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‘Nita Ride Boda Boda’: How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya

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The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew.

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'Nita Ride Boda Boda': How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya
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“And you, do you go on a bicycle?”

“I do go on a bicycle, yes.”

The question was meant to be an insult but there was no comeback to the answer. Tom Mboya had just interrupted Martin Shikuku’s speech in Parliament to ask him whether he was any different from others who “…change cars everyday…” Shikuku’s answer, even then in 1964, was shocking – and even true to an extent. A few years later, he would be cycling to Parliament in a bid to encourage his colleagues to follow suit and “meet the people”. It clearly never caught on.

Shikuku had reason to be concerned. Everyone in the independence generation had grown up in a time where the bicycle was the most accessible means of transport. In their varied careers in the colony, they had cycled to school, work, social events, and political meetings. As soon as they could upgrade to motor vehicles, they ditched their bicycles and became part of a capitalist class with a penchant for conspicuous consumption. In the years just before and after independence, this newly minted political elite engaged in a race to purchase the best cars they could find. The only rule was to not get cars, or a fleet, better than the president’s.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”.

In 1963, an American businessman gifted Jomo Kenyatta a Lincoln Convertible to add to his fleet, which included a Mercedes 300 SE and a Rolls Royce, setting the bar quite high. By 1966, he had yet another Mercedes, but ordered a Rolls Royce meant for the mayor of Nairobi returned to London. This acquisition spree by men, many of whom had been careless just a few years earlier, was a waste of public funds. It was also a psychological coup, a statement of a new class that did not want to be associated with poverty in any form.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”. This critical symbol of a new nation was now limited to the select few who could afford, by virtue of their political and economic positions, to drive. To fly it on a bicycle was sacrilege. The bicycle was now what shecyclesNairobi calls “a strong symbol of poor man’s mobility in Nairobi, second to walking.”

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story “Wedding at the Cross”, the (Raleigh) bicycle features prominently as a symbol of poverty that was not acceptable to the “Christian and propertied class”. The protagonist, Wariuki, has to lose his bicycle, and himself, to become what he thinks society needs him to be, and to show his parents-in-law that he is good enough to marry their daughter, Mariamu. By the time he meets them again after independence, he is a rich businessman driving a new Mercedes Benz. In another of Ngugi’s short stories, “A Mercedes Funeral”, a poor man’s funeral planning becomes the epicentre of political competition. One politician offers a Mercedes to transport the corpse, trumping his competitors. The implication in these postcolonial tales is the same: the bicycle had lost its cool.

The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew. It was still significantly smaller than the Ugandan market, where a cycling craze was well underway by the mid-1920s. Of the 4,852 bicycles that were imported in 1927, for example, only 1,719 of them were meant for the Kenyan market. At the time, overall demand in both countries had been falling steadily from a short-lived peak of nearly 24,000 bicycles two years earlier.

By 1930, demand had dipped to 1,295 bicycles. It recovered, clocking 14,003 units by 1936. Despite these fluctuations, bicycles were still outselling all other forms of mechanised transport. They were an expensive purchase only affordable to a select few who had jobs that paid well enough to save up. This cost element also meant that only men, who had actively been forced into wage labour since the early 1900s, could afford them. In the migrant labour economy, a bicycle was the fastest way for them to get to work, and for some, to get the work done.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school.

Even when more women were employed in formal wage labour, they were mostly limited to resident agriculture and low wage employment. Combined with pre-existing perspectives on gendered roles, cycling emerged as an exclusively male space. It explains why nearly all the major stories involving bikes from this time involve male riders, from Kenyatta’s famous bicycle in the 1920s to the story of Kamawe Musungu, whose murder led to the first (and only) execution of a white man in Kenya. A forgotten detail of the assassination of Chief Waruhiu, which triggered the State of Emergency, is that his bodyguard was not in the car with him because he (Waruhiu) had forced him to cycle back on his friend’s bicycle.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school. Before long, in the 1940s and 1950s especially, women were riding too, although female riders never became as prevalent as male ones. This was partly because, as bicycle use became an almost exclusively rural form of transport, cultural views on female riders did not change. They extended not just to riding, but also to usage, as a by-law requiring women to sit sideways, introduced in the Kisumu County Assembly in 2013, shows.

