‘An elephant does not die from one broken rib’: The African elephant in African environmental consciousness

I would like to begin with a story. As in most of African performance and orature, the story teller invites the audience to participate in the transformational and collective experience.

Story teller: Ugeni “ĩtha” ndimũganire! Say “Itha” so that I tell you a story.

Audience response: ĩtha!

A long, long time ago, there a mother, father, and two children. One day, they went to cultivate in the forest and when it was dusk, they went back home. On reaching home, they realized that they had left Ngoi ya mwana/baby carrier, so they sent the girl to go fetch it. On her way to the shamba[1], the girl met with an elephant. The elephant asked, “where are you going little girl?” The girl replied by way of song: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ/ our baby’s carrier. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant let her pass. She continued and met the second elephant. The elephant asked her “where are you going all by yourself?” And the girl responded: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant obliged, and on she went. After a while she came across a third elephant. The elephant blew his trumpet and asked, “where do you think you are going, little girl?” And the girl sang: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” The elephant hesitated for a while, but let the girl pass and on she went. She walked very fast now. It was getting late. Just as she was about to reach the shamba, she met the fourth elephant. She was getting exasperated by these elephants. And the elephant asked, “where are you going little girl?” And the girl sang: “I am going to pick Ngoi ya mwana witũ. We forgot it. Give me way.” This elephant did not let her pass. It, instead, hoisted her high up with his trunk and hid her in his armpit. It now was getting dark and the family was worried about their daughter. The father decided to go and look for her. On his way, the father met the first elephant and asked. Have you seen my Wanjiru? The elephant answered by way of song: “I am not the one who ate her but the one behind me.” He met the second and third elephants and the same exchange transpired. When he met the fourth one and asked the same question, the elephant said, “I am the one who ate her. You can do whatever you wish.” The father killed the elephant, rescued his daughter, and they went to collect the Ngoi. That is the end of my story[2].

African orature[3] is packed with wildlife, including elephants which are one of the most prominent and charismatic species on the continent. This story is derived from the Agikũyũ people of Kenya. It transports us to a world where elephants and human beings exist in the same realm. In this story, the elephants are not in a fenced off in a pristine wilderness, known as a ‘National Park’, ‘Reserve ‘ or ‘Conservancy’. They are players in the large dance of life.  There is an interaction and a tapestry of relationships radiating from both human and no-human characters. In many African philosophies, animals are considered participants in the ecosystem, and with human characteristics.  Stories demonstrate a direct link between the human and non-human world. This story is set in a world in which elephants speak. This is a clear demonstration of the Gĩkũyũ indigenous environmental thought in which humans were not seen as separate from nature, but a holistic whole; each of the different players in the scene had to be respectful of the other in order to cultivate harmony. The story also contextualizes the reality that at certain points humans and elephants were in conflict.  In Gĩkũyũ culture, stories were narrated around the fire place as children waited for food to be ready. Storytelling made the fire-place, food, and cooking the lifeblood of the community’s understanding of the landscape, and their role in it. This was in the happier times, before the encounter with colonialism, and subsequent neo-colonial encirclement, through amongst others, ‘Green missionaries’.

In addition to location of human beings in their environmental contexts, stories in African traditions served the important purpose of social repair, social organization, carriers of memory, and storehouses of knowledge. Among the Acoli of Uganda stories including those that incorporate animal characters have been instrumental in cultivating social repair after decades of war and violence. These stories also document change in landscape in that area, including how elephants were hunted to extinction.  Lara Rossenoff writes that “While gathering firewood, I even heard a story about the last elephant shot in the area (in the 1950s). Due to the proliferation of arms when Acoli soldiers from England’s King African Rifles Regiment returned home from the Second World War, big game was quickly hunted out.”[4] Stories also served a purposed of giving African a sense of time. In many cases stories began with locating the listeners in time by use of phrases such as “long, long time ago…”  This has the effect of entrenching the belief that the past is linked to the present, that history is important, and being ahistorical was incongruent with African indigenous environmental thought. Wildlife featured prominently in ceremonies, folklore and other cultural activities.  The elephant signifies power and strength. This is well articulated by the work of Uganda Scholar and poet Okot P’ Bitek who lyricizes it as follows:

I am an insect

Trapped between the toes

Of a bull elephant,

I am an earthworm

I am gravel in the mud

I am the wet dung

Of a chicken on the floor!

One of living symbolic metaphorical display of the power of the elephant and its centrality in African environmental consciousness is during the Kuomboka[5] ceremony in Barotseland, western Zambia. During this time, the upper Zambezi floods, and the Litunga/King of the Lozi[6] people moves to from the lower flood plain to upper ground. The over two centuries-old[7] ceremony is led by the Litunga who emerges in into the flood waters in barge/Nalikwanda which is paddled by at least 60 warriors[8], amidst pomp and ululation. Displayed prominently on the Nalikwanda, is a 3 dimensional carving of an elephant. The elephant “signifies the power of the Litunga as in the most powerful and biggest land traversing mammal. It implies that the Litunga is most powerful, and others are definitively smaller and less powerful.”[9] A designated person manipulates the elephant’s ears, so that they keep flapping as the barge moves through the waters, bringing the elephant to life. In addition a fire is lit and the smoke rises up to signify that the Litunga is a live, that the people are alive, that the culture is alive.  Other barges are not to precede the Litunga’s; they are expected to follow the Litunga, who represents leadership in the transformative event of environmental stewardship, survival, tradition, environmental consciousness,  and power over natural forces – a  dynamic performance of African heritage at the its very peak, which mainly attracts African spectators.[10]

The use of the elephant in the Koumboka ceremony also a testament of the Lozi peoples’ connections with the elephant which are still found in Sioma Ngwezi National park in Barotseland.  Another illustration of the power and potency of the elephant is seen in the staffs of the king among the Akan of Ghana. These symbols proclaim the history and power of families and leaders, and defines qualities of good rulers. Elephants are a symbol that is used in the staff of the okeyeame or linguist. This royal spokesperson accompanies the clan chief on public occasions, repeating the chief’s words and making them “sweet” by embellishing them with proverbs.  According to the Asante peoples’ philosophy, the elephant is the greatest animal in the animal kingdom just as the Asantehene/King is the greatest in Asante[11]. The use of these emblems is a testament that Africans have always been in touch with their environments and landscapes. They do not consider them to be divorced from the fauna that roams their landscapes. They are the ultimate conservation metaphor.

Akan Linguist staff
Image source: Google Arts and Culture

Going further back in time, we find elephants manifested in African rock art in the form of paintings and engravings on stone. These creatures have captured the imagination of Africans for as long as they have inhabited the planet. Elephant images are found in rock art sites all over Africa. Rock art images are believed to be a manifestations of African spirituality and philosophy. These sites are arenas of interpretation of life and the environment in which the artists inhabited. Elephant images in the Sahara Desert are an environmental record or text documenting the fact the Sahara was a much wetter in the past. Rock art images of elephants are about natural intelligence and learning about nature. The wide depiction of African elephants in rock art images also informs us of the widespread distribution of elephants on the continent.  Most of these megafauna are believed to be associated with harnessing of spiritual powers to navigate life and environmental challenges. In some of these cases you find depictions of therianthropes, figures that combine both animal and human features. In African rock art these combined images primarily incorporated antelope, but occasionally, with baboon, elephant (emphasis added), bird or fish features[12]. Rock art research and studies (mainly in southern Africa) have associated these images with transitions into trance/altered states of consciousness among the San, to whom the art work is attributed. The trance dance is the entry point into the supernatural world, which then informs the artistic and ritualistic images on rock surfaces. This happens as follows:

 When Kalahari shamans dance, they say that animals are attracted to the place; they stand out in the darkness just beyond the firelight, spirit animals, but no less real. They can only be seen by shamans, who draw each other’s attention to them so that they can pool their visions and power. If people are dancing elephant potency, elephants come; if they dance eland potency, eland, the most powerful of all animals, approach. [13]

These images of power are then transferred into rock surfaces. The rock itself is a living medium imbued with its own potency; the paint is made of animal, plant, and other earth-derived substances, and serves the purpose of bringing the supernatural to life in a metaphysical encapsulation. Some of art depicts elephant figures being hunted by a large group of men.  There are, however, numerous examples of painted and engraved elephant figures sometimes shown being hunted by a large party of men.  Elephants are also believed to be associated with rain-making rituals[14]. Thus, it can be argued that the African elephant is tied to African spirituality in numerous ways and it has been so since the beginning of time. Contemporary conservation practices of naming elephants after human beings e.g., Tim and other such-like names, as well as feeding them with carrots, and ultimately turning them into pets to be petted by tourists do not get to the spiritual depths of African conservation philosophy and environmental thought.

