Reel Lives: How Indian Cinema Shaped East Africa’s Urban Culture8 min read.
The 60s, 70s and 80s are often described as the Golden Age of Indian cinema and Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu had a large number of cinemas devoted to showing films made in Bombay.
At a time when “social distancing” is becoming the norm due to the coronavirus pandemic, it may appear self-indulgent to reminisce about a period when going to the cinema was a regular feature of East African Asians’ lives. But perhaps now that the world is changing – and many more people are watching movies at home on Netflix and other channels – it is important to document the things that have been lost in the war against COVID-19 and with the advent of technology. One of these things is the thrill of going to the cinema with the family.
What has also been lost is an urban culture embedded in East Africa’s South Asian community – a culture where movie-going was an integral part of the social fabric of this economically successful minority.
Those who pass the notorious Globe Cinema roundabout, which is often associated with pickpockets and street children, might be surprised to learn that the Globe Cinema (which no longer shows films but is used for other purposes, such as church prayer meetings) was once the place to be seen on a Sunday evening among Nairobi’s Asian community. I remember that cinema well because in the 1970s my family used to go there to watch the latest Indian – or to be more specific, Hindi (India also produces films in regional languages like Telegu, Bengali and Punjabi) blockbuster at 6 p.m. on Sundays. Sunday was movie day in my family, and going to the cinema was a ritual we all looked forward to. The Globe Cinema was considered one of the more “posh” cinemas in Nairobi; not only was it more luxurious than the others, but it also had better acoustics.
As veteran journalist Kul Bhushan writes in a recent edition of Awaaz magazine (which is dedicated entirely to Indian cinema in East Africa from the early 1900s to the 1980s), “Perched on a hillock overlooking the Ngara roundabout, the Globe became the first choice for cinemagoers for new [Indian] releases as it became the venue to ogle and be ogled by the old and the young.”
Indian movies were – and are – the primary source of knowledge about Indian culture among East Africa’s Asian community. The early Indian migrants had little contact with the motherland, as trips back home were not only expensive but the sea voyage from Mombasa to Bombay or Karachi took weeks. (At independence in 1947, the Indian subcontinent became two countries – India and Pakistan – hence the reference to Indians in East Africa as “Asians”.) So they relied on Indian films to learn about the customs and traditions of the country they or their ancestors had left behind.
Exposure to Indian languages and culture through films was one way Indians abroad or in the diaspora retained their identity and got to learn about their traditions and customs. I got to learn about the spring festival of Holi and goddesses such as Durga from watching Indian films. I also learnt Hindi, or rather Hindustani – a mix of Hindi (which is Sanskrit-based) and Urdu (which is also Sanskrit-based but which borrows heavily from Persian and Arabic) – which is the lingua franca of Northern India and Pakistan, and which is the language most commonly used in the so-called Hindi cinema.
On the other hand, the sexist culture portrayed in the majority of Indian films also reinforced sexual discrimination among East African Asians. The idea that women are subservient to men, and that it is the woman who must sacrifice her own needs and desires for the “greater good” of the family/community, were – and still are – dominant in Indian cinema. Love stories portrayed in films – where young lovebirds defy societal expectations and cross class, religion or caste barriers – were not supposed to be emulated; they were considered pure entertainment and not reflective of a society where arranged marriages were and still are the norm. I heard many stories of how if an Asian woman dared to cross racial, religious or caste barriers she was severely reprimanded or stigmatised.
Watching Indian movies was also one way of keeping up with the latest fashions. Men and women often tried to copy the hairstyles and clothes of their favourite movie stars. When the hugely successful film Bobby was released in 1973, many girls adopted the hairstyle of the lead actress (who was barely 16 when she starred in the film) Dimple Kapadia. (I used to have a blouse at that time that was a replica of the one the actress wore in the film.) When the famous film star Sharmila Tagore dared to wear a revealing swimsuit in the 1967 film An Evening in Paris, she opened the door for many Indian women to go swimming without covering themselves fully.
Since music often defined the success of a film, top playback singers, such as Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Muhammad Rafi, were held in high regard, and people flocked to watch their live concerts in Nairobi. Wealth and opulence were in full display at these events.
The Golden Age
The 60s, 70s and 80s are often described as the Golden Age of Indian/Hindi cinema. Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, where there were large concentrations of Asians, had many cinemas devoted to showing films made in Bombay (now Mumbai) – often referred to as Bollywood. This was the time when actors and actresses like Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi became superstars.
Cinemas in Nairobi were always full, especially on weekends when Asian families flocked to the dome-like Shan in Ngara, to Liberty in Pangani, or to the Odeon or the Embassy in the city centre. (except for Shan cinema, all the others are no longer cinema halls but are used for other purposes. Shan was rescued from decrepitude by the Sarakasi Trust, which changed its name to The Dome; it is now used for cultural activities.) Over the years, an increasing number of Africans began watching Indian films. Oyunga Pala, the chief curator at The Elephant, recalls going to the Tivoli cinema in Kisumu, where he first got to see Amitabh Bachchan in action.
“Right next to the Liberty Cinema was situated the clinic of a very popular Indian doctor,” recalls Neera Kapur-Dromson in an article published in the Indian cinema edition of Awaaz. “The small waiting room was always crammed with patients. But that never deterred him from taking ample breaks to enjoy a few scenes of the film being screened…”
But for Asian teenage girls and boys in Nairobi, the place to be seen on a Sunday evening was the Belle Vue Drive-In cinema on Mombasa Road. Young Asian men would show off their (fathers’) cars and young women would display the latest fashions – all in the hope of catching the attention of a potential mate. Food was shared – and sometimes even cooked – on the gentle slopes of the parking spots. Going to the Drive-In was like going for a picnic. And as the lights dimmed, the large bulky speakers were put on full volume so that everyone (usually father, mother, and three or four kids in the back seat) in the car – and beside it – could hear the dialogues. Fox Drive-In cinema on Thika Road was also a popular joint, but mainly with the younger crowd who preferred watching the Hollywood movies which were a regular feature there.
It was the same in Kampala. Vali Jamal, recalling his youthful days in Uganda’s capital city, says that the Sunday outing to the Drive-In was the only time there was a traffic jam in Kampala. “Idi Amin got caught in one of them, driving back to Entebbe with his foreign minister Wanume Kibedi,” he writes. “‘Where are we?’ quoth the president, ‘In Bombay?’ And the expulsion happened.”
He continues: “Well, let me not exaggerate, but South Asian wealth was on display on the Sundays accompanied by their notions of exclusion, and let us not forget that those two variables – income inequality and racial arrogance – figured heavily in Amin’s decision to expel us.” (In August 1972, President Idi Amin expelled more than 70,000 Asians from Uganda.)
In her book, Reel Pleasures: Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in Twentieth Century Urban Tanzania, Laura Fair describes how the Sunday evening shows became a focal point of urban conversations among Tanzania’s Asian community. They were meeting points, like temples, mosques or churches, where people sought affirmation.
