It is now fairly well accepted in the public discourse outside Kikuyuland that the alcoholism and suicide rates among Kikuyu men are related to the soul pact which the Kikuyu community has signed since 1969 to keep the Kenyattas in power. It is a phenomenon that creates a lot of bitterness in the rest of the country, especially within the communities that have most recently suffered large-scale state violence, such as that witnessed in Kibra and Kisumu in 2017 during the protests against the disputed election of Uhuru Kenyatta.
The extremely slow realisation that the Kikuyu are becoming isolated from the rest of Kenya has started to produce a literature in which the Kikuyu are portrayed as having acknowledged the mistake they made in supporting Uhuru in 2017.
This narrative, however, still contains the supremacist blind spot which Kenyans complain about. The realisation of the mistake comes not from a deep regret about the loss of non-Kikuyu life, including the fact that some Kikuyu supporters of Jubilee cheered on the police massacres that largely targeted the Luo community. Rather, the regret comes from a bad business environment, implying that if business was doing well, all things remaining constant, there would be no problem with what happened in 2017. In other words, money is more valuable than non-Kikuyu life.
As one can imagine, this hubris makes many Kenyans livid. But unfortunately, it is not enough to say that the empathy the Kikuyu are seeking is still selfish and narrow-minded. Although it is. Rather, we must analyse how this hubris became entrenched among the Kikuyu, because the mechanisms which have made the Kikuyu collectively oblivious of the national sentiment are actually contained in the BBI which was recently deemed unconstitutional by the High Court.
Embedded in BBI was the disease that has led to the collective zombification and self-decimation of Kikuyu men, and which would have spread to the rest of Kenya. Ultimately, BBI was less about institutional change and more about a change in the collective Kenyan soul. BBI did not call for change in the status quo; rather, it sought a change in our attitude towards the status quo, an attitude that has already taken Kikuyu masculinity captive.
The culture of Uthamakistan
The unstated religion in Kikuyuland is that being a Kikuyu man is the best thing since sliced bread. This religion is reaffirmed at various gatherings (weddings, funerals, church services) where men are encouraged to affirm a manhood that is modelled on the local rich man who owns land and drives around in an SUV, and ultimately on Uhuru Kenyatta himself. This model of masculinity is a Kenyanification of the colonial white settler. In fact, had it not been for technology and independence, the alpha Kikuyu male would have a horse instead of a Prado, and would have called himself Sir Charles or Prince Andrew. I’ve been told that such men do exist in the exclusive clubs formerly frequented exclusively by colonial settlers, but the only one I’ve seen is former Attorney General Charles Njonjo.
The message in Kikuyu country is that there is no other alternative to manhood. In some ceremonies I have attended, even in church, this reification of what one would call Uthamaki masculinity is presented as a cultural obligation. Kikuyu men are told that other Kenyan ethnic groups are proud of their identity, but Kikuyus are ashamed of theirs, and so joining groups like the kiama kia ma is an obligation to not just the ethnic group, but to a pan-African identity as a whole. This narrative is not only widespread, but it is also comprehensive, because it covers property, education, culture, faith, gender and anti-colonialism, making it difficult for an ordinary man without a sufficient grasp of history and political education to resist it.
Inevitably, this model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status. So what are the options for such Kikuyu men who do not own property?
Alcohol and suicide. Alcohol to silence the voices in his head asking him to be what he cannot be, and because he can’t burn down the media houses, Jogoo House and the churches to shut those voices up. After all, the Uthamakistan message is that those institutions are “his” and if he can’t enter them, Muigai is doing so on his behalf. So he can’t fight the institutions that are “his”.
The other option is suicide in order to get out of the system altogether.
And this was the suffocation that Binyavanga Wainaina was fighting against. He was saying that the narrative of the straight pipeline which says “go to school, get a job or start a business” was “crap”. To illustrate, Binyavanga gave the example of someone with two masters’ degrees paying a 300,000 shillings bribe to get a job as a private in the Kenya Defence Forces. Throughout his life, Binyavanga called for a variety of stories and innovations to counter this single story that is strangling Kikuyu men, and ultimately all Kenyans.
This model of manhood excludes the majority of Kikuyu men who are without economic means and social status.
What Binyavanga was calling for was a fundamental reconsideration of what it meant to be human, and for an imagination of what a human Kenya would look like. The status quo responded viciously. Kwani?, the platform for his cultural action, was welcomed with hostility by the academy that called writers associated with him “literary gangsters”. In the end, Binyavanga spent his last days struggling to pick himself up as the legacy he had struggled to build began to decline.
Granted, Binyavanga had not reckoned with the ethnic dimension of what he was fighting against, and often wavered between supporting and opposing the government. But he was onto something, and the seed which he had planted needed the soil, water and sunlight of Kenya’s diversity and creativity to germinate.
And this is not to suggest that Binyavanga was the only one who had this seed. He probably got as far as he did because he was a Kikuyu man. In other areas of Kenya, such seeds never see the light. Culture and arts in Kenya have buckled under the weight of a claustrophobic public life that is hostile to any public gathering of Kenyans outside political rallies or the inevitable weddings, initiations and funerals. And BBI had proposed penetrating even those ceremonies by providing the syllabi to be used at initiations and the material to be used in marriage counselling.
