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Reckoning with 400 Years: Remembrance, Resilience, Responsibility, Reparations and Redemption

24 min read. The landing of a slave ship in Virginia four hundred years ago changed not just the fortunes of slave owners in America, but also transformed the modern world. In this essay, the historian TIYAMBE ZELEZA examines the demographic, social, cultural, and economic impact of slavery on the Western world and on the African continent, and explains why African countries need to connect with their global diasporas.

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The Original Sin: Slavery, America and the Modern World
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Four hundred years ago, in late August 1619, a slave ship named White Lion, landed on the shores of Point Comfort, in what is today Hampton, Virginia. On board were more than 20 African women and men, who had been seized from a Portuguese ship, São João Bautista, on its way from Angola to Veracruz in Mexico. Virginia, the first English colony in North America, had only been formed twelve years earlier in 1607.

Thus, the two original sins of the country that would become the United States of America, the forcible seizure of the lands of the indigenous people, and the deployment of forced labor from captive and later enslaved Africans, began almost simultaneously. The Africans were stolen people brought to build stolen lands, as I noted in the lead short story in my collection, The Joys of Exile, published in 1994.

I attended the First Landing Commemorative Weekend in Hampton, Virginia on August 23-24. Partly for professional reasons as a historian who has done extensive work on African diasporas. And partly in homage to my acquired diaspora affiliations, and the diaspora identities of some key members of my immediate family including my wife and daughter.

In the events I participated I was enraptured by the stories and songs and performances of remembrance.  And I was inspired by the powerful invocations of resilience, the unyielding demands for responsibility and reparations, and the yearnings for redemption and recovery from what some call the post-traumatic slave syndrome.

The emotions of the multitudinous, multiracial and multigenerational audiences swayed with anger, bitterness and bewilderment at the indescribable cruelties of slavery, segregation, and persistent marginalization for African Americans. But there was also rejoicing at the abundant contributions, creativity, and the sheer spirit of indomitability, survival and struggle over the generations. We still stand, one speaker proclaimed with pride defiance, to which the audience beamed and chanted, “Yes, we do!”

In the events I participated I was enraptured by the stories and songs and performances of remembrance.  And I was inspired by the powerful invocations of resilience, the unyielding demands for responsibility and reparations, and the yearnings for redemption and recovery from what some call the post-traumatic slave syndrome.

The scholars brought their academic prowess as they methodically peeled the layers of falsehoods, distortions, and silences in the study of American history and society. They unraveled the legacies of slavery on every aspect of American life from the structure and destructive inequities of American capitalism to what one called the criminal injustice system rooted in the slave patrols of the plantations, as well as the history of struggles for democracy, freedom and equality that progressively realized America’s initially vacuous democratic ideals.

The artists and media practitioners assailed and celebrated the 400 years of pain and triumphs. They exhorted the power of African Americans telling and owning their stories. A renowned CNN pundit reminded the audience that there are four centers of power in the United States, namely, Washington (politics), Wall Street (finance), Silicon Valley (digital technology), and Hollywood (media), and that African American activists have to focus on all of them, not just the first.

The politicians implored the nation to confront the difficult truths of American history with honesty and commitment. The two former governors and the current governor of Virginia paid tribute to the centrality of African American history and their role in bridging the yawning contradiction between the claims of representative democracy and the heinous original sin and exclusions of slavery. They proceeded to promise various policy remediations. Black members of Congress bemoaned the incomplete progress made in the march to freedom and inclusion and denounced the resurgence of hate, racism and white supremacy. An eleven year orator electrified the crowd with his passionate plea for fostering a community of care and kindness that would make the ancestors proud.

Two hundred and forty one years after the arrival of the first Africans in Hampton, in the summer of 1860, the last ship that brought African captives to the shores of the United States landed north of Mobile, Alabama. The Coltilda brought 110 women, men, and children. The Senegalese historian, Sylviane Diouf has told their story with her characteristic care, compassion and eloquence in her book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama.

The following year, in April 1860, the American Civil War broke out primarily over the institution of slavery. The abolition of slavery finally came in 1865. By then, hundreds of ships had plied the Atlantic and brought nearly half a million African captives to the United States. They and their descendants endured 246 years of servitude and slavery, a century of Jim Crow segregation, and another half a century of an incomplete and contested civil rights settlement.