As in Kenya, Sunday shows in Tanzania were family and community bonding events. “Cinema halls were not lifeless chunks of brick and mortar; they resonated with soul and spirit. They were places that gave individual lives meaning, spaces that gave a town emotional life. Across generations, cinemas were central to community formation,” says the author. Indian cinema thus played an integral role in the social lives of the South Asian community in East Africa.
It all started in the 1920s when Mohanlal Kala Savani, a textile trader, imported a hand-cranked projector and began showing silent Indian films in a rented warehouse in the coastal town of Mombasa. In 1931, when two brothers, Janmohamed Hasham and Valli Hasham, built the Regal Cinema, he began renting the venue to show Hindi films. Two years later, he built his own 700-seat Majestic Cinema in Mombasa, which showed Indian films and also hosted live shows.
The late Mohanlal Savani was a man of vision, recalls his son Manu Savani in an article chronicling how his father expanded movie-viewing in East Africa. “As time progressed Majestic became an established cinema on the Kenyan coast. The owners of Majestic also became fully fledged film distributors with links stretching, to start with, to Uganda and [what was then known as] Tanganyika.”
Famous Indian movie stars began gracing these cinemas in order to increase their fan following. Notable among these were the legendary Dilip Kumar, a 1950s heartthrob whose portrayal of jilted lovers set many a heart fluttering, and Asha Parekh, who made her name in tragic love stories such as Kati Patang.
Indian cinema had wide appeal not just in Kenya, but also in neighbouring Zanzibar, where the urban night life was dominated by Indian movies. Many a taraab tune came directly from the hit songs of Indian movies. As opposed to Western movies (often referred to as English movies), Indian films appealed to Swahili sensibilities, with their focus on values such as modesty, respect for elders and morality.
In Zanzibar, Lamu and other coastal areas where segregation between the sexes was strictly observed, there were special zenana (women-only) shows, where women dressed up in their finest to join other women in watching Indian and Egyptian films. For many Asian and Swahili women, the zenana afternoon show was a rare opportunity to leave their cloistered existence and let their hair down, and also to meet up with friends outside the confines of their homes. (I once went to a women-only show at Nairobi’s Shan cinema on a Wednesday afternoon with my grandmother when I was about eight or nine years old and I can tell you there was less movie-watching and more talking and gossiping going on during the show.)
Unfortunately, the old cinemas in Zanzibar are no more, which is surprising because the island is host to the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Cine Afrique, the only standing cinema in Zanzibar when I visited the island in 2003, was a pale shadow of its former shelf, with its cracked ceiling and broken seats. I believe it has now been demolished to pave way for a mall. The Empire, another famous cinema on the island, is now a supermarket and the once impressive Royal Cinema is in an advanced stage of decay.
The decline of the movie theatre
There are many reasons for the decline of Indian movie theatres in East Africa, among them piracy, declining South Asian populations and technologies that allow people to watch movies from the comfort of their homes. The introduction of multiplex cinemas in shopping malls has also lessened the appeal of a stand-alone cinemas, and made movie-going less of an “event” and more of something that can be done while doing other things.
Indian cinema has also evolved. Unrequited love, family dramas, good versus evil and the “angry young man” genre popularised by Amitabh Bachchan – constant themes in the “masala” Indian films of the 70s and 80s – have been replaced by more sophisticated and nuanced plots, perhaps in response to a large Indian diaspora in the West which is more interested in plots that are more realistic and reflective of their own lives. The escapism of the Indian cinema of yesteryear has given way to realism, which makes cinema-going less “entertaining”.
Indian actors and actresses are also getting more roles in films made in Hollywood, and American and British films are increasingly finding India to be an interesting backdrop or subject for their movies, as evidenced by the huge success of films like Slumdog Millionaire. This has expanded the scope and definition of what constitutes an “Indian movie”.
Some would say that Indian cinema has actually deteriorated, with its emphasis on semi-pornographic dance routines and plots revolving around upper class people and their angst. So-called “art cinema” produced by award-winning directors like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, which portrays the lives of the downtrodden and addresses important social issues, or distinctly feminist films like Parama (directed by Aparna Sen), which explores the inner worlds of Indian women, are few and far between.
But as any Indian movie buff will tell you (and I include myself in this group), the experience of watching an Indian film in a cinema cannot be matched on a TV or computer screen. Indian cinema in its heyday was a feast for the eyes. If you wanted to enter the magical world of Indian cinema, complete with elaborate and well-choreographed dances, heart-stirring music and emotion, you saw Indian films in a movie theatre.
Alas, those days are fast disappearing thanks to terrorism, technology and now COVID-19. And along with this, a distinctly East African urban culture has been lost forever.
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Fidel Castro and the African Dream
Under Fidel Castro’s leadership, Cuba found its mission and played its part in the African continent’s struggle for freedom and independence.
In late December 1961, a ship flying the Cuban flag docked in Casablanca, Morocco. In the Bahia de Nipe‘s cargo hold were 1,500 rifles, 30 machine guns, four mortars, and an undisclosed amount of ammunition. On board was a small medical team. Once the passengers disembarked and the cargo was unloaded, the Bahia started its journey back to Cuba, this time carrying 76 wounded Algerian FLN rebel soldiers and 20 war orphans.
Fidel Castro’s imprint is on almost every major revolutionary effort in Africa after 1959. To him, the anti-colonial dream was “the most beautiful cause of mankind”. As the 1959 revolution was sweeping through Havana, only two Sub-Saharan African country were independent: Ghana and Guinea. Within the next decade, tens of others would join them. Several would have to first battle colonial powers and then fight Cold War and regional proxy wars.
In these chaotic theatres of war, Castro made allies, and in turn Cuba became a key player in Africa’s future through military and humanitarian help.
The Bahia de Nipe, the ship that started it all, was built in Wilmington, California, in 1945. Just months before the Algeria mission, its captain and ten-man crew had diverted it to Virginia, United States and asked for asylum. The ship became the subject of a court case because it was carrying tonnes of sugar formerly owned by the poster child of American capitalism in Latin America, the United Fruit Company, whose plantations Castro had seized.
Even before he started sending boots to Africa in support of socialist revolutions, Castro was already an enigma who intrigued and scared Americans in equal measure. They became obsessed with killing him but failed to understand his motives until it was too late. His dedication to revolutions in Africa and Latin America was, to them, driven by a messianic attitude and an addiction to the adrenaline of revolutionary wars. But this was only partially true. Castro wasn’t just interested in conflict for its own sake; he also wanted to increase the theatres of revolutionary war against imperialism, reducing the focus on Cuba herself.
Castro found fertile ground for revolution in Africa’s anti-colonial wars and, in the Cuban leader, African rebels and governments found a friend who was sometimes too willing to help.
In 1963, for example, Cuba sent Algeria a 55-person medical team on such short notice that there was no one at the airport to meet them. The team didn’t have passports when they left Havana on 23 May 1963, and landed in the North African country without any warm clothes. They also had to fend for themselves for the first few weeks before everything, including their pay, was sorted out.
Cubans were scary because, one American negotiator would say years later, “they were as ready for war as they were for peace”.