And so the purpose of BBI was two-fold: to not only prevent different imaginations of what Kenya can be, of a Kenya that is not centred around the figure of the Kikuyu or white settler male who offers no innovation or social service, but to also suck in the rest of Kenya into this narrow, racist archetype of manhood. BBI sought to infiltrate faith, initiation ceremonies, schools, marriage, history and education to ensure that the seed of the propertied ruling class is planted in every mind in every corner of Kenya.
The Kenyatta head start
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not. The Kenyattas already dominate the cultural space and imagination of Kenya, and so the proposals in the BBI simply gave them a greater advantage than all the other Kenyan communities, ethnic or not. The Kenyatta name already brands the nation’s major conference centre, the national referral hospital, two universities, the largest international airport, a major street in the capital city and the largest public beach at the coast. The name of Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother, Mama Ngina, is now carried on the rebuilt waterfront which her son inaugurated on Mashujaa Day in 2019, a day which was renamed precisely for the opposite purpose, that of divorcing Kenya’s historical memory from its personification in the Kenyattas.
The Kenyattas even have the grave of their patriarch in the central business district, next to where the elected representatives make policy for the rest of Kenya. During the Uhuru presidency, laying a wreath at that grave is a protocol for foreign dignitaries visiting Kenya. Uhuru’s government also used a statue of the president’s father on Kenya’s new bank notes, circumventing the law that stipulates that a human portrait shall not be used. The cynical argument was that the image was of a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, rather than of Jomo Kenyatta himself.
The tragedy of the handshake was that the supporters of the initiative thought that the handshake was an equal partnership, when it was not.
The basic message is that Kenya’s national identity is synonymous with the Kenyattas, and is not to be shared with any heroes or historical milestones from the rest of Kenya. Other heroes can be commemorated in the 46 counties but not in Nairobi, which the BBI assigned a special status because of the foreign (read Euro-American) expatriates who live there. If Kenyans wanted to remember Mekatilili, for example, it would have to be done in Malindi and not in Nairobi.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has also sealed any loophole that might be present in the education sector by reducing education to vocational training for children, and by crushing the incentive to the study the arts and humanities by paying lecturers in this field less than lecturers in STEM. And if BBI were to pass, history and ethics would be dominated by the Kenyatta family, since the BBI proposed the position of an Official Historian in the Office of the President.
Basically, what BBI was doing was to shut down any options for Kenyans to imagine a Kenya whose imagination is not dominated by the Kenyattas. And since that model of manhood embodied by Uhuru was not accessible to the overwhelming majority of Kenyan men, BBI would have meant that alcoholism and suicide would have become the means of escape from this suffocation.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity, and has been waging war against any model of manhood which does not exude the aesthetics of a propertied Kikuyu landowner. The fear of Luo men, including of Raila, is not about initiation. It is a fear of a different manhood whose identity is not attached to state power used for massive and primitive accumulation, a manhood that is different from the colonial settler manhood on which Kenya was founded.
We must all tell our stories
The state’s determination to protect this Kikuyu (white) alpha male is relentless.
That is why the so-called fight for the boy child that was started in Kikuyuland by Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume was started as a war against women, rather than as a war against the white supremacist Kenyan masculinity. The so-called oppression of men does not deal with the fact that the majority of victims of extra-judicial killings are young men, right from the slums all the way to universities.
The same model of masculinity accounts for why any man whose political thinking is different from that of the state is vilified in Kenya as being uncircumcised, womanly, gay or insane. That is if they are not expelled on a plane, beaten or shot in the streets by the police. That would answer Gathara’s pondering “why some Kenyans seem to imagine that being called either a woman or a homosexual is an insult.”
And unfortunately, the Kenyan church became coopted into this corruption of Kenyan masculinity through embracing the “family values” of the American evangelical right. The church did not recognise that even as evangelicals talk of nuclear families, they have a separate narrative of black male pathology, because white supremacy does not consider black (or African) men capable of belonging to stable families. The narrative of black male pathology is necessary to explain why black people are poor and disenfranchised. The Kikuyu elite justify Uthamakism with a similar rhetoric, arguing that poor Kikuyu men are a social problem created by empowered women or the “girl child”.
Since Uhuru Kenyatta became president in 2013, the Kenyan state has been engaged in placing the Kenyatta family on the pedestal of manhood and humanity.
The way ahead is not to decide which family is a real family. It is to send a strong message to the state that it has no business dictating what is in our bedrooms, our homes, our cultural spaces and in our education. The BBI proposed to extend the tentacles of the Kenyan state into marriages, initiation ceremonies, ethnicity, art and history, so that the Kenyan state would be re-made in the image of the Kikuyu (white) alpha male.
The solution is to tell our stories, and to fight against the state being the only decision-maker about who tells stories and what stories we tell. Even the position of prime minister proposed by the BBI was a means of alienating people from telling their stories, because it sought to prevent citizens from having a direct say in politics.
It is also important that we do not hate disenfranchised and culturally miseducated Kikuyu men so much that we fail to see that it is precisely that model of citizenship and manhood that was being prepared for all Kenyans. We need to resist the efforts of state to dictate our stories. We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
And we must free our cultures and identities from the shackles of ethnicity. Since colonial rule, Kenyans have made the mistake of restricting culture to ethnicity, forgetting that culture also includes information, education, technology and art.
As Dan Ojwang explains, even Kenyan intellectuals have drowned in this medieval narrative of self-contained and rigid ethnic groups, and ironically in the name of fighting against the colonial project whose cultural model the intellectuals apply. Yet in history, Ojwang argues, there is ample evidence of hybridity even within ethnic groups before colonial rule. By contrast, BBI stuck to the ethnic lines drawn by colonialism, confining culture to ethnicity, and then bringing all other forms of cultural production under the direct control of the state.
