Saturday, 31 January 2015 09:13

Contemporary Media and (In)Visible South Asians

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Two common pitfalls characterize the reading of Asian presence in Kenya and East Africa; one is the tendency to undertake such projects within the broad strokes of postcolonial, postmodern thought patterns with focus on ‘mainstream’ disciplinary outlets such as literature, history, economics and political studies, that tend to yield equally ‘mainstream’ concerns of political history and power. Left out of such works are other initiatives and other channels that, while recognizing the importance of history and political power, nonetheless pay greater attention to aspects of the everyday life as captured in and relayed via hitherto uncommon channels such as paperzines. Second is the tendency by even the most seasoned of scholars on East African Asian literatures and cultures like Ojwang’ (2013) and Makokha (2011) to historicize whatever experiences or forms of knowledge that is up for discussion, where the presence and experiences of Asians in Kenya are explained in historical terms, as though the present and therefore the future, are secure. Yet this is contestable, especially when seen from the perspective of the media. Indeed, the media spaces offer us a site of possibilities by which we can extract new meanings on the forming relationships between and among various ethnic and racial groups across time and disciplines.

It is necessary, therefore, to adopt an approach that focuses on the margins of group expression through gestures like paperzines and magazines that may yield more insights in terms of what communities like East Africans of South Asian ancestry conceive of themselves now and in future. Indeed, the reliance on community media, thanks to the general expansion of democratic spaces in the region and the attendant re-invention of ethnic nationalism, has created new possibilities in terms of how a community can express itself among other communities, all competing to own a part of the souls of the region’s nation states.

On a different plane, reading popular and urban cultures in Kenya, as in Africa generally, has focused more on socio-economic and political marginalities as they play out in spatial differentials, often ignoring racial templates as potential lenses through which popular imaginations of the vulnerabilities associated with marginality can be configured. For instance, Newell and Okome (2014) examine the trajectory that the study of popular cultures has taken in Africa, twenty-five years after Barber’s seminal article, “Popular Arts in Africa” (1987). Well meaning and broad-based as the text is, it neither has a full chapter on the popular cultural productions of racial minorities, nor a section in any of the chapters that flags the intellectual possibilities that such a reality promises. Instead, Newell and Okome adopt the now predictable structures of reading – and shall I say locating – the popular on the spatial and epistemological margins, with theorizations, gender and sexuality, humour and street discourses as the overarching concerns around which contributors are brought together as a silver jubilee tribute to Barber’s aforementioned intervention. While Newell and Okome’s important volume does not mean a total absence of popular cultural productions by racial minorities, it certainly implies so.

How can we illuminate this blind spot? I suggest an approach that targets emerging community oriented media outlets that, hopefully, demonstrate ‘new’ thinking about the philosophy and the praxis of group expression at a time of liberal democratic expressions that can only be tempered with the risk of demagoguery. Such outlets as Awaaz Voices and The Asian Weekly, fitting somewhat in this paradigm, borrow a range of popular cultural practices and attributes to mobilize racial and communal sensibilities in a way that recognizes historical grievances without making them the sole basis of negotiation for entry into the contemporary nation-states in the region. Instead, these outlets focus, each in their own way, on the present communal contributions to the countries as a way of staking claims of citizenship in ways that are both communal and visible to the rest of the countries’ citizenry. Hence, by focusing on mundane issues of the everyday life – who is wedding who, what to do before you tattoo your body, the latest fashion trends from abroad – The Asian Weekly for instance employs strategies long associated with popular cultural modes of expression to configure a community that has ‘rediscovered the ordinary’ as a way of entrenching itself in a politically charged present. Not only does the publication stand as an example of a community media outlet itself, it also generates possible rumour and gossip possibilities that are the most common forms of social media today. My intervention is informed, in part, by Githaiga’s (2000, p. 56) view that “community media responds to local needs and encourages more direct participation of local people [… which] results in the marketing of social ideas.” These ‘social ideas’, I suggest, are generated in a political context where the past, present and future of the Kenyan Asian community has been (re)presented along templates of dominant ideological positions, either colonialist or pan-Africanist, that were rampant during the colonial and post-independence periods in Kenya. This implies that much of what has dominated the mainstream media (re)presentation of the Kenyan Asian communities has not been enriched by South Asian insiders’ perspectives, save for few cases scattered here and there. What Mulenkei argues, in a somewhat different context though, applies: “there has been little coverage of [minorities’] productive activities and the little there is written is often negative and shows a lack of understanding of the economic, social and cultural activities of minorities in the country” (2000, p. 126).

In important ways, therefore, The Asian Weekly and Awaaz Voices, as examples of community media, do voice a devoiced community that is hyper-visible in colour terms but not in their wider contributions to the making of the current nation-states, rendering it quite visible at the same time. The broad base of popular cultural imagination – what it is, who produces it, for what reasons – should include what comes from communities that are perceived to be materially privileged, as some Asians in Kenya no doubt are, but who are subject to other forms of marginality that render their future as Kenyans uncertain (Himbara, 1994). I do not wish to imply that only Kenyan Asians face an uncertain future in the country; other communities do, given the political tensions traceable to economic injustices that are now associated with the Coastal, North Eastern, Western and parts of the Rift Valley. But I think this predicament of uncertainty has been with racial minorities for far longer than the rest, and is in any event experienced on different scales of gravity, yet invisibly and inaudibly so for the Kenyan Asians. It is this inaudibility and (in)visibility that media outlets such as The Asian Weekly and Awaaz Voices ought to confront by imagi(ni)ng a greater community that amalgamates sectarian entities within the wider category of South Asian Kenyans and East Africans. This has to be inclusive in the sense of seeing the diversity of Kenyan and East African communities as having stakes in the region that can be claimed and defended against the demagogic attempts at muting or erasing the various contributions made by the communities. This can also be achieved by adopting a synchronic approach that transcends the tendency to focus on the historical at the expense of the contemporary, hence the complementarity between Awaaz Voices and The Asian Weekly. Certainly, this is not to say that intellectual and other leaders of the East African Asian communities should shun other outlets because these two seem to give them greater coverage. Instead Awaaz Voices and The Asian Weekly can be seen as a way of collating an archive accessible to all future generations across racial divides.

by Godwin Siungu

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