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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past

11 min read.

Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, and to debunk myths about Africa as a place that did not innovate or create.

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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past
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“We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”Saki Mafundikwa

In Crazy Normal, Trevor Noah makes a joke about South Africa that I think applies to all of Africa. In his sketch, Africa responds to the world moving in one direction with, “Okay…we’re going to go that way,” pointing in a different direction. The ‘rest-of-the-world’ is perplexed and Africa reassures, “No, don’t worry, we’ll find you there.”

What Trevor Noah illuminates is the ‘elsewhere-ness’ of Africa. Africa has impressive political, economic, social-ecological and cultural diversity – a diversity that is often un-understood for its defiance to being mappable by narrow Euro-American standards and statistics. So much so that Africa is today more often described in negatives than in anything else: lack, poverty, failed, corrupt and crisis being some of them.

But being elsewhere is not being nowhere. Studying Africa’s history is sense-making of this reality and truth, especially for Africans who have grown up in colonially inherited institutions, and are therefore at risk of reproducing an inherited scarcity mentality and inferiority complex. Engaging with precolonial and colonial African history is to remove inherited glasses, whose field of vision limits the scope of where and how ‘being’ is possible.

I discuss here three interlinked reasons for historical study of Africa: agency, possibility and imagination. Recognising Africans’ agency allows recognition of the worlds Africans create/d and opens up imagination for the continued creation of African worlds. At a time of ecological, political, and socio-economic crisis, this is not just about reclaiming identity, but also about regaining footing to create and determine the new worlds coming.

Agency

Africa’s history has been human history for the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been in existence. This makes African history the longest history of all the world. Precolonial African history makes up about 99.8 per cent of African history for the earliest colonised African entities, Madeira and Canary Islands (1420 and 1496, respectively), Kongo (1472) and South Africa (1652). Indeed, the term ‘pre-colonial history’ is a shorthand that centres European colonialism as Africa’s defining feature, rather than the 99.8 per cent of history preceding it.

Locating Africans’ agency through history counters the erroneous idea propagated by Western scholars that Africans had no history prior to Europeans. Interrogating multiple archives, including documents, environments, materials, practices, language, oral history and more shows Africans in their full range of humanity, a beginning point from which one can ask questions about what happened in the past rather than making assumptions.

Reflecting on the history curriculum I learnt in high school, I noticed that there were gaps. Kenyan history was taught separately from ‘world history’, and in it, we learnt about some ethnic communities’ cultural institutions; the Indian Ocean Trade emphasising Arab and Portuguese influence; and colonial encounters. Following the discussion of the local emergence of the homo species, history quickly propelled to a ‘world’ stage, represented by various linearly progressive revolutions: Neolithic-Agrarian-Industrial. These were described in a manner as to make one aspire to the ladder of progress they represented, but not to see what they left out – the gender and class stratifications and colonialism and slavery, and their ripple effects on injustice in the world today.

The curriculum only returned to focus on the local when there were particular interactions with foreign entities, such as with Portuguese influence on the East African coast in the 15th century, and with the later European colonisation of the African continent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Between species evolution in East Africa hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago, and present-day Kenya, the only significant events taught had foreigners as the main characters: Arabs, Portuguese, British. Indigenous history was limited to an ahistorical view of some ethnic groups’ customs.

Such gaps make significant processes, events, and local agents invisible in the history of what would later become Kenya, thus creating an incorrect view that only foreigners were and can be agents of Kenyan history. This negatively biases students’ view of their own agency in affecting history, making it appear as though Africans ‘froze’ while history was happening elsewhere, and only re-entered history upon contact with foreigners.

This experience speaks to a larger institutionalisation of silences and misrepresentations. The bias is evident in policies and popular media that undermine communities’ indigenous livelihood strategies and knowledge, depicting them as destructive and in need of reform in the interests of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ agendas, both of which are largely driven by foreigners and benefit a minority elite while harming a majority. These policies and narratives do not engage with indigenous histories to show the many ways in which Africans have been agents in engaging with and changing their environments with a variety of impacts, and not simply as passive responders.

