Racism in the west: Stories from an African Graduate Student

Let me preface all of this by saying that I find racism so detestable and so very stupid. If I was not affected by it, I would not be talking about it because I find it so energy sucking and mind numbing. Also, let me point out that I did not start experiencing racism when I moved to the west. I had been working in the conservation sector before that and that is the headquarters of racism in Africa. So, nothing new really, but these experiences and stories must be documented. Here are some of the most common manifestations of racism that I came across:

  1. When taking classes

I already talked about racism you experience when taking classes, especially if you are asked to work in groups. That is when you start seeing both covert and overt racism. My fellow Nigerian student told me that she struggled with this so much. If the professor left the students to form the groups by themselves, nobody would want to be in a group with her. In one of her classes, the professor had to intervene and form the groups by herself. By the way, we are talking about graduate students. Petty as hell. These are people who are 25 years and above mostly, but you see utoto galore!

2. On the bus/train

I did not experience this or perhaps I did experience it and did not notice. I used my time on the bus to demolish interesting books by African/indigenous scholars. Other African students would tell me that white and some Asian people would not want to seat next to them on the bus. They walk in, find that the only vacant seat is next to an African and they opt to stand instead of seating next to what they consider a sub-human, I guess. You might infect them with tropical diseases like Ebola and such. I was too busy consuming Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Okot P’Bitek, Chilisa, Kovach, Linda Smith and others to notice that people did not seat next to me. When you are reading such thinkers, you are in another universe. You barely notice what is happening around you. Intellectual hypnosis!

I met some of my very good friends on the bus. Only Africans spoke to me and I only dared to speak to Africans. One time I met a Ghanian student on the ride to campus. I had been watching a series about African Kingdoms that week. We spoke about the Asante Kingdom from where he comes from. He thought I was so knowledgeable. We became good friends and I got invited to many parties at their house. The fufu and Jolof were just incredible -always. Then I met another Kenyan who happened to be called Kendi, just like me. I went for many parties at their house. She is married to a Congolose – the parties were very pan-African. Sombe was oh!!Just too yummy. Then, one time I met an Ethiopian guy on the bus. That story deserves its own heading so let’s move to the next number.

These are not the stolen Haloween pumpkins. These were at a friend’s place.

3. Job searching for African professionals in the west

So, I meet this Ethiopian guy on the bus. We start talking. Oh you are from Kenya – my neighbour! He had also spent quite a bit of time in Kenya and he knew many places. Then he looks out of the window and sees a friend of his and waves. Then he tells me: You see that guy I just waved at? He is from Rwanda. When he lived in Rwanda, he worked as a TV news anchor. Then he moved to Vancouver. He thought that he could find the same level of job when he moved, after all, he was qualified. He starts applying for jobs and gets nothing. It takes so long for him to get a job. His family back home thinks he is doing well because he is abroad. They expect him to be sending money. He is nearly homeless. At some point he cut communication with them. I do not think he has spoken to them for over a year. He decided to use agencies to help him to search for jobs. One day he got called for a job interview. He wore his best suit and tie and showed up. He even carried his academic credentials in a folder. When he reached at the site of the interview, he realized this was a construction job. As in mjengo! He wore a suit and tie to a mjengo interview! By this time we are laughing out so loud, people on the bus are beginning to look. Why are these sub-humans making noise? They must be thinking. The way the story was narrated was SO funny! The Ethiopian guy carries on: Ati he came here looking for a TV anchor job! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!! Do you know where I work? I work as a security guard in a mall. And we both go haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I did not ask him what he was doing back in Ethiopia because I had to get off the bus. I did not even get his name or contact and never saw him again. I was laughing so much I was crying by the time I got off the bus.

NB. The buses there are quiet or rather the people in the bus are quiet. Sio kama hizi zetu where there are preachers yelling, people selling everything from dawa ya mende to njugu karanga. They are QUIET. If your baby cries, people look at you badly. So, believe me, we were totally making noise in there!

If you have no sense of humour, you will not get it. We Africans laugh at our sorrow. And it is because this guy was laughing his head off and narrating the story in the most humourous manner that I was laughing. This was one of my best days on the bus!

Now, if you are an African professional moving to the west, please know that you will not get a job of the same stature as you did back home. There are doctors and lawyers driving taxis out there. The infrastructure of racism will now allow you to get opportunities matching your qualifications or experience. Actually, they treat you as though you have no experience or education at all until you go through their system of education and jump through all the hoops. Another friend from Nepal was telling me that even in the low skill arena there is a hierarchy jobs. Jobs that do not require a lot of energy like blowing leaves during Fall are reserved for white people. You will not see immigrants from Asia or Africa doing such jobs. And when I think that high school graduates and other lowly qualified white people hold powerful positions and earn large salaries in my beloved conservation field in Africa, I shudder!

