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An Inconvenient Truth: Pristine Wildernesses and Other Myths Peddled by the BBC

In the decades since the rope trick bridge, the BBC Natural History Unit has also presented a single, unshakable view of wildlife and conservation. No one doubts that it works magnificently; it’s the corporation’s biggest money earner. It formed and still shapes the public’s view of what conservation actually means in distant continents. But, says STEPHEN CORRY, such narratives transmitted into the comfort of our living rooms are deeply counterproductive for conservation, irrespective of their undoubted beauty and the money and accolades they gather.

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An Inconvenient Truth: Pristine Wildernesses and Other Myths Peddled by the BBC
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BBC Natural History has just announced a new series, “One Planet, Seven Worlds”, fronted by veteran broadcaster David Attenborough, to tell “the fundamental truth about what makes each [continent] unique.” I’d be astonished if it covered one of the most important aspects of the “fundamental truth”, which is the way local people have enhanced biodiversity and shaped “nature” since time immemorial, and what happened and is still happening to those people who have largely escaped being subsumed into the mainstream by colonialism and industrialisation. (These minorities are now labelled as ethnic, indigenous or tribal, depending on the regional context.)

Like most families in rural Britain, we got our first television towards the end of the 1950s. Every five o’clock came Children’s Hour – rather dull puppets, some excellent cartoons, and of course “nature.” My earliest memory is that of Armand and Michaela Denis filming “Pygmies” and constructing a rope suspension bridge in Africa (entirely faked, why would they want one?), and a boyish David Attenborough in fuzzy black and white chasing down wild animals to capture for the London Zoo. It was the start of something big: The BBC’s Natural History Unit has gone on to become the world’s biggest producer of wildlife films.

In the decades since the rope trick bridge, the BBC Natural History Unit has also presented a single, unshakable view of wildlife and conservation. No one doubts that it works magnificently; it’s the corporation’s biggest money earner. It formed and still shapes the public’s view of what conservation actually means in distant continents. This specialised BBC unit shows us a pristine wilderness full of photogenic beasts whose existence, we are told (usually by the same David Attenborough), is endangered by loss of habitat, human overpopulation, and of course “poaching” – such threats apparently emanating from Africans or Asians.

The same narrative is also peddled by the big conservation organisations, which thrive in financial symbiosis with the BBC’s orthodoxy as the corporation makes money from its programmes and as donations from the viewing public flow to the NGOs. Each presents the complex question of conservation in exactly the same way, and each proposes the same, simple – and entirely wrong – solution. It is“fortress conservation” with more and more“brave guards” and increasing military force and weaponry to defend the animals against the human killers (who are never white).

In the decades since the rope trick bridge, the BBC Natural History Unit has also presented a single, unshakable view of wildlife and conservation. No one doubts that it works magnificently; it’s the corporation’s biggest money earner. It formed and still shapes the public’s view of what conservation actually means in distant continents.

To anyone who knows the other sides of conservation, the bias is obvious, but the BBC unit’s ideology is relentless and impacts the wider BBC as a whole. The corporation’s website, for example, almost always features a news story about poaching, illustrated with grisly pictures of mutilated animals, or it did until recently.

“Massacre” in Botswana

Then, in September2018, something new happened. It began with BBC News breaking a story on elephant poaching in Botswana (“Dozens of elephants killed near Botswana wildlife sanctuary”) which, as usual, gathered in hysteria as it rolled around the web. It became a“genocide” and even one of the “worst mass poaching sprees” in Africa.

But the tale unraveled when scrutinised, and no one who’s followed it can now sensibly believe it was true. There was no “massacre”, it turns out that the story arose at least partly from the power struggle between the country’s former President Khama, an army general known for his implacable support for “fortress conservation,” and his successor, President Masisi.

In spite of a great deal of evidence to that effect, the BBC journalist who broke the story, Alastair Leithead, stood by it, though the corporation itself quietly changed its tune. For example, over eighty per cent of BBC Africa tweets reported on poaching in the month prior to the “massacre” but there was only one story (about shellfish) in the following three months. Leithead’s source for Botswana was Elephants Without Borders, an NGO with a vested interest in supporting ex-president Khama, and which would have raked in donations as a result of the story. Leithead was doubtless unaware of how he had favoured one political faction over another; he was presumably just supporting the BBC’s traditional conservation model in the run-up to the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference due to take place in London the following month, October 2018.

That’s speculation, but what’s certain is that films that show a completely different side of conservation, such as the excellent “Unnatural Histories,” can be counted on one hand and are relegated to non-mainstream channels, like BBC4. The wholly different narrative they expose begins with the revelation that protected areas were never “pristine wildernesses” in the first place; they were home to local peoples who actually created the “wild” ecosystems, and who were then thrown out and destroyed when parks were imposed by national governments. The grass plains of the Serengeti, the Amazon rainforest and so on, were all formed by vigorous human intervention over thousands of years. Experts now accept this, but it remains little known among the general public. Why? Because very few BBC nature viewers have ever been told the real history: After all, it profoundly undermines the fake one.

The destruction of the original landowners, the creators and curators of the world’s “wildernesses”, is criminal in several respects. One is that they were often far better at maintaining biodiversity than the incoming, usually white, conservationists. The latter often fail, and usually blame the locals when things go wrong.

Another point is just how protected these areas really are. They usually include an infrastructure specifically aimed at only the richest tourists. Most of the African parks marketed as “pristine wilderness” include roads, hotels (called “lodges,”to make them seem smaller), luxury “camps”, artificial water holes and salt licks to attract animals, airstrips, and so on. I have been in one where a leopard appeared every evening in perfect view of the hotel dining room, just as food was being served. The excited guests rarely stayed long enough to question what might lie behind this spectacular coincidence, but of course the tourists weren’t the only ones being fed by the hotel staff.

The destruction of the original landowners, the creators and curators of the world’s “wildernesses”, is criminal in several respects. One is that they were often far better at maintaining biodiversity than the incoming, usually white, conservationists. The latter often fail, and usually blame the locals when things go wrong.

Protected areas are not only landscaped for elite tourism, some of the animals which fill our screens have been transported there. That doesn’t always work out well, and some pay with their lives. For example, at least ten rhinos died in Kenya in 2018 as a result of being moved into a park. That’s more than were poached in either of the previous two years. Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident: Some twenty per cent of “endangered” cheetahs routinely die while being transported in South Africa by conservationists.

But artificial landscaping and importing animals are just two aspects of what has become partly a film set: Protected areas are often home to mining (such as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana), logging, destructive monoculture, such as teak and oil palm, and trophy hunting (such as around Lobeke National Park, Cameroon). Much of this happens in government-approved concessions and some of the companies involved work in close partnership with conservation NGOs.

Since the Botswana elephant “massacre” was exposed as a sham in September 2018, I’ve noticed a quiet shift at the BBC: I haven’t been scrutinising rigorously, but I can’t remember seeing a single poaching story headlined since.

