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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

Cosmopolitan Africans, Before Imperialism

Africa’s engagement with the world before European colonialism holds unexpected episodes of un-colonial power relations.

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Cosmopolitan Africans, Before Imperialism
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Colonialism structures how we think about the history of Africa’s relations with the world. This is often true even among those who protest reductionist understandings of the continent. The flawed assumptions that oppression was inevitable and power dynamics were invariable between people from both continents loom large in the popular imagination. Subordination can be taken as a timeless norm that explains, in turn, slavery, oppression, and racial injustice in the Americas, Europe, and further afield.

Audre Lorde presciently noted that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” One consequence of that deficit is how hard it can be to imagine a time when people of African descent related to the wider—and whiter—world in very different ways than we have come to expect in the modern era. Has it always been so? Have Africa’s encounters with the world always followed the rhythm of domination and dispossession? It is important to find out.

Psychologists have found that the region of the brain that activates when we think about the past is the same part that lights up in relation to envisioning the future. They found that subjects “place their future scenarios in well-known visual-spatial contexts,” suggesting that the past is the imaginative landscape upon which we situate the future in our minds. Histories that do not conform to the current pattern of relating can serve as the substrate upon which new and more promising futures can be envisioned and designed.

By overlooking what Howard Zinn called “the past’s fugitive moments”—that is, histories that suggest possibilities other than the world we have come to inherit—we consign ourselves to a future that reenacts a limited sense of the past. Moreover, the dangers of presentism, of our propensity to interpret the past through the lens of the present, are well known to historians. Without an awareness of anachronistic assumptions, there can be a sense that how things are now is also how things always have been and, as a consequence, how things always will be. But what if the present is markedly different from the past and, therefore, the future might be very different from the present?

We know that the people and nation-states of the continent have been diverse and variable over time. It makes little sense, therefore, to speak of them in the singular. We also know Africans, like other humans, have been thinking and acting in ways that gestured at belonging to an international human community long before the colonial occupation. We know, too, that these international relations, for lack of a better word, were embedded into everyday realities of African elites, traders, and ordinary people.

Take, for example, the Kingdom of the Kongo: a sovereign, Kikongo-speaking nation-state that spanned modern-day northern Angola, western Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and southern parts of Gabon. In the Kongolese kingdom, Catholicism became an established religion on its way to domestication early in the sixteenth century—not by conquest or force, as historian John Thornton notes in The Kongolese Saint Anthony, but through voluntary conversion, most notably of King Nzinga a Nkuwu, baptized João I of Kongo in 1491, and his son King Mvemba a Nzinga, also known as Afonso I.

While Italian missionaries from a Franciscan order of European monks, the Capuchin, are often credited, incorrectly, for the spread of Catholicism in the Kongo, it was the kingdom’s elites, particularly Afonso I, who did the most to seed and domesticate the religion. According to Thornton, they saw it as a source of diplomatic power.

It was clear early on that the exercise of this power would not be easy, and it was the Capuchins who made it especially difficult for Kongo’s rulers: Thornton notes that from the time of Alfonso I and for much of the next century, the kingdom’s rulers faced intransigence on the part of both the Capuchins and the Portuguese, who controlled the colony of Angola to the south, when they tried to appoint clergy, control bishops, and establish an independent church—the latter turning out to be an aspiration never realized before the kingdom’s end.

That is to say, had Kongo’s rulers had their way, the kingdom would have been more thoroughly—and, most of all, autonomously—Catholic. This cuts against the commonly held view of Christianity as the intellectual justification for European’s civilizing mission across the continent. Christianity certainly did serve the colonial project in this way at certain times and in parts of the continent, lowering indigenous spiritual practices and beliefs to the status of heathenism that had to be stamped out.

But the reasons for Kongo’s rulers’ full-throated embrace of Catholicism was—and it bears repeating—to access the religion’s diplomatic power. They understood the threat of the Portuguese to the south, more so after fending off a series of invasion attempts early in the seventeenth century.

