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Unleash the Bulls!

13 min read.

Stanley Gazemba sets out to unveil the myths that surround bullfighting, a sport with a huge following among the Kisa, Idakho, Isukha, Banyore and Batsotso sub-tribes of the greater Luhya community, and meets with grizzled veterans of this popular blood sport.

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Unleash the Bulls!
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I watched a bullfight at the famous Malinya Stadium in Shinyalu, Kakamega, one Saturday morning. For all the hype around the preparations for the bullfight, it turned out to be a brief affair that lasted barely thirty minutes. I hardly caught any of the action because of the surging, twig-waving crowds and the billowing dust. Having woken up at dawn to catch the fight, I was a bit disappointed to have it end so abruptly but what did register from that war-chanting crowd was the adrenaline. It was a living thing that you could feel pulsate in the air. Many of the spectators had stayed up most of the night drinking traditional busaa beer in anticipation of the fight and as they led off the winning bull, dancing to the beat of the isukuti drums, I knew it was going to be a long day of binge drinking and debauchery, going by the content of the songs they were singing. It is the reason why I decided to find someone to take me to meet some of the figures behind the bullfighting.

Our quest for the bullfighters starts at the Eregi Road junction on the Chavakali-Kakamega highway where my guide and I mount boda bodas and set off down the dusty murram road on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The ten-minute ride through the sleepy village centres along the route ends at a popular busaa-drinking place called Handshake, a large mud-walled, tin-roofed enclosure in Chandumba village on the border of Vihiga and Kakamega counties where I presume all the boda boda fares are headed since very few of the bikes go beyond this point. A cool breeze blows from the scenic Mlimani hills overlooking the rolling valley in neighbouring Ishiunira.

We talk politics for a while and sample the brew and pork as we wait for the old veteran we are here to meet, a devout Catholic, like most of the people in the area, who never misses the first mass. After a while the churches start emptying and one by one the faithful saunter in, still in their Sunday whites – both men and women – to spend Caesar’s coin. Our contact turns out to be a frail old man in a sagging old tweed coat who surveys us with a squint as we shake hands. He is in the company of another old man who walks with a pronounced limp, leaning rather heavily on his well-worn walking stick. I am intrigued. I can hardly picture the two rallying a well-fed champion bull to lock horns with a rival’s in a packed stadium. The image they conjure up is that of smalltime traders at a village market, or village headmen.

I soon learn that bullfighting is a sport that is almost as old as the Luhya tribe, specifically the Idakho, Isukha and Batsotso sub-tribes who neighbour each other. The bulls are revered by these communities, and their owners are held in very high regard. When we later leave Handshake to visit the home of one of the veterans, Mzee Mukoto, in neighbouring Mativini village I witness a unique spectacle. The owners actually speak to their bulls, and the bulls understand them. As we walk through the village, we come across a young man leading to pasture a young bull that is being bred to fight. The young man is not carrying a herding stick, but instead keeps whispering instructions to the bull as they walk along the road, telling it to turn this way and that, which it does. We pass a market centre and we expect it to charge at the women traders seated by the roadside, and who seem not at all alarmed as the bull comes in their direction. The herdsman overhears our fears and smiles. “It won’t harm them”, he assures us. And sure enough, he guides it by the mouth steadily through the rickety stalls without damaging a tomato. It is something to behold.

I soon learn that bullfighting is a sport that is almost as old as the Luhya tribe, specifically the Idakho, Isukha and Batsotso sub-tribes

There are many myths associated with the bulls, some of which are revealed to me, though from the looks that are exchanged, I can tell that others are being withheld. For one, it is taboo for an owner to engage in sex the night before a fight. Bull owners believe that if this taboo is broken the consequences on the day of the fight can be grave. The bull could run berserk and plow into the crowd or even turn its deadly horns on the owner. Others claim that breaking a taboo can also cause the bull to lose focus and end up gored to death by its rival. They all agree that when such a disaster befalls an otherwise well-bred bull, there must be an underlying reason.

The other cause for disaster in the arena is if two bull owners who carry a grudge against each other – a past disagreement over a business matter or a long-running family feud – agree to a fight. It is believed that this affects the performance of the bull, since it shares the feelings of the owner and can communicate with him through a form of telepathy. An owner who agrees to such a bout is signing the death warrant of one of the bulls. It is extremely important for the rivals to have a clean heart when they shake hands on a deal.