They also don’t engage with colonial history that would show how Africans’ agency was hidden, diminished or skewed, and thus entrench denigrating and dangerous received wisdoms. For example, in learning about the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme in school, no mention was made of it being inspired by an indigenous irrigation system by ilChamus peoples, nor was there a discussion of the reasons why ilChamus practised irrigation, how they managed to produce significant surpluses, and how and why they turned to other livelihood strategies, and with what effects. There was also no mention of the subsequent exclusion of ilChamus peoples from the ‘modern’ irrigation scheme when it was started.

Breaking the silence around indigenous Africans’ agency through integrating precolonial history into institutions, such as schools and the media, in ways that do not fall into either essentialising or negative stereotyping would counter damaging racist bias that Africa was a blank slate awaiting discovery and awakening by Europeans, or a ‘wrong’ place awaiting correction by the same.

Possibilities

In 2017, I studied permaculture, an environmental design-with-nature system articulated by the Australian Bill Mollison. The techniques and system, for which I was paying $400 to learn, I later found out, are part of a repertoire of indigenous agro-ecological techniques and social ethics developed and practised in various parts of Africa and elsewhere. These origins were not acknowledged in the teaching, and fellow students, myself included, were enthused by the ‘new’ knowledge we were gaining.

In my exploration of ecological, economic and social restorative technologies, I encounter a number of these systems articulated by Westerners drawing on often unacknowledged and/or unrematriated indigenous knowledges and practices, including those from this continent. Permaculture, as already mentioned, holistic rangeland management, a reformulation of pastoralists’ ways of working with livestock, family constellation therapy drawn from Zulu family healing techniques, bodywork techniques in process-oriented psychology, some drawn from unnamed Giriama healers, and restorative justice circles celebrate their often white, often male ‘inventors’ and have courses you can pay good sums for to learn these technologies.

Colonisation infused with ‘scientific racism’ placed Africans at the bottom of a ladder of humanity. It was unthinkable that Africans accomplished anything remarkable or constructive. This ladder perpetuated the myth that Africans don’t know and must be taught. Our knowledge and technologies are repackaged elsewhere and sold back to us at a premium, and we don’t recognise them. A permaculture practitioner I met in Tanzania, for example, confidently told a room of American undergraduates that there were no sustainable indigenous African food growing techniques except in her Chagga community. As Saki Mafundikwa comments, “We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”

By bringing agency and possibilities together, studying African history can reclaim our humanity and world-making over 200,000 years of living. Tracing past creativity, innovation, technologies, and their lifeworlds re-presents innumerable possibilities of being and doing. Importantly, it helps Africans step outside of disadvantageous psychological, economic and technological dependency.

Histories of indigenous food provision illuminate the variety of technological skills, and knowledge-based practices in use in different parts of Africa, how these developed, and where they were curtailed by colonial officers, thus hampering their efficacy. Looking only at agriculture, indigenous irrigation technologies, such as dams and irrigation canals, were/are in use in Marakwet, Pokot, Baringo, and at Engaruka in East Africa for many decades if not centuries.

Other forms of water management, including mulching, cover cropping, pit planting, terracing and weather manipulation, were in use across the continent, as were fertility technologies to manipulate soil chemistry, such as burning and tilling in of weeds and crop residues, creating areas of high fertility dark earths, using animal manure, and managing insects such as termites. Practices such as mobility, fallowing, and cultivating or encouraging a diverse range of plants and plant varieties harnessed land and climate variability. The latter also selected plants for taste, maturation, ritual suitability, colour, drought and pest tolerance, effectively making indigenous African farmers crop scientists par excellence.

Social-ecological innovations, like building partnerships across livelihoods to harness symbiotic benefits, were also food provision innovations. There are several examples of pastoralist-cultivators-forager partnerships, such as between the Maa-Agikuyu and Mukogodo-Maa peoples in East Africa, and Bambara-Fula and Bambara-Maure peoples in West Africa. Interrogating the development, context, and practice of these and more food provision technologies would illuminate useful knowledge for continued innovation. Histories of food provision would also include pastoralism and foraging, which are marginalised in popular and political discourse, perhaps because they are less easily dominated by capitalist commercialisation for export and state benefit.

