I was born and raised near a natural, indigenous protected forest in Meru, central Kenya. It was only because of the waters flowing from this forest that I did not have to walk for long distances to fetch water, a task expected of girls in my community. This forest and its critical watersheds were protected through a traditional custodianship system that is still applied to date. This drove me to study environmental conservation and later on, work in the cultural heritage conservation sector.
Prior to starting my PhD program, I had the privilege to work with and learn from diverse communities on conservation projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa and Australia for eight years. During this time, I served as Manager for Community Projects and Outreach at The Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), an organization whose work is endorsed by Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. The programs I was involved in, and helped initiate, were designed to ensure prudent utilization of natural and cultural resources, and improvement of community livelihoods. Through this practical work, I realized that every community holds vast reservoirs of knowledge, which I believe represents an untapped resource.
I strongly believe that the answer to the long-term conservation of natural resources lies with empowering, and working with, local/indigenous communities. To this end, my PhD research explores the potential for forging sustainable people-forest relationships in the Kenyan context. I am inspired and driven by the work of Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai who urges us to do the best we can as a collective of individuals, working apart and together. Her poignant words are as seminal today, and for the future, as they were during her initial efforts in sustainable forest management: “Those of us who have witnessed the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless; if we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations to rise up and walk” (Maathai, 2010).
My country came together in one revolution and was nearly broken by another.
The first revolution was a protest against galling, stupid, but relatively mild social and economic exploitation. It was almost uniquely successful.
Many of those who made the first revolution practiced the most extreme form of economic exploitation and social oppression: they were slave owners.
The second American revolution, the Civil War, was an attempt to preserve slavery. It was partially successful. The institution was abolished, but the mind of the master and the mind of the slave still think a good many of the thoughts of America.
The ruling class is always small, the lower orders large, even in a caste society. The poor always vastly outnumber the rich. The powerful are fewer than those they hold power over. Adult men hold superior status in almost all societies, though they are always outnumbered by women and…
The book opens with a laugh out loud funny, truthful, and powerful joke.
Have you ever seen a black man aired on Animal planet?” asked Nigerian comedian, …Basketmouth, during an Aljazeera TV Program…The audience became silent. Then the immensely popular stand-up comedian volunteered to explain the courage with which white people aired on the television channel usually advance on some dangerous animal. “White people are never afraid. They only become afraid when you go to the Embassy seeking a visa…They tell you, ‘I am afraid we cannot give you a visa’ Said in an officious mimic, this drew instant laughter from the audience.
A friend of mine sent me a link about the launch of this book earlier this year. I googled it. I looked at the cover, and knew I had to get the book-immediately! My friend and I discussed the cover and had a good laugh. You have to laugh in order to go mad. We are both in the conservation industrial complex, so the cover speaks to our individual and collective struggles.
Mbaria and Ogada share their personal and professional experiences on the intricacies between race, conservation, dispossession, raw capitalism, environmental destruction, community livelihoods, exploitative research and so much more. I think this is one of the most important books to emerge out the conservation arena in Africa in recent times. It a powerful critique of white corruption and conservation in Kenya. The overarching themes of the book include:
Who benefits from the conservation of wildlife in Kenya?
Who shapes the conservation agenda?
The goal of this blogpost is to share some stories that reinforce some of the arguments that Mbaria and Ogada are making, as well as to offer some possible solutions.
So, what exactly did Basketmouth mean?
Basketmouth might have been joking, but the image of white men(they are mostly male characters) taking to the wild, devoting their lives to saving wild animals, and engaging in sensually captivating adventures has forever been used to drive the point home that as the planet experiences immense destruction of species, habitats, and ecosystems, it is only white people who really care. Conservation is now almost exclusively associated with whiteness.
What is the place of Africans in the conservation landscape?
Usually, black people are featured either as cargomen, props, victims, or as hinderances to the conservation enterprise. In most instances, black Africans are portrayed as people who need to be sensitized, so that they can either accept or learn to love the animals that live in their midst or the wilderness they inhabit.
Now, these are issues that quite close to my heart. And I have blogged about this before in Saving Africa from Africans. I highly, highly, resent the idea that Africans do not know or are not interested in conservation, and have actually spent the last 12 years of my life trying to dispel or at least understand this myth. The latest of these ventures is through my PhD research on Indigenous Knowledge Systems and forest governance. Why has this idea that Africans do not care about conservation become so widely accepted, including by Africans themselves? It is argued that Africans do not know conservation because they do not know how to uhhh and ahhh when they see animals. Loving wildlife is reduced to uuhing and aahhing, and attempts at domesticating them by giving them names like Tom, and petting them. These kinds of ideas are completely incongruent with African conservation and environmentalism. The connections that Africans have with their landscapes are more deeper and sophisticated than this superficial and empty romanticization. Let us all do our own research-you have your grandparents or other elders in our community. Ask them what relationships they forged with wildlife or the environment in general, especially before the encounter with colonialism and Jesus. The answers might surprise you. If you are in Kenya and know any Mau Mau guerrillas, ask them how they survived in the forests that are inhabited by wild animals – for close to 10 years.
Where are the African conservationists? Mbaria and Ogada argue that the conservation arena is fed by self-propagating hero worship. All these heroes are white. Take the case of George Adamson and his domestication of lions. A couple of years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service posted a picture of George and “his lions” on their facebook page. I asked them if they are promoting the domestication of wild animals? The rebuttal was quick – “We are celebrating someone who has contributed immensely to conservation in Kenya.” Yawn! I then asked them why I have never seen any celebration of African conservationists. They never came back to me.
