Decolonizing Academia via Zoom? – The BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme in Times of COVID-19

by: Hannah Schild & Lewis Mwaura


The twelve participants of the 2020/21 Graduate Attachment scheme in 
conversation with Prof. Gabrielle Lynch, Dr. Freda Nkirote and 
Dr. Prince Guma of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, August 2020.

How do I angle my screen to avoid my interlocutors getting too much of an insight into the private sphere of my room? Which wall or piece of furniture in my home is neutral enough to serve as a ‘professional’ background in a first session with a BIEA supervisor? Will my internet connection hold while moderating a group session or freeze me with an awkward to potentially embarrassing facial expression mid-call? And how do I prevent roommates, partners, parents, kids (or cats) from suddenly popping up in the background (or foreground!) of an important presentation? 

Some of these questions will be all too familiar for those of us working and learning in the ‘Zoom-iverse’ of the ongoing pandemic which (amongst others) has fundamentally changed the structure and course of the BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme (GAS) that we were a part of in 2020/2021. It is clear that our experiences as attachés were radically different from those of our predecessors having taken part in the programme in previous years (Oh, the jealousy of reading about hands-on archeological fieldwork or real, in-person events!). But despite the faint disappointment about, and the occasional strain of, conducting research (for the most part) from behind our computer screens (or with considerable hurdles on site in Nairobi or Kampala), and regardless of the fact of only ‘knowing’ each other as disembodied upper bodies and (pixelated, and yes, at times, frozen) faces, we also came to appreciate some aspects of our virtual GAS experience.

There certainly were many more opportunities to connect with members of the different attaché cohorts (there were three in total this time around) or to take part in the numerous activities of the institute and its affiliated researchers. Many of our thought-provoking debates literally took place across the globe; the weekly BIEA reading group in which we shared and listened to insights from Bukinghamshire to Ajmer, India, or from Bavaria to Nairobi is a perfect example for these exciting dynamics. The fact that this group and other formats offered by the BIEA could be joined from the comforts of one’s home – or even ‘on the go’ at times – did do away with some of the obstacles of joining conversations and making one’s voice heard at eye level with each other.

Debating the issue of the decolonization of knowledge production and academia within our cohort in preparation for the first part of this blog series, we asked ourselves whether these positive aspects of the virtual format of this year’s Graduate Attachment Scheme could in fact offer a building block within the ongoing project of challenging power structures in academia. Could online reading groups, group discussions and research forums become platforms for a true plurality of voices?

There certainly is some promise in virtual formats in this respect. Next to the reading group this also became apparent to us during the Completion Series seminar organized in February by some of our fellow attachés, which demonstrated the power of diversity and interdisciplinarity within the community of young researchers interested in Eastern Africa that had built over the past months: topics as diverse as digital archaeology along the Swahili Coast, the impact of financial technology in Abuja, social media and the recent elections in Uganda, pineapple waste composting, and educational aspirations in Dadaab – projects which were carried out online for the most part and had rich cross-connections to issues like digitalization and technology –  and the ensuing lively Zoom discussion were great examples of the potential of online collaboration, global communication and the opportunities these provide for a ‘true’ and more equal co-production of knowledge.

Still, access to reliable, inexpensive internet connections, to high-quality scholarly literature in digital formats, or to chances to submit one’s work to distinguished scientific journals, remains highly unequal even in our digital age. This of course continues to reinforce the same old patterns of ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ in academic knowledge production, cementing the roles of passive knowledge ‘consumers’ and active knowledge ‘extractors’ along the North-South hierarchy. No matter how heart-warming and inspiring it can be to see a group of diverse faces and listen to a multiplicity of voices via Zoom or in other digital forums, it remains important to ask the hard question of whether everyone joins these conversations on an equal footing.

So, all in all, the answer to the question whether the virtual BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme 2020/2021 could serve as a model in the struggle of decolonizing academia, is probably yes and no. As often, a new and exciting tool or technology can only be as transformative as the overall context and structures it exists in let it be. As long as North-South hierarchies and global inequalities remain, online or hybrid formats in academic conversations can only be a tiny ‘chisel’ chipping away at Eurocentrism and colonial structures. But after all, maybe some of the hard conversations we need to have will be less difficult if we have them while wearing comfortable pants!

The authors of this piece would also like to thank their fellow Graduate Attachés Ed and Shuaib for sharing some of their valuable insights about the program with them.

