BIEA Annual Lecture 2018: The ‘not coup’ coup in Zimbabwe in November 2017: Background and implications for the future

When is a military coup not a military coup? If the official narrative from new Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration is to be believed, it is when army leaders move on the capital, place the president under house arrest, and begin impeachment proceedings which leave him with no option other than to resign. According to official channels, these events of November 2017 represented an orderly transition of power. As welcome as Mugabe’s departure may have been for many Zimbabweans, the nature of the transition raises serious questions about the country’s future.

Prof. Brian Raftopoulos, speaking at the BIEA Annual Lecture in Nairobi last week, invited those assembled to see through the official narrative for the charade that it is, and gave thoughts on what the ousting of Mugabe portends. He has described the November 2017 intervention as ‘one of the biggest political frauds in the history of postcolonial Africa’. Prof. Raftopoulos is currently Director of Research at the Solidarity Peace Trust and Research Associate at the Cape Town University, and has been a civic activist in Zimbabwe since the 1990’s.

The lecture covered a broad sweep of issues currently plaguing Zimbabwean politics. Prof. Raftopoulos described how, throughout the leadership takeover, Zimbabwe’s military leaders (and factions within the ruling Zanu-PF party) cleverly constructed key narratives to achieve their bloodless coup, gaining acceptance of their actions from both the Zimbabwean public and key international stakeholders.

First among these was ‘constitutionality’. Rather than publicly turning on president Mugabe, military leaders played the game of ‘protecting the constitution’ and weeding out so-called ‘political criminals’, particularly those close to Grace Mugabe. They then used the language of constitutionalism to expel Mugabe from the ruling party, starting impeachment proceedings and eventually forcing his resignation. This distancing of the transition from the less palatable idea of ‘military control’ and retaining a semblance of legality around the process enabled them, for the time being, to get buy-in from stakeholders such as the SADC and African Union.

Secondly, the military used the language of change and political resurgence – traditionally the remit of the opposition – to bring people out onto the streets of Harare. The opportunity to oust Mugabe (rather than support of Mnangagwa) galvanised popular support, which allowed the instigators of the coup to spuriously claim legitimacy for their cause.

Thirdly, in the months following the coup, Mngangagwa has used the language of international re-engagement, performing his role as new leader for a global audience. He has discussed neo-liberal reforms and shrinking of the public sector in a manner which is set to appeal to international investors, in the hope – Raftopolous argued – of deflecting criticism of the means through which he rose to power.

Against this background, the November coup represents a dangerous moment for the future of Zimbabwe. First, for all Mnangagwa’s glittering rhetoric around building Zimbabwe’s economic future, there will be no economic stabilisation without political reform. The factors which led to economic decline under Mugabe, such as the legacy of colonial inequalities, the endemic corruption and patronage networks within the state, are not being addressed under the new, similarly crony-led administration.

What has changed, however, is that the ruling factions within Zanu-PF have appropriated the language of political change, and with it, the opposition’s political space. There is a danger that, despite their crucial successes in driving political debate in Zimbabwe in the past, the opposition parties now find themselves written out of the country’s future. Also, and most importantly, the perception of who really controls Zanu-PF and Zimbabwean politics more generally has been overturned. After the climactic events of November, there can be no doubt that the military are increasingly to the fore, controlling both the party and the structures of the state. Together, these three factors hardly paint a picture of future stability.

Thanks to this careful way in which the coup and its accompanying public narrative have been manoeuvred – with a combination of constitutionalism, so-called popular support and neoliberal reforms for international re-engagement – there is a danger that the world may accept the fraudulent narrative of ‘transition’. At its heart, this is still a destructive military takeover of the state. With this acceptance, internal and external pressure for political reform may be relaxed, and the creation of a new, more democratic future for Zimbabwe may slip ever further away.

In a matter of months, countries across Africa as disparate as Angola, Ethiopia and South Africa have joined Zimbabwe in ousting their entrenched leaders – all heads of liberation parties which have held power for decades. The week prior to the BIEA Annual lecture saw the departure of both Jacob Zuma and Hailemariam Desalegn. Against this backdrop, a lively discussion of Zimbabwe’s turmoil seemed to reflect something of a wider zeitgeist. Time will tell, however, whether Prof. Raftopoulos’ fears for the future of his country will be realised.

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Leevans Linyerera: Hope among those deemed hopeless

By: Craig Halliday

Leevans Linyerera’s exhibition at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) constitutes nine works on canvas in the medium of paint and charcoal. These works were inspired by a visit the artist made to ‘Korando Educational Centre’ in Kisumu, Western Kenya, in April 2016. The centre provides informal schooling opportunities for children from the area; many of these children are orphaned, are at risk, or vulnerable – something the artist saw as “giving hope among those deemed hopeless.”

Providing young people with an opportunity to follow their passion, and experience what they love, is close to Linyerera’s heart. The artist explains to me how he never had the opportunity to learn art at school, though this didn’t stop him from continuing art in his spare time, nurturing his talent and passion. In 2015 Linyerera’s art practice took a new direction, he received tutoring by Patrick Mukabi at the GoDown Art Centre and then later at the Dust Depot (an art organisation in Nairobi started by Mukabi which offers, space training and mentorship to artists).

Perhaps these experiences led Linyerera to give back; for example the artist says “I am now taking an initiative in teaching young kids”, while also, he along with Wallace Juma founded Kijani Trust (an open art studio). In addition to the time spent at Korando Educational Centre Linyerera has held various art workshops for young people. Describing this experience Linyerera says “working with children gives me a sense of hope, knowing that our future and great art will come from them. Also, I find children’s kindness and humility towards each other inspiring.”

Returning to Linyerera’s exhibition at the BIEA, his nine pieces on canvas constitutes two distinct bodies of work which likewise reflect the artist’s divergent experiences and art practice.  One of these bodies, made up of monochrome works using paint and charcoal, capture (in a non-intrusive way) some of the activities at Korando Educational Centre – sports, education and horticulture. The other two images are portraits of young children, the subjects are conscious of their image being taken. The artist’s use of tone, resolute brush strokes and charcoal scribes – with bright whites and deep blacks – creates a sense of depth and vigour which draws the viewer into the action taking place in the artwork.

These works (which can be seen as studies from photographs taken by the founder of Korando Educational Centre), through the choice of figurative subjects and mark making, are a nod to the tutelage received under Mukabi. Linyerera’s work does nevertheless have enough distinction to set it apart from Mukabi’s. The artist has clearly taken on board technical aspects acquired and is now applying them to a style that suits himself, not his mentor –  something others under Mukabi’s teaching have yet to achieve, or at least choose not to do so.

The artist’s second body of work comprises four paintings which Linyerera describes as abstract. These paintings, which are less controlled than the others, are made up of raw, and at times harsh or clumsy, mark making – angular sweeps of paint applied with a pallet knife, thin washes, drips, and thick paint stuck to the canvas. While not as refined when compared with his other abstract work, these paintings do evoke a playfulness, and perhaps mischievousness, which references the artist’s experience of creating art with, and teaching, young people. During his week-long stay at Korando Educational Centre Linyerera taught children art through experimental ways – such as using plastic bottles, ink, charcoal and detergent to make art.

Linyerera is still early on in his career. The exhibition at the BIEA contributes to a growing list of successful exhibitions which the artist has featured in – these include group shows, such as: ‘Not a Big Spoon’, held at Alliance Francaise this year; ‘Young Guns’, held at Circle Art Agency this year; and ‘Arts to End Slavery’, a traveling exhibition which took place in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa in 2016. The exhibition at the BIEA runs until 13th October 2017.

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Reagan Muriuki – Different Faces, Different Races

A collection of intriguing portraits executed in coloured pencil on paper fill the exhibition hall at the British institute in Eastern Africa this month. The exhibition, titled ‘Different Faces, Different Races’, showcases images of different people’s culture and races. According to the young artist, Reagan Muriuki (25 and from Nairobi), who created these works, the exhibition is “aimed at appreciating the different races and cultures that exist in this world.” Muriuki goes on to say “I came up with this idea because appreciation of different cultures and races helps to improve self-identity and promote peaceful co-existence between different people.” The exhibition comes at a time when varied groups and individuals attack cultural diversity within their community, country or globally, espousing virulent forms of intolerance. Muriuki instead wants to celebrate this diversity as he feels it enriches our lives, and the differences that we all have strengthen us, and brings us together instead of dividing one another.

Muriuki started drawing as a child. He would draw in school and although art classes were limited he did nevertheless find other means and avenues to pursue this passion. For example, the artists recalls that he would often create art for special events hosted at school while at other times he would practice calligraphy on the letters that he and his fellow students would send to friends and family. Growing up in Nairobi and moving through the city’s streets and suburbs Muriuki encountered the various images and texts that are sign-writing. The art of sign-writers is delivered in a variety of styles depicting an enormous range of imagery from political figures, global and local celebrities, depictions of tradition, folk tales and myths, sport teams and brands. The artist also draws inspiration from another form of art found on the street – that of Matatu art. Matatu art (the painting or covering with graphics of minibuses used for public transport) has become highly individualised, with paint jobs ranging from an assortment of colours and logo designs to airbrushed famous faces, whilst incorporating a differing degree of expressive text. Their designs are icons of Nairobi and have become moving representations of urban culture. The ubiquity of sign-writing and Matatu art     is of great significance to the whole populace. For a lot of people this is perhaps the most common form of art witnessed in their environment. For many artists, including Muriuki, their evolution has been influenced by this exposure to commercial art.

Muriuki clearly has an understanding of techniques used to create intriguing portraits from his singular choice of medium, coloured pencil. Though the artist does not feel restricted in what this medium can offer. By employing a range of mark making methods – be it hatching and cross hatching, the layering of colour, or divergent uses of applied pressure which result in varied tones – the artist begins to challenge the remits of what is possible through coloured pencil work. Such exploration into any given medium, and grasped techniques, are important stages in many artists’ careers and development. Drawing is often regarded as the foundation for artistic practise, and as an artist who has only recently decided to pursue art as a career (after receiving a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Nairobi and having drawn as a hobby since being a child) it will be interesting to see if Muriuki continues with this medium or begins to explore others.

The exhibition runs from 4th August – 31st August 2017. To commission the artist to do a portrait of yourself, a loved one or friend please contact Reagan Muriuki ([email protected]).