Another good example is Karen Blixen, whose story is told in the movie ‘Out of Africa’. The movie opens with the line “I owned a farm in Africa” the correct opening line should be “I stole a farm in Africa.” I want to use the example of Blixen to demonstrate that the white capture of conservation extends beyond wildlife conservation into the cultural heritage conservation realm. Blixen was an out-and-out racist who argued that she understood Africans better after interactions with wild animals. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in ‘Detained’ “In reality they [white settlers in Kenya] loved the wild game, but Africans were worse, more threatening, instinctless, unlovable, unredeemable, sub-animals merely useful for brute labour.” This was a view strongly held by Blixen. Despite this, there is a museum in her name in the colonial outpost that is known as Karen. Yes, the area is also named after her. I cannot understand why there is a museum that memorializes Karen Blixen and yet there is no museum or anything else built to memorialize the glorious struggle of the Mau Mau, who fought racial oppression and colonial domination with everything they had. Why must Africans continue to celebrate people who oppress(ed) them and think of them as sub-human?
Who is reaping huge economic returns from Africa’s wilderness?
The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of natives, veiled bribery, unsurpased deceit, a conservation cult subscribed to by huge numbers of people in the West, and severe exploitation of the same wilderness conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve.
A truly, truly depressing example of exploitation that is given in the book centres around a tree known as Prunus africana, whose bark is used for treatment of prostrate cancer. Jonathan Leakey preyed on the indigenous knowledge of Africans, and obtained a permit to exploit and export the bark and made a tidy sum. The permit was obtained from his brother Richard Leakey, who is an obiquitous presence in the Kenyan conservation arena. Let us even assume that Jonathan had not been given the permit. If he walked into a community somewhere and started talking to people, wouldn’t they give him this information and access to the trees? Have you seen how people in any part of Kenya react when they see a white person? Everybody goes out of their way to help. And by the way, in Kenya, the term researcher is associated with a white person. This person just preyed on the hospitality of Africans and emerged out of this interaction with loads of money. The hospitable Africans got nothing. Nobody thinks that a white person can be up to no good. We always think they want to help us. This idea is so strongly ingrained and extremely dangerous. Why do Africans think that the people who enslaved them, colonised them, and neocolonise them want to help them? We have not really learnt how to protect what is really ours. That includes knowledge.
What is the role of the government in all this? A friend of mine told me a story a couple of years ago. I think it will help answer this question.
There is a city somewhere in the Congo rain forest. This city was established during the colonial period as a retreat/holiday space for the colonial brigade. After independence, more Africans moved into the city. The government wanted to expand infrastructure in order to serve the public. This would entail the clearing of some trees. A Nordic country successfully blocked this, citing conservation concerns. Hence people live in squalor without basic services like sewer lines, water infrastructure, etc. The perils of flag independence! The government is a powerless. Direction on conservation strategy comes from the west. The white capture of conservation in Africa is total, thorough, and uncompromising.
Let me give you another example. This is in regards to nominating sites into the UNESCO World Heritage List. The process works like this: A country nominates a site to be a world heritage site. Once the site goes through all the hoops at the UNESCO level, somebody is sent to evaluate the site in situ. This consultant writes a report on whether the site you are proposing is deserving of world heritage status or not. In all the instances I know for African sites, the consultant has always been a white person. I do not know of any instance where an African has ever been commissioned as a consultant to evaluate any site either on the African continent or elsewhere. Can we envision a situation where an African goes to evaluate a site in Europe, for instance? And needless to say, these consultant are paid handsomely. You cannot acquire world heritage status without white approval. Also, can we envison a situation where a Kenyan owns 100,000 acres of land in the UK and turns it into a conservancy? This is satirized in this conservation conundrum.
Tourism and conservation. In kenya, these are siamese twins.
In ‘The wretched of the earth’, Fanon writes:
The national bourgeoisie will be greatly helped on its way towards decadence by the Western bourgeoisies, who come to it as tourists avid for the exotic, for big-game hunting and for casinos. The national bourgeoisie organizes centres of rest and relaxation and pleasure resorts to meet the wishes of the Western bourgeoisie. Such activity is given the name of tourism, and for the occasion will be built up as a national industry…Because it is bereft of ideas, because it lives to itself and cuts itself off from the people, undermined by its hereditary incapacity to think in terms of all the problems of the nation as seen from the point of view of the whole of that nation, the national middle class will have nothing better to do than to take on the role of manager for Western enterprise, and it will in practice set up its country as the brothel of Europe.
I want to illustrate this aspect of the turning of a country into the brothel of Europe.
I once went with a friend to a hotel in Nairobi. This hotel has an in-house dance troupe which entertain tourists. We were excited to see the dances. My friend and I were among the very few Africans there. The place was packed with white people with cameras. In Kenya, tourist=white person. When we say we want tourists to come, we do not mean people from Papua New Guinea. Nor do we even mean Kenyans who live next to the so-called tourist attractions. The show starts. It is good. It keeps getting exciting. At some point, the ladies dance is a way that reveals their behinds. The sway the skirt upwards and there, the bum is fully exposed. The tourists click away. My friend and I turn to each other and ask “what was that?” It is not all of them who showcase their behind. It is selected, slender, light skinned ones. It is pathetic. It is very pathetic. It is disgusting. I have never gone back to that hotel. By the way, this dance troupe had come to perform at my university and there were no bum-showing stunts! You know why? There were no white people there. It is their fantastic performance at my university that made me want to see them again, hence the visit to the hotel.
If you want to see who controls the conservation industry in Kenya look no further than the Cabinet secretary’s facebook page. She is is always posting pictures of signing MOU’s or other agreements with some foreign entities known as “development partners”. It feels like Kenya has been sold.
