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The Kitenge Route: The algorithms and aesthetics of African fabrics

9 min read. 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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The Kitenge Route: The algorithms and aesthetics of African fabrics
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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”.

***

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.

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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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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and curator of Reflections at The Elephant. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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How Kenyan Gospel Pop Birthed the Odi-Pop Craze

8 min read. DAN ACEDA explores the new wave of contemporary pop music as one marked by urban, ahistorical, and accessible philosophy and idiom, and one that ironically, gospel music may have paved the way for – which is only possible because Kenyan gospel pop was only faintly related to religious or church music proper.

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How Kenyan Gospel Pop Birthed the Odi-Pop Craze
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The current wave of Kenyan urban music, and by extension, youth culture, has left observers scratching their heads. Where did it come from, how did it travel so quickly, and how has it so completely taken over the airwaves? Researchers Odipo Dev have already given us part of the answer — that the Internet has been very significant in boosting this new genre which is being referred to as Odi-pop or Gengetone. Specifically, it is a question of how online algorithms work to push what is already popular.

As a musician and scholar of music, my own observation of the trends leads me to another conclusion that would enrich Odipo Dev’s findings. In my view, it has been the huge popularity of what I am calling ‘gospel pop’ that cracked the door and held it open for Odi-pop to come through. In fact, the urban gospel scene in the second half of the 2000s was itself already a nascent version of this new sound.

This may seem bit ironical — that gospel music may have paved the way for a genre whose aesthetic that can fairly be described as ratchet. But in my view, this was possible because Kenyan gospel pop of the early 2000s was only faintly related to religious or church music proper. Kenyan gospel pop is popular because it cuts across class, regional, ethnic and especially generational lines. It is loved equally by a four-year-old as it is by her 60-year-old grandmother, which is important to consider when pop music is usually so strictly demarcated along generational lines. With this generation of gospel pop, the message was stripped down almost to its bones. It was simply music anyone could dance to. I see the new wave of ratchet Odi-pop as an extension of that philosophy of living one’s best life as loudly as possible and wearing your politics/religion with pride.

For the sake of definitional simplicity, I am proposing the collective term “Odi-pop” to refer to all the sub styles of this new sound. I am aware of each group having named their style separately e.g Gengetone, Dabonge style and so on and my definition is not trying to replace that. For me this musical style is basically pop but with a common sound (hip-hop rap influence blended with Carribean phrase and rhyme schemes, all constructed on an African rhythm base and performed in sing-along rap with heavy Kiswahili/Sheng inflections). My naming structure is borrowed from K-Pop.

Music or any kind of art, really, travels on a nonlinear path. This is why the conventional strategy for music marketers has been simple: spam the audience until they like it. It also means that the person with the loudest microphone controls content discovery as a whole. This is the reason why record labels would even go as far as to lock down distribution rights that were defined by geography, in effect controlling what an entire region would hear, and therefore effectively grow and maintain a market.

The Internet brought a disruption to this model, as Odipo Dev’s article illuminated, and broke down the power of traditional gatekeepers. And in the Kenyan context the traditional gatekeepers have been: media, politicians and the church — pop culture’s own axis of evil, you might say. The media with its own interests and relationships has for the longest time dictated what could be played, when it could be played. But these days there is so much Kenyan music on Youtube and Soundcloud for anyone who is looking for a different kind of sound.

Then there are the political elite. Politicians have always been alive to the power of music and have gone to great lengths to use it in their battle for hearts and minds. There’s also an uncanny relationship between dictatorships and thriving musicians. It isn’t always censorship — very often dictators encourage praise music, or at least uncontroversial music, frequently throwing money at anything that they believe will entrench love and adulation for them.

And finally the church, which was where these other two amplified their formal and informal censorship.

And so this explains the list of pop songs that did well in Kenya prior to the year 2000. They were all driven by a heavy dose of “message’’ and “meaning”, and Kenya’s politicians had managed, through the single broadcaster, to effectively limit the music to a specific list of themes. They replaced any local material that espoused other themes with foreign content. This explains why even today a song about sex written and performed by a Kenyan will struggle for airplay but one of the same theme by a foreigner will get tons of airplay with no questions asked.