Rock paintings of elephants and people in Cederberg, South Africa – estimated at between 2,000 and 6,000 years old. Source: Henry B/Pintrest

The African elephant also feature prominently in totems and other forms of social organization and control in Africa.  A fascinating example comes from the Samburu people of Kenya who perceive elephants as “moral beings capable of hurting and being hurt.”[15] Samburu oral legend comprises of a story that demonstrates the affinity of elephants and human beings. According to Samburu legend, the elephant used to live in the Samburu village and was a servant of women. Thus, the elephant performed women’s duties such as collecting firewood. This close interaction led to an altercation between a woman and elephant about the amount of firewood that the elephant was gathering. Consequently, the elephant took offence and stopped living with the Samburu people henceforth. The elephant departed after issuing a warning that the Samburu people must be careful when they pass by elephants. The Samburu woman also warned the elephant that it should do take caution on seeing Samburu people.[16] Like the story of the Agikũyũ people at the opening of this chapter, this story is another demonstration of African environmental thought which conceives wildlife as co-players in the ecosystems, and as beings from with whom they share responsibilities, expectations, emotions, spaces, and metaphysical connections. The elephant remains a central part of the Samburu ecological thought. Indeed, the Samburu people believe that:

There are many similarities between humans and elephants since elephants have a

trunk that acts like a human arm, breasts similar to women, and skin that resembles

human skin. Consequently, certain taboos exist that prohibit the killing or eating of


This kind of perception is significantly different from the fetishization of elephants that characterizes the mainstream conservation practices, where elephants are closed off in pens, or fenced in, completely removed from communities who have emotional connections and metaphysical linkages with them.  Samburu clans are structured around wildlife including the elephant. Taboos against the consumption of elephants and other wildlife are not unique to the Samburu. They are found for example among the Ikoma of western Serengeti, Tanzania[18] and the Shona of Zimbabwe.[19]  Hence the arguments that trophy hunting is good because it provides ‘starving African villagers’ with meat from amongst others, elephants is not only insulting, but morally, philosophically and intellectually bankrupt. The power of the elephant is enshrined not only in its complete self, but in its constituent parts. In the following passage Okot p’ Bitek shines light on the contradictions between imported cultural/religious practices through the lens of the elephant:

My husband wears

A small crucifix

On his neck,

And all his daughters wear rosaries

But he prohibits me

From wearing the elephant tail necklace

The elephant’s tail metaphor above illustrates the dislocation of cultural practices that connected Africans to their environmental settings. The crucifix and rosary link the African with other deities far removed from their landscapes, and ultimately strangles the knowledge systems, environmental consciousness, and ways of being associated with elephants and their shared landscapes. This act of tearing a society apart or dismembering it can be an entry point into understanding environmental destruction such as wildlife habitats. Why should one be so concerned with elephants and their habitats if their “salvation” lies in the crucifix and rosary? Some communities such as the Samburu have retained cultural practices tied to elephants. For instance, elephant dung is burnt during wedding ceremonies in homes of the newlyweds. The smoke emanating from the burning dung is believed to be blessing, which sends them good wishes as they start their new homes. In addition, dung is also used as a mosquito repellant[20]. Finally, among the Samburu, respect for elephants extends to death as they cover dead elephant carcass with branches.[21] These examples outlined above outline the power encoded in communities and their understanding of their environments and or landscapes. This kind of knowledge or connections with wildlife is rarely tapped by conservationists who are embedded in the pristine wildneress and appendages of the wilderness/wild Africa conceptualizations of conservation. In addition, it made to appear like the only reason why wildlife should be conserved is either for trophy hunters (who will shoot them with their guns) or for tourists (who will shoot them with their cameras).  Communities are at the periphery of the conservation industry as bead makers and dancers, or eating carcasses, which are the by-products of trophy-hunter exploits when they should be taking the centre-stage in shaping policy- as informed by their knowledge systems.

Did Africans make use of elephants beyond just having spiritual attachments to them?  Yes, they did.  Research conducted in southern Africa shows that people in the region were “obtaining ivory from a range of environments, and probably exporting it via Indian Ocean trade routes” by the 7th Century.[22]  Further, ivory trading was taking place in the east African coast by the first millennium AD. [23] Some of the ivory-derived objects emerging from archaeological excavations in southern Africa include ivory bangles or armlets, pointing to domestic usages of ivory as an adornment. [24] Historical records show that in other parts of Africa:

 Whole tusks were brought in as tribute to chiefs from vassals and clients, and ivory was used for personal adornment in an ostentatious display of wealth. More importantly for economic prosperity and political authority, ivory was exchanged for iron and other useful metals that contributed to improved methods of cultivation, as well as for cloth, beads and other goods – in later centuries, firearms and liquor.[25]

 Ivory, has over the course of time, altered relationships between African societies, as well as outsiders.  Access to and control of ivory trade presented opportunities for consolidation of power and wealth of African leaders, and enabled Africans to lay the foundation of societal structures anchored on hierarchy and class[26]. The ‘Ivory Coast’ and the Kingdoms of Asante and Ghana were, for example, founded on the wealth accrued through ivory, along with gold. [27] The rise and fall of southern African kingdoms of Mapungubwe (900-1300AD) and Great Zimbabwe (1100-1450AD) can also be related (in part), with trade in ivory between the two kingdoms, via the east African coast to India and China. [28] Hunting was practiced among all pre-colonial societies in Kenya. This includes farmers and pastoralists, who are believed to not have practiced hunting. Among farming communities for instance:

Hunting for food was a significant element in their economic activity, providing important protein supplements to the otherwise heavily starchy diet. However, food was only one of the reasons farmers hunted. In defence of crops, property or life, many animals from bush pigs and duiker to lion, leopard and elephants were frequently chased from fields and hunted in the bush. In pursuit of wealth and status large game and small were hunted for skins, horns, and other trophies. Tusks, teeth, horn, and hides were used in clothing, medicine and ritual or traded with other items of value. [29]

Elephants, in particular, were therefore valued for a variety of purposes. Their meat was consumed or traded, the skin was used to cover shields and drums, the tendons used as thread, and the bones were carved into a variety of tools or for ritualistic purposes. [30] Through the elephant we see Africans navigating space, solidifying identities, pursuing economic and spiritual goals, living life in all its complexity. To finish, I will return to African orature and share a story that was narrated to me by a Gĩkũyũ elder. As highlighted earlier, African orality was the lens through which teachings were transmitted in African societies.  They were avenues through which people’s consciousness was raised. Several lessons can be derived from this story, including those that help establish more just conservation regimes.