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Nilotic – An exhibition by Philip Ondik

This month’s exhibition at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (running from 24th June – 28th July) is by the visual artist Philip Ondik. The show, titled ‘Nilotic’, is a series of paintings on canvas and wooden board. The artist states this body of work is inspired by his fascination into the Nilotic peoples’ ways of life in Kenya;   a cluster of several ethnic groups largely dwelling in the western region of the country. Every artwork has been executed in a similar manner; layered backgrounds of predominantly warm colours (red, orange and yellow tones) painted through broad strokes, sweeps from palette knifes and washes, while the foreground contains confidently asserted line paintings and daubs of paint forming figures, cattle and village huts.

Ondik’s formal training in graphic design and fine art (within Kenya at the Buru Institute of Fine Arts, though also internationally at the Eastern Institute of Technology New Zealand) clearly comes through in his style of painting. When asked (at the opening of the exhibition) what the reasoning behind his choice of colours is, Ondik responded by stating that the warm colours referenced the ‘kind-heartedness of African people’, while the occasional use of blue for some paintings indicate the Nilotic people living in and around the lake regions.

The use of such colours, and simplistic depiction of Nilotic people, does however create a somewhat romanticised account of their lives. As a result, these paintings present to the viewer a rather homogenous, idyllic and harmonious understanding, or at least representation, of Nilotic people and their way of being; overlooking factors such as their diversity, the uptake of new technologies and consequences of ‘modernity’, and norms surrounding violence.

For Ondik, nevertheless, the romanticised view of the Nilotic people is one he is aware off and chooses to display. One aspect that the artist does highlight is the importance of livestock for many Nilotic people. Ondik’s depiction of cattle herders accompanying their cows – illustrated through loosely painted lines – references the interconnectedness of cattle and many Nilotic people’s daily routines and society; being providers of food and material, used for exchange and payments, or ritual importance.

The exhibition Nilotic, held at the BIEA, will add to the list of venues Ondik has exhibited at across Kenya (such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise, Italian Institute of Culture, Tazama Africa Gallery, and Michael Joseph Centre) and New Zealand (Birdswood Gallery, Vent Gallery and Quay Gallery), while this body of work continues his long interest in Nilotic people and his visual representation of them through art; which Ondik does alongside graphic design and art teaching.

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Saving El-Mahas Archaeological Site; North Sudan

By: Mohammed Babiker

Archaeology is the study of human activity through recovery and analysis of material culture. Material culture, on the other hand, refers to archaeological records such as artifacts (pots), Eco-facts (bones), features (postholes) and structure (architecture/ruins). Material culture is biological material in nature, such as bones and feces that are as a result of human activity, but are not deliberately modified and therefore, cultural landscapes. Most of material cultures are often buried underneath grounds we walk on. Bones and all living things including plants, that were long buried in the ground through natural occurrences are called, fossils.

Fossils are important especially, in telling us about prehistory (our unrecorded period). And in order to save these fossils, it is crucially important to preserve our biodiversity, and engage archaeologists before undertaking activities involving massive constructions. This engagement of archeologists before development of land is called, Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA).


Coming from North Sudan, I found weather in Nairobi lower than cooler. It was comfortably hospitable. I was to stay in Kileleshwa at the BIEA hostels. I was going to spend the next three months there under the BIEA, Graduate Attachment Scheme (GAS) programme.

Looking forward to further my studies, this opportunity with the BIEA is definitely one of the best to see that through. In addition, the knowledge to be acquired here was desperately needed back home.

El-Mahas archaeological site; North Sudan

The skills I was going to learn from the BIEA included using its links of networks key among them the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). Together, the assessment research we conducted to initiate construction by the Kenya Pipeline, was to go a long way in helping save El-Mahas in North Sudan, as an archaeological site.

El-Mahas is characterized by presence of numerous archaeological sites dating back to different periods since pre-history, to the Islamic period. Archaeological research has shown the site to be one of the oldest areas to have been inhabited by humans. Among the archaeological remains found here are settlements, cemeteries, castles, forts, and rock art. El-Mahas is also considered to be one of the richest areas within Sudan in terms of natural resources; gold, copper, granite rocks and sandstones.

It was also once a corridor to the ancient Nubian kingdom and to third cataract region especially at around 3000 BC; when the old Egyptian kingdom focused on exploitation of the natural resources in the area. Currently, El-Mahas, like many other sites surrounding the region is facing dangers of destruction. Gold mining, population settlements and construction of dams are jeopardizing these sites.

In this regard, research assessment on the ongoing Kenya Pipeline project is key to me as reference aimed on finding out what should be implemented in the El-Mahas region as mitigation measures to save such ‘treasures’.

North Sudan, as a country, is yet to completely join rest of the world in development. Therefore, issues like archaeological assessments are rarely done before development commence. Dozens of archaeological sites and relics have been lost through planned developments which involve massive soil excavations with little regard to archaeological remains.  A case in point with eminent threat is El-Mahas region in North Sudan.

Fieldwork with NMK Archaeological team along the proposed pipeline section in Syokimau area, Jomo Kenyatta Airport zone, and Embakasi was a real privilege. It included interviews with the archaeological scientists as well as analyzing results from the fieldwork. I enjoyed it all.

Heritage/Archaeological Assessment: Nairobi National Park and Donholm Junction, Nairobi

The initial objective was to assess the section within the National park but it was not accessible due to logistical hiccups. It needed company by game wardens for safety against wild animals. And this needed to be arranged prior to their arrival. However, we proceeded to working the sections outside the park, through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Donholm junction.

The Field work was carried out in duration of three days from, 24th November to 27th November, 2016. Unfortunately, I attended only two days; 25th and 26th. The survey focused on the areas on Mombasa Road near Gateway Mall, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport zone and Embakasi. The mission members were Rahab Kinyanjui (NMK), Cecilia Ngugi (NMK), Mburu Daniel (NMK driver) and I.


We surveyed about twelve areas. These sections had several lanes of roads, a railway and pipeline engineering activities which included excavating and re-filling.

Of all these places, probably one area best made up for as an archaeological site. In this particular place, Lukenya, we discovered four fragments of decorated pottery- with two different kinds/types of decorations. Coincidentally, while I was conducting interviews with individuals from the Department of Archaeology at the NMK, one of my interviewees had won a bot-shirt with same decorations as the earlier discovered pottery. Throughout our working days, rainy weather remained our biggest challenge yet.

Assessments often applies to development projects that have potentially significant impact on the material cultural environment; and which require a systematic analysis of such effects before an informed and reasonable decision is taken to permit the development project.

In Kenya, this type of work falls under environment management policy. Here, the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) is considered a key body that; officially represents the environment or cultural aspects of the environment including the natural parts such as; zoology, botany, and modern ecology and every other work related to cultural heritage in Kenya.

However, contrary to the pronounced environment management policy, the cultural impact assessment is currently managed by, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).  NEMA lacks enough expertise on cultural matters, and by law they are required to contract with the museum. NEMA is supposed to ensure assessment is done and presented to the NMK before developing/construction.

The existing Mombasa-Nairobi pipeline system; a 450 kilometer long, 14-inch-diameter pipeline are connected to ten intermediate booster pump stations known as, Changamwe (PS1), Samburu (PS2), Maungu (PS3), Manyani (PS4), Mtito Andei (PS5), Kibwezi (PS6), Sultan Hamud (PS7), Konza (PS8), and (PS9) referring to Embakasi and (PS10) the Nairobi Terminal. The pipeline can pump petroleum products up to a flow rate of 880 M3/hour.

Construction of the pipeline was first done in, 1976 and was commissioned in, 1978. The Kenya Pipeline Company Ltd (KPC) now intends to lay a new, and larger diameter pipeline alongside the existing one within the already established Right of Way (referred to as, RoW) in an effort to meet the rising demand for petroleum products within the East African community, as well as improving their efficiency.

The overall aim of this research is to undertake an archeological assessment within the already established Right of Way, and to assess the archaeological heritage impacts that may likely arise from the planning and implementation of the proposed development.

Essentially, its objectives are; to document the archaeological site context, cultural features, and artifacts in all portions of the archaeological site. Secondly, is to document the removal of the archaeological site and finally, is to preserve the archaeological site’s information for future study.

The assessment began with a literature review to examine existing documents and maps in order to identify sites that have previously been recorded in the area of interest. Subsequently, a physical survey was carried out to assess the integrity of the sites identified above, and to determine their state of conservation. The survey was conducted by walking along the sections to identify objects or features lying on the ground.

The literature reviewed for this project included  map sheets, survey sheets, record cards, site catalogues, and site inventory records at the Archaeology Section, NMK. This is especially the case with sites that were recorded in the 1970s and early 80’s.

According to the records, there are three areas of interest along the pipeline in relation to paleontology and archaeology namely; Mariakani, Tsavo and Lukenya.

Results of the KPC Assessment

It is first, important to note that the assessment was conducted in accordance with the NMK requirements within the stipulated areas proposed for development.

In Kenya, assessment research of this nature could be presented as a field report, or documenting agency for these sites. Therefore, the data collected are supposed to be available for anyone who wants to do research in those areas.

Most of the archaeological sites that were discovered dated back to later Stone Age. Usually, such artifacts are found on the surface.

The assessment was actually proposed by the developer because they are required to do Environment Impact Assessment anywhere they want to do development projects. This usually calls for outsourcing impact assessment experts.  And in this case, the developer had to come to NMK for the experts.

The personnel involved in conducting the assessment in the ongoing Kenya pipeline project had different experience qualifications. They varied starting with the project manager, field assistant, and archaeologists from NMK, and universities (University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University).

Sometimes, depending on the role of every person in the field, assessment researches could include participation of experts from other departments in NMK. Often, participants from NMK would include researchers (PhD), masters’ students and lab technicians.

The role of NMK, as a provided by the law, is to document and preserve heritage. Therefore, in this case, such kind of field work is very important.  One of the most important purpose assessments plays is ensuring preservation of these sites from destruction. However, more needs to be done to ensure such research do not only end up as field reports and kept for future studies; they should also be published for public consumption too.

In many regards, I pass special thanks to the BIEA assistant director, Dr. Freda Nkirote for her help in this research, and to NMK- Department of Archaeology, for allowing me to participate in the field work as a team member (working alongside Rahab and Cecilia). Many thanks again, to Christine and Angela (NMK) for giving me fully and detailed information on the project. Finally, I pour my uttermost thanks to the entire BIEA fraternity for giving me a chance to learn more about my field of study, and ultimately build on my career as I take all learnt back to North Sudan in bid to save El-Mahas.

