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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.



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!


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


Kenya: A Question of Land

Kenya is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval and a long-delayed backlash unless reforms to address economic inequality are implemented.



Kenya: A Question of Land
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Not too long ago, musician John Mũigai Njoroge was summoned by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) for uploading the song Ĩno Mĩgũnda to YouTube. Ĩno Mĩgũnda may be translated to mean “These Parcels of Land”, or, as translated in the song’s sub-titles, “This Land”. Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land. In this piece we to look at how economists have treated (or ignored) land, the economic dynamics of land in reality, the current status of our nation, and offer three possible solutions to the current state of affairs.

In one sense, land can be defined, as by Dr Josh Ryan-Collins et al in Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing, as “space, and the occupation of that space over time”, and indeed this is the most common understanding of land as we have it. However, we would do well to include in the definition of land, as Henry George did in his seminal book Progress and Poverty, not merely the surface of the earth as distinguished from air and water, but also as, “. . . in short, all natural materials, forces and opportunities”. This definition would include mineral resources such as oil, natural gas and coal; water and related resources; the electromagnetic spectrum; etc. In fact, we can think of land loosely as “that naturally-occurring wealth that man cannot produce”.

Increasingly, and amidst stifling economic stagnation at the citizen level, the spotlight is beginning to shine on the contentious matter of land

Definitions are very important and as we shall see, defining or mis-defining land can lead to economic theories/practices that are either unrealistic, unjust or (as is often the case) both.

Is land important economically speaking? The French physiocrats and the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill all recognised the importance of land in understanding economics. Building on their work, Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, a book that was second in circulation only to the Bible in the 1890s.

(Although he was not the first to state it, Henry George wrote that the factors of production are land, labour and capital. He added that, this being the case, the returns from production must necessarily be shared between/among these three factors. It seems to me that on this simple premise one could base/found the whole realm of economic study or even economic history (together with vast swathes of history proper): what proportion, if any, of the returns from production should – rightly, justly, properly – accrue to each of the factors of production: to land, to labour, and/or to capital?

We shall examine Henry George’s solution to the land problem later. At this point we shall merely state that so forceful was the power and the logic of George’s writing that, according to the late Professor Mason Gaffney, it generated a scholastic reaction that grew into neo-classical economics. Neo-classical economics chose to base itself on principles of free choice, rational actors, and “free markets” that naturally self-equilibrate through the forces of supply and demand. This brand of economics came to dominate learning, and still does. Eventually, it succeeded in conflating land and capital as factors of production. In this way, the importance of land as a factor of production was lost to the academic world and to the realm of economic theory. The results of this disastrous omission reverberate all the way up to the global financial crisis (which perhaps should more accurately have been named the North Atlantic financial crisis), but we are not on that today.

The truth is that land and capital are radically different factors of production. Crucially, the supply of land is fixed; i.e. the stock of land cannot increase as a result of rising demand for it. Only its price can rise – and it does. The market in land, therefore, cannot (justly) self-equilibrate via the forces of supply and demand. As we consider this, we stumble upon the reality that the private ownership of land, and indeed of all natural-occurring resources, is at once freedom and theft; while it is freedom for the owner of the land/resource, it is also theft from the public, because of what economists call economic rent.

(Economic rent is defined as any payment to an owner or factor of production in excess of the costs needed to bring that factor into production. In lay terms, we may define economic rent more simply as “unearned income”.)

As far as land is concerned, economic rent comprises: a) the capital gains that arise from the ownership of land and/or the private ownership of what Henry George called naturally-occurring “materials, forces and opportunities” and b) what the owner of that land can charge as rent simply because of the positioning of the land (or the value of the natural resource).

As Adam Smith stated, “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed [i.e. become the recipients of unearned income], and demand a rent even for its natural produce”.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby. The government builds a road and the land increases in value, sometimes by several factors. This increase in the value of the land is unearned income. It is economic rent. Further, not only does the land gain in value, but the rent a landowner can charge also increases without the landowner applying an iota of effort. This too is unearned income.

In fact, as Henry George points out, no government improvements are necessary in order for the value of a parcel of land to rise. The mere settling of a community in and around a parcel of land can in and of itself raise that parcel’s value – with not a stroke of work done by its “owner”. City centre land (or land in Upper Hill or in Westlands), for example, takes this to extremes.

The result of this is a well-known phenomenon in the Kenyan economy: one buys a piece of land and hopes that soon the government will build a road nearby

Any society/economy that allows a select few to earn an unworked-for income – of any form – is an inherently unjust economy. To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity. Further, an unjust economy will naturally result in an unjust society. This is what it was about George’s writing that generated such a reaction in the halls of academe: it laid bare these inequities and proposed solutions to bring them to an end.

Without the equitable distribution of land, and without the extraction of unearned income from the hands of private interests into the hands of the public, inequalities in income – and very shortly thereafter inequalities in accumulated income, i.e. wealth – rapidly manifest themselves. Such a society very swiftly descends into that morass of wealth disparity characterised by vast differences in resources between the haves and the have-nots. There then arises that situation so succinctly described by Adam Smith, in which “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all”.

