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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p’Bitek

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In the first of a three-part series, A.K. Kaiza reflects on the renowned author and wonders whether Okot p’Bitek might have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had Oxford University treated him better.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p'Bitek
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The weight of the book in my hands registered as alarm, perhaps signalling the symbolism of its intellectual heft, a book the likes of which I had never reviewed in my quarter century in the business.

I had never reacted to a book the way I did to Lawino’s People on that day in a suburb of Kampala when it was handed to me by Kara Blackmore, one of the people at the London School of Economics who fought to ensure that Okot p’Bitek’s Ph.D dissertation, deliberately failed by Oxford university in 1970 and since then hidden from view, would be pulled out and published.

In his introduction, Tim Allen, LSE Director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, puts the matter bluntly:

Okot p’Bitek’s D.Phil was actually failed by the University of Oxford in 1970. This was just three years before Talal Asad, another former student of Evans-Pritchard, published his well-known collection of articles by anthropologists, analysing and documenting ways in which anthropological thinking and practice had been affected by colonialism.

Before you have done any substantial reading, a disabling blow has already been delivered. What more can there be?

My own reaction had come before I had even read these words, and what that reaction was, perhaps holds some explanation:

I was instantly reminded of my time as a journalist at the turn of the new millennium, when I came across the most horrifying experience I remember. It was September 2004, and I had gone in a World Food Programme convoy delivering aid to Pajule camp for the internally displaced in northern Uganda. When I asked why five graves had been freshly dug side by side, I was told that no one had died yet, but that the daily death rate in that camp was roughly five.

Killing northerners had become a sort of sport. You tried to explain to all you came across that the modus operandi of the Museveni government was tribalistic, orgiastic murder and they jeered and said you northerners deserve it. You further explained that these same methods will later be turned against you and they said they were all Bantu people after all, the same people. To then watch the rising groundswell of southern activism against the regime after the end of the northern war and the disillusionment with the regime, when some of the dark methods the army learned in the north began to be applied in the south, is to feel sad at the failure to properly understand in time, who and what it was they were dealing with. It was a very dangerous time, and as a journalist, you knew that once you stuck your neck out to write about that war, it was the end of your career, and within only a year after writing the story, I learnt I would soon lose my job as journalist at the paper I worked at back then.

I had moved on from the dangerous years of the war, and now here was a book whipping my attention back directly to the war.

As for the northern war, there was always much talk about it being “a complex war”, but like all such talk, you suspected that those who made such statements really meant to say that very powerful governments, too powerful to name directly in small regional newspapers, had a hand in the conflict. Going to northern Uganda, even understanding the direct culpability of the Museveni power agenda, had felt like half-understanding the causes, with the result that a refulgent, odious, and inexplicable air of conspiracy hung over the topic.

Was this tome, weighing in at over 600 pages, going to reveal something?

All of the above may not be important, but the very existence of the book was already a statement. By publishing it, the London School of Economics academics were directly accusing Oxford University of censorship, and of deliberately destroying the academic career of one of the most pre-eminent African writers.

I understood that my reaction to the book stemmed from my own interest as a writer. But outside of that, very few people would understand why its publication mattered. Sure, the matter of two important scholar silenced by the British government, and by Oxford University, grabs attention. Otherwise, it is a matter that hacks back to a bygone era, a time when Britain mattered and which time is receding beyond living memory. So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation? One big answer is that Okot is a household name. But Frank Girling? You would have had to have scholarly interest in northern Uganda, even as an academic, for the name to mean something.

Was this not breaking some sort of gentleman’s agreement by so public an execution of a fellow British university? There you have the story before you—the liberal/progressive scholars of a liberal/progressive university having a go at the mother of all conservative institutions.

The connection to our own times is perhaps the direct link in the publication of these materials to the zeitgeist, and it follows on from the Rhodes-Must-Fall campaign that has seen statues of odiously racist, right-wing heroes toppled, exposing how deeply rooted in slavery and imperialism many otherwise august western institutions are. In this connection, which is a very direct link to Oxford’s less than stellar history, this book is hence not just about colonialism and imperialism; it is about the attempt to cover up the crimes of colonialism and imperialism.

So why were this group of scholars bringing back to life matters of academic pedigree that, despite the scandalous story, still belonged in the heady days of decolonisation?

The more pedantic explanation is that the copyright to Girling’s materials, which belonged to Her Majesty’s government, had expired after 50 years, and therefore it could be reprinted.

Otherwise, there is little doubt that this affair deeply damages the standing of Oxford; it more than deserves this bloody goring from Tim et al. Oxford, the recipient of endowments from more slave ships that sailed under the Union Jack, than any other university you can think of, and one that educated nearly every colonial governor, remains so deeply invested in it’s alternative reality that it refuses to take down the statue of Rhodes from Oriel College.

Girling

He was an anthropologist. I first came across his name a long time ago whilst foraging for scholarly material on northern Uganda. Within the small, northern Uganda intellectual circles in which he is known, I have often heard it said that it was he that solidified the name “Acholi” to the group that had not commonly called itself that prior to British creation of tribes. But this claim had always rung hollow. The British delimited communities geographically and put an end to the fluidity that had previously seen clans absorbed and dispersed into different language groups. Local historians dismiss the social reality of tribes, and speak instead of language groups. They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache. All these had happened long before Girling was even born.

What I was not prepared for was the extent to which the British government and the powerful universities of that country went to ensure that Girling’s career was destroyed. Given the self-declared righteousness of Britain on the international stage, so Stalinist an act, practiced with abandon but never reported by the BBC for whom tyranny only happened abroad, is still shocking.

Okot

It was not new to me that Oxford had failed Okot’s dissertation. The late Professor Akiiki Mujaju, whom I became close to at Makerere, and who was a contemporary of Okot’s, had told me about the matter. But it was unclear. It seemed that no one saw the offending dissertation. Okot himself had died tragically and young. It was speculated within academic and literary circles that what Oxford had done to him had so demoralised him that it also disorganised his literary output. Might he have published other works as powerful as Song of Lawino had the university treated him better?

The beginnings

Like all sagas, this one had a long and surprising, highly connected beginning. The story of Girling’s sordid treatment starts with colonial Britain moving to directly incorporate social research as a legislatively created and government-funded undertaking. Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets. You might almost be describing an HBO television series, rather than how such bodies as the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) came into existence.

They say the British froze social fluidity because constant migration was not good for cotton and coffee production and made forced taxation a headache.