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Kingdom Within – Inner Powers And Outward Appearances

By Craig Halliday

1Jesie Otumba is a young visual artist (21), whose first solo exhibition ‘Kingdom Within’ opened at the BIEA on Friday 12th May 2017. Made up of 12 works that Jesie has created over the past year (in the medium of pencil and oil pastel on paper) Kingdom Within “tries to relate the inner power that most people have not yet discovered in their outward appearance.” The concepts and narratives portrayed in the work propel the viewer to question power relations, social hierarchies, and personal battles with who we are (or how we show others who we are) and who we could be.  The series demonstrates a maturing of Jesie’s art practice – which in addition to his work ethic is likely influenced by his association with the art collective Brush Tu and the involvement of exhibiting at a group show in Nairobi last year.  As a result Kingdom Within marks a juncture in this artist’s career and development, who only moved to Nairobi two years prior. Though, that is not to say that art has only recently become part of Jesie’s life.

Growing up in in Nyanza province, near Kisumu, Jesie realised his artistic abilities at a young age. His school friends complimented him on his drawings and this would spur Jesie on. Though school itself was not conducive for Jesie’s development in art – he says “because of the education system and the schools I went to I did not have a chance to learn art at school. But I felt that if God has given me this talent then I should continue with it and improve on it.”  However, studying for other subjects took its toll on the time Jesie could spend on his art. It wasn’t until near the end of secondary school when Jesie’s love for art was re-kindled. Explaining how this came about Jesie states “people liked how I wrote my name on my school shirt, I enjoyed doing calligraphy. People started bringing me things to design for them and they all really liked it. As I kept doing new designs I would improve and that re-ignited my desire to continue art.”

Deciding to pursue art as a career comes with challenges, especially as in society art is often viewed as an insecure livelihood – or just not a real job. This is often the case where there is little exposure to art forms and one which resonates with Jesie’s story. In Nyanza Jesie knew of no art galleries in Kisumu or the surrounding area, though at times he did visit, and enjoy attending, local cultural festivals where there was drama, dance and music. Despite Jesie’s desire to “be an artist” he was encouraged to study something other than art and after high school he moved to Nairobi where he enrolled in civil engineering at ‘Technical University’. Commenting on this Jesie says “but that did not stop me from pursuing art. Art is part of me, I can’t do anything without it.”

Settling in Nairobi, residing in South B, Jesie soon ventured out to Nairobi’s galleries and built a close network of friends and associates who were artists too. He became particularly close with artists from Brush Tu and would spend many days at their collective in Buru Buru. It is here where Jesie was able to explore new mediums in art, such as painting, though it was also a space where he could draw a lot of influence and receive guidance and advice from fellow artists – such as Boniface Maina and Michael Musyoka. However, as a late night worker and someone who concentrates best when they are on their own his art practice mainly takes place when he is at home – where he develops his skills in his chosen medium, that of pencil and paper. This is where he created the series Kingdom Within.
2Moving round the exhibition at BIEA you soon become aware of Jesie’s repeated incorporation of the game chess – used as a metaphor to represent his ideas. Chess is a game that Jesie enjoys playing, “what I like is that it is not a must that you win. The more you lose the more you learn. It makes me think I need to up my game. The challenges that come are the inspirations that you get. It is the only game that allows you to be king and take control of your kingdom. It gives you a chance of being great.” I find it compelling what Jesie says.  In chess, as in life, every move matters – in that it affects you in some way. Though how you make that move, and who you decide to be when you make that move (pawn, castle, knight, bishop etc.) can determine a lot for the future. Different chess pieces, have different abilities, powers and places in a system of hierarchy. Though even a pawn can work towards putting a king in check. This is the essence of Kingdom Within, as Jesie explains to me “Most people on the outside look powerless or useless to society but on the inside is the ‘Kingdom Within’ which is very powerful but perhaps they have not discovered it. Once they realise their ‘Kingdom Within’ it will make a big change to them and society.”

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This concept is perfectly represented in the art work ‘Mask Off’ which shows a person wearing a mask, that has the image of a pawn on the front, being removed and revealing a king inside. The use of masks, although done in a subtle way, is a recurrent image in much of Jesie’s works, referencing the outward appearance that may in some way inhibit showing who you truly are inside. In another of Jesie’s work, ‘Self-Confinement’, the artist presents us with an image of a person being restrained in a box. On the front of the box is a clock – time is passing. Inside this box is a person, in contemplation, clutching with both hands the mask they are wearing. Will it be removed? If so, when? How much is it up to ourselves to decide how long we remain confined? When will the time come that we feel we need to remove our own mask? These conversations are continued through the series Kingdom Within. The exhibition was launched by Owen Maseko, a visual artist from Zimbabwe – who last month exhibited in Nairobi at the Goethe Institut, in collaboration with the BIEA. While I started this post by describing Jesie as a ‘young artist’ the words spoken by Owen during the launch perfectly challenge this – he said “Why are you being called a young artist? Your way of articulating a message is very strong I am really impressed.” Jesie’s work is still on show at the BIEA and the exhibition will be running until 9th June, 2017.


Photographs Courtesy of Adam Mwero


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Artists and Scholars Convene in the Clean Green City of Kigali

By Ibrahim Korir – BIEA Graduate Attachee

It was a terrible place to experience a breakdown. Sachang’wan, located between Nakuru and Molo, is a black spot notorious for road accidents. At Sach4 (Sachang’wan), our otherwise smooth and composed white land rover showed signs of tiredness. Then the transmission box gave up. There were six of us in it, but none of us was particularly tensed. But we were concerned about the car which had become our temporary ‘home’ and ‘close friend’ over the past ten days, since March 5th, 2017 when we had left Nairobi for a long road trip to Kigali. The land rover, however, was not ready to give up on us yet.

On March 3rd, 2017, Lily Rice, Daniele Del Vicario, Doseline Kiguru, Joost Fontein, and I had a brief meeting at 10am in the BIEA gardens to confirm everything was prepared for our oncoming workshop in Kigali, Rwanda. Lily and I confirmed everything was packed and we were ready to go.

At 6:30am, 5th March, eight participants traveling in the land rover, started arriving at the BIEA in Kileleshwa. Nickolas Gakuu (Nick), a great pianist, guitarist and our driver had arrived earlier and double-checked if the car was good to go. We loaded our luggage tightly onto the roof with knots and ropes. Soon after, Lily, Daniele, Nick, Ngene, Joost, Craig, Elias and I were on our way. The journey to Kigali had begun.

A quick selfie by Joost was a great warm-up to start our journey at around 7:30AM that Sunday morning. Conversation on diverse topics entertained us until we were at Flyover, between Nakuru and Nairobi, where we stole a quick stopover to visit the bathrooms or, grab some coffee/tea. Soon we continued onto Nakuru for breakfast. Back on the road with full stomachs, some had a nap while for others conversations and music circulated inside the van.

At around 4pm, we were at the Busia border town between Kenya and Uganda. We ate a late lunch before clearing immigration and crossing over to Uganda. The weather was ready to welcome me albeit rather harshly. As we queued at immigration, I started feeling nausea and difficulty breathing. The air felt hot, full of humidity, and I felt horrible.

Nick came to my rescue with a sachet of antihistamine pills. I swallowed one of the tiny white pills then started looking for water. I rolled down the window of the land rover and shut my eyes to what was next to come. After an hour and a half, I woke feeling better. We were heading to Bilkon Hotel, where we would spend the first night of our journey to Kigali, at Jinja, Uganda. We arrived at the gate of the hotel at 9:35pm.

After a delicious buffet at Bilkon, all I wanted was bed to jump in. I was tired and sleepy from the pill. Some of the other stayed up late to drink beer and continue the talk of the day. The weather at Jinja was cool and kind. We all had slept in the well in the town of copper.

Through Green Valley Country

We were up early the next day and some had already eaten their breakfast by 7am. By 8 am we had left with Nick behind the controls. There is always a sense of welcoming ease with Nick. Sleek, swift with stamina, is his driving.

There were conversations about art with Craig Halliday (PhD student at University of East Anglia), Ngene Mwaura (a visual artist who loves ‘playing’ with lines, patterns and colours) on online platforms that artists can use to sell their work of arts, and finally with Lily, a fellow GAS at the BIEA, who kept everyone’s attention.

“Have you ever thought of people’s names in colors?” Lily asked, raising everyone’s ears.

Long large fish sold alongside the road, displayed work of arts, diverse vendors, and magical landscapes and the long-horned Ankole cows. The conversation by Lily was simple yet demanding- fascinating to think in such diversity, driving across the Pearl of Africa that is Uganda.

From comparison with colours came comparisons with animals, plants and shapes – What animal would you be if you were animal? What of a plant? And what shape do you think time is?

At around 7pm we were at Uganda-Rwanda border. The immigration officers on both sides were quick in processing our passports. With everyone stamped, Nick finished clearing the vehicle, and joined us after a couple of minutes. We were in green and clean Rwanda – a country with stunning hills and valleys.

We were up on a steep hill; Nick had to switch to driving on the right. Heavy trucks and small vans characterized the dark hilly road. We were in safe, experienced hands – driving right or left.

At around 11pm, my mind still clung to magnificence of the River Nile, which we had crossed the day before. But it was miles away now; it was time to receive what Kigali had to offer. Doseline (Research Fellow, BIEA), had flown in to Kigali from Nairobi that Monday morning, and had already catered for our accommodation, dinner. We were looking forward to the events of the days to come.


We checked in at Mubwiza Resort. The first floor balcony gave us an exquisite view of Kigali and her outskirts: ‘staircases’ of separate lanes of roads lined the hills, mushrooming buildings, standing towers and the air of a promising future. Dinner from Murugo Rwanda Hostel was superb – it wet our appetite for Kigali and – for the Arts in Society, Eastern Africa (AiSEA) workshop that would begin the next day.

AiSEA: How-do-you-dos, Art and Curatorship

AiSeA was organized by the BIEA and the Rwandan Arts Initiative (RAI), and was about bringing artists and scholars from Nairobi and Kigali together. The programme was spread over 5 days from 7th-11th March, 2017, and involved practical activities as well as discussions on various topics in arts and academia.

