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Double Trauma in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America

15 min read.

ALEX ROBERTS walks through the smouldering debris of Minneapolis, and discovers that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded.

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Mayhem in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America
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The assessment that all the trouble started after George Floyd had his life squeezed out, cuffed and pleading, is inaccurate. In the Midwest region, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) flew relatively below the radar of police brutality, especially compared with the notorious corruption of the Chicago Police Department, or the daily racial profiling put forth by the Milwaukee Police Department in Wisconsin.

In 2016, in neighbouring St. Paul, the murder of another unarmed black man, Philando Castile, who was shot five times by a policeman as he was reaching for his driving licence (even after announcing his intention to do so) pulled back the façade. The death of Castile was not forgotten, but it went unpunished and was left festering.

One such figure who has stood as an obstacle to progress towards a more equitable and just police department is Bob Kroll, the President of the Minneapolis Police Union. Kroll is an avid Donald Trump surrogate (even appearing on stage with the president at rallies), and has been accused of open bias in favour of police action by any means, and of having close ties to white supremacist groups. Kroll is a microcosm of the split within Minneapolis.

What is unclear now is how much of a hand the “Bob Krolls” of the city played in the last several days However, nearly every resident of the area believes the police helped stir up the situation.

The timeline of events went roughly as follows:

On the Monday Memorial Day holiday, George Floyd was murdered.

Tuesday saw primarily peaceful protests around the 3rd Precinct on Lake Street and at the site of the murder; but also on Tuesday there seemed to be some sort of instigation, although the exact “who threw down first” question is impossible to say, but in one instance a suspected officer was filmed breaking glass with a hammer at an auto shop while carrying an umbrella.

On Wednesday, the protests escalated as the officer had not been arrested yet and police actions began to intensify.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation. By late night Thursday, Lake Street for several blocks on either side of the precinct had devolved into chaos and fires had been lit, most notably destroying the police station itself, forcing police into a hasty retreat.

The situation continued on Friday as police initially stayed out of the area entirely, letting it burn and allowing residents to fend for themselves. They then went in with no mercy in the evening hours. (All or nothing for the MPD.)

With the police department dead set on “enforcing order” instead of calming the situation, the riot police were widely reported to be enacting a policy of violent action first, consequences be damned. Authority in America truly does despise any pushback.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation.

Instigators began to come out at night, both from inside the community and many from outside of it. There were multiple reports of white supremacists taking action and clashing in the area, as well as ANTIFA instigators, undercover cops, random out of state people, white kids in from the suburbs to kick up some shit and loot, Minneapolis citizens venting rage and Lake Street residents fighting the would-be instigators. All this, not to mention undercover cops stirring the pot and marked police cracking down on the crowd.

One man, a resident of the area, said of the previous night: “I was at the precinct last night. It was not what you want; people were walking up behind protesters and putting big ass fireworks at the feet of protesters. I watched Wells Fargo burn down. Now you see people who live here out here and cleaning? You know at night it’s a different thing. I think it is hired people. I don’t know who or from where but it is a coordinated effort. I’m hoping there’s just not much less to destroy down here.”

The fire-setters were of particular concern, as random Molotov cocktails were seemingly accompanied by more organised elements. The fires had ripped through seemingly dozens of businesses; large and small alike were not spared. Cars, burned down to white-hot ashy metal dotted parking lots in the surrounding area, particularly in the parking lots of bigger stores like the Target at the corner of Lake and 26th. Graffiti was everywhere, tagged in red and black. Slogans of “Fuck 12” (meaning police), “Death to Pigs”, “No Justice”, “Say His Name” were becoming ubiquitous across exposed brick and hastily thrown up plywood covering shop windows.

The area is the hub of the Twin Cities Somali community, a group of immigrants that has thrived in Minnesota over the last quarter century. Families from all over East Africa and beyond have made these leafy avenues one of the major centres of the diaspora, and now their shops were facing down a situation far outside of their control.

Some of the plywood had desperate pleas to be spared: “Don’t Burn: We Live Upstairs” and “No Fire: This is A BLACK OWNED BUSINESS.” Even stores that seemed to have managed to protect themselves were not spared on closer inspection; in several stores, water poured out from the cracks underneath the sheets of spray paint covered boarding. The low buzz of alarms was everywhere, some gurgling last chirps through the damage of flames, baseball bats and fire system flooding.

As a retired gardener named Madeline who lived off Lake Street said of the situation: “There is a criminal element looking to set fires. We just took a fire bomb out of a cooler outside the Precision Tune store. There’s no sense to this. The criminal elements are coming in on the coat-tails of the protesters and taking up the opportunity. They are very organised. Get your block club organised, coz it is up to us now.”

Now on Saturday, all of this served as an absolutely bizarre tableau. Empty hulking shells of businesses stood wobbly on pillars, surrounding ash and smoldering ruin within.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Streaming past were brooms. Lone people at first, then twos and threes, and looking down Lake Street, a constant stream running up for miles, thousands of people, carrying brooms, shovels, dustpans, snow shovels – all making their way in to clean and salvage.

So many were willing to help their city, and so thorough a job they did that many commented that Lake Street was in fact cleaner than it had ever been. The result gave the impression of a Hollywood movie set – smouldering ruins of structures scattered around spotless asphalt.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Outside an Ethiopian restaurant burned to a husk, with only the sign seeming to survive wholly intact, hundreds of people swept and shoveled up bricks and glass, some even tossing pieces of rubble into wheelbarrows. Inside, not even the floor had survived; it was now a smouldering plank looking down into the cellar of twisted beams intermingling with cracked and leaking water pipes.

Down the road, two doors down from the Kismayo Bakery, they continued, picking up glass by hand, scrubbing at graffiti with sponges, serving as fire brigades and throwing buckets of water onto embers.

In those initial hours of the afternoon, there was an eerie absence of voices; only the scrap of shovels and the swish of brooms broke the silence. The closest historical resemblance was that of Londoners removing rubble after Nazi bombing runs during the Blitz. As most were wearing masks, the eyes spoke of shell shock in the blocks around the Third Police precinct.

An older Somali man stood at the corner, looking at the ruins of a four-storey building about to collapse. He never stopped shaking his head, “This is not good, it is useless. This? You hurt people like this? No…no…no.” He didn’t say this to anyone in particular. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He turned and walked, defeated, up a side street.

