Kenya’s villagization wove together noopolitics, biopower, and terra-power through the military deployment of a simple spatial device—villagization—which worked in concert with communications technologies, the reorganization of labor, and massive programs of land consolidation and redistribution. So as to buffer against political unrest prompted by land shortages, villagization would provide an alternate form of social organization and habitation. By conglomerating detainees in quasi-urban forms of density and thus facilitating access to traveling cinema and radio vans, villagization would endeavor to convert agents of discourse into subjects of media reception. By orienting village schools toward vocational and agricultural training more than toward rhetorical competency, villagization would attempt to instate semiotic poverty amidst economic modernization. By relocating former city dwellers into villages, large-scale political organization might be inhibited. By replacing people’s livelihoods with conscripted labor compensated with forms of welfare, detainees would be rendered economically dependent.
As a means of producing new forms of dependency on the brink of Kenya’s independence, villagization might be considered as an obverse to a very different architecture appearing a decade after Kenya’s independence, a postcolonial monument that attests to the dialectical complexities of modernization and postcoloniality. In the wake of independence, Kenya’s dominant political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), elected to build its new headquarters in Nairobi on a plot immediately adjacent to the national parliament. Responding to legal objections against funding such facilities with federal resources, President Kenyatta appended to the party headquarters a public convention center with a hotel tower, and the building was rebranded as the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). As the building was to be completed in time to host the 1973 conference of the World Bank, it was outfitted with sophisticated Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment, similar to what had been installed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The building quickly became the foremost architectural emblem of Kenya’s postcolonial modernization. It was approached through a procession of terraces, abounding with vegetation, ramps, and fountains. If Swynnerton’s Plan had been a garden, it would look like this: the recent taming of water, agriculture, and slopes symbolized respectively in the building’s surrounding water features, its lush greenery, and its terraced plinths and gently graded ramps. The interior of the KICC amphitheater conformed to what was by the mid-1960s a fairly standard global type. Ringed by concentric, elevated seating sections, the room was lit from above by skylights that cast an ecclesiastical light, and it was crowned by the representation of a terrestrial globe suspended above the speaker’s dais. Over the years, the building became a venue mostly for industry meetings and international conferences on economic development. As a monument to the nation’s power, it attested to the links between voice (dramatized through the impressive amphitheater), the global market (the hotel tower dominating Nairobi’s skyline), and the agrarian base of capital (the building’s gardens). The building emblemized Kenya’s coming of age as a nation-state, and yet the nation’s “maturity” or “development”—dependent as it was on the power of agrarian capital—contained within it the husk of that other architectural type, villagization, which had been designed to produce a perpetual state of semiotic and political immaturity.
The costly monumentality of the KICC represented the concentration of party-based power brought about (in part) by villagization and the Swynnerton Plan, with their vastly inequitable distribution of landed property. KANU was largely an affiliation of Kenya’s two most urbanized ethnic-linguistic groups, the Luo and the Kikuyu. While Kenyans certainly defied Carothers’s fantasy of an innately nonliterate “African mind,” the nation’s quick mastery of media technologies (begun decades earlier in its anticolonial struggle) exacerbated in some ways the differences between an educated elite and the rest of society (although, relative to many nations, Kenya boasted high literacy rates). Related to issues of landownership, KANU’s grip on national politics was bolstered by frequent handouts of land to curry support. Questions of land governance came to a head in the early years of independence when the federal government waged its own violent villagization campaign against the semi-nomadic ethnic Somalis living in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District.
As such, it would be naïve to see the KICC only as a heroic concretization of postcolonial independence. Like many nationalist monuments, it worked through an ambiguous chain of associations, metonymic substitutions, and seductions, masking the fact that sovereignty lies not with agrarianism in general but with the state’s perpetual conversion of land to capital and vice-versa. And the building’s Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment (a kind of “multi-lingualism against translation”), in simulating a Pentecostal condition, obfuscated the actual semiotic rifts demarcating the global village from the capital city. The monumentality of the KICC assisted in this work of obfuscation because architecture is only ever partly semiotic, and thus can elide the semiotic rifts cutting through society. Approaching McLuhan’s dream of Pentecostal technologies, architecture signifies by what it is—by the reality that it produces—not through signifiers as such.