It also fuels my claim about the effect of church music on Kenya’s pop scene. You see the only popular music that was exempt from the informal censorship from above was church music. In church, musicians could basically do whatever they wanted provided that they had the support of their pastor. However, outside of Kenya, the pop industries were not shackled in this way and so were growing in diverse ways. The result was that there was a huge demand for pop culture in Kenya that was raw and sincere. This demand was first met by the revolutionary Ogopa deejays and stars who made hit songs that were not carrying any cultural messaging. It was music for the sake of music. It was pure pop. Tumekuja kuwashika!

Pop music is a lot more anthropological than people like to give credit for. And the effect of the Ogopa Deejays was jarring to the sociopolitical system not because it was new but because it was visible. In the preceding decades, the despotic nature of the state, the arrests, detentions and summons to State House during the period between the late 60s and early 90s had effectively killed multiple waves of pop music. It also materially altered the expression of pop music by determining what would end up on radio.

Critically, it also effectively created multiple markets in the running of the broadcast industry. “Authorised” pop culture would rule the airwaves while “restricted” pop culture was confined to stage performances. This is what led to what we have now: two separate pop worlds. One visible one (with chart toppers) and other with popular live performers whose exploits are largely off the record and invisible.

And so what was achieved by Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and their lexicon-altering smash hit Unbwogable in 2002, which in turn was being amplified in the mainstream by Ogopa deejays and FM radio stations, was effectively a cultural earthquake. For the first time, politicians and the church had lost control of pop culture and it was now running wild. The opinion of a guy called Nameless became a factor in households that were previously relying on the cultural reality provided by the likes of Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki. Radio presenters of the era, Caroline Mutoko, Eve D’ Souza and Tina Ogal were now defining a new feminism and urban identity. Atoti ( Wicky Mosh featuring GidiGidi Majimaji) was now a term of endearment. Newspapers introduced urban pop culture magazine pullouts and this new wave captured the attention of the whole country. It was deliberately visible and extremely loud.

In the mid-2000s the system fought back vigorously. In a bid to take back some control, the corporate budgets were opened for what was defined at the time as “family and wholesome” content and closed for any other content. Any music not categorized as “Christian” was shunned. All major events were headlined by gospel music stars, and they hoarded media coverage.

Non-Christian ( secular) music almost disappeared from view. It was a silent put down. You may not have been aware of it, but at this time there was a very deliberate push to replace Kenyan urban pop music with foreign content. Nigerians, Tanzanians, Ugandans, Namibians, anybody but Kenyans. Nonini and Calif records were villains where P-square from Nigeria and Mr Nice from Tanzania were darlings. The playlists were altered and the videos removed.

However, in an interesting twist of fate, the aftershocks of Ogopa’s cultural earthquake were beginning to be felt in the gospel scene. The gospel stars were unwittingly amplifying the effect of the Ogopa Revolution. These band of artistes were more cool than they were Christian. Their themes were less theological and more existential. There was much less “come to Jesus” and a lot more “live happy and be free” – but within the confines of church. Importantly, this was the same area that non-Christian pop music had been focused on: the idea of gratification and happiness for today. And for me, it’s a very short hop from the secular musician DNA:

“Tunaweka shida zetu chini tunaweka mikono juu, banjuka tu”

(We put down our problems and raise our hands, let loose)

To gospel musician Daddy Owen:

“Mi napenda watoto, Mi napenda kuimba, Mi napenda kuenda church na kuomba, Mimi nitakata kata, Maboko likolo.”

I love children, I love to sing, I love going to church and prayer, I will dance, Maboko likolo.

In my mind, these two songs are almost identical philosophically. They are both pop songs but for different audiences, espousing a centrist view which made them accessible to both conservative and liberal audiences.

This is, in my view, the beginning of the sound that I have collectively called Odi-pop. It is a contemporary genre that is marked by urban, ahistorical, and accessible philosophy and idiom. It is a sound that is fundamentally localised hip hop, but draws from reggae and Caribbean music to build on its African rhythm base. The music is here to make you feel good. Right here right now. It rides on the language of now. It is very Michael Jackson-esque. These pop stars have more stage names and fewer actual names. They go out of their way to brand themselves as having no tribe, no politics and no history. It was just E-Sir. Or Nameless. And Now it’s Willy Paul, Bahati, Miracle Baby, and Reckless.