Outside a half burned dentists’ office block on Chicago Avenue, a fire truck finally made an appearance, pouring down water that subsequently spilled out onto the street, washing chunks of charred debris around the feet of volunteers who stood in line waiting for the Afro Cafe workers to hand them packed samosas and veggie pilau.

It seemed like every half a block, people — the real representatives of Longfellow – offered up food, bottled water, and sunscreen. Some just asked the passersby if they needed to talk, whether they were holding up alright. The US media, somehow, managed to not highlight any of these organised efforts, though they stood in multitude in solidarity together – masked up and wearing T-shirts painted with “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE”. They took up the mantle of helping their neighboruhood, even as the police abandoned them, the overriding sentiment being “Let them burn each other down”. Instead, the people of Lake Street collected food, redistributed it, and did their damnedest to save every business on the block, even risking their necks to clean the inside of a giant burned-out Target superstore that surely never raised the minimum wage.

As often rings true, those most at risk do the most work. Perhaps this is why it was first- generation immigrants, many from the African diaspora, who spearheaded efforts to galvanise the community towards rebuilding, even as the fires smouldered around them, and the smell of chemical spray paint and the sickly sweet remains of tear gas intermingled with smoke from torched cars. In the midst of the fumes, they painted the word “Love” on the outside of a boarded-up grocery store.

On the nightly news, anchors feigned shock that convenience stores got robbed by three white teenagers in balaclavas, but there was no mention of the thousands who faced down the pandemic together for change and then took up brooms instead of bricks.

Two local teachers barked out this order to a waiting contingent of volunteers: “Get the chalk! Draw lines around this block so it is not hit!”

One of the women stopped to pause a second, murmuring to a random lady on the sidewalk, “Those people aren’t from Minneapolis, the ones burning? They’re not. All of us are here with this COVID? This is a double trauma. This is a great city. I can’t believe this would happen here. People live in some of the buildings being burned. Why would we do that to ourselves?”

A major question rings through: If anger is rightfully centred on the MPD, where were other first responders? If the city truly supported the cause for change, then where were the crews of medical workers handing out PPE?

This was failure at every level: an already stretched thin city abandoned, an already marginalised community threatened; the looming spectre of COVID hanging over it all.

Indeed, if it is possible to be simultaneously aggressive and passive, the emergency systems of Minneapolis managed to achieve both, threading the needle of uselessness. The city government isn’t entirely blameless either; while it may be convenient to blame only the Bob Kroll cop-fetishist types, the city’s “openly progressive” mayor, Jacob Frey, rightfully deserves criticism for his decision to let the protests continue unabated even as they became volatile into the nights of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. While instigators set up fire bombs, the police, dressed to kill, stayed on the sidelines, seeming only to break their holding pattern to beat, arrest and pepper spray the wrong (non-white) people, often pulling from the peaceful crowd to do so.

“Hands Up!” at the Fifth Precinct

Then there were the dressed-to-kill cops. They were huddled, half a dozen or so, behind trash cans and barricades on the roof of the 5th Precinct. Across the street, the Wells Fargo bank branch was in ruins; a car burned down to the rims lay next to a drive-through ATM machine.

Fences surrounded the station, and as the protesters moved closer, the officers silently put on bulky blue plastic riot helmets.

This initial reaction of gearing up to do battle seemed strange, particularly as how this same group of protesters, minutes before, was in the Uptown district of Lake Street, blocking off an entire intersection, taking a knee and chanting, “SAY HIS NAME! GEORGE FLOYD!” With signs they came in, perhaps six thousand of them, crowding in around the fences, chanting in unison.

Not a stone was thrown and the cops kept gearing up.

“What do we want? ALL FOUR!” the crowd chanted incessantly. It was led by a tiny teenage girl in a “HANDS UP! DON’T SHOOT!” shirt, yelling into a megaphone while steadying herself on top of a concrete barricade.

“All four” means arresting, trying and convicting all four cops that were present when George Floyd died. The sentiment is clear, there are no halfway measures to justice this time. All or nothing and f**k compromise. That road just leads back to this point.

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting. He died cruelly, needlessly, helplessly, and three other cops let it happen; they were complicit in a daylight murder on Chicago Avenue. Not even a live cell phone camera recording and pleas of onlookers could change Floyd’s fate.

“These are the people that really live here,” one man said as he pushed an overloaded dumpster out of the road to help ease traffic. “This is actually us.”

Non-violence seemed the overall sentiment; anger definitely, but not a violent energy that wasn’t the centre of this movement. Even the non-violent were met with brutal police response, however, seemingly unprovoked in many instances.

Even some of the shop owners who had their shops burned still stood in solidarity, with the mantra of “possessions can be replaced but justice needs to be permanent”.

A man on a bicycle wearing a lime green Nigerian national squad football jersey elaborated on what he’d seen. He’d driven all the way from New York City and was quickly lumped in with the rowdier elements, as the police opened up on all of them: “I was there last night man, I was just there, not doing shit, not holding shit. I got shot in the leg with a rubber bullet, anything that could be burned was, from my eyes. My leg is swollen as shit man.”

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting.

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

At the corner of Wells Fargo, a fifty-something black woman, N-95 mask dangling around her neck, gathered a crowd around her, rebuking the destructive elements and calling on the crowd to do the same: “We gotta get some control in this, we really, really do. Don’t sit here and try to blame the cops, the only thing they’re to blame for is not standing their ground. They left us. Do the peaceful protests man But if you go out and tear up the stores? Don’t go into that! I told my sons that! They pulled guns on my sons and I told them not to be out here. Don’t tell me how to feel!”

Even more to the core than “outside elements” the common theme always circles back to how the police cracked down to such an extreme that people were forced into a corner, thinking that they were suddenly facing down a deadly circumstance with a riot gear-laden officer representing a department that just asphyxiated an unarmed, handcuffed black man in broad daylight and now were in their face swinging clubs and firing tear gas canisters with the intention of hurting people.

When forced into such circumstances, can it really be expected to never swing back?

Three men in their late twenties, Sam, Marvin and Anish (Marvin had moved to Minneapolis from Eldoret, Kenya, years ago), who all live north of the metro line in Minneapolis, attested to the conditions that primed the city’s protests.

“I don’t think they take the precautions they need to when it comes to black folks,” Marvin said, stone-faced.