One day, the hare told an elephant that “even if you, elephant, are so big, you cannot pull me.” “I cannot pull you?” wondered the elephant. Hare replied, “no you can’t!” Then the elephant said, “okay, then let us agree on when we can pull each other so that we eliminate any doubt.” The hare said, “let us pull each other on that mountain a week from today.” The hare also went to the hippo and told the hippo that, “hey, hippo even if you are so big you cannot pull me!” The hippo was incensed. The hippo said to the hare, “when can we do that so that we eliminate the doubt?” The hare said, “let us do it a week from now from that mountain over there.” The hippo agreed. So, the day of reckoning came. The hare went to the river, tied the hippo with a chain, and told the hippo, “wait until you hear the sound of the chain from the other side of the mountain and then start pulling.” The hare went to the other side of the mountain and tied the elephant and told the elephant the same. The hare went on top of the mountain and pulled the chain, and the hippo and elephant started pulling each other! They pulled and pulled, and none of them could pull the other. The hare then went to the elephant and said, “now you agree that you cannot pull me.” The elephant agreed. Then, the hare went to the hippo and said, “so you now agree that you cannot pull me, right?” The hippo lowered his head in shame and said, “yes!”

The animals incorporated in this story and their inter-relationships underlines the storytellers acute observations of their surroundings, and their capacity to link animal characteristics to human behaviour and conditions. These animals embody roles which identify with the best or the worst in human behaviour such as cunningness, arrogance, pride, intelligence, cleverness, courage, understanding of complexity, etc. This story celebrates/illuminates the need for justice for the weak and celebration of wit and intelligence. It de-emphasizes size and glamour as the key ingredients for success. When looked at from a the perspective of conservation, this goes against the obsession with the so-called big 5 ( which is derived from trophy hunting narratives) and not looking at ecosystems in a holistic fashion that is comprised of hares and crickets! I began with a proverb ‘an elephant does not die from one broken rib’. I would like to end with another proverb –the elephant does not get tired of its tusks. I invite the reader to reflect on what these two proverbs mean for the practice of conservation in Africa today.

[1] A cultivated piece of land.

[2]  Investigating People-Forest Relationships: Understanding their sustainability through Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Kendi Borona, Doctoral Dissertation (2017)

[3] This includes stories, proverbs, sayings, metaphors, songs and other forms of cultural expressions.

[4] Lara Roseneff Gauvin, In and Out of Culture: Okot p’Bitek’s Work and Social repair in Post-Conflict Acoliland’  Oral Tradition, 28/1 (2013): 35-54

[5] Kuomboka means ‘to get out of the water’

[6] Lozi people are found in three countries– Zambia, Namibia, and Angola, a situation arising out of colonialism.

[7] UNESCO: https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5428/

[8] Lawrence Flint, Contradictions and Challenges in Representing the Past: The Kuomboka Festival of Western Zambia, Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 32, Number 4, December 2006

[9] Personal communication. Victor Syatooka, Zambian historian.

[10] This sentiment is captured by Lawrence Flint who interviewed an African who argued that “Being here makes me feel like an African. I try to come every few years with my brothers. We don’t think it matters that it is a Lozi king being venerated. This is an African event. I feel like an African here surrounded by my people celebrating the African land and culture. I don’t feel that way in Lusaka [Zambia’s capital] and we have mostly lost these things in my homeland. There is nothing like Kuomboka but I would not come if the whites came with their enormous cameras, their safari shorts and their money. The people here would behave differently both to them and to me.”

[11] Emmanuel Osei Boakye, n.d. Symbols on Asante Linguistic staffs

[12] Lewis Williams & Dowson (1989).  Images of Power: Understanding Bushman art

[13] Lewis Williams & Dowson (1990). Through the veil: San Rock Art paintings and the rock face

[14] Yates & Hall (1985).  Trance Performance: The Rock Art of Boontjieskloof and Sevilla

[15] Onesmas Kahindi. Cultural perceptions of elephants by the Samburu in northern Kenya. 2001. Masters dissertation

[16] This legend is adopted from ‘Linking local perceptions of elephants and conservation: Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya’ 2002 . R. Kuriyan

[17] Kuriyan, 2002

[18] Kidegesho (2009). The potentials of traditional African cultural practices in mitigating overexploitation of wildlife species and habitat loss: experience of Tanzania

[19] Fortune & Hodza (n.d). Shona Praise-Poetry

[20] Kuriyan, 2002

[21] Kuriyan, 2002

[22] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[23] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[24] https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2016-12-22-pre-colonial-ivory-trade-earlier-than-thought

[25] Carruthers et al., file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[26] Gordon & Gordon (1996): The elephant in southern Africa: History and Distribution: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[27] Gordon & Gordon (1996): The elephant in southern Africa: History and Distribution: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf

[28] Carruthers et al., file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/01-Chpt-1_History-and-distribution.pdf;

[29] Steinhart – Black poachers, white hunters: A social history of hunting in colonial Kenya

[30] Forssman et al., : https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/39858199/



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

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

Welcome to my world!

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

Twende Kazi!

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

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

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

She was actually pissed by all of this.

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

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

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

Feedback after the interview?

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


Wildlife conservation? Where did that come from? Bizarre!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While working on the consultancy gig I always looked at Linkedin from time to time and sent in applications when I found a suitable job. But by this time I was totally JADED. I was just sending them in for the sake of it. Then one day I saw some job and lazily submitted an application. Surprisingly, they called me back. I had a series of job interviews and got it. I had sent over 300 applications and only got one. Job searching is a job in itself. Such a drain. The job is in my beloved field of conservation and is interesting so ninachapa kazi sawa sawa. About a year into the job I learn that a white male colleague with the same qualifications as me and doing the same exact job is paid up to USD 1,000 more per month than me. WHAT?? Yes. This field of CONservation will just be the end of me as we know it. At some point, I hear about a disease that is spreading around. COVID is the name. I am not too interested or concerned. I do not think it has something to do with me as such. I am just happy the disease has not emerged from Africa. If it had emerged from Africa, we would not hear the last of it. These African SavaGES have eaten bats again! The outbreal of Ebola showed me things. I was in N. America at the time and travel was a nightmare. I would go to the USA and return to Canada and the immigration officer asks me – have you been to Africa? Yeah, because Africa is a village- you can be in Ethiopia in the morning and walk to Sierra Leone to have lunch. I wish these people knew how hard for Africans to travel within Africa. Things unfold so quickly and within a very short time, I have no job – because of COVID! Ninapigwa na butwaa! Whaaaaat? It is back to the drawing board.

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


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


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

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

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


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

Other blogposts in these series (in order):

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

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.

Tips for surviving the west as an African graduate student

First, I recommend you read the other two blogs in this series about undertaking graduate studies in the west. Here and here.

Now, let us get straight to it. These tips are not for those kids from rich families who are studying in the west. These are for the poverty stricken lot, those who are on scholarships – those who are struggling to survive out there.

  1. You need to find something known as a thrift store. This a store where mtumba/second hand stuff is sold. In Kenya, mtumba is also rereferred to as ‘clothes for dead white people’. Just a quick aside -I was among the group of people who used to think that these clothes came here because THEY pitied Africans. That THEY were donating them to US. I have since rescued myself from ignorance. This whole enterprise is a multi-billion dollar industry. Its one of the arms of the industry of poverty. When Kagame said he did not want these clothes in Rwanda, he was threatened with all sorts of sanctions by the USA. Kenya too. Kenya put its tail between its legs and retreated. I think Rwanda is the sole African country that is still saying no to this stuff. Anyway, back to the thrift store. Find one. Here you can buy those ‘clothes for dead white people’ and other items at a much cheaper price than you would buy at other outlets.


2. Your other best friend should be something known as a dollar store. As the name suggests, items are sold at a dollar or slightly more than that. If its cheap, its not good quality, but you are not very interested in quality at this point. Buy stuff here and save your coins!


