Job search post-PhD: The bad, the ugly, the insane, and everything in between

Have you ever had a job interview with an all white panel and then have them look straight into your face and ask you: What does diversity mean to you?

Welcome to my world!

This has been a series of blogs about my PhD experience. This is the climax or anti-climax depending on how you look at it. You should read the other blogs in the series to appreciate the story in its fullness.

Twende Kazi!

It is a year to the end of my PhD and I am panicking big time. I am working HARD on my thesis. I have to finish in time because my scholarship is timebound. I do not have money to sustain myself beyond the life of the scholarship. I am working like a DOG! At the back of my mind there is the question- so, you finish your PhD, then what? Do you stay in Canada or North America broadly speaking or do you return to the ‘shithole’? I am heavily invested in the conservation field in Africa, so I am more inclined to go back. But what will you do after returning? If you tell any of the other Africans there you would like to return, they think you are CRAZY! I start looking for jobs a year to the completion of my PhD. I was open to the idea of starting a job as I finished my PhD. I was just terrified at the idea of finishing the PhD and having no job. I send out numerous applications. I also send some to North America but my main focus was in Africa/Kenya rather. Africa is a country! I do not hear anything back from all my applications. I am panicking! I am getting stressed. The headaches that I used to deal with in the first year return. I start having nightmares. I am feeling like a total failure at this point.

I decide to change strategy and write to organizations directly and introduce myself and my skills. One of them actually responds and they ask me for a Skype call. The lady conducting the interview is white. Oh I had checked their website and all their staff except one were white. This is a conservation organization working in Africa. She tells me that they are always looking for talent. We talk about my work experience, interests, etc – the usual stuff. At the time I had a Ghanian housemate. After the call she turns to me and asks:

Why is that lady interviewing you? You should be the one interviewing her!

She was actually pissed by all of this.

Me: Welcome to the CONservation field in Africa. Power is fully consolidated in white hands. If you are going for a job interview in this field, you are likely or let me say guaranteed to be interviewed by a white person(s). They are the ones who will decide your fate. This is especially so in the NGO arena. There may be some African faces at the interview but those are not the power holders.

The lady does not contact me after that. I guess she found me to be deficient in TALENT. I reached out to the one African working in the institution and asked him why that was the case. He told me that is just the way it is. Then he told me not to bother applying for a job there – look elsewhere, he says. By the way, Africans from countries that have more self-determination cannot understand the predicament those of us that work in the conservation empire find ourselves in. It is complicated discourse.

I keep sending out applications. I am writing my thesis, I am working (for survival), I am looking for jobs! It is hectic. The more time passes, the more I panic. At some point I see adverts by a university that was starting in Africa. They were talking about innovative methods of teaching, change, transformation, etc. They sounded like my kind of people. They advertise for some teaching positions and I apply for some of them. One time, the dean (who happens to be from Vancouver) contacts me. She tells me that she will be in Vancouver and we should meet. I see this as a very positive prospect for my job search. We meet in a café and have a very nice conversation. She then tells me that I would hear from the recruiting team. She also set up a meeting for me with the president/founder of the university. I was thinking my chances were good. After a couple of weeks, they contact me and we set up an interview. Part of the interview was to deliver a lesson to a mock undergraduate class about climate change. I had been a teaching assistant for a course on climate change in my university, so I drew from some of that material. Part of the panelists included a white man who had the most disinterested look on his face during the full duration of the interview.

Feedback after the interview?

Oh you do not seem to know much about climate change nor wildlife conservation?

Really?

Wildlife conservation? Where did that come from? Bizarre!

I told them off nicely and continued with my search. This position was to be based in Mauritius by the way. I was not really keen on moving to a whole new country, so I was not not too sad.

I applied for a project officer position at the African Union. They sent me a response saying I am not qualified. Not qualified? I even thought I was overqualified and I was thinking that I could start low and rise through the ranks. All because of love for Africa. Haaaa!! It is one of those abusive marriage kind of relationships. I decided to go for a higher level positions – I never heard nothing back from those. I applied for a managerial position in an African conservation organization. They sent me a response saying I am not qualified. Note: I had done consultancy work for this very org, but they told me I am not qualified. The plot thickens!

I was now beginning to feel like it was going to be absolutely impossible to find any work. At some point I had conversation with a fellow PhD student from Turkey. He had just finished his PhD and got a job – through connections/referrals. He told me as he got close to finishing his PhD he could not sleep. He used to wake up in the middle of the night and look at his wife and child and have a panic attack. He just did not know what to do. I realized that this job search thing is a huge source of stress for many PhD people. He is the one advised me to create a website. I do not think my website has ever helped in my job search, but I am glad that I have it.

After some months, I got another invitation for an interview. I was very optimistic about this one. It was for a role focusing on Africa, but based in Europe. I thought that could work. My house internet was not very good and this interview was happening very early in the morning. I took my 45-minute bus ride to campus to take advantage of university internet. The interview starts. The whole interview panel is white. I am taken aback but I keep a straight face and get through it. Towards the end of the interview one of the white ladies asks me: What does diversity mean to you?

I answered the question. I will never forget this as long as I live. This was an assault to all my senses and intelligence.

After the interview, I convened a Kamkunji with my Nepali and Ghanian friends to discuss this phenomenon. What? How dare? I did not get the job. The regret came weeks later.

There was a conference on campus. My supervisor advised me to attend because there were big shots from the Forestry sector and it would be good for networking. I find this thing called networking so hard. I generally find it difficult to talk to strangers. I really challenged myself and really talked to everyone and anyone I could find. One of the big shots wanted to go greet his colleague who worked in forestry. He did not know how to navigate campus so I offered to take him. It was a 20-minute walk and it was raining. I was hoping that would lead to a job but he flatly told me that they were not recruiting. I sort of gave up on job applications for a while. I started thinking of what business to do when I get back to the ‘shithole’. I signed up for a soap making course. I paid CAD 70/KES 5600 for that. I thought I could start that business nikirudi. At some point I started thinking that if it could get so bad, I could get a job at Starbucks serving coffee. Then I remembered that I had met a Kenyan scholar at a conference at the beginning of my PhD. He told me I should contact him when I complete my studies because they offer post-docs. A post-doc is …ah this is actually hard to explain. Its basically a research position but with pay. I was not too keen on post-docs because I felt like that would be like doing another PhD and my brain was fried at that point. Some post-docs are also teaching positions. Anyway, I reach out to him and then he tells me to get back in touch when in Kenya so that we can meet and discuss some possibilities.

I graduated and returned to Kenya without a plan other than to contact this scholar- and start making soap for sale! We have several meetings and work out some research project. The next hurdle was to secure funding for this project because their organization did not have enough money to fund the whole thing. It was to be a one year project. In the process of finding funding for the research project, my would be boss (a PhD holder and African) told the potential funder (a non- PhD holder, but white) that: PhD’s are cheap labour, so she should not worry about high salaries (for me) and things like that. Beggary can make you do and say strange things. Also, the power of the white-skin PhD can make people do strange things. This is not all. The white lady from the organization giving/considering to give funding is just a pill. And its one of those organizations that give you little money and break your back with bureaucracy and useless budgets and other nonsense. Ah bure kabisa!

By this time I have spent so much time and money attending meetings with these guys. I am getting totally TIRED. Luckily, a friend contacts me about some consultancy project and I get on board. I had told everybody and anybody who cared to listen that I was job hunting. That is how this friend contacted me. We work on this consultancy gig for a couple on months. Its my line of work so quite enjoyable and it takes my mind off thinking about this proposed research project, job search, etc. This also keeps me away from starting my soap business. Oh I had also gone to one of the malls and seen that there were so many people selling soap. That kind of poured water on my business idea. Also, I was not too confident about my soap business because the one I made in the class gave me rashes! On the flipside it smelled so good. I had used all my favourite essential oils- lavender, lemon verbena, lemon grass.

While working on the consultancy gig I always looked at Linkedin from time to time and sent in applications when I found a suitable job. But by this time I was totally JADED. I was just sending them in for the sake of it. Then one day I saw some job and lazily submitted an application. Surprisingly, they called me back. I had a series of job interviews and got it. I had sent over 300 applications and only got one. Job searching is a job in itself. Such a drain. The job is in my beloved field of conservation and is interesting so ninachapa kazi sawa sawa. At some point, I hear about a disease that is spreading around. COVID is the name. I am not too interested or concerned. I do not think it has something to do with me as such. I am just happy the disease has not emerged from Africa. If it had emerged from Africa, we would not hear the last of it. These African SavaGES have eaten bats again! The outbreal of Ebola showed me things. I was in N. America at the time and travel was a nightmare. I would go to the USA and return to Canada and the immigration officer asks me – have you been to Africa? Yeah, because Africa is a village- you can be in Ethiopia in the morning and walk to Sierra Leone to have lunch. I wish these people knew how hard for Africans to travel within Africa. Things unfold so quickly and within a very short time, I have no job – because of COVID! Ninapigwa na butwaa! Whaaaaat? It is back to the drawing board.

So now I am at it again. Sending in applications. Sometimes not bothering. And so on and so forth. Then I see a job in the very organization I told you about earlier in this post. The one where the white lady was interviewing me and my Ghanian housemate asking WHY! That one. I apply. They contact me. The same lady contacts me actually and asks to have an introductory call. It is a managerial position in the field of conservation. I have a look at the website. The staff is still SO WHITE. There are a few sprinkles of the darker races of the earth hapa na pale but it is pretty white. We have a short conversation-not more than 15 minutes. At the end of it she tells me that they will contact me about the next steps in the interview process. After about a week she sends me an email saying that I will not proceed with the interview process because they consider me to be unqualified for the position. Apparently, what I have is academic experience and they are looking for someone with hands on natural resource management experience.

The NERVE!

This field of conservation will be the end of me aki!

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I have academic experience? Me? I thought that I have more natural resource management experience than academic experience, but what do I know? I threw out all that stuff about not burning bridges blah and told her exactly what I thought. I not only burned the bridge, I bombed the bridge. Punda amechoka! Punguza mzigo! Why bother to call me if you do not think I am qualified? You can decipher about my qualifications or lack thereof from my application package, can’t you? Why waste people’s time with these calls and all this fluff? Given my vast experience in job searching, I think that a person looking for job is a very vulnerable person and should be treated with kindness, whether they get the job or not. Should I ever be in a position of power or in a position to interview people, I will do my level best not to traumatize people or just to be plain nasty. People can and should use power responsibly. There are too many bullies – ALL Over!

Why not look for jobs in universities, research agencies – such places? Aren’t those some of the places where people with PhD’s are supposed to work? Ideally, yes. BUT Kenya is not a merit-based nor straightforward society. When is the last time you saw job ads from these institutions? Most of them do not advertise. To get a job there you need to know someone or go and present yourself to say a Head of Department in the University and beg for a job. I am not quite comfortable with this method of job searching. I prefer the other more straightforward method of applying for jobs and going through the interview process. What is the issue with this one of kuomba kazi? I just feel like you will be beholden to the person who “gave” you the job – either in reality or emotionally. It is a burden I do not want to deal with. I am also afraid of sexual harassment. The thought of going to these offices occupied by men (yes, most of them are men) terrifies me.

So, I am thinking of starting a biashara of selling fabric from west Africa but then there is this COVID thingy! There is an excellent article by Dr. Mordecai Ogada about the politics of the origin of COVID. I am not sure who has eaten bats, pangolins, snakes, or whatever else and if the source is from these so-called wet markets – All I know is that I have nothing to EAT – metaphorically speaking. At the peak of COVID I used to have these stressful dreams. In one of them, I was with my uncle. We saw a lioness. I told him to just leave it alone. He did not listen to me. He went ahead and kicked it in the stomach! The lioness was F-U-R-I-O-U-S. None of us needed to be told what to do next. Run for dear life. We ran and ran and ran!!! The lioness was behind us in hot pursuit!! We got to a small house that was raised on stilts and barged through the door and barricaded ourselves inside just in time. I was so angry with my uncle I was not talking to him. Hapo ndio COVID shenanigans zimenifikisha! Naomba serikali inisaidie!!! na iingilie kati!!

THE END.

I am trying to monetize this blog. Please share widely within your networks. There might be other people who might like these ramblings.

Other blogposts in these series (in order):

  1. How to apply for graduate school in north America
  2. Surviving in the west as an African graduate student: Stories from the first year of my PhD
  3. Tips for surviving in the west as an African graduate student
  4. Racism in the west: Stories from an African graduate student

Films on African environmentalism

This is a compilation of  films on conservation/environmental issues showcasing African people in a positive light. Mostly Africans are cast as poachers, deforesters, population explotionists, as rangers following instructions of white conservationists, etc. These films showcase African agency,  they show Africans reflecting about their environments in complex ways, and they show Africans intervening to protect their landscapes and livelihoods. Through the links you can watch the trailers, full films, or purchase instructions for those that are not free.  I will keep adding to this list. If you come across new film, please let me know.

1. A place without people

This  film that challenges the fortress model of conservation in Serengeti/Ngorongoro and other areas. It details the farce of the National park model of conservation, and features strong community voices about land dispossession and destitution at the had of CONservationists.

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2. Taking root: The vision of Wangari Maathai

This film details the ecological restoration work of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. It provides a historical account of the roots of destruction of forests in Kenya. It also illustrates the linkage between environmental issues and governance in very concrete ways. Featured in the video are formidable women doing massive environmental conservation work at the grassroots. This film just makes your spirit soar!

