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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana

13 min read. Debates around whether or not to make cannabis legal often fail to recognise that this herb has been used for centuries in many parts of the world.

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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana
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For generations now in most of the world, cannabis has been a prohibited substance, one often vilified as a noxious bringer of addiction. Yet change is coming fast. Several states have already amended statute books to soften laws relating to cannabis (whether through allowing its medicinal use, decriminalising its possession and use, or full-blown legalisation), and many others are considering amendments. Age-old consensus on the substance has cracked, although many remain deeply opposed to any push to “free the weed”.

In Kenya, debate has grown strong too, driven by, among others, the late Ken Okoth, the MP for Kibra, who pushed for a bill legalising and regulating the substance before his sad passing. This article traces the history of this controversial substance and policy towards it, with a particular focus on Africa, and looks at the likely impact – good and bad – as a botanical outlaw is increasingly rehabilitated.

Beginnings

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food (its seeds are highly nutritious, as is the oil derived from them), and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

Rather than bringing to mind this marine history, however, for most people around the world, the name cannabis conjures up images of a haze of psychoactive smoke emanating from the mouths of such legendary “stoners” as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti. It also conjures up the characteristic leaves of the cannabis plant – odd-numbered combinations of serrated spears that have become symbolic not just of cannabis culture but a much wider culture of defiance.

Even the taxonomy of the plant is controversial, as researcher Chris Duvall (author of a new book, The African Roots of Marijuana) has shown. An orthodox theory holds that there is one species – Cannabis sativa – that has been cultivated and used in different ways: for fibre, for food and for its psychoactivity. Such a theory has suggested a racialised view of cannabis usage – that industrious Europeans built great seafaring empires out of hemp, while other people used it to get high.

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food, and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

However, a two-species theory – that there is Cannabis sativa more suited to producing fibre, and Cannabis indica more capable of psychoactivity – gives a more accurate botanical view of why cannabis is valued in different regions for different purposes: sativa and indica varieties simply grew in different climates, the latter more at home in warmer regions.

Whatever the taxonomic truth, cannabis originated in Eurasia, and palaeobotanical evidence suggests that people were already making use of cannabis as far as East Asia 12,000 years ago, though in what ways is now impossible to discern. It seems likely that cannabis was being farmed in East Asia 6,000 years ago, while Koreans appear to have been making fabric from it around 5,000 years ago.

But people have also long been aware of the psychoactive qualities of cannabis, and a burial site 2,700 years old in northwestern China has preserved a large cache of potent cannabis, possibly for ceremonial or shamanic use. In South Asia, there is also a long history of cannabis usage for fabric and for intoxication, a distinction emerging in Sanskrit between sana and bhanga, the former a source of plant fibre, the latter a source of intoxication and medicine. Bhang, of course, is now a widely dispersed term (in East Africa too) used for intoxicating cannabis.

This plant and its usage then took many different routes around the world. These routes owed much to a number of maritime and overland trade networks that have transported cannabis and its cultures of use. Around 5,000 years ago, cannabis was projected westwards as far as Egypt through overland trade linking India to Mesopotamia and beyond, while Indian Ocean trade networks brought cannabis to East Africa’s coastline, where it has had a presence for at least a thousand years. From there it spread inland and into many different African cultures of consumption, the use of the term bhang in much of the region suggestive of its Indian Ocean network origins, although many local terms suggest possible multiple routes of entry.

The Atlantic slave trade was another vector of its spread; slaves departing from the Angolan coast sometimes carrying cannabis seeds, which led to its spread in Brazil. Another vector in its spread has been war, its popularity in West Africa owing much to the return of soldiers who had been fighting in Asia during World War II and were exposed to its consumption there. In Europe, the use of cannabis for intoxication purposes was initially an elite pursuit of Bohemians in the nineteenth century, the likes of Baudelaire popularising experimentation with the drug in an age of intense European intellectual interest in “exotic” mind-altering substances that also included opium.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. For Fela Kuti, cannabis had much symbolism as a symptom of defiance against authority, and this has long been a core part of the herb’s appeal for many consumers within various countercultures.

Much of this aura of defiant cool derives from the fact that for over a century cannabis has itself been an outlaw, as both internationally and nationally many jurisdictions have prohibited the production, trade and use of this controversial plant. Yet these prohibitions are now under threat as never before, as even countries that have long fought and promoted the “war on drugs”, such as the United States, are experimenting with various forms of decriminalisation and legalisation, while other countries still try and hold firm against calls for legislative change.

Regulating the herb

For as long as mind-altering substances have been used by humans, attempts to regulate their use have likely been used. Whether alcohol, opium or cannabis, the psychoactive qualities of such substances mean that they are usually viewed with great ambivalence – substances that can ease worries and bring pleasure, yet also bring harm and danger. Such ambivalence has spurred efforts to restrict access to those seen as able to use them responsibly, or to forbid their use completely.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.

The widespread claim that historically East African societies restricted access to alcoholic beverages and khat to elders reflects concerns over youthful drinking and chewing. It also suggests that similar types of restrictions and regulations might have been in place for cannabis in East Africa and elsewhere.

However, the formal prohibition of cannabis is mostly a twentieth-century story, albeit with a number of precursors, including the Merina king Andrianampoinimerina prohibiting it in the late eighteenth century in Madagascar on the grounds that it made his subjects “half-witted”. Its prohibition story links to that of opium, and the growing international calls for its regulation and prohibition that grew strong after the nineteenth-century Opium Wars where the British compelled China, through force, to accept imports of opium from India in the interests of their Imperial economy.

Unease with the free trade in opiates led to the International Opium Commission conference in 1909 in Shanghai, and later the International Opium Convention that called for controls and restrictions of the trade in opiates and cocaine was signed in 1912. This marked the start of the internationalisation of drug control. Cannabis was not added to these conventions until 1925 when, at the request of Egypt, cannabis was added to the conventions and its exports restricted. Subsequent conventions (including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) further globalised attempts to suppress a growing range of psychoactive substances, including cannabis.

