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The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona

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The creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience. Research shows that the culture and creative industry is the next frontier for growth, but there is a need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, and institutions.

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The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona
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Criticism of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement of Sh200 million monthly payouts to artists has centred on mistakenly equating the immediate needs of healthcare workers at the front line of the battle to beat the coronavirus with paying royalties for creative work. This announcement came on the back of his order to lock in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

Completely missed in the ensuing furore was the fact that Kenyatta was only reporting progress on an earlier pledge, when he said: “My administration has projected that a total of Sh200 million every month will be paid to musicians through the system and other platforms. This translates to over Sh2 billion going into the pockets of Kenyan artists. These payments will begin this week in line with the pledge that I made in January.”

Should the president have used the same platform announcing measures to address the crisis, such as setting up of a National COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, getting the seed capital for the Fund from the Exchequer, taxation, and pay cuts to assure the country of continuing entertainment from artistes?

The arts during the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Entertainment is the visible contribution the arts make, but recent local history is replete with examples of how music, performance theatre, literature and visual arts have enabled conversations that built a shared understanding of complex problems to enable the people to find solutions. Song, dance and theatre modelled on the Latin America experience around theatre for development have helped Kenya to confront poorly understood phenomena like the HIV/AIDS pandemic, chipping away at stigma and bringing hundreds of thousands of infected people into care and treatment to blunt its effects on the affected and reduce its impacts on society.

“When one speaks of health communication using art and the role of artists, several creative pieces in different genres come to mind,” Oby Obyerodhyambo, a public health professional and leading author, playwright, actor, noted in an interview. “I think of songs such as Todi by the late Oliver Mutukudzi, Dunia Mbaya by Prince Julie, Attention na SIDA by the late Franco Luambo Makiadi. I am reminded of the images of the late Philly Lutaaya descending the flights of stairs at Entebbe for the last time after he had broken the stigma about HIV in Uganda several years earlier using his music. Music and musicians played a major role in raising awareness about HIV when all that people knew about HIV was the death. Music was not best in terms of providing detailed information about the health continuum from the transmission to treatment but played a huge role in breaking the silence about HIV. The mention of the word UKIMWI was eased by songs like Dunia Mbaya increasing community discourse on HIV was greatly aided by art and artists.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

“However, theatre had a terrible history,” Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “The journey started with the horrific play, Tone kwa Tone, that was among the first HIV dramas staged in Kenya. It was grotesque; diabolic images of skulls, blood dripping, coffins and HIV depicted as a devil, coffins and promiscuity and immortality associated with HIV. The typical play showed the Simon Makonde story of infected today and dead in seven days marked by intense suffering. This enhanced stigma to a very high level.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

Nonetheless the power of using theatre was clearly noted and was thereafter followed subtler plays on HIV, such as Positive Identity written by Oby Obyerodhyambo using the pseudonym Rangóndi Othuon that also won the Okoth K’Obonyo Playwriting Competition that used to be organised by Theatre Workshop Production.

There were several other plays by JPR Ochieng’Odero taken around the country under AIDSCAP project. This USAID-funded programme morphed into the countrywide Theatre for Development or Magnet Theatre projects under the aegis of PATH and FHI. Thousands of shows were staged by the troupe of artists using a Forum Theatre approach inspired by Paulo Freire and Augusto Boan techniques. Around this time we also had Maisha ya Nuru where radio soaps and radio magazine platforms were used.

“At this point, the main role of art/artists was – raise awareness of the REAL cause of HIV and AIDS, promote preventive behaviour (Abstinence, Reduction of Sexual Partners and Condom use),” said Oby Obyerodhyambo, who was at the centre of it all while working with PATH. “It was used to reduce HIV stigma, promote acceptance of PLWHIV [people living with HIV] and promote community dialogue around HIV and AIDS to de-mythologise HIV and give hope to families of PLWHIV (mainly that avoiding opportunistic infections could prolong lives). At this point there were plays that taught that an infected person should prepare for death – there were the Memory Projects with scrapbooks. This was before the advent on ARV [antiretrovirals]. Theatre promoted testing and many people got to know their HIV status courtesy of Magnet Theatre – the MT that we did at PATH would have a very tight referral for HIV testing.”