Taking root screen shot

 

3. Honey at the top

This is a film about the eviction of the the Sengwer people from the Mau forest for CONservation. The most beautiful thing about this film is the fact the community members have filmed some of the footage. The film humanizes the struggles of this community that is caught in the grip of an unsympathetic state and the larger international CONservation movement.  Beautiful piece of work.

 

Honey at the top

 

4. Let us gaze towards Nyandarwa

This film showcases Agikuyu people-forest relationships through a focus on : Water as a sacred artefact, the politics of naming, the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau) and forests,  land rights,  and community -based ecological restoration.

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5. Kisulu: Climate diaries

The is story of one man doing everything he can to fight climate change in Akamba land. Hugely inspirational. He is doing incredible community mobilization and ecological restoration work.

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6. Mabingwa

This is a  film about youth involvement in conservation in Kenya. It details the struggles of conservation in urban settings, and other challenges youth face in accessing conservation areas in the county.  It also shows their undying spirit and commitment to protect their landscapes.

7. Milking the rhino

This is a really interesting film about the highs and lows of establishing conservancies. It focuses on a conservancy in Namibia and Kenya. Some of the issues highlighted include: how communities navigate the regime of greedy and racist tour operators, the conflict between indigenous and foreign conservation strategies, the underbelly of tourism and its association with conservation, and internal disagreements on land use practices at the community level.

 

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Photo credit: KPBS

8. A time there was: Stories from the last days of Kenya colony

This is a good film to help you get an understanding of the Kenyan colony (then and now). It presents good visual understanding of the following: The intersection between trophy hunting & colonialism in Kenya, Major Ruku, the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau) veteran in who is interviewed in the film provides a very good understanding of how the Mau Mau manufactured guns using trees, and other issues related to forests as sites of self-determination.  The mound where Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi was captures has been maintained as memorial by the community. Nothing grows there.

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9. The rain water harvester

Excellent film about one man’s effort in turning his barren land into an oasis of hope. Mzee Phiri from Zimbabwe shows us diverse methods of soil and water conservation. He also trains other people on how to restore their lands.

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10. Senegal’s Sinking Villages 

“We spent our childhood between the river and the sea. There was no real distance between them. We worked in fishing and agriculture for many years when the farms were planted with vegetables,” she says. ” Now it’s all gone because of the channel project. Even fishing which was once easy, is now difficult. Fishermen used to fish here. Now they use boats with engines to fish elsewhere.”

This is a very good film on how “global climate change and an engineering ‘quick fix’ have created an ecological disaster on Senegal’s Atlantic coast.” Many interesting topics come forth through the course of the film: attachment to ancestral lands, politics of naming, colonial occupation, ecological restoration, the direct link between environmental issues and livelihoods, environment and migration, indigenous knowledge systems, etc.

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11. Deforestation: 48 years of Kenya’s unspoken disaster 

A short film on the history of deforestation and excision of forest lands in Kenya.  A honest account of how the forests have been plundered, and how people have continued to resit this plunder.

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12. Culture Quest: The Tugen

When Liu Jiaqi, a Chinese national called Kenyans, including His Taxellency Ushuru Kenyattax Monkeys, people were LIVID.

NOW, in many African cultures, communities structure their social organization around wildlife, including monkeys. This practice is known as totemism, and is not unique to African cultures. A totem is considered to have great spiritual significance among that particular culture. For example, if your totem is an elephant, you cannot kill an elephant and so on.

Some clans among the Tugen people in Kenya consider monkeys and baboons to be their totems. In this video, one of the interviewees says: I am a baboon. That is his/his clan’s totem. That means he/they treat baboons with the utmost respect. They do not consider the monkey to be inferior. They are one with the monkey or baboon. Just like the case would be with an elephant or any other animal. In these cultures, animals are not seen as signifiers of brain underdevelopment. They are seen as part of the larger web of life, along with human beings and everything else.

That is African indigenous environmental thought. That is African environment consciousness. That is African philosophy. It is absolutely sophisticated and complex. It is beyond the understanding of what racist like Liu and his ilk can ever comprehend.

So, my fellow Africans, when somebody calls you a monkey – embrace it. While it is meant as a racial slur, you can turn it on its head and transform it into a beautiful, intellectually and culturally appropriate thing. Liu called us monkeys because somehow, people believe monkeys are not intelligent. Actually, monkeys are more intelligent than many people. We can learn a lot from monkeys. Have you ever heard of genocides, racism, Hitlerism, Trumpism, and such-like things in the monkey kingdom?

I am really beginning to like monkeys!!
I need to study more about monkeys.

 

13. Kingdoms of Africa 

This is a wonderful series of documentaries or films about Africa. There are 8 docus in total focusing on Nubia, Great Zimbabwe, West Africa, Asante, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Bunyoro and Baganda kingdoms in Uganda.  The docus show the various connections Africans with their landscapes through water, land, diversity of cultural expressions, food, dress, etc.

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Ethiopian Highlands

14. The mystery of Namoratunga

This film showcases the rock art heritage of the Turkana people in northern Kenya. The elders in the film tell us what the art means. Conservation strategies, including community-driven conservation are discussed.

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The rock art of Namoratun’ga in Turkana. Photo credit: Trust for African Rock Art

15. Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan on African Rock Art

Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela speak about the important of conserving Africa’s rich rock art heritage.

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16. Africa

This is a series on African history.  It is written and presented by Basil Davidson, one of leading historians on Africa. He tackles a diverse array of subjects. One of the most important arguments he makes is that one of Africans’ most impressive achievements is the mastery of a continent – in an environmental sense. The film showcases Africans interacting with their environments through diverse ways. It also links cultural and natural diversity into one concrete while.

 

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17. Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) videos on people-forest relationships in west Africa.

This is a series of four short videos on the multiple dimensions of people-forest relationships in west Africa.

Film 1: Trees for the grandchildren: Talks about community-based forest conservation

Film 2: Losing farmland and forest to a National Park: How communities are dismantled from their lands through the national park model of conservation

Film 3: Keeping the peace in a national park buffer zone?: Troubles of accessing national parks for pastoralist communities

Film 4: Trees and wildfire worries: Trees and accessing of non-timber forest products and the importance of local ecological knowledge systems

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18.  Film on indigenous food processing and technologies in Rwanda

Excellent, excellent film (34 mins) produced by Dr. Chika Ezeanya Esiobu on indigenous food technologies in Rwanda. It features women involved in indigenous wine production (using bananas and sorghum), and production of fermented milk. Dr. Chika makes a case for investing in indigenous technologies and knowledge systems as a foundation for development in Africa. A woman after my very own heart.

Here is her amazing TED Talk on the need to focus on Indigenous Knowledge Systems

 

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Women making banana beer in Rwanda: Image Source: AllAfrica.com

 

19.  We want out lives to be like a spring 

This film (24 min) showcases  the intricate relationships that Maasai people have with water in its various dimensions in the Amboseli Tsavo Ecosystem, southern Kenya

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20. ToxicBusiness: The Food Challenge

This is a series of three films (each 25 mins) that explores the topic of seed and food sovereignty in Kenya. They delve into the rampant use of pesticides, many of which have been banned in Europe, but still in use in Kenya, and the impacts that this has on the environment, health, food security, and livelihoods.

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21. Victims of the WWF

This film does not focus on Africa, but it is an instructive case of the power of NGO’s in conservation. The film examines human rights abuses around the  Karizanga National Park in India. The film is 40 minutes long.

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22. Second nature 

This is a 41 minute film showcasing the interlinkages between people and ecological restoration.  The film is informed by two socio-anthropologists, Fairhead and Leach. They thoroughly deconstruct the narrative that Africans do not understand conservation, and are degrading everything. They demonstrate that the people in this region have been establishing forests around their settlements.  These forests are in a transition zone between the savanna and the Sahel, and according to western scientists, policy makers, etc the people were degrading the landscape. In actual sense, the people have been managing this landscape sustainable through an array of indigenous knowledge systems.

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23.  Bitter Harvest

This is a 45 minute film focusing on food sovereignty in Kenya.  The follow a couple of farmers in different parts of the country and interrogate the pros and cons of industrial agriculture and organic farming. The bottom line is that the food system is heavily compromised and we are seeing the impacts of that on the healthy system.  A good examination of imperialism and a government that does not care about its citizens.  A ray of hope shines through from farmers who have been engaged and deeply committed to organic farming practices despite all the odds.

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Theorizing CONservation and Conservation in Africa

Conservation!

CONservation!

What is the difference?

 I first saw the term CONservation in a tweet by Al-Amin Kimathi. I think it is a brilliant concept. Whoever who came up with this term should be congratulated.  Kenyans and Africans at large are interrogating the practice of conservation, and that is VERY, VERY good and important. We have decided to define what these two terms  mean to us, before somebody swoops in and “discovers” them!

Many times bitten, plenty of times shy!

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To achieve this, I reached out to my fellow Africans and others via facebook so that we could think through these two concepts.  It is our attempt to control the narrative of what is happening in our landscapes and intellectual spaces. I am happy to share some of their views below.

What is your understanding of conservation?

  1. Conservation is safeguarding resources for posterity.  It is saying NO to any kind of destruction. Conservation is planting trees…and not just any trees, but trees that are friendly to water sources.                                                           – Anthony Odera-

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 2.  Conservation is about whether you live or die. That is my basic understanding of conservation. It is about whether you have water or not. Whether you have food or not. Conservation is about understanding that you have to balance what you take from the bounty of the land with the needs of others in the present and in the future. In other words, it is about kindness, selflessness, love, compassion, etc. Conservation is about celebrating cultures in dynamic landscapes – cultures inform conservation practices e.g., sacred sites protect key water sheds in some communities. Conservation is about deep understanding of ecosystems – understanding that humans exist in a complex web of life, and that everything is interdependent. It is about justice for all inhabitants of earth – if you pollute the air, you harm both plants, animals, and humans. If you pollute rivers, you do the same, and that is injustice.

-Kendi Borona-

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3. Conservation is anchored on restoring what has been destroyed. Our native agenda of protecting our environment and wildlife is based on both the utility and spiritual purposes which ensures that we live in harmony with nature. 

-Miheso Israel-

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What is your understanding of CONservation?

1. A systematic and forceful displacement of Kenyans from their ancestral land, erasing their wildlife heritage before claiming ownership. CONservation (of the wildlife with the primary goal of serving the white race).

-Salma Wakanda Ghaddafi-

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2. I came across conservation a long time ago while reading a book called ‘The IceMan Inheritance’ by Micheal Bradley. In it he explained that Melanated Beings had relationships with what the white man regards as animals. To us and our ancestors, wild life were our cousins and we would talk to them. The reason the San People talk in clicks is because they communicated with Whales and Dolphins. The reason we were banned from Beating drums by the white man is because drumming was a form of tongue click which would be understood by Elephants. Drums Spoke and thus the term Talking Drums. We never regarded our cousins as animals, but Whites always did… Note the paradigm shift. When they came to Africa the Caucasians were so incensed at finding advanced civilizations and men that lived and spoke with “beasts” that they burnt down all our cities, took our leaders as slaves to torture for information and left behind the traumatized and weak (100 Cities Of Africa). They then renamed Africans as Animals and Beasts (check old English) and tried to prove we were related physically via DNA to monkeys in a Theory thought of by Darwin. We were treated as animals during the entire slave trade…unable to think and soul-less…
In the late 1930’s they realised that there was a drop in the population of Wild Life (which they then re-named game) due to their own vicious killing of these gentle beings, and introduced CON in servation. Service. Servants of? Rubbish. The real reason they introduced “conservation” was to kill our wild life behind Parks and Zoos, to have unlimited access to all forms of life, to kill it, experiment and use it. Eg, ivory is used to make dentures for the uber rich and who knows what they will do with #SUDAN‘s Semen? When Africans realise the depth of #thebigwhitelie, @errantnatives they shall begin to speak to their Cousins and find ways of restoring our land.
Eating Game?
That’s the biggest CON.

-Najar Nyakio Munyinyi –

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3. Today,  South African Boers are working with the American trophy hunting lobby to pimp Africa’s wildlife to rich psycho Americans. They have infiltrated CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and IUCN so that these two institutions can say that trophy hunting is good for conservation. The Kenyan white ranchers are desperately trying to bring in the Boers To Help them commoditize our wildlife.  Game ranching is the new money minter because of the demand for wildlife body parts (bones, skins, tusks, feathers, blood etc) in Asia. Also, these ranches are running at a loss because the whites can’t compete with the low production costs of pastoralists and Botswana continues to dominate the export market for beef into the EU.

-Violet Matiru-

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Image source: eLimu

4. CONservation is characterized by the following: 1. Narrow conceptualizations of ecosystems and their functions – like saying wildlife is only important for tourism
2. Gross injustice – dislocating communities for their landscapes in order to create pristine wildernesses 3. Dislocating communities from their landscapes by telling them they do not know what conservation is. 4. Neoliberal policies and capture of nature by capitalists and philanthrocapitalists 5. Militarization of conservation and turning conservation spaces into war-like zones – guns, fences, military uniform, dogs, mean spiritedness, etc! 6. Stinking stenchy racism – associating whiteness with conservation, and erasing Africans from conservation areas 7. Economic sabotage and economic hitmanship – growing fabulously wealthy from natural resources at the expense of the inhabitants of the land 8. Shooting animals for fun – trophy hunting 9. Criminalization of livelihoods for communities – e.g., An African cannot hunt an animal for food, but a white hunter can shoot a buffalo and then throw the carcass to Africans. 10. CONservation is about hate, hate of African peoples. It is about contempt for African peoples. It is about locking Africans in a permanent quest for social justice. CONservation is about plunder of Africa and about plunder of African peoples.