Mist covered the city on hill that Tuesday morning at around half past six as I stood outside the balcony. The programme was to begin that afternoon, so there was ample of time to rest from our long journey. The mood of Kigali is calm contrary to the bustle of Nairobi. Motorists in Kigali are graceful and careful road users, bodaboda riders provide helmets for their passengers.

At around 12 pm, we were on our way to RAI. There we met artists from Kigali. In the RAI’s garden we introduced ourselves, and began insightful discussions about curatorship, led by Jon Stever of The Impact hub, an arts collective based in Kigali, which lasted the rest of that afternoon.

But we began with lunch, lunch prepared by Murugo Rwanda Hostels, which was delicious. The room was neatly organized with chairs forming a U-shape, breeze danced around the room, until the coolness of the morning was swallowed by the hot sunny afternoon. After everyone settled down from lunch, it was time for Jon, from the Impact Hub in Rwanda, to lead the first discussion of the event; Art and Curatorship.

Lively and articulate as usual, Joost Fontein, the BIEA’s director, said a few words before welcoming Jon, to talk about curatorship. The most heated debate was about the term and title, curator, itself.

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Some simply did not prefer the term ‘curator’ as a name they should go by. These were constructive debates about names and meanings. There was a lot to be discussed. Discussions focused on the roles, responsibilities and rights of curators, and how they affect decisions on how/if artist(s) will perform. After a tea break the discussions continued, and focused on the collective event we were to organize by the end of that week. A performance date was already set, and different duties assigned to separate groups. Everything promised fun. 11th March was going to be fun.

Time elapsed and at around 5:30pm, the first session of AiSEA wrapped up. It was a success. Meeting together after that for drinks before dinner ended the day well. Tomorrow, we would all meet again – this time with Joost and Doseline leading sessions.

We had dinner at a restaurant called ChapChap – which in Kenyan slang translates to quick/faster- dinner was rather taking long, or was I just hungry?

I opened my eyes and pressed my phone, it read 6:00am. I stayed silent in bed for about fifteen minutes listening out for the sounds of Kigali in the morning. I hardly heard any whistles; majority of the town must have been still asleep, or just so silent.

Artists and Scholars; Knowledge Producers

“Scholars need to get out of their comfort zone, we know that, but so do artists as well,” said Joost during his early morning presentation. “There is a need to question scholars if they publish in way that readers have difficulty understanding them – it could be their style of writing – but artists too should be ready to talk about their artwork explaining to audience who don’t understand,” he explained further.

Joost presentation was on; ‘Arts, scholarship and knowledge collaboration’. He started with revisiting, Remains, Waste and Metonymy which was held in October 2015. He then followed with recently concluded, Sensing Nairobi; Remains, Waste and Metonymy II held in February 2017.

Like these two previous events at the BIEA, AiSEA sought to bring scholars and artists together as key players in collaborative knowledge production. “This workshop seeks to explore collaboration forms of knowledge production between scholars and artists as fellow intellectuals working with different registers” Joost said. Joost talked everybody through what Remains, Waste and Metonymy had involved, and how the different installations and contributions had spoken to each other, using the example of his fossil installation to raise questions about metonymy, and the transformation of substance in order to preserve form, which he suggested linked fossils to castings and perhaps even to visual art.

At the tea break we dispersed into smaller groups to do an assignment suggested by Joost. It provoked a great brainstorming session, and Joost’s session could not have ended any better than that. It was around 12pm by now, and after a short break, Doseline was ready to lead the second session of that day; Creative Writing.

“Do we have any people in the room who consider themselves creative writers?” Doseline asked.

Several hands of individuals who are writers were raised up. There were poets, playwrights, music composers, and recipe writers among other more professional writers of journals, news, feature stories and editors as well.

Participants shared challenges they face as writers which included cultural barriers, censorship, lack of appreciation, and language constraints, among others.


People write for different reasons; for fun/pleasure, as catharsis, to bring awareness, to express oneself, for entertainment and for recording/documenting and finally as a profession.

Thereafter, before breaking for lunch, Doseline asked everyone to write anything using any style without necessarily having to follow rules of grammar or any writing. These were swapped around and read out to show everybody how diverse good writing could be. It was a fulfilling day.

After lunch we gathered in previously formed groups in preparation of Saturday’s event. The groups were categorized as map, show & tell, and the jam session group. Our plans were coming together.

After discussing what each group had been planning for Saturday’s collaborative event, it was time to call off the second day of AiSEA.

Everything was going according to plan, but soon my tooth changed matters on my side.

My lower left jaw was swollen. The chill that comes with Kigali evenings made it worse. I couldn’t eat my dinner that evening and tea was enough. I needed to ‘switch off’ in bed.

To the Dentist

In the morning of 9th March, I woke up unusually late at around 8am. The rest of the team was already up and most of them had finished their breakfast. The workshop that day was to cover; Art, Entrepreneurship and Sorting it Out, in the morning hours, and African art, Just art, and Pan-Africanism, which was later postponed to the next day. But I could not attend the workshop that day.

My jaw was still swollen but with a little less pain. It was time to get this sorted out. Arrangements were made to drop my colleagues for the workshop, and then Nick came back to take me to the dentist.

We had no clue of any dental hospitals in Kigali but Umuhoza Aline, the kind receptionist at the guest house was ready to help. At around 9:30am, Nick was back at Mubwiza, where Aline and I were ready to go to the dentist.

Aline was helpful. She gave directions to Nick as I folded in pain in the front seat of the land rover. In less than thirty minutes, we were at the third floor in Dispensaire Amizero Iwacu, where a nurse offered a warm smile which I could reciprocate.

I was directed into the operating room. I lay in bed preparing for more pain. I was ready for it especially, from knowing that relief will come after. The doctor wasted no time. He soaked cotton wool in some antiseptic and roughly rubbed as he pressed the gum at the aching tooth. I remained as calm as I could. The syringe was out, my mouth was wide open then followed multiple injections- there was no more pain.

I could feel him exerting pressure on the tooth. I was restless with eyes wide open as he removed the first piece. The second piece was no different but I remained still and let the residual pain have its share of me. The tooth was finally out, broken in three pieces and blood filled my mouth. It was finally over.

I was given some painkillers and antibiotics. I could contain the pain and sleep would help. We drove back to the guest house where I spent the day sleeping. Lunch was later brought by Nick but I could hardly eat – there was the soup- I sunk in it.

At around 5:30 pm my colleagues were back at Mubwiza Resort. They were concerned about my wellbeing and I was particularly concerned on what I had missed that day. They rested for a while before heading out to an art gallery and this time I was not going to remain behind.

The drawings and paintings were incredible. Outside in the garden, two Volkswagen ‘beetles’, turned into art, stole my attention, they had multiple stripes of different colours and lighting reflected plants germinating inside them.

We left for dinner. Tomorrow was coming.

African Art, Just Art, and Pan-Africanism

Learning that I would not miss the discussion on, African art, just art, and Pan-Africanism, was some sort of healing for me. Neo Musangi was to present it but could not make it for AiSEA, and Joost led that session.

Unlike other sessions, this was held in RAI gardens. It took around ten minutes before every participant had arrived. The last but not final event began. Joost started the discussions engaging members who contributed with the majority sharing their personal experiences as artists.

It came as a shocker to learn that there are artists from Africa who do not want to be called African artists. Even more so, I was also surprised to learn that some artists prefer to appear poor, so as to qualify as artists. Then there was discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of funding from outside Africa – how the funders determine agenda for African art/artists – and the question of exporting of knowledge from research outside Africa.

It was not long before we garnered inspiration from Elias Mung’ora, a visual artist from Brush Tu in Buruburu, Nairobi, who had come with us on our long drive from Nairobi. Brush Tu comprise of artists with different skills and a common goal. They are united.

“We basically do not charge any artist who comes to work in our workshop. All is required is of them is to help contribute in paying monthly rent for the workshop. This way, we have managed to remain independent, and together build and live from our artwork,” Elias explained.

The session ended a few minutes past 1pm and we went for lunch, after everyone focused on making the final preparations for tomorrow.


Easy When You Know What to Expect

At around 4pm we were at The Impact Hub. We had gone to set up what needed early preparations; arrange chairs elsewhere, stick posters, set up blurbs and installations.

As soon as we were done we headed out for dinner. The following day, on Saturday, we were all free until around 4pm. Some of my colleagues opted to take advantage of the free hours from that morning to go to market to buy souvenirs and gifts to take back home, and others visited the genocide memorial. I chose to remain at the guest house and practice my poem which I had just composed.

Time was flying and 3pm was here. We were all ready to leave for The Impact Hub, where, performances and art showings were going to take place. It was the last event of AiSEA.

There were an impressive number of people when we arrived at the hub and many more were still coming. In some lone corner, I was still rehearsing poems/spoken word to perform. I was happy that everything was working according to my plan.

“Ibrahim, other artists whom you are performing with at the jam session are asking for you. I think they want to start,” Yannick, a Rwandese traditional dancer and percussionist notified me.

I went back up the fourth floor of the hub; space was getting smaller and smaller as people kept coming in. The drums (djembe and kete) were placed near the fire where meat was roasting and potatoes boiling with savory aroma. We were ready to start the jam.

I was expecting noise, massive turn-up, food, and drums and intoxicating feeling of some kind pouring joy. Slowly the drums soothingly stole everyone’s attention in the hall.

The mood gradually hyped up. The air was full of base, tones and mid tones, there were smiles, and lips near ears exchanging conversations, and then the dance broke. Impact Hub was now fully awake.

Eyes were glued on Ngene who was drawing near the percussionists at the back wall of the hall. Before starting, Ngene was giving chance to audience members to apply color on his canvas as they want. I was curiously eager to see what the drawing will look like after Ngene – who has great technique – finished painting his piece.

We fused spoken word with drumming and contemporary dancing. My fingers were itching and my voice grew sour- I enjoyed it all- especially since I had never worked with the artists from Rwanda before, and we managed to entertain.

The jam session was over at around 10:30pm, but not the event yet. After jam session, people continued enjoying their drinks, music and each other’s company for the rest of the night. AiSEA could not have any other better way to end the event than like that. It was awesome.

The journey back to Nairobi was calling. At around 10 am, later than we had planned, we left Kigali for Kampala, where some of us would spend the night. We had a slight delay caused by police on the road to Kampala. By now Doseline had already arrived back to Nairobi after travelling in the early hours of the morning by airplane. In addition, Lily was going to remain at Mbarara in Uganda to start her research project in the region.