The African men and women who landed as captives in Hampton arrived out of two confluences of pillage: in Angola and in the Atlantic. They were pawns in the imperial rivalries and internecine wars engendered by the burgeoning slave-based Atlantic economy enveloping what became the insidious triangle of western Africa, western Europe, and the Americas that emerged from the early 1500s.

But even in their subjugation they were history makers. They became indispensable players in the construction of Atlantic economies and societies. In short, their history of servitude that before long calcified into slavery, is the history of the United States of America, of the making of the modern world in all its complexities and contradictions, tragedies and triumphs, perils and possibilities.

By the time the first captive Africans arrived in Virginia, more than half a million Africans had already crossed the horrendous Middle Passage to the incipient Portuguese, Spanish, and English colonies of South America and the Caribbean. In fact, they were preceded in several parts of North America itself by Africans who came with the conquistadors from the Iberian Peninsula both in servitude and freedom. For example, the first recorded person of African descent to reach Nova Scotia, Canada in 1604 was Mathieu Da Costa, a sailor and translator for French settlers from Portugal.

It is critical to remember that the Iberian Peninsula had been conquered in 711 by northwest Africans who ruled parts of the region for eight centuries (in Eurocentric textbooks they are often referred to as Moors, Muslims, or Arabs). Later, the descendants of Africans brought as captives to Spain from the 1440s, sometimes referred to as Afro-Iberians, plied the Atlantic world as sailors, conquistadors, and laborers in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. For the United States, it appears in 1526 enslaved Africans rebelled against a Spanish expedition and settlement in what is today South Carolina.

This is to underscore the importance of placing the arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 in a broader historical context. Their horrendous journey, repeated by 36,000 slave ships over the centuries, was embedded in a much larger story. It was part of the emergence of the modern world system that has dominated global history for the last five hundred years, with its shifting hierarchies and hegemonies, but enduring structures and logics of capitalist greed, exploitation, and inequality. I found the broader trans-Atlantic and global contexts somewhat missing from the commemorations in Hampton.

The new world system that emerged out of the inhuman depredations of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, and the economic revolutions it spawned, was defined by its capitalist modernity and barbarism. It involved multiple players comprising political and economic actors in Europe, Africa, and the expanding settler societies of the Americas. Scaffolding it was the ideology of racism, the stubborn original fake news of eternal African inferiority, undergirded by physiological myths about African bodies. Racism was often supplemented by other insidious constructs of difference over gender and sexuality, religion and culture.

Much of what I heard at the Commemorative Weekend and read in the American media, including the searing and sobering series of essays under “The 1619 Project” in The New York Times powerfully echoed the academic literature that I’m familiar with as a professional historian. Befitting the nation’s most prestigious paper, The 1619 Project is ambitious:  “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

The essays paint a complex and disturbing picture of American history. One traces the shift from forced labor, which was common in the Old World, to the rise of commercialized, racialized, and inherited slavery in the Americas, and how this ruthless system generated enormous wealth and power for nation states in Europe and the colonies, institutions including the church, and individuals. As the plantation economy expanded, the codification of slavery intensified into a rigid system of unmitigated exploitation and oppression.

The new world system that emerged out of the inhuman depredations of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, and the economic revolutions it spawned, was defined by its capitalist modernity and barbarism. It involved multiple players comprising political and economic actors in Europe, Africa, and the expanding settler societies of the Americas.

Another essay underscores how the back-breaking labor of the enslaved Africans built the foundations of the American economy, how cotton became America’s most profitable commodity, accounting for more than half of the nation’s exports and world supply, which generated vast fortunes. Yet, the enslaved Africans had no legal rights to marry, or to justice in the courts; they could not own or inherit anything, not even their bodies or offspring, for they were chattel, property that could be sold, mortgaged, violated, raped, and even killed at will; and they had no rights to education and literacy.