“It is not really a duel”, explains Mzee Mukoto. “You see, if I own a bull that you feel can square off with yours, what happens is that you approach me as a friend and we talk over the matter maybe over a pot of beer. When we are in agreement that our bulls can face off we then agree on a date and a figure for the winning bull, say ten thousand or above. Our friends can either chip in or place wagers. Sometimes a wealthy patron will come in and place a good sum on the winning bull. The fans are also important because they have to agree to the contest, otherwise it will have to be called off. If there is the slightest doubt in the mind of either owner the contest must similarly be called off. That is because if it proceeds against the wishes of one party then it will result in disaster”.

“Both sides having agreed we then shake hands and go off to prepare the bulls for the big day. Depending on the popularity of our bulls, word will often spread very quickly and everyone in the neighbouring villages starts to anticipate the big day. We look at it as a gentleman’s agreement, and not really a contest as such. And the money is only a motivator and not really the main aim; often the winning owner will spend most of the prize money entertaining his friends and village mates after the victory. It is something we do because of the love, and not really a business where you expect to make money”.

Preparing a bull for the fight is a craft shrouded in mystery. The bull is mostly fed and bred in isolation from the rest of the herd, with a special paddock and a zero-grazing unit set aside for it in the homestead. To preserve the bull’s virility, mating with the rest of the herd is discouraged. Its isolation is also meant to drive the bull wild at the sight of its rival.

There are many myths associated with the bulls, some of which are revealed to me, but from the looks that are exchanged, I can tell that others are being withheld

About three days before the fight, in addition to choice foliage, the owner starts to feed his bull on maseke, the millet residue from the beer brewing process. On the eve of the fight he prepares a special concoction called dawa, wraps it in a maize leaf and asks a favourite son to feed it to the bull at dawn. I probe for the contents of the dawa but I am met with sly smiles. “Everyone has special herbs in their family or clan that they have traditionally used to prepare the bulls”, is all my host will divulge. But as the conversation progresses, attracting the input of the other villagers, they soon reveal that it is common practice to feed cannabis to the bulls or make them inhale the smoke on the morning of the fight to make them more aggressive.

As the conversation with Mzee Mukoto progresses, it emerges that the thrill of the sport is in the savagery exhibited in the arena by the fighting bulls, the sight of a 500-kilo beast pawing the ground, grunting deeply as it sizes up its opponent before hunching its massive shoulders, lowering its head and launching into the charge, slamming headfirst into its equally massive opponent. It is the height of virility that is on display as the beasts grapple with each other, muscles rippling, coats shiny with sweat, mirroring the law of the African savanna, where the strongest male emerges as the ruler of the herd, driving the vanquished off his turf. It is this sexual undertone that is at the heart of the sport, and which the fans celebrate after victory as if to say to the opposing village that they are the more virile.

And as happens in the wilds of the savanna, there is always the threat of danger, both to the contestants and the spectators. Like old soldiers, most of the veterans I talk to carry the scars of their bullfighting days. My host pulls back his shirtsleeve and extends his arm, inviting me to feel the lump in the ulna bone. “My bull broke this arm. Unfortunately it wasn’t set properly by the bone-setter, which is why you can feel it didn’t heal properly”, he explains, the gleam of an old soldier at a veteran’s reunion in his eyes. I try to discern any hint of sadness or regret in the depths of his eyes but there is none there, only pride. He appears to wear his wounds like a badge of honour.

Mzee Mukoto then turns to the old man with a limp, who has hardly spoken so far, opting to listen and nod along as he partakes of his beer, the frown on his face deepening occasionally. “I got off lightly. This man’s bull gored him very badly in the genitals. It would have killed him”.

At last I have an explanation for the limp. An uncomfortable silence descends after this disclosure, with everyone staring into their glasses and tins. I can tell that the memory is still very fresh in their minds. I want to ask what could have caused the beast to turn on its trusted keeper but instinctively realise that I will cause offence, since he is an elder who is held in high esteem by his mates. I am left to warrant a guess from the explanations I have been given.