3. Look out for sales! There are genuine sales out there. Sniff them out and take advantage as appropriate. Get into reward programs. These can be in stores/supermarkets, etc. You can accumulate some points, which you can exchange for products. It is all about saving/stretching the dollar. If you hear of anything that entails getting discounts take it on. Sometimes some stores have discounts for students. Do not be shy to ask if a store/outlet has this.


4. Find out which are the cheap places to buy groceries. For my case stores/supermarkets were not it. A fellow graduate student introduced me to Chinese and Indian shops. The price is much better here. You should also try and find out if there is an African store(s) around. The ones that we had in Vancouver sold more of west African food items. The only East Africa product I found there was flour for making Ugali. If you love your fufu, yams, gari, etc, this is the place to get that. I did not care much for Ugali before moving to Vancouver, but after living there and not being able to get it easily, it became a delicacy!


5. Get to know fellow African students. When I was very new and green I thought that joining African clubs on campus was one way of meeting African students. I went for a meeting of one of these associations and never returned. A Ghanian graduate student described these clubs as a conglomeration of kids of African ministers and politicians. I had never thought about it like this. He was very adamant. I am not hanging out with the progeny of the people who have made my country and continent an economic nightmare. In those clubs you find those Africans who speak with phony accents. If you are a suffering/surviving African find those of your lot! Those are the people who helped me especially with getting housing and other matters.

NB: there are also Africans who do not want to associate with other Africans because they want to be white. There are Africans out there who would not want to even look at another African. Those would turn away when they see you. Pathetic lot!


6. Create networks with other students from the Global South. Meeting and forging relationships with students from Africa, South America, First Nations, and Asia was one of the highlights of my time there. These are those that Fanon referred to as The Wretched of the Earth. Some of these relationships have remained alive past my time there. Through these students you experience inter-cultural dialogue and exchanges through amongst others, food. As I mentioned in the last post, it was a student from Peru who led me to the work of Chilisa Bagele on Indigenous research methodologies. I also met wonderful people from the Global North. I forged relationships with some of them. A common characteristic of all of these people are that they had either worked in Africa or were conducting their research in Africa or work with indigenous peoples. Authentic human beings! I am not talking about those people who do extractive research in Africa and those who have a white saviour complex. I am talking about people who have been working with the communities they partner with for years. People who undertake their research in the most respectful manner. People who are committed to forging long-term mutually beneficial relationships with the people they work with.


7. By all means, try and find accommodation outside campus unless you have a scholarship that pays for your accommodation. This way you will get a better understanding of the city/area you are living in as you will have to commute and move around. Getting accommodation was a hassle and a half. This is one of the places where the dragon of racism rears its head quite prominently. Living on campus is a bit like living in a bubble. Living off campus gave me a change to explore many places. There is plenty of stuff to see. Most of the parks are free. Students in my uni had a bus pass. We used to pay for this with the tuition fees. Through this you could use the bus to go to many places without incurring extra costs. The pic below is of my sister Aneeta and I at this amazing work of art in downtown Vancouver. It showcases a diversity of human expressions.


8. Navigating supervisory committees. A committee is a group of professors, including your supervisor who oversee your whole research process to the end. The number can vary from 3-5. Understanding supervisory committees and related issues is CRITICAL. For this you need to really find good people in your department to explain to you what the process is like, what the politics at play is, who you need to have on your side and so on. You need to be really smart about it. Your supervisory committee can be a nightmare if you do not get the right people. If you get people who cannot agree on anything or who have inflated egos, you are in for extreme frustration. Senior graduate students who know the professors well are your go to people. They can help you understand this/guide you on how to set it up.


9. Searching for jobs. You know the way you think of the west as the place where there is no nepotism, how its a merit based society, etc. Drop that thinking. I quickly realized that the only way to get jobs in the department was to be introduced to a Professor by another student who had worked for them. I had made good friends in my lab and they offered to introduce me to Profs they had worked for. The first friend introduced me to a Prof who was teaching communication skills or something along those lines. When we met the Prof – a white lady, she asked me if English was my first language and which schools I had gone to. She said she was looking for someone who had English as their first language or was from Europe/had studied in Europe or North America. She was totally blunt about it. I understood all of this to mean she did not want some African student for the job. I was so discouraged because that was my first shot and thought there was hope because my friend was confident that the Prof would consider me. Apparently, my English was not good enough. The friend who had taken me there was Spanish. The job was given to a student from Latin America and later to a German student. Of course English is not the first language for either of them. Another friend offered to introduce me to another Prof who was teaching the fundamentals of conservation. This one worked out! I worked like a dog to prove myself so that she could consider me for the job the next semester.


What’s the job?

Teaching Assistant(TA) – the role involves supporting the Prof in teaching duties. The bulk of it entails grading assignments/exams and guiding students as they work on their assignments and such. In some cases it also entails giving of lectures. Guiding students? Yes. Students are totally spoon fed there. If the assignment is an essay, a student can work on a draft and send it to the TA. The TA can tell tell them if they are on the right track, what they should include, etc. Despite all this available support, not all the students get A’s. Students even have access to support from Librarians who can show them how to use citations, but some cannot even use citations properly! If I had this kind of support in my undergrad, I would be getting A’s in each course.

After getting this job, I was in the system. As long as you do a good job, its much easier to get others. It also helps if the Prof you have worked for can put in a good word for you with other Profs.


10. Relatives demanding for gifts! We have a phenomenon spread across the Global South it appears. Since we have been totally convinced that the west is the land of milk and honey and people collect money on the streets and on trees, you will find a scenario where relatives of students demand all sorts of gifts when students are returning home. This is a huge stress on many students. I know students who never used to go home because they just could not cope with the demands from their relatives. I also know students who spent 1,000 dollars and above buying gifts for relatives and ending up in quite tight financial situations. They work so hard to raise the air fare, and then they have to work some more to find money to buy relatives presents. Bring me an iphone. Bring me a handbag. Bring me a play station. The student who is being asked for all this stuff does not have any of these things. I used to ask some of them why they could not just buy cheap gifts. Apparently, the relatives will take offence if you take them something that does not look expensive. People are unable to differentiate two types of people – people working abroad and students studying abroad. Some of those who work abroad are able to buy expensive gifts for their people. Relatives expect students to match this level of giving. By the way, even some of those who are working struggle with this gifting thing. People are not swimming in money there. The majority are working terribly hard and only manage to pay bills and get by. Please, please if you know a student who is there NEVER ask them for anything. PLEASE. Give them support of whatever nature, encourage them. Do not add to their stress and misery with these demands.

I was lucky; I did not have this problem.

In Kenya the west is referred to as Majuu in urban slang. Literally, this would translate to somewhere that is high but the connotation is a better place, right? Where Machini is, I do not know. I find this terminology very unfortunate because its part of the architecture that sustains the scenario that I have outlined above. Its a justification and acceptance of the asymmetrical economic structure present in the world today.


11. Working off campus. Depending on your university, visa/study permit, you could be allowed to work off campus. What kind of jobs can you find off campus? All the Global South students I knew who had jobs outside campus worked as security guards, cleaners, baby seaters, or as tellers in supermarkets. Most of the men did those security jobs. I knew an African nun who worked as a teller in a supermarket. As you know, a nun/sister is a person who has very good social standing in Africa. Have you ever seen a nun working as a cashier in a supermarket? In Kenya, nuns live in Karen and such like places. But this student told me she did the math and saw she could not just survive. She asked another African who worked in that supermarket to help her get the job. These kind of jobs pay just about the minimum wage or slightly above. Now imagine asking such a person for an iphone! It is cruel.


