In the following Intervention, Wangui Kimari reflects on Antipode’s “Decolonial Thinkers from Africa” series, including the interviews with Franklin Obeng-Odoom, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, and Sylvia Tamale, as well as the Intervention by Patricia Daley. Kimari’s reflexive and embodied reflections on decoloniality offer us a window into the precise meaning of praxis, a commitment that is central to radical geography but too often ignored. In so doing, she parallels Vanessa Agard-Jones, who insists that we always think across scales by placing bodies at the center of our systemic analyses.
Although this is the final installment of our series on African decolonial thinkers, these interventions have already given birth to further Antipode projects. Please stay tuned.
Wangui is a lecturer at American University Nairobi, and an honorary research associate at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town. Her interdisciplinary research work draws on many local histories and interdisciplinary theoretical approaches to try and think through urban spatial management in Nairobi from the vantage point of its most marginalized residents. Wangui is also an editorial board member of the online publication Africa Is a Country (AIAC), a member of the Beyond Inhabitation Lab, and a co-organizer of the UTA-Do African Cities Workshop.
Yousuf Al-Bulushi, Editor, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography
Wangui Kimari, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, and American University Nairobi
In the “High Night of Nameless Paths”
Coloniality is everywhere. In all of our bodies, in the multiple times we live, in the many spaces we try and cultivate lives of dignity.
In my own family, in my own body and the collective bodies that I live within, it rears its ugly head through many diverse articulations. My grandmother died in the early 1960s on the operating table of a White South African doctor who, it is said, was conducting experimental tubal ligations on African women in Kenya. One great grandfather, on my mother’s side, never made it back from fighting in the First World War in Burma—if he ever made it there at all, we will never know. But I also have an ancestor, one of society’s rascals as our last name implies, who used to intentionally urinate on the bonfires of authoritarian chiefs, and the heritage of this disobedience is registered in this name formalized in the identity documents that tie us to a neocolonial state. Through many corporealized sojourns across generations, it is because of these kinsfolk trajectories that we have pain and privilege; it is through these embodied experiences that we have relational insights into the ways in which my family and others are shaped by what, using Walter Rodney’s (1972) phrase for colonialism, is a “one armed bandit”.
I mention these experiences here in a bid not to forget the multiple ways through which colonialism moulds us: from the privileges that allow me to write this, to the death of my grandmother that is not often vocalized; it is offered, when it is actually shared, through the pain and resignation of an older aunt who can remember the difficulties in reconciling her mother’s death with the memory of her leaving the house one morning full of vitality. These reflections of our own experiences are necessary to keep “fidelity to humanity” (Depelchin 2017); against, in the words of Tamale (2020: 2), “the imperial machinery [that] never eases its stranglehold over the world”.
Thus, while, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2022) mentions in his earlier interview within this series, decolonial reflections are increasingly demanded and popularized in institutions of higher learning across the globe, and unfortunately sometimes prescriptive and instrumental to the violent whims of academic careers, we must not forget the many crushing ways colonialism is lived in bodies. And, importantly, we who are called upon from time to time, due to our privilege, to elaborate on what this can mean, must not evade the need to put our bodies, too, at the centre of the decolonial question.
The bodies that have been dealt the blows that are the forceful (and often fatal) reactions to calls for decolonization—the bodies that are not protected by our books, our essays, our online discussions, and who continue to live within the worst enduring outcomes of coloniality—they require that we belong to the collective body that tries to make its way through, borrowing from the poem Rumo Novo by Agostinho Neto (1950), the “high night of nameless paths.”
In these routes without names, where we take uncertain steps to construct a new “rhythm” while looking for the “[hu]man we lost”, nothing is easy. There are no road maps. Step after step are crossroads. Yet, in the bloodied border fields of Melilla, in the teargassed streets of Dakar, in the actions of those on the frontline in Sudan trying to make sure that their loved ones stay safe, there are bodies that have known an “inheritance of lashes”, but somehow, still, “remain believers” (Neto 1950).
Certainly, “decoloniality’s point of departure is existential realities of suffering, oppression, repression, domination, and exclusion”, writes Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2015: 492). But, incredibly, many of those who have been claimed by and continue to strain against the enduring sharp teeth of what Ferdinand (2022) terms an “unsurpassable pathological irresponsibility”; those who are continuously made as “Negroes” and reside at the very bottom of “hold politics”, they show us that while treacherous, this road to remake power, knowledge, and being is not, as Tamale (2023) charges, “science fiction”.