To see this truth is to begin to recognise a grave injustice: unearned income is the bane of socio-economic equity

If all this be true, then it ought to be the case – empirically, not in abstract formulaic or merely academic terms – that a more equitable distribution of land should lead to more widespread prosperity. This is indeed the case, although other factors must necessarily support such a redistribution. We shall revisit this in the proposed solutions to our current situation. Suffice it to say at this point that that which we know in our bones to be true; that which causes our Luo brothers to call their daughters Nyar-Ugenya, or their sons Ja-Kisumo; that which inspired Wahome Mũtahi, in his Whispers column, to call himself “Son of the Soil”; that indefinable intuition! certainly is true: that we are from here; that this land – all of it – is rightly, justly, and collectively ours; that each of us deserves some of it; that none of us deserves disproportionately more of it, and that very certainly nobody deserves most/all of it. This truth, try as the crashing waves of fraudulent social science might to repudiate it, stands firm, and it is corroborated by that social science of the more honest variety.

Does everybody need land?
A captious economist planned
to live without access to land.
He nearly succeeded,
but found that he needed
food, water, and somewhere to stand.*

Having established in the foregoing section that the equitable distribution of land is critical for economic justice, we wish to more certainly determine: should everybody have land? The limerick above, in whimsical fashion, answers the question – showing that while land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land. Therefore, everyone should have some land.

How much land is equitable?

In his important book How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell found that “Output booms [in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan] occurred in conditions in which farming was essentially a form of large-scale gardening. Families of five, six or seven people tended plots of not more than one hectare”.

(Studwell does an excellent job of showing that large-scale, mechanised agriculture maximises merely profit, while small-scale, labour-intensive agriculture maximises output per acre, and thereby economic growth.)

Does Kenya currently have enough land?

While Kenya has an area of roughly 582,646 square kilometres (58,264,600 hectares), “only 20 percent of the land surface can support rain-fed agriculture (medium to high potential). About 75 percent of the country’s population lives in these areas, with population densities as high as 2,000 per square kilometre in some parts”. Further, even within this narrow arable area, the distribution of land is inequitable, for “more than half of the nation’s arable land is in the hands of only 20 percent of the population.” Such was the situation in 2006. By 2016, according to the World Bank, just 10 per cent of Kenya’s land was arable.

From the 2019 census, Kenya has a population of 47.6 million. We have a median age of about 19 years. From these figures, we can assume that the number of non-dependents requiring land for basic economic activity such as smallholding agriculture is 23.8 million people or (in a utopian situation) about 12 million families. Going by the World Bank’s statistic that 10 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable, that would leave 5,826,460 hectares (14,397,496 acres) of arable land, or about 1.2 acres per family.

While land can be put to any one of a hundred uses, it is impossible to function as a human being – to live – without the use of some land

Taking Studwell’s one hectare (about 2.5 acres) as the family unit for land, we see that there are two problems: i) that there is not enough arable land (i.e. 1.2 acres vs 2.5 acres), and ii) that what arable land does exist is not equitably distributed.

(The fact that our median age is 19 demonstrates that our unemployment situation – already utterly tragic – will only deteriorate with time. It is the single most significant problem we need to solve. Land reform – as shown below – would go a long way towards solving it.)

Which solutions are available to us to resolve these problems?

Land redistribution (land reform)

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines land reform as “measures designed to effect a more equitable distribution of agricultural land especially by governmental action”. In order to more meaningfully convey the object of land reform, this article uses the term land redistribution.

What problems would land redistribution solve? At present, the ownership of land is highly concentrated. This concentration of land ownership has a direct impact on the minimum wage. If land were more equitably distributed, so that each family unit had about 2.5 acres for agricultural use, then the minimum wage would not need to be set by government. The minimum wage would instead default to the return available to the average farmer for working their 2.5 acres of land. Any industrialist would have to offer better than that to attract workers from rural Kenya to the city. The absence of a fair distribution of land leads directly to the current “city dwellers” situation, in which we have masses of workers who walk daily from Kangemi to Nairobi city centre and back (or from Kibera to Industrial Area and back) to do back-breaking work – all for a pittance.

Joe Studwell traces the origins of the economic take-offs of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to the redistribution of land among citizens, noting that “In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained. It was this that led to prolonged rural booms that catalysed overall economic transformation”.

Which leads us to: how did they do it? Japan, in particular, implemented land redistribution by imposing a maximum 3-hectare limit for farms in almost all areas of the country. This was implemented by creating land committees on which local tenants and owner-farmers outnumbered landlords. The local aspect of these committees was of critical importance – more centralised, authoritarian redistributions, such as those that took place in Korea seemed less effective. In addition, the composition of these committees was critical for ensuring that fair redistributions took place. A situation where land is redistributed to different, already-wealthy new owners (such as members of county assemblies), or one in which the wealthy generate proxies to “redistribute” their land to, is not difficult to imagine in Kenya. Ensuring that currently landless locals (or those locals with too little land) benefit from redistribution by placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts.