Archaeological research indicates the depth of indigenous sciences knowledge in various parts of Africa. The bronze sculptures of Igbo-Ukwu that were created using the lost-wax technique and dating prior to 1000 AC (after Christ) are unique for their age, fine pattern detailing and technological skill. Similarly, Africans independently developed a wide range of iron smelting techniques (more diverse than anywhere else in the world) – including some unique in the temperatures they achieved – invented in central Africa at least 4,000 years ago. That indigenous African technologies, such as pyramid building in Kemet and Nubia, are yet to be deciphered, are a testament to their depth of skill and innovation. The presence of such sciences counters the received wisdoms that there is nothing to show for Africa in terms of indigenous innovation.

Remarkable rock art is found in many African countries. These art forms were created using a variety of techniques and intents. Rock art also informs historical understanding of human movements. Saharan rock art from a wetter period than the present indicates the likelihood that Kemet (Ancient Egypt) was formed from people migrating from a drying Sahara. Rock paintings and a 100,000-year-old paint laboratory in southern Africa demonstrate the manipulation of various materials (including ochre, blood, egg yolk, shells, bone marrow and fats) to create different coloured paints, and the development of varied painting techniques, including fine line brush paintings, finger, and hand paintings, and the use of art to depict and enact complex cosmologies and healing arts.

The diverse ways in which Africans made worlds are openings for diverse ways of being and for understanding Africa’s technological legacy. They are also a basis for the imagination of alternatives to the present moment.

Imagination

Africa’s colonisation ushered in a period of global homogeneity that solidified a global political (the nation-state) and economic (capitalism) template that has so dominated the global imaginary of the following 150 years that it seems nearly impossible to imagine alternatives to it. This has come with grave consequences, including the climate crisis we in Africa are increasingly going to bear the brunt of. Pre-independence African history is a key to breaking the totalising nature and lure of the present moment.

Studying pre-colonial and colonial history enables understanding of how the world’s narrative came to occlude Africa’s abilities and possibilities, and how this continues into the present. Looking at this history by focusing on agency and possibilities makes one realise that Africa’s pasts are not ‘less than’ but a resource to be built on.

Formal schooling, which focuses mainly on Africa’s post-independence history, can lead to feelings of impotence and resignation that make one believe that that is how things are in the present are how they will forever be. Engaging the 99.8 per of African history to know that things can be different – that as an African one is an agent, and that there is no dearth of examples of knowledge and skills from Africa – allows one to imagine something else in the present, and to “dare to invent the future”, as Thomas Sankara challenged.

Breaking the lure of the present moment involves countering the notion of African timelessness through attending to change in our pasts. For example, though we are often presented with African traditions as though they have been static, we know that practices are fashioned to respond to the goals of a group of people, and that both goals and practices can change. For example, many Bantu communities moving into eastern and southern parts of the continent did not practise circumcision as part of their rites of passage for young people coming of age. Circumcision was added onto pre-existing practices that varyingly included seclusion, adorning the body with clay and other emollients, ancestral and nature rituals, instruction from family, clan or community elders on new life responsibilities in adulthood, and the celebration of successful passage. Circumcision was added to pre-existing rites often as a result of mixing with non-Bantu communities who practised this, possibly due to, or to enable, intermarriages. Using analysis of divergences in words and ideas, historians show how even this inclusion waxed and waned with increasing and decreasing contacts with other communities.  

Indigenous history provides an arena to destabilise European Enlightenment divides such as nature-culture, mind-body disciplines, and anthropocentric notions of agency, all colonial inheritances that continue to define the present and contribute to the ongoing crisis. The practice of acknowledging those who came first, including land and forest spirits, is common in various African communities. When Anlo-Ewe peoples migrated into lagoon areas in West Africa, they incorporated ritual knowledge and the sea deities of neighbouring peoples, thus enabling them to develop a maritime fishing tradition, which was previously non-existent amongst them.

African symbologies, syllabaries and alphabets, such as Adinkra, Nsibidi, Chokwe veves, and Ge’ez scripts, illuminate communities’ values as well as the design and communication principles used to communicate them. These carriers of peoples’ aesthetic thought and principles can be used today both as reminders and harbingers of alternative futures, as Saki Mafundikwa, a graphic designer, and Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author, are doing.

Breaking the lure of the present moment also entails complexifying grand narratives through attending to histories of the particular and of change. For example, Sundiata Keita is famed as a great ruler of the Mali Empire. A charter he pronounced upon ascending the throne is celebrated as one of the first ‘constitutions’ in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta, and lauded for its humaneness because it instructed that slaves should get one day off a week and own the property of their bags. Sundiata, in fact, reinstated slavery, which the guild of hunters had abolished a few years earlier in a charter they delivered. This history points to the fact that life, and therefore history, is processual and encourages a shift from linear progression and teleological thinking.

