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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darius Okolla is a writer and a social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

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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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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