In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the government announced, with great fanfare, that Kenyatta University students had invented a ventilator that could help with patient treatment. The Trade and Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary, Betty Maina, and Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, visited the students and lauded the local innovation in response to the pandemic.
A year later, the media announced that the ventilators were not yet ready for use because the machines had not gone through the necessary approvals. The CSs, whose job is to facilitate innovations such as these, had little to say. Betty Maina pleaded that she was “also concerned that the process had taken us that long”, as if she did not have the authority as the Cabinet Secretary to find out where the bureaucracy had stalled. And as if to console Kenyans, she cited Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and masks as some of the locally manufactured items being used by medical workers.
The theatre was annoying, yet so familiar. For every innovation made by Kenyans, one obstacle constantly stands in the way: government bureaucracy. The popular explanation is that government officials are so corrupt that they will block local innovation unless it allows the officials to siphon money through avenues such as bribes and tenders. Another common narrative is that the government is shooting itself in the foot in its efforts to industrialise Kenya.
I want to suggest here that these responses miss the root of the problem. The fate of the ventilators is just a snippet of what has been happening in Africa for the last four centuries. The truth is simply this: global capitalism has always intended that Africa never industrialises. For the last four centuries, Europe has put in place infrastructure to ensure that industrialisation never happens. Furthermore, I want to suggest that industrialisation is NOT progress, and therefore, we should not aspire to it in the first place.
As Walter Rodney told us in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Europe began this underdevelopment of Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, which extracted the skills and energy of Africans to build the Americas and Europe. During colonial rule a few centuries later, European governments collected and exported diverse forms of African knowledge, artefacts, archives and biodiversity, thus suppressing the growth of African technologies and knowledges in areas like smelting, dye making, fabric weaving, architecture and medicine. Intellectual innovations, such as in theology, were shut down by criminalising people like Elijah Masinde and Simon Kibangu or declaring them mentally insane. In Kenya, independent schools started by Africans were shut down. In Cameroon, colonial authorities suppressed African orthographies, such as the one commissioned by King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum.
The truth is simply this: global capitalism has always intended that Africa never industrialises.
The message was simple: innovation was never to come out of Africa. As the colonialists paid lip service to development and civilisation, their actions demonstrated a determination to keep Africa confined to being a source of raw materials. The African minds and hands which could have been engaged in industrialisation were sent to endure brutality in the mines of southern Africa and the plantations of the Congo, and the few Africans who went to school were subjected to a mind-numbing education that turned them into bureaucrats to facilitate the extraction of African resources. The contradiction was maintained by a racist ideology which depicted Africa’s stagnation as a problem with Africans themselves, and which preached that ideas and creativity were not profitable or relevant to African life.
This suffocating system was unsustainable, because maintaining violence ate into the profits which the European bourgeoisie extracted from the colonies. The brutality of the colonies was also becoming politically problematic in the metropole, where the European public was now receiving news of what their governments were up to in the colonies.
But more importantly, as Frantz Fanon explains in The Wretched of the Earth, Europe was now saturated with manufactured goods and the European bourgeoisie, true to its voracious character, was desperately seeking new markets. European bureaucrats of the state therefore reluctantly relinquished control of the colonial governments. And conveniently for them, colonial schools had raised a small enough African bourgeoisie who could defend the continued extraction by European capital but also open up Africa as a market for European goods.
So, as the white faces disappeared from the colonial institutions, imperialism left behind two pillars for ensuring that Africa never industrialised.
One was the economic weapons of sanctions and debt traps. As Fanon reminds us, the beginning of decolonisation signaled to Europeans in Africa to withdraw the capital which they had built on the backs of Africans. The retreating Europeans also destroyed the facilities they had constructed, and after that, they used economic coercion to ensure that Africa remained stuck where the colonialists had left her.
The second weapon against Africa’s industrialisation was the African bourgeoisie itself. Due to the education system they had gone through, accompanied by the political compromises which reduced freedom to simply Africans replacing Europeans while the colonial state remained intact, the African professionals and politicians were incapable of creativity, production or work. Fanon argues that this reality, compounded by the economic stagnation imposed by the West, made the African bourgeoisie accept the role of being “the conveyor belt of capitalism”, mired in mimicking the “negative and decadent aspects” of the Western bourgeoisie.
The decadence of the bourgeoisie includes a notoriously voracious greed which consumes everything in its wake, especially that which has not fully developed or matured. The bourgeoisie capitalises on ideas for their public relations value and prevents the maturing of those ideas, or treats the raw innovation of Africa’s youth as materials for extraction by foreign venture capitalists. These days, this suppression of African innovation goes under the banner of approvals, licenses, or as “quality” and “standards” norms drafted elsewhere.
That is the fate to which the poor young Kenyans at Kenyatta University were subjected. And they are not alone. A more horrifying illustration of the Kenyan bourgeoisie’s hatred for innovation comes from a story I heard a few years ago at one of the few locally owned innovation hubs. According to this account, one of the members of the hub produced a prototype. Shortly afterwards, he received two hostile guests. One was the Kenya Revenue Authority demanding taxes, and the other was his area MP threatening him with death should he develop and publicise the prototype.