Another story: I once went for a meeting at the Karen Country Club. I was one of 2 Africans there. The meeting began with a presentation. After that, there was a discussion. Most of the time was spent bashing the Kenya Wildlife Service. I have never felt more out of place. That was the first and last meeting I ever attended.
So why not start your own NGOs ?
Conservation NGOs must also be seen to toe the racial line; one can only succeed in the NGO world if they are white or have a close and preferably familial or business affiliation with one or more members of the Kenya white community. Starting an American chapter or getting and American to sit on the board is an added advantage.
I think it comes down to governance. Failure of the state to put public interests first. Failure of government to support local conservationists. Colonized mentality that reinforces the idea that Africans do not know conservation. It also persists because the state itself is captured by the white NGO lobby.
I was invited to a meeting to discuss Indigenous Community Conservation Areas(ICCAs) and the possibilities for implementation of this type of conservation in Kenya a few months ago. During the discussions one of the participants made a claim that the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) was presiding over the destruction of forests in Kenya. A representative from the Ministry of environment took issue with that and asked him to substantiate. The debate went on and on. Then, during tea break, we the Africans congregated at one table. The discussion continued. Several other Kenyans supported the person who had made the claim about KFS. Then, the person from KFS said something astonishing. He said: “Even if it is true, you cannot say that in the presence of donors.” In Kenya, donors, like tourist =white person. There were several white people there representing various international organizations, the UN etc. This probably is the root cause of the situation that we find ourselves in. The government is not accountable to the people, is not interested in what the people think or feel, it is more interested in pleasing donors. Subsequently people lose faith in the government and chose to work with NGOs or to just give up all together. Quagmire.
What is to be done?
Talk about these things openly. You cannot solve a problem if you do not understand it. You cannot solve a problem if you do not even know that it exists. Ogada and Mbaria have provided a solid foundation from which these issues can be interrogated.
We must get governance right. We must have people who care about the public and put their interests first. Without this, nothing will work in our favour. It is not just in conservation, it is in all other aspects of life. We must all engage with politics constructively. Being apolitical enables the system of exploitation.
Africans must stop thinking that white people love them and want to help them. Everybody is in the conservation sector for economic or other interests. If you do not believe this ask yourself why a lot of the settlers who own huge tracts of land have now turned their land into “conservancies”. And if you do not find this convincing think of this:
A question well worth asking in Kenya is which sector makes the most money per elephant in Kenya- the government, the poachers, the tourism investors, or the conservationists.
4. Africans should support African conservationists in which ever way they can. By conservationists, I do not mean only those people who are formally trained. Some of the most formidable conservationists in the African context are people who work the landscapes and waterscapes on a day to day basis-farmers, pastoralists, fishermen, hunters and gatherers, etc
5. Education. Education. Education. I do not mean formal education alone. Let us all strive to learn what African conservation really means. Talk to elders, talk to farmers, teach others, learn from others, write about it, speak about it, film it, share it. Educating ourselves has to be a deliberate project. We must continue striving for freedom in all spheres of engagement.
Jesus did not die for us. Jesus died for the Jews. You can watch more about the history of Jesus in this PBS documentary – featuring scholars – not pastors! Now, are you a Jew? No, you are not. Now that that is out of the way, now might be also a good time to start questioning this image of Jesus. There is no way Jesus could have looked like this – a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes. This is the European version of Jesus, which has been used to cause havoc in the minds of Africans – through the colonial and neocolonial enterprises. At the time the colonial brigade was telling you that Jesus died for you, some serious ‘sins’ were being committed by the same brigade and its allies against you (e.g., massive land grabs, enslavement on your own land, and worse, the total destruction of your being/personhood).
Did I hear you say that images do not matter? Actually, they do matter a great deal. If it were not for the imagery that has been beamed across the world about Africans, we would not have the pervasive negative perceptions of Africans, amongst people who have never interacted with a single African. There is a reason why they say a picture speaks a thousand words. Oh wait, there is even a better example. Some white man caused embarrassing excitement in Nairobi towards the end of 2016. He was believed to be Jesus making comeback to “judge the living and the dead”. Gasp! and Sigh! Is that not as a result of the above image?
Jesus did not die for us – the following people did.
Patrice Lumumba was the first Prime Minister of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was involved in the struggle for independence in his country and that of Africa at large. In his speech at Independence Lumbumba had this to say:
For this independence of the Congo … no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood … We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.
Unfortunately, Lumumba did not live see a free Congo. He was killed for his desire to unite the country and to ensure that there was true emancipation of his people through control of all their resources. He was killed by way of a firing squad(by treacherous Africans) with the support of Belgium and the USA. More here and here.
2. Ernestina Silla
Ernestina was a formidable guerrilla in the war for independence in Guinea Bissau. In the fight against Portuguese colonialism, she rose to the position of commander of the liberation army, and was responsible for many combat operations. She was killed by the Portuguese while she was on her way to attend the funeral of Amilcar Cabral. She was in her early 20’s.
3. Amilcar Cabral
Cabral led the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), in an armed struggle for independence. Cabral’s revolt was based on his personal observation of the misery of the African population under colonialism. He worked as an agricultural officer for the colonial government, and in this position gained an in-depth understanding of their every-day struggles. Cabral was an avid intellectual and believed in the application of theory in emancipation from all forms of colonial domination. At the core of his philosophy was the belief that:
A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.
Cabral was anti-exploitation in all of its manifestations. Of all the liberation fighters of his time, he is probably the only person who did not see oppression only through race. Thus he argued:
We of the CONCP are fighting so that insults may no longer rule our countries, martyred and scorned for centuries, so that our peoples may never more be exploited by imperialists-not only by Europeans, not only by people with white skin, because we do not confuse exploitation or exploiters with the colour of men’s skins; we do not want any exploitation in our countries, not even by black people.
