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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Reading ‘The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General’

I first heard about this book via an interview that Jeff Koinange conducted with the author Laura Huttenbach on, KTN, I believe. I am generally interested in Kenya Land Freedom Army  (Mau Mau) struggle for self-determination, and would like to understand it from from different perspectives. Most of the books I had read at that point were centred around Gikuyu Mau Mau guerillas. This was, therefore, a welcome addition because it was telling the story of General Nkungi, Japhlet Thambu, a Meru guerilla. General Nkungi narrates his story from his childhood through to old age, but lays emphasis on the advent of colonialism and the Mau Mau struggle for independence.

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  1. We got mixed up!

One of the striking threads of his story (as is the case with many biographies that juxtapose the pre-colonial and colonial period), is the discussion around dismantling of African cultural infrastructure and ways of being.  The General recalls that:

My mother was the one to tell the local women when to plant. She got permission from God, and then she planted. She knew when it will be the time of rain. Women would never plant before she planted. When the missionaries came, they said this was an evil thing. All our good things were called evil. Oh- they cut down our lovely trees, our sacred churches. The Christian people spoiled our wonderful environment. They said, “There is no God there. Do not believe in that tree or whatever is is. We will clear each and everywhere”. Our sacred place was changed by the new religion,. Instead of studying and knowing what we were doing, missionaries imposed completely everything. They did not want to know. They said we had to turn away and leave everything. We had to follow them. Everything of ours was dirty and evil. We lost our connectivity – the traditions – that gathered and joined us together. We got mixed up.

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I like the way he puts it. We got mixed up. Yaani, tulichanganyikiwa! This is a very good metaphor of the impact of colonialism on African peoples. Their cultures were uprooted and dumped into the rubbish heap, and the people were left asking – who are we? To be Christian, it appears, is to completely let go of all your heritage that defines your humanity and that helps locate you in your landscape. In this case, the culture was tied to food production systems, ecological cycles, communication with the divine, and harmony between the environment and people. Missionaries dismantle and dismember all of this, and as Wangari Maathai writes in ‘The Challenge for Africa’:

When communities were told that their culture was demonic and primitive, they lost their sense of collective power and responsibility and succumbed, not to the god of love and compassion they knew, but the gods of commercialism, materialism, and individualism. The result was an expanding impoverishment, with the peoples’ granaries and stomachs as empty as their souls.

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2. The Nothing Culture!

Following the same train of thought that Wangari Maathai articulates above, the General argues that the long term effect of colonialism is that the people ended up with what he refers to as “the nothing culture”

But the missionaries told us that each and everything was sinful. They said it’s not civilized, its not a good thing – it’s evil, as it does not relate to western civilization. Our people who were Athome, the Christians, they left the custom of our people and cleared {away} all the tradition we were carrying. They think whatever was done was primitive. They have been bent  in the Christianity way, where they had very little learning concerning our country’s [Meru] culture. They read from the book but not from our tradition. They refused to pray to our God on Kirinyaga. They have known another God whom we do not see, neither do we know where He lives. They said He lives in heaven. In our area people ran away from our nice culture with no system and no good leader. We took this white culture in a very wrong way. We did not even know their culture. We mixed our own culture and the other one, and something new came out. Nobody can tell which it is. It is not European culture, not Kimeru Culture – I do not know. We call it “nothing culture”.

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A people without a cultural/heritage foundation can be bent into all different directions and blown away by the wind. Culture gives a people a sense of clarity or direction and unity of purporse. With the avdent of myriad Christian denominations, the Ameru people became  methodists, catholics, presbyterians, etc. How many people know of the very democratic Ameru people’s governance systems and other systems of societal organization. Christianity reinforces the belief that there was nothing and no thought proccess before the coming of missionaries. That Africans were just a howling mass of people groping in the darkness. How many people recall the revolutionary resistance of the Ameru people to oppression from Mbwaa (Manda Island), where they were enslaved by the Nguu Ntune/Arabs?

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3. British Colonial Corruption

There is a pervasive belief that the so-called white people are not or cannot be corrupt. I love history so much, because it helps dismantle those kinds of myths and arms us with the tools to treat those beliefs with the contempt that they deserve. There is also a misguided belief that Africans were better off under colonialism. Needless to say, this position is informed by a lack of proper engagement or understanding of the destructive legacy of colonialism. Listen to general as he describes the ins and outs of British filthy corruption:

In January I started  work in Meru at the cereal board as assistant to the European marketing officer, Mr. Cross. We had cereal boards to control our produce – maize, beans, peas, chai, grains, millet. All produce was controlled. We had to sell it to the cereal board, and then the cereal board sold it to the brokers to distribute it. The market was for the Europeans because they pay you for the produce, but they never let you know they prices that they are selling. So the farmer brings the produce to the cereal board, and there are a lot of charges. You have to pay the inspection fees, whatever fees, then you get a very low price. Big trucks owned by Indians will come and collect the produce and drive it to Mombasa…You find a European in every situation, They are manning the produce in the stores. A farmer can never sell it direct to the buyer, no. You could never pass through a barrier even with a tin of that produce unless you have a letter from the boss at the cereal board, because they didn’t want anybody to interfere with the market they are selling those things. This was very direct corruption.

It is not very hard to see that this system of farmer exploitation has remained intact, especially in the production of cash crops like tea and coffee.

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4. Land dispossession and political awkening and on being “Mbaya sana”

The main grievances put forward by Africans were the loss of land to white settlers and loss of freedom. To put it bluntly, Africans were enslaved on their own land, because they had to work on settler farms to raise money to pay the plethora of taxes that were imposed by the colonial government. When both World Wars Broke out, the British mobilized their colonial subject to go and fight in far off lands. The experiences of these Africans in the wars sparked their political awakening. They started asking questions like: Why am I fighting? Should I be caught up fighting European wars or fighting for my own liberation back home? Whites are not that superior, are they? After all, they are here murdering one another, right?  The General illuminates the scenario.