Hannah Schild graduated from the Research Master in African Studies from Leiden University (Netherlands) in 2020 and is currently working to develop a PhD proposal at the University of Bayreuth. Her research interests include the intersections between gender, parenthood, kinship and coping with uncertainty, which she had a chance to further delve into during her time at the BIEA.

Lewis M. Mwaura recently finished his BA course work in International Relations where he majored in International Development. He describes himself as an urban imaginer and his current research at the BIEA focuses on Community Justice Systems in informal urban settlements around Nairobi.

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The BIEA Graduate Scheme: A Trial of Inclusive and Alternate Methods of Knowledge Production

by: Beth Hermaszewska & Sakshi Agarwal

As we embarked on the Graduate Attachment Scheme with the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) at the start of this year, we anticipated being involved in interdisciplinary research and colleagues spanning continents. Unsurprisingly, our cohort was made up of students from various disciplines, countries, and perspectives. This month we came together to discuss ‘How to Write About Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina (Wainaina, 2019) in our weekly reading group. A satirical, unpretentious, frank, explosive, and erudite piece which shifted our perspectives as we explored it. It made us all wonder about the ways in which we had all incorporated at least one stereotype in our own lives and writing. It also reminded us of the known ways in which scholars, institutions, research papers, and media platforms subscribe to the neo-colonial biases and perspectives when writing about Africa.

This initial discussion has inspired our cohort to think more and undertake research into our various disciplines’ efforts in decolonisation and the nature of knowledge production. Are we stuck in a hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives and ideologies which repeatedly exclude indigenous and non-western ways of knowing from the metaphorical table? A starting point could be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s suggestion that we should reconsider the sources from which we get our knowledge and sensitize ourselves to the need for bringing in alternative means for knowledge production (Ted, 2009).

In every power structure and institution that governs social, political and economic lives of the world the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised has endured.

‘During the last 520 years of the “European/Euro-North-American capitalist/patriarchal modern/colonial world-system” we went from “convert to Christianity or I’ll kill you” in the 16th century, to “civilize or I’ll kill you” in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “develop or I’ll kill you” in the 20th century, and more recently, the “democratize or I’ll kill you” at the beginning of the 21st century.’ (Grosfoguel 2017: 158).

In academia this dynamic of ‘giver’ and ‘taker’ has continued in the formation of discourses that are bound by a single trajectory framework of knowledge production. Such work is seen as necessary because colonisers deconstructed the worlds they occupied and forced them into one unified philosophical and ontological system of knowledge production and exchange. Within this system knowledge was considered scientific and philosophical, outside of it knowledge was belittled as plebian or indigenous (Santos 2007). This is the system from which our modern disciplines, research methods, academic institutions and understandings of knowledge have developed. As an antidote, decolonization offers a process that goes beyond formal political independence and forces people, including academics, to rethink, reimagine, and reshape the structures and systems of knowledge production.(Ndlovu-Gatsheni, n.d.) The concept of plurality encourages linkages, dialogue, and respect amongst different disciplines, voices and ways of knowing.

Exposure, through the BIEA, to researchers based in East Africa experimenting with innovative research methods has helped us begin to do this. One of the popular narratives that has come out of the decolonisation movement in the social sciences is the concept of the ‘pluriverse’. Arturo Escobar argues that rather than a ‘universe’, the world is a ‘pluriverse’ which includes all the different voices and viewpoints the world’s communities produce. It encourages scholars and activists to address their academia’s responsibilities for the damage to cultural, epistemological, and ontological resources of the countries not occupying the Global North, during and after the colonial regimes ended (Escobar, 2012; Sundberg, 2014). This effort of decolonising academic research and knowledge production is prominent in universities, a space where transformative and informative work is possible and contributes to a reimagining of what we mean by knowledge, what we know, and how we know it (Tuck and Yang, n.d.). This includes challenging the trends of Westernization and modernization in education which has conditioned the curricula to reflect a dynamic of ‘The West and the Rest’ (Hall, 1992).

When the world is seen from an understanding that African modernity and knowledge production, sources, and perspectives differ from their Eurocentric counterparts, it heralds a new system for understanding philosophies. The academic space, with this awareness, becomes fueled with a hybridity of influences and a deeper appreciation of the differences that need to be respected, evaluated and used to create a world that is inclusive, expressive, and dynamic (Osman Zein-Elabdin, 2011).