One contributor to the series states categorically that “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” Key institutions and models that have come to characterize the American economy were incubated on the plantation. They include the relentless pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting, workplace supervision, the development of the mortgage and collateralized debt obligations as financial instruments, and the creation of large corporations. Slavery made Wall Street, America’s financial capital. In short, slavery is at the heart of what one author calls the country’s low-road capitalism of ruthless accumulation and glaring inequalities.

But the contributions of African Americans went beyond the economic and material. Several essays discuss and applaud their cultural contributions. Music is particularly noteworthy. Much of quintessential American music exported and consumed ravishingly across the world is African American, from jazz to blues to rock and roll to gospel to hip hop. Forged in bondage and racial oppression, it is a tribute to the creativity and creolization of diaspora cultures and communities, the soulful and exuberant soundtrack of an irrepressible people.

One could also mention the indelible imprints of African American cuisine, fashion, and even the aesthetics of cool. We also know now, through the work of African American historians and activist scholars and others, such as Craig Steven Wilder’s groundbreaking book, Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, that the growth of America’s leading universities from Harvard to Yale to Georgetown and some of the dominant intellectual traditions are inextricably linked to the proceeds and ideologies of slavery.

No less critical has been the massive contributions by African Americans to defining the very idea of freedom and expanding the cherished, but initially rhetorical and largely specious ideals of American democracy. Juxtaposed against the barbarities of plantation economies was the heroism of slave resistances including rebellions. It is the generations of African American struggles that turned the United States from a slavocracy (10 of the 12 first presidents were slave owners) to a democracy.

It is they who turned the ideal and lie of democracy into reality, paving way for other struggles including those for women’s, gay, immigrant, and disability rights that engulfed 20th century America and still persist. The struggles were both overt and covert, militant and prosaic, episodic and quotidian. They started among the captives enroute to the slaveholding dungeons on the coasts of western Africa, through the Middle Passage, on the plantations, and in the mushrooming towns and cities of colonial America.

The African American struggles for human rights peaked during Reconstruction as electoral offices opened to them and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed outlawing slavery, guaranteeing birthright citizenship, and the right to vote, respectively. But these advances soon triggered a backlash that ushered the racial terror of Jim Crow that reinstated the caste system of American racism for nearly a century.

After the Second World War the country was convulsed by the long crusade for civil rights that resulted in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively. But as with every victory in America’s treacherous racial quagmire, a racist counteroffensive soon erupted, which intensified during and after the historic Obama presidency. And the struggle continues today in myriad ways and venues.

The Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas have generated some of the most heated debates in the historiographies of modern Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the world at large. A trading and labor system in which the commodities and producers were enslaved human beings cannot but be highly emotive and raise troubling intellectual and moral questions.

The controversies centre on several issues, five of which stand out. There are, first, fierce debates about the total number of Africans exported; second, the demographic, economic and social impact of the slave trade on Africa; third, the impact of Africans and slavery on the development of economies, societies, cultures and polities in the Americas; fourth, the role of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the development of industrial capitalism in the western world generally; and finally, the contentious demands for reparations for the slave trade and slavery that have persisted since abolition.

In so far as the Atlantic slave trade remains the foundation of the modern world capitalist system and the ultimate moral measure of the relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, between Africans and Europeans and their descendants in modern times, the amount of intellectual and ideological capital and heat the subject has engendered for the past half millennium should not be surprising. Predictably, also, all too often many scholars and ideologues hide their motives and biases behind methodological sophistry, rhetorical deflections, and outright lies.

Many of the contemporary disputes are as old as the Atlantic slave trade itself. Two approaches can be identified in the debates, although there are considerable overlaps. There are some, especially those of European descent, who tend to minimize the adverse impact that the slave trade had on Africa and Africans on the continent and on the enslaved Africans in the diaspora. Others, mostly of African descent, tend to emphasize the role of the slave trade in the underdevelopment of Africa, development of the Americas and Western Europe, and the marginalization and reconstruction of African diaspora cultures and communities in the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade began slowly in the 15th century, then grew dramatically in the subsequent centuries, reaching a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. The trade was dominated first by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries, then by the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in the 18th century, and the Europeans settled in the Americas (e.g., USA, Cuba, Brazil, etc.) in the 19th century.

