Farming, Fashion and False African Independence

During this year's Think Again Conference put on by the amazing Abundance Foundation in Pittsboro, North Carolina, I was asked to give a talk on the subject of Farming, Fashion and Fiber. This was not the first time I have been invited to speak during many of the events that the brains behind Abundance Foundation organizes each each. It may be important to mention a few capacities I have been honored with during our on going multi-year relationship that coming up to a decade old. The first time I heard about the organization was during my training in culinary school. One of the professors announced that the college had agreed to participate in a festival known as The Pittsboro Peppers Festival. He went on to explain that the participant would join about ten other local chefs and restaurants in preparing dishes using peppers that had been grown at Piedmont Bio Farm, which was located on a Bio diesel plant that actually give the farm the name. Dough Jones was then the most renowned farm locally and especially due to his extensive knowledge about peppers. Dough Jones was one of my mentors during the same time as I cutting my teeth in the nascent Food Movement. I would spend many hours volunteering at Doughs farm at the Bio Diesel Plant and at the Central Carolina Community College where Dough ran the student farm before he move to the Bio Farm. It was therefore not a hard preposition for me accept the invitation to volunteer at the food event. The event, as it were, was rather small. It was held in the backyard of the Bio Diesel plant, surrounded by Doughs beautiful farm on all sides. The attendance was quite low and it would have been difficult to project how such an event would grow in a mere ten years.

During the event, I met Tami Sherwin who genius behind the foundation.  Our relationship grew and I came to admire her commitment to building community, local economy and green energy. Her partner in the crime of big ideas was no other than Lyle Estille who was a heavy weight only matched by his Canadian optimism. This relationship developed to  hosting a pop up dinner at the same plant to hiring me as a consultant for a climate change conference that with a focus on social justice two years ago. Two years ago, Tami and Alisa, who rans Sparkroot farm, come up with an even crazier idea by hosting a Death Faire after they both lost loved ones the previous year. The Death Faire was a celebration of those who had departed as well a time to rethink how we have been socialized around the whole idea of death to act, out of emotions, in very unsustainable ways. It is worth noting that both of their loved ones had green burials. I actually participated in the digging of the grave for Alisa's husband. That is however a story for another day. Green burial in a growing field that aims at eliminating those funeral practices that are detrimental to the planted. But I digress. At least I hope that the reward for such digression is a descent context for the story. 

I therefore gladly accepted the invitation to give a talk about the above subject but I did not immediately know what I would exactly talk about. On the Sunday before the event, I went on a run at a near by park and by the end of the six mile run, the lecture was clearly outlined in my head. I could see a very clear connection between the title of the conference and my work as a food activist, anthropologist and chef. I have always know that the textile industry is the backbone of most developed economies and it is only next to food in ranking the most important elements in any liberation movement for a country or community. I have heard the argument raised my many people and I may not even remember exactly where I first heard the argument or when I first articulated the idea in one of my lectures.  What I do know is that my ideas about fashion has evolved a great deal since I formally started my work as an activist. As I learned more about how the fashion industry in organized to exploit the poor nations as a source of cheap labor that are a modern form of slavery, and the enormous amounts of profits that are made by those behind the industry, I become very disillusioned by the whole industry. I almost detested the veneration of the blood-soaked fashion industry, and especially the wrong-headed practice of poor people using the fashion industry as way of displaying their wealth or status. I found myself caring less and less about fashion and being opposed to it. I could see very clearly how it was set up to keep poor people working against their best interests. By buying into the whole fashion industry, the poor were actually perpetuating the industry of exploitation. The whole industry was based on accepting a false narrative that wearing clothes or rather brands was a sign of progress. It mattered less that the clothes were made in sweatshop conditions, where majority of the money went to multinational corporations. It did not make a difference that these corporations did not pay any taxes in the countries where many of this clothes were manufactured. Neither did it matter that many of this clothes, which were mostly made in areas know as EPZ, or export processing zones, where the clothes could not be sold to the local markets but were specifically made for export. The same countries that were exporting new clothes to Western countries were themselves importing the same clothes a few years down the road as used clothes. How crazy is this? Are others people, mostly people of color not dignified enough to wear new clothes that have not been disempowered by Westerners?  Would it not be easier and better for the planet to make new clothes for those communities and for America and the west to make their own clothes right here and save all the transpiration costs?