The story begins in the late 1930s, at the very dawn of the war, and is not disconnected from it. This was a repositioning of the place of anthropology in colonial affairs. Much as the discipline has been closely associated with colonialism, it was not as central as it might seem. Within the colonial British government, anthropology had never had the prestige of say Biology, or Botany or Geology. Colonial officials in general held anthropologists at a distance, regarding them as difficult individuals with their own “personal axe to grind”, as British Secretary of State in the late 1930s, Malcolm McDonald, put it.

They had a tendency to go native.

A paradox hence; maligned by anti-colonialists, held in suspicion by colonial officials, can one say that anthropologists made colonialism worse than it already was? It would be far-fetched to assume that fascists and racists first consulted anthropology texts before making up their minds.  Rather, the monies for anthropology research had come, curiously, from American philanthropists—chiefly the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. As various scholars suggest, the decision by the British colonial office to consider direct support to social science research may have been from a natural progress in colonial affairs. The empire had by the 1930s been consolidated and reached its fullest extent. Natives were now not seen as just dark-skinned hostiles, but a part of the state. The lobbying impact of the American social research council in creating the New Deal had been immense. They had had data to influence Congress. The British drive to create a welfare system lacked reliable data.

Various sources describe the fascinating meeting at which the foundations for the proposed council were discussed. For the empire, and Africa in particular, the nascent council considered Makerere and Achimota.

Who else but Lord Frederick Lugard himself to be present at the first meeting? The other imperial figure at the meeting, whose own reputation is not fondly remembered in India, was William Hailey, also Lord Hailey, Governor of Punjab in the 1920s. It was as if Darth Sidious and Darth Vader were in one room: It is 1939, and the skies are already darkened with heralds of a war that those present understood would shake their empire so there was some urgency in the agenda. If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting. Although it would not be until the 1960s that the council would eventually receive the government funding it demanded, its ideas were put to work straight away.

Like all good sagas, there is an unpleasant ideology at play to this one; there is a cabal of dangerous men with criminal backgrounds, and to top it, an evil empire hiding dark secrets.

The council came late to the game, for by then, anthropology had already made its fortunes. After all, by this time, Bronislow Malinowski, a leading figure in the development of Anthropology, was at the dusk of his career and would die a couple of years after this meeting.

In Uganda itself, pioneering work had already been done a generation earlier, with such works as The Baganda: An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs (1911) by Rev. John Roscoe, and The Lango: A Nilotic Tribe of Uganda (1923) by J.H. Driberg.

Coming so late in the empire’s lifespan, what would have been the purpose? Had enough not been written already? Adjusting for the fact that by 1939, no part of the empire had broken off yet, was this perhaps an attempt to respond to what were seen as the more progressive models of the USSR and the USA, which were not based on imperial colonialism but a kind of social and economic “scientificism”? A project of consolidation? Even back then, there was much talk of “development”, in the same manner that the World Bank and IMF speak of it today, a would-be positive term that in reality often means promoting land grabbing, breaking up of communities, punitive labour laws and growing inequalities in favour of settlers. The development of a colony is not good news for natives, then or now.

John Bull Sucks up to Uncle Sam

An old line trotted out to explain British attempts to clean up its colony act was the other matter of the British government’s relationship with the USA. At the advent of the Second World War, the British were skittish about getting their American cousins into the war (favourably on their side). They were not going to beat the Germans by themselves (even with the Americans in, it still remained for the Red Army to bring down the Wehrmacht), but the optics did not look good that, with an empire as vast as the British one, you could not do it yourselves. The USA had not taken the path of overseas colonialism, and opinion in Washington sneered at this European predilection for colonies. Colonialism was looking outdated, no more than a matter of beating up natives. The British were anxious to prove to the Americans that their edition of colonialism was meant for the good of the natives, but the files contained no data to create a coherent development plan. Was this turn in attitude a PR exercise in getting American help against the Nazis? At the time, it pays to remember, Soviet socialism, which was militantly anti-colonial, was visibly more progressive with its “five-year” plan models and it was Western Europe that looked antiquated.

A good man in Africa

It is how Frank Girling arrived in Gulu, as part of the army of government-funded anthropologists fanning out into the continent. At roughly the same time, Okot was getting out of Gulu, going out into the empire.

Girling got down to work with great vigour, a conscientious man out to deliver on his commission and his profession. The discipline, to the extent that anthropology could be so called, had developed a fairly structured approach and presentation. There were the requisite spatial establishing to make, of the geography, the cultural and linguistic locations. Some description of the arts, the industry, political structures, birth, youth, marriage and death rituals of the natives. Where did these natives come from, how did they describe themselves to others and who were their neighbours, what larger groupings did their culture and language belong in? Girling, like all anthropologists, had to answer these questions in his study.

He has arrived in Acholi 50 years after the start of the colonial era. He has come, as he quickly realises, not to carry out an ethnographic study, but a forensic examination. He has come to study, not the Acholi, but the impact of British colonisation of the Acholi. He realizes that he has been drafted as a co-conspirator in crime.

He is a very highly educated man. His intellectual orientation is keener than the lazy, racially self-satisfied fair of the Roscoe of half a century before him. He is a materialist whose understanding of history demands he draw his conclusions from the economic, the interactions between men, and their movement of value across class segments to make an explanation of what is happening.

If as a statement that social science was colonial conquest by other means, you could not make up such a meeting.

Girling’s conclusion is that the policies adopted since the inception of British rule in Acholi have greatly destabilised the society. He sets the beginning of this phase from the days of the first colonial administrator, John Rutherford Parkin Postlethwaite, accounts of whose actions make him a veritable Mr Kurtz, who decided to uproot a significant portion of Acholi society from their ancestral lands and resettle them in patterns deemed conducive to the production of cotton for the mills of Manchester. Girling examines how this, along with what he euphemistically calls “half-free labour”, and forced taxation, have upturned the social and political structures of the land. To boot, succession lines have been stopped and “commoners” are now in charge. The coming of the East African Railway, the industrial town of Jinja in the south, the coffee and sugar plantations of the south, the preference by the British for northerners to serve in the army, prisons and police, have torn the men away from their wives and children. The able-bodied have been taken away to work for Europeans and Asians and little left for Acholi.

