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Ogutu’s Dutch Blues: Notes of Kenyan Native Son

16 min read.

Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works.

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Ogutu’s Dutch Blues: Notes of Kenyan Native Son
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1

Are We Here Yet?

 

The 2011 performance at Nairobi’s The Theatre Company opens with two Mau Mau fighters stuck in Mt. Kenya forest. It is 1983. They are unaware Kenya gained independence 20 years ago. The two fighters, Mahela and Githai, re-enact the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, an annual tradition they have practiced the entire time they lived in the bush. Their enduring memory of life before this moment, is of the night they were dispatched to kill a British settler. They went as far as the white man’s bedroom, but developed cold feet. Now, 20 years later, they believe they are cursed for violating a cardinal Mau Mau oath – to kill the enemy. And are convinced that they can only get atonement by finding and killing an alternative white man.

The sound of an approaching vehicle interrupts the dreadlocked Mau Mau fighters obsessing over the oath. Two African American tourists emerge, accompanied by a white tour guide. Due the colour of his skin, Mahela and Githai decide that the tour guide is a colonialist and the accompanying African Americans his home guards – members of indigenous Kenyan communities who chose to collaborate with the British, branded traitors of the independence struggle. When the African Americans spot Mahela and Githai, they ask the tour guide whether the two-dreadlocked men are cast members for a skit and part of the entertainment package for the tourists seeking a full colonial misadventure experience. The confused tour guide mumbles a response as the two fighters presuming they are under attack, strike and capture the group. With a captive white man in their hands, Mahela and Githai debate on whether to kill him to cleanse themselves of the curse. Moments later, the two African American tourists break loose, make a sprint for the forest, and in the ensuing fracas, Githai accidentally shoots the white captive.

That performance, ‘Are We Here Yet’, marked Kenyan thespian Ogutu Muraya’s debut as a scriptwriter.

2

The Merry Wives of Windsor

 

In April 2012, a 26 year old, Ogutu woke up in his London hotel to good news. The Guardian newspaper had given the Kiswahili adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ translated by Ogutu, a Five Star rating. This was the highest accolade of any of the 37 Shakespeare performances delivered in 37 different languages at the Globe to Globe Festival – the biggest festival on Shakespeare’s works held during London’s Cultural Olympiad. Apart from translating the play, Ogutu was part of the cast and The Guardian singled him out for naughtily embodying his character, Mistress Quickly.

‘‘Such was the power of the performances, the way the cast seemed to live their lines, that the language barrier hardly mattered… the Swahili had an earthy gusto, an air of languor and sunshine that made Shakespeare’s prose seem prissy and verbose,’’ wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Gilchrist.

‘‘It ended, of course, with a dance, the crowd up on their feet clapping along as the company took their bows. A young girl sitting near me, who had been laughing throughout, was almost overcome. “To see Shakespeare in this setting, in Swahili, in England, it’s fabulous,” she said.

Ogutu and the seven cast members, including Tanzanian poet and thespian Mrisho Mpoto, who played the lead character, had left Nairobi for London on a shoe string budget. They had bought an assortment of second hand clothes for their costume, having only been able to afford proper attire for Mrisho. On arrival in London, they attended the technical rehearsal for Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’, performed in Russian. What they saw made them decide they stood little chance at making an impression on the London audience. They had never performed in such a state of the art theatre. The group’s confidence took another hit when they attended the Maori performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’. At the end of the show, the New Zealand cast performed the haka, the war dance popularized by their All Blacks rugby team.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise that the East Africans made a lasting Five Star impression on the London audience.

3

DAS Graduate School

 

Fresh off ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ high, Ogutu submitted an application to DAS Graduate School (Academy of Theatre and Dance formerly known as DasArt), the prestigious experimental art institute and appendage of the Amsterdam University of the Arts. The main pitch on Ogutu’s portfolio, beside the Mau Mau piece, was that he had translated Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into Kiswahili, and been part of its cast during London’s Cultural Olympiad. The rejection letter, was accompanied by an email observing that Ogutu had a Shakespearean aesthetic, therefore advised him to instead apply to a British arts school, where he stood a better chance of admission.

Ogutu became aware that translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili and performing the same was not necessarily the most progressive thing for him to do. A member of the London audience observed that he ‘‘understood Shakespeare better in Kiswahili than he ever did in English’’, making the point that by translating Shakespeare, Ogutu had facilitated the export of the Empire’s culture to its former colonies and delivered it in a language and manner that was both agreeable and accessible to the former subjects. The translation had added a cultural richness to Shakespeare and to the validation of English literature in the former colonies.

