up European competition for access to trade and other ties to the Asante.

It is difficult for many today to imagine the respect that African political authority commanded in the first half of the nineteenth century. The period of conflict that followed, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas, amplified by competition for access to trade with the kingdom, makes imagining this even more difficult. But imagine it we must.

These moments in the two kingdoms offer glimpses into how Africans understood their relationship to the wider world, as sovereigns and actors, and the other possible futures they anticipated at that time. These paths are still worth imagining, despite the actual future that ultimately unfolded. Through spirituality and trade, in these particular instances, Africans were relevant players in a shared global imaginary. The notions of belonging, in effect, were rooted in a spatial imagination—of both the inner and outer worlds—that reflected dynamic, transregional networks. Importantly, their rhythm of relating was out of step with the familiar tempo of oppression. These moments gesture toward relations that could be called un-colonial.

History, of course, should not be read only to glean lessons for the present. But it certainly can help make more sense of contemporary struggles. The past’s fugitive moments in particular offer a revitalizing challenge to the linearity with which we often understand, and limit, what is possible.

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

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Culture

From Plastics to Plasticity

The 2017 ban on plastic carrier bags represent a significant first step towards alleviating the problem of plastic pollution but developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is the key.

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From Plastics to Plasticity
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In Dustin Hoffman’s breakout 1967 film, The Graduate, a young man just out of college is not sure of what he is supposed to do next. At the party thrown by his parents, one of his father’s friends steers him away from the crowd:

“Ben, I just want to say one word to you.”

“Yes sir?”

“Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

Investment in the plastic industry surged during the decades following the movie’s release. But the film also fast-tracked the rise of our collective environmental consciousness. “There’s a great future in plastics” became a meme for the toxicity of modern industrial society. A year after the movie came out, a river in the industrial heartland of Ohio caught fire and burned for seventeen days. Increasingly visible halos of dull brown smog were enveloping large cities.

For many of us who were coming of age at the time, this scene was permanently burnt into our brains. I took up residence in a plastic-free Kenya. When I returned to the US two years later, I found the coconuts in our supermarket wrapped in cling wrap.

If plastics were the future, this did not augur well for the health of the planet.

Conquering the marketplace

It had taken the industry just over a century following the invention of Parkesine in 1862, which was actually made out of cellulose, to reach this point. Improvements came quickly, driven by the development of oil-based polymers generated by the cracking process in petroleum refineries. For the first time, humans were using materials containing no molecules found in nature.

This led to a procession of new products, the food industry often playing the role of early adopter. Butchers and bakers started using cello-tape after its invention in 1930. Saran wrap followed a few years later. Tupperware, the first airtight plastic food containers, showed up twelve years after that, and was one of the first brands to be marketed directly through housewives. The 1960s saw baggies and zip-locks become part of the plastic lunch box syndrome.

These products, long valued for their convenience more than for their contribution to reducing food waste, were recognized as part of a yet greater problem by the time large garbage bags appeared in 1970 to deal with the proliferation of disposable wraps, containers, bottles, and other forms of food packaging. The unrelenting march of synthetic polymers now dwarfs any environmental benefits, like the fuel consumption savings attributable to lighter cars and reduced food waste.

Another problem emerged in tandem with these developments: as the scale and variety of the plastic packaging increased, the quality and integrity of the food it enclosed decreased. Even the acacia and other tree resins originally chewed by pastoralists and other indigenous people, which confer significant cardio-vascular benefits, have been replaced  by synthetics made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate.

Not what it’s cracked up to be?

Plastic is a primary component of the carbon economy. Although in theory “renewable”, some 95 per cent of the plastics manufactured are used once, and one-third of this volume by-passes garbage collection and directly enters the environment; 8 million tonnes that leak into the ocean each year.  The negative value of the waste exceeds the plastic industry’s profits.

Plastics enter our ecosystems as hard-to-break down refuse that deteriorates over time into tiny particles of micro-plastics. Old plastic does not die, it just fades from view, then ends up in our water supply, ecosystems, and bodies, which host between 40 million and 70 million particles of polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene per person according to recent surveys.  Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs. This compromises our bodies’ inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, nutrient absorption, gut microbiome, endocrine function, and reproduction.