In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, household-based land redistribution programmes were implemented peacefully, and sustained

It is important to note that land redistribution, while monumental, cannot work on its own. It must in turn be supported by: i) strict restrictions on the future sale of land; ii) Investment in rural infrastructure (for example irrigation infrastructure, grain-drying facilities, roads to food-basket areas, etc); iii) the provision of agricultural extension services (it was once noted that Kakamega was twice as poor as Nyeri mainly because Nyeri farmers used certified seed); iv) the provision of low-interest credit; and v) marketing support (of a vastly different nature to that hitherto provided by Kenya Planters Cooperative Union, for example) – or liberalisation of marketing.

Lastly, within a society, the ownership of wealth naturally becomes concentrated over time. One-off land redistribution would not solve this perennial problem. Land redistribution must be done periodically – every 50 years being the prescriptive interval.

Land taxation

The taxation of land is Henry George’s elegant solution to the conundrum of allowing the private ownership of land while at the same time preventing the private individual from keeping to himself/herself the public benefits of this private ownership. To recap, George’s central premise is that people own the earth and its resources in common, and that returns to land (itself a metaphor for the earth and all its resources) should therefore be realised in common. This would appear to negate the concept of private ownership of land or property; Mr George’s elegant solution to allowing the private ownership of land while causing the returns to land to be commonly realised was a land-value tax – i.e. the taxation of privately-owned land based on the market value of the land alone (excluding any improvements and buildings upon it). This solution, he wrote, would take the enjoyment of unearned income arising from landownership (i.e. economic rent) away from private hands and place it in the hands of the public.

It might be worthwhile to think, for a moment, about just a few of the implications of this simple “remedy”, as he calls it. First, implementing a land-value tax would immediately make owning idle land unprofitable. Living, as we do, in a country where vast tracts of land are “owned” without being put to optimum use – indeed, to any use at all – taxing the ownership of such land would in short order cause the sale, or the lease, or the use of that land; anything to enable the payment of the land-value tax. All of these outcomes would be nationally, economically beneficial.

Placing local individuals of individual integrity and probity on the land redistribution committees would be critical to ensuring that land redistribution lasts

Second, if only land ownership were taxed, it would imply that labour and capital would not be taxed. Mr George states that to tax anything is to discourage it. This is one of the reasons why taxing land values would discourage private land ownership (unless the landowner was doing something with that land that would enable them to pay the land-value tax). Applying this principle of taxation to the other factors of production, to tax human endeavour (labour) is to discourage it, and therefore such endeavour should not be taxed. Imagine the effect on any economy of allowing people to realise the full benefit of their labour. Would this not be just?

Third, that the benefits from ownership of naturally occurring wealth, for example, should be publicly realised is another implication of Mr George’s remedy. Implementing this would mean that there would be no more private fortunes in oil, or gold, or diamonds, or the electromagnetic spectrum…

Fourth, implementing a tax based on the value of land, insofar as the value of land was determined accurately, would mean that landowners – including the owners of the most prime real estate in New York, or Nairobi, or London – would realise from their ownership of land only such benefit as accrues from their improvement of that land (e.g. by building upon it); they would not be able to benefit merely from “owning” it.

Fifth, Apple and Amazon and Google and Microsoft would not be able to evade federal taxes any longer by pretending to be operating out of Ireland, so long as they had offices (campuses!) in the United States. In other words, a land-value tax is not as easily evadable as many of the forms of taxation we have today.

Land value taxation as a single tax has not been implemented anywhere in the world, for political reasons. In as far as a land-value tax captures the economic rent arising from the private ownership of land, however, an example of the efficacy of this can be seen in Singapore, where the government owns the majority of the land and uses land-based taxes (leases and development uplift) to fund the development of that nation’s infrastructure.

Increase of arable land

Before we began to review our solutions, we noted that we have two main problems: a shortage of arable land, and an unequal distribution of what arable land we do have. The first two solutions we have looked at would redistribute what arable land we do have more equitably. We now look at how we can increase the quantum of our arable land.

Bishop Dr Titus Masika, father of the well-known gospel singer Mercy Masika, and founder of Christian Impact Mission, has done some work in this area that is at once illustrious and illustrative. Bishop Dr Masika launched what he called Operation Mwolyo Out (OMO) in the Yatta sub-county of Machakos County (mwolyo is Kamba for relief food). Yatta, home to about 150,000 people, is classified among the arid and semi-arid areas of the country. OMO saw families encouraged to excavate 20ft-deep water pan to harvest rainwater, and then use the water collected during the rainy season to farm year-round. As a result of these interventions, a community that once had food deficits now generates food surpluses.

Bishop Dr Masika’s OMO initiative demonstrates that we do not need to accept the World Bank’s “10 per cent arable land” as just another nail in our nation’s economic coffin. Amidst much injustice and inequality, we can start with what we have right now. Bishop Dr Masika emphasises the importance of changing a people’s mindset before you can change their outcomes . He states that a change in mindset is the most important step in bringing about permanent change. A radical change of mindset is as necessary in the way we think about economics, land and poverty as it was for the people of Yatta before OMO became a success. For water harvesting, while important, would not have been enough.