In Meru we had a DC called Bwana Johnston, but we called him Bithumbi because he has floppy bangs [that] hung over his face. Bwana Johnston had been in the army. Before the war, and African could never ask a question in a meeting. But after, people started asking questions in Bwana Johnston’s meetings. When somebody wanted to ask ask question, the DC would say, “Have you been in the military”?  If the person said yes then Bwana Johnston would say, “No. Sit down. Somebody else who was not in the army can ask a question, but not you. You are Mbaya sana. ” He had know those words in Swahili: Mbaya sana [very bad].

In addition:

Because of that mzungu, our while age group name was changed. The name which our fathers gave to us was Gwantai. But because it was our group who fought in the war, it got changed to Mbaya. Our old name got lost, and we were Mbaya. We liked being called Mbaya sana. We were proud because we knew what it meant.

Mau Mau Getty

5. The Mau Mau war – the forest as an arena for self-determination

The General eventually joined the Mau Mau in the forests and mobilized his compatriots to fight for the land that had been stolen by both the British settlers and missionaries. When the British learnt about his involvement int he revolt, all his coffee trees uprooted and burned.  His timber house was demolished. This was brutal economic sabotage. This is how poverty among Mau Mau guerillas got entrenched, because while they were fighting in the forest, the collaborators and colonizers were plundering their land, crops, livestock, etc. So how did they survive in the forest and what kept them going?

We were sharing the forest with animals. Even Mwariama was in the forest of  [what is today] Meru National Park, living with the very furious animals – lions and leopards – but still those animals were far better to deal with than the British, because those animals could give us meat.

Further:

In the forest I kept away from any thinking of my children and family. I was only thinking of the people who we are fighting. We were claiming our land from Europeans. That was the agenda. If you are shot, before you die, you are to scoop some soil and put it in your mouth. That is to say that you are dying because of that soil. You are innocent. And you can never cry. Never. When you are shot, you die without noise. You die without committing any wrong. You did not go to the forest because you wanted to kill anybody, but you were against the people who took your land. That’s the only be belief we put in our head. If you can get soil in your mouth before you die, you have won. You are free now.

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When the general was captured, he was thrust into one of these concentration camps.

5. Betrayal by “Black Europeans”

The Mau Mau referred to loyalists and collaborators as “Black Europeans.” To be called so was nothing to be proud of. This was a word imbued with disdain. The Mau Mau fought bravely. They gave their all and remained committed to the ideals of African freedom and dignity to the very end. But the cancer of betrayal lives amongst us. In the end loyalists and collaborators ended up enjoying “matunda ya uhuru. Total betrayal. Is there a God out there who listens to the cry of the oppressed and their descendants?  As the general painfully recalls:

The original people who occupied the land are thinking: You chased me from this land, and you paid nothing to me. You put your cattle on the land, occupied it, whatever you did. I ran away because you chased me away. I was fearing you because of power. Now you want to leave the Shamba, but you sold it to somebody, not me. Instead of the land going back to the original people , “black Europeans”  came in and took all the lands. When the mzungu left, another black man became mzungu.

#NotyetUhuru!

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Image source: antiimperialism.org

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s philosophy on development & capitalism

Development is one of those words that has been used to dehumanize Africans and other global southerners over the years. Think about terminology like: Developing Countries, Least Developed Countries, Underdeveloped Countries, Developed Countries, and if I may add, OVERDEVELOPED Countries! Development is also a word that is used to de-politicize poverty. There is a profession called ‘Development worker’! There is even a discipline called “Development Studies”! What is development? Who is developing who? Who gets to define who is developed and who is not? What if the developed one is the cause of underdevelopment in the underdeveloped one?

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I have been reading a bit of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of late and I really like his thinking around development and capitalism.  I will share some of his thoughts below.

Our struggles for independence were national struggles, involving the rights of all the inhabitants. We were not aiming to replace our alien rulers by local privileged elites, but to create societies which ensure human dignity and respect for all. The concomitant of that is that every individual has the right to the maximum economic and political freedom which is compatible with equal freedom for all others; and that neither well-fed slavery nor the necessity to beg for subsistence are acceptable human conditions.

Absolutely. We have a very serious situation in Africa today. We have colonizers who look like us. Black skins white masks  a la Franz Fanon! Most countries are still designed around the extractive logic implanted on the continent during the colonial occupation 1.0. Now in colonialism 2.0 we are quickly realizing that nothing much has changed. We are still enslaved! We are still in the plantation! Our African leaders have become both participants in the new economic order and we remain at the bottom of the racial caste system around which this world is structured. This is not the kind of development that MJN was dreaming about and working towards.

Nyerere Getty

In practice Thirds World Nations cannot become developed capitalist societies without surrendering the reality of their freedom and without accepting a degree of inequality between their citizens which would deny the moral validity of our independence struggle. I will argue that our present poverty and national weakness make socialism the rational choice for us. Under capitalism, money is king. He who owns wealth owns also power.

This was written in the 60’s in his text ‘Man and development’. Is it not a prophecy? Which African country is a capitalist nation? Some of them, like Kenya Colony brag about being capitalists and look down upon neighbouring countries like Tanzania and Uganda, but all we see there is an ogre-fest where those two-mouthed ogres that had a mouth both at the front and the back and ate using both, as told in African stories, dominate and devour everything and everyone on the landscape. Where is the critical mass of African capitalists to be found? Who owns the mines in Africa? Who owns the land? Who owns plantations of various crops that Africa grows to feed Europe? Who owns the water? Who owns African bodies? Kenya colony, a delf-declared capitalist country, recently imported doctors from a socialist country (Cuba), after collapsing its healthcare system. How do you explain that?