4. Searching for housing

If you have read the other blog you will see that a Nigerian student helped me get accommodation outside campus. She had been told of that house by a fellow Nigerian student who was moving out of that very house. It is easier for Africans to get housing through this network of referrals by other African students. When it was time to come do my research I left the house I was staying in because I did not want to continue paying rent for many months. I was conducting my research in Kenya. As the end of my fieldwork drew nearer I started looking for another house. I kept sending messages to people who had posted ads and got no response from many of them. The only one who responded, asked me to list all the spices that I use to cook. You should have seen me trying to think through what spices I use. I did not hear back from her after sending the spice list. I asked the friend of mine I have mentioned in previous blogs to call landlords and go check the houses for me. She called a few and went to see the houses but none of them was suitable. I was getting really desperate because it was a few weeks to my return. Will I return to Vancouver and be homeless? There is not like here where you can ask someone to host you. Most people share houses and just have a single room. She called one more landlord and they agreed that she could go see the house. When she told her that the person who was looking for the house was not her but her friend from Africa, she asked her: Is she black or white? My friend was so offended and left there in a huff! She informed me of the proceedings. I wrote the lady a nicely nasty email. I went all Martin Luther K on her – I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin…. She even had the temerity to write me back and say: it looks like you black people have not moved on. You should forgive. White people have moved on. I did not have time to respond to that email. I was already getting stressed out about not finding a place. I decided to reach out to practically every African student I knew and asked them if they knew of any available housing. Luckily, another Nigerian student came through. She knew of a friend who was looking for a housemate. I did not want to fuss about what was and wasn’t in the house. I paid immediately. I moved into that house and never left until I left Vancouver. I could not bear the stress of looking for a house again. And mind you, I was renting a room in a house. It was a two bedroom house. You share the house with another person. Each one of you has their own bedroom but you share all the other spaces. I was paying CAD 500/KES 45,000 per month for that.

5. The white smile

This is going to be a difficult one to explain. If you have not seen it, it is quite difficult to conceptualize. White people would do a quick smile that involves just moving the lips, not revealing any teeth, and then look away. They cannot look you in the eye and neither would they say anything to you. I noticed this early on. I asked a friend who studied in the USA about this and she told me that – ah, they are just nervous. I found it so uncomfortable. How are you supposed to respond? Smile back? With teeth or without? A genuine smile should showcase your dental formula, right? Anyway, I was once speaking with an Ethiopian friend (not the one from the bus , another one). He analyzed it thusly: They behave as if they have seen something dirty. That is why they look away. People know about racism in the USA because its all over the media, but places like Canada are presented and like to present themselves as multi-cultural open societies. Hakuna kitu kama hiyo! In Vancouver the city was sort of segregated by race. There is a place where Indians, Chinese, White people stay, etc. Africans are not very many in that city, so they do not have their own block. As an aside, one of the friends I made there had MADE IT and was living in what was considered a white area. She told me that white people and their kids appeared shocked that they lived in such a neighborhood. Haaaaaaa! Wooohho! I have been to several parts of the USA and I found the white people there to be more friendly or more openly hostile. I prefer out and out racism by the way rather than the racism hidden behind liberalism and these fake smiles. Once I was visiting a friend in Kansas and white people were actually saying hi to me. That never happened to me anywhere in Vancouver – not even in the rural areas. I would say in Vancouver white people do not call you nigger with their mouth/voice, but rather by their body language.

Chilling with the great Dr. Selina Makana at Yosemite National Park. We were always the only two Africans in the whole park. We might as well have been part of the tourist attractions :)! But nothing new to me. Conservation spaces are like that. Such trips were serious therapy from the sting of racism and other struggles!!!

6. Stares if you are with a person who does not look like you

This will happen all the time but more so if you are with a white person. Its like its not expected or supposed to happen. Cognitive dissonance. One time we were at the swimming pool with Aneeta and her baby. I held her baby while she swam. I got lots of stares. If it were in the USA, they would have called the cops on me and said that I had stolen a baby! Some of this stuff may just seem like prejudice if you think of racism as structural injustice, but it is the superstructure of oppression. Its from developing a dislike or disdain for another person that you decide they should not earn the same salary as member of the superior race, right?

Aneeta and I in the University Rose garden. One of our favourite places to decompress!

7. Herpes

If you read the first blog in this series you will remember that I was tested for syphilis as part of the procedure to get a visa. Do you know I thought that there are no STDs there? I visited a friend who lived in one of the interior parts of Vancouver at some point during my stay there. One of the things she told me was a shocker. She told me was that there was an outbreak of herpes in that area. Whaaat???

What is the connection of this with racism? Why did I have to be tested for Shypilis in order to get the visa? I must remind you that it was introduced to Africa by Europeans . I had to pay money for that. I could have used that money to survive there. It was made to look like there was no Syphilis there and I was the one to take it there!