We must fight for a Kenya that has space for all our stories, all our ceremonies, and all our histories.
But most of all, we need a new, deep Kenyan story, such as that of freedom, of a brave and proud people who defied oppression to assert our humanity. Mekatilili, Syokimau, Pio Gama Pinto, David Munyakei, Chelagat Mutai, Chris Msando, Onyango Oloo and Kioko Mang’eli are just a few of our heroes whose names should be on our buildings, in our awards and in our history books.
To call for a diversity of human accomplishment must not be reduced to facilitating women and non-Kikuyus to compete for the narrow definition of masculinity embodied in the colonial state and in the Kenyattas.
If that model of manhood is already proving to be deadly for the men from the president’s backyard, and for the women who innocently love them, how much more deadly would it be for the rest of Kenya?
Rest in oblivion, BBI. We rejoice at your demise.
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Cosmopolitan Africans, Before Imperialism
Africa’s engagement with the world before European colonialism holds unexpected episodes of un-colonial power relations.
Colonialism structures how we think about the history of Africa’s relations with the world. This is often true even among those who protest reductionist understandings of the continent. The flawed assumptions that oppression was inevitable and power dynamics were invariable between people from both continents loom large in the popular imagination. Subordination can be taken as a timeless norm that explains, in turn, slavery, oppression, and racial injustice in the Americas, Europe, and further afield.
Audre Lorde presciently noted that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” One consequence of that deficit is how hard it can be to imagine a time when people of African descent related to the wider—and whiter—world in very different ways than we have come to expect in the modern era. Has it always been so? Have Africa’s encounters with the world always followed the rhythm of domination and dispossession? It is important to find out.
Psychologists have found that the region of the brain that activates when we think about the past is the same part that lights up in relation to envisioning the future. They found that subjects “place their future scenarios in well-known visual-spatial contexts,” suggesting that the past is the imaginative landscape upon which we situate the future in our minds. Histories that do not conform to the current pattern of relating can serve as the substrate upon which new and more promising futures can be envisioned and designed.
By overlooking what Howard Zinn called “the past’s fugitive moments”—that is, histories that suggest possibilities other than the world we have come to inherit—we consign ourselves to a future that reenacts a limited sense of the past. Moreover, the dangers of presentism, of our propensity to interpret the past through the lens of the present, are well known to historians. Without an awareness of anachronistic assumptions, there can be a sense that how things are now is also how things always have been and, as a consequence, how things always will be. But what if the present is markedly different from the past and, therefore, the future might be very different from the present?
We know that the people and nation-states of the continent have been diverse and variable over time. It makes little sense, therefore, to speak of them in the singular. We also know Africans, like other humans, have been thinking and acting in ways that gestured at belonging to an international human community long before the colonial occupation. We know, too, that these international relations, for lack of a better word, were embedded into everyday realities of African elites, traders, and ordinary people.
Take, for example, the Kingdom of the Kongo: a sovereign, Kikongo-speaking nation-state that spanned modern-day northern Angola, western Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and southern parts of Gabon. In the Kongolese kingdom, Catholicism became an established religion on its way to domestication early in the sixteenth century—not by conquest or force, as historian John Thornton notes in The Kongolese Saint Anthony, but through voluntary conversion, most notably of King Nzinga a Nkuwu, baptized João I of Kongo in 1491, and his son King Mvemba a Nzinga, also known as Afonso I.
While Italian missionaries from a Franciscan order of European monks, the Capuchin, are often credited, incorrectly, for the spread of Catholicism in the Kongo, it was the kingdom’s elites, particularly Afonso I, who did the most to seed and domesticate the religion. According to Thornton, they saw it as a source of diplomatic power.
It was clear early on that the exercise of this power would not be easy, and it was the Capuchins who made it especially difficult for Kongo’s rulers: Thornton notes that from the time of Alfonso I and for much of the next century, the kingdom’s rulers faced intransigence on the part of both the Capuchins and the Portuguese, who controlled the colony of Angola to the south, when they tried to appoint clergy, control bishops, and establish an independent church—the latter turning out to be an aspiration never realized before the kingdom’s end.
That is to say, had Kongo’s rulers had their way, the kingdom would have been more thoroughly—and, most of all, autonomously—Catholic. This cuts against the commonly held view of Christianity as the intellectual justification for European’s civilizing mission across the continent. Christianity certainly did serve the colonial project in this way at certain times and in parts of the continent, lowering indigenous spiritual practices and beliefs to the status of heathenism that had to be stamped out.
But the reasons for Kongo’s rulers’ full-throated embrace of Catholicism was—and it bears repeating—to access the religion’s diplomatic power. They understood the threat of the Portuguese to the south, more so after fending off a series of invasion attempts early in the seventeenth century.
Historian Linda Heywood argues that the Kingdom of the Kongo mastered “European-style diplomacy” to “ensure that Kongo be regarded as a Christian power with the same status as European powers.” Having established an embassy in Rome as early as 1488 and a resident ambassador in Lisbon in the 1530s, a few Kongolese elites studied in European capitals, mastering languages that facilitated the deepening of diplomatic ties. Alongside economic and political power, participation in the Christian commonwealth granted Kongolese elites access to cosmopolitan lifestyles that seldom draw attention.