Pitting people against nature

However, now there’s a new development, this time concerning India. It began with a BBC news report in 2017, “Killing for Conservation”, by correspondent, Justin Rowlatt. His film exposed the atrocities committed in the name of conservation in India’s Kaziranga National Park – cinematically visited by Prince William and Kate – where rangers have “shoot on sight” orders and are never prosecuted for vigorously deploying them. They killed around twenty so-called poachers a year, sometimes more than the number of animals poached.

Some “animal liberationists” may raise a cheer at this gruesome news, but Rowlatt filmed testimony from innocent locals who had been devastated as a result, including relatives of a man with severe learning difficulties, fatally shot as he was rounding up cows near the park’s edge, and 7-year-old Akash Orang, crippled for life when rangers fired on him by mistake. His father told Rowlatt, “He used to be cheerful, he isn’t anymore. In the night he wakes up in pain and cries for his mother.”

Killing for Conservation was about Kaziranga in Assam, but many other atrocities have been reported from dozens of protected areas across India. At the time of writing, no less than 280,000 people, mostly tribal Adivasis,* face illegal and forced eviction from tiger reserves, usually from places where they’ve lived successfully in close proximity to the big cats for generations.

Rowlatt’s film attracted a fierce outcry from the conservation establishment. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) clamoured for retribution, so the Indian government responded by banning the BBC from all protected areas for five years. In a stroke, the wildlife filmmakers were deprived of their most iconic non-African star, and all because BBC News had exposed an inconvenient truth about what“conservation” actually meant for local people.

At the end of 2018, the story took another twist when a letter received by the NTCA was leaked. It was seemingly written by Julian Hector, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, but had no date or addressee. Hector expressed“regret for any adverse impacts” caused by the Rowlatt film. He noted the “successful efforts” in Indian tiger conservation, and was concerned that the work had now been “made harder”. He proffered apologies for his failure to approach the tiger authority earlier. Stories quickly appeared in the Indian press falsely claiming that the BBC had apologised for, and even retracted, its film.

Rowlatt’s film attracted a fierce outcry from the conservation establishment. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) clamoured for retribution, so the Indian government responded by banning the BBC from all protected areas for five years. In a stroke, the wildlife filmmakers were deprived of their most iconic non-African star, and all because BBC News had exposed an inconvenient truth about what “conservation” actually meant for local people.

Given the letter’s missing date and addressee, Survival International initially suspected a hoax. We asked Hector’s staff if it was genuine, but they weren’t saying. We turned to the head of the BBC, Tony Hall, to ask whether or not the BBC stood by Rowlatt’s film. The BBC boss quickly replied in the affirmative: It turns out that the letter really had been written by Hector, but the corporation was certainly not retracting its report that innocent people have been shot, tortured, and some killed, in the (supposed) conservation of Indian protected areas.

This was encouraging because we knew Rowlatt’s report was just the tip of a monster iceberg: For years, Survival International has been reporting harrowing testimonies about atrocities committed against the Mising, Baiga, Jenu Kuruba, and many other tribal peoples in the name of conservation. Hector’s letter was simply an attempt by BBC Natural History to get back to filming tigers – irrespective of the atrocities Adivasi people face in the reserves.

One can understand its desperation, of course. BBC Natural History was launching a new flagship series, “Dynasties”, and it was as spectacular as expected. Its wonderful episode on tigers, broadcast in December 2018, repeats the usual old falsehoods. Viewers are lectured (by the very same David Attenborough!), “In India today there are new pressures, making it harder than ever [for tigers] to rear a family.” This simply isn’t true. According to the Indian authorities, tigers are increasing in numbers, albeit slowly, and so wasn’t it really “harder than ever” for them during the British Raj’s tiger massacre (starting in around the 1870s and carrying on in independent India)? This “sport” lasted a hundred years and killed tens of thousands, taking the animal to the edge of extinction.The blood from that slaughter lies on the hands of the parents and grandparents of many of today’s British viewers, but it’s always safer, and supposedly less “political,” simply to blame poor villagers in today’s India.

What needs to be done

What all this highlights is the bias at the heart of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. It relentlessly promulgates the foundation myth of Western conservation, that “wildernesses” must be defended against the Africans or Asians who actually live there. Never mind that national parks in Europe often include working farms and even towns; in other continents the locals must be thrown out, and then shot if they try and go back in. Such pitting people against nature may be the metaphorical lifeblood of a conservation industry that relies on the TV portrayal of natural history, but it’s an entirely false antagonism that drains the real lifeblood from indigenous, tribal and other local people.

Things must change, and not only to respect the law and human rights. If they don’t, we could soon be facing the end of protected areas and their wildlife. The local backlash against them is gaining increasingly angry momentum and is bound to prevail, especially in Africa where “our” cherished conservation is increasingly seen as nothing more than land-grabbing colonialism. The imagery that has filled our screens throughout my lifetime must acknowledge its bias and start reflecting the real world.

We should be shown how protected areas are the result of thousands of years of human habitation; how local, especially indigenous, people, have enhanced both the landscape and wildlife; how evicting and mistreating them leads to biodiversity loss; and how it is they who must be returned to the forefront of protecting wildlife, in all its forms. You don’t need environmental qualifications to realise that the people defending their own land and resources are going to be better guardians than the hired, underpaid rangers who are easily tempted by corruption. We should be listening to them, the locals, much more than to the environmentalists and broadcasters (with their own sky-high carbon footprints).

Things must change, and not only to respect the law and human rights. If they don’t, we could soon be facing the end of protected areas and their wildlife. The local backlash against them is gaining increasingly angry momentum and is bound to prevail, especially in Africa where “our” cherished conservation is increasingly seen as nothing more than land-grabbing colonialism.

The BBC, with its millions of viewers, really should play a leading role in the conservation of nature, but it’s not the one currently acted out on our screens: In the long run, the images now transmitted into the comfort of our living rooms are deeply counterproductive for conservation, irrespective of their undoubted beauty and the money and accolades they gather.

(*”Adivasi” is a term used for many of the 700 or so unique tribal peoples in India, numbering over 100,000,000 individuals. Some may not be more “indigenous” to the subcontinent than many mainstream Indians, and the government doesn’t use the term “indigenous.” They do, however, retain their own separate identity, are often largely self-sufficient, and maintain a strong attachment to their lands. They are widely discriminated against. I go into the fraught question of “correct” terminology in my book Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World.)

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Stephen Corry (b. 1951, Malaya) was projects director of Survival International, the global movement supporting indigenous and tribal peoples, from 1972, and has been its director since 1984.

Culture

Protest Music in Kenya: Why the Deafening Silence?

One could rightfully argue that protest music in Kenya is muted, not because artists are not producing it, but because the genre has been effectively driven underground. It’s vibrant in the digital repositories where the masses have little access.

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My inquiry into the status of contemporary Kenyan protest music indignantly began with a hypothesis that this genre has gone mute in recent years. My agitation was fuelled after watching a documentary on the great artist of the American civil rights movement, Nina Simone hunched over her piano, singing Mississippi Goddam. The song was riveting, bold, defiant and ‘in your face’. Her song, sung in 1964 at the height of the American Civil rights campaign, was exceedingly bold. Nina was a rising star and a commercial success, but her musical career took a different tangent after the release of Mississippi Goddam. The song was banned from the air-waves, supposedly because of the cuss word, ‘goddam’, an unacceptable term for the time. However, that did not stop the song from becoming the Civil rights’ anthem and receiving more resonance than the popular gospel turned protest song, ‘We shall overcome’ mainstreamed by Pete Seegar.