This sort of treatment was very common throughout the European empires, but in the case of Uganda, Acholi seems to have been set out for unique dismemberment in ways that say, the Baganda were not.  The Acholi Girling runs into question why the British destroyed their political systems but left intact those of the south. There is a racial hierarchy in operation in Acholi, as in all of the colony, with the untouchable whites, the economically favoured Asians. Black people are fair game, as one Gujarati trader openly admits; “we cheat Africans”, but goes on to say white people are not different. They have to bribe British officials from time to time.

An unflattering image of British colonialism arises. Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges. Colonial hierarchies are in full force. The rulers don’t notice black people, who throughout remain faceless.

The Empire Strikes back

The report is scandalous. If this is what the Colonial Social Science Research Council had bargained for, they had not taken seriously enough the view of the Secretary of State, Malcolm MacDonald, that some anthropologists had “a personal axe to grind”.

Girling was a Marxist theorist who did not hide his communist party membership. The report extravagantly affirms the sneering words of the Soviet Union and the USA against European colonialism.

If, as an ideological axe-grind, the prescience of Girling’s warning that British policy in Acholi would be disastrous, would need stronger imageries to counteract what was to follow a generation later, long after the British have left Uganda. We may infer, but it takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

Girling has walked into a Graham Greene novel, with its tight, gossipful world of colonial masters, with their African “boys”, their mosquito boots and legal privileges.

Her Majesty’s government would have none of it. Girling was forced to cut out the damaging chapters of his conclusion. He was forced to edit his work to weed out evidence of British culpability in the destruction of Acholi social systems. What was eventually published was a greatly watered down report, putting emphasis on the ways in which “development” could be achieved.

The ensuing mistreatment of Girling, which ensured his substantial intellect would not have an impact, and his career not go far, did not change his beliefs. To the end of his life, he remained a Marxist, displaying the steadfast courage of the communists without whom the war against Nazism would not have been won. He had in his younger years, volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain after all.

A Black man in Cecil Rhodes backyard

Okot was not a Marxist. But for the system, he was something worse; he was a black man, a native. His presence and his choice to study anthropology at an advanced level were replete with contradictions. On the one hand, the foundation of the exploitative system on which Oxford drew its stipend depended upon the unpaid labour of men like himself. But Oxford was a centre of civilisation, an idea that did not theoretically gel with slavery as its endowments. If anthropology had thrived on a racist assumption about the darker races, how was a black man going to become an anthropologist? The result might have been seen from a mile away; it was a foregone conclusion that a clash was brewing. Okot’s work on the thesis was always going to be a repudiation of the very field he was studying, and so it emerges thus. He had the gall to call out the entire heritage of white scholarship on Acholi/Luo, for getting it wrong.

The work he does is staggeringly exhaustive. He is studying northern Bunyoro-Kitara. But he cannot delimit himself geographically, for he quickly discovers that the ethnic boundaries as spelt out by colonial policy don’t make sense. There is barely any such boundary between the Luo of his cohort and Bunyoro-Kitara. This becomes a source of friction between himself and his supervisors. This is where the two scholars converge. Both were supervised by the same man, Evans-Pritchard, albeit in different decades, but whose role in the ostracism of the two men would be interesting to know in detail.

Okot’s dissertation is positively dripping with disdain for all the big anthropology names that have come before him. He calls out an important source on Luo studies, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, for laziness. He refuses to acknowledge the preponderance of “tribe”, dismissing the idea of “Acholi”, and insisting on seeing the continuum of these concatenated societies with the same language and political ties. He is generally affirming the African version of Africa, which is a political statement in itself.

It takes special obduracy to deny that the emergence of Joseph Kony, and the turmoil that would grip Acholi society for a generation, had its roots in the policies of Postlethwaite.

For himself, the irony wreathing Okot and his Ph.D attempt brims with drama he himself might have smiled at. He already carried degrees. He had studied law at Aberystwyth University. He was a big name in world literature. He had been a footballer; now he wants to become Dr Okot. But of anthropology? For one of the lesser beings to self-gaze is comical enough in itself. As has been said of the legions of black anthropologists (an oxymoronic enough construct), Okot was studying himself, observing his own peculiarity, his own beastliness, self-othering himself, like being your own dentist, like auto-erotica or self-disembowelment.

Okot’s work vigorously repudiated the double-faced act of imperial colonialism. But he is subtle, and capable enough that he does not glorify Africanness. You cannot accuse him of something as crude as that. He places his people’s experiences in a realistic dialectic, pointing out ironies, discontinuities and historical contradictions inherent in his own people’s polity. It is a first class work of scholarliness. By and of itself, Ph.D theses have not often been so well written.

Deconstructionist

His timing was wrong. Decolonisation was in full swing. Losing an empire was humiliating enough. But the 1960s is seeing an ever-increasing number of natives acquiring doctorates, writing books and making films directly challenging centuries of the western canon. Deconstruction and structuralism are questioning the foundations of such universities as Oxford. We can only imagine how the colleges of Oxford felt besieged by the likes of Okot.

But you would have to be close enough to both Acholi and Bunyoro colonial experiences to glean something darker in both the British government and Oxford’s hands in the proscription of Okot and Girling. Okot’s study of Bunyoro-Kitara and Acholi was coming too close to a scene of crime; the British had committed a horrendous genocide in the very locale that Okot was studying and had his dissertation been approved, how long would it take before others began to ask what the British had done in Bunyoro?

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Culture

The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: The Heresy of Okot

In the third and final part of a review of Lawino’s People: The Acholi of Uganda by Okot p’Bitek and Frank Knowles Girling, A.K. Kaiza concludes that it is Okot’s writing on the religion of his Central Luo that may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way, and the reason why he was failed by Oxford University.

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The Empire Strikes Back at Lawino: How Oxford Failed Okot p'Bitek
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I think Okot p’Bitek stopped giving thought to Oxford. He understood the colonial venture quite clearly and he believed that we Africans needed to sort ourselves out. In any case, by the time they asked him to revise the thesis (after which they would fail it again) he had already been a successful poet and cultural icon in his own right — setting up arts festivals in Kisumu and Gulu as well as being the first African director of the National Theatre in Kampala.” Juliane Okot Bitek

Woko, Wi-lobo and Ru-piny were not deities, not spirits or powers. They were not worshiped, no sacrifices were offered to them. And when a man cried ‘Wi-lobo,’ he was not calling on anybody or anything. They were not a prayer or supplication. They were descriptive of the sad predicament of human existence.”