The questions I asked myself are too many to list here. What I did realize and raised as a major point in my lecture is that Food and Textile are the backbone of any local economy. Food and clothes are the two things that you have to use every day, unless you live in a nude beach. If any country wants to country another, control of its food and textile is one of the easiest way to keep them as perpetual slaves. You dress and eat every single day. If someone is feeding you and clothing you, it goes without saying that you will start worshiping that person as your god.  For all intent and purposes, the person who feeds and clothes you ultimately makes you. If you take the highly processed food that many in the developed nation consume, the result has been overweight and sick nation. This effect has far reaching consequences than just food. The idea of food stamps for example had little to do with helping people to eat but with business. During the Depression, the farmers in this country had no market for many of their produce as many American had little or no money. The government then figured that it could buy the food from the farmers and keep them from going bankrupt and defaulting on their loans. To same the situation, they started buying the produce from farmers and giving it to the needy families. That period also marks the beginning of the weight problems with this country. The food that the government gave was highly processed and had little nutritional value. Processing food is an darling of large corporations and a way of creating jobs. So the American financed the enlarging of corporations by giving them guaranteed government business and gained weight in the process. The benefit to the local person was poor health, damaged environment and more pounds to boot. 

This model has been perfected by the Farm Bill that continues to give too much money to the wrong people to grown too much of the wrong food that does too much damage to the environment and finally does too much to dispossess that American people. What is an even more damning indictment is that this is not limited to this country only. The final blow of the whole process is that the process was like a pilot project. We can see a similar process in international affairs. Food and textile are being welded as tools of war globally. In addition, the financialisation of many economies around the globe are taking on the same model. The Bundesbank in Europe is forcing other countries like Greece to accept more loans just to keep the banks in Germany and France that loaned Greece money from loosing money. That means that these countries are forcing Greece to take up more loans to pay loans that it has already defaulted on. How is taking more loans going to help a country that cannot pay its current loans. The solution would be to just right off part of the debt and renegotiate the rest. However, the previous forced loans to Greece have resulted in a shrinking Greek economy. A striking economy means that the country will less likely to afford its current loans, leave alone any new loans. We also know that most of these loans do not even touch the Greek central banks but are paid directly to the German and French banks. 

I am drawing your attention to the continuous process of exploiting other nations by the current super powers. Germany has plenty of blood going back to the Genocide in Namibia, a country where majority of the land is controlled by tiny minority of Germans.  African in this country continue to suffer under systemic racism and the Native Americans share the same fate. 

I continued to use the the analysis to draw a connection of how newly independent countries by having no control over their food and textile were essentially forced to abandon democratic practices. This is because the countries are already set up to fail but having been denied to grow a local economy. What resulted was a situation where by these newly independent countries were being forced in the global financial system that was so slanted against them that all they could hope for is to continue being a source of raw materials for the same countries that had colonized them or exploited them. 