“Defiant scholarship” (Daley and Murrey 2022) can support these steps, and is, in fact, inspired by it. However, it, too, as Ouma (2022: 184) argues, has its “dangers, limits and contradictions”. A paradox that I highlight here (and from which I am not exempt)—albeit with important exceptions documented by Daley and Murrey (2022), Ouma (2022), and Al-Bulushi (2023)—is this failure to recognize our various colonial heritages, implications, vulnerabilities, and entitlements as scholars who are working to think through decolonial pathways.
By committing to join and see in our body this collective body, of the struggling masses, whose “inheritance is lashes” but “still believes”, we can take up epistemic journeys that steer us away from the enduring colonial research which entrenches what Depelchin (2005) terms the “syndromes of abolition and discovery”. And, instead, implicate ourselves in what Thomas (2019: 3), reflecting on the afterlives of the plantation in Jamaica, refers to as “Witnessing 2.0”: an “embodied practice” towards recognizing and responding to “the psychic and sociopolitical dynamics in which we are complicit, and therefore to generate the ability to be response-able, to ourselves and others”.
At the decolonial crossroads that our people face and navigate every day, this is the least we can do.
Thinking Nairobi, Detroit, Brazil
Shimoni. On the southeastern coast of Kenya, there is the village of Shimoni named after a set of caves that were used as a “holding pen” for enslaved Africans before they were violently transported to Zanzibar and elsewhere. This unfortunate human cargo was captured from near and far, and then forced to travel between five to seven kilometres underground—a dark subterranean railway—from the village of Fikirini, so as to get to this terrestrial enclosure before they were transported to its maritime version.
In Shimoni’s absence from our local school curricula, the public invisibility of this former slave site, I am reminded of the inadequacy of African states, scholarship, and institutions to really grapple with the need to heal and historicize with the African diaspora.
Instead, like the treatment of Shimoni, which remains, for the most part, confined to a subterranean presence, particularly at the state level, we recognize our diasporic kin usually through unsustained political or commercial gestures. Ultimately, our national investments to reflect and honour the memory of those who were “the ebony wood of Africa” stolen to “sustain colonial inhabitations” (Ferdinand 2022) are mediocre, if there are any at all.
In her poem Eulogy, Grace Nichols (1983), the Guyanese-British Poet, asks the “souls caught in the Middle Passage”:
How can I eulogise your names
What dance of mourning can I make?
Despite the enduring horrors, the many “afterlives of slavery” (Hartman 2008) in Shimoni and across many parts of the continent, there is no substantive eulogy that is being co-created in the region by those who have power. Instead, the memory of the millions of lives felled and stolen is pushed further down, made more materially and metaphysically underground. As but one example of this, the National Museum of Slavery in Luanda, Angola—the country that is estimated to have exported the bulk of enslaved Africans to the Americas—was, in 2019 when I lived briefly in the city, perpetually closed or under renovation. When I was finally able to enter one day by asking a caretaker to open it, the displays in the three small rooms were explained by what could not have been more than a few generic sentences; a curation that for me expressed a “sympathy-without-connection” (Ferdinand 2022) that is gravely disturbing for a country that had lost so much from a centuries-long sinister harvesting of its kin. But, at the same time, don’t we need more than a museum in Shimoni, Luanda, and beyond?
Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2015: 493) states that “within the broader Global South context, the decoloniality movement has produced such South–South formations as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that is geared at shifting economic power from the West”. Nevertheless, despite their purchase with states and scholarship on the continent, these bids for “de-imperialization” and “de-westernization”, as we can see from many events, are not a decolonial “eulogy”. Rather, in the persistent anti-Blackness seen within the articulations of these formations, and particularly in the countries that comprise these blocs, we fall far short of ensuring healing and justice. The coloniality of economic power and knowledge may be challenged, but not the coloniality of being.