The bulk of the enslaved Africans came from the western coast of Africa covering the vast regions of Senegambia, Upper Guinea Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Congo and Angola. In short, West and Central Africa were the two major streams of enslavement that flowed into the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas.

The Atlantic slave trade was triggered by the demand for cheap and productive labour in the Americas. Attempts to use the indigenous peoples floundered because they were familiar with the terrain and could escape, and they were increasingly decimated by exposure to strange new European diseases and the ruthless brutalities and terror of conquest. And it was not possible to bring laborers from Europe in the quantities required. In the 16th and 17th centuries Europe was still recovering from the Black Death of the mid-14th century that had wiped out between a third and half of its population.

And so attention was turned to western Africa. Why this region, not other parts of Africa or Asia for that matter, one may wonder. Western Africa was relatively close to the Americas. If geography dictated the positioning of western Africa in the evolving and heinous Atlantic slave trade, economics sealed its fate.

The African captives were highly skilled  farmers, artisans, miners, and productive workers in other activities for which labor was in great demand in the Americas. Also, unlike the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they were more resistant to European diseases since the disease environments of the Old World of Europe, Africa and Asia overlapped.

The bulk of the enslaved Africans came from the western coast of Africa covering the vast regions of Senegambia, Upper Guinea Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, Bight of Biafra, Congo and Angola. In short, West and Central Africa were the two major streams of enslavement that flowed into the horrific Middle Passage to the Americas.

Furthermore, the captives were stolen. Slavery entailed coerced, unpaid labor, which made both the acquisition of captives and use of slave labor relatively cheap. The captives were acquired in several ways, predominantly through the use of force in the form of warfare, raids and kidnapping. Judicial and administrative corruption also played a role by sentencing people accused of violating the rules of society and witchcraft, often capriciously, into servitude. Some were seized as a form of tribute and taxation.

Thus the process of enslavement essentially involved the violent robbery of human beings. The families of the captives who disappeared never saw them again. Thus, unlike voluntary European migrants to the Americas and contemporary migrants from Africa, the families of the captives never got anything for the loss of their relatives. There were no remittances.

And few ever saw Africa or the wider world again, except for the sailors who plied the Atlantic. The exceptions also include individuals like Olaudah Equiano, who left us his remarkable memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. There are also the striking stories of return to Africa among some of those whose memoirs are recorded in Allan D Austin’s pioneering compendium, African Muslims in Antebellum America.

For their part, the slave dealers, from the local merchants and rulers in Africa to the European merchants at the hideous fortresses that dot the coasts of western Africa and slave owners in the Americas, shared all the ill-gotten gains of captivity, servitude, and enslavement. One of the difficult truths we have to face is the role of Africans in the Atlantic Slave trade, a subject that casts a pall between continental Africans and the historic diaspora in the Americas.

African merchants and ruling elites were actively involved in the slave trade, not because their societies had surplus population or underutilized labour, as some historians have maintained, but for profit. They sought to benefit from trading a “commodity” they had not “produced,” except transport to the coast. The notion that they did not know what they were doing, that they were “bamboozled” by the European merchants is just untenable as the view that they generated, controlled, or monopolized the trade.

To assume that African merchants did not profit because their societies paid a heavy price is just as ahistorical as to equate their gains with those of their societies. In other words, African slave traders pursued narrow interests and short-term economic calculations to the long-term detriment of their societies. It can be argued that they had little way of knowing that their activities were under-populating and under-developing “Africa,” a configuration that hardly existed in their consciousness or entered into their reckoning.

However, Europe and European merchants bear ultimate responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade. It was the Europeans who controlled and organized the trade; African merchants and rulers did not march to Europe to ask for the enslavement of their people, in fact some actively resisted it. It was the Europeans who came to buy the captives, transported them in their ships to the Americas, and sold them to European settlers who used them to work on mines and plantations, and to build the economic infrastructure of the so-called New World.

Clearly, the consequences of the Atlantic slave trade varied significantly for Africa on the one hand and Europe and the Americas on the other. While much of the historiography focuses on the economic underdevelopment of Africa and the economic development of the Americas and Europe, this needs to be prefaced by the uneven and unequal demographic impact.