An important question is: what is required to change in order to usher in a new age of research and knowledge production in which everyone is heard and given the credit they deserve for the context, scope and achievement of their work?(Hutchings, 2019) Considering this as Attachés to the BIEA we have investigated how we can be part of this movement of decolonisation. The key questions that tease and provoke us are: How are the current universities and institutions like the BIEA contributing to this process? What is at stake for the scholars in this movement? What are the implications of a decolonized academia on the systems that are currently in place? And how can we contribute?

REFERENCES

Escobar, A., 2012. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400839926

Grosfoguel, R., 2017. Decolonizing western universalisms: Decolonial pluri-versalism from Aime Cesaire to the Zapatistas. In: Paraskeva, JM (ed.) Towards a Just Curriculum Theory: The Epistemicide. New York: Routledge, pp. 147–164.

Hall, S., 1992. The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478002710-009

Hutchings, K., 2019. Decolonizing Global Ethics: Thinking with the Pluriverse. Ethics Int. Aff. 33, 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679419000169

Kebede, M., 2011. African Development and the Primacy of Mental Decolonisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J., n.d. Discourses of Decolonization/Decoloniality 28.

Osha, S., 2011. Appraising Africa: Modernity, Decolonisation and Globalisation, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4

Osman Zein-Elabdin, E., 2011. Postcoloniality and Development: Development as a Colonial Discourse, in: Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice. CODESRIA. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvk8vxw4

Santos, B., 2007. Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of. Review. 30.

Sundberg, J., 2014. Decolonizing posthumanist geographies. Cult. Geogr. 21, 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474013486067

Ted, 2009. Dangers of a Single Story.

Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en [Accessed 13 March 2021].

Tuck, E., Yang, K.W., n.d. Decolonization is not a metaphor 40.

Wainaina, B., 2019. How to Write About Africa. Granta, [online] (92). Available at: https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ [Accessed 13 March 2021].

Beth Hermaszewska graduated with a first class BA in Human, Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge 2020. Since joining the BIEA, her research has focussed on Kenya’s 2011-2012 Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and how justice was articulated by witnesses. She is an aspiring lawyer and will begin her legal studies in September 2021 at the University of the City of London.

Sakshi Agarwal recently finished her postgraduate MSc in Global Prosperity from University College London. Passionate about philosophy, social service, literature, and history, her research with the BIEA focuses on indigenous knowledge production and its implications with regards to envisioning a pluralist society.

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Remedying African research institutions’ challenges to knowledge production: some reflections and proposals

by Abdikadir Bare Abikar, Ed Burnett, Emmanuel Hanyabui, Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen, and Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza (the second cohort of BIEA graduate attachés for the 2020-2021 academic year)

The growing relevance of knowledge creation and “human capital” in contemporary development cannot be overemphasized. African centres of learning have a crucial role in the continent’s future success. Yet, compared with their counterparts elsewhere, African institutions tend to lag. This blog post presents a few of our thoughts on two issues. First, some of the challenges faced by African institutions in the context of knowledge creation and human capital development. And second, suggestions on how African institutions can be better positioned to improve their capacities, for the betterment of the continent.

One challenge African universities face in knowledge production is a lack of confidence. Lecturers are often not convinced of their own knowledge, since African education systems have frequently been centred on “question and answer” systems. These systems, originating in colonial education schemes, have led many African countries to focus purely on teaching rote facts. Similarly, many students are in school purely because their parents have told them to acquire white-collar jobs, and do not want to think beyond passing exams.

Indeed, most African universities themselves exist primarily for profit. Thus, they arguably cannot be considered “research universities” at all. So questions remain about: Who should think of what the continent needs? What kind of people should African countries produce to better themselves, rather than for mere extraction of natural resources?  Through Western nations’ involvement, universities tend to be built for business rather than shaping future generations.

 

Because neither universities nor societal guardians are motivated to let students think creatively, knowledge production is greatly dampened. Many educational institutions in Africa correspondingly lack education in critical thinking. Yet, critical thinking is key for encouraging creativity and the production of new knowledge rather than mere recital. In Uganda, for instance, there have been numerous calls to focus the curriculum towards producing job creators rather than job seekers.