One of the ways in which the countries were condemned to be despotic is simple. A president is elected by a population that expected to have jobs and an improved standard of living. Under normal circumstances, the food industry and the textile industry would create huge employment for the new nations. If you think about the growing of food and textile just by itself must employ millions of people. Then there is the technical know how to support the growing, the research, the processing of the textile and food. Then you add more jobs for the transportations and warehousing. There is also the design for the textile and processing for the foods. The marketing and retailing would also add millions of jobs. All these jobs are wiped out by having relief food and used clothes. Therefore any leader, however righteous would find it difficult to make up for the loss of jobs in a continent with such a youthful population. The natural solution would be to protect his position in power through autocratic means. This is one sure way of making a dictator. Don't forget that the same countries that send used clothes and food subsidized by the American who donates the used clothes find it a great business in having autocratic leaders in Africa. These autocratic leaders are know to steal huge amounts of money from their poor countries. That is another reason they are poor. That stollen money ends up in the Western countries.  The small scale farmer in the U.S suffers at the hands of a government that is in the hands of the corporations and he is used to oppress other countries globally by buying new clothes from the EPZ, ran by the same corporations. These corporations use the money to buy the western governments so that it spends less money on the poor or middle class but more and more on giving to the rich and the corporations. There is a reason we have a department know as Food and Drug Administration. So the next time someone tells you that Let your food be thy medicine", you know they are playing a conn game on you. Food is food and medicine is medicine. You don't go to the drug store to buy food and neither should you do to the food store to by drugs. But the corporations have blurred our intelligence. They sell us nutrients and vitamins instead of food. Its all in line to keep the ponze scheme going.  Once you realize that your appetite is the main cause of pain for majority of people of color and the major cause of global warming, we will be on our way to breaking down the curse that have visited mankind and is about to take us out of here.  I concluded by restating the old adage "let food be thy medicine" with "let food and textile be your gift and not curse to yourself and the world"

Examine how you eat and how you dress and you will find the secret and not so secret reason why you are unhappy, unhealthy and far from being free.  The illusion that westerners are free or better off than many in the developing work should remind all of the sword of Damocles that hangs above our head. We are all slaves of the multi-national corporations. They have no boundaries, profits have overcome politics. That is a death sentence for anyone who knows what capitalism is all about. 

Reflections about my Interview on NPR on Famine in Africa and Yemen.  

We now live in a time where memories are stored for us by a process of "Remembering Analytica". To that end, Facebook reminds us of things that did in the past that would probably have otherwise been lost for ever, yet even for those things that we would remember, the regular reminders of different anniversaries based on our posts on Facebook, allow us to remember those things in a different way. If Cambridge Analytica, got in trouble for collecting data about us to be used for political reasons, Remembering Analytica may be equally significant but in a more positive way.  One of such memories reminders appeared on my timeline yesterday about  post I shared a year about ago  yesterday regarding an interview I did with WAMU, a NPR radio affiliate based in D.C.  The show was about famine in East Africa and Yemen.  

Appearing on the show with me were two other contributors, Jeffery Gettleman, the New York Times East African Bureau Chief and Carolina Miles, the CEO of Save the Children.  I was quite familiar with Jeffery Gettleman and his writings from his periodic articles about different issues in Kenya and the region. I was excited to have an opportunity to engage him in a discussion about food as I saw him a poster book example of what is wrong with the food system in Kenya, and by extensions the relationship between the West and African in general. Mr. Gettleman does a great job of reporting on African issues, and specifically Kenyan issues, using very old Eurocentric eyes and perpetuating old stereotypes about the continent. I hope to write about one article that he wrote in the next blog post for anyone interested in understanding the issue further. So I did not have much reading to do to prepare for address his positions. Caroline Miles was rather new to me, while i had heard about the organization Save the Children, I was not that familiar with its head woman.  I therefore read up on her work and the direction that she was steering the  non profit organization. 

From the beginning, I had to admit that I had issues with the fact that a topic as central as food security and famine was being discussed on NPR by two white people and one African in 2017. What is the purpose of having educated Africans in the U.S if they can't speak on a topic as crucial as famine in their own counties. Even if none of the East Africans  were available as readily, why not have other Africans or African Americans to offer their views on the matter. There are many people of African decent with enough authority to speak on such issues. There are also university professors in African who are equally if not more qualified to speak on that matter. Is it that they have accents or are not readily available? It hard for anyone to make a case that in this day and time that White experts have to have all the answers for Africa's problems.  The consequences of such thinking is readily available all over Africa and beyond for anyone with eyes to see. 

