Eric Oduor was your archetypal suave, tech savvy, cosmopolitan millennial with an urban mien – well, until several weeks ago, when he called from Sigomre village in Ugenya location, Siaya County, to announce that he had now fully relocated to his rural home from Nairobi city. At only 37, recently married in the last five years, with two young children and working as an IT consultant, Oduor was every millennial’s dream: living in the fast lane, seeming to have been coping well with the city’s corporate rat race. Then coronavirus crisis struck and his life changed completely.
“In the five months that the pandemic hit Kenya, all my four major corporate clients that I used to maintain and service and offer IT solutions to closed shop. In one fell swoop, I was declared redundant; I suddenly had no income. My clients empathised with me, but said there was little they could do. They also had been hit hard (I didn’t need to be told), nobody saw the pandemic coming, nobody imagined it was here to stay. It has completely disrupted and disoriented our lives,” said Oduor.
With a young family that depended on him, Oduor found himself in a bind. Yes, his wife was in gainful employment, but the family was not going to rely on his wife’s salary and there was no the guarantee she would keep her job
“So I had to think doubly hard, what I wanted to do with my life, with my family in these very difficult coronavirus times and beyond. Even after the coronavirus is finally said to have been tamed, our lives will never be the same again, and life will never go back to normal as we used to know it.”
So, after thinking very hard, one evening, Oduor broke the tough news to his wife: “We can no longer sustain our lives in the city and this thing isn’t going away any time soon. We must brace for the future now. The sooner the better, and the only way to do that is by retracing our footsteps back home, because that is the only way we can salvage our lives. City life is proving to be unsustainable.” To his great relief and surprise too, his wife agreed with him and paved the way for him to go and conduct a reconnaissance mission in Sigomre village.
Oduor’s wife is thoroughly urbanised – trendy and younger…in every sense of the word, an urban sophisticate. Above all, she is from the Mt Kenya region, so one can understand why Oduor was a bit apprehensive as he broke the “sad” news to his wife.
“This COVID-19 has had a terrible impact on marriages. It has led some marriages to break up, so you can imagine what difficulties mixed marriages like mine could be going through. My wife agreed with me that our lives’ and our children’s future lay not in the big city, but ultimately in a place where we can develop to our taste and we can always be sure whatever the disruption, we could always absorb it because we’re truly at home,” said a relieved Oduor.
To his great surprise, it was not only he who was relieved: “My father was worried about this new mysterious disease that was sweeping the world like a mystical wave and which had arrived in the country and was claiming peoples’ lives in the city. In a roundabout way, he suggested to me to temporarily relocate the family and bring it home. In a way, many rural folks, including my parents, honestly believe the coronavirus is domiciled in the city. When it broke, my father told me leave and come back home.”
As if that was not enough of a worry, said Oduor, when he told his father that is consultancy jobs had actually dried up, his father became really concerned. “Ordinarily, it’s we children who normally take care of our folks in their rural home. Now my parents were sending foodstuff to my family to beef up our sustenance. He would send beans, dry maize, millet and posho-mill flour. When I went to see him to tell him I was moving my family back home, he was overjoyed. He said, ‘Look my son, at the very least, there’s plenty of food and shelter here. The children aren’t going to school until next year. It will give you time to think about what you would like to do here.”
Oduor’s father farms maize, keeps chickens, sheep and goats, and has dairy cows for milk,. After leaving the city himself five years ago for good, he never looked back. “In those five years, my father. who regularly came to the city, has only spent two nights in town since he left,” said Oduor. “He would come on the night bus, spend the whole day doing his biasharas and in the evening, he would be on the night bus again heading home. I couldn’t persuade him to spend the night here. My father had always told me Nairobi is a place where people go to look for employment. Once that employment is over, you pack your things and return home where you came from.”
“Ordinarily, it’s we children who normally take care of our folks in their rural home. Now my parents were sending foodstuff to my family to beef up our sustenance…”
With his savings, Oduor is exploring several options: He had already built a two-bedroomed house on his piece of land given to him by his father, so, like his father said, food and shelter are not a problem. “If taken seriously and done well, agriculture is worth the risk because people will always eat. My father has become a full-time farmer and it’s been keeping him going. I’d like to take it further and see what will come of it, even as I explore other possibilities,” averred Oduor. That doesn’t mean that I will no longer be coming to the city. All it means is that the city has ceased to be the centre of our family’s life.”