These words, lying deep in the book, after so much has been said and said so passionately, are not the most dramatic in a 625 page-strong tome. But if you were to choose which ones best capture the spirit of this publication, they would not be a bad place to start.

They sound a fairly representative note of the intellectual locus of the man who wrote them. A world view you likely first encountered in Song of Lawino, that gently insistent, powerfully cultured note has since become so much a part of the literary furniture of postcolonial Africa that attributing them to Okot is no longer necessary.

The phrase “sad predicament of human existence”, may sound like any pithy observation that makes instant sense, but after 511 pages, at which point they appear, you as an African reader are desperate for the insight this brings.

Why was the thesis failed?

The sidelining of the academic and scholarly works of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek by Oxford University under the supervision of Prof Evans-Pritchard remains a scandalous event, at least to those of us who expected better from British higher learning. In his introduction to the double publication, Tim Allen, Professor and director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE, writes that “In the case of Frank Girling, it is obvious why his work is neglected. Although he managed to secure his D. Phil in 1952, he had fallen foul of the Protectorate authorities in Uganda . . . in contrast, the overlooking of Okot p’Bitek’s anthropological contributions is harder to understand.”

Prof. Tim Allen explains that another Evans-Pritchard student and Oxford alumni, Talal Asad, published a collection by well-known anthropologists expounding the very views Okot had postulated. This was the view that British anthropology had played handmaiden to colonial injustice, providing the justificatory, academised loot that made the whip and chain wielders feel less guilty. Allen goes on to say that by the late 1960s, Okot was angry (as a black man, being called “angry” is not flattering), and defiant.

He explains that the offending thesis itself is moderate in tone. So, Okot could not be accused of going rogue activist in the haloed temple of academia.

Whydunit?

“It was even more of a casualty of British anthropology’s colonial encounter,” he writes, addressing and at the same time, not addressing, the intrigue.

It has been five decades since the event and we still don’t know why. But after 625 pages, does resolution come?

As far as the Okot part of the publication is concerned, there is nothing really new in the way Girling’s bit is. The central attraction in the Okot section, The Religion of the Central Luo, was published in 1971 by The East African Literature Bureau and went on to have its stellar moment in thinking on African societies.

This resurrection renews the work, and Allen’s introduction along with the shattering clarity of Girling’s materialist approach to anthropology, opens the secret socio-political chambers hidden in the rites and rituals Okot describes here.

The two transform Okot’s text into a crime scene. We approach it, sleuthing tools in hand, ferreting in the undergrowth of scholarly nuance for that stray error that exclaims, aha! Got you!

It is so very much like Okot to come back from the grave to give us once again that frisson of novelty and courage.

But the stigmata is visible. There is an odd, incompleteness in it. We already encountered this oddity in Girling’s part of the book. The explanation for that, we were told, is that the colonial authorities and their academic mentors in Oxford cut Girling’s work with one year left in it so any publishing can only stitch mismatching body parts on.

This affects Okot’s work at a structural level. He describes well the history and politics of Jo Paluo and Alur in the opening chapters. He is starting to establish a historical particularity for his subject. He is also challenging the idea of tribes by showing the cultural-political continuum across colonially tribalised communities.

In Chapter 2, he glancingly connects these to Bunyoro, but we assume that was outside his scope, or he did not have the time to delve much into that, although we can infer from the long line of queen mothers of Bunyoro-Kitara rulers (Abakama) taken from the Luo-speakers, and the tracing of its lineage to Labongo, that this is the case. In any case, the politics of Bunyoro and that of the Central Luo, particularly the Payira Clan, who are also Babiito, like the rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, which filial connections cover the other kingdoms in the country, were so interwoven that calling them allies would be an under-description.

Okot ropes the Lango into this Central Luo grouping whilst acknowledging the difficulty of saying so with certainty. The Lango too had their tight military alliances with Bunyoro-Kitara.

But we note a glaring omission. Okot talks at length about Acoli religion and religious practice when the section arrives. He does not do so with that of the Jo Palwo, Alur or Lango. Could the frustrations he met at Oxford have prevented further work? What emerges sounds more like the religion of the Acholi than of the Central Luo. Is it even remotely possible that Okot did not see such a thing, so that his failure to recognise the obvious failed his D.Phil?

Going after Driberg, Crazzolara, Roscoe et al

One of the most important contributions Okot makes to African studies is on ethnicity. Where his errant antecedents Driberg, Crazzolara and Roscoe wrote of “tribe” in such a way that Africa is transformed into an archipelago of hostile communities, Okot raises out of the colonial abyss the many connecting cultural bridges, so that the familiar fact which prompts Africans when they meet fellow Africans to declare “we really are one people,” emerges. Had Oxford given its imprimatur to such a view, might the likes of Kwame Appiah have written a less discreditable book than In My Father’s House, a book with an annoying colonial view that Africans are disparate tribes?

Okot lends powerful evidence to the position of many black scholars who insist that African societies are language, rather than tribal groups. But it is in Okot on the religion of his Central Luo that one instinctively feels that his work may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way.

Okot goes to War

It is a lively, closely observed section running to six chapters. He opens by examining theories of Jok, then the variations on the idea, and expanding on the African pantheistic concept of deism. He next turns attention to worship places, the Abila, or Kac, the family shrines. He looks at spirit-possession, witchcraft and sorcery, then that social institution of lam, kir and kwong which he calls curses but can also be expansively seen as invocations, and which we need to hear more of for it is a literary genre of African societies which in our time has been brought dramatically to life by Stella Nyanzi. But that is another topic altogether. As these topics follow one after the other, a pattern starts to emerge. He tackles first the idea of God (Jok), and gradually works down to practices that have a filigree of the religious but are otherwise quasi-spiritual and mostly having nothing to do with worship but have been erroneously attributed so.

Take Chapter 9 on Woko, Wi-Lobo and Ru-Piny. As he explains them, these concepts are philosophical, prepositional; Wi-lobo as boundarisation of existence, “Wi, on top of, above, and the common noun lobo, earth. Literally it meant on the land above the soil or earth. But in the context in which we are discussing it, Wi-lobo meant the state of being alive on the earth, being in this world.”

Wi-lobo approximates to what other philosophical traditions refer to as Being. Woko, literally translating as outside, is synonymous with Wi-lobo but as Okot explains it, the idea is something like becoming, a state of transience from, into and beyond. There is much ambiguity about Ru-Piny. It means dawn, dawning, which on the face of it is the passage from darkness to light, the burnishing of the night. And yet, it is also about the exchange of the woes of darkness with those of the light, the double-facedness of existence — an existentialist notion.