Despite the growth and scope of the recycling industry, only 14 per cent of plastic is recycled, and only 2 per cent of that actually gets reused. Incineration, which now consumes 25 per cent of plastic refuse generated, only kicks the can down the road, creating the same kind of toxic fumes and carcinogens funnelled into the atmosphere by the smokestacks of industries and coal plants.

Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs.

Expensive pink Himalayan Salt is showing up on our supermarket shelves because plastic is now found in sea salt. There is no escape, only mitigation measures such as those proposed in the MacArthur Foundation study, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. The report outlines a comprehensive strategy predicated on thinking about plastics as a global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Briefly stated, it advocates the creation ““of an effective after-use plastics economy by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradation for targeted applications”.

As is usually the case in such top-down master plans, the strategy is considerably more complicated than it sounds, and it involves many moving parts.

The reformed plastics economy will require a combination of new technologies, government policy, reduced exposure to volatility of fossil “feedstock”, and investment in developing countries’ after-use infrastructure. Implementation is predicated on exploiting negative public perceptions to engage policymakers and to coordinate and drive communication with the objective of establishing a global plastics protocol—the actual key to the solution lies in the development of large-scale “moonshot” innovations.

This approach provides an entry point into the Kenya case study.

Kenya’s plastics industry

Use of plastic in Kenya’s food sector was rare in the decades after independence. When I first came to Kenya in 1974, food was purchased fresh in the market or small shops, where we bought Omo in paper boxes and items like sugar wrapped up in paper. We drank soft drinks out of glass bottles, carried baskets, and used reusable vessels for liquids like kerosene and cooking oil.

The Tetra Pack milk carton was the most common form of commercial packaging. Everyone held onto heavy plastic bags for their repeated use value. For those of us inoculated with the “future is plastic” meme, it seemed that with a modicum of awareness and environmental education, Kenya could avoid the plastic waste debacle.

It was not to be. The unsightly presence of non-degradable refuse increased the general accumulation of trash across the landscape, while economic change was altering the relative pristine appearance of the Kenyan landscape. The plains and savannah of eastern Nairobi, where one used to see wildebeest, ostrich, and giraffe just beyond the outskirts of town, gave way to new industries and population growth. The detritus accompanying the shift showed up in the corners and gutters of towns, on coastal beaches, and as drifting dunes of trash lining the country’s highways.

I recall the sight of what appeared to be a post-rainy season bloom of multi-coloured flowers covering an open plain on the approach to Nairobi after passing Athi River. Upon closer view, it turned out to be a carpet of plastic bags bobbing in the wind.

Production of plastics and related products is now a US$400 million dollar industry in Kenya. Some fifty companies are involved in plastic manufacturing, and many other players are profiting from the importation and distribution of plastic products. Much of this goes into the packaging of food and various containers and wraps for keeping it fresh. Food-related packaging accounts for 27 per cent of global plastic output, and the shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.

The public sector’s limited capacity to deal with the waste mirrored the population’s apathy. Roadside kiosks housed in plastic Coca-Cola bottles reflected Kenyans’ passive acceptance of commercial uglification. But their appearance also coincided with a turning point in perceptions of Kenya’s environmental future.

To stem the accumulation of plastic waste, Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) banned the use of plastic carrier bags in 2017. Industrial advocates had fought the proposed ban for ten years, claiming it would eliminate 60,000 jobs. In the end, Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu prevailed. The new law came with heavy fines ranging from US$40,000 for commercial violators to US$500 for individual users.

The shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.

After a spate of early arrests, enforcement settled into a far-reaching pattern of voluntary compliance. The action immediately generated widespread publicity, leapfrogging Kenya to the front of the global environmental movement. Shortly after the ban went into effect, I was preparing to disembark from a Nairobi bound international flight when tourists castigated me for carrying a duty-free shopping bag. “Kenya is a plastic-free country,” the first-time arrivals informed me.

The ban did represent a significant first step towards alleviating the larger problem, and the government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021. The initiative brings together local governments, researchers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, businesses and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, informal waste management actors, and other stakeholders in the plastics value chain.

The goal is to develop a circular economy for plastics by 2030 in Kenya, but it is difficult to see signs of substantive progress. Although economic liberalization contributed to the plasticization of the countryside, there is still no market-based solution in sight. In the meantime, the reformed plastics economy envisioned in the MacArthur-WEF report has yet to halt the expanding polymer-sphere enveloping the planet.