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By the way, a note on ‘Third World’ – This terminology was created during the stupid cold war and literally meant countries that were neutral – not aligned to either of the two waring sides. Today it is synonymous with underdevelopment and poverty. Hail to all my fellow third worlders! Moving on…

Capitalism is a fighting system. Each capitalist enterprise survives by successfully fighting other capitalist enterprises. And the capitalist system as a whole survives by expanding, that is, by extending its area of operations and in the process eradicating all restraints upon it, and in the process eradicating all restraints upon it, and all weaker systems of society.

In other words, capitalism is war. That is why countries that claim to be capitalist like Kenya colony are oozing with violence from every pore!

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Third World capitalism would have no choice except to co-operate with external capitalism, as a very junior partner. Otherwise it would be strangled at birth. You cannot develop capitalism in our countries without foreign capitalists, their money and their management expertise. And these foreign capitalists will invest in Third World Countries only if, when, and to the extent that, they are convinced that to do so would be more profitable to them than any other investments. Development through capitalisism therefore means that we Third world nations have to meet conditions laid by others – by capitalists in other countries. And if we agree to their conditions, we would have to continue to be guided by them or face the threat of the new enterprises being run down, of money and skills being withdrawn, and of other economic sanctions being applied against us.

Enter IMF (What Nyerere referred to as the International Ministry of Finance) and the World Bank and other Lords of Poverty! Is there any African country that does not operate like this? People in the tech world in Kenya colony have been talking about how the industry is dominated by white people. Alas! Who has the capital? People (incl yours truly) in my beloved field of conservation have been talking about the white capture of conservation. Africa remains an appendage of the west because African leaders have refused to imagine other ways of structuring their economies.  With capitalism the global south just becomes a subsidiary. Capitalism entails a fight between capitalists themselves and also between capitalists and workers.

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The exploitation of the masses is, in fact, the basis on which capitalism has won the accolade fro having solved the problem of production. There is no other basis on which it can operate. For if the workers ever succeeded in obtaining the full benefits of their industry, then the capitalists would receive no profit and would close down the enterprise.

Capitalism cannot operate without exploitation. There has to be an exploiter and the exploited. If you are economically weak, you are the exploited.  Nyerere tried a different system in Tanzania, but was severely sabotaged by western capitalists. While there were inherent weaknesses in the system itself, a fact, he fully agrees with, we cannot overlooking or downplay the influence of the west on the collapse of the Tanzanian model – Doing so would be tantamount to being ahistorical.

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In so-called capitalist countries extreme wealth and poverty walk hand in hand. Nyerere provides this example:

Look at the developed capitalist societies. Then we can see malnutrition among the people of the Apalachian mountains and of Harlem contrasted with the gadgetry of suburbarn America; or in Britain we can see the problem of homelessness while colour television sets are produced endlessly; and in the same societies we can observe the small resources devoted to things like education and health for the people as compared with those spent to satisfy the inessential desires of the minority.

Proliferation of fast-foods and other western-culture-inspired goodies is considered a sign of development in many African countries. It is seen as a step towards ascending to modernity (read being white or whitening their darkness). Spending huge sums on elections when citizens lack water and food is capitalism or stupidity? Paying politicians huge salaries when there is no medicine in hospitals or books in schools is capitalism or open thuggery? Clear-cutting forests to grow flowers for Europe, diverting water from rivers to irrigate flowers and other horticultural produce for export to Europe  is capitalism  or sheer plunder of people and their environments?

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Capitalists and pseudo-capitalists are to be heard bragging about how their GDP is growing and how they want to achieve double-digit GDP-oriented economic growth. You can sell heroine and other drugs and grow your GDP, you can traffic human beings, ivory, and other animal products and still grow your GDP. You can blow up all the mountains, clear-cut forests, poison all the water and still grow your GDP.  Mwalimu sums it up nicely:

A successful harlot, or a favoured slave, may be better off materially than a woman who refuses to sell her body, or a man to sell his freedom. We do not regard the condition of the harlot or slave as being consequently enviable – unless, of course, we are starving, and even then we recognize the possible amelioration in our circumstances as being uncertain and insecure.

Question: If we look back to human origins – who told Homo-habilis, Homo-erectus and previous groups that they were underdeveloped and needed to develop to Homo-sapiens? I thought they just figured it out and adapted to, and innovated within their environments, to best use available resources. If that is the case, is it possible to develop another person or for a country to develop another one? The answer must be NO. The development industry is a SCAM!

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The philosophy of Wangari Maathai: Why we should all be Wangari-ists

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Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons. Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has its roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from out roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all who have had success that we cannot forget where we come from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand.

I have chosen to open the blog with this excerpt from Wangari Maathai’s memoir ‘Unbowed‘ because, I feel, it sets the scene for the forthcoming arguments about WM’s philosophy. Much of her work is understood through the entry point of trees and ecological restoration, but she is a multi-dimensional individual. I want to share what I understand as her philosophy, and make a case for why we should all be Wangari-ists. These views are informed by substantial engagement with her four texts: Unbowed: One Woman’s story, The challenge for Africa, Replenishing the earth, and the Green Belt Movement. In addition, they are informed by engagement with communities  & staff that worked with her during her efforts to restore degraded forest lands – this was through the course of my doctoral research in the Nyandarwa landscape.

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Following are some of the key defining elements of Wangari Maathai’s philosophy. Of course, you can analyze her thought from many other dimensions, but these are those that stick out for me.

  1. A deep environmental consciousness that is grounded in indigenous knowledge systems 

WM locates her story at the foothills of  Kirinyaga  where she was born. Kirinyaga  was later renamed Mt. Kenya  during the colonial era/error. The mountain was and is considered sacred by the Agikuyu people, the community to which she belongs. She details how the mountain served an anchor to the community because “everything good came for it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. Whether they were praying, burying their dead, or performing sacrifices, Kikuyus faced Mt. Kenya, and when they built their houses, they made sure the doors looked towards it.” She argues that these communal ecological linkages with land and landscape were dismantled by the destructive legacy of colonialism. She provides a poignant example of the Mugumo tree, which is also considered sacred by the Agikuyu people. When she was growing up, her mother told her that the Mugumo was a tree of God and it was was to be treated with utmost respect. Upon her return from the USA for her studies, she found that the Mugumo tree near their home had been cut and a church erected in its place!  She concludes that this is how “hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress.” These and other experiences that were linked to Agikuyu indigenous environmental thought informed her future community-driven ecological restoration and societal reconstruction works.