Nina’s song, spoke truth to power, the power of the white supremacist, segregationist intent on denying African Americans their human rights. In a sense, Nina committed commercial suicide in order to gain her political voice. The documentary led to my reflection on the role of music in political protest in Kenya, and left me wondering, when did the voice of protest music in Kenya fall silent?

Immediately after independence, there were “patriotic” songs composed to celebrate the newly attained uhuru. Musicians created songs reminding Kenyans of the independence struggle and the sacrifices that had resulted in self-rule. They also extolled the virtues of the main actors in this fight but slowly the music morphed into songs glorifying the first president, Jomo Kenyatta. As President Kenyatta consolidated power, the timbre of praise songs rose; the person of the president and the aspiration of the nation became one. It was the beginning of court poetry and a hero-worship culture.

The first major political shock to the national project was the assassination in 1965 of Pio Gama Pinto, the left-leaning journalist, politician, ex-detainee, freedom fighter and confidante of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Pinto was a Specially Elected Member of the House of Representatives and an avowed socialist. His assassination followed the dissolution of KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) that led to Kenya becoming a de facto one-party state.

The next major political event was the formation of Kenya People’s Union (KPU) in 1966 that flung Kenya back to multi-party dispensation, but which, most importantly, signified the split in the original KANU (Kenya African National Union) and the beginning of the Kenyatta/Oginga-Odinga rivalry.

These events fermented the beginning of protest music in Kenya as artists began to respond to the political contestations. The state came down viciously on its critics and opponents, signalling the narrowing of democratic space. Artists began to speak truth to power.

In 1969, in an act of defiance, Abdilatif Abdulla, a poet and member of KPU, wrote the treatise Kenya: Twendapi? (Kenya, where are we heading to?), which earned him the notoriety of being Kenya’s first post-independence political prisoner (1969-72). It was a bold attempt at speaking truth to power and revealed that the state was prepared to use all means to stifle commentary.

Speaking truth to power is described as a non-violent political tactic employed by dissidents against the received wisdom or propaganda of governments they regard as oppressive, authoritarian or an “ideocracy”. Speaking that truth through music has the benefit of being able to inform, educate and mobilise through popular entertainment. The potency of music arises from its ability to mutate into contemporary popular culture and reach across the barriers of elitism that limit a novelist, an actor, a musician or any other type of artist.

In 1969, in an act of defiance, Abdilatif Abdulla, a poet and member of KPU, wrote the treatise Kenya: Twendapi? (Kenya, where are we heading to?), which earned him the notoriety of being Kenya’s first post-independence political prisoner (1969-72). It was a bold attempt at speaking truth to power and revealed that the state was prepared to use all means to stifle commentary.

As the Kenyatta government progressively became more repressive, so did the intensity of the protest music. The manner that the state responded to protest music speaking truth to power offers us a window into understanding the current state of protest music.

Bitter independence waters

As the dream of independence began to fade, Ishmael Nga’nga of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Gathaithi Church choir released a song, Mai ni Maruru (The waters are bitter), which likened the deferred dream-fruits of independence to the bitter waters spoken of in the Bible. The expected fruits of independence had been replaced by aggrandisement by the political elite. Though his song was couched in biblical and religious symbolism, the powerful heard it. Nga’nga lamented that, “Men and women are quarrelling/ over small matters, telling each other/ “I did not want someone like you”/ Because the water is bitter/ When you go to the office seeking assistance/ You find an angry officer/ When you try to enter, he tells you he is ‘busy’/ Because the water is bitter.”

Ishmael’s song was banned by the Kenyatta government and the president is said to have retorted that the fruits of independent could not be equated to the proverbial bitter water that caused concern to the children of Israel. The state resorted to silencing its critics using the public broadcaster that was the only one available at this time. This approach was to become a standard way of ensuring that the voice of protest was not heard.

The culture of political assassinations, mysterious deaths and disappearances of politicians began to become commonplace. Argwings Kodhek died in a suspicious accident in January of 1969. A few months later, the charismatic politician Tom Mboya was assassinated. In 1972, Ronald Ngala died in a Christmas Day accident that baffled many. In 1975, the fiery Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (JM), who had served as Kenyatta’s personal secretary, was murdered. Joseph Kamaru, a personal friend of JM and a popular Benga musician, used his music to protest the killing of the politician. Kamaru’s song was banned by the Voice of Kenya (later known as the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) on June 20, 1975 and Kamaru is reported to have been arrested and, along with his collaborators, and whipped by the president himself. (This claim is, however, difficult to verify.)

Beyond the use of state machinery to limit access to audiences by shutting down the airwaves, physical threats and actual violence entered the repertoire of tools used by the state to ensure that criticism was curtailed. Kamaru is reported to have said that after releasing the song, he experienced very hard times because the song didn’t go well with the ruling elite and he even started receiving death threats. He said, “I received threats that if I was not careful, my head would be picked from Ngong where Kariuki’s lifeless body was found.”

After President Moi came to power in 1978, Kamaru enjoyed a period of molly-coddling Moi and even earned himself an official state trip to Japan. Upon his return, he sang the Safari ya Japan collection in which he heaped praises on Moi. This dalliance did not last long. When Kamaru supported multipartyism, he fell out of favour with Moi.

State capture

In 1988, amid the infamous mlolongo queue-voting system championed by Moi, Kamaru released a song, Mahoya ma Bururi (Prayers of the Nation). During this time, the discontent with Moi’s rule had reached boiling point levels. There was growing opposition to the state after the brutal 1986 crackdown on real and perceived dissidents, especially members of the Mwakenya movement.

Kamaru recalls that the song was an instant hit and created a lot of tension countrywide. He describes efforts by Moi to have him stop selling the Gikuyu version of the song. Moi went as far as giving Kamaru Sh800,000 to make a Kiswahili version of the song. Kamaru jumped at this offer and actually made the Kiswahili version, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to see Moi and to present him with his finished “homework”. He concluded that it must have been Moi’s way of trying to get him not to sell the song.

The state used its economic muscle to appropriate protest music by buying out artists and, in some cases, turning them into total pro-establishment praise-singers. The need for financial success and survival was enough incentive to silence voices of critics. When coercion did not work, the state was willing to “buy out” the artist speaking truth to power. Kamaru’s experience with Moi is instructive.

Daniel Owino Misiani, another musician who had used his art to consistently critique the political repression by the Kenyatta regime, especially the political assassinations, was imprisoned on various occasions for his lyrics, which were deemed offensive to the state. He was also threatened with deportation from Kenya on several occasions because he was born in Shirati, which is administratively in Tanzania. Kamaru and Owino were unique musicians in that even though their music could be taken off the air by the national broadcaster, they had built a strong ethnic fan base. Their records sold in the thousands and, therefore, their financial independence offered them a better chance of resisting the state capture of their protest music.

