Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a Kenyan woman living in Kenya? Well, it’s terrifying. And it’s even worse if you are the mother of a Kenyan daughter. There is a place in your mind that is always preoccupied with concerns for her safety. Is she safe? What horrors might find her out there?
Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui died on March 9th 2021 while undergoing treatment at the Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital. A few days before Velvine’s death, Jennifer Wambua, the Deputy Communications Director of the National Land Commission (NLC), was found dead. Both women had been raped and murdered. But their murders were not enough; social media launched its usual blame-the-victim game, focusing most viciously on Velvine. You see, Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui was 24 years old, working as a waitress, and she willingly went to a Nairobi hotel with a married man.
There is little hope that justice will prevail in both cases. But it wasn’t always like this. Kenyan women did not always live at the mercy of sexual predators. American historian Brett Shadle has conducted research on attitudes towards rape among the Gusii in pre-independence Kenya. In his paper entitled, Rape in the Courts of Gusiiland, Kenya, 1940s-1960s, which he shared in response to the rape and murder of Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui, we get a glimpse into what can be defined as traditional African attitudes towards rape and the violation of women.
Shadle reviews the rape court cases in Gusiiland between the 1940s and the 1960s and sets out to show how seriously African courts treated the offence of rape. He notes the following:
“Court elders, and later magistrates, punished rapists harshly, in absolute terms and relative to crimes such as elopement. The courts’ conception of the crime was also strikingly “modern”: elders and magistrates treated rape as an offense against a woman as opposed to one against her male guardian. Perhaps most fascinating are cases in which an accused man claimed to have had consensual sex with his accuser. Unlike their contemporaries in Western and in Kenya’s British-run courts, Gusii elders did not expect a woman to prove that she had not consented to sex: instead, they demanded that the accused prove that she had consented. The record of these decisions complicates the notion of a progression away from a deeply rooted, deeply conservative patriarchal culture. In the absence of comprehensive historical studies of rape in Kenya (and indeed in most of Africa), this article suggests a different context in which to place contemporary debates surrounding sexual violence, and also offers another dimension to the historiography of gender and the law in colonial Africa.”
When I read this passage, I felt like crying with relief. African society was not brutal and did not treat women with violent disdain as so many Africans believe today. Just the idea that a man had to prove that a woman had consented to a sexual act is revolutionary for most societies in the world. It demands a level of responsibility on perpetrators that the so-called modern world has not been able to achieve. And it opens a sea of possibility for the reconstruction of Kenyan society in unimaginable ways.
In today’s Kenya blaming the victim even when she or he ends up murdered has become the norm. This blame game has become an echo chamber that is used to amplify the threat of violence. After the rape and murder of a woman, this echo comes from everywhere. It creates an element of unpredictability in our lives and makes us feel that we are surrounded by men who think nothing of subjecting women and girls to unspeakable violence.
So, imagine being the mother of a Kenyan daughter. The thing is she is now a teenager or a young adult and she is exploring life. She has discovered her beauty. Like many teenagers and young adults, she loves clothes, she is exploring her style, testing what looks best on her, how to maximise her beauty and of course she follows international trends from music videos. The fights you have with her about her preference for scanty clothing are endless. You try to get through to her that Rihanna and Beyoncé are musicians. Those skimpily dressed women in music videos do not dress like that in real life. Even they clothe themselves more fully when they go to the supermarket or to visit their grandparents. There is a lot of eye rolling and stamping of feet.
But she is young. Even when she tells you that Velvine’s murder has her scared, it doesn’t moderate her behaviour. You see, she is still a teenager and teenagers are immortal. Do you remember your immortal days?
Being the mother of a Kenyan daughter means that you walk a tight rope. You want to keep your daughter safe, but you can see her potential. You can see how high she can fly if only the monsters don’t get to her. And so, you are on that tight rope, trying to not clip her wings. The irony is that you must let her fly so that she can learn how to recognise monsters and how to evade the danger. If you keep her locked up in a dark room you will make her even more vulnerable and make her easy prey for the monsters you are trying to keep her safe from. What a conundrum.
The purpose of victim blaming
I have often wondered as to the purpose of victim blaming. If we examine the case of the two recently murdered women, Jennifer Wambua and Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui, it is Velvine who has received an overwhelming onslaught of victim blaming. There has been much more empathy for Jennifer Wambua. In my view, it is quite easy to see why. Jennifer Wambua was cloaked in respectability in that she was a middle-aged married woman who was also a professional working in a prestigious organisation. And she was abducted the day she was due to testify in a land case. Her murder screams collateral damage in the high-stakes corruption that has come to overwhelm issues of land in this country. Somehow, the implication is that these are mitigating circumstances which allowed netizens to show respect for Jennifer Wambua.
Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui on the other hand was a young waitress who willingly accompanied a married man to a hotel. And therein lies her crime. No one asks why a married man is violating his vows. Velvine is to blame for leading him astray and for getting herself murdered. The murderer has been rendered invisible, despite the horrific injuries he inflicted on her, so let’s bring him back to life. The murdering rapist’s name is one Joseph Kinyua Murimi.
When you think about it, victim blaming is common in most societies around the world. In 2020, the United States of America showed us their limitless ability to blame black men, women and children for the often fatal violence meted out against them by the police. It appears that those who have the right to blame the victim are those people who hold the power in a community. The powerful perpetrators get to frame the violence, blame the victims of the violence and manufacture often outlandish reasons to justify the need for the violence and then they get to evade any consequences. Of course, many of the Kenyan people blaming Velvine for the violence inflicted on her protested vociferously against the horrendous injustice inflicted on African American George Floyd in 2020.