-Kendi Borona-

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5. CONservation is  simple to explain, because it is based on 3 simple premises with no intellectual depth; 1. All African wildlife is in grave danger. 2. The source of this danger is black people. 3. The only importance of these animals is the money white people will pay to see or kill them. 4. Because of premises 1,2,3, and 4, white people MUST save the wildlife.

Conservationists Move 10 Rhinos By Air In Largest Relocation In History

6. Any kind of CONservation that extinguishes a culture, it’s language and most devastating, community and communal values, is no conservation at all rather an invasive practice destroying the true natural resources that have the talent and knowledge to preserve and protect the most precious components necessary for all survival.

-Alycya Rambin Wilsey-

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Image source: Rhinos without borders

7. CONservation is about green grabbing – the capture of huge swaths of landscapes, waterscapes, associated biodiversity and other resources by way of annexation, questionable purchase deals, expulsion of communities from their landscapes, and  so much more. This is being done by ultra wealthy people, NGO’s, and private agencies. Read more here and here. 

Foreign conservationists have a dreadful record in developing countries. First colonialists took control of countries and communities in order to expropriate their resources, then the conservationists came and did exactly the same thing – this time, in the name of saving the environment. Tens of thousands of people have been evicted in order to establish wildlife parks and other protected areas throughout the developing world. Many people have been forbidden to hunt, cut trees, quarry stone, introduce new plants or in any way threaten the animals or the ecosystem. The land they have lived on for centuries is suddenly recast as an idyllic wildlife sanctuary, with no regard for the realities of the lives of those who live there.

John Vidal, in an article in the Guardian (Link provided above).

These two articles (links above) were kindly shared by Violet Matiru

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The aristocracy of mercy and the conservation industry in Africa: the similarities

 

I have just finished Graham Hanckock’s groundbreaking text ‘Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business‘. As I read the book, I could not help but find some fundamental similarities between the aid industry (which Hancock refers to as ‘the aristocracy of mercy’), and my beloved conservation industry in Africa. What are the similarities?

  1. White capture

These two industries are submerged in whiteness. What comes to your mind when you think of aid worker? A blond-haired, tanned white person who has been working in the Congo, trying to save Africans from themselves? What comes to your mind when you think of the term conservationist in Africa? A tanned Khaki-clad, white person who is trying to rescue African wildlife and landscapes from Africans. These are two industries where people (white people) can become experts without being necessarily trained in that area. White skin, or skin that is perceived as white even if it is not, is your passport to success in these two industries. The white people working in these two fields are paid salaries that Africans working in some of these organizations can only dream about.  Somebody will be quick to point to the UN and other large agencies, where salary structures are more standardized. But who occupies the top decision making positions? I do not think they are occupied by Africans or other Global Southerners. If these industries are about solving the problems of the  Global South, why don’t Southerners occupy those top positions?

Of the Aid Industry Hancock has this to say:

“At every level in the structure of almost of all of our most important aid-giving organisations, we have installed a tribe of highly paid men and women who are irredeemably out of touch with the day-to-day realities of the global state of poverty and underdevelopment which they are supposed to be working to alleviate. These over-compensated aid bureaucrats demand-and get-a standard of living often far better than that which they could aspire to if they were working, for example, in industry or commerce in their home countries. At the same time, however, their achievements and performance are in no way subjected to the same exacting and competitive process of evaluation that are considered normal in business. Precisely because their professional field is ‘humanitarianism’ rather than, say , ‘sales’ or ‘production’, or ‘engineering’, they are rarely required to demonstrate and validate their worth in quantitative, measurable ways. Surrounding themselves with the mystifying jargon of their trade these lords of poverty are the druids of the modern era wielding enormous power that is accountable to no one.”

Essentially, the Aid industry has entrenched a new class of rich and privileged people, using the misery of the poor and oppressed as a catalyst. Ditto conservation industry. There are no poor white conservationists in Africa. If you know of any, please let me know. Gado’s cow cartoon below is an excellent visual aid in understanding how both aid and conservation funding are used. In the ICT area, we should probably add security in the case of conservation.

  1. Big spenders, but to what end?

The two industries are big spenders. Huge sums of money are spent on activities that do not necessarily achieve the core goals of ending poverty or achieving conservation goals. Hancock writes:

The 10,000 men and women attending the conference looked extraordinarily unlike to achieve this noble objective[of ending poverty]; when not yawning or asleep at plenary sessions they were to be found enjoying a series of cocktail parties, lunches, afternoon teas, dinners, and midnight snacks lavish enough to surfeit the greediest gourmand. The total cost of the 700 social events laid on for delegates during that single week was estimated at USD 10 million.

When I read this passage I forgot that he was talking about a World Bank meeting. It sounds like a very good description of Kenyan members of parliament – but I digress. Now, the question is – Wouldn’t that 10 million USD be better invested in practical interventions that would save lives, or solve a particular poverty-related problem? In the conservation industry you see heavy spending on conservation infrastructure – drones, white people’s dogs, fences, collars, helicopters and so on, turning conservation areas into militarized war zones – spaces of surveillance. All these machinery and dogs have to be bought from the West, so the money raised for conservation circulates in and out of the same countries. To bring this point about the economic hitmanship of monies in the aid Industry home, Hancock presents us with a solid example:

In the 1950s the then President of the World Bank, Mr. Eugene Black, travelled around USA drumming up support for increased aid. His message was a simple one:

Our foreign aid programmes constitute a distinct benefit to American business. The three major benefits are 1. Foreign aid provides a substantial and immediate market for United States goods and services 2. Foreign aid stimulates the development of new overseas markets for United States’ companies 3. Foreign aid orients national economies towards a free enterprise system in which United States firms can prosper – Purchasing of goods and equipment.

Ditto conservation industry – as explained above. Eugene’s quote above reminded me of an aid-funded project I worked on. One of the things we were to purchase was a speed boat. The funding came with a condition that the boat and related supplies had to be bought from the same country from which the aid originated. It is not difficult to understand how  or why some countries are fabulously wealthy and while others are not.

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  1. Sniffing the money

Both industries are excellent are sniffing where the money is and adjusting their interventions/interests accordingly. Hancock writes:

The most important element ion this is that all the institutions of Development Incorporated, whether bilateral or multilateral, seem to have at least one thing in common: an uncanny ability to sense the prevailing mood in the donor countries to adapt themselves to it. This is a genuine family characteristic, a genetic trait that programmes each and every one of them for survival. If humanitarianism is in the air, then they will make humanitarian statements, if environmental movements seem to be gaining political support, then the agencies will inject some ecology into their rhetoric; they will also –as and when required- make the necessary noises to assuage national guilt complexes to pander to security neuroses and even to emphasize the profit motive if that seems expedient.

Alas!

Now, the two industries seem to be merging around the issue of climate change. That is where the money is after all. Traditional humanitarian organizations want in on the action, so coalitions and other kinds of working relationships are being forged.  The conservation industry is having to wade into poverty issues, because the fortress model of conservation has been collapsing around its own weight for some time. Now, those who only wanted to deal with gorillas and not Africans are finding themselves in unfamiliar territories. Interesting times lie ahead.

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Image source: Pintrest.

  1. Famous for producing documents

Reports! Reports! Papers! More reports! More papers! The two industries are famous for producing documents. Whether the poor or communities living around conservation areas read them is another discussion all together. Hancock  rightfully questions the logic of producing a plethora of documents.

What is all this in aid of? At one conference, on the Law of the Sea, the UN employed ninety mimeograph operators to work around the clock at twenty seven machines spewing forth 250,000 pages of documents a day. Each document was produced in three-and sometimes five – languages by teams of translators and typists…..Indeed, so great was the volume of paperwork generated that the list of documents itself ran to 160 pages. After seventy days of talk in the pleasant surroundings of Caracas, Venezuela, delegates made just one firm decision; a resolution to hold another conference on the same subject.

Ditto! It very much sounds like conservation research, where the recommendations are almost always a call for MORE research.

The white mans burden

  1. More aid=more poverty; more conservationists=more conservation problems

The more aid agencies you have, the more poverty you have. The more conservationists you have, the more protracted conservation challenges become. What is going on? Hancock argues that aid has done more harm than good because:

Aid is often profoundly dangerous to the poor and inimical to their interests; it has financed the creation of monstrous projects that, at vast expense, have devastated the environment and ruined lives; it has supported and legitimised brutal tyrannies; it has facilitated the emergence of fantastical and Byzantine bureaucracies staffed by legions of self-serving hypocrites; it has sapped the initiative, creativity and enterprises of ordinary people and substituted …[it with] superficial and irrelevant glitz of imported advice; it has sucked the potential of entrepreneurs and intellectuals in the developing countries into non-productive administrative ; it has created a ‘moral tone’ in international affairs that denies the hard task of wealth creation and that substitutes easy handouts for the rigours of self-help.

I once saw an exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum. The exhibition had some startling examples of failed development projects. Huge sums of money wasted on projects that collapsed after short periods of time, or projects that did not take off at all. One of the ones that I remember was a fish processing plant around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The project did not take off because there was no electricity, which was required to keep the fish refrigerated! But did the project developers not know that there was no electricity before they set up the project there?

 

Debt

 

I think the greatest problem with aid is that it makes the governments of the receiving countries irresponsible and uncaring of their citizens. Hancock discusses this in the book. He argues that a government that knows that it is going to receive aid would rather spend its money propping up dictators, buying weapons, stealing public resources, etc and not investing in education or health care. I have to agree with him in toto.  I think that when Africans see a white person in their community, they stop thinking for themselves. It is assumed that the white person will solve whatever problem there is, because white people know everything.

This syndrome also affects governments and government workers who increasingly become dependent on white thought and direction, and fail to tap into the knowledge and skills of the people they are supposed to be serving. Of course all of this applies to the field of conservation too. Who shapes conservation discourse in Africa? Is it Africans or white conservationists and white-led conservation agencies? Both the aid and conservation industries entrench white supremacy in Africa, and by extension, destroy or stifle African agency. These two industries have entrenched the idea that Africans do not know anything, and they need the hand of white person to guide them into navigating life. According to Kwame Nkrumah, colonial powers:

Were all rapacious; they all subserved the needs of the subject lands to their own demands; they all circumscribed human rights and liberties; they all repressed and despoiled, degraded and oppressed. They took our lands, our lives, our resources and our dignity. Without exception, they left us nothing but our resentment…

What is the difference between colonialism then and now?

France-and-Africa

 