The journey was smooth as before. There were conversations, music and sleep, as people rested from several late nights in Kigali. At around midnight, we were in Kampala at Ministers Village Hotel, where they we were waiting for us. I was hungry.

After a quick cold shower, I was ready to fill my stomach. I joined my colleagues who had already started eating and together we enjoyed our buffet and delicacies of Uganda. Full and satisfied, I wanted no more than a good rest sleep. Tomorrow, we were to spend the day visiting art galleries in Uganda. Others however were restless to see Kampala and went out again to see Kampala’s night life, until the early hours.

Okeny Charles and our Tour of Kampala

Kampala town is similar to Nairobi in a number of ways; the traffic is same, active noisy nights, roadside vendors and people fill the streets – our task was to learn more about art and culture in Kampala. Okeny Charles, a former GAS at the BIEA currently working at Ministry of Tourism Wildlife & Antiquities, Department of Museums and Monuments, was going to lead us on that tour.

We started with the museum in Kampala where Charles works. Displays about traditional ways of life in Uganda are interspersed with more contemporary displays about Ugandan life, making a visit to the museum rich and fascinating.

“This is the car that was used by Idi Amin; its engine still works despite not having wheels and being so dusty inside,” Charles explained as we took pictures of Amin’s Mercedes Benz.

There was also the Rolls-Roy that had belonged to Kabaka, alongside traditional huts of various communities from around Uganda, and displays of attires, weapons, sports, leisure, and many more, all well documented in the museum.

After the museum, we left for the second venue of the day – the Kabaka’s palace in Uganda. With our time constraints we had to choose between visiting the traditional king’s parliament and or his palace; we all agreed to the palace.

Not far from each other, the parliamentary building and the palace are strategically constructed a mile apart – a royal mile that is reminiscent of Edinburgh’s famous royal mile, and confirming for us rumours we had heard about the particular fascination in Uganda for all things Scottish. The gates of the two institutions lie directly opposite each other, albeit a mile apart.

“Hey! Please, you can’t pass through the middle of that round-about, it is strictly meant for the king only,” Craig stopped after our guide at the palace saw him nearly entering the round-about.

Both at the palace and the parliamentary buildings have roundabouts which are directly opposite from each other. They have a passage way between which only the King can use, whenever he moves between the palace and the parliament.

“Apart from acting as symbol of honor and respect for the king, these direct passage ways though the roundabouts ensure the king does not take unnecessary corners whenever he goes to the parliament” However, our guide continued “the king does not live in this palace, its only for official purposes and ceremonies. The palace where he lives in is about ten kilometers from Kampala in Jinja,” explained our guide.

From the palace we went to visit the underground chambers created by Idi Amin, and used first as an armory and later as torture chambers. The chambers are a short some distance from the palace. Thousands of individuals lost their lives these chambers.

“One of the ways in which people were tortured here by Amin’s soldiers was using electrocution. When it rained, water drained in the floor down the tunnel in the chambers and the soldiers used that. They (soldiers) would switch off electricity in the chambers before getting in, and then switching them back on after putting wires in the rain water and making their captives stand in them,” explained the guide. “If one survived the electrocution, they had suffocation to escape too, since the rooms were packed beyond their capacity, and there was no proper ventilation once the chambers doors and the main entrance door were closed.”

From the chambers it was around 1pm and hunger was knocking. We went to the last place within the palace’s vicinity where we were taken back to history of the Kabaka especially, the current king, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II. That marked our end of the palace visit and we left for lunch.

After lunch, we went to visit the national art gallery. The traffic in Kampala had started building up and we took longer than we should have trying to escape the traffic. We didn’t take a lot of time at the gallery since we needed to rest from journey from Kigali and in preparation of one to Nairobi the following day.

We drove back to Ministers village where spent a couple of hours resting before heading out for dinner. The meal was superb and people discussed over it on various things. I particularly remember having an insightful conversation with Charles and Dr. Lilian Mary Nabule from College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University. We talked about consumption of archaeological research projects in Kenya and Uganda by the wider public. I remained keen listening to their views as I am to conduct my research as GAS in the BIEA on this specific topic. I am glad we had that conversation.

After dinner we left in two separate groups where some went to enjoy the last night in Kampala and others including I, left for the hotel to sleep. It was an incredible night and day, thanks to Charles.

To Nairobi

Breakfast was ready by 6am. The final leg of our journey back to Nairobi from Kigali had started. After breakfast, Nick and I were up on the land rover roof tying on our luggage. At exactly 7am, we left the gates of Ministers Village. The sun was glamorous yellow. Kampala was awake and busy as Nairobi, and; green and hilly as Kigali.

We had a smooth ride to Busia. It was hot here, but not as intense as the first time we passed here the week before. We cleared with the immigration offices and Daniele was to end her journey with us here. She was going to climb Mount Elgon in Ugandan side and descend into Kenyan.

On entering the Kenyan side at Busia, we ate our lunch. In familiar grounds now, we passed Maseno University and just after the rocky lake town of Kisumu, we stopped 20 kilometers ahead to stretch, grab some refreshments and relieve ourselves.

Kericho was cool and green as always. Joost was at the back of the van, Elias with Nick at the front, and Ngene, Craig and I shared the middle seats. We passed the Eldoret junction and cruised down to Molo. Nakuru was near, or was it?

Just kilometers away from Molo town, the grizzly sound from the land rovers transmission box began, and then it stopped. We continued a bit but had to stop immediately – the sound was here again and louder.

We all got concerned now and Nick pulled over besides the road. After we all alighted from the car, Nick drove the van down a shallow trench further from the main road then alighted to inspect it.

“It is the gearbox of one of the two four-wheel gears. And it must be affecting its propeller,” Nick said coming underneath the van.

Elias who was at the front seat, helped press the gearbox in place, but we would go for only a few meters before the car seemed to jam producing the previous noise. We were at Sach4.

A passerby who had shown concern the first time we stopped was not far yet. He came closer and asked if we needed a mechanic. “How far is he and how long will it take before he is here?” Nick asked him.

“Just a few meters down the hill. We can call him. He will board a bodaboda,” the passerby replied.

Conversation between Nick and the concerned passerby did not end before a mechanic appeared. “Hello gentlemen? Are you having any problem with your van? I can help, I am a mechanic,” Kamau, who was in oily overall asked.

Nick signaled him and he crossed the road. They conversed in Kikuyu for a few minutes. “How long will it take before your colleagues get here?” Nick asked the mechanic.

“Just a phone call away and in less than five minutes they will be here with the tools,” Kamau responded.

After a quick look, the mechanic agreed with Nick that the gearbox had jammed. The other mechanics soon arrived with spanners and other tools. They immediately went under the car as lifesaver signs were placed around 20 meters away from the land rover.

At the end of it all, the land rover left us with only one option. “We have to disengage one of the propellers of the four-wheel gears and drive on two-wheel until we arrive at Nakuru where we will look for a garage and properly fix the problem,” Nick explained. “Disengaging the propeller means that we will be driving at 20km/hr and that is too slow to drive to Nairobi.”

After Kamau and Kimotho together with two other mechanics alighted after a short test-drive, we drove some few meters off-road before getting back onto the main . It was difficult to overtake but we were moving. “Such occurrences remind you that car is not a person. It cannot tell you what its problem is,” Nick said as we drove towards Nakuru.

We agreed that we would spend the night in Nakuru and board a shuttle in the morning or wait in Nakuru for the land rover to be fixed.

After checking in at Avenue Suits, on Kenyatta Avenue in Nakuru, we headed out to look for dinner. It was around 12am; clubs were alive and restaurants were closed. We finally located a diner called, Springs. It was late and we were all very tired, we ate and then took two tuktuks to the hotel to sleep.

The following morning Doseline, who was at work in Nakuru, joined us and we went for breakfast at, Java. It was agreed that we would travel back in a shuttle. We emptied all of our belongings from the land rover. Nick, together with Elias had located a garage. Nick was to remain in Nakuru to ensure the land rover was properly fixed. The Mololine shuttle was here with Ngene and Doseline inside it.

We packed our belongings quickly. I was at the back seat of the Nissan shuttle. The zebras, antelopes and baboons at Gilgil told me that Nairobi was near. We stopped at Flyover for a while before stopping again at Kikuyu to drop off Ngene who had arrived home.

Not long later we were at the BIEA gate. AiSEA met all of my expectations. I learnt from Kigali how much we have in Kenya and what we lack. And it remains my hope that artists in Rwanda will be more united to overcome their challenges and push forward their works. Even more so, workshops like AiSEA need to be more and constant ongoing events. AiSEA was an eye-opener and interestingly interactive, and showed us all what potential there is for genuine and productive interaction between artists and scholars based in different cities across East Africa.




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Fusion of Academia and Arts in City of cool Waters

By Ibrahim Korir – BIEA Graduate Attachee

Preparations were meticulous, with tiny bits of caution. The need to deliver was eminent but this was not shouted out, nor was it stressful. The event was not a grand wedding, or was it? It must be? In fact it was more like the first anniversary of an attempt to see what happens when scholars and artists collaborate. The first, Remains, Waste and Metonymy event was held in October 2015. Remains, Waste and Metonymy II: Sensing Nairobi, held at the BIEA on Laikipia road and across Nairobi on 11th and 12th February was the second incarnation.

It included exhibitions and installations presented by practitioners from different scholarly and artistic disciplines, traditions and backgrounds. The purpose was to explore how engaging with different sensorial registers – smell, touch, taste, sound, texture, duration and ephemerality – could provoke innovative ways of thinking about and taking part with the city of Nairobi, Kenya, in all its diversity, complexity and energy.

Sensing Nairobi was therefore about interacting with the city to critically and experientially engage with its many temporalities, ephemeralities, and materialities, and the roles they play in the unfinished business of defining and redefining it, and the many lives articulating with its rhythms, fractures and contingent coherences.


Sensing Nairobi: The BIEA’s Nairobi Becoming Project

Nairobi is the 14th largest city in Africa. It is perceived in diverse ways by the many diverse people who move along its pathways, and take part in the ongoing remaking of its multiple realities. Sensing Nairobi was, therefore, in part about thinking through artistic and scholarly collaborations about how such many differences coexist in relation to the city’s multiple, coexistent pasts, presents and futures, and how they ultimately shape the always emergent forms and substances of the city of Nairobi.