Apart from theatre and music, graphic art also played a major part, especially the Talking Walls projects where murals were used to engage the community in dialogues. These murals travelled a long way from the grotesque images. In some places, these images can still be seen. Art provided a stark reminder of the ravages of HIV, but also promoted stigma by negative portraying PLWHIV. There were posters that played the same sort of role.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) trained puppeteers and promoted the use of life-size puppets. These travelling, life-size puppet shows were the firsts attempts to objectify the disease with non-real characters who could discuss HIV and being HIV-positive and who could explore real taboo subjects. Puppets actually were the first ones to bring caricature and humour into the portrayal of HIV and AIDS. Their role has been underplayed. Using puppets, the stigmatisation of PLWIV and the mystery around HIV was reduced.

Similarly, these arts— Theatre for Development/Participatory Education Theatre— unlocked emotive conversations in the long search for a new order, contributing to securing Kenya’s constitution-making as one of the most participatory processes in the world.

“The conscientisation of Kenyans towards a new public awareness and education came to the fore in the early 90s with the advent of political pluralism,” Kawive Wambua, an artists and governance expert noted in a seminal paper, “The Artists as the Managers of the Political Transition in Kenya”, presented at the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) Conference on East African Oral Literature in Kisumu in 2005. “CSOs [civil society organisations] such as Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change (4CS), Legal Resource Foundation (LRF), Centre for Governance and Democracy (CGD) and CLARION commissioned plays to be written and engaged artists to go around the country popularising such ‘taboo’ issues as human rights, good governance and rule of law.”

Wambua noted:

Plays that were significant in the 1990s, were such as Professor Kivutha Kibwana’s Kanzala, Wakanyote Njuguna’s Kabla ya Dhoruba, Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kifo Kisimani, Wahome Mutahi’s Mugaathe Mubogothi, Makaririra Kioro, and Mugathe Ndotono among others. Though these plays lack specific merit as Participatory Education Theatre (PET) or even as Interactive Participatory Community Education Theatre (IPCET) texts, they were unconventional (some even compromising style for messagism) and they interrogated difference and diffidence in community leadership. These writers as well were prominent figures in the intellectual and human rights movements and hence had a lot of influence in the course of action on the educational theatre scene. Their plays, among others, were the precursors of the underground NGO movement that came up with the IPCET play. The individual and really forceful activities of civil society organisations like 4Cs, CGD, LRF and a plethora of other organisations suffered the same fate of being but information points for the community. Information, we should note at this point, empowers, but it is only communication that liberates. And this key issue was never sufficiently addressed. Art was severally massacred at the behest of militant advocacy.

“I would like to isolate the 4Cs and say that they started off as a loosely structured lobby group for constitutional reform,” Kawive Wambua added during an interview. “For three years, its single programme was theatre. The theatre group used the rich history of oppression in the country to create a play “Five Centuries”, later to become the name of the group. The play was an interrogation of the suffering and pain the people of Kenya have gone through in the hands of selfish leaders, the fact of an independence that never was, and the need for this century to be a century of nation reconstruction and a new constitutional order. This trend has survived across the years, at times faltering at the intersection of artistic expressionism and political advocacy.”

He noted: “It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally. Aforementioned groups and others such as 5Cs Theatre were instrumental in cultivating the language of rights and self-liberation by citizens from the government and by women from the clutches of patriarchy. In the mid and late 90s also Theatre for Development (TfD), Participatory Education Theatre (PET) was being used for reproductive health education and HIV and AIDs awareness. CARE-Kenya and other non-profit outfits were big on theatre as a primary methodology of Behaviour Change Communication (BCC). This was to continue in 2003 onwards with Magnet Theatre projects all over Kenya.