Oduor could be the exception rather than the rule: It is unlikely that the majority of millennials will be migrating to their rural homes in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, but he is certainly an aberration that might as well explain the extent to which disruptions, such as a global pandemic or even an economic meltdown, can lead people in cities to reevaluate their lives and consider their options.
Economist David Ndii remarked once that in Africa, people travel to and live light in the metropolis because many cities in Africa were not built with the natives in mind. Cities have remained colonial constructions alien to the indigenous people. The great lesson for many people then has always been that in the cities, you must always have a way out of a calamity or a disruption.
But really, it is because Africans never consider cities to be their proper dwellings? Cities are still transient places for a majority of Africans. Many African cities were built by and for the colonialists, who accepted indigenous people only as indentured or migrant labour. If you did not have a pass to enter the city, or work there, you would be arrested and fined.
To date many people who live in cities have one foot there, the other one in a rural area where their ancestors hailed from and what they call home. The idea of a city to many Africans, young and old, has always been a temporary one. Their annual exodus from the city to their respective rural homes during the Easter holiday and more so during the Christmas festive season explains this notion of the reverse urban-rural migration. It also explains, why rural areas become the refuge of city dwellers running away from city calamities and commotions be they, for instance the 1982 failed coup, the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi, the general elections held after every five year cycle, and especially after the disputed presidential elections of 2007 that led to an explosion of violence in the Rift Valley region.
Economist David Ndii remarked once that in Africa, people travel to and live light in the metropolis because many cities in Africa were not built with the natives in mind. Cities have remained colonial constructions alien to the indigenous people.
Way before the coronavirus crisis came to bear on us, a millennial who owned an electronics shop at the famous Nyamakima area relocated back home to Murang’a County in 2018 after it become untenable to run his erstwhile lucrative business. “With the government’s crackdown on counterfeit goods, which we used to import from China, and the subsequent hoarding of our goods at the government warehouses in Industrial Area, I lost so much money, as did many other traders, that I decided to just leave Nairobi and go home. Kaba kuinoka. I’m better off in my rural home,” said the trader.
No safety nets
“When President Uhuru Kenyatta reviewed the cessation of movement between counties on July 7, 2020, it was to allow people in Nairobi to leave town and transport their families back to their rural areas,” alleged a senior civil servant. “We (the government), knew people were suffering in the city. Many had lost their jobs, they couldn’t pay their rents, they couldn’t feed their children. Life had truly become a burden. It was going to be just a matter of time before the situation possibly blew out of hand. The government had to choose between facing a boiling agitation from the people, who would soon take it no more, or risk the very same people transporting coronavirus to the rural areas. Whichever option it took, it was the devil’s alternative.”
Many of these people worked as casual labourers, drivers or housekeepers or as waiters or waitresses in bars, restaurants and hotels. Or in the informal sector as hawkers, street vendors and merchandise traders. I know this because I am in a group that has been pooling resources to buy food for families that live where we grew up in Eastlands. With no gainful employment, yet mounting bills to pay, and no safety nets to fall back on as they would in their rural homes, many of these people just waited for the government to reconsider cessation so that they could take their families to their rural areas.
One of the big factors that drove Oduor out of Nairobi is the fact that he continued to pay rent for five months for a house he couldn’t call home and without an income. “That is money I can invest in a small project in the rural area,” he explained.
So that is why a family in Kawangware, after exhausting its reserves, went to a merchandise shop that sells and accepts second-hand goods and hawked their furniture in return for cash, which it would use to pay for transport for the long journey to western Kenya. Kawangware is a sprawling peri-urban area that was originally inhabited by the Kikuyu, but which is now dominated by Kenyans from the western region. The odd jobs the man of the house was doing had dissipated. With several mouths to feed, the man had no choice but to retrace his footsteps to his rural home.
A visit to “Machakos” Country Bus Station in downtown Nairobi revealed that people were travelling back home in droves, and accompanied by hordes of children and household goods – from wooden beds and mattresses to sofa sets and utensils. It was evident that many were not planning to return to the city in a hurry, if they would return at all. The many travellers I spoke to said life in the city had become unbearable and it was time to go back to their roots. “Shule zilifungwa, hakuna kazi tunafanya nini huku?” Schools have been closed, there’s no work, what are we doing in the city?
