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.

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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

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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Slideshow of book covers

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

Stories from Kyoto, Japan.

 

September 2016.

It was time for another World Archaeological Congress(WAC). This happens every 4 years.  I got involved in this astute organization when I was working in the heritage conservation sector. The more I learn about WAC, the more respect I develop for it. Some of the things that I like about WAC include: a commitment to justice issues, highlighting community issues in heritage conservation, engaging with politics, supporting indigenous peoples, working to decolonize the practice of archaeology, and the opening up of the conference to non-academics (especially communities). This time round the congress was to be held in Kyoto. I had never been to Asia, so I was looking forward to it. As usual, such trips start with the gruesome process of obtaining a visa. Sigh!

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Enjoy the tranquility of this park before getting into visa issues:).

Visa application sequence of events:

Step 1: Get all the letters of invitation and a series of other documents from your host – at least 2 months before the proposed date of travel

Step 2: Present these and other documents to the Embassy and make the payment. This one was not a ridiculous figure (read rip off) like those charged by the so-called “developed countries”.

Step 3: Wait for the verdict(with daily prayers to your ancestors for a positive one)

Step 4:  If you get a positive verdict you  go to collect the visa and hope they have not made a mistake in say, spelling your names or dates of entry and exit.

This visa application was mildly brutal. The guard at the building was extremely unpleasant – why do guards at Embassies behave like this? They act as though they are the ones to either give you or deny you the visa.

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Temple

I get the visa. Phew! I Book the flight and leave for Kyoto via Osaka. Osaka is hot and humid.

The next hurdle: Immigration.

I get to the counter and hand my passport over to the guy behind the counter.  He takes his time to study my passport and looks at me. The interrogation begins:

Immigration officer: Where are you going?

Me: Kyoto

Immigration officer: What for?

Me: For a conference, the World Archaeological Congress

Immigration officer: What do you do for a living?

Me: I am a Ph.D. student

Immigration officer: Where is your letter of invitation?

I reach out for the letter of invitation from my bag and I hand it over to him.

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Japanese dolls

 

He scans through it and looks at me, then looks at the passport, then looks at the letter of invitation and takes his time to read through it. The line is building up behind me and I am too ashamed to turn and look at the people in the line. I can see from the corner of my eye that they are wondering why it is taking so long(by the way, the people who were ahead of were not held up. No prizes for guessing what they looked like).I am getting irritated and ANGRY! The immigration officer continues to fiddle with the letter and passport while I stand there looking like a criminal. It is as though he does not believe that any of the documents I have given him are real. I am getting a headache now. Finally, he hands over the documents to me without saying a word and I grab them from his hand and move on. No, thank you, no nothing! I am not going to thank anyone for mistreating me. I am pissed off! He actually thinks I want to come and live in this country illegally? He has profiled me and judged me – just because of the colour of my skin.

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The train station is chaotic. Thankfully there are people to help. I get my ticket and board the train to Kyoto. I look around to see just how great this country is that the immigration officer would actually think I would leave everything behind so that I can come and enjoy the bounty of their nation. All I see are rice paddies. We have these in Mwea. NKT! I get to Kyoto and get into the subway to the outskirts of the city. It is hot. I am melting. Someone actually thinks I want to come and live in this heat illegally?  At this point, I think of Nairobi’s glorious weather and miss home.

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We went to eat Ramen noodles

I get to the hotel and get to my room. Everything in Japan is tiny. I understand it has to do with earthquake preparedness and minimalist living. We start with all day council meetings (I sit in the WAC council as the senior representative for east and southern Africa) before the conference begins. We go to have lunch at an amazing Thai restaurant. The food is really good. Kyoto is so clean.  There is no trash lying around and yet there are no trash cans. They have cultivated a culture of keeping the city clean and orderly.  People obey traffic rules to the hilt. There are no beggars on the streets. There is a lot of bowing. There is no tipping at restaurants or anywhere else- they do not go blindly adopting western cultures that do not make sense. The service is great.

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The conference begins and run around from one session to the other trying to catch as many presentations as possible. There are about 500 people in attendance. At the middle of the week, we have free time to have mid-congress tours. All those that had been put on offer by the organizers are sold out, so my colleague and I decide to do our own exploring. Armed with a map we embark on a vigorous sightseeing mission. There are lots of temples! We go to a bamboo forest. Beautiful! We have green tea ice cream to crown the sightseeing tour. Japan is a very interesting country – a good fusion of tradition and modernity. They demonstrate that you do not have to discard your culture/heritage in order to “modernize.”

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The golden temple: It is painted in gold every year. 

Back to the conference. I give my presentation about community engagement in heritage conservation in the Mt. Elgon area.  I get a couple of questions at the end – mainly on how to keep the community motivated and or engaged/how to mobilize communities.

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Every time I met with an African colleague I asked them about their immigration and visa application issues. I knew of one Kenyan who could not get the visa.  My colleague from Nigeria tells me that she was also held up at immigration. “It is just the way it is my sister, o. What can we do? There is nothing we can do. They think we want to come and live here.” I tell her that I think we should say something.  We should speak about this issue. That we should not suffer in silence and say, that is just the way it is.  My colleague from Zambia tells me that their colleague from Nigeria was thoroughly interrogated at immigration. My colleague from Zimbabwe tells me that it was easy from him to get a visa because he was applying from a Nordic country.  The he goes on to say “our brothers and sisters applying from African countries have a really hard time.” Somehow, if you are African and are applying from the “developed”  countries it is easier.  It is as though you become more human by being associated with those countries and not African countries. Your value increases. Travelling as an African is no easy task.  In addition to the economic barriers of getting to conferences, you have to overcome other structural hurdles such as those presented by immigration and visa applications.

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The bamboo forest

It is time for the final plenary. This one brings all the participants together so that they can discuss the major decisions/resolutions emerging from the conference. It is also during this time that the next host country is decided/voted upon. Prague wins the bid to host the next WAC.  The president asks if anyone has a question for the next host.

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These amazing Japanese kids did a great job of helping conference participants. They would hold up signs written in English to guide participants to venues and so on. They demonstrated that you do not have to speak the same language to work together. 

I raise my hand and put my question/issue forward.

Congratulations on winning the bid to host the next WAC conference. I would like to suggest that you as a host country, find a way to make it easier for Africans to attend the congress. It is always more difficult for  Africans to attend conferences because:

  1. It is hard to obtain a visa. I know people who were supposed to attend this conference but did not because they could not obtain a visa
  2. Once you obtain a visa you have to deal with immigration. I was, for example, held up at immigration for close to 15 minutes. It was not just me. Other African participants experienced the same. We are treated like potential illegal immigrants. 

This is injustice. This is racial profiling. WAC stands for social justice and I hope you can stand against this. 

The room bursts into applause.

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My colleague from Prague  is on the  dais. He takes the microphone and says: “you are a human being, you should not be treated like that” we do not have this problem at Prague immigration. The president of WAC (the current one is Japanese) apologizes for this issue and says that WAC can issue letters to African participants.

I interject and say that letters will not necessarily help. It would be better to inform immigration/people at the ports of entry.

Somebody from the audience chimes in and says: “This is a problem that WAC is aware of because it has been there for a long time…Britain is actually the worst. They treat people appallingly.” There is a lot of chattering in the hall now. The president suggests that I should present the issue as an agenda for discussion in the council. I agree. The plenary moves forward.

At the end of the plenary, my colleague from Norway comes to me and shares his experience of travelling with an African colleague. They were going to attend a conference in Europe. He says to me:

My colleague from Zimbabwe had with him a full stack of papers documenting various permissions, invitations, and so on. But when we got to the immigration point he was always stopped and interrogated and we always had to wait for him. So, you are right letters do not help.

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I leave Japan on the scheduled day and time! I sit next to a Russian man on the plane. He tells me more about Japanese people and culture. His wife is Japanese. We somehow got talking about politics and the church. He asks my view about the latter and I say to him “I think the is too corrupt.” Then he says “oh please, shake my hand.” We shake hands and he tells me about the nastiness of the church in Russia. He has sneaked in two cans of beer which has to drink discretely since the airline were are flying in in the kind that sells you everything – from earphones, to ipads, to alcohol (and it’s not like the flight is even cheap(er)).

Ni hayo to kwa sasa/That is it for now. Stay tuned for more stories.

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The making of the film ‘Mystery of Namoratung’a’

I just saw that the Lake Turkana cultural festival is coming up and it made me remember my times in the Turkana land in northern Kenya. This is a dry and hot area – I am talking about 40 degrees and above. The Turkana community who live here are nomadic pastoralists who have traditionally moved from one place to the other in search of pasture..a sophisticated scientific process.

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So we travel up north from Nairobi to Turkana land, a two day journey. Our main mission is to develop a film about the heritage around Namoratung’a archaeological site. The temperature is unbearable and we decide to do most of the shooting in the early mornings or evenings, when it is a little cooler. We always attracted a big audience within minutes because; first we are not from the area and  second, all the equipment we carried with us.

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Once you get talking to people in this area you quickly get roped into discussions about the Pokot otherwise known as the “enemy”. The Turkana and the Pokot communities are both nomadic pastoralists and have been tied in wars that are based on raiding and taking possession of the others livestock. Each person you talk to has a story about how they have lost a family member to the Pokot. I am sure if you work with the Pokot they will also tell you how many people and livestock they have lost to the Turkana.  Everybody here knows how to use an AK47. I do not pretend to have an understanding of this conflict as yet so I need to continue educating myself. What I desist from is thinking of these communities as primitive, blood thirsty, barbaric and so on. I do not find that a plausible or even respectable explanation. There is obviously a long term issue of marginalization which dates back to the colonial period, the effects of climate change, fragmentation of land and so on but I think it is much much more complicated than that.

All the people we worked with are extremely hospitable and generous. One of the times we were resting under the tree and a woman brought us tea….. and she did not know us! That is the true spirit of AFRICA. It was always great to see the dynamics of herding livestock (more about this in the film). If a family owns such a huge herd of livestock why are they considered poor? Just because you are not integrated into national or global capitalism? Isn’t the owner of this herd better off that a person living in an informal settlement in any part of the world?

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Anyway, we worked ourselves insane because we only had three days in which to finish the shoot and head back to Nairobi. This meant working till 2am on some days. We needed to have all the footage translated into English. The translation was all done on top of a mountain which had a Safaricom (mobile phone Company) mast and the only power outlet. The interesting thing is that, this was also the point where people could come and charge their mobile phones. ( Safaricom being clever and providing the signal and power in an area that is off the grid….how else will they make calls and send text messages if they cannot charge their phones?) People came and left their mobile phones there and went to carry on with other business and no one stole anybody’s phone!  Those of us from “civilization” were puzzled by this. I guess this was a community with high social capital and some sense of decorum that the those of us in the ”civilized world” have since lost.

After that very long detour here is the trailer of the film.

And the final product/full film (14.27 minutes)