by April Zhu
Verses and aphorisms acknowledge that nothing is really ever new; they carry history well. Not all languages hold poetry naturally in daily speech, or are old enough to speak of ghosts with mundanity. Kiswahili is one, and Chinese is another. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor looks for the ghosts that fit in the timbres of these two languages, to hear all the frequencies of China’s relationship with Kenya, a 600-year-old story of which “China in Kenya” as we know it today (chinkuus and railroads) is only a very recent chapter. Her latest novel, The Dragonfly Sea,is an intuitively emotional piece, centered on the marginalized, deeply fluent in the ways in which negative spaces—history, memory, death—shape lives.
The “dragonfly sea” is the Indian Ocean, an 11,000-kilometer stretch across which millions of dragonflies cross from Asia to Africa. The journey at the center of the novel is an echo of this natural epic migration. Ayaana, a girl from Pate Island off of Kenya’s north coast, is chosen to make a momentous trip across the Indian Ocean to China. It is a fictitious re-imagining of Mwamaka Sharifu’s real-life journey in 2005, upon discovery that she had Chinese ancestry, that she was a houyi (后裔), a Descendant, “someone to walk the space between the past and the present, so the future can be shared.”
Traces of China on the Lamu Archipelago point back to Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who, in the early 15th century, reached the shores of East Africa with a flotilla many times greater than that of his European contemporaries. On his seventh and final voyage, a large storm shipwrecked part of his fleet off of Kenya’s north coast, where it is said survivors sought refuge, converted to Islam, married, and named new homes after old ones (Shanga from Shanghai).
Before Ayaana was a celebrated houyi, she was the product of shameful circumstances. Her absent father forms a void that shapes her life and and that of her mother Munira on Pate. Munira, a woman who “does not believe in men,” teaches Ayaana early on that identity is no less valid if chosen rather than inherited. They choose their own family name, and Ayaana “chooses” into her life a father: Muhidin, the “sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed, and brawny” fisherman with a poet’s mind, who gives her the gift of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya’s poetry, verse in a woman’s voice that becomes Ayaana’s lodestar in strange countries. The lives of Ayaana’s patchwork family are ghost stories, shaped by deaths and disappearances that drive them towards the ocean. When Ayaana speaks of her “family” later to her Turkish friend Koray, he responds, “Life is crafted from absence to absence.
In The Dragonfly Sea, Owuor centers the margin. The Kenya in this story is the Swahili Coast, it is Pate, it is Muhidin when he leaves Pate to “go to Kenya” and, while in Nairobi, is captured and interrogated as a terror suspect for being Muslim, hailing from the north coast, and, really, not being Kenyan enough. Each character, from Teacher Ruolan, Ayaana’s subtly racist Mandarin instructor, to Nioreg, the Congolese widower hired to be the ship’s security detail en route to China, is delicately crafted, a victim of something, their backstories a map of brokenness and the resulting plot simply points where these intersect. Owuor places us in a position of empathetic omniscience, which often feels alien and improbable, where, as in a Baroque painting, everything is at once, impossibly, fully in focus.
As with Owuor’s debut novel Dust, The Dragonfly Sea turns on the axis of an interracial relationship, unexpected because it does not fit the expected power imbalance, but through its incidental-ness, tests the norms of race and sex (and our assumptions thereof), especially between Asians and Africans. (It also refreshingly embraces the desirable, sexual Asian man.) As Ayaana embarks on the ship MV Qingrui to reach Xiamen, where she will be paraded around China as the houyi from Africa, she meets and is almost at once—through some undefined familiarity—drawn to the ship’s captain Lai Jin. His face and body “written” by a fire that claimed his wife, Lai Jin had become a “life member of a noisome asylum that was at its core, a void,” and he too, like the tragedy-battered members of Ayaana’s family, turned to the ocean. Owuor makes a good-faith attempt to draw the stages of love between two individuals without defining it by their grasp of a shared second or third language. English is not the center of Ayaana and Lai Jin’s relationship; sometimes, neither is prose.
At the center of this story is a question: how does one complicate the present “return of China to Kenya?” “China in Africa,” a category so broad it means nothing (or, rather, chooses only politically important meanings), is meant to embody an impossible multitude of stories: aid and debt, migration, proliferation of informal and illicit trade, cultural diffusion, cultural imperialism, demographic anxiety, racism, and coloniality. But coverage of these issues is so often flattened to a geopolitical plane populated almost entirely of elite men, one that exists in official, poorly translated English on banners, speeches, press releases, and mottos.