As the conceptual statement in the programme for the event put it: “… Our becoming with, and in, Nairobi, is a sensorial as much as a semantic proposition. If we are to see, sense, touch the transformation fabric of the city as a canvas, then what sensorial orderings, visual restraints and material disciplines must we employ to recognize, or rather stabilize, and get hold off, the stuff of the city? And how does the stuff of the city defy as much as invoke our sensorial capacities of time, space and substance?”

Seeking to spread itself across Nairobi’s city-scapes, Sensing Nairobi defied temporal and special confinement by live streaming from different points across Nairobi. The ‘base’ was the BIEA in Kileleshwa, to which and from which events were ‘beamed’ from Brush Tu Art Studio in Buruburu, Maasai Mbili arts centre in Kibera, and Mathare Social Justice Centre in Mathare. All this was made possible with a complex team of organizers and make-stuff-happeners, who included the BIEA’s graduate attachees: Lily Rice, Mark Kamuyu, Jackson Kimambo and Ibrahim Kipkorir, whose invaluable contributions and hard work behind the scenes, greased the many moving parts into a momentary coherent whole, transforming the possibility of Sensing Nairobi into a reality.

On the morning of the 11th February, participants from across Nairobi began to gather. On everyone’s faces, you could almost see harmonious gleams of promise and expectation. There was plenty of time to interact with the contributors and their exhibitions before and after the kickoff of the event. By 12pm, the film and live-streaming production team led by Robby Bresson, had their cameras rolling and the networks were clear to begin. The MC, Ibrahim, took to the stage and without taking long, welcomed the BIEA’s director, Joost Fontein to welcome everyone who had come to take part. Immediately after that, live streaming crew took beamed Brush Tu, Buruburu, into Laikipia road for the first event of the day.

A Life in Art – Safina Said Kimbokota

Art knows no waste. This was made clear by Safina, from Tanzania and who is currently based at Brush Tu Art Studio in Buruburu, Nairobi. She incorporates recycled materials into her art to raise awareness of environmental pollution. In addition, her passion for natural beauty especially concerning women was self-evident.

“I want to use art to reflect on women issues especially skin bleaching beauty treatments that are harmful, as well as the superficial fashion of wearing fake hair,” Safina explained.

It is her aspiration to raise awareness of the social pressures facing young women in Tanzania, and Africa at large, to encourage campaign against harmful skin creams and for healthcare rights. Her current artworks are made from recycled metal, cloth and plastic.

The Hotel of the Oppressed

Lilly Rice (GAS) spent the afternoon in Kibera, – Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, which stretches out over the south-western edges of the city. Population estimates vary widely, with the 2010 census placing Kibera’s inhabitants at nearly 100,000, whilst other sources claim a million people reside here. However, perhaps most important is the sheer youth of the population, with the latest census finding that 43% of the population are under 15. Kibera was also a key site of post-election violence in 2008, with property destroyed, homes looted, and scores of residents injured, displaced, and killed.

Statistics such as these are often all that Kibera is known for. Whilst the reality of life in Kibera can be stark, this image is crude in its ignorance of the many hives of creativity in the area, one of which is the Maasai Mbili Art Collective. Founded in 2001 by Otieno Gomba and Otieno Kota, many of the artists began by painting signs for local businesses such as shops and salons. Maasai Mbili now comprises 8 active members, who have exhibited in Kenya and internationally, and continue to work from their studio in Kibera, producing their own work and supporting a community of young artists through mentoring and outreach programs and events.

For Sensing Nairobi, the studio was transformed into the ‘Hotel of the Oppressed’. The normalcy and naturalness of the scene was striking, as artists and residents mingled, joked and ate chapatti, ugali and omena. The installation was truly multi-sensory, with a vibrant counter painted by artists, through which the smell of omena stew wafted, accompanied by the soundscape of music, laughing, joking and chapatti oil sizzling. Back at the BIEA, mouths were watering as lunch was prepared and generously served up by Anita Kavochy- an artist at the centre.


Outside, several children were playing and groups of young men huddled over an animated game of drafts. Among the children was Saviour, a 14 year old boy who uses the studio and has produced numerous pieces with them, which he sells on through the gallery. This event was built around communality and inclusivity – the centre was noisy and crowded, and as flows of people drifted in and out during the afternoon, it also moved and changed. Capturing these events momentarily on camera, a prevailing sense of ease and comfort as people relaxed in one another’s company and in the environment, was beamed across the city. Despite being a temporary installation, the prominent sense of conviviality and familiarity that was conveyed, not only informed a different perspective on Kibera for participants watching from the BIEA base in Kileleshwa, it also served to remind everyone how the everyday socialities that are often emergent around the sharing of food, in countless eateries across the city, are part of the circulation of substances and lives that make up Nairobi; a substantial conviviality that lies at the centre of Maasai Mbili collectivity as artists, individuals and as community.

During lunch many plans were discussed about the possibility of maintaining the installation, and possibly using this ‘hotel’ as a way to financially secure the centre. Lively debate emerged during these discussions, over how one could use a space such as a restaurant to sell pieces of art – enticing customers in with the food first. But then who would this be for? Would the hotel then be drawn into exclusivity, attracting only those with enough wealth to consider purchasing pieces of original artwork? We look forward to finding out what Maasai Mbili decides.

The Demolition Team

After live streaming from Kibera, matters were brought back to the BIEA base.  The demolition team, comprising of different artists and scholars were ready with their three-part installation Demolition which was set up in the Kilwa building.

Joost Fontein and Danielle Del Vicario talked about their Demolition project with Nairobi’s ‘new demolition entrepreneurs’, through which they have been asking questions about forms and shapes of the city, emerge through circulation of materials. Their particular fascination focused on the making, and recycling of different types of clay roofing tiles; especially Mangalore tiles- first introduced in Kenya in the 19th century from India, and later made locally using clay extracted from local pits by emerging manufacturing industries in Kenya in the 20th century. Their installation included samples of different new and reused tiles from demolition sites and factories across Kenya, interspersed with diary extracts giving insights into the daily lives of Nairobi’s demolition pioneers, back dropped by a short film by Robby Bresson and Evanson Kavale exploring the circulation of materials that make up the making and remaking of the city, and its citizens’ lives.

_mg_0408To add more substance to these reflections three sculptures, by Meshack Oiro stood grand and tall, bring presence to the many substances of the city; made with door and window frames, and rubble, from Lower Kabete Road and demolition sites across Nairobi.

“Parallel to Nairobi’s recent building boom, a small-scale demolition and architectural salvage industry has emerged, supplying materials for new constructions but also for the repair and transformation of Nairobi’s existing fabric. Alongside salvaged material, Nairobi’s demolition entrepreneurs also supply and trade new roof tiles and bricks. At once, demolitioners, transporters and vendors, these men and women mediate in material making and remaking of Nairobi,” reads the Demolition installation’s conceptual blurb.

_mg_0427Situated deliberately next to this three-part installation was another that examined demolition in Nairobi in a very different way. After looking at the use and reuse of these construction materials and how they contribute towards making Nairobi the city it is today, attention turned to an installation titled City Cotton by RxAxLxF, an artist with fascinating life story. Having made a career in arts for more than 30 years, his installation featured laminated, storytelling pictures that spoke of the horrific violence that was met upon residents of City Cotton located between Wilson Airport, South C and Moi Educational Centre (MEC). On 10th May, 2013 at around 4am, approximately 150 young men identifying themselves as ‘mungiki’, backed up by police, brutally attacked the residents of City Cotton.

“These pictures were denied by media in Kenya and no one wanted to know what transpired at City Cotton,” explained RxAxLxF. “However, here are the pictures and they are also on sale for anyone interested.”

_mg_0437RxAxLxF’s installation included a display of portraits associated with the work of ‘mganga’ made up of various denominations of Kenyan coins fixed alongside S-shaped wires formed into images of a human body, these pieces spoke to the invisible forces that contribute to the making and unmaking of the city. Live and active the art itself is believed to attract wealth to those who received them from the services of ‘mganga’.

“I did my research into witch craft in ‘Ukambani’, Kenya. This was made extremely difficult by ant-witchcraft laws in Kenya. However, I managed it and this portrait is one of many things that I learnt from my research,” explained RxAxLxF during his presentation.

Leaving demolition behind, it was time to move to Mathare, or rather for Mathare to be live streamed into Kileleshwa.

JJ’s Life Story and Art for Social Justice

JJ spent the first thirty minutes talking about his life story that reflected what many youth in Nairobi’s slums undergo. He talked about the police injustice and extrajudicial killings that have for long characterized slum life in Kenya. JJ’s long narration of his experiences captivated participants at the BIEA base, and were complimented by drawings and paintings by Mathare residents, particularly of Dedan Kimathi a person from whom youth in many slums draw inspiration.

img_4614After the events at the Mathare Social Justice Centre were concluded, attention was brought back to the Sensing Nairobi’s main base in Kileleshwa. It was time to move back to the Kilwa building for a discussion by Wambui Kamiru Collymore about her installation Akili ni Nywele.

Akili ni Nywele   

Tying in closely with Safina Said Kimbokota’s discussions early in the day, Wambui’s work looked at perceptions of African beauty with relation to hair. She focused on the rising trend of weaving hair onto women’s own heads, usually as a sign of success in urban areas and as lifestyle choice for the modern Nairobi woman. It asks about the origin of that perception of beauty as related to long, “flappable” straight hair.

_mg_0504As an artist who has been developing artwork around the themes of colonialism, identity and independence in Africa, Wambui explained how one day her daughter posed her a confronting suggestion. “One day my daughter asked me if she could have long blonde hair. I was surprised and I knew it was because of the cartoons, Barbie dolls and story books that she interacts with. That in turn, inspired my today’s presentation,” Wambui explained.

Her installation included Barbie dolls, different types of weave hairs, carpet made of used hair weaves and a video showing how media advertisements inform perceptions of beauty. Her presentation was somewhat revolutionary.

In conversation with Mark Kamuyu (GAS), Wambui explained that beauty is inherently subjective and contingent and perhaps even arbitrary. If men admire and are attracted to women who wear weaves and wigs as opposed to natural hair (short, long or locks), and if, on the other hand, few are attracted to those with natural hair … this reflects how beauty and aesthetics are not natural but subject to interpretation, and often informed by complex and fraught political histories, bias and prejudice. What one views as beauty to another maybe ugly or ‘chaos’, and vice versa.