There is a very good documentary about his life and ideas here. Read more about him here. Cabral was killed by a fellow PAIGC member, with the support of the Portuguese about 8 months before the attainment of independence. This is what some authors have called the cancer of betrayal.
Muhumusa hailed from present day Rwanda. She was a revered Nyabingi priestess who had enormous spiritual and political influence in the region. She organized armed resistance against British and German colonizers. She was detained by the British and died while in detention. She continued to command a following while in prison. The story of Muhumusa shows that African spirituality (often viewed negatively), served the people in their time of need by consolidating their resistance against colonialism. Rastafarians have adopted many of the Nyabingi practices.
5. Thomas Sankara
Sankara was the president of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). Sankara was killed for his desire to free his country and peoples from all of the tentacles of imperialism. Who killed him? Blaise Compaore – with the support of France. Sankara is probably the only African leader who understood that you could not free Africans from global domination if we still remained entangled with the global santa claus (World Bank) and the IMF.This is a conviction that he was willing to defend publicly. This earned him enemies – needless to say. Have you seen Sankara’s speeches at the UN meetings? We do not have anybody in the current group of presidents who can stand up and speak for Africa like that. I think the ones we have have been bought and paid for. He also worked to transform the lives of his people through food security programs, building infrastructure, cultivating their pride etc, with concrete results. Here is a documentary about his life. Read more here and here.
6. Deolinda Roudrigues
Deolinda was a young PanAfricanist who joined the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola(MPLA). She served as a member of the central committee where she led programs designed to end Portuguese colonialism. She was killed by Portuguese agents on the way from a combat mission in a most brutal manner – she was tortured and dismembered while still alive. When she was studying in Brazil, Deolinda reached out to Martin Luther and sought advice on how to handle some complex issues related to the struggle. Read the correspondence between Deolinda and Martin Luther King Jr here.
7. Steve Biko
Steve Biko was one of the leading figure of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He was a tireless mobilizer, organizer, thinker, and doer. This often got him into trouble with the apartheid state. He was expelled from school, university, banned (meaning he could not talk to more than one person at a time, and eventually arrested and killed. Biko is remembered as the pioneering thinkers behind the “black consciousness movement.” He was only 30 at the time of his death.
8. Mbalia Camara
Mbalia was a young organizer from Guinea. She was a member of the core group that formed the Democratic Party of Guinea, PDG along with Sekou Toure and Mafory Bangaro. She was murdered by agents of the French colonial authorities in 1995. At the time of the attack that led to her death,Mbalia was pregnant. Her attackers slashed open her belly, despite the spirited efforts and protests of the women who had congregated to ward off the attackers. Once her belly was slashed open the women tied their wrappers around her body to stop the bleeding, but she and the baby succumbed to the injuries later on. Her revolutionary spirit is celebrated every 9th of February(the day she died) in Guinea.
9. Malcom X
Malcom remains one of the most revolutionary figures in the struggle for the rights of African Americans. He started out as a militant advocate of racial separation as one of the ways to attaining dignity for his people. He later on changed his position and embraced more moderate views. These were formed as he traveled around the world and experienced a different kind of Islam. He eventually left the Nation of Islam and established his own religious body, the Muslim Mosque Inc. He was killed by assassins from the NOI. A great book about Malcom is Manning Marable’s ‘Malcom X: A life of reinvention’.
10. Dedan Kimathi
Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi was the de facto leader of the Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau), in Kenya’s struggle for independence from the British. Kimathi is credited with leading one of the most protracted and bloodiest battles for self-determination in the British Empire. British colonial injustice forced the masses of Kenya to mobilize and flee to the forested mountains, from where a battle for land and freedom restoration was waged for 7 years. Kimathi was captured because a treacherous traitor betrayed him. He was later on executed and buried in unmarked grave. His family, Mau Mau veterans, and lovers of justice continue to agitate for his remains so that he can be given a decent burial that he rightfully deserves.
So, one more time. Jesus did not die for us. The examples given above are an illustration of some of the greatest combatants for Africans’ dignity. These people died for us. There are many more heroes in all African societies. I do not understand why we have to be so obsessed with other people’s heroes, yet we do not even know about our own. The same people who came to tell you about Jesus are the exact same ones who have been involved all but one of the gruesome murders discussed above. They are also the same people who steal your gold, diamonds, oil, agricultural produce, land for military bases and other death-producing projects.
England celebrates their genocides. The ‘Winston Churchill note’ has enteredcirculation. Honouring a man who swilled on champagne while 4 million men, women and children in Bengal starved due to his racist colonial policies.
The trial of Churchill:
Churchill was a genocidal maniac. He is fawned over in Britain and held up as a hero of the nation. He was voted ‘Greatest Briton’ of all time. Below is the real history of Churchill, the history of a white supremacistwhose hatred for Indians led to four million starving to death, the man who loathed Irish people so much he conceived different ways to terrorise them, the racist thug who waged war on black people across Africa and in Britain. This is the trial of Winston Churchill, the enemy of all humanity.
THE TRIAL OF WINSTON CHURCHILL:
Churchill found his love for war during the time he spent in Afghanistan. While there…
Ghana. The land of Kwame Nkrumah. No, no, the land of Osagefyo[political reedemer] Kwame Nkrumah! I always wanted to come to you.
I arrive at Kokota Intl airport. Immigration!
Immigration officer: What brings you to Ghana?
Me: I just came to visit
Immigration officer: (Appears shocked). Ehh what do you do? I am willing to bet that a white person would never be asked this question.
Me: I am a student.
Immigration officer: Ah! a student has money to travel?
Me: I am now thinking that student was the wrong answer. So, I say – I also work.
The immigration officer hands me my passport. Is there anyone out there who likes immigration?