Either way, I was glad to have been considered as a contributor and I also figured that it may be opportunity to point this out during the discussion, either directly or indirectly. I therefore went on the forum with those trepidations. As a side note, my thought was going through some kind of  crisis and I was having a hard time getting my voice back. I was hoarse and this was a very frustrating feeling. I tried to drink all kinds of concussions that I made but nothing seemed to work. I did however keep my commitment to appear on the show in spite of my voice issues. 

The interview started with a question to Jeffery about his his general experience with the Kenyan people. His answer all made me fly off the chair.  I have to say that having grown up in the village where there was plenty of food and food security as the villagers and family members worked the fields together and collaborated in building a functional environment that was conducive to food security by combining their resources to come up with local solutions to their problems. For example, there were  community cattle deeps, coffee factories  that were communally ran and the like, I was therefore extremely conscious of the the possible detriments that are likely to occur as a result of following wrongheaded government policies, misguided advice from Western experts as well as the gullibility of the local farmers who are naive to the political subterfuge of the multinational corporations. I therefore expected a serious discussion on this topic from the word go. So when I heard the answer from Gettleman, about how friendly the Kenyans are and how they greet each other and shake hands for a long time, I was not impressed. This may have had something to do with issues I previously had with his articles but the simple answer did not help either. 

I did mange to contribute some to the discussion but I did not leave the table feeling like I covered as much as I did.  When I checked the discussion taking place of social media, the picture was different. There was quite a healthy conversation going on and  a number of the points I raised seemed to have come out clearer than I thought. A great number of people noted that it did not make sense that two White people were discussing famine in Africa. A few others complained that I was not getting enough time to talk, while others responded to some of the points they thought were sound. But of all the comments I read, two comments stood out from the rest. The first one was by a professor from Rutgers University, Daniel Hoffma, who does work in several rural areas in Kenya. The first thing I appreciated from his work is that the project is not geared towards exporting food nor using foreign seeds, but towards food security for the locals by using indigenous seeds. He later invited me for a residency at Rutgers University. The second one was by a  Ugandan graduate student from Duke University who happened to be listening to me as he was studying.  He be befriended me on Facebook and we eventually met up for coffee. 

Here is his comments by the Ugandan student, who by the way is named Ceasar Lubanga-Kene. 

Was listening to NPR's 1A program doing a special hour on Famine in Africa. The panel had some notable people.

 

First, Jeffrey Gettleman- The New York Times East-African Bureau Chief, a Pulitzer Prized journalist who has extensively reported about wars, famine and drought in the East and Horn of Africa.

 

Then, President & CEO of Save the Children Caroline Miles, the madame president leading this big global Save the Children movement serving and saving millions every day especially in Africa. 

 

And then alas, a Chef Njathi Wa Kabui, a Kenyan-US Chef based here in Little Durham. 

 

So, at first I was all wondering what a chef in America would contribute to such a discussion and started whining (I am always whining) about why NPR could not bring other big people from Africa say Academics, Entrepreneurs, Journalists, Managers, Activists or Western African Policy people in this important discussion to match these two big policy-movers on a national public radio.

 

But trust an African Brother, Jamaa the chef is not your normal downtown Chef always playing with spices in his kitchen and #SaltBae-ing steak. After listening to his first lines, I looked him up...big man, Chef Njathi Wa Kabui is a Food Activist, Anthropologist and Political Scientist, Pan-African of cos

 

As expected, he almost crashed the panel. He made the most critical contributions through out according to us Africans. Bringing up stuff usually left out in such discussions. He shifted the debate from aid and charities to the plight of Africans and swayed the panelists to focus on the underlying root causes of the stagnation and starvation in Africa. 

 

He highlighted the unfair trade policies, military industrial complex hand in the armed conflicts, and the exploitative economic system that was set up by and for the benefit of the West, the looming environmental disasters due to heavy pollution again from the West exacerbating climate change and the drought in Africa.

