The Elephant in the Room: Why Conservation Must Include Indigenous Knowledge11 min read.
The truth is that indigenous peoples were practising sensible and balanced resource management long before the invasion and takeover of their territories, and long before the colonial conservation organizations appeared, convinced that only they knew best.
Since human beings are elephants’ only serious predator, the creatures must be controlled if the herds are to remain healthy, however unsavory that may sound to animal lovers and however much the public face of conservation hides it. An elephant consumes about 350 pounds of vegetation daily (the average American human takes over two and a half years to eat that weight in potatoes). Like many other plant-eaters, if left unchecked elephants will destroy their own environment. They kill the trees, especially the larger and older canopy cover on which many other species depend.
When tribal hunters, like the Waliangulu, and others (pejoratively) known as “Dorobo,” an ethnic categorization that comprises several hunting and gathering groups in the East Africa region, were thrown out and largely eradicated by European colonists stealing their land for game parks in East Africa, savannah elephant numbers grew rapidly to the point where they began destroying the ecosystem. Massive culls had to be arranged by conservationists – and kept quiet from their donors.
Like many other plant-eaters, if left unchecked elephants will destroy their own environment. They kill the trees, especially the larger and older canopy cover on which many other species depend.
In one park in South Africa, for example, nearly 600 elephants on average were culled every year from 1967 to 1996. In eastern Kenya, a few hundred tribal hunters had kept the huge herds largely in check, killing perhaps up to 1,500 elephants annually, but after they were banned, subjected to a war on “poaching” and other restraints designed to promote tourism, the herds grew to the point where tens of thousands died of starvation when drought periods arrived.
Conservationists are now divided between those who think other methods, such as contraception, should replace culling and those who believe killing remains the only practical solution. What is certain is that there are some areas in Africa today where there are too many elephants for the environment to support. This is in spite of the effects of real poaching which has brought forest (though not savannah) elephants to critically low numbers.
African elephant poaching in general– as professional conservationists well know – is largely facilitated by money-grabbing officials, who remain untouched by the current militarization and extreme violence of “fortress conservation.” More than fifty years of public harangues for money to stop the magnificent creature’s supposed “extinction” continue to divert attention away from the real criminals.
The supposed imminent extinction of elephants has been predicted for over a century. According to Somerville, in 1908 the head of the Kenyan Game Department warned of it, and in 1935, Major Hingston of the Fauna Preservation Society called for special measures to save elephants “from extinction.”More recently, a 2008 report claims “most large groups could be extinct by 2020.”
The popular, but deeply flawed, Kathryn Bigelow cartoon, “Last Days of Ivory,” and several other reports, puts extinction year at 2025 and the film, “The Ivory Game,” makes a pitch for 2031. Extinction would of course be a great crime and tragedy if it ever happened, but the Kenyan conservationist, Mordecai Ogada, challenges, rather scathingly, “Who’s willing to bet with me that there’ll be elephants in 2025?” Big conservation organizations seem to keep the date for supposed elephant extinction always about 10-20 years ahead of their respective fundraising campaign. Patrick Marnham says the U.S. government was preparing to declare elephants an endangered species at the same time in 1978 when elephant meat, from organized culls, was widely and openly on sale in Tanzania.
One might speculate how tourists in the Chobe National Park in Botswana, for example, would react on learning that the vast elephant herds they were paying equally vast sums to see were actually environmental wreckers, destroying the “Wild Africa” Western myth.
Aside from humans, there are in fact few creatures which have a bigger environmental impact than elephants which, without controls, double their numbers on average every ten or eleven years. One might speculate how tourists in the Chobe National Park in Botswana, for example, would react on learning that the vast elephant herds they were paying equally vast sums to see were actually environmental wreckers, destroying the “Wild Africa” Western myth. They are now reckoned to number no less than seven times the land’s capacity.
The United Nations Environment Program calls Maasai pastoralists “low-cost guardians,” and reports that their eviction – by conservationists – from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania led to “an increase of poaching and the subsequent near extinction of the rhinoceros population.
Tribal elephant hunters, like the Baka “Pygmies” in the Congo Basin, are not only good for biodiversity, they were once vital for the health of elephants and they could still be key in stopping their poaching by outsiders. Tribal hunting more widely is internally controlled, largely through the idea that spiritual or physical retribution will fall on any who transgress accepted etiquette. The unwritten rules often include: accepting some delicate zones, such as river headwaters, to be strictly off-limits; not killing female or young animals, or during mating seasons; not hunting near water holes which would frighten animals into not drinking; not killing when game numbers are depleted; and, broadly and simply, not taking more than is needed.
It is not only tribal hunters who bring a positive environmental impact. The United Nations Environment Program calls Maasai pastoralists “low-cost guardians,” and reports that their eviction – by conservationists – from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania led to “an increase of poaching and the subsequent near extinction of the rhinoceros population.”
Satellite imagery of the Amazon now reveals, beyond any doubt, that the forest remains largely intact where indigenous people retain control. In fact, the most biodiverse areas on Earth are indigenous territories, and it’s reckoned that today they incorporate an astonishing eighty per cent of all floral and faunal diversity on the planet
Although it seems obvious to many that tribal peoples are the best conservationists, when I was a youthful volunteer for tribal peoples’ rights and was passing on Robert Goodland’s warnings about climate change, I was careful to downplay this notion. The slightest nod in that direction would be met by jeers and sneers, not only from environmentalists but also from some anthropologists who I assumed knew more than it turned out they did. “Noble savage!” and “Rousseau!” would be disdainfully disgorged, intended as insults which were supposed to end all debate, “Give the Indians chainsaws and they’ll cut the forest down as fast as anyone!”
That was two generations ago, and time has proved how wrong they were. Satellite imagery of the Amazon now reveals, beyond any doubt, that the forest remains largely intact where indigenous people retain control. In fact, the most biodiverse areas on Earth are indigenous territories, and it’s reckoned that today they incorporate an astonishing eighty per cent of all floral and faunal diversity on the planet. SomeAmazon Indians do have chainsaws and could have felled everything, as those anthropologists used to howl (and big conservation organizations still do – at the same time as they partner with logging companies!), and some Indian peoples do sell their timber. But they certainly didn’t destroy the forest, as predicted: In fact, if you now take an aerial picture of Amazonia and draw a line around the areas of visibly intact forest, you’ll likely be tracing the exact outlines of indigenous peoples’ territories.
Tribal peoples in India hold particular forest areas especially sacred; they are now recognized by scientists as “biodiversity hotspots.” The Loita hills and forests in Kenya remain largely intact because the local Maasai council of elders banned tree felling without its explicit permission.
That is confirmed by the data newly available through satellite and GPS technology: Deforestation on land managed by agribusiness, around the Pimental Barbosa Indigenous Reserve in Brazil for example, leapt from 1.5 per cent in 2000 to twenty six per cent ten years later. In the same period, deforestation inside the reserve, managed by the Xavante Indians,was reduced from 1.9 to 0.6 per cent. Similar figures can be seen throughout the region, where deforestation outside indigenous areas is up to twenty times higher than inside. Areas managed by indigenous people in the Amazon have even lower deforestation rates than protected areas such as national parks.
We find the same story elsewhere. Tribal peoples in India hold particular forest areas especially sacred; they are now recognized by scientists as “biodiversity hotspots.” The Loita hills and forests in Kenya remain largely intact because the local Maasai council of elders banned tree felling without its explicit permission. The Karura forest, well inside the city of Nairobi, also owes its preservation originally to the traditional owners, and a belief in the curses they placed on anyone who might allow in settlers.
Data comparing dozens of state contrasted against indigenous-owned forests over three continents found unequivocally that communities really do protect their lands and preserve forests, even if that means taking less for their own livelihoods. Of course, it’s also important they have confidence in the future security of their land rights.
Impressive and moving stories are growing about how indigenous communities are making their own new rules for conserving their lands and then policing them, imposing fines, arresting loggers, and even stopping government departments from imposing their irresponsibly harmful policies.
This is happening from Brazil, where it is exemplified by the “Guajajara Guardians” protecting the lands of Awá Indians, to India. In the latter country, home to more tribal people than any other nation, government policy calls for more teak and eucalyptus plantations, and cynically trumpets this as increasing “green cover.” But these trees don’t provide forage for elephants, which are forced to look for food in villagers’ fields, and inevitably turn dangerous. Community run projects are retaliating by establishing forest corridors both to reinforce tribal self-sufficiency and to provide elephant habitat. Time and again, governments and their advisors prove inept at conservation when local people have long known what actually works, but are often forbidden from doing it.
It is not just in forests and savannahs where indigenous peoples can lay convincing claim to being the best conservationists. The Lax Kw’alaams people on Canada’s Pacific coast turned down the equivalent of over a quarter of a million U.S. dollars for every man, woman and child when they refused to allow a gas terminal on their land. As artist Lianna Spence said, “We already have a lot of benefits around us – we have… salmon. We have halibut, crab and eulachon. Those are our benefits.”
Around the world –though only where they are politically strong and numerous enough –indigenous peoples are now blocking proposed “development” sites and tourist roads, rejecting financial compensation, filing legal complaints, and fighting to stop the environments they depend on – which, remember, they have created themselves –from being torn from their stewardship. Their role in the vanguard of true conservation is slowly beginning to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, this is almost always with little more than hot air – grand declarations not reflected in action. Worse, it remains the norm for conservation projects to encourage the eviction of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, which usually destroys them. The major conservation organizations remain guilty of this illegal and counterproductive measure, notwithstanding their public relations departments’ pretense that they changed years ago.
Vithal Rajan, an Indian former head of the World Wildlife Fund’s “ethics department” told me that he left the job (which paid more in a year than he had previously earned in ten) because WWF promised him they would start treating tribal peoples as environmental guardians, “but then went on with their élite strategies.” He described his role as a “brown man who could talk English, wear a dinner jacket, stand with Prince Philip, and be nice while the audience of multimillionaires wrote cheques.”
The truth is that indigenous peoples were practicing sensible and balanced resource management long before the invasion and takeover of their territories, and long before the colonial conservation organizations appeared, convinced that only they knew best.
In summary, tribal peoples managed their environment: by undergrowth burning; by changing and moving plants and animals; by opening clearings; and by controlled hunting and fishing. The result was an environment heavily modified to create a better space for people to live their lives, and one that brought a vastly enhanced biodiversity.
The opposing idea, still believed by many, that the most intelligent animal on our planet for several million years had only a nominal impact on the environment, is actually very strange if you think about it. It turns out to be just a romantic, and recent, Western belief. It gained traction in the nineteenth century, influenced by Romanticism, scientific racism, and the aspect of Reformation theology that emphasizes a separation between corrupt humankind and God’s supposedly untrammeled Nature.
The Industrial Revolution, beginning in Europe and spread through conquest, of course changed the planet in new and alarming ways. Amassing more and more things and power were its tenets; the provincial dogma that everything must become uniform and simplified, that there was only one correct way of looking at the world, was trumpeted with a ferocity that has endured, and it remains the prevailing faith today.
In spite of waves of doubt, including both the hippy and green movements, it’s the belief that now governs many Westerners, especially those with power and privilege. It also motivates non-Westerners who are, perfectly understandably, taught to aspire to the same way of life, though only a tiny number will ever be allowed to approach, let alone attain, it.
Where does this leave the “noble savage” jeer, flung at those who support tribal peoples? The truth is that we can now unequivocally declare Rousseau’s allegory to be both right and wrong! Tribal peoples don’t just live “in nature,” or, if they do, it’s a nature that they themselves have created. On the other hand, they do live in a way that is broadly and sensibly balanced with an environment that they depend on for their livelihoods, and they really do make the best conservationists. They are not all perfect, but they certainly do a far better job of it than the bloated, big, colonial conservation organizations, which are usually deeply embedded in a wider government-industrial complex serving primarily itself and rich tourists.
Some conservationists blame humans for some prehistoric megafauna extinction, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that people lived alongside big animals for thousands of years, and still do in some places. (A recent theory from Madagascar is that – paradoxically – it was not hunting societies but farmers who brought about the end of the megafauna there.) Other conservationists defend their elitism by admitting that tribal peoples might have once been good conservationists, but claim the original balance between tribes and nature has been irredeemably upset since indigenous people have become “tainted,” seduced by consumerism and are now “just as bad as the rest of us.”
In some places this may ring true. However, if we stick to known facts, and most importantly if we really do value biodiversity, then the evidence is clear that we have to stop alienating contemporary tribal peoples by throwing them off their land. It harms wildlife protection because it turns them into enemies of conservation and means we can never learn from their environmental knowledge and expertise. For their sake, for that of the environment, and indeed for all humanity, we have to start valuing them as the best experts. We need to start realizing that we’re no more than junior partners in this vital quest to save “nature” from ourselves.
There’s nothing “romantic” about this, it’s common sense supported by myriad, growing, and provable facts. If we accept it, it could lead industrialized society towards new and better relationships between the vast diversity of peoples, animals and plants of our planet – and their very deep interconnectedness about which our knowledge remains scanty and shallow. It would be a gamechanger for all our futures.
That obviously means shifting our attitudes and revising the know-it-all mentality that the West has become addicted to over recent generations. However, it does not imply a complete abandonment of industrialization, or any requirement that “we” live like we once did. A few may think these desirable goals, but they simply won’t come about to any significant extent – which is fortunate because if they did they would harm millions. So, incidentally, would the dream of those like E.O. Wilson who wants to put half the world off limits to everyone but conservationists –thankfully, there’s little chance of that nightmare ever happening either (though they’re having a good go at imposing it on Africa).
Perhaps it would also be helpful if conservationists stopped complaining about “overpopulation” –all too often meaning there are too many black and brown people. Women’s empowerment and access to contraception are vital and must be supported, but the fact is that the population density in Africa remains low. South of the Sahara it’s just ten per cent that of England, and less than half that of the United States. It takes about forty Africans to consume the same as a single American. Environmentalists wanting to reduce the population to ease the pressure on resources might find it most efficient to focus first on wealthy Americans and Europeans (and remain childless themselves of course!).