The late, great Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once stated that the first job of government is to equalise opportunity. An economically undeveloped society with an inequality of opportunities is a society that is ripe for land reform. An economy/society that allows the accumulation – for a select few – of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust economy/society. Indeed, even where unearned incomes such as capital gains are shared quite broadly across the economy (as has happened through the democratisation of home ownership in the UK, for example), as this situation is allowed to persist, wealth concentrates among those who first had the opportunity to privately own land. Eventually this leads to inter-generational differences, where the young experience a “failure to launch” into their own homes because home ownership/tenancy becomes too expensive for young people working their first jobs.

A society that allows the accumulation of an unearned income arising from the private ownership of land is an unjust society

Typically, however, it takes moments of immense political upheaval in order for land reforms to be implemented. In Japan, land redistribution was carried out under General MacArthur’s reconstruction programme (on the advice of the great Wolf Ladejinsky) during the US occupation of Japan immediately after the Second World War. In South Korea, the US’s favoured political stooge, Syngman Rhee, enacted redistribution laws, but dragged his heels in implementing them. Matters came to a head during the 1950-53 Korean civil war; after the war, land redistribution was implemented.

In Taiwan, the Kuomintang, fleeing from mainland China, realised they would have to deal with economic inequality by implementing land reform, or perish politically. Songs like Ĩno Mĩgũnda, coupled with our current unemployment metrics (5.3 million of our young people i.e. 39% of our youth, are unemployed), and the fact that our median age is 19, are indicators that our own nation is moving inexorably in the direction of significant political upheaval.

It is incumbent upon us to implement these reforms before economic injustice is obliterated in excruciating fashion as the forces of economic inequality now acting upon our nation’s youthful population give birth to a long-delayed backlash.

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Africapitalism’ and the Limits of Any Variant of Capitalism

Stefan Ouma provides a critical account of Africapitalism as well as an assessment of the future/s it imagines, what it silences and its potential to transform African economies. Ouma concludes that the ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of our global economic system provides further evidence to condemn any variant of capitalism.



Africapitalism’ and the Limits of Any Variant of Capitalism
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In 2019, Tanzanians mourned prominent businessperson Ali Mufuruki (1959-2019). Under the umbrella of his InfoTech Investment Group, he championed the cause of indigenous ownership of businesses in the country. He was successful at his trade, representative of a group of ‘Tanzanians of African origin who have been the voice of the private sector during – and since – the transition to liberalization in the 1980s/90s.

He was also an ‘ideational entrepreneur’ who promoted the structural transformation of African economies to engender less extraverted and extractive forms of development. With the aim to safeguard the ‘gains of liberalization’, he co-founded and chaired the CEO Roundtable of Tanzania (CEOrt), providing a forum for industry leaders to constructively engage the government on policy issues. Together with his fellow countrymen Rahim Mawji, Moremi Marwa, Gilman Kasiga, he published a book to which the President himself, John Pombe Magufuli wrote the foreword: Tanzania’s Industrialisation Journey, 2016-2056: From an Agrarian to a Modern Industrialised State in Forty Years (2017).

Mufuruki also spread his ideas in a TED talk, where he debunked the myth of ‘Africa rising’ with great verve, as some critical political economists have also done. Yet despite being touted as an ‘intellectual of capital’ by historian Chambi Chachage, you won’t find the term capitalism mentioned in Mufuruki and colleagues’ book other than when another cited author uses the term. Instead, less suspicious terms such as ‘the market’ and ‘the private sector’ are put to use. After all, upebari (capitalism) and mapebari (capitalists) are still terms used widely with a negative connotation in a country where socialism is still enshrined in the constitution.

In contrast, in Nigeria, another intellectual of capital, Tony Elumelu, was far less hesitant to mobilise the vocabulary of capitalism for his purposes when he came up with the term Africapitalism in 2011. Since then, the notion has become a popular hashtag in social media, and now garnishes the titles of at least three books (Edozie 2017Idemudia and Amaeshi 2019Amaeshi et al. 2018).

Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is someone for whom capitalism has worked very well, having turned the Nigerian United Bank of Africa (UBA) into a pan-African player in the 2000s. He is now the board chairman of Heirs Holding, a pan-African private equity firm based in Lagos. For the past ten years, he has also headed a large philanthropic enterprise dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship across the continent.

Like Mufuruki, Elumelu is representative of ‘Africa’s new, burgeoning capitalist class’ – a new crop of African entrepreneurs who not only have amassed huge fortunes, but who also increasingly shape representations of the continent on matters of economic and social policy in the battle for minds in and beyond Africa. As argued in a recent post to this blog series by Nigerian historian Moses Ochonu, engagement with this new crop of entrepreneurs is often fraught with two interrelated problems: ‘One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.’ I am taking this finding as an invitation to critically think through Africapitalism beyond capitalism.

Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’  Its agenda, however, became subsequently more philosophically refined as part of an academic project sponsored by Elumelu’s Foundation at the University of Edinburgh School of Business.