Another important instance that complicates received knowledge of colonialism as inevitable is the kingdom of the Asante, in modern-day Ghana, which ruled at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Asante had longstanding trade and diplomatic relations with European states. Today, along Ghana’s Atlantic coast, there remain a few dozen forts, castles, and other outposts—some of them, like in Elmina and the Cape Coast, in excellent condition—that are perfectly rendered examples of late medieval European architectural technology.
Visitors often take these fortifications to be symbols of European conquest. But in reality, they were meant to secure access to the Asante Kingdom and, if possible, prevent other European countries from doing so. That different states built forts in that part of West Africa attests to the importance of the trade and the political power of the local authorities that determined who could trade there and under what terms.
The Asante at the time were wealthy, trading in commodities such as gold, ivory, and enslaved people by sea and by land. This wealth was won and preserved through military might, of course, but it was furthered by a masterful foreign policy that exploited the needs of European visitors.
Art historian Fiona Sheales records one such performance by Asante King Osei Tutu Asibey Bonsu on September 7th, 1817, the day the first Anglo-Asante trade treaty was ratified. According to British records, on that day, the Asantehene, or Asante king, appeared wrapped in a cloth perhaps not dissimilar to the style of kente cloth—but made of flags of European nations sewn together.
Flags played a key role in trade and diplomacy for Asante and European alike. But whereas the latter presented flags to the former in the hopes it would lead to formal diplomatic relations, the former displayed flags for the latter, as the Asantehene did that day, to demonstrate the breadth and reach of the Asante kingdom. The Asante king, explains Sheales, was aware of and not above playing up European competition for access to trade and other ties to the Asante.
It is difficult for many today to imagine the respect that African political authority commanded in the first half of the nineteenth century. The period of conflict that followed, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas, amplified by competition for access to trade with the kingdom, makes imagining this even more difficult. But imagine it we must.
These moments in the two kingdoms offer glimpses into how Africans understood their relationship to the wider world, as sovereigns and actors, and the other possible futures they anticipated at that time. These paths are still worth imagining, despite the actual future that ultimately unfolded. Through spirituality and trade, in these particular instances, Africans were relevant players in a shared global imaginary. The notions of belonging, in effect, were rooted in a spatial imagination—of both the inner and outer worlds—that reflected dynamic, transregional networks. Importantly, their rhythm of relating was out of step with the familiar tempo of oppression. These moments gesture toward relations that could be called un-colonial.
History, of course, should not be read only to glean lessons for the present. But it certainly can help make more sense of contemporary struggles. The past’s fugitive moments in particular offer a revitalizing challenge to the linearity with which we often understand, and limit, what is possible.
From Plastics to Plasticity
The 2017 ban on plastic carrier bags represent a significant first step towards alleviating the problem of plastic pollution but developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is the key.
In Dustin Hoffman’s breakout 1967 film, The Graduate, a young man just out of college is not sure of what he is supposed to do next. At the party thrown by his parents, one of his father’s friends steers him away from the crowd:
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you.”
“Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
Investment in the plastic industry surged during the decades following the movie’s release. But the film also fast-tracked the rise of our collective environmental consciousness. “There’s a great future in plastics” became a meme for the toxicity of modern industrial society. A year after the movie came out, a river in the industrial heartland of Ohio caught fire and burned for seventeen days. Increasingly visible halos of dull brown smog were enveloping large cities.
For many of us who were coming of age at the time, this scene was permanently burnt into our brains. I took up residence in a plastic-free Kenya. When I returned to the US two years later, I found the coconuts in our supermarket wrapped in cling wrap.
If plastics were the future, this did not augur well for the health of the planet.
Conquering the marketplace
It had taken the industry just over a century following the invention of Parkesine in 1862, which was actually made out of cellulose, to reach this point. Improvements came quickly, driven by the development of oil-based polymers generated by the cracking process in petroleum refineries. For the first time, humans were using materials containing no molecules found in nature.
This led to a procession of new products, the food industry often playing the role of early adopter. Butchers and bakers started using cello-tape after its invention in 1930. Saran wrap followed a few years later. Tupperware, the first airtight plastic food containers, showed up twelve years after that, and was one of the first brands to be marketed directly through housewives. The 1960s saw baggies and zip-locks become part of the plastic lunch box syndrome.
These products, long valued for their convenience more than for their contribution to reducing food waste, were recognized as part of a yet greater problem by the time large garbage bags appeared in 1970 to deal with the proliferation of disposable wraps, containers, bottles, and other forms of food packaging. The unrelenting march of synthetic polymers now dwarfs any environmental benefits, like the fuel consumption savings attributable to lighter cars and reduced food waste.
Another problem emerged in tandem with these developments: as the scale and variety of the plastic packaging increased, the quality and integrity of the food it enclosed decreased. Even the acacia and other tree resins originally chewed by pastoralists and other indigenous people, which confer significant cardio-vascular benefits, have been replaced by synthetics made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate.
Not what it’s cracked up to be?
Plastic is a primary component of the carbon economy. Although in theory “renewable”, some 95 per cent of the plastics manufactured are used once, and one-third of this volume by-passes garbage collection and directly enters the environment; 8 million tonnes that leak into the ocean each year. The negative value of the waste exceeds the plastic industry’s profits.