“It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally…”

In the run-up to the 2002 election, Gidi Gidi, Maji Maji’s popular song We Are Unbwogable became the rallying call for the nation’s new heroes Those people who had been frustrated by the regime and its machinations came together and sought artists to ignite the fire that would stamp them with confidence and endear them to the electorate. Another song, Yote ya Wezekana, a popular gospel tune, was used to appropriate the political mood and to whip up the mood and empathy of the people from the apparent defeatism and lethargic complacency that had enveloped them after three subsequent defeat upon defeat of those that seemed to be conscientious leaders faced by the misuse of state machinery and resources.

From disease comes great art

“Art has a way of objectifying reality and therefore making difficult topics discussable. This was clearly the case with HIV because of the preponderance of sexual transmission,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “Art very effectively made it possible to discuss the issues around HIV and suggest the steps that could be taken to cope. Objectivity through depiction in art and film such as the iconic movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington dealt with the issues of human rights and stigma associated with HIV. Art and artists worked through their creative expression to raise awareness of HIV; build knowledge about the disease – its transmission, diagnosis, management and prevention strategies and removing myths that fuelled stigma and discrimination; created a more receptive environment by famous musicians coming out as Lutaaya did; then there were those who drew crowds by their fame and did edutainment shows – Prince Jully, Ochieng’ Kabaselle, (many in local languages) and big names like Franco Luambo Makiadi with Attention na SIDA.”

“The spectre of disease, pandemic, and death have been with us since life emerged on this rock. And once we got around to discovering music, homo sapiens (and perhaps Neanderthals, whose numbers were probably drastically culled by disease), began reacting to these periods of widespread sickness with stories, art, and song,” writes Allan Cross, a broadcaster and a commentator for Global News.

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

“The first recorded pandemic hit the people of Athens between 429 and 426 BC,” Cross writes. “No one knew why, other than the gods must have been displeased with mankind. We still don’t know what caused the death of up to 100,000 — Typhus? Typhoid Fever? Some sort of viral hemorrhagic disease? — but it left an unusual mark on the city. Those were the peak years of Greek tragedy, a form of theatre that had tremendous influence on both ancient Rome in a few centuries and the Renaissance more than a thousand years in the future. From disease came great art.”

Science is moving at great speed to educate us about the coronavirus, how it spreads and ways to contain it, which require changes that cannot be enforced by official diktat alone. “The Black Death killed majority of the population in Florence in 1348 (and maybe as much as 60 per cent of all of Europe between 1331 and 1353) yet Florence rallied, becoming a flashpoint of intellectual and artistic evolution that was felt for centuries,” Cross adds. “London was plagued through much of the 16th century and King Henry VIII was forced to self-isolate during the Sweating Sickness of 1529, much in the way we are today and saw a spike in fatalities in the early 1600s. But as England slowly recovered, Shakespeare was somehow inspired to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all in 1606.”

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

Exploring these tragedies, the deprivations they visit upon society and the adaptations that are required to survive is a matter of emotional persuasion as it is of logic. “The artist provides society with emotions, colour, and texture. Scientists think up of ways to make life easier, builders and technicians turn those scientific ideas into tangible objects. These things help us – they blend our foods, put roofs over our heads, make mowing the lawn easier – but they never add real emotion. Artists come in to play on our emotions and subconscious thoughts,” notes Andre Deherrera, a creator/artist for AndreDDesign.

Aziza Atta, founder of Ozoza Lifestyle in Abuja, notes: “Art is the natural way in which we create relationships in the world and also where we build life experiences. Being an artist is to express one’s soul. The responsibility of the artist is to consciously bring about an internal change within us. We cannot bring to the world what we have not ourselves internally absorbed, digested and assimilated. It all starts in the heart and in the mind. Through its emotional outreach, art can affect these transformations. It is a powerful force.”

Besides artists being direct taxpayers, they are also consumers. In a streamlined and transparent system, paying artists the over Sh2 billion (about $20 million) owed to them each year can take away a great deal of pressure on the state to provide relief.