The state used its economic muscle to appropriate protest music by buying out artists and, in some cases, turning them into total pro-establishment praise-singers. The need for financial success and survival was enough incentive to silence voices of critics.

The end of the Kenyatta presidency and ushering in of the Moi era gave some respite to the artists. However, this only lasted till the 1982 coup by the Air Force that was followed by state repression. The fact that university students, lecturers and intellectuals had supported the coup led Moi to clamp down on creatives.

As Moi’s regime became more repressive, and as the economy sank deeper into a black hole, Osumba Rateng’ released the song Baba Otonglo that detailed the economic hardships ordinary Kenyans were facing. In the song, a family is forced to adopt severe austerity measures, which were presented in a humorous manner, but which were painfully true. Baba Otonglo parodies the rigmarole surrounding the presentation of the annual budget in Parliament. Economic policies were singled out as sinking the ordinary Kenyan deeper and deeper into despair. He sings, “Budget iko high, vyakula vimepanda, ukame umezidi, vitu vyote vimepanda” (The budgeted cost of living is way too high, price of foodstuff has escalated, the drought has persisted, the cost of everything has risen.” The state responded to this song in the usual brutal fashion.

When the song was released, it was considered to have political undertones. The thin-skinned politicians lobbied to have the song pulled off the air. Osumba was visited by police and questioned. He detailed his experience in an interview.‘Four policemen came to my house in Baba Dogo Estate, Nairobi and arrested me. They accused me of criticizing the Government and composing a song that incited people.” To save his skin, Osumba insisted that the song was just a creative spin at the hard economic times. He escaped without charges being preferred against him.

Hip hop, Sheng and angry urban youth

The late 1980s and 90s marked a change in the socio-political landscape in Kenya. Among the most relevant change was the liberalisation of the airwaves and the resumption of political contest after the re-introduction of multi-party politics. Between 1980 and 2009, the population of Nairobi ballooned from 862,000 to about 3.4 million. According to a 2009 UN-Habitat, more than 34 per cent of Kenya’s total population lives in urban areas and of this, more than 71 per cent confined to informal settlements. Informal settlements in Nairobi, and other urban areas, are a consequence of failure of government policies and official indifference. Amnesty International has described the intricacies of the informal settlements in this way, “The experience of slum-dwellers starkly illustrates that people living in poverty not only face deprivation, but are also strapped in poverty because they are excluded from the rest of the society, denied a say and threatened with violence and insecurity.’’

Enter, Dandora and other marginalised urban settlements like Mathare, Majengo, Korogocho, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Kibera. Dandora, better known as, ‘D’ by the youthful musicians of this era became the code name for the Kenyan equivalent of the projects where Hip hop as protest music was born. The life and demographic profile in these inner cities mirrors the hip hop producing ghettos of the US. The hip hop story in Kenya is the story of Kalamashaka.

Kamaa, one of the founders of the Kalamashaka trio, describes how the group rose to express the tribulations of urban marginalisation and how the voice of this group and others like it were marginalised.

Kalamashaka was the most prominent of the pioneer Kenyan hip hop groups using Sheng to rap and infusing politics in their lyrics.

Kalamashaka began by rapping about the state of their existence in the urban ghettos of Nairobi dominated by serious social strife, depressed economies, ethnic tensions, state corruption, institutional failure, infrastructural collapse, crime, violence, police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Just like their American role-models, they were anti-establishment and explicitly political.

Kalamashaka made a mark in the music scene by their signature tune, ‘Tafsiri Hii’ (Translate This) which, by default, managed to get a lot of air-play when it was first produced. The song was an indictment of the prevailing inequality in Kenya and the disenfranchisement of the youth. Kamaa describes their lyrics as “gangsta and radical.’’ The use of Sheng, which at that at that time was struggling to shed off its identity as a street thug language and gain acceptance as a Kenyan patois was revolutionary because it immediately drew a generational as well as class line.

Kalamashaka began by rapping about the state of their existence in informal settlements dominated by serious social strife, depressed economies, ethnic tensions, state corruption, institutional failure, infrastructural collapse, crime, violence, police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Just like their American role models, they were anti-establishment and explicitly political.

The emerging Hip Hop musicians spoke truth to power, describing how the system had failed them. The lyrics were described as “full of rage.’’

Hip hop Sheng was inspired by American Hip-hop music that the establishment had problems with because of the explicit lyrics and the apparent glorification of violence. The urban ýouth generation’ in the poorer settlements of Nairobi identified with Hip hop emerging from. The music was angry and retributive. Kalamashaka became the face of a movement that morphed into Ukoo Fulani – an angry and disenfranchised urban youth movement. Kalamashaka and Ukoo Fulani began to invoke the name, Mau Mau the liberation movement that remained banned in Kenya till 2002. This sent signals to the political status quo that the movement was potentially dangerous.

Market forces and political sycophancy

The response to the rising protest music signalled a totally new era in censorship. It was no longer the state that took it upon itself to ban music; commercial radio stations did this job for the state. Kamaa describes how radio presenters began to shut out these sounds from the air, effectively driving them underground. The emergent commercial radio stations that were reliant on state and corporate goodwill and advertising effectively became agents of shutting down any anti-establishment voice. The use of Sheng was tolerated only to the extent that it allowed commercial interests to provide marketing information to the youth demographic. Any message that was aimed at raising social conscience was not acceptable.

Denied air time, and obviously not the kind of musicians who would be invited to perform at national celebrations, the economic marginalisation of this genre of music drove the artists deeper underground while their lyrics became angrier. Denial of air time meant that their voices were limited because they did not enjoy the base popularity that Owino Misiani or Joseph Kamaru had.

The response to the rising protest music signalled a totally new era in censorship. It was no longer the state that took it upon itself to ban music; commercial radio stations did this job for the state. Kamaa describes how radio presenters began to shut out these sounds from the air, effectively driving them underground.

Commercialisation was the other factor that sunk youthful urban voices deeper into oblivion. Eric Musyoka, a producer, recalling his break-up with Kalamashaka, poignantly says, “I learnt that radical and hard stance does not help.” This marked his transition from a producer of hip-hop to commercial music. So-called “market forces” conspired to lock out the voices that were not in line with the status quo.

Just as had happened to Nina Simone, the interests of the commercial oligarchs meant that raw talent and protest music could not secure time in recording studios. Barred from commercial airwaves and recording studios, protest music became a marginalised genre. Even though there were some who were speaking about vices such as corruption, only the less controversial numbers, like Eric Wainaina’s Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo, received acceptance and air time and were played at national celebrations. Though Eric spoke of the extent to which the cancer of corruption had metastasised in Kenya, he was not angry enough. Though he spoke of the fact that ordinary Kenyans are confronted with corruption in every facet of their lives, he did not squarely lay blame for this sorry state on the rulers. So whereas Eric’s voice is broadcast loudly, that of the angry hip hop and reggae musicians, such as Mashifta, Kitu Sewer and Sarabi, are pushed away from the mainstream and into the underground; effectively muted.

