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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

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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