Just one last thing. White people are somehow able to forge very loving relationships with their dogs and cats but not with the likes of us. One time a Rwandese housemate of mine was walking around the shopping centre. She tripped and fell. She saw a white person who was saying oooooooooohhhh and moving towards her. She thought the person was coming to help her. To her utter surprise, the person just walked by her and went to pet a dog that they had seen near by. She was traumatized by these experience. haaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

Yes, of course there are a lot of wonderful white people. I know some of them. Some of them are my friends. The fact that there are many great white people does not mean that racism does not exist. I even feel so stupid calling people white, black, brown, etc. Anyway, I am not the one who invented racism. I am just a victim of it.

The next blog will be about job search post PhD. For this one you will need to fasten your safety belts. Its gonna be a BUMPY ride.

Surviving in the west as an African graduate student: stories from the first year of my PhD

If you have not read my previous blog on how to apply for graduate school in North America, I suggest you start with that one. This is a follow up on that. So, after getting the visa and all, I prepare to leave to the land of milk and honey-as is portrayed to those of us in “shithole countries”. I flew from JKIA – Heathrow – Vancouver. One of the first things that I noticed at YVR (Vancouver airport) was beautiful carvings and art of the indigenous peoples of Canada. I thought to myself: ah these people really respect indigenous people and their culture. Let me just tell you – ignorance is very, VERY bad. This was a very naive thought, as we shall see below.

I was on my own. I had booked a hostel where I would spend the night because university accommodation would not be open at that time. I took a taxi from YVR to the hostel. On the way, I noticed a few potholes or roughness on the road. You mean they have such here? I checked in the hostel with my massive baggage. My room was on the third floor. None of the three people at the reception offered to help me with any of it. Quite the welcome! Did I say it was in Winter? I settled into my room and barely slept that night. Jetlag. One of my professors came and picked me up and dropped off at my university accommodation. I had been used to living in a big house with a nice view of the Ngong hills and now I was living in a studio apartment..by the way, this is a fancy name for a bedsitter. And the rent was CAD 800 per month. That is about KES 64,000. I had read on the university website that one could find accommodation outside the university but I did not know how to go about that. I decided I will start by living on campus and figure it out from there. 

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I had been in touch with some students in my department and one of them and her husband came to take me grocery shopping and show me other places to buy stuff. They told me that I should buy second hand things in a thrift store as this would be cheaper. My first shopping bill for a few items at the supermarket came to CAD 80/ KES 6400. I was beginning to see first hand, just how expensive Vancouver can be. These new friends helped me do a few other things to settle in. I spent the first few days familiarizing myself with the large campus. One of the first places I visited was the Museum of Anthropology on campus. Here again were stunning displays of First Nations art and  other collections. There was a gallery for almost every continent. The African one was small and the sign clearly indicated that these objects were derived from missionaries and colonial officials who had been in African countries during the colonial period. Having worked in the heritage field and having known a little about the politics of museums, I was not too surprised. But I just felt violated being in that African section. I got out of the Museum at 5pm. As soon as I stepped out, I realized it was dark! Dark at 5 pm? Winter. 

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I met my supervisors after a few days and we discussed the classes I would take. I found the teaching method to be too boring and unengaging. This is a top-tier research university so the emphasis is on research. I was the sole African student in all the classes I took. It was an uncomfortable experience. In one of the classes we had to do group work. I, of course, ended up in an all white students group – all women. I made a mistake of citing wikipedia in one section of the assignments. One of them launched into lecture mode about how that is not an academic source. I felt quite vindicated when I learnt that there is a professor in the same university who allows the use of wikipedia a source. This is controversial. Some of the information in Wikipedia is even more factual than what you find in some academic papers. The politics of the aKAdemy! There was general cold treatment from the whole lot of students in my group. When they gave me attitude, I returned the favour. I could not wait for all these classes to end so that I could focus on my research. I did not want to deal with these twits and their racism. In one of the classes I met a student from Nepal, who would become a dear, dear friend. She still is. The sole good thing to come out of all the classes I took. Two of us at a fireworks show on one of the beaches in Vancouver. She is probably the main reason why I survived the whole PhD thing without a mental breakdown!

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I registered to participate in two conferences on campus. The first one was in the faculty of forestry. I gave a presentation about forests and indigenous knowledge systems and even won an award for that. I also attended another conference organized by indigenous peoples. At this conference I met a student from Nigeria. She was in the Faculty of Education and asked me if I had met the Kenyan professor who worked there. I hadn’t so he offered to introduce me. We talked about housing and it turned out that she was living on campus and also wanted to move out to find cheaper housing. We agreed to stay in touch and look for housing together.  This student shared with me about two important tips for survival – shop in the dollar store and also buy no name brands. I will explain about these in the next blog post.