Even countries such as Kenya—which by 1959 were already well on their way to independence—sent delegations to Cuba in the early 1960s. They had a different ask: help in training technocrats to handle the delicate, long-term work of statecraft. Despite making first contact in 1962, Kenya quickly became the bastion of capitalism in Eastern Africa, and distanced herself from Cuba and the Soviet Union. In fact, the East African nation only established proper diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2001, and opened an embassy in Havana in September 2016, after the US signalled a shift in relations.
In late 1964, the other icon of the Cuban revolution, Argentinian doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara, visited seven African countries, including Tanzania. In Dar-es-Salaam, Guevara met the leaders of the Simba Revolution—Laurent Kabila and his men. They were the survivors of slain Congolese icon Patrice Lumumba’s once popular support.
They planned to overthrow the new CIA-backed regime in Zaire. With a small unit of Cubans, Guevara joined them on the front but they lost once the CIA sent in mercenary forces from other countries. The well-documented defeat was one of the first major proxy wars between Cuba and the US. Guevara would later write that they lost because Kabila and his forces were unprepared and undisciplined.
Cubans were scary because, one American negotiator would say years later, “they were as ready for war as they were for peace”.
After the Zaire debacle, Cuba’s focus then shifted to Guinea-Bissau where, with Cuba’s help, rebels kept the Portuguese colonial government busy until 1974. Focus then shifted again, this time to another Portuguese colony in southern Africa: Angola. The immensely rich nation went into civil war immediately after attaining independence.
Three competing revolutionary movements jostled for power: the Soviet-backed MPLA found itself fighting the Zaire-backed FNLA and the South African-backed UNITA. Other countries, including Britain, East Germany, Yugoslavia, France, Romania Israel, China, North Korea, and the United States joined in what became a proxy war for southern Africa’s future. Although the MPLA was in power, it was losing control of large swathes of the south and the south-east to its enemies.
Faced with an existential crisis, the socialist MPLA asked Cuba for help. They had already done so once, in May 1972, when they met Castro and his war cabinet as he toured five African countries. His commitment was wavering until Zaire and South Africa invaded Angola in August 1975.
When Cuba began sending forces to Luanda, the Americans and South Africans mistakenly thought Castro was doing the Soviet Union’s bidding. They predicted that the Cuban effect would be minimal, so the only thing they did was to make countries deny Cuban flights landing rights to refuel. In response, Cuban planes flew lighter, making the 9,000km non-stop Transatlantic journey from Havana to Luanda. Most of them carried military and medical supplies.
Over the course of just three months, Cubans made 70 such flights to Luanda, and sent several ships to join in the war. Thousands of Cuban soldiers flooded into Angola on MPLA’s side, bolstering its position and shocking the South African fronts, who realised they had underestimated Cuba’s commitment. About this Castro would later say, “Given the distance between Cuba and Angola, our motto was: if we need one regiment, let’s send ten.” By early 1976, MPLA’s fortunes were changing; there were 36,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola, a staggering number that was a deliberate form of psychological warfare.
In the early 1960s, European and American spies failed to spot the Cubans because Castro sent mostly black Cubans on mission. They blended in well, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau, and the only quirk that gave them away was the growing popularity of beards and Cuban cigars.
Jonas Savimbi, the iconic leader of the rebel group UNITA, saw the intervention as “Cuban colonialism”. Unlike the other great powers however, Cuba didn’t seem to have any imperialist intentions. In fact, once the guns went silent, Cuban numbers reduced to 12,000 within months. Those who stayed were there to bolster the MPLA’s position as South Africa and Zaire remained hostile.
The apartheid government continued supporting insurgencies in Angola, and intervened again to help its allies in the 1980s. In August 1987, Castro again bolstered Cuban forces in the country, increasing them to 15,000 soldiers. The war culminated in the Battle of Cuito Canavale, a town in southern Angola, in 1988. With the help of South African forces based in Namibia, UNITA beat back the MPLA across the Cuito River and tried to pin them in the small town.
When South Africa blew up an important bridge over the Cuito River in January 1988, the Cubans built a wooden one that they called Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death). It was a play on one of Castro’s favourite quotes (and he had many in his famously long speeches): “Once a struggle begins there is no choice other than victory or death.” More than 4,000 Cuban soldiers would die in Angola’s battlefields, their greatest loss on foreign soil to this day.
There is little agreement on who actually won the battle of Cuito Canavale, and positions often depend on the point of history from which one is looking at the fighting. South Africa technically managed to attain its immediate goals, but soon realised that it was a war of attrition which it would lose either way. For South Africa, it had never been a war over Luanda, but over Namibia.
The apartheid government continued supporting insurgencies in Angola, and intervened again to help its allies in the 1980s.
For such a small country, Namibia carried the future of Southern Africa. A colony of South Africa at the time, it provided the buffer the apartheid government used to keep communism at bay, and busy, in Angola. South Africa rightly feared Luanda would become a base for rebel movements against the still existing colonies in the region. So the battle for Namibia—and southern Angola—became the true battle for the region. Throughout the war, the apartheid government made it clear it would only withdraw from Angola if the Cubans left. On the other hand, Angola demanded that South Africa leave both Angola and Namibia before the Cubans could leave.
Eventually, in June 1988, South Africa retreated and Namibia became an independent country. By November 1989, half the Cuban troops in Angola had left. In May 1991, two months before schedule, the last Cuban soldier boarded a flight back home. Three years later, South Africa also became independent, a process many believe was speeded up by the Battle of Cuito Canavale.
For Nelson Mandela and southern Africa’s true liberators, Cuban intervention in the Angolan war destroyed “the invincibility of the white oppressor”. Almost immediately after he was released in 1991, Mandela travelled to Cuba to personally thank the small island nation for its unparalleled help to Angola, and by extension “…the struggle for liberation of southern Africa”. His friendship with the symbol of militant socialism was criticised by those who saw him as a hero of nonviolent struggle, which in fact Mandela wasn’t. (Note that despite the lionising of Mandela in the West, the US kept him on its terror watchlist until July 2008.)
Like all revolutionaries, Castro was far from perfect. His legacy, especially political and economic, in Cuba itself is controversial but his dedication to the ideals of freedom make him one of the most important revolutionaries of his time. One person’s revolutionary is another’s terrorist.
For Nelson Mandela and southern Africa’s true liberators, Cuban intervention in the Angolan war destroyed “the invincibility of the white oppressor”.
Fidel Castro’s most conflicting legacy in Africa is his intervention in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict over the Ogaden region. Cuba and the Soviets helped wrest the Ogaden Plateau from Somalia in 1977; Cuba had 17,000 soldiers fighting for Ethiopia under Haile Mariam at the time. Even ignoring the controversies of the war itself, and how it impacted Somalia’s chaotic future, Ethiopia was at the time a colonial power at war with her subject, Eritrea. The presence of Cuban soldiers and Cuba’s tacit support kept the bullets flying, a clear contradiction for a man whose life’s work was to destroy imperialism.
History is conflicted about characters like Fidel Castro, who straddled two generations and did so much that it is hard to box them in. Here was a man, born into relative privilege, who chose to fight for a cause. From a small, mixed-race island nation, he promoted that cause against a global giant and her allies with little money and a poor economy undergoing excruciating economic sanctions. Castro made a mark in history that cannot be erased.