The culture and creative industry

Tapping into the potential of the creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience, beyond just contributing to the national gross domestic product. There is no doubt that this president the others before him have not given the culture and creative industry (CCI) the attention it deserves. However, Uhuru Kenyatta and his team have suddenly woken up to what the CCI stakeholders have been taking about. Gains about the CCI are well documented in reports such as the “Ubunifu Report on the Status of the Creative Economy in East Africa”, the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC)ianalysis report on the trends shaping the entertainment and media industry in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, dubbed “Getting Personal: Putting the Me in Entertainment & Media: Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective, and many other related industry reports.

Champions for CCI have included none other than Hon. Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary- General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), through numerous reports and recommendations and conferences, such as the one that led to UNCTAD’s Nairobi Maafikiano 2016.

In its report, UNCTAD observes: “Trends show the ‘creative economy’ can cultivate meaningful work, make money and help deliver prosperity for all. The creative economy, in some ways, defies definition almost by definition. But its significant 3% contribution to global gross domestic product (GDP) makes it a powerful emerging economic sector that is being strengthened by a surge in digitisation and services.”

Since 2004, UNCTAD has analysed creative industries, providing important insights into its global dimensions. UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Programme, whose focus is on trade in the creative industries, has placed the arts on the world economic and development agenda by imagining a role for them in the growth of developing economies. Its data on trade in creative goods and services provide important insights for understanding the creative economy at a time when many emerging and developing economies are seeking to diversify.

“The creative economy and its industries are strategic sectors that if nurtured can boost competitiveness, productivity, sustainable growth, employment and exports potential,” notes Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s international trade and commodities director.

The creative economy leverages creativity, technology, culture and innovation in fostering inclusive and sustained economic growth and development. Creative economy sectors include arts and craft, books, films, paintings, festivals, songs, designs, digital animation and video games. They generate income through trade (exports) and intellectual property rights, and create new jobs in higher occupational skills, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

UNCTAD’s second report, Creative Economy Outlook and Country Profile Report 2018, notes that the “size of the global market for creative goods expanded substantially more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015.”

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available. Besides the performing arts, visual arts and cultural heritage, Kenyans produce films, videos, television and radio shows, video games, music and books. There is important work being undertaken in the graphic design, fashion and advertising subsectors. These creative activities need to be anchored in political and governmental commitment and concrete support.”

Government commitment and concrete support through the streamlining of the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) and Collective Management Organisations (CMOs) by streamlining the sector can deliver benefits for artists but can also open a new revenue stream for government. In January this year, President Kenyatta directed that KECOBO license digital platforms run by telecommunication firms and media companies to channel payments of royalties to the three CMOs “in order to ensure compensation for all generators of the works”.

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available.

“Content Service Providers who work with digital platforms such as Skiza and Viusasa, will be eliminated because they sit outside the CMOs,” President Uhuru said. “My practical direction on this is to have all rights holders register on the National Rights Registry.”

Additional funds totalling Sh100m from the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage are also to be made available from the Sports Fund during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These new measures will see the rise of tariffs collected and will create immense savings on the processes of collecting royalties,” he added. “It is estimated that the new system will see an increase in collections from a previous Sh200 million per year to an estimated Sh2 billion per year, a tenfold increase.”

The ministry’s perennial underfunding over the years and its general poor performance mean that they need to be watched closely to turn the order into reality. The coronavirus crisis also presents an opportunity. President Kenyatta has ordered KECOBO to gazette new tariffs within 30 days and ensure that public service vehicles, the hospitality industry, and broadcasters apply them.

The arts and COVID-19

The State House Choir has already showed that artists are going to be significant cogs in the fight against COVID-19. Like in the past, artists in various genres will need to come on board to help deal with numerous issues around COVID 19.

“I suggest that art could be used to respond to the misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 and coronavirus,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “To present the facts in a very easy and understandable way that our grandmothers and children under 5 can understand – unlike HIV that was so stigmatising because it involved sex among others this one is less inhibiting. However, it goes to the very core of our cultural practices so we need to explain why we need to social distance, stay at home and be careful about what we touch – to demystify the preventive procedures including donning of masks.”