“People have been killed when the bulls turn wild”, adds my host in a lowered voice. It reminds me that we are discussing a blood sport here, and not a casual game of rounders in the school yard. As we were walking through the neighbouring Ilanaswa village I had noted an unusually high number of graves in the front yards of the homesteads and I’m left to wonder how many of those lying there are victims of the bulls.

Although the fight I witnessed was brief and quickly resolved, I am told that some stretch on for hours and sometimes there’s no clear winner, with the weary beasts having to be forcefully separated when it becomes clear that they are equally matched and are going to tear into each other to death. All the same, the fight is dictated by the bulls and not manipulated by man.

They soon reveal that it is common practice to feed cannabis to the bulls or make them inhale the smoke on the morning of the fight to make them more aggressive

When one of the beasts has been badly gored it is usually led off the arena straight to the abattoir. If the wounds are less severe then it will be led back to its pen to undergo treatment at the hands of traditional herbalists. Sometimes the owner will donate the meat to the festivities that are to follow as he comes to terms with his loss. As for the victorious bull, regardless of its injuries, it will still have to be paraded through the villages on the way home to the accompaniment of thunderous singing and dancing.

The other veteran I meet is Mzee Christopher Mukoto, popularly known as Shanga Shanga in the bullfighting circles, and who sheds even more light on what the first Mukoto has told me. He is also from Ilanaswa village, and we meet at a busaa joint called Nasa in Shikuli village, a stone’s throw away from Handshake.

According to Shanga, before the bull goes out to a contest, it is important for the wife of the owner to strike it on the back with her leso wrap skirt, uttering the words, “Go and fight bravely and bring back victory”, so that when the bull faces its opponent, it will remain steadfast as it has received the backing and blessings of its owner and the fans accompanying it to the fight.

“If you are successful it is very important to share the prize money with the fans”, says Shanga. “You have to make them know that you appreciate the support they gave you. Also, when you return home after the victory you have to hand over a portion of the prize money to your wife and tell her this is what our bull brought us. As the person responsible for cleaning the cow pens every morning, she also needs to share in the success. Otherwise, if you spend the money alone, next time you take out the bull to another contest you will lose”.

On the day of the fight the fans assemble in the homestead early in the morning and dance an isukuti jig around the bull while it is still tethered in its pen. The singing is mostly in praise of the bull and also to encourage it to be victorious. Thereafter the owner untethers the bull and they head out in a dancing procession.

Mzee Shanga reiterates that it is not only important for the bull owner to refrain from sex the day before the fight, but that the same also applies to his trusted head handler who will be responsible for the bull as they head for the contest.

Some of the preparations before the fight include sharpening the horns of the bull to a point with a file. On the night before the fight, the owner collects fodder and chops it finely inside the manger just after midnight. The bull owner and his minder keep vigil the rest of the night feeding it until they are satisfied that it is well fed. “If feeding is overlooked and the bull faces an opponent the following day on an empty stomach it will end up getting tossed around inside the ring like a piece of paper”.

Quality fighting bulls do not come cheap, averaging anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 shillings at the local livestock market depending on how well-built they are. Some people opt to acquire a fighting bull from the cattle market and then groom it for the contest. For Mzee Shanga this is a huge gamble. The old hands like himself prefer to buy a young bull that they have observed fighting in the ring, and then fatten it themselves for a bigger contest in the future. That way you do not risk placing your money on a loser.

It is also important to consult the fans when the owner wants to sell his fighting bull. Mzee Shanga cites a recent case where the owner of a popular fighting bull from the village nicknamed Nasa was sold off by the owner without the consent of the fans. The fans were so enraged they burned the special uniforms that they wear on the day of the fight.

The lowest wager that can be placed on a good fighting bull is 7,000 shillings but those in the top league command anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 shillings. This money is handed over to the minder of the bull before the fight. It is only if his bull emerges victorious that the owner will take the money and decide how to share it out amongst his team.

One of the toughest fights Mzee Shanga remembers was against former Kakamega Senator Dr Boni Khalwale’s famous bull Shikhuma. His bull gored the former senator’s bull so badly it had to be stitched up by a vet after the fight. He recalls the senator calling him after the match to congratulate him on breeding a champion bull. The former senator even bought him a celebratory drink in a practice known as khusura – an important show of sportsmanship even as the vanquished tends to his injured bull.

