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Culinary Imperialism and the Hierarchies of Food

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Food has never been about the simple act of eating; food is history, and identity. Hence, colonialism, as a violent process, fundamentally altered the way of life of a people, including their culinary habits.

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Culinary Imperialism and the Hierarchies of Food
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“Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” – Thomas Sankara

The violence that accompanied European colonisation of Africa people was a well-known fact. But while a lot of emphasis has leaned towards the political, military and economic changes forced upon the colonised people, the matter of food – the very source of survival – is seldom considered. Yet food has always been a fundamental tool in the process of colonisation. Through food, social and cultural norms are conveyed, and also violated. Indeed, one cannot properly understand colonisation without taking into account the issue of food and eating.

In 1895, Britain annexed the future Kenya as an East African protectorate. However, the expansion of the British Empire was met with resistance in some parts of the protectorate. The British suppressed the opposition by using different methods, from divide-and-rule tactics to military campaigns, signing treaties with local rulers, and controlling food to quell dissent.

The scorched-earth policy of burning crops and killing livestock proved to be a most effective method for suppressing rebellion and colonising the population. In his book, Kenya Diary 1902-1906, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen describes official policy in matter of fact terms while reflecting on how during his many expeditions the burning of huts, crops and livestock proved to be a very effective means of suppressing dissent and subduing the African native.

Feeding the monster 

Once the British consolidated power in the colony, there was an influx of thousands of European settlers who were invited by the colonial government with offers of huge leases for the most fertile land in the country. The fertile expanses that later became the “White Highlands,” were opened for settlement through the forceful displacement of the previous inhabitants, most of whom ended up in the drier margins of their former homelands. Africans who didn’t find a place to settle became squatters on white farms or worked as labourers for Asian merchants.

The colonial state used white settlers to introduce commercial agricultural production as the mainstay of the colonial economy. The state forcibly seized land, livestock and other indigenous assets from certain communities and households on behalf of the settlers and the colonial administration, systematically marginalising and subordinating indigenous African agriculture.

Among the Kipsigis, writes Dr Samson Omoyo in a paper titled “The agricultural changes in the Kipsigis: A historical analysis”, describes how colonial manoeuvres depleted the native stock critical for the Kipsigis’ economic and social reproduction, clearing the way for the increasing numbers of European settlers. The capital-driven process eroded the Kipsigis’ indigenous land tenure systems and gradually undermined and changed their previous way of life.

By the mid-1930s, about one-fifth of arable land in Kenya was under the exclusive control of the settlers. In addition, the state provided the settlers and corporate capital with the necessary infrastructural, agricultural, marketing, and credit facilities. Above all, the state sought to create, mobilise and control the supply of African labour for capital.

The forbidden fruits 

Cash crop farming quickly became the choice source of income for the settlers, who benefited from the cheap land and the large African labour force that they conscripted. British colonialists forced Africans to work on their farms and this facilitated the introduction of European food crops. Often, African workers in settler farms were paid in sacks of maize due to its high nutritional value that created a strong and healthy labour force and its easy access and availability in the colony.

When the Africans returned to the so-called “reserves”, they introduced maize into their subsistence farming systems, cementing its position as the colony’s primary staple crop, and replacing crops like millet, tubers, legumes, and kale, which were commonly found in traditional farming systems.

In 1923, the government announced that it would promote commercial crop markets in the reserves. Little came of this because African farmers, who were more intent on providing for local food needs, showed little interest in producing for the export market.

By the mid-1930s, about one-fifth of arable land in Kenya was under the exclusive control of the settlers.

Strong opposition to the planned introduction of cash crops led the colonial government to instead subsidise European production in order to maintain the colony’s food security. The indigenous smallholder farmers who attempted to make a living selling cash crops could not compete as a result. Eventually, in 1937, the colonial government reinstated cash crop growing in the reserves as a mainstay economic activity.

As land became scarce, Kenyans increasingly began favouring cash crops in place of subsistence farming. This made peasant household food security a tenuous affair. Commercialisation resulted in the emergence of new types of households: commodity-producing households; labour-exporting households; squatter households; and working-class households. This massive displacement of people not only deprived Africans of food and ceremony, but also of traditional knowledge of food and its preparation as communities became reliant on the new economic system.

Everything from the loss of teachings about indigenous plants to cultural exchanges thorough regional indigenous markets were destroyed. As such, African farming systems were forever altered, traditional practices were lost, and cultural norms were destroyed.

But what the colonial economic system didn’t obliterate, the church did.

Things go bananas

By the 1930s, the missionary schools and other church institutions had made concerted effort to rid local cultures of their traditions. Although earlier travellers and missionaries like David Livingstone had reported on Africans’ healthy diets, many of his predecessors held the racist and eugenicist view that food shaped the colonial body. In other words, the European body differed from that of the African people because the British diet and culinary habits differed from culinary habits of the local Africans. Bodies could be altered by diets—thus the fear that by consuming “inferior” African foods, Brits would eventually become like the “natives”. Only proper European foods would maintain the superior nature of European bodies, and only these foods and British food sensibilities could also civilise the “African savages” to be more like their colonisers.