Here are some examples of social media posts including the exchange between Onyango Otieno, a leading gender activitist and trauma healing counsellor, and various victim-blaming netizens:
The function of victim blaming
According to Wikipedia, It was the American psychologist William Ryan who first devised the phrase “blaming the victim” in his 1971 book of the same title, which described victim blaming as “an ideology used to justify racism and social injustice against black people in the United States.”
Victim blaming “occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them”. The term has now been expanded to include victim blaming in other circumstances such as sexual assault and murder as was the case for Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui.
In examining the psychology of blame I have identified several reasons for this phenomenon. First, and ironically, victim blaming often stems from a desire to keep ourselves safe. Psychologists note that people need to believe that the world is a just and fair place and it is those people who take unnecessary risks who get what they deserve. People need to believe that their world is a place where one can safely get out of bed every morning and one in which a person can develop long range goals and have a chance of living long enough to make them happen. And so, when a person near us is the victim of violent crime such as rape or murder, we have the tendency to point the finger away from themselves. We must re-stabilise our disturbed world by blaming the victim and recovering our sense of security. Violence cannot be just a random thing. This is what some of those people blaming Velvine are doing.
But others are engaged in a subtle form of control of women and girls by spreading careless, randomised fear. Thus, Velvine may be gone but fear is being used to shrink women and girls into submission. These social media posts reveal some of the blame arguments.
“… 6% of rapes occur to innocent girls who meet evil men, while 94% of rapes occur to girls who are not so innocent who go out seeking rapists…”
This form of control also says something about the fears of those in power. What it says is that they may be afraid that they are losing control of the privileged position that patriarchy assigns them in society.
Victim blaming and lowered inhibitions
As I conducted research on the psychology of victim blaming, I came across a third and most surprising impact, which is that it removes inhibitions from those deploying it. The powerful would-be perpetrators use blame to remove their brain’s natural inhibitions that are there to prevent people from behaving poorly toward others. Victim blaming helps build thought patterns that allow people to act in a way that their moral compass would normally prevent. Thus, in the case of Velvine, many justified her murder because she accompanied a married man to a hotel. She was after easy money. She was young. She was not rich. Several social media posts are captured below to illustrate this point.
So what do you want?. Men castrated?. Among those, https://t.co/vbxsZygL40 many are just false alligations?.https://t.co/fd7f2rN2Qe many of the girls had taken gifts from the men.https://t.co/rT0jWONK6p many of those were raped in lodgings and clubs?
— Arsbuc kitonyi (@ArsbucK) March 19, 2021
Greed is what is killing our sisters…..why would you want ro be with a total stranger.surely there are more than enough pple oround them for relationships
— patrick (@patrickbett174) March 21, 2021
These reasons prepare the groundwork to invalidate another woman and gives another man permission to violate her. In the process, the lowering of inhibitions that blame creates will allow more men to kill women.
In research on the phenomenon of victim blaming recently conducted by Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral associate in psychology at Harvard University, and Liane Young, a professor of psychology at Boston College. The researchers worked with 994 participants and was based on four separate studies. The two professors published their findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. One of the findings relevant to the Kenyan situation is quoted below and relates to the impact of moral values on victim blaming which helps in understanding the contrasting reactions to the rapes and murders of Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui and Jennifer Wambua.
“First, they noted that moral values play a large role in determining the likelihood that someone will engage in victim-blaming behaviors, such as rating the victim as “contaminated” rather than “injured,” and thus stigmatizing that person more for having been the victim of a crime. Niemi and Young identified two primary sets of moral values: binding values and individualizing values. While everyone has a mix of the two, people who exhibit stronger binding values tend to favor protecting a group or the interests of a team as a whole, whereas people who exhibit stronger individualizing values are more focused on fairness and preventing harm to an individual.”
People are always surprised when women join in the blame game. One Winnie Wadera caused uproar on social media when she blamed Velvine despite acknowledging that she herself was a victim of rape.
Yet it is widely acknowledged that for systems to work and to do the job they were designed to do, every part of society must play its part.
In this case patriarchy is the system that is being upheld by this form of victim blaming. And “it’s the woman’s fault” story must be sustained not only by those using it to evade responsibility, but must also be believed and defended by its victims. Thus, women blame themselves and blame other women for the violence they experience at the hands of men. Winnie Wadera posted:
“I know women are killed in hotel rooms and it is SO WRONG and are we ready to also start the conversation about “women stop following materials in those hotel rooms” or women are innocent and I should leave them alone?”
This ganging up on the victim turns the spotlight on the woman, leaving the perpetrator to go scot-free. The impact of victim blaming is that the victim is isolated and re-victimised by those she should count on for support. And for those women and girls Velvine left behind, the world becomes an even more dangerous place.
This article could not have been written without the help of Onyango Otieno a Gender Activist and Trauma Healing Counsellor who kindly shared his social media posts with me, Prof. Brett Shadle who kindly shared his research on traditional attitudes to rape in the courts of Gusiiland between the 1940s and the 1960s giving me relief and hope. Writing the article was also made possible by the rage of Kenyans at the murder of Jennifer Wambua and Velvine Nungari Kinyanjui.
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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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