The Nigerian academics involved reframed the Africapitalist ethos as a set of fundamental values through which capitalism is supposed to be made to work for Africans. ‘[A] sense of progress and prosperity,’ ‘a sense of parity,’ ‘a sense of peace and harmony’ and a ‘sense of place and belongingness’ were put at the heart of the Africapitalist project.

At first it seems puzzling that someone would unashamedly embrace capitalism as an ideology of the future on a continent that has historically most brutally suffered under it, and which until today – by many accounts – continues to do so. Making a case for capitalism so boldly happens rarely anywhere in the world, especially outside the UK and the US, where Milton Friedman and others have promoted capitalism as a free-enterprise system that brings humans’ true nature to the fore. Friedman even ran a TV show on it.

Originally, ‘Africapitalism’ only provided a shadowy outline of a new economic blueprint for structural change in Africa. Elumelu underlined that ‘its primary goal is greater economic prosperity and social wealth, driven by Africa’s private sector – its domestic economies, markets, and businesses.’

Even in other core capitalist countries such as Germany, politicians or business folk tend to use less controversial vocabulary such as ‘the market economy’ or ‘our economic system’ when they talk about the world they inhabit. When the leader of the Youth Wing of the Social Democrats (JUSOS) in Germany explicitly used the term capitalism in 2019 to argue that what is assumed to be God-given can actually be changed (calling for labour to own stakes in large businesses), all hell broke loose. That the term is avoided in public debate happens even more often across Africa.

Most independence governments shunned capitalism as the ideology of the colonisers, and until today, many leaders shy away from openly embracing it as the ideology of choice. Almost 30 years ago, Paul Zeleza noted that even in countries with a history of pro-capitalist development since independence, such as Kenya, politicians, entrepreneurs and academics rarely made a public case for capitalism. A recent piece by ROAPE’s Jörg Wiegratz for this series on and a 2019 intervention of the Mathare Social Justice Center seem to reaffirm the discursive invisibility of capitalism in at least that corner of the continent.

The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future. The global financial crisis, all-time high global inequalities, but also the increasingly obvious ecological limits of an economic system based on infinite growth, present challenges to anyone trying to make a continued case for capitalism.

Critical books diagnosing capitalism as ready to implode, imagining post-capitalist futures or directly attacking those benefiting disproportionally from the machinations of contemporary capitalism have become plentiful, often reminding us that it is either capitalism or the planet.

The enthusiastic promotion of Africapitalism also seems puzzling given that capitalism has become increasingly questioned as an ideology-cum-economic system that can take us into the future

In the wake of the global financial crisis 2007-8, even the promoters of global corporate elites admit that capitalism has come ‘under siege.’ With debates on inequality and climate change at an all-time high, now even some of the biggest profiteers from financialized capitalism, such as investment banker Jamie Dimon, want to save capitalism from capitalism.

The Corona virus crisis is just the latest product of capitalism’s ‘blasted landscapes.’ As Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr recently argued in two widely circulating essays in the German Newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the COVID-19 pandemic is the product of the minority world’s ‘imperial mode of living’ which partly has been taken up in China and other emerging economies, and now puts the fallout on the rest of us. In a way, it may be considered the harbinger of the climate catastrophe to come – a catastrophe for which only a relatively small part of the world population is responsible (especially if environmental debt is calculated per capita and historically).

The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.

At the same time, there have been various developments that help us make sense of why ‘Africapitalism’ as an idea emerged and has been taken up so enthusiastically across Africa, and reverberates powerfully even in times of Corona (Elumelu’s UBA just announced a $14 million COVID-19 relief support across Africa).

First, since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. Although even some intellectuals of capital have been wary of the danger of a single story, such as Mufuruki himself, this narrative has nevertheless redirected the gaze of global capital towards the continent.

As the late Thandika Mkandawire pointed out: ‘Ideas matter. While not always decisive, they do have an autonomous and noticeable effect on interests and institutions.’ Indeed, many African corporate and political elites have tried to exploit this moment of increased global attention, especially the new crop of mega-rich entrepreneurs that Elumelu is part of: the Kirubis, Motsepes and Dangotes of the continent.

Since 2008, Africa has come to be heralded as the last frontier of capitalism, most prominently encapsulated in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative.

Elumelu himself seems to admit that Africa should not rise in a business-as-usual mode. To remedy potential conflicts arising from jobless growth, accumulation by resource extraction and increasing demographic pressures, it ‘is in capital’s own interest to think long-term and invest for social impact’  Why not bet on a mode of production that has, as some would say, proven to be the largest wealth-creating machine in human history?

For Africapitalists, it just depends on the variety of capitalism and how inclusive it is made. It is along these lines that promoters of Africapitalism want to free capitalism from its most excessive and socially destructive features, turning it into a win-win machine for capitalists and the communities they ‘serve’. This is supposed to happen through voluntary, private sector-driven initiatives rather than through taming capitalism through public regulation.

Second, there has been an increasing shift in development thinking over the past decade. The private sector is now being hailed as the prime agent of economic change. The entry of philanthropic entities, private equity funds, impact investors and conventional multinationals into the business of development indicates this trend.