Indigenous African polities demonstrate heterarchy as a form of societal organisation in which power is diffuse and vested in multiple spheres and people, none more important than the other, thus entrenching checks and balances. One person could belong to their family or clan lineage, an age-set group, a secret society, a knowledge or crafts guild, a deliberative body (e.g. council of elders), and a spiritual practice (e.g. a spirit medium or devotee) at the same time. Each of these institutions performed activities necessary for the health of the whole community rather than for the importance of single individuals, be they chiefs or kings. Amongst the Nanumba and others, chiefs were farmers like any other community member. Equally, deposition of leaders when they did not meet the reciprocal obligation to work for the health of the community was practised, as were migrations to start new communities in new areas.

Among the Alur, the power of the central polity increased rather than decreased as groups separated and left to start their own political formations. The hunter’s charter and ‘egalitarian/stateless societies’ like the Igbo of West Africa also provide examples of alternative political models. These different ways of organising the political can open up a discursive and praxis imaginary of the political that goes beyond the nation-state.

In many indigenous African societies, people, relationships and the knowledge embedded in them were more valued than material goods. The global capital system, however, has steadily devalued people, especially knowledgeable Africans who are placed at the bottom of a hierarchy, even while the system profits off the knowledge they hold in agriculture, medicine, knowledge production, and various other domains. In Equatorial Africa how much knowledge one had, understood as skilful generative action (not information) was highly valued. At present, however, extractive control over people, and the Earth, not the ownership of knowledge (productive skilful action) is what is more highly valued. A reframing of wealth using indigenous concepts of knowledge and skill might change how we organise our economies and societies, re-appreciating both the time and knowledge inherent in agroecological food production, craftwork, and forms of artistic production. It can also provide pathways out of global capitalism.

Statistics about Africa’s rapid urbanisation abound. Valuing and integrating indigenous forms of urbanism might hold answers to the challenges this presents. For example, urban agriculture was an integral part of several indigenous urban centres. Encouraging and supporting urban agriculture in African cities today might allow us to create cities that feed themselves. The floating city of Makoko in Lagos lagoon was settled 200 years ago. Today the ingenuity of design, construction, and socio-economic life in Makoko is under threat of demolition for ‘development’. A historical understanding of living in Makoko, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of knowledge and skill represented might allow imagination of indigenous urban development. Indeed, the residents of Makoko have been innovating it for 200 years already.

Conclusion

Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, to challenge the privileging of whiteness and Europeanness, and to debunk myths about Africans as people who are destructive or unchanging. It allows us to illuminate diverse possibilities of human living to build on against the hegemony of a present moment that unsees and devalues us. For Africans, studying African history is an opportunity to trace the stream of African living for the last 200, 000 years.

Unseeing was a colonial predicament. There is no reason why we must continue with these glasses on.

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Wangũi wa Kamonji is an independent researcher, dancer, writer and facilitator of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African lifeways. She is hearth keeper for the collective Afrika hai that researches, reconnects to and reimagines indigenous Afrikan knowledge and practices for regeneration. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at wangui.org.

Ideas

Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.

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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence
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For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.

You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.

If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.

Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.

In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.

They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.

Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.

Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.

The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.

So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.

Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.

In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.

Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.

The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.

After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.

White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.

In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.

In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.

Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.

On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.

And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.

Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.

Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.

Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?

So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.

And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.

Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginalsmisfitsNative Americans and Africans at the frontier?

And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.

By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.

As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.

However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Ideas

Combatting the Desert Locust Menace

In January 2020 Kenya experienced the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity to the country and the region.

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Combatting the Desert Locust Menace
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Locusts are small creatures measuring approximately 0.5 to 3 inches long and weighing 0.07 ounces that belong to the grasshopper family. The average lifecycle of a locust is three to six months. In normal circumstances they are solitary but can change their behaviour and become gregarious under certain conditions. During the dry season, they tend to swarm together in the scant patches of vegetation. The swarming causes serotonin to release into their central nervous system, promoting rapid movement, giving them appetite for a more varied diet leading to their rapid spread.