In this way there isn’t an ownership that could be linked to just one tribe, language or culture. For the first time in Kenya’s pop culture we can, all of us, own a pop star in the exact same way. Ethic is for all of us. So is Khaligraph and so is the idea of Wamlambez. Even the meaning is open to interpretation. You are allowed to translate it however you please. It can be a warm greeting, a chant at a sports event or it can be vulgar depending on your own politics.

The culture, as a product, is accessible to anyone. Any Kenyan could love Timeless Noel, Konkodi, Bruz Newton, or P-Unit because, after all, they represent an imaginary aspirational Kenyan that is free to love without encumbrance and in a language everybody can speak.

However, the most important part of the Odi-pop sound for me is that for the first time in my lifetime at least the pop scene is not referencing another context. It’s 100% trying to create its own identity. The new guys are not trying to recreate or localize anymore. They are not interested in that. They are interested in making something new. They are as sincere as they could be. It’s unapologetic.

To be honest I don’t know how long the current acts will stay relevant. That’s up to them and how they invest in the next few years. What I know is that the sound, Odi-pop and its philosophy has already endured a decade and there is no turning back. If we mark Banjuka by DNA as maybe the first track of this new philosophy and Figa by Ethic as the most recent then we can for the first time map a line between the pop releases across a decade. Figa is amplifying the wave created by Vimbada by Moji shortbabaa and Jabidii which amplified Bazokizo by Collo Majale which amplified the wave created by Odi Dance which amplified Kamua leo by Kidis, which amplified You Guy( P-Unit), which amplified Toklezea (Abbas) which amplified Tichi (Kenrazy)which amplified Banjuka (DNA). The artists are different. Their spaces are different but the philosophy is the same and their work is, for the first time in Kenya’s history, all on record.

And this is important. Because what the Odi-pop has done, by amplifying each other, is they are slowly bringing the scene back to the path that leads to freedom. And if you add the influence of the Internet and how content discovery is happening today, then you can see another important effect of this cultural moment. The big microphone is now being held by the pop stars. It’s the kind of dictatorship that thrust Bob Marley and reggae into world domination. It is a special kind of big voice that centers makers and doers, and people who imagine themselves to be more than they are, and who try to declare that as loudly as possible. Without apology.

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Legacies of Othering in Kibra and Chinatown

7 min read. There is familiarity in veminization of marginalised people in cities, in places like Kibra in colonial Kenya and the first Chinatowns in North America that existed around the turn of the 20th century that continue to endure to date.

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Before the chang’aa fields of Mathare, you would get your “kill me quick” in Kibra. Distilled under the cover of night by sugarcane-lined banks of the river, Nubian ginarak in Kinubi—would gain strength in underground pipas, or hidden inside someone’s home. It would travel, hidden beneath women’s clothes, around the young city of Nairobi, where it would be sold to drinkers or wholesalers. Or it would stay right there in Kibra, poured out only for a man who approached the door and signaled with a finger slicing across his throat.

All of this was illegal. In 1897, before Nairobi was even formally a city, the British colonial administration prohibited “natives” from drinking any form of distilled liquor, let alone brew it. It happened nonetheless in Kibra. Originally a 4,000-acre swath of land that stretched from present-day Lang’ata to Golf Course, Kibra was given to Nubian ex-soldiers of the King’s Army Rifles as pension for their military service. Before Kibra—which means “forest” in Kinubi—eventually swelled into the densely populated slum we know today as Kibera, it was home to these Nubian ex-soldiers and their families, as well as the city’s first “migrant” workers.

Although Nubians enjoyed considerable privileges over other Africans—not least land, at a time when “natives” were not even allowed to enter Nairobi without documents showing that they were at work—Kibra was in at least some sense the first “black settlement” in Nairobi. The first true black settlement was Pumwani, established in 1922. Others, like Kileleshwa, were destroyed and its African residents evicted. Kibra survived, through military patronage—and the administration’s failure to resettle the Nubian community elsewhere—and was “tolerated.” It became home to many African men who migrated to the city looking for wage labor and created a unique environment of transience and dislocation for the city’s “ethnics.”

As an Asian-American, I was struck with a sense of familiarity when reading about Kibra’s early days, particularly the language of administrators and how differently these places were governed. To me, Kibra sounded a lot like the first Chinatowns in North America. (I’m referring specifically to the first Chinatowns to exist around the turn of the 20th century, and not “Chinatown” as shorthand used today for commercial-residential clusters of Chinese diaspora throughout the world.)