This international story of drug conventions and cannabis prohibition played out differently in various countries, the US history of marijuana prohibition and its link to characters such as Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics being the most familiar. Historians such as Isaac Campos and Jim Mills have also analysed the equally fascinating history of cannabis policy in Mexico, India and the UK.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier. The major mind-altering substances of interest to African and colonial officials before then had been alcoholic drinks, as well as kola nuts and khat. The lucrative kola trade had been regulated and taxed since the end of the eighteenth century by states administering foreign trade, such as the Asante Kingdom in today’s Ghana. Alcohol use had been prohibited in many of Africa’s Muslim societies for long and became the subject of intense international debates and domestic control at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, the trade and production of distilled spirits became the target of state regulation at that time.

African control efforts on cannabis, opiates and cocaine generally commenced only after the national and international debates on distilled spirits had become quiet. In 1927 the first Nigerian Dangerous Drugs Ordinance restricted the use and trade of cannabis, opium and coca products to medical and scientific purposes and put them under the supervisory powers of the chief medical officer of the colony. The law made the unlicensed use and trade in these drugs a crime.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier.

In Kenya there is an earlier history. An Opium Regulations Ordinance was put in place in 1902. This was intended to restrict the import and production of opiates to permit holders, and sales were restricted to the discretion of medical officers. “Opium” included a wider range of substances, including “bhang”, the main term used in East Africa then and now for cannabis. This ordinance had little teeth, and pressure grew from colonial officers in western Kenya (where much cannabis was grown and consumed) for possession to be outlawed too and harsher penalties introduced for those producing or trading such substances without permits. This pressure in part led to the Abuse of Opiate Ordinance in 1913 that attempted to eradicate illicit consumption of not just opium, but a range of opiates, as well as cocaine and cannabis.

The Kenya colony and its opiate ordinances apart, drug ordinances did not usually grow out of colonial anxieties about these drugs’ threats to health or a paternalistic concern to “protect Africans” from foreign substances, as had been the case with distilled spirits. In South Africa, debates on the use and control of opium were also closely tied to the growing gold mining industry in the Transvaal as it was feared to decrease the productivity of South Africa’s workforce. In 1923 the South African government even urged the League of Nations to classify cannabis as a dangerous substance requiring international control.

In effect, most African drug laws were based on colonial blueprints, such as the Hong Kong Drug Ordinance, which was circulated among British colonial governments in the 1920s. These laws often preceded local concern with cannabis, opiates and cocaine and served more to satisfy the legal obligations of governments under new international laws, such as the 1925 and 1931 Geneva Opium Conventions. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, most African colonies were therefore signed up to a range of international treaties on drug control, without there being much of a local concern or debate about the laws transposed into domestic legal codes, except for the case of Kenya and South Africa.

This situation changed somewhat by the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African countries gained political independence. This period coincided with the wider use and growing public concern about cannabis and saw the first effective government policies on cannabis. In West Africa, concern was driven by medical professionals who encountered cannabis-smoking ex-soldiers among their patients. Doctors, such as Thomas Adeoye Lambo, Africa’s first Western-trained psychiatrist, started exploring Africa’s new drug and addiction problems in their research and public speeches.

Cannabis addiction also became a key discussion point at the newly founded Pan-African Psychiatric Congress and its African Journal on Psychiatry (Lambo 1965; Lewis 1975). This new medical and also media interest in cannabis led to important policy changes in some countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria. In the latter, a coup d’état brought a group of reform-minded soldiers to power who aimed to address cannabis use with the draconian Indian Hemp Decree of 1966 shortly before the country slid into a civil war.

Cannabis thus became firmly embedded in the statute books of most African nations. However, this legal uniformity belied continuing ambivalence towards the substance. Legality or illegality, of course, rarely perfectly matches societal attitudes, and many continued to view the substance positively in various ways, including as a traditional medicine, and as a recreational substance associated with popular figures such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Furthermore, its illegality only further increased its reputation as a symbol of defiance against authority. For many, cannabis law has little legitimacy – or power, given the lack of state capacity to police it effectively – and it has grown to be a vital part of the rural and urban economy in much of Africa. On the other hand, many, for social, cultural or religious reasons, have bought into the idea of cannabis as socially and medically harmful and something that should be restricted.

African debates

In such a cultural climate, legalisation or decriminalisation campaigns were unlikely to take root beyond the margins. Indeed, in an earlier book we suggested that debate on drug policy had yet to take off in most African countries (2012). Yet things appear to be changing, as the impact of policy change even in parts of the USA – long the leader in the “War on Drugs” – has global repercussions.

On a more regional level, the activities of organisations like the West African Drugs Commission have also expanded the narrative away from a simple focus on repressive supply-side policy in relation to drugs of all types. In East Africa too there are moves towards alternative “harm reduction” policies, especially in regard to heroin use in cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and more recently also in Nairobi. In Africa, as elsewhere, the international consensus around drug policy is fracturing, especially in regard to cannabis.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa, perhaps the African country with the strongest drug counter-culture. As with parts of the USA, permitting medical use of cannabis appears the first step in this process, and South Africa is developing provision in this regard. In addition to this, a recent court case in the Western Cape has raised hopes further that legalisation is around the corner. Several activists (including those from the “Dagga Party”, dagga being the common South African term for cannabis) brought a case “seeking a declaration that the legislative provision against the use of cannabis and the possession, purchase and cultivation of cannabis for personal or communal consumption is invalid”.

