Every time I am stuck in traffic in Nairobi I make a mental note to finally write this blog post. Some might consider traffic jams a waste of time, but in Kenya it is always an interesting opportunity to observe a bit of multimodality and intersemiotic translation in action. The road speaks to those able to listen….
In 2010 my car was nearly forced off the road on the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru. In order to avoid pot holes, a huge heavy duty truck heading towards us from the opposite direction was using the middle of the highway rather than sticking to its lane. On the wind deflector, just above the windshield, the truck’s name was written in bold, colorful capital letters:
Moreno Ocampo was at the time the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, where quite a number of Kenyan politicians were being tried for their involvement in the 2007/2008 post-electoral violence. Ethnic clashes following a controversial electoral result killed over 1000 people and left up to 600’000 internally displaced. Politicians on all sides were seen as actively inciting hatred and violence. While Moreno Ocampo, the man, was thus doing his best to instill fear among the Kenyan political elite, Moreno Ocampo, the truck, was busy scaring the hell out of the common folk on the highway. The mental image Kenyans associated with a person was thereby successfully conveyed through a different medium altogether. I would argue that this qualifies as an example of intersemiotic translation. The massive size of the truck is an integral part of the message. Multimodality, ladies and gentlemen!
From late 2008 one would also see more and more Matatus (mini buses) and buses proudly carrying the name or even the picture of newly elected president Barack Obama. I am happy to note that he is still a go-to source for vehicle embellishment, the Donald does not seem to have quite the same appeal for Nairobians.
Obviously, Barack Obama’s ancestry makes him a favourite (pronounce: ‘favo-right’) choice for Kenya’s drivers. Yet, ironically, Obama’s father was a Luo, while the transport industry in Nairobi is firmly in the hands of Kikuyus, their arch-rivals in the national political arena. In order to become a national symbol, it seems that one must thus succeed abroad. The image of Obama’s success, or so Matatu drivers seem to hope, will translate (aha!) into prosperity for them and their business.
Popular topics for vehicle decoration include sports teams (mostly English Premier Leage and NBA), as well as fashion labels (who doesn’t want to ride in a Versace, Gucci, Armani bus?), superheroes and famous musicians or actors. Even the inside of a bus might be decorated with at least some attempt at communicating something resembling an original idea:
Unless Jesus is involved, the message conveyed is never that serious (“Real men love Jesus”, remember!). It is meant to inspire both respect and laughter. On the surface it seems like nothing is taboo, at least not sex or drugs. A particularly congenial instance of visual communication can be seen currently on quite a number of Buses and Matatus in Nairobi. Their elaborate decoration includes images of Bob Marley with a blunt, and portions of his lyrics that explicitly reference weed consumption. These references are duly interspersed with the following logo:
Translated simply: “Sisi? Weed? Hapana. LOOOOL”
Speaking of mixed messages and lack of seriousness, Nairobi’s streets also offer plenty of opportunities to get “offended” to anyone attempting to take these things at face value. Let’s be clear, things that would be truly offensive to Nairobians, such as references to atheism or comments about acting Kenyan politicians are off-limits. Now, whether the Mainas, Mwangis and Kamaus driving the Matatus would show the same restraint if, say, a Luo president was elected remains to be seen… I am not even going to go into that because I love life.
One of the crasser images I spotted on a vehicle this week was a juxtaposition of a photo of a starving black child (you know exactly what kind of image I mean…) and a photo of a chubby African guy eating from a plate filled with a huge portion of meat. The title of the composition was “Africa”. Speak of a successful translation of words into images…
You cannot help but agree that the message being transferred using just two images is an accurate description of the reality we live in. Many academics would complain if they were given less than 6000 words for a paper aiming to convey exactly the same.
Oh yeah, let’s also not forget that in the Man Eat Man Society we live in, Ben Laden and Bill Gates are friends…
*For those of you who wish to read more about this and see some photos that I never quite find an opportunity to take myself: