Anyone with a fleeting interest in the arts in Kenya, not familiar with the name, Akothee and does not have an opinion about her, may have missed the subtle manner Akothee is influencing gender and feminism discourse in Kenya. Akothee is no stranger to controversy, and easily qualifies as the Kenyan une femme terrible or a typical bad girl.
Akothee has cultivated a risqué reputation. In African entertainment circles, she compares to Brenda Fassie, the South African Afro-pop star. Brenda Fassie’s raunchy performances, her political commitment to the poor, her open lesbian relationship after marriage and having a son, made her stand out as an outlier. Akothee’s fame, or notoriety has been buoyed by two recent highly publicised occurrences: her public spat with Ezekiel Mutua, the Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), censor-in-chief of creative expression in Kenya, and her hugely successful relief food and water mobilization efforts aimed at assisting the famine-ravaged communities in Turkana in Northern Kenya. Akothee’s public performances offers us an interesting re-reading and re-writing of the perception of not just a creative female performer and the performance arts, but the public image of a modern African woman challenging patriarchal projection of power in all its manifestations.
We might pose to dissect what Mutua represents; he is a staunch defender of, and flaunts the ignominious Films and Stage Plays Licensing Act that was used in the late eighties and nineties to stifle political and creative expression in Kenya.
To locate the issues of feminism that Akothee brings to the fore, our discussions must move beyond the image broadcast by Mutua, that of a scantily clad atrocious artist, promoting vulgarity and pornography, morally bankrupt, an embarrassment and anathema to African values (whatever those are). We might pose to dissect what Mutua represents; he is a staunch defender of, and flaunts the ignominious Films and Stage Plays Licensing Act that was used in the late eighties and nineties to stifle political and creative expression in Kenya.
Today, few people will recall that this law was used to shut down Ngugi wa Thiongó’s Kamirithu Arts Centre, ban performances of Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for me), Ngahiika Ndeenda (I will marry when I Want) and Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The same law was used to stop performances of: The Fate of a Cockroach by Tewfik el Hakim, Shamba la Wanyama, and adaptation of Animal Farm by George Orwell, Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay by Dario Fo and Drumbeats on Kerenyaga by yours truly ( Oby Obyerodhyambo). This law was vigorously fought by artists and civil society just as much as the Chief’s Act and Preservation of Security Act (Detention Act). Mutua has been at the forefront of supporting increasingly draconian censorship legislation to give power to the Film Classification Board so that free expression is curtailed.
Mutua also fashions himself as a moral crusader allegedly protecting Kenyans from decadence supposedly promoted largely through creative expression; film and music. On the basis of protecting morality and curtailing obscenity, he banned the public viewing of the award winning film, Rafiki (until the courts intervened) and playing of Diamond Platinum’s song Kwangaru. Mutua’s hard-line position ruled illegal by the court as contradictory to the constitutionally protected rights and freedoms of expression, association and conscience leads us to question the platform upon which he pontificates. One could argue that his actions smack of male chauvinism, misogyny, sexism and patriarchy and that his conflict with Akothee manifests the deep desire and attempt by patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic and chauvinistic systems to maintain control over women; their bodies and intellect. Akothee’s push back represents a refusal to take such patronization lying down.
Ideas of how women should behave, present and conduct themselves in public, interact and relate to others and respond to issues are defined by culture, tradition and religion. Akothee’s response to attempts to control and define how she should carry herself is deliberate. Akothee has been confronting patriarchal systemic sexism all her life. The scale of her philanthropic engagement, her use of personal resources to mobilize the public has earned her more credibility than local leaders and traditional disaster relief organizations forming a foreground to reflect on her life.
Akothee stayed in this household for seven years and bore children in annual cycles: her first born at age fourteen, the second at fifteen, the third at sixteen and the fourth at age seventeen! She lost her second child in infancy due to lack of resources to secure health care for the child.
Esther Akoth Kokeyo was born thirty-six years ago. While in Form 2, aged fourteen, she eloped with a lover and got married. Akothee does not speak about this episode in her life as a victim. Instead, she extols the romantic nature of the misadventure, even though the lover in question committed a crime of marrying an underage girl. After eloping with this man, Akothee moved in with her mother-in-law in Awendo town and in her own words, was reduced to a house-girl. Akothee states this matter-of-fact even though she was a sexually exploited fourteen-year-old girl and a child labourer. Akothee stayed in this household for seven years and bore children in annual cycles: her first born at age fourteen, the second at fifteen, the third at sixteen and the fourth at age seventeen! She lost her second child in infancy due to lack of resources to secure health care for the child. Yet she does not speak about this with any trace of bitterness or anger.
The father of her children proceeded to finish high school and university while she bore him babies. Eventually, he graduated in 2003, and they began a modest life as a married couple. A year after her husband graduated, and at 21 years old with three children, she left her mother-in-law’s place and moved to Kanga shopping centre, in Migori County to set up a business selling omena (Dagaa) to fund her return to school and cater for the upkeep of her family. In an interview, she says, “I decided to go clear my fourth form at Kanyasrega secondary school. I would drop the kids at kindergarten before proceeding to school. In the evening I would pick them up from the teacher’s house, take them home and go sell my omena for one hour.” Akothee, made a conscious decision to educate herself probably seeking to liberate herself from the control of her educated husband and his mother.
Her husband’s fortunes began to change for the better, but by age twenty three the mother of three was kicked out of her marriage for being “too boring, too hard-headed and un-romantic”. Her pursuit of academic and financial betterment meant that she no longer fitted within her former husband’s traditional ideal or stereotype of a wife; submissive, helpless and non-opinionated.
Not to be deterred, the penniless Akothee moved on to Mombasa to join her brother in running his taxi business after a stint as a matatu driver. The transport business in Kenya remains the preserve of men because the jobs therein are characterized as rowdy, risky, crude and would expose women to intrusive attention from men or even sexual abuse. Akothee went against the gendered grain by taking on this career.
While working as a taxi driver, Akothee began investing the little savings that she had. It was here that she met a man with whom she began a relationship. This relationship led to her relocation to Zurich, Switzerland with this partner and ended up with her fifth conception. The relationship did not last long, and Akothee reveals that contrary to her expectations, the man was only interested in her bearing children and not in marriage. So she left him, and flew back to Kenya. This move marks an interesting transition in Akothee’s life. She walked out of a relationship that did not guarantee her marriage – which is what she wanted, but which sought to confine her to a reproductive role. Her act of defiance to being confined to a procreative role, marked a turning point.
After returning to Kenya, Akothee launched her musical career and started making money performing music and dancing. She also began to invest in different sectors. She expanded the taxi business, ventured into tours and safaris, real estate, hotel industry and entertainment. The multiple enterprises that would see her fortunes rise dramatically had begun. Gradually, Akothee gained financial independence and autonomy challenging the notion that women only attain financial independence through affiliation to men, either by marriage or inheritance from fathers and never through hard work and investment.
Not Playing Victim
Akothee consistently refuses to depict herself as a victim of circumstances beyond her control. She reminisces her seduction and elopement at age 14 with a romanticism that could be labelled as naiveté were it not such a regular trait in her character. She does not blame her then husband for luring her into elopement. In fact, she nostalgically recalls how seductive his letters were; written on blue coloured foolscap paper. Even with hindsight, Akothee does not vilify the man. Instead, she accepts that she was going through a rebellious phase in her life taking full ownership for her decisions and the consequences of her choices. Akothee got repeatedly pregnant, but she blames neither her mother-in-law nor her husband. She has repeatedly warned her daughters against falling for similar tricks from men. “Men don’t really mean what they whisper in your ears when they need sex, that time they are lost. Let them do the theory, practicals is in your hands”.
Akothee has been categorical that what she did was stupid and by taking ownership of her mistakes, she empowers herself to use her error of judgment as lessons. She does not privilege her husband and give him power over her. About her husband having ‘abandoned’ his role she says, “Okello is my sweetheart. He was my first boyfriend. Wherever you are, daddy, we are proud of you. You see, your daughter is at Strathmore…You must come and pat me on the back”. Her ex-husband is irrelevant as she tells her own story of folly.
The modern African feminist discourse around sexuality decries the power and control that customs and traditions had over the woman’s body, social and sexual norms. In the traditional African reading, there was a high value placed on ‘real womanhood’ (read: motherhood) and sexual purity. This led to a high level of policing of a woman’s sexuality by her parents, society and religious institutions. The woman’s reproductive role was privileged above all else. The ability to conceive and bear a child was critical to assuming the status of ‘mother of’ which is the preferred term of respect for a mother. Many traditional societies revered virginity and the loss of virginity on the first night of marriage was apparently a great honour to the bride’s family.
Conversely, if a woman had lost her virginity beforehand, the act brought shame and stigma. A woman’s sexual and reproductive rights are controlled by patriarchal cultural norms and while extramarital sexual relationships are considered normal for men the idea of a woman’s ‘infidelity’ is remains a major infraction. These rights are controlled and negotiated through their relationships with her male relations and her in-laws. Women, thus have very little power to decide and fully express their sexual rights and sexuality.
Modern African feminism has correctly called out this enforced powerlessness as an element of domination, and decried acquiescence to this domination as an implicit acceptance of this power over the women’s body. In the prevalent patriarchal cultures and religions, the sexual and reproductive rights of a women is highly regulated. The issue of abortion for instance is not in women’s hands. The whole question of access to FP (Family Planning) is another illustrative point. Poverty compounds female sexuality and there is a greater loss of control because money is used as a means to control female sexuality. Thus the manner of her dressing, her presentation and how she expresses sexuality and sensuality must fit within these confines or she is deemed to have crossed the line. This privileging of tradition and culture as well as its agents, parents, fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, patriarchal leaders would keep a woman forever in chains fashioned by the perception of what is right, decent and allowed by tradition and culture.
At the height of the brouhaha over a controversial performance, and before the revelation that her parents were indeed present at the show, critics questioned whether she would mount such a ‘shameful’ performance in front of her father. After it emerged that her father actually supports her art in totality, he received backlash for ‘condoning such immorality’.
Akothee’s reluctance to accept or blame cultural and traditional institutions for her multiple pregnancies and births, her images of sexuality and her redefining how she relates to her father (who would represent traditional cultural authority) for instance, is a push back to traditionally defined identities for women. Akothee asserts that her father supports her full heartedly. At the height of the brouhaha over a controversial performance, and before the revelation that her parents were indeed present at the show, critics questioned whether she would mount such a ‘shameful’ performance in front of her father. After it emerged that her father actually supports her art in totality, he received backlash for ‘condoning such immorality’. Here again, sexual and body taboo associated with the female body comes up. The argument being that it is inconceivable that a ‘decent daughter’ could perform in a sexually provocative outfit in the presence of her father.
Akothee relationship with her father serves to re-define cultural norms in a radical way; her interaction with her father clearly re-demarcates the daughter/father and performer/audience dichotomy.
Multiple pregnancies and births resulting from the lack of choice is usually framed as arising from powerlessness, but not in Akothee’s case. She has controversially stated that making babies is her hobby, and at one point tweeted that she wanted to ‘give her lover’ triplets. Akothee’s attitude towards child-bearing runs counter intuitive to the idea that by giving birth multiple times a woman’s body is exploited. Akothee extends this re-definition to single-motherhood. Akothee has fashioned herself as a proud single parent calls herself, ‘President of Single mothers’ re-calibrating the public perception of single motherhood hitherto filled with stigma. Akothee makes no apology for having had children with three different men. The reality is that men who have children with multiple women ado not suffer stigma, while women do.
Single mothers have fought for official recognition of their children by the biological fathers, in the case of inheritance and the provision of child support. In March 2019, the High Court ruled that Kenyan children ‘born out of wedlock’ can now inherit a father’s property. This marks a major victory for those who have been seeking equal rights for children of single mothers in a case filed by the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA) and a single mother of two. In Akothee’s case, this seems to be the least of her priorities. Akothee’s crusade seems to gravitate around normalizing the role of single motherhood and proving that children of single mothers are in no way disadvantaged.
Her unapologetic expression of agency, independence, and self-control of her life as well as her destiny might be the reason that Akothee raises so much opprobrium. The cause of disagreement between her and the archconservatives is her resistance to the ideals of Victorian ethics. The state embodies a subjective cultural norm premised on the idea of a ‘decent ‘and ‘moral’ woman who behaves and dresses in a prescribed manner. Mutua’s expressed discomfiture with Akothee’s dressing is probably informed by the idea that a woman, mother of grown up girls to wit, should not wear revealing clothes.
The inordinate sexualisation of the female body even when she is a performer as Akothee is, betrays a lopsided sense of morality that reveals gender bias and sexism. It is interesting that even the woman who were defending Akothee’s right to dress as she pleased, could only reference non-African music icons as comparisons. Akothee’s defenders challenged Mutua to take note of the mode of dressing by performers like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga or Aguilera. There were no African performers mentioned. Globalised culture has not embraced African aesthetics and as a result, the African female performer is inclined to imitate standards set by western cultural icons.
Gender and feminism discourse critique exposes the flaws of the notion held that women sabotage their own upward mobility. The predominant social script states that female envy and jealousy is responsible for women’s lot in life, and that cat-fights are second nature. The unspoken logic therefore, is that keeping women from advancing is actually good for them, it is self-preserving because it prevents them from cannibalizing each other. Akothee challenges this stereotype in her description of her relationship with her mother-in-law. She has described living under trying circumstances with her mother-in-law for seven years, during which time she even lost a child. However, she does not have a negative word for her mother-in-law.
Akothee’s quest for self-identity and freedom from being seen as an appendage of a man, or a culturally defined female identity – a wife, mother, daughter – is at the core of her conflict with those who abrogate to themselves the role of defining the role and place of women. Akothee argues that she is nobody’s role model and this can only be read as a rejection of the patriarchal definition of roles for the ‘decent’and perfect woman and mother. Since she is the mother of post-teenage daughters she is traditionally supposed to behave as a ‘mother-in-law’ and set an example to her daughters of how decent women are supposed to behave. This value system is biased against women. Fathers of sons of similar age are not expected to serve as role models to male children who are socially sanctioned to be unruly and mischievous.
Akothee demands freedom that will liberate women from oppressive culturally defined roles. Akothee rejects the sexist desire to control women through the sanction of shame. In 2012 during a performance in Istanbul, Madonna pulled down her bra and revealed a nipple and flashed her butt. Previously during the 2003 VMAs she had kissed pop stars Britney Spears and Christine Aguilera. Madonna performed using Christian and Hindu religious iconography while simulating sex and masturbation on stage. She even got the Vatican threaten to boycott Pepsi products after her highly controversial performance in the soft-drinks ad. Yet Madonna has argued that her performances are actually challenges against male domination. In her own words she says, “It just fits right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities’. It is hard to miss the parallels between Akothee and Madonna. Madonna has rallied against sexism while still proving to be highly successful as a performer and financial success.
Akothee has had to deal with those who delegitimize her wealth by attributing the source of her wealth to a male partner – stopping short of declaring her a commercial sex-worker.
At the height of media attention over her net worth, Akothee’s manager clarified that contrary to media reports that she was worth 600 million, the figure was actually 6.2 Billion Kenya Shillings. The attainment of financial independence by a woman, is yet another element that puts a woman at odds with sexist ideology. Such a woman has power that challenges patriarchal power structures. In the wake of the recent famine and food shortage in Turkana, Akothee who revealed that she had spent some of her early years in that region and therefore considers it ‘home’ mobilized resources and delivered emergency food relief to the starving residents while the government dithered and denied the obvious. In typical Akothee fashion, she showed up in Turkana dressed in traditional garb women as if to dare those who have criticised her adornments as non-African and disrespectful. Her image, juxtaposed to that of Nairobi Governor Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi trailed by a commando styled body guard, spoke volumes in regards to empathy and appropriateness. Many on social media posed the rhetorical question whether her philanthropic gesture did not indeed tally with that of a perfect role model.
Akothee has had to deal with those who delegitimize her wealth by attributing the source of her wealth to a male partner – stopping short of declaring her a commercial sex-worker. Akothee herself says, “I have had to struggle for everything: it’s not easy. I get so many burnouts. I didn’t just wake up from a sponsors bed with millions of shillings in my bank account. You really have to grab every opportunity with both hands, whether it’s an interview, your job or a business.”
The image of helplessness and dependence is so ingrained that any woman showing financial capacity, and as in the case of Akothee and flaunting her wealth is deemed to be un-womanly. A man can flaunt his wealth (as Sonko does) but a woman who has wealth should be humble and at best invisible. Akothee goes against the script because she displays her wealth.
Akothee is not your typical proponent from the mainstream African feminist movement. She does not have has middle class background. She is not an intellectual, nor does she possess academic pedigree. She is not a political figure, neither does she belong to civil society, but if we are to use Naomi Nkealah’s definition of African Feminism, Akothee has sought to create a new liberal productive and self-reliant African woman within the heterogeneous cultures of Africa. Her struggle against entrenched sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, male chauvinism and moral correctness challenges culture as it affects the perception of woman in Africa. In this regard, Akothee is indeed a role model.
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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.
The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.
The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.
The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.
On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.
Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.
I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.
The toppling of the statue
At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.
For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.
The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.
The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.
One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.
In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”
The wider significance
The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.
Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.
The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.
This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.
In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.
One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.
These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.
The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
June 18, 1940 is well known throughout Francophonie: it is the date of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech calling for resistance against France’s occupation by Nazi Germany and its ally, the Vichy regime. The then-governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, was one of the first political leaders to support de Gaulle; he proclaimed his support from Brazzaville, the capital of “Free France” between 1940 and 1943. To this day, in Dakar and Bamako, as in all the metropole’s cities, at least one street name references the event. On the other hand, who remembers Lamine Senghor’s scathing indictment of French colonialism—which he urged to “destroy and replace by the union of free peoples”—before the League Against Imperialism in Brussels on February 11, 1927? Two public addresses calling for resistance to servitude: one proudly displayed around the empire, the other pushed into oblivion.
Recent movements like Rhodes Must Fall, Faidherbe Must Fall, and Black Lives Matter have forced us all to face the political nature of odonyms (identifying names given to public communication routes or edifices), carriers of a selected and selective memory. If a street, a square, a bridge, a train station, or a university proudly carries a name, it is because someone decided it would. In Senegal, historian Khadim Ndiaye insists that “it was when the power of the gunboats defeated all the resistance fighters that Faidherbe’s statue was erected in the middle of Saint-Louis as a sign of rejoicing.” “Lat Dior was assassinated in 1886,” he adds, “and the statue was inaugurated on March 20, 1887 . . . to show the greatness of the metropole.”
To live on Edward Colston Street, Léopold II Avenue, or Jean-Baptiste Colbert Boulevard is to adopt, through time, a geographical identity based on that given name. One starts becoming accustomed to its sound, as it takes a life of its own; generating scenes of endless discussions around tea, of traffic jams on the way home from work, of bargaining with the local shopkeeper. Everything from the bakery, pharmacy, and police station to the hotel, ATM, and gas station bear its shadow. A name that produces memories, attachment, intimacy—all while sneakily erasing its backstory. Rhodes? Ah, my college years! Pike? Good times we had around that statue! Columbus? What a lovely park that square had!
Odonyms have the power of not only negating history but also distorting memory. May 8, 1945 is synonymous with both liberation and carnage. In Europe, the date marks the surrender of Germany and the victory of the Allied powers. In Algeria, for having dared to demand their liberation from the colonial yoke during the parade celebrating the end of the war, thousands (probably tens of thousands) of Algerians were killed in the cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. Two memories face each other between the May 8, 1945 bus stop in Paris or the May 8, 1945 square in Lyon on the one hand, and the May 8, 1945 airport in Sétif or the May 8, 1945 university in Guelma on the other. Moreover, the “liberation” commemorated through the avenue running alongside Dakar’s port celebrates that of France in 1944–1945, not Senegal’s. This “liberation” occurred when the country was still a colony, its children subject to the Code de l’indigénat (Native Code), and its soldiers—at the Thiaroye camp, on December 1, 1944—coldly executed in the hundreds for demanding their compensation for fighting in the French army.
As sociologist Alioune Sall Paloma argues, “naming is an act of power.” Odonyms can thus equally be used by officials to seize historical legitimacy over a popular figure or event. Despite being attacked throughout his life, everyone in Senegal now seems to erect multifaceted thinker Cheikh Anta Diop as an unquestionable reference. How is it, then, that the country’s largest university—that happens to bear his name, on an avenue named after him, which now also hosts a statue of him—does not teach his groundbreaking work? Or that, in February 2020, five high schools in the country were renamed after authors Aminata Sow Fall and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, sculptor Ousmane Sow, and revolutionary leader Amath Dansokho, all while artists barely manage to survive from their work and the political principles these namesakes stood by are today systematically scorned?
There is also a lot to say about many heads of states’ obsession with “going down in history.” In Cameroon, the largest football stadium in the country, built for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, honors current lifetime president Paul Biya. In Côte d’Ivoire, after only two years in office, Alassane Ouattara gave his name to the university of Bouaké. In Senegal, under the impetus of his brother—also involved in politics and at the center of a 2019 multibillion-dollar oil scandal—President Macky Sall now has a high school named after him in the capital’s suburb.
Decolonization—a term increasingly abused and gutted of its meaning—supposes the conservation and promotion of Africa’s multidimensional heritage. Material heritage is decolonized through, in particular, the rehabilitation of emblematic sites and buildings and the restitution of its cultural heritage trapped in Western museums. Decolonizing immaterial heritage requires the repatriation of audiovisual archives seized by foreign funds and a thorough refoundation of odonyms. Finally, human heritage is decolonized by concrete support to artists and young creative souls, so that no one can claim, when it will be too late: “They did their best, despite the obstacles. If only we had uplifted them during their lifetime.”
The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
The mass atrocities of the 1899 French invasion of what is Niger today are finally being treated with the gravity and consequence they deserve in Western popular histories.
In the spring of 1979, Moussa Ali, now 85, was plowing his parched field on the edge of a two-house hamlet in the Sahel of Niger. Suddenly, his hoe rang with the sound of metal. Intrigued, he dug down and found a cache of ancient bullets and spent cartridges. “Then I knew that the story our grandparents told us must be true,” Moussa recalls.
The story Moussa heard as a child was the story of the Battle of Koran Kalgo. In July 1899, his ancestors’ village was attacked by a well-armed French invasion force. If Moussa had had access to the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, he would have read the terse French dispatch from that day: “Enemy held their ground despite a murderous battery. A small village of 600. Storming it cost us 2 dead, 14 wounded. All inhabitants killed, village set on fire.”
He also might have gone on to read the diary of the French officer sent to find this murderous force after rumors of its atrocities had reached Paris. “Towards midday we arrived at what used to be the village of Koran Kalgo. Now it was just smouldering ruins. An old man sitting in the ashes told us the invasion force had passed through four days ago. Two little girls, about 10 years old, were hanging from a tree at the village entrance. Everywhere I saw dead bodies of men in their prime, their great shields lay alongside. Some had had time before dying to find the shade of a spindly bush.”