Like Kibra, Chinatowns were enclaves of racial Others at the frontiers of Othering, designed into cities that were young and growing, having just been established by white European settlers. Chinatowns were seen as “vice-towns,” diametrically opposed to other parts of the “good city,” which were clean, orderly, white, and Christian. The problematic conditions of these districts were ascribed, through essentialist ideas, to the race of their residents. What this means is that, while a certain street or block can be home to members of the Chinese diaspora, what makes a Chinatown a Chinatown—to paraphrase K.J. Anderson—is a story about the place that tells us more about the Insiders who make the rules than the Outsiders who live there.

Of course, the verminization of marginalized people in cities—whether sex workers, ethnic Others, or the poor—is hardly the exception and more often the rule. Ghettoes have always been governed differently. If you cannot keep “undesirables” out of the city, because you need cheap labor, then make sure they are concentrated and unable to move freely. Nairobi’s high-rent, poorly serviced slums are the extension of a colonial policy that demanded cheap labor but wanted to keep the laborers at a distance. This is, unfortunately, nothing new.

But one aspect that Chinatowns and Kibra share is that they both formed in “new” cities where the influx, movement, and distribution of ethnic Others was an immediate design challenge for early urban planners. Vancouver and San Francisco had barely been cities for a few years when Chinatowns were formed; most Chinese migrants to Vancouver, for example, flooded in as “coolies” for the Pacific Railway. Nairobi, originally a supply depot along the railway route from Mombasa to Kampala, was established in 1899 and, in 1906, made the capital of British East Africa. The city was racially segregated from the very beginning, and until 1922, Africans were not permitted to build or live within city limits, only to pass through to work. They were required to wear a kipande, an identity document worn in a metal box around the neck, that allowed them access only to sites and times of employment. Thus, whether as migrants from another continent or indigenous people made strangers in their own land through coercion and the rupture of the existing economy, both Africans and Chinese found themselves unwelcome in a nascent city created by and for Europeans.

There are two narratives about Chinatown that we can use to understand the similarities between Kibra and Chinatowns in North America. The first is sanitation, and the second is morality.

The linking of sanitation and race is hardly unique to either Nairobi or early North American Chinatowns; “verminizing” language is commonly used to, first, explain significant differences between the races, and second, justify policies that separate them or account for unequal conditions. Put another way, depending on who you are and where people like you sit in hierarchy, “public health” is either a service or a weapon wielded against you. K. Scott Wong writes that images of the Chinese in Chinatown often played a role in a “larger racial and political agenda of promoting segregation and exclusion,” citing the 1876 Senate Hearings on Chinese immigration, in which John Durkee, the San Francisco Fire Marshal, lamented that property adjacent to Chinese was constantly depreciating in value because “houses occupied by Chinese are not fit for white occupation, because of the filth and stench.”

Durkee goes on to say that “the only way I can account for our not having a great fire in the Chinese quarter is that the wood is too filthy and too moist from nastiness to burn.” In Vancouver, a separate health and safety category was set aside for Chinatown, with its own inspectors, alongside other categories like sewage, pigsties, infectious disease, and slaughterhouses.It is clear that the goals of the fire marshal and his agency, or with health inspectors who covered Chinatown, were less maintaining safety for all residents than cordoning off of problematic people into their own quarters.

This “evidence” of the dirtiness of Chinese was cited in a hearing discussing the future of Chinese immigration to the United States. The logic—of using the conditions of physical quarters where Chinese live to inform a decision about other Chinese who may potentially immigrate—is that something inherently unsanitary or uncouth is embedded in essential race characteristics. That this race, and cultural behaviors associated with it, are total, immutable realities that cannot be influenced by policy (or connected more with, say, poverty).

Early Nairobi planners, which included South Africans who drew from urban planning practices implemented in southern Africa at the time, also separated Europeans, Indians (“Asiatics”), and “natives” to keep diseases that were prevalent in poor, working-class districts from spreading to areas inhabited by Europeans. Fears of non-European districts as an “unsanitary and as a serious public health menace” were exacerbated after bubonic plague outbreaks in Nairobi’s lower-class railway housing and the Indian Bazaar in 1900, 1902, and 1904. In the eyes of the administration, this epidemiological problem had an ethnicized solution: enforcing strict racial residential segregation. The legacy of colonial, racially segregated urban design in Nairobi still lives on.