The safety bicycle

Bicycles were still a rather recent innovation at the start of the colonial conquest of the African continent. A German man, Baron Karl Von Drais, filed the first patent of the modern bike’s ancestor in 1818. His design was inspired by the “Year without a Summer” (1816), which followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Considered the worst eruption in recent history, it lowered global temperatures and ruined crop harvests for several years. The ensuing famine killed humans, and more importantly for this story, horses. That presented a transport problem for which Drais had an answer.

His invention, the Laufmachine (“running machine”) was a wooden, human-propelled, two-wheeled machine. It had no gears or pedals, which would take another five decades to invent. But it, and later variants, caught on. One of those variants was called The Boneshaker because it had a wooden frame and metal tires, making for an uncomfortable ride. Others had one massive wheel and a much smaller one. Still, they had the same basic problems as Drais’s machine; they were heavy, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Such variants informed the perception that the bicycle was a toy for daring, wealthy young men.

All that changed in 1885, when the “safety bicycle”, as we know it today, with its metal frame and two same-sized wheels, was invented. Two years later, a Scottish veterinarian called John B. Dunlop experimented with pneumatic tyres on his son’s tricycle. He filed and got a patent for the tyres, although he lost it two years later because another Scotsman had filed a similar patent four decades prior. Combined, these inventions triggered a cycling craze in the 1890s that led to more affordable bicycles and eventually, their presence in the colonies. Colonies became even more important markets after bicycle demand stalled in the United States as Americans ditched other forms of transport for Henry Ford’s Model T.

By the 1930s, there were several brands battling for the East African market. Almost all were British, and the most prestigious of them was Raleigh. The introduction to the 1932 Raleigh Sales Catalogue claims that the Baganda were so enthralled with the bicycle that “the name has been adopted as their common definition of quality, and should a necktie, cap, or any other object meet with their enthusiastic approval, immediately it is dubbed ‘Raleigh’.”

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!”

The competition, which had brands such as Humber, Hercules, and BSA, was still formidable. Bicycles, unlike gramophones (the other luxury item of the day), had a primary appeal beyond prestige. They offered mobility in an economy that was increasingly demanding it, with few public options in place.

The bicycle economy

The bicycle that caught on was the single-speed, steel-frame roadster. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, it came in black. It was relatively within reach, economically, and to some extent, durable. It also needed to be registered, and over time, modified to add parts, such as reflectors, as road rules evolved. But bicycles offered an unmatchable utility because they could perform many other roles, including as economic and social tools.

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!” Raleigh used different variations of this idea in most of its artwork, incorporating a man, a lion, and a bicycle. A BSA bicycle ad from around the same time shows a smartly dressed man cycling, and two ladies in the background checking him out. A slightly more forward-thinking Raleigh billboard depicts a man riding a bicycle in the foreground, and two ladies cycling in the background. Its copy reads “Be Modern Ride a Raleigh.”

This primary market also spawned off another source of employment – bicycle mechanics. Bicycle mechanics were a unique class at the time because they were mostly self-employed, and their primary customers were black. The competition among them drove down repair prices so that if you owned a bicycle by the 1940s, you didn’t need to pay a herd of cattle to get it repaired, as Nabongo Mumia had done in 1910.

Mechanics and bicycle owners got their spares from Asian-owned shops, which thrived as bicycle usage increased. In 1936, for example, bicycle tyre imports were ten times higher than the number of bicycles imported. This trade built a few Indian tycoons, such as Kassam Kanji Rahim Varsi, who got a loan from his father-in-law and opened a bicycle parts shop in Nairobi. By the 1950s, Bata and the Avon Rubber Company made bicycle tyres in Kenya, but other parts still had to be shipped in.

While many of the bicycle’s earliest users used it to commute to and from, and during, work, people found other economic uses as well. The most resilient of these is transport, which grew out of a demand for transport services at the Kenya-Uganda border. The bicycle was also used to transport food, at times animals, tools, and other materials. Others modified their bicycles to create mobile business units, such as mounting a knife-sharpening stone oh the bicycle.