Historian Linda Heywood argues that the Kingdom of the Kongo mastered “European-style diplomacy” to “ensure that Kongo be regarded as a Christian power with the same status as European powers.” Having established an embassy in Rome as early as 1488 and a resident ambassador in Lisbon in the 1530s, a few Kongolese elites studied in European capitals, mastering languages that facilitated the deepening of diplomatic ties. Alongside economic and political power, participation in the Christian commonwealth granted Kongolese elites access to cosmopolitan lifestyles that seldom draw attention.

Another important instance that complicates received knowledge of colonialism as inevitable is the kingdom of the Asante, in modern-day Ghana, which ruled at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Asante had longstanding trade and diplomatic relations with European states. Today, along Ghana’s Atlantic coast, there remain a few dozen forts, castles, and other outposts—some of them, like in Elmina and the Cape Coast, in excellent condition—that are perfectly rendered examples of late medieval European architectural technology.

Visitors often take these fortifications to be symbols of European conquest. But in reality, they were meant to secure access to the Asante Kingdom and, if possible, prevent other European countries from doing so. That different states built forts in that part of West Africa attests to the importance of the trade and the political power of the local authorities that determined who could trade there and under what terms.

The Asante at the time were wealthy, trading in commodities such as gold, ivory, and enslaved people by sea and by land. This wealth was won and preserved through military might, of course, but it was furthered by a masterful foreign policy that exploited the needs of European visitors.

Art historian Fiona Sheales records one such performance by Asante King Osei Tutu Asibey Bonsu on September 7th, 1817, the day the first Anglo-Asante trade treaty was ratified. According to British records, on that day, the Asantehene, or Asante king, appeared wrapped in a cloth perhaps not dissimilar to the style of kente cloth—but made of flags of European nations sewn together.

Flags played a key role in trade and diplomacy for Asante and European alike. But whereas the latter presented flags to the former in the hopes it would lead to formal diplomatic relations, the former displayed flags for the latter, as the Asantehene did that day, to demonstrate the breadth and reach of the Asante kingdom. The Asante king, explains Sheales, was aware of and not above playing up European competition for access to trade and other ties to the Asante.

It is difficult for many today to imagine the respect that African political authority commanded in the first half of the nineteenth century. The period of conflict that followed, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas, amplified by competition for access to trade with the kingdom, makes imagining this even more difficult. But imagine it we must.

These moments in the two kingdoms offer glimpses into how Africans understood their relationship to the wider world, as sovereigns and actors, and the other possible futures they anticipated at that time. These paths are still worth imagining, despite the actual future that ultimately unfolded. Through spirituality and trade, in these particular instances, Africans were relevant players in a shared global imaginary. The notions of belonging, in effect, were rooted in a spatial imagination—of both the inner and outer worlds—that reflected dynamic, transregional networks. Importantly, their rhythm of relating was out of step with the familiar tempo of oppression. These moments gesture toward relations that could be called un-colonial.

History, of course, should not be read only to glean lessons for the present. But it certainly can help make more sense of contemporary struggles. The past’s fugitive moments in particular offer a revitalizing challenge to the linearity with which we often understand, and limit, what is possible.

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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From Plastics to Plasticity

The 2017 ban on plastic carrier bags represent a significant first step towards alleviating the problem of plastic pollution but developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is the key.

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From Plastics to Plasticity
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In Dustin Hoffman’s breakout 1967 film, The Graduate, a young man just out of college is not sure of what he is supposed to do next. At the party thrown by his parents, one of his father’s friends steers him away from the crowd:

“Ben, I just want to say one word to you.”

“Yes sir?”

“Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”

Investment in the plastic industry surged during the decades following the movie’s release. But the film also fast-tracked the rise of our collective environmental consciousness. “There’s a great future in plastics” became a meme for the toxicity of modern industrial society. A year after the movie came out, a river in the industrial heartland of Ohio caught fire and burned for seventeen days. Increasingly visible halos of dull brown smog were enveloping large cities.

