‘Analogue’ responses in a ‘digital’ era
Author: Nick Rahier is a doctoral researcher of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA) at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Leuven. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Fieldsite: Nick Rahier has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Nakuru, Kenya which is one of Kenya’s fastest-growing towns. His research interests include technology worlds, energy culture, urbanity, healing and herbalism. He is currently working toward a doctoral dissertation on urban life in Nakuru inspired by different manifestations of ‘heat’ in the city.
While reading about Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s daily ‘corona briefing’, The voice of a Belgian doctor echoes through the living room downstairs. I left my television on to stay informed about the latest updates on the Corona crisis in Belgium. The topic of that evening’s discussion is the severity of the Corona-crisis on the ‘African continent’. The doctor talks about ‘flattening the curve’ and it is argued that social distancing is not an easy feat to uphold in Africa as it is just ‘not part of “African” culture’. Melinda Gates similarly claimed we can expect to see ‘dead bodies’ on the street ‘in Africa’ as health care systems on the continent are too fragile to handle this pandemic. In a similar fashion, my family members raised concerns about the safety of my Kenyan friends and in-laws. According to their imaginaries of African life-worlds, catastrophe looms in Kenya because of ‘the lack of distance’ between people that pervades everyday life. Kenya is imagined through this ‘white gaze’ as doomed to apocalypse and Africans are being portrayed as passive victims of their ‘cultures of proximity’. It seems once again as if all complexity and nuance within African societies have made place for neocolonial discourses about Africans ‘in need of help’.
In this blog post, I want to share a more nuanced view on everyday experiences with toxicity, of which Covid-19 is just one example, that now shape more than ever the life-worlds of Kenyan friends and family. I bundled Kenyan media reports, an online discussion about social distancing and data from my research in Nakuru, Kenya on emic “practices of distancing” that existed well before this pandemic and are constantly being reinvented to respond to the current crisis.
It is definitely not my intention to refute the fact that social distancing is difficult to uphold in, for instance, populated informal settlements where residents often already battle against several other infectious vectors such as salmonella, HIV, tuberculosis, etc. Nor do I underestimate the need for a global response to the problems at hand in certain areas on the African continent. My sole intention, however, is to provide a more nuanced view on responses from the Global South to the current pandemic.
On ‘toxic outsides’: Kenya -China relations
A plane from China that lands in Nairobi on the 26th of February despite a travel ban, raised a lot of commotion among Kenyans. The fear for Covid-19 magnifies already existing malcontents about the intensifying economic ties between China and Kenya. Ordinary Kenyans or wananchi blame Kenya’s ties with china for their economic woes as they feel excluded from the 2030 development blueprint that draws heavily on Chinese investment in the country. China holds over more than a fifth of Kenya’s external debt which raises concerns among Kenyans about how this ‘toxic’ relationship between the two countries might affect Kenya’s sovereignty.
During fieldwork in Nakuru, these concerns about Kenya slowly becoming the property of China and transforming into what my interlocutors called ‘kanya’ (or ‘Chenya’) was mostly visible in their stances toward imported food products. Rumours about imported Chinese ‘toxic’ fish, plastic rice or video’s proving the existence of ‘fake’ Chinese fruits circulated in WhatsApp groups and fueled daily discussions. In Nakuru, such rumours about food scams are raised against the backdrop of national borders that are thought to be too open, making the lives of Kenyans more vulnerable to the afflictions of globalization. The fact Chinese planes landed in Nairobi despite the travel ban is for a lot of wananchi proof that Kenyan government privileges the economic dependency on China over the health of Kenyans.
These fears about toxic outsides harming Kenyans – now more than ever magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic – are embedded in more global concerns about national economies that depend on global supply chains and international division of labour. Covid-19 exposes all over the world the vulnerability of national economies that rely heavily on China. Countries worldwide are currently rethinking their dependence on China as the chief supplier of, for instance, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
In this regard, above assemblage of comments to the news Chinese medical equipment arrived in Nairobi, demonstrates the intensifying suspicious attitude of Kenyans toward (Chinese) ‘aid’ and ‘import’. Kenyans vent their frustrations on social media and stand up against global narratives that portray Africans as passive recipients of foreign aid. In fact, one example of how Kenyans take matters in their own hands are the different tech communities that started producing personal protective equipment such as masks or adaptor pieces that allow treating more than one patient per ventilator. Tech hubs have started to produce apps to provide schooling to children who are quarantined at home and mobile operators waivered all transaction fees on mobile money transfers to promote cashless payments.
Covid-19 intensifies growing distrust among Kenyans in government’s ties with China and wananchi have become more than ever wary about ‘Kenya transforming into a republic of China’. This pandemic is hence for Kenyans just one example among many other ‘toxins’ (such as imported food products) that threaten the health of the common citizens and the sovereignty of the nation.