Political sycophancy is also responsible for muting the voices of musicians speaking truth to power. Tom Mboya Angángá, better known as Atommy Sifa, had to flee into exile in Tanzania after he and a nondescript musician, Tedeja Kenya, produced a song in which they lampooned Raila Odinga for being responsible for the political and socio-economic woes bedevilling Luoland. Though there are no records that indicate that Raila Odinga himself threatened him with repercussions, the opposition leader’s rabid supporters intimidated Atommy enough for him to fear for his life. Tede received few brickbats because, unlike Atommy, he was considered a non-entity and had little following through his music. When politics is highly personalised and ethnicised, those perceived to speak truth to the prevalent power are silenced through political patronage. However, when it suits the political class, they will use musicians who sing in ethnic languages to their advantage. For instance, the hip hop group Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s hit song Unbwogable (Unbeatable) became the rallying cry of Raila and other opposition politicians during the 2002 elections that ousted Moi’s KANU party from power.

Musicians, like all professionals, depend on the power of the market to make ends meet and commercial considerations, as we saw in the case of Kamaru, can silence the truth. In Kenya, musicians face immense struggles because of a poor infrastructure supporting the music business. Piracy and irregular payment of royalties for airplay makes it hard to be a commercial success. The market for live performances is low, with foreign artistes in higher demand and commanding better pay. An artist who hopes to speak truth to power gradually finds him or herself ground out of operation by penury. Artists like Owino Misiani and Kamaru could afford to be outspoken because they had a strong ethnic fan base that translated to a vibrant market. Their music being banned from the airwaves actually served to popularise their messages among ethnically-polarised constituencies. But they are more the exception than the norm.

The language used in protest music can also lead to marginalisation. The modern Kenyan musician, in an attempt to be more cosmopolitan, uses Kiswahili or English. These are not languages of political discourse in Kenya. Granted they may be used in public rallies, but the real political discussions happen in mother tongues. This explains why Moi was not comfortable with Kamaru’s Mahoya ma Bururi in the Gikuyu language, but was willing to finance the Kiswahili version. Moi knew that the same song rendered in Kiswahili would suffer the same fate as Gabriel Omolo’s, Lunchtime or Eric Wainaina’s Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo. The passion of political protest only works in the language of the masses, and outside the urban informal settlements, ethnic languages hold sway. Any song rendered in Kiswahili or English carries no threat of insurrection.

Language for protest assumes a deeper complexity in Kenya. Whereas Bob Marley used Jamaican English to sing political protest and Fela Kuti used Pidgin English, which is the language of the downtrodden in most of West Africa, there is no equivalent language of the masses in Kenya. For example, Juliani’s song, Utawala (The administration) speaks of poor governance and impunity, but the moment he switches to rap and a hip hop style, he limits his audience. Hip hop and rap in Kenya are associated with crotch-grabbing African American wannabes who do not resonate with the ordinary citizens outside of the urban settlements. With time though, as urbanisation increases, and urban populations become a significant electoral demographic, this is likely to change.

The most successful musicians who have been able to speak truth to power are those who have a base, who speak in the language of that base and hence have a strong constituency. Failure to understand the true language of the ordinary citizen renders any political content irrelevant or innocuous. The powerful are not bothered by any message that will self-reduce to a touristy sing-song like Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo because it will never mobilise political response. Even the hugely successful Sauti Sol’s recent song and accompanying video, Tujiangalie, which critiques the current government’s neglect of ordinary citizens’ concerns, has failed to move the masses, perhaps because the band is associated more with feel-good songs than with anti-establishment music.

If Kenyan musicians are to regain the chagrin and attention of the establishment, they must speak the language of the masses. They must break social taboos, like Nina Simone did with Mississippi Goddam. She was able to express the anger of the African American in his everyday language. So must our musicians express the anger welling up because of grand corruption, huge national debts, state wastage and opulence, extrajudicial killings, over-taxation and miscarriage of justice.

The most successful musicians who have been able to speak truth to power are those who have a base, who speak in the language of that base and hence have a strong constituency. Failure to understand the true language of the ordinary citizen renders any political content irrelevant or innocuous. The powerful are not bothered by any message that will self-reduce to a touristy sing-song like Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo because it will never mobilise political response.

One could rightfully argue that protest music in Kenya is muted, not because artists are not producing it, but because the genre has been effectively driven underground. It’s vibrant in the digital repositories where the masses have little access.

In addition, the artists themselves have been marginalised by commercial interests keen on maintaining the status quo, so they struggle against all odds. The state no longer needs strong-arm tactics like detention, jail and threats because the media is doing the work of censorship for them. Civil society might support these artists, but as long as access to mass media is outside their grasp, these voices will remain muted.

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The Dark and Devious History of Tea: The Beverage That Floated Empires

For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

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No one knows when we, as the human race, decided that tea is worth drinking, though tea remains fabled as one of the world’s oldest beverages. Its story of origin is scant – there is uncertain allusion to a strong beverage in a Chinese document from 59 B.C, and some architectural evidence pointing to a century earlier, traced to the Han Yangling Mausoleum in Xi’an in western China, which was built for the Jing Emperor Liu Qi, who died in 141 B.C.

But from its murky beginnings, this unassuming leafy bush would come to shape history as we know it. For millennia, tea has graced the tables of the mighty and the lowly, fuelling wars, building empires, and bonding societies in a relentless quest for that ‘wondrous beverage’ packed with caffeine and theanine.

There are four types of tea – black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea, originating from two varieties of the plant in the Camellia family: Camellia sinensis, a narrow-leaf variety originating in central China and Japan thriving in the cool, high mountain regions there, while the broad leaf variety, Camellia assamica, thrives best in the moist, tropical climates found in Northeast India and Yunnan provinces of China.

Turkey leads the global tea consumption at 6.96 million pounds with Ireland, United Kingdom and Russia coming in at second, third and fourth place respectively. Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Protected by the mountain mists, and given just enough humidity, the plant produces shiny, dark green leaves and small, tender, white blossoms. The final quality of tea depends on a lot of factors – the soil, climate, altitude, and expertise of the tea-pickers.

Morocco is the highest tea consumer in Africa with annual consumption of about 2.5 million pounds followed by Egypt at 2.3 million pounds. As of 2017 China made about $1.45 billion dollars form tea exports while Kenya remains the largest global tea exporter, accounting for 25% of all tea exports worldwide.

Research shows that tea has not always been consumed as a beverage. It was used in burial rituals among Chinese royalty, as a mixture containing the buds, some roasted barley, salt, and or ginger. It would later adopt other uses including as dowry payment for aristocrats, around 640 A.D. A thousand years later in the 1600s the buds would land in the British Isles, sipping its way into daily culinary preferences as it provided relief and a ‘high’ for workers who often had to contend with the drudgery of manual labour. Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

The tea craze reached British high society through Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese aristocrat who married into the British monarchy, to Charles II. As an early celebrity endorser of tea, her wedding to Charles II helped the fad to take off among the British nobility, making it as native to British royalty as white weddings.

Tea would have remained just another drink in the periphery of the British civilization were it not for its accidental encounter with a powerful ally – sugar. Out of this marriage came global capitalism, royal tea culture, health fads and the darkest of all outcomes – slave plantations.