Plastics enter our ecosystems as hard-to-break down refuse that deteriorates over time into tiny particles of micro-plastics. Old plastic does not die, it just fades from view, then ends up in our water supply, ecosystems, and bodies, which host between 40 million and 70 million particles of polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene per person according to recent surveys. Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs. This compromises our bodies’ inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, nutrient absorption, gut microbiome, endocrine function, and reproduction.
Despite the growth and scope of the recycling industry, only 14 per cent of plastic is recycled, and only 2 per cent of that actually gets reused. Incineration, which now consumes 25 per cent of plastic refuse generated, only kicks the can down the road, creating the same kind of toxic fumes and carcinogens funnelled into the atmosphere by the smokestacks of industries and coal plants.
Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs.
Expensive pink Himalayan Salt is showing up on our supermarket shelves because plastic is now found in sea salt. There is no escape, only mitigation measures such as those proposed in the MacArthur Foundation study, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. The report outlines a comprehensive strategy predicated on thinking about plastics as a global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Briefly stated, it advocates the creation ““of an effective after-use plastics economy by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradation for targeted applications”.
As is usually the case in such top-down master plans, the strategy is considerably more complicated than it sounds, and it involves many moving parts.
The reformed plastics economy will require a combination of new technologies, government policy, reduced exposure to volatility of fossil “feedstock”, and investment in developing countries’ after-use infrastructure. Implementation is predicated on exploiting negative public perceptions to engage policymakers and to coordinate and drive communication with the objective of establishing a global plastics protocol—the actual key to the solution lies in the development of large-scale “moonshot” innovations.
This approach provides an entry point into the Kenya case study.
Kenya’s plastics industry
Use of plastic in Kenya’s food sector was rare in the decades after independence. When I first came to Kenya in 1974, food was purchased fresh in the market or small shops, where we bought Omo in paper boxes and items like sugar wrapped up in paper. We drank soft drinks out of glass bottles, carried baskets, and used reusable vessels for liquids like kerosene and cooking oil.
The Tetra Pack milk carton was the most common form of commercial packaging. Everyone held onto heavy plastic bags for their repeated use value. For those of us inoculated with the “future is plastic” meme, it seemed that with a modicum of awareness and environmental education, Kenya could avoid the plastic waste debacle.
It was not to be. The unsightly presence of non-degradable refuse increased the general accumulation of trash across the landscape, while economic change was altering the relative pristine appearance of the Kenyan landscape. The plains and savannah of eastern Nairobi, where one used to see wildebeest, ostrich, and giraffe just beyond the outskirts of town, gave way to new industries and population growth. The detritus accompanying the shift showed up in the corners and gutters of towns, on coastal beaches, and as drifting dunes of trash lining the country’s highways.
I recall the sight of what appeared to be a post-rainy season bloom of multi-coloured flowers covering an open plain on the approach to Nairobi after passing Athi River. Upon closer view, it turned out to be a carpet of plastic bags bobbing in the wind.
Production of plastics and related products is now a US$400 million dollar industry in Kenya. Some fifty companies are involved in plastic manufacturing, and many other players are profiting from the importation and distribution of plastic products. Much of this goes into the packaging of food and various containers and wraps for keeping it fresh. Food-related packaging accounts for 27 per cent of global plastic output, and the shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.
The public sector’s limited capacity to deal with the waste mirrored the population’s apathy. Roadside kiosks housed in plastic Coca-Cola bottles reflected Kenyans’ passive acceptance of commercial uglification. But their appearance also coincided with a turning point in perceptions of Kenya’s environmental future.
To stem the accumulation of plastic waste, Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) banned the use of plastic carrier bags in 2017. Industrial advocates had fought the proposed ban for ten years, claiming it would eliminate 60,000 jobs. In the end, Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu prevailed. The new law came with heavy fines ranging from US$40,000 for commercial violators to US$500 for individual users.
The shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.
After a spate of early arrests, enforcement settled into a far-reaching pattern of voluntary compliance. The action immediately generated widespread publicity, leapfrogging Kenya to the front of the global environmental movement. Shortly after the ban went into effect, I was preparing to disembark from a Nairobi bound international flight when tourists castigated me for carrying a duty-free shopping bag. “Kenya is a plastic-free country,” the first-time arrivals informed me.
The ban did represent a significant first step towards alleviating the larger problem, and the government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021. The initiative brings together local governments, researchers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, businesses and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, informal waste management actors, and other stakeholders in the plastics value chain.
The goal is to develop a circular economy for plastics by 2030 in Kenya, but it is difficult to see signs of substantive progress. Although economic liberalization contributed to the plasticization of the countryside, there is still no market-based solution in sight. In the meantime, the reformed plastics economy envisioned in the MacArthur-WEF report has yet to halt the expanding polymer-sphere enveloping the planet.
Like global warming, plastics are an inconvenient by-product of industrial capitalism. Big Plastic exploits recycling and initiatives like the new plastics economy to camouflage the real source of the problem, and to transfer responsibility for fixing it to consumers and governments.
The government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021.
The technological moonshot solution reflects the same kind of big project mentality that has dominated development economics for decades. But polymer-eating bacteria are not going to rescue the global commons, at least not in the foreseeable future. When exported to the developing world, this approach suffers from the usual combination of mismanagement, poor coordination, inequitable allocation of scarce resources, and the chimerical influence of external factors.
Externally funded after-use infrastructure for plastics is not going to sort out the plastics problem in the Global South. In reality, the major battles in this war will be fought upstream. Downstream countries like Kenya can, however, exploit their comparative advantage in regard to their capacity for socioeconomic and cultural plasticity.