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Source: New York Times

Anecdote: A person who worked with Prof. Maathai told me that a Mugumo tree that was situated at the Green Belt Movement offices fell when she died in 2011. Nobody dared touch it!

2. A recognition of history as a weapon in social justice struggles 

This is tied to no 1 above because, I believe, history and indigenous knowledge systems are related. Throughout her texts and work, she engages with and reaches back into history to understand the present day struggles and triumphs. In ‘The challenge for Africa‘ she embarks in a thorough deconstruction and reconstruction of the history of the brutal slave trade, colonial occupation, and neo-colonial encirclement and links them with the destruction of Africa’s cultural infrastructure, humanity and associated livelihoods. One of her best examples of use of history as a weapon is during the struggle to save Karura forest from land grabbers and the Moi regime. At the height of her brutalization  by the state she said: This is our land! Our forefathers fought for this land. This is my blood! This is the blood of Waiyaki wa Hinga. We will not dignify theft. Now, recall that Karura forest actually exists because of application of indigenous knowledge systems. The elders who owned both Karura and city park forests left a death-bed curse and said that those forests should not be destroyed and they should contain indigenous tree species. When the colonial government took over, they established plantation forests there, essentially desecrating the landscape. Back to WM: She memorialized Waiyaki wa Hinga at the height of this struggle. Waiyaki wa a Gikuyu elder who was captured by the British and buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi. He was later transformed into a martyr for the nationalist cause during the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau) struggle for self determination. Emotive songs of protest featuring Waiyaki were sung to memorialize his humiliation, as well as to galvanize the struggle.  Songs with these lyrics were sung widely:

Wiyaki’s war was the first one!

Waiyaki called them and asked them!

You are letting all the land be taken away

What will your children inherit? 

When WM invoked Waiyaki wa Hinga, she located the struggle to save Karura in history. She remembered. She used memory to link the past, the present, and the future. The struggle to claim Karura from the sleazy tentacles of land grabbers was to be of benefit to all future generations. Karura stands today as a testament of  and an immortalization of that sustained struggle.

Waiyaki

Wanagri Karura
Hired youth confront WM with bows, arrows and other weapons. Picture: Daily Nation
Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai dead at 71
WM is carried by other women after being brutalized by the state and state operatives. Picture: Kenya Talks

3. Community mobilization as a critical ingredient for liberation of African peoples 

Unbowed was the first of WM’s books that I read.  While attending a course in Rome, I met an Inidan colleague who was reading WM’s ‘The Challenge for Africa‘. I had seen the book in the book shops, but I thought it was another book whose focus would be on telling us what is wrong with Africa. At that point I had already been bombarded with too much of that, so I did not buy it. I asked my colleague why she was reading it and she said that she was going to be doing some work in Africa and wanted to get a better understanding of the continent. I decided to borrow her book  and give it a quick look. I was still quite skeptical at this point. I read the description at the back and thought: not bad. Then  I started reading chapter 1: The farmer in Yaounde. I was hooked! She tells a story of a farmer who she saw cultivating up and down the slope in Yaounde. At that time, she was in a hotel for a conference and observing the farmer from there. She tells the story beautifully and compellingly and finally argues that ” how many even see farmers such as the ones I saw that day? Shuttled from hotel to conference centre and back in luxury cars, accustomed to high powered meetings with donor or officials, many policy makers may not take the time to recognize how hard the people of Africa are working to make a living in circumstances that are getting more difficult, day after weary day….it is on the hillsides like these and with women that we must work. That’s where those of us concerned about the fate of Africa and her citizens must focus our energies, for it is where the vast majority of Africa’s peoples are, and it is with their lives that we must engage.”

WM Planting trees
Picture: Elephant Journal

4. Environmental issues cannot be divorced from governance, politics, and leadership discourse in Africa

Some people in the CONservation arena in Africa believe that it is not important to engage with politics/governance, because that is too HARD or DIRTY. But, what is not affected by politics and governance? Establishing small enclaves and fencing them off does not separate those enclaves from the larger landscape and associated governance challenges. Through her work with the Green Belt Movement, WM demonstrated that governance and politics are central issues in understanding governance, resisting mis-governance, and cultivating good leadership. The struggle to protect Uhuru Park,  Karura, Jevanjee gardens, Ngong forest, Mt. Kenya, Mau, Nyandarwa forests are all tied to governance, stinky bad politics, and pathetic leadership, where the state presides over the destruction of the environment on which its citizenry is so directly dependent. Leadership and governance remain Africa’s primary challenges- in my view.  We are now seeing a new scramble for Africa via China and others. To this end, WM’s words are instructive: In the past, people entered Africa by force. These days, they come with similarly lethal packages, but they are camouflaged attractively to persuade Africa’s leaders and peoples to cooperate. Of course, such packages are eye-catching to many African governments , not least because they may be free of “conditionalities,” such as respect for human rights, protection of the environment, and promotion of equity. She makes a case for studying Africa’s pre-colonial governance and leadership systems and applying them to develop robust political systems that serve the needs of African peoples.

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5. Calling out the hypocricy of the West, understanding the foundation of white supremacy and racism

In my experience, foreign diplomats and businessmen speak politely when African leaders are present. In the quiet of their boardrooms and embassies, however, I’m sure they know all too well when the leaders with whom they conduct business are not doing right by their people. If their own leaders are doing the same things, they would be chastising them. 