As noted earlier, there’s no agreement on the numbers of captive and enslaved Africans. The late American historian, Philip Curtin in his 1969 book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census estimated that 9,566,100 African captives were imported into the Americas between 1451 and 1870. His followers proposed slight adjustment upwards as more data became available. In much of the western media including The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the figure that is quoted is 12.5 million.

To assume that African merchants did not profit because their societies paid a heavy price is just as ahistorical as to equate their gains with those of their societies. In other words, African slave traders pursued narrow interests and short-term economic calculations to the long-term detriment of their societies.

In a series of articles and monographs, Joseph Inikori, the Nigerian economic historian, questioned  the computation methods of Curtin and his followers and the quality of the data they employed, particularly the underestimation of the slave imports of Spanish, Portuguese and French America. He suggested a 40 per cent upward adjustment of Curtin’s figures which brings the Atlantic slave exports to a total of 15.4 million, of whom about 8.5 million were from West Africa and the rest from Central Africa.

The exact number of African captives exported to the Americas may never be known, for there may be extant sources not yet known to historians or others that have been lost. Moreover, it is difficult to establish the number of captives who arrived through the clandestine or “illegal” trade, and those who died between the time of embarkation and arrival in the New World in both the “legitimate” and clandestine trade. Even harder to discern is the number of captives who died during transit to, or while at, the coast awaiting embarkation, and of those who were killed during slave wars and raids.

As I argued in my 1993 book, A Modern Economic History of Africa, the “numbers game,” is really less about statistical exactitude than the degree of moral censure. It is as if by raising or lowering the numbers the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies from which the captives came and on the enslaved people themselves can be increased or decreased accordingly. There is a long tradition in Western scholarship of minimizing the demographic impact of the slave trade on Africa. It began with the pro-slavery propagandists during the time of the Atlantic slave trade itself.

There is now considerable literature that shows the Atlantic slave trade severely affected the demographic processes of mortality, fertility and migration in western African. The regions affected by the slave trade lost population directly through slave exports and deaths incurred during slave wars and raids. Indirectly population losses were induced by epidemics caused by increased movements and famines brought about by the disruption of agricultural work, and flight to safer but less fertile lands.

All the available global estimates seem to agree that by 1900 Africa had a lower share of the world’s population than in 1500. Africans made up 8% of the world’s population in 1900, down from 13% in 1750. It took another 250 years for Africa’s population to return to this figure; it reached 13.7% of the world’s population in 2004. Inikori has argued that there would have been 112 million additional population in Africa had there been no Atlantic slave trade.

As I argued in my 1993 book, A Modern Economic History of Africa, the “numbers game,” is really less about statistical exactitude than the degree of moral censure. It is as if by raising or lowering the numbers the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the societies from which the captives came and on the enslaved people themselves can be increased or decreased accordingly.

This is because the slave trade also altered the age and gender structures of the remaining populations, and the patterns of marriage, all of which served to depress fertility rates. The people who were exported were largely between the ages of 16 and 30, that is, in the prime of their reproductive lives, so that their forced migration depressed future population growth. Moreover they were lost at an age when their parents could not easily replace them owing to declining fertility.

The age structure of the population left behind became progressively older, further reinforcing the trend toward lower growth. Thus population losses could not easily be offset by natural increases, certainly not within a generation or two. The gender ratio was generally 60 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women. This affected marriage structures and fertility patterns. The proportion of polygynous marriages increased, which since it may have meant less sexual contact for women than in monogamous marriages, probably served to depress fertility as well.

The fertility of the coastal areas was also adversely affected by the spread of venereal diseases and other diseases from Europe. The Mpongwe of Gabon, for instance, were ravaged by syphilis and smallpox, both brought by European slave traders. Smallpox epidemics killed many people, including those at the peak of their reproductive years, which, coupled with the disruption of local marriage customs and the expansion of polygyny, served to reduce fertility.

Thus, for Africa the Atlantic slave trade led to depopulation, depleted the stock of skills, shrunk the size of markets and pressures for technical innovation. At the same time, violence associated with the trade devastated economic activities. It has been argued that the Atlantic slave trade aborted West Africa’s industrial take off.