After Wambui concluded, attention moved to installations and work presented in the Aksum building at the BIEA compound by James Muriuki, Annie Pfingst, Elias Mung’ora, Constance Smith and Neo Musangi.

James Muriuki’s work Untitled, revolved around the transition of society and the development of rapidly evolving urban spaces. His installation fused the use of audio and video to capture how the constant movement and flow of Nairobi River is shaped by different kinds of material waste released and dumped into.

_mg_0519His intention was to record variations in the sounds and visualization of water as it streams across the city, by taking audio and visual samples at different points along the rivers course. The idea was to figure out if, as the water quality changes, the sound of the water equally changes. However, he explained, other unanticipated reflections and observations emerged as he experimented with the sounds and visualization of water, like how the clarity and color of water in the river changes not just along its course, but at different depths in particular locations, where the surface water appeared murky dirt, yet deeper waters appeared clear.

Closely related to this, albeit focused more on land than water, was work presented by Elias Mung’ora entitled, Foot Prints. It included series of paintings exploring how everyday human interactions with physical spaces leave behind marks that alter appearance of these spaces. Inspired by spaces within Nairobi, he incorporated layers from photographs and paint producing mixed media surfaces which represented the ‘foot prints’ left behind by everyday activities that happen across the city. The prints could be pasted posters on walls, scratches, dents and general stress inflicted upon these structures. Elias is a member of Brush Tu Art Studio.

_mg_0543Alongside Elias’s work was installation entitled Petition by Annie Pfingst, a participant in the earlier Remains Waste and Metonymy event in October 2015, whose work focuses on visually mapping emergency landscapes and geographies of resistance dating to the 1950s period in Kenya’s history. Unfortunately Annie Pfingst was not able to attend the event, but her insaltion of moving images exemplifies the kind of interdisciplinary interface between artistic practice and scholarly endeavor that Sensing Nairobi seeks to achieve, combining archival, visual and discursive registers into a critical examination of the materialities of time and landscape, with a particular focus on an historical period that continues to hold a powerful place within the broader imaginaries of the city of Nairobi, and Kenya as a whole.

_mg_0550Next in line was Constance Smith with her installation entitled Remainders/Reminders. As with Pfingst’s contribution, this is part of a larger body of work exploring architectural legacies, in this case  of colonial-era housing estates in Nairobi where residents have long been left to take care of their disintegrating neighborhood as best as they can. In the midst of infrastructural decay, residents make creative modifications to their homes. As repairs and adaptations accumulate, histories of homemaking are inscribed on the houses in composite textures and surfaces. Connie’s work focuses on materialities and temporalities of urban planning and architecture, and has a particular interest in the relationship between urban decay, history and future making, and how these are creatively reconfigured in the changing substances and forms of urban milieu.


Neo Musangi’s Manpower installation was next to draw participants’ attention. It focused on the ‘mganga’ posters that one finds pasted over many of Nairobi’s walls and telegraph poles.

Some argue they decorate rather bored walls and electric poles, but others rebuke them for being fraudulent or even ‘malevolent’, at first glance. One thing is for sure though, these posters, with promises of solutions and cures for a multitude of personal afflictions, are a constant testimony to the self-made doctors and professors who have for long contributed to what Nairobi is. Indeed in their claims to offer solutions to solve marriage problems; or concoctions to help win elections or ensure erections; or protective rings, love ‘portions’, secure jobs, enhanced sexual performance, to name only a few, perhaps they are most of all a testimony to the very possibilities of self-making in the urban metropolis today.


Neo Musangi, a non-person who experiments with performance and installation art, focused on how such posters occupy ‘public space’ especially in Nairobi.  “I decided to call some of these experts pretending I have problems which I thought they could help me with but what followed after that scared me. They wanted me to meet them in these dark corners of Nairobi with some calling me as late as 11pm. I regret not blocking their mobile numbers but then they made me conclude that they were most probably fake and only after money,” explains Neo.

After Neo’s presentation, there was one artist left. Best known for making Dedan Kimathi’s statue in Kimathi Street, downtown Nairobi, – Kevin Oduor is a man of few, but carefully chosen, and powerfully articulate words.

Kevin’s sculptural pieces form part of his continuing work with fabrics, clothes and absent bodies. Cast with molten resin, his installation involved three pieces named entitled; Ignorance, Which will and Untitled.

_mg_0282Kevin explained how in his work he draws inspiration from how he perceives human nature, in all its beauty and ugliness, and from the animal kingdom. His motivation is to offer opportunities for people to glimpse into how he sees the world.

This was a fitting way to end the proceedings of the first day of this two day exhibition, especially since his pieces were strategically placed in the BIEA gardens, fusing well with the trees and outside breeze. Following that, the MC concluded a day well spent and everyone continued enjoying their snacks and drinks with some music in the air. Sensing Nairobi remained opened on the following day for Nairobians to enjoy, experience and take part in more quiet and reflectivity. But this was not the end of Sensing Nairobi; the entire exhibition will be moved to the National Museum of Kenya in the near future, to be accompanied by more reflections and more discussions.











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Endangered and Post-Colonial Archives in Eastern and Southern Africa

Report on the Lusaka workshop

Endangered and Post-Colonial Archives in Eastern and Southern Africa
13-14 October 2016

co-organised by
British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA)
Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR)
with generous support from
Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS)
Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)
Hosted by the Faith and Encounter Centre (FENZA), Lusaka, Zambia.


On the 13th and 14th of October scholars and archivists working in and on Africa came together in Lusaka, Zambia, for a workshop on the theme of “Endangered and Post-Colonial Archives in Eastern and Southern Africa.” The workshop was co-organised by the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR) and the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA), and part-funded by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) and the Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS). We had two broad aims: to explore the challenges and realities of preserving “endangered” material in Eastern and Southern Africa, and to plan and discuss practical steps that could be taken now and for the future to preserve and promote endangered historical material in the region. It was fitting that our venue was the Faith and Encounter Centre, Zambia (FENZA), which had been founded (by missionary and historian Hugo Hinfelaar in 2007) for the purpose of housing and preserving the endangered archive of the White Fathers Catholic mission. Participants were most grateful for the informative tour (on day two) of the library and archive that was led by FENZA librarian Charity Pule Musawa and veteran missionary Fr Robert Lavertu.

We interpreted the terms “endangered” and “post-colonial” broadly. A range of factors might endanger an archive, from political turbulence, to environmental factors, to the misplacing of a file by an archival assistant who perhaps had little or no training. The United National Independence Party (Zambia) archive was “endangered” not only because it was almost housed in a room above a take-away kitchen (where there would have been a risk of fire), it was also “endangered” by the people or groups who might wish to seize, steal, or destroy its politically sensitive contents. If the archive of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (Kenya) was an “endangered” archive because it was locked away and neglected in the dusty, draughty, attic of a church bell-tower, other archives were endangered because of the volume of researchers thumbing the paper pages. Indeed, material held in National Archives too could be “endangered”: the directors of the national archives of Malawi, Kenya, and Zambia gave us an insight to how they attempt to preserve, promote and digitise their archives in the face of financial and other constraints.

An archive could be “post-colonial” because it contains material from the post-Independence period. In our first round of discussions it was noted that it was often the case that this material, i.e. material of relatively recent origin, is more at risk of going missing or not being stored appropriately than the older material from the colonial and pre-colonial periods. This raised the question: how to preserve material with a very recent origin, in particular documents that are “born digital” such as email correspondence? But the “post-colonial” might equally denote the social, economic and political structures in which repositories of historical material are embedded. From Frances Mwangi of the Kenya National Archives, we heard of the managed destruction of sensitive colonial era files by the British government and the “migration” of others to the “secret” Foreign Office repository at Hanslope Park.  We also discussed how structures produced and relationships forged during the colonial period endure and how the post-colonial archives seeking to develop the skills of its staff or enhance its technological capacities manage their engagement with funding bodies and donors, such as the British Library and UNESCO, many of whom are based in former colonial metropoles.


During day one it was mostly archivists who presented. Each pursued their own specific theme but their talks also provided a picture of the state of archives in their respective countries. We heard from Rudo Karadzandima, from the National Archives of Zimbabwe; Paul Lihoma the Director of the National Archives of Malawi; Claver Irakoze, from the Genocide Archive of Rwanda; Chileshe Musukuma and Boniface Siambusu, the Director of the National Archives of Zambia; and Francis Mwangi, the Director of the National Archives of Kenya.


Rudo Karadzandima, National Archives of Zimbabwe.


Ingiahedi Mduma, from the Tanzania Ministry of Information, Culture and Sports presented on government policy on archives in Tanzania and Liah Yecalo-Tecle, a graduate intern at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, reported on the Research and Documentation Centre in Asamara, the “de facto” national archives of Eritrea. General points that emerged were as follows:

Physical buildings and storage conditions matter greatly when it comes to protecting archive material. Indeed, the 1965 Act of Parliament that established the Kenya National archives and Documentation Service, Frances Mwangi informed us, gave it responsibility “for proper housing, control and preservation of all public records and public archives.”  Among the many threats posed to archival material in Eastern and Southern Africa are environmental and climatic factors: heat, dust, and dampness can result in the destruction of important material. The challenge to ensure that materials are held in adequate storage spaces with controlled temperatures and humidity is particularly pronounced if budgets are limited. Claver Irakoze showed the enormity of this challenge: 63 million pages of material was produced by the Gacaca courts alone in the aftermath of the genocide and the Genocide of Rwanda Archive is now responsible for their storage and preservation.

Digitisation is a technique of preservation as much as a mode of dissemination. But once digitised, archives are put under pressure – often by foreign researchers – to make documents available online. We discussed the practical challenges facing archives in the era of digitisation: If a national archive would normally be accessible to approved researchers for a fee, should it not also be digitised and made available online? But how would researchers be approved through an online system? And how would an online system be able to differentiate between citizens and non-citizens? “Outside” expertise and foreign funding bodies (such as the EU, UNESCO and the British Library) often end up playing a crucial but, as Marja Hinfelaar pointed out, not unproblematic, role in collecting, preserving, and digitising archival material.