This has been buttressed by a range of concepts that try to give capitalist activities greater legitimacy, such as ‘inclusive capitalism’, ‘corporate citizenship’, ‘social enterprise’, ‘creating shared value’, ‘impact investing’, or the ‘double/triple bottom line approach’.

Africapitalism relates to these intellectual currents, but at the same time claims to supersede them. In such an environment, it sounds increasingly natural to make entrepreneurs – as ‘wealth creators,’ ‘job creators,’ ‘innovators,’ ‘problem-solvers,’ ‘disruptors’ and ‘givers’ the prime movers of economic transformation. Yet those who also create value, be it the state or workers, are largely absent in this narrative.

Third, there are long-standing questions about how to think about Africa’s future development trajectories and through which means ‘development’ could best be achieved. The idea of Africapitalism makes a bold contribution to this debate, reinjecting African agency into the discourse of economic transformation. Many independence leaders were seriously committed to a politics of the future, creating long-term visions of how their societies should develop (e.g., Nkrumah, Senghor, Nyerere) This particular version of politics of the future faded away from the 1980s onwards, when the projects they were based on had run into economic troubles.

‘The African state,’ variously described as socialist, rent-seeking, vampiristic, centralised, clientelist, neopatrimonial, predatory, kleptocratic or failed (Mkandawire 2001: 293), was suddenly blamed for all kinds of evils and the lost development decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Statist and home-grown academic visions of societal transformation were gradually replaced by copy-and-paste adjustment practices. Issa Shivji aptly described this situation a few years ago: ‘The globalization hegemony dictated that the “villages” of the globalizing world did not need thinkers, but only purveyors of thought generated elsewhere.’  Until the early 2000s, African economies had become even greater importers of foreign concepts, something that has always been part of the (post)colonial experience.

The Corona crisis also calls into question the debt-financed growth strategies of many African governments, to the extent that a group of 100 African intellectuals have called for a complete overhaul of the African variant of neoliberal capitalism, where road and airport infrastructures and other ‘urban fantasies’ are prioritized over human well-being.

The longstanding calls for the domestication of ‘development’ moving beyond imperial Western thought, overcoming the colonisation of mind and language, as well as the more recent calls for Africentricity, Africonsciousness and Afromodernity have been responses to this predicament. The idea of Africapitalism fits with the idea that development in Africa should happen with a ‘sense of place’.

It connects with the long-standing desire of African and African Diaspora people to reassert the continent’s role in the world. Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’

While closely linked to its Nigerian origin, Africapitalism also ties into and takes inspiration from another vision for Africa’s transformation, Ubuntu economics. Both philosophies are said to ‘embed within themselves the principles of self-determination, African agency, African knowledge and an Africacentric symbolic identity’.

Both philosophies are mobilised to carve out new spaces of thought and practice from the global political economy for accumulating both economic and social wealth in Africa. But Africapitalists have no problem with the foreignness of capitalism, and for the more libertarian kind it is in fact socialist practices that are foreign imports into a context where ‘(p)rofit, trade, and entrepreneurship are inherent aspects of indigenous economic systems’.

For these libertarian Africapitalists, the capitalist ethic is a product of nature (rather than a product of history) – a finding which has been critiqued in an earlier contribution to this blog series by Horman Chitonge. ‘Africapitalism’ also can be related to the long-standing concept of Pan-Africanism, but comes across as a globally more appealing and neutral concept, as Pan-Africanism always had an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist ideological core.

So, what does the concept actually deliver for the continent (and its diaspora people) in terms of transformative, emancipatory and redistributive potential? Despite the welcome Afrocentric and Afroconscious rhetoric, Africapitalists, much like most other politicians and business folk fail to fully ‘open up the present to more than its own repetition.’

This does not deny the need for Africans to advance a more humane, place-based, and connected economy that tries to radically transcend capitalism as the continent has known it. As Mkandawire recently remarked, we should be essentially upbeat about Africa, but it ‘must be given space, or capture space, to think its own way out of its predicament’.

At a time when the true costs of climbing up the capitalist ladder are more obvious than ever; Africa is in a good position to generate real and viable alternative economic futures. But this requires much more than promoting Afrocentric entrepreneurship and needs an approach that enables us to seriously break with the coloniality of power, knowledge and being that has shaped Africa’s adverse insertion into the global political economy since the colonial period. It is only this systemic overhaul which will set African economies on a new footing.

Frantz Fanon once described this desire powerfully in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘….if we want humanity to take one step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.’

After all, Africanization does not equal decolonization. By relying on categories that were often formed during colonial encounters (such as ‘growth,’ ‘efficiency’; ‘nature serves man as a resource’), by largely subscribing to the current orthodoxy in management and business speak, and by not being grounded in a broader alliance of social forces and ontologies, Africapitalists fail to make visible and utilise the full range of unrealised possibilities that the continent offers when it comes to thinking through capitalism beyond capitalism. They promote a world where redistribution happens because of entrepreneurs’ commitments to the idea of shared value rather than improved tax collection or other forms of redistribution.

