Five questions with Ng’ang’a Muchiri

Five questions with Ng’ang’a Muchiri

Ng’ang’a Muchiri is a Kenyan thinker, writer, photographer and scholar on land rights. He is currently a lecturer of World Literature at the University of Miami. His work, which is spread between the US and East Africa, is deceptive, in that what you see is only a bit of what this man goes through in his head. To that end, I sought to find out what Ng’ang’a was onto, and I found an even wider plethora of urgent, critical thoughts on a range of issues. See for yourself.

1. You are currently completing a PhD research project focusing on land rights in Tanzania (and East Africa in general). What challenges concerning land rights prompted you to pursue this?

In addition to issues regarding state autocracy and lack of grass roots input in decisions about land, the unfair influence that men wield over land, and the recent interest by foreign capital on Africa’s arable land I was drawn to research regarding land rights for a few other reasons. Many anti-colonial campaigns, especially the more violent ones – Kenya, Algeria, Zimbabwe, French Indo-China – were all fought on platforms of land reform. So from a historical point of view land rights are very important.

But even more important is the fact that land issues have major influence on how our communities function today. The 2008 events in Kenya after the general election are one example, but so too are some of the conflicts that we see in Central Africa. The idea of belonging to a certain area, or not, the assumption that one is a native or settler in a particular region has such wide ranging repercussions about ability to own property, live without fear, vote, travel, marry etc. For me, all those issues are tied to the question of land rights and I believe that land reform is an important key to unraveling the other challenges that are still extant in African communities from Cairo to Capetown.

2. Where does (or should) the power to make decisions over land typically sit?

Currently, the decision-making power over land still rests with the state and with men. Both of those dynamics need revision. It’s imperative that communities be empowered enough to decide whether they will create a game reserve on their land or whether they want a public park, a showground, a forest, a hydro-electric dam etc. This would be ideal. Where this is not possible, we need systems of governance that take into account community input regarding any major development sponsored by the state. Africa’s arable land is under onslaught by foreign capital. Large land leases have been made in Tanzania, Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia etc. and the benefits of such projects are not apparent.

Even worse, local communities had no say in the way these projects were implemented and they end up poor, and more disenfranchised. Alongside this state autocracy is the fact that men repeatedly dispossess women. My mom, for instance, barely got a share of her own mother’s land. Such endemic practices of dispossession must stop. Parents need to put in place legal protocols that ensure both male and female heirs get an equal share. There is simply no excuse why women should get a smaller, if any, share of their own parents’ wealth.

3. Rarely does one come across your work without seeing that you are also a photographer. In what ways do you find visual (or any other non-print) material to be as useful as print material in education?

There are many things one can say in words. There are also many ideas one is unable to translate into text and hence the use of visuals. Of course, words and images complement each other very well. For decades now, pedagogical research has acknowledged that we learn in a variety of ways. I love words and can pick up ideas best from text. Others prefer images, numbers, etc.

So first of all, my interest in images, and non-print media, is their capacity to reach a wider audience. But also, the creation of images involves decisions about power and hierarchies. And this is why there is a stock of images from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries which portray Africa as a certain kind of people: naked, savage, exotic etc.

Sawtche, named Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman in Europe (ca.1790 - 1815), called the Hottentot Venus, captured in South Africa, exhibited in Europe as a freak show attraction, forced into prostitution, studied as a specimen of "Woman of race Bôchismann" in 1815 by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier, which deduced theories on the inferiority of some human races. [Image and caption courtesy of Wikimedia]

Sawtche, named Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman in Europe (ca.1790 – 1815), called the Hottentot Venus, captured in South Africa, exhibited in Europe as a freak show attraction, forced into prostitution, studied as a specimen of “Woman of race Bôchismann” in 1815 by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier, which deduced theories on the inferiority of some human races. [Image and caption courtesy of Wikimedia]

Ota Benga (circa 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese man, an Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a controversial human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been freed from African slave traders by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman recruiting Africans for the Exposition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was "exhibited" in the zoo's Monkey House. [Image and description courtesy of Wikipedia]

Ota Benga (circa 1883 – March 20, 1916) was a Congolese man, an Mbuti pygmy known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904, and in a controversial human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been freed from African slave traders by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman recruiting Africans for the Exposition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was “exhibited” in the zoo’s Monkey House. [Image and description courtesy of Wikipedia]

I’m really interested in the kinds of decisions that painters, photographers, cartoonists, and other visual artists make as they produce their work and how those decisions betray their thoughts about women, minorities, the poor etc.

