A 1968 photo of Jomo Kenyatta wearing a sombrero and grinning from ear to ear as he receives Kenya’s Olympic contingent from Mexico speaks volumes about what the Olympics meant for Kenya five years into independence.
Kenya’s third Olympic outing, its second since independence, had returned an impressive nine-medal haul, demonstrating that not only were Kenyans equal to the world’s sporting scene but they were also highly competitive. The lessons from 1968 are still valid and valuable for rugby, a recent entrant into the Olympic family.
In colonial Kenya, the 12,000-capacity African Stadium on Donholm Road, as Jogoo Road was then known, would often be packed out during athletics and football meets. Other than beerhalls, supplied generously by the colonial government, and social halls, there were few options for an African looking for weekend entertainment. To the north of the city, Asians played racquet sports as well as hockey and cricket, while to the west, in the European part of Nairobi, whites played bowls, golf and raced horses.
In the strange relationship where Europe had awarded itself conservatorship over Africa, everything was divided by race. Kenya’s colonial commentator, Elspeth Huxley, described a further hierarchy in Nairobi’s settler social scene; the well-to-do and Nairobi’s senior government officials went to the Nairobi Club and Muthaiga Club while the working class, civil servants, train drivers and farm managers, enjoyed a lower level of social and sporting life. Perhaps because of its nature, rugby — a game that required few inputs: boots, stockings, shorts, a shirt, quorum and a spirit of adventure — fell into the working class level of colonial life at the Parklands Sports Club, the Railway Club and the Civil Service Sports Club.
Once it got going, the Rugby Football Union-Kenya was quick to make a reputation for itself. Founded in 1921, the union lay dormant “due to a lack of enthusiasm and support”, wrote a 1929 account of Kenya’s rugby history, until 1923 when a meeting of players at the Stanley Hotel kicked the union into action. Chaired by a Reverend Orr, the meeting had started out to form one playing club but voted instead to split Nairobi into two clubs. Within a decade, local competition grew to eleven playing clubs in towns along the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu and its branch lines, and on the East African coastline.
As is still the case today, competition revolved around the Enterprise Cup, a trophy gifted by a visiting team from the HMS Enterprise. The ship had arrived at the port of Mombasa to provide naval security during the visit of Britain’s Prince of Wales to the colony in 1928. Led by the ship’s chaplain, Harold Stevens, a boxing and rugby team had toured the colony, going along the coast and following the railway. The Enterprise Cup, a handsome trophy, kept local competition buzzing, and teams visiting the colony would follow the path beaten by the HMS Enterprise’s sporting party.
Strategically situated between the UK and South Africa, East Africa made a convenient stopover for visitors arriving by ship, and when flying became increasingly more common than sea travel, Nairobi replaced Mombasa, an equally convenient stopover between North and South.
Of greater importance was the Kenyan rugby experience. Landing at Mombasa or Nairobi, visiting teams were whisked around the country by rail, or in shared cars on Kenya’s unpredictable roads, staying in billeted accommodation, the tour party split up into the homes of hosts. A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.
Rugby visitors kept coming: the Combined South African Universities, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, and a combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities team. In 1954, the RFU-K became the Rugby Football Union of East Africa, a strategic move that concentrated its efforts on building its own grounds on Ngong Road, administering representative matches, and running its beloved Enterprise Cup. The results were soon evident as well-known visitors turned up: Richmond RFC, a combined UK and Pretoria Harlequins tour, the British Lions, South Africa, the Barbarians and Wales.
A strongly contested game, won by the visitors, would be followed by a rip-roaring post-match party, providing the ingredients for many, many happy memories.
Around the same time as the RFU-K was restructuring into the RFUEA in 1954, Kenyan political activity escalated with the Mau Mau’s aggressive attacks targeting mainly African agents of colonialism, and political and labour union agitation restricted by the government to district level. Together with international pressure from within Africa, and voices of reason within Britain, the British government changed its outlook on its colonies. By 1961, social pressure had reached Kenya’s rugby community.