Who can argue with this? Hyprocisy reigns in the extractive relationship between Africa and the the west. In the end, those who suffer are African peoples. The other day I was thinking: Is there any western nation that has shut down its mines in the DRC because it insecure and there is war? War, chaos, poverty are necessary for the west and others to flourish in Africa. Who manufactures and sells weapons of war? In her memoir she details her experiences with race and racism in the USA, including a time when a hotel refused to serve them drinks because they are “Black”. She describes her experiences growing up in a settlers farm in the Rift Valley where her father was a squatter. She observed how poverty of the African population was systematically entrenched through amongst others, the use of marketing boards, through which the Africans could sell their produce at a pre-determined price. One day he father was working in Mr. Nelyan’s Compound. She went to see him there and found herself close to Nelyan’s daughter’s room: Through an open door I saw a compartment full of clothes. More than 20 dresses must have been inside…”how can anybody have so many dresses?” I asked myself. It was as many dresses as I had seen in my whole life. At that time, I think I had two dresses, maybe three. Africans must study and understand white supremacy. They must understand and engage with race and racism. Shying away from these issues does not help us understand the assymetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. You can not solve a problem that you do not understand. Also, you cannot be the doctor if you are the disease.

Debt

 

6. Peace and conflict resolution – trees as an entry point

This ties up to the quote used at the beginning of this blog post. Throughout her work, WM structured her work around the tree, starting with the seed, to the seedling, all the way to fully grown tree. She encouraged communities that were in conflict to plant peace trees, again drawing from the well of African indigenous knowledge systems and environmental consciousness. The other dimensions of conflict were tied to environmental governance in the sense that if the environment is in good condition, then there would be less conflict over resources such as land, pasture, water, etc. How many African leaders understand this?

 

WM dig a hole

7. Transformative education

WM believed that education should be geared towards solving societal challenges and creating more robust societies. She is probably one of the leading  African scholars who used her scholarship and education for social transformation. In my view, one of her greatest accomplishments is changing people’s minds/transforming the way people thought about the forest and associated resources. Over the course of my research, I met elders and other community members who would say to me: WM helped me understand myself, she taught me that self-knowledge is very important, she also made me realize that the forest is mine and I should take care of it. Thus, her work helped to raise consciousness. It is very easy to build large infrastructure and other kinds of “projects”, but transforming the way people think has got to be the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Regarding education she had this to say:

Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost.

Little thing

8. Recognizing one’s mistakes, failures and weaknesses 

I really like people who recognize and document their mistakes. When WM was the Member of Parliarment for Tetu, she encountered difficulties in managing the Constituency Development Fund. This was more a clash of ideologies – she believed that people who served in commitees or who came for meetings should not receive compensation because they were doing this work for the common good. On the flipside, the people believed that they deserved to be compensated for their time. She writes:

Although I believe strongly in the value of service…most people in Tetu are poor. Leaving their fields, putting aside work on their small businesses, or finding someone to look after their children in order to attend a commitee meeting was a big sacrifice. Several expressed their dissatisfaction….If I had to do it again, I would try to find a way to compensate those who served in committees.

Mugumo tree
Mugumo tree: Picture: Eburu TV

9. Spirituality and environmentalism

In ‘Replenishing the earth’ she draws on the religious texts and other verbal spiritual traditions of the world, to make a case of caring for the earth so that in return it cares for us. Infact, she argues that spiritual values, more than science and data, might be the true catalysts in solving global environmental challenges such as climate change. What if we all applied spiritual values of caring for one another, showing compassion, cultivating love, forgiveness, recompense, justice…instead of selfish values of plundering the earth and each other?  She calls for a REVOLUTION OF ETHICS among African peoples, and I would extend it to all other peoples’ of the world.

I call for Africans to discover and embrace their linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity not only so their nation-states can move forward politically and economically but so that they may heal a psyche wound by denial of who they are…It is they who must begin a revolution in ethics that puts community before individualism, public good before private greed and commitment to service before cynicism and despair.

Note: she also challenges the practices of religions, e.g., in Christianity where the clergy want to live off the poor, and in fact encourage the practice of earth plunder so as to give tithes and offerings. She gives an example of where a woman cuts a tree and sells it in order to go and give tithes in church.

Mt. Kenya
Kirinyaga/Mt. Kenya

10. I will be a hummingbird!

This one is best illustrated in this film. It centres around doing the best you can. Doing the little you can. Acting locally. Do not be overwhelmed. I also think of it as being relentless, like a Mosquito! Those who have spent a night with a mosquito will tell you that a small insect/small action can make you change or think differently. Be a humming bird! Be a mosquito!

I will be a hummingbird

So, there you have it. Do you need more convincing? You should be a Wangari-ist because:

  1. She thought in multi-dimensional ways, was a Pan-Africanist, embraced complexity in tackling environmental issues
  2. She believed in the power of African peoples and their knowledge systems
  3. She was not ashamed of her culture/heritage – infact, she used it as a tool for liberation
  4. She embraced her womanhood with all its struggles. Infact, she called for African women to be emancipated from silence
  5. She was a hummingbird and mosquito all rolled into one.

aburi park

 

 

Colonial Christianity has made Africa(ns) stupid

Ah, let it be said:Colonial Christianity(CC) has made Africans stupid! Before any Christians and Christian fundamentalists get too upset, let me add myself to the group of Africans who have been stupefied by Christianity. I think anybody who has come into contact with Christianity has had their intellectual capacity interfered with. But let us look at some examples. How has CC stupefied Africans?

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Women in Nigeria in a church. Image source: Pulitzer 

1. CC is the greatest force in the weakening of African cultural infrastructure. When missionaries came to Africa, they told Africans that ALL their cultures are primitive, raw, and uncooked. That in order to get civilized, they had to abandon all their cultures completely, otherwise they would not be admitted to heaven. The result? Destruction of cultural systems, philosophies that guided African life, knowledge that helped them navigate their respective environments, and so on. A Christian believes that nothing else matters other than Jesus and the Bible. That book has destroyed Africans’ minds. In her book, ‘The Challenge for Africa’, Wangari Maathai argues that de-culturation is one of the most serious challenges in Africa, but it is not closely examined because it is overtaken by other challenges which take a political or economic angle. If you examine those closely, you will see that they are related to culture.