Of course, some countries such as Angola to whose cause Cuba sacrificed so much are under a new form of oppression. But that’s the thing about revolutions; one doesn’t mean universal and infinite freedom. It doesn’t mean the new powers will be perfect, and that a society will never again need a revolution.
Each generation has its own mission, and is cursed to find its own revolution. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba found its mission and played its part. Not just for itself, but also for a significant chunk of the African continent.
When he stood trial in 1953, Castro swore that history would absolve him. I think it already has.
Race and Empire: How Scientific Racism Shaped Kenya
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date.
Maureen was in labour when it happened. The stern nurse needed an answer, but she was in too much pain to think. Her body and mind were fighting each other by that point. Twenty-two years old and lying on a stretcher outside the theatre at Kakamega Hospital, she had never felt more alone. And the nurse wouldn’t let her be wheeled in until she signed the bloody forms.
“I can see in your file that you are HIV positive,” the nurse said again, unmoved, “You must have tubal ligation since HIV positive women are not supposed to give birth.” So she took the pen and signed, and then zoned out. When she came to, she was a mother. A few hours later, the child was dead. In her pain, she had signed away her right to ever have another baby.
That was in 2005.
Forced sterilizations of HIV-positive pregnant women first came to light in 2012, although it had been happening for decades. The report, Robbed of Choice, carries multiple stories like Maureen’s. Almost all the cases documented were of poor women in public hospitals and non-governmental clinics. It was our modern form of eugenics informing unofficial policy with real consequences; an attempt to clean up the gene pool by getting rid of those we deem unfit, or at least take away their right to reproduce.
Derived from Darwin’s theories and given its modern name by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in the 19th century, eugenics is more about class than race. Although the concept preceded that era, it gained a new, organised lifeline that only began ending in the late 1930s. In its origins it was about getting rid of the undesirables, not just based entirely on skin colour, but also on socioeconomic status. Among its pioneers was Frederick Osborn who viewed eugenics as a social philosophy deserving of some form of proactive action. To actively do this in politically sensitive times required tact, such as deliberately under-developing certain areas, refusing to invest in education and healthcare, and sometimes undertaking outright sterilization. Although it never gained mainstream government approval as the governing philosophy in the colonies, it influenced and provided propaganda for many racially-driven policies.
It was a eugenics organization where scientific racism would thrive, designed to prove that blacks were inferior.
In the utopia the colonial project envisioned, Kenyans would always be at the bottom of the social pyramid, with whites at the very top, and Asians in the middle as a buffer. But because Kenya attracted the British aristocracy, the class element was also important to the immigration policy regarding poor whites who were seen as undesirable. With hordes of eugenicists driving the colonial project, their ideas on class and social control infused themselves into the colonies in such core ways that they never left.
In July 1933, 60 white men and women gathered in a boardroom at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. Among them were medical doctors, executives, government officials, journalists, scientists and other prominent white people. There were also a few Indians in the room. Their common goal was to formalize a eugenics group that ended up with the lengthy name Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI).
Of the 60 people in that room, two emerged as the mouthpieces of the group. Henry Gordon and Dr FW Vint were both medical doctors who tried to use science to prove that whites are superior by nature. This was already at the core of the eugenics movement, but in Kenya it was only one part of the core structures of colonialism, which were built on the similar concept of “the white man’s burden”. Gordon was in charge of Mathari Mental Hospital, the only mental health institution in the country at the time. Even within the institution—established in 1910 as the Lunatic Asylum—access to facilities had always been segregated on the basis of race. Kenyans occupied the worst facilities in the 675-bed hospital, and Europeans the best. Up until the 1960s, all the members of the medical staff were European.
One of the main motivations behind the formation of the KSSRI was the growing clamour for better education for Kenyans.
While the group included people from many backgrounds and professions, it was medical science that provided it with the most potent propaganda; the group’s vice chairman was Dr James Sequeira, who was also the editor of the influential East African Medical Journal. The dominance of medical science and pseudo-science in Kenya’s eugenics movement was a result of the growth of British medical care in Kenya in the 1920s, as white doctors became essential to keeping Africans healthy so they could work for settlers and pay taxes.
In Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, Chloe Campbell explores how Gordon and Vint used science to try and prove that Kenyans did not possess sufficient innate mental capacity and hence should not be educated at the same level as their European colonizers. In one study, Gordon studied 219 Kenyan boys housed at the Kabete Reformatory. He concluded that 86 per cent suffered mental conditions, but even the rest couldn’t be considered okay without creating several grades of “European ideas of normality”.
In another study, Gordon tested 278 Kenyans—112 of whom had already been diagnosed with mental illness—for the venereal disease syphilis. When he found that more than half the group with mental conditions suffered from the disease, he concluded that it was the racial differences, and not the social and economic differences in the new colony, that caused the disparity.
This particular argument was not new; in a 1905 book, a settler had blamed Indians and Swahilis for the rise of venereal diseases in Kenya. He’d offered that “the healthiness of a place is greatly increased by not allowing any native habitations within a given distance of the white settlement”.
As a government pathologist, Vint focused his studies on correlating skull size with intelligence. He studied 100 skulls and arrived at the conclusion that Kenyans had lighter skulls and smaller pyramidal cells. In 1934, he concluded that Kenyan brains could not grow past the age of 18 years, and that they started decreasing in size after that. That was the same year primary education became mandatory for white children, while investments in the education of African children remained paltry. Vint’s work was meant to prove that there was no need of educating Kenyans because they did not have the capacity to grasp complex concepts.
After Gordon wrote about some of their findings in The Times, Louis Leakey responded with a letter attacking their methods and their conclusions, but not their premise. Instead, the Kenyan-born anthropologist argued, the feeble mindedness of the “African mind” should be attributed to “the lack of stimulation in the normal conditions of African life and to the fact that sexual activity began at a younger age, somehow inhibiting mental development,” Campbell writes.
Beyond the pre-existing issues with race, there had been another more immediate reason for the formation of the KSSRI in 1933. Just a few months before, the colonial government had hanged a 19-year-old white man, Charles William Ross, for the brutal murders of two young white women. Ross, who was born in Kenya, had killed the two women, thrown one body in the Menengai crater, and left the other at the top. As part of Ross’s defence, Gordon used an X-ray photograph of Ross’s skull to assert that he was criminally-liable because of “pronounced mental instability” that placed him somewhere between “feeble-minded” and “moral-deficient.” He was found guilty anyway, and hanged on 11 January 1933.
This were the same explanations Gordon and other psychiatrists applied to the entirety of the black Kenyan population, more so when they were involved in crime.
With the economic depression of the 1920s and the increasing education of Kenyans, crime rates had shot up in urban areas. Juvenile delinquency was of particular interest, and Gordon would go on to claim that the majority among his subjects in the study at Kabete had some education. The point was that they had been overwhelmed by British education. This was the “feeble-minded” argument, which also drove racially-motivated policies in the economy, healthcare and other facets of life, including the justice system. From the outset, the colonial system had set to educate Kenyans to be church-going technical workers and manual labourers, not free-thinking intellectuals.