“Because of the curfew, buses are only leaving in the mornings,” explained Vincent Musa, one of the groundsmen at the station, which serves buses that travel all over upcountry. To possibly tame the spread of coronavirus, the government also instituted a curfew – first the curfew was between 5am – 7pm, later on the president revised it to 5am – 9pm. “Everyday buses have been leaving here between 6am – 10am in order to beat the curfew at 9pm. Many of the destinations of these buses take an average of seven to eight hours. Most of the people who have been travelling are women and children. Since the children are not going to school, it is pointless to keep them in Nairobi.”
“It is easier for the man to survive alone in the city,” said a man who was accompanied by his wife and children. “Wacha waende nyumbani, mimi nitang’ang’ana na maisha hapa Nairobi.”I’m taking my family home, I will return to deal with the harsh city life.
Musa named for me nearly all the destinations that the people were travelling to: Ahero, Boro, Bungoma, Eldoret, Cheptais Chwele, Homa Bay, Kadel, Katito, Kendu Bay, Kimilili, Kisumu, Kisii, Kitale, Koguta, Luanda, Malaba, Maseno, Matunda, Moi’s Bridge, Mbita, Muhoroni, Ng’iya, Nyandorera, Olare, Rwambwa, Siaya, Urangu, Wagai and Webuye.
While at the station, I counted seven different bus companies that ferried people home: Climax Coaches, Eldoret Express, Greenline, Nairobi Bus Union, Nyar Ugenya and Nyamira Express. After coronavirus set in, many of these buses were grounded, and even though the lifting of the cessation had given the owners some reprieve, many are still grounded. “The bus capacity had been reduced. A bus that carried 67 passengers has now been restricted to 40 only. This reduction of passengers has meant that fares have had to be doubled,” said Musa.
Many of the fares to western Kenya ranged from between Sh600 and Sh800 before the pandemic. Now they are charging Sh1,400 or above to all destinations in Nyanza, Kisii and Transzoia. One bus to Kitale charges Sh1,750.
One of the big factors that drove Oduor out of Nairobi is the fact that he continued to pay rent for five months for a house he couldn’t call home and without an income. “That is money I can invest in a small project in the rural area,” he explained.
Majiwa, the supervisor told me the pandemic had been a wake-up call for many Kenyans. “Nairobi has never been a domicile for anybody – permanent or otherwise. I’m here because I still have work. The day they tell me I’m redundant, I’ll pack my things and head home. In Nairobi, you pay for everything, including going for ablution. In the rural area, food is plenty and free, children can never lack anything to eat. That’s why people are taking their children back home. Every morning 25 buses have been leaving here heading to western Kenya, packed with women and their children”.
There has been another reason why many parents from western Kenya living in Nairobi have been transporting their children back home in great numbers. “Once the government announced that schools will not reopen till January next year, circumcision rites for boys, which usually are conducted in the month of August and December, started early in July,” said Musa. “And these rites will go on till December non-stop. Wacha watoto watengenezwe.” Let the boys get initiated now that they are not going to school. Circumcision for boys, especially among the Bukusu people who live in Bungoma, Kitale and around Mt Elgon area, is an elaborate affair.
Not since the scare of the terrorists’ bomb at the former US embassy, then located at the corner of Haile Selassie Avenue and Moi Avenue in Nairobi, has there been such a scare leading people to migrate to their rural homes. While the scale of the Al Qaeda bombing had never been witnessed before in Nairobi, it nonetheless never took people’s jobs, or cumulatively threatened their lives. People rightly reasoned that if they escaped the city to their rural homes, they would be safe
The current coronavirus scare is compounded by the fact that normal life has been completely disrupted, so there is a possibility that those leaving might never return. There is also the issue of people believing that COVID-19 is basically a city disease.
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The Colston Four and the Lawful Excuse: Toppling Imperialist History
Peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions.
The so-called Colston Four, young white British activists who were prosecuted for vandalising the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into a harbour in Bristol, England, in 2020 have been acquitted of the charges in a landmark case.