Nostalgia might be hard to shake off, but it’s not a useful recipe for living tomorrow. At the same time, the current drive to consume more and more should be recognized for what it is, an unhinged gateway which leads inexorably towards a real wilderness, one so barren and hostile that only the most powerful are likely to have much chance living in it.
That may suit some of them just fine, but whether or not they are allowed to get away with it may well end up being a question of how much fight there is in the rest of us.
Stephen Corry has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples, since 1972. The not-for-profit was instrumental in stopping the Botswana government evicting the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. It works in partnership with tribal people to help them prevent their land being stolen, including for conservation. Survival has an office in the San Francisco Bay area. Its public campaign to change conservation can be joined at https://www.survivalinternational.org/conservation. This is one of a series of articles on the problem.
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Race and Empire: How Scientific Racism Shaped Kenya
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date.
Maureen was in labour when it happened. The stern nurse needed an answer, but she was in too much pain to think. Her body and mind were fighting each other by that point. Twenty-two years old and lying on a stretcher outside the theatre at Kakamega Hospital, she had never felt more alone. And the nurse wouldn’t let her be wheeled in until she signed the bloody forms.
“I can see in your file that you are HIV positive,” the nurse said again, unmoved, “You must have tubal ligation since HIV positive women are not supposed to give birth.” So she took the pen and signed, and then zoned out. When she came to, she was a mother. A few hours later, the child was dead. In her pain, she had signed away her right to ever have another baby.
That was in 2005.
Forced sterilizations of HIV-positive pregnant women first came to light in 2012, although it had been happening for decades. The report, Robbed of Choice, carries multiple stories like Maureen’s. Almost all the cases documented were of poor women in public hospitals and non-governmental clinics. It was our modern form of eugenics informing unofficial policy with real consequences; an attempt to clean up the gene pool by getting rid of those we deem unfit, or at least take away their right to reproduce.
Derived from Darwin’s theories and given its modern name by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in the 19th century, eugenics is more about class than race. Although the concept preceded that era, it gained a new, organised lifeline that only began ending in the late 1930s. In its origins it was about getting rid of the undesirables, not just based entirely on skin colour, but also on socioeconomic status. Among its pioneers was Frederick Osborn who viewed eugenics as a social philosophy deserving of some form of proactive action. To actively do this in politically sensitive times required tact, such as deliberately under-developing certain areas, refusing to invest in education and healthcare, and sometimes undertaking outright sterilization. Although it never gained mainstream government approval as the governing philosophy in the colonies, it influenced and provided propaganda for many racially-driven policies.
It was a eugenics organization where scientific racism would thrive, designed to prove that blacks were inferior.
In the utopia the colonial project envisioned, Kenyans would always be at the bottom of the social pyramid, with whites at the very top, and Asians in the middle as a buffer. But because Kenya attracted the British aristocracy, the class element was also important to the immigration policy regarding poor whites who were seen as undesirable. With hordes of eugenicists driving the colonial project, their ideas on class and social control infused themselves into the colonies in such core ways that they never left.
In July 1933, 60 white men and women gathered in a boardroom at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. Among them were medical doctors, executives, government officials, journalists, scientists and other prominent white people. There were also a few Indians in the room. Their common goal was to formalize a eugenics group that ended up with the lengthy name Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI).
Of the 60 people in that room, two emerged as the mouthpieces of the group. Henry Gordon and Dr FW Vint were both medical doctors who tried to use science to prove that whites are superior by nature. This was already at the core of the eugenics movement, but in Kenya it was only one part of the core structures of colonialism, which were built on the similar concept of “the white man’s burden”. Gordon was in charge of Mathari Mental Hospital, the only mental health institution in the country at the time. Even within the institution—established in 1910 as the Lunatic Asylum—access to facilities had always been segregated on the basis of race. Kenyans occupied the worst facilities in the 675-bed hospital, and Europeans the best. Up until the 1960s, all the members of the medical staff were European.
One of the main motivations behind the formation of the KSSRI was the growing clamour for better education for Kenyans.
While the group included people from many backgrounds and professions, it was medical science that provided it with the most potent propaganda; the group’s vice chairman was Dr James Sequeira, who was also the editor of the influential East African Medical Journal. The dominance of medical science and pseudo-science in Kenya’s eugenics movement was a result of the growth of British medical care in Kenya in the 1920s, as white doctors became essential to keeping Africans healthy so they could work for settlers and pay taxes.
In Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, Chloe Campbell explores how Gordon and Vint used science to try and prove that Kenyans did not possess sufficient innate mental capacity and hence should not be educated at the same level as their European colonizers. In one study, Gordon studied 219 Kenyan boys housed at the Kabete Reformatory. He concluded that 86 per cent suffered mental conditions, but even the rest couldn’t be considered okay without creating several grades of “European ideas of normality”.
In another study, Gordon tested 278 Kenyans—112 of whom had already been diagnosed with mental illness—for the venereal disease syphilis. When he found that more than half the group with mental conditions suffered from the disease, he concluded that it was the racial differences, and not the social and economic differences in the new colony, that caused the disparity.
This particular argument was not new; in a 1905 book, a settler had blamed Indians and Swahilis for the rise of venereal diseases in Kenya. He’d offered that “the healthiness of a place is greatly increased by not allowing any native habitations within a given distance of the white settlement”.
As a government pathologist, Vint focused his studies on correlating skull size with intelligence. He studied 100 skulls and arrived at the conclusion that Kenyans had lighter skulls and smaller pyramidal cells. In 1934, he concluded that Kenyan brains could not grow past the age of 18 years, and that they started decreasing in size after that. That was the same year primary education became mandatory for white children, while investments in the education of African children remained paltry. Vint’s work was meant to prove that there was no need of educating Kenyans because they did not have the capacity to grasp complex concepts.
After Gordon wrote about some of their findings in The Times, Louis Leakey responded with a letter attacking their methods and their conclusions, but not their premise. Instead, the Kenyan-born anthropologist argued, the feeble mindedness of the “African mind” should be attributed to “the lack of stimulation in the normal conditions of African life and to the fact that sexual activity began at a younger age, somehow inhibiting mental development,” Campbell writes.
Beyond the pre-existing issues with race, there had been another more immediate reason for the formation of the KSSRI in 1933. Just a few months before, the colonial government had hanged a 19-year-old white man, Charles William Ross, for the brutal murders of two young white women. Ross, who was born in Kenya, had killed the two women, thrown one body in the Menengai crater, and left the other at the top. As part of Ross’s defence, Gordon used an X-ray photograph of Ross’s skull to assert that he was criminally-liable because of “pronounced mental instability” that placed him somewhere between “feeble-minded” and “moral-deficient.” He was found guilty anyway, and hanged on 11 January 1933.
This were the same explanations Gordon and other psychiatrists applied to the entirety of the black Kenyan population, more so when they were involved in crime.
With the economic depression of the 1920s and the increasing education of Kenyans, crime rates had shot up in urban areas. Juvenile delinquency was of particular interest, and Gordon would go on to claim that the majority among his subjects in the study at Kabete had some education. The point was that they had been overwhelmed by British education. This was the “feeble-minded” argument, which also drove racially-motivated policies in the economy, healthcare and other facets of life, including the justice system. From the outset, the colonial system had set to educate Kenyans to be church-going technical workers and manual labourers, not free-thinking intellectuals.