Media takeout
                          When Ugandan’s hired a white man to play Jesus during Easter.                                          Image source:  Mediatakeout.com

2. Africans are quite happy to buy into the Biblical garden of Eden creation story of origin, and to rubbish all their various stories of origin as primitive. In the garden of Eden story, the woman allegedly fed a ‘forbidden fruit’ (depicted as an apple in CC literature) to a man, who had no self-control, which then set human downfall into motion. Of course, that has been used to entrench patriarchy and subjugation of women, but let me stick with how this has made Africans stupid. How many Africans have ever eaten an apple? How many Africans grow apples? This is just like teaching children the alphabet using A for Apple. This is alienating. Many African stories of origin are packed with teachings, with philosophies that grounded human beings in their respective environments, they featured trees, water bodies, mountains, valleys, etc. So, from a young age, an African child could understand environmental complexity and reverence through these stories. Now we have garden of Eden. Where is this garden? Nobody knows. Even people who live in very arid and semi-arid environments are forced into a paradigm of thinking of lush gardens. Stupefied! I mentioned the other day that Christians in Igboland, Nigeria were destroying trees, which are said to be shrines. The continent is ravaged by climate change. And Africans are cutting trees instead of planting? This is STOOOPPPIID!

Climate change
Image source: UN.org

3. African cultural forms of expression such as song, dance, performance, sayings, and other forms were an integral part of their lives – before the encounter with missionaries/colonisers. When missionaries came, they said all this is sinful and the dances were lascivious. There were songs about planting, harvesting, songs for new-born children, songs for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, wedding songs, funeral songs, etc. A rich repertoire packed with knowledge and power. Now, Africans only sing about Jesus! When they want to celebrate something, they sing about Jesus. Jesus has captured and brainwashed Africans. He has been made to be the only person worth composing songs about;Jesus and politicians are the only ones who now get songs composed about them. In many African liberation struggles, the use of song was a critical ingredient in resisting oppression. Now the power of the African mind had been diminished by only creating songs about Jesus. I once asked an elder to sing for me some songs, that they would sing at various stages in life. Her response: Oh I forgot my child, our songs were wiped out by the church! Don’t you think CC has reduced the intellectual capacity of Africans? CC makes Africans think of African culture as sinful. Everything is a sin. Singing your songs is a sin, dancing is a sin. Even children are said to have sinned and have to constantly pray for forgiveness of their sins. What sins have children committed? Stupidity galore! Infact, they have to be baptized to remove something known as “the original sin”.

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I took this picture at the Museum in Livingstone, Zambia.  By chance, I met a rastafarian on the streets – we go talking and he told me that some Zambians will not go to the hospital or take medicine when they get sick  – they will go to church instead. Of course, they think he is evil, because he keeps dreadlocks. A few years ago, Zambia held national prayers because there were a lot of power cuts/no electricity.  Whichever way you look at it, that is the opposite of clever. 

4. Every religion is shaped by the environmental context from which it emerges. The Bible makes reference to cedars, palms, olives, and so on. Do olives grow in most of Africa? The first time I saw an Olive tree was in Morocco. So, why should somebody in Lesotho be forced to think about olives and to recite bible verses that make reference to them? That is stupefying!

Olive trees
Olive trees: Image source: Borges

5. Christianity is associated with so much injustice – the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonial encirclement, extraction of resources, and so on and so forth, but Africans are the greatest defenders of Christianity. How come? Is it because it has made Africans stupid? The most intolerant people you will ever meet are Christians – especially, the ‘born again’ variety. Kenyan Christians massacred other Christians in a church during the post-election violence. During the Rwandese genocide Christians massacred other Christians in Churches. But today, churches in both contexts are packed with Africans. Why? Is it because Christianity hinders critical thought?

Owuor
Image source: Kenya News Alert TV/YouTube

6. According to Christianity, when you commit a sin, you are supposed to confess. If you are a Catholic, you whisper your sins to a priest, always a man (the Catholic church is the epicentre of patriarchy), and if you are a protestant you yell and make noise and ask for God’s forgiveness. So, a politician who has stolen public resources, impoverished the poor, made their lives a living nightmare, caused the death of some, can just ask for forgiveness, and will be forgiven – just like that. Then they will meet in heaven with the poor person he impoverished, and dance forever with the white angels in the streets of gold. I saw someone asking – where is the gold in heaven mined from? It must be from Africa. But, back to the point I wanted to make. I wanted to say that Christianity is a Zero sum game for Africans. Nobody has suffered more because of Christianity than the poor, who have to support the lavish lifestyle of the politician that I have mentioned above, and the lavish lifestyle of the clergy. Both of these two groups of people live off the sweat of the poor – one via taxes, and the other one via sadaka/offerings. It appears that the Christian God does not see the gross injustice meted to the poor and oppressed.

World Vision
Image source: World Vision

7. In Kenya, politicians are very happy to contribute to building more churches. We have more churches than schools and hospitals put together. I wonder if they would be as enthusiastic to contribute to building a library. Politicians are happy to contribute to churches, because the church will keep the flock so mystified and hypnotized and in utopia, that they will not have time to think about where or how their taxes are used. And the church is used as a platform to launder stolen funds. In that way, the church becomes a tool of oppression. But since you are so busy praising Jesus and God, you cannot see it. Our treasures are laid in heaven, this world is not our home, we are just passing by! Stooopid!

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8.Is the Christian God deaf?? I saw somebody ask this on facebook. Missionaries depicted the Christian God as a white old man, with a big long-white-beard. This man must be deaf. Why do Christians have to make so much noise? Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer tweeted how she could not work because of noise from a church near her home. She is not alone! Churches are everywhere – in residential areas, in the city centre, in the markets, in public transport – everywhere! And because the Christian God is deaf, they have to yell – with loud speakers and loud music systems. They do not care if people are sleeping, if people are sick, if people are working, if people just want peace and quiet – they just do not care. Jesus must be praised-day and night. A person who does not care about others is a stupid person. Again, I ask, why is Christianity associated with so much injustice?