The onset of rains brings with it an increase in lush vegetation, favouring the rapid increase of the insects and triggering their gregarious phase during which the desert locust can be devastating, consuming its weight in food in a day. In each square kilometre of a swarm there can be as many as 40 million individuals capable of destroying in day enough food to feed more than 35,000 people.

Towards the end of 2019, the East African region experienced an invasion of desert locusts of a scale not witnessed in the region in decades. The desert locusts descended on farmland in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia in their hundreds of millions.

According to scientists, two cyclones in 2018 — Cyclone Mekunu in May and Cyclone Luban in October — caused massive rainfall in the Arabian Desert, a factor that facilitated the breeding of desert locusts. The rains were enough to create ephemeral lakes in the desert, a favourable breeding ground for desert locusts. It is believed that this phenomenon is likely to have enabled the formation of three generations of locust deserts, increasing the number of the swarming locusts 8,000-fold.

As is the nature of the desert locust, the swarms began to migrate and by the summer of 2019 they were crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the Eastern Africa countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. The desert locusts continued to breed for several months, with the autumn rains experienced in the East Africa region — capped by cyclonic storm Pawan, experienced in December of 2019 and responsible for rainfall in Somalia — triggering another reproductive cycle of the desert locusts.

The swarms of locusts continued to grow and arrived in Kenya towards the end of December 2019, rapidly moving through the northern and central parts of the country. By the end of January 2020, Kenya was experiencing the worst locust invasion in 70 years. So intense were the infestations — which moved through the neighbouring countries of Eritrea and Djibouti, finding their way to northern Tanzania and northeast Uganda in mid-February — that they posed a serious risk of food insecurity in the region.

The impact of the locust invasion was severe and continues to be felt to this day. In as much as Kenya has made significant steps in combating desert locusts infestations, new infestations continue swarming into the country and farmers in the north and in some parts of central Kenya continue to grapple with the huge losses caused by the invasions.

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 20.2 million people in the Eastern Africa region faced acute food insecurity in 2020 alone, a condition that was worsened by the desert locust infestations and the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, according to the FAO, desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.

As explained at the beginning of this article, the desert locust has the potential to destroy in one day food that can feed over 35,000 people, threatening a country with food insecurity. But while this might be the immediate impact of a desert locust invasion, infestations have other long short- and long-term effects.

It is said that a healthy nation is a productive nation. However, locust invasions have the potential to nullify this statement in less than a week of their landing in a region. The recent and ongoing wave of locust infestations has driven families and vulnerable groups into poverty and hunger, a situation that has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Desert locusts have the potential to affect 20 per cent of the earth’s land and put into jeopardy the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population.

Desert locust infestations are not only a threat to crops but they also threaten the survival of livestock. The FAO reported that in Ethiopia alone, an early assessment of the impact of the wave of locust invasions showed that more than 5,000 square miles of pastureland and 800 square miles of cropland were destroyed. The infestation also caused the loss of over 350,000 metric tonnes of dry grains and cereal, resulting in over one million people experiencing hunger and needing food aid.

A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all. Hunger and poverty contribute to increased crime in a country, driving people to engage in all manner of vice in an effort to survive.

Food insecurity is also a leading cause of increased government borrowing in a bid to alleviate the suffering of the population. The borrowing, which is meant to cushion the nation from the effects of the invasion and other resultant challenges, leads to a ballooning national debt and a high cost of living. Locust invasions also seriously affect a country’s export earnings which has a direct effect on previously planned expenditures. Locust infestations also tend to derail the development agenda of a country as it is forced to put scheduled plans on hold in order to deal with the invasion.

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How then can a country deal with locust infestations to guarantee its food security and avert the challenges associated with such invasions? Biological methods of pest control are safest, both for the environment and for humans. However, biological methods of desert locust control may not be effective, especially in cases where swarms are involved.

The most commonly used biological method of pest control is the use of a predator to eliminate the pest. However, the challenge with this method is that it cannot be effective in controlling large swarms of locusts as they can easily fly away from their predators. Another challenge is that locusts barely stay put for more than a day or two since they are constantly looking for food and therefore cannot be easily contained and controlled.

A nation that is not food secure is a nation that is not secure at all.

The other option of locust control would be to use of nets to capture swarms. However, this method of control can only be effective on a small scale since large swarms of locusts can fly above and past the nets.