Fortunately, Ogutu landed a month long residency in the Netherlands in September 2013, where he was to spend time interacting with arts institutions. Before his arrival in the Netherlands, Ogutu announced that DAS rejected his application during the school’s previous intake and he was keen on giving it another shot. The residency granted Ogutu’s wish and he ended up spending two weeks at DAS.

DAS is not your traditional performance school. The conversations dwelled on his future prospects as a performing artist, since DAS mantra was unhinged experimentation and imagination, seeking to break boundaries to produce artists grounded in practice. The more time he spent at DAS, the more Ogutu felt it was where he belonged. DAS admitted between seven and nine students for its two-year graduate program, and Ogutu knew it was not going to be easy gaining admission. He worked on a new application, and in early 2014, received news that he had made the shortlist. He travelled to Amsterdam for a three-day audition, went through a slew of interviews and made the cut second time round, joining DAS in September 2014.

Before admission, Ogutu had to bring a new birth certificate for the process of residency in Amsterdam. The old one was not accepted. He had to pay three times the tuition fees his European classmates paid at DAS, and underwent tests for Tuberculosis every six months. He concluded that for African to gain acceptance in Europe they had to be wealthy, healthy and brainy. The visa application process on its own had become a sort of state sanctioned eugenics, a manmade exercise of natural selection. One of his instructors put it differently. He told Ogutu of the Dutch policy of discouragement – a subtle code for institutional racism – where a myriad roadblocks are placed on the paths of outsiders.

4

Royal Dutch Shell

 

Barely a semester into his studies, Ogutu suddenly wanted to abandon his Dutch expedition and opt out of DAS. The reason behind this trepidation was that the school had relocated to a North Amsterdam property, hitherto occupied by the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. Ogutu noted that the grounds that were previously an industrial part of Amsterdam had now been gentrified, comprising newly minted edgy arts institutions, incubators for start-ups, hotels, hostels, a film museum, an underground nightclub and high end apartments. A consortium of the City of Amsterdam now owned the 100-acre property that once housed the largest Shell laboratories in the world. The consortium donated part of the estate to DAS Graduate School, among other institutions.

In an attempt to speak truth to power, Ogutu’s first school project, ‘A Clarification of My Internal Politics’, sought to question DAS’ relocation Shell’s pseudo museum. He sought to interrogate why DAS would want to go anywhere near an ethically stained multinational like Shell, without critical reflection. Through the performance lecture, Ogutu juxtaposed Shell’s reputation in the Netherlands against its misdeeds in Nigeria, particularly in Ogoniland, where it was accused of gross environmental degradation in a UNEP report. In 1995, Sani Abacha’s regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others for agitating against Shell’s activities, resulting in a 2009 out of court settlement with Shell paying $15.5m to the Ogoni nine and one other victim and $5m going into an Ogoni education trust fund. Through act of artistic protest, Ogutu hoped, idealistic, that his project would bring DAS back to its senses.

Ogutu’s art project received a lukewarm reception, critiqued for its artistic merits, shortfalls and belittled. Ogutu wondered whether he was naïve to presume society would sit up whenever he presented what he considered radical thought as his classmates and instructors did not necessarily center their practice on the sociopolitical. Disillusioned, Ogutu slipped into depression. He thereafter wrote to DAS, opting out of his studies, unable to navigate his new realities. DAS offered Ogutu a month during the December 2014 break to reflect on his decision. As if extending an olive branch, DAS bought Ogutu’s ticket to Nairobi, after he applied for an emergency grant.

This feeling of powerlessness was not new. During his undergraduate International Relations studies at Nairobi’s United States International University–Africa, Ogutu felt the program taught everything about what was wrong with the world but never offered solutions. Therefore in the pursuit of meaningful change, he embraced the arts, growing to become The Theater Company’s creative director and later joining DAS, only for him to realize late in the day that ‘‘the complexities of life proved immune to the artistic antidote.’’

5

James Baldwin

 

Back in Nairobi, Ogutu sought out three Kenyan artists who had lived overseas, in search of understanding of his artistic struggles. The writer Binyavanga Wainaina told Ogutu his struggle was familiar, that he was going through a formatting process, advising Ogutu to seek sunshine whenever he could, telling him winter messed people up. The performance artist Sitawa Namwalie told Ogutu those Amsterdam years were his induction into the art world, for him to find his place in it. The publisher Muthoni Garland asked Ogutu to read American writer and activist James Baldwin, mainly ‘Notes of a Native Son’, reflections on Baldwin’s days holed up in Paris.