‘Cooling down’ at home – practices of distancing
All over the world, lockdowns are introduced in an attempt to combat the pandemic. Streets, hotels, bars, and restaurants have become particular contagious ‘hotspots’ to be avoided. Above conversation took place in a family WhatsApp group of my in-laws and deserves particular analysis. It draws our attention to broader imaginaries of the bar, restaurant or hotel as dangerous spaces where contamination by toxic elements is a constant threat.
In a similar fashion, herbalists in Nakuru I followed during fieldwork argue that Kenyan bodies are infested by chafu (dirt). Gathering at crossroads, they preach about the dangerous effects of processed foods on African bodies and warn people about bodies that have become ‘too porous’ toward the ‘everyday toxicity’ of commodities one finds along the street or in bars and supermarkets (Rahier 2020). These mostly imported products are often contaminated with toxic elements such as food additives. The aforementioned Chinese toxic foodstuffs are a recurrent topic of discussion among herbalists. They argue that stomachs get ‘overheated’ when you consume too much of these ‘fake’ foods which eventually leads to a process of bodily and societal wasting encompassed by the Gikuyu term ‘thahu’. They introduce the stomach and gut as the toxic frontier where absorptions of toxic outsides are mediated. Their solution: practising ‘boundary work’ by coating the lining of the stomach and gut, altering one’s bodily porosity toward ‘toxic-outsides’ and ‘cooling down’ overheated stomachs (ibid).
One year after intense participant observation among herbal practitioners in Nakuru, the idea of boundary-work, or ‘practices of distancing’, has gained global momentum. Everywhere in the world attempts are made to alter the porosity of people’s bodies toward the dangers of Covid-19 either by physical distancing or the use of personal protective gear such as facemasks. Coming back to the doctor’s argument as stated at the beginning of this blogpost that “social distancing is not an easy feat to uphold in Africa as it is simply not part of African culture”, it seems to me that quite the opposite is true. Practices of distancing in Nakuru were part of the daily lives of people already way before covid-19 turned our lives upside down.
Take Njogu for instance. I stayed among his family during fieldwork in Kenya. As an elder with social responsibilities within his extended family, he was often away from home looking for new business opportunities or settling family issues. Meetings often happened in bars and restaurants and Njogu argued that from time to time he needed to ‘cool down’ and revitalize within the safe premises of his home for his body to recuperate from the often violent (social) toxins he got exposed to. At home, he would only eat home-grown or kienyeji foods which, he confided, helped to cleanse his body and boost his immune system.
In Kikuyu language, the verb ‘-gita’ reveals an emic understanding of boundary-work that contextualizes Njogu’s distancing practices. ‘-gita’ denotes both ‘to grow too thick to see through’ and ‘to flourish, prosper’. The verb refers to the fencing of the compound through which the ‘hot’ and ‘untamable’ outside is domesticated in order to create ‘a cool and fertile inside’ (Rahier 2020). Hence, ‘-gita’, or distancing oneself from the ‘hot’, ‘toxic’ and ‘undomesticated’ outside world is as much a lived experience as the ‘social distancing’ we witness today all over the world. In fact, the act of ‘-gita’ has existed since time immemorial and is constantly being reinvented to fit the needs of contemporary Kenyan society. Where it first referred to the fencing of the homestead to separate it from the surrounding (dangerous, ‘hot’ and ‘untamable’) forest, it has been reappreciated to give meaning to urban experiences in which the road and what one finds along the road is the urban equivalent of the forest.
A while after my phone call with Njogu, I call Njoguna and Mwangi. Njoguna is a mudo mugo or healer who lives and works in Menengai crater, a dormant volcano bordering Nakuru town. Mwangi is a taxi-motor (boda boda) operator and acquaintance to Njoguna who became a close friend during fieldwork and helped me out to translate from Gikuyu to Kiswahili. Both confided they do not fear Corona. They consider the pandemic a problem of the metropole and argued they have ‘strong’ bodies because they do not depend on ‘big foods’ from the city that taste ‘bitter’ (kali). Both have a constant supply of home-grown or Kienyeji vegetables that taste ‘sweet’ (tamu), they confided.
The semiotic potency of both ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ foods is relevant here, though goes beyond the scope of this post. However, and I apologize for cutting corners, it is important to note that “taste” in Nakuru evokes some residents to viscerally assert both agency over their life trajectories and resistance to a toxic globalized present. Through the consumption of home-grown foods, Njogu and Njoguna practice distance from the toxic entanglements that characterize urban centres in Kenya.