Catherine of Braganza’s enthusiasm for tea, as well as the expensive nature of the new invention, sugar, made tea a hallmark and fetish for the status-chasing elites.

***

From the 1600s the fortune of tea as a global beverage seemed relentless. Its cultural phenomenon as a mark of status meant lots of people developed new literature on this ‘wondrous beverage’, key among them an English writer named Thomas Tryon, who counted Benjamin Franklin as one of his fans.

Tryon was an advocate for tea in moderation, and not conspicuous consumption as was the case with the aristocrats of the day. Tryon developed self-help books around tea, for which his enthusiasm was tempered by his conflicted relationship with sugar. On one hand, he hated the slavery of the sugar plantations in the West Indies, while still savouring the magical effects of the substance in his tea. Tryon, well aware that the cruelty of slavery drained into the cups of British royalty as an enchanting beverage, expressed a love-hate relationship with sugar and by extension tea.

Some of the same health and cultural claims about tea that people like Tryon were making, including mental clarity, esteem, and momentary high, and the perceived analgesics of sugar – were also being made about coffee. But coffee lost out in prestige because of its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, then a poor periphery of the British Empire and its imperial interests. With little capacity for industrial production, coffee was limited in reach and adoption.

Meanwhile tea, tied to the far more developed Far East commercial treadmills had an easier time rising to meet demand in the West. England engaged in trade with China, through the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company, exporting spices, silks and other goods like opium in exchange for tea. The multiplicity of good fortunes; a huge demand back home, naval trade, existence of the huge trading firms British East India Company and Dutch East India Company, spurred the first impulses of modern capitalism.

Soon the Chinese rejected opiates owing to their addictive effects and the British realized that if they were going to keep pace with the tea craze back at home and not have to deal with the Chinese, they had to own tea plantations themselves.

Tea was such a lucrative trade, that, by the mid-19th century, the firm, through a Scottish botanist went on to steal tea seedlings and the secrets of tea production from China and used that to establish a tea empire in conquered India.

The British understood that getting their hands on the plant, and learning how to grow it, was not just good business, it was a cultural prestige, commercial coup and a strong geopolitical move.

Historian Sara Rose in her book For All the Tea In China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History describes how Scottish botanist had written about the marvels of tea in his travel journals during a trip to China in 1845. His writings caught the attention of Victorian high society, who then tasked him to make a return visit and sneak out tea seedlings out of China and to learn the mechanics of tea production, which would then be planted in British-controlled India.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

The impact of the espionage was incalculable; within decades, India surpassed China as the world’s largest tea producer, China sunk never to recover until the 1970s, Britain rose and the global commerce moved to the West for the next 180 years.

***

A new tea empire arose during that time, and true to Tryon’s fears and disgust, a new kind of capitalism developed. It would be spurred on by bureaucratic, infrastructural, commercial and military capabilities, supporting slavery, colonialism and land expropriation aided by plunder through British institutions.

Fortune did not know it, but this would mark the beginning of the end of Chinese domination and a rise of imperial Britain, both countries’ fates tied to a bunch of leaves dipped in hot water mixed with spoonfuls of sugar. As Sarah elaborates, (the aptly-named) Fortune never saw himself as part of a global conspiracy, but just as a humble botanist, even though he was about to commit what she calls “the greatest single act of corporate espionage in history.”

That legacy implicit in our tea making cultures is still with us today. The great inequalities, between class divides and between nation-states that characterize the modern world can be traced to this global commerce’s long and violent operations.

The tea empire in India evolved over centuries as a critical cog and a microcosm of the larger problematic capitalism with its oppressive social and political structures in places such as West Indies the Ottoman Empire and mid-1800s western India.

The centrality of slavery in the massive production of Tea Empire in India, the rise of 18th centuries tea merchants in South Asia and their centrality in the slave trade irked Tryon and his ilk. In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

The British Empire’s ability to modernize and industrialize rested on the power and reach of the two companies, their control of distant lands, naval superiority, and enslaved labour in India. Slavery, therefore, has always been an integral part of the sugar and tea economy; a core part of the Western world, and it took a violent struggle, most successfully in the 1790s in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to break its yoke.

In tea, Tryon saw the dehumanizing excesses of global economies as well as the racist debauchery of the Euro-American enterprise in subjugating distant lands to feed the royal fetish for tea under the banner of violence and racism.

Tea and sugar proved to be convenient alternatives to alcohol, a good addition to British culinary options, and good source of cheap calories for the masses. As the Industrial Revolution got underway, where the factory replaced the plough beginning in the mid-1700s, tea sweetened the transition away from hard farm labour giving the factory workers regular hits of caffeine.

The mercurial duo of tea and sugar made not just cultural sense as a classy drink but also spelt a boon for British government coffers. As the wheels of industrialization grew louder and churned faster, tea accounted for every tenth pound into the royal coffers, while sugar imports could sufficiently fund the then global British navy. Sugar made tea popular while tea made sugar valuable to the empire.

The tea-and-sugar revenues filled the British royal navy coffers enabling them to conquer distant lands around the globe in the 1800s at a terrible human cost, especially in Africa and the West Indies.

In America, of all the British sensibilities that the Americans adopted, tea drinking seems to be one of those that simply dissolved into the Atlantic Ocean, with minimal traces of tea culture making it on the journey west. The Charleston Tea Plantation in Wadmalaw Island just southwest of bustling Charleston, South Carolina, is the only lush, green landscape that holds on to legacy of tea in the whole of continental America.

The sprawling 127 acres of gleaming rows of green leaves unfolds in Waccamaw, one of the Sea Islands that dot the shoreline. The plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Co., in partnership with third-generation tea taster William Barclay Hall. It is what remains of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party or what was simply known as “the Destruction of the Tea in Boston till 1830s.”

That incident over 240 years ago on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, involved the Sons of Liberty in Boston, disguised as Mohawks, stealing aboard three British merchant ships and tipping over more than 340 chests of quality East India Co. tea into the sea. This destruction of tea leaves as a protest against England’s unjust taxation policy sparked the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies culminating in the independence as the United States of America.

***

On the other side of the world in the choppy seas of the Indian Ocean lies the archipelago of Sri Lanka. This tea paradise’s long relationship with beverage goes back to 1890 when Sir Thomas Lipton arrived on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, seeking to acquire real estate. 128 years later, the tea industry employs 1 million of the 22 million citizens.

A little further northwest of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) lies Myanmar ( Burma), with its evolving generational politics of tea culture. Burma, as it is more popularly known internationally, is grappling with its tea-taking culture truncated across generational lines. Currently only middle-aged men keep the consumption of steaming laphet yay- Burmese tea alive. Laphet yay is the signature Burmese tea; black tea, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. From Puta in the northerly region to Naypritaw in the central regions and in Yangon, tea consumption is more than regular past time; it’s a cultural moment for Burmese citizens. Word has it that the pro-democracy 8888 political uprising against the 1988 military rule might have started in a tea shop somewhere in the capital, Yangon.