Sam weighed in. “As black men we go out our way to say ‘hi’ to people, just to make them feel comfortable. Now Trump calling people thugs and shit, now saying ‘hi’ to you might not be valid anymore. F**k him man. That’s his first tweet, why not George Floyd? Why not the protests? We’ve been quiet for too long. This is exactly what happens when you don’t think about change. What do you want us to do, sit back and be quiet?”

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

“Exactly!” Anish exclaimed, while holding a sign that read “Where’s Justice For George? No Justice For Us?” and shifting the sign onto the handles of his bike before continuing, “Everybody’s frustrated. Enough is enough It’s a cycle though. Same as Baltimore and St. Louis. Rodney King was when? We don’t have to do this, we don’t have to get to this point. This woulda been another closed case. People in Minnesota avoid these issues. Things get swept in this city man.”

A few blocks away, the echoes of “Say His NAME! GEORGE FLOYD” reverberated around store fronts. All up and down the block, countless hands worked furiously, scrubbing away, and screwing in more plywood barricades to stave off the inevitable.

In the adjacent alley, four tactical police units, shaved heads and wrap-around reflective sunglasses, buckled up their flak jackets.

A cocktail of volatility stirred

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts!” There, in small Twitter font, Trump quoted a white supremacist police chief from Miami back in the 60s, and the reaction on the ground was a sarcastic, “Tell us how you really feel”.

Much has been made of the fermenting of some uglier sentiments of American culture, old ghosts bubbling back up to prominence in the age of Trumpism. On Sunday, May 31st, the right-wing talking heads made little mention of the white supremacist who attempted to mirror the truck attack in the French city of Nice by plowing a petrol tanker into the peaceful protesters marching down interstate 35. He missed them, and in his panic that he hadn’t committed mass murder, slowed down, only to be swarmed by people jumping onto the hood and the sides, kicking out the windshield and dragging him out, ensuring he wasn’t beaten so badly that he couldn’t be handed over roughly to the police, who promptly tried to detain one of the would-be-terrorist’s captors.

When the “looting” starts, the shooting starts…clearly. For this administration, all black faces are looters and all those who demand justice for George Floyd are violent ANTIFA thugs. It matters not that they hold signs that read “I Can’t Breathe!”, and that they walk in solidarity with hands up and that there are young people, even children, in the crowds demanding change. This peaceful movement, for the Trump administration, is terrifying and they’re desperately grasping at straws to paint it only through negativity, and further drown out the growing voices who see the obvious realities of inequity.

The disconnect of political ideologies is clearer than ever within the age of COVID and Trumpism, but during the opening salvo of what seems to be a movement, it rings all the starker.

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

The unfortunate part for Minneapolis is how heavily the movement got hijacked.

Sitting out in her lawn ten blocks from the 3rd Precinct, Amy Froiland Parada, a social worker focusing on health services for lower income families from a St. Paul high school, reflects on the last few days.

“People are stirring up all kinds of fear. On my block, (she points around at houses) those guys all fled. I didn’t feel scared until this morning, when I heard that the fire bombs could be organised. When I heard the helicopters, when I heard about the precinct burning down, I thought, you know what? We need a change here. And now…now we’re texting our neighbours and telling them to hide their propane tanks, keep hoses and buckets handy.”

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

Parada has made inroads into the community here through her work and through neighbourhood meetings with members of local predominantly black churches. Now those very same neighbours are under threat. “Tonight, there are people taking shifts to guard the black church around the corner. There’s that fear, the fear it could be targeted. I just truly, truly don’t believe that it is people from this neighbourhood doing all of this.” Her primary concern is how organised the violence seems.

There is truly an element of the Lake Street protests that doesn’t make sense, namely, why Lake Street? Sure the 3rd Precinct is there, but that doesn’t answer the riddle of why the street has been the focal point of the conflict.

In a primed America, however, it might. As coronavirus has brought the world’s “most powerful nation” and “best economy” to its knees, ugly truths have been revealed. Cops are shooting journalists with rubber bullets at point blank range on live television. Young people of colour are so frustrated that they are willing to put up with brutalisation just to be heard – and brutalised they are.

All of this, during the greatest global pandemic in a century, and the desperate clinging to bullshit ideals of “normalcy” from the political class and the controlling interests of the economy. America was never for everyone; African Americans have known this all along. And now, as the financial stability of everyone has cratered through unreachable floor after unreachable floor, such sentiment is spreading. People are risking brutalisation on their heads from clubs while risking brutalisation of their lungs and lives from COVID-19.

There is truly a severe anger right now- the altruistic tendencies that marked the early weeks of the COVID pandemic have been replaced with people who have been left behind and told by their leader that “the White House has handled everything perfectly”.

The young people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Black America is tired of seeing the movie on repeat, an endless loop.

As one man said of the issue in Minneapolis: “I ain’t burned shit yet, but I am. They put their knee on us too much, it isn’t like a typical way, it’s like a system way. A lot of people feeling the same way, it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Now, with money running thin and the crises deepening, the marginalised are gaining a voice that’s becoming a deepening bellow. But for every action, there’s a reaction. Those who would quell those voices, the elements on the other side of the divide mobilised too.

All those elements hit Lake Street like a cyclone; the anger fermented in a desperate and politically divided America poured out into the fires set to Longfellow shops.

The melting pot of the upper Midwest became a cauldron in the days since George Floyd, and as things stand economically, who can say if it’ll ever return to prominence. All of those immigrant-owned businesses, generations of work, gone in a fire bomb.

As Parada describes the situation, “It is almost like someone is trying to come in and stir up a race war up here.”

It is that concern that encapsulates the darkest thoughts that creep in – that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded. Through this lens, is it truly an act of chance that all of these minority and immigrant-run shops and restaurants started being targeted early on?

In the winding streets of the wealthy lakeside homes south of Lake Street, no less than 20 police SUVs, lined up in a row: they were calming the situation down by guarding the rich miles away from the problem. It was then that the class segregation parallels between a city like Nairobi and Minneapolis become crystal clear: when the chips are down, keep the masses away from true wealth.

To that end, if South Minneapolis is truly ahead of its time, is it so hard to believe that there are elements within America that seek to drag it backwards?

Indeed, the George Floyd protests have been a litmus test for the progress of the neighbourhood. But if the last few days are any indication, residents of Lake Street will come out with brooms, and together they’ll sweep up America’s mess.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.

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Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.

Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?

We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.

Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.

According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.

Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.

But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital

Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.

After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.

At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.

Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy

Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.

While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.

Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’

When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.

Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.

Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.

After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?

Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.

El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’

Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.

Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.

Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology

The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.

Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.

‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.

On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.

Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.

The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.

Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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We Need New Names

Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we must decolonise our languages and dismantle colonial borders based on imagined ethnicities.

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In late 2019, the Luanda Boda Boda Riders’ Association purchased a bus for public service. The association is located along the Maseno-Luanda border and its membership is largely drawn from the Luanda and Maseno catchment area.

The name of the association has a lot to do with the state of our union as a country or even as a region. It is a microcosm of ethno-nationalist tensions existing in Kenya and many other regions of Africa, and the changing times that bring new and multiple ways to negotiate these invented differences. The boda boda association is a chance to look at how we negotiate citizenship daily, and how we can overcome some essentialist ideals that are so deeply entrenched in eastern Africa.

The boda boda association draws membership from Luanda and Maseno, two small towns that are barely three kilometers apart. Maseno was established as a mission town and gets its name from oseno, which is a Luo word for the indigenous tree that used to be dominant in the area before ecological colonialism. The Kinyore (the Luhya sub-group inhabiting the Maseno and Luanda corridor) calls the same tree luseno. Oseno has since been colonised by the blue gum commonly called bao, which is indigenous to Australia. Young people would be at pains to identify oseno in Maseno today. Shortly before colonialism, Luanda had been established by a Luo chief from Gem Yala. Currently Luanda is dominantly a Luhya town, and it is located in Vihiga County. I have grown to like the sound of Maseno. For me, the word conjures pleasant images of green hilly spaces.

Imperial creations

Kenya, like the majority of other African countries, has never been a nation-state.  Kenya’s territorial boundary, as we now recognise it on maps, was drawn exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920. It is a border that split, for example, the Luos into three different countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). As part of these colonial processes, the Somali people were also split into three countries, with a section of them occupying Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and Somaliland. It is instructive to recall that coastal East Africa presented similar challenges. The current Zanzibari semi-autonomy in Tanzania and the conspicuous Pwani Si Kenya slogan are witness to the inherent pressures in the formation of nation-states in this part of the world. The boda boda riders in Maseno-Luanda zone show us only too well how we have an incomplete sense of ourselves and our politics when we are inclined to always think and conceive of ourselves and our communities as complete.

In 1929, the colonial administrator, Charles W. Hobley, said, “The Kikuyu and its blood relations on the slopes of Mount Kenya are, next to the Kavirondo, the most numerous native society in Kenya colony. They have no internal homogeneity, so were brought under control section by section.”

Therefore, the Kikuyu as we popularly know them today, are a creation of the colonial empire and each section was amalgamated onto another until they were made to imagine themselves as one whole part. This imagination has seeped into the dominant Kikuyu popular imagination, yet tensions still exist on who should claim the authentic Kikuyu title and name. A popular myth names Murang’a as the place where Mumbi first set foot, and thus the Kiambu Kikuyu are actually considered proper Kikuyu as opposed to the Murang’a Kikuyu who have interacted with the Embu and Meru communities. It is weird how we still stick to these categories as authentic, without the slightest examination of the histories and names behind them.

Electoral voting patterns and the legendary Kiambu-Muranga division still remind the Kikuyu of their incompleteness as a nation. This also applies to what we have think of as the Luos, the Luhyas, etc. The “tribes” (I will use the terms community or nations) as we see them today were invented in the colonial era. The introduction of a centralised and domineering government was a creation of the British empire. It was created along the Westphalian Christian state system to enhance resource extraction and organise labour along pliant and easily micromanage-able paradigms in Kenya.

Before colonialism, local communities had several centres of power, not necessarily along political lines, but sometimes along religious leaders and familial loyalties. This is still evident in the way religion plays a major role in our conception of ourselves and their celebrity status in national governance dialogues. As an illustration, Mgahanya, the rainmaker of the Banyore community in colonial Kenya, drew his power not from politics but from his hereditary technology of controlling rains. Indeed, Mgahanya’s power would be sought by the Luo neighbours as well whenever the need arose to have a rainmaker present. For his prowess and popularity, Hobley gave Mgahanya the title of a principal chief, thereby instilling new ways of looking at a rainmaker, not as a helper in the society but as someone who had the power to lord and rule over his relatives, friends and foes with an iron fist. Mgahanya’s rainmaking power was finally, and dramatically, curtailed by Hobley himself.  In divesting Mgahanya of his political power gained through rainmaking, Hobley instituted new ways of gaining power in the society. Power would never be the same again in eastern Africa.

Evidently, government in pre-imperial Kenya was largely by consensus. But this was not always the case. The Mazrui family’s control of the slave trade in Mombasa reminds us that consensus was not always the default governance case in colonial and pre-colonial Kenya and that power was not always benign. In other words, the long history of governance in Kenya has experienced ruptures and transformations. Perhaps this history, culture and knowledge of power might be useful when we finally decide to finally form a government that is focused on ourselves. This would be a better alternative to the exhausting gerrymandering the political elites in Kenya frequent.

Moreover, Hobley, in Kenya: From a Chartered Company to a Crown Colony, further notes that he played an important part in reviving the importance of the Kiama among the Kikuyu, but of course to enhance colonial government. The idea of a Kikuyu elders was revitalised and invented as an essentialised entity by the colonial government. While reconstituting the tribe for the colonial agenda, Hobley instructed the heads of the Kiama (for whom he invented the title “chiefs”) to be detached from their compatriots in order to give proper judgments. In one instruction, the Kiama authority was not only centralised but also given sweeping powers and stripped of communal ethos and emotions. The colonial reconstruction of African societies was an unmitigated cultural disaster whose legacies we still contend with in present-day Kenya, such as the nationalist insinuations in differentiating Luos from the Banyore people in the Maseno-Luanda corridor.

From Hobley’s new ways of creating and accumulation of power, political leaders in Kenya have since stuck to the idea of leadership as a manifestation of paramount chiefs. The impersonal detachment and the attempts by public officials to centralise power can also be seen in how Kenyan doctors perceive their patients, how head teachers treat poor parents, how immigration and customs officials mistreat Kenyans in their own country, how bus conductors mishandle passengers, and how factories pollute Lake Victoria and its environs with impunity. The colonial system is replicated in every public sphere. Scarcely does one transcend this system.

