issue 167 - January 1987
Imperialism shapes dreams as well as bank accounts.
Western culture in the shape of Levis and McDonalds spans the
world. Julian Champkin discovers what leads a Kenyan to want
to wear a Western suit in a baking hot climate and why a poor
farmer wants a Sony Walkman rather than a hoe.
... These are a few of our favourite things.
Warm Coca-cola and a hi-fl sound system
Cheap flashing watches, we just can't resist 'em, Mercury poisons to lighten our skins:
These are a few of our favourite things.
White bread from wheat flour that doesn't grow locally,
Beer made from barley, we call for it vocally,
Cast- off old clothing, Royal Wedding key-rings:
These are a few of our favourite things.
Peugeots and Mazdas and Mercedes Benzes
We love status symbols, they drive us to frenzies,
Send what you like, just as long as it's tat:
That's where the profits in exports are at.
(to that ghastly tune from The Sound of Music)
'I was sitting in the Hilton the other day drinking sorghum beer from a gourd...'
'They don't serve sorghum beer at the Hilton.'
'This was the Hilton, Lower Kangole, Uganda. Actually, I was sitting under the Hilton. It is a tree. The next tree along shelters a rival drinking establishment called Club 500, but I don't frequent that. The name is not traditional enough.'
'Why do they call it the Hilton?'
'Because they want to. It sounds Western. The Hilton is one of the things they want from the West.'
'Anyway, one of my companions, who happened to be wearing a blanket as most of his clothing, had a watch.'
'Don't sneer. It was a cheap digital watch, with a plastic strap mended with wire, but it was a Terror Watch. A skull and crossbones kept flashing below the numbers, alternating with a head of Frankenstein. Everyone admired it very much. My watch was a restrained model in brushed steel, but they were not interested in that.'
'So why shouldn't a Karamojong cattle-herder have a picture of Frankenstein on his watch if he wants?'
'No reason at all. Only he didn't know who Frankenstein was. It was a Hong Kong watch, and he thought perhaps Frankenstein was the President of Hong Kong.'
'Did you explain it to him?'
'No. But I told him Hong Kong was near China, and then someone else said he supposed all Chinamen looked like that.'
'Does this have a moral?'
'No. All I am saying is that there is a big export market for cheap and tasteless watches in Africa.'
'What else do Ugandans want from the West?'
'Coca-Cola is much preferred to orange juice. They like Pepsi as well. They've only just taken down a sign near Kampala that said "Pepsi welcomes Pope Paul", and he hasn't been to Uganda since 1969.'
'It all sounds rather tasteless.'
'I don't know. Pepsi is very refreshing in a hot climate.'
'Do they want anything from us other than cheap tawdry junk?'
'Mercedes Benzes are not cheap. Neither are tractors. My drinking companions under the Hilton wanted to know when I was going to bring them tractors. I told them tractors were totally inappropriate development models for a non-existent infrastructure without foreign currency, spare parts or fuel, and they looked at me as though I was mad.'
'I take it this was quite an isolated area you were in?'
'Oh yes. But they manage to maintain their AK47s with no outside help. Those are very popular imports.'
In Kenya they are more sophisticated. Plastic water jugs shaped like pineapples were all the rage there not so long ago. Every village bar and tea-shop had them. Made in Taiwan, in red, green or blue.
The Taiwanese certainly know what is wanted in Africa. I found a 'Charles and Diana' thermos flask in central Zaire within three weeks of the Royal Wedding. Charlie and Di key-rings still sell quite briskly in Kenya, though Fergie doesn't seem to have the same attraction.
'So what present should I take to a Kenyan friend? A farmer, not far off the breadline. What would he like?'
'No problem: a Sony Walkman.'
'Wouldn't he prefer something useful? Seed, plough, money?'
'No, he'd rather have the Walkman.'
'What will he play on it?'
'Jim Reeves songs. And Abba. Waterloo sounds quite unexpected coming out of a round thatched hut in the middle of a maize field. Specially when it's played too slow 'cos the batteries are flat. It doesn't affect Jim Reeves: he sounds just the same at half speed. Or, if you are feeling really generous, give him money for corrugated iron. He would love an iron-roofed house. Don't ask me why: they are hot all day, cold all night and ruinously expensive. He has been trying to save for one for years.'
He has a dream, my Kenyan friend. He is in Nairobi. All Kenyan dreams are set in that dream city. He is wearing a three-piece suit (it can be hot in Nairobi, but still), walking (better, driving) to work. You can tell he is going to work: he has a briefcase and smart leather shoes. Not platforms: they are for leisure.