Like global warming, plastics are an inconvenient by-product of industrial capitalism. Big Plastic exploits recycling and initiatives like the new plastics economy to camouflage the real source of the problem, and to transfer responsibility for fixing it to consumers and governments.

The government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021.

The technological moonshot solution reflects the same kind of big project mentality that has dominated development economics for decades. But polymer-eating bacteria are not going to rescue the global commons, at least not in the foreseeable future. When exported to the developing world, this approach suffers from the usual combination of mismanagement, poor coordination, inequitable allocation of scarce resources, and the chimerical influence of external factors.

Externally funded after-use infrastructure for plastics is not going to sort out the plastics problem in the Global South. In reality, the major battles in this war will be fought upstream.  Downstream countries like Kenya can, however, exploit their comparative advantage in regard to their capacity for socioeconomic and cultural plasticity.

From plastic to plasticity

The Greek word plastikos means to mould. Plasticity, in contrast, refers to the quality of being easily shaped or moulded. This first definition pertains to the world of material science and chemistry. The second definition of plasticity, rooted in biology and evolutionary analysis, highlights the ability of an organism or a species to use new food sources and to adapt itself to new environmental influences. This extends to our body’s ability to repair itself and the brain’s capacity to rewire itself after injury and trauma. Biomedical progress in this domain has led to validation of other plasticity-enhancing practices, like the role of unstructured play for children, and meditation for adults.

This kind of developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is arguably the key to uncracking the future. Kenya already enjoys several advantages in regard to this objective. It retains a significant level of its pre-plastic circular economy, high-plastic household consumption is mainly limited to urban areas, and most Kenyans already have a high level of awareness on environmental issues as demonstrated by voluntary compliance with the plastic bag embargo.

Naturally, the state will have to play an interstitial role, including participating in national and global-scale initiatives, and by using its regulatory levers to encourage environmentally friendly packaging standards pioneered elsewhere. In any event, the growing mass of multiple-use plastic would still have to be collected and processed.

The problem here is that even after far-reaching constitutional reforms, the state and the governing elite tend to be plastic when it comes to dealing with entrenched interests. The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP. Kenyan society has proven to be quite elastic in comparison.

Processed food packaging and bottled water are the primary sources of plastic waste in Kenya. Urban consumers can help by following the lead of rural Kenyans, by seeking out fresh produce in local markets, and by avoiding those seductively packaged supermarket non-essentials. The rise of small dairies offering milk in glass bottles is a positive trend we all can support.

The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP.

When the need for mobile phone credit arose, thousands of kiosks and shops offering scratch cards appeared overnight. It follows that a similar arrangement involving micro water vendors selling it at a lower price to customers with their own containers could work as well.

When it comes to fostering creative problem-solving across Kenya’s system scales, the process often begins on the lower rungs. The Lamu boatbuilders who captured the world’s imagination by sailing a boat made out of plastic bottles and flip-flops to Zanzibar is a case in point. The counties could build on this awareness-raising event by establishing waste plastic-free zones, and low-plastic areas like the Lamu archipelago and the northern rangelands would be good places to start. Rural producers can make their own Parkesine.

A popular movement based on small-scale solutions would build upon Kenya’s international reputation for adaptive environmental management. Over time, it would exert a multiplier effect across tourism, health, agriculture, and other sectors, outpacing the value of top-down industrial interventions.

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Culture

The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Sin and the Silence

In the second of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the work of anthropologist Frank Knowles Girling whose research—now published in Lawino’s People— was buried by Oxford University and whose prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Sin and the Silence
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In the decade since a group of survivors from the British war against decolonisation in Kenya pried open the culture of concealment undergirding post-imperial Britain, revelations of torture and massacres by the British have become routine.

The Mau Mau court hearings, which started in 2009 and ended in 2013, uncovered the lengths to which the British went to conceal their acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Incriminating documents were burnt and shredded, or airlifted to England and, in a James Bondesque drama, tonnes of files were sunk into the Indian Ocean.

“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” reads a letter from colonial-era Kenyan Attorney General Eric Griffith Jones to the Kenya Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring.