The parliamentary discussion on the law that made sexual assault a capital offense laboured on whether it should be applied to non-Kenyans as well.
Interestingly, eugenicists also considered urbanisation to be one of the reasons for the increase in crime and psychiatric cases. In their thinking, urbanisation “detribalised the African and made him unmanageable”. It was part of the thinking that the African mind simply couldn’t handle too much change because it was not genetically wired to do so. Change destabilised their feeble minds and led them to crazy thoughts that they could ever upend the social pyramid. This thinking preceded and survived the official eugenics movement in Kenya which lasted from 1930 to 1937.
On the Christmas Eve of 1911, for example, the Machakos district commissioner wrote a lengthy report on “the mania of 1911”. It was the story of Siotune Kathuke and Kiamba Mutuaovio, who had led several acts of rebellion. Their sermons had supposedly inspired a widespread mania, as more people began to question the ordained order of things. Another good example is the commitment of Elijah Masinde, the founder of Dini ya Msambwa, in 1945. He was committed at Mathari for pretty much the same reasons that Siotune and Kiamba were exiled to the coast. When he was released in 1947, Masinde promptly went back to preaching the end of white rule.
Campbell notes that although the government didn’t fund the eugenicists’ work or officially base its policies on their work, it showed its support in other ways. One was the continued underdevelopment of Kenyans, and the other was more subtle, like giving Gordon a three-month leave from his work to go and try to win support from other eugenicists in London. The members of the KSSRI were also well connected; shortly after they founded the organisation, a group of them went to a ball held at Government House (now State House), which is the opening scene in Campbell’s book. But the movement could not have chosen a worse time to try to push for eugenics, as Hitler’s Nazi Germany employed similar ideas to devastating effects. Thus, the prominence of eugenicists in Britain and in colonies like Kenya diminished in the late 1930s for political reasons, but the ideas survived.
Another prominent figure in the pseudo-science of “African intelligence” was a retired doctor called JC Carothers, who succeeded Gordon at Mathari. He had submitted a widely-read paper on African intelligence to the World Health Organization when the colonial government turned to him to write what became “The Psychology of the Mau Mau”. Published in 1954, the report shows a slight change in the racist perspective regarding African intelligence. Where Gordon had focused on biology alone, Carothers expanded his scope to include environmental issues.
In resisting a common electoral roll, settlers argued that it was unfair to be forced to wait for Kenyans to catch up on the civilisation scale.
Turning his focus to the Kikuyu, who made up the majority of the Mau Mau ranks, Carothers thought that since the Kikuyu had had greater contact with their colonizers, “Kikuyu men have envied this power, not unnaturally, and have tried to capture it by learning.” Kikuyu women were not part of this because Carothers thought that “Her life … has suffered little change,” that her focus was still on agriculture and child-bearing, meaning she had lost her men who “have found themselves with money and powers which have virtually turned their heads. Power has come quickly to folk who are not … familiar with it”. These were Gordon’s ideas, with a dash of flair and some added flavour.
Louis Leakey was another instrumental scientist in that decade, helping counter-insurgency efforts in many ways. His best known effort was on oathing, arguing that the Mau Mau was led by brilliant psychopaths who had changed the oath’s meaning and even particulars. His counter-insurgency research and work may have actually escalated the war in 1952, which was one of his goals. Leakey thought that if he made the problem big enough, then it could be quickly addressed. He used his personal and anthropological knowledge of Kikuyu culture to devise a counter-oath that would free those who had taken the Mau Mau oath, and was core to the psychological counter-insurgency.
While eugenics concepts did not directly shape policy, they formed a part of the larger racist ideologies that informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number of which survive to date. They were notoriously anti-poor and anti-Kenyan, offering tokenism and hiding behind legalese. The Witchcraft Act, for example, banned many cultural practices by purporting to regulate them. It even made it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor.
After independence, the power and social dynamics espoused by racism switched back to class their roots, this time driven by a black, mostly Western-educated elite. The White Highlands went to a new class of supremacists, who quickly passed the Vagrancy Act in 1968. Under this law, you could be arrested and placed in a rehabilitation home if you were found walking in a posh estate with no money in your pocket and no known source of income. The Act had existed as the Vagrancy Regulations in the colonial system, only to be formalized when Kenyan elites started replacing settlers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it survived in our laws until it was repealed in 1997.
Using the lessons learned during the decade of the Mau Mau war, the new government launched a similar counter-insurgency against a secessionist movement in Northern Kenya. The model of brutality, concentration camps and spirited propaganda fit in the ’60s as it had in the ’50s, with added efficiency.
Combined with other laws and institutions such as the police, the colonial view of the base of the pyramid survives. It is why the introduction of free primary education and maternity healthcare as public goods was such a big deal. Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order. The paternalistic relationship between the individual and the state is still intact, as becomes clear whenever there is an internal threat to social order.
The forced sterilizations report points to how institutionalised eugenics survives. They were happening with tacit government approval, and targeted a class of “undesirables”. The sterilizations probably thrived in the first decade of HIV/AIDS in Kenya when there was official and social denial of the extent of the problem. We might never know their true extent, although a few of the institutions named in the report should not come as a surprise.
Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order.
One is Marie Stopes International, named for British author Marie Stopes. While Stopes is today regarded as a feminist pioneer, the major driving aspect of her birth-control advocacy was eugenics and not women’s rights. Her ideas about the poor are particularly worrying, as that is whom her clinics targeted from the onset. She was a lifelong eugenicist, who even disinherited her son Harry because he married a short-sighted woman. The other institutions named in the report—government hospitals—are still wallowing in under-investment and neglect.
Infused in post-colonial Kenya was not eugenics as a concept, but as a form of social control. It is many other things now by many other names, but it seems focused on further impoverishing those who are already poor while enriching those already endowed. A few might cross that socioeconomic divide, but many never will.
Kenyan Digital Avatars: Cartoonification of Culture and Heritage
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that result in depictions of traditional and cultural diversity that are inauthentic and historically inaccurate.
Somewhere between 2007 and 2012 Kenya underwent a symbolic transition—from analogue to digital. Comedian Smart Joker became the spokesperson for this transition. It was funny that a jester who amplified the confused-villager-in-the-city motif, the staple of Kenyan comedy, was the one declaring that Kenya had migrated to the digital world. A utopia. The rap verses in his song Tumetoka Analogue Tuko Digital referenced MPesa and mobile phones. Kenya had entered the digital age under the Silicon Savannah moniker. Internet infrastructure was rapidly expanding, cheap internet, the advent of social media and the growing ubiquity of smartphones made 2010 a critical turning point not just for Kenya but for the world. Edward Mendelson even said, “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone.”
In this digital transition, one of the fundamental changes was how Kenya engaged with itself and the manner in which Kenyans experienced themselves and each other. #KOT was born and thrived.