Okot puts it better in his inimitable way: “Against Wi-lobo and Ru-Piny, man was impotent. They knelt on their victims and crushed them. There was nothing you could do to prevent them from carrying out their cruel schemes . . . because Wi-lobo, Woko and Ru-Piny were also deaf, blind and senseless.”

These concepts are far-reaching and are to be found as the framing concepts of Luo arts and music, the protagonists of much music and theatre flung into the face of inscrutable fate. Mr Crazzolara, and you benighted Boccassino, this is about art and philosophy, not religion!

Okot’s focus on this triad is, in my opinion, the key that provides entrance into what the religious belief of the people was and what it was not; it is also the key that frees African theology from the demonic incarceration imposed on it by imperial Christianity and anthropology. But before we have arrived at this point (chapter 9) we have been through six prior chapters during which Okot took on the establishment of western scholarship on African religion.

Our Simple Minds

In few places has the black man been more traduced than in his relationship with God. In sexuality, industry, politics, science, commerce, marriage and health, the entire heritage of the black man came under attack by the amassed battalions of enslavers, colonisers and free traders. These attacks follow a template, which is that what is African is dirty, at a primitive stage, without order and purpose.

The other name they used for black people, besides savages, is heathens, kafir, as though our souls (when allowed that we had any) were properties of the devil already.

Okot’s thesis here charges explorers, imperial agents, scholars and missionaries for not only refusing to understand African religions, but for calling whatever they saw happening as so much animist garbage. Africans were accused of worshiping forests, rocks, streams and lakes; we had no idea of a supreme being, no idea of an afterlife.

The Heresy of Okot

Okot calls up one at a time, the big names that misled the world about African spirituality:

Sir Samuel Baker, John Roscoe, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Renato Boccassino, Godfrey Lienhardt, Jack Herbert Driberg, Captain Ernest Grove, John Beattie, Bere, Hayley, Kitching, Tarantino, Taylor Tempels, Middleton, Menzies, Southall, Gray, and many more quoted here, had the same approach — the Africans did not know what they were saying; pay no attention no matter how intelligent they appear to be; study his ways and draw conclusions from that.

Anthropology, in a way, is the fine art of not listening.

Crazzolara best captures this attitude when he writes of what went on in the conversion enterprise: “Natives were urged with tiresome questions to make a choice as to which of the Jok among the many had created them. Such questions implied suppositions which probably never occurred to their simple minds . . . they answered that they did not know, which was more near the truth.”

On the back of a single observation in Equatorial Province, Baker, the pugnacious explorer-colonial agent, concluded that Africans had no religion nor conception of a deity. Baker had a theological debate with a man he names as “Commoro”, in Lotuko, over the existence of a being superior to mankind. This debate, done via a Lotuko translator who understood Bari, to a Bari translator who understood Arabic henceforth to Baker, is recorded by Baker whom we can only take at his word. It is comical. After intense, very patronising exchanges, the man Commoro replies to Baker (of good and bad people): “If they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”

The statement is startling with its raw, irreproachable realism. But Baker, Okot charges, was only interested in affirming his own beliefs and not learning that of Commoro.

Missionaries

The approach they took was to strip-search Africans for spiritual beliefs and feed what they found into a bonfire of racism, an act of culturecide. But there was a challenge to overcome. People don’t let go of their beliefs like that. To make it stick, the Christian god they carried with them (in much the same way African rulers carried Jok from one place to another) had to be disguised as an African deity — a bizarre minstrel act in which Jahweh wore blackface — and faked an African accent. This necessitated taking an existing African deity, emptying it of content and replacing it with Roman-Christian theology. This gave conversion the feel of a smooth segue, with converts often not feeling the jab.

And this is the violence Okot rails against. Through this mendacity, African pantheism was replaced by a monotheistic ethos. The senatorial Republic of gods was superseded by a tyrannical, fili-deist, Augustan imperialism, a one family-rule religion. Rubanga was bleached white, right here in the tropics. The function of African gods disappeared under the harsh colonial regime. Black gods like Mungu, Nyasae, Katonda, Ruhanga, Ngai, Nzambe and Rubanga, worshiped long before the White Fathers and Church Missionary Society arrived, became colonially reconstructed évolués, front-company enterprises; like Liberian flags of convenience, they concealed the real, tax-dodging paymaster in the background. They had become spiritually possessed by an invasive spiritual species.

Among his Central Luo, the missionaries settled on an import from Bunyoro-Kitara, the Luo-ised “Rubanga” (also Lubanga/Obanga) from “Ruhanga”. This was one god among many, picked out because one missionary caught a whiff of the word “mold”, synonymous with create. In similar vein, in Buganda, the missionaries alighted on the Kiganda god of fabricants, Katonda, a lesser deity compared to Lubaale, also from the root verb okutonda (to fashion) as Jahweh’s tropicalised incarnation there. In the case of the Luo, the missionaries did not listen long enough to know that they saw Rubanga as an unpleasant god that afflicted man with tuberculosis of the spine. The name stuck, much to the amusement of South Sudanese writer, Taban lo Liyong, who has had much to say about it.

Trees, forests and rocks

These scholars did not listen to what the Africans were saying about their beliefs. They chose to infer instead and came up with such ideas as “supreme being”, “life force”; their African sources said they had nothing of the sort. They next looked to the places where worship took place, in “forests”, rocks, along rivers and lakes and said Africans worshiped these; the Africans said this was not true. The Africans, they decided, were too daft to know their own minds.

What kind of defence can one start to mount? Okot presents the many ways in which African religious practice was misrepresented. The central pattern in all these is that the interlocutors had come to impose their beliefs and truth is always an inconvenience to imperial enterprise.

Jok

Outside of the monotheistic framework, getting a handle on gods gets complex. But Okot is also entering very dangerous territory. Any African knows just how dangerous it is to even express knowledge of pre-colonial gods; even if you know, you must pretend ignorance. Even the most highly educated feels the pressure to pay lip service to the Christian god. At Makerere, Okot would have walked past the Main Hall flanked by two Christian churches, his own faculty under the shadow of the Protestant St. Francis Church. It need not be said that academia, as the British brought it to Uganda, must first acknowledge the primacy of the Christian doctrine. Throw away the cloak of academia from colonial anthropology and you can clearly see the medievalism in the saga. Growing up in Lango, I was aware that the word Jok was associated with the unsayable, not exactly the devil himself, but the dark and the demonic. And yet next door to the Luo speakers, among the Ateker, the very word itself denotes goodness and sanctity: in Teso we used to sing “Ejok na Edeke” – God is good.  In Lango itself, a song sang to children wishing them a prosperous future mentioned Jok, “Jo’jok amalo do/Atini dong roman do,” as a line went, so it was also a word associated with the good among the Luo, for who wishes demons upon her baby?