He added: “We are social animals and greet and hug a lot. We are a ‘touchy’ culture so the idea that we cannot touch – shake hands – is harder than avoiding sex. Basically we are telling people to dehumanise themselves. We can use the art of humour to do this and create a way that we can laugh at this again because it is not as difficult as abandoning sexual partners. Over that we need art to explain the logic of doing what we are doing.”

Through art, we will explain the lockdown so that the punitiveness of it is explained. The idea of curtailing freedom to move and interact is difficult to explain unless some counter-narrative is spun. We must explain to the man or woman who cannot go to the farm or market or visit his relatives how this is for his or her own good.

“Again, there is a need to reduce the fiat that the administration is adopting,” Obyerodhyambo added during the interview. “The ‘or else’ approach is counter-intuitive. How do you explain to me that going out to fetch food for my hungry children is for their own good? Artists need to rally the public around ownership of the response to corona. The way that the globe was galvanised around the movements like ‘Africa for Africans’ where funds were donated to support the victims of famine must be the approach. The arts must tug at the heartstrings of the population, we must show empathy and concern for one another.”

The role of the artist in the world after corona

No one best captures the hopes and aspirations of artists and the art world better than Dalen O’Connell, a theatre artist from Minnesota, USA, when the coronavirus chaos is finally contained. In a Facebook post, Dalen noted that in theatre “we have a tradition – whenever the theatre is empty, we are always sure to leave one light on. Typically on a stand in the center of the stage, this light is known as the ghost light. There are many stories about its origin- but it’s meaning is unmistakable. It means though the theatre is empty, WE WILL RETURN. So here’s to us. The actors, the technicians, the directors, the carpenters, the designers, the dancers, the teachers, the students, the freelancers, those on tour, those at sea, the electricians, the stitchers, the makers, the stage managers — THE ARTISTS. Many of us have taken big hits during this virus. Financial and emotional weights have come crashing down as our entire industry is reduced to nothing but a bunch of ghost lights. But those ghost lights are temporary place holders. They are a sign. We might be down now- but our passion, our creativity, our drive is still center stage. We will be unplugging those ghost lights in no time. Until then- here’s a ghost light – to let the world know we will be back.” (There was an accompanying picture of the ghost light).

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

He notes: “There is no artistic rendition carrying the questions that society is grappling with such as: Where is the money donated by all manner of people going? Why are our facilities so decrepit and our health care professionals unprotected? Why is COVID weaponised so that the police are killing Kenyans in enforcing the Public Health Act and the curfew? Why is the donated testing costing 10,000 shillings and why are people being charged for being quarantined in places they did not choose? Why are police officers corruptly landing people in quarantine? And why are come counties giving masks and why are politicians branding donated hand sanitisers and getting away scot-free?”

“The role of artists DURING the crisis should be of interest because if they are the moral compass and mirror they should be asking these difficult questions,” Oby added during the interview. “Artists should be questioning why Kenyans still do not wear masks and are not physically distancing? Why are people sneaking in and out of the locked-down cities? There should be messages of self-reflection and introspection. Do the artists actually understand the public health issues at play? Can they be allowed to pass on the message they do not understand?”

Like the proverbial Phoenix, artists believe the industry will rise once again and take its place in society – as entertainers, educators and tax payers.

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

“I believe, like Okot p’Bitek, the artist is the ruler,” Kawive Wambua pointed out in a conversation when this article was being written. “Artists have already unravelled the coronavirus and are crooning from YouTube on what the pandemic means for us. They interpret it and entertain at the same time. In the post-corona period, they will puck the husks of our lives and relive our lives on stage, talking about love gone and death visiting but unwanted. They will create for us a log of memory as they help us reflect and recreate a new world – where wealth and power are demystified and life glorified. They will help us imagine a new world.”