This would require, as conveyed by Fanon (1967: 186-187), an interrogation of the universals—South–South, for example—and a restoration from the “drowning” they imply. As he shared:
I have barely opened eyes that had been blindfolded, and someone already wants to drown me in the universal? What about the others? Those who “have no voice”, those who “have no spokesman”…I need to lose myself in my negritude, to see the fires, the segregations, the repressions, the rapes, the discriminations, the boycotts. We need to put our fingers on every sore that mottles the black uniform.
Surely, we do need to touch wounds, and we need eulogies (and peoples museums) that come to terms with “the segregations, the repressions, the rapes, the discriminations, the boycotts”. These are definitely not the empty statements emerging from presidential stages, such as those offered by, for example, Uhuru Kenyatta who denounces imperialism while his family remains the biggest landowner in Kenya. Or the “flag” pan-Africanisms of Presidents Museveni, Ramaphosa and, more recently, Ruto, while they massacre struggling people on the streets. It is certainly not the performative solidarity of institutions such as the African Union.
In contrast, Shilliam (2015) advocates for a peopled “infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity”, one embedded in a “decolonial science of ‘deep relation’”, which cultivates “knowledge ‘sideways’” away from the cartographic violence of imperial maps and visions. Such a science allows us to read, think, feel, act, historicize Nairobi, Detroit, Brazil together, without looking at their geographic locations; it prompts us to bring the Black Pacific and Soweto into one African story, and simultaneously eulogize Comoros and the Virgin Islands. This is a practice that, in the words of Kamau Brathwaite (1992), would be attuned to a “note that has been held for 500 years”, and which bears witness to the reality that, as Tamale (2020: 11) argues, “when the empire strikes the African ‘other’ it completely disregards the[ir] nuanced diversities”.
It would allow us to see the similarities between the colonial inhabitations that deny Black residents in Flint, Michigan water and those that let Kenyans die of thirst. We would be able, then, to grasp why there are similarities in the life expectancies of Congo and Haiti.
And, too, amidst the violence and suffering, we will recognize, as Ferdinand (2022) asserts, that “the Negro does not die”.
These kinds of recognitions, many would argue, are rare in the contemporary education institutions on the continent, where scholarship is less independent, and is moulded by the caprices of governments, foreign consultancies, and the neoliberal condition. On this, Daley (2023; Daley and Murrey 2022) speaks of the intimate and public challenges faced by “defiant scholarship”, ultimately allowing for a situation where, in the words of Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2015: 489), “[w]e so far don’t have African universities. We have universities in Africa”.
To build this science that “exists underneath the wounds of coloniality” (Shilliam 2015: 13), that centres the “underneath” of Shimoni and Luanda—the “psychic life of [their] geology” (Yusoff 2021: 666), would require, as Daley (2023) writes, “accessing those ways of knowing that were labelled evil, backward, barbaric, and bush, and were stigmatised and forbidden within colonial education systems”. It would necessitate that we travel through the subterranean cave systems we have created, individually and collectively, to connect Nairobi, Detroit, Brazil, so that we can hear that decolonial “note that has lasted 500 years”.
A Road Called Mau Mau
In 1892, a few miles from the centre of what would become Nairobi, the infamous Captain Lugard, of divide and rule fame, observed that “at one time … four rhino were standing in different directions within view of the plain, and one which I severely wounded, in making off, stumbled over a couple of magnificent lions” (quoted in Nairobi City Council 1950: 8). These kinds of narratives, of a land teeming with game, an open terra nullius, contributed to the settler-colonial enterprise that would seek to make, what would later be known as Kenya, a “White man’s country” (Jackson 2011).
Over a century later, in the railway museum adjacent to Nairobi station (site of the initial encampment from which emerged colonial Nairobi), one can still buy a poster that advertises:
THE HIGHLANDS OF
BRITISH EAST AFRICA
WINTER HOME FOR ARISTOCRATS
HAS BECOME A FASHION
SPORTSMEN in search of BIG GAME make it a hobby
STUDENTS of NATURAL HISTORY revel in this FIELD of
NATURE’S own making
This information is followed by a graphic (see Image 1 below) of the Kenya–Uganda railway line, with animals literally spewing from the sides of this machine. Here, there is a hippo and a crocodile half-submerged in a pool beside the train; a lion appearing to consider climbing up a palm tree; snakes slithering, in long coils, out of the railway windows; an African child launching themselves off the roof of the locomotive; and what seems to be a misplaced bear leaning on the railway fence looking at an unperturbed White man. There is also a sign, by the lion and the palm tree, declaring: “EAST AFRICAN PROTECTORATE NOTICE: THE big GAME ARE TO BE CAREFULLY PRESERVED BY ORDER”. And other human and non-human figures—elephant, bush and bird, for instance—are necessary features of this colonial mise en scène. Towering over them all, planted firmly within the raised section of the train station roof and clock, is the Union Jack.