It was not just the demographic and economic structures that were distorted by the slave trade, social and political institutions and values were also affected, so that even after slavery in the Americas was abolished, the infrastructures developed to supply captives for enslavement remained, and were now used to expand local labour supplies to produce commodities demanded by industrializing European economies. As the great radical Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, argued in the late 1960s the slave trade contributed to the expansion of slavery within Africa itself, rather than the other way round as propagated by Eurocentric historians.

The sheer scale and longevity of the Atlantic slave trade generated cultures of violence and led to the collapse of many ancient African states and the rise of predatory slave states. Thus it has been argued that the slave trade was one of the main sources of corruption and political violence in modern Africa. The political economy of enslavement tore the moral economy of many African societies. Contemporary Africa’s crass and corrupt elites that mortgage their country’s development prospects are the ignominious descendants of the slave trading elites of the horrific days of the Atlantic slave trade.

In contrast to Africa, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas became the basis of the Atlantic economy from the 16th until the mid-19th century. It was the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. The crops and minerals produced  by the labor of enslaved Africans such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, gold and silver were individually and collectively more profitable than anything the world had ever seen. This laid the economic foundations of the Americas, and the economic development of Western Europe more broadly.

Inikori argues persuasively in his award winning book, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora were central to the growth of international trade in the Atlantic world between the 16th and 19th centuries and industrialization in Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, and the leading slave trading nation of the 18th century. As Europe became more industrialized it acquired the physical capacity, as well as the insatiable economic appetite, and the ideological armor of racism to conquer Africa.

Thus, the colonial conquest of the late 19th century was a direct outcome of the Atlantic slave trade. Instead of exporting captive labor, the continent was now expected to produce the commodities in demand by industrializing Europe and serve as a market for European manufactures, and an investment outlet for its surplus capital.

There can be little doubt the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans laid the economic, cultural, and demographic foundations of the Americas. It is often not well appreciated that it was only with the end of the slave trade that European immigrants, whose descendants now predominate in the populations of the Americas, came to outnumber forced African immigrants to the Americas.

For the United States the median arrival date of African Americans—the date by which half had arrived and half were still to come—is remarkably early, about 1780s. The similar median date for European Americans was remarkably late—about the 1890s. In short, the average African American has lived far longer in the United States than the average European American.

As Walter Rodney showed in his 1972 provocative classic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which became the intellectual bible for my generation of undergraduates hungry to understand why Africa remained so desperately poor despite its proverbial abundant natural resources, slave labor built the economic infrastructure of the Americas and trade in produce by slave labor provided the basis for the rise of manufacturing, banking, shipping, and insurance companies, as well as the formation of the modern corporation, and transformative developments in technology including the manufacture of machinery.

There can be little doubt the Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans laid the economic, cultural, and demographic foundations of the Americas. It is often not well appreciated that it was only with the end of the slave trade that European immigrants, whose descendants now predominate in the populations of the Americas, came to outnumber forced African immigrants to the Americas.

The contributions of captive and enslaved Africans are greater still. African musics, dance, religious beliefs and many other aspects of culture became key ingredients of new creole cultures in the Americas. This makes the notion of the Americas as an autogenic European construct devoid of African influences laughable. The renowned Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, correctly urges us in his book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity to give up the idea of the West and and the attendant vacuous notions of western civilization and western culture, which are nothing but racially coded euphemisms for whiteness.

The Americas including the United States have never been, and will never be an exclusive extension of white Europe, itself a historical fiction, notwithstanding the deranged fantasies of white supremacists.  Brazil, the great power of South America tried a whitening project following the belated abolition of slavery in 1888, by importing millions of migrants from Europe, but failed miserably. Today, Afro-Brazilians are in the majority, although their evident demographic and cultural presence pales in comparison to their high levels of socioeconomic and political marginalization.

The Atlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in world history, had another pernicious legacy that persists. It may not have created European racism against Africans but it certainly bred it. As Orlando Patterson demonstrated in his magisterial 1982 study, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, before the Atlantic slave trade began slavery existed in many parts of the world and was not confined to Africans. Indeed, studies show in 1500 Africans were a minority of the world’s slaves.