On the day the MV Qingrui embarks from Mombasa to Xiamen, Chinese and Kenyan bureaucrats gather to be photographed: “The merry-makers disembarked in undulating descent, careful to support one another, and demonstrating proof of the power of cheap champagne to forge loving connections between two uneven countries.” Ayaana and Lai Jin watch, together, above and separate from the optics. Owuor is hardly naïve about modern (or historical) Chinese involvement in Kenya and the injustices and humiliations it has exacted on Kenyans. What she does do is ask what seismic geopolitical shifts look like when seen from the margins. Later in the book, Ayaana thinks aloud to Lai Jin: “China says she has come back. An ‘old friend.’ But when she was here before, we also had to pay for that friendship. Now she speaks, not with us on Pate, but to Nairobi, where our destiny is written as if we don’t exist.”
At the Nairobi terminus of the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway, tainted as an omen of a second colonization, there stands a colossal bust of Zheng He. The label beneath asserts that his fleet made several trips to Mombasa, “embracing mutual understanding between China and Kenya and strengthening Kenya-China friendly exchanges.” Zheng He and his shipwrecked sailors who put down roots in Kenya, were proof—so it goes—that “friendship” between China and Kenya predates European colonization, proving that China’s interests, unlike those of the predatory West, are beneficent. The admiral’s ghost, not only in Kenya, has been increasingly invoked by the Chinese government to carry out the political work of justifying China’s modern imperialist moves. What is the houyi exercise, after all, if not one of China’s many “emblematic ways of excavating, proving, and entrenching Chinese rootedness in Africa,” in the poetry through which China speaks of geopolitics?
To make sense of (and authenticate) narratives of the powerful, it will only be more important to look towards the margin, as Owuor does. “But maybe as it approaches us, this earthquake that is ‘Zhongguo,’” Ayaana muses, after the completion of her journey, “it will do us the honor of recognizing that Pate Island is also the keeper of its graves?”
Owuor’s optimism—if we can call it that—is that, if we look to the margins, we may find old ghosts that that play no part in national stories. Old cyclicalities, like the pervasiveness of shame, how powerless a woman is to prevent passing to her daughter the experience of rape. The potency of art, silently passed down from a disappeared mother to her not-enough son. Older ghosts, which can be found if we look beyond political ghosts cast in bronze and search instead for those who washed ashore in a foreign land, said the Shahada, and took the purgatory bath—those who find rose-scented love and finish their lives in a new land.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya
by Muturi Njeri
I recently read a story in the Daily Nation that infuriated and disappointed me. This is not news though—more like the norm for any reader of the Kenyan newspaper. What was uniquely heart-breaking about this story was the way it was reported. The story by Mohamed Ahmed entitled Girl gives baby away hoping to be accepted by family is about Mary (not her real name), a 16-year-old girl from Vihiga County, who was sexually abused and impregnated by her stepfather in April last year. It is painful to read about how Mary has been treated by the two major institutions primarily meant to protect her: her government and her family. Her government arrested and locked her up for three days and her family—her grandmother—sent her hundreds of miles away from home to an aunt in Mombasa as banishment (and presumably punishment) after abuse by another member of the family. However, doubly frustrating is how tone-deaf Ahmed’s article is in reporting on Mary’s experience to the extent that it appears to justify her sexual abuse and subsequent mistreatment, teetering dangerously on the realm of victim-blaming. Ahmed writes:
According to the Luhya traditions, incest is a taboo and culprits are banished. The Class Six pupil was defiled on April 10, 2018.
“My (step) father turned on me as he was taking me to my grandmother’s home at around 11pm. He threatened to kill me if I revealed to anyone that he had defiled me,” said Mary.