How poverty is created: A case study of me

Let me begin by saying that there nothing I detest more than the idea of race. Really. It is one of the most stupid ideas on earth.  If I had never felt discriminated because of my race, I would not take much interest in it. I would say, let us all get on with it. Let me tell you a story – my first encounter with out-and-out racism. I had just finished my undergraduate degree – back in the day. We were required to do an internship as a prerequisite for graduation.  I struggled for a while before I found one.  The whole search process was humiliating and stressful. My worst experience was at USAID. I was not even allowed to go past the gate. The guards were pretty hostile and refused to take my documents. Dejected, I walked back thinking to myself – if getting an internship is this difficult, then getting a job is going to be an impossibility.
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A friend of mine suggested that I try going to an Italian NGO where their friend was working. I did not call them to book an appointment. Somebody will ask – why not just book an appointment? Students leaving university at that time did not have money nor mobile phones, and those days internet was a luxury. It still is.  Anyway,  I just went and walked in into their offices. I thank the guard at the gate, because he did not try to block me or frustrate my efforts. I walked into the building, then asked the receptionist for directions. There were two organizations based in that building. She asked me to walk to the end of the hall.  Somehow, I ended up in the directors office.  His door was open, so I just knocked and got in. The white man (Italian) behind the desk looked at me from head to toe. I  introduced myself and told him that I was looking for an internship. He sent me to the program manager. I got the internship and they employed me after the internship ended.
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That was my first job and this was a catholic church based organization, engaged in humanitarian work – poverty reduction et al.  The pay for all the Kenyan staff was pathetic. We all knew it. The white staff were paid huge sums of money and lived in Muthaiga (one of the posh suburbs of Nairobi). My salary was KES 15,000/USD 150 per month. An Italian intern earned KES 300,000/USD 3,000 per month or so, the Kenyan staff said. Nobody really knew what the Italian staff earned- it was top secret.  But they drove 4 WD cars and lived in Muthaiga. They went home for lunch, while we ate air burgers for lunch. I lived in a one-roomed house with an toilet (pit latrine) & bathrooms that was shared by maybe, 15 other tenants.  After paying rent and transport, I was left with very little or next to nothing really. I was living on the edge of starvation. I was working hard, trying to prove myself. Then, the organization got funding for an educational project.
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I started thinking that maybe my salary would be improved. I knew how much money was in the budget, since I was involved in putting it together. I thought I deserved a raise. So, I went to my white boss and told him that I think I should be paid KES 30,000/USD 300.  All hell broke loose! It was pandemonium! He raised his voice. He shouted. I do not even remember what he was saying, but that was not the reaction I was expecting. I think he was basically saying that he could not give me the raise. I actually thought he would fire me. I was so worried. He did not fire me.  I started thinking – what makes my boss react like that when I ask him for a raise? What makes the white intern get more than me by far, never mind that we the African staff are the ones who have show her the ropes – and actually work more than her? What else could it be other than my skin colour? That incident made me realize that the colour of my skin would always work against me. You do not have to leave Africa to experience racism.
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One day a family member came to visit me and found that there was sewage flowing from the toilet and spreading to where our houses.. houses hehehe rooms were situated. My room was adjacent to the toilet. I think the landlord had tried to empty the toilet and somehow the contents spilled out or something. It was one of those toilets where the contents are floating so close to the hole that you dare not look down. You just do your business and leave. My family member was horrified. She told me that I should start looking for a new place to live (one with a toilet inside).  I told her I could not afford it. She told me she would try her best to help me pay the rent.  I knew she did not have the money either, but I moved out  with the hope that I would find a better job. I ended up in a house that was poorly constructed.  After a while, water started seeping through the freshly painted  walls  and they became mouldy. My clothes  became mouldy too, because the wall was the closet heheehh! After the shouting incident with my Italian boss,  I  had started looking for another job seriously. All my evenings were spent applying for jobs. I told everyone I knew that I was looking for a job.  After 2 years, or so, I found  a much better one at a conservation NGO. This was not without its pitfalls either. I was just talking with my colleague about it the other day and we were ruminating about the fact th the salary of the two top white bosses was more than all the salaries of the 12 Kenyan members of staff put together. Race! Story for another day.
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I badly wanted to move from the Italian NGO that was engaged in missionary-related humanitarian work for various reasons. 1. I found the contradictions of using Christianity as a tool for entrenching oppression unbearable. Every morning the white bosses would call for a prayer session – we needed to start the day with Christ! I started boycotting those prayers, because I thought Jesus would have wanted me to live a better life, which could be made possible by a better salary.  But my white bosses had sort of placed a cap to what the African staff could earn.  Oyunga Pala refers to this kind of phenomenon as the “black ceiling”. No amount of sucking up would melt the hearts of the white bosses. Some of my colleagues tried different strategies – like taking them to their homes to see how the live, or zealously participating in the missionary activities – prayer retreats and the like. Not even speaking English with an Italian accent worked. Not even picking up their mannerisms like Italian hand gesturing. None of that worked!  Technically, we were all field niggers. There were a few house niggers, who they used to keep us (the field niggers) in check.  Some of the dog treats thrown their way were trips to Italy, and higher salaries, of course. But their salaries and life styles were nowhere near our Italian masters. They also tried to bamboozle us with occasional outings to eat pizza.  Now might be a good time to watch Malcom X’s beautiful illustration on the difference between field niggers and house niggers. Watch that before proceeding, because I make reference to that metaphor later. Its just a 5 minute clip :)!
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Where was I? Oh the reasons for wanting to leave. Reason no 2 was that I was working in Kibera( an informal urban settlement), and I could not understand this:  how come the more NGO’s you have the more poverty you have? Everywhere you look in Kibera, you find an NGO. I think there is an industry of poverty, that thrives from poverty, and that is determined to ensure that poverty is sustained. If there is no poverty, what will all the NGOs and white expats do?  Reason no 3 was that I wanted to get into conservation-that is where my interest lies.  But back to the Italian NGO – I have just remembered more things that I wanted to tell you.  Our Italian masters always spoke in Italian, to  lock out the field niggers from the conversation.  I resented Italian. I still resent Italian. I equate the language with oppression.  They try to colonize the African stuff with Italianism. For instance, in one of their school projects in Kibera, they make the kids perform a play based on Pinocchio, the Italian wooden puppet fictional character. What could be more far removed from the reality of life for these kids. They would not want to perform anything from their respective cultures, because, as we all know, African cultures are barbaric. This Pinocchio business was led by one of the Italian bosses, whose job title was ‘Pedagogist’.  There were other teachers in that school of course, but this one had a special job title. I thought every teacher is a pedagogist? Yawn!
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One day I was having a conversation with my colleagues. All of us hated our masters.  Even those that smiled at them and joked with them hated them. Everyone lamented about how unjust they were. How evil they were. Then, one of us fouled the air by saying the following: But, if it were not for them, you would have no job. We all started talking about other things after that. This how oppression and poverty get entrenched.  When people have no option. Because the government has created conditions ripe for exploitation from all sorts of quarters.  You cannot even talk about your oppression without being dragged into a guilt trip. Actually, I now realize that this oppression had dehumanised us.  One time, we went to visit one of our projects in Huruma (another urban informal settlement) in Nairobi. Our white boss  ‘the pedagogist’ gave us a ride in her  Toyota Rav. 4 , which she kept referring to as “my car”, and which she no doubt, loved more than us the field niggers. As we were leaving the project, she reversed into a tree and shattered the rear windshield. We performed a great skit of hypocrisy. We told her how sorry we were.  We touched the Rav and said uh and ah!  It was all hogwash. Later on, we rejoiced! One of my colleagues was even dramatizing the “event” to those that were not there. And we would all laugh! Some even said – it is too bad that it did not hit the body. It should have left a bigger dent! We were the field niggers, who would pray for the breeze to fuel the fire that was burning the master’s house.  This situation had reduced us to people who rejoice at the misfortune of others!
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I resented my Italian bosses. All of them – from top to bottom.  Even the interns were my bosses – because they are white or think they are white. One day, I went to work – I am hard worker, by the way.  I strive to give my best. If my former Italian masters get to read this, I doubt that they will say I am lazy person who does not deliver. And that was not even my finest work, because my motivation was somewhere close to zero.  I was at work quite early that day.  One of the interns walked past me. I do not recall if she said something and I did not respond,  or what  triggered what happened next.  She was ahead of me and took the stairs to her office. As I took the first step of the stairs, she turned around and started yelling. She was sort of jumping up and down and her hair was bouncing up and down.  She established a hierarchy. She was at the top of the stairs and I was at the bottom. I was dumbfounded. I cannot even remember all the things she said, but one thing she said stuck to my mind: you may think you are so important, but you are not. You are nothing!  
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I did not say a word. She finished her rant and walked to her office – in a huff! I walked up the stairs slowly and went to our office. We shared a space with other colleagues – all Africans. They found me there crying on my desk. They asked me what was wrong. Amidst tears, I told them how the intern had yelled at me, without any provocation at all. The mood in the office that day was sombre! I loved our solidarity. When one was wounded, it is like we were all wounded! I was waiting for her to report me to the main boss and for me to be fired. It did not happen. I  never talked to her ever after that. She left the organization before I did.  The Italian gang had perfected the art of raising their voices at the African staff. It was a strategy at intimidating us and putting us in our place, and it worked.  Nobody dared challenge them. We were all scared of losing our jobs. Recall that even getting an internship is difficult enough, so nobody wants to lose their  job no matter how pathetic is.  I now must point out that it is imperative for people working in NGO’s to seriously consider unionizing! I need to write another blog on this.
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When I got the job I mentioned earlier, I left this Italian mafia (that is how some of us used to call them & one of my colleagues referred to the main boss as Mussolini), in the middle of the month.  I wrote my resignation letter and gave it to my colleague to give it to  Mussolini.  I think it was a three line letter.  In the letter, I told him to keep my salary – I did not want it.  Not because I had a lot of money. No! I just did not want him to say that I had not given a month’s notice. I had to borrow money to survive that month. After he received the letter, he called me incessantly. I refused to pick his calls. He was probably calling to yell at me, and I did not want to give him the satisfaction and neither did I feel like yelling back.  We are told that we should say nice things about our employers, because we need their recommendations for other jobs. That you should not burn bridges, etc.  While I do understand the thinking behind this, I do not agree with the embedded assumption and logic. What if your employer was horrible? Should you lie and say they were just great? It is this logic that has entrenched massive suffering of people in Africa and other dispossessed regions of the world.  It is this logic that tells us that:
1. You should not complain, because you have a job. There are those that do not. Yes, of course. We should all be grateful for the crumbs that are thrown our way.  It is this logic that makes child labour possible – at least the children are making money sewing garments and making mobile phones for us.
2. NGO’s are do-gooders. Missionaries are do-gooders. There is a group of Africans who do a show called NGO means Nothing Going On. I am increasingly skeptical of the whole NGO industrial complex.  Yes, there are good and bad NGO’s, of course.  But it is this logic that NGO’s and missionaries are doing good that entrenches poverty. I hope you have understood about how poverty is created. None of my Italian masters were or are poor. But we the Africans were/are poor. We were impoverished by the NGO.  NGOs and missionaries  also entrench white supremacy and the idea of white benevolence. That is why kids can get molested by missionaries, but you have people defending the missionaries, because they cannot understand how a white missionary can do such a thing. That is why British soldiers can rape Samburu women, but instead of sympathizing with the victims, the women get ostracized from their community.
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I spoke to  an elder who told me that when they worked in settler farms during the colonial period in Kenya, they were fed on something they referred to as ‘mathache’. This is what remains of milk after they whip it up and remove all the cream. It is like water,  really. The African took care of the cows, milked the cows, then whipped the milk to remove all the cream, and gave everything to the British. Then, the British gave them mathache!  They also  grew the maize and harvested everything and gave it to the British. Then, the British gave them the rotten maize in the form of flour. This was rationed.  Several scholars have pointed out Europeans in Africa believed that an adult African was the equivalent of a 9-year old European. They argued that the brain of the African was underdeveloped. That the African was like a lobotomised European.  It was believed that the African did not need much to survive. That is why they gave them little food. Malnutrition was rife! This elder looked me in the eye and told me the following: I joined the Mau Mau in the forest to fight for independence, because I was tired of being a slave on our very own land. I was tired of eating mathache!
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The Italian mafia fed me mathache!
And these personal experiences stay with me because I feel it is so,so grossly unjust.  I think I am fully convinced that no white person is in Africa is there to help Africans.  The ‘Tribe of the West’, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to them, is there to help itself. There are people who have grown extremely wealthy through the industry of poverty.  The NGO industry is so powerful. In Kenya, I think the NGO industry is more powerful than the government. It is a parallel government, that seems to be providing services that the government should be providing.  As a result, people lose faith in the government and think NGO’s are on their side. But are they? All this happens because the government is weak and we have bad leadership.  Is it not because bad governance that the Italian mafia could give me and others mathache!?
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Why Colonial Christianity is the No. 1 problem in Africa: An illustration

I posted the blurb below on facebook a few days ago. I want to explain myself further by drawing from concrete examples.

Christianity is the no 1 problem in Africa. If it is not no 1, it is certainly in the top 3. Christianity is used to entrench oppression of African peoples. All our leaders are “God fearing”? The Christian God is a paradox. The most intolerant people you will ever encounter are Christians, especially the born again variety. Zambians are praying because they have a cholera outbreak. Zambians were praying a few years ago because they had no electricity. In Kenya, we have something called a national prayer breakfast which is led by politicians who are responsible for all the misery and suffering of the Kenyan population. They meet in posh hotels and stuff their mouths with sausages and sing hymns to the Christian God. And we say we are a Christian nation. What Christian values do we live by? We have more churches than schools, universities and hospitals combined in Kenya. Christianity has destroyed Africa because it hinders thinking completely. All the major political parties in Kenya in the last election were using Christian sloganeering. Never mind that there are many people in Kenya who are not Christians, but since the Christian God is the best, the rest should just fall in line. Poverty of ideas and high degrees of insensitivity. One of the few respectable Kenyan retired clergy, Rev. Timothy Njoya refers to this behaviour as “mocking God.” Christianity tells Africans that no weapon formed against them will prosper. Unfortunately, slavery prospered, Slavery is prospering in Libya and the Middle East, colonialism prospered, neocolonial encirclement is prospering, misgovernance is prospering, even the clergy are prospering at the expense of the people.

Example 1: The Kipande 

I once visited an elder who has a home museum. He has got a collection of impressive objects created by Africans before the encounter with colonialism.  It was at this Museum that I saw the Kipande for the first time. The Kipande was metallic container that those worked in settler farms in colonial Kenya wore around their necks.  His son explained to me how you would not get a job (from another white settler), without providing a reference letter from another settler. In other words, you would not be enslaved on your own land without approval from the person who stole your land. He opened the tin and pulled out a long document that contained approvals, permissions, and so on. This was his father’s Kipande. His father, whose hearing was deteriorating sat nearby and looked on. The son explained to me how the Kipande was a tool for humiliation, and why it was one of the main issues in the struggle against British imperialism in Kenya.  He then told me how the church wanted to ex-communicate his father. Reason? He was accused of having witchcraft because of the objects that he collected and kept in his home. The father did not want to be ex-communicated from the church. He was ready to burn all those objects. Then, the pastor asked him to bring all the objects to the church so that they could inspect them. So, he packed all his objects and went and set up a sort of exhibition in the church compound.  The pastor and the congregants looked at the objects and thought they were harmless. He survived the ex-communication.  When missionaries came to Africa at the beginning of the colonial period, they told Africans that all their creations are witchcraft and primitive.  They were to be destroyed.  The same missionaries collected some of  these objects and you will find them scattered in Museums around Europe and North America. Yes, of course, they make money from this African witchcraft and primitiveness.  In this elder’s collection, you will find evidence of very strong cultures and African creative genius. You will find evidence that Africans were forging objects out of iron, well before the encounter with colonialism. Assuming the church had not been reasonable, this elder would have destroyed this collection. That would have denied me an opportunity to touch a kipande and see it up-close. My encounter with that Kipande greatly shaped my research interest in anti-colonial struggles in relation to conservation, environmental justice, the protection of African heritage, etc.  The colonial version of Christianity remains the greatest threat to the protection of African heritage.  A lot of  African objects have been destroyed due to the influence of Christianity. Hence, an African will grow up thinking that Africans have never invented or created anything. How do you find out that they did if all the stuff you see around comes from Europe, N. America, or China?