In 1961 Kevin O’Byrne, East African scrum half and teacher at the multi-racial Strathmore School, raised a side that impressively drew 12-12 with Kenya Harlequin’s second team, its “A XV”. In the same year Strathmore played Kagumo Teachers College, a national college for African teachers in Nyeri, in a curtain raiser match for the Nairobi District Championship, losing to Kagumo by 11 points to 3 “in promising style” according an article in the East African Standard. While Strathmore had prepared by playing against the Royal Technical College, which would later become the University of Nairobi, Kagumo had played matches against Njiri’s High school at Fort Hall, now Murang’a, coached by R. Hughes, and the United Services Second XV side at Eastleigh. Strathmore, Kagumo and the RTC later came under the ambit of the Eric Shirley Shield, an “A XV” competition, and soon after, an African Nyeri XV played “A XV” matches as Nyeri settler players retreated up the road to Nanyuki RFC.
It was through a different route that African rugby gained traction; from within former European secondary schools which opened their doors to Africans while maintaining the higher school fees that kept the majority of Africans out after Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Young school leavers would be welcomed into European rugby clubs, often by their sports teachers who played at the clubs, and in the following years, Ted Kabetu, John Muhato and Chris Onsotti were playing representative rugby against visiting teams.
As African participation increased, the often-asked question was how fair the selection for local and representative sides was. The years between 1976 and 1980 were the time of rugby’s “Africanisation”, as the major barriers to equal participation were challenged.
Miro RFC was the first African call for a representative side. Miro, the slang word for an out-of-town African who could not pronounce the name of the chocolate-flavoured drink “Milo”, had become a term of self-endearment. An announcement in a daily newspaper called for African players to attend an “All Black” training session at Impala club in 1974. Miro’s progress was slow, losing its initial matches, including a game to Lenana School, but it steadily gained momentum and a representative opportunity in 1976 against Roma Algida RFC, a visiting side from Italy. “Miro played attacking rugby from the get-go,” recalled Richard Njoba, Miro’s secretary and first African captain at Kenya Harlequin, speaking of Miro’s 20-12 win. The other representative side, the Scorpions had lost 16-13 to Roma Al Gida. Miro had made a point.
A year later, Mean Machine was formed. Named after a fictional prisoners’ American football team that played a match against its warders in the movie The Longest Yard, which had been screened in Nairobi cinemas, Mean Machine gained entry straight into the league’s top division. The team consisted of players who had for years considered leaving their clubs and forming a side. There was a union concession that gave Mean Machine the upper hand, perhaps out of the assumption that theirs would be an average performance — all other teams in the Kenya Cup competition played with equally split sides while Mean Machine were allowed to field a single side.
Playing out of their home ground at Lenana School, Mean Machine made it to the semi-finals, playing the Nondescripts Tigers. In their usual fashion, a boisterous busload of Machine supporters descended on Lenana. Mean Machine thrashed Nondies and beat Impala Boks the following weekend to clinch the Kenya Cup in their first attempt.
After their performance, Mean Machine players, many in their last year of study, did not want to go back to their old clubs. At the KFC on Kenyatta Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Kipande House — a grim reminder of the restrictions Africans faced in colonial times when they were required by law to carry pass-books — Mwamba RFC, the Rock, was born. The team took up grounds at the Railway Club near the city centre and the door to playing rugby was thrown wide open. G.B. Mills, the chairman of the KRFU wrote that “he was not convinced” that Mwamba’s formation was in the best interest of rugby. In his reply, Mwamba’s captain, Absalom Mutere, wrote that, “it is meaningless to talk about Kenyan rugby without using Kenyans as a reference point.” With easy access by public transport, anyone could walk into the Railway Club and play rugby. No longer did one need a school, university or close connections to play. Rugby was open to the public.
Miro were given another opportunity against visiting Blackheath in 1979. “Blackheath blacked out”, read the next day’s headline in the Standard newspaper about Miro’s 39-12 win.
The press had taken sides in the battle between Mean Machine and Mwamba and the other teams. “Nondies out to fix the new machine” said a cartoon mechanic holding a spanner, before Nondescripts played Mean Machine. As David Francombe, a Nondescripts stalwart and Kenya international put it simply years later, “It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”
In 1979, East Africa XV, or the Tuskers as they were called on tour, travelled to Zambia fielding a mainly African side, and in 1980 Kenya played Zambia at the RFUEA grounds under the new rule that players had to be citizens. It had taken a further 16 years for the first Kenyan side to take the field using citizenship as a criteria.