Pastor insecticide the standard
This pastor from South Africa told his congregants that if he sprayed them with this substance, he would heal them of Hiv/Aids and Cancer.  Image source: The Standard

 

9. I think I mentioned that the Bible has destroyed Africans’ minds, right? There is a group of Africans who we should call ‘the Bible says Africans’. Every time they want to make a point, and by point, I mean to justify oppression or to justify timidity, they will invoke some Bible verses. Why can’t Africans read other books? The Bible for Africans should be Franz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth‘ or any other book of that stature. I was speaking to an African the other day, and they were telling me that the reason why poor people are so exploited by the church is because, “they are not educated”. I do not think so. Aside: women are severely exploited and abused by the church- there are videos circulating around Facebook and other forums of pastors molesting women (touching their bodies, so that they can get children and other kinds of such-like garbage). I actually think it is the educated & elite that are the problem and not the poor. The educated and elite will walk around bragging how God has blessed them, they will attribute their financial or other success to “God and prayer”, and never mention anything about hard work, what opportunities they had, what networks they could leverage into, and many other factors outside religion. It is they that have stupefied the poor with this empty religiosity. Because, then, a poor person thinks that the only thing they have to do is pray, fast, and go to church every day and night, so that God can bless them like he has blessed the elite. This brings me to my last point.

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10. A poor woman will take eggs from her house and go and give them to the pastor, but will not feed them to her children. She needs blessings, and will be willing to give all she has. Then, her children get malnutrition because of lack of protein. She has no money to take them to hospital. And since the government has bungled the healthcare system, by under-investing in it, because they leave such work to NGO’s and missionaries, and churches, she has nowhere to turn to. She turns to prayer and fasting. She also gets sick and depressed.

Christianity has made Africans stupid.
Christianity has ‘dismembered’ Africa , to borrow Ngugi wa Thiong’os word. It has torn Africa apart into pieces, until Africans do not know who they are any more.

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As you can see from this sticker, the finger of God is white. 

Now, someone will say – why don’t you see all the good things the church has done like creating schools and hospitals? The short answer is this – it is not the job of the church to provide these social services. That is the responsibility of the government. The fact that NGO’s and Churches provide these services is a testament to failure of government, and as I pointed out above, the church gives the corrupt and incompetent politicians a soft landing and warm embrace. If the church was involved in helping citizens to push the government into delivering social services, I would support it. But the church cannot because it is a beneficiary of the poverty,  desperation, and oppression of African peoples. Secondly, thee church has thrived(since the colonial period), through cannibalizing other forms of social organization.

Nairobi’s talking circles

talking circles

This is a Nairobi phenomenon.  I call these circular congregations ‘Nairobi talking circles’. I was curious about the discussions that go on in these circles, because they always draw quite some good audience.  I have stood in two of these circles. What issues are discussed there?

Circle 1

This one was a group of acrobats. They began by showcasing various stunts. This is how they attract people. The circle starts to build up. Then they throw in some humour. More people join! They continue with the acrobatic stunts. Then they get into what must be their core business. The transition is so seamless, you really do not notice how they move from performing stunts to saying that they are selling some kind of medicine. One of them launches into an explanation about how this medicine is good for indigestion. They say the price is 100 bob. Other members move around the circle to sell to their new found customers. I turn to the guy standing next to me.

Me: What is this medicine made from?

Guy: It is from a root of a tree

Now I am intrigued!

Me: Which tree?

Guy: I do not know.

Me: Have you tried it?

Guy: Oh yes!

Me: Did it work?

Guy: Yes! Nakwambia/I am telling you, it works!

The first round of selling comes to an end.  More acrobatic stunts, more jokes. The circle is bursting into huge laughter after every few moments.

Then the guy standing next to me says: Just watch, they are going to reduce the price to 50 bob.

And sure enough, after a short while, the lead guy says Kwa sababu umenunua yako na 100 bob, nunulia rafiki na 50 bob/buy for a friend at 50 shillings! More people buy the medicine.

Talking Circle no 2

This one was discussing politics and governance. The guy who was the centre of attraction had chalk which he would use to write on the ground to emphasize the points he was making. This is what I recall.

  1. He pointed to the monument of Tom Mboya and said: “Do you see this man? This is one of the greatest Kenyans that ever lived.” He then spoke about how Tom Mboya was so intelligent, how he was once on the cover of Times Magazine, and so on and so forth. He then spoke about JM Kariuki, Pio Gama Pinto, Robert Ouko et al., and argued that Kenya kills its best and brightest. He said that if Tom Mboya was running for president today, he would not win. Even Obama would not win if he ran for elections here, he thundered through the microphone! Why? Because Kenyans are stuck in the ethnic paradigm.
  2. He then spoke about economic injustice. He talked about how a Kenyan will be paid KES 200 per day, and that person has to eat, travel, raise a family, etc. This same Kenyan will completely ignore candidates who have an economic recovery strategy, and politics that is anchored on social justice, and vote for their respective ethnic lords.
  3. Then he said something that I cannot ever forget: That in the colonial period Kenyans thought that the white man was a God. He said that if a white man defecated, Kenyans would go to see what colour it was! Then somebody in the circle yelled! Hata siku hizi/even today!! And the crowd roared in laughter!

What a great illustration of white supremacy and coloniality in Kenya?

These two talking circles were located near or around the Tom Mboya monument area. There is another talking circle that happens opposite City Hall or outside former Nakumatt City Hall area. This one happens very early in the morning. It is always a group of men huddled close together. It is a much smaller circle than the one in this picture. I think the person in the middle has a newspaper? I am not sure. Anybody knows what this one is about?