The strictures placed around these “migrants” were meant not only to keep the city clean in terms of public health but also morally. Kibra and Chinatowns were seen as breeding grounds for prostitution, theft, and other crimes (and sins) that, if not contained or eliminated, would contaminate other parts of the city. By 1897, the Native Liquor Ordinance criminalized the consumption of distilled alcohol by Africans, an effort meant to curb “disruptive drunken behavior.” In 1921, the Nairobi Municipal Council established a “native brewery,” which served a beer that was “pure and of low alcoholic content” to African men over the age of eighteen. Of course, men still drank; they were just getting it in Kibra.

At a time when Africans’ wages ranged from 50 to 500 shillings per month, Nubian women were making 6,000-20,000 shillings per month. Police often raided Kibra and even arrested distillers, but even after paying bribes and bail, the profit margins were comfortable. At the peak of these police raids and patrols, gin production was driven underground—quite literally, as some distilling pipas were dug into the ground. In 1936, a special police post was established in Kibra to focus specifically on “suppressing drunkenness and crime.”

Chinatowns also were associated with prostitution, a vice (or tolerance thereof) attributed to cultural differences. Although in Vancouver, sex work was hardly limited to Chinatown, its presence Chinatown drew the ire of Europeans, who criticized the practice in terms of women’s welfare: “The Chinese are the most persistent criminals against the person of any woman of any class in this country.” Perhaps the substance that came to be associated most with “Chinamen” was opium. According to Anderson, by the 1920s in Vancouver, when racist narratives were being used in British Columbia, “the old opium image fed and was assimilated into an image of Chinatown as a narcotics base and ‘Chinese’as dangerous distributors.”

“Oriental” proclivities towards these vices—whether sex, opium, gambling—were rendered not only as “un-Christian” but also polluting, with the potential to travel and surpass the necessary boundaries, threatening white neighborhoods with their proximity. As with Kibra, from the perspectives of municipalities, managing these vices was a matter of separating away “amoral” elements and preventing spillover to “decent” districts, which was achieved through regular campaigns of raids.

As mentioned earlier, there is nothing novel about certain quarters of a city being governed differently to others. In fact, this was a natural solution for a colonial city that faced the dilemma of needing laborers, not wanting to raise wages and quality of living, and also not wanting the laborers (and their “problems”) to sit too close for comfort. Comparing Kibra and Chinatowns, though perhaps at the cost of being too neat, does reveal basic similarities in how this problem was “solved.”

For some Chinatowns, even though discriminatory, racist practices and, more recently, gentrification form a looming threat. For the most part, they have survived and remained important cultural centers and symbolic spaces for diverse Asian immigrant communities in North America—especially when “multi-culturalism” became cool, and cities realized they could capitalize on “culture” for tourism. On the other hand, Kibera today still plays a similar role as a hub for the poorest of the working class in the city. The process by which Kibra turned into the Kibera we know it to be today, during which Nubians were pushed into shrinking corners of their land (and into statelessness), uses similar mechanisms to those in the colonial era.

Going into the archives and studying the way in which bureaucrats regarded and crafted policies for certain groups of people can help us understand some of the legacies of this type of urban design today. It can help us identify what has not changed at all, and understanding root problems, in turn, can help us develop better solutions, which is all useful.

However, there is one very significant thing this cannot do. Examining policies and discourse from the perspective of those in power through documents, as I have, is fundamentally incomplete because it excludes the voices of any of those who ever lived there. If Chinatown is a story that tells us more about the Insiders who make the rules than the Outsiders who live there, then it is certainly also true that it is not the only story—or even the most important one.

Though they fade from memory with each generation, the complicated, mundane, diverse experiences of the people who lived in these districts of exclusion should form the centre of any inquiry into oppression. Some of these stories will, of course, refer to or react to the structures that constrained their existence—how Nubian women changed their brewing practices to avoid arrest, for example. But others will have had nothing to do with their oppressors;they are stories of people who lived in a certain place at a certain time, who chose to do it in their way. The sounds, sights, patterns, and ways of living that only they could know. Which, for people living in a place for which everything seems ascribed to a single and questionable aspect of their humanity—race—is a most supreme form of resistance.