First stop: University of Ghana, Legon.
The campus is so lovely with lots and lots of trees.
We have some delicious lunch at the one of the university canteens. Accra is hot and humid; I am melting. My friend Judith takes me for a tour of the campus. Some woke professors at the university of Ghana has been leading a campaign to have a statue of Mahatma Gandhi removed from the campus in 2016. I am surprised to see that the statue of Gandhi has not fallen. So, there two African universities that I know of that Gandhi stands tall – U of G, Legon and University of Nairobi. I later on meet with one of the Profs that was involved in this campaign and they say that the struggle is still on. The most shocking part is that there is a group of Profs who see no problem, and indeed support the decision to have the statue on the campus (never mind there are no statues of African heroes and heroines on the campus). This is one of the many racist things that Gandhi had to say about Africans:
“A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”
You can read more of these in this fantastic petition.
After you read all that in encapsulated in that petition you have to ask – Africans – who bewitched us? How can a African professor possibly make for a case that having Gandhi on campus is a good thing?
We start off with the Du Bois Museum. This is situated at the house of this PanAfrican icon who moved to Ghana at the invitation of Osagefyo Kwame Nkrumah. There is a very nice exhibition therein. The most interesting one is one for me is one about female heroines. You often only hear of heroic male figures, but here, they exhibit some iconic female defenders of African(s) freedom. Did you, for example, know about Muhumusa of Rwanda? She was a priestess and warrior. She fought against the Germans and British for which she was detained until her death.
Our next stop is the art centre. This is a craft centre where you find all sorts of wonderful stuff. Here, you have to have to polish your bargaining skills;otherwise, you will pay lots and lots of money. The first step in the art of bargaining is to express extreme shock once the vendor mentions the price of the item you want to buy. Ah Masa! you cannot be serious. Then, pretend that you are walking away because the price is so outrageously high. Then, the vendor asks you to name your price. You come up with some figure which is so removed from what the vendor said. Then, the vendor says – that is money but it is low. Oh and before naming your price you have to say how embarrassed you are to even mention it because it is so low as compared to the vendors price because “ameanzia juu sana/started from so high”. I hate bargaining. I find it exhausting . Luckily, I am with a Ghanian who is an expert at it. I am interested in buying the Ashanti stool. This is the stool that was at the centre of the dethroning of the Ashanti king at the height of Britain’s colonial terrorism . The stool is the soul of the Ashanti nation. The British colonial operatives wanted to get it and demanded for it but it was somehow hidden until after the return of the exiled Prempeh I. More about the stool here. To me, the stool is a symbol of resistance of oppression. So, I get myself one – after bargaining hard!
We have lunch at Tawala beach. The food is soooo good! We would return to eat the friend yam there severally. There are lots of weed smokers around and we joked that they must be adding weed to the food.
In the evening, we go to the university to watch a play about the slave trade. It is so well done. This sets the stage for my trip to Cape Coast and Elmina castles. The characters used various indigenous languages and English. This was very interesting to me. I do not think a university in Kenya would showcase a play with indigenous languages unless its Swahili. This is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o has been speaking about for decades. That we should treat all languages as equal! In this play you could see that. One of the things that was said in the play that stuck to my mind was this: even if the Elmina castle was washed with all the waters from the Atlantic it would never be clean.
Bojo beach. This was one of the top 10 must-visit places according to internet searches, but we found it a little overwhelming. And the food was nowhere near as good as the Tawala beach one.
The traffic on the way back was horrendous. Reminded me about Nairobi traffic.
Being stuck in traffic provided the opportunity to observe the surroundings. I notice a lot of adverts related to churches and church-related events. Ghana or this part of Ghana is engulfed in evangelical and other forms of Christianity – just like Kenya. Have a look at this.
Market, markets, markets. I am interested buying fabric. You will be spoilt for choice here.
There are so many indigenous food varieties here. Different kinds of fish, grains, plantain, yams, peppers etc
And snails. I did not get to try this, but they are delicacy and quite expensive.
Aburi gardens is a park that was established by the colonial regime. It is near a natural forest and is open for tourism as well as other events. There are a lot of interesting tree species here. I had never seen a cinnamon tree, for example. The most impressive ones for me, is this one. It is believed that the tree has spirits. Its is a ficus/ strangler fig, and is hollow from top to bottom (because it ate up the other tree).
The other one is this cedar tree which dried up and one of the resident artists produced this masterpiece out of it. Our guide tells us that the carving is a representation of the realities of life: that, while there will always be people who will be lifting up, there will always be another group that will be working effortlessly to pull you down.
I had to be disciplined and respectful of my host so I joined them to church. I agreed with most of the things that the pastor was saying especially – do the right thing even if everyone else around you isn’t. Do not be corrupt even if everyone else around you is corrupt. After church, I met these lovely and exceedingly funny ladies. I cannot write about the things that they were talking about here. And my friend was saying, you see this kind of social life(the catching up and socializing after church & sustaining those social networks beyond the church) is what those who are abroad do not get to experience. It is a society! This is the truth. The individualistic life of the west does not allow for this kind of socializing.
I leave Accra at the crack of dawn and head to Cape Coast. I have three things on my itinerary. Kakum National Park, Cape Coast Castle, and Elmina Castle.
The main attraction at Kakum is a suspension bridge. This a series of 7 canopy walk bridges that are not designed for the faint-hearted. The trick is – do not under any circumstance look down! (the average height from the ground is 30 metres). Look ahead and you will be fine. My guide tells me that there was a time he had other guests here and one of them reached the middle, and could move no further. He just stood still and cried like a baby. “Can you imagine? A full grown man crying?” He said it with such disdain.
The land on which this park seats was donated by the community. So much for the idea that Africans are not interested in conservation.