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The Kipande

Example 2 : Nok Terracotta Sculptures 

I was attending the World Archaeological Congress last year where a delegate from Nigeria took the floor and started speaking about the threats to heritage conservation in that part of Africa.  He said that one of the major issues is the destruction of Nok Terracotta sculptures by both Christians and Muslims. When people find them in their gardens, they destroy them, because religious teachings of both faiths have convinced them that anything associated with African cultures is witchcraft. The culture of making these figures/sculptures was practiced for over 1,500 years.  Of course, if they are destroyed there is no chance for Africans to benefit from them in any way – e.g., research, education, or even cultural pride. In the meantime, antique hunters from Europe collect and make so much money from them.  Since Africans think it is witchcraft, they cannot benefit from this heritage in any way. Christianity is, therefore, in direct conflict with African prosperity in many dimensions – intellectually, economically, etc.

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Nok Teraccotta Sculpture. Image Source: Muzeion

Example no 3: Gucugia Mwana 

A friend invited me to a beautiful ceremony known as Gucugia Mwana. This is a cultural practice of the Agikuyu people in Kenya. The ceremony is an opportunity for one’s grandmother to celebrate their grandchild.  In this case, the daughter brought her child to the mother’s home. The mother invites friends over – there is singing, dancing, and lots of food.  The baby is given gifts by the grandmother and others. They sing for the baby and rock the baby back and forth.  Most of the attendees in this ceremony were Christians and you could see the clash and tension between this cultural practice and Christianity.  It felt like the people were feeling guilty for practicing this culture, which I think is a beautiful thing, in terms of keeping the family together, celebrating life, keeping the society together. But, you could feel and see the tension.  Christianity makes Africans feel guilty for practicing African culture, even when it is something as harmless as Gucugia Mwana! So, Africans end up not singing their songs any more. All the songs are about praising Jesus. The African culture is killed or is stunted.  Christianity makes Africans either hate themselves and everything about themselves, or  makes them feel guilty – all the time.

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Example 3:  Seed and food sovereignty

I was working with a certain community in Kenya last year. Over the course of this work, the community highlighted the pressure they were facing with regarding to abandoning their foods, seed preservation practices, pressure to use to pesticides to grow their crops and so on.  We agreed that it would be good to have a forum to discuss these issues and craft solutions. I spent a lot of time and energy looking for someone who understood the issues around global corporate capture of food production, imperialism, capitalism, neo-colonial encirclement,  and destruction of the community’s cultural infrastructure. I needed somebody who spoke the local language, and who could explain these issues in a clear manner and relate them to the community’s daily struggles.  When I found a person who could this, we organized a full-day community workshop to interrogate these issues.  The facilitator opened the discussion by saying that we should remember our ancestors. Fair enough, I thought. The rest of the discussion was very interesting. At some point, some young men in the group raised an issue with the elders – they said that they felt confused because they got conflicting messages from their church and from other cultural expectations. One man said that his pastor says that paying dowry is wrong, and yet he is also expected to pay dowry-culturally. There were two pastors in the group. They could not offer him a satisfactory explanation on how to address this conflict. But that is not what I wanted to highlight through this example.  The fact that Christianity is in direct clash with African culture has been established in the earlier examples.  Two days after the workshop, one community member called me and told me that some of those who attended the workshop were not happy, because I brought them a non-believer (a non-Christian). What was the problem?  The facilitator has said that “we should remember our ancestors”. So, I called the pastor, who told me that yes, there was quibbling because “we are saved and we do not believe in that”. Now, you tell me, here we are – Africans are under siege from all sorts of mutli-national corporations, who do not even want them to save the seeds they harvest and plant them in the next season, who want the farmers to buy seeds from them every season, who want to enslave them and shackle them to poverty forever – but what concerns Africans most is that another African said that we should remember our ancestors?  Is it possible to be African and Christian at the same time or are they completely incompatible?

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Example no 4: Governance 

I do not want to dwell on this one. I think the block quote at the beginning highlights how much of a problem this is.  The colonial governments used Christianity to entrench oppression in Africa. They said colonialism was the will of God.  Present day African leaders use exactly the same logic to bamboozle the people. It is not uncommon to hear Africans saying that leaders are “chosen by God”. So, all manner of despots use Christianity to entrench mass torture of the people they are supposed to be leading. When these despots and their sidekicks die, churches hold services for them – to pray so that they go to heaven.  Never mind that they made life a living hell for people right here on earth.  Christianity enables bad governance, which then entrenches poverty in Africa- both material poverty and the poverty of ideas. And the latter is worse than the former.

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Reading ‘The big conservation lie’

The book opens with a laugh out loud funny, truthful, and powerful joke.

Have you ever seen a black man aired on Animal planet?” asked Nigerian comedian, …Basketmouth, during an Aljazeera TV Program…The audience became silent. Then the immensely popular stand-up comedian volunteered to explain the courage with which white people aired on the television channel usually advance on some dangerous animal. “White people are never afraid. They only become afraid when you go to the Embassy seeking a visa…They tell you, ‘I am afraid we cannot give you a visa’ Said in an officious mimic, this drew instant laughter from the audience.

A friend of mine sent me a link about the launch of this book earlier this year. I googled it. I looked at the cover, and knew I had to get the book-immediately! My friend and I discussed the cover and had a good laugh. You have to laugh in order to go mad. We are both in the conservation industrial complex, so the cover speaks to our individual and collective struggles.

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Mbaria and Ogada share their personal and professional experiences on the intricacies between race, conservation, dispossession, raw capitalism, environmental destruction, community livelihoods, exploitative research and so much more. I think this is one of the most important books to emerge out the conservation arena in Africa in recent times. It a powerful critique of  white corruption and conservation in Kenya.  The overarching themes of the book include:

  1. Who benefits from the conservation of wildlife in Kenya?
  2. Who shapes the conservation agenda?

The goal of this blogpost is to share some stories that reinforce some of the arguments that Mbaria and Ogada are making, as well as to offer some possible solutions.

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So, what exactly did Basketmouth mean?

Basketmouth might have been joking, but the image of white men(they are mostly male characters) taking to the wild, devoting their lives to saving wild animals, and engaging in sensually captivating adventures has forever been used to drive the point home that as the planet experiences immense destruction of species, habitats, and ecosystems, it is only white people who really care. Conservation is now almost exclusively associated with whiteness.

What is the place of Africans in the conservation landscape?

Usually, black people are featured either as cargomen, props, victims, or as hinderances to the conservation enterprise. In most instances, black Africans are portrayed as people who need to be sensitized, so that they can either accept or learn to love the animals that live in their midst or the wilderness they inhabit.

Now, these are issues that quite close to my heart. And I have blogged about this before in  Saving  Africa from Africans.  I highly, highly, resent the idea that Africans do not know or are not interested in conservation, and have actually spent the last 12 years of my life trying to dispel or at least understand this myth. The latest of these ventures is through my PhD research on Indigenous Knowledge Systems and forest governance. Why has this idea that Africans do not care about conservation become so widely accepted, including by Africans themselves? It is argued that Africans do not know conservation because they do not know how to uhhh and ahhh when they see animals. Loving wildlife is reduced to uuhing and aahhing, and attempts at domesticating them by giving them names like Tom, and petting them.  These kinds of ideas are completely incongruent with African conservation and environmentalism. The connections that Africans have with their landscapes are more deeper and sophisticated than this superficial and empty romanticization. Let us all do our own research-you have your grandparents or other elders in our community. Ask them what relationships they forged with wildlife or the environment in general, especially before the encounter with colonialism and Jesus. The answers might surprise you. If you are in Kenya and know any Mau Mau guerrillas, ask them how they survived in the forests that are inhabited by wild animals – for close to 10 years.

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Where are the African conservationists? Mbaria and Ogada argue that the conservation arena is fed by self-propagating hero worship. All these heroes are white. Take the case of George Adamson  and his domestication of lions.  A couple of years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service posted a picture of George and “his lions” on their facebook page. I asked them if they are promoting the domestication of wild animals? The rebuttal was quick – “We are celebrating someone who has contributed immensely to conservation in Kenya.” Yawn! I then asked them why I have never seen any celebration of African conservationists. They never came back to me.

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Another good example is Karen Blixen, whose story is told in the movie  ‘Out of Africa’. The movie opens with the line “I owned a farm in Africa” the correct opening line should be “I stole a farm in Africa.” I want to use the example of Blixen to demonstrate that the white capture of conservation extends beyond wildlife conservation into the cultural heritage conservation realm. Blixen was an out-and-out racist who argued that she understood Africans better after interactions with wild animals. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in ‘Detained’ “In reality they [white settlers in Kenya] loved the wild game,  but Africans were worse, more threatening, instinctless, unlovable, unredeemable, sub-animals merely useful for brute labour.” This was a view strongly held by Blixen. Despite this, there is a museum in her name in the colonial outpost that is known as Karen. Yes, the area is also named after her. I cannot understand why there is a museum that memorializes Karen Blixen and yet there is no museum or anything else built to memorialize the glorious struggle of the Mau Mau, who fought racial oppression and colonial domination with everything they had.  Why must Africans continue to celebrate people who oppress(ed) them and think of them as sub-human?

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Who is reaping huge economic returns from Africa’s wilderness?

The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of natives, veiled bribery, unsurpased deceit, a conservation cult subscribed to by huge numbers of people in the West, and severe exploitation of the same wilderness conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve.

A truly, truly depressing example  of  exploitation that is given in the book centres around a tree known as Prunus africana, whose bark is used for treatment of prostrate cancer. Jonathan Leakey preyed on the indigenous knowledge of Africans, and obtained a permit to exploit and export the bark and made a tidy sum. The permit was obtained from his brother Richard Leakey, who is an obiquitous presence in the Kenyan conservation arena. Let us even assume that Jonathan had not been given the permit. If he walked into a community somewhere and started talking to people, wouldn’t they give him this information and access to the trees? Have you seen how people in any part of Kenya react when they see a white person? Everybody goes out of their way to help. And by the way, in Kenya, the term researcher is associated with a white person. This person just preyed on the hospitality of Africans and emerged out of this interaction with loads of money. The hospitable Africans got nothing.  Nobody thinks that a white person can be up to no good. We always think they want to help us. This idea is so strongly ingrained and extremely dangerous. Why do Africans think that the people who enslaved them, colonised them, and neocolonise them want to help them? We have not really learnt how to protect what is really ours. That includes knowledge.

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What is the role of the government in all this? A friend of mine told me a story a couple of years ago. I think it will help answer this question.

There is a city somewhere in the Congo rain forest. This city was established during the colonial period as a retreat/holiday space for the colonial brigade. After independence, more Africans moved into the city. The government wanted to expand infrastructure in order to serve the public. This would entail the clearing of some trees. A Nordic country successfully blocked this, citing conservation concerns. Hence people live in squalor without basic services like sewer lines, water infrastructure, etc. The perils of flag independence! The government is a powerless. Direction on conservation strategy comes from the west. The white capture of conservation in Africa is total, thorough, and uncompromising.

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Let me give you another example. This is in regards to nominating sites into the UNESCO World Heritage List.  The process works like this: A country nominates a site to be a world heritage site. Once the site goes through all the hoops at the UNESCO level, somebody is sent to evaluate the site in situ. This consultant writes a report on whether the site you are proposing is deserving of world heritage status or not. In all the instances I know for African sites, the consultant has always been a white person. I do not know of any instance where an African has ever been commissioned as a consultant to evaluate any site either on the African continent or elsewhere. Can we envision a situation where an African goes to evaluate a site in Europe, for instance? And needless to say, these consultant are paid handsomely. You cannot acquire world heritage status without white approval. Also, can we envison a situation where a Kenyan owns 100,000 acres of land in the UK and turns it into a conservancy? This is satirized in this conservation conundrum.

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Tourism and conservation. In kenya, these are siamese twins.

In ‘The wretched of the earth’, Fanon writes:

The national bourgeoisie will be greatly helped on its way towards decadence by the Western bourgeoisies, who come to it as tourists avid for the exotic, for big-game hunting and for casinos. The national bourgeoisie organizes centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie. Such activity is given the name of tourism, and for the occasion will be built up as a national industry…Because it is bereft of ideas, because it lives to itself and cuts itself off from the people, undermined by its hereditary incapacity to think in terms of all the problems of the nation as seen from the point of view of the whole of that nation, the national middle class will have nothing better to do than to take on the role of manager for Western enterprise, and it will in practice set up its country as the brothel of Europe.

I want to illustrate this aspect of the turning of a country into the brothel of Europe.

I once went with a friend to a hotel in Nairobi. This hotel has an in-house dance troupe which entertain tourists.  We were excited to see the dances. My friend and I were among the very few Africans there. The place was packed with white people with cameras. In Kenya, tourist=white person. When we say we want tourists to come, we do not mean people from Papua New Guinea. Nor do we even mean Kenyans who live next to the so-called tourist attractions. The show starts. It is good. It keeps getting exciting. At some point, the ladies dance is a way that reveals their behinds. The sway the skirt upwards and there, the bum is fully exposed. The tourists click away. My friend and I turn to each other and ask “what was that?” It is not all of them who showcase their behind. It is selected, slender, light skinned ones. It is pathetic. It is very pathetic. It is disgusting.  I have never gone back to that hotel.  By the way, this dance troupe had come to perform at my university and there were no bum-showing stunts! You know why? There were no white people there. It is their fantastic performance at my university that made me want to see them again, hence the visit to the hotel.