12. White beggars. Yes, there are white beggars. I know people in many parts of Africa cannot conceptualize this. In Kenya, white people live in the best neighborhoods. Those who venture into poor areas do so because they are working with the poor. There are no poor white people in Kenya. During my very first days on campus I encountered a white beggar. When she first asked me for money, I did not hear what she said. She was on a wheel chair so I thought she wanted help. I leaned in and she said: MONEY! In a rather aggressive manner I must add. I left that place very fast. I once met a Kenyan who had lived in Vancouver for a long time. One time his mother came to visit them. She ventured into downtown Vancouver and a beggar approached her. She was so shocked that she launched into Dholuo and said: A white person is begging me!!? The tip here is that you should just get used to it. There are white beggars. There are poor white people. I know there are Africans who cannot process this and give them money.


13. Jehovah witnesses and the like. These people know that Africans are just ultra religious. They see an African, they see a potential convert. They will come talk to you. They even tried to convert a friend of mine who is a buddhist and told her she will go to hell for not converting. Another Ghanian friend was nice enough to let them to his house. They started coming every Saturday and he was too nice to tell them not to come. He just kept complaining on the side. I am not sure what they were converting him from because he is a Christian. If you like these religious things, these people might not be a problem to you. If you do not not, just do not entertain them.

14. Haloween pumpkins. Pumpkins are a central part of Haloween decor. You find pumpkins displayed all over. My friend and I thought that this was a ridiculous waste of food. We stole two of them from the department and carried them home. We were so worried of having been captured by the security cameras and having our faces stuck on the noticeboard as pumpkin thieves. It would have been quite the scandal. The pumpkin turned out to be totally tasteless and a total waste of my time and energy. I had to haul it on a 45-minute bus ride from campus. Never mind the stress and worry of having been captured on the cameras. Do not bother stealing those. It is totally not worth it.


15. Speaking in class. If you come from a system where students do not speak in class like I did, you will struggle with this one. All courses have a participation grade. Part of this grade is allocated for speaking/making contributions in class. I thought you should say something when you really have a compelling argument to make. This is not the case. White people have mastered the art of talking. Someone can go on and on in class and when they finish, you cannot tell what point they just made. But that is how you get participation grades! I got quite low marks in one class because I did not say much. The same Ugandan nun/student I mentioned in the previous blog told me to ensure that no class ends before I say something. That is just how it is.

One strange thing you will find is that students eat in class. Someone can just whip out a carrot and go CRUNCH! Or even a plate of salad or whatever and just start eating while the class is in session. All this is accepted.

Let me stop this here.

I hope these tips are helpful to somebody out there. Feel free to add other tips in the comments section.

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. 


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. 


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!


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.


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.


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!


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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

How to apply for graduate school in North America

When I completed my masters at the University of Nairobi, I was completely DONE with education. DOOONEE Kabisa! The masters had bruised me. I was doing it while working and it was a hassle and a half. Story for another day.  Anyone mentioning PhD stuff to me shortly after my masters got a very nice rebuke.  Three years later, I started looking for a PhD programme.  Why the change of mind? I was in a job that was not secure. It was in the NGO world. Whether you have a job from one year to the next in that world is dependent on donor funding.  At that point the organization was in dire straits. It was a struggle. At some point we all took a pay cut and worked for  four days a week, instead of five. I was looking for jobs elsewhere, but none were forthcoming. Then I thought: Why not look for a PhD programme?



That would tie me down to something for 4+ years. I was tired of living year to year in the NGO world.  In addition, I used to work with a lot of archaeologists and anthropologists and I admired them. I thought it was nice to dedicate your time to understanding something. To be an expert in something.  And thus, the search for a PhD program began. I registered at the University of Nairobi- I think that was actually two years after my masters. I even paid fees for the first semester. I went for orientation. The room in which this was conducted was poorly arranged.  Just a normal classroom, nothing fancy – some chairs facing this way others facing that way.  Along  one of the classroom walls was one of those big yellow Chinese dragons. I was so irritated by the fact that this orientation for PhD students was being conducted in a room that was not well organized. They could not even be bothered to remove this dragon from the room! This is a sign of things to come, I thought to myself.  The professors came in and assured us that people actually do graduate with PhD’s from the Uni of Nairobi, without being made to suffer for like 10 years. I was not convinced. I kept looking at the dragon! I sat through the presentation, but decided I would not go through with it. I withdrew from the programme. False start. Yes, they gave me my money back. They retained a small percentage, I do not recall how much.

Source: Britannica.com

I cast my gaze elsewhere. I started looking at North America and Europe. I was even willing to do another masters if it came with a scholarship. I tried several Erasmus Mundus programs and got nothing.  I had a friend who was studying the USA at the time. I asked her what the procedure was. She told me that the first step is to secure the interest of a professor who is willing to supervise you. How do you do that? You have to write to them and sell yourself, your research interests, etc.  I will talk about that later in this blog.  So, I started writing to Profs in the USA. Some of them expressed interest and asked me to apply. This required you to pay registration fees of up to USD 50 for each application. I think I applied for two. Never got nothing! Other Professors did not even bother to respond to my emails.


I had a friend of a friend who was  doing her PhD in the environmental field in the USA. She would check my letters to Profs in various colleges in the USA. In one of my many letters I wrote that my inspiration was the work of Wangari Maathai and then in brackets I wrote RIP. Wa! The scolding I got! What is RIP!? How do you expect people to know that!? On and on it went. I generally think that people who have studied in the USA are quite harsh in their feedback and or critique. I gave up on sending my letters to her to check. She was also very surprised that I did not know Jane Goodall! How can you be in the environmental field and not know Jane Goodall? That was another bout of scolding. Knowing what I know about Jane Goodall now, I feel no remorse/shame of not knowing her or her work then.  I completely gave up on the USA because all unis required that you either do GRE or GMAT. I did GRE and FAILED flat. That was a total waste of my money aki. I do not think these tests are a good measure of assessing one’s intelligence by the way. I would still fail even if I did them today. So, what to do? I was groping in the darkness. I sort of took a break from it for a while and just continued working and job searching.  All this time I had not really firmed up what I wanted to do discipline-wise. I just knew it had to be in the environmental field.


One time a friend visited me. We were looking at my pictures from a recent trip to Mt. Kenya forest. She knew about my search for graduate schools. She told me: You should study something to do with forests. Look at you in this picture. This is the happiest I have seen you. I need to frame this picture and put it somewhere in my house, because from then on I got some kind of focus. I had been working on cultural heritage sites and some of them were situated within forested ecosystems. I loved being in those sites. I had at this point read all of Wangari Maathai’s three text – Unbowed, The challenge for Africa, and Replenishing the earth.  It all came together. I now started looking for a programme that was focusing on forests. In January 2012,  I attended a conference in Jordan. In a conversation with some colleagues, I mentioned that I was looking for a PhD program related to forests. One of them asked me if I had looked at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. I had never heard of it. When I got back to Kenya, I looked at the website and started writing to Profs there. So, here goes the procedure.

In Mt. Kenya forest


Step 1: Look at the website of the faculty you want to study in and look at the Professor’s profiles therein. Usually, there are detailed profiles outlining their experience, expertise, areas of research interest, whether they are recruiting graduate students, etc.  The next step is to find those that align with your own research interests. You may not have very refined interests at this point, but it would be good to have a rough idea of what you want to do.


Step 2: Start writing to these Profs. You can start with one or cast your net wide. I started with one. Once rejected, I would move to the next.  Usually, the response will be along the lines of: I am not accepting any new students, I do not have funding, I am about to retire, etc. Those are the ones I got. Prepare to receive rejection. How do you make sure that they respond to your inquiry? If you write a one paragraph that is not compelling or a few lines, do not expect a response. Your letter has to be detailed and compelling. Here is the letter I sent to various Profs.  And by the way, do not even bother try selling poverty – we Africans have been trained to sell poverty. I am poor, please help me. Steer clear from the line of argument. That will not get you very far. What people want to see is what you have achieved, what you want to achieve, what value you will add to their department, etc.


