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Re-writing linguistic history: Nairobi from the vantage point of visual language
Lydia Muthuma (University of Nairobi, Kenya)
Before delving into linguistic concerns, I would first examine the nature and purpose of language. The connection between the world around us and ideas is achieved through language. Language deals with the activity of our most distinctively human possession –the mind. It embodies and expresses culture, the very world of our minds. Owing to its purpose, language is uniquely versatile. It can be written, oral or even visual; a dissertation, a song, or a hair-do. The term language is broad when used to signify a vehicle of thought, a tool for communicating, for analysing and understanding culture, for forming, preserving and transmitting human culture. We do not have the liberty to restrict trading of ideas to the literal lingual –tongue– functions.
The story of Africa and colonization can be re-constructed and narrated in visual language. It can be debated and examined within the framework of plastic arts –visual language, which like its counterpart, verbal language –that distilled and concentrated form of experience– has been considered peripheral when approached from a western perspective. The unfortunate misunderstanding of oral languages founded on oral cultures and transmitted orally is akin to the ignorance of visual languages founded on visual cultures and transmitted visually. Yet never before has culture relied on visual images as it does today. The mass media is anchored on the power of image. The media even commercialises culture by packaging it as cinema and television. Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, not to mention billboards are a powerful witness to the role and influence of visual image.
That is why the notion of multiple linguistic identities denotes the use of several verbal languages and in a wider sense diverse types or categories of languages. French, English and Kiswahili are as multiple as plastic arts, letters and music score sheets. I propose using the visual language to analyse the culture of post colonial Africa, specifically the city of Nairobi in Kenya.
The colonial experience was articulated visually by setting up a network of urban centres. The colonial man did not live in some indigenous village; he built towns and cities that were an imitation of the Europe he knew and also a declaration of his superiority and dominance. Often times the colonised native was invited to these urban centres as a subordinate. Colonial towns in Eastern Africa developed a “native quarter” distinct from the “colonial city”–the city proper. In language, dress, entertainment and architecture–in overall culture–the two districts were clearly distinct. I shall restrict this paper to an examination of the architecture or urban look of post colonial Nairobi.
The natural context of colonial dominance was the urban centre which can be regarded as a spatial inscription and symbol of colonial rule. In East Africa most of the urban landscape (excepting the coast) owes its origin to colonial rule and it therefore embodied and expressed a lifestyle rooted in colonial status.
Decolonisation ushered in indigenous rule and the towns and cities were handed over to indigenous populations. Both the native quarter and the colonial city now belong to an indigenous populace. What is yet to be determined is whether these centres have acquired an indigenous culture. Are they imbued and vivified by an indigenous character? Where is the African expression in Nairobi’s townscape?
No permanent human settlement occurred in the Nairobi area prior to colonisation. The city is a true colonial creation. Nairobi is now the capital city, the focal point, the very kernel of national unity in the country. An examination of its central space –its showroom– will reveal how visual language has been used first to inscribe colonial status and then to signify indigenous re-possession. The particulars to be analysed include:
- public space nomenclature – street names, parks and squares
- planning aspects – plot size, traffic flow
- architecture – the symbolic message of the building’s facades.
The key question is how this city of colonial origins and therefore of colonial architecture and town planning, serves an indigenous populace. Has Nairobi’s physical structure transformed /or not, from a city of the British Empire into a national capital? Is Nairobi (in its physical or see-able aspect) a statement of its social and political status? How should we ‘read’ or approach colonial visual language (as expressed in Nairobi) in this present post colonial era?
A re-viewing of Nairobi’s architecture and planning is necessary in order to engage its present populace and culture. An examination of Nairobi’s architecture –not viewed as a western city, a city struggling to live up to the image of Euro-American urbanism– is the purpose of this paper. This re-writing (reviewing) of the post colonial urban landscape is dictated by the very life and expression of urban Africans.