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If you want to see who controls the conservation industry in Kenya look no further than the Cabinet secretary’s facebook page. She is is always posting pictures of signing MOU’s or other agreements with some foreign entities known as “development partners”. It feels like Kenya has been sold.

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Another story: I once went for a meeting at the Karen Country Club. I was one of 2 Africans there. The meeting began with a presentation.  After that, there was a discussion. Most of the time was spent bashing the Kenya Wildlife Service. I have never felt more out of place. That was the first and last meeting I ever attended.

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So why not start your own NGOs ?

Conservation NGOs must also be seen to toe the racial line; one can only succeed in the NGO world if they are white or have a close and preferably familial or business affiliation with one or more members of the Kenya white community. Starting an American chapter or getting and American to sit on the board is an added advantage.

Look at this article that showcases 25 top conservationists in Africa. Tell me how many Africans you see there.

Why does this kind of situation persist?

I think it comes down to governance. Failure of the state to put public interests first. Failure of government to support local conservationists. Colonized mentality that reinforces the idea that Africans do not know conservation. It also persists because the state itself is captured by the white NGO lobby.

I was invited to a meeting to discuss Indigenous Community Conservation Areas(ICCAs) and the possibilities for implementation of this type of conservation in Kenya a few months ago.  During the discussions one of the participants  made a claim that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) was presiding over the destruction of forests in Kenya. A representative from the Ministry of environment took issue with that and asked him to substantiate. The debate went on and on. Then, during tea break, we the Africans congregated at one table. The discussion continued. Several other Kenyans supported the person who had made the claim about KFS. Then, the person from KFS said something astonishing. He said: “Even if it is true, you cannot say that in the presence of donors.” In Kenya, donors, like tourist =white person. There were several white people there representing various international organizations, the UN etc. This probably is the root cause of the situation that we find ourselves in. The government is not accountable to the people, is not interested in what the people think or feel, it is more interested in pleasing donors. Subsequently people lose faith in the government and chose to work with NGOs or to just give up all together. Quagmire.

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What is to be done?

  1. Talk about these things openly. You cannot solve a problem if you do not understand it. You cannot solve a problem if you do not even know that it exists. Ogada and Mbaria  have provided a solid foundation from which these issues can be interrogated.
  2. We must get governance right. We must have people who care about the public and put their interests first.  Without this, nothing will work in our favour. It is not just in conservation, it is in all other aspects of life. We must all engage with politics constructively. Being apolitical enables the system of exploitation.
  3. Africans must stop thinking that white people love them and want to help them. Everybody is in the conservation sector for economic or other interests. If you do not believe this ask yourself why a lot of the settlers who own huge tracts of land have now turned their land into “conservancies”. And if you do not find this convincing think of this:

A question well worth asking in Kenya is which sector makes the most money per elephant in Kenya- the government, the poachers, the tourism investors, or the conservationists.

4. Africans should support African conservationists in which ever way they can. By conservationists, I do not mean only those people who are formally trained. Some of the most formidable conservationists in the African context are people who work the landscapes and waterscapes on a day to day basis-farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, hunters and gatherers, etc

5. Education. Education. Education. I do not mean formal education alone. Let us all strive to learn what African conservation really means. Talk to elders, talk to farmers, teach others, learn from others, write about it, speak about it, film it, share it. Educating ourselves has to be a deliberate project. We must continue striving for freedom in all spheres of engagement.

 

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Stories from Ghana

Ghana. The land of Kwame Nkrumah. No, no, the land of Osagefyo[political reedemer] Kwame Nkrumah! I always wanted to come to you.

Day 1

I arrive at Kokota Intl airport. Immigration!

Immigration officer: What brings you to Ghana?

Me: I just came to visit

Immigration officer: (Appears shocked). Ehh what do you do? I am willing to bet that a white person would never be asked this question.

Me: I am a student.

Immigration officer: Ah! a student has money to travel?

Me: I  am now thinking that student was the wrong answer. So, I say – I also work.

The immigration officer hands me my passport.  Is there anyone out there who likes immigration?

First stop: University of Ghana, Legon.

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U of G Legon entrance

The campus is so lovely with lots and lots of trees.

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We have some delicious lunch at the one of the university canteens. Accra is hot and humid; I am melting. My friend Judith takes me for a tour of the campus.  Some woke professors at the university of Ghana has been leading a campaign to have a statue of Mahatma Gandhi removed from the campus in 2016.  I am surprised to see that the statue of Gandhi has not fallen. So, there two African universities that I know of that Gandhi stands tall – U of G, Legon and University of Nairobi. I later on meet with one of the Profs that was involved in this campaign and they say that the struggle is still on.  The most shocking part is that there is a group of Profs who see no problem, and indeed support the decision to have the statue on the campus (never mind there are no statues of African heroes and heroines on the campus). This is one of the many racist things that Gandhi had to say about Africans:

“A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”

You can read more of these in this fantastic petition.

After you read all that in encapsulated in that petition you have to ask – Africans – who bewitched us? How can a African professor possibly make for a case that having Gandhi on campus is a good thing?

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Gandhi’s statue at U of G, Legon.

Day 2

We start off with the Du Bois Museum. This is situated at the house of this PanAfrican icon who moved to Ghana at the invitation of Osagefyo Kwame Nkrumah.  There is a very nice exhibition therein. The most interesting one is one for me is one about female heroines. You often only hear of  heroic male  figures, but here, they exhibit some iconic female defenders of African(s) freedom. Did you, for example, know about  Muhumusa of Rwanda? She was a priestess and warrior. She fought against the Germans and British for which she was detained until her death.

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Our next stop is the art centre. This is a craft centre where you find all sorts of wonderful stuff. Here, you have to have to polish your bargaining skills;otherwise, you will pay lots and lots of money. The first step in the art of bargaining is to express extreme shock once the vendor mentions the price of the item you want to buy. Ah Masa! you cannot be serious. Then, pretend that you are walking away because the price is so outrageously high. Then, the vendor asks you  to name your price. You come up with some figure which is so removed from what the vendor said. Then, the vendor says – that is money but it is low.  Oh and before naming your price you have to say how embarrassed you are to even mention it because it is so low as compared to the vendors price because “ameanzia juu sana/started from so high”. I hate bargaining. I find it exhausting . Luckily, I am with a Ghanian who is an expert at it. I am interested in buying the Ashanti stool. This is the stool that was at the centre of the dethroning of the Ashanti king at the height of Britain’s colonial terrorism . The stool is the soul of the Ashanti nation. The British colonial operatives  wanted to get it and demanded for it but it was somehow hidden until after the return of the  exiled Prempeh I. More  about the stool here.  To me, the stool is a symbol of resistance of oppression. So, I get myself one – after bargaining hard!

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Image source:  OMGVoice.com

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We have lunch at Tawala beach. The food is soooo good! We would return to eat the friend yam there severally. There are lots of weed smokers around and we joked that they must be adding weed to the food.

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In the evening, we go to the university to watch  a play about the slave trade. It is so well done. This sets the stage for my trip to Cape Coast and Elmina castles. The characters used various indigenous languages and English. This was very interesting to me. I do not think a university in Kenya would showcase a play with indigenous languages unless its Swahili. This is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been speaking about for decades. That we should treat all languages as equal! In this play you could see that. One of the things that was said in the play that stuck to my mind was this: even if the Elmina castle was washed with all the waters from the Atlantic it would never be clean. 

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Approaching Elmina Castle

Day 3

Bojo beach. This was one of the top 10 must-visit places according to internet searches, but we found it a little overwhelming. And the food was nowhere near as good as the Tawala beach one.

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Bojo beach

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Bojo beach

The traffic on the way back was horrendous. Reminded me about Nairobi traffic.

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This looks better than Nairobi traffic and maybe, it is. 

Being stuck in traffic provided the opportunity to observe the surroundings. I notice a lot of adverts related to churches and church-related events. Ghana or this part of Ghana is engulfed in evangelical and other forms of Christianity – just like Kenya. Have a look at this.

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Now we know what skin colour God is – based on his finger! 🙂

Day 4

Market, markets, markets.  I am interested buying fabric. You will be spoilt for choice here.

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There are so many indigenous food varieties here. Different kinds of fish, grains, plantain, yams, peppers etc

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Pepper

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Garden eggs.

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Yam. This is the real deal. Nothing tastes better in this life!  Image source:  intracen.org.

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Smoked fish.

And snails. I did not get to try this, but they are delicacy and quite expensive.

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Snails : Image source – Panaromio

Day 5

Aburi gardens is a park that was established by the colonial regime. It is near a natural forest and is open for tourism as well as other events.  There are a lot of interesting tree species here. I had never seen a cinnamon tree, for example. The most impressive ones for me, is this one. It is believed that the tree has spirits. Its is a ficus/ strangler fig, and is hollow from top to bottom (because it ate up the other tree).

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Strangler fig: Image source – TripAdvisor.

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Magnificent palms as you enter into Aburi park.

The other one is this cedar tree which dried up and one of the resident artists produced this masterpiece out of it. Our guide tells us that the carving is a representation of the realities of life: that, while there will always be people who will be lifting up, there will always be another group that will be working effortlessly to pull you down.

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Day 6

I had to be disciplined and respectful of my host so I joined them to church. I agreed with most of the things that the pastor was saying especially – do the right thing even if everyone else around you isn’t. Do not be corrupt even if everyone else around you is corrupt.  After church, I met these lovely and exceedingly funny ladies. I cannot write about the things that they were talking about here. And my friend was saying, you see this kind of social life(the catching up and socializing after church & sustaining those social networks beyond the church) is what those who are abroad do not get to experience. It is a society! This is the truth. The individualistic life of the west does not allow for this kind of socializing.

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After church

Day 7

I leave Accra at the crack of dawn and head to  Cape Coast. I have three things on my itinerary. Kakum National Park, Cape Coast Castle, and Elmina Castle.

The main attraction at Kakum is a suspension bridge. This a series of 7 canopy walk bridges that are not designed for the faint-hearted.  The trick is – do not under any circumstance look down! (the average height from the ground is 30 metres). Look ahead and you will be fine. My guide tells me that there was a time he had other guests here and one of them reached the middle, and could move no further. He just stood still and cried like a baby. “Can you imagine? A full grown man crying?” He said it with such disdain.

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Canopy walk

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Canopy walk

The land on which this park seats was donated by the community. So much for the idea that Africans are not interested in conservation.

After Kakum we head to Elmina Castle. It is about a 30 minutes or so drive.  You see the castle as you approach. It sits by the edge of the sea.

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Elmina Castle.

This was one of the most important castles in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Here, captured Africans were brought and kept in inhumane conditions before being transported to various places across the world. We get a guide to take us around. The most horrific thing that I have seen that is close to this are the Rwandese genocide museums where you are greeted by the stench of death.  We move from dungeon to dungeon as the guide explains the conditions under which captured Africans were kept. I am nauseated. You can hardly breathe in the dark dungeons.  Then, he takes us to the female dungeon. He tells us that there was no sanitation provided and female slaves had to, like other slaves, live with their own excreta and menstrual blood, in addition.

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Female slaves dungeon.

At the time the castle was opened to the public the level of the waste was at the point illustrated in the picture below. This was about over 100 years after the abolishing of the slave trade. To date, the female dungeon still smells…no, not smells – stinks!

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Guide demonstrates the height of human waste at the time the castle was opened. 

The woes of female slaves did not end there. If the white administrators (who lived in airy spacious rooms above the dungeons)  needed sex , then female slaves would be paraded in the yard, then washed and paraded in the courtyard for them to pick out the one he wanted from the balcony.

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Courtyard where women would be paraded.

But, the most shocking thing for me, was that there was a church situated right above the  female slave dungeon. Yes, all the slave traders were Christians. So, they would be up in the church worshiping God, Jesus etc, and the female slaves would be groaning in pain below them. Now every time I see a church, I think there is a slave dungeon beneath it.

If you did something wrong (i.e., protest your oppression) you were condemned to the death cell. Here you were literally starved to death. There was a cell for the white officers who misbehaved, but this had ventilation and did not have the skull/sign of death emblazoned above it.

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Africans’ cell.

From Elmina we went Cape Coast Castle which  is another chamber of horrors. I see wreaths laid by descendants of slaves who come to visit from all over the world, and I am filled with disgust for humanity. Sometimes, I think animals are more evolved than human beings. Have you ever seen animals enslaving each other? Have you ever seen animals colonizing each other? Have you ever seen animals murdering each other en masse?  Human beings have done that and much more.  As we finish the tour of the Castle the guide tells us that the Castles should be a reminder that we have to stand up against forms of slavery. He then finishes by saying that: There is a kind of slavery that is prevalent in the world today, and that is racism.

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Cape Coast Castle.

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Wreaths laid by descendants of slaves. Image Source: Ghanatasts.blogspot. ca

We leave the Cape Coast and head back to Accra, and for two days I cannot sleep well. I am traumatized by the horrid stories from these slave chambers. I am ashamed that I knew so little about the slave trade.  So ashamed.  I make an undertaking to educate myself henceforth.  The fact that you do not learn about these things in schools is an indictment of our education systems. No wonder Africans on the continent have not actively engaging with the struggles of Africans off the continent.

Day  8 

I attend a lecture by Prof. Horace G. Campbell as the third occupant of the Kwame Nkrumah Chair in African Studies. Prof.  Campbell delivered a compelling lecture outlining his vision, his thought processes, how his work aligns with Nkurumist Pan African ideology, and how the university can contribute to Africa’s interests. Listening to such people makes me fall in love with academia.