The parliamentary discussion on the law that made sexual assault a capital offense laboured on whether it should be applied to non-Kenyans as well.
Interestingly, eugenicists also considered urbanisation to be one of the reasons for the increase in crime and psychiatric cases. In their thinking, urbanisation “detribalised the African and made him unmanageable”. It was part of the thinking that the African mind simply couldn’t handle too much change because it was not genetically wired to do so. Change destabilised their feeble minds and led them to crazy thoughts that they could ever upend the social pyramid. This thinking preceded and survived the official eugenics movement in Kenya which lasted from 1930 to 1937.
On the Christmas Eve of 1911, for example, the Machakos district commissioner wrote a lengthy report on “the mania of 1911”. It was the story of Siotune Kathuke and Kiamba Mutuaovio, who had led several acts of rebellion. Their sermons had supposedly inspired a widespread mania, as more people began to question the ordained order of things. Another good example is the commitment of Elijah Masinde, the founder of Dini ya Msambwa, in 1945. He was committed at Mathari for pretty much the same reasons that Siotune and Kiamba were exiled to the coast. When he was released in 1947, Masinde promptly went back to preaching the end of white rule.
Campbell notes that although the government didn’t fund the eugenicists’ work or officially base its policies on their work, it showed its support in other ways. One was the continued underdevelopment of Kenyans, and the other was more subtle, like giving Gordon a three-month leave from his work to go and try to win support from other eugenicists in London. The members of the KSSRI were also well connected; shortly after they founded the organisation, a group of them went to a ball held at Government House (now State House), which is the opening scene in Campbell’s book. But the movement could not have chosen a worse time to try to push for eugenics, as Hitler’s Nazi Germany employed similar ideas to devastating effects. Thus, the prominence of eugenicists in Britain and in colonies like Kenya diminished in the late 1930s for political reasons, but the ideas survived.
Another prominent figure in the pseudo-science of “African intelligence” was a retired doctor called JC Carothers, who succeeded Gordon at Mathari. He had submitted a widely-read paper on African intelligence to the World Health Organization when the colonial government turned to him to write what became “The Psychology of the Mau Mau”. Published in 1954, the report shows a slight change in the racist perspective regarding African intelligence. Where Gordon had focused on biology alone, Carothers expanded his scope to include environmental issues.
In resisting a common electoral roll, settlers argued that it was unfair to be forced to wait for Kenyans to catch up on the civilisation scale.
Turning his focus to the Kikuyu, who made up the majority of the Mau Mau ranks, Carothers thought that since the Kikuyu had had greater contact with their colonizers, “Kikuyu men have envied this power, not unnaturally, and have tried to capture it by learning.” Kikuyu women were not part of this because Carothers thought that “Her life … has suffered little change,” that her focus was still on agriculture and child-bearing, meaning she had lost her men who “have found themselves with money and powers which have virtually turned their heads. Power has come quickly to folk who are not … familiar with it”. These were Gordon’s ideas, with a dash of flair and some added flavour.
Louis Leakey was another instrumental scientist in that decade, helping counter-insurgency efforts in many ways. His best known effort was on oathing, arguing that the Mau Mau was led by brilliant psychopaths who had changed the oath’s meaning and even particulars. His counter-insurgency research and work may have actually escalated the war in 1952, which was one of his goals. Leakey thought that if he made the problem big enough, then it could be quickly addressed. He used his personal and anthropological knowledge of Kikuyu culture to devise a counter-oath that would free those who had taken the Mau Mau oath, and was core to the psychological counter-insurgency.
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date. They were notoriously anti-poor and anti-Kenyan, offering tokenism and hiding behind legalese. The Witchcraft Act, for example, banned many cultural practices by purporting to regulate them. It even made it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor.
After independence, the power and social dynamics espoused by racism switched back to class their roots, this time driven by a black, mostly Western-educated elite. The White Highlands went to a new class of supremacists, who quickly passed the Vagrancy Act in 1968. Under this law, you could be arrested and placed in a rehabilitation home if you were found walking in a posh estate with no money in your pocket and no known source of income. The Act had existed as the Vagrancy Regulations in the colonial system, only to be formalized when Kenyan elites started replacing settlers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it survived in our laws until it was repealed in 1997.
Using the lessons learned during the decade of the Mau Mau war, the new government launched a similar counter-insurgency against a secessionist movement in Northern Kenya. The model of brutality, concentration camps and spirited propaganda fit in the ’60s as it had in the ’50s, with added efficiency.
Combined with other laws and institutions such as the police, the colonial view of the base of the pyramid survives. It is why the introduction of free primary education and maternity healthcare as public goods was such a big deal. Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order. The paternalistic relationship between the individual and the state is still intact, as becomes clear whenever there is an internal threat to social order.
The forced sterilizations report points to how institutionalised eugenics survives. They were happening with tacit government approval, and targeted a class of “undesirables”. The sterilizations probably thrived in the first decade of HIV/AIDS in Kenya when there was official and social denial of the extent of the problem. We might never know their true extent, although a few of the institutions named in the report should not come as a surprise.
Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order.
One is Marie Stopes International, named for British author Marie Stopes. While Stopes is today regarded as a feminist pioneer, the major driving aspect of her birth-control advocacy was eugenics and not women’s rights. Her ideas about the poor are particularly worrying, as that is whom her clinics targeted from the onset. She was a lifelong eugenicist, who even disinherited her son Harry because he married a short-sighted woman. The other institutions named in the report—government hospitals—are still wallowing in under-investment and neglect.
Infused in post-colonial Kenya was not eugenics as a concept, but as a form of social control. It is many other things now by many other names, but it seems focused on further impoverishing those who are already poor while enriching those already endowed. A few might cross that socioeconomic divide, but many never will.
Kenyan Digital Avatars: Cartoonification of Culture and Heritage
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that result in depictions of traditional and cultural diversity that are inauthentic and historically inaccurate.
Somewhere between 2007 and 2012 Kenya underwent a symbolic transition—from analogue to digital. Comedian Smart Joker became the spokesperson for this transition. It was funny that a jester who amplified the confused-villager-in-the-city motif, the staple of Kenyan comedy, was the one declaring that Kenya had migrated to the digital world. A utopia. The rap verses in his song Tumetoka Analogue Tuko Digital referenced MPesa and mobile phones. Kenya had entered the digital age under the Silicon Savannah moniker. Internet infrastructure was rapidly expanding, cheap internet, the advent of social media and the growing ubiquity of smartphones made 2010 a critical turning point not just for Kenya but for the world. Edward Mendelson even said, “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”
In this digital transition, one of the fundamental changes was how Kenya engaged with itself and the manner in which Kenyans experienced themselves and each other. #KOT was born and thrived.