The Westphalian state 

After the end of colonialism, we did not take stock of our various systems of power and ways of naming in the community. Rather, we adopted and imported the Westphalian state model that was used to institute various hegemons, with each community waiting for a turn to lord over other communities. The communities that have been at the helm have ensured that the patronage system instituted by Carey Francis, Charles Hobley, and Lord Delamere, among others, has been perfected for a post-independence Kenya. Community nationalism as a basis for mobilising power is a narrative that has been employed in Kenya. This happened right from the first Kenyan president to the present president, since they could not pursue an alternative Africanist ideology with which to administer the country. They failed to either take notes from or apply the history of the country as far as governance was exercised. They lost a grand chance to decolonise governance and bring back the government to “we the people” of Kenya. And now Luanda boda boda riders have shown us how one can undermine such dominant narratives.

To appreciate this, one needs to understand that Maseno-Luanda is divided along “Luo” and “Luhya” communities. During each election period, this division is amplified by politicians. They incite tribal animosity among people who ordinarily intermarry, language differences notwithstanding. Indeed, the dhoLuo language has evolved to use Semeji or Omejo in reference to Luhya in-laws. That is how frequent intermarriage occurs here and how transcultural conversations have been conducted here despite the politicians and Kenyan comedians who frequently prop up negative ethnicity in their speeches and performances, respectively.

Maseno was the place the Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries established the first Anglican church in western Kenya, circa 1906. The two communities grew around this church. Along with the growth of the church, the established ethnic differences also grew. Thus, Maseno Mixed Primary School would later be created, not as a mixed school for boys and girls, but as a mixed school for Luos and Luhyas! The idea of “mixed” in this case was founded on ways of negotiating cultural differences and not to denote gender.

For a while, in its long history, this primary school had its own Luhya and Luo staff coming to teach at different times of the day. Independence-era Kenya would see the split of this Maseno Anglican church into North and South. Maseno South diocese became the Luo church while Maseno North diocese became the Luhya church. The growth of Maseno as a mission town was doomed due to its cultural topography. The Maseno South diocese relocated its headquarters deep in Luo land, to Kisumu. Maseno North pushed its diocese deep in Luhya land to Kakamega. In other words, a single Christian religion could not keep its adherents from the two cultures together. This was the design of the colonial government. Each community would be coalesced together within itself, especially as a way of breaking down each community’s governance structures. But inter-community solidarity would be robustly discouraged. Mgahanya would eventually be appointed a principal chief within the Banyore community, after all his power was no longer needed among the neighbouring Luo, for Hobley had effectively taken charge of administering the Luo nation.

The independence-era Kenyan state also drew a border between the two communities, locating Maseno in Luo Nyanza and Luanda in Western Province.  This imagined boundary was based on the colonial separation of the Luo from the Luhya. What if the boundary was to be re-drawn along matters that boda boda operators find useful, such as geographical features, and not along ethnic territories? For boda boda operators, features such as hills, muddy terrains, valleys and flat lands denote how much fuel a motorbike consumes.

We need new solidarities 

Can we have associations not based on the colonial structures, like this boda boda group does? Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. Post-independence Kenya has cost lives, in the name of the community. The Kenyatta presidency quickly consolidated ethnic capital to misrule the state. Ethnic patronage quickly grew deep roots and it has irretrievably thrived, until now. Nearly all the chiefs under Moi rule were imperial personalities in their own right and might, just like they were in colonial Kenya.

We need new solidarities like the Luanda Boda Boda Association, but devoid of unchecked rugged capitalist ambitions. Kenya’s model of its solidarity is based on capital accumulation. In the fullness of its agenda, organisations founded on purely commercial interests morph into monopolies and create the same trap that the founders initially ran away from: poverty, disempowerment and powerlessness for others. The Luanda Boda Boda Association might not be cognisant of the fact that the public transport business is usually the function of an operational government. Even if they are, they have chosen to ignore that, under the illusion that they are working hard and sustaining themselves. The self-employment agenda of this association rips apart ethnic loyalties because it co-opts Luo and Luhya communities.

I am not into economics, here, I am on the use and ab-use of names – how innocent names like Luanda Boda Boda Association circumvent a nationalist current. The afterlives of this name embrace the inclusion of other communities not associated with the cultural geography of the Maseno-Luanda route. The association teaches us how to bring back two communities that have been divided by colonial and post-colonial Kenyan rulers. Resiliently, the people still head back to certain elements of solidarity that existed way before the arrival of Hobley and his imperial British associates.

At the same time, we might have to remember that Luanda was founded by a Luo chief, as we are reminded by Bethwel Ogot who convincingly presents this event in his autobiography My Footprints in the Sands of Time. Contrary to its founding, Luanda is currently located in a Luhya-administered ethnopolis. The street-level motorcycle association undermines the political narrative in the control of Maseno-Luanda borderlands. The politics of Maseno-Luanda is pegged on community divisions. These boda boda motorcyclists, however, teach us lessons on cosmopolitanisms.

It is also instructive to recall that the Maseno-Luanda topic is a divisive factor and always comes up during election periods.  However, the boda boda riders frequently move in and out of Luo and Luhya “tribal” zones conveniently and daily, with or without electoral cycles. If only the road network could catch up with the socialised motorcycle networks! These riders transcend the names and political divisions that were issued by the colonialists and their successors in post-colonial Kenya.

Boda boda riders transport passengers with little reference to ethnic origins. They move within and around the Luo and Banyore nations. Indeed, the motorbikes work across the tribal difference in a way that seems to shorten the already -narrow cultural distance between the two communities. In the process, they circulate cultural contacts between the two, and defy the political elite who thrive on the divisions. And now their bus will move passengers beyond Luo and Luhya nations. Linguists will observe the historical and structural complexities that separate Luloogoli, Libukusu and Kinyore from the Luo language, the obvious one being that dhoLuo is a Nilotic language and the other dialects belong to the Bantu language family.