In their minds, as one Chloe Campbell suggests in her book Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, food not only functioned to maintain the European body’s superiority, it also played a role in the formation of social identity and Britain’s “civilising mission” across its empire.

Everything from the loss of teachings about indigenous plants to cultural exchanges thorough regional indigenous markets were destroyed. As such, African farming systems were forever altered, traditional practices were lost, and cultural norms were destroyed.

The campaign to “civilise” the African was more successful than the missionaries could have ever hoped for. The primary vectors for the cultural indoctrination were the mission schools, churches, boarding schools and public health programmes responsible for educating African youth. These methods of “education” uniformly reduced knowledge related to the cultivation and preparation of traditional and indigenous foods.

Traditional knowledge was devalued as the education of children was shifted from tribal elders to the imperial powers via the church and school. British education encouraged “sophistication”, which included the rejection of traditional foods and ancient methods of food preparation, and an emphasis on British culinary sensibilities and food practices. Traditional cereals, herbs and vegetables were promptly dropped for those with high market value and perceived desirability. Thereafter, traditional foods would only be consumed in secret and infrequently mainly in the African reserves.

The pie in the sky 

The symbolic nature of food was also seen in the imposition of religion, another destructive aspect of the British conquest. The Bishop of the Church Mission Society (CMS) Robert Merttins Bird, in a letter to the Christians and elders of the pastorate in Kikuyuland, forbade the consumption of local manufactured alcohol on 1st January 1930, deeming it evil and devilish, hence the need for it to be abandoned by all members of the church.

This policy, however, didn’t take into account that many cultures in Kenya had a long tradition of beer-making, the consumption of which was reserved for ceremonies and cultural events. Just as the church demonised the consumption of local alcohol, there was also a concerted effort by the colonial government to control native alcohol consumption to keep the African labour productive. Both of these policies reinforced the racist perception that Africans could not hold their liquor and disrupted production in native cereal grains used in the brews.

Traditional knowledge was devalued as the education of children was shifted from tribal elders to the imperial powers via the church and school.

In 1963, when Kenya gained its independence, a new class of African elites took power. But as Franz Fanon writes in his seminal text The Wretched of the Earth, this class of (mostly) men and women did not reform the colonial state but, in fact, perfected it and exacerbated its venality towards its people. Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, in cahoots with his cronies and senior government officials, acquired huge tracts of land and resources as they pleased. While indigenous communities suffered poverty, the confiscated resources became a source of wealth and prosperity for the political and business elite.

The effect of this massive land grab by the elite would consolidate the neocolonial system by replacing “peasant” modes of production with capitalist modes, and the establishment of a new African petit-bourgeois strata within sectors of the economy. Their primary occupation would be in activities of the intermediary type, scheming and hustling, and firmly entrenching their role as mediators for former colonial powers.

These elites, in cahoots with their Western allies, have passed draconian laws, illegally grabbed land, manipulated food and agricultural policies, and engaged in rampant corruption to control the food Kenyans consume. Of these, weaponising corruption has proved to be most effective means. In the maize sector, for instance, since 1965 – when the first maize scandal was reported – the politics of maize (Kenya’s staple) has been used by the political class as a system of reward and a means to pacify or punish communities for political expediency – the same tactics used by the white colonialists to suppress resistance.

A hard nut to crack

Today, there has been growing interest in the battle for control over land, food and even seeds in Kenya. Under the guise of improving food security in Kenya, a new wave of food imperialism is taking shape. A series of public-private partnerships are aggressively shaping a food policy geared towards helping corporations access prime resources and markets within Kenya’s food systems. Farmers are being forced to change from low-cost sustainable traditional agriculture to intensive, industrial farming with intensive application of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and corporate-owned seeds. This domineering framework to control what food people grow, how they grow and consume it, is in contrast to what many are calling food sovereignty.

These elites, in cahoots with their Western allies, have passed draconian laws, illegally grabbed land, manipulated food and agricultural policies, and engaged in rampant corruption to control the food Kenyans consume.

Food sovereignty is about the right of a people to determine their own choices with regard to food and agriculture as opposed to having their food supply subjected to external forces, such as imperialism or the global economic market. Food sovereignty, therefore, according to the U.S Food Sovereignty Alliance, states that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and land, and between food providers and those who eat it. It must go well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs.

Food has never merely been about the simple act of eating; food is history, and identity. Hence, colonialism, as a violent process, fundamentally altered the way of life of a people, including their culinary habits. Since European occupation of Africa, its people have encountered a radically altered food system. Therefore, because food choices are influenced and constrained by cultural, political and economic values, they are an important part of the deconstruction and decolonisation of our social identity.

Indeed, for Africa in particular, food and food production has to go beyond just being about health, well-being, economic resilience and cultural heritage; food must be used to restore a balance of power, restore dignity and re-imagine a better future for its people. Food is power.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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The author is an analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History

Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.

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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
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The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.

The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.

The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.

On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.

Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.

I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.

The toppling of the statue 

At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.

For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.

The trial

The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.

The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.

The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.

One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.

Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.

In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”

The wider significance

The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.

Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.

The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.

The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.

This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.

In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.

One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.

These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”

Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.

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Culture

The Politics of Street Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

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

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

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

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

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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