Finding Baldwin was the best thing anyone could have done for Ogutu. Reading Baldwin instantly unlocked Ogutu’s world, and from that point on, his projects at DAS either revolved around the work and person of Baldwin, or the happenings around the Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris in September 1956, that Ogutu gleaned from Baldwin’s works. Ogutu returned to Amsterdam in January 2015, somewhat reenergized. For his second semester project, he produced a short theatre piece titled ‘Nobody Knows My Name’, borrowing explicitly from one of Baldwin’s book titles.

The piece centered around Café Tournon in Paris, a hugely popular meeting spot for African American artists, some of whom were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who had since sought refuge in Paris. The twist in Ogutu’s piece, picked from Baldwin’s writings and of others around the 1956 Congress, was that the CIA, French intelligence and other infiltrators such as the KGB had made inroads within this particular Paris group of Black writers and artists as part of the cultural Warfare. Ogutu’s main character, is a Black writer dealing with writer’s block as he tries to write about his time at Café Tournon. He is unable to make headway because he can no longer tell what was real and what was an enactment of the intelligence agencies, in spite of the glimpses of purity and authenticity at the café.

The idea of a meta-narrative about a Black writer trying to write a story about events of his life in a foreign country where he had sought refuge and escaped his home country’s hounding, reflected Ogutu’s frame of mind. In this case, Café Tournon was the symbol of the physical space abroad and the place where failure lurked, trailed by a mixture of anxiety and paranoia. It had taken Ogutu years of applications and rejections, in the hope of an admission into DAS. Yet at DAS, where he was supposed to thrive, he remained in a state of paralysis.

6

Fractured Memory

 

In his final year project at DAS, Ogutu sunk deeper into the happenings at the four day 1956 Black Writers and Artists congress in Paris, in a performance piece he titled ‘Fractured Memory’.

The piece, broken into four parts, each representing a day at the congress, opens with a scene of the reading of an emotive letter sent by WEB Du Bois, who could not travel to Paris because he was denied an American passport. Du Bois warns that part of the American delegation is state sponsored infiltration and that revelation causes tension at the congress. On the second day, Martinique poet and politician Aime Cesaire delivers a rousing speech on the relationship between colonialism and culture, going as far as labeling African Americans as colonised subjects. To counter Cesaire, Ogutu brings in Baldwin, who points out that Cesaire does not own up to his own personal effects of colonialism, seeing that he was addressing a congress of Blacks gathered in Paris speaking in French.

The third serving dwells on confrontations happening at the Congress, ending with the realization that there was no consensus on how to liberate people of African descent from colonialism, apartheid, segregation and exploitation. In the fourth section, Ogutu recites a poem that introspects on the agitations at the Congress. For each of these segments, Ogutu layers them with contemporary and historical issues in Kenya such as mistrust, anger, division – reiterating that the challenges of Paris 1956 still bedevil the Black people in Africa and elsewhere.

In November 2016, Ogutu performed ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Batard Festival in Brussels. After the performance, Tunde Adefioye, an American-Nigerian curator representing Brussel’s Royal Flemish Theatre came looking for him. Tunde was deeply moved by Ogutu’s performance and offered him a performance slot at the Royal Flemish Theatre in March 2018.

On New Year’s Day 2018, aboard a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Ogutu’s state of mind oscillated between elation, anxiety and indecisiveness. Earlier, in September 2017, he was selected as one of 15 artists in residence by the City of Amsterdam. The program, dubbed the Three Package Deal, funded by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, came with a €22,500 stipend that covered living expenses, an artist studio and a research budget for a theatre production, to be showcased after the residency. Upon graduation from DAS the previous year, Ogutu was granted a one year visa, usually provided to graduates from Dutch institutions. That one year in Amsterdam post-graduation became a haunting experience. Despite the relief he had found in James Baldwin and his work, Ogutu still had to put up with a sense of not belonging as he wrestled with questions of race and racism, and how this affected his life and work. The residency came with a two year visa, meaning Ogutu had to decide whether he had the stamina to survive Amsterdam.

Here was a man debating whether to continue with the residency or opt out. It was a huge honour to be selected, and he was cognizant of the fact that benefactors who he did not want to disappoint had put up a strong case for him in the process. Ogutu took the entire month of January 2018 to make the decision to return to Amsterdam and take up the residency, partly prompted by the need to return to Europe anyway since he was already slotted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.

7

The Life and Works of Leopold II

 

Ogutu arrived in Brussels on March 8, 2018, a day before his performance of ‘Fractured Memory’ at the Royal Flemish Theatre. Noah Voelker, an American classmate at DAS who was now a collaborator, accompanied him. They checked into two spacious studio apartments, before proceeding to the theatre to check on the technical elements of the performance. The show, performed in English, had French and Dutch surtitles (as subtitles are known in theatre) to attract both the city’s Dutch and French speakers.