Step 3: Let us assume you get someone who is willing to supervise you. This can happen in cases where a Prof has research funding and is looking for students to conduct that research. In this case, then they will just tell you to submit an application to the university. Mine did not follow this route. I wrote to several Profs and got rejections. Then one of them responded. She was a director of an institute within the faculty of forestry. She told me she could not supervise me directly, but could co-supervise because of her academic standing. Only those who are hired as assistant professors or full professors can supervise. She then sent me a link to apply for a very competitive scholarship.The Graduate Global Fellowship. The deadline was tight. I had to collate all the materials required and apply within a week.  And I got it.  I had been so used to rejection at that point that when I could not believe something could actually go my way. I was energized! Once I got it, it became easier to find a supervisor. Professors do not want to take on students if they are not sure of funding sources. This is fully understandable. The program is expensive and highly demanding.  So, at this point I now had a supervisor and was invited to apply for the degree program through the university. And that is how I got admitted to do my PhD at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. This is in Canada’s west coast.

During my first year at Uni of BC. Cherry blossom trees are a major attraction in Spring ( especially, March to April)

Please note:  A major difference between universities in Kenya and North America is that you have to secure the interest of someone who is willing to supervise you first. In the case of Uni of Nairobi, all I did is fill in an application form, paid and then got admission.


Step 4: Once you receive your admission letter, you can start the gruesome process of applying for a visa and study permit. I think this one deserves its own blog post. But let me just say I felt very humiliated throughout this visa process application. They tested me for Syphilis! There is this clinic where you have to go to near village market in Nairobi. You are tested for TB, Pregnancy, Aids, Shyphilis! And then the results are sent to some place in London for assessment. If you do not pass these medical tests, you are not getting the visa and  you can forget all your study abroad aspirations. At that point I thought there must not be any kind of diseases in Canada. That if they were to get there, it was via people like me. I was shocked to get there and learn that there are STD epidemics in some regions, Aids, and all manner of ailments. Shyphilis was brought to Africa by Europeans, by the way. Let me not  even get into that for now.


Note: I asked my friends from Europe if they were tested for all this stuff and they told me no. All this costs money. I think I paid up to the tune of KES 30,000  (USD 300) for all the required tests. This is how poverty is entrenched good people. Those without money have to keep paying for all manner of stuff. There is also a cost for the visa, ofcourse!


Step 5: You have been declared to be disease free, and therefore fit to venture into the New World, alias the land of milk and honey. Your visa and study permit can now be issued. After this you are free to go depending on when the date of reporting for your uni is.


The next blogs I need to write are:

  1. How to survive in the west as an African student. My scholarship was CAD 21,000 per year (including fees). When I saw that money and converted to KES I thought I had hit the jackpot. One of my supervisors had told me that Vancouver, where UBC is located is a very expensive city and it is difficult to survive on that kind of money. I said ahhhhh I am an African, I know how to survive/live on little. We! I will tell you how I almost dropped out of my PhD program in the first year…not  a year actually, first semester! I even wrote a letter to my former boss asking to get my job back, but ended up not sending the email. DRAMA!


  1. How to navigate race and racism. I will share with you my struggles to find housing as an African student. I will tell you about a time when I sent my  friend to look at a house for me. When she told the landlord that I was from Africa, the landlord inquired about whether I was white or black. My friend stormed out of the house in a huff and in furry! Then she gave me the email of the landlord and I went all Martin Luther King on her …..I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin, but by the content of my character, I thundered! I have nice, nice stories for you. Stay tuned.


  1. The ins and outs of a PhD program. The struggle! GawD! How to navigate supervisory committees, what is a committee? how to create networks, how to get additional jobs, how to not go crazy!


  1. I am not sure if this should be a separate blog on its own, but I need to write about job search after PhD. And ultimately, whether a PhD is worth it or not! And whether studying in North America is worth all the hassle or not!

This is the friend who was helping me search for a house. I was doing my fieldwork in Kenya at the time and not in Canada. 

Disclaimer: There might be other procedures for application, but this is the one I am familiar with.

Letter written to Professors re PhD Programme

Dear Dr. XXX,
My name is Kendi Borona, and I am from Kenya.  I am writing to inquire about the possibility of doing a Ph.D. in the Department of Forest Resource Management at the University of British Columbia.I received my Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyatta University  (in Nairobi) in environmental studies with a focus on community development.  Following my undergraduate training, I decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration with a specialization in strategic management from the University of Nairobi.I have been searching for Ph.D. programs that fit my specific career plans, and after reading about the mandate, and accomplishments of the Department of Forest Resource Management, I have realized that it appears to be a perfect fit for me because of its focus on conservation and sustainable management of forests, woodlands and wild lands.  I have explored the program website in detail, and have found that it is aligned with my research and training interests, and my future career.  One of the most attractive aspects of the Forest Resources Management Department profile is its research foci in engagement with indigenous people in sustainable approaches to natural resource management and conservation challenges.  These themes are precisely in line with my career objectives and I feel that the calibre of training and preparation I would receive in the Department would prepare me for the challenges I wish to confront.
I am a professional environmental conservation specialist with seven year’s work experience (please refer to my c.v. for details).  Over the course of my academic and professional career I have developed a deep interest in the sustainable management of natural resources and cultural landscapes, and the interface between the two. I have worked with diverse communities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania  and Malawi in programs designed to ensure conservation of natural and cultural heritage and improvement of community livelihoods. I strongly believe that the answers to the long-term conservation of natural resources lies with  empowering, and working with, local/indigenous communities. Some of the work I have been involved with has dealt with the conception, construction, and management of forest ecosystems and I have developed a strong interest in their function and preservation, especially  through constructive community engagement. I am actively involved in the preparation and editing of professional reports and  fundraising proposals.
I have worked with diverse stakeholders; government bodies, NGO’s, multi-lateral agencies and community  based organizations.   To this end, for my Ph.D. program, I wish to not only deepen my knowledge of the field, but make  innovative contributions to theory, practice, and policy of sustainable forest systems.  I believe my work experience has given me a well-rounded perspective towards understanding the dynamics of community management of forest resources.Additionally, my unique worldview, specifically from previous work throughout Africa and Australia,would be a valuable asset in pursuit of my Ph.D. in the challenging forest resources management program.  I also feel that my experience would contribute to the diversity of the Department and complement it’s varied research themes. My research interests are in the field of sustainable management of  forest resources through involvement of forest dependent communities, the inter linkages between conservation and development  and decentralization of forest management as a conservation strategy. To this end I have conceived three broad research topics that I wouldlike to pursue at UBC:
1. The economic impact of decentralization of forest management in Kenya.
2. Traditional governance systems and the management of forest ecosystems.
3. The effectiveness of fencing of forest ecosystems in Kenya as a conservation strategy; An
     analysis of the social economic and environmental impacts.
I noticed from your profile that your research interests concentrate on forest ecosystem services and you are working in China, Mozambique and Uganda. I also appreciate the fact that you are an advocate for interdisciplinary research. Since my own research interests overlap with yours I foresee an exciting opportunity to break new ground together and to develop my ideas and learn in a dynamic environment.
Part of my desire to pursue a Ph.D., and to reach the highest levels of influence in management and policy in this field, is related to the belief that learning is a continuous process.  Thus, I want to push the boundaries of my understanding of forest ecosystems, sustainable economies, and human-environmental interactions, and make critical contributions to this vast endeavor.  Additionally, I know that we learn from a plethora of sources, and our teachers wear many hats, from academic specialists, government managers, NGO employees, through to local stakeholders, and the traditionalenvironmental knowledge of elders and native people.  Finally, I am confident  that my personal and professional qualities and skills that I have acquired over the years have prepared me to fulfill the requirements  for entering, and completing, my Ph.D.  in the Forest Resources Management Department at the University of British Columbia. I have attached  my curriculum vitae , and would be pleased to provided further information upon request.
Thank you for your time and consideration.  I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours faithfully,
 Kendi Borona

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.