When I first came across this poster during a visit to the railway museum in June 2023, I thought it was a relic of history; an object that had survived nature’s way of interacting with archives—dust, termites, tears, greasy fingers, and the incendiary guilty purge of departing colonists—to pierce through our moment as a mnemonic device. However, I was soon to learn that this imperial poster had been intentionally reprinted for sale by Kenya Railways since, at least, 2005, and even featured the affirming stamp of the Kenya Tourist Board.
There was no irony in the faces of those who sold it, and the freshly printed copy I bought could be evidence for not only the popularity of this poster, but also the purchase of this national frame; the enduring need to make and represent Kenya as a “winter home for aristocrats”.
Image 1: Poster from Nairobi Railway Museum (photo by author, June 2023)
Critical conservation practitioners like Mordecai Ogada have consistently demonstrated the enduring seduction, with grave material effects, of this account; the positioning of Kenya as a land of endless savannah where Theodore Roosevelt and his entourage shot (as could you) 5,000 animals—over 160 species—and that Prince William seeks to “protect” with his continuous attacks on African “overpopulation” patterns (see Al Jazeera 2021). Almost 20 years after Binyavanga Wainaina’s (2005) satirical essay How to Write About Africa, an enduring “Out of Africa” tale, replete with the language he flags, is still being reproduced by the state, giving insights into the logics and aspirations of a country that has been “independent” for over 60 years.
My research work over the last decade has sought to understand how Nairobi’s marginalized dwellers continue to navigate the very violent articulations of this coloniality; their everyday struggles against the materialization of post-independence chronicles that maintain Africa as what Obeng-Odoom (2021) has called an “open pasture”. Those discourses that have sombre bearing in the city and its lives in many intimate and public ways include “World Class City” policies and practices, whose impress, really, evidence imperial rationales.
Close to 70 years ago, a publication to mark the jubilee anniversary celebrations of Nairobi, 1900-1950 (Nairobi City Council 1950), noted the following:
The people of Nairobi are engaged in building here more than a city of stone, steel and wood, they are building a new city of human beings, working out a new way of life in this old continent, and a new means of bringing harmony between men and women of many kinds, drawn from many corners of the earth, with vastly different standards and ideas. The inspiration and experience are drawn from the glory of Britain.
Without a doubt, the majority of Nairobi’s residents will tell you that Britain is still legible in the landscape. While Africans can now live in the city, it is, still, nonetheless visible in the design of buildings past and present, and in the bylaws and zoning inheritances that shape access to basic services and, even, life chances. Efforts to keep it so were more explicit in the years preceding independence, where the declarations of “harmony between men and women of many kinds” seen above and reproduced in the 1948 Master Plan for a Colonial Capital, were as believable as the notions about the “glory of Britain”. This was done via a multifaceted process—for example, legislation, force, church, school—that many scholars have examined, and which led to an incremental coloniality of the mind, alienation of the self from the body and nature, a “cultural bomb” (Ngũgĩ 1986).
But, like the native child who was drawn jumping off the Kenya–Uganda railway in our earlier poster, marginalized Nairobians, then as now, “had vastly different standards and ideas” for the city. The archive is full of administrative laments about Africans driving hand carts down the “wrong side” of the road, brewing alcohol without a permit, organizing illegal ngomas (parties), creating proscribed “squatter situations” seen as “scattered in a nondescript fashion along meandering footpaths” (Njoh 2009: 307), and much more “diseased, detribalized, and degenerate” behaviours (White 1990: 121). Despite the fines, the removals, the raids, systematized dehydration, the lack of basic services, and confinement to minimal space, the Black urban majority, whose descendants still live on only 6% of Nairobi’s land, held on and continue to stake claims to a city that was not meant for them; it was intended, instead, to be a metropolitan base where White hunters could shoot rhinos that would then, in their escape, trip over lions.