Scaring the swarms away is yet another method of locust control. However, it can only be implemented in small areas since scaring the pests away only drives them to the next available vegetation for them to devour.

Consequently, the most effective method of controlling  large swarms of desert locusts is to spray organophosphate chemicals in small, concentrated volumes using aerial sprayers, vehicle-mounted sprayers, or from knapsack or handheld sprayers in smaller areas.

However, spraying chemicals to control locusts also has adverse effects on nature and on living organisms. For instance, while the use of the Metarhizium biopesticide was found to be 70 to 90 per cent effective in the control of locusts, with no measurable impact on non-target organisms, this is not the case with other chemical formulations that wipe out both the target and non-target organisms, immensely impacting the ecological balance.

During the recent wave of locust invasions experienced in Kenya and the larger East African region, the FAO has collaborated with the local and national governments to mitigate the spread of these swarms to other areas by spraying pesticides both on the ground (to kill any eggs or nymphs) and aerially in areas where it is safe to do so. Research is ongoing to develop formulations that have the least impact on non-target organisms.

Notably, the FAO is working closely with 51 Degrees Ltd. to bring the desert locust situation under control using a hotline system integrated with tracking software, trained scouts, and aircraft. The EarthRanger system captures and transmits locust sightings and movements, making it easier to control the warms. Initially developed to track poaching, the method has been yielding positive results in locust control in Kenya.

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Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future. Having mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact of locust infestations on a country’s economy is crucial.

Locusts are an important part of the grassland ecosystem as they stimulate nutrient cycling and play a crucial role in food chains. As such, governments should think of balanced ways to control these insects while at the same time maintaining the much-needed balance in the ecosystem. Controlling the locusts ensures that a country enjoys food security and also averts other challenges brought on by locust invasions.

While biological control may prove hard to implement, especially where large swarms of locusts are involved, the government can come up with other safe control mechanisms that do not affect the environment and ecological balance. For instance, finding a way of preventing swarms of locusts from landing on crops as they migrate can be a good way to ensure that a country’s food security is safeguarded.

Planning by governments is essential in ensuring that a country is not caught off-guard by infestations in the future.

Additionally, investing in research to better understand the biology of locusts, their breeding habits and migratory patterns, and applying the ecological niche modeling approach to predict the breeding sites of locusts can be very useful in controlling these insects. Institutions such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya have been at the forefront in researching better ways to combat locust infestations using this approach.

The model proposes the use of historical datasets of the breeding patterns of desert locusts in the Middle East and in the Sahel region to predict the probability of locusts breeding in the East African region. This type of research identifies the desert locust breeding hotspots and better prepares a country to combat the menace. Through such an approach, the government can come up with a cost-effective, site-specific, and targeted management of crawling hoppers before they become gregarious adults, thus minimising the risk of an outbreak.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Kenya: Will Recognising Ethnic Identities Lead To Positive Outcomes?

Countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics.

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KenyKenya: Will Recognising Ethnic Identities Lead To Positive Outcomes?a Should Take Note: Recognising Ethnic Identities Can Lead To Positive Outcomes
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Kenyans are preparing to amend the country’s 2010 constitution, with a referendum tentatively scheduled for June 2021. The amendments focus on ensuring shared prosperity, managing ethnic diversity, and avoiding divisive elections.

They were first proposed in the Building Bridges Initiative report, which came about after the country’s election stalemate of 2017.

After two rejected polls, increasing tensions and pockets of violence, opposition leader Raila Odinga and presidential victor Uhuru Kenyatta shook hands in March 2018 and agreed to work together under what they termed the Building Bridges Initiative.

Its report has a section on “Ethnic Antagonism and Competition which highlights the need to “find ways of managing … diversity” and preventing “ethnic conflicts in Kenya.”

The report holds that the ethnicised winner-takes-all nature of Kenyan politics has been at the root of the country’s election instability. But debate over its proposals, which are now included in the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, continues.

Much of the debate is around ethnic representation in government, equitable sharing of resources among Kenya’s diverse ethnic communities, and the role of the current political elite in future governance structures.

In our book, Diversity, Violence, and Recognition: How Recognizing Ethnic Identity Promotes Peace, we investigate some of the same issues debated in Kenya today.