The accused were charged with criminal damage. They did not deny toppling the statue, but argued (among other things) that their actions were justified on the grounds that Colston’s crimes were so horrific the continued presence of his effigy on our streets was offensive, abusive and distressing. Its presence was a hate crime; by removing it, they were preventing a more serious crime. To widespread surprise, the jury accepted “lawful excuse” as a defence.
The verdict has prompted uproar among Tory voters, Tory MPs and the right-wing media, outraged (as they see it) that this is a victory for so-called “wokery”, the Left, and mob rule. Prime Minister Boris Johnson even waded in to say that people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history”.
On the Left, the verdict has been hailed as a triumph for morality, people’s justice, and a partial payback for historical crimes.
Millions of British have learned more about their nation’s dark history and heritage in a few days than they ever learned in years at school. The very fact that the issue has sparked furious public debate is a significant step on the road towards decolonization. Media that would not normally cover history and heritage has devoted pages, and hours of airtime, to discussion of the toppling and subsequent case. Predictably, some say the verdict has “ignited culture wars”. In fact, these were pre-existing – fomented by Johnson’s government, which even has a culture wars unit within the No. 10 policy unit (ironically led by a former communist), and stoked incessantly by right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph, whose online comment threads went into meltdown after the verdict.
I will describe the initial event before going on to discuss the trial and its wider significance.
The toppling of the statue
At a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in Bristol on 7 June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the bronze statue of Colston was ripped from its plinth and thrown into the River Avon. Colston was a shareholder in, and (for a while) deputy governor of, the Royal African Company, responsible for enslaving and shipping to the Americas an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom some 19,000 died en route. He was also a philanthropist who used his tainted wealth to benefit Bristol, and this was why the statue was erected in his honour in 1895. Schools, hospitals, churches and other buildings bore his name. All have since been renamed.
For years the people of Bristol had complained about the statue, and asked the council to remove it. When all appeals failed, some decided to take matters into their own hands and pull it down. The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed. The council, led by black mayor Marvin Rees (who, incidentally, supported the prosecution), arranged for it to be dredged up, and the red paint-spattered statue ended up on its side in a local museum, alongside educational materials explaining the wider historical context, and BLM placards from the protest. In response to those on the right who angrily called this “an attack on history” and the attempted “erasure” of history, Bristol-based British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga declared, “This toppling is not an attack on history. It is history.” Olusoga was called as an expert witness for the defence at the trial.
The accused chose trial by jury in order to have their day in court. The alternative was to appear before a lower magistrates court, as some of their fellow protesters had done. (They were found guilty and lightly sentenced to community service.) As is usual in jury trials, a presiding judge can direct the jury to come to a particular decision, and give guidance on points of law. The judge told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence before them. He expressed concerns that undue pressure was being placed on them by defence barristers.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency. Their lawyers claimed that the council’s failure to remove the statue, despite 30 years of petitions and other pleas, amounted to misconduct in public office. Throughout the proceedings, observers say it felt as if Colston and the council were the ones on trial. The defendants also argued that the citizens of Bristol were the owners of the statue (since their forebears had erected it in the first place), and that the majority of citizens would support their actions. Their third main argument was that they had lawful excuse; a conviction would mean that their freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been interfered with.
The effigy found a fitting resting place in the harbour from which Colston’s slave ships had sailed.
One of the defendants, Sage Willoughby, told the court: “Imagine having a Hitler statue in front of a Holocaust survivor – I believe they are similar. Having a statue of someone of that calibre in the middle of the city I believe is an insult…” Outside court, after the verdict, Willoughby took the knee.
Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she is considering referring the case to the Court of Appeal because the verdict is “confusing”. But it cannot be changed. Braverman has been accused of political meddling. If the case does go to appeal, the judges will not rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, only on whether there was an error in law in the directions given to the jury.
In press coverage and responses to it, Professor Olusoga (who has won numerous awards for his work) has been the target of highly personalised attacks on his integrity and alleged “bias”. One Telegraph reader, for example, wrote online, “From what I have read his evidence amounted to a diatribe denouncing Edward Colston as a mass murderer. I think his contempt for our history is evident.”
The wider significance
The protest was part of the international BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd. The statue toppling was even mentioned at his funeral.