In March 2017, the court ruled that there should be a stay of prosecutions for possession of small quantities of cannabis and use of cannabis in private settings, and gave the government 24 months to amend the law in this regard. On 18 September 2018, South Africa’s Constitutional Court confirmed this judgement and thus made the growing and use of cannabis for private use legal with immediate effect, although the exact implementation of the decision is yet unclear. While there are no doubt many more hurdles to overcome for the campaigners (most prominent of whom are a white couple known as the Dagga Couple), many are already eyeing a potential legal market for cannabis in South Africa, leading some to fear the predation of corporate interests.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa…

Elsewhere too, there are increasing signs of shifting policy. Linked to the change in South Africa, Lesotho, a major supplier of illegal cannabis to the South African market, has recently given a licence to a South African firm to cultivate medical cannabis. Malawi, another major cultivation country of illegal cannabis, is also moving towards a legal hemp industry. While hemp consists of non-psychoactive varieties of the cannabis plant, even this move required overcoming resistance in Malawi’s National Assembly to an initiative based around so infamous a plant. Ghana, ranked the country with the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Africa, is also seeing rising debate on cannabis policy, and even calls for a cannabis industry to be established to take advantage of legal opportunities around the world. Debate seems more muted in Nigeria, a country with some of Africa’s harshest drug laws, although the debate is gaining ground there too.

In East Africa, debate is also increasingly conspicuous in news reports and in the wider media, especially in Kenya. There, calls for full legalisation have recently been made, including by Ken Okoth, and by political analyst Gwada Ogot, who took a petition for legalisation to the Kenyan senate. Okoth argued for Kenya to benefit economically from an export market for cannabis, suggesting that the “government should stop wasting money on sugarcane farming and legalise marijuana instead”. Ogot focused more strongly on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and sought in his petition to have cannabis removed from the list of scheduled substances, and for the establishment of a regulatory body to oversee a legal market. He argued that: “The plant is God’s gift to mankind just as the many minerals he has put in store for Kenyans. The banning was purely for commercial interests with pharmaceutical firms seeking to control the medical industry during the first and second world wars.”

This petition was debated in the Senate, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament, in February 2017, where it garnered much interest in the media. While the debate in the Kenyan Senate was somewhat inconclusive, and decriminalisation is unlikely, at least in the near future, that such a petition was heard at all marks a shift. Debating the issue confers at least some legitimacy on a topic that many Kenyans recently would either have found shocking or comical.

What all these debates and apparent moves to different policy suggest is that the issue is a live one in African countries. However, it seems likely that the debate will gain more traction in some countries than in others and we should be cautious in generalising across such a diverse continent. In many countries there are so many other more pressing issues than cannabis, that it is unlikely to garner sufficient attention. Indeed, pushing through legislative change will require much energy and resources. For this reason, some might see legalisation as fine for rich countries like the USA with greater capacity to cope with the consequences, but hardly sensible in countries with so many other challenges.

As we have seen, economic reasoning appears to be underlying some of the push to liberalised policy, with some eyeing lucrative futures based around a cannabis industry. Economic interests have, of course, long been important in policy debates around psychoactive substances, with governments often balancing tax and other forms of revenue against medical and social harms with substances like tobacco and alcohol. And historians and anthropologists alike have emphasised the importance of analysing drugs as commodities.This has certainly been true in the case of alcohol, but also in the case of khat. Like cannabis, khat’s harm potential is ambiguous, allowing governments to justify both restricting it and developing a market for it. In the case of khat, producer countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have long resisted making the substance illegal, even if governments have been suspicious of the substance.

In relation to cannabis, we can see how in countries like Lesotho and Malawi, where the cannabis industry forms a major proportion of the national economy, the temptation to make the crop legitimate and boost national coffers might be attractive. A country like Kenya, on the other hand, cultivates cannabis, but not to the same scale. It forms only a minor part of the economy, and is unlikely to garner a strong export market anyway.

It seems possible that where economic logic is not an especially pressing factor, the political will to change cannabis policy is less likely to materialise. In countries like Kenya, concern with the harmful effects of cannabis, as well as the cultural conservatism of many in government and in the general population, will form a substantial roadblock in the way of reform. In fact, Kenya has recently banned shisha smoking on health grounds, suggesting that in terms of policy the predominant logic is still one of restricting rather than liberalising. Yet change in relation to cannabis law is coming thick and fast, and given growing support amongst the political class, change cannot be ruled out in countries like Kenya. Indeed, the sad passing of Okoth has encouraged others to follow his example in calling for such change.

That change to cannabis law in Kenya is now being considered might prove a strong legacy to the memory of Okoth. Stronger yet would be taking seriously too his calls for a properly regulated market, one that would offer protections to the vulnerable, and ideally protect against predation from corporate interests.

Cannabis has provided many smallholder farmers with livelihoods – albeit illicit ones – throughout much of Africa and elsewhere in the world. As Chris Duvall argues, African cannabis farmers have done much innovation in its cultivation even under the cover of illegality. It would be a shame if legality means that powerful interests move in to seize the fruits of this innovation.

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Neil Carrier is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Bristol, UK. Gernot Klantschnig is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Crime at the University of York, UK.

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Unlearning Fear: The Mystery of Creativity

11 min read. When we challenge idiocy and cowardice, we liberate the courage of fellow human beings. When we shake off fear, we discover that the emperor’s power was always contingent upon our complicity. This is the lesson of Kenya’s history that is activated by creative education.

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Unlearning Fear: The Mystery of Creativity
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Counter-intelligence analyst Gregory Treverton once described two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries.

Puzzles are problems that have definite answers, such as: What is the capital city of Kenya? or How many kiosks in Nairobi sell unga? It might be difficult to pin down an exact number, but the answer can be estimated provided you define what a kiosk is. Puzzles can vary in complexity, but they all share the fact that they have definite answers. Crossword puzzles may be frustrating, but the solver at least has the satisfaction of knowing that the correct answer for the blank boxes exists. This is also the exact kind of problem most of our institutions are optimised to solve.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definite answer because the answer depends on a future interaction of an unknown number of factors. For example, will there be kiosks in Nairobi in three years? If yes, how many? Who is going to supply them unga then? The answers are contingent on architecture, policy, or economics, and if you are an aspiring unga trader, they are also contingent on your choices today. This is an unsolvable problem because it contains too much information. To treat this mystery the same way as a puzzle would be akin to trying to thread a needle with water.