The prestige and utility of cycling also meant bicycles were a frequent target for burglary. Bicycle theft was such a problem in East Africa in the 1950s that Dar es Salaam had a special Bicycle Squad within its police force and Uganda had a Bicycle Thefts Committee around the same time. In Kenya, it was often listed among the most common thefts of property, and magistrates regularly whipped young offenders who were caught with stolen bicycles. Early administrators in Nairobi also employed vagrancy laws to arrest people for a vaguely described offence called “misuse of bicycle”.

The Wabenzi class

In the post-war period of the late 1940s, thousands of demobilised soldiers sought transport licences. Many bought lorries and cars, but the bicycle remained the most frequently used form of transport in the country, especially in rural areas. As more people joined a fledging white collar class in the late 50s and the early 60s, the bicycle remained a symbol of the blue-collar worker and ultimately, poverty. The only black people who had cars before the 1950s were colonial chiefs and a few enterprising businessmen.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space.

Before long this cadre of car owners would include independence politicians, who bought them for campaigns and travels. They quickly ditched the small cars they had acquired in the late 50s and early 60s and switched to fuel guzzlers. What mattered now was what type of car one drove, hence the rise of the “Wabenzi” – a generation that even included at least one high profile theft of a Mercedes Benz from a showroom in Nairobi.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space. In a discussion about Daniel Arap Moi’s retirement benefits in 2003, one of the main issues was why his bodyguards and watu wa mikono also needed Mercedes Benzes. The alternative, of course, was not bicycles.

For this class, bicycles were only good as toys for children. This was not a view limited to Kenya or East Africa, as the global bicycle market was struggling as more people opted for cars. Bicycle manufacturers had to find new ways of selling them, which pushed them back to the original sales pitch of the bicycle as a children’s toy and a tool for extreme sports. The single-speed roadster was now a product more popular for its function over form, and its users invisible to the “cultured” classes.

Still, as grown-ups moved to cars, bicycles for their children became a major class distinction. In the 1970s and 1980s, owning a BMX was a middle-class status symbol. Ironically for these classes, the car craze meant that cyclists were forgotten in infrastructure and budget planning. Private cars and motorways took over, and riding a bicycle in an urban centre increasingly became dangerous. This meant that children who grew up in cities and towns were not allowed to ride bicycles on the roads because of the dangers cars represented.

The implication for the majority of bicycle users was far worse, as they were seen as a nuisance on the roads. Bicycle lanes were not a priority, and even essential things like proper bicycle parking were only available in some colonial-era structures. Import duty remained prohibitively high (in some years as high as 90 per cent) until the government started systematically reducing it in the mid-1980s. Even before then, bicycles remained an important economic tool for a silent majority who could not afford private cars or even the expense of public transport.

The end of the bicycle’s run as a symbol of prestige was to be expected, but it did not end its usage among the working class or even the lower cadres of government employees. In 1990, for example, the government imported 525 bicycles to be issued to field agricultural extension staff on loan basis. Bicycles were bought for local government employees, and even health workers working in HIV/AIDS prevention in the early 2000s. They’ve even been used in political campaigns as recently as 2017, before being quickly replaced with fuel-guzzlers that constitute the welcome package for our legislators.

The true threat to the bicycle’s run as the wheels of the people was not the car, but its motorised descendant. There were only 525 registered motorcycles in Kenya in 1963, and only 4,136 in 2004. By the time duty on motorcycles below 250cc was waived in 2007, these numbers had grown to 16,923. Today, there are closer to a million bicycles, serving different functions but primarily as boda bodas (bicycle taxis).

But the single-speed roadster is still remarkably popular, mostly because of the same reason it has always been popular – it doesn’t need fuel, and it is cheap to repair. Plus, it’s good exercise.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

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The Politics of Street Names

Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.

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June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.

Recent movements like Rhodes Must FallFaidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”

To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!

Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.

As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?

There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.

Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”

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

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The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.

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In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.

The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”

He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.

We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”

This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.

Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.

Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.

At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”

Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”

Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”

It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”

The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.

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

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Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo

The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.

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On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.

Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.

With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.

Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.

It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.

As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.

Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.

For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.

That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.

While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.

Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.

Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.

An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?

Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.

Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.

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

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