Some interesting things are happening on the cultural front. In Kenya the use of design software technologies is being used to metamorphosize oral stories into online legends. Vast digital landscapes have been brought to the fore where old depictions are being reimagined; cue the Afro-future genre where Maasais are imagined in space sitting atop alien disks, and Afrobubblegum, which celebrates itself for being fun, fierce and frivolous. Films that disrupt colonial narrative structures and depictions have been made, traditional settings have been incorporated into online games while traditional board games are being digitised. Beyond making Kenyan (hi)stories accessible, however, a critical examination of the affordances and limitations of the digital space is needed, especially in terms of authenticity, diversity and complexity in representation.
Technology is spoken of in heraldic, near-biblical terms, a promised land where a techno-fix will provide correction for all past narratives, attitudes and inefficiencies. The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers. In some cases, political problems are being surrendered to technical solutions. This attitude ignores the fact that technology integrates assumptions and preferences about culture, places, people and values and that it can reproduce and reinforce inequities and lead to new forms of dispossession. Caution against such unchecked hopes has been voiced but the debate regarding the finer details of this analogue-digital migration is confined to tiny circles of experts.
There was something disquieting about the frenetic pace of the analogue-to-digital migration. It was more than the basic burden of migratory logistics. A country like Kenya came to technology with a certain mind-set and the technologies being adopted also came with their baggage of bias and assumptions. Simply adopting or merely imitating how others were using them was not going to work. Some habits have to go, some new ones have to be adopted; success in the digital age comes in iterative baby steps not in the rushed manner in which certain projects have been undertaken. The movers, the systems that allowed the migrations, were all borrowed. Certain cultural and imaginative needs of the people were missing from the existing technologies and had to be built from scratch.
On the cultural and heritage fronts, the debates around digitization have thrown up interesting dilemmas. The events that whisk us from the digital optimism of the early 2010s to the digital cultural depictions of the 2020s are many and follow many threads. They all begin offline, with good intentions and a clear need to meet, a remedy to apply or an aspect of society to include. Measures are then put in place. Take the question of national heroes and memorialization. In 2007, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage set up a Taskforce on National Heroes and Heroines whose mandate was “countrywide data collection on criteria and modalities of honoring national heroes and heroines”. After five months the taskforce came out with a report that, among other things, identified the modalities of scoring and awarding hero points. The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists:
“The national heroes and heroines square should be the highest symbol and point of reference of the perpetuity of our nationhood. It should represent and depict the national core values, goals and principles to which all Kenyans aspire. The place should symbolize all the shrines held sacred by various Kenyan communities. It should be a place revered and treated with utmost respect by those who work, enter and visit the square. As a national shrine it should embody the country’s pride, hope, spiritual and cultural aspirations and national unity. This concept should be reflected in the architectural design, management and administration of the square.”
In short, the manufacture of a holy shrine that, by existing, induces nostalgia, pride, and a deeply symbolic respect for Project Kenya; an Arcadia of sorts, Kenya’s own Shangri La where memories of heroes and heroines live on forever.
Now take this intention, add a software programme and unchecked and uncritical enthusiasm, bring in the National Museums of Kenya, add tracts of digital real estate through the Google Arts and Culture Project, stir for a few years then add frames and the perfect Kenyan heroes soup is ready for serving up on a digital platter. This is what happened recently when Kenya National Museums—through the Google Arts and Culture Project—embarked on a project similar to the watercolour sketches of Kenyan men and women commissioned from Joy Adamson by the British colonial government in the 1950s.
The general assumption is that the adoption of digital technologies will solve deep-rooted global inequalities and speedily remove structural barriers.
The project is described on the Google Arts and Culture page as a celebration of “a journey of 400 years of history and geography” and we are invited to “meet 61 historic heroes of the Kenyan communities” and engage in their “remarkable stories”. The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino”. In almost all of them, a simplistic macho effect is achieved through creased brows. And they are inspired by the erroneous official simplification that “Kenya has 44 communities who all have heroes” in a move to make culture, diversity, identity history and even pride accessible and available for display. A gamified section invites us to “discover your super alter-Ego” by “taking a quiz”.
The digitally imagined Chief Mukudi adorned in ostrich feathers and the offline analogue reality of the late chief adorned in Mumia Kingdom’s official kanzu, black coat and king’s medals.
This fantastical rendering of Chief Mukudi psychically displaces and forces one to think at once that there was an ancient civilization and that the many marks on his body held mysterious powers. Nostalgia for a fictionalized past looms large in this cartoonish idiocy.
It becomes even harder to look beyond these aesthetic distortions to consider and appreciate the effort put into the project since the aesthetic style erases and overshadows the substance of the stories. This leads to an alienating abstraction of reality.
In moves only possible in the digital space, the project also allows for an immense lore dump. We are not allowed to move gradually through each hero but are forced to contend with tens of heroes and heroines from diverse cultures in an undifferentiated mass in the virtual world. The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
The project achieves two things: Firstly, it is a symbolic reversal of the manner in which Kenya has approached the controversial question of who is to be celebrated and how. Secondly, it is a celebration of diverse traditional oral stories that further complicates the foundational stories of this country.
The report of the taskforce reads like propaganda designed to turn citizens into loyal nationalists.
But the actual product falls short of these intentions because the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
Even though this project tries to bring a conceptual shift, its lynchpin is simplistic and flawed. Tinkering with and tweaking the diverse Kenyan cultural heritage in this simplistic manner was never going to bring successful reversals to the old prejudiced attitudes. There is no power or heroism in the depictions of the paused agile leap or the ready-to-pounce poses. This is not a digital revolution overturning old conceptions but a further distortion of reality. A phoney simulation.
To escape from that nativist prison is not possible with Western media and software, and vector elements and stock images conceived in Silicon Valley. Ancient lore can be repurposed for modern digital needs but if it is used to serve narrow nationalistic agendas, a mutually reinforcing and equally destructive process is embarked upon—national image-making on a straitjacket platform.
For a country in search of sources of pride, anything seems to go in reconciling the disparate narratives of national being and becoming. Historical inaccuracies are embraced, regional characters are incorporated without qualms. The mad Mullah can be passed as a Kenyan hero as the stories cross ethnic, cultural and geographical boundaries and vault over their rural origins, acquiring a transcendental quality.
The pastoral 13th-17th century Ajuran sultanate is accessorised, ignorantly, with Mediterranean marble pillars. Its “hero” is an ascending figure bathed in light, holding a sword, and wrapped up like a Tuareg dervish straight from a teenager’s dream in an Ibrahim Al-Koni novel. Moving towards Southern Ethiopia, the almost 600-year-old Borana governance institution of the Gada—that from 1548 has had 72 Aba Gadas—is represented by one image titled Aba Gada; his name and the years of his reign are surplus to the needs of Kenya National Museums.
Some heroes and their stories are asynchronous to their actual histories. Take for example the story of Kote Golo who is depicted as a young Rendille moran. A respected Sakuye elder says that he died in 1913 but KNM places Kote Golo’s stories in the 1930s and beyond. What are we to make of references to Cuban and Soviet Union support? And the Ogaden war? A lone ranger’s story created by KNM.