We focus on contexts around the world that, like Kenya, are ethnically diverse and have experienced violent conflict on so-called ethnic lines. This means the religious, tribal, caste, racial, or other descent-based characteristics along which politics and society have been structured.

We examine the strategies that different countries have chosen to manage such conflict. In particular we study how and why leaders choose to recognise or avoid reference to ethnic identities in government institutions and the effects of this choice on peace.

Our findings were surprisingly clear: countries that adopt ethnic recognition go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and more democratic politics. But these effects depend on which ethnic group is in power.

Recognising ethnicity

We studied constitutions and peace agreements from 57 countries around the world from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Burundi to the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland). The countries we studied experienced violent conflict between 1990 and 2012. We searched each document to determine whether or not they named different ethnic groups as part of the body politic.

We found that globally, 43% of post-conflict constitutions and peace agreements named ethnic groups. Sometimes this ethnic recognition comes with group differentiated rights like representation quotas or autonomy arrangements. But in other cases it is largely symbolic.

In Kenya’s case, the 2010 constitution mentions “ethnic diversity” but it does not name specific ethnic groups. The same is true of the Building Bridges Initiative proposals and the constitution amendment bill.

We also found that there was a pattern that distinguished the contexts where ethnic recognition was adopted: the leader was typically from the largest ethnic group. When leaders from the largest ethnic group were in power, ethnic recognition was adopted 60% of the time. However, in contexts of minority ethnic rule, ethnic recognition was adopted only 24% of the time.

Ethnic recognition is less common in Africa than in other regions. Still, there are notable instances of recognition on the continent like Burundi and Ethiopia.

Why it matters

We used statistical analysis to compare trends in countries with and without ethnic recognition. On average, countries that explicitly recognise different ethnic groups in their constitutions or peace agreements go on to experience less violence, more economic vitality, and greater democracy than countries that did not.

We believe that this is because ethnic recognition, and policies connected to it, help to manage mistrust between groups.

Recognition allows groups to know how they are doing compared to others through metrics like group-based statistics. This brings issues pertaining to inequality or exclusion out of the sphere of rumour and speculation. In addition, group-based rights such as representation quotas dampen fears that one group will dominate state institutions.

While recognition leads to a number of positive societal effects, we found that these effects depend on the ethnic group in power. The beneficial effects of recognition have been most powerful for countries where the leader is from the largest ethnic group. In contexts of minority ethnic rule, leaders have to balance the rights that recognition offers with countermeasures to prevent larger ethnic groups from winning power.

Take for example, Burundi. It’s last three presidents have been from the majority Hutu ethnic group. Some may worry that formally recognising ethnic identities could entrench mobilisation along ethnic lines. But political dynamics in Burundi illustrate the opposite.

For example, it named ethnic groups in the Arusha Peace Accords of 2000. The accords are widely attributed with having brought the country out of its 1993–2005 civil war.

It also named ethnic groups in its 2005 constitution. The constitution established ethnically based quotas for parliament, political parties, the military, and other state institutions. As a result, inter-ethnic conflict has become increasingly less relevant politically.

This has not been the case in neighbouring Rwanda, which is led by an ethnic minority leader. Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution seeks to “eradicate ethnic identity”. But deep inter-ethnic mistrust persists. This is despite laws that restrict references to ethnic identity except when commemorating genocide victims.

Integrating ethnicity

Ethnic recognition policies can appear in different sectors from the executive, legislative or judiciary, civil service and the security sector, to education and language. It can be the basis for different types of national strategies to build social cohesion.

For example, Burundi’s approach since the enactment of its 2005 constitution has been to use ethnic quotas to balance and integrate groups within state institutions. This has promoted cooperative intergroup contact, which has helped to reduce inter-ethnic mistrust.

Since its 1995 constitution Ethiopia has also taken an ‘ethnic recognition’ approach to governance. However, its ethno-federal regime has put more emphasis on granting regional autonomy rights, including a right to secession.

It is conceivable that an autonomy-based strategy could offer assurances that promote national unity, but the current dynamics in Ethiopia suggest a high degree of volatility.

Many wish for a foolproof recipe for managing diversity in conflict-affected contexts. There isn’t one. But Kenyans are not alone in debating best strategies. Our book offers accounts of other countries’ experimentation and reminds us that constitutional moments are high stakes and that institutional choices matter.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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