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I had been doing my financial calculations on how to survive in Vancouver and things were just not adding up. I was under immense stress. I used to have these massive headaches that could just not go away. I had carried some little savings and even that was dwindling quite fast. One day my mum calls me and asks: are you experiencing racism? I do not recall what I told her. I had not fully grasped the nuance of racism there as yet. We talked about financial difficulties and family members suggested that they could contribute and send some money. I say NO because the place is so expensive it will just end up bankrupting everybody. I could not sleep on some nights. I started applying for jobs!! I heard nothing back from most of them. A friend who had studied in the USA told me that he had done a job related to raising funds for the university from the alumni. This job happens in a call centre. You call alumni and fundraise for the uni. The more you raise, the more you are paid. I applied for that job, got I interviewed and I got it. I hated it. I am person who generally hates begging and I just found it too difficult. Call it what you may, but FUNDRAISING =begging. You call people, they hang up, those who pick up quickly drop the phone when they realize it’s about money, and to make matters worse, the majority cannot understand your accent!! One day I called and someone picked the call. I spoke to her. She said she did not have money to give. She was disabled and on a wheel chair, and was willing to donate her time if that option was available. When I shared all of this with my supervisor, he told me they were not interested in such offers. They were only concerned about raising money. I could not wait for the shift to end each day I had to go there. I was MISERABLE. I did not last for two weeks in that job. I quit and was back to the drawing board. Luckily the Nigerian student I had met told me that she had found housing outside campus and if I did not mind, we could share that house. It was a two bedroom house and each one of us would pay CAD 500/KES 40,000. We would be commuting on the bus for 45 minutes each way. This was a glimmer of hope. If I cut my rent cost, the financial pressure would ease. We pursued this option. At the end of the semester we moved into this house. How I hated campus housing. It was like living in a dorm!! I felt the sweet smell of freedom when I started living off campus.

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One day while I still lived in campus, I met a Canadian man as I was walking to the faculty. He stopped to chat. Where are you from? What are you studying? Then he proceeded to say: be wary of Canadians, they will smile at you, but stab you in the back when you turn away. This was a total stranger. We said our goodbyes and each of us went on their way. While I lived on campus I borrowed a heater from the administration because it was too cold. I was supposed to return it by a certain date. I exceeded that date and had to pay a fine. The admin sent the floor representative to my room. A white woman. She can smiling but I later learnt that she went and reported me to the admin that my room was too hot. The admin lady gave me a lecture about how their heating system cannot go as high as temperatures in “Tropical countries”…yada yada.  The only good thing about living on campus is that I found a 5 dollar note in one of the flower beds. I was so excited that day!

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Oh I forgot to tell you something else. I had my umbrella stolen the very first class I attended in the faculty of forestry. It was raining. I sat in the lobby to wait for my class to start. I forgot my umbrella there and when I went to check, it was missing. This was one of those small umbrerra!! umbrerra! hawkers start selling in Nairobi once it starts raining. Now I had to buy an umbrella and that cost me CAD 20. This one was also stolen later on. Yes, there are thieves in Canada too. I really felt the pinch of spending so much on an umbrella. This was the most expensive umbrella I had ever bought.

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One day while I still lived in campus I decided to go to the student union building to get free food in order to cut costs. Someone had told me that there is a group that gives free food there on certain days. I went there and there was a few people lining up with food containers. I was so ashamed. I was like..am I actually lining up for food aid!!?? I did not last 3 minutes on that line. I went back to my bedsitter. I drafted a letter toy former boss asking him for my job back because this PhD thing was simply not working out. I was ready to call it quits before even a semester was over! Somehow I ended up not sending the letter. Then I met a Kenyan professor who taught there and we talked at length. I shared all my sorrows and frustrations. He told me to try look for jobs in the department and he told me that my supervisor should be supporting me in all this. He also underscored that quiting was not an option. He told me that such opportunities do not come by just like that. The scholarship I had was extremely competitive and he made me realize that I should appreciate that no matter how hard things were. He also linked me up with other African students. One of them was so wonderful. She was a nun from Uganda. When we first met, she told me: I know you must be feeling like a fish on land! She understood my struggles. Luckily after the first semester one of my committee members had some research funding and attached me on that project and I started earning some money. I also moved out of campus and was saving on rent. I survived the first semester. 