As Ogutu and Noah went through the technical motions of the show, a staffer at the theater told them about ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’, a performance which was being staged on the night of March 8. The show would take place at the main theatre as the anchor performance, followed by Ogutu’s performance on March 9 at an adjoining box theatre. He would later discover that the pairing of the two performances was to ignite a dialogue on colonialism and decolonization. ‘Fractured Memory’ was lined up as a hesitant partner in a weird post-colonial dance with King Leopold II’s misdeeds in the Congo.

Earlier the same day, Ogutu sent Tunde Adefioye – the theater’s curator who had booked Ogutu’s show – a text message requesting tickets for ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’. Tunde told him the show was sold out, but that he would seek out some connections. He never got back to Ogutu. It later emerged that Tunde preferred Ogutu did not watch the Leopold II show, possibly suspecting the performance’s racist undertones would expectedly elicit an unpleasant reaction. Ogutu reasoned that Tunde meant well and wanted to stick to his institution’s program while shielding Ogutu from triggers that would affect his performance. Unknown to Tunde, the theatre’s staffer went to the box office and worked out two tickets for Ogutu and Noah to watch the Leopold II show.

***

In Ogutu’s narration, the opening scene featured the only black cast member cleaning the front of the theatre using a vacuum cleaner, moving around the stage and into the audience, creating confusion as to whether he was part of the performance. Then the rest of the cast took to the stage, with African characters played by white actors wearing black faces. The King of Congo was depicted as an ape-like creature, and whenever the white actors playing as Africans spoke, their speech was deliberately sluggish and inaudible, as if not representations of actual humans. The actor playing King Leopold II produced a belching sound whenever interacting with Africans, implying that in communication with Africans, one resorted to a range of grunt sounds outside of ordinary speech. In representing African children, their voices became hoarse and croaky.

As the English surtitles streamed past and Ogutu married them to the acts on stage, he got agitated. To Ogutu’s dismay, the worst was yet to come after the performance, when the predominantly white audience gave the cast a standing ovation. The cast moved backstage but as the audience was still clapping, came back on stage to soak in the accolades. Ogutu felt sick to the stomach, not knowing whether to be surprised or disappointed. To this audience in Brussels, the portrayal of Africans as primitive sub-humans passed for art.

From the theatre, Ogutu did not speak to anyone. He went straight to his apartment, and could not sleep that night. The following morning at 9am, Noah was at the theatre, ready to do a test run of ‘Fractured Memory’. He sent Ogutu a text, asking whether he was on his way. Ogutu said he was.

The moment Noah set his eyes on Ogutu he knew something was amiss. Noah also knew it all had to do with what they had watched the previous night. There was no denying that the show was racist. Noah and Ogutu had a little chat, sharing views on the show. Ogutu told Noah he was not sure he wanted to perform ‘Fractured Memory’ in such a racially toxic environment. Noah said he understood, but asked Ogutu to give it further thought. Ogutu walked into the theatre set up for his performance. The moment he walked in, he instinctively knew he would not be performing that night. He told Noah he was going to take a walk back to the apartment, and that by the time he got there, he would relay his final decision.

By the time Ogutu got to the apartment, his mind was made. He was not performing.

***

When Tunde Adefioye heard about Ogutu’s decision, he requested a meeting. Ogutu asked for an hour as he called Amsterdam, where Veem House of Performance was handling his travel and other logistics. He informed them of his decision to pull out, asking for arrangements for the next available train back to Amsterdam. Tunde was devastated, admitting that he too shared in Ogutu’s frustrations of ‘The Life and Times of King Leopold II’ portrayal of Africans. The theatre’s business manager reached out to Noah, asking for a meeting. Ogutu declined.

By the time Noah and Ogutu arrived in Amsterdam, the main newspapers in Brussels had picked up the story, as a cancelation message had to be sent out by the theater. Journalists wanted a comment from Ogutu, for the next day’s papers. Feeling under weather, Ogutu took his medication and passed out. By the time he woke up, the journalists’ 5pm deadline had lapsed. They went to print without his comment. Phone calls and solidarity messages from friends and industry players started streaming in. By the evening of March 9, Ogutu had to release a statement. He consulted the team at Veem, before making a stinging, succinct Facebook post. The Royal Flemish Theatre on its part issued a defensive counter statement, citing artistic freedom. Tunde wrote a conciliatory piece, hoping Ogutu would have an opportunity to perform at the theatre sometime in future and to contribute to the decolonization discourse. The theatre’s artistic director tried reaching Ogutu through Veem, intending to issue a personal apology.