In Kenya, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) envisages artists and cultural workers playing a key role in re-engineering our society. It envisages the resourcing and revitalisation of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports to take lead in the rebuilding process. Advocacy and education work using art that will even entail coming to terms with the post-COVID realities will be critical.

The government will need to move beyond talking and tokenism in its effort to strengthen the culture and creative industry. Research shows that this is the next frontier for growth, but there is need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, strengthening institutions and associations, among others.

“Double-digit growth is anticipated for Kenya,” the PwC-backed Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective notes. “Kenya’s E&M market is set to see growth at a 10.3% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) over the next five years, reaching nearly US$3.0 billion in 2023. In 2018 the market rose by 13.0% year-on-year to make US$1.8 billion.”

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Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru is an Arts Journalist with Kymsnet Media Network.

Culture

The Politics of Street Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

The Case for Reparations and Revisiting Colonial Atrocities

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

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

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

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

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

Crowd on a hill © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

Old man in doorway © LemKino Pictures.

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

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

© LemKino Pictures.

© LemKino Pictures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo

The documentary, Rumba Kings, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage case and a centering of the Congolese way.

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Musical Roots Run Deep in the Congo
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On October 6, 2021, both Congos—Brazzaville and Kinshasa—submitted a formal proposal to UNESCO to recognize Congolese Rumba as an intangible cultural heritage. When UNESCO announced the list, Congolese Rumba did not make the cut. At least, Morna music from Cabo Verde did. Recognizing a musical genre as an intangible cultural heritage brings with it things like legal protections. Were Congolese Rumba to command entry, it would mark a further centering of African culture in the world’s imagination and priority.

Over the last decade, a concerted effort by producers, filmmakers, historians, journalists, and image-makers worldwide has sought to reinterpret Africa’s image and center its place in modern history. Books, records, films, and an ever shifting gaze away from the metropoles of North America, Europe, and East Asia have wonderfully exposed Africa’s rich offerings.

Each endeavor has its own motivations but each are bound by a consensus that it would be a grave error, and downright idiotic, to continue to ignore the vanquished cultural history and stories that have shaped a continent that sits as much at the center of most conventional maps as Europe.

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Congolese rhythms laid the groundwork for many styles of music across the Atlantic, most notably in Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. Its guitar styles caressed Africa, inspiring artists from Senegal to Somalia to South Africa to South Sudan. As early as 2011 in Accra, I picked up a copy of one of the best selling albums in Africa in the 1980s, an LP by Rumba maestro Docteur Nico.

With nearly 90 million people, projected to reach 200 million by 2050, bustling cities, a storied culture, and a history that demands rethinking, not least because our so-called modern world runs off the toil of Congolese labor and the fruits of their soil, the world needs a piece of storytelling humanizing a place few will visit or even experience via the internet or TV in their lifetime.

Rumba Kings, a new documentary by Alan Brain, a Peruvian-American filmmaker who boasts an impressive, committed CV, offers a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way—but, like all immense endeavors, is not without flaws.

It excels through its tightly knit narrative and historical recount, not sparing the brutality of Belgian colonizers, as well as a clean, simple structure and edit, making the documentary accessible. The utter lack of western or European voices and faces is most welcome. Congolese musicians are expected, but Congolese scholars and pundits are not as obvious, often easily overlooked. European and American documentaries on Africa have in the past centered a white character or produced something entirely devoid of African voices.

As someone intimately familiar with the intricacies and difficulties of working with archives and sourcing aged imagery, the sheer abundance of archival footage and photography in Rumba Kings is no easy feat. You’re always in charge of the production—the filming, the music recording—but scouring the past for its relics requires good fortune birthed by tenacity and persistence.

Such attention to detail is also evident in the film’s focus on the enduring legacy of Cuban culture on Congolese music. Cuban music is an awesome force in Africa—the soundtrack to the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to African independence struggles embedding itself deeply into the repertoire of many of the continent’s capitals. There is a uniqueness to its presence in Kinshasa, where Congolese music welcomed home a sound that partially found its identity on the rhythms of central Africa. While the West African coast is dotted with enviable interpretations of Cuban music, the Congolese-Cuban sound is exceptionally sweet and deserves a documentary of its own.