Since the Mau Mau court victory, unearthing the depth of Britain’s slavery and colonialism has continued apace. Statues of slave traders have come down, sitting lords of the British parliament have been directly linked to slave plantations, and documentation shows that as recently as 2015, the Bank of England continued to compensate families of slave traders and owners who “lost” their “property” two centuries after the trade was formally abolished.

This book, Lawino’s People, has comes hot on the heels of this historical moment.

A white anti-colonialist

Black people fought against colonisation and continue to suffer inordinately for doing so, but the fact that a great number of white people were also anti-colonialists has become submerged in the racializing of the narrative. While we know a great deal of what happened to dark-skinned anti-colonialists, we know almost nothing of the ways in which white anti-colonialists were treated.

The penalties they suffered were comparatively less severe as indeed their brand of anti-colonialism did not amount to the self-sacrifice of a Dedan Kimathi. Social ostracism and isolation, truncated careers, failure to find tenure should they be academics, and accusations of being communists were the common ways in which dissenters within the ranks were treated.

Frank Knowles Girling was one such. But when he arrived in the field where his troubles started, he was not as yet a card-carrying anti-colonialist. Granted, he had joined the Communist Party in 1935 at the age of 18, but there is a distance between being a communist and being an anti-colonialist.

Girling arrived in colonial Acholi in northern Uganda as one of the first grantees of the British Social Studies Research Council fund. He came as an anthropology DPhil student, a study that was to run for two years. Obtained on a government grant, the results were also intended to inform colonial policy.

As presented here, Girling’s thesis begins by ticking the requisite anthropology boxes and, had he continued in this vein, his star would indeed have risen high. Girling gives us outlines of the people, their location, their language, their religious beliefs, the economy, the politics, their relationships with neighbours and their place in the modern world.

Girling writes persuasively for the most part, his prose occasionally rising to a level where it describes the larakaraka dance as “held in the girl’s villages on bright moonlight nights”.

Pre-colonial Acholi

Girling’s descriptions of Acholi life from infancy to old age show how interwoven culture is—at once spiritual, communal, economic, and political. Setting out a new agricultural season will ask of the priest a blessing; knowledge of what to plant, when to plant it will be connected to, say, one’s station in life. A newly married bride will come with seeds from her family for planting, and this forms the basis of what her family will be fed during her lifetime, as indeed it will be for her progeny when her own daughter leaves for her marital home.

But the arrival of colonialism, which in force is not actually “western” culture, but a brand of post-enlightenment capitalist bourgeoisie exigency, breaks this interwoven character of culture, as it has done everywhere, bleeding out the vitality of society, like so much rubber sap out of a tree stem, to feed into the maws of industrial capitalism.

The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless. In working on my own book on the Ateker of eastern Africa, I met this repeatedly, and it crops up in any piece of culture that you pick. Take what is referred to as bride price. The common, derogatory, view is that it is “buying” a woman. Far from that, it is the intertwining of one large family unit to another, as the number of animals that change hands frequently goes to different members on the other side. In slaughtering a bull, a set part of the butchery went to set recipients, someone received the haunches, the offal, the trotters, depending on their position in the communal ranks; the members of the prevailing generation had first right of refusal, as it were. No one ate or drank before they did.

The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless.

A first pregnancy and a first birth transform the station in life of a bride; married, her own mother becomes a most revered personality in the society. There is a place for the patriarch; here in Acholi, he is “won lobo”, an untranslatable designation acknowledging his stewardship of the land. Primogeniture presides alongside ultimogeniture; the youngest son inherits the father’s house, and remains to become keeper of the homestead as his older siblings move to new homes.

Dictatorship is un-African

The texture percolates upwards and outwards and via this, power becomes immanent to the social. Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa. Rather, the office that the African president occupies is the same as that of the colonial governor who, we must remember, was never voted into office; when the African state collapsed, it was not Africanness that was the cause, but the colonial structure coming down with the departure of its creators.

Translating this reality of power is hard, even for a Girling. He calls Acholi leaders “rulers”, he describes what he calls “aristocracy” and “chief”. In systems where actions were sharply ritualised, and power was largely invisible and was transmitted via subtle social relationships, what does it mean that there is a “ruler”?

Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa.