Africapitalists also are ‘devoted to the unlikely idea that the bitter conflicts between labour and capital in the West can be replaced on the continent by capitalism informed by the humanistic solidarities of Ubuntu. They imagine a world where capitalist enterprises create economic and social value in the communities they serve through win-win arrangements. It is also a world where large foundations are tasked with economic and social transformation more broadly, despite the increasing evidence of the flaws of the venture philanthropy model/philanthrocapitalism, and the wanting labour, environmental and corporate governance track record of companies that are being cited as good examples of Africapitalism (take Zambeef or Nakumatt, for instance).

In order to revoke the current economic order, we need concerted, pan-African and radical efforts to remake African economies, which are at the same time grounded in the awareness that Africa is part of a wider global ensemble in which humans are one among many species. This does not mean that Africans must scale down on their desire to live dignified, fulfilled, and secure lives, but that anyone engaging with the future must dare to move outside a frame that may hold for only another few decades before it will fully fall apart.

Such questions may be dismissed against the background that Africapitalism is first and foremost about attaining the discursive power to shape one’s own economic destiny in a region where millions of people are yet to enjoy the material wealth of the North, or many emerging economies, and thus lack the privilege to think beyond capitalism. During such an endeavour, questions of environmentalism may be treated rather agnostically.

Yet, even though attaining the power to shape one’s own destiny and developing a set of discursive, place-based concepts that can help build alliances around a project of economic transformation are certainly key to more prosperous African futures, it can be questioned whether this should be done through practices that have historically built wealth in certain regions of the world only on the back of cheap nature, food, labour and energy elsewhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic is nature’s way to fight back, bringing the technologically sophisticated yet often ecologically destructive and dehumanising architecture of contemporary supply chain capitalism to its knees, further proves the ecological and social limits of any variant of capitalism. It is worth re-reading Fanon: ‘So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it. Humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation.’

The article was published in the Review of African Political Economy journal extended version originally published in Africapitalism: Sustainable Business and Development in Africa by Idemudia and Amaeshi (eds) 2019.

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Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.



Urban Africa Under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities
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Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points. While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.

How do we study pressure?

Our review of existing literature on economic pressure has identified two main gaps. On the one hand, most ethnographic studies focus on a particular group/community (e.g. female gig workers, urban poor, farmers, security guards, an extended family or even a few individuals). How the experiences and drivers of pressure differ across groups according to class, income, gender, geography, profession etc., is largely absent from the literature. On the other hand, studies tend to frame pressure in the context of one specific driver (e.g. agrarian change, consumer credit, financial inclusion, changes in the structure of work, unemployment, supply chain dynamics, etc.), often in a broader context of neoliberalism, commercialisation, and globalisation.

Our blog series aims to address these gaps by exploring economic pressure in a more situational and practice-oriented way, in which pressure is understood as an affect produced in and through specific geographies, temporalities, and social and economic relations. This allows us to apprehend how specific geographies such as neighbourhoods, estates, markets or cities are pressure inducing or “under pressure”. We frame economic pressure as a multi-causal and highly localized phenomenon shaped by broader geographic, social, cultural, economic and political environments, while, at the same time, acknowledging the value of a comparative approach that captures the experience of pressure across social and economic classes.

Correspondingly, our intervention – in this blog series and beyond – aims to critically engage with and counter two main positions in the literature and policy debates. First, we argue that as a social experience, economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor. By widening the categories of actors (e.g. ultra-poor, poor, middle-class, rich and super rich), our analysis and debate expands the portrayal of pressure as an experience that solely affects the poor; whether it be the “hustler” striving to make ends meet on the streets of Nairobi or families using food banks in Johannesburg. Understanding the cross-class characteristics of pressure is key to understanding how it has become an ubiquitous phenomenon constitutive of capitalist society and everyday life.

Second, we question the assumptions regarding the power of individual action and choice prevalent among psychologists, behavioural economists and other social scientists working on the productive potential of hope, aspirations and self-efficacy (e.g. the work of behavioural economists such as Johannes Haushofer as well as anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai). Instead, we take the position that economic pressure is produced through the intersection of overarching ideologies, economic structures, social webs of exchange, and the dynamics of capitalism that shape the lives of all classes in the urban population. Based on our review of existing literature and preliminary qualitative interviews conducted in Nairobi, we suggest that economic pressure is an emotional state engendered by a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them. Crucially, the existence of economic pressure does not necessarily entail an actual disparity between demands and abilities; rather, it is a (inter)subjective experience produced by changes in an actor’s social and material environment that suggests to him or her that such a disbalance exists and is relevant, significant and urgent. Hence, we do not conceptualise economic pressure as a quantitatively measurable individual feeling, but as an affect whose constitution, magnitude and presence are a function of atmospheric changes in one’s environment. Economic pressure is thus better grasped by local idioms such as piny pek (Dholuo, “the world weighs heavy”) or ngori (Sheng, “trouble”) than through a set of objective criteria.

Where do we study pressure?