Archives are not only concerned with paper documents and there are specific challenges that face the collection and preservation of oral histories and visual and audio sources. Over 4,000 recorded interviews are held in the oral history collection at the National Archives of Zimbabwe, and nearly 2,500 of these have been produced since 2003 as part of a range of projects led by the National Archive to “capture a fading memory” (to borrow the title of one). The Research and Documentation Centre in Eritrea has 8,000 audio-cassettes of oral histories that date back to the early 1970s. 22,000 images and films have been digitised by the Malawi National Archives. In addition to the 379 original testimonies, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda has produced 43 filmed interviews and 32 short documentary films. Collecting and preserving this material requires specific technologies and skills, which need to be constantly updated.

Acts of “intentional destruction” can endanger archival material. Archives can be targeted during times of war, violence, and political turbulence. We got a strong sense of the politics of archives, especially from Claver Irakoze and Frances Mwangi who showed how during the Rwandan Genocide and the British decolonization of Kenya respectively, politically sensitive documents were stolen or destroyed. Chileshe Musukuma and Boniface Siambusu informed us that in recent weeks, the physical archive of the political party, the United National Independence Party (Zambia) (digitized by Giacomo Macola and Marja Hinfelaar in 2007) has mysteriously closed down and been moved to an unknown location. The National Archive of Malawi has supported projects to identify and preserve the archives of political parties and organisations but, as Brian Raftopolous pointed out, state or government involvement in helping with the archives of political parties can be deeply problematic. Meanwhile, Joost Fontein, challenged the notion that archiving should be equated with “cultural heritage.”

The morning session of the second day consisted of presentations from “the historians.” In the first panel we heard from Tom Cunningham (PhD student at the Centre of African Studies University of Edinburgh) on his and Thomas Molony’s recent British Library-funded “endangered archives project” at the archive of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Nairobi; Marja Hinfelaar (Director of Research and Programs at SAIPAR) on post-colonial archives in Zambia; and Gerald Chikozho Mazarire (Midlands State University) on the “Aluka Struggles for Freedom” project.



Tom Molony, University of Edinburgh.


The preservation projects described by Tom, Marja, and Gerald all operated on different scales (the small church archive, the national archive, the creation of a transnational online archive) but each of the papers touched on the theme of “Historians as Archivists” (to borrow Marja’s title). In the discussion we noted how, in post-colonial Africa, often it is the private research interests of individual historians that leads to an archive being identified, preserved or digitised. This can lead to the creation of digital archives that reflect the research interests of one individual. It also raises the broader question: who has the right and responsibility to preserve and promote particular ‘endangered archives’ – historians, universities, governments? Meanwhile, the ‘Aluka: Struggles for Freedom’ project (which saw a huge volume of material from across Southern Africa digitised and then made available online, through provided ample material for a wider discussion about the ethics of accessing and disseminating archive material online.



Gerald Mazarire, Midland State University, Zimbabwe.



This was followed by a series of presentations from post-doctoral researchers and PhD students from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. First, we “navigated the South Africa National Archive” with Cornelius Muller. Then Miranda Simabwachi spoke about preservation practices in Zambia. Duncan Money discussed transnational history and the practical and theoretical issues that surround the African historian’s use of archives that are dispersed across the globe. George Bishi drew on his own experience (as a former archive assistant at the National Archives of Zimbabwe) to provide an account of the day-to-day processes of the archive from the point of view of researcher and archivist. Finally, Hyden Munene described the four Zambian archives he consulted when researching twentieth-century mining history.

These papers primarily concerned historians’ encounters with archives, a topic on which there is a growing body of critical literature (for example, Antoinette Burton (ed.) Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History (2006)). We heard, for example, about the idiosyncrasies of particular archives, about unique or temperamental computer-search systems, unorthodox catalogues, and strange classification systems. The question of access returned: we discussed the wide variety of rules in operation for accessing particular archives (fees, institution affiliations, waiting times, the question of the researcher’s nationality); and we heard about how research into one country’s past (in this case Zambia’s), might require travelling not only to Lusaka but also locations as disparate as Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Amsterdam’s Institute of Social History, and the American Heritage Center in Wyoming. It was difficult to avoid the fact that even (or particularly) in the age of digital scholarship and global research, the question of uneven access to archives due to uneven research budgets will not go away.

Our concluding roundtable discussion focussed on practical next steps in light of the presentations. Four items were prominent. First, we discussed the possibility of producing a crowd-sourced database or website that would store and disseminate information about archives in (Southern and Eastern) Africa. The site would be a resource for researchers to identify archives and find such practical information as location, opening hours, key points of contact. Second, we discussed the possibility of producing a “Best (or Better) Practice” manual or guide for the digital preservation of endangered archives. Third, we discussed the possibility of future publications based on the presentations and discussions in the workshop. Fourth and finally, we discussed consolidating the community forged during our two days and connecting with already-existing networks. In particular we noted the potentially fruitful connection with Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Branch of the International Council of Archives (ESARBICA) and the possibility of entering a panel for the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) at their next conference in October 2017.


Report by

Tom Cunningham and Liah Yecalo-Tecle






Conference dinner, 14th October 2016.


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Mangoes, witchcraft and myth-making in the Kerio Valley

“Do you see these mango trees?” Nicholas[1] points down towards the lower slopes of the valley where the extensive, leafy orchards are hard to miss.

Mango production has boomed in the region in the past decade, with the district currently producing an average of 25,000 tonnes per year and the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) laying out plans to continue increasing production capacity. If this seems excessive for the small, furrow-irrigated valley, it is unsurprising given the area’s recent agricultural trends. Qualitative research in ecological mapping carried out by staff at the Marakwet Research Station uses interviews and an interactive ranking system to understand local perceptions of different plant’s ‘importance’, tracking the variations in response according to age, gender, and locality. Preliminary results have shown that while older generations still place higher value on beer-brewing plants or those with medicinal properties (such as Aloe Vera and the Castor plant), younger generations of small-holder farmers are increasingly eschewing the more traditional maize, cassava, and millet in favour of high-yield cash-crops such as mangoes and oranges. It is ironic then that having taken to mango production with such enthusiasm, come September farmers in the region are unlikely to reap the benefits of what had promised to be a lucrative agricultural investment.

“The problem with mango production in Marakwet is that there is no market,” Helena explains.[2] Some prospectors come and purchase for overseas sale, but the majority are left to rot in Tot’s local markets as individual small-holders are unable to cover the cost of transporting any excess to processing plants in Nairobi and end up losing out to competition from nearer production zones like Machakos District. David Kimosop, KVDA’s managing director, claims that more that 40 percent of mangoes produced in the region go to waste due to lack of market access while middlemen continue to offer low prices. “It really is such a shame,” says Nicholas ruefully. “Local politicians have been talking about diversifying the mango trade for over a decade – building factories for processing pulp and dried mango – but the topic only ever seems to resurface in the run-up to the election period. After that the issue is usually dropped and we see even more unnecessary waste.”

Fortunately, there are indications that this vicious cycle may soon be broken, with the KVDA recently developing a partnership with Dutch firm ABAC in order to construct a local processing plant in Tot. Plans for the project were revealed in early 2013, and after several years of construction the project appears to finally be reaching completion. The plant aims to facilitate the production of organic mango concentrate (extracted from the pulp) which can be used for making juice or even as flavouring for ice-cream and yogurt. The idea is to decrease local farmers’ dependency on often exploitative middle-men, putting them in direct contact with new target markets in the Netherlands with opportunities for future expansion into wider Europe. The KVDA has also announced plans to encourage local small-holders to develop co-operative movements and sign collective contracts with the new plant with a view towards eventually becoming shareholders in the project.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, local enthusiasm for the nearly-functional plant has risen just in time for next year’s election campaigns, and although Helena remains confident that the project will be a blessing to the region, only time will tell whether the plant will succeed in making a genuine contribution to local farmer’s lives and livelihoods.

Elsewhere in Kenya, it is said that the Magarini and other coastal peoples have found alternative uses for mangoes, using the fruit to prepare a special concoction which serves as form of litmus test for witchcraft when eaten. No one in Tot makes allusion to anything similar, but that is not to say that local witchcraft practices (in their broadest sense) are not present, with the most recent related incident of mob justice taking place only two years ago. “No, no. There is no witchcraft here,” William insists,[3] but speaking with Helena reveals a rather different picture. Less than ten minutes into our walk along the furrows, she ends an overview of local health and traditional medicine by proudly explaining that the Marakwet community has a reasonably low mortality rate – “not like in neighbouring Pokot where there are too many witches.” Although my curiosity is piqued, I remember an old warning not to “go around asking questions about witchcraft” and let the moment pass.

The following day, we accompany a group of archaeologists through the dense shrub land to the long-abandoned Cave of Tumbosurun, where any evidence of previous human settlement has most likely been well preserved under at least a decade’s worth of dung deposited by grazing cattle. Nowadays the only things to watch out for are the snakes, which lurk among bat colonies in the darkened crevices of the rock face, only dangerous at night and – we are assured – when provoked. But even with the mid-morning sunlight filtering through the thicket, the cave retains its aura of eeriness. According to local legend, the cave once served as a occult ceremonial site, where revellers would work themselves into a frenzy by dancing and chanting, before taking a suicidal leap off the escarpment and into a bed of spears and sharpened sticks in the hope of entering a new world. This practice Helena confirms, took place over two hundred years ago, but the idea of Marakwet’s caves as places of magic and suspicion remains prevalent even in the present day. As we make our way back down the valley Helena points out a number of smaller and more isolated caves hidden along the escarpment where today’s ‘witches’ have been rumoured to seek shelter. Rumours seem to be the basis for all information about witchcraft, and no matter how many questions asked it remains near-impossible to grasp any facts. All I learn is that, for Helena at least, it exists somewhere in the hazy area between myth and reality; a dangerous and untraceable entity best left uninvestigated.

Towards the end of our walk the archaeologists spot a final cave near the outskirts of Tot, and as the group turns excitedly towards it I hear Helena muttering something that sounds a lot like shetani na witchcraft. “You go ahead and I’ll just wait outside,” she says cheerfully as I turn, increasingly superstitious, to follow the others into the darkness of the final cave.

[1] Nicholas, currently working as a driver at the BIEA, previously spent several years travelling to the region as part of his work for World Vision.

[2] Helena Chepto is Assistant Director at the Marakwet Research Station in Tot.

[3] William works as a research assistant at the Marakwet Research Station.

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