Why should we be worried about this kind of reporting? Steve Jobs famously said, “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” Storytellers—journalists, essayists, novelists, photographers, preachers, filmmakers, historians—wield this power, primarily, by framing the narratives they tell their audiences about their subjects. At the core of framing lies the decisions that the storyteller makes on what to include and what to leave out of the story. A photographer, for example, frames a shot by selecting—and accentuating—a few elements in her environment in her composition and cropping out everything else. However, framing isn’t just about what is told—and not told; it is also about how the storyteller defines (implicitly or explicitly) the problem in a story, the causes of the problem, the characters in the story as well as possible remedies to the problem. No matter how much a storyteller claims to be neutral, the mere fact that they frame the narrative means that they make conscious and subjective decisions that ultimately influence the audience’s perception of the problem and characters in the story. Unfortunately, going by the way Ahmed (and his editors) frame the narrative in their article on Mary, they seem unaware of this power—and that is assuming the best of intentions on their part.
Take, for instance, the way the article focusses on Mary, the victim, and not her stepfather, the perpetrator. There is a single line in the whole article talking about what happened to the stepfather: he fled to Nairobi. While the article tells us about Mary’s arrest, banishment, delivery and desire to return to school, there is no mention of any attempts to bring the stepfather to justice—or even calls for such attempts. This focus on the object—in a grammatical sense—of the violation draws attention away from the subject—the doer. This functions like a sentence written in the passive voice (Jane was beaten), instead of the active voice (Anna beat Jane). In the first sentence, the best the reader can do is pity Jane, but in the second one, they can clearly see who beat her (Anna)—and act to fix that. By omitting—or de-emphasizing—the subjects (perpetrators), stories like Ahmed’s partly absolve them by cloaking them in invisibility. Before you know it, as if by magic, there are thousands of victims and zero perpetrators.
Ahmed also chooses to frame the narrative primarily as a case of ‘incest’, ‘a taboo’ among the Luhya. This choice is disappointing because, in her quotes, Mary states that her stepfather “turned on her at 11 pm” and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it. By interpreting this as ‘incest’, Ahmed implies that Mary is one of the “culprits” who ought to be punished, yet it is clear she had no choice in the matter. Also, at 16, she is a child—per the Kenyan constitution—and has no power to consent to any sexual act with an adult. Just a few days later, Daily Nation tweeted about teachers who had been sacked over “love affairs” with students. Clearly, these are cases of sexual abuse—often coupled with emotional violence like the death threat in Mary’s case. Framing it as ‘incest’ or “love affairs” takes away the emotional punch that framing it as sexual abuse of minors would have had on readers. Incest and love affairs may be wrong, but they do not scream injustice like child rape does.
Framing it as ‘incest’ also influences the viable solutions. ‘Incest’ means the problem can be fixed by banishment—for both the victim and the perpetrator. As such, the best possible outcome for Mary is re-acceptance by her family (not safety from her abusive stepfather or counselling to deal with her trauma or support to catch up with the school-year she missed). Framing it as a case of sexual abuse would call for the prosecution of the stepfather as punishment and for Mary’s protection. It would also mean questioning the logic used in punishing Mary instead of caring for her—and the impact this has on her rights to safety, education and development both as a Kenyan citizen and as a human being. In a country where, according to World Vision, some 150,000 children are sexually abused every year, one cannot help but wonder if attitudes like these are partly to blame. Some might argue that questioning this cultural framing would negatively portray the Luhya culture. Far from it: there are plenty of wonderful things about Luhya culture and traditions. But, surely, protecting elements of culture that shield sexual predators and hurt children’s lives in 2019 is unconscionable, even for the staunchest cultural relativist.
As storytellers—and therefore setters of our society’s values and visions—Kenyan journalists must do better than this. As their audiences, we must demand better from them too. Especially now, in the #MeToo era, when numerous people are standing up to sexual abuse and misogyny around the world. It is not enough to report stories like these “neutrally” —because that, at best, is a myth, and at worst, an affirmation of cycles of abuse. Furthermore, this is not a war for just women to wage, especially regarding the abuse of children. This is a moral and human issue with social, political and economic implications for our country. If we cannot have empathy for our own children, then what kind of society are we living in? What do we even care about then? What kind of people are we? I know some will be quick to point out that both Ahmed and I are male—and therefore should not be involved in this conversation. Still, I believe with the right attitudes and systems, anyone can contribute to ending sexual abuse and supporting survivors (a significant proportion of whom are male). I am inspired by Ronan Farrow, a 31-year-old, male, Pulitzer-award winning journalist for The New Yorker, whose reporting on the stories of survivors of abuse by influential men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby has shown that no one is too powerful to avoid consequences for their actions. If we are to tackle the epidemic of sexual abuse in Kenya, our storytellers must be at the frontlines. We must set the vision for a nation that loves its people—more so its children—and that will do anything to protect them from those who (seek to) harm them.
