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The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World

7 min read. Humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today.

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The Forgotten History of Fire and the Tribal Wisdom That Changed the World
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Our human ancestors were using stone tools well before Homo sapiens evolved three hundred thousand or more years ago. Tools have been discovered dating back three million years, no less than ten times older than our species. Considering that some birds and fish use –and even fashion– tools (watch crows making hooks), and that any implements made of wood or other organic material will not show in early fossil records, it would be astonishing if our hominid ancestors weren’t using them well before the earliest stone ones we’ve so far found.

The most important tool of all was fire. Like much in archaeology nowadays, where microscopic analysis is changing earlier guesswork, the first known date for cooking is being pushed ever further into our deepest past. It is hotly debated issue, but some now put it at around a million years ago. Again, that is long before our species evolved – though of course some of those earlier, now extinct, hominid species are our direct ancestors.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive.

Many scientists believe that our very evolution could never have happened without cooking. It massively enhanced our calorie and nutrient intake, so enabling our teeth and guts to grow smaller and our brains, which need huge amounts of energy, to grow bigger. Brain size is a tradeoff between enabling women to walk upright (a wider pelvis needed to have even bigger-headed babies would make that impossible),and the inordinately large number of years we have to care for our helpless young, longer than any other species. That both engendered and depended on our enormous capacity for social cohesion, empathy and self-sacrifice. In brief, we made fire and cooked our food and that turned us into people, generally more virtuous than vicious –in spite of our striking inhumanities, and the religious dogmatists and “evolutionary psychologists” preaching otherwise.

In the ancient Greek myth, Prometheus creates men but can’t endow them with any real strengths – all those have already been given to the animals – so he hands them fire, stolen from the gods, so they can thrive. It sounds about right.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank.

This all started happening hundreds of thousands of years ago. Fire, manipulated by our ancestors, changed the world, and cooking was just one part: Regular undergrowth burning had the other big impact. It’s enormously beneficial: It prevents scorching wildfire conflagrations (look at California or Australia today), and also massively increases biodiversity, however counter-intuitive that may sound to urbanites. It enriches the soil, encourages fresh plant growth, enables wind-blown seeds to germinate in the nutrient-rich ash rather than wither in the undergrowth, and so favors some species over others. All this attracts herbivores, which are followed by predators.

When the incoming British colonists in the early twentieth century forbade the Martu Aboriginal people’s custom of controlled burning, the number of kangaroos and lizards in their part of the Australian Western Desert shrank. Aboriginal burning was far from destructive as the Europeans thought. It actually enhanced biodiversity and the food supply.

Several key principles have been noted for Aboriginal burning. Neighbors were always forewarned and agricultural lands were fired in rotation at specific times of year when the bush was in the right state and the weather favorable. This limited the fire’s intensity, allowed animals to move out of the way, avoided particular growing seasons, and stimulated particular seeds to germinate under the resulting hot ash.

Needless to say, the British banned the practice in many parts of its empire, teaching that undergrowth firing was a destructive and primitive local custom. Some scientists remain schooled in such colonialist prejudice today. The ban on undergrowth burning is still in force in much of India and continues damaging the environment. The Soliga people in India, for example, say that the recent massive rise in forest fires in Karnataka would not have happened if they had been advising on forest management and allowed to continue their traditional burning.

People deliberately start fires in many environments and have done so for a very long time. For example, there is evidence that it’s gone on in Southeast Asia for at least forty-five thousand years.

Today, the Xavante in Brazil take careful note of wind and rain before setting their ceremonial fires to assist hunting. The fires remain low and not overly hot because they are lit so regularly that undergrowth is not allowed to grow up year after year. Fire-resistant plants can easily regenerate, and animals have plenty of time to move away. Fire can obviously be destructive, but that includes getting rid of species no one wants, such as deadly disease-bearing insects like the tsetse fly in Africa and the Loranthus tree-killing parasite in India. It also brings new plants and animals in its wake.

Regular burning is key in the various “slash-and-burn” methods of farming tropical forests. It is also called “swidden,” but journalists unfortunately favor the more dramatic name, which has become pejorative. Whatever one calls it, the practice is still widely denigrated and even criminalized by some conservationists, who could not be more wrong. Other scientists, sticking to the evidence, now see it as, “an integral part of many, if not most, tropical forest landscapes that are crucial to biodiversity conservation in all the remaining large tropical forests: Amazonia, Borneo, Central Africa.” The Hanunoo people in the Philippines grow over 280 types of food with swidden, and an even greater variety can be found elsewhere.

If undergrowth burning led to cooking, which seems logical, then it dates back over a million years. Considering that some birds not only make tools, but also actually manipulate bushfires by dropping burning twigs to help their hunting – something Australian Aboriginal people have long known – then it’s likely that our ancestors were changing the world with fire more than a million years ago. Science is unlikely ever to be precise about the timing, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the ancient world has long been shaped by women and men.