The thing with language is that one owns the power to name things, to make a world with yourself at the center, to rewrite (hi)stories of far-flung peripheries. Take the ethnonym Luhya, as an example. Before this coinage, the Luhya were part of the Kavirondo people. The Kavirondo was initially the Eastern Province of Uganda before it was switched to Kisumu Province of the East Africa Protectorate, and finally moved to western Kenya. The umbrella term Kavirondo included both Nilotes and Bantus around Lake Victoria, all the way to Mumias and Mount Elgon. The freedom of colonialists’ naming of African communities was an enaction of the powerlessness of these communities vis-à-vis the colonial imagination and grammar. Within the Luhya nation there are a total of about 17 linguistic groups. The term Luhya is an artificially constructed ethnolinguistic reference to many closely related (some of which are not mutually intelligible) Bantu-speaking peoples. They include the Bukusu, Tachoni, Wanga, Marama, Tsotso, Tiriki, Nyala, Kabras, Hayo, Marachi, Holo, Maragoli, Idakho, Isukha, Kisa, Nyore, and Samia in Western Kenya. Their cultural divergences are many and multilayered, with the Tachoni tracing their ancestry to the Nilotic group of Nandi in the around the 14th century.

To fit yourself in a name that classified and considered you part of exotica needs careful self-extraction out of such languages.  This need is even more immediate when one remembers how this classification was done without the agency and input of the local people and their collective consciousness and knowledge systems. Thus, the iLoikop people are made into Maasai, the iSampuru became Samburu. The various communities known as Nandi, Kipsikis, Pokoot, and Tugen are collapsed into an easily classifiable and ruled “tribe” called Kalenjin. This is in spite of the cultural and linguistic differences between them. In these cultural acrobatic movements mediated by colonialist linguistics, Kakamega (spelled as Kakumega in colonial orthography) was not the name of a town but an ethnonym in reference to the Idakho and Isukha communities.

If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we need a new generation of names. We need Names 2.0. These names could consider political and cultural differences and histories. We need a new name for a governance that will neither be called kleptocratic nor a kakistocracy. We need new names for Luos, who pride themselves in Nyikwa Ramogi (based on a point of origin, not a colonial classification). Don’t we need a new name for the daughters and sons of Mumbi? We need new names that denote plurality, but account for differentiated identities, like the Mijikenda. (My translation of “Mijikenda” would not be a tribe but “nine homes”.) We need decolonised names in order to open or transcend some of the worlds which were closed by colonial naming processes.

Renaming ourselves might not be an easy way to redesign our nominal worlds, which were forced into cruel unions in Berlin in December 1884. It might even prove to be a messy but it is still a necessary activity. We need to open these worlds that were closed by colonial naming processes, like the Luanda Boda Boda Association has done. Every time we use these new colonial names, we acknowledge the problematic grammar that inherently operates within them. We also reiterate that the names did not aim to usefully matter to Africans. We repeat the insufficiency of English to capture the nuances that exist in our cultural worldviews and political lives.

I must reiterate here that these names were not arbitrarily drawn; they were created to enhance control. Perhaps post-colonial eastern Africa should ask what control mechanism the various ethno-nationalities initiate. For example, the Luhya group is one of the reminders that ethno-nationalism is an invention that is a mirage. It was created for divide et imperium purposes. As Bethwel Ogot reminds us, there was no Luhya empire prior to colonialism. Yet the colonial history implies the presence of a Luhya empire. The Nabongo Mumia was no threat to the neighbouring Kager clan. However, as a paramount chief, Nabongo Mumia, was a creation of the British to pacify western Kenya, especially to control the northeastern Kager clan of the so-called Luos.

We need new names, donge?

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Fifty Years Later, The Caged Bird Still Sings

The ultimate point of westernising our curriculum was not for us to forget our cultures. It was for power to keep exploiting us by killing our ability to imagine a different reality.

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A few years ago, I attended a public lecture by Micere Mugo at the University of Nairobi. The event was electrifying, and three memories have stayed with me.

First was to hear Prof. Mugo’s journey as an African woman in an anti-African world. Recounting her journey was not a story about herself, but a story about all of us. From the toxic space that was (and still is) Kenya, to Zimbabwe where she initially landed, and finally the United States, Prof Mugo was profoundly African and connected with brothers and sisters wherever she landed. She would later speak at a lecture at Riara University words which I tweeted and which may therefore not be verbatim: “If you have chosen the path of struggle, you must have the courage to build a new home wherever your path leads. Don’t romanticise home; you must have the courage to make new homes and new roots.”

The second memory was a brilliant orature-performance by Mshai Mwangola in her introduction of Micere Mugo. The performance included the rehashing of a heated conversation on African studies that had been launched in 1995 by Phillip Curtin, the eminent African history scholar in the United States. Curtin expressed concern that African history scholarship was being reduced to a “ghetto” because American universities were reserving African history positions for African faculty rather than considering competence. Prof. Mugo’s response then was captivating, and Mshai’s performance seared it in my memory so deeply that a few years later, I was inspired by Prof Mugo’s courage to take a similar stand.

The third memory was a sadder one. In the afterglow of electrifying performances by scholars and students, a University of Nairobi student asked Prof. Mugo during the question and answer session: “How can you help us the youth [it’s always “the youth”] get the opportunities you got?”

Clearly, the student didn’t hear Prof. Mugo recount being arrested, fleeing the country with two young daughters and having her Kenyan citizenship nullified. In an act of amazing mental acrobatics, the student’s mind cut out Prof. Mugo’s journey and fixated the whole time on the optics. All that the student saw was an elder (that’s what the term “youth” is for — to disconnect young people from the stories of their elders) who was based in the US (where we all aspire to go) and who was now launching a book. Kenyan youth need to be successful like that (never mind the tears) and this student wanted to know, not how to do what Prof. Mugo had done, but how Prof. Mugo could help her achieve the same feat of working in the US and standing at a podium in Kenya.

That disconnect, between the stories of the elders and the fixation of the youth with optics, is something with which we teachers of literature constantly struggle. Students these days are spectacularly unable to enjoy stories and to explore their imagination. The school system teaches children to turn off their hearts and minds when they listen to stories. Kenyans have told me on social media that when they encountered our folk tales in class, the primary thing they were asked was to identify “the moral of the story”.

My own difficult experience teaching literature bears this out. Students’ response to every African story is that “the white man stole our culture, we are ashamed of our identity and need to return to our cultures”. But even as they limit colonialism to an exclusively cultural enterprise, they are not able to connect with stories of the past to which they say we should return to.