The tragedy for Africa is that the enslavement of Africans expanded as the enslavement of other peoples was receding. By the 19th century slavery had become almost synonymous with Africans, so that the continent and its peoples carried the historical burden of prejudice and contempt accorded to slaves and despised social castes and classes. In short, it is this very modernity of African slavery that left Africans in the global imaginary as the most despised people on the planet, relegated to the bottom of regional and local racial, ethnic, and color hierarchies.

This has left the scourges of superiority complexes by the peoples of Europe and Asia against Africans and  inferiority complexes among Africans and peoples of African descent in the diaspora. This sometimes manifests itself in obsessive colorism that can degenerate into mutilations of the black body through skin lightening and other perverted aspirations for whiteness.

It is also evident in inter- and intra-group antagonisms in diaspora locations between the new and historic African diasporas, between recent continental African migrants and African Americans so painfully and poignantly captured in the documentary film by Peres Owino, a Kenyan-American film maker, Bound: Africans vs African Americans. The documentary attributes the antipathies, antagonism, and anxieties that shape relations between the two groups to lack of recognition of the collective traumas of each other’s respective histories of slavery and colonialism.

The Atlantic slave trade and slavery left legacies of underdevelopment, marginalization, inequality, and trauma for Africans and African diasporas. This has engendered various demands for restitution and redemption. Demands for compensation to the descendants of the enslaved Africans in the Americas and Europe have been going on from the time of the abolition of slavery in the Americas captured in the United States in the prosaic claim for “forty acres and a mule.”

In the United States, Representative John Conyers started the reparations campaign in Congress from 1989. Every year he introduced a bill calling for the creation of a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Not much had been achieved by the time he retired in 2017. But in the interim seven states proceeded to issue apologies for their involvement in slavery (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia). Some private institutions followed suit, such as JP Morgan Chase and Wachovia, so did a growing number of universities such as Georgetown.

Claims for reparations found a powerful voice among some influential African American intellectuals and activists. One was Randall Robinson the founder of the lobbying organization, Trans-Africa, who made a compelling case in his book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. In 2017,  the incisive commentator, Ta-Nehisi Coates reignited the national debate with a celebrated essay in The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”

In 2009, shortly after President Obama assumed office, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent encouraged the United States Congress to look into the issue of reparations. But Opposition to reparations remained among the majority of Americans; in a 2014 survey only 37% supported reparations.

In the charged political season of 2019 and the forthcoming presidential elections of 2020, reparations has risen to the national agenda as never before. Several leading Democratic Party presidential candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke) have openly embraced the reparations cause. In the meantime, the reparations debate seems to be gathering momentum in more private institutions including universities buoyed by the unveiling of some universities’ links to slavery, the radicalizing energies of the BlackLivesMatter movement, and mounting resistance to resurgent white supremacy.

The Caribbean region boasts one of the most vibrant reparations movements in the Americas. This can partly be explained by the fact that the demands are not directed to the national government as in the United States, but to Britain the former leading slave trading nation and later colonial power over some of the Caribbean islands. Also, the Caribbean enjoys a long tradition of Pan-African activism.

The call by Caribbean leaders for European countries to pay reparations became official in 2007 and was subsequently repeated by various heads of state in several forums including the United Nations. Hilary Beckles became the leading figure of the Caribbean reparations movement (he is a former colleague of mine at the University of West Indies where we both joined the History Department in 1982 and where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor). In 2013, he published his influential book, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide. In 2013, the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Reparations Commission was created.

In Europe, the reparations movement has been growing. Black British campaigns intensified and reached a climax in 2008 during the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. In 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Ken Livingstone offered apologies for Britain’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade.

In 2017, the Danish government followed suit and apologized to Ghana for the Atlantic slave trade. But apologies have not found favor in countries such as Portugal, Spain, and France that participated actively in this monumental business of human trafficking. But even for Britain and Denmark reparations have not made much headway.

African states have exhibited a conflicting attitude towards reparations. On the one hand, they have shown eagerness to call on the Atlantic slave trading nations of Europe and slave holding societies of the Americas to pay reparations to Africa. The African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission established in 1999 put the figure at a staggering $77 trillion. At the global level, the issue of reparations was a major subject at the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa.