Our journey toward urbanisation has been one of using our puzzle-solving abilities to expand our sphere of certainty within an infinitely dark ocean of uncertainties. Our sphere of certainty up until now has included statements such as: “If I go to school and study hard, I will get a nice job and be able to afford to buy unga not only for myself, but for my family as well.” “The unga I buy from the kiosk is healthy.” “There is a hospital to go to in case the unga I ate is not healthy.”

As the answers to these questions become more unclear for many Kenyans in our unstable economy, we are beginning to question the puzzle bias of our education system and seeking to unlearn the current education model and replace it with a creative education model better suited to framing the mysteries of our time.

Unlearning the puzzle bias

The puzzle bias of our education system is reflected in the fortress-like security at the gates of the offices of the Kenya National Examinations Council (KNEC). Tragically, as youth unemployment figures steadily rise, the message that has arrived late is that the armed infantry units at the gates of KNEC may be guarding an empty house.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success. This is something that should be shared with exam candidates, many of whom have committed suicide because they perceived exam failure to be the end of their world.

We are in the process of entering an electronically mediated world in which all puzzle problems are being delegated to computer programmes that are more intelligent than our best performing human actuaries. Universities are quickly ceding their role as centres of knowledge creation and distribution to decentralised and distributed networks of creative ecosystems powered by technology. Those universities that survive and thrive will be those that are effective platforms for a creative student body. The shift required is analogous to the shift from “monoculture” farming of pupils that privileges puzzle-solving to a “permaculture” approach to education in which creative ecosystems allow students to creatively collaborate with their peers in solving mysteries in unique ways.

Perfect examination scores are increasingly less correlated to career success. Adaptive intelligence that comes from creative education is becoming a much more reliable predictor of success.

My most recent book, Art of Unlearning, uses the radically powerful medium of comics to literally draw a map of how to get out of our puzzle-minded school fortresses and into creative ecosystems. Unlearning, we inevitably discover, requires profound humility, as recovering addicts already understand.

The map begins from the foundation that all infants are born without a culture – naked, hungry and intensely curious. The principal role of parents is to take this uncultured, naked, hungry and intensely curious being and persuade it, cajole it, and terrorise it until one way or another it is convinced that the way we do things in this tribe is the natural way ordained by God. Anything that you feel like doing that doesn’t fit into tribal customs is considered to be a bad idea. Adults who are thoroughly conditioned in a culture may be genuinely horrified to discover that their children were not born with their taboos already installed. This horror is intensifying so much that the youth and elders might be considered to be inhabiting increasingly separate islands of reality that speak different languages.

An authoritarian framework is the worst possible way to engage with such a dynamic information environment. It has been my observed experience that the self-appointed cultural managers, such as Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) and many county culture ministries, have absolutely no idea what is happening in the information ecosystem that lies beyond their own Twitter feeds. Their perspective is limited to one of traditional rent-seeking from artists in whose creations they have made no investment. The role of investment has been largely abandoned to foreign cultural agencies and embassies.

As the rate of information exchange in our society accelerates, all tribes are beginning to communicate electronically, bringing the conflicts in our agendas to resolution. So, for example, the musician King Kaka is now a much more powerful bridge-builder than the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) ever was.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

Who will frame our mysteries?

The choice to deliver this message in the form of a comic book (or graphic novel to be precise) was crucial. Because if one is going to opine on a vision for creative education in Kenya, one must demonstrate creative experience. We demand no less of our dentists or doctors and we should demand no less of our educators.

Illustration and visual storytelling are a domain in which I have had the most experience over the past ten years and they are well suited to taking difficult conversations out of the academy and onto the street. We must end our unconstitutional limits on creative expression such as Cap 222 (Films and Stage Plays Act). This idea of openness to new information will be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to our conservative culture, but so is all growth.

My best explanation of this point comes without words in an illustration titled “Education Factory”. In it you see in one moment gleeful children entering an education factory on one end only to emerge into a wasteland on the other end, stupefied and drained of creativity. Art of Unlearning contains dozens of such moments of understanding that I believe are critical in a society that has been so violently divided by the differences in our tongues and in words. This moment of understanding is a moment that requires no permission from a “higher authority”. It is a moment that cannot come too soon. Comics are in my view the ultimate mystery-framing tool. Let’s get started!

Unlearning fear

Play is nature’s antidote to the debilitating fear of change. All mammals spend their early life playing constantly to learn their limits. My ten-month-old son is so dangerously unafraid that I cannot take my eyes off him lest he plunge head first from the bed to the floor. At this crucial stage, the extent to which children are allowed to explore their limits imprints a lifelong attitude toward new experiences.

Now that Kenyans are literally going beyond the limits of marathon times and limited leaders with limited visions, a new locus of understanding must be framed that can address our most pressing challenges: ecological destruction, food insecurity, ending political dynasties, and most of all, educating our children for an exponential world.

If as children our guardians allowed us to explore our limits safely, we will likely adopt this posture for the rest of our lives, with all the risks and rewards that this entails. But if, on the other hand – as is too often the case in our Kenyan context – the response to exploration is violence, shaming and exorcism prayers, you are likely to avoid the memory of violence by avoiding conflict or eye contact with strangers and shying away from new experiences.

Our history of extreme political violence and repression remains unacknowledged to this very day by the political dynasties that have ruled this country. They cannot be expected to hold themselves or any initiative they table accountable.

Violence was the foundation of the colonial economy and remains the foundation of our economy to this day. Creative natives were a natural threat to an architecture of exploitation and so they have been made the human refuse of our education system. With the internet, this human refuse (please excuse the slur) of creative natives is set to inherit the world and now is the time to pay attention to what they have to teach us.

What we call artists are people who consistently respond to their encounters with novelty in beautiful ways, such as sculpture, painting, literature and song. They teach us that fear is physical and its transcendance is also physical in the form of the creative human expression. This is why art is so essential to the work of healing from trauma. Art represents the proudest monument of our humanhood and is the first potentiality to be sacrificed at the altar of violence. It is very difficult to recite poetry with a gun pointed at your head.