Another example comes from the education sector with which I am most familiar. Teaching staff are subjected to stifling control and surveillance by the central government in the name of “international” benchmarking and competitive graduates. In pre-tertiary education, teachers are blocked from adopting innovative pedagogy or curriculum through drastic system replacements and the constant surveillance of examinations and performance management.
These tools have now multiplied with the Competency Based Curriculum, where children will be subjected to increased nationwide assessments, and where the curriculum includes even instructions on daily learning activities. In tertiary education, institutions are subjected to inspections, examination procedures are policed from Gigiri, and curriculum requires government approval for as little as introducing new units. This system of control is based on Euro-American models but is camouflaged under the banner of “quality assurance”, which is a term adopted from industrial manufacturing.
Evidently, Western capital is assured of support from the African bourgeoisie in suppressing innovation on the continent. To hide this truth, the Kenyan elite calm our nerves with performances like that of Betty Maina and Mutahi Kagwe at Kenyatta University, singing about industrialisation from the hymnals provided by the UN, the World Bank and their bevy of consultants who make money lying to Africa that it can industrialise. This reality is propped up by a racist narrative which implies that Africa must always follow in the path of the West because we don’t know better.
And yet, the trajectory of Europe and America shows that the gospel of industrialisation being preached to poor countries is not followed in Euro-America itself. The West, especially the United States, has de-industrialised to undermine its own citizens who had successfully fought for better working conditions through their unions. From the time of Reagan, followed by agreements such as NAFTA, American industries broke up their factories and scattered the pieces among various poor countries, to as to avoid the labour and environmental regulations of the US and to take advantage of poor countries where such regulations were weak. Today, major American brands do not own factories. Rather, they rent their brand names and logos to factories in poorer countries, an absurdity which has been explained in detail by Naomi Klein in her work No Logo.
The capitalist priests of industrialisation have themselves never intrinsically cared for manufacturing. Their main goal is, and has always been, cheap profits at the people’s expense, whether the people are cultivating on plantations, running factory machines or being exploited in the colonies. As Eric Williams famously told us in Capitalism and Slavery, plantation slavery in the New World did not end due to the moralism of abolition and the weapons of the American Civil War; rather, the Euro-American capital had no use for slave labour after it had developed machinery that produced goods faster than slavery.
The exploitation of human beings did not end with the abolition of slavery; it simply migrated to the cities. Factories lined the pockets of the American and British wealthy through terrible working conditions, the poverty of depression and the humiliation of living in quasi-prisons called workhouses. Moreover, the African labour that produced the raw materials was no longer in the Americas but now in the motherland itself, thanks to colonisation.
The West, especially the United States, has de-industrialised to undermine its own citizens who had successfully fought for better working conditions through their unions.
By the same token, the rebellions of the plantations transferred to the factories. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the early twentieth centuries were characterised by some of the bravest and costliest fights for unionisation and labour rights in the US and the UK. While we are told about the industrialists to whose philanthropic foundations we must write for grants for research and cultural work, we are not told about the Haymarket Strike, or the rise of Jim Crow laws, race riots and lynchings to prevent the solidarity of workers across race, and to constantly subvert black American economic prosperity.
But just like a spoiled brat, Anglo-American capital soon became disinterested in industrialisation. With the neoliberal turn, Reagan and Thatcher famously crushed the unions with a brutality that is barely discussed publically. In the decades that followed, Euro-American capitalists threw their white working classes under the bus, excited them with false narratives blaming their misfortunes on immigrants, and increased the amount of bureaucracy and military surveillance, thus creating the rabid armies that would sweep Trump and Boris Johnson into power.
In Kenya, public sermons on the need to industrialise are notoriously silent on this parallel history of industrialisation. The Kenyan youth naively celebrate prospects of industrialisation as possibility for employment, having not been exposed to the reality of backbreaking work and precarious employment (popularly known as kibarua – contract labour).
Africa must grapple with the human cost of industrialisation over the centuries. We must not be seduced into avoiding the question of whether industrialisation is really the path to progress, even though China is willing to help Africa industrialise rather than behave like Euro-America which constantly places booby traps in the path of African innovation and industrialisation.
With industrialisation preached as religion, questioning it is literal blasphemy. But a number of reasons lead me to commit this blasphemy.
As a middle class, urban Kenyan, I am often amazed when I am in the kitchen and I see how much packaging I throw away. Everything from spices to salt is packaged in some paper or plastic container. We drink tea with milk from cows we do not see, brewed with tea leaves which we do not grow.
On our shelves are books and papers we have accumulated over the years. Many are government documents, receipts and certificates that are supposed to prove that we have done what we have done. Many of these documents and reports would be better off in a library where they can be catalogued and we can consult if we need to.
In Kenya, public sermons on the need to industrialise are notoriously silent on this parallel history of industrialisation.
Our phones are built to deteriorate quite fast, and the new models do not significantly improve our lives. They simply give us more cameras, games and apps to play with.