Muturi Njeri is currently pursuing his MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh. He’s a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy and Colgate University. He writes on https://muturiwanjeri.com/
by Faith Linyonyi
“ humanity was cursed anyway. The mind was a curse: its ability to go back in time to regret and to hop into the future to hope and worry was not a blessing”
– Jennifer Makumbi, Kintu
Kintu by Jeniffer Makumbi is an epic novel that follows a Buganda leader, Kintu Kidda, and the curse that befalls him when he kills his adopted son. This curse doesn’t just affect him and his two wives who happened to be twin sisters, but it bothers his descendants down to three centuries. Coming from a pretty large family myself, with around one hundred first cousins on either side, I identified not just as a descendant of Kintu, but of two Kintus. I also read it at a time when my cousins and I are becoming more aware of our identities and how we inherited traits from the older generations which form a big part of who we are today. So at the end of the book when alienated relatives find themselves in o Lwera with all these questions about their family history, I was like “yep! That could be us one day.”
It’s amazing to think of the power that blood has. How is it that history writes itself so perfectly and replicates itself in different times and bodies? Sometimes I feel that maybe there is nothing unique about us. We are just the same person being repeated over and over. Kintu’s descendants lived worlds and generations apart but the stories of their lives were too similar for it to be a coincidence that they were from the same family, all stemming from one individual. If it wasn’t Suubi being haunted by her dead twin sister, it was Miisi and his visions of bees. They were all characterized by either presence of twins, premature death or visions and dreams. It’s pretty much the same thing for my family and I. Our actions and thoughts at any given time are almost identical to something an uncle or aunt did when they were our age.
One thing that’s probably written in our blood is our African-nes both in a cultural and spiritual way. Jennifer Makumbi writes a beautiful novel that shows a system that worked for Africa before we were colonized leaving me wondering again about how many of our ‘African problems’ can only be solved by ‘African solutions.’ No matter how educated or religious Kintu’s kin was, or how much they convinced themselves that they did not believe in finding the root of their origin, they eventually found themselves where it all began centuries before they were born. Today, we have really mingled with the outside world but it’s clear that our continent is hurting and instead of putting our efforts on trying to catch up with the rest of the world, we should probably abandon their ways altogether and do the natural thing which is to be true to our African-ness, our leadership, our families, our spirituality.This sounds good to me only in theory. There are parts of the old Africa I don’t want to go back to (mostly the patriarchy part). But maybe if we tried to understand more of what was happening back then we could find answers to our ailings not just an a personal level but also as a country and as a continent. I read an article by Wangui and I was really impressed by her bravery to search for a more authentic spiritual identity. I say this with no pride at all, but I think it’s easier for me to have natural hair, wear kitenge head wraps or boycott speaking Western languages than it is to practice a purely traditional religion.
“But in the end, what is all this sex for?”
This is the question Miisi Kintu, together with his wife ask when they lost ten of their twelve children at around the same time. They were in a lot of grief, not knowing how exactly they should mourn and questioned the meaning of their children’s lives altogether. In the end, his wife laughs back and sighs wondering ‘What was all that sex for?’ What was the point of breaking your back to have children who will eventually die? She should have just slept, she says. Currently, that’s where I am with a lot of these things. Maybe going back to our traditions while tweaking a few things will make our lives easier. But maybe it won’t.
Maybe life doesn’t work like that. We could be ones and zeroes after all, experiencing reactions to our actions and any similarities could only be explained as coincidences. Miisi and Suubi shared this thought. They attended the reunion but they also believed that tragedies made them special. Anyone could have dark days without it being anything to do with an event that happened eons ago. There is a chance that as long as we are living in this world, we will most probably question our identity in every aspect and that will have nothing to do with our origins. Maybe bringing back our traditions will only waste our time and that as we keep evolving, we need not seek our past for solutions. I once listened to a panel when Neo Musangi and other artists exhibited their work. Someone asked Neo one of those deep questions like, “Do you pray to yourself?’ And they answered that they don’t really think about such things anymore. That they do whatever they want and them sinning or abiding by some spiritual laws is the problem of whoever created them, not theirs. And I kept saying to myself how that must be a good place to be. Where you ask yourself, ‘what is all this sex for?’ and instead of wondering which god you should worship or how you should greet our neighbours in the morning, you just roll back and sleep.