For instance, when I teach one of my favorite Kenyan plays, Omtatah’s rendition of the Luo legend Lwanda Magere, the students cannot see a story from the past. They see politics, not humanity or esthetics. Some see the story as ethnic and exclusively Luo, so they cannot discuss the legend as an artistic and human expression. Other students who’ve heard something about feminism say that the legend demonstrates how African women are relegated to the role of “housewives”. Who can blame the students for thinking that way when the theater performance Brazen missed the tragic aspect of the legend and sensualised the Lang’o princess? Another student said that Lwanda Magere was an ogre and read the story as a motivational speech with teachings which “help one to live to its optimal success”.

And just before Kenyan adults distance themselves from these responses and blame the 8.4.4 system, they need to see that the youth are just responding with the language we have taught them. Remember the excitement about the movie Black Panther which electrified the world? For Kenyans, the primary concern was the authenticity of the accents and the depiction of Africa. Some went so far as to say – no chills – that they are glad not to have the same identity crises as African Americans. At least we Kenyans know who we are, they said, something that I highly doubt when I look at how profoundly Eurocentric the Kenyan government is.

Educated Kenyans are spectacularly unable to suspend reality and enjoy a story for what it is, because esthetics and imagination have been alienated from the arts in Kenya. Even our drama festivals are about competition and “talent”, not a celebration of the richness of our cultures. These days, the festival even requires plays to be written to the chosen political theme of the year, and now students are not writing plays because the schools are hiring professional playwrights to improve the schools’ chances of winning.

But that is not as annoying as the clichéd lament about talent that is repeated in almost every sphere of Kenyan life. The lament goes something like this: “Our drama festivals show how much talent we have, but that talent goes to waste because nobody gives the youth the chance to use it”. I detest that line because what Kenyans call “talent” is a concept which refuses to see the arts as work, skill and knowledge, and instead seeks comfort in the quasi-Senghorian idea of arts being in our DNA as Africans because our skin is black. The concept of “talent” demeans African work, knowledge and skill, and demeans Africans as thinking beings. But as the public narrative goes, knowledge in Kenya is “useless theory”. We Kenyans don’t waste time on thinking, imagining and creating; we benchmark solutions which work.

In any case, talent is not wasted after school. What happens is that Kenyan artists who outgrow the narrow drama festival box will meet another headmaster called Ezekiel Mutua who will crush their work in the name of morality, and he will get support from a significant proportion of the Kenyan church. Ironically, Mutua will praise drama festivals as producing people who “make money and find a life”, establish industries comparable to manufacturing, and promote the programmes of government ministries. In other words, humanity is not at the heart of the arts.

And that logic seeps into the universities and education policy. It is now a Kenyan truism that arts education is a waste of the country’s resources and that arts programmes should be shut down. And the impact of this onslaught may not be immediately visible to people in public universities, because it is reserved for private universities where the arts are largely absent.

A more insidious development is being ushered in by private universities, which the current the Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha said he is committed to supporting. Universities increasingly train students in the applied arts without training them in the arts. So universities train economists or peace and conflict experts with no knowledge of history, sociology or anthropology. They train journalists who are not skilled writers, and flood the arts spaces with public relations graduates.  They have film students who confidently discuss film festivals, camera angles and lenses but cannot say much about the stories which the films tell. They train graphic artists who never paint or sculpt. A few years back, celebrated writer Yvonne Owuor wondered at this absurdity: “I hear that high schools are sending students to university engineering, design and architecture faculties, who cannot draw, who cannot even describe a painting. How? Really, how? Is it ignorance or is there a secret plan to bankrupt the Kenyan imagination?”

The problem is not so much that we have no students in arts programmes, but that we are producing a generation of graduates with no esthetic or emotional sensibilities, and as Owuor says, with no imagination. We have left these areas to be weaponised by corporations and the imperialist state. So Cambridge Analytica was able to have a field day in Kenya during the 2017 elections by manipulating our emotions, and now Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is taking us through the pandemic with imperial orders about how we must express our grief for Dr Stephen Mogusu’s death. When the state has the gall to tell us how to mourn the victims of its own corruption, there’s a problem.

In the political arena, politicians sponsor music for campaigns and for turning ethnic groups against each other. Performances of traditional arts are most celebrated at political rallies or at contrived “elders’ councils” which anoint politicians for office. Oaths, spears and arrows are at their most useful not for teaching our children the history of African military warfare, but for gerrymandering, the American term for what we in Kenya call “election violence”, a tool for fixing election results. Wazungu are pleased when we’re fighting over ballots with oaths and spears, because it shows they still have something to teach us savages about liberal democracy. And now the BBI proposes to further control not just the arts, but also memory, by writing an “official history of Kenya” dating 1000 years, appointing an Official Historian and putting the National Archives under the Office of the President.

When the arts are not suffering from government suffocation, they are being corporatised. Safaricom, the country’s largest corporate, was the sponsor of its own arts forums while Kwani? and Story Moja festivals limped and eventually fell silent.

In the end, the only space left for the arts to publicly thrive uninhibited is the university. But as the Department of Literature’s installment of the University of Nairobi’s 50th anniversary celebration shows, even that is fraught with the same contradictions.

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After the official welcome remarks from the Head of Department and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. Indangasi conducted a reprise of his questioning the hallowed status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o in African literature. Indangasi had most recently done this with an analysis of the Spanish separatist politics underlying the award of the Catalonia International Literary Prize, which Ngugi accepted with a speech in Kikuyu. During this commemoration, Prof. Indangasi presented archival records to cast doubts on Ngugi’s claims to credit for renaming the Department of English to the Department of Literature. The argument he has always made is that Kenyan literary studies have shut off the universal, denied students the pleasure of studying non-African literature and have put political ideology above academic pursuits. The iconic status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he suggests, remains an obstacle to addressing these issues.

Prof Indangasi’s presentation was followed by more mellowed considerations of Ngugi’s legacy from Prof. Evan Mwangi, who is based at Northwestern University in the US. Prof. Mwangi acknowledged the blind spots of Ngugi’s work, but ended with a call to envision literary studies within the inclusivity politics of the American academy, where expansion of literary studies is measured by how many more identity groups are included.

Prof. Peter Amuka followed with a historical contextualisation of the targets of Prof. Indangasi’s criticism, especially Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi. He credited these two men for Africanising the curriculum by breaking the disciplinary boundary limits beyond the snobbish classics and encouraging the study of the literature of the people. An interesting but troubling anecdote he gave was of being a student in the US in the 70s, and being told by an American political science professor that the Literature department of the University of Nairobi had now been “tamed” and relieved of its firebrands.