“…the convergence of multiple forces; environmental, financial, health pandemics, militarism, and geo-political changes, along with the diminution of Europe demand new analysis, new ideas and new forms fo organizing. These challenges call on African scholars and activists to rethink the basic ideas of Pan Africanism when the current educational structures of Africa have been organized to retreat from the inspiring ideas of Nkrumah and visionaries such as Amilcar Cabral and Cheikh Anta Diop.”

You can read more about the installation here.

Since he had spoken about the university’s plan about engaging in a green economy, I asked a question about how we can liberate ourselves from waste-especially plastic waste. I had noticed quite a lot of plastic waste around the places I went. This is a huge problem in Kenya too.

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Vice Chancellor’s residence, University of Ghana Legon.

Day 9

Final shopping and lunch at Tawala- Yes, again!

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Aburi gardens.

Day 10

Left for Nairobi. One of the most impressive things about Ghana, in my view, is its cuisine. That in itself, is an outstanding tourist attraction. I also like the warmth of Ghanian people. Next time, I will go to Kumase!!

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Kwame Nkrumah Memorial park. The grey structure in the backround houses his remains and that of his wife Fathia. It also represents an tree stump – a tree that was cut off before its time. 

 

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Stories from Scotland, United Kingdom

December 2016

A colleague who I greatly respect told me that there is call for abstracts for a conference on forests and livelihoods and wondered if we could work on a paper together. I said yes, of course. The conference was to be held in the land of my/our former(or current?) colonizers – the UK. We submitted our abstract which was accepted. We then began working on the paper. Then came the dreaded time – visa application time. If there is one English word I have grown to detest it is this four letter word: V-I-S-A. I have come to equate it with oppression.

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So, I go through the usual grind. Filling in forms which ask me to fill in, amongst other things, the dates of birth of all my family members, their occupations, my travel history, income, etc etc. I source for all the necessary letters and submit my application. I am told that the processing is carried out in New York and that everything will be sent there, then mailed back to me. I have to pay for courier service of course! In the end, I fork out about USD 300 and compare it to the USD 100 that UK nationals pay to obtain a visa to Kenya. This, right here, is an example of how poverty is created. Those that don’t have are exploited through global hierarchies of power and race.

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Time to leave for Scotland. I am going through Heathrow in London as there are no direct flights. Quick question ­– how random are those random checks in airports? For some reason, I am always selected as the random person to be searched (read molested). They papasa my hair, my thighs, my whole body.

I arrive in Heathrow and go to immigration.

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Immigration officer(with a very hostile look on his face): Where are you going?

I would like to know if people are asked this silly question when they arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Kwani, you can take a 9 hour flight without knowing where you are going?

Me: Edinburgh

Immigration officer: What for?

Me: For a conference

Immigration officer: About what?

Me: Forests and livelihoods

Immigration officer: What exactly is that?

Me: How people use forests for various things…food, water…

Immigration officer: Oh, like in the Amazon

Me: Yes.Yes.

Immigration officer: Are you giving a presentation there?

Me: Yes, I am Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia

He looks at me and appears shocked. And he looks less stern now. His whole demeanor changes.

He stamps my passport and hands it over.

I did not know being a Ph.D. student is a respectable thing. I should be blurting it out even before I am asked to save myself these painful interrogations.

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And by the way, did I tell you that the security officer at Heathrow wanted to know how old I am. She thought I was 16 years old  and travelling unaccompanied…something like that. I defensively told her my age and  even offered to show her my passport. She appeared shocked by real age. Based on the way she asked it I thought that there was a problem. I always think that there is going to be a problem at immigration points. They are scary places for people of certain skin colours or religious backgrounds, especially. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is quite right when he argues:

The nation state, the form in which capitalistic modernity organized power was born with notions of ownership in general and of territory in particular. The European nation-state, the slave plantation, the colony, and the prison are simultaneously products of the same moment in history.It is not surprising that these institutions have similar features.  The primary one is that of an enclosed space, often with a single point of entry and exit.  There are gated spaces with supervising authority.  Like all such spaces, the gate is guarded all the time. One cannot enter or exit without the approval of the all-seeing centralized authority and surveillance system. The comings and goings are recorded meticulously. The border now becomes a wall separating those within from those without.

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I expected Scotland to be colder than it actually is. I did not even wear the heavy jacket I had carried. We spend the morning of the first day sightseeing around the city as the conference was to start that evening. We hike to main park in the city and enjoy nice views of the city. The city is not ultra clean. There is trash lying around in some places. People seem friendly. They actually say hi. I am surprised by that.

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The conference begins. I meet a colleague from Malawi who is doing very interesting research work on community responses to impacts of climate change. Her area of study was flooded but people did not want to move and relocate to another place. It reminded me of Budalangi in Kenya. We begin with the plenary and listen to four amazing speakers. The one that sticks to my mind is a presentation about environmental activists who have been murdered for protesting against various earth destroying projects. They are almost ten or even more. That is in recent times. The presenter suggests that researchers should take and interest in these (in)justice issues as an area of research. Then room is opened for question. Yours truly and others raise their hands.

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Yours truly says: There is an issue that has been bothering me. And this is the way climate change financing is presented/framed. Side note: According to Paris climate agreement rich countries are supposed to fund poor countries’ adaptation to climate change. So, this issue is always presented as the rich countries have to “help” poor countries adapt to climate change. Shouldn’t this be understood as the rich countries paying for their pollution, after all, they are they cause of this problem?

I hear some chuckles in the room.

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The response I get does not answer the question. After the end of the plenary fellow, global southerners(India, Nepal, an Indigenous scholar) come to tell me that they liked that question. I, later on, follow up with the person who had responded to the question and he tells me …its just like REDD+ (this is a program where rich countries pay poor ones to not cut down forests while they continue with business as usual with regards to use of environmental resources – that is my understanding). In other words, you create a problem and then you pay other people to solve the problem by freezing them in time.

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This whole climate change fiasco is like a person coming and stealing all your belongings and destroying your livelihood. Then, you organize for a fundraising and the thief comes to the fundraising and makes a contribution of x amount. Then, they claim they have helped you. Those that are being fried by the hot sun or sunk by  rising ocean levels as a result of climate change, but yet,  have not contributed significantly (or at all) towards it makes you me wonder if there is a God, Goddesses, Godlings etc out there or in here. It is not fair at all and I cannot understand this at all.

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Let me digress a little bit. A friend of mine once told me of a city in DRC which was set in the Congo rain forest during the colonial period. The settlers chose the location for amongst other things, the amazing views it offered. At independence, the city was occupied by Africans and the population expanded and of course, the infrastructure could not support the people effectively. They wanted an expansion of sewer systems, drainage, roads etc. This would necessitate the cutting down of part of the forest. Apparently, a nordic country opposed this move and gave the DRC government money so that they could keep the forest intact(sounds like REDD+ to me). Meanwhile, the people continued to live in a heavily congested space without sanitary amenities. This just one example of the many anti-people, anti-justice conservation that comes into African countries.

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Sessions/presentations begin and as usual, I am hopping from one place to another hoping to listen to as many speakers as possible. My colleague and I give our presentation. A professor attacks us and says that what we are doing is just advocacy and not Ph.D. research work. My colleague is very gracious in her response. She says that what we shared was small snippet of our respective research projects that intersects/is similar.  We find that we have a common interest in people-forest relationships and land governance issues. I echo my colleagues comments and say that this was just a 10-minute presentation of much larger projects. Then I finish by saying.

I think Ph.D. students and researchers should be interested in advocacy work, in social justice issues. I am coming from an area where communities are being ravaged by climate change, for example. I simply cannot stand aside and turn a blind eye to all of these issues so that I can be seen to be doing pure research. I think research should address real needs of people and contribute to resolving some of the greatest problem of our time and some of those great problems, in my view are injustice and inequality.

There is an applause from other participants in the room.

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After the end of the session, one of the participants came to tell me that she thought I responded to that “nasty comment” quite well.  Later on, I also met with other participants who said they could not believe someone could say something like that to a fellow colleague. Academia can be brutal. Shish! The Prof later one walked to me at the evening reception and said: I was not trying to be rude or to attack you. I was challenging you and your response was satisfactory. I just want to make sure there is no problem.

I say: Thank you for your challenge.

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Onward to other sessions. There is lots of discussion about poverty, livelihoods…I make a point of attending as many presentations about Africa as possible. I had noticed that there were very few Africans in the conference. So most of the presentations were given by non-Africans.  I discussed this issue with my African colleagues. Some of them said that it is hard for Africans to get visa’s. Then another colleague told me that when Africans see a white researcher they either give them fake data to make them happy or to make them pity them and give them money. This is not a necessarily far-fetched assumption. Researchers, like tourists are synonymous with white people.

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So, I ask my African colleagues what they think should be done. Some of them say that there is nothing that can be done because it depends on who has the money at the end of the day. The Africans don’t. I tell one of my colleagues that we should say something about the representation of Africans at the conference. They tell me this: If you are too critical you will not get funding. So, just keep quiet and move on. In other words, I should be meek. I should say nothing controversial, not speak about injustice…I should be an agreeable African who says yes sir/madam and bows down. Then I say: I see no point of discussing our issues amongst ourselves. It does not change anything. Maybe speaking about it will not change anything but at least people will know. Then they tell me: It is risky. You can find yourself ostracized and sidelined from the research or academic community.

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We continue with the conference. I attend more sessions where researchers are marveling about the poverty of Africans. Analyzing it. Explaining it. There was not a single presentation on Africa that I went to where Africans were presented as people with agency, dreams, ideas, etc. They were always the silent participants of research interventions. The only person who shone was the researcher. I am beginning to wonder when Africans will begin to be speaking for themselves and not to be spoken for. Then I go to a presentation in which the researcher says how it is so interesting to do research in African country X because the rate of poverty is so high. This one hurts me to my core! I am now completely at a loss of what to do. I look at the programme and start counting the number of presentations by Africans. They are 34 presentations. Out of these only 7 are made by Africans(including me). That is a paltry 20%. If we were to add up the other countries from the global south I do not know what the percentage would be – maybe 90%. I do not know.

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In case you are wondering what the issue is here let me outline it in the form of questions.

  1. Who decides what is to be researched? Not Africans.
  2. Who benefits from research? Not Africans. If you are wondering how researchers benefit it is through publishing papers, books etc which they then use as leverage to get promotions etc. Hence, to make it explicit, some people are cashing in on the poverty of Africans.
  3. Related to 2 above- who gets published? Definitely not the Africans who are not there in the first place?
  4. Whose papers get read and cited – not the Africans who are not there in the first place. Hence, who gets locked out of the production of knowledge?

I believe you get the drift. I am not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. There is a real problematic issue here.

  1. Do we/would we envision a situation where the there were say 34 presentations about Europe and North America and have these bulk of these presentations made by Africans?
  1. Who gets to challenge any notions or wrong ideas that may be presented about Africa(ns)?

I, for instance, sat in a presentation about a country and I could tell the presenter did not have a grasp of the deep and complex historical issues that affect that country in relation to land, governance injustice etc… heck, let me say it. I am talking about Ethiopia. I had long conversation with an Ethiopian friend about the history of the country shortly before this conference and I was stunned at how little I knew about it.

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It is time for the plenary. I had decided to let the issue of representation go and just seethe inside. Then, a highly respected colleague gave a presentation and outlined the imbalances of representation based on continents. The bulk of the participants were from Europe and North America of course. He highlights that there were a lot more Africans who had planned to attend but did not make it. I am guessing because of visa issues. The floor is opened for questions and or comments.

I decide to say something.

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I want to make a comment of  X’s presentation. I want to demonstrate to you how this conference is a representation of the asymmetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. We have 34 presentations about Africa in this conference and only 7 of those have been given by Africans. I sit in sessions and I hear non-Africans dissecting African poverty, analyzing it… and it feels me with a huge sense of disempowerment. There is an element of suffering to poverty and that cannot be plotted on a graph. It seems to me that the research industry is married to the poverty industry. There is no sympathy, nor compassion. There are many Africans as X has pointed out, who did not make it here because of visa issues. If you have a skin colour like mine you are treated as a potential illegal immigrant. I do not have a solution to these issues but I just thought I should day how I feel. Thank you.

There is an applause. I am surprised.

 

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A discussion on whether it would be easier if the conference was held in an non European/N/American country. One of the funding agencies says that perhaps it can be made easier if the funding agency/those that are funding the conference issue out letters to African participants.The colleague who had presented the stats walks over to me and says: Thank you for that. That is what I was trying to say by showing the figures but I could not have said it the way you said it.  I tell him I find it a little absurd to be listening to people who have never experienced poverty telling me about poverty. We exchange contacts or rather he gives his card and I say I will write to him.

Afterwards I chat with some African colleagues and one of them asks me: What do you want them to do? Cry? There are also Africans who live off the poverty of other Africans. They want the Africans to be poor so that they can use them as fundraising tools to get money from the west.

While I fully appreciate the point being made here, and I think it should be equally condemned, I do not think that this negates the points I had made. And actually, crying is not such a bad idea. Maybe we should have a global day of crying. Maybe that will remind us that we are human. Maybe it will make us more humane! and humanistic!

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Now, I refused to be the African who goes to conferences or other forums just to add to the arithmetic’s of skin colour. So that people can say that there were participants from all over the world including from A-F-R-I-C-A. Well, what did those participants say? What new ideas did they have? I was challenged in another conference by a South African colleague who said that the existence of Africans and indigenous peoples in academia should not simply be for “adding skin colour.” If you say you have been historically excluded, then you have to demonstrate that there was something missing by the way you conduct your research, what new ways of looking at things you bring to the table etc…otherwise, it means nothing if your are perpetuating the same old myths about these groups of people.