Two years after Kenya played Zambia, a group of rugby players got together and, through Cliff Mukulu, a former Mean Machine captain working in the Emirates, organized a Sevens tour to Dubai. Unable to get union financing, the team called themselves Watembezi Pacesetters RFC. “They were expecting an expatriate team”, explained Denis Awori, who went on to chair the Kenya and Uganda rugby unions. A hot favourite among Dubai locals, who rooted for the expat beaters, Watembezi would have to win the tournament for three years consecutively before clinching the top prize, a slot in the revered Hong Kong Sevens. This time round the Sevens team toured as Kenya, complete with a Watembezi 15s side cheering them on.
If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee. A quicker, shorter game whose winner is declared within a day or two of the competition. All these qualities made sense to the touring Watembezi, who raised funds to tour annually, and after Dubai, played in the Singapore Sevens, always taking a schoolboy player with them.
Over the next decade, the International Rugby Board World Cup qualifying rounds took precedence over waning international tours and the focus of international rugby turned to African international matches, mainly against Uganda and Zimbabwe.
“It didn’t help that Nondies wore white and Mwamba wore black.”
More disruption came in the form of a change in Kenya’s school system that had far-reaching consequences, even for rugby. The A-level system was not accessible countrywide, creating a bottleneck for the few available place. The new 8-4-4 system redistributed the two A-level years, lengthening primary school and university education by a year, and, theoretically, creating a more practical approach. Gone was the rugby hierarchy of playing teams by year and weight, the tradition of the first XV and house rugby on multiple pitches. Pub conversations predicted the end of rugby in Kenya.
There was a twist, however, that turned that argument on its head. Soon after Mean Machine was formed, Kenyatta University College — Nairobi University’s constituent college 17 kilometres up the road — raised its own side, later known as Blak Blad, that played in the second division, but rose to the occasion to give Mean Machine a run for its money. Blak Blad’s old boys formed Damu Pevu, mature blood, a team that played a regular fixture against the incumbents. Blak Blad’s teachers took rugby countrywide, with Damu Pevu following in their wake running rugby clinics, teaching and preaching rugby. By the time the first cohort of the 8-4-4 system had completed its secondary cycle, in 1990, rugby was on the Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association’s annual calendar. With a development support system from the KRFU and the support of the International Rugby Board (IRB), the door to rugby was now well and truly open.
The Rugby Patrons, a reconstituted support organization that had guaranteed Rugby Football Union’s loan to the RFUEA for its grounds on Ngong Road in 1954, came once again to the rescue when local rugby was running out of steam, launching the Safari Sevens. Calling up Kenyan rugby’s old friends, mainly teams from the United Kingdom, an international Sevens tournament was started in 1996 that gave the game a much-needed shot in the arm.
By the time the IRB was launching a Sevens circuit in the 1999-2000 season, Kenya had ticked all the boxes. Not only had Watembezi set the Sevens pace, showcasing Kenya’s playing ability, the Safari Sevens had demonstrated a high level of organization, and nothing beats a good word from happy teams that have enjoyed Kenyan hospitality. Once in as a part-time participant, Kenya Sevens bootstrapped its way into full participation in the circuit, a system now maintained by relegation rules.
The IRB also strongly encouraged women’s rugby, a programme that was eagerly taken up by Kenya’s ladies, partnering with local rugby to run a women’s competition and playing their first fifteens international against Uganda in Kampala in 2006, and registering their first win, also against Uganda two years later in 2008.
After the IRB’s bid for the Olympics fell through in 2005, the IRB pulled all the stops, bringing in Kipchoge Keino, who had played rugby for the Kenya Police in the sixties, and Humphrey Khayange, Kenya Sevens long-serving captain, to the Olympic bid committee.
The IRB’s journey to the Olympics has been Kenya’s journey. It was fitting that both Kenya’s men and women qualified for the first tournament that was played in the Brazil Olympics in 2016.
When Kenya’s three gold medal winners came off the plane in 1968 to take Jomo Kenyatta’s handshake, their futures took three different tangents. Naftali Temu, Kenya’s first Olympic gold medallist — who had failed to finish his race in the 1964 Japan Olympics, coming in 19th position in the marathon — was gifted a shamba in North Mugirango to which he returned before he passed away from cancer in his fifties at the Kenyatta Hospital.
If rugby is coffee, rugby sevens is instant coffee.