From plastic to plasticity
The Greek word plastikos means to mould. Plasticity, in contrast, refers to the quality of being easily shaped or moulded. This first definition pertains to the world of material science and chemistry. The second definition of plasticity, rooted in biology and evolutionary analysis, highlights the ability of an organism or a species to use new food sources and to adapt itself to new environmental influences. This extends to our body’s ability to repair itself and the brain’s capacity to rewire itself after injury and trauma. Biomedical progress in this domain has led to validation of other plasticity-enhancing practices, like the role of unstructured play for children, and meditation for adults.
This kind of developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is arguably the key to uncracking the future. Kenya already enjoys several advantages in regard to this objective. It retains a significant level of its pre-plastic circular economy, high-plastic household consumption is mainly limited to urban areas, and most Kenyans already have a high level of awareness on environmental issues as demonstrated by voluntary compliance with the plastic bag embargo.
Naturally, the state will have to play an interstitial role, including participating in national and global-scale initiatives, and by using its regulatory levers to encourage environmentally friendly packaging standards pioneered elsewhere. In any event, the growing mass of multiple-use plastic would still have to be collected and processed.
The problem here is that even after far-reaching constitutional reforms, the state and the governing elite tend to be plastic when it comes to dealing with entrenched interests. The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP. Kenyan society has proven to be quite elastic in comparison.
Processed food packaging and bottled water are the primary sources of plastic waste in Kenya. Urban consumers can help by following the lead of rural Kenyans, by seeking out fresh produce in local markets, and by avoiding those seductively packaged supermarket non-essentials. The rise of small dairies offering milk in glass bottles is a positive trend we all can support.
The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP.
When the need for mobile phone credit arose, thousands of kiosks and shops offering scratch cards appeared overnight. It follows that a similar arrangement involving micro water vendors selling it at a lower price to customers with their own containers could work as well.
When it comes to fostering creative problem-solving across Kenya’s system scales, the process often begins on the lower rungs. The Lamu boatbuilders who captured the world’s imagination by sailing a boat made out of plastic bottles and flip-flops to Zanzibar is a case in point. The counties could build on this awareness-raising event by establishing waste plastic-free zones, and low-plastic areas like the Lamu archipelago and the northern rangelands would be good places to start. Rural producers can make their own Parkesine.
A popular movement based on small-scale solutions would build upon Kenya’s international reputation for adaptive environmental management. Over time, it would exert a multiplier effect across tourism, health, agriculture, and other sectors, outpacing the value of top-down industrial interventions.
The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Sin and the Silence
In the second of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the work of anthropologist Frank Knowles Girling whose research—now published in Lawino’s People— was buried by Oxford University and whose prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true.
In the decade since a group of survivors from the British war against decolonisation in Kenya pried open the culture of concealment undergirding post-imperial Britain, revelations of torture and massacres by the British have become routine.
The Mau Mau court hearings, which started in 2009 and ended in 2013, uncovered the lengths to which the British went to conceal their acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Incriminating documents were burnt and shredded, or airlifted to England and, in a James Bondesque drama, tonnes of files were sunk into the Indian Ocean.
“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” reads a letter from colonial-era Kenyan Attorney General Eric Griffith Jones to the Kenya Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring.
Since the Mau Mau court victory, unearthing the depth of Britain’s slavery and colonialism has continued apace. Statues of slave traders have come down, sitting lords of the British parliament have been directly linked to slave plantations, and documentation shows that as recently as 2015, the Bank of England continued to compensate families of slave traders and owners who “lost” their “property” two centuries after the trade was formally abolished.
This book, Lawino’s People, has comes hot on the heels of this historical moment.
A white anti-colonialist
Black people fought against colonisation and continue to suffer inordinately for doing so, but the fact that a great number of white people were also anti-colonialists has become submerged in the racializing of the narrative. While we know a great deal of what happened to dark-skinned anti-colonialists, we know almost nothing of the ways in which white anti-colonialists were treated.
The penalties they suffered were comparatively less severe as indeed their brand of anti-colonialism did not amount to the self-sacrifice of a Dedan Kimathi. Social ostracism and isolation, truncated careers, failure to find tenure should they be academics, and accusations of being communists were the common ways in which dissenters within the ranks were treated.
Frank Knowles Girling was one such. But when he arrived in the field where his troubles started, he was not as yet a card-carrying anti-colonialist. Granted, he had joined the Communist Party in 1935 at the age of 18, but there is a distance between being a communist and being an anti-colonialist.
Girling arrived in colonial Acholi in northern Uganda as one of the first grantees of the British Social Studies Research Council fund. He came as an anthropology DPhil student, a study that was to run for two years. Obtained on a government grant, the results were also intended to inform colonial policy.
As presented here, Girling’s thesis begins by ticking the requisite anthropology boxes and, had he continued in this vein, his star would indeed have risen high. Girling gives us outlines of the people, their location, their language, their religious beliefs, the economy, the politics, their relationships with neighbours and their place in the modern world.
Girling writes persuasively for the most part, his prose occasionally rising to a level where it describes the larakaraka dance as “held in the girl’s villages on bright moonlight nights”.
Girling’s descriptions of Acholi life from infancy to old age show how interwoven culture is—at once spiritual, communal, economic, and political. Setting out a new agricultural season will ask of the priest a blessing; knowledge of what to plant, when to plant it will be connected to, say, one’s station in life. A newly married bride will come with seeds from her family for planting, and this forms the basis of what her family will be fed during her lifetime, as indeed it will be for her progeny when her own daughter leaves for her marital home.