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Twerking as Resistance: Peeling Back the Ethic of Wamlambez

10 min read. What if this ratchet music is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular? What if the ratchet offers an insurgent possibility of life after social death, of life beyond nihilism?

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In April 2018, a video of what seemed to be a pair of teenagers having, or simulating, sex at the back of a car – maybe an Uber? – went viral under the hashtag #IfikieWazazi. The girl is sitting on the boy’s lap, the boy is holding a phone in front of them, recording video, selfie-style. The moral panic was swift and shrill – the head-shaking and finger-wagging, the familiar lament watoto wa siku hizi (kids these days), plus the rather grand where are we heading as a society. But what stood out the most for me was the expression on their faces. They – the girl especially – were smiling through it all, looking straight into the camera as they had sex in the back of a moving car in broad daylight. Their joy was both disturbing and complicated: a combination of ordinary teenage mischief and something else, something deeper and more transgressive.

It was play and defiance, an outrageous commandeering of a quasi-public space with lewd behaviour, recorded for posterity and then dispatched directly to parents – ‘ifikiewazazi’ means ‘let this get to [the] parents’. Or maybe, make sure this gets to the parents.

Ratchet: noun, verb, adjective
1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty
2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc
[As defined by producer PhunkDawg on the liner notes of the CD “Do The Ratchet”, featuring rapper Lil Boosie, 2004. Shreveport, Louisiana].

#IfikieWazazi went viral; by now it was not just the video, but also a barrage of images of teenagers posing in highly suggestive positions, arched backs, pouty lips and all. In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

Soon after, the song ‘Lamba Lolo’ by the rap group Ethic was released. None of them seemed a day over 21. They were (obviously) singing about fellatio, over a poorly produced track. The music video, especially, is of the aesthetic that I call Nairobi Grime – dusty streets, mabati shops and unfinished buildings in the background.

In the chaos of virality, it was difficult to discern whether #ifikiewazazi was to be read as warning (to the kids by the parents and parental figures) and a taunt (to the parents, by the kids), or both.

They seemed like they just walked out of their houses on an errand to buy milk and a matchbox. It was, in short, scruffy and unpretentious. In the next few months, catching many off guard, came this new wave of Kenyan music, in which the ratchetry was turned all the way up. In most of these videos, it was just a catchy hook, the mtaa backdrop, and lots and lots of twerking. The rest, as they say, is history, but a living kind of history.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the city of Atlanta would come to a standstill once a year with what came to be known as Freaknik. It begun as an event for students from the prestigious, historically Black colleges of Morehouse and Spelman to come together and network during spring break; the suffix “nik” hints it was envisioned that the networking would take place in a picnic-like setting.

But quickly, the “freak” part would eclipse any corporate or straight-laced intentions that the event might originally have had. It evolved into a prolific cultural and sexual celebration, that brought in Black students from all over the country, as well as artists, musicians, and residents of Atlanta from all socio-economic classes, to party hard. Atlanta’s city official government pushed back against the festival with violence, intimidation, and attempts at co-optation until Freaknik was ultimately banned.

That this was happening in the city of Atlanta was highly disruptive to the sensibilities of a city that was known as America’s “Black Mecca”, where a wealthy Black middle-class had emerged as far back as the 1940s. The street where Martin Luther King Jr. had grown up – Auburn Avenue – was called “the richest Negro street in the world.”

King himself was born into a respectable middle-class family that did not struggle materially, unlike the majority of Black families in the US at the time, as James Baldwin wrote in his 1961 profile of King in Harper’s Magazine. The Black bourgeoisie of Atlanta were proper, they esteemed certain ways of dressing and speaking; they were respectable folk and believed that this would allow them to live a life of dignity in the segregated South.

This worked, to some extent – Atlanta was one of the few cities in the South that seemingly “peacefully” transitioned out of segregation, the Black elite had already built substantial wealth and were on hand to integrate into the city structure. Most of all, the Black bourgeoisie cautioned against disrupting day-to-day business even as the Black community pressed for civil rights, writes Sarah Abdelaziz in her thesis Ratcheting a Way Out of the Respectable: Genealogical Interventions Into Atlanta’s Respectability Politics. “They believed that through negotiations, business deals, and moral pleas, they could advance political progress.”