Bojo beach

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.




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


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


Banana beer
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


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.


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.


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.


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.


Reading Adam Hochschild’s ‘ King Leopold’s Ghost’

Our fathers were living comfortably….They had cattle and crops; they had salt marshes and banana trees

Suddenly they saw a big boat rising out of the great ocean

This boat had wings all of white, sparkling like knives

White men came out of the water and spoke words which no one understood

Our ancestors took fright; they said these were vumbi, spirits returned from the dead

They pushed them back into the ocean with volleys of arrows

But the vumbi spat fire with a noise of thunder

Many men were killed. Our ancestors fled

The chiefs and wise men said that these vumbi were former possesors of the land….

From that time to our days now the whites have brought us nothing but war and miseries

 Excerpt from King Leopold’s Ghost

I have just finished reading ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, and I am filled with SORROW! How come I have never been taught about this massive brutalization of Africans in all my many years in the education system!?? I was never been taught about this, but I was taught about the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, Ludwig Krapf and Livingstone! What injustice! I first learnt about this book and the injustices in the Congo via Facebook. I have learnt more about Africa from what people share on FB than from the school system. I WANT my MONEY back!!! Aki.

Our system of education needs a complete overhaul!

Another point: I hear our lousy uncle Tom/homeguard politicians saying subjects like history and anthropology are not important. This is a historical/anthropological text. These kinds of subjects are more critical than anything – especially for those that Fanon referred to as “The Wretched of the Earth”.



King Leopold’s Ghost  is a deeply moving book. It  is a historical account of the colonial enterprise in the Congo; very good entry point into understanding why Congo continues to unravel today. The book is about unparalleled greed personified in the figure of King Leopold of Belgium. It is about underbelly of white supremacy, resistance to injustice, and about the triumph of the human spirit.

About Henry Morton Stanley

As I have said above, I remember being taught about this “explorer” somewhere in the pipeline of the still very colonial school system. We were told that Stanley was great. No mention was made of his reign of terror in the Congo. It was Henry Morton Stanley (HMS) who helped King Leopold lay the foundation for conquest in the Congo. HMS was an absolute tyrant. He was a murderer, a slave driver, deeply racist, a maniac, a person who was running away from his own demons. He saw this life of exploration as the avenue through which to build his severely damaged self esteem. Africa is where you go to feel good about yourself/to discover yourself. It still happens today – rife in the Lords of Poverty Industries – Conservation and the Humanitarianism.  The books he published following his exploration(s) include: ‘Through the dark continent’, ‘In darkest Africa’,  and my ‘ Dark companions.’  A keen reader will not fail to see which word he thought was the best descriptor of African peoples. When I posted about HMS on FB my fellow African said “But surely, he must have done something good.” You can always count on Africans to make great concessions to their tormentors. It is tied to education systems and Christianity. We are supposed to forgive all and turn the other cheek! What did the people of the Congo then think about HMS?

His name produces a shudder among this simple folk when mentioned; they remember his broken promises, his copious profanity, his hot temper, his heavy blows, his severe and rigorous measures, by which they were mulcted of their hands.

Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Henry Morton Stanley. Source: The Wilson Quarterly 

The above was reported by George Washington Williams, an African-American, who bothered to ask Africans what they thought of Stanley.  Other writers and Europeans who went to the region did not think that Africans had any thoughts about anything.  After all, the Europeans belief about Africa at the time was that it was a:

dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk who mapped the world about 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg, three faces, and heads of lions. In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant  through the air.


Top: George Washington Williams 

An African person was thought to be the product of a mindless state, full of coarse feelings, with rough passions, brutish instincts, proud and vain. Further:

The black man’s principal occupation, and that to which he dedicates the greatest part of his existence, consist of stretching out on a mat in the warm rays of the sun, like a crocodile in the sand…..the black man has no idea of time, and, questioned on that subject by a European, he generally responds with something stupid.

These images of Africa and African people have continued to haunt the continent and its peoples today. But the most painful thing is that Africans themselves have absorbed and legitimized this kind of deficit theorizing.  People who were running very complex societies, trading, cultivating crops, herding livestock, fishing, who had absolute authority over their lives were just lying under a mat without a plan?  If you want to conquer a people, you do not tell them how great they are. You tell them that they are a useless and hopeless lot.


Lazy Africans carrying their very hardworking colonial master? Source: Sphere Influence 

Tendrils of Resistance

It must be pointed out that Africans did not acquiesce to their fate. When the slave and colonial marauders entered their land, there was resistance from the very beginning. Sample this:

Yet sometimes, event through those records, we can glimpse the determination of those who resisted the King [Leopold]. In Katanga in the far south, warriors from the Sanga people were led by a chief named Mulume Niama. Though the state troops were armed with artillery, his forces pit up a stiff fight, killing one officer and wounding three soldiers. They then took refuge in a large chalk cave called Tshamakele. The Force Publique [the King’s army] commander ordered his men to light fires at the three entrances to the cave to smoke the rebels out, and after a week he sent an emissary to negotiate Mulume Niama’s surrender. The chief and his men refused. Soldiers lit the fires again and blocked the cave for three month. When the troops finally entered it, they found 178 bodies. Fearful of leaving any signs of a matyr’s grave, the Force Publique soldiers triggered landslides to obliterate all traces of the existence of the Tshamakele cave and of the bodies of Mulume Niama and his men.

Yes, the lazy people who were just lying under the mat and answering questions in a stupid manner had the stamina to launch resistance, and even opt for death as an alternative to living under this vile regime.

Leopold and handless victims
King Leopold and his victims. Source: African Exponent. 

The Apparatus of exploitation

The Congo, like other parts of Africa was conquered through the morally bankrupt notion of terra nullius/vacant land, and questionable treaties with real chiefs or manufactured chiefs. Once this was done, a reign of terror and horror was instituted. What is a better way to consolidate your presence in the colony than constructing a railway line through a slavery regime?

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads., and the clink kept time with their footsteps….I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope, each had an iron collar on his neck and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. These were the laborers starting work on Leopold’s Railway.

Railway construction
Construction of King Leopold’s railway 

It is also important to note that when it became untenable for whites in America’s South to hold slaves, the Congo was thought of a suitable place to relocate the African-Americans. They did not want people of African descent in the South. Of what use were they if they were not slaves? How was this scheme to be instituted? Through Christianity.  The Presbyterian church in particular voted to begin sending African-American missionaries to Congo so that they could evangelize in the land of their ancestors. Wherever there is injustice, Christianity is always there – either to sanitize, or to entrench, or both!

King Leopold’s slavery regime in the Congo. Source: KJ Vids 

The rubber regime

In addition to ivory, one of the most sought after products was rubber. Wild rubber. The machinery of extraction was instituted through extreme violence. When I read these sections, I was engulfed in sadness, and could not continue reading the book for days. Listen to this:

No payments of trinkets or brass wire were enough to make people stay in the flooded forest for days a time and to do work that was so arduous –and physically painful. A gatherer had to dry the syrup-like rubber so that it would coagulate, and often the only way to do so was to spread the substance on his arms, thighs, and chest. The first few times it is not without pain that the man pulls off the hairy parts of his body. ….the Native doesn’t like making rubber. He must be compelled to do it.

How was he to be compelled?

 An example of what is done was to….the office was to arrive at a village…, the inhabitants invariably bolted on arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grains, etc  out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women. The women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the District brought in the required number of kilograms of rubber. The rubber having been bought, the women were sold to their owners for a couple of goats a piece and so continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.

In addition:

If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, a state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone on sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not “wasted” in hunting or worse yet, saved for possible use in a mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. “Sometimes, said one officer to a missionary, soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man.” In some military units there was even a keeper of the hands.