Now I am really interested in these circles. These are a good way to read and understand the issues affecting society. For those who are looking for research topics, there is plenty of angles to look at this from:

  1. Urban planning/Use of public spaces
  2. Health and public health –access, Indigenous Knowledge Systems & health
  3. Gender dynamics of talking circles
  4. Theatre and performance
  5. Governance, access to information, the people’s politics
  6. Language and other forms of cultural expression

 

 

 

The philosophy of the Kiondo

The Kiondo is a basket that is native to Kenya. Embedded in the Kiondo are teachings and philosophies about life, environmental consciousness, social organization, and so much more. What is the philosophy of the Kiondo?

  1. The Kiondo teaches us that to understand anything you have to go to the very beginning, or to the root of the matter. A kiondo is woven by joining several strands of sisal and thread to form the navel, followed by the base, which then supports the cylindrical section. Nobody makes a Kiondo starting from the rim. The Kiondo teaches us that history is important, because history is about going back to the beginning. And the beginning has a bearing on the present.
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Image Source: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/510103095273143579/

2.  The Kiondo encapsulates wholeness/completeness. The Kiondo is essentially a circle, and circles are very important in African cosmology. They represent continuity and connectedness.

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Image Source: http://nancybrochu.blogspot.ca/2014/08/kiondo.html

3. The Kiondo is woven by interdependent threads and sisal strings. Nobody weaves a Kiondo using a single thread or sisal rope. Hence, the Kiondo teaches us about interdependence, as expressed in the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is the belief that you become human in the midst of others, and also that all of nature (including humans as part of nature) is interconnected. In that sense, it teaches us respect, responsibility, and the need to cultivate peaceful co-existence.

KIONDO WOMAN
Image Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510103095273256355/

4.  The Kiondo is a good representation of reciprocity. In many cultures the Kiondo or equivalent is what you use to carry a gift/offering when visiting someone. The person you are visiting also puts something for you in the Kiondo before you leave. That is reciprocity. NB: Some of these practices have been watered down by capitalistic ideologies that encourage exploitative relationships.

Mifuko-IMG-Kenya04-Kiondo-baskets-upcycling5. The Kiondo is about nourishment. It is the carrier of food. When you go to the farm, you carry a Kiondo and use it to carry food. When you go to the market, you use the Kiondo to carry food. Food production and associated practices are arenas of knowledge production.

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Photo Source: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/295267319306163663/

6. The Kiondo is about environmental consciousness. The Kiondo is about African environmentalism. It is made from elements of the land: sisal (or other fibres), wool, and leather. So, it is about plants and animals – all products of the Land. So, the Kiondo is Land, and Land is the Kiondo.


pikkukiondot2That is the philosophy of the Kiondo. The Kiondo has been largely relegated to the graveyard of primitive objects, and since we are now ‘civilized’, only elders carry Kiondo’s nowadays.  We would rather use plastic bags. What is the philosophy of the plastic bag? The philosophy of the plastic bag is environmental catastrophe. And environmental catastrophe=death. Hence, the philosophy of the plastic bag is DEATH, both for human beings and other living beings. Now, livestock and even the fish in the seas are swallowing plastic bags. Is it not time to return to the philosophy of the Kiondo or other forms of baskets?

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Christianity and conservation:The great divergence

Christianity is a big set back for conservation and by extension, community livelihoods. Why?

1. It all begins in the story of creation with the dramatic expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. From then on, human beings and nature are thought of as separate. They cannot coexist. Human beings are seen as threat to nature. This logic drives and informs oppressive conservation practices, such as removal of communities from their land (and by extension livelihoods), to create National Parks and the like.

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2. This logic of separation of man and nature is further pushed into conservation practice, through the separation of culture and nature. We begin to look at them as different things. But in many cultures, they are intrinsically linked. This logic results in communities being denied access to sacred sites, for example. Because it is believed they will destroy them. That is a livelihood issues. Livelihood is more than just food. It is is about total well-being.

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3. Then, there is the passage of: go forth, multiply, fill the earth, subdue and conquer it. This has been severely detrimental to the earth. Because of this logic, human beings have blown up mountains in search of gold, created ugly scars on earth in search of diamonds, poisoned rivers, filled the ocean with plastic bags, hunted animals such as the dodo (in Mauritius) to extinction. This passage tells human beings that they have the power to do whatever with nature. As a result, human beings have defiled the earth. The climax of this defilement is seen in climate change and its catastrophic impacts. Many have died of floods, drought, and so on. Many have no food. I hear Cape Town is running out of water!

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4. And my personal favourite -THIS WORLD IS NOT MY HOME, I AM JUST PASSING BY. Now, this one, just like no 3 above, has been a disaster for the planet. Why should I care about the earth if I am just passing by. I can bulldoze my way through it. After all, my treasures are laid in heaven! I can clear-cut all the forests, and not care about whether people get water or not. I can dump toxic wastes in the water. I can litter everywhere, because heaven will be full of gold, and it will be white and clean. I will dance with white angels there. Oh haleluhya! I can privatize water and sell it in bottles and call it “Mineral water”. I can privatize seeds and sell them to farmers, and sue any farmer who tries to save those seeds to plant in the next season. I can hunt down every animal for trophys. This world is not my home, I am just passing by. I might as well do so in style. Make a big impact. Boom!

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5. Lastly, when missionaries came to Africa, they told Africans that their ways of worship were devilish. Some of these ways of worship entailed performing prayers and sacrifices under trees, in forests, and other places of spiritual importance. Some of these sacred spaces were around water catchment areas and these belief systems kept them completely out of bounds. This ensured that there was water for all. Christianity up-ends of these belief systems, and trees are cut down to construct churches. Churches are even constructed on some of these sacred sites, hence burying that tradition. And now who stays without water as a result of this environmental destruction? Africans.

Is Jesus going to bring us water? Jesus comes from a very dry environment. Is he going to prioritize Africans over his home area? 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

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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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