Some interesting things are happening on the cultural front. In Kenya the use of design software technologies is being used to metamorphosize oral stories into online legends. Vast digital landscapes have been brought to the fore where old depictions are being reimagined; cue the Afro-future genre where Maasais are imagined in space sitting atop alien disks, and Afrobubblegum, which celebrates itself for being fun, fierce and frivolous. Films that disrupt colonial narrative structures and depictions have been made, traditional settings have been incorporated into online games while traditional board games are being digitised. Beyond making Kenyan (hi)stories accessible, however, a critical examination of the affordances and limitations of the digital space is needed, especially in terms of authenticity, diversity and complexity in representation.
Technology is spoken of in heraldic, near-biblical terms, a promised land where a techno-fix will provide correction for all past narratives, attitudes and inefficiencies. The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers. In some cases, political problems are being surrendered to technical solutions. This attitude ignores the fact that technology integrates assumptions and preferences about culture, places, people and values and that it can reproduce and reinforce inequities and lead to new forms of dispossession. Caution against such unchecked hopes has been voiced but the debate regarding the finer details of this analogue-digital migration is confined to tiny circles of experts.
There was something disquieting about the frenetic pace of the analogue-to-digital migration. It was more than the basic burden of migratory logistics. A country like Kenya came to technology with a certain mind-set and the technologies being adopted also came with their baggage of bias and assumptions. Simply adopting or merely imitating how others were using them was not going to work. Some habits have to go, some new ones have to be adopted; success in the digital age comes in iterative baby steps not in the rushed manner in which certain projects have been undertaken. The movers, the systems that allowed the migrations, were all borrowed. Certain cultural and imaginative needs of the people were missing from the existing technologies and had to be built from scratch.
On the cultural and heritage fronts, the debates around digitization have thrown up interesting dilemmas. The events that whisk us from the digital optimism of the early 2010s to the digital cultural depictions of the 2020s are many and follow many threads. They all begin offline, with good intentions and a clear need to meet, a remedy to apply or an aspect of society to include. Measures are then put in place. Take the question of national heroes and memorialization. In 2007, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage set up a Taskforce on National Heroes and Heroines whose mandate was “countrywide data collection on criteria and modalities of honoring national heroes and heroines”. After five months the taskforce came out with a report that, among other things, identified the modalities of scoring and awarding hero points. The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists:
“The national heroes and heroines square should be the highest symbol and point of reference of the perpetuity of our nationhood. It should represent and depict the national core values, goals and principles to which all Kenyans aspire. The place should symbolize all the shrines held sacred by various Kenyan communities. It should be a place revered and treated with utmost respect by those who work, enter and visit the square. As a national shrine it should embody the country’s pride, hope, spiritual and cultural aspirations and national unity. This concept should be reflected in the architectural design, management and administration of the square.”
In short, the manufacture of a holy shrine that, by existing, induces nostalgia, pride, and a deeply symbolic respect for Project Kenya; an Arcadia of sorts, Kenya’s own Shangri La where memories of heroes and heroines live on forever.
Now take this intention, add a software programme and unchecked and uncritical enthusiasm, bring in the National Museums of Kenya, add tracts of digital real estate through the Google Arts and Culture Project, stir for a few years then add frames and the perfect Kenyan heroes soup is ready for serving up on a digital platter. This is what happened recently when Kenya National Museums—through the Google Arts and Culture Project—embarked on a project similar to the watercolour sketches of Kenyan men and women commissioned from Joy Adamson by the British colonial government in the 1950s.
The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted global inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers.
The project is described on the Google Arts and Culture page as a celebration of “a journey of 400 years of history and geography” and we are invited to “meet 61 historic heroes of the Kenyan communities” and engage in their “remarkable stories”. The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino”. In almost all of them, a simplistic macho effect is achieved through creased brows. And they are inspired by the erroneous official simplification that “Kenya has 44 communities who all have heroes” in a move to make culture, diversity, identity history and even pride accessible and available for display. A gamified section invites us to “discover your super alter-Ego” by “taking a quiz”.
The digitally imagined Chief Mukudi adorned in ostrich feathers and the offline analogue reality of the late chief adorned in Mumia Kingdom’s official kanzu, black coat and king’s medals.
This fantastical rendering of Chief Mukudi psychically displaces and forces one to think at once that there was an ancient civilization and that the many marks on his body held mysterious powers. Nostalgia for a fictionalized past looms large in this cartoonish idiocy.
It becomes even harder to look beyond these aesthetic distortions to consider and appreciate the effort put into the project since the aesthetic style erases and overshadows the substance of the stories. This leads to an alienating abstraction of reality.
In moves only possible in the digital space, the project also allows for an immense lore dump. We are not allowed to move gradually through each hero but are forced to contend with tens of heroes and heroines from diverse cultures in an undifferentiated mass in the virtual world. The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
The project achieves two things: Firstly, it is a symbolic reversal of the manner in which Kenya has approached the controversial question of who is to be celebrated and how. Secondly, it is a celebration of diverse traditional oral stories that further complicates the foundational stories of this country.
The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists.
But the actual product falls short of these intentions because the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
Even though this project tries to bring a conceptual shift, its lynchpin is simplistic and flawed. Tinkering with and tweaking the diverse Kenyan cultural heritage in this simplistic manner was never going to bring successful reversals to the old prejudiced attitudes. There is no power or heroism in the depictions of the paused agile leap or the ready-to-pounce poses. This is not a digital revolution overturning old conceptions but a further distortion of reality. A phoney simulation.
To escape from that nativist prison is not possible with Western media and software, and vector elements and stock images conceived in Silicon Valley. Ancient lore can be repurposed for modern digital needs but if it is used to serve narrow nationalistic agendas, a mutually reinforcing and equally destructive process is embarked upon—national image-making on a straitjacket platform.
For a country in search of sources of pride, anything seems to go in reconciling the disparate narratives of national being and becoming. Historical inaccuracies are embraced, regional characters are incorporated without qualms. The mad Mullah can be passed as a Kenyan hero as the stories cross ethnic, cultural and geographical boundaries and vault over their rural origins, acquiring a transcendental quality.
The pastoral 13th-17th century Ajuran sultanate is accessorised, ignorantly, with Mediterranean marble pillars. Its “hero” is an ascending figure bathed in light, holding a sword, and wrapped up like a Tuareg dervish straight from a teenager’s dream in an Ibrahim Al-Koni novel. Moving towards Southern Ethiopia, the almost 600-year-old Borana governance institution of the Gada—that from 1548 has had 72 Aba Gadas—is represented by one image titled Aba Gada; his name and the years of his reign are surplus to the needs of Kenya National Museums.
Some heroes and their stories are asynchronous to their actual histories. Take for example the story of Kote Golo who is depicted as a young Rendille moran. A respected Sakuye elder says that he died in 1913 but KNM places Kote Golo’s stories in the 1930s and beyond. What are we to make of references to Cuban and Soviet Union support? And the Ogaden war? A lone ranger’s story created by KNM.
The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino.”
In this project fictive kinship is conjured at will. The Burji for example, are depicted as “farmers of the desert” even though they are not found in any desert. Their mythical story of origin has villains who shift according to the prevailing relationship or the needs of the narrator. The Burji, Konso and Borana are distinct and unrelated and passing them off as cousins or “the three brothers” is careless. KNM erroneously claims that, “The Burji swore to be farmers, to feed the Borana who had chased them away from Liban, with grains of life.”
