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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space

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There is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate.

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Binyavanga Wainaina: The Writer Who Democratised Kenya’s Literary Space
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“Some birds should never be caged, their feathers are too bright. But when one such is finally set free, something inside of you sings that knows it was wrong to cage it in the first place.” – Red in Shawshank Redemption

I first met Binyavanga Wainana in 2002 – an election year in Kenya when a hopeful country was looking forward to removing an authoritarian regime and ushering in a brave new world. He had just returned from South Africa and was scouting around for ideas for a literary journal that he hoped to establish to revive the dying (if not dead) literary scene in Kenya.

It was during these heady days—when it seemed that anything was possible – that Binya, as he was fondly called, came back home like a gust of fresh air that sweeps through a damp, mouldy room and changes the atmosphere. His enthusiasm was infectious. He could mesmerise an audience so much so that many aspiring writers, including myself, who never imagined having a literary career, began writing their own stories, in their own voices, with no apologies.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined. As the blogger and academic Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities”.

Indeed, Binyavanga democratised the literary space in Kenya, especially for young writers. He entered the Kenyan literary scene at precisely the time when the country was undergoing a major transition – a “second liberation” brought about by a group of anti-establishment politicians and activists and a population hungry for change, which led to the election of Mwai Kibaki and an end to Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year reign.

With the launch of his brainchild, the literary journal Kwani?, in 2003, he unveiled talented and previously closeted writers who had been silenced not just by a government afraid of creatives, but by a stodgy old school literary fraternity that saw no value or merit in the writings of those they deemed to be too unschooled or undisciplined

It is difficult to write about someone you have known, especially someone who was as charismatic and controversial as Binya, whose short life as a literary icon generated as much admiration as it did indignation. He was not without flaws. Loud, sharp, witty, and even rude at times, he dared to question the status quo that reduced Kenyans, and Africans in general, to mere spectators in their own lives – people who saw themselves through other (mainly white) people’s eyes. Binya opened up literary spaces that had remained closed for many Kenyan writers. He gave us permission to write. This, I believe, was his greatest gift to young Kenyan writers, many of whom ventured out on their own and became literary warriors in their own right.

A polarising influence

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.). This essay not only made many Western journalists cringe, but was also a call to African writers to write about their lives and their continent in an authentic voice without worrying too much about how they would be perceived by non-African readers. In his essays, writings and speeches, he represented a new generation of Kenyan writers who, as Nigerian novelist Helon Habila commented, attempt to explain Kenya and Africa but do so “without a knee-jerk resort to colonial woes”.

Wandia Njoya stated in a tweet shortly after his death, Binyavanga “liberated our art from the literature police in Kenyan universities

But the very Westerners that Binya criticised in his writings were quick to adopt him and give him a platform where he could thrive. In a sense, they co-opted him, made him one of their own, thereby taking some of the sting out of his critique. Although often vilified – or perhaps misunderstood – at home, Binya was lauded abroad for his genius and writing acumen. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, which catapulted his career as a writer and earned him a directorship at the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College in the United States. Thereafter, he was wined and dined by publishers, agents and philanthropists eager for a fresh new African voice.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”. However, Ikheloa also censured the Kenyan writer for being one among many African writers who are rescued by the West “like abused puppies”. He was particularly harsh when commenting on the author’s memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place:

“Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations…On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture on entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excluded the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.”

The Economist, in a review of the book, was equally scathing: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”

However, both Ikheloa and the Economist failed to acknowledge that for any African writer to be taken seriously, he has to first go through an assembly line of agents, editors, publishers and distributors based in Europe or North America. African governments rarely support the arts, writers in particular, and the publishers on the continent are more interested in publishing textbooks (that bring in more profits) than publishing an author who is little known outside his country.

Binyavanga will be remembered for many things, among them his seminal satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa”, in which he lampooned Western journalists and so-called Africa experts for their negative, stereotypical and ignorant depictions of the continent (starving Africans, naked dead bodies, celebrity activists and aid workers trying to save the continent etc.).

In 2007, perhaps in reaction to these criticisms, Binyavanga rejected an invitation by the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s nominating committee to be named as one among 250 Young Global Leaders. In an email to the chair of the committee, Queen Rania of Jordan, he wrote:

“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go [to China where the WEF was being held] anyway because we will get to be ‘validated’ and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people…The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative. It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs’.”