After Kakum we head to Elmina Castle. It is about a 30 minutes or so drive. You see the castle as you approach. It sits by the edge of the sea.
This was one of the most important castles in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Here, captured Africans were brought and kept in inhumane conditions before being transported to various places across the world. We get a guide to take us around. The most horrific thing that I have seen that is close to this are the Rwandese genocide museums where you are greeted by the stench of death. We move from dungeon to dungeon as the guide explains the conditions under which captured Africans were kept. I am nauseated. You can hardly breathe in the dark dungeons. Then, he takes us to the female dungeon. He tells us that there was no sanitation provided and female slaves had to, like other slaves, live with their own excreta and menstrual blood, in addition.
At the time the castle was opened to the public the level of the waste was at the point illustrated in the picture below. This was about over 100 years after the abolishing of the slave trade. To date, the female dungeon still smells…no, not smells – stinks!
The woes of female slaves did not end there. If the white administrators (who lived in airy spacious rooms above the dungeons) needed sex , then female slaves would be paraded in the yard, then washed and paraded in the courtyard for them to pick out the one he wanted from the balcony.
But, the most shocking thing for me, was that there was a church situated right above the female slave dungeon. Yes, all the slave traders were Christians. So, they would be up in the church worshiping God, Jesus etc, and the female slaves would be groaning in pain below them. Now every time I see a church, I think there is a slave dungeon beneath it.
If you did something wrong (i.e., protest your oppression) you were condemned to the death cell. Here you were literally starved to death. There was a cell for the white officers who misbehaved, but this had ventilation and did not have the skull/sign of death emblazoned above it.
From Elmina we went Cape Coast Castle which is another chamber of horrors. I see wreaths laid by descendants of slaves who come to visit from all over the world, and I am filled with disgust for humanity. Sometimes, I think animals are more evolved than human beings. Have you ever seen animals enslaving each other? Have you ever seen animals colonizing each other? Have you ever seen animals murdering each other en masse? Human beings have done that and much more. As we finish the tour of the Castle the guide tells us that the Castles should be a reminder that we have to stand up against forms of slavery. He then finishes by saying that: There is a kind of slavery that is prevalent in the world today, and that is racism.
We leave the Cape Coast and head back to Accra, and for two days I cannot sleep well. I am traumatized by the horrid stories from these slave chambers. I am ashamed that I knew so little about the slave trade. So ashamed. I make an undertaking to educate myself henceforth. The fact that you do not learn about these things in schools is an indictment of our education systems. No wonder Africans on the continent have not actively engaging with the struggles of Africans off the continent.
I attend a lecture by Prof. Horace G. Campbell as the third occupant of the Kwame Nkrumah Chair in African Studies. Prof. Campbell delivered a compelling lecture outlining his vision, his thought processes, how his work aligns with Nkurumist Pan African ideology, and how the university can contribute to Africa’s interests. Listening to such people makes me fall in love with academia.
“…the convergence of multiple forces; environmental, financial, health pandemics, militarism, and geo-political changes, along with the diminution of Europe demand new analysis, new ideas and new forms fo organizing. These challenges call on African scholars and activists to rethink the basic ideas of Pan Africanism when the current educational structures of Africa have been organized to retreat from the inspiring ideas of Nkrumah and visionaries such as Amilcar Cabral and Cheikh Anta Diop.”
Since he had spoken about the university’s plan about engaging in a green economy, I asked a question about how we can liberate ourselves from waste-especially plastic waste. I had noticed quite a lot of plastic waste around the places I went. This is a huge problem in Kenya too.
Final shopping and lunch at Tawala- Yes, again!
Left for Nairobi. One of the most impressive things about Ghana, in my view, is its cuisine. That in itself, is an outstanding tourist attraction. I also like the warmth of Ghanian people. Next time, I will go to Kumase!!
A colleague who I greatly respect told me that there is call for abstracts for a conference on forests and livelihoods and wondered if we could work on a paper together. I said yes, of course. The conference was to be held in the land of my/our former(or current?) colonizers – the UK. We submitted our abstract which was accepted. We then began working on the paper. Then came the dreaded time – visa application time. If there is one English word I have grown to detest it is this four letter word: V-I-S-A. I have come to equate it with oppression.
So, I go through the usual grind. Filling in forms which ask me to fill in, amongst other things, the dates of birth of all my family members, their occupations, my travel history, income, etc etc. I source for all the necessary letters and submit my application. I am told that the processing is carried out in New York and that everything will be sent there, then mailed back to me. I have to pay for courier service of course! In the end, I fork out about USD 300 and compare it to the USD 100 that UK nationals pay to obtain a visa to Kenya. This, right here, is an example of how poverty is created. Those that don’t have are exploited through global hierarchies of power and race.
Time to leave for Scotland. I am going through Heathrow in London as there are no direct flights. Quick question – how random are those random checks in airports? For some reason, I am always selected as the random person to be searched (read molested). They papasa my hair, my thighs, my whole body.
I arrive in Heathrow and go to immigration.
Immigration officer(with a very hostile look on his face): Where are you going?
I would like to know if people are asked this silly question when they arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Kwani, you can take a 9 hour flight without knowing where you are going?
Immigration officer: What for?
Me: For a conference
Immigration officer: About what?
Me: Forests and livelihoods
Immigration officer: What exactly is that?
Me: How people use forests for various things…food, water…
Immigration officer: Oh, like in the Amazon
Immigration officer: Are you giving a presentation there?
Me: Yes, I am Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia
He looks at me and appears shocked. And he looks less stern now. His whole demeanor changes.
He stamps my passport and hands it over.
I did not know being a Ph.D. student is a respectable thing. I should be blurting it out even before I am asked to save myself these painful interrogations.