Likewise, even where critical thinking is taught, education systems are often purely theoretical rather than practically based: academic institutions in Africa produce graduates in large numbers every year with no practical and ICT skills to solve development-related problems. Inadequate qualified personnel in institutions, lack of ICT facilities or infrastructure, and unavailability of networking are all among the serious challenges hindering African graduates’ training. The ultimate consequence is that talented young graduates cannot develop their potential without practical or critical thinking skills.

Moreover, any beneficial schemes attempting to change African research institutions frequently originate from former colonial nations, maintaining a stronger voice over methods of study and so on. This greatly affects Africa’s reliance in knowledge production. However, merely replicating these preexisting teaching programs is a flawed concept. It reduces researchers’ creativity. In contrast, each institution needs its own research structure, one that could consider the most immediate and important demands and needs in the country or region that it resides.

External influence can sometimes be damaging, as can be seen attempts aimed at examining the state of academic archaeology and heritage within Africa. Dr Sada Mire’s recent article in the Guardian outlines this situation particularly well. Mire notes that cultural heritage is an essential part of human existence, yet its production and maintenance so often fall within external, Western institutions. There have been improvements with, for instance, several editors of related journals now based on the continent. However, outside voices still dominate the study of Africa’s past. The same is the case with archaeology as a whole. Voices tend to predominantly be white, straight, and male. Aside from this situation’s base injustice, this creates issues of inaccurate recording. As Mire discusses, researchers from diverse backgrounds ask diverse questions, and those who have been brought up among the culture whose past is being studied are more likely to ask insightful ones.

Because of these and countless other challenges, many African research institutions face comparatively poor educational outcomes and research output – and, perhaps even more importantly, those instances of truly excellent teaching and research are often sidelined or outright ignored. In short: something needs to change.

So, what can be done to remedy this situation? The most straightforward change would be in institutions’ fundamental objectives and curricula, as outlined above. But this would naturally be extremely difficult, considering how deep-seated these problems are. A more specific way to improve African institutions’ research capacity, contrastingly, is through endowments. Endowments are financial assets donated to academic institutions to support their teaching, research, and public service missions. This could free up researchers’ resources, allowing them to study those areas they deem important and interesting for wider society—not just those that promise more money. Key performance indicators (KPIs)—for instance, publishing in an international journal or engaging a minimum number of PhD students—could be used as a baseline for accessing this privilege. Apart from the clear benefit to the recipients, endowments can improve the sponsoring firm’s reputation, too.

When considering the aforementioned issues with external funding bodies and researchers holding sway over African research institutions, simply raising awareness about the extent of this problem provides one means of fighting back, where more tangible actions are impossible. All researchers working in Africa must discuss these injustices and work towards ending the treatment of Africa as a source of knowledge rather than an equal part in creating it. The Society of Black Archaeologists (while US-based) is one excellent organization providing this sort of essential work, among many others.

Finally, technology provides one key means that African research institutions could focus on the more practical, creative aspects of education. However, this must not be simplistic, but should incorporate more complex technological tools and other smart devices. An education system that only prides itself on students’ ability to surf the internet and use technological gadgets at ease is not enough. Instead, we need education and training systems that produce graduates who can better invent technology, from agriculture and fishery machinery to computers and robotics. Research institutions within Africa need to grow and develop. Such objectives should hopefully help make this happen.

Abdikadir Bare Abikar is a passionate educator with 8.5 years of experience in multicultural classrooms at the primary, secondary, and university levels in Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya; indeed, UNHCR has recognised his accomplishments as an example of what education makes possible for displaced learners. He has a Masters in education and a Bachelor of liberal arts and provisional studies majoring in geography from York University, Canada.

Ed Burnett’s main academic interests lie in the archaeology of East Africa, particularly regarding geospatial analysis. Over the last year he has completed an MSc in Digital Archaeology at the University of York, in the UK, and previously carried out a BA in Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Emmanuel Hanyabui has recently finished his MPhil degree in Land Use and Environmental Science at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, after having successfully completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture at the same institution. His research interest borders on soil plant nutrition dynamics.

Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen’s research at the BIEA focuses on the everyday impact of financial technology in Nigeria. He has a BSc and MSc from the American University of Nigeria and University College London respectively.

Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza has just finished a BA in Journalism and Communication, and is now undertaking a Masters in the same subject. He is interested in Social Media Analysis, particularly in his home country of Uganda.