 

Yes, for now we do need the charities and the hand outs from the likes of Save the Children with 20 million in Africa faced with starvation 1 million of the them children. Yes, we desperately need the media like New York Times and NPR covering Africa fairly. And Yes, most importantly for a long-term solution for Africa, Chef Njathi Wa Kabui is right, we need to revise the unfair trade agreements and deals, neoliberal market policies killing and draining African economies dry, scrutinize Western monopolies and corporations, World Bank/IMF Loans 

 

Most commentary in Western media about Africa is consciously framed with a 'needy-savior' implicit bias that affects the understanding, actions, and decisions of Western actors usually beginning and ending with the need for more foreign western aid to "save" Africans.

 

 

 

Michigan Food Tour Feb 9TH

Chef Kabui was honored to be a guest speaker at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo. The Arcus Center was then first building in the United States specifically built for the sake of Social Justice. The building project had a budget of $28 million dollars for building the facility and the rest for endowment. It is a fabulous building set right in the middle of Kalamazoo campus but operated independently. It was a strange coincidence that this facility was the site where I first spoke about my new cuisine that I named Afro Futuristic Conscious Cuisine of Affcoc. During my lecture, I first opened the lecture by playing the song Gentleman by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who has had a great influence in my thinking and evolution as an activist and a born again Africanist. Unbeknown to me the art on the wall had just been installed and is Afro Futuristic. As Fella Kuti stated in the song, I too am tired of being a gentleman. I just want to be an African Man Original. That sounds quite simple for some but when you live in a country where the oppression of your racial group is systemic, one thing that is in great shortage among the members of the oppressed group is pride. I see a great desert of pride among my own kind. I however understand that at the base of this low level of pride is low level of power.

 

The Preacher Ordained by History

Sometime in the Fall of last year, Paul Ossom, reporter for the Chapel Hill News, contacted me by email and also by phone with an interest to do an interview. The article later made the front page for the Sunday paper. I got a lot of calls from that article than any other, what caught my eye was the title. "Kenyan Chef Teaches what he Preaches" the title of the article read. Since then, it occurred to me that I may as well be preaching. I have been feeling the weight of the Wisdom of my ethnic people but still this wisdom seem to be so misunderstood, worst by those that should be foremost in preserving it.  Why is is that Americans are finding a message that resonates with the food movement here and yet the very people whose heritage it is seem to see nothing on value in it? 

The food crisis, and by extension the cultural crisis has a lot to do with the forgetting of folk wisdom that has been refined over the year in favor of western culture that we knew very little about.  This forgetting has become of great commercial value to a small group of corporations as they replace things of value in the market with things that are dangerous to our life. So the choice of something as simple as what you put in your mouth has been commodified.  The new religion is based not based on what "Thou shall not eat .." to one that says "Thou should eat....".  While I claim that food is the most political thing you will ever touch in your life, the power to influence that choice has to come In a close second.  This is not at all surprising, I recognize that all things are political however subtle. The idea that Kenyans and the Gikuyu ethnic group I am hail from has so conveniently forgot most of their folk knowledge, essentially obliterating their information about their past, especially  among the educated. For a while this appeared very benign. Yet things are not well on the gastronomic front. The experimental period is over and doubts have started to set in. Some are asking some serious questions.

Without out realizing, I found the little knowledge I had managed to acquire from my parents and other elders is now turning out to be more valuable than the very expensive education I have received formally. The folk knowledge about food, music, wise saying, plants, and life in general has turned me into a crusader for something that not too long ago would have been a symbol of shame.  How did this happen, how did once proud people that form the largest ethnic group turn their cultural head down in shame and starting courting amnesia of their own heritage?

A lot of it has to do with the British struggle to build a global empire. The desire for an empire had a lot to do with the country's ability to feed itself and afford a higher standard of living. The war had to be financed and soldiers rewarded for them to  keep fighting for the empire.  The growing empire has to be administered and therefore more soldiers were needed. As it were the empire grew so fast and so big that the British soldiers could no longer protect the empire and wage war without enlisting the help of the very people they were dispossessing. This would end up being the undoing of the empire. 