It was in later years that I came to understand that the fear of jok was itself the shame we had in our own material past, which shame the priests reminded you of each Sunday morning, and via a catechism you learnt by rote. Those of us who dodged catechism classes for confirmation were forbidden from the Eucharist, and can never marry under the Christian banner. These catechism classes are the forges in which black people are still daily taught to be ashamed of their blackness. It will never end, for the forced conversion accuses us of a sin we can’t help but commit; it accuses us of being black.

Okot’s unacceptable truths

Okot starts his dissection of Jok by going into the myths of their genesis. The Jok came in various ways. But one interesting one is that it was the founding leaders of the various Acholi states (chiefdom is a reductive colonial term) that also brought the Jok, as indeed Constantine imposed Christianity on Rome. The founder of Patiko, Atiko himself (we learn from Okot that the many Acholi states starting with “Pa” follow after their founder. Hence, Atiko founder of Patiko, Aweli founder of Pawel, etc.); so that this Jok becomes thought of as the god of Atiko, as others can speak of the god of Abraham.

The Jok of Patiko were Baka and Alela. The complexity here is that Baka and Alela then gave names to hills, so that when he came to Patiko, John Beattie concluded that these hills were considered the father and the mother of the people. Okot sought out a priest of Baka who he said laughed at the idea and said Jok Baka and Alela merely resided in caves in the hills.

He examines the Jok of Koc, called Jok Lokka. It is recognisable in many religious founding myths when the Acholi of Koc, after they fled hunger and crossed the Nile (not the first people in religious mythology to cross the Nile in search of bounty) to Bunyoro, say that one Ojwiya disappeared into the wilderness and returned transformed and started performing miracles, including for instance, multiplying the number of chicks. They called the Jok of Ojwiya Jok Lokka because he came from across the Nile. A people with a religious myth like this can only be converted for political, not religious, reasons. In truth there was little daylight between the religion of it in these parts and the biblical accounts.

As Okot writes, he refamiliarises to you the African reader, what colonial ethnographers had alienated. But he also puts these religious beliefs squarely within the locus of what all religions appear to have — founding myths, miraculous births, disappearances into the wilderness. But religion is politics, and imperialism commanded that savages cannot have a past similar to that of the conqueror.

These anthropologists never imagined that black people would ever read what they wrote. Open any anthropology text and the statement is always there. This may have emboldened them to print any balderdash they cooked up. But could these scholars also not have considered that people were forbidden to discuss their religion with strangers and that the answers they received were wilfully diversionary? Was Okot told the truth because he was himself a local?

Absurd lies

Okot also discusses totems and food prohibitions. Although these are closely held, they are not gods, Okot insists, for these totems were so interpreted by colonial scholars who henceforth said that because say an elephant or leopard totem was given near-human potency, it indicated worship. They ought to have followed the matter to discover that those of the elephant clan considered it one of them but not above them.

Okot also states that keeping an ancestral shrine (Abila), and making sacrifices to ancestors did not indicate ancestor worship.

Ala, Omarari and Abiba

It gets more intricate, and as the unfurling of Jok continues, it begins to appear that the term was indeed very widely conceived. It seems to go beyond the idea of a deity. Take the so-called “cults” of Ala, Omarari and Abiba. Omarari is said to have appeared at the end of the First World War. Ala came earlier, Abiba around the Second World War.

It is on the question of “cults” that it starts to become hard to call colonial anthropology an academic discipline. Even Okot’s own reaction is problematic. Could they and he not see what was right there in their face?

The “cults”, said to have “followers” and that feel different to the earlier “jok”, are Ala, Omarari, Abiba and others but I will concentrate on these three.

Take Ala. The “cult” performance of Ala consisted of wearing long white robes and turban and pronouncing Arabic words. We already start to see where this is heading. The “followers” of Abiba are said to have believed that a “witch” sent kites into the sky which had fire in their anuses. There is less description of Omarari except to say it followed an epidemic.

Each of these “cults” follow major events and intrusions into these societies. And then they disappear as quickly. What they appear to be are memorialization and communication, performance arts that mark their epoch.

Were these gods, cults or simply pieces of theatre and performing arts, in the manner of masquerade ceremonies? Do plays and films that gain cult status signal worship? Does Elvis Presley following, sightings, costuming, festivals or re-enactments of the American Civil War signal religion? Is the one a god and Gettysburg worshiped? Are the ritualized practices of psychotherapy to heal soldiers returning from war witchcraft? The so-called Abiba cult, a presentation of bombers in mythologised form, was precisely that, albeit by African experts to heal black soldiers returning from Burma (the painting, Guernica, had its own way of portraying this terrifying new power).

There is reason to believe that the “cult” of Ala was a way of dealing with the trauma of Arab slavers from Sudan, for they invoked “Allah” when they attacked Africans.

As with Woko, Wi-lobo, Ru-piny, and Bala and Alela rocks, the notion of the cult reveals the pugnacious impatience imperial scholars had towards the ways of the people they had come to occupy. Those who waited a minute to really try and understand Africa, like Girling, were accused of going native. White people who disagreed with imperialism were severely ostracized. Nuances that would have separated philosophy, legalities (we have not even talked about the manner in which African laws were reduced to taboos), performance arts from religion were cruelly traduced.

To worsen it, The Witchcraft Act was passed which broadly illegalised the people’s beliefs, arts, philosophies and psychotherapy practices. Missionaries established missionary villages at which children were held captive and punished if found to have learnt their culture.

The amassed ranks of colonial scholars are today a disgraced lot. Few if any in Africa take them seriously. Colonialism and its colour bars had artificially kept their magic alive. Decolonisation meant western universities had to tread carefully and, in an interesting twist, many Western scholars are today at the forefront of the defence of African history, as witness the publication of this book. But the hegemony persists, for rather than colour bars, new barriers like travel restrictions mean that western research maintains its extractive practice. The kind of access western scholars have to Africa, African scholars cannot have in their countries. In this industry, we remain native informers. The prosthetics of censorship such as Okot suffered may have kept their respectability for only so long, but the damage they and universities like Oxford did to people of colour will endure for a very long time.