The Indian subcontinent, one of the cradles of ancient tea, is home to Darjeeling, a boutique tea, referred to as the ‘Champagne Of Teas’. According to Jeff Koehler, author of Darjeeling – The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, Darjeeling remains India’s internationally renowned tea thanks to its auction sales even though it makes up a mere 1% of the 2 billion pounds of tea that Indians consume annually. India produces just 8 million pounds of Darjeeling tea out of 87 tea estates in the Himalayas.

However, it is further south of the Equator in Kenya that the true nation-state building power of tea lies. Measuring just about 582,000 square kilometres, Kenya has about 198,000 hectares of tea plantations churning about 480, 000 tonnes of tea annually. Introduced in the country in 1903 by GWL Caine the crop would be commercialized 21 years later by Malcolm Fyers Bell. Currently, Kenya has surpassed India and even China- the ancient homeland of tea – in tea production. Small- scale production is managed through 66 factories handling about 500, 000 small-scale farmers on 100,000 hectares of tea. Most of it is auctioned in the city port of Mombasa and exported abroad for blending with other lower quality tea varieties.

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India who are former British colonies.

So was Fortune history’s beguiling economic spy, or a mere botanist who brought tea and its technologies west?

Now as the fortunes of the Asian giant rise once again, China is becoming a fierce and aggressive player in the tea sector, yet it still has to compete with Kenya and India both former British colonies.

Fortune never saw himself as a spy or a great player in global geopolitical games. It is as though his greatness (or villainy) lies accidently in him being a China and plant expert right at the point where the leaves that shaped the world lay halfway around the world from his Scottish neighbourhood. He was not a hero in his own eyes.

Nevertheless, by his small act, never has the fate of history been so drastically dependent on a bunch of leaves since Eve in the Garden of Eden, as when Fortune smuggled that humble seedling.

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Culture

The Kitenge Route: The algorithms and aesthetics of African fabrics

Every digital circuit in the world, has its unlikely origin very long ago in Africa, and the humble kitenge is just part of a much bigger legacy.

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I first visited Nigeria in 2009, and one of the first things that struck me as we drove around in Lagos was how festive everyone looked. It was an ordinary weekday, and people were doing ordinary things – selling wares by the roadside, navigating traffic, and just going about their day. But there was something striking about how they looked, and then it hit me – they were wearing what we in East Africa call kitenge or “African fabric”.

Montage of African fabric-themed decor at Nyama Mama restaurant, Nairobi

Montage of African fabric-themed decor at Nyama Mama restaurant, Nairobi

I had never seen this in everyday life – to me, kitenge was Sunday best, exclusively worn to church or to weddings, and in fact, often only by women of a certain age. Growing up in middle-class Nairobi, you certainly couldn’t catch me dead in kitenge in my teenage years, or more accurately, as soon as I had the power to resist what my mother insisted dressing me up in. It wasn’t cool. We would make fun of kids at Sunday school whose parents would dress them up in matching kitenges; our aesthetic was very much influenced by 1990s African-American hip-hop – FILA sneakers, denim dungarees (overalls), Nike and FUBU, and midriff-baring crop tops that our parents would disparagingly call “tumbo cuts”.

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In the 1980s and 1990s, many African countries were pressurised to adopt structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which were supposed to fix structural problems in African economies – remove foreign exchange controls, privatise state corporations, and liberalise trade.

These adjustments – sometimes grudgingly implemented by African governments, sometimes enthusiastically so – led to massive job cuts, crumbling public services and a stagnated formal sector. The social fall-out from these programmes was devastating to many communities, especially in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Beyond the Numbers

Read series: Beyond the Numbers

But the liberalised trade also provided opportunities for a different kind of route to prosperity in Africa. This was made possible by the expansion of three airlines: Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways. Before the airline revolution in Africa, it could take days to transit from one city to another, and very frequently one had to transit through Europe – for example, Douala to Abidjan had to be connected via Paris.

However, these three airlines made for a very different kind of Africa. Via ET, KQ and SAA, one could move much more easily around the continent and trade with each other, creating what we will call the “kitenge route”.

Perhaps analogous to the silk route through Asia and Europe, the kitenge route was an ordinary businessperson sourcing shea butter from Ghana, or Ankara fabric from Nigeria, and selling it at an open-air market in Kampala; or hundreds of artisanal curio traders getting their artefacts from Kenya and Tanzania and selling them at glitzy malls in Johannesburg.

Along with the airline revolution came satellite television, and primarily South Africa-based Multichoice/ DSTV. Although the absolute figure of DSTV subscribers in Africa is small – just over 10 million households, more than half of which are in South Africa – its impact on the continent’s aesthetic has been outsized.

Perhaps analogous to the silk route through Asia and Europe, the kitenge route was an ordinary businessperson sourcing shea butter from Ghana, or Ankara fabric from Nigeria, and selling it at an open-air market in Kampala; or hundreds of artisanal curio traders getting their artefacts from Kenya and Tanzania and selling them at glitzy malls in Johannesburg.

The explosion of urban African music in the past two decades has been driven by many forces, among them demographic change, globalisation and fast-growing cities, but DSTV’s Channel O was one of the first to create a space for urban music on the continent. Private radio and television stations were also sprouting all over the continent, sourcing music and films from fellow African countries. Platforms like YouTube made art travel even more seamlessly.

Kitenge Image

For a generation of young Africans who had grown up in the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s, witnessing social decay and economic hardship all around them, the early 21st century was a time of possibility, even if the political reversals were many and economic promises yet to be fulfilled. Education expanded but so did unemployment; SAPs didn’t fix their country’s economic troubles, multiparty democracy didn’t quite deliver either, but at least they had this.

With that – and in later years, accelerated by social media – young urban Africans were starting to get their cues on what was “cool” from icons as diverse as Mafikizolo, P-Square and T.I.D. They got their fashion tips from Nollywood stars like Omotola J. Ekeinde and Genevieve Nnaji, and shared these ideas online on places like Pintrest, Tumblr, and Instagram.

With that, a distinctly “African” aesthetic was created, drawing on different influences all over the continent, unapologetically mixed-and-matched, and melded together into a recognisable yet paradoxically vague “African” identity. You don’t quite know what it is, but you recognise it when you see it in a full Nigerian agbada or gele all the way in Nairobi, fused into an Ankara top-and-jeans combo, or all the way minimised into strips of kitenge fabric on the collar or cuffs of an otherwise “formal” shirt.

As second-hand clothing (called mitumba in Kenya) flooded African markets in this context of liberalised trade, having your own tailored outfit was increasingly a status symbol – leading to a whole demographic of young, self-taught designers and tailors who had picked up their skills from the Internet and from teaching each other. In many places, the previous generation of tailors had largely faded into obscurity from the onslaught of SAPs and mitumba.

Mancini Migwi is one such designer who has found her niche in producing African print designs. “My mother had several kitenge outfits, but my appreciation and love for Afro prints came later in life,” she tells me. “I’m a self-taught artist; I learned to design and sew from watching videos online. Pintrest is my style bible; I draw heavily from what I see people sharing there.”

As second-hand clothing (called mitumba in Kenya) flooded African markets in this context of liberalised trade, having your own tailored outfit was increasingly a status symbol – leading to a whole demographic of young, self-taught designers and tailors who had picked up their skills from the Internet and from teaching each other.