When Kamakia, my grandfather, heard that the missionaries had had arrived in our village and set up a church and school, he went to two of his wives in his homestead and instructed them that my father was not to be give any chores around the homestead; necessity had created a new role for him and he could not be expected to forgo his duties for simple errands for my grandparents. His new role was to follow my grandfather everywhere he went for official and unofficial duties as a council of elder and learn all the traditions of his people. My grandfather in some strange way could sense danger from the attitudes that the British judged everybody else. He found it rather strange that besides just land and wealth, they were contemptuous of other Peoples Gods.  Theirs was the only true God.  The battle lines had been drawn, and they were deep. The customs of the Gikuyu were in peril, and power that was so firmly in the hands of the Gikuyu had been violently wrestled from their grasp. 

My grandmothers, on the other hand did not sense the urgency, But after many broken pots they realized that things were serious. My grandfather would ask my dad to break any pot or guard that he was using to attend to an errand for my grandmother.  The expensive habit could not continue and my dad was now free to follow my grandfather full time. Whenever there was a case to be settle, any celebration, induction of new members in the council of elders, or even simply discussion of anything important, my dad was right there. A library was being created one event at a time.  Meanwhile, the British were consolidating their empire. This meant wars on many fronts. Soon enough young men from my ethnic groups would be recruited to work for the benefit of the empire. But that was not before they were alienated from their lands. The land in their ethnic nation was placed under the crown in 1909. With many ethnic nations, the alienation took on different methods. The Maasai for example simply signed their land away. The Gikuyu not too quickly and not without armed struggle. But finally, it did happen. That meant that Africans owned no land and any land that they would later be allocated would be at the mercy of the Queen. 

This did not go very well, with the people on the loosing end. It disrupted their cultural life, food included. My people had not rights that the British were obligated to respect. They essentially become just tools for the advancement of the British and their desires.  When war became too much for them British, my people were expected to feel the urgency and cry to the pains that the British felt. When necessary Gikuyu young men were enlisted to go and fight for the Crown in Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar,  and elsewhere. But they were not to have any desired of their own for freedom. This seemed to make sense for a while. They British appeared invincible and unconquerable. 

But as more young men were recruited to go to war outside their country, the idea that the whites ere superior started dying off.   This remarkable realization would make it even conceivable for the Africans and other oppressed people elsewhere to dream of self rule. My  parents were growing up in the whirl wind of this political hailstorm. They would not be scared of it either and embraced the cause with all his might. But the question of self rule is not as simple as they thought. Looking back, some of the policies that the British put in place to ensure their political domination did not go away with lowering of the Union Jack, the British flag. 

The idea that their ways were superior and that they Africans were backwards and devoid of any useful knowledge would stick more and even risk undoing the benefits that self-rule eventually brought. This was not all coincidence, a lot of it had to do with political subterfuge and a desire to continue the same colonial policies through backhand means. 

It has now become apparent that there is no short cut to being free. Foods is one measure of how free, previously oppressed, are. I have found myself preaching that values that we have forgotten. I never perceived my work in this way and have never uttered a single word during my interviews that would indicate so. Yet it amazes me how a people who eat so well not too  long ago are now plagued by all kinds of diseases that they knew nothing about. Well, I have agreed to keep the lessons that my grandfather found so useful and my dad honored by passing them to me. What appeared to my grandmother as common sense to everyone with below average intelligence, is now becoming a plague. Its so simple to see through the jaded history of oppression and see how the same political goals of the imperial British are employed elsewhere, and how political battles can waged right there on your plate. Who will make the clarion call and wake the people up?

So I have to agree with the title the Ubuyu magazine choose for their article based on my interview, "There is more to Food than Meets your Mouth".There is a whole history to why you eat what you eat and it may just be worth asking yourself, if you are on the right side of history or not. What values are you advancing? Are they values you are willing to live for and if necessary die for? I say amen to my grandfather's vision, he was merely hosting the international flag that binds all men of good will together: FOOD. So take a bite of this history, hoist it's flag and preach.