For this record producer, the documentary’s nod to Congolese record labels was short but crucial. Record labels are treated with immense suspicion in the overly moralized Western imagination, but they are the key business engine and vision behind memorable cultural eras. Music needs money and strategy.

That none of the labels featured in the film—the most major record labels in Congo at the time—were owned by Congolese is unsurprising given the nature of capital in the country, but also an important revelation of a vestige that persists today perhaps more than elsewhere on the continent. West Africans owned mega labels like Syllart, East African governments nationalized their music, North Africa’s imprints were mostly all home grown. If, as the documentary says in its promotional slogan, “Congo’s real treasure does not lie underground,” it begs the question why the nature of ownership follows a similar structure to the extraction of its mineral wealth—a question the documentary could’ve posed with investigative vigor.

While the figures interviewed are a star list, the film’s insistence on tracing the story through a series of characters and voices rather than developing a small cadre of central characters weakens the transmission of intended feeling: building an endearing emotional attachment to Congo via a few central characters. The Guardian’s short, viral documentary on Somali music from the 1980s is a fine example of this approach.

Rumba Kings also could have dedicated space to the deep roots of Congolese music to discover where the prowess, melodies, and rhythms were born. Some of the most stellar Congolese melodies in Brazzaville derive from ancient folk traditions of smaller towns and villages deep inland, where many musicians migrated from. There is a deeper level of understanding Africa’s relationship with sound that we often ignore. As an Asian, it is the same as tracing the roots of the endlessly diverse cuisines of my home continent, where the trail leads to unsung master chefs in the hinterlands where few venture.

Perhaps the most lamentable aspect of the documentary, for all its good intentions and efforts, was what was left out. It is the same coverage that is neglected in endless columns, articles, analysis pieces, and album liner notes about contemporary African history. What happened? If we’re going to celebrate Congo, its music, and this rich era when everything seemed to be going right, when Zaire hosted music festivals, bands, and boxing tournaments from around the world, when the guitars looked so fresh like they were made in Kinshasa itself, to the dire situation Congo and other African states find themselves in today, we should be compelled to ask what happened? There was no mention of what stripped African countries like Congo of their “golden era,” or the energy and exuberance of independence that ushered in a cultural epoch that will be spoken, covered, and featured for generations. A small mention of the manufactured debt crises and structural adjustment, the scars of which are so visible and still bloody on the continent, goes a long way. Without exploring this era of the recolonization of Africa, as Thomas Sankara put it, one unwittingly perpetuates a fallacy that Africans cannot govern themselves, and any abundance that reaches African societies will be short lived.

An issue that affects all African-focused documentaries, not Rumba Kings in particular, is one of control. Distribution of Western documentaries is too tightly controlled and rarely, if ever, finds its way anywhere outside Europe, North America, and maybe Australia. A quick glance at the film festivals screening Rumba Kings has only Brazil as the sole global South audience. This is not a failing of this film in particular of course, but a scathing indictment of the arrogant, incentous nature of the documentary film industry. Who are these documentaries made for? There’s no doubt Rumba Kings is made for a Western audience. Will anybody in Africa or Asia, where 80 percent of humanity lives, be privy to its insight? Music is available worldwide, why is this mostly available at film festivals in European cities that most of the world risks drowning in the Mediterranean to reach?

Lastly, viewers should be cognizant that this was supported by the Africa Museum in Belgium. The museum underwent a $67 million revamp to clean its crass colonial image and depictions of Africa within its walls. Its support for films on King Leopold’s former fiefdom appears to be part of its ongoing mission to paint over its lamentable image with storytelling of such nature, rather than, say, spending $67 million in some form of restitution to the two Congos themselves.

Nevertheless, the subject matter remains infallible and Rumba Kings is a tireless and commendable effort, and a timely, solid case for Rumba’s designation as the world’s latest protected cultural heritage.

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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