The heroes are given zoomorphic qualities: “Speed of a cheetah, agility of a cobra, strength of a rhino.”
In this project fictive kinship is conjured at will. The Burji for example, are depicted as “farmers of the desert” even though they are not found in any desert. Their mythical story of origin has villains who shift according to the prevailing relationship or the needs of the narrator. The Burji, Konso and Borana are distinct and unrelated and passing them off as cousins or “the three brothers” is careless. KNM erroneously claims that, “The Burji swore to be farmers, to feed the Borana who had chased them away from Liban, with grains of life.”
Kenya National Museums wants to force the stories to triumph over structural issues and vault above politics, above economics and above context. Women are depicted as hormonal, men are gladiators. The project is largely an attempt to apply heavy nationalist makeup but the anachronistic collapse and fictional rendering fail to achieve the attempted nationalistic unification. Such stories, if not told in all their different dimensions, are best left alone.
Reconciliation with Western imaginaries of heroism
The traditional myths and legends being rescued and bathed in gold and light have been imbued with Western superhero motifs. Most of the images have gilded renderings, the avatars have dead-set serious eyes and flawlessly toned bodies.
Traditional costumes have been wilfully replaced with the accoutrements of heroes of Western heritage and the digital bric-a-brac of online game cultures and depictions of power that borrow trinkets and magical orbs and wands from Harry Potter movies. There are other related accoutrements of this world such as fancy swords and blazing spears. A proper scrutiny of the images may even reveal Black Panther’s vibranium hammers.
To suture the resulting inconsistencies and to imbue them with digital depictions of power, the project bathes everything in neon lights of a golden hue and streaks of lightning. Depictions from Greek mythology and those in the Kenyan heroes project are so similar that one could conclude that Zeus no longer reigned from Mt. Olympus and had allowed his energy of lights to be borrowed for use in the digital afterlife of Kenyan oral stories. Mekatilili wa Menza could pass for Hera.
Institutions and responsibilities
Historical narratives are often complicated, and bear the contradictions of reality. The process by which real people are turned into comic book heroes, shorn of all historical and cultural realities, has been enabled by the enthusiastic use of digital tools and existing digital templates and environment; this carries some of the blame for the iconographic distortions.
Nationalistic self-flattery goes through many layers of bureaucratic approval that all carry the blame for the historical inaccuracies in this project: the funders, the cast of actors that include the heritage minister, and the president who gave it the full blessing of the state. The project has an impressive-sounding list of contributors—Director General, senior curators and research scientists, designers, archivists, photographers and marketers—some of whom have PhDs to their names.
The project is both a product of the internet age and the shortcomings of the software and codes that power it.
Kenya National Museums is not a stranger to Kenyans and has people capable of a nuanced preservation and depiction of cultures in their full, authentic complexity. That they did not see the fundamental problems with this project demonstrates either wilful ignorance or vested interests with regards to the project funds.
Nothing, not even the desperate drive to reinvent KNM, justifies this level of distortion and and show of disrespect to Kenyan communities. The difficult question of national culture cannot be answered through a linear rendering of history, culture and identity. This refashioning of cultural identities and collapsing of individual uniqueness into a national whole with a homogeneous past only creates a mess. Even when midwifed by Google or the mimicked aesthetics, it is bereft of the true body and material cultures of the depicted communities. When not attempting to create this narrow nationalism, Kenya’s heritage department seems preoccupied with how to add value or use the cultural heritage of Kenya’s communities for some form of economic gain; packaged and ready for investors and tourists. This project is the latest attempt to turn heritage and the diverse cultures into digital cultural capital.
The museum has an impressive collection of material culture. But in this Google Arts and Culture Project, everything is everywhere. The head gear of community X adorns community Y. Things are interchangeable and decontextualized.
These concerns are directed at software designers and at the cultural enthusiasts feeding in instructions into the software to remedy old questions of identity. But the institution that brings together unchecked enthusiasm and flawed programs without care for safeguarding measures carries the bulk of the blame.
Digital programs come with templates and precast straitjackets that often do not have—especially in slack, inexperienced hands—the manoeuvrability needed for accurate depictions. To use Western tools to fight old imperial framing needs other supportive industries where items like free and diverse stock photos, digital elements and assets can be sourced. Digital platforms where African and traditional material cultures can be found need to be set up.
I spoke to graphic designers who all contend with the lack of the tools and elements necessary to ease their work. “Sometimes what is in the mind and what comes out of a design process are miles apart,” says George Ngechu, founder of Sura Images, a stock image agency whose platform is designed to provide cheap and accessible images of anything from well-adjusted Africans in the workspace to basic material culture. “We get a lot of queries for a diverse range of images; the demand is a lot but we can’t meet it”.
There are few high resolution images for their use and even those that are available are watermarked or ridiculously expensive. Designers have to resort to paid stock image sites or render their own images, a painstakingly slow process that involves finding models and photographers, organising a shoot, editing and then embarking on designing a small poster depicting the realities of their surroundings. Those who commission the design do not understand that this leads to a borrowed, virtual aesthetic.
“If you search for stock pictures of Africans doing anything you won’t find them easily,” says Job, a graphic designer with a local newspaper. “Search, for example, for an African couple having dinner and you will struggle. But when you look for just ‘couples having dinner’, a million images of white people are available and for free.”
The images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum.
I talk to Chief Mukudi’s great-grandson, a journalist and designer, and we laugh at the image of his great-grandfather. He too acknowledges the challenge in the hands of the designers. “One time I was designing a campaign poster that needed to have a broom in it. All the vectors I got were the witch brooms, I had to go find a broom and make it usable for my needs”.
It takes immense effort and work for a designer to find basic things like akala sandals, brooms, guards, traditional cooking pots or any other commonly available item of material culture on the internet.
“You know, the majority of Kenyans assume that beads are the same. We do not know that they contain important cultural meaning. And also, since we do not have reference points, we approximate or just round off to the nearest item available … If your community isn’t serious in putting itself in the digital space, the distortions, misrepresentations and being left out is inevitable,” says Job.
Digital products have to be groundtruthed yet the data available for the production of the necessary traditional materials is from stereotyped tropes—borrowed, inauthentic simulations or low quality. It is even difficult to crowdsource such elements because, as one of the designers said, “Designers on the continent are not producers but consumers.” The need to contribute to platforms where stock images and vectors are stored was mentioned by many of the designers I spoke to but Joe Nzomo says, “So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
There are ongoing conversations that try to solve this problem by establishing platforms with African material culture assets, elements and stock images such as Picha Stock, the previously mentioned Sura Images, and Leso Stories’ digital asset library.
Leso Stories, for example, uses technology to give an immersive storytelling experience and notes that interactivity is a “key ingredient missing from even the best books or adaptations of African cultural works”. The platform has taken “fundamental care to ensure that not only the storyteller but also the storytelling environment are all authentic and faithful to when, where, how and why these stories are shared.” Leso Stories has managed to achieve this through “Virtual Humans” or what they call Embodied Conversational Agents. However, Leso Stories’ revolutionary contribution is creating 3D models and digital assets to be used by other creators. It is one way to counter the domination of Western digital vectors.