Coming out

However, Binyavanga would go on have a significant impact on the LGBTQ community in the last few years of his life when he stoked (some might even say welcomed) controversy, particularly after he came out as a gay man in 2014 and published what he called his book’s “lost chapter”. The coming-out essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mum, enraged the conservative Christian evangelical moral police (who he loathed and who he blamed for turning many Kenyans into zombie religious fanatics), who dismissed the author as the devil’s work. But the gay community both at home and abroad congratulated him for coming out, especially at a time when many African countries were targeting and criminalising homosexuals.

But not everyone was convinced that this Kenyan writer had the intellectual mettle to liberate Kenyan minds. In a critique of his six-part self-made video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations” (or what Binya referred to as “What I Have to Say About Being Gay”) published in the Saturday Nation, the Kenyan social scientist and academic, Joyce Nyairo, described his arguments as “scattered, off-hand generalities” and accused him of having a limited understanding of Kenya’s history. “His knowledge of homosexuality in colonial and post-colonial Kenya is either non-existent or it has been unwisely excluded,” she wrote.

Many also accused him of being deliberately apolitical or politically naïve. His quest to show Kenyan urban middle class lives (like his own family’s in Nakuru) as normal – without sufficiently explaining the abnormality that produced this class – earned him a few barbs. However, when the circumstances demanded, Binya could take on the role of political activist. In January 2008, for instance, at the height of the post-election violence in Kenya, when churches were being torched and women were being gang-raped for being “the wrong tribe”, he mobilised a group of writers to explain to the world what was going on in the country. He believed then that through the power of the pen, Kenya could be prevented from descending into a Rwanda-like genocide.

The Nigerian blogger and columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa, in an essay titled “Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina”, called Binya “a brilliant lunatic” who writes about darkness with “startling clarity and casualness”

But while campaigning for a peaceful Kenya, he aligned himself with the very forces that had catapulted the country to the brink of a dangerous precipice. In 2013, when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were declared the winners of the presidential election, Binyavanga viewed their victory as a victory against the imperialist West and its so-called lackey, the International Criminal Court, which had indicted the duo for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. “Gone are the days when a bunch of European ambassadors speak in confident voices to the Kenyan public about what we should do, why we should do it,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “The west should expect more defiance from an Uhuru government – and more muscular engagement.”

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Though he admitted later that he had perhaps declared victory too soon, he failed to understand that the problem afflicting Kenya was not that Western governments were imposing their will on the Kenyan people, but that Kenya was sliding back to the bad old days of the Moi era, when dissent was not tolerated and when a culture of mediocrity and corruption pervaded all arms of government.

In a letter published in Brittle Paper in October 2017, when Kenya was about to go through another election, he stated: “I would like to apologise to all the people of Kenya for not seeing through the attempts to rig the election in 2013. I believe that going to the polls on 26 October with the same IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] is a mistake.” Like many others who view Kenya’s democracy purely through the lens of free and fair elections, he failed to see that the main problem in Kenya is not that we consistently have rigged elections; the problem is more systemic – we refuse to acknowledge that the rain started beating us at independence, when the first wave of leaders decided that the spoils of a post-colonial state should be distributed among a tiny elite and that ethnic identity should determine the nature and scale of that distribution.

The change that never came

“I want to live a life of free imagination,” Binya stated. “I want to see this continent change.”

Sadly, the change that he envisioned in Kenya did not come during his lifetime. By the time he died last week, at the age of 48, the same reactionary, anti-change forces were back in power – forces that are taking Kenya back to those dark days when creative minds and imaginations were considered a threat to national security (or rather, to the security of the president) and when artistic spirits were crushed. We no longer have the torture chambers that sent writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o into exile four decades ago, but Binya’s untimely death has reminded us that the struggle for a new way of thinking and bold ideas is still not over; on the contrary, the old guard is firmly back in the saddle.

However, there is no doubt that Binyavanga Wainaina forever changed the literary landscape in Kenya, opening it up to a new generation of Kenyans who are no longer afraid to experiment or innovate. He never managed to finish the novel he said he was writing when he fell ill a few years ago, but he did leave behind an indelible body of work that challenged his generation to take charge of their own narratives.

I think Binya would have agreed with the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, who said, “To write is to die a little less when I die, to leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more.”

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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Culture

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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Culture

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