By now, we are wondering where Lawino and her song comes in. Very closely indeed. It appears to have its roots in the worship and prayer ceremonies to jok, which is fitting, for arts everywhere are largely secularised religious rites. Okot being Okot, we expect him to move beyond the turf war with European scholars and celebrate the social and religious side of his Central Luo. He does so with aplomb. His thesis settles frequently into enjoying the beauty of Acholi culture. The most humorous part for me is the quotation of the prayer offered by the people of Palaro to their Jok, Lapul. It bears quoting at length for there is the suggestion that this is the prototype for the Lawino-Okot joust:

Pule ye
Pule oh (Pule is pet name of Lapul)

Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic

Anyaka mutero coo i rok
The girl who marries a man outside the chiefdom

Mor wange woko
Explode her eyeballs

Anyaka ma deg awone Palaro
The girl who rejects men of Palaro

Anyaka me mito lu-rok
The girl who loves foreigners

Nek Wang cware woko
Kill her husband’s eyes

Nek cware woko
Kill her husband

The men had had their say before God. Now the women stepped forth:

Pule ye
Pule oh

Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic

Anyira wai bene litinni
The girls are also your children

Wegi bolli no
Your children with the spears (penis)

Bene gukelo anyira rok
Have also brought foreign girls

Ci pe ineko wanggi
But you have not killed their eyes

Wan bene gin ma neko wang wa peke
We too nothing will kill our eyes

Okwong ki la-lam
Let it (misfortune) begin with the ill-wisher

Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic

Wek okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher

Mukelo anyira rok
Whoever brings a foreign girl

Nek wange woko
Kill his eyes

Nek dako-ne woko
Kill his wife

Okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher

Pule pa Lacic, konywa
Pule (daughter) of Lacic, help us

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Culture

The Existential Crisis Created by Humanity’s Addiction to Plastic

The materials used to make every day plastic items are harmful to human health yet we still make plastic because we need it. It is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else.

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The Existential Crisis Created by Humanity’s Addiction to Plastic
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The late American comedian George Carlin had a hilarious routine where he made fun of our existential crisis about plastics and the environment. “The planet . . . is a self-correcting system,” he’d say, “The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed.” Then he’d add, “And if it’s true that plastic is not biodegradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic.”

We might as well be living in that reality now—of the earth plus plastic. In the same way different eras of human history are named for the materials that most defined them, like the Iron and Bronze Ages, some geologists now refer to our time as the Plasticene—The Age of Plastics. We’ve never mass produced or distributed any other synthetic substance at so large a scale across the world as we have plastic. With it has come vast plastic pollution, finding the solution to which is hampered by the fact that we created plastic and now need it despite the dangers it poses to every living thing on earth.

Plastic, broadly defined as “a synthetic material made from a wide range of organic polymers”, is a relatively modern invention. Although its history dates back to the 19th century, we didn’t start large-scale production of completely synthetic everyday materials until the 1950s. And we’ve never stopped.

In the seven decades since the ‘50s, human beings have created more than 9 billion metric tons of plastic, more than half of them in the last two decades alone. That’s billions of tons of a material we know to be essentially non-biodegradable.

Some optimistic estimates by organisations such as UNEP are that we have recycled about 9 per cent of it, while environmental activists say it is a lot less than that. Either way, it means that most, if not all, the plastic ever made is still around, and every year, we add nearly 400 million tons more. A lot of it is single-use plastic, destined to be used once and thrown away.

“We currently dump 11 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said recently, adding, “In 2018 alone, impacts on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture together with other costs such as those of clean-ups, were estimated to be at least US$6-9 billion globally.”

Plastic was originally good for the environment. When it was first invented in the mid-19th century, it was primarily made from cellulose, the basic building block of all plants. Its biggest selling points, even then, were that it was malleable, meaning it could be moulded into different shapes and designed for different uses. In fact the word plastic—from the Greek word “plastikos” which means to “grow” or “form”—initially referred to this capacity to be deformed without rupturing. A derivative type of that early plastic made in the 1860s soon found use as an alternative to ivory, which was harvested off slaughtered elephants and used to make everything from piano keys to billiards.

Modern hydrocarbon-based plastics trace their history back to 1907, when Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, invented a fully synthetic plastic, the first of its kind, and called it Bakelite. Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later. Unlike the cellulose-based plastics that had come before, Bakelite was cheap to make and could be easily mass-produced. But it would be another four decades before plastics spread across the globe. In that time, research focused on making new plastics and finding uses for them. Plastic and other related inventions of the pre-World War II era, such as nylon, soon found uses on the war fronts, increasing demand and boosting production.

Known as the “material of a thousand uses”, it was Bakelite that ushered in the age of plastics that we are still living in more than a century later.

We still make plastic because we need it. Plastic is the medium through which we transport and store food, medicine, water, and just about everything else. It’s in our homes, our offices, our cars, our computers and phones, and in nearly every aspect of our lives. It makes toys, pipes, building materials, furniture, medical equipment and countless other things.  For example, by the time Kenya banned single-use plastic carrier bags in 2017, the plastic industry was supplying an estimated 100 million plastic bags to supermarkets every month.

A prevailing defence by Big Plastic is that when it comes to transporting food, beverages and other essentials to 8 billion people, plastic has the lowest carbon footprint compared to alternatives. The main problem though, is that its relatively short useful lifespan does not justify how long it persists in the environment. Even worse, most consumer plastic is designed to be used only once and discarded; US magazine advertisements in the 1950s pushed plastic as better than existing reusable products because it was cheap and easily replaceable.

Such overt advertising of the most visible pollutant we’ve ever made would not work today. The reason is that in the last six decades, plastic has progressively lost its lustre. It is unclear when plastic began losing the crowd, but one aspect of this decline in reputation was the very things that made plastic such a popular material in the first place. Plastic is cheap, so the word ‘plastic’ soon acquired a new use, as a word used to describe something that is cheap (in quality), and fake. By the late 1960s, it was increasingly clear that plastic was here to stay, and that it was not good for the environment. The growth and impact of the anti-plastics movement in the next two decades triggered questions about how the situation could be salvaged, hence the birth of recycling campaigns from the early 1970s.