Some critics have mocked the Four for being white and having posh names that suggest they are middle class and therefore privileged (Rhian, Milo, Sage and Jake). “They should be patriotic to their race!” declared one Daily Telegraph reader, enraged at what he saw as class and race traitors. “None of the defendants were black. Rather, as you can tell from their names (including Milo Ponsford and Sage Willoughby) they were almost comically typical of a certain rah, right-on Bristol type,” wrote Telegraph columnist Douglas Murray. But protesters at the rally that day included many whites, as well as people of colour and mixed heritage, reflecting the city’s multicultural population. The same applied to other BLM rallies, in the UK and US, following the death of Mr Floyd. A rainbow crowd was also seen at protests in Oxford, by members of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. The whiteness of the Colston Four can be seen as a positive – indicating that people of all ethnic backgrounds are uniting to call out racism, colonialism and historical injustice.
The trend towards multiracial protest is positive for the entire decolonization process. (Not that past protests, such as those that took place during the American civil rights movement, were not also multiracial.) For one of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and (notional) racial difference. Both black and white are still locked into this binary opposition, to the detriment of everyone. It is part of the right-wing racist narrative to keep black and white in separate boxes, and to oppose multiculturalism and miscegenation. This was very evident in the media coverage and other right-wing reaction to this verdict.
The defendants argued that they were acting to prevent the more serious crime of public indecency.
This outcome, and the toppling that preceded it, are part of an irreversible global move to decolonise. This includes action to decolonise the curriculum in schools and higher education; the work of the National Trust in Britain to educate visitors about the tainted wealth, often derived from slavery, upon which many stately homes were built (moves much hated by the right, which has tried to sabotage the Trust’s management); and the increasing trend towards the repatriation of stolen artefacts held in British museums. Controversy still rages over the question of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up a Commission for Diversity to work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm and increase public understanding of existing statues, street names, building names and memorials. It was not created, as some right-wing critics claim, to decide upon the removal of statues. The BBC has recently dropped the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) because it is “problematic” and could cause “serious insult” to people who may feel they are being referred to as a homogeneous group. After Floyd’s murder, footballers, black and white, chose to kneel before games as an anti-racism gesture, out of respect for BLM and Mr Floyd. White England manager Gareth Southgate supported his players in this, and led them in kneeling before Euro2020 matches. Players from Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland also chose to kneel. A poll of football fans in nine European countries found majority support for “taking the knee”, with opposition coming only from a vocal minority. Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who has increasingly “come out” as an anti-racist and BLM supporter, has set up a mission to empower underrepresented groups, and persuaded Formula One to become more diverse as a sport. Sportsmen and women have a proud history of using their high profiles to forge political change and raise awareness of racial inequality, from athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 (Nazi) Olympics, to Muhammed Ali to American National Football League star Colin Kaepernick.
In Britain, all these moves are predictably slammed by many Tories as “cultural Marxism” and “wokery”, which they believe is a US import along with BLM – a familiar trope that blames foreigners (especially non-whites) for all social ills and unwelcome social change. (A surprise abstainer is George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, now chairman of the British Museum, who hailed the Colston verdict as “brilliant”.) Although we have a very right-wing government, disaffected Tory and Brexit voters constantly call on Johnson – who some voters laughably regard as a socialist – to push back against “wokery”, defund the BBC, and root out “woke Lefties” who are believed to have “infested” higher education, the BBC, quangos and many of our public institutions. Despite his blustering rhetoric, even Johnson is unlikely to do any of this.
One of the most insidious and long-lasting impacts of colonialism was to create binary opposites rooted in race and racial difference.
These moves towards decolonisation may seem piecemeal and minor. But peaceful social change starts with landmark actions that receive international attention and change public perceptions – often via shock tactics. Changing the public narrative can eventually forge real change in attitudes and behaviour. As for the role of historians in forging change, it is our job to repeat as many times as necessary: history is being made, remade, unmade, reassessed, re-analysed and re-written all the time. It is not untouchable and unchangeable, as many on the right would argue. As David Olusoga wrote after the toppling of the Colston statue: “It was one of those rare historical moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”
Meanwhile, the value of the Colston statue has reportedly increased fifty times. As prosecution witness Jon Finch, head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, says: the statue has greater cultural value than ever before, in that it now speaks to Bristol’s “past, present and future”.
The Politics of Street Names
Street names are political weapons. They produce memories, attachment and intimacy—all while often sneakily distorting history.
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 Fall, Faidherbe 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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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