One of Migwi’s clients is the musician Dan Aceda, who is friends with the television journalist Larry Madowo. For a while, Madowo hosted The Trend, a Friday night variety show which was at one time one of Kenya’s highest-rated television programme. Madowo would wear a different design every week, and Aceda was performing in high-profile music events like the Koroga Festival and Blankets and Wine. Aceda tells me that he was competing with his friend to see who could “unleash the best jacket”. It was a contest between friends that was playing out in front of millions of people – and subtly influencing what young people considered cool.

Kitenge Image

And for Rwandan designer Matthew “Tayo” Rugamba, the link between his rise as a designer, social media and an online buzz is even more obvious. The founder and creative director of bespoke menswear designer label House of Tayo, Rugamba was in college in Portland, Oregon in the United States when he put up a post on Tumblr in early 2012 of an idea he had – to create bow ties using African print fabric.

“Whenever I would say I’m from Rwanda, people would give me a look of pity,” Rugamba told me in a previous interview. “I didn’t like that. So I wanted to tell the story of African dignity – that being Rwandan, and African, wasn’t a pitiful thing.” Bow ties were his way of making this point: “They exude elegance and dignity.”

At this point he had not a shred of experience in fashion or design; what he had was his Tumblr post on how he was going to use bow ties to tell the story of an Africa that is dignified and sophisticated.

By sheer coincidence, that was the very week when big high fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Burberry were launching some “Africa-inspired” designs. Whenever people would google “African fashion” that week, they landed on his Tumblr post – and immediately, the buzz began growing, with orders and interview requests landing thick and fast.

Rugamba had to turn down many invitations to headline fashion events in the coming weeks, as he actually had no material to showcase yet. But that was the unlikely beginning of House of Tayo, and in the coming months, Rugamba spent many hours teaching himself everything he could about design and colour combinations, mostly from online tutorials and following fashion blogs.

***

Depending on the origin, fabric and production process, “African fabric” is not homogenous, but goes by many names and designs. Kitenge or chitenge is found in East and Central Africa, notably Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ankara is West African, but not quite exactly – the fabric we now know as Ankara finds its origins not in Africa but in Indonesia, where locals there had long created prints on fabric by using wax-resistant dyeing (batik). It was brought to West Africa by Dutch traders. Shweshwe is a printed cotton fabric design found in southern Africa, and traditionally was only produced in three colours – brown, red and blue. Baoule is a heavy, thick cloth from Côte d’Ivoire made of five-inch-wide strips of cloth woven together. And kente is that distinctive Ghanaian pattern made of strips of orange, yellow and green.

The one thing that all these fabrics have in common is colour. African print is unapologetically colourful, and wearing it in public – depending on the intensity of coloniality in your society – is taken to be a very brave move, or a political statement. In Nairobi certainly, formal spaces are very monochrome, especially for men; blue, black and intervening shades (light blue, navy, grey, white) are taken to be the proper tones for what Kenyans call “official” clothes.

The taboo of colour in formal spaces in Kenya is a legacy of the colonial imagination, and its attendant Victorian ethic, which saw everything African as a problem to be corralled, controlled and disciplined. And for African men, especially, the pressure to aesthetically conform is even more acute, because as men within the structures of patriarchy (even under colonialism) there is at least the possibility of social climbing in a way that excludes women simply because they are not men. In that way, women tend(ed) to have more room to continue wearing their kitenges, khangas and lesos.

The one thing that all these fabrics have in common is colour. African print is unapologetically colourful, and wearing it in public – depending on the intensity of coloniality in your society – is taken to be a very brave move, or a political statement.

It seems that the more one is in contact with the logic of whiteness, the more disciplined one’s aesthetic will be. It is perhaps the reason why West Africans generally have a less complicated relationship with African prints – because they were colonised under indirect rule and did not have large numbers of white settlers to directly influence public life in that way. It is perhaps the reason why in a city like Nairobi, it was very difficult – until recently – to find anywhere to eat “African food” in public that was not a kibanda (roadside kiosk). Beyond the kibanda is white territory, and therefore African food could not find a place in a formal restaurant. Only in the past few decades has this been changing, with a growing acceptance of African fabric, music and food in public spaces. A restaurant chain like Nyama Mama, an upmarket, African-themed establishment offering local cuisine, could have never existed in the 1990s Nairobi of my childhood. Even so, the menu at Nyama Mama tends to offer “modern” fusions or reinterpretations of local dishes instead of serving them straight up, like serving ugali as baked fritters instead of the traditional stiff porridge.

***

Kitenge Image

Still, African designs are far from being unruly and chaotic. The repetitive motifs and designs of many fabrics are an example of fractals – geometric figures in which each part has the same character as the whole. Look closely at a piece of kitenge or Ankara fabric, and you are likely to see infinitely complex patterns that are repeated over and over again in an ongoing feedback loop.

Ron Eglash, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, explains how fractals permeate everything, from braided hairstyles and kente cloth to counting systems and the design of homes and settlements in many African communities. In his 2007 TED talk ‘The Fractals at the Heart of African Designs’, Eglash traces his journey into trying to understand African fractals, and the common pushback that he would get – that it was all “just intuition” and “Africans can’t possibly really be using fractal geometry…it wasn’t invented until the 1970s.”

Ron Eglash, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, explains how fractals permeate everything, from braided hairstyles and kente cloth to counting systems and the design of homes and settlements in many African communities.

“Well, it’s true that some African fractals are, as far as I’m concerned, just pure intuition,” he says in the talk. “So some of these things, I’d wander around the streets of Dakar asking people, ‘What’s the algorithm? What’s the rule for making this?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, we just make it that way because it looks pretty, stupid.’ [Laughter] But sometimes, that’s not the case. In some cases, there would actually be algorithms, and very sophisticated algorithms. So in Mangbetu sculpture [from DR Congo], you’d see this recursive geometry. In Ethiopian crosses, you see this wonderful unfolding of the shape.”

Eglash eventually traces these algorithms to sand divination that is common all over Africa, where priests divine your fortunes by making marks in the sand. These marks follow certain patterns that become diverse self-generating symbols that can be reduced to odd or even symbols, a kind of binary code.

Islamic mystics learned these divination patterns from African priests, and then took them to Spain in the 12th century. There they were kept alive among alchemy communities as the idea of geomancy, or divination through the earth.

German mathematician Gottfried Wilhehm Leibniz wrote about geomancy in his dissertation in the late 17th century, using a one and a zero instead of odd and even symbols. English mathematician George Boole took Leibniz’s binary code and refined it into Boolean algebra in 1847, and John von Neumann took Boolean algebra and created the digital computer in the mid 20th century.

So every digital circuit in the world, according to this research, has its unlikely origin very long ago in Africa, and the humble kitenge is just part of a much bigger legacy. How very apt that these same digital platforms – social media, television, music and the Internet – are fuelling the spread of a culture that they owe their very existence to.

 

Prof. Ron Eglash’s 2007 TED talk ‘The Fractals at the Heart of African Designs’.

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