Kenya National Museums wants to force the stories to triumph over structural issues and vault above politics, above economics and above context. Women are depicted as hormonal, men are gladiators. The project is largely an attempt to apply heavy nationalist makeup but the anachronistic collapse and fictional rendering fail to achieve the attempted nationalistic unification. Such stories, if not told in all their different dimensions, are best left alone.
Reconciliation with Western imaginaries of heroism
The traditional myths and legends being rescued and bathed in gold and light have been imbued with Western superhero motifs. Most of the images have gilded renderings, the avatars have dead-set serious eyes and flawlessly toned bodies.
Traditional costumes have been wilfully replaced with the accoutrements of heroes of Western heritage and the digital bric-a-brac of online game cultures and depictions of power that borrow trinkets and magical orbs and wands from Harry Potter movies. There are other related accoutrements of this world such as fancy swords and blazing spears. A proper scrutiny of the images may even reveal Black Panther’s vibranium hammers.
To suture the resulting inconsistencies and to imbue them with digital depictions of power, the project bathes everything in neon lights of a golden hue and streaks of lightning. Depictions from Greek mythology and those in the Kenyan heroes project are so similar that one could conclude that Zeus no longer reigned from Mt. Olympus and had allowed his energy of lights to be borrowed for use in the digital afterlife of Kenyan oral stories. Mekatilili wa Menza could pass for Hera.
Institutions and responsibilities
Historical narratives are often complicated, and bear the contradictions of reality. The process by which real people are turned into comic book heroes, shorn of all historical and cultural realities, has been enabled by the enthusiastic use of digital tools and existing digital templates and environment; this carries some of the blame for the iconographic distortions.
Nationalistic self-flattery goes through many layers of bureaucratic approval that all carry the blame for the historical inaccuracies in this project: the funders, the cast of actors that include the heritage minister, and the president who gave it the full blessing of the state. The project has an impressive-sounding list of contributors—Director General, senior curators and research scientists, designers, archivists, photographers and marketers—some of whom have PhDs to their names.
The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
Kenya National Museums is not a stranger to Kenyans and has people capable of a nuanced preservation and depiction of cultures in their full, authentic complexity. That they did not see the fundamental problems with this project demonstrates either wilful ignorance or vested interests with regards to the project funds.
Nothing, not even the desperate drive to reinvent KNM, justifies this level of distortion and and show of disrespect to Kenyan communities. The difficult question of national culture cannot be answered through a linear rendering of history, culture and identity. This refashioning of cultural identities and collapsing of individual uniqueness into a national whole with a homogeneous past only creates a mess. Even when midwifed by Google or the mimicked aesthetics, it is bereft of the true body and material cultures of the depicted communities. When not attempting to create this narrow nationalism, Kenya’s heritage department seems preoccupied with how to add value or use the cultural heritage of Kenya’s communities for some form of economic gain; packaged and ready for investors and tourists. This project is the latest attempt to turn heritage and the diverse cultures into digital cultural capital.
The museum has an impressive collection of material culture. But in this Google Arts and Culture Project, everything is everywhere. The head gear of community X adorns community Y. Things are interchangeable and decontextualized.
These concerns are directed at software designers and at the cultural enthusiasts feeding in instructions into the software to remedy old questions of identity. But the institution that brings together unchecked enthusiasm and flawed programs without care for safeguarding measures carries the bulk of the blame.
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that often do not have—especially in slack, inexperienced hands—the manoeuvrability needed for accurate depictions. To use Western tools to fight old imperial framing needs other supportive industries where items like free and diverse stock photos, digital elements and assets can be sourced. Digital platforms where African and traditional material cultures can be found need to be set up.
I spoke to graphic designers who all contend with the lack of the tools and elements necessary to ease their work. “Sometimes what is in the mind and what comes out of a design process are miles apart,” says George Ngechu, founder of Sura Images, a stock image agency whose platform is designed to provide cheap and accessible images of anything from well-adjusted Africans in the workspace to basic material culture. “We get a lot of queries for a diverse range of images; the demand is a lot but we can’t meet it”.
There are few high resolution images for their use and even those that are available are watermarked or ridiculously expensive. Designers have to resort to paid stock image sites or render their own images, a painstakingly slow process that involves finding models and photographers, organising a shoot, editing and then embarking on designing a small poster depicting the realities of their surroundings. Those who commission the design do not understand that this leads to a borrowed, virtual aesthetic.
“If you search for stock pictures of Africans doing anything you won’t find them easily,” says Job, a graphic designer with a local newspaper. “Search, for example, for an African couple having dinner and you will struggle. But when you look for just ‘couples having dinner’, a million images of white people are available and for free.”
The images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum.
I talk to Chief Mukudi’s great-grandson, a journalist and designer, and we laugh at the image of his great-grandfather. He too acknowledges the challenge in the hands of the designers. “One time I was designing a campaign poster that needed to have a broom in it. All the vectors I got were the witch brooms, I had to go find a broom and make it usable for my needs”.
It takes immense effort and work for a designer to find basic things like akala sandals, brooms, guards, traditional cooking pots or any other commonly available item of material culture on the internet.
“You know, the majority of Kenyans assume that beads are the same. We do not know that they contain important cultural meaning. And also, since we do not have reference points, we approximate or just round off to the nearest item available … If your community isn’t serious in putting itself in the digital space, the distortions, misrepresentations and being left out is inevitable,” says Job.
Digital products have to be groundtruthed yet the data available for the production of the necessary traditional materials is from stereotyped tropes—borrowed, inauthentic simulations or low quality. It is even difficult to crowdsource such elements because, as one of the designers said, “Designers on the continent are not producers but consumers.” The need to contribute to platforms where stock images and vectors are stored was mentioned by many of the designers I spoke to but Joe Nzomo says, “So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
There are ongoing conversations that try to solve this problem by establishing platforms with African material culture assets, elements and stock images such as Picha Stock, the previously mentioned Sura Images, and Leso Stories’ digital asset library.
Leso Stories, for example, uses technology to give an immersive storytelling experience and notes that interactivity is a “key ingredient missing from even the best books or adaptations of African cultural works”. The platform has taken “fundamental care to ensure that not only the storyteller but also the storytelling environment are all authentic and faithful to when, where, how and why these stories are shared.” Leso Stories has managed to achieve this through “Virtual Humans” or what they call Embodied Conversational Agents. However, Leso Stories’ revolutionary contribution is creating 3D models and digital assets to be used by other creators. It is one way to counter the domination of Western digital vectors.
Lessons and responsibilities
The key lesson for us from Leso Stories’ digital asset library, Picha Stock and Sura Images is that technology demands the efforts of individuals who have foresight and passion to effect change. But the support of institutions and the responsibility of those in positions of power are necessary. The institutions at the heart of such efforts like KNM and even global players like Google and stock image behemoths like Getty and Shutterstock have a responsibility for inclusive and accurate cultural depictions.
The true power of traditional symbols of power lies in their proper, respectful and contextual depictions. To help designers and creators, the KNM could have digitised the many items that are stored and displayed in highly colonial forms at the Nairobi archives. Maybe then Harry Potter wands and magical orbs would not be as ubiquitous as they are in the Shujaa project.