Amos Biwott, still a schoolboy, and the only athlete with dry feet after the 3,000m steeplechase race, received a school fees grant to continue his education at Njoro Boys High School, after which he joined the Prisons Department, losing his job in 1978. After years of unemployment, Biwott found a job as a night watchman at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, where he worked for 16 years before retiring to his shamba. Kenya’s captain, Kipchoge Keino, had not qualified for the 1,500m final in ’64 in Japan, but he went on to beat the favourite, Jim Ryun, using compatriot Ben Jipcho as the rabbit to tire Ryun out, before powering through to the finish. Of the three, Keino went on to a stellar career, joining the Olympics Committee and chairing the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association in his senior years while running a children’s home.
The future lives of the Mexico Olympics gold medal athletes are prescient of those of today’s Kenyan athletes. From reliable sources, over the span of the IRB Sevens, national players have earned between KSh15,000 and 150,000 a month, money which is sometimes paid up to four months in arrears. It’s easy to point a finger at the Union, but sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill. It follows then that if a career in rugby, or in any sport in Kenya, is not coupled with another solid income — like a profession or a business — then the chances of long-term financial success are extremely slim. The government foots the Olympic bill, but the point is worth considering in the context of enabling athletes to pursue careers in sport.
Another consideration is winning strategies. Amos Biwott’s awkward jump that propelled him clear of the water, and Kipchoge Keino’s and Ben Jipcho’s rabbit strategy led by Kenya’s athletic coach, Charles Mukora, were strategies that provided the winning edge.
It will be up to Kenya’s brain trust to provide a working plan to secure victory. It doesn’t have to look good. There are lessons to learn from Biwott’s ungainly jumping style which got him across the finish line with dry feet and a gold medal. In this regard, Kenya’s win in the 2016 Singapore Sevens, to date the country’s lone success in the World Rugby Sevens Series, is worth a review.
Starting out in their third final, playing against Fiji who were in their 59th, it looked like a story already told. The final score was six unconverted tries to Fiji’s lone try. Six unconverted tries and the usual number of handling errors. The big difference that day in Singapore was Kenya’s relentless drive over the rucks. Ben Ryan, the Fijian coach, implored his side at half time to stop Kenya’s damage at the ruck, but it was too late. Kenya’s route one approach was the game changer.
Kenya’s poor performance in Brazil the same year can be put down to inexperience — Kenya’s Lionesses finished 11th and Shujaa 12th. Now that both Shujaa and the Lionesses have qualified for Japan, we expect a gold medal despite the odds. But we’ll accept any medal and might let our team off if they reach the quarter-finals. Deep down we know what we are capable of.
Sport is literally at the mercy of the sponsor, with a highly volatile cash flow that is dependent on the sponsor’s goodwill.
There is far more to play for than pride. There is a legacy that stretches further back than that line drawn in the sand in 1980 when players had to be Kenyan citizens, further back than independent Kenya, further back than that 1924 players’ meeting at the Stanley. It’s all a part of our history, and a compliment to those who participated, especially those that remained after independence. A glowing tribute must be also paid to the “Miro era”, and the outstanding athletes who opened the door of opportunity, and to Damu Pevu and Kenya’s teachers — rugby’s missionaries. And we have Benja Otieno to play for, an icon of Kenyan rugby who passed away in May. Caught in the net cast nationwide by the KSSSA games as a student in Maseno School, Benja was a part of the Kenya Sevens that won the Safari Sevens for the first time in 1998. He went on to play in the IRB circuit, coaching Kenya to their 2016 Singapore win and leaving a legacy that Impala, his home club, and Kenya can be proud of. Together, Kenya’s Shujaa and Lionesses stand on the shoulders of a rugby community stretching back over 100 years.
Guided by what has always turned out to be solid governance, the Kenya Rugby Union, or one of its several names over the years has, sometimes reluctantly, listened to the voice of its players and followed the democratic cycle of governance. The union has never been afraid to make key decisions, such as developing its own ground, raising a representative side, and getting differing factions to sit down. Perhaps because of the nature of the game, disputes can always be settled on the field, always within the rules.
When the Kenya Sevens came back from Singapore they visited President Uhuru Kenyatta, lifted him in a mock lineout, and gifted him a replica of the team’s rugby shirt. Hats off to Shujaa’s Andrew Amonde, who has been appointed as the Kenya Olympic captain. Maybe Shujaa and Kenya Lionesses will bring back a similar gift from Japan.
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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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