The metaphorical gun that is currently pointed at the heads of artists in Kenya today is much more economic than it is political. The Kenyan artist fears starvation, anonymity and suicide more than she does Ezekiel Mutua’s censorship crusade that is targeted only at the most visibly successful of Kenyan films, such as Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki. Kenyans have correctly challenged the idea that one unelected bureaucrat’s colonial prejudices should not be allowed to deny mature audiences an opportunity to evaluate works of art for themselves.

Not coincidentally, human survival on this planet, now more than ever before, depends upon our courage to share our creative ideas, as so many of my favourite writers, such as Dr. Wandia Njoya and Dr. David Ndii frequently do in this publication. When we exercise courage and challenge idiocy and cowardice, we have the compounding effect of liberating the courage of fellow human beings, which is expressed creatively in works such as King Kaka’s Wajinga Nyinyi. When we shake off fear, we discover to our amazement that the so-called emperor is wearing no clothes and that his power was always contingent upon our complicity. This is the lesson of our history that is activated by creative education.

Losing your fear is also good business and not merely a political stance. Walk down any average supermarket aisle and notice how many different brands are competing to sell the same product. Uniqueness is the best differentiator. Similarly, creative education allows young people to seek out unique opportunities to thrive in a jobless and degree-saturated economy. This is an insoluble dilemma for a dynastic oligarchy such as ours whose existence depends on the unquestioning obedience and tribal subservience of its citizenry – while at the same time needing a tax base to finance its exorbitant salaries.

Corporal punishment and other fear-based persuasion of children must become a thing of the past. We must discard antiquated notions such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and with them the idea that all our conduct needs to be governed by a self-appointed priesthood. We cannot continue to studiously trace movements of biblical tribes while we remain ignorant about the migration history of our own ancestors here in East Africa.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction. Using “creativity and innovation” as a buzzword on the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) website is simply not enough.

Unlearning comparison

From the day a student enrolls in the Kenyan education system, he or she is subjected to examinations. Examination scores are then compared against those of other students in a zero-sum competition organised by KNEC. This zero-sum competitive mindset continues into later life in our workplaces and in traffic jams. It also sits at odds with our natural human tendency to solve problems collaboratively so that the collective can benefit from as many different viewpoints as possible.

We all benefit from culinary, cultural and cosmological diversity. This is why monotheism’s history of violence is so much more bloody than that of polytheistic cultures that tolerated a diversity of cosmologies.

Whatever one’s particular religion, it should be clear that the internet is a platform that is much more stimulating of unique ideas than any medium before it. In an attention-deficient media landscape with numerous options for viewers, the only way to hold sustained attention is by being significantly different.

Luckily, one does not have to try too hard to be different because we already are. Nature does not create duplicates. One simply has to unlearn the habit of comparison that obscures our unique and innate aspirations. We must unlearn the shaming of those we call wajuaji or arrogant for straying away from tribal orthodoxy. The approval of the herd is thin soup compared to the thick gravy that is self-discovery. In Kenya, this means unlearning the habit of borrowing beauty standards, borrowing political frameworks, borrowing religions and borrowing Chinese loans without the consent of the people. Conformity is for sheep, and sheep are led to slaughter — a consistent lesson of Kenya’s experiment in democracy for those old enough to remember. Let us try instead to foster and export our uniqueness.

The time has come to unburden our minds and bodies from fear and fear-mongering institutions. I believe that democratising creative education for all Kenyan children is the first and most critical step in this direction.

In unlearning comparison by embracing uniqueness, one of my most impactful teachers has been the late martial artist Bruce Lee. Bruce was a unique figure with no peers because he was a rare combination of fighter, actor and philosopher. Bruce’s example urges us to seek out precisely those behaviours that set us apart and to develop them.

In my case, graduating with an LLB degree a year after our devastating post-election violence in 2008 was my nudge in the direction of a more unique career. With uninspiring job prospects all round and glaring evidence that my profession was impotent to prevent catastrophe, I began to explore alternatives that would have in previous times been considered unthinkable. Ergo, my current profession of drawing comics and animations. I found my voice in comics and the expression of all the latent abilities that were deemed economically useless.

It is my hope that the sacrifices of my generation in the early blossoming of digital content in Kenya will lead to thriving creative ecosystems. As Muthoni Drummer Queen so eloquently stated in her TED Talk, creativity builds nations. Nation-building can never be done by rent-seeking governments and certainly not by rent-seeking governments as deficient in legitimacy as Kenya’s political dynasties that are desperately trying to remain relevant today. Creative education is a tide that will lift all boats by applying digital technologies to demonetise, dematerialise and democratise knowledge sharing. Creative education challenges our feudal economic structure by placing a value on intellectual property.

In the age of exponential technologies, it has become impossible for even the most highly trained “white collar workers”, such as dermatologists, to rest on their laurels. There are no safe jobs. A deep learning algorithm has the power to recognise millions of skin diseases in a second, whereas the human dermatologist will require multiple lifetimes to approach that number.

The risk of obsolescence becomes more acute the more puzzle-oriented a profession gets. The extent to which Kenyan youth will be able to complement the rise of data science is directly dependent on the investment that we are willing to make in innovation and creativity today. If my experiences as an artist living in Kenya are anything to go by, this investment is only being made by individual parents and foreign cultural agencies, such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

Unlearning belief systems

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative. If you are going to do something original, “I don’t know” is the optimal stance to begin from. Those who do things that have never been done before were by definition unqualified to do them the moment before they did. Are we confident enough as a continent to question the Middle Eastern religions that dominate Africa?

The most important three words for someone to become creative are “I don’t know”. Concealing ignorance with inherited assumptions and prejudices that are outside your experience is not an effective strategy for becoming creative.

Original thinkers never believe fully in anyone else’s BS (belief systems), least of all their own. Their only confidence is in their own capacity for keen investigation with the help of books such as Art of Unlearning to frame life’s mysteries creatively. Any belief system we have right now is provisional before it is revised and updated to incorporate new events and perspectives. Only this way can we imagine Africa differently than its colonisers and missionaries did. This, incidentally. is the natural functioning of the human brain and the way children’s minds work before they are distorted by intimidation from the education system.