Leso Stories is bold and has reimagined how African oral stories can be told without losing their participatory elements.
From production to consumption, the levels at which we have to engage with the use of software are various. In the artificial digital domain, the use of technology has to be groundtruthed. Digital technologies and software are mediums of an unequal power relationship. What is visible online as vectors is mirrored offline by beads, shawls and bakoras. Their enthusiastic adoption needs to strike a balance between prioritising faithfulness and awareness of what might be gained or lost in the cultural translation of oral, contested, continuous, cultural and non-linear histories into permanent, one-dimensional inauthentic and simple depictions.
Fidelity to the truth is key and it cannot be achieved by hurried half-commitments.
When kids who have grown up on comic vines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars turn their gaze from the marvel universe to their environment and search for such characters, they have no tools to analyse, appreciate or objectively appraise their own body cultures, legends, and myths.
In the age of artificial intelligence where simple text prompts and instructions can generate cultural images, the problem of authenticity and complexity is further compounded.
Let us for a brief moment turn to the judgment of the crowd of consumers. Take my friend Basele, a techie and digital enthusiast who shared on This is Africa’s Twitter page text-generated images that he had made on an AI platform—three images necessary for our appraisal of digital depictions.
“So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
Basele used the text prompt “Calm and colourful image of a Samburu girl from Norther Kenya” and this is the image that the AI platform generated.
In Laisamis, the possible home of this digitally rendered cultural “calm and colourful” image, I show the AI mage to two friends and I ask for their reaction. One of the two is an anthropologist. He looks at the image, immediately notes that the lady is adorned with, among other things, “ostrich egg shells” and “modern earrings”. With confusion on his face, he asks, “Could she be Pokot?” Even the distant similarity to Lupita Nyong’o lurking in the image doesn’t help the image to pass the cultural authenticity test.
Here Basele has used AI to generate a “calm and colourful image of a Rendille girl from Northern Kenya.”
My friends compare the nose size with a standard Rendille nose and laugh. But what does the software know? In a third image my friend sent me, the lady has aluminium beads and modern earrings. “Which culture is this?” ask my friends in Laisamis.
The anthropologist in Laisamis says, “The pastoralists’ material culture is lean,” noting that it has to be very sparse and specific: “Remember you carry everything with you.”
But with my friend’s curious commands, even with the AI-generated artificial glow and flawless skin, the images do not pass the authenticity test. It is not satire, it is not caricature. These are the depictions of soulless machines.
More worrying, however, are the high stakes and high risks produced by the fact that such AI-generated depictions are being used in videos to tell oral stories. Their simplistic rendering becomes embedded in other AI platforms where they are used as the groundtruth for further and future AI work. A self-reinforcing loop of distortion.
A third project
Kunta Content, a Kenyan online gaming company, has created a Maasai hero named Hiru. In the game trailer, a Maasai village is depicted well and the landscape is accurate. But Hiru is shown always running, killing a lion within the short two minutes of the trailer. In another trailer, he he kills a poacher armed only with a bow and arrow. Huri has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka. At their heart the codes that run him are the same ones that are powering the Western gaming industry. An anomaly with the story is the traditional gaming industry villain, a slayer bearing two massive axes who is taken down by the dextrous manoeuvre of Hiru’s spear, which is held and used like a cane. Salim, Kunta Content’s creator, describes the merger of media and gaming as “old storytelling which tries to tell an experience, an emotion”.
Digital inclusion needs more than design sensibility to obtain accurate and complex depictions. Other aspects such as an understanding of history, awareness of forms of self-depiction, a grasp of design tools, an honest imagination, understanding language and the power of stories, some anthropological depth, a sense of geography and an appreciation of cultures and spirituality need to be in place. These are not only to be considered but they need to be actively cultivated and implemented. An assemblage of supporting and intersectional expertise such as writers, designers and critics, as well as platforms for dissemination like the Internet, television, books and, most importantly, the resources to undertake the necessary iterative experimentation and learning have to be availed.
Clicking away swiftly
Kenya’s culture and heritage ministry is encouraging communities to compile, document and register their traditional knowledge. As heritage officials from the ministry traverse the country facilitating this rush to develop biocultural protocols, the question of the technology behind them has not been fully considered. So far, the discussions seem to be centred around traditional attire, food, herbal medicine, heritage sites, rites of passage, and so on and so forth. The intention is to codify and keep traditional knowledge in a database somewhere where it will be stored for eternity and where communities can access it with just a few clicks.
He has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka.
But we must not forget that dispossession and exploitation have often been a deliberately baked-in problem. The risk with such databases lies in the fact that entire communities’ traditional knowledge can be erased from such systems or replaced without consequence. Aside from structural issues like software developer bias that can show up in their codes or the risk of hackers, the whole idea is foreign and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
The above efforts to bring traditional African cultures into the digital space seem to be simulations of what authentic pre-colonial traditional backgrounds should look like; in South Africa, experiments at 3D oral storytelling were set inside a cave. Their intention is almost always to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage. The inclusion of ambient audio sounds like chirping birds, lowing cows and crowing cocks don’t guarantee their integrity. The villages shown are untouched even by such simple “technology” as iron sheet roofs, yet Kenyan villages today are places where solar lights, mobile phones, plastic water Jerry cans, radios and even TVs compete for visibility with shukas and lesos.
Aside from the structural issues, the idea of taking and storing is colonial and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
Digital space and technology is a transitional medium that can evolve into a space of shared memory. As it is currently instituted, however, it has major limitations in depicting the rich African cultural tapestries. So far, the depictions of traditional and cultural diversity are inauthentic and historically inaccurate. The portrayals of complex diversity, nationhood and even conflict are problematic.
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the Kenya National Museums in Kenyan public life. However, as enthusiasm for the heritage industry grows, more than any other institution, KNM offers a chance to meet its needs. But to do this, it needs to go through a phase of introspection and to rethink its role.
To tackle the inaccuracies and elisions of African material cultures from the digital space, efforts are necessary from several fronts: individual artists, institutional commitments and the design of the technology itself. This should be a serious and deliberate endeavour as the risks of reanimating colonial logics of extraction and over-simplification lie in wait.
Davido’s Timeless Misses the Dial
No longer the self-proclaimed Goliath of the Afrobeats scene, Davido’s latest release reveals a waning star in a crowded firmament.
The West African Afrobeats scene is no longer the same as when Nigerian megastar Davido, popped up more than a decade ago. When he first appeared, he was on top of his game and dominated the Afrobeats scene so completely that Wizkid was the only truly competitive rival. Unlike his considerably more mellow rival, Davido bristled with unparalleled energy, intensity and ambition. Now heavily thronged with countless talented stars, rather than being defined by a pyramidal structure headed by a few notable names, the Afrobeats game is currently driven by a daunting, horizontal array of heavy-hitters. It’s much harder to make headway let alone stay in the game for any significant length of time.
Timeless, Davido’s major release since 2020’s A Better Time, features 17 tracks beginning with a mildly reflective Over Dem, a track almost futilely proclaiming his dominance over the music game with continuous allusions to the biblical David and Goliath. In short, the life and death struggles that mark the scramble for survival.