Faith Linyonyi is a writer who lives in Kajiado County.
by Njoroge Mugo
In the battle against censorship, men like Mr. Mutua ought to be fought only through the means they fear: Reason and law: rebukes, petitions, activism and advocacy, of humanism and liberty.
One phenomenon that you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter while attempting to convince a decidedly conservative Kenyan as to the merits of tolerance, of a democracy fully-realised, and of rationalising perceived maladies, is the inevitable prospect of running into any one of a number of possible thought-terminating clichés:
It is foreign. It is not within our cultural/national/moral values. It is immoral. It is repulsive. It is offensive to the majority of Kenyans.
In the latter half of this decade, the legal arena has been awash with battles between the moral whims of some people and the force of the bill of rights – a document to which every Kenyan is entitled. And it is nothing short of amazing just how much of this is actually a failure to reconcile individualism with the need to preserve societal values. All of these appear to beg a re-evaluation of our idea of democracy, and what entails its bare minimums. It is not enough for us to simply say of ourselves that we are a democracy and pat ourselves on the back simply because some paper says so. We must be willing to agree on essential attributes of it, attributes without which we could no longer claim ourselves to be a democratic state. What’s more, we must be willing to hold the people who break these attributes to a standard of legal action.
I am, personally, a free-expression fundamentalist, which is a self-nomer I assert with the full caution and knowledge that there can be, and are, unworthy forms of fundamentalism. Unfortunately for such like me, political breakthrough and approval from the masses are not depandably guaranteed by a lobbying for democratic tenets, nor are they guaranteed by an unflinching respect for human rights. As such, the case I attempt to represent here is that we need to protect people’s rights to hold and express ideas more than we need to protect the wellbeing of ideas.
Ezekiel Mutua—himself a walking thought-terminating cliché—does not believe in this. And it can be argued that his job quite literally requires it of him. His mandate charges him with the responsibilty of disbursing licenses to filmmakers, producers and exhibitors. The rational behind this is that we – Kenyans – need to protect ourselves from on-screen unpleasantness. A reasonable measure if we speak exclusively of children, but an indefensibly undemocratic one when we consider that KFCB ipso facto retains the authority to decide what sorts of films are made. That is, what sorts of opinions are stated.
The suitability of KFCB, Ezekiel Mutua’s state vehicle, as a manifestation of this faith-based conservativism seeps into state mandate manifests just how the premise of “opinion regulation” is at complete loggerheads with free expression. Appealing exclusively to the devout and reactionary, Mr. Mutua’s main agenda as KFCB CEO has been a campaign to purge the creative space of all unpleasantness, vulgarity, and any and all attempts to normalize anything his board might consider, at its own discretion, “offensive” to “decency” and “public interest”. A majoritarian propagandist through and through, Mr. Mutua has time and again proven himself capable of using the inordinate powers afforded to him by his state office to asphyxiate dissenting views (Shall we forget his endorsement of the suspension of press during the 2018 Raila-oath-taking when he said, “The media must regulate themselves or the Government will”?)
At the top of KFCB’s list of depravities, it needn’t be said, remains also that anthropomorphic evil proudly brought to us by the unscrupulous, foreign NGOs: the gay agenda. Last year, they banned Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki for glorifying homosexual behaviour. Again, their objections to its existence are not any we haven’t heard before: Homosexuality is—take your pick—unkenyan/unafrican/unnatural/unsightly/ungodly/of the devil. Our very own deputy president William Ruto, an excellent rhetorician but a man without a single trustworthy bone in his body, has openly and repeatedly said between walls of congregation that “homosexuals will have no room in Kenya”, among other variations of such. With every comment from the conservative faction comes a familiar echo consistently premised on an amalgam of unspecified denial and self-bestowed authority, and it appears there can be no limit to the possible permutations that can appropriately express this divine repugnance. But, avoiding for a moment the unavoidable question of quo warranto (i.e., by what right do these self-coronated moralists think themselves worthy interpreters of what is sufficiently Kenyan/African?), one is implored to assess the dangerous packaging of statements like “Homosexuals will have no room in Kenya” and their retention of an implicit okaying of dehumanization.