For many of us who were coming of age at the time, this scene was permanently burnt into our brains. I took up residence in a plastic-free Kenya. When I returned to the US two years later, I found the coconuts in our supermarket wrapped in cling wrap.

If plastics were the future, this did not augur well for the health of the planet.

Conquering the marketplace

It had taken the industry just over a century following the invention of Parkesine in 1862, which was actually made out of cellulose, to reach this point. Improvements came quickly, driven by the development of oil-based polymers generated by the cracking process in petroleum refineries. For the first time, humans were using materials containing no molecules found in nature.

This led to a procession of new products, the food industry often playing the role of early adopter. Butchers and bakers started using cello-tape after its invention in 1930. Saran wrap followed a few years later. Tupperware, the first airtight plastic food containers, showed up twelve years after that, and was one of the first brands to be marketed directly through housewives. The 1960s saw baggies and zip-locks become part of the plastic lunch box syndrome.

These products, long valued for their convenience more than for their contribution to reducing food waste, were recognized as part of a yet greater problem by the time large garbage bags appeared in 1970 to deal with the proliferation of disposable wraps, containers, bottles, and other forms of food packaging. The unrelenting march of synthetic polymers now dwarfs any environmental benefits, like the fuel consumption savings attributable to lighter cars and reduced food waste.

Another problem emerged in tandem with these developments: as the scale and variety of the plastic packaging increased, the quality and integrity of the food it enclosed decreased. Even the acacia and other tree resins originally chewed by pastoralists and other indigenous people, which confer significant cardio-vascular benefits, have been replaced  by synthetics made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate.

Not what it’s cracked up to be?

Plastic is a primary component of the carbon economy. Although in theory “renewable”, some 95 per cent of the plastics manufactured are used once, and one-third of this volume by-passes garbage collection and directly enters the environment; 8 million tonnes that leak into the ocean each year.  The negative value of the waste exceeds the plastic industry’s profits.

Plastics enter our ecosystems as hard-to-break down refuse that deteriorates over time into tiny particles of micro-plastics. Old plastic does not die, it just fades from view, then ends up in our water supply, ecosystems, and bodies, which host between 40 million and 70 million particles of polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene per person according to recent surveys.  Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs. This compromises our bodies’ inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, nutrient absorption, gut microbiome, endocrine function, and reproduction.

Despite the growth and scope of the recycling industry, only 14 per cent of plastic is recycled, and only 2 per cent of that actually gets reused. Incineration, which now consumes 25 per cent of plastic refuse generated, only kicks the can down the road, creating the same kind of toxic fumes and carcinogens funnelled into the atmosphere by the smokestacks of industries and coal plants.

Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs.

Expensive pink Himalayan Salt is showing up on our supermarket shelves because plastic is now found in sea salt. There is no escape, only mitigation measures such as those proposed in the MacArthur Foundation study, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. The report outlines a comprehensive strategy predicated on thinking about plastics as a global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Briefly stated, it advocates the creation ““of an effective after-use plastics economy by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradation for targeted applications”.

As is usually the case in such top-down master plans, the strategy is considerably more complicated than it sounds, and it involves many moving parts.

The reformed plastics economy will require a combination of new technologies, government policy, reduced exposure to volatility of fossil “feedstock”, and investment in developing countries’ after-use infrastructure. Implementation is predicated on exploiting negative public perceptions to engage policymakers and to coordinate and drive communication with the objective of establishing a global plastics protocol—the actual key to the solution lies in the development of large-scale “moonshot” innovations.

This approach provides an entry point into the Kenya case study.

Kenya’s plastics industry

Use of plastic in Kenya’s food sector was rare in the decades after independence. When I first came to Kenya in 1974, food was purchased fresh in the market or small shops, where we bought Omo in paper boxes and items like sugar wrapped up in paper. We drank soft drinks out of glass bottles, carried baskets, and used reusable vessels for liquids like kerosene and cooking oil.