Feel is quite lacklustre and by Davido’s lofty standards, lacking in the characteristic fire. In the Garden, a love-focused number featuring Morravey, does not fare much better in terms of vocal flames or inspiration. Godfather is unmistakably a throwaway track. The lyrics are almost unbearably lame and the amapiano trimmings definitely unconvincing. In Unavailable, he hooks up with South African amapiano star Musa Keys, who does much to lift the joint out of rank mediocrity. Bop with Dexta Daps is also embarrassingly weak. Indeed, the less said the better. E pain me is about a broken heart that probably should remain broken on account of the song’s corny words, sentiments and thread-bare beats.
A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point.
Away is directed at his perceived detractors and haters and his drive to rise above the negativity coming his way. Again, there’s little to commend itself here. At first, it would seem Precision lacks originality, power and sonic appeal. However, on the chorus, Davido is amply supported by a host of stirring backing voices that give the track unexpected buoyancy.
Kante features super-talented Nigerian Afrobeats songstress, Fave, whose inclusion brings much needed fire and relief. Na Money receives help from The Cavemen—Davido’s frequent Afrobeats collaborators—and Angelique Kidjo, Benin Republic’s multiple Grammy award-winning multi-genre diva. On this calypso-inflected joint, Davido momentarily emerges from his uncharacteristic lethargy, no doubt inspired by his more adventuresome associates.
(U)juju, featuring Skepta, slumps back into the doldrums. Once again, this cut is meant for a love interest who undoubtedly would remain unconvinced by this uninspiring offering. No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
Picasso, which features Logos Olori, is not crafted with any ambitious artistic goals in mind apart from its understated reggae vibes. In other words, its title is simply misleading. In For the road, Davido continues his explorations of Caribbean grooves and sensibilities. Clearly, his past collaboration with Jamaican reggae/dance hall artist Popcaan is being cashed in on.
No Competition benefits from the gifts of the incomparable Asake who literally breathes life and fire into what would have been another love-focused dud.
LCNC finds Davido vainly reaching out for the distant stars that once jealously guarded him. But they don’t appear to need him anymore. What a shame. Here, he sings “Legends can never die/shooting up for the stars/dem no fit play my part.” True, but not when he seems to be deliberately trashing a painstakingly built legacy.
Champion Sound—the 17th track on this disappointing album featuring South African amapiano star Focalistic whom Davido had thrust into the international limelight—is probably the best cut. Arguably, this has even less fire than their previous collaboration on the Ke Star re-mix that had a huge continent-wide impact.
When Davido first made his appearance on the scene, he was full of beans and appeared unstoppable. He did everything and went everywhere. It seemed as if he didn’t know or understand the agonies and frustrations of creative burn-out. He was firing on all cylinders because, being the son of a billionaire, the primacy of strenuously maintaining one’s hustle is ingrained in him; failure is not the result of a tired and denuded imagination but the outcome of not trying hard enough.
Davido went on frequent headlining global tours in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Caribbean not minding the state of his voice or his nerves. He finds it difficult to stop long enough to get adequate rest as he is also the active CEO of a record label that is home to other stars such as Mayorkun, May Day, Peruzzi, Lola Rae and others. He is also constantly embroiled in hair-splitting public drama with his lover, Chioma Rowland. At some point, it all gets too much and this is evident in perhaps the worst album Davido has produced.
His previous offering, A Better Time, suggested that Davido may no longer be in full command of his creative powers. Released the same year heavy-hitters like Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Burna Boy and Olamide offered major albums, A Better Time is unwieldy, attempting to do much more than is necessary to prove some elusive artistic point. In truth, it packs some power and also juggles some lovely ideas which are eventually lost beneath the detritus of unneeded tracks and fillers. His lack of concision sees his efforts wasted and ultimately floors him.
With seventeen mostly tired or under-done tracks, Timeless demonstrates that even the great Davido is sometimes capable of simply missing the mark. Obviously, he needs to learn how to chill, kick back, restore his voice and wait patiently for fresh ideas to visit him. In this way, he could have a much longer and also a more inspiring career. For the first time in his storied journey, it seems Davido is falling off because he still hasn’t figured out how to pace himself.
Timeless is undeniably thin, most probably because Davido is concerning himself with far too many pursuits that have nothing to do with music. His matter-of-fact approach to creativity, which initially may have propelled him to the heights of his game, has now become his nemesis.
No doubt there are a few bright spots in this largely underwhelming effort. The Dammy Twitch shot video of the viral song Unavailable explores the rich natural beauty of the South African landscape. Alongside a delectable bevy of babes bopping to the beats of Davido’s collaborator, Musa Keys, there are also the stunningly beautiful South African amapiano duo TxC and Johannesburg dancer, Uncle Vinny, dishing out head-turning moves.
Outside the recording studio, Davido has been busy with controversies around paternity issues. Women have come out claiming he is the father of their children. Kemi Olunloyo, a podcaster-turned bugbear has kept on Davido’s case, trying to reduce him into a R. Kelly kind of guy, a serial abuser of womenfolk. Rumours of drug abuse, violence and death have also beclouded his reputation. And these, rather than his bangers, have begun to gain more traction.
Sometimes, even in interviews, it is clear Davido’s hectic pace is catching up with him. He often sounds hoarse, strained, at a point of dissolution. He’s essentially a singer and not a rapper, and that being the case, the timbre of his voice as an instrument ought to be preserved at its best quality. Outwardly, it doesn’t seem as though Davido is bothered; he seems more concerned about the boisterousness of his hustle, the implacability of his grind, which might translate into great business but is not always the wisest of artistic choices. He has obviously been neglecting his primary instrument and also failing in the creative department as the world-wide bangers have slowly dwindled to a trickle.
Also, the competition within the Afrobeats scene has become infinitely more fierce, with the daily arrival of new stars—Rema, CKay, Tems, Buju, Pheelz, King Promise, Eugene Kuami, Fireboy DML, Naira Marley, Asake, Simi, Adekunle Gold, Pantoranking, Ayra Starr, and so many others. This development makes it almost impossible for an individual to exert complete dominance over a scene that is experiencing various kinds of differentiation, identities and trends. After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Musically, over the years, the frenetic pace of his life has also been captured in song and in rambunctious performances across the world. He has collaborated with an astonishing welter of artists from different parts of the globe, including US players Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Lil Baby, Young Thug, Keyana Taylor, Summer Walker, Casanova, Meek Mill, South African artists Mafikizolo, Sho Madjozi, Focalistic, Abidoza and Musa Keys, and UK rapper Skepta.
After his global success with his 2017 hit Fall, Davido is now only perhaps a fading star in a firmament filled with innumerable stars.
Initially, a few of these collaborations—such as those with Brown and Popcaan—seemed well-conceived. And then such efforts were rapidly reduced to clout chasing exercises. It also seems that Davido had begun to envisage a life beyond music and this is also reflected in the diminishing inspirational potency of his creative output. Of course, Davido might be the last person to realise or acknowledge this vitiation but let’s hope this gradually fading star has the grace, wisdom and courage to age with style and adequate forethought. This would go a long way to preserving his unquestionably impressive legacy.
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