Recycling was never going to work, and the proof of this is that it was a compromise solution driven primarily by the plastic industry. After a major oil spill in the United States in 1969 kindled political pressure to act on the environment, the plastic industry lobbied heavily against drastic action. Their solution was to push for recycling, although everyone involved already knew that it would not work because the technology to do it effectively did not exist at the time.

Recycling has improved since the 1980s, but it is still an ineffective way of managing all the plastic waste produced each day. Another very problematic aspect of recycling is the global waste trade, which sees countries in the West send their plastic waste to poor countries to be sorted and recycled.

We’ve always known that the hydrocarbons we so lucratively mine from the earth and transform into fuels and plastics are not just polluting the planet, but could also be affecting our health. Part of the reason for the slow pace in dealing with the threat posed by plastics, despite the fact that their ubiquity means that any potential harm could be widespread, is that the “war on plastics” has focused mainly on where discarded products end up, and the indirect impact on health. In a 2018 report, UNEP reiterated the known risk that “By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of diseases like malaria.”

However, a growing body of research now shows that plastic is not just in the environment around us, it is also inside us. Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch. We eat seafood and land animals that have consumed plastics. For example, a 2018 study by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) found plastic bags (and nylon strings and synthetic hair) in the stomachs of more than half the animals slaughtered in three major abattoirs.

“Marine and other species ingest plastics and absorb the chemicals within them,” says Erastus Ooko, Plastic Project Engagement Lead for Greenpeace Africa, “and then we ingest them. It has been clear for a long time that the toxins in their bodies are going up the food chain but it is hard to quantify in practice.”

Plastics and their additives are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the things we touch.

Further, chemicals such as Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, which is used to harden plastics and is found in a number of consumer products, including drinking containers, baby bottles, and the linings of infant formula and food cans, have also been shown to leach into foods and beverages. Thus the question is not whether we are consuming plastic, but how much of it we are consuming and with what impacts.

Although plastic is non-biodegradable in that it takes a long time to degrade, it does break down with time and usage into smaller particles known as microplastics, which can also degrade over time into even smaller particles known as nanoplastics. Most of the plastic we consume is in this micro and nano form, making it hard, but not impossible (in the case of microplastics), to detect or even study. A 2020 study found that infants consume millions of microplastic particles per litre when fed using polypropylene (PP) infant feeding bottles. PP is a common household plastic, and other studies have shown PP microplastic release from food containers, kettles, and other everyday items.

That we eat a substantial amount of microplastics is not itself a surprise—we also inhale and consume dust, sand, insects and other minute things unknowingly every day. The difference is that microplastics are synthetic and pose direct risks as foreign bodies in our bodies, and because of their chemical makeup.

We most likely excrete most of these micro plastics. But there is a significant gap in research on the damage they do to our bodies, and in what gets absorbed into the body. What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways. A 2020 report by The Endocrine Society found that “one hundred and forty-four chemicals or chemical groups known to be hazardous to human health are actively used in plastics.”

The dose makes the poison

One of these is BPA, a known endocrine disrupting chemical that interferes with normal hormonal function. These effects are not minor; studies have suggested that the disruption can lead to birth defects, developmental problems in children, cancers, and immune system suppression.

The key challenge in assessing just how badly this chemical group has affected human health is that within plastics, which are complex polymers, BPA is a benign addition. It can, however, be released as plastics wear down, or are heated repeatedly, meaning that it’s hard to trace just when and where it enters the human body and what damage it leaves behind.

Another chemical, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is a suspected carcinogen and potential endocrine disruptor. DEHP was the most common plasticiser for decades, mainly used in the making of Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) but is slowly being replaced with alternatives due to concerns about its toxicity to multiple organ systems, including the reproductive system and thyroid function. A recent study compared the levels of DEHP and two other chemicals in dog testes from several regions in Europe and found a parallel between high DEHP and testicular conditions. The study suggests that this may be indicative of the situation among human males, because dogs and human beings share the same everyday environment and are exposed to the same household contaminants.

What is known so far is that many of the materials used to make everyday plastics are harmful to human health, and that the plastics in our bodies could be harming us in multiple ways.

The most obvious place to begin when assessing the direct effects of plastics to human health is with those who make them. Since the 1970s, for example, scientists have suspected, and subsequently confirmed, that vinyl chloride, the building block of PVC, is a carcinogen that can and has led to occupational cancers. A 2011 study found a link between high DEHP concentrations in the air breathed by workers in PVC plants with negative effects on sperm motility, among other adverse effects. Another exposed group, Ooko says, are communities who live around plastic manufacturing plants, who could be suffering health conditions due to the fumes and other chemicals released during the manufacturing process.

For these and other reasons, the European Union has banned DEHP and two other chemicals from all plastic items that children might put in their mouths, such as toys, since 2007. Under new rules that came into force in 2020, this ban is now extended to all other consumer products, regulating the amount of DEHP and other potentially harmful chemicals that people come into contact with. “There has been a huge knowledge gap in how plastics affect human health. Things get attention when direct connections can be made, and the direct connections between plastic and health conditions came in at a later stage,” Ooko explains.

Similarly, chemicals used to make styrofoam products such as styrene monomer and benzene are suspected carcinogens. Then there’s the heavy metals, water repellents, and flame retardants used in the making of plastics. Although heavy metals such as lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, and bromine are found in nature, our current exposure to them is primarily through synthetic things like plastic. Some research has shown that not only are these metals, which in substantial quantities are detrimental to human health, present in plastics, but they can also be absorbed by microplastics from the environment.

In the 2000s, as our appetite for plastic exploded, scientists began focusing more and more on the health effects to human beings and animals beyond just marine life. Bans such as the DEHP bans in Europe and single-use plastic bans in Kenya and other places are driven not just by environmental concerns, but also by human health ones. This transition is still slow, because the research on health effects is still scant, and is held back by complications such as how to determine what harm plastic is doing to our health when it is present in the body of nearly every living human being.

Carlin’s comedy set ends with the idea that perhaps plastic was the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned in the first place. “It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.” Then he’d add, “Could be the answer to the age-old egocentric philosophical question: ‘Why are we here?’” It is an answer that may be slowly poisoning us.

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Culture

Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai

Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.

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Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
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Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.

That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.

Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.

The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.

Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.

Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.

While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.

I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.

Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.

There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.

Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.

My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.

On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.

On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.

Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.

Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.

In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.

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