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BIEA Annual Lecture: Africa and the global outbreak narrative

By: Joëlle Batour and Ed Burnett

Live tweeting by Lewis Mwaura

On November 18th, the British Institute In Eastern Africa (BIEA) held their annual lecture, hosting Professor Simukai Chigudu as he gave a compelling talk on the global outbreak narrative surrounding epidemics, pandemics and the positioning of Africa in light of COVID-19. The event was chaired by Professor Dame Henrietta Moore FBA, the current director at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity and president of the BIEA. Discussions were led by Professor Ambreena Manji, professor of Land Law and Development and co-founder of the Law and Global Justice Centre at Cardiff University and the former director of the BIEA.

Professor Simukai Chigudu is an Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of St Anthony’s College. He has worked across several different disciplines, most notably in global public health and in African politics and history. He also helped found the Oxford branch of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement whilst a graduate student, campaigning to remove the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes currently displayed in front of Oriel College. Professor Chigudu has written for and been interviewed in a wide array of publications, including the Guardian, the New Statesman, the British Medical Journal, and the South African radio station 702. His book ‘The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwewas released in January 2020.

Opening with an anecdote of Guinea’s first Ebola case, Professor Chigudu recalled how Western media often claimed the ‘consumption of bushmeat’ or ‘particular religious and burial practices’ to be explanations for the Ebola outbreak, blatantly ignoring issues surrounding lack of funding and mistrust between the public and their government. Noting how these claims are a product of the global outbreak narrative, Chigudu explained how the importance of this narrative cannot be undermined: It restructures our economies, differs people’s perceptions of others and shapes public understanding of how disease work. Chigudu concludes that because of this almost omnipotent nature of the outbreak narrative, it is crucial that we see its change. Science, like countless other disciplines remain tied to colonial history and through uniting under interdisciplinary bodies, actively decolonising our research and prioritising community over capital, we will be able to progress forward.

Identifying the positions of Africa and the Global North within the outbreak narrative, Chigudu highlighted how it labels Africa to be either the primordial origin of disease or its ultimate destination. He questioned why the suffering of disease is inconceivable in one place yet inevitable in another? Africa has been illustrated as a continent that is always at risk of disease and always in need of healing, whereas the Western world is posed as the foil to this. Following the 2001 Anthrax attacks and the Bush presidency’s decision to deem bioterrorism equal to other national security threats, the narrative surrounding emerging diseases changed. Chigudu asserts that this narrative has become inseparable from the USA and capitalist military-industrial complexes as emerging diseases are no longer bound to science, but also a multi-billion business.

However, Chigudu aptly noted that the way COVID-19 has spread undermines the outbreak narrative which brands Africa to be ‘doomed’. The continent counts for 17% of the world population but only 3.5% of the world’s COVID-19 deaths. Giving possible explanations of uneven population densities, government choices and young populations with possible pre-existing immunities, Chigudu remained certain that this does not mean that African governments must not remain ready. Chances of spikes are still possible, yet it is clear that the current narrative glosses over the diverse nature of the realities. Through identifying ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, the outbreak narrative gives an universal template for understanding interactions between humans and the microbial world, however things are far more complex than this. In discussions led by Professor Manji, Chigudu stressed the caution we must take when considering actions of ‘philanthro-capitalism’. He argued that it is important to be wary of organisations that are embedded in the ‘Silicon Valley imaginary’ (such as the ‘Gates and Melinda Foundation’), stating that organisations which valorise innovation and technology often avoid any local people having a stake of representation.

In all of this, Professor Chigudu made it very clear that the global outbreak narrative needs to change. Citing the work of Priscilla Wald, who claims that we should revive the outbreak narrative within the world of social justice, Chigudu asks if we can go even further. Stating how we must reflect on our past in order to move forward, Chigudu explained how germ theory emerged from the idea that microbes and humans were at war when in reality, there is no war to win. Bacteria constantly evolves through real complex processes of horizontal transmission and evolution (8% of human DNA is virus) and therefore, we must evolve with it. Thus, he argued that we must remove the narrative from a purely science domain and instead, reshape it within interdisciplinary bodies. At current, outbreak history shares a pathological connection to colonialism and therefore, we cannot view it through the single lens of science. Concluding that we cannot see epidemics and pandemics through a single ontology, Chigudu highlights how in a world where humans feel most separated, it is crucial for us to come together across disciplines in order to move forward and reimagine the global outbreak narrative.

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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.

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Photographs Courtesy of Adam Mwero

 

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