The keenness with which Girling is working is high engagement. He picks a word, like Kwer (emphasising that it is not be confused with ker, although he takes license further by conflating it with kweri). But does Kwer mean rite, observance, ritual or forbiddance? And of Ker, is it glory, monarchy, or achievement? Kweri is a hoe, but does that mean iron was involved in rite? We have to ask because translation is superfluous and so much gets traduced along the way. If you speak a Luo language, you will appreciate the lengths to which Girling went to avoid such mistakes.

Tone-deaf to Acholi music

And yet, this is still colonial anthropology. Even in the hands of a scholar as careful as Girling, the African is still objectified. Nowhere in the book is the African presented as possessor of agency.

His study might not be musicology but Girling does not bring to the fore the life force that is Acholi music. He is either keeping it to himself or he really is tone-deaf. The side of Acholi that emerges in his writing is all structure and power, and observance. Girling does not portray the delicate creativity of the Acholi that even their sworn enemies acknowledge.

Or was this omission a direct result of the funding rug being pulled from under his feet?

The path to Girling’s troubles begins before the first year is done. He opens his presentation with attention to the wider cultural patina but, alas, all that is the history, even in 1950. Eventually he must account for the present and there, the hands of British viciousness cannot be hidden. For Girling has arrived a half century after the first colonial administrator to Acholi, John Rutherford Parkins Postlethwaite (the Acholi dispensed with this caravan-length of a name and simply called him Bwana Gweno—”Sir Chicken”) has struck a disabling blow against the people.

What Girling saw

Unlike most anthropologists, Girling records the havoc colonialism has wreaked upon the people. He shows us how the prerogatives of bourgeois capitalism have ransacked the society beyond recognition. The seminal crime of forcibly moving the people from their ancestral lands implemented by Postlethwaite has broken the economy. Those intricately woven power connections have long come undone. “Native” economy, inheritance, the power of clans and “lineages”, did not survive. Plantation agriculture in the south came for the people’s souls. The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems; in disproportionate numbers, the Acholi, like their neighbours the Lango and Teso, are fed into the armed forces.

In the place of the “native” culture, there is a new culture in the lands, for what the coloniser brought was not civilisation but his own culture. To gain perspective, we must cease to see colonially mediated “western culture” as a universal spirit; it was somebody’s peculiar culture, horned in experience, shaped to promote their self-interest. And here it comes as forced labour, slavery, exploitation and racial prejudice. For it to qualify as civilisation, it would have had to be universal and colour-blind. But it only worked for a specific class and race so that as the Asians and Europeans thrive, the black people become more destitute and dispossessed. It was their lifeblood these non-Africans came for.

For this exploitation to work, the religious, economic and political system of the Acholi is torn apart. The precolonial leadership structure is upended. The unqualified and the unaccepted (collaborators) are put in their place. Everywhere the British approach was to impose unacceptable leaders, and then sit and watch the natives fight amongst themselves.

The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems.

To further poison the well, they brought southerners and southern ideas to rule the people. In Karamoja, I came across the neologism “Ekatikiroit”, describing the British attempt at imposing Ganda systems on the people and creating the office of “Katikiro” (Buganda office, generally but not always accurately translated as “Prime Minister”).

The disaster was compounded by Christian Missionaries who formed what have been referred to as “Missionary Villages” where converts were bivouacked in a kind of imprisonment and forcibly stopped from practicing their culture.

The publishers mention that their intention in bringing this book out is to provide a historical context for the thirty-year war in northern Uganda. If you know these parts of the region, you immediately recognise that the land alienation, in combination with the stoppage of what is here called leadership lineages, left the society headless (a respondent bitterly asks why the British left intact southern systems but destroyed the Acholi). Brutal economic exploitation (the “half-free” labour Girling euphemistically refers to without elaboration) stole from unborn Africans as African men now laboured for the profits of Europeans and Asians. The toil of Africans did not add up to savings and wealth creation they could pass on to their children whilst the European and Asian recipient of this labour had more than they would have dreamt of to pass to their own children.

Not just savings, but also trade and craftsmanship/industry knowledge. The Acholi (a case study for all of Africa really) lost skills accumulated over millennia because labour for African profit was largely proscribed, so that metallurgical knowledge was no longer transferred.