It is not merely the fact that Ezekiel Mutua or anyone else finds the gay existence to be a disgusting one in society—everyone reserves the right to find and express disgust in whatever they wish—more than it is the fact that he is willing, and able, to impetrate public disgust into a currency for justified acts of intolerance, abetting, thereby, a society in which certain people are acceptably deemed, by virtue of the way they identify themselves, as undeserving of dignity, livelihood, and citizenship. Unpersons. (Think Hans Landa’s monologue: “You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.” Or Aboud Rogo’s: “Ukitaka kumuua mbwa mwite mbwa koko”.)
In the exercise of such a phenomenon, we discover an ungoverned extent to which a conservative society is willing to go to “conserve” whatever it is that’s preached conservable by faith-based statesmen. Granted, it may not be obvious to a devout person, brought up in strict religion to be against all forms of sexual deviance, how this ubiquitous narrative of those repugnant others can be harmful. But it is certainly obvious, I would hope, to anyone who has heard or read of the recent legal regressions in Nigeria and Uganda, or of the awful devaluations in the Gambia—the ascent into law of bills that allow for the stoning to death of convicted gays; and the open solicitation by president Jammeh for the on-sight decapitation of “homosexual vermin,” both known and suspected. (This in a country that has consistently failed to get its GDP-pc past $500.)
But all this would be to assume a reasonable discussion on the role of ‘repugnant wisdom’ in morality.
On the matter of free expression, however, a firmer rebuke must be made to meet horribly casuistic statements like, ‘Kenyan films must reflect dominant moral values of the country.’ This statement, and many others made by Mr. Mutua, essentially compels painters, musicians, cartoonists, writers, actors, filmmakers to create only the art that pacifies “national moral values”, and stems from the authoritarian idea that:
1. There exists persons and groups that possess a monopoly on free expression, and that these same persons and groups have a special right not to be offended.
2. Extrapolations can be made from the beliefs of a majority to be used to dictate the extents to which the rights and freedoms of individuals are exercisable.
3. The right to free expression is granted by the state, and is subject to a supposed “moral consensus” and will of majority.
Much as it definitely was a valid objection that was raised against the New York Times’s distasteful decision to print images of fallen Kenyans in their publication, Patrick Gathara is right to fear that:
[…] It does have rather toxic implications for press freedom in Kenya. Not only does it make it easier for the state to isolate and target the foreign press corps, something it has previously done, but giving the government a taste of the power to decide what content media can carry could whet its appetite for more.
- Take down photo for press freedom’s sake, Patrick Gathara
I’ll close with Hitchens, who – in his exploration of axis-of evil-states – talks about an assignement he was sent on in the 1980s, in the-then communist Czechoslavakia, in which he was compelled to invoke the mention of Franz Kafka as a way to free himself of arrest, much to his chagrin since he regards such invocations as tired and clichéd. But in his own defense, he summarises that:
Totalitarianism is a cliché; dictatorship is based on clichéd thinking, on very tried-and-tested uniform stuff. They don’t mind that they’re boring, they don’t mind that they’re obvious, their point is made.
And utimately he urges that:
The urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.
Perhaps in line with this we should remember that freedom of expression is not the same as freedom to express things that I agree with. And especially not take it as a hard line when forming policies.
Njoroge Mugo, is a 22 year old man living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an actuarial science student in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He loves to read, write, listen to music, play chess, engage in spirited, topical debates with friends, re-watch old Leonardo Dicarpio movie scenes where his eyes are red and he is shouting at the top of his lungs. In his idle time he bitterly contemplates the ugly and seemingly unsolvable problems of his country.
by Joash Onsando
Read part 1 here.
“Power is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards.
In part one, I spoke about Interior CS Dr. Fred Matiangi’s meteoric rise to power in the Jubilee administration. Today, few would question the “property value” of the man who many now refer to as “Chief Minister”. I picked him, the subject of this article to illustrate the precarious nature of proximity to power in Kenyan politics.
If the history of Kenyan politics has taught us anything then that lesson would be that smart power is exercised indirectly, through trusted aides. Any politician of note will tell you that highly risky political maneuvers are best carried out by an agent. That way the principal can walk away without egg on their face in case things don’