Their struggles in a colonial city, and across decades, are many; for adequate housing, to prevent evictions, for quality schools and healthcare, and to put a stop to state-sanctioned police bullets. These demands for life also include vernacular tactics to assert that visible from the margins, and principally from the shack, is the “durability” (Stoler 2016) of empire, despite the denials from more privileged society, and state discourses claiming otherwise.
Two inspiring examples of peopled efforts that recognize and respond to this widespread coloniality are Mau Mau Road in Mathare, and the Dedan Kimathi monument in the centre of the town. The former is in one of the oldest settlements in Nairobi, which has long been considered a site of “outcasts”—criminals, “prostitutes”, illegal alcohol brewers and vendors; ultimately ungovernables who don’t belong in the vision the city has for itself—while the statue of Dedan Kimathi is the earliest of two Mau Mau monuments in Nairobi, and the only one, from my knowledge, paid for by the Kenyan government. Interestingly, this statue is erected a few metres away from the Stanley, the oldest hotel in the city, where pictures of “big game hunters” and their victims still proudly hang on walls.
Image 2: Picture of the Dedan Kimathi statue in downtown Nairobi (photo by author, September 2023)
Mathare is “one of the most difficult urban environments in East Africa” (Muungano Support Trust et al. 2011: 4). But, as Gathanga Ndung’u (2022) writes, notwithstanding this enduring legacy, it remains “an urban bastion of anti-oppression struggle”. For example, Anderson (2005) describes how, during Operation Anvil—a militarized colonial incursion into the settlement in 1954—women would spit on their captors faces in defiance when they were detained in mass raids. Furthermore, local oral narratives convey the importance of Mathare to the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), also known as the Mau Mau, as a court, an urban nerve centre, and a location where they had widespread support.
It is surely this history that led to the local designation of the only path that cuts through the settlement as Mau Mau Road. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army were only unbanned as an organization in 2003, following the ostensive end of a dictatorial postcolonial situation lasting from 1963 to 2002. In such a context, it remains remarkable that a settlement always under threat—where four generations have somehow fought off total state erasure—would memorialize the Mau Mau in this way. Undoubtedly, this toponym, not yet witnessed anywhere else in the country, is a statement about the persistence of the colonial, and, certainly, a poor people’s register that, despite their everyday encounters with its pervasive and suffocating violence, they recognize it for what it is, and will enact multiple movements—tangible and symbolic—to signpost its treacherous reach, while working to halt its progress.
Across the other side of town, in the central business district, Dedan Kimathi Waciuri’s statue (Image 2) stands tall. In military regalia and dreadlocks, this figure clutches both a rifle and a dagger; his anti-colonial war implements. A legendary Mau Mau field marshal, Kimathi was executed in 1957, and where he was buried has not been formally disclosed by the British. Yet, here is his bronze body. And it is the powerful agitations of landless young people, their persistent vocalizations of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and, especially, its betrayal by postcolonial governments, which provoked the recognition of Kimathi in this way in 2007.
Elsewhere in Kenya, museums have archaic exhibitions that uphold essentialized views of culture and politics. But, surprisingly, in a street in the central business district, there is a statue of a Mau Mau leader that, in its function as a symbol of resistance, draws in and from the presence of those the city seeks to exclude. Undoubtedly, in a Nairobi that has long prized skyscrapers over public housing, colonial memory over local histories, this monument, as Mau Mau Road, pierces through the coloniality that still reproduces beings, knowledges, and power in the country. Both the organic impetus that prompted these two commemorations of Kenya’s freedom fighters, as well as these artifacts themselves, produce and sustain struggles, however small, towards what Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2015: 492) calls a “democratization of knowledge, de-hegemonization of knowledge, de-westernization of knowledge, and de-Europeanization of knowledge”.
For me, as I seek to argue in my work, these memorials index the reality that—in spite of the colonial poster reproduced by the Kenya Tourist Board and the railway museum, despite the imperial city logics that perpetuate “Out of Africa” tales, against the formal production of the relationship between Nairobi, Detroit and Brazil as inconsequential and subterranean, the crossroads and contradictions, the lashes—the people will fight, across decades, for even just one road to be named Mau Mau.
Image 3: Picture of Mau Mau Road sign in Mathare, Nairobi (photo by author, September 2023)
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