A comparable disaster I became familiar with is the manner in which colonial policy amongst pastoralists led to loss of pasturage (to wildlife conservation, among others). The subsequent loss of animals meant that the generational passing of political power, whose elaborate and expensive ceremonies depended on livestock availability, led to the collapse of political power. Where post-independence conflict flared up, the destruction of clear leadership was often at the centre. We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.

The Kony war was Acholi’s inevitable moment of reckoning. Others had theirs earlier, like the Kikuyu during Mau Mau. It came to pass in Somalia, in Turkana, Pokot, Toposa and Karamoja.

A man on a mission

The section of Girling’s work that begins to break away from social anthropology, which he found anodyne, starts to ignite when he turns attention to “domains” in chapter six. Outside of the book, we are told that Girling started to compile statistics, which was alien to the discipline. His Marxist bent was starting to kick in.

Although Girling does not mention any of the excesses of British colonialism, such as the genocide in Bunyoro, despite having to study Bunyoro because of its links with Acholi, we sense that he has become self-aware. Girling knows that he has been sent to Acholi, not to write lyrical prose to his observation, but to provide raw material to tighten their bondage even more. Girling’s immediate act of dissent is to disrupt his own scope and methodology. He adopts a research method that would link economic policy (land alienation and forced labour) to the superstructures of colonial rule. This runs counter to imperial propaganda.

The first powers to notice this errant turn in tone are his academic supervisors. But Girling’s actions also alert the colonial administrators. For example, he invites a friend from Cambridge, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, a statistician, to Acholi. He goes with Mukherjee to the golf clubhouse. The club is only for white people, a place, one member is quoted as saying, “where we can get away for a time from our coloured brothers”. Girling’s examination of the Europeans, the Asians and their enterprise in Acholi makes for uncomfortable reading. What’s he up to? He has come to study the Acholi, not the British, right?

They may have paid him to gaze at the Africans, but they did not like being gazed at at all.

Reports start to circulate that Girling has gone native. His communist membership now comes up. He is accused of rousing anti-British feelings among the natives. Fault is found with his dissertation. He can do nothing right anymore. He brings his wife and children over to Gulu. It is used as a pretext to accuse him of over-expenditure. The matter of Girling is now serious enough that MI5 is suspected to have been informed; Moneypenny and Bond are after him.

It is 1951, a year before his study is to come to an end. But Girling has already become toxic. His supervisor at Oxford, Evans-Pritchard (the same professor who later fails Okot p’Bitek’s dissertation), says he can no longer supervise him and hands him over to one Audrey Richards, first director of what in our times became Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR, a problem institute where six decades later, another director was to get caught in the crosshairs over activist Stella Nyanzi and President Museveni). They are now playing pass the parcel.

We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.

In sections of his report that were censored and would not be seen publicly until the publication of this book, Girling had stated that British policy had destroyed Acholi society. His talk of “an all powerful British administration” and immediate connection of it to the introduction of wage labour and fixed taxes (tied to his idea of “half-free” labour) and the stinging rejoinder in Marxian vein that “These two aspects cannot be considered separately; they are intimately connected”, strikes at the very core of imperialism. It would not require an academic mind to see it. He describes European and British presence in the region as one of leisure, golfing, laying by the swimming pool, occasionally taking bribes from the Indian traders in the town. Inter-dining is common, he states. Given the post-war shortages, these colonial outposts are vitally luxurious.

The Ugandan and, indeed, Acholi regional colonial administrators cut Girling’s study off with one year to go. His stipend is only maintained until he can finish writing what he has gathered thus far (we imagine from negotiation with his academic supervisors who would have seen merit in his work but not wanted to risk their own positions).

A haunted man

Girling suffers. He found no permanent anthropological position at any university, settling instead at Sheffield University teaching his politically engaged version of anthropology at the Sociological department. But his work was to lead to a nearly buried life. There was the mark of censorship, and his reputation as a political troublemaker, that meant doors remained closed to him. In later life, Girling watches from a distance as the analysis he made of British policy in Acholi bears factually in the Kony war. Girling died in 2004.

That his prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true should tell us much about the intentions of universities such as Oxford, which conspired in burying his work. Girling went for the truth when what was required of him was a political version of it to not only shield Her Majesty’s government, but also to present it in a good light, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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