He has an office. His name is in big letters over the door. Not just Managing Director, Chief Managing Director. He has a secretary, with straightened, swept-back hair. (Dear God, the effort needed to straighten frizzy hair!) He sits down and makes an international phone call. About what, we never discover; there his imagination fails him. The dream ends there.
He nearly achieved it, once. His shoes were made of plastic, the same plastic as the water jugs ('Needs no polishing' say the adverts), but they did look like leather, almost, from a distance. He had no name above the door, and no office either, being a messenger boy; but he did make an international phone call once on the company phone. He got the sack for it. That's why he's a farmer now.
There are other dreams: scholarships, for one. Sponsorship for school fees, or to study abroad. Washing powders do not offer plastic tulips: they offer a lifetime's school fees paid to one lucky winner's child. 'Answer three simple questions, send three package tops, and your child could be sponsored through school. Question 1: The longest river in Africa is a) The Nile; b) the Amazon; c) the Mississippi. There is a picture of a blazered child shaking hands with a mortar-boarded headmaster. You can trust the ad-men to know what people really long for.
Not all the visions fail them. The Ugandan national dress for women is a stunning creation. The first Western dress they saw adorned Edwardian missionary wives; they copied it, leg-of-mutton sleeves and all. Today the style is still worn. Now it is no cheap copy of something Europe has abandoned: it has been transformed to something flamboyant and beautiful. It is Ugandan in its own right.
Other imports are less successful. Second-hand clothes imported by the bale are popular, not just because they are cheap. They may carry a message: numbered baseball sweaters abound in a country where it is not played. If the tee-shirts are to be believed there are more Cambridge graduates in an average Kenyan market-place than ever went to a May Ball.
There are still more grotesque remnants of the colonizing culture, and you do not have to attend the expatriate gymkhanas and Easter Bonnet competitions and dog shows to find them. They are in the schools. I have watched kilted Kenyan eight-year-old girls dance highland reels to an accordion band, it is like being in a time-warp. Or seventeen competing secondary school choirs warbling pseudo-Elizabethan madrigals: 'Fair are the flowers in the vaIlee'. Five choruses per choir. Seventeen choirs. Five seventeens make eighty-five. I almost prefer Abba.
'So everything Africans want from us you can sneer at. What did you bring back from Africa?'
'I brought back an aluminium bowl, smelted down from a broken Land Rover gearbox and cast by hand. I think it is rather beautiful.'
'It is a useless, second-hand object from a culture not your own.'
Julian Champkin is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in, and recently revisited, Kenya and Uganda.
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
Editor: You are putting forward a serious argument, yet you choose to write in a flippant style. Doesn't humour invalidate what you are saying?
Champkin: No, it just makes it easier and, I hope more entertaining. I could have made the same points with a dry list of statistics, but anyone who can wade through two pages of statistics is more dedicated than I am. And I could have massaged statistics as easily as the humour. Knowing that water containers worth $26 million were exported to Kenya in 1986 does not tell you whether they are village storage tanks or pineapple water jugs.
Editor: You pick the most trite and obnoxious forms of Western culture, such as Pepsi and Frankenstein watches, to convince the reader that the West has had a negative influence on Africa. But aren't you ignoring the evidence that does not fit your argument; what about the useful things supplied to Africa?
Champkin: I mentioned watches, bottles drinks, water jugs, keyrings, cars, international phone calls, clothing, education.. Every one of those things is useful. And who among us has not got a hi-fi?
But yes, I am ignoring the evidence that does not suit me. Or rather, evidence that did not strike me. The piece was really an attempt to convey an impression that Africa has had on me.
Editor: You describe a Kenyan's dream of becoming a Western-style business man. By presenting a fantasy as if it is part of imperialism aren't you using a novelist's technique of dramatising a stream of consciousness to confuse subjective experience with factual evidence? Surely we should see imperialism in economic terms, not as innocent bits of fun. You have used a clever literary device to confuse them.
Champkin: The gap between my friend's dreams and his reality is not innocent fun. It is heart-breaking if you think about it. Imperialism may be economic exploitation, but it is an awful lot of other things as well. One of those things is an attitude of mind: my Kenyan friend (who is real incidentally) has one of the most imperialised minds I know.
I find economics rather boring; but human minds amazing. Therefore I cannot write interestingly about economics, it is much easier writing about minds. My friend's ambitions have been created, in part, by the economic history of his country; so in writing about one I am writing about both. Economics and people's dreams are inextricably mixed up anyway; it is not I who has confused them.