Unlearning belief systems is as difficult as a right-hander learning to write with his left hand. Human perception was not evolved to see the truth, but rather to see only that which was optimal for survival. But what is optimal for our survival has changed while we were sleeping. 

I do not know the shape of the society we are going to forge, but I do know that I am compelled by a passion for freehand movement to face this mystery creatively.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya

7 min read. ALI BHAGAT situates refugees as a new population for neoliberal experimentation as refugee camps are transformed into spaces of untapped profit.

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Experimental Neoliberalism and Refugee Survival in Kenya
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Refugee survival in Kenya is inseparable from the dynamics of inequality, finance, and debt embedded in capitalism. This article draws much inspiration from Kevin Sieff’s excellent article in The Washington Post that looks at how debt-ridden refugees are being forced to return to a war zone in Somalia.

I am most interested in the ways that capital – in its money form – supercedes, intervenes, and invades the humanitarian sector. At the site of the refugee camps and in cities like Nairobi, capital claims to free the refugee from the passivity of shelter and assistance through entrepreneurialism. This article explores neoliberal experimentation in the context of refugee survival in Kenya. I argue that refugees represent an experimental population. Their various sites of survival are opened up to financial penetration – a last ditch and piecemeal market-led solution to alleviate poverty.

Kenya hosts approximately half a million refugees in its camps and urban areas and has done this for nearly three decades. Dadaab and Kakuma, two of the world’s largest refugee camps, have become sites of increased xenophobia and structural violence where the Kenyan government continues to threaten their closure in the face of diminished global aid.

Contrastingly, these camps are also sites of finance, debt, and neoliberal-led forms of experimentation. Neoliberalism – the ideological and material power of private interest through the dismantling of state-led solutions for welfare – is highlighted here as a way to understand a global stance and policy focus on self-reliance. In so doing, I situate refugees as a new population for experimentation.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector. The intentions of capital accumulation are hidden under the guise of choice and liberty where refugees can use credit to escape poverty and transform themselves into entrepreneurs. Self-reliance is a façade.

Mastercard and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a public-private coalition to transform refugee settlements into digital communities in 2018. This strategy seeks to “bring together technology, solutions, and experience from multiple sectors to transform refugee settlements into digitally-connected communities’, thereby providing infrastructure-based innovations in terms of mobile phone and internet access vis-à-vis key dimensions of survival such as safety, food, shelter, and water”.

Experimentation is a market-oriented solution to alleviate refugee poverty. It is hinged on self-reliance and propagates the financial interests of the private sector.

Mastercard, along with Western Union, announced a new digital infrastructure model hinged on mobile money, digital vouchers, and card-based solutions that promote refugee “self-reliance”Digitising the refugee camp, and thereby transforming it from an arena of passive aid and shelter to a marketplace allows refugees to access formal financial services. This form of neoliberal experimentation also transforms the refugee camp – previously understood in the logic of the development industry as a forgotten barren space – into one of untapped profit.

For example, as the Mastercard and Western Union report states: “…refugees are responsible for payment…For example, children can go to school, but the family must pay for uniforms and books. It becomes vital to access convenient, easy-to-use financial services. Foreign and domestic remittances received via Western Union or hawalas [a remittance channel that takes place outside of the banking system] are a major source of income.”

Interestingly, the logic of empowerment described in this report is equated to providing a wider array of financial service access – not actually addressing the fact that refugees have to pay for some essential survival services such as healthcare and basic goods.

Actors like Mastercard and Western Union, by diversifying access to financial services, are able to capitalise on financial transactions by providing cheaper rates for remittances in the name of “smart city” development. The same report goes on to highlight that Equity Bank holds 15,000 refugee accounts in their Kakuma branch and most remittances are either received through Western Union or hawala agents—needless to say, there is profit to be made if so-called passive aid recipients are transformed into entrepreneurs who are self-reliant actors.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices. Missing from this reasoning is the recognition that refugees receive little global attention and constantly face reductions in essential services, which pushes them to precarious forms of income-generation in order to survive.

Interventions by private sector actors fall into age-old neoliberal adages of efficiency, accountability, and freedom of choice. State and international human rights actors, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Kenyan government, in the face of global austerity, are more than happy to have private actors step in and take over responsibility for refugee survival.

The transformation of refugees into self-reliant entrepreneurs relies on the logic that these people are complex economic actors who need more diverse financial choices.

In contrast, the threats of closure of the camps by the Kenyan government, particularly in Dadaab, have not disappeared, and the camp sizes are slowly shrinking. In 2011, at the height of the famine in Somalia, Dadaab’s population rose to 421,000. This number had been reduced to 230,000 in 2018, partly because some refugees went back home voluntarily while others were encouraged to return to Somalia, as per a repatriation agreement between the Government of Kenya and UNHCR.

While Kakuma represents an experimental avenue for profit, Dadaab – home to predominantly Somali refugees – is framed by the Kenyan government as an unaffordable space both in terms of the security threat and the financial burden. The Kenyan government – which has often scapegoated Somali refugees as terrorists and the Dadaab camp as a safe haven for Al Shabaab – justifies the return of refugees by arguing that it will quell social disruption. 36.8 per cent of Kenya’s population lives on $1.90 a day, placing Kenya 8th on the list of top 10 African countries experiencing extreme poverty.

There are apparent tensions regarding refugee hosting. Many of the participants interviewed for my research suggest that the Kenyan government supports encampment because it absolves itself from welfare responsibilities. Looking at this more broadly, it was the forces of structural adjustment in the 1990s that coincided with refugee encampment that prevented the Kenyan state from developing long-term welfare capabilities in the first place.

Nevertheless, the new Comprehensive Refugee Programme (CRP) highlights that refugees should have adequate avenues for job creation, entrepreneurship, and integration in camps and urban settlements. This is a key divergence from previous strategies of encampment – refugees are now a new experimental population who must harness the forces of the market.