Two decades later, a new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.” In her words:

Cars littered the streets, blocking intersections and highways, as people recreated a city center wherever it suited them. Black women danced on top of cars with or without clothes on and became a central spectacle of the event, defying sexual and racial mores (Thompson, 2007). To the white fear of a singular Black body, Freaknik answered with thousands, not only in numbers, but with a loudness. Freaknikers literally ratcheted up all that capitalism and the project of whiteness fear: the unabashed engagement in sexual leisure at the direct cost of circuits of capital.

Freaknik, in her analysis, was a pushback against the surveillance that is demanded by respectability politics that characterised Atlanta, by enlisting in the tactics of “evasion, subversion, play and exhibitionism.” It was an attempt to snatch some joy in a context where neoliberal policies had left the class oppressions intact even as Black people had been granted civil rights, and where mass incarceration was ensnaring more and more Black people in its grim dragnet. And although most Freaknikers may not have been able articulate what they were doing in such elegant political terms, that doesn’t mean it was any less so.

A new generation of young Atlantans began enthusiastically inhabit a form of Black sexual leisure Abdelaziz calls a “mass rupture in respectability politics”, a kind of “undomesticated Black communal eroticism.”

The personal is political, especially if your existence has already been politicized. Sexual energy is life energy, my friend Ciru Ngigi reminds me, and Audre Lorde understood the erotic as not only a sexual pleasure, but as a way to “deeply connect with the self and with others radically, so as to empower the ability to fight for and manifest liberation.”

In moments like this, one escapes, even temporarily, the constraining norms of a society where your worth is determined by how much labour can be extracted out of you, and where existing as Black means that true social worth is always tantalizingly out of your reach. In so doing, there is an insurgent possibility that there can be life after social death, that there can be life beyond nihilism.

It is, the Black Ratchet Imagination – a form of redemption can be grasped as one inhabits one’s body fully and unashamedly, not easily reducible to mere “acting out”, the ratchet is an attempt to “to reclaim space, refuse binary identities, subvert language [and] create economic opportunities with new economies.”

Six months ago, economist and public intellectual David Ndii revisited the Kenya at the Crossroads: Scenarios for our Future report that had been written in 1998, when the Kenyan economy was in free fall. At that time, President Daniel arap Moi was clocking two decades in power, there was public dilapidation everywhere you looked.

Darius Okolla captures the mood of despondency in his article exploring the 1990s deterioration of his hometown Kitale– “it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.”

The premise of the Scenarios project was that “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models”, that is, what Ndii calls an “enclave economy” as set in place during British colonialism – a small corporatized economy of formal enterprises, good schools and prim urban neighbourhoods (it is telling that we call our neighbourhoods ‘estates’, as if in our imagination they are, in fact, country manors ruled over by lords and barons). On the outside of this small elite and privileged core is the “native sector” of the excluded African masses.

After independence in 1963, the privileged core was vacated by the British, and an African elite moved in to replace them. If you had a university education, you went straight to the top of the public or corporate sector and your future was pretty much secured; even with a secondary education you could live comfortably.

However by the end of the 1980s, the formal sector had stagnated and was struggling to absorb the ever-increasing numbers of university graduates. Catastrophe was only averted when the economy was liberalised in the early 1990s, leading to the explosion in the informal sector. The jua kali and mitumba businesses, the second-hand cars from Dubai, the stalls and ‘exhibitions’ were like opening a safety valve on a pressure cooker – they staved off social unrest and bought Kenya a few more years of stability.

Fast-forward three decades, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the economically active population (age 15-64) are 25 million, a five-fold increase from 1990. Yet, as Ndii writes, the formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

Meanwhile, 125,000 students graduate from university every year – an astonishing 63 times the rate three decades ago, yet the formal sector is absorbing less than 100,000 a year. Once again, Kenya is balancing on a delicate precipice, a society of rising tensions where upward social mobility is becoming more and more of a mirage.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it. They live in a city presided over by a governor whose rise to power is only comparable to the plot in a crime fiction novel.

The formal wage employment is estimated at just 2.7 million, and its contribution to total employment is down to 8.5 percent, from 25 percent in 1990.