And by the way, did I tell you that the security officer at Heathrow wanted to know how old I am. She thought I was 16 years old and travelling unaccompanied…something like that. I defensively told her my age and even offered to show her my passport. She appeared shocked by real age. Based on the way she asked it I thought that there was a problem. I always think that there is going to be a problem at immigration points. They are scary places for people of certain skin colours or religious backgrounds, especially. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is quite right when he argues:
The nation state, the form in which capitalistic modernity organized power was born with notions of ownership in general and of territory in particular. The European nation-state, the slave plantation, the colony, and the prison are simultaneously products of the same moment in history.It is not surprising that these institutions have similar features. The primary one is that of an enclosed space, often with a single point of entry and exit. There are gated spaces with supervising authority. Like all such spaces, the gate is guarded all the time. One cannot enter or exit without the approval of the all-seeing centralized authority and surveillance system. The comings and goings are recorded meticulously. The border now becomes a wall separating those within from those without.
I expected Scotland to be colder than it actually is. I did not even wear the heavy jacket I had carried. We spend the morning of the first day sightseeing around the city as the conference was to start that evening. We hike to main park in the city and enjoy nice views of the city. The city is not ultra clean. There is trash lying around in some places. People seem friendly. They actually say hi. I am surprised by that.
The conference begins. I meet a colleague from Malawi who is doing very interesting research work on community responses to impacts of climate change. Her area of study was flooded but people did not want to move and relocate to another place. It reminded me of Budalangi in Kenya. We begin with the plenary and listen to four amazing speakers. The one that sticks to my mind is a presentation about environmental activists who have been murdered for protesting against various earth destroying projects. They are almost ten or even more. That is in recent times. The presenter suggests that researchers should take and interest in these (in)justice issues as an area of research. Then room is opened for question. Yours truly and others raise their hands.
Yours truly says: There is an issue that has been bothering me. And this is the way climate change financing is presented/framed. Side note: According to Paris climate agreement rich countries are supposed to fund poor countries’ adaptation to climate change. So, this issue is always presented as the rich countries have to “help” poor countries adapt to climate change. Shouldn’t this be understood as the rich countries paying for their pollution, after all, they are they cause of this problem?
I hear some chuckles in the room.
The response I get does not answer the question. After the end of the plenary fellow, global southerners(India, Nepal, an Indigenous scholar) come to tell me that they liked that question. I, later on, follow up with the person who had responded to the question and he tells me …its just like REDD+ (this is a program where rich countries pay poor ones to not cut down forests while they continue with business as usual with regards to use of environmental resources – that is my understanding). In other words, you create a problem and then you pay other people to solve the problem by freezing them in time.
This whole climate change fiasco is like a person coming and stealing all your belongings and destroying your livelihood. Then, you organize for a fundraising and the thief comes to the fundraising and makes a contribution of x amount. Then, they claim they have helped you. Those that are being fried by the hot sun or sunk by rising ocean levels as a result of climate change, but yet, have not contributed significantly (or at all) towards it makes you me wonder if there is a God, Goddesses, Godlings etc out there or in here. It is not fair at all and I cannot understand this at all.
Let me digress a little bit. A friend of mine once told me of a city in DRC which was set in the Congo rain forest during the colonial period. The settlers chose the location for amongst other things, the amazing views it offered. At independence, the city was occupied by Africans and the population expanded and of course, the infrastructure could not support the people effectively. They wanted an expansion of sewer systems, drainage, roads etc. This would necessitate the cutting down of part of the forest. Apparently, a nordic country opposed this move and gave the DRC government money so that they could keep the forest intact(sounds like REDD+ to me). Meanwhile, the people continued to live in a heavily congested space without sanitary amenities. This just one example of the many anti-people, anti-justice conservation that comes into African countries.
Sessions/presentations begin and as usual, I am hopping from one place to another hoping to listen to as many speakers as possible. My colleague and I give our presentation. A professor attacks us and says that what we are doing is just advocacy and not Ph.D. research work. My colleague is very gracious in her response. She says that what we shared was small snippet of our respective research projects that intersects/is similar. We find that we have a common interest in people-forest relationships and land governance issues. I echo my colleagues comments and say that this was just a 10-minute presentation of much larger projects. Then I finish by saying.
I think Ph.D. students and researchers should be interested in advocacy work, in social justice issues. I am coming from an area where communities are being ravaged by climate change, for example. I simply cannot stand aside and turn a blind eye to all of these issues so that I can be seen to be doing pure research. I think research should address real needs of people and contribute to resolving some of the greatest problem of our time and some of those great problems, in my view are injustice and inequality.
There is an applause from other participants in the room.
After the end of the session, one of the participants came to tell me that she thought I responded to that “nasty comment” quite well. Later on, I also met with other participants who said they could not believe someone could say something like that to a fellow colleague. Academia can be brutal. Shish! The Prof later one walked to me at the evening reception and said: I was not trying to be rude or to attack you. I was challenging you and your response was satisfactory. I just want to make sure there is no problem.
I say: Thank you for your challenge.
Onward to other sessions. There is lots of discussion about poverty, livelihoods…I make a point of attending as many presentations about Africa as possible. I had noticed that there were very few Africans in the conference. So most of the presentations were given by non-Africans. I discussed this issue with my African colleagues. Some of them said that it is hard for Africans to get visa’s. Then another colleague told me that when Africans see a white researcher they either give them fake data to make them happy or to make them pity them and give them money. This is not a necessarily far-fetched assumption. Researchers, like tourists are synonymous with white people.