In case of a bad injury following a fight, it is the duty of the owner of the injured bull to control the emotions of his fans so that they don’t vent their anger on the rival fans. Should a bull gore a spectator to death, it is slaughtered right there in the arena and the meat shared amongst the spectators.

Some of the famous bulls in the sport’s hall of fame include a bull called Luchidio owned by Mzee Imbuti from Ilanaswa and another called Sub-chief owned by Mzee Aliero of Shisecheri village. These bulls were famed for what would be a technical knock-out in boxing terms because they often ended their fights by tossing their opponent high in the air in a clean defeat. Mzee Mukakanga from Shisecheri and Mzee Kendi from Malava were among the earliest elders to breed fighting bulls. From Bunyore was Mzee Mulima and from Kisa Mzee Kubasu. The Idakho and Isukha were the first Luhya sub-tribes to engage in the sport before other sub-tribes like the Kisa, Batsotso and Banyore joined in.

And it was only a matter of time before the sport attracted politicians who at some point realised that it had an even bigger following than the church. It is now common for politicians to sponsor fights between famous bulls in order to take advantage of the large turnout to do their campaigning.

“This sport can bring in a lot of money,” said Shanga. “The problem is with the people who organise contests. Often they are dishonest, and want to exploit the contest to make more money than that given to the owners of the fighting bulls. When that happens we pull out our bulls and tell them to take their contest elsewhere”.

According to Shanga, the bulls have killed many people, especially in Khayega and Malinya areas. “Usually the deaths happen after a fight. At that time a bull is wild, and the fans are supposed to give it space and keep to a distance. Usually the vanquished bull will be running away from the fury of the opponent’s horns. At that time if a spectator happens to be in the way it will gore him and toss him in the air. There are some that will simply single out one of the spectators and go for him. Sometimes this is caused by the herbs that will have been fed to the bull before the fight. There’s a famous herb here in Idakho called msala kwi isimbwa [herbal treatment for dogs]. If you give that to a bull it can even turn on the owner, becoming wild and unmanageable. There are also some that can be given cannabis, and others not, depending on how they react to it. There are those that you will give bhang and they become stupefied instead of wild. And others will do the opposite. It all depends on how you have conditioned your bull and how you treat it”.

Should a bull gore a spectator to death, it is slaughtered right there in the arena and the meat shared among the spectators

In 2008 there was a spirited campaign by a section of parliamentarians from western Kenya to bring the sport to Nairobi. Fronted by the then Kakamega County senator, Dr Boni Khalwale, an ardent supporter and a regular participant in the sport, they argued that it had the potential to attract cultural tourists to the western Kenya region and generate revenue. But their attempt to bring the bulls to face it out at Nyayo National Stadium in the heart of the capital faced stiff opposition from local animal rights groups and activists. Some of the opposing legislators termed it a barbaric sport that should not be encouraged in this modern age. Some of the villagers in Western Kenya were also against taking the sport out of the region where it is traditionally held and the plans were eventually dropped. Although the revenues that could be generated by the sport have never been quantified, there is no doubt that bullfighting has a huge following.

All the same, the debate highlighted the potential of the sport as a cultural heritage and social function in the western Kenya region, and succeeded in attracting funding to the tune of 12.5 million shillings from the county government to develop Malinya Stadium in Shinyalu Constituency for bullfighting. It remains to be seen whether subsequent governments will support the full development of this traditional sport to attract the much needed tourism revenue to the country and conserve this age-old culture of the Luhya people.

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Stanley Gazemba is an award-winning author and his breakthrough novel, ‘The Stone Hills of Maragoli’, published by Kwani? won the Jomo Kenyatta prize for Kenyan Literature in 2003. He is also the author of two other novels: ‘Callused Hands’ and ‘Khama’, he has written eight children’s books. A prolific writer, Stanley’s articles and stories have appeared in several international publications including the New York Times, ‘A’ is for Ancestors, the Caine Prize Anthology and the East African magazine. Stanley lives in Nairobi and his short story ‘Talking Money’ was recently published in ‘Africa 39’, a Hay Festival publication which was released in 2014. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, ‘Africa 39’ features a collection of 39 short stories by some of Africa’s leading contemporary authors. Stanley is also in the process of working on an array of creative literary projects.

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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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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The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities
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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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