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To finish this I will say to my fellow Africans and other global southerners: Raise your voice. Say something. Challenge something. Say something different. Or say what you feel. We need to be emancipated from silence. There are people who make a living from the poverty of Africans. There are people who rejoice at the poverty of Africans because that is their money maker. We are keeping some people in business. Some people would go out of business if there was no poverty in Africa.

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We had to drink scotch before leaving Scotland.

By the way, after all this, I was thinking that I am going to excommunicated from the research/academic community. So, when I had problems at the Edinburgh airport(they said they could not find my visa number and had to call Canadian immigration). Then the lady at the counter started telling their colleague how they had another problem like this and how it turned out to be a deportation case (how so very tactless!) I began thinking that I had been deported from Canada for saying what I said. I started thinking of how I would ask my friend to pack my belongings and ship them to Kenya….

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“Saving Africa from Africans”: A conversation about conservation in Africa 2.0

This post is an interview  I gave to a PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. This interview was a requirement  for their research methods class. The aim of this exercise was to equip the student with skills on how to conduct one on one interviews. The interview was transcribed for by the student and I will present it in that form. Here is our conversation.

Interviewer(GD):  Can you tell me about your current position?

GKB(me): I am now a PhD student here at the Faculty of Forestry, and I am at the stage of starting to write my dissertation. My research focus is on indigenous knowledge systems and their application in forest governance. I try to understand how people relate to their forests or to landscapes through indigenous knowledge systems in the Kenyan context. But my interest is more in the African scope.

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Mugumo tree in Kakamega Forest, western Kenya

GD: Have you been involved with any environmental protection initiatives in Africa?

GKB:  Yes. Prior to starting my PhD  in 2014,  I worked  on several community conservation or community-oriented conservation projects, actively in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi. These projects were mainly around heritage sites, but heritage sites or cultural sites exist in landscapes. And, so, communities view their sites and landscapes in the sense of  a general landscape orientation and not –  this is a forest, this is a mountain, this is an agricultural land, this is an archaeological site- but all in one encompassing landscape. That was what I was involved in for 8 years before beginning my PhD.

 

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Ankole cattle in Uganda

 GD: So, from an African perspective, is land a seamless transition without divisions?

GKB: Yeah, I would argue that in the traditional set-up, before the encounter with colonialism, most African societies had different conceptions of land or landscapes. It might not be the same, but amongst the group of people I do my research with, land was just land. There was no subdivision which has been created by colonialism [and furthered by post-independence African governments], where you would say this is a protected area, forest reserve or national park that is out of bounds to everybody including the community on whose traditional territory it sits because it is preserved for conservation. Then you have agricultural land or land for pastoralism or other kinds of land uses. So, that kind of subdivision was not necessarily there from what I have begun to understand, so far.

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Sunset in Pokotland, northern Kenya

 GD: What do you see as the most unique challenges in the recognition and incorporation of local values in environmental protection in Africa, today?

GKB: There are many problems, I do not know which is the most important one [respondent laughs], but I would say the most important one for me, is the dismantling of communities from their landscapes. Physical dismantling or psychological dismantling of their understanding of their landscapes, and also treating communities, majority who live in rural areas as stupid people who do not know anything. They need to be taught conservation, they need to be taught development, they need to be taught this, they need to be taught that. And, that diminishes their power. People have different kinds of synergies with the environment in which they live and we do not seem to harness that or recognise that properly. It might be in legislation, and legislation now seems to be changing towards that orientation, but in actual practice it is not as valorized as say conservation of national parks or other areas for tourism or protected areas. Communities are still viewed as trespassers or poachers, or I do not know [respondent shrugs] shifting cultivators or whatever other unpalatable adjectives that you might come up with [respondent laughs]. I think to me, that is the failure of, failure to harness the potential of the people, the power of the masses in landscape governance. And, that stems from the colonial experience.

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Turkana people, Kenya

 GD: You mentioned the dismantling of communities, physical and psychological. Can you tell me more about that?

So, the physical is the relocation of people, physical movement of people either to create a national park or create a forest reserve or some other land use. Dislocating them and moving them to another place or dislocating them from one place so that you can have settler agriculture. This creates dis-organisation within the landscape.  I see the psychological dismantling as the destruction of knowledge systems, destruction of connections to the land, destruction of synergies with the land. This is tied to  physical dislocation because knowledge is produced as a result of interaction with the environment. It just does not happen. It is not an abstract thing. It is based on practical use of resources and responding to challenges in nature. So, if you have been moved, from your traditional territory, dislocated to another place, it means you have to learn a whole new knowledge system and also, even if you remain within your territory and your knowledge systems are completed devalued, then you to relearn, a kind of formatting of our people’s heads [respondent laughs] and telling them that anything that they knew before is bad, is not good, is primitive, is destructive, and environmentally destructive and you have to learn afresh. So, how do you learn that? And, how effective is that when it comes to the actual practice of resource use or environmental governance or any other aspect for that matter?

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Gabbra women, northern Kenya

GD:  You mentioned four countries you worked in, are there any peculiar values you see in those regions, or what you talk about is general in character?

GKB: Okay, I think they are all facing devaluation of knowledge systems,  apart from the remote rural communities who do not have that push of government or the push of international NGOs to modernise or change them. So, there are similarities and differences. The similarities can bee seen when communities are made to feel that what they know is not good enough and this is buttressed by modern education systems. So, when they see a person coming from outside the community, especially an educated person, they think that they should not speak or say what they think because this person is there to teach them whatever it is that they are discussing. But, it depends on how you engage with the communities. Out approach (when I was working in those countries) was not to tell those communities that we are not here to teach you or to train you. “Teaching” and “training” is the most common language in use with respect to communities. Our approach was to say we are engaging. So, everyone is here to make a contribution and we are here to learn from each other. Once you create that kind of atmosphere, people begin to really open up and share ideas and lots of interesting stuff [respondent laughs]. There is a huge base of knowledge that is held within these communities and by different kinds of people and presented in different ways. This is not to say we were prefect or did not make mistakes. We made lots and lots of mistakes. But, like anything else in life, you have keep improving…correcting ourselves. We have to keep learning. Learning with humility.

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GD:  Can you tell me one or two examples of these local values?

GKB: So, for the Abasuba people in Western Kenya, they understand their environment through the history of their migration routes and peace and conflict resolution, and give a story of how they came from Uganda and settled on  Mfangano Island. So, this is an island on the Kenyan side of the Lake Namlolwe  otherwise known as “Lake Victoria”. It was so named by John Hanning Speke after in honour of his queen after he  allegedly”discovered” it. Yes, one of Africa’s magnificent waterscapes is named after a woman who presided over their death and destruction. I am digressing. Let us come back to the Abasuba. Their understanding of land, the lake, is tied to their migration, their quest for peace, and conflict resolution.  Mfangano remains a very peaceful island as compared to many other places where there is conflict over natural resources and other things. Read more about the Abasuba people in a book I co-authored with a colleague here.

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Abasuba Community Peace Museum: picture courtesy of the Trust for African Rock Art

GKB continued: And then, there is the Chewa people in Malawi. Interestingly, they still practice what you would call very traditional systems of using rock art sites which are paintings and engravings on stones and caves, and these are sites set in mountainous forest landscapes. They are still used  for initiation rituals to date. You would think that some of these practices would have died off as a result of the colonial missionary assault but they have not. They also have another practice known as the ‘gule wamkulu’ which is a secret society in which they dress in masks. There are teachings to be impacted through different kinds of masks and different kinds of costumes. They parade round the community tackling different kinds of issues including health, conservation, landscape use, and relationships between people and so on.

GDHow do they do this?

GKB: They have their own way, they have  song, and a dance. And, it is recognized by  UNESCO as a form of intangible cultural heritage. Read more about this here and watch the video.

GD: So, gule wamkulu has UNESCO endorsement?

GKB: Oh yeah, it is a unique form of cultural heritage among the Chewa people. So, there are these kind of practices, the fact that they are alive, to me, is indicative of a very strong form of resistance from the communities saying that we think it is important and we want to continue practising it.

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A gule wa mukulu dancer in Malawi

GD: What are the threats to environmental values in Africa?

GKB: For me, where there is no honest community engagement, then there is a threat to these values.

GD: Why do  you see this as a threat?

GKB: To me, threats must be seen as injustice, because if people are denied their livelihood, if I cannot feed my children or take my children to school and you have locked up the forest which is only accessed by tourists, and I cannot even fetch firewood from it, people become antagonistic to conservation spaces when there is no proper community engagement. There has to be equitable sharing of benefits from conservation spaces with communities living around these spaces because all our sites are surrounded by people. I do not know of any conservation spaces in Africa that are not surrounded by people. As difficult as it is, I think that is where we have to find a way of unlocking that deadlock and it has to vary from case to case with the communities.

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Chewa people in Malawi

GD: Who are those creating these threats to environmental values?

GKB:  I think there are different kinds of people. Usually the communities are blamed for all the environmental ills. They are poachers, deforesters or whatever. But environmental destruction, if I can give the Kenyan case, if we look at the 1990s,  was more of a government-driven initiative. A failure of government by opening up forests and dishing out land to people. This was one of the things Wangari Maathai was fighting for. Government’s failure to enhance or oversee or manage, because you know, these are public spaces, and so they should be accessible to the public, first and foremost. But if the government is the one that is grabbing the land or allocating the land  to individuals or to communities as well in order to mobilise votes, then who is to blame, who is to bear more responsibility? I think all sides bear responsibility. But, if you are a government and you have been given a responsibility to oversee, then I think you should take more responsibility.

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Shores of Lake Malawi

GDApart from governments, who else?

GKB: Conservation in Africa remains a very colonial discipline or colonial undertaking. Who makes conservation decisions on Africa’s landscape? Not even African governments. It is tightly controlled by international organisations. It is tightly controlled by researchers. It is tightly controlled by the philanthropists and philanthrocapitalists.

GDThat is an interesting term, philathro-capitalists. Can you explain, please?

GKB: [laughing] People who are seen to be benevolent but really they are just furthering the capitalist agenda of more accumulation of wealth. So, I am dissatisfied with the place of Africans in conservation generally. I feel like the people who drive the agenda of conservation and environmental protection are organisations who have the say, governments seem to be following what conservation organisations say, and not so much what the communities say although at times the communities can also get support from international organisations against destructive environmental governmental policies.

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Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  So, is there a dichotomy between international organisations that are pro or against?

GKB: I think it is not that. The point is whichever way you look at it, the international organisations still wield a lot of power even if they are supporting communities the government is going to listen to them more because they wield a lot of power. If they are supporting government against communities, the government would listen to them because they still wield a lot of power. So, it speaks to the asymmetrical nature and matrix of power that exists in our world today.

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Ilingwesi community lodge, Laikipia, Kenya

GD: What solutions do you propose or suggest to solve this problem?

GKB: I think, the conservation community, as I said at the beginning, seems to be seeing the light if you could say that, because, if I may use Kenya again as an example, in terms of forest governance there is a new legislation passed in 2005, which now recognizes the role of communities in forest governance because these protected spaces are large protected spaces, hundreds and thousands of hectares surrounded by people and communities. So, historically, you would have people with guns, forest law enforcement officers, how many of those people do you need to man a 100,000-hectare property for 24 hours? People would still infiltrate into these spaces. So, the discourse is changing. Now, you need to work with people who are living outside and around these spaces in creating management regimes where everyone feels like they are benefiting from these landscapes.  I think that is a good thing.

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Kalacha, northern Kenya

GD:  In which ways do you think this would help?

GKB: I think it just needs more enforcement and support. And, the other thing in conservation agendas is the recognition of indigenous communities’ conservation areas (ICCAs). These are places managed purely by communities and these are the oldest forms of conservation spaces in the world. Again, it pints to that aspect of communities being taught conservation. These people have been doing conservation thousands of years. So, the  recognition of ICCAs is an endorsement that communities do not need to be formatted, to have their brains formatted so they can be taught conservation. Also, more respectful collaboration between different agencies or players in the conservation industry be it government, non-governmental organisations, or researchers, as I said, those with power and those with less power. So it is more of how do you make that equitable or how do you create spaces where there is mutual exchange and benefit such that it is not only one group benefiting or certain people lording over the other group of people

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Ilingwesi, Laikipia, Kenya

GD:  Do you anticipate any challenges in implementation?

GKB: Of course there would be implementation problems, but if people are keen on solving a problem… problems get resolved when people decide to engage and work together and cede power and have common goals and well-thought agendas that are inclusive of everybody. Not that there would not be challenges, but you will find a way of working around them.

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Gabbra peoples’ (northern Kenya) architecture

GD: What special considerations would you propose?

GBK007: I would suggest a high degree of inclusivity. Again, as I said, a lot of communities living around these conservation spaces are highly marginalised especially the big conservation landscapes we have on the African continent are still seen as a problem and not an asset and that is because of poor engagement and powerful people  destituting communities.

GD: Thank you very much for your time.

GKB: My pleasure. I hope I was able to answer your questions.

GD: Yes, thank you. I have learnt a lot.

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Samburu women, Kenya

Note: The title of this blog post”Saving Africa from Africans” has been borrowed from a a paper by  Robert H. Nelson  on the same subject. You can read the paper here.

See another conversation about conservation in Africa here.