But the arrival of colonialism, which in force is not actually “western” culture, but a brand of post-enlightenment capitalist bourgeoisie exigency, breaks this interwoven character of culture, as it has done everywhere, bleeding out the vitality of society, like so much rubber sap out of a tree stem, to feed into the maws of industrial capitalism.
The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless. In working on my own book on the Ateker of eastern Africa, I met this repeatedly, and it crops up in any piece of culture that you pick. Take what is referred to as bride price. The common, derogatory, view is that it is “buying” a woman. Far from that, it is the intertwining of one large family unit to another, as the number of animals that change hands frequently goes to different members on the other side. In slaughtering a bull, a set part of the butchery went to set recipients, someone received the haunches, the offal, the trotters, depending on their position in the communal ranks; the members of the prevailing generation had first right of refusal, as it were. No one ate or drank before they did.
The Acholi we see through Girling’s eyes are characterised by that classical formality found in all African cultures, which runs counter to the racist casting of Africans as baseless.
A first pregnancy and a first birth transform the station in life of a bride; married, her own mother becomes a most revered personality in the society. There is a place for the patriarch; here in Acholi, he is “won lobo”, an untranslatable designation acknowledging his stewardship of the land. Primogeniture presides alongside ultimogeniture; the youngest son inherits the father’s house, and remains to become keeper of the homestead as his older siblings move to new homes.
Dictatorship is un-African
The texture percolates upwards and outwards and via this, power becomes immanent to the social. Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa. Rather, the office that the African president occupies is the same as that of the colonial governor who, we must remember, was never voted into office; when the African state collapsed, it was not Africanness that was the cause, but the colonial structure coming down with the departure of its creators.
Translating this reality of power is hard, even for a Girling. He calls Acholi leaders “rulers”, he describes what he calls “aristocracy” and “chief”. In systems where actions were sharply ritualised, and power was largely invisible and was transmitted via subtle social relationships, what does it mean that there is a “ruler”?
Nothing in what Girling writes describes the post-independence tyranny falsely associated with Africa.
The keenness with which Girling is working is high engagement. He picks a word, like Kwer (emphasising that it is not be confused with ker, although he takes license further by conflating it with kweri). But does Kwer mean rite, observance, ritual or forbiddance? And of Ker, is it glory, monarchy, or achievement? Kweri is a hoe, but does that mean iron was involved in rite? We have to ask because translation is superfluous and so much gets traduced along the way. If you speak a Luo language, you will appreciate the lengths to which Girling went to avoid such mistakes.
Tone-deaf to Acholi music
And yet, this is still colonial anthropology. Even in the hands of a scholar as careful as Girling, the African is still objectified. Nowhere in the book is the African presented as possessor of agency.
His study might not be musicology but Girling does not bring to the fore the life force that is Acholi music. He is either keeping it to himself or he really is tone-deaf. The side of Acholi that emerges in his writing is all structure and power, and observance. Girling does not portray the delicate creativity of the Acholi that even their sworn enemies acknowledge.
Or was this omission a direct result of the funding rug being pulled from under his feet?
The path to Girling’s troubles begins before the first year is done. He opens his presentation with attention to the wider cultural patina but, alas, all that is the history, even in 1950. Eventually he must account for the present and there, the hands of British viciousness cannot be hidden. For Girling has arrived a half century after the first colonial administrator to Acholi, John Rutherford Parkins Postlethwaite (the Acholi dispensed with this caravan-length of a name and simply called him Bwana Gweno—”Sir Chicken”) has struck a disabling blow against the people.
What Girling saw
Unlike most anthropologists, Girling records the havoc colonialism has wreaked upon the people. He shows us how the prerogatives of bourgeois capitalism have ransacked the society beyond recognition. The seminal crime of forcibly moving the people from their ancestral lands implemented by Postlethwaite has broken the economy. Those intricately woven power connections have long come undone. “Native” economy, inheritance, the power of clans and “lineages”, did not survive. Plantation agriculture in the south came for the people’s souls. The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems; in disproportionate numbers, the Acholi, like their neighbours the Lango and Teso, are fed into the armed forces.
In the place of the “native” culture, there is a new culture in the lands, for what the coloniser brought was not civilisation but his own culture. To gain perspective, we must cease to see colonially mediated “western culture” as a universal spirit; it was somebody’s peculiar culture, horned in experience, shaped to promote their self-interest. And here it comes as forced labour, slavery, exploitation and racial prejudice. For it to qualify as civilisation, it would have had to be universal and colour-blind. But it only worked for a specific class and race so that as the Asians and Europeans thrive, the black people become more destitute and dispossessed. It was their lifeblood these non-Africans came for.
For this exploitation to work, the religious, economic and political system of the Acholi is torn apart. The precolonial leadership structure is upended. The unqualified and the unaccepted (collaborators) are put in their place. Everywhere the British approach was to impose unacceptable leaders, and then sit and watch the natives fight amongst themselves.
The job of forcing Africans to work against their will required a coercive military, police and prison systems.
To further poison the well, they brought southerners and southern ideas to rule the people. In Karamoja, I came across the neologism “Ekatikiroit”, describing the British attempt at imposing Ganda systems on the people and creating the office of “Katikiro” (Buganda office, generally but not always accurately translated as “Prime Minister”).
