African Villages

Africa is a collection of “small villages.”

Later, I will become Fanonian.

It is startling to hear Africa as the absence of geography. Or, rather, as the proliferation of geography. Many small villages. Filled with villagers. Kenyan villages are much like Santa’s village. Remote. Fantastic. Connected by being disconnected. More imagined than real.

I know about villages because I read books about them. I have seen pictures of villages. I know about villages because I went to the Bomas of Kenya as a child and saw villages made of wood and mud and hay.

I am not asserting a modernity that is “beyond” villages—instead, I am interested in the way “the village” functions in ideas of Africa, as these circulate among Africans and non-Africans.

The village has never functioned as a site of “return” for me. I have never been nostalgic for it. Some of this is accidental, some strategic.

My maternal grandfather, whose name I bear, was one of the athomi, Gikuyu men who embraced the promise and practice of colonial modernity. He was a schoolteacher (my grandmother was one of his students); he lived in a stone house—a material signifier of education; the walls of his living room were decorated with photographs of him and his friends in European-style trousers and shirts and dresses.

I cannot, here, map the relationship between colonial modernity and Afro-modernity, the dialectic of what is imposed, what is available, what is taken up. I continue to wonder what it means to think through my grandfather’s modernity and to understand what it means to inherit that modernity.

Perhaps there is a project here about “trousers in stone houses.”

Afro-modernity because my grandfather’s stone house—that was not part of a “village”—replicated the architecture of a “village,” if we understand architecture more loosely as function that attaches to space. A central meeting space or hall big enough to accommodate at least 30 guests; a distinct space for his bedroom, separated by a wall from the meeting hall and from the other rooms; separate rooms for my grandmothers (of course), but which were directly off the meeting hall space. (I cannot describe space, sorry).

His house envisioned and created a space for sociality that adapted “traditional” modes of architecture-as-function. And perhaps the simpler thing I am trying to argue is that even for my grandfather the “village” was always a way of describing a function of space, not a collection of mud huts with thatch roofs.

To be more deliberately Fanonian: while it seems unremarkable to understand “the village” as an architecture-of-function, related but not bound to any specific incarnation, the “village” is so saturated by National Geographic, tourist-seducing images, that it becomes difficult to explain it otherwise.

And it becomes an ideologically-saturated metonym: all African villages look the same. Thus, in the talk I was watching that spurred this reflection, villages have no names. Nor are they geographically distinct: “The African Village” is a thing—known too well and not known at all.

I know the distinction between a thingira and a manyatta because I went to the Bomas of Kenya and read books. One wishes those who wrote about African villages would pick up books, if they cannot afford to go to touristy places where not-so-subtle distinctions are explained.

The “African Village” is not.

2 thoughts on “African Villages

  1. I know the distinction between a thingira
    and a manyatta because I went to the
    Bomas of Kenya and read books.

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