In a similar fashion, many talk shows in Kenya focused on what Kenyan’s could eat to boost their immune systems and protect oneself against Covid-19. In this regard, Kienyeji or home-grown foods and Kenyan (or African more broadly) herbal remedies are part of the weaponry that Kenyans fall back to in these uncertain pandemic times. These dietary choices and the resort to African herbal concoctions (of which Madagascar’s ‘Covid Organics’ or CVO is the biggest example) evoke what Katrien pype has called ‘flashes of African pride’ in her contribution within these blog-series on responses to Covid-19 from Kinshasa. For my interlocutors in Nakuru, eating healthy home-grown or kienyeji foods – especially now in times of a global pandemic – evokes nostalgia for an alternative, more ‘authentic Kenyan’ ways of living in and dealing with a polluted and toxic world.
‘digital’ vs. ‘analogue’ responses
When I call Njogu and his son to check up on them and their family, I am relieved to hear they are doing fine. Apparently, only a few cases have been reported in Nakuru compared to Nairobi and besides a curfew, the closure of restaurants, bars and schools or the limitations on travelling within the country, Nakuru remains rather untouched by this pandemic and most of our conversation is dedicated to the fact Njogu’s daughters are trapped in Nairobi, unable to travel upcountry to sit out the crisis. Nevertheless, Njogu tells me things are ‘cool’ at home. He has not been outside unless it was really necessary, and his son tells me they installed ‘Zoom’ on Njogu’s tablet which allows him to deal with urgent matters online. Most of the activities that demand his physical presence, such as dowry negotiations or meetings of ‘the council of elders’ (kiama), are postponed. These gatherings are often followed by the slaughtering of goats and sheep or the sharing of traditional honey-based beer which are all activities that are now strictly prohibited to avoid the virus from spreading.
Over the phone with Njoguna and Mwangi, we talk about a Kenyan funeral that was broadcasted through ‘Youtube’ which allowed me to follow it from Belgium. I also share the story of Njogu who confided he subscribed to ‘Zoom’ to go about his daily business. Mwangi replies he also attended a burial and that funerals are nowadays indeed recorded and shared so family members can attend from the safe distance of their homes. The one he went to, he continues, was not broadcasted live and, he adds jokingly, “… that is digital, we are analogue”.
Mwangi’s remark about the difference between digital lives opposed to analogue ones reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya further widens the gap between, what is known among Kenyans as, ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ life-worlds. Digital spaces have increasingly become important ecologies through which Kenyans both experience the everyday and portray visions of what Kenya could become in the future (the social media storm that revolved around a photo of Mt. Kenya taken from Nairobi that Hassan Kochore and Neil Carrier write about in these series of blogposts is exemplary).
Digital technologies have also globally become part of the first line of defence to combat the spread of the virus. Cashless payments, conference call technologies, tracing apps, E-health apps, e-commerce, are all digital platforms through which ‘distancing practices’ are enacted. Yet, this accelerated digitalization also amplifies a digital divide. In Kenya, many people are ‘analogue in a digital world’ (Van Den Broeck, 2017) and feel excluded from ‘modernity’s treats’. To protect themselves against covid-19, they look for their own distancing practices that go beyond normative measures that are globally accepted and often based on technological interventions beyond their reach. The consumption of home-grown foods or altering the porosity of one’s body through drinking herbal concoctions are, among other things, examples for my interlocutors’ complex and nuanced ‘analogue’ responses to this new pandemic world order.
To capture the complexity and agency of Kenyan responses to the crisis at hand without pandering to simplistic narratives based on cultural determinism portraying Africans as ‘culturally incapable’ to ‘keep distance’, I want to conclude with the fact we need to have particular attention for Kenyan vocabularies that give meaning to this crisis. From the point of view of my interlocutors, covid-19 magnifies already existing worries about borders that are thought to be too open toward the afflictions of globalization. Kenya’s contested ties with China and consequent rumours about toxic foodstuffs flooding Kenyan markets are exemplary in that regard. In Nakuru, herbalists and wananchi or common citizens voice a discourse that reveals emic understandings of ‘distancing practices’ to cope with bodily and socio-economic boundaries that are believed to be ‘too porous’. Hence, Whether Kenyan responses are ‘digital’ or ‘analogue’ or – as the two are mutually inclusive – a combination of both, my interlocutors do not sit back and wait for disaster to strike but rally the best they can to keep out ‘toxic outsides’ and this within their own frames of perception often based on long histories of dealing with toxicity as a lived experience part of everyday life.
Rahier, N. (2020). ‘Overheated stomachs: notes on urban life and toxicity in Nakuru, Kenya’. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Van den Broeck, J. (2017). ‘We are analogue in a digital world’: an anthropological exploration of ontologies and uncertainties around the proposed Konza Techno City near Nairobi, Kenya. Critical African Studies, 9(2), 210-225.