Moussa had kept the bullets for over 40 years, wanting to preserve the evidence of this monstrous history. We were the first people outside his village to ever come asking about the massacre. We were in Niger to make a BBC documentary, African Apocalypse, on the murderous invasion of 1899 and its continuing impact on people today.
We sent a photo of one of the bullets to a historical munitions expert, Curtis Steinhauer of Cartridge Corner. Its markings were clear, and we received this remarkable reply: “‘4-85’ means the bullet was made in April 1885. ‘ART’ indicates it was made for the artillery division. ‘D’ signifies the manufacturer, Société Électromécanique of Dives in Normandy. And ‘EG’ is the company that supplied the casing’s metal, Eschger, Ghesquière & Cie of Biache St Vaast, near Calais.”
This bullet is just one testament to a more brutal history. Paul Voulet, the French commander in 1899, is believed to have killed tens of thousands of Nigeriens as he sought to take control of Lake Chad for France before the British got there. Niger’s main highway follows the exact route of his massacres. In fact, it created the colonial and still-current border with Nigeria.
Last month in New York, Fabian Salvioli—the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence—presented a report entitled “Transitional justice and addressing the legacy of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in colonial contexts.” Unrestricted access to official archives in the search for truth is one of his many recommendations.
Transitional justice might seem a strange concept in the context of century-old abuse, but, as Salvioli points out, “the colonial transfer of wealth and racist oppression have created a legacy of social, economic and cultural exclusion whose effects have been felt for generations.”
Moussa Ali has lived that legacy. In the 1980s, he traveled to France, looking for work. He was unable to access a visa and, when discovered, he was instantly deported back to Niger. “They can come here,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to go there. It’s shameful!” For 40 years, he has had little choice but to eke out a living in his deserted village, five kilometers from the nearest water well.
At every village along the road, we met communities who feel that the day Voulet arrived marked the first day of their impossible present. According to the UN Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world. France granted Niger independence in 1960, but only if they entered into a defense treaty which required that Niger prioritize French national security interests. Today, although a third of France’s electricity is reportedly generated by Nigerien uranium, less than 20% of the country’s 25 million people have access to electric power. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in “The Case for Reparations,” “plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.”
In our film, the Sultan of Birnin Konni states that Voulet and his men killed between 7,000 and 15,000 people over three days of rampage. “He found us rich and left us poor,” he adds. In fact, the sultan believes that Voulet’s actions constitute a crime against humanity. “If they occurred today,” he says, “Voulet would be taken before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.”
Salvioli’s report acknowledges the obvious fact that given the time elapsed, prosecution of colonial perpetrators is most often no longer an option. “Given this limitation,” he writes, “it is even more important that other components of transitional justice are properly developed.”
Also last month, representatives of the affected Nigerien communities (with whom we worked on our film) spoke alongside Salvioli at “Racial Violence and Colonial Accountabilities,” a global webinar at the New School of New York. These advocates are demanding a public apology from France accompanied by a full investigation of the truth of what happened—something neither France nor Niger has ever done. They also demand a process of memorialization with full community participation. There are monuments across Niger to French officers who died in the colonial conquest; Voulet’s grave is still preserved in the village where his African troops, sickened by his excesses, finally mutinied and killed him. But there is not a single memorial to those who died resisting the bloody invasion. As Hosseini Tahirou Amadou, a history teacher and one of the Nigerien community representatives, says, “It’s as if all the Africans who died were not actually human beings.”
It’s not just Niger, either. Also at the webinar, Professor Ousseina Alidou, a Nigerien specialist in postcolonial gender studies at Rutgers University, remarked that years later, Africa still remains “marked by coloniality and its afterlife.”
The time since George Floyd’s murder have shown us the urgent need for global humanity to transition out of an unjust world forged in the fires of colonialism. The communities of Niger, silenced for so long, are now beginning to play their part in making that transition a real possibility.
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