So, I ask my African colleagues what they think should be done. Some of them say that there is nothing that can be done because it depends on who has the money at the end of the day. The Africans don’t. I tell one of my colleagues that we should say something about the representation of Africans at the conference. They tell me this: If you are too critical you will not get funding.So, just keep quiet and move on. In other words, I should be meek. I should say nothing controversial, not speak about injustice…I should be an agreeable African who says yes sir/madam and bows down. Then I say: I see no point of discussing our issues amongst ourselves. It does not change anything. Maybe speaking about it will not change anything but at least people will know. Then they tell me: It is risky. You can find yourself ostracized and sidelined from the research or academic community.
We continue with the conference. I attend more sessions where researchers are marveling about the poverty of Africans. Analyzing it. Explaining it. There was not a single presentation on Africa that I went to where Africans were presented as people with agency, dreams, ideas, etc. They were always the silent participants of research interventions. The only person who shone was the researcher. I am beginning to wonder when Africans will begin to be speaking for themselves and not to be spoken for. Then I go to a presentation in which the researcher says how it is so interesting to do research in African country X because the rate of poverty is so high. This one hurts me to my core! I am now completely at a loss of what to do. I look at the programme and start counting the number of presentations by Africans. They are 34 presentations. Out of these only 7 are made by Africans(including me). That is a paltry 20%. If we were to add up the other countries from the global south I do not know what the percentage would be – maybe 90%. I do not know.
In case you are wondering what the issue is here let me outline it in the form of questions.
Who decides what is to be researched? Not Africans.
Who benefits from research? Not Africans. If you are wondering how researchers benefit it is through publishing papers, books etc which they then use as leverage to get promotions etc. Hence, to make it explicit, some people are cashing in on the poverty of Africans.
Related to 2 above- who gets published? Definitely not the Africans who are not there in the first place?
Whose papers get read and cited – not the Africans who are not there in the first place. Hence, who gets locked out of the production of knowledge?
I believe you get the drift. I am not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. There is a real problematic issue here.
Do we/would we envision a situation where the there were say 34 presentations about Europe and North America and have these bulk of these presentations made by Africans?
Who gets to challenge any notions or wrong ideas that may be presented about Africa(ns)?
I, for instance, sat in a presentation about a country and I could tell the presenter did not have a grasp of the deep and complex historical issues that affect that country in relation to land, governance injustice etc… heck, let me say it. I am talking about Ethiopia. I had long conversation with an Ethiopian friend about the history of the country shortly before this conference and I was stunned at how little I knew about it.
It is time for the plenary. I had decided to let the issue of representation go and just seethe inside. Then, a highly respected colleague gave a presentation and outlined the imbalances of representation based on continents. The bulk of the participants were from Europe and North America of course. He highlights that there were a lot more Africans who had planned to attend but did not make it. I am guessing because of visa issues. The floor is opened for questions and or comments.
I decide to say something.
I want to make a comment of X’s presentation. I want to demonstrate to you how this conference is a representation of the asymmetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. We have 34 presentations about Africa in this conference and only 7 of those have been given by Africans. I sit in sessions and I hear non-Africans dissecting African poverty, analyzing it… and it feels me with a huge sense of disempowerment. There is an element of suffering to poverty and that cannot be plotted on a graph. It seems to me that the research industry is married to the poverty industry. There is no sympathy, nor compassion. There are many Africans as X has pointed out, who did not make it here because of visa issues. If you have a skin colour like mine you are treated as a potential illegal immigrant. I do not have a solution to these issues but I just thought I should day how I feel. Thank you.
There is an applause. I am surprised.
A discussion on whether it would be easier if the conference was held in an non European/N/American country. One of the funding agencies says that perhaps it can be made easier if the funding agency/those that are funding the conference issue out letters to African participants.The colleague who had presented the stats walks over to me and says: Thank you for that. That is what I was trying to say by showing the figures but I could not have said it the way you said it. I tell him I find it a little absurd to be listening to people who have never experienced poverty telling me about poverty. We exchange contacts or rather he gives his card and I say I will write to him.
Afterwards I chat with some African colleagues and one of them asks me: What do you want them to do? Cry? There are also Africans who live off the poverty of other Africans. They want the Africans to be poor so that they can use them as fundraising tools to get money from the west.
While I fully appreciate the point being made here, and I think it should be equally condemned, I do not think that this negates the points I had made. And actually, crying is not such a bad idea. Maybe we should have a global day of crying. Maybe that will remind us that we are human. Maybe it will make us more humane! and humanistic!
Now, I refused to be the African who goes to conferences or other forums just to add to the arithmetic’s of skin colour. So that people can say that there were participants from all over the world including from A-F-R-I-C-A. Well, what did those participants say? What new ideas did they have? I was challenged in another conference by a South African colleague who said that the existence of Africans and indigenous peoples in academia should not simply be for “adding skin colour.” If you say you have been historically excluded, then you have to demonstrate that there was something missing by the way you conduct your research, what new ways of looking at things you bring to the table etc…otherwise, it means nothing if your are perpetuating the same old myths about these groups of people.
To finish this I will say to my fellow Africans and other global southerners: Raise your voice. Say something. Challenge something. Say something different. Or say what you feel. We need to be emancipated from silence. There are people who make a living from the poverty of Africans. There are people who rejoice at the poverty of Africans because that is their money maker. We are keeping some people in business. Some people would go out of business if there was no poverty in Africa.
By the way, after all this, I was thinking that I am going to excommunicated from the research/academic community. So, when I had problems at the Edinburgh airport(they said they could not find my visa number and had to call Canadian immigration). Then the lady at the counter started telling their colleague how they had another problem like this and how it turned out to be a deportation case (how so very tactless!) I began thinking that I had been deported from Canada for saying what I said. I started thinking of how I would ask my friend to pack my belongings and ship them to Kenya….