The hand was not the only sought after body part. Heads were too. Some of the European officers used the severed hands of Africans as decorations in their gardens. This mirrors the current tussle between Africans like Herero people with museums in Germans over the skulls of their ancestors, which are stored there. And Germany is refusing to hand over these body parts because they are being used for “science” for the benefit of the world. Macabre! Just macabre! Stories about the  cruelty in the Congo are preserved in legend, stories and encoded in their language(s).

05.29 cong_hands_1904
A Congolese worker called Nsala with the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali. Source: Libcom.org 

Source: KJ Vids 

I weep for Patrice Lumumba

At independence in 1960 Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister stood on the podium and told the Belgians and the world that  we are no longer your monkeys.  Lumumba’s premiership did not last for long. How could it? Like all other sensible African leaders, he was killed by empire/white supremacists. CIA chief Allen Dulles referred to him as a “Mad dog”. Mobutu Sese Seko killed him with the support of the  full support of the USA. Following Lumumba’s death, empire installed their stooge Mobutu and the plunder of the Congo continued unhindered.


Lumumba potrait
Source: Aprecon


Mobutu Sese seko
Left: Mobutu Sese Seko. Source: BBC

Lumumba is immortalized in our hearts, especially those of us who care about the total liberation of African peoples.

Lumumba [is] the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody. He had those people so scared they had to kill him. They couldn’t buy him, they couldn’t frighten him, they couldn’t reach him. Why, he told the king of Belgium, ‘Man, you may have let us free, you may have given us our independence, but we can never forget these scars.’ The greatest speech — you should take that speech and tack it up over your door. This is what Lumumba said: ‘You aren’t giving us anything. Why, can you take back these scars that you put on our bodies? Can you give us back the limbs that you cut off while you were here?

– Malcolm X at a rally in the Audubon Ballroom June 28, 1964


Mobutu Sese Seko and the farce of flag independence

Mobutu was a darling of AmeriKKKa. Ronald Reagan received him at the white house several times praising him as a voice of good sense and good will. George Bush thought of him as one of AmeriKKKa’s most valued friends.  This is how Africa is plundered:

Early on, the western powers had spotted Mobutu as someone who could look out for their interests. He had received cash payments from the local CIA man and western military attaches while Lumumba’s murder was being planned. Wearing dark glasses and his general uniform with gold braid and a sword, he later met President Kennnedy in the White House in 1963. Kennedy gave him an airplane for personal use and a US Air force crew to fly it for him……USA supported him with over a billion dollars in aid and thwarted attempts to overthrow him.

Mobutu lived a lavish life at the expense of the Congolese people and open up the country to empire. He, like other African uncle Toms/ betrayers of the people, believed he was white. His life and lifestyle mirrored that of Leopold. Massive wealth obtained through plunder, predisposition to extreme violence, narcissism,  and a deep disdain for Africans. Indeed, Mobutu’s villa in the French Riviera – mirrored those of Leopold.

Mobutu with Richard Nixon in Washington D.C.  Source: Wikipedia 

Turning yourself into the victim

One of the things I found most bizzare is the capacity and capability of some of the white people who worked in the Congo, was their propensity to turn themselves into the victim. Here is a perfect example of this:

I had two sentries drag him to the front of the store, where his wrists were tied together. Then standing him up against a post with his arms raised high above his head, they tied him securely to a crossbeam.I now has them raise him by tightening the rope until his toes touched the floor…so I left the poor wretch. All night long he hung there, sometimes begging for mercy, sometimes in a kind of swoon. …At last when the morning came and my men cut him down, he dropped unconscious in a heap on the ground. Take him away, I ordered. Whether he lived or not, I do not know. Now sometimes in my sleep I think I am the poor devil and half a hundred black fiends are dancing…about me. I wake up with a great start and I find myself covered with a cold sweat. Sometimes I think it is I who has suffered most in the years that have passed since that night.

The nerve!! This completely twists everything around to make us start having empathy for the oppressor and not for man who was left hanging on a post overnight. It reminds of something I read in a book called ‘Slaveship’ by Marcus Rediker about the slave trader John Newton. He wrote the famous song ‘Amazing Grace’. Netwton  continued engaging in the slave trade even after his conversion to Christianity. He was in the slave ships. He saw all manner of brutality meted out to slaves and he participated in some of it himself. Then, he turns around and writes a song Amazing grace….how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…I was blind, now I see.  He makes it all about himself and not the real wretched of the earth who were writhing with pain and sorrow in the ships. Newton creates his own narratives an centres himself as the victim. It is just fascinating – in a very twisted kind of way.

Ivory trading in colonial Congo. 

Joseph Conrad

Conrad is referenced heavily in this book. I have not read his book ‘Heart of Darkness’, but I have read a variety of opinions regarding his work on documenting brutalities in the Congo. The most prominent of his critics is Chinua Achebe, who claims that Conrad represents Africans as people without heads. While this book uses a lot of Conrad’s narrative to weave the story together, it also provides a balanced perspective on who he was or what he stood for. Conrad felt that “liberty …can only be found under the English flag all over the world”. And at the very time he was denouncing the European lust for African riches in his novel, he was an investor in a gold mine in Johannesburg. Hochschild argues that Conrad was afflicted by the “white man’s notion that he is less savage than other savages.” Alas!



When Leopold succumbed to pressure and handed his solo colony to Belgium, he burnt most of the records, which would be incriminating. Anything that pointed to a whiff of violence, plundering of resources, greatly profiting from the wealth and sweat of Congolese people was burnt. This reminds of the burning of documents by the British when they were departing from Kenya colony in order to conceal abuse meted out to the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau). Belgium was no much better a colonial power than Leopold.  Ofcourse, both Leopold and Belgium have gotten away with the massive human right abuses they committed in the Congo.  The only justice of sorts was to be found via the universe.

Leopolds mistress gave birth to a child with a deformed hand. A cartoon in Punch showed Leopold holding the new born child, surrounded by Congolese corpses with their hands cut off. The caption read: vengeance from the most high


Handless victim
Source: Libcom.org

The heartbreaking story of Ota Benga

EuroAmerican Exhibitions of human beings are a well  documented in history. The story of Ota Benga, from the Congo is the definition of sorrow.  He was put on display in the Monkey house of New York’s Bronx Zoo in September 1906.  Sharing his space was an Orangutan.

Visitors ogled his teeth- filed, newspaper articles hinted, for devouring human flesh. To further this impression, zookeepers left a few bones scattered on the floor around him. A poem published in the New York Times declared that Ota Benga had been brought:

From his native land of darkness

To the country of the free

In the Interest of science

And of broad humanity

The promoter who staged this exhibit was former Presbyterian missionary who abandoned his preaching for several business ventures. A delegation of black ministers finally rescued Ota Benga from the Zoo. He remained in the United States and committed Suicide ten years later.

Benga 8
Source: Readex

Europe’s Tower of Opulence

Ultimately, when you read this book, the words of Franz Fanon are put into sharp focus.

Europe today raises up her tower of opulence , there has flowed  out of centuries towards the same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally a creation of the Third World. The wealth that smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of  deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude.


Confronting this world, the European nations sprawl, ostentatiously opulent. This European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves, and it comes directly from the soil and the subsoil of that underdeveloped world. The well-being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races.

Here is a compilation of images from colonial Congo. Heart-wrenching stuff.

We still live in colonial and slave-like conditions in most parts of the world. The overarching question is this: What will it take to make decency prevail in this world?








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.

Kenya children settlers
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.

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

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

Flower farm workers push a cart loaded w

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.

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.

Isak Dinesen Stands With Cigarette
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.”

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].



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!

Image source: Kenya Stockholm blog.