In 2010, the renowned Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, published an essay in The New York Times in which he raised the thorny question of whether reparations should be extracted from Africans who were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Few African leaders have been prepared to apologize for their societies complicity in the slave trade. In 1999 the President of Benin was among the first to apologize to African Americans. Ghana followed suit with an apology to African Americans in 2006. In January 2019, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 “The Year of Return” to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans in Hampton, Virginia.

The responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade falls on the shoulders of many state and elite actors in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The major benefits of slavery in the Americas accrued to the elites and states in the Americas and Europe. This suggests differentiated levels of responsibility for reparations and redemption. African governments in the regions involved in the Atlantic slave trade must seek the redemption of apology to the historic African diasporas in the Americas through the regional economic communities and the African Union.

Only then can the process of healing and reconciliation for the sons and daughters of Africa on both sides of the Atlantic begin in earnest. Acknowledgement and mutual recognition between Africa and its diasporas should be sustained through the transformative power of education. Teaching the history of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and the contributions of the historic African diasporas must be incorporated in the curriculum at every level across the continent.

Deliberate efforts must also be made by African governments and institutions to facilitate and promote multidimensional engagements with the historic diaspora. The designation of the diaspora by the African Union as Africa’s sixth region must be given teeth in terms of political, economic, social and cultural rights.

But the charge goes beyond governments. The private sectors and civil societies in African nations and the diaspora must also establish mutually beneficial and empowering modalities of engagement.

There are encouraging signs of new intellectual and artistic bridges being build by the new African diaspora, who straddle in their upbringing, identities, experiences, and sensibilities the sociocultural geographies and political ecologies of continental Africa and diaspora America. A few examples will suffice.

There’s no better accounting of the divergent yet intimately connected histories between Africa and America from the 18th century to the present than Yaa Gyasi’s sprawling and exquisite first novel, Homegoing. It tells the story of two sisters, one who was sent into slavery and the other who remained in West Africa, and the parallel lives of their descendants. Another skillful exploration and painful reckoning with slavery can be found in Ayesha Harruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga set in a bustling slave trading market for the Atlantic slave trade.

African governments in the regions involved in the Atlantic slave trade must seek the redemption of apology to the historic African diasporas in the Americas through the regional economic communities and the African Union.

Recounting the travails of an enslaved African traversing across the expanse of the black Atlantic is Esi Edugyan’s soaring story in her novel, Washington Black. Coming to the contemporary African migrants, there is Imbolo Mbue’s Beyond the Dreamers set in New York that captures the aspirations, anxieties, agonies, assaults, and awakening by the new diaspora to the routine hypocrisies, hardships, harassments, and opportunities of American life.

For me, my commitments to the project of reconnecting Africa and its global diasporas in truly transformative and mutually beneficial ways provide the inspiration behind my research work on diaspora histories that I’ve been engaged in for the past two decades. This work led to the establishment of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowships Program  that facilitates the engagement of African born academics in Canada and the United States with universities in six countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa). The program is being expanded into the Consortium of African Diaspora Scholars Programs that seeks to promote flows between scholars from both the historic and new diasporas from anywhere in the world to anywhere in africa.

As I left the Commemorative Weekend in Hampton to fly back to Kenya last night, I was filled with deep sadness at what our brothers and sisters have had to endure over the last 400 years of their sojourn in the United States, but also with immense pride in what they have been able to achieve against all odds. Let me put it graphically, as I did at a training seminar recently for African diplomats: in 2017, the 40-odd million African Americans had a purchasing power of $1.2 trillion compared to $2.2 trillion for the 1.2 billion Africans on the continent. If African Americans were a country they would be the 17th richest country in the world, richer than Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt combined.

Surely, the continent with its abundant human and natural resources can do better, much better. Africa and the diaspora owe each other principled, not transactional, solidarity if we are to navigate the complex and unsettling demands and disruptions of the 21st century better than we fared during the last half millennium characterized by the disabling histories of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and white supremacy backlashes in the United States, and colonialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonial authoritarianisms in Africa. To echo Kwame Nkrumah’s mid-20th century dream, let’s strive to make the 21st century truly ours!

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

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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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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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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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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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