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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.
The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.
The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.
The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.
On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.
Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.
I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.
The toppling of the statue
At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.
For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.
The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.
The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.
One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.
In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”
The wider significance
The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.
Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.
The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.
This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.
In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.
One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.
These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.
The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.
Recent movements like Rhodes Must Fall, Faidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”
To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!
Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.
As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?
There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.
Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.
In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.
The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”
He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”
Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.
We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”
This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.
Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.
Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”
Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.
At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”
In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”
Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”
Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”
It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”
The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.
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