The Tetra Pack milk carton was the most common form of commercial packaging. Everyone held onto heavy plastic bags for their repeated use value. For those of us inoculated with the “future is plastic” meme, it seemed that with a modicum of awareness and environmental education, Kenya could avoid the plastic waste debacle.

It was not to be. The unsightly presence of non-degradable refuse increased the general accumulation of trash across the landscape, while economic change was altering the relative pristine appearance of the Kenyan landscape. The plains and savannah of eastern Nairobi, where one used to see wildebeest, ostrich, and giraffe just beyond the outskirts of town, gave way to new industries and population growth. The detritus accompanying the shift showed up in the corners and gutters of towns, on coastal beaches, and as drifting dunes of trash lining the country’s highways.

I recall the sight of what appeared to be a post-rainy season bloom of multi-coloured flowers covering an open plain on the approach to Nairobi after passing Athi River. Upon closer view, it turned out to be a carpet of plastic bags bobbing in the wind.

Production of plastics and related products is now a US$400 million dollar industry in Kenya. Some fifty companies are involved in plastic manufacturing, and many other players are profiting from the importation and distribution of plastic products. Much of this goes into the packaging of food and various containers and wraps for keeping it fresh. Food-related packaging accounts for 27 per cent of global plastic output, and the shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.

The public sector’s limited capacity to deal with the waste mirrored the population’s apathy. Roadside kiosks housed in plastic Coca-Cola bottles reflected Kenyans’ passive acceptance of commercial uglification. But their appearance also coincided with a turning point in perceptions of Kenya’s environmental future.

To stem the accumulation of plastic waste, Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) banned the use of plastic carrier bags in 2017. Industrial advocates had fought the proposed ban for ten years, claiming it would eliminate 60,000 jobs. In the end, Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu prevailed. The new law came with heavy fines ranging from US$40,000 for commercial violators to US$500 for individual users.

The shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.

After a spate of early arrests, enforcement settled into a far-reaching pattern of voluntary compliance. The action immediately generated widespread publicity, leapfrogging Kenya to the front of the global environmental movement. Shortly after the ban went into effect, I was preparing to disembark from a Nairobi bound international flight when tourists castigated me for carrying a duty-free shopping bag. “Kenya is a plastic-free country,” the first-time arrivals informed me.

The ban did represent a significant first step towards alleviating the larger problem, and the government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021. The initiative brings together local governments, researchers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, businesses and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, informal waste management actors, and other stakeholders in the plastics value chain.

The goal is to develop a circular economy for plastics by 2030 in Kenya, but it is difficult to see signs of substantive progress. Although economic liberalization contributed to the plasticization of the countryside, there is still no market-based solution in sight. In the meantime, the reformed plastics economy envisioned in the MacArthur-WEF report has yet to halt the expanding polymer-sphere enveloping the planet.

Like global warming, plastics are an inconvenient by-product of industrial capitalism. Big Plastic exploits recycling and initiatives like the new plastics economy to camouflage the real source of the problem, and to transfer responsibility for fixing it to consumers and governments.

The government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021.

The technological moonshot solution reflects the same kind of big project mentality that has dominated development economics for decades. But polymer-eating bacteria are not going to rescue the global commons, at least not in the foreseeable future. When exported to the developing world, this approach suffers from the usual combination of mismanagement, poor coordination, inequitable allocation of scarce resources, and the chimerical influence of external factors.

Externally funded after-use infrastructure for plastics is not going to sort out the plastics problem in the Global South. In reality, the major battles in this war will be fought upstream.  Downstream countries like Kenya can, however, exploit their comparative advantage in regard to their capacity for socioeconomic and cultural plasticity.

