Moving Beyond Concrete: Destructive “Modernization” and Development

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been keeping a collage journal. Each Sunday, I collect my various subscriptions from the week (New York Times, Bitch Media, The Nation, The Atlantic, New Yorker) and put them on my kitchen table. I read and then I cut. Pictures, quotes, entire stories that get paperclipped, drawings, the bestseller list…anything that I think captures the week and the weird times that we are living in. Once everything is cut, I keep the newspaper (because I’ve been moving a lot these past few years and you never know when you need packing paper) or recycle the excess, and then assemble my page for the week. Each week looks a little different.

It’s been an amazing way to process, collect, and reminisce.

I’ve been fairly religious about this, but the last few weeks I let myself fall behind. The election, grad school, work, and all the rest caught up with me. Because of this, it was only yesterday that I reviewed the news of November 8 in the NY Times. As I flipped through, I saw an article entitled “Expressway in Nairobi Endangers Iconic Tree.” The caption under the black and white picture of an astounding tree read: “The nearly 100-year old fig tree in Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood is standing in the proposed path of a China-funded highway construction project.”

Instant warning bells starting ringing. “China-funded.” “100-year old.” “Highway construction project.”

“Not all trees have the same status,” said Peter Kiarie Njoroge, an elder in the Kikuyu tribe, which regards fig trees as the “house of God,” and the abode of their ancestors. This one, he said, craning his neck to peer up at the giant leaves, is “like a guard post.”

The highway project, funded by China at the cost of about $550 million, will ultimately be financed by Kenyan taxpayers, who are expected to pay China back for the construction. According to the article, most folks don’t even want the construction to begin with. “Environmental groups said that there were no proper studies on the impact on air quality or green spaces, and howled about the plan to cut through Uhuru Park.”

The story also references a 2020 report from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme which claims that public parks, gardens, and playgrounds are shrinking because of expanding development.

The economics of the expressway “doesn’t make sense,” said Tony Watima, a Kenyan economic consultant and columnist at Business Daily. In a country where the majority of people live in rural areas, and in a city where most people take public transportation or walk to work, the government should not have gotten into a public-private partnership that serves only the few who drive, he said.

So who does this development help? This isn’t the first time that China has funded a “development” project in Africa: “A railway that China built and funded, stretching from Nairobi to Mombasa, at the cost of $3.2 billion, has racked up losses as the government faces difficulty in servicing the loans.”

Inauguration of the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway

I, admittedly, do not know much about China or Nairobi, but I do know that I am vehemently opposed to development projects not led and developed by communities that these projects seek to “aid.” It is clear that China does not understand the importance of this fig tree or the fact that many do not believe that this road is necessary.

Pouring concrete does not development make.

“Whatever development that is going to happen here will not touch this tree”

When communities are left out of not only the conversation but the implementation of “development” projects, they are left with development projects that are (at best) not sustainable or (at worst) line the pockets of foreign investors, prompting even more harmful projects. For decades, development planning has been inspired by a linear timeline of history, suggesting that nations that do not resemble the “modern” world must “catch up.” This “catching up” is pushed so that countries can participate in capitalistic economic structures, supported by scarcity economics and the false promises that capitalism touts about economic mobility.

Privatization of property and community coupled with concrete and foreign white saviors resulted in the destruction of spirituality, nonhierarchical and maternalistic community structures, and indigenous prosperity.

Concrete can solidify injustice and perpetuate hegemonic power structures. Concrete is neocolonial.

During the first semester of my MPH, I attended a talk by a woman who worked with MercyCorps. She said: “Give people dignity, give them jobs, and give them cash.” The message was clear: communities know what they need and they know how to develop the systems needed to achieve it. Give them cash and let them guide the path forward. Throw out what you think development projects should look like, and question the interests that are being served by maintaining the status quo.

Thankfully, the 100-year-old fig tree in Nairobi will be preserved, a direct result of pushback by the citizens and organizations in Nairobi.

I hope that this can be a lesson that, if development is to be functional and powerful, and community-led, it must take into account spirituality, infinity, and the fractal power of emergent strategy. It must understand that culture and religion are more important than the external whims of foreign money. As we begin to critically rethink how we “develop” communities that are not our own, I hope that we decide that *we* should not be the ones doing the developing.

I hope that we start centering communities over capitalism. I hope that we follow the money funding these projects and the interwoven neoliberal, capitalist interests that promote them. Because I think, at the end of that trail, we will find concrete.

Attorney, Reproductive Health Advocate, and Community Journalism Editor Working at the Intersection of Law and Public Health