With all this “progress”, we are bombarded with more information as we become less knowledgeable. We are becoming physically less healthy because of relying on food that is not locally produced. We are now sitting in traffic longer while our government borrows loans to build roads in the air, instead of building infrastructure to make cycling and walking easier, or building tramways for travel over longer distances.
More annoying is the fact that many times products are marketed to us as essential, only for them to gather dust after a short period of use.
All this packaging, junk and isolation is produced by industrialisation.
The foundation of industrialisation, therefore, is not technology, as we’re taught to believe. It is alienation. Alienation from ourselves, from each other, from our environment and from reality. Industrialisation requires amnesia and detachment from the being human, to the extent that we accept the lie that to be dehumanised and to ruin the planet is “progress”.
So what is the alternative to industrialisation?
We need a society that ends alienation, alienation from what we consume, who produces it, and from each other. We should be able to buy food from farmers we know. We should be able to go to a producers’ market or a farm on a regular basis to buy food in season, and grow a few regulars at home. We should shop with containers which will be refilled every time we go to the market, rather than always throw away yet more unnecessary packaging.
We should have libraries so that we don’t have to keep buying more and more books. We should have spaces for concerts, festivals and regular occasions to meet and know each other. As a teacher who loves sewing and knitting, I should be able to earn a living while splitting my time between having conversations with young people in my house and making clothes to sell. My creativity and knowledge should not be policed by people in the lush suburbs of Gigiri who do not care who I am and whom I teach.
And without industrialisation, there would be no need for surveillance to control our bodies and minds, which means no meaningless bureaucratic jobs, less paper waste on bureaucratic documents, less corruption, and less misery of sitting at a desk from eight to five. We would not need to make children spend the whole day in school because parents would be free to pick them up.
A de-industrialised world would give us less illnesses, would make us pollute the planet less, and would give us time to be with ourselves, our families and our communities. It would make us more creative and hopefully, happier. We would experience travel not as the harassment we now know, but as a series of adventures like the ones reflected in our folk tales, of meeting new people and either settling as new communities or returning home.
The foundation of industrialisation is not technology. It is alienation.
By contrast, all that industrialisation does is to voraciously consume the planet and our humanity in useless and brutal pursuits. Industrialisation packs people in cages called plantations, factories, mines, offices, schools and prisons. Initially, the zombie owners of the cages harvested whatever the caged human beings produced. Now they have added a new layer to their greed: they collect rents on money, patents, buildings and risk. This system is justified culturally by a media that celebrates the owners of the cages and disparages the caged. To maintain this madness, the US and the UK dedicate their resources to manufacturing weapons and occupying human talent with surveillance. The US notoriously holds a quarter of the world’s prison population behind bars for profit and the post-Brexit UK is now beefing up its nuclear arsenal.
Unfortunately, this madness is being mimicked by African leaders with no sense of irony. Ghana, a major site of export of kidnapped Africans during the Middle Passage, is considering a repeat performance of the evils of the prison industrial complex. Kenya’s president has just commissioned a weapons factory to profit from African wars, even as the aforementioned ventilators are yet to receive approval and as the lack of ICU beds and oxygen cylinders is killing Kenyans.
And this is not an invitation for escape to rural life. Rural life may give us a reprieve from the toxicity of urban life, but it remains embedded in the colonial logic of extraction and exploitation. In any case, the vulture capitalists are coming for rural areas too, under banners such as conservation, protecting wildlife from Africans and seed and food colonisation.
Euro-America is miserable. To echo Fanon, it has never stopped talking of humanity, while it increases and securitises its industrialisation of humanity. Africans should not thoughtlessly follow the path of industrialisation when industrialisation is not working in the West and has always dehumanised Africans. The West has constantly sabotaged industrialisation in Africa anyway. As Fanon, and later Thomas Sankara said, we must invent a new future. Fanon’s final words in his last book (with my modifications) are very much worth repeating:
We now know the price of suffering humanity has paid for every one of Europe’s spiritual victories. Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else. We can do anything provided that we do not ape Europe, provided that we are not obsessed with catching up with Europe. Europe has gained such a mad and reckless momentum that it has lost control and reason and is heading at dizzying speed towards the brink from which we would be advised to remove ourselves as quickly as possible.
Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us tense our muscles and brains in a new direction. Let us endeavour to invent humanity in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving. What matters now is not a question of profitability, not a question of productivity, not a question of production rates. No, it is not a question of back to nature. It is the very basic question of not dragging humanity in directions which humiliate humanity. If we want to respond to the expectations of our peoples, we must look elsewhere besides Europe. We must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new humanity.
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Boda Boda Justice
Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.
We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.
Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.
Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.
However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.
Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.
What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level
However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.
Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.
Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.
It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”
As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.
“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”
Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.
*Name has been changed to protect the rider
Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.
Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.
Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.
Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.
As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.
In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.
In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970. The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.
Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.
Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.
The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.
Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher, Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.
Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.
Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.
Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself. And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.
At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.
The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.
Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.
In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.
After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.
Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.
In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.
While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.
The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.
On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.
Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.
Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.
Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.
The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.
Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.
Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.
Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.
While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.
Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.
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