From plastic to plasticity

The Greek word plastikos means to mould. Plasticity, in contrast, refers to the quality of being easily shaped or moulded. This first definition pertains to the world of material science and chemistry. The second definition of plasticity, rooted in biology and evolutionary analysis, highlights the ability of an organism or a species to use new food sources and to adapt itself to new environmental influences. This extends to our body’s ability to repair itself and the brain’s capacity to rewire itself after injury and trauma. Biomedical progress in this domain has led to validation of other plasticity-enhancing practices, like the role of unstructured play for children, and meditation for adults.

This kind of developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is arguably the key to uncracking the future. Kenya already enjoys several advantages in regard to this objective. It retains a significant level of its pre-plastic circular economy, high-plastic household consumption is mainly limited to urban areas, and most Kenyans already have a high level of awareness on environmental issues as demonstrated by voluntary compliance with the plastic bag embargo.

Naturally, the state will have to play an interstitial role, including participating in national and global-scale initiatives, and by using its regulatory levers to encourage environmentally friendly packaging standards pioneered elsewhere. In any event, the growing mass of multiple-use plastic would still have to be collected and processed.

The problem here is that even after far-reaching constitutional reforms, the state and the governing elite tend to be plastic when it comes to dealing with entrenched interests. The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP. Kenyan society has proven to be quite elastic in comparison.

Processed food packaging and bottled water are the primary sources of plastic waste in Kenya. Urban consumers can help by following the lead of rural Kenyans, by seeking out fresh produce in local markets, and by avoiding those seductively packaged supermarket non-essentials. The rise of small dairies offering milk in glass bottles is a positive trend we all can support.

The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP.

When the need for mobile phone credit arose, thousands of kiosks and shops offering scratch cards appeared overnight. It follows that a similar arrangement involving micro water vendors selling it at a lower price to customers with their own containers could work as well.

When it comes to fostering creative problem-solving across Kenya’s system scales, the process often begins on the lower rungs. The Lamu boatbuilders who captured the world’s imagination by sailing a boat made out of plastic bottles and flip-flops to Zanzibar is a case in point. The counties could build on this awareness-raising event by establishing waste plastic-free zones, and low-plastic areas like the Lamu archipelago and the northern rangelands would be good places to start. Rural producers can make their own Parkesine.

A popular movement based on small-scale solutions would build upon Kenya’s international reputation for adaptive environmental management. Over time, it would exert a multiplier effect across tourism, health, agriculture, and other sectors, outpacing the value of top-down industrial interventions.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Sin and the Silence

In the second of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the work of anthropologist Frank Knowles Girling whose research—now published in Lawino’s People— was buried by Oxford University and whose prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true.

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In the decade since a group of survivors from the British war against decolonisation in Kenya pried open the culture of concealment undergirding post-imperial Britain, revelations of torture and massacres by the British have become routine.

The Mau Mau court hearings, which started in 2009 and ended in 2013, uncovered the lengths to which the British went to conceal their acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Incriminating documents were burnt and shredded, or airlifted to England and, in a James Bondesque drama, tonnes of files were sunk into the Indian Ocean.

“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” reads a letter from colonial-era Kenyan Attorney General Eric Griffith Jones to the Kenya Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring.

Since the Mau Mau court victory, unearthing the depth of Britain’s slavery and colonialism has continued apace. Statues of slave traders have come down, sitting lords of the British parliament have been directly linked to slave plantations, and documentation shows that as recently as 2015, the Bank of England continued to compensate families of slave traders and owners who “lost” their “property” two centuries after the trade was formally abolished.

This book, Lawino’s People, has comes hot on the heels of this historical moment.

A white anti-colonialist

Black people fought against colonisation and continue to suffer inordinately for doing so, but the fact that a great number of white people were also anti-colonialists has become submerged in the racializing of the narrative. While we know a great deal of what happened to dark-skinned anti-colonialists, we know almost nothing of the ways in which white anti-colonialists were treated.

The penalties they suffered were comparatively less severe as indeed their brand of anti-colonialism did not amount to the self-sacrifice of a Dedan Kimathi. Social ostracism and isolation, truncated careers, failure to find tenure should they be academics, and accusations of being communists were the common ways in which dissenters within the ranks were treated.