As is expected of we women academics who do not separate our biographies from academic and national discussions, the women speakers reflected on their personal journeys as threads of national and academic histories. Prof. Wangui wa Goro spoke of how her growth as a translator of literature intersected with the department’s scholars and literary activities. Prof. Ciarunji Chesaina began her presentation with a song for Micere Mugo, in the spirit of Prof. Mugo’s poetry, to pay homage to Prof. Mugo for her legacy in the study of oral literature.

Before Micere Mugo gave her keynote speech, Kithaka wa Mberia went through the contributions of self-publishing to the Kenyan literary space.

Micere Mugo’s celebration of the department, in her classic and moving orature style, gave the audience the backdrop of what her generation was confronting in the 1960s and 1970s. The education system was still controlled by British civil servants even after independence, and the urgency was to Africanise the system. Micere Mugo was the first African chief examiner for ‘A’ level literature and was part of the team that pushed for an African literature curriculum in schools. In her day, she said, it was a compliment to be told that one behaved like a mzungu or looked like a mzungu. She also called for affirming the integrity of African knowledge and African systems of knowing.

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What is the link between the reflections of our elders and the current situation facing the arts that I have described?

Initially, I felt that there was no link and that these elders were stuck in the past. But upon further reflection, I remembered that one of the lessons I have learned from oral literature is that there is value in the elders repeating the past over and over again, because each time, new lessons are learned.

That is when I saw what my discomfort was about. It was about the failure of our generation of scholars to take the baton from the elders and continue the race. Because various political and historical events which some of us are still trying to understand, our generation is stuck in the battles between the so-called “universal” scholarship and academic culture on one hand, and Africanising the curriculum on the other. The political class reduced the Africanisation of the curriculum o a spectacle, and then used that spectacle to crush our children’s imagination.

In fact, when you think of it, the side that is hostile to what Prof. Indangasi calls “literary activism” is the side that dominates arts and education. He may be a lone voice on this position within the Literature Department, but that “universal” view has now colonised Kenya’s education system. Only a few years ago, I was the sole African on a panel with a “global” face, in my own country, fighting like Micere Mugo for Kenyan scholarship to be part of the post-graduate curriculum. In addition, Prof. Indangasi’s lament that Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are not academically qualified is now the rungu with which the Commission of University Education beats us through demands that all university educators must have PhDs. In the area of music, for example, the Commission alienates Kenyan musicians who are more skilled in the craft than many music academics. Several times, I’ve personally raised this question with CUE officials and have received no answer: where are we going to find a seasoned performer of the nyatiti, for example, with a PhD? Our fixation on papers denies students the opportunity to learn from Kenya’s rich cultural heritage.

This is what our generation has not told our elders like Micere Mugo: the colonialist is still in our education system. These days, the colonialist is not a British civil servant sitting in Jogoo house. Rather, it is a British nursery school teacher working at the British Council and sponsoring the return of the ‘A’ level system, otherwise dubbed as CBC. PR has given colonialism a new vocabulary to re-assert its power over our education system. Colonialism now calls itself “quality” and “benchmarking” as it asserts the policies of corporations and Western governments in our education system.

The elders Africanised education, but my generation did not take over that struggle and Africanise power. When the colonial logic of power remained intact, it was only a matter of time before power appropriated the tools of Africanisation to perpetuate itself. Thus, when Binyavanga was starting Kwani?, it is us academics who called the artists “literary gangsters”. We even turned African culture into a tool of condemnation by saying that those artists were not tied to their cultural roots. As writers struggled to find publishers, we berated them for the quality of their publications. Now politicians have solidly captured African culture and made it synonymous with enmity, tribal hatred and sexism.

And after the Africanisation of the ‘A’ Level curriculum, we have since discovered a truth which was smothered by the brutality of Moi: the ‘A’ level system was designed to exclude and limit the number of Africans attending university. Moreover, that exclusion disproportionately affected people from communities outside Central Province and Nyanza. But that exclusion has now returned with CBC which has increased the number of examination hoops which students have to go through (but which have been baptised “assessments“), and has restored the number of years in high school to six.

What my generation did not see is that capital capitulated to Africanisation and gave us the logic of inclusivity – which Prof. Mwangi called for more of – and which, in the American academy, goes under the banner of postcolonial theory. In this logic, culture is reified to the exclusion of everything else, especially material conditions.

A few years ago, I witnessed an expression of this dynamic at the Samosa Festival conference held at the University of Nairobi. Some presenters said that the Mau Mau took up arms to fight for the right to practice their culture. It appeared that for them, the fight was not about land or against oppression. At the conference, we who said that not everything is about ethnicity, were derided as entitled Kenyans who had never been outside Nairobi, yet the point of the festival was to discuss the alienation of people like Asians, Nubians, Somalis, the Shona and the Makonde, from Kenyan citizenship.

Which brings me back to the dilemmas of younger Kenyans and how our generation is mis-teaching them. Coloniality of power has now clothed itself in “African identity” to entrench itself in the education system, so that students who interact with African arts are spectacularly unable to imagine or to connect with humanity, and instead parrot whatever government or NGO slogan comes to their mind. Moreover, the media has occupied the space that should be occupied by culture, performance and academic research, so that, as Mwenda Kithinji recently said, the junk which the media consistently feeds us has made us academics impotent in flagging the return of racist policies to our education system.

And that was the ultimate point of westernising our curriculum in the first place. It was not for us to forget our cultures, as my students innocently but mistakenly repeat. It was for power to keep exploiting us by killing our ability to imagine a different reality.

And that discussion is happening not within the academy, but outside it. Most of the Kenyans addressing these issues are not allowed to teach in Kenyan universities. To adapt Mordecai Ogada’s observation, the people who sing the songs which Micere Mugo sang are still being exiled from the education system and from spaces where the songs can be heard by the next generation.

But the songs are still being sung. We have not been tamed by neoliberal regulations about qualifications and morality. We have not been tamed by what Ogada called an internal brain drain, where our skills and ideas are wasted on dead bureaucracy. We are still singing those songs. We are singing them outside the academy in online spaces and through self-publishing. Our young people are singing them as they battle with the hammer of censorship and the snobbery of the academy. To adopt the words of Maya Angelou, and of Paul Lawrence Dunbar before her, we may be caged by neoliberalism, deadened minds and soulless people. But the caged bird sings, not because it has a solution, but because it always has a song.

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