Our focus is the capitalist and especially neoliberal city. The effects of neoliberal restructuring and regimes of accumulation have been particularly inimical in African cities, which face ever deepening informalisation, inequality, insecurity, economic uncertainty and attendant excessive policing, yet continue to pulsate with the promise of possibilities. African cities are particularly fertile sites in which to examine pressure as they are agglomerations of rapid and often turbulent social, cultural and economic change triggered by late capitalism, and are home to a range of interconnected actors who experience and manage, as well as co-produce and co-intensify, pressure across class and other divides. City dwellers also experience a constellation of conditions that are distinct from their rural counterparts: they have more business opportunities and risks; face a range of infrastructural constraints, from rising housing and transport expenses to a shortage of affordable housing, water and sanitation; experience high levels of poverty, widespread under-/un-employment, and intense competition for jobs with concomitant downward pressure on wages in the context of increasing rural urban migration; are more vulnerable to urban criminals or state agents (police etc.) that rob them of their earnings or assets, and their financial demands are not fixed, but ever-changing, often with an accelerated speed, and abetted by mobile technology, the self-help industry, and loan apps that encourage financial action. In addition, urban residents are more plugged into the circuits of global capitalist culture (technological connections, media, music, wealth, digital work, etc.) and the latter’s imaginaries of prosperity contribute to the trend of restless and calculative agency.

This complex and shifting landscape of ‘pressure in the city’ demands an inter-disciplinary approach to apprehend how economic demands, obligations and constraints interweave with the social worlds and life experiences of city dwellers. This includes, on the one hand, examining the inter-relationship between available income (and saleable assets more widely) and the necessary and desired demands that actors (and their families, kin, and social networks) face. This income-demands gap (as distinguished from the income-expenditure gap) is a key catalyst of ‘pressure’. On the other hand, this requires tracking pressure across noneconomic registers – financial, cultural, social, psychological – and gaining a comprehensive picture of how these registers relate. For example, while pressure is associated with a number of common somatic symptoms such as sleeplessness, ulcers, lack of energy, depression, over-activity and burn-out, it may also create the conditions that prompt an array of actions such as gender-based violence, concealing or switching phones to avoid being observed or contacted, gambling and drinking, which can induce new psychological, financial and social pressures. Attaining a full picture of pressure — its drivers, symptoms and consequences — thus necessitates an inter-disciplinary and multi-methodological approach.

“One illness away from poverty”: Economic pressures and uncertainty in Nairobi

In the context of the pandemic, Nairobi continues to be a city of disparities. Against the looming local and global slow-down that the Covid-19 crisis has provoked, a recent poll shows that vast sections of the Kenyan population are now unable to pay for utilities (67%), rent, or medicine, can no longer remit money to dependants (79%), have defaulted on loans repayment (75%), and had to turn to food donations. Significantly, 81% of those surveyed are anxious and stressed, while 52% felt helpless and 33% angry. Indeed, the conditions urban residents face are stressful. With the large tracts of the promised Covid-19 stimulus package monies unaccounted for and seemingly never expended, the inconsistent food donations in poor communities tapering, and one million jobs lost in three months, daily life is now even more difficult to plan. But these pressures build on dynamics that existed before the pandemic. In February 2020, before the government implemented a lockdown, census data documented that 39% of youth (between the ages of 18-35) were unemployed. Likewise, over half of those employed in 2018 earned less than 10,000 Kenya shillings a month [less than $100], which is barely enough to cover basic necessities such as food, transport, housing and clothing. With privatization and the high cost of basic services such as rent, healthcare, water and, in many poor neighbourhoods, even sanitation facilities, meeting one’s every day needs is a significant financial strain. Even the middle-class are only “one illness away from poverty” due to the inordinate cost of private health care and similar shocks.

As in other neoliberal cities, the remedies for these significant economic burdens are individualized and the political economy that scaffolds them often remains off-staged/hidden from view. Instead, predatory mobile loans, principally targeting youth, the poorest and underemployed, are offered at exorbitant interest rates, the booming church industry thrives on a prosperity gospel that promises individual riches in exchange for prayers (and often significant tithes) and the country’s development is projected in a number of ‘vision’ documents that promote large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, railways, airports etc) rather than an improvement in basic conditions for all Kenyans.

It is against these realities, that, over the last few years, public discourse more and more features words such as “mental health” and “burnout.” It is not a coincidence that this vernacular is taken up at a time when most Kenyans, surveyed across geographies, genders and classes, reported that their financial status worsened between 2016 and 2019.Interestingly, during this same three year period, we observe increasing (neoliberal) efforts directed towards “financial inclusion” habitually channelled through “fintech.”

Certainly, Kenyans are finding it hard to juggle all their economic burdens, from extended families to basic necessities, let alone finance the personal and collective aspirations for home ownership, better education, cars etc. All around, across all demographics, there is personal and collective work directed towards lightening these loads, made by piny pek – a heavy world. There are bets hedged, some won and many lost; collective savings groups, gambling, debts, and other situated modes to narrativize and negotiate economic pressures. Future blog posts will detail these means of coping in more ethnographic depth, showcasing the fervent efforts people of all walks of life in Nairobi, a capitalist city, are making to ease the pressure.

This article was first published in the Developing Economics.

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