Frank Knowles Girling was one such. But when he arrived in the field where his troubles started, he was not as yet a card-carrying anti-colonialist. Granted, he had joined the Communist Party in 1935 at the age of 18, but there is a distance between being a communist and being an anti-colonialist.

Girling arrived in colonial Acholi in northern Uganda as one of the first grantees of the British Social Studies Research Council fund. He came as an anthropology DPhil student, a study that was to run for two years. Obtained on a government grant, the results were also intended to inform colonial policy.

As presented here, Girling’s thesis begins by ticking the requisite anthropology boxes and, had he continued in this vein, his star would indeed have risen high. Girling gives us outlines of the people, their location, their language, their religious beliefs, the economy, the politics, their relationships with neighbours and their place in the modern world.

Girling writes persuasively for the most part, his prose occasionally rising to a level where it describes the larakaraka dance as “held in the girl’s villages on bright moonlight nights”.

Pre-colonial Acholi

Girling’s descriptions of Acholi life from infancy to old age show how interwoven culture is—at once spiritual, communal, economic, and political. Setting out a new agricultural season will ask of the priest a blessing; knowledge of what to plant, when to plant it will be connected to, say, one’s station in life. A newly married bride will come with seeds from her family for planting, and this forms the basis of what her family will be fed during her lifetime, as indeed it will be for her progeny when her own daughter leaves for her marital home.

But the arrival of colonialism, which in force is not actually “western” culture, but a brand of post-enlightenment capitalist bourgeoisie exigency, breaks this interwoven character of culture, as it has done everywhere, bleeding out the vitality of society, like so much rubber sap out of a tree stem, to feed into the maws of industrial capitalism.

The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless. In working on my own book on the Ateker of eastern Africa, I met this repeatedly, and it crops up in any piece of culture that you pick. Take what is referred to as bride price. The common, derogatory, view is that it is “buying” a woman. Far from that, it is the intertwining of one large family unit to another, as the number of animals that change hands frequently goes to different members on the other side. In slaughtering a bull, a set part of the butchery went to set recipients, someone received the haunches, the offal, the trotters, depending on their position in the communal ranks; the members of the prevailing generation had first right of refusal, as it were. No one ate or drank before they did.

The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless.

A first pregnancy and a first birth transform the station in life of a bride; married, her own mother becomes a most revered personality in the society. There is a place for the patriarch; here in Acholi, he is “won lobo”, an untranslatable designation acknowledging his stewardship of the land. Primogeniture presides alongside ultimogeniture; the youngest son inherits the father’s house, and remains to become keeper of the homestead as his older siblings move to new homes.

Dictatorship is un-African

The texture percolates upwards and outwards and via this, power becomes immanent to the social. Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa. Rather, the office that the African president occupies is the same as that of the colonial governor who, we must remember, was never voted into office; when the African state collapsed, it was not Africanness that was the cause, but the colonial structure coming down with the departure of its creators.

Translating this reality of power is hard, even for a Girling. He calls Acholi leaders “rulers”, he describes what he calls “aristocracy” and “chief”. In systems where actions were sharply ritualised, and power was largely invisible and was transmitted via subtle social relationships, what does it mean that there is a “ruler”?

Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa.

The keenness with which Girling is working is high engagement. He picks a word, like Kwer (emphasising that it is not be confused with ker, although he takes license further by conflating it with kweri). But does Kwer mean rite, observance, ritual or forbiddance? And of Ker, is it glory, monarchy, or achievement? Kweri is a hoe, but does that mean iron was involved in rite? We have to ask because translation is superfluous and so much gets traduced along the way. If you speak a Luo language, you will appreciate the lengths to which Girling went to avoid such mistakes.

Tone-deaf to Acholi music

And yet, this is still colonial anthropology. Even in the hands of a scholar as careful as Girling, the African is still objectified. Nowhere in the book is the African presented as possessor of agency.