Lessons and responsibilities
The key lesson for us from Leso Stories’ digital asset library, Picha Stock and Sura Images is that technology demands the efforts of individuals who have foresight and passion to effect change. But the support of institutions and the responsibility of those in positions of power are necessary. The institutions at the heart of such efforts like KNM and even global players like Google and stock image behemoths like Getty and Shutterstock have a responsibility for inclusive and accurate cultural depictions.
The true power of traditional symbols of power lies in their proper, respectful and contextual depictions. To help designers and creators, the KNM could have digitised the many items that are stored and displayed in highly colonial forms at the Nairobi archives. Maybe then Harry Potter wands and magical orbs would not be as ubiquitous as they are in the Shujaa project.
Leso Stories is bold and has reimagined how African oral stories can be told without losing their participatory elements.
From production to consumption, the levels at which we have to engage with the use of software are various. In the artificial digital domain, the use of technology has to be groundtruthed. Digital technologies and software are mediums of an unequal power relationship. What is visible online as vectors is mirrored offline by beads, shawls and bakoras. Their enthusiastic adoption needs to strike a balance between prioritising faithfulness and awareness of what might be gained or lost in the cultural translation of oral, contested, continuous, cultural and non-linear histories into permanent, one-dimensional inauthentic and simple depictions.
Fidelity to the truth is key and it cannot be achieved by hurried half-commitments.
When kids who have grown up on comic vines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars turn their gaze from the marvel universe to their environment and search for such characters, they have no tools to analyse, appreciate or objectively appraise their own body cultures, legends, and myths.
In the age of artificial intelligence where simple text prompts and instructions can generate cultural images, the problem of authenticity and complexity is further compounded.
Let us for a brief moment turn to the judgment of the crowd of consumers. Take my friend Basele, a techie and digital enthusiast who shared on This is Africa’s Twitter page text-generated images that he had made on an AI platform—three images necessary for our appraisal of digital depictions.
“So far, even when you want to donate some of those vectors or elements, there are no ready platforms to share them on.”
Basele used the text prompt “Calm and colourful image of a Samburu girl from Norther Kenya” and this is the image that the AI platform generated.
In Laisamis, the possible home of this digitally rendered cultural “calm and colourful” image, I show the AI mage to two friends and I ask for their reaction. One of the two is an anthropologist. He looks at the image, immediately notes that the lady is adorned with, among other things, “ostrich egg shells” and “modern earrings”. With confusion on his face, he asks, “Could she be Pokot?” Even the distant similarity to Lupita Nyong’o lurking in the image doesn’t help the image to pass the cultural authenticity test.
Here Basele has used AI to generate a “calm and colourful image of a Rendille girl from Northern Kenya.”
My friends compare the nose size with a standard Rendille nose and laugh. But what does the software know? In a third image my friend sent me, the lady has aluminium beads and modern earrings. “Which culture is this?” ask my friends in Laisamis.
The anthropologist in Laisamis says, “The pastoralists’ material culture is lean,” noting that it has to be very sparse and specific: “Remember you carry everything with you.”
But with my friend’s curious commands, even with the AI-generated artificial glow and flawless skin, the images do not pass the authenticity test. It is not satire, it is not caricature. These are the depictions of soulless machines.
More worrying, however, are the high stakes and high risks produced by the fact that such AI-generated depictions are being used in videos to tell oral stories. Their simplistic rendering becomes embedded in other AI platforms where they are used as the groundtruth for further and future AI work. A self-reinforcing loop of distortion.
A third project
Kunta Content, a Kenyan online gaming company, has created a Maasai hero named Hiru. In the game trailer, a Maasai village is depicted well and the landscape is accurate. But Hiru is shown always running, killing a lion within the short two minutes of the trailer. In another trailer, he he kills a poacher armed only with a bow and arrow. Huri has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka. At their heart the codes that run him are the same ones that are powering the Western gaming industry. An anomaly with the story is the traditional gaming industry villain, a slayer bearing two massive axes who is taken down by the dextrous manoeuvre of Hiru’s spear, which is held and used like a cane. Salim, Kunta Content’s creator, describes the merger of media and gaming as “old storytelling which tries to tell an experience, an emotion”.
Digital inclusion needs more than design sensibility to obtain accurate and complex depictions. Other aspects such as an understanding of history, awareness of forms of self-depiction, a grasp of design tools, an honest imagination, understanding language and the power of stories, some anthropological depth, a sense of geography and an appreciation of cultures and spirituality need to be in place. These are not only to be considered but they need to be actively cultivated and implemented. An assemblage of supporting and intersectional expertise such as writers, designers and critics, as well as platforms for dissemination like the Internet, television, books and, most importantly, the resources to undertake the necessary iterative experimentation and learning have to be availed.
Clicking away swiftly
Kenya’s culture and heritage ministry is encouraging communities to compile, document and register their traditional knowledge. As heritage officials from the ministry traverse the country facilitating this rush to develop biocultural protocols, the question of the technology behind them has not been fully considered. So far, the discussions seem to be centred around traditional attire, food, herbal medicine, heritage sites, rites of passage, and so on and so forth. The intention is to codify and keep traditional knowledge in a database somewhere where it will be stored for eternity and where communities can access it with just a few clicks.
He has no grace, he is a white commando in a Maasai shuka.
But we must not forget that dispossession and exploitation have often been a deliberately baked-in problem. The risk with such databases lies in the fact that entire communities’ traditional knowledge can be erased from such systems or replaced without consequence. Aside from structural issues like software developer bias that can show up in their codes or the risk of hackers, the whole idea is foreign and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
The above efforts to bring traditional African cultures into the digital space seem to be simulations of what authentic pre-colonial traditional backgrounds should look like; in South Africa, experiments at 3D oral storytelling were set inside a cave. Their intention is almost always to preserve a fast-disappearing heritage. The inclusion of ambient audio sounds like chirping birds, lowing cows and crowing cocks don’t guarantee their integrity. The villages shown are untouched even by such simple “technology” as iron sheet roofs, yet Kenyan villages today are places where solar lights, mobile phones, plastic water Jerry cans, radios and even TVs compete for visibility with shukas and lesos.
Aside from the structural issues, the idea of taking and storing is colonial and is not how cultures engage with their heritage.
Digital space and technology is a transitional medium that can evolve into a space of shared memory. As it is currently instituted, however, it has major limitations in depicting the rich African cultural tapestries. So far, the depictions of traditional and cultural diversity are inauthentic and historically inaccurate. The portrayals of complex diversity, nationhood and even conflict are problematic.
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the Kenya National Museums in Kenyan public life. However, as enthusiasm for the heritage industry grows, more than any other institution, KNM offers a chance to meet its needs. But to do this, it needs to go through a phase of introspection and to rethink its role.
To tackle the inaccuracies and elisions of African material cultures from the digital space, efforts are necessary from several fronts: individual artists, institutional commitments and the design of the technology itself. This should be a serious and deliberate endeavour as the risks of reanimating colonial logics of extraction and over-simplification lie in wait.
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