Human-made clearings, whether opened up with fire, axe, or both, modified the local fauna by changing animals’ food and distribution. There’s evidence from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple reserve in India that tiger numbers increase in areas where tribal people still live –if, that is, they’re not threatened with eviction and so retain an incentive to maintain their environment. When the people move their fields to leave some dormant, they also abandon the ponds they made for drinking water. The clearings, remnant crops and water attract boar, deer, and other creatures. The big cats then thrive on the easy hunting found in the open spaces. When tribes are evicted “for tiger conservation” the authorities know they have to keep similar clearings open. As a Baiga man told Survival International, “If you remove us, the tiger will disappear as well.”

An increase in tiger numbers clearly impacts the cats’ prey. Deer are less plentiful, but they are healthier than they would be were they never hunted: Sick animals soon become tigers’ lunch. The smaller deer population in turn brings more tree growth which encourages different insect and bird life, and so on and on. It is all a shifting, interconnected balance that has included human beings as a key environmental shaper for many thousands of years.

When scientists asked them about beluga whale loss in the Arctic, the Inuit explained that warmer temperatures had brought an increase in the beaver population. The beavers took more of the fish, which the whales depended on, and so whale numbers had diminished. It simply hadn’t occurred to the whale experts to include beavers in their research, but the Inuit had observed and interpreted these connections as and when they were developing.

Western science has only begun to describe the depth and complexity of such associations over recent centuries, but other “non-scientific” ways of looking at our surroundings have been articulating it for a very long time.

Among the best known is the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime in which every geographical feature, every river, rock, plant, animal, even celestial bodies, and of course all the different tribes of humans, are descended from ancestors who emerged from the earth, and travelled around it in a series of adventures which are remembered and reenacted – and actively “re-created” through such reenactment– today. They capture an essential view of the world and our place in it which science seems to have largely bypassed in making its own invaluable discoveries.

Everything really is connected but, needless to say, the Dreamtime version was derided as primitive superstition by the European invaders who brought very different priorities from the British Isles. As well as massacring the native people, they infamously imported rabbits to shoot for sport. The creature immediately spread faster than any other mammal monitored anywhere and is now thought to have caused more species and habitat loss than anything else throughout the continent.

In brief, humans have been an integral part of the jigsaw of the planet’s ecosystem for thousands, even millions, of years. It is true we did eliminate some species, including the huge and dangerous auroch, bred by our ancestors into docile domestic cattle. However, prior to industrialization, it seems to be the case that we enhanced biodiversity rather than reduced it, at least in many places. Moreover, humans are much more than just a small player in the constantly shifting picture of life on Earth. Together with atmospheric change, we have been one of the controlling hands of nature for a very long time, including – and this is a vital point – when our population was far smaller than it is today. Whether it fits in with one’s beliefs or not, humans have always been changing the environment, for better or for worse.

The worse part is obvious, and is not confined to rabbits destroying Australian biodiversity. Massive urbanization and industrialization have made life easier for some over recent centuries, but have also created rampant environmental degradation, with escalating –in some cases permanent – damage to the health of significant flora and fauna, including humans. There is no shortage of warnings, studies, and prophets sounding that alarm. We can only pray it starts being properly heeded.

But what of the other side, how have people since antiquity made the world “better?” I’ve described the increased biodiversity, and that tigers seem to prefer it when they are around tribal people; it turns out that forest elephants do too. Baka “Pygmies” in the Congo Basin, for example, are characterized as “hunter-gatherers” but they also spread food plants around the forest, which attract animals. That is not just good for elephants: abandoned camps, fertilized with ash and waste, make good habitat for primates. In the Salonga National Park researchers think there may be up to five times more bonobo where the Iyaelima tribe live than where they don’t. The people were unusually allowed to remain inside the park because they too were classified as “wildlife”!

Reverence for elephants is widespread in Africa. The Baka, for example, think they have an intimate spiritual connection with the animals – which includes sustainably hunting them for food and ritual. This can seem anathema to those urban Europeans and North Americans for whom wild animals (big ones at least), are anthropomorphized and considered nicer than us, untrammeled by our supposedly unique sin and guilt.

If anyone doubts the level of misanthropy to which such “Disneyfication” of nature can sink, they might read the comments accompanying internet stories about poaching. Extremist animal rights advocates repeatedly put animal life far above that of their fellow humans, particularly when the victims are African or Asian.

Unfortunately, this often goes unchallenged by those moderates who also value people. Extrajudicial killing, so-called “shoot on sight” is routinely applauded, even if some of the wounded and dead “poachers” include children, and were never criminals but simply poor people looking for food or even firewood or medicinal plants on what was once their land. Those accepting this as mere “collateral damage” in a righteous war against poaching are rejecting human rights, often gleefully.

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

Culture

How Kenyan Gospel Pop Birthed the Odi-Pop Craze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To gospel musician Daddy Owen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

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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Legacies of Othering in Kibra and Chinatown
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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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