His study might not be musicology but Girling does not bring to the fore the life force that is Acholi music. He is either keeping it to himself or he really is tone-deaf. The side of Acholi that emerges in his writing is all structure and power, and observance. Girling does not portray the delicate creativity of the Acholi that even their sworn enemies acknowledge.

Or was this omission a direct result of the funding rug being pulled from under his feet?

The path to Girling’s troubles begins before the first year is done. He opens his presentation with attention to the wider cultural patina but, alas, all that is the history, even in 1950. Eventually he must account for the present and there, the hands of British viciousness cannot be hidden. For Girling has arrived a half century after the first colonial administrator to Acholi, John Rutherford Parkins Postlethwaite (the Acholi dispensed with this caravan-length of a name and simply called him Bwana Gweno—”Sir Chicken”) has struck a disabling blow against the people.

What Girling saw

Unlike most anthropologists, Girling records the havoc colonialism has wreaked upon the people. He shows us how the prerogatives of bourgeois capitalism have ransacked the society beyond recognition. The seminal crime of forcibly moving the people from their ancestral lands implemented by Postlethwaite has broken the economy. Those intricately woven power connections have long come undone. “Native” economy, inheritance, the power of clans and “lineages”, did not survive. Plantation agriculture in the south came for the people’s souls. The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems; in disproportionate numbers, the Acholi, like their neighbours the Lango and Teso, are fed into the armed forces.

In the place of the “native” culture, there is a new culture in the lands, for what the coloniser brought was not civilisation but his own culture. To gain perspective, we must cease to see colonially mediated “western culture” as a universal spirit; it was somebody’s peculiar culture, horned in experience, shaped to promote their self-interest. And here it comes as forced labour, slavery, exploitation and racial prejudice. For it to qualify as civilisation, it would have had to be universal and colour-blind. But it only worked for a specific class and race so that as the Asians and Europeans thrive, the black people become more destitute and dispossessed. It was their lifeblood these non-Africans came for.

For this exploitation to work, the religious, economic and political system of the Acholi is torn apart. The precolonial leadership structure is upended. The unqualified and the unaccepted (collaborators) are put in their place. Everywhere the British approach was to impose unacceptable leaders, and then sit and watch the natives fight amongst themselves.

The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems.

To further poison the well, they brought southerners and southern ideas to rule the people. In Karamoja, I came across the neologism “Ekatikiroit”, describing the British attempt at imposing Ganda systems on the people and creating the office of “Katikiro” (Buganda office, generally but not always accurately translated as “Prime Minister”).

The disaster was compounded by Christian Missionaries who formed what have been referred to as “Missionary Villages” where converts were bivouacked in a kind of imprisonment and forcibly stopped from practicing their culture.

The publishers mention that their intention in bringing this book out is to provide a historical context for the thirty-year war in northern Uganda. If you know these parts of the region, you immediately recognise that the land alienation, in combination with the stoppage of what is here called leadership lineages, left the society headless (a respondent bitterly asks why the British left intact southern systems but destroyed the Acholi). Brutal economic exploitation (the “half-free” labour Girling euphemistically refers to without elaboration) stole from unborn Africans as African men now laboured for the profits of Europeans and Asians. The toil of Africans did not add up to savings and wealth creation they could pass on to their children whilst the European and Asian recipient of this labour had more than they would have dreamt of to pass to their own children.

Not just savings, but also trade and craftsmanship/industry knowledge. The Acholi (a case study for all of Africa really) lost skills accumulated over millennia because labour for African profit was largely proscribed, so that metallurgical knowledge was no longer transferred.

A comparable disaster I became familiar with is the manner in which colonial policy amongst pastoralists led to loss of pasturage (to wildlife conservation, among others). The subsequent loss of animals meant that the generational passing of political power, whose elaborate and expensive ceremonies depended on livestock availability, led to the collapse of political power. Where post-independence conflict flared up, the destruction of clear leadership was often at the centre. We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.

