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There’s more to why we use concrete slabs to define our success

By X N Iraki | Updated Sun, March 5th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3
The legacy of Afrikaners in Kenya. Photo of a school taken around 1959 named after pioneer South African settler. It is now Ndururumo High School. [Photo courtesy of Renaldo Retief]

Cement is a key input in modern construction and has a long history. Ancient Egyptians and Romans used rudimentary ‘cement’ to bind stones. The modern cement started with Joseph Aspdin taking out a patent in 1824 for “Portland Cement.” Concrete seems a good proxy measure of a country’s economic growth. The graph (on the right) for Kenya would apply to many other countries. Kenya’s GDP is in billions of USD and cement in 1000s of metric tonnes.

Kenya consumed about 5,708,800 metric tonnes of cement in 2015, a drop in the ocean compared with countries like China. Bill Gates noted on June 25, 2014 that China has used more cement in three years (2011-13) than USA in 100 years (1901-2000). USA consumed 4.5 gigatons while China used 6.6 gigatons for the given periods. Remember Gigabytes?

Cement is used in most construction projects, from highways to skyscrapers, ports, airports and in homes. It is mostly used in making concrete by adding water, aggregate (rock, sand, or gravel) with cement acting as a binding agent. We leave the technical part of cement and concrete from how it’s made to characteristics like tensile strength and carbon prints to engineers and chemists (relatives of witchdoctors).

Let’s focus on softer issues like legacies. A visit to the countryside shows that the affluent live in houses made with concrete. The houses are the status symbol and testimonies to the economic status of their owners. The early British settlers (there were Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegians, Germans too) left their legacy in concrete espoused by huge maisonettes that dot Happy Valley and former white highlands and some of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs.

Non-concrete legacy

Lord Errol built a house from mud in Wanjohi Valley (Happy Valley) in Nyandarua. It is now completely gone, I only salvaged a brick. His neighbours like Alastair Gibbs used concrete. The house, though in a sad state, still stands. With such concrete history, Nyandarua still prides itself as “The land of milk and potatoes”. Do we have anyone in Nyandarua County who ever studied marketing or branding?

In urban areas, concrete with its cement base, is everywhere — from apartments to skyscrapers. Most Kenyans, including our leaders, seem to believe that the only concrete legacy you can leave must be in concrete —to be poetical and quoting The Economist.

Jomo Kenyatta left KICC and does seem to have been very eager to build other concrete legacies. Moi was more focused on concrete legacies. He built monuments that dot Uhuru Park and lots of schools. We can add stadiums like Nyayo and Kasarani and Times Tower which demoted KICC as the tallest building in CBD.

Kibaki’s concrete legacy is the Thika Superhighway. Like Jomo, he was not very keen on concrete legacies. Uhuru Kenyatta already has concrete legacy made of concrete-SGR. Bypasses also have concrete in them. Kibaki left a non-concrete legacy—the 2010 Constitution.

The private sector is building concrete legacies too. A visit to Upper Hill mesmerises you with concrete legacies, tall skyscrapers that seem to compete for elegance and height. Universities have not been left with most of their adverts including tall buildings. It seems that concrete structures capture our attention. We are not the only ones.

All the seven wonders of the ancient world could have been made with concrete if it was there. But they are concrete and have defied weather and seasons to await our admiration. They include the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt.

We should add European cathedrals and Eastern temples and monasteries. A visit to other countries leaves no doubt that we are obsessed with concrete structures. We remember the concrete structures more than anything else. We even take their photos. Most cities and countries define themselves using such concrete structures, not always made of concrete.

America has the statue of Liberty, France Eiffel Tower, Mombasa has tusks, and London has the big wheel. Dubai has Burj Khalifa. Russia has Kremlin, China has three Gorges Dam, and Malaysia has Petronas Twin Towers. The list can be made longer.

In Kenya, we see concrete structures as good investment opportunities judging by the growth and returns in real estate. Lots of money, stolen from the public, end up in concrete structures.

Most concrete structures outlive us. May be our obsession with concrete structures is an admission of our mortality. The first thing I noted on my first visit to Western countries is the absence of grandiose houses made with concrete. It is paradoxical that compared with say USA, our life expectancy is much lower, but we build houses that last longer, made with concrete. We are also less likely to “scale down”. In the West, they keep living in smaller houses as they age. We stick to our huge houses, to ensure we leave our kids a concrete legacy.

Is concrete legacy the only legacy we can leave?

The type of legacy we focus on differentiates developed countries from developing countries. We are obsessed with concrete structures at the expense of all other legacies. Let us think loudly. Apart from the concrete legacy in terms of a house or other structures, what other legacy will you leave behind?

One simple legacy you can leave, very concrete but not made of concrete is family history. How far back can you trace your family history? What has your family achieved over the years? What are the failures and successes? What is your family proud of? One of the most prized documents in our family is one of our grandfather’s marriage certificates of 1924.

The same applies to the country. That is why we have the national archives and data centres. In Kenya, we rarely use the history to motivate the present, but as a dustbin and as an excuse for our failures. What of our historical legacy?

Why don’t we have Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki Memorial Libraries to house their legacy from speeches to artefacts? Luckily Prof Wangari Maathai’s non-concrete legacy is being concretised through Wangari Maathai Institute at University of Nairobi.

—The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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