These teenagers watched as a country celebrated students’ mass failure in national examinations, starting in 2016 when tough-talking Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i defeated the so-called cartels and their shadowy, dormitory-burning ways, and delivered a ‘clean’ examination – just 141 A grades, compared to over 2,000 the previous year. In 2018, more students — 30,840 of them — only managed a grade E (a flat failure) than those who scored a combined A, A-, B+ and B, who total 28,403. This is not a normal distribution – the bell curve of grading would predict that the majority should get an average, C grade. The sharp skew at the lower end is not how normal classrooms perform.

In any sane country, this would prompt a somber reflection, maybe even a day of national mourning. At the very least, any teacher whose class failed her exam en masse would at least have to re-evaluate either the content or her teaching methods. And, if the scripts were being marked by external examiners, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that one’s students are being deliberately made to fail.

These 18-year-olds instead saw the country cheer as some subjects record a failure rate of 90 percent and higher. They have been watching as a hairdresser carted away millions of shillings of public funds in sacks, and as reports of poisonous (poisoned?) sugar, maize, milk and meat flood TV headlines and nothing substantial happens. They have been watching as political leaders shift alliances without batting an eyelid, and with such speed that it can give you whiplash, where someone condemned as the devil and an ogre today can be described as “my friend” and “a safe pair of hands” tomorrow.

Today’s 18-year-olds are coming of age in a society with bizarre and normalized dysfunction. They watched as the country ushered in a new constitution only to eviscerate it.

It is a bleak new dispensation. We have been telling them to work hard, be God-fearing, modest, respectful and focus on their education, but kwa ground vitu ni different.

It is against this backdrop that we now must consider the chants of wamlambez, wamnyonyez. If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own. It is, in fact, appropriate to regretfully mutter wazazi wa siku hizi ( Today’s parents). And it is not like every generation doesn’t have its own lustful excesses – many of today’s horrified parents did the same, or worse, at Jam Sessions or Safari Sevens. They sang along to Nampenda John and Manyake, all sizes. The only difference is that there were no camera phones then.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral. The young people of today are gleefully forcing that hypocrisy to collapse on itself, by intentionally being as ratchet as possible – so over-the-top and outrageous that they becomes impossible to ignore. Because really, what’s the worst that could happen? “Shame and embarrassment is not the worst thing. We’ve experienced worse. What is there to protect?” she said to me. It is, as Kalundi Serumaga once wrote, that poverty is the worst violence, the greatest shame and the constant embarrassment.

Like Freaknik in Atlanta a generation ago, the wamlambez wave – by this I mean the wave of this extremely ratchet music – is a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular. Kwa ground ni different: social amenities like public parks, playgrounds and social halls have grabbed or left to decay, jobs and opportunities are hoarded for the politically connected, and there is the constant exhortation to entrepreneur oneself out of structural poverty.

It leaves one, then with only the Internet and one’s body as the last arenas that one can live, not just exist, but really live, with the all the thrill and joy that capitalism, classism and racism tells us will never be ours. This is the possibility of alternative life that the ratchet offers — a way of being in the world that seeks to live in pleasure, purpose and joy – full humanity, and that above all refuses to participate in the fraudulent prescription that in Kenya, of all places, personal comportment and sexual restraintwill define one’s life chances and opportunities. Anyone who went to an upmarket private school in Nairobi knows how ratchet wealthy children can be, with no lasting consequences.

As one 23-year-old told me, the only morality our society cares about is the sexual one, yet the rest of our existence is incredibly immoral.

In the end, however, the ratchet in isolation will not save us either. The personal transgression of mores governing dress, speech, sexuality and decorum do not make a revolution – the oppressive structures that corral black life into nihilistic corners are a product of laws, politics, the justice system, theology and economics, all of which should be engaged with, for the purposes of expanding freedom. And although Freaknik was banned by the city of Atlanta, that was not before it started losing its own appeal because of increasing incidents of sexual harassment and even assault during the festival, in contrast to its playful and liberating beginnings.

In the end, the ratchet cannot be an end in itself. It is only a means of carving out new ways of relating to ourselves, and each other. The ratchet only offers possibilities, as Abdelaziz concluded, “we would be mistaken to not pay attention to these gasps of alternative life in our present predicament.” The emphasis is mine.

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