The Kony war was Acholi’s inevitable moment of reckoning. Others had theirs earlier, like the Kikuyu during Mau Mau. It came to pass in Somalia, in Turkana, Pokot, Toposa and Karamoja.

A man on a mission

The section of Girling’s work that begins to break away from social anthropology, which he found anodyne, starts to ignite when he turns attention to “domains” in chapter six. Outside of the book, we are told that Girling started to compile statistics, which was alien to the discipline. His Marxist bent was starting to kick in.

Although Girling does not mention any of the excesses of British colonialism, such as the genocide in Bunyoro, despite having to study Bunyoro because of its links with Acholi, we sense that he has become self-aware. Girling knows that he has been sent to Acholi, not to write lyrical prose to his observation, but to provide raw material to tighten their bondage even more. Girling’s immediate act of dissent is to disrupt his own scope and methodology. He adopts a research method that would link economic policy (land alienation and forced labour) to the superstructures of colonial rule. This runs counter to imperial propaganda.

The first powers to notice this errant turn in tone are his academic supervisors. But Girling’s actions also alert the colonial administrators. For example, he invites a friend from Cambridge, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, a statistician, to Acholi. He goes with Mukherjee to the golf clubhouse. The club is only for white people, a place, one member is quoted as saying, “where we can get away for a time from our coloured brothers”. Girling’s examination of the Europeans, the Asians and their enterprise in Acholi makes for uncomfortable reading. What’s he up to? He has come to study the Acholi, not the British, right?

They may have paid him to gaze at the Africans, but they did not like being gazed at at all.

Reports start to circulate that Girling has gone native. His communist membership now comes up. He is accused of rousing anti-British feelings among the natives. Fault is found with his dissertation. He can do nothing right anymore. He brings his wife and children over to Gulu. It is used as a pretext to accuse him of over-expenditure. The matter of Girling is now serious enough that MI5 is suspected to have been informed; Moneypenny and Bond are after him.

It is 1951, a year before his study is to come to an end. But Girling has already become toxic. His supervisor at Oxford, Evans-Pritchard (the same professor who later fails Okot p’Bitek’s dissertation), says he can no longer supervise him and hands him over to one Audrey Richards, first director of what in our times became Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR, a problem institute where six decades later, another director was to get caught in the crosshairs over activist Stella Nyanzi and President Museveni). They are now playing pass the parcel.

We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.

In sections of his report that were censored and would not be seen publicly until the publication of this book, Girling had stated that British policy had destroyed Acholi society. His talk of “an all powerful British administration” and immediate connection of it to the introduction of wage labour and fixed taxes (tied to his idea of “half-free” labour) and the stinging rejoinder in Marxian vein that “These two aspects cannot be considered separately; they are intimately connected”, strikes at the very core of imperialism. It would not require an academic mind to see it. He describes European and British presence in the region as one of leisure, golfing, laying by the swimming pool, occasionally taking bribes from the Indian traders in the town. Inter-dining is common, he states. Given the post-war shortages, these colonial outposts are vitally luxurious.

The Ugandan and, indeed, Acholi regional colonial administrators cut Girling’s study off with one year to go. His stipend is only maintained until he can finish writing what he has gathered thus far (we imagine from negotiation with his academic supervisors who would have seen merit in his work but not wanted to risk their own positions).

A haunted man

Girling suffers. He found no permanent anthropological position at any university, settling instead at Sheffield University teaching his politically engaged version of anthropology at the Sociological department. But his work was to lead to a nearly buried life. There was the mark of censorship, and his reputation as a political troublemaker, that meant doors remained closed to him. In later life, Girling watches from a distance as the analysis he made of British policy in Acholi bears factually in the Kony war. Girling died in 2004.

That his prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true should tell us much about the intentions of universities such as Oxford, which conspired in burying his work. Girling went for the truth when what was required of him was a political version of it to not only shield Her Majesty’s government, but also to present it in a good light, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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