While self-reliance is the policy du jour, the militaristic arm of the state that seeks to prevent migration is also alive and well. Biometric Identity Management (BIM) through fingerprinting and iris scans are surveillance technologies indicative of state organisations (along with UNHCR) seeking to prevent new or circulatory migrants. For example, Somalis who are “voluntarily” repatriated, as Sieff points out, just to relieve their own state of indebtedness in Dadaab, seek return to Kenya as Somalia remains unstable. BIM prevents this from occurring thus attempting to make repatriation permanent.

Indeed, as one interview participant noted, if UNHCR and the government are claiming that refugees are able to return to Somalia, then – within this flawed logic – they should no longer accept Somali refugees. If they do, then they accept that Somalia is not a safe country for return. So both international and national actors are complicit in the violence that Somalis face in their struggle for survival.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit. Since welfare programmes for urban refugees are virtually non-existent, these groups must rely on piecemeal forms of assistance from NGOs and their own communities in the form of cash grants, entrepreneurial training, and microfinance within the ambit of experimentation and self-reliance.

Self-reliance as a solution for assistance is hindered by xenophobia too. For example, many Somali refugees relocate to Eastleigh, which has become an area targeted by the police in light of terrorist attacks in Nairobi. Somalis are unfairly rounded up and sent back to camps or deported while other non-Somali refugees are left to survive in Nairobi in the informal sector. A participant from a government department noted in my research that, “If a refugee wants to stay in Nairobi then they can fend for themselves…the camps are equipped to care for them so if they are in Nairobi it is by choice and they ideally should have a transit permit from the government.” Self-reliance is thus inherent in the national attitude towards refugees, which simultaneously ignores the circumstances of violence, health issues, and poverty in refugee camps.

Much attention is given to refugee survival in camps; however, with the constant threat of their closure, many refugees are permanently relocating to Nairobi and its environs – a move that is illegal without a permit.

Since no welfare support systems exist, many NGOs offer some sort of business training and loan assistance programmes – another example of “disciplinary entrepreneurialism”. In order to access these loans or grants, refugees must go through a training programme where they learn the necessary business skills to set up shop. They must learn how to make a profit so that they can repay the loan, because these loans, in fact, are frequently used for other refugees in the context of shrinking services. NGOs also recognise that refugees are a flight risk for loans because the cash in hand is used for basic consumption needs – a key issue identified in the literature on microfinance.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory. These strategies coincide with two central aspects of neoliberalism – austerity and accumulation.

As the story goes, the Kenyan government, along with international actors, prevents refugees from entering the country. These refugees are framed as threats to state security and an unaffordable risk. In turn, refugees that already exist in camps are either sent back to their country of origin or transformed into entrepreneurs where the camp becomes a space of experimentation.

In short, the use of loans under the spirit of entrepreneurialism dovetails with the security maximisation arm of the state that prevents refugees from entering its territory.

Refugees in urban areas are also meant to become entrepreneurs in order to survive without any state-led assistance. Importantly, these strategies have little to no empirical evidence, further pointing to the experimental nature of entrepreneurialism as a key strategy for survival upon relocation (for a greater exploration of these themes see my article here).

The Kenyan case reveals that exclusion and violence continue to facilitate capital accumulation while also preventing long-term refugee survival. The notion of experimentation, briefly sketched here, allows us to frame neoliberalism as an ambivalent process. Capital permeates these spaces of poverty and the logics of entrepreneurialism facilitate some form of accumulation either through debt or through micro-transactions in the form of remittances. Importantly, refugees in the development of so-called smart communities also produce data and this data can be used for the purposes of capital accumulation in other contexts.

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be

7 min read. OWAAHH and JOHN KAMAU explore Nairobi’s evolution from its humble beginnings as a railway depot to its present status as the nation’s capital.

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be
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More than a century ago, a brash and mostly racist decision created a small tin shack town in the middle of a swamp. Then the town became unstoppable.

The first men and women who landed in Nairobi probably considered the brackish swamp land perfect. The area was picturesque, with hills in the horizon and rivers crisscrossing the plains. While the swampy land was not suitable for farming, and certainly not for settlement, it was perfect for grazing.

For the Maasai and the Kikuyu, the plain was also a meeting ground, cutting between the highland farming community in Central Kenya and the nomadic community in the Rift. For the Kamba and other traders and adventurers, it was the easier part of the journey. The Maasai called it Enkare Nyorobi, ‘the land of cool waters’; other names for the land seems to have evaded history books.

The colony’s vanguard also saw it as one of the easy stretches of a long, much more arduous journey to the Western parts of what would become Kenya. The treeless plain was also curiously empty, particularly on the lush parts towards Central Kenya. They wrote of ‘Nyrobe’ in their letters home, a name which, in a short time, would become the name of the capital of a new country.

It was not empty or deserted though; it was occupied, just not permanently. And even less at that point because smallpox and a few other epidemics had cut down the populations of many Kenyan communities.

In 1896, builders of the Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. The railhead reached Nairobi, the small supply depot between Mombasa and Kampala, in 1899.

With it, a new future began.

A cultural melting pot

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site. Public health would be the key issue in those early years, with the lack of proper drainage making the new town the perfect breeding grounds for epidemics.

But the railway engineers did not see Nairobi as becoming anything more than an Indian township which, they argued, could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.”

As more people settled on what had become the railway headquarters, a pattern emerged. Europeans settled to the West, Asians to the Parklands side, and Africans to the East. But segregation laws would not become codified until 1908, after yet another bout of the plague. Within the first five years, what had been a sparsely occupied swampy plain was now home to 10,000 people. After Mombasa, Nairobi was now the cultural melting pot of the young British colony.

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site.

With government funding and rich entrepreneurs like AM Jeevanjee, who had made a fortune supplying material and labour to build the railway, a town sprouted from the swamp. The richest man in Kenya at the start of the 20th century, Jeevanjee would later go on an investment spree, building the first law courts, the original Nairobi Club, the first building that housed the National Museum, and many other buildings.