In short, images are just as political as other media and that is very interesting to me. I would like to produce images that change the global understanding of Africa. Such that, when I Google Tanzania, I see more than Safaris, the Big Five, and Masai Shukas. If we can learn to ‘read’ images, not just for what they show, but also for what they don’t show, and what they assume, we will be well on our way to achieving the kind of creative and critical thinking that will help us achieve justice – in all forms.

4. You have visited libraries around the world. How is knowledge being archived for those who want to learn it?

In the course of my research I have been to the Kenya National Archives, the University of Dar es Salaam Archives, university libraries in Texas, Florida, Yale University, and of course my own institution in Miami. I’ve also had the pleasure of doing research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

In each location, it was clear that knowledge was being archived very deliberately – with important repercussions. In North America, the use of technology aids fast and easy research; I could quickly scan anything I found to be of interest, go online to get citation data, contact the library via email and have certain materials ready before I show up. All these tools make for a more convenient research experience. However, there is also value judgement that goes with western archives. The recording of materials from minority groups: African Americans, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, poor communities does not get the same kinds of resources as archiving the lives of the rich and famous.

From my experiences in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, I was really pleased to see the same reverence for knowledge and archives. Despite the lack of technology, I met with archivists with deep knowledge about their collections, and a great love to share it. I still had to overcome a few bureaucratic hurdles, but having done that everything was smooth sailing. There is great need to upgrade our archival tools, from the ability to climate-control, archives, to our capacity to secure, and reproduce materials. It’s a great pity to see newspapers and journals from the Fifties and before crumbling due to exposure to the elements.

While it’s a slightly unfair comparison the underground, climate-control archive at the Uni of Minnesota, St. Paul is what we should be aiming for. The Archive has space for SEVERAL football fields! That sounds like a lot of unnecessary space, but it’s actually not.

Africa is undergoing a period of rapid changes. It’s vital that we take the time to document our progress, not only so we can preserve it for posterity, but also so we can continuously learn from our mistakes. And there are so MANY wonderful creations we should be documenting: political campaign materials, all those caps, and t-shirts, and manifestos, the start-ups that have spawned Nairobi’s iHub, and Liberia’s iLab, etc. Most importantly, this archival process will herald our appreciation of African-born innovation. Even as we look to the west, and increasingly to China, we must gain confidence in what we are able to do on our own!

5. They say knowledge is power. Where do young East Africans need to focus their efforts to “know” better?

Indeed, knowledge is power! The more we know, the better informed we are, and thus the better kinds of decisions we can make. To take a simple example, when you want to purchase a pair of shoes, you do due diligence. You window shop in the posh malls, but you also check out the informal markets (Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kariakoo in Dar), and you also go online and see what your purchasing power can afford you. By the time you actually exchange your money for a pair of shoes, you are confident you’re getting the best deal, for the highest quality product. Knowledge enables you to make the best decisions, bargain etc.

And the benefits of adequate research do not end with consumption, they extend to making decisions about your health, your education, your professional path, your spirituality. Irregardless of age, we in East Africa, and the rest of the continent, need to acquire as much knowledge as possible. There’s often tension between pursuing narrowly-defined knowledge skills that enable you to function as a professional in a particular industry versus general knowledge about anything under the sun. Ideally, we should pursue both. Proponents of innovation and creative thinking have repeatedly shown that the wider your knowledge base, the more creative your ideas will be. Innovation is about connecting dots; the more you read, explore, etc. the more dots you have to connect. And I’m sure we’ll all agree that the African continent needs innovative thinking to take full advantage of our rich human and natural resources! We need tons of new ideas, and we especially need to gain knowledge on issues we disagree about: religion, sexuality, wealth re-distribution, governance etc.

Ahsante Ng’ang’a! He can be contacted at ngamuchiri[at]gmail.com, and his website is nmuchiri.com.

Further reading:

Al-Amin founded Vijana FM in 2009. With over a decade of experience in communications, design and operations, he now runs a digital media consulting agency - Lateral Labs - in Dar-es-Salaam.

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