In his statement, Ogutu bitterly protested the placement of ‘Fractured Memory’ next to a hyper-problematic piece framed as part of an exercise in the critical reflection on colonialism. The use of racist slurs such as nigger, the apish characterization and imbecilic mannerisms attributed to Africans, the racialized costumes and sexualization of the black body, and the use of the black face – all in Ogutu’s words – were some of the unacceptable devices deployed to demean the dignity of black people.

It was as if Ogutu was having an artistic epiphany. All his readings of Baldwin crystallized before his eyes. There he was, a Black artist in Brussels, encountering blatant racism within the very artistic spaces he had hoped to find elevated discourses on culture, race and race relations. Like Baldwin, he now had to react directly to these acts by carving out his own responses. Ogutu had to now live his politics, and mature as a protégé of Baldwin’s work.

Three days later, on March 12 2018, Ogutu boarded a Nairobi bound KLM flight, booked a month earlier. Unlike during his New Year’s Amsterdam to Nairobi flight when he was torn between moving back home or taking up the City of Amsterdam residency, he now felt a sense of artistic purpose. He had taken up the residency and premiered his next show, ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, that aptly captured his nomadic tendencies. Brussels may have devastated Ogutu, but it simultaneously awoke the urgency within him.

8

Because I Always Feel Like Running

 

The person who helped Ogutu clarify his thoughts was Anne Breure, the director at Amsterdam’s Veem House of Performance. Breure forwarded Ogutu’s name to her coalition of arts organizations back in 2017, proposing him as a potential artist in residency. With his nomination under consideration, Ogutu retreated to his little Amsterdam studio for two months, July and August 2017, where he conceptualized his next performance project, dedicated to the residency. The piece, titled ‘Because I Always Feel Like Running’, investigated the building blocks in the lives of East African long distance runners. Ogutu’s research narrowed down to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikile, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino and Tanzania’s John Stephen Akwari.

By looking at the lives of these three at their height on the track, Ogutu intended to develop a piece exhibiting the spirit of sacrifice, excellence and resilience. He might as well have been projecting his own life. At the end of 2017, Ogutu had already done dummy performances of the show at the Veem House of Performance in Amsterdam, the Spielarts Festival in Munich and a follow up show in February 2018 in the city of Gronigen.

By this time, Leila Anderson, a South African artist who was a year ahead of Ogutu at DAS, became one of his closest collaborators, urging him on whenever Ogutu encountered performance-related anxiety.

Previously, like when he performed at the Batard Festival in Brussels in 2016, Ogutu would lock himself up the entire time, only leaving his room to do his show then retreat, never wanting to interact with the outside world. He was now less reclusive thanks to Leila. When Ogutu returned to Amsterdam at the end of January 2018 after taking a break in Nairobi to contemplate whether to carry on with the residency or not – and to spend time with his ailing mother, his only surviving parent for a long time – he pinned six A3 spreadsheets on the wall of his bedroom. He stuck six yellow sticky notes on each of the spreadsheets, and in each sticky note, he chronologically listed the events that had shaped his life for the last decade.

He started out with the 2007/2008 Kenyan post election violence, which inspired his Mau Mau piece, but which had directly affected his family. His name, Ogutu Muruya – with Ogutu coming from his Luo ancestry and Muraya coming from his Kikuyu lineage – was seen as an oxymoron since it collapsed the two politically antagonistic communities into one entity. He was neither Luo enough nor Kikuyu enough for as long as he could remember, and the 2007/2008 ethnic violence put his family on the spot including from neighbours who debated whether they were Luos or Kikuyus. Depending on where one was, being either Luo or Kikuyu could mean life or death. He listed migration, in relation to his move to DAS, and listed his time at DAS under studies. The list kept growing as Ogutu applied specificity.

From each sticky note Ogutu originated a web of arrows pointed into the A3 spreadsheets, where he wrote detailed notes on what ramifications each of the items listed on the sticky notes had brought into his life. By the time he was done, the white A3 surfaces were filled with acres of hardly legible text. Looking at whatever he had written, Ogutu concluded that there was nothing more to be squeezed out of that decade. He had come full circle. He took photos of the spreadsheets and saved them on his phone, before picking his bags and heading to Brussels on March 8 2018.

Brussels through ‘The Life and Works of Leopold II’ had already set the mission on how to jumpstart his next ten year cycle, confronting him with the question of race and racism afresh. It was now all up to him.

As Franz Fanon said,
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it in relative opacity.

*The End*

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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Culture

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.

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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
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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 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”.

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The Politics of Street Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

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

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

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

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

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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