Before the railhead reached Nairobi, the central economic activity for the young town had been big game hunting. By 1900, the town was a single street, driven by commerce as Asian railway builders settled in tin shacks on the plain. Beyond that street “lay the swamp where frogs lived every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township” as Elspeth Huxley writes in White Man’s Country. The frogs formed part of the ecosystem, providing a rhythmic croaking during the calm nights of a budding young town. It was free music, if not poetry, but it freaked out public health officials.

A public health hazard

Doctors were particularly concerned about the hazards the soggy grounds carried. At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos (an oft-repeated myth, most notably in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect. Malaria would thrive in the new town, with 14,000 new malaria cases reported in Nairobi in 1913 alone. But malaria was just one of many health concerns that made doctors want the small town moved to higher ground.

In 1902, the small town faced its first major public health problem. An epidemic of the dreaded bubonic plague erupted along Indian Bazaar. With no sanitation or municipal plans, the main street at the time had played host to rodents, and the animals had in turn brought in the plague, killing several people. The plague was diagnosed by the enigmatic zebra-riding Dr. Rosendo Ribiero. The Medical Officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, ordered the entire street burnt. Everyone was evacuated, and Nairobi’s first CBD was torched.

This was probably the point in history when the situation could have been salvaged and the young town moved, but that didn’t happen. Instead, lethargy and bureaucracy resulted in a status quo.

At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos…It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect.

In May 1903, Dr. Moffat, a principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.

On 18 May 1906, Sir James Sadler, commissioner for the Protectorate, wrote to Winston Churchill, Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, complaining about the emergence of Kenya’s capital: “…at the commencement of the 1902 plague…the then-commissioner, Sir Charles Elliot, was strongly of the opinion that the site, which had been selected three years before by the manager of the Uganda Railway without consulting medical or sanitary authorities, was, with its inadequate drainage, unsuitable for a large and growing population. [It is a] depression with a very thin layer of soil or rock. The soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year.”

The letter further reminds Churchill of the 1902 recommendation to move the city “to some point on the hills.” Sadler told Churchill this was a critical point in Nairobi’s history; that his predecessor had said: “…when the rainy season commenced, the whole town is practically transformed into a swamp.”

But the Board running the city decided instead to try drain the swampy bazaar area.

Six years before, in 1898, a 25-year-old man called John Ainsworth had disembarked from a ship at the Port of Mombasa. He was an employee of the colonising company called the Imperial British East African Company, and was ambitious to make a career for himself. Before that year ended, he travelled from Mombasa up to Machakos, and into the tin shack town called Nyrobe. He built his house at Museum Hill to found the colonial administration, much to the chagrin of influential railway builders. Eager to make the swampy plains work, he planted Eucalyptus trees on the swamp to drain the water. Ainsworth’s legacy remains to date, with most of his efforts being the only reason why more and more parts of the swamp could be occupied.

Nairobi continued to develop quickly and Sadler finally threw in the towel: “It is, I admit, too late to consider the question of moving the town from the plains to the higher position along the line some miles to the north. We had a chance in 1902, and I think it was a pity that we did not do so then as advocated by Sir Charles Elliot.”

But even Sadler did not anticipate the growth – eightfold since 1969, from 500,000 people to 4.4 million today. He said Nairobi would never become “a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of industries or minerals in any of the new districts, the centres would spring up around them.”

Churchill accepted this idea and made the final decision: “It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country.”

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony. It would take another six years for the Nairobi Sanitary Commission to be appointed, by which time the city was home to thousands of people. The swampy grounds would pose challenges for builders, medical officers, and town planners.

From tin shack town to city

Settlers like Ewart Grogan believed that the Europeans should have occupied the area from Chiromo up towards and past Westlands. They could then leave the lower plains and its tin shacks to Asians and Kenyan natives. The plan never came to be as the influence of the railway builders carried the day, and by the time it became clear the city would grow, it was too late to move it.

In 1919, Nairobi Township became Nairobi Municipal Council and the boundaries were extended. It would be extended nine years later to cover 30 square miles. Seven years after that, Jim Jameson presented a town planning report with great plans to plant Jacaranda trees. The tin shack town was well on its way to becoming a city, and the future generations of city fathers would have to find a way to deal with the thin layer of soil.

It hired a consultant in the mid-1920s, by which time the town’s economic importance made it a fait accompli. One colonial officer wrote that the new plan was ambitious, but until it bore fruit, “Nairobi must remain what she was then, a slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country.”

More than three decades later, when it became the official capital of a new country, Nairobi still did not have a blueprint.

The initial stubborness of the railway engineers trumped those of the colonial government and its health officials. For that, the latter would pay dearly, facing many epidemics and having to dedicate finances to further drain the swamp. Most of the swamp has now been replaced with skyscrapers and road networks, with insufficient footpaths, drainage and leadership.

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony.

More than a century after its unlikely birth, Nairobi is home to more than 4 million people. The city still reminds that it was once a swamp where rivers criss-crossed at will. One pending idea, which has been revived in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Taskforce report, is to grant the city special status as a capital city. It would mean Nairobi will not have a governor, but the report hopes that it would not “impede the rights of the Kenyan people to representation at the ward and parliamentary levels.”

In this scenario, only a special status would allow the central government “the means to provide the services and facilitation necessary to maintaining as a capital city and as a diplomatic hub.” Whether that’s likely is a toss-up, but whoever runs it will always face the same problems as its first city fathers. Indeed, the city that was never meant to be, and probably should never have been, is now the epicentre of the Kenyan economy and society.

Perhaps the time is ripe to ask ourselves whether Nairobi should be the epicentre of Kenya, because today, amidst the floods raging in the city, poor drainage and the chaotic streets, Nairobi leaves much to be desired as a capital city and is still an unfit slatternly creature to queen over the country, despite what the BBI report claims.

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