The disaster was compounded by Christian Missionaries who formed what have been referred to as “Missionary Villages” where converts were bivouacked in a kind of imprisonment and forcibly stopped from practicing their culture.
The publishers mention that their intention in bringing this book out is to provide a historical context for the thirty-year war in northern Uganda. If you know these parts of the region, you immediately recognise that the land alienation, in combination with the stoppage of what is here called leadership lineages, left the society headless (a respondent bitterly asks why the British left intact southern systems but destroyed the Acholi). Brutal economic exploitation (the “half-free” labour Girling euphemistically refers to without elaboration) stole from unborn Africans as African men now laboured for the profits of Europeans and Asians. The toil of Africans did not add up to savings and wealth creation they could pass on to their children whilst the European and Asian recipient of this labour had more than they would have dreamt of to pass to their own children.
Not just savings, but also trade and craftsmanship/industry knowledge. The Acholi (a case study for all of Africa really) lost skills accumulated over millennia because labour for African profit was largely proscribed, so that metallurgical knowledge was no longer transferred.
A comparable disaster I became familiar with is the manner in which colonial policy amongst pastoralists led to loss of pasturage (to wildlife conservation, among others). The subsequent loss of animals meant that the generational passing of political power, whose elaborate and expensive ceremonies depended on livestock availability, led to the collapse of political power. Where post-independence conflict flared up, the destruction of clear leadership was often at the centre. We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.
The Kony war was Acholi’s inevitable moment of reckoning. Others had theirs earlier, like the Kikuyu during Mau Mau. It came to pass in Somalia, in Turkana, Pokot, Toposa and Karamoja.
A man on a mission
The section of Girling’s work that begins to break away from social anthropology, which he found anodyne, starts to ignite when he turns attention to “domains” in chapter six. Outside of the book, we are told that Girling started to compile statistics, which was alien to the discipline. His Marxist bent was starting to kick in.
Although Girling does not mention any of the excesses of British colonialism, such as the genocide in Bunyoro, despite having to study Bunyoro because of its links with Acholi, we sense that he has become self-aware. Girling knows that he has been sent to Acholi, not to write lyrical prose to his observation, but to provide raw material to tighten their bondage even more. Girling’s immediate act of dissent is to disrupt his own scope and methodology. He adopts a research method that would link economic policy (land alienation and forced labour) to the superstructures of colonial rule. This runs counter to imperial propaganda.
The first powers to notice this errant turn in tone are his academic supervisors. But Girling’s actions also alert the colonial administrators. For example, he invites a friend from Cambridge, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, a statistician, to Acholi. He goes with Mukherjee to the golf clubhouse. The club is only for white people, a place, one member is quoted as saying, “where we can get away for a time from our coloured brothers”. Girling’s examination of the Europeans, the Asians and their enterprise in Acholi makes for uncomfortable reading. What’s he up to? He has come to study the Acholi, not the British, right?
They may have paid him to gaze at the Africans, but they did not like being gazed at at all.
Reports start to circulate that Girling has gone native. His communist membership now comes up. He is accused of rousing anti-British feelings among the natives. Fault is found with his dissertation. He can do nothing right anymore. He brings his wife and children over to Gulu. It is used as a pretext to accuse him of over-expenditure. The matter of Girling is now serious enough that MI5 is suspected to have been informed; Moneypenny and Bond are after him.
It is 1951, a year before his study is to come to an end. But Girling has already become toxic. His supervisor at Oxford, Evans-Pritchard (the same professor who later fails Okot p’Bitek’s dissertation), says he can no longer supervise him and hands him over to one Audrey Richards, first director of what in our times became Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR, a problem institute where six decades later, another director was to get caught in the crosshairs over activist Stella Nyanzi and President Museveni). They are now playing pass the parcel.
We casually say that the young no longer listen to the elders, but for gerontocracies, this is a deadly truth.
In sections of his report that were censored and would not be seen publicly until the publication of this book, Girling had stated that British policy had destroyed Acholi society. His talk of “an all powerful British administration” and immediate connection of it to the introduction of wage labour and fixed taxes (tied to his idea of “half-free” labour) and the stinging rejoinder in Marxian vein that “These two aspects cannot be considered separately; they are intimately connected”, strikes at the very core of imperialism. It would not require an academic mind to see it. He describes European and British presence in the region as one of leisure, golfing, laying by the swimming pool, occasionally taking bribes from the Indian traders in the town. Inter-dining is common, he states. Given the post-war shortages, these colonial outposts are vitally luxurious.
The Ugandan and, indeed, Acholi regional colonial administrators cut Girling’s study off with one year to go. His stipend is only maintained until he can finish writing what he has gathered thus far (we imagine from negotiation with his academic supervisors who would have seen merit in his work but not wanted to risk their own positions).
A haunted man
Girling suffers. He found no permanent anthropological position at any university, settling instead at Sheffield University teaching his politically engaged version of anthropology at the Sociological department. But his work was to lead to a nearly buried life. There was the mark of censorship, and his reputation as a political troublemaker, that meant doors remained closed to him. In later life, Girling watches from a distance as the analysis he made of British policy in Acholi bears factually in the Kony war. Girling died in 2004.
That his prediction of the impact of British rule in Acholi came all too true should tell us much about the intentions of universities such as Oxford, which conspired in burying his work. Girling went for the truth when what was required of him was a political version of it to not only shield Her Majesty’s government, but also to present it in a good light, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
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