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One of the major stresses I had was thinking that I would be stuck there and not even be able to afford a ticket to go home. When I started working, my sole interest was saving money in order to get a ticket to go home. By August, I had found the cheapest ticket possible with the longest layover in Europe, but I was happy not to be spending another winter(December -March) there. I thought I would kiss the ground at JKIA like Arafat would do in the Gaza strip. I spent that winter in Kenya laying the groundwork for my research. I had at this point figured out my research topic. That was also quite a HUSTLE. At the beginning I wanted to study community forest associations and forest governance in Kenya. As I read through various literature, I shifted my topic to understanding people-forest relationships through the lens of indigenous knowledge systems. At some point in my first year, I met a fellow graduate student from Peru. We got talking about research methods. She showed me a book she was using- Indigenous research methodologies by Chilisa Bagele. She lent me the book for the weekend. Once I started reading it, I was hooked. I had never heard of indigenous research methodologies never mind, indigenous theories. This was a watershed moment.

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Here was a book by an African scholar who spoke to my struggles, thoughts, experiences. I had always thought of research as a dry sterile experience characterized by formulating hypotheses, being OBJECTIVE, detached , etc. Chilisa challenges all of these notions and advocates for research processes that tap into our emotions, feelings, experiences, etc. Her work led me to the work of other Indigenous scholars like Maori scholar Linda Smith, Canadian First Nations scholars like Wilson , Kovach and others . All these scholars were calling for a critical examination of conventional research methodologies and proposing novel research strategies that get to the core of the struggle of their communities. From this point, my research got really interesting. I could see a whole new world of possibilities. 

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Indigenous scholarship led me to indigenous politics and struggles. I got really interested in this because it resonated so much with the struggles of African people. For those that are not familiar with this, Indigenous People/First Nations are the original inhabitants of North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Like Africans, their lands were conquered by through unparalleled European greed and savagery, their land was stolen, and in some cases they were hunted down to extinction. In the Case of Canada, deliberate attempts were made to exterminate them through amongst other methods giving them blankets laced with leprosy. At the time of conquest the population was estimated to be between 300,000-500,000. By 1867 this had come down to 100,00-125,000. Do the math! For those that remained, they were told their culture and norms are barbaric and that’s they should be civilized/ be like Europeans. Deliberate strategies were put in place by the government to achieve this mainly through what was referred to as residential schools. Indigenous children were striped from their families and enrolled in these institutions established in collaboration with churches. The legacy of these schools is a dark one. Massive molestation of children by clergy and other forms of abuse were documented. Indigenous scholarship is firmly hinged on this painful history and is unapologetically aimed at emancipation of indigenous peoples from multiple and intersecting forms of oppression. Their works resonated with me because, as I said, it mirrors the struggles of African societies. 

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Ultimately, the first year was rough, baptism by fire. In the next blog I will share some tips for survival for African graduate students. 

Films on African environmentalism

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

1. A place without people

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

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2. Taking root: The vision of Wangari Maathai

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

Taking root screen shot

 

3. Honey at the top

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

 

Honey at the top

 

4. Let us gaze towards Nyandarwa

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

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5. Kisulu: Climate diaries

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

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6. Mabingwa

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

7. Milking the rhino

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

 

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Photo credit: KPBS

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

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

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9. The rain water harvester

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

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10. Senegal’s Sinking Villages 

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

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

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

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

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12. Culture Quest: The Tugen

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

13. Kingdoms of Africa 

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

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Ethiopian Highlands

14. The mystery of Namoratunga

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

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

15. Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan on African Rock Art

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

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16. Africa

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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18.  Film on indigenous food processing and technologies in Rwanda

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

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

 

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

 

19.  We want out lives to be like a spring 

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

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20. ToxicBusiness: The Food Challenge

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

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21. Victims of the WWF

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

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22. Second nature 

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

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23.  Bitter Harvest

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

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Reading Robert Edgerton’s ‘Mau Mau: An African Crucible’

I read this book a while back and have been meaning to blog about it for a long time.  This is a book that humanizes the Mau Mau struggle and historicizes the colonial enterprise in a compelling manner. I want to highlight some of the issues discussed and link them to present-day happenings. The book was published in the 80’s, but since Kenya has never really decolonized, what was written then mirrors the scenario today.

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Settler children in Kenya: Source – users.rowan.edu

  1. The IBEA,  the politics of naming, and ’empty land’

The Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) was the administrator of the British stolen lands in the East African region. The central goal of the IBEAC was to facilitate trade for Britain, of course, through extractive kind of arrangements.  The IBEAC first set shop in Gikuyuland after getting into an agreement with Waiyaki wa Hinga, a Gikuyu elder.  This agreement was quickly reneged by the IBEAC  leading to a serious of disastrous consequences, culminating in the exiling of Waiyaki, who was buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi on the way to the Kenyan Coast.  Edgerton writes:

Whatever inclination the Kikuyu may initially have had to welcome the white foreigners disappeared when the IBEA’s African troops, who were very often staggering drunk, stole Kikuyu crops or raped Kikuyu women, killing some who resisted. When the Kikuyu fought back, the British officers organized punitive expeditions that went on “nigger hunts,” as they were known to white Kenyans. In 1893, an officer of the IBEA named Francis Hall (after whom the town of Fort Hall was later named) mounted two so-called punitive expeditions that killed about 90 Kikuyu. The following year, Halls’s troops killed a similar number. Hall was so incensed by continuing Kikuyu resistance that he wrote to his father, a British Colonel, that “There is only one way of improving the Wakikuyu (and t) that is to wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies. However, beginning in 1894 and lasting until 1899, nature made it unnecessary for Hall to “improve” the Kikuyu”. Plagues of locusts, prolonged, cattle disease, and small pox decimated the southern region of Kikuyu territory close to the route the rail road would follow. It was a this disaster that created what appeared to be empty land when the first European settlers arrived in 1902.

Now, here is the kicker – there are still people who name their businesses and other ventures “Fort Hall” and they are Agikuyu people. Fort hall was renamed Muranga after the attainment of flag independence.  What about land? Of course land remains the most sore point in Kenya’s history. In addition, Kenya is still run like a corporation, following the imperial, colonial, oppressive model where the land is seen a place from which to get things. The government appears to be more concerned about foreign investors (white people) and tourists ( also white people) than about its own citizens.  This is well articulated in this piece by Dr. Wandia Njoya ‘Invisible Citizens: Branding Kenya for foreign investors and tourists.’

Fort hall school of govt

 

2. Delamare inc

Kenya colony (yes, still) remains white man’s country. The goal of settlers at the time of colonial conquest was to turn Kenya into white man’s country – think along the lines of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and USA. One of the leading settler figures was Delamere. One of the leading settlers today is Delamare, err sorry, I mean LORD Delamare. Delamare owns an estimated 48,000 acres of land, some of which has been converted into a CONservancy where two Kenyans were shot dead by Delamare’s offspring, Tom Cholmondeley.  Delamare was one of the leading figures in the debate about alienation of African lands for European settlement. The very best lands were stolen from Africans and given to settlers  for a 99 -year lease, which was extended to 999 years. And what LORD D’s ultimate goal?

As Lord Delamare the acknowledged leader of these first settlers, made plain, their goal was to recreate the Virginia plantocracy in which white gentlemen of breeding and leisure oversaw vast plantations worked by Black men. Sir Eliot’s [the then governor] plan for Kenya was to attract more men of breeding and wealthy like Lord Delamere. The healthy and fertile highlands were reserved for men like these. Indians would not be allowed to own land in highlands and poor whites were discouraged from coming to Kenya at all. And as one English gentleman told Winston Churchill when Churchill visited Kenya, “It would destroy the respect of the native for the white man, if he saw what miserable people we have got at home.” These gentlemen-settlers also thought it dangerous to let Africans see white men actually working.

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Source: gherkinstomatoes.com

What has changed re land ownership? Not that much much. Kenya is still a plantation economy with a few people and companies (both local and foreign) owning huge tracts of land and establishing and entrenching the Virginia plantocracy model that Delamare talked about at the beginning of colonial occupation in the late 1800’s. Read more here: ‘It is a dog’s life for many plantation workers‘.

Picking Cotton. Ballou's Pictorial (Boston, Jan. 23, 1858),
USA plantation. Image source: 18C American Women

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Accommodation for tea plantation workers in Kenya

3. Dismantling of community livelihoods and dislocating Africans from their landscapes

Labour was needed to sustain to sustain the settler plantation economy. Where was this to come from? From the African population. How do you make Africans work for you? First, you steal their land, then you introduce a wage economy and taxation. Cash to pay taxes could only be obtained from settlers. That is how Africans became enslaved on their own lands. Edgerton illuminates the scenario:

Lord Delamere explained to the government that Africans should be forced into the labor market by cutting the amount of land available to them so that the wage work would their only means of survival. When the government was slow to take action, other settlers threatened to use force to obtain labour. Alarmed, the government responded by ordering chiefs to deliver a quota of labourers to the desired localities

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4. How poverty was created 

People assume that poverty in Africa is a naturally occurring condition. That there has always been poverty, because Africans do not know how to use the bounty that nature has provided to them. At the time of colonial occupation, the communities that the settler murderous gang encountered were people with absolute control over their lives- economically, politically, socially, philosophically, etc. Recall, that is actually trade that brought some of these communities into contact with settlers. In other words, they had surplus to sell. They were not poor. But colonialism entrenched poverty through various dimensions, and entrenched various forms of poverty, including the poverty of ideas  (the worst form of poverty), by convincing Africans that they did not know anything and did not have knowledge. This passage below illustration explains the impoverishment of Africans under colonial occupation:

At that time, a cheap shirt bought in an African market cost 4 shilings, and the annual poll tax was 20 shilings. With wages like these a labourer could only stay alive by cultivating the single acre that he was lent as a tenant farmer. Regulations required the “squatters” as the British called their tenant laborers, to sell the produce from their plot of land to their employers at a fixed price. For example, an employer would pay his “squatter” 14 or 15 shillings for a bag of maize. Thanks to government subsidies, the employer could then sell that same bag for 32 shillings. Moreover, while it was the Europeans who benefited most from government services, until 1930 it was African taxes that paid the bulk of the expense. In addition, the Europeans paid no direct income tax until 1936.

What about today? It is the political class that took the place of settlers. Actually, a combination of settlers and the political class. White people and those that the Mau Mau referred to as ‘Black Europeans’ consume most of the taxes that are paid by the masses. Majority of the people remain poor and work themselves to death to support the lavish lifestyles of settlers, former and current colonizers, and the political class.

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Africans rounded up bu the British for demanding their freedom. Image: Getty.

5. Africans are not human 

Edgerton writes:

Settlers not only believed that Africans had the minds of children, they were convinced that they did not feel pain as Europeans did, were able to will themselves to die whenever they wished (both Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen subscribed to this view). They also believed that Africans had altogether different nutritional requirements than white people. For example, it was widely argued that a bowl of maize-meal porridge was all that an African needed for good health. As a result, many settler employers gave each of their labourers a pound and half [about 0.6 kgs] of posho (maize meal) per day, a ration that was thought quite adequate. Many settlers, particularly women, never quite overcame their fear of Africans’ blackness, or their supposed resemblance to apes. The settlers saw no reason to understand Africans because they believed absolutely that before the coming of the white men, Kenya had been nothing more than a “howling wilderness” of superstition and death.

So, what is new? Did a Chinese national not refer to Kenyans, including the president as monkeys  in September 2018? What is the relationship between Asians, Europeans, and Africans in places of work in Kenya colony? Who occupies the top leadership positions? Who does most of the work? How much posho (in this case salary) are the Africans paid? Is it still not 0.6 kgs – metaphorically speaking? By the way,  when the Mau Mau war broke out, settlers were furious that Africans were not grateful for the gift of civilization. If you have ever tried to ask your white boss for a salary raise, you will confirm that they will usually get pretty furious and will not understand why you are not GRATEFUL for what they are ‘giving’ you.  Just to go back to the nutrition and impoverishment of Africans, Edgerton provides an interesting piece of information ” 90% of the Kikuyu recruits for the British Army in World War 2 had to be rejected because of malnutrition, primarily due to a lack of animal protein in their diets.” An elder once told me that before colonialism, the Agikuyu people had a lot of livestock. We ate meat all the time, he said. Now, they lacked animal protein! Another thing to note: There is museum dedicated to the life of and history of Karen Blixen and no museum or memorial for the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau). In other words, Kenya is still celebrating racism, the dehumanization of its peoples, and colonial occupation, but not celebrating one of the worlds most formidable self-determination movements.

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Karen Blixen.

6. Apartheid

Colour bar remains an defining element of Kenya colony. Today, there are places where whites only live. Conservation spaces are mainly white spaces. Africans who work there are in low-level positions. There are some hotels still known as “hoteli za wazungu/hotels for white people,” because in the colonial period, there are hotels Kenyans were not allowed to go to. While one can go to those hotels these days, majority are still restricted by economic factors. Hence apartheid is firmly entrenched.

The “superior” civilization the whites brought to Kenya did not include racial integration. A visitor to Kenya in the early 1950s was quickly introduced to its color bar. In Nairobi airport, there were bathrooms marked “European Gentlemen, ” “Europeans Ladies” and others marked “Asian Gentlemen” and “Asian Ladies.” There was no bathroom at all for Africans. After surveying all of Africa, James Cameron, a journalist, wrote that Kenya had established a colour bar “of singular crudity and arrogance.”

 

7. Christianity

Settlers, missionaries et al., were keen to convert Africans to Christianity. This was the one gift of civilization. What Christianity has done in Africa is to convince Africans that they are inferior, that they have no history, that whites are Gods – white Jesus is to be found everywhere in Kenya colony, for instance, and that this world is not their home, they are just passing by. Why should you agitate for land rights if this world is not your home? Shouldn’t you just wait to rejoice in heaven with white Jesus and white angels?  You should know that apartheid in Kenya extended to places of worship. Question – would the whites and Africans share the same heaven upon death?

A European woman who said that she did not mind employing Africans, or even shaking hands with them, “but pray with them I will not.”

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European missionaries, church in the background.

8. White supremacy 

Colonialism in Kenya colony created stark disparities in wealth, with the oppressed Africans occupying the bottom of the pole – often living at the edge of starvation. This situation has remained the same into the present.  And since the political class are the present day colonizers, when I replace Europeans with the political class in the passage below, I still make sense of the text.

Meanwhile these Africans were continually  reminded of their destitute conditions by the conspicuous affluence of most Europeans [politicians] and many of Nairobi’s Indians, who usually dressed well, if not elegantly by European standards, lived in large houses, and drove fine cars. African men typically wore a par of tattered European trousers, a badly frayed shirt, a ragged woolen sweater, a threadbare suit coat, and a floppy felt hat. At night and on cold days many wore khaki overcoats captured from the Italian army in WW2, or ragged topcoats that have been rejected by and Goodwill Centre in the USA. [Mtumba/second hand clothing is still presented as some kind of aid, but in actual sense, it is a thriving business enterprise that sustains the supplying countries].

 

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White supremacy reigns supreme.  Africans are still wearing tattered European trousers.  The African political class has ensured that Africans continue wearing tatters, because they are white in their thinking/ideology.  They believe in living off the sweat and misery of their people.  It reminds me of passage from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘A grain of wheat.’

The white man [politician] went in cars. He lived in a big house. His children went to school. But who tilled the soil on which grew coffee, tea, pyrethrum, and sisal? Who dug the roads and paid the taxes? The white man [politician] lived on our land. He ate what we grew and cooked. And even the crumbs on the table he threw to his dogs. That is why we went to the forest.

The voices of resistance and all those who raise their voices in the struggle for African dignity are the new Mau Mau. They have refused to succumb to despair. They are in the forest!

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Image source: Kenya Stockholm blog.

 

 

 

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.

Mau Mau Getty 2
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!

Coca cola

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

 

 

Some thoughts on ‘Education in crisis: An insiders perspective’

Great conversation here for all those that are interested in education- I assume that is EVERYBODY. A few points that stood out for me as I watched it.

Education in crisis: An insiders perspective

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  1. At independence, the new flag independence government wanted to fight poverty, disease and Ignorance. Dr. Wandia Njoya argues that we should problematize the use of ignorance. This got me thinking…Who was ignorant? What is ignorance? The way you define a problem determines on whether you can resolve it or not.  Was Mekatilili wa Menza ignorant? How about Mary Nanjiru?Were those who fought the British colonial murderous gang in the forests, in the cities, in the concentration camps, etc ignorant? This conceptualization of ignorance as an attribute of anybody who has not come into contact with the western forms of knowledge is Primitive. Some of the most brilliant people I have ever met have never stepped into anyone’s classroom. But they can theorize, philosophize and so on – of course they can, because there is knowledge beyond what is taught in classrooms. It is called Indigenous Knowledge – and it is in this knowledge system that you arrive at the very pinnacle of intellectual sophistication.

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2. During colonial occupation the goal of education was to equip the natives with skills to do low-level clerical jobs – mainly to serve the European morally bankrupt occupying force. The goal was not to get Africans to think. It was believed that the brain of an African stops growing at 9 years old. So, why should you engage the African in anything more than just counting and learning how to write. On writing – this is one thing that has been used to make Africans feel inferior. The truth of the matter is that there were many forms of writing in African cultures, but since it was not writing using a pen, or pencil, or chalk, and it does not involve writing using this alphabet that I am using to type this, then it is not writing. That kind of thinking is PRIMITIVE.

pexels-photo-256541.jpeg3. One of the troubles with the new curriculum, according to Dr. Wandia Njoya is that children from poor families will end up being directed to the “talent stream”, because of amongst others, the carryover of some of the colonial attitudes discussed above.

pexels-photo-46274.jpeg4. Education has been so tied to exams that there is no joy in learning. Students are only interested in learning about what will be in the exam. The result – no room from critical thinking at all. Speaking of exams, it is exams that were used to destroy what I consider the first attempt to decolonize education in Kenya. That is the independent school movement. The colonial government introduced exams forcing teachers to tailor their curriculum(s) to that. That is why education remains A for Apple education and Ludwig Krapf (Crap?) and other discoverers education.

books-education-school-literature-48126.jpeg5. Everybody should seek to educate themselves. If you rely on the school and formal education system to educate you, you will remain very uneducated indeed. Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen.  Now information is much more easily available than the past. I have learnt more about African history and conservation, from facebook that I have learnt from the formal education system.

pexels-photo-207662.jpeg6. Wandia Njoya suggests that we should be more imaginative in the utilization of resources. Why should every school have its own sports infrastructure& its own library, for example? Can’t these resources be shared, including with community members? Some people who are stewing in colonial juices will find this idea repugnant.

tulips-flowers-fish-eye-red-66896.jpeg7. Finally, you will not find these kinds of conversations in Githeri media. Thank you, the Elephant, thank you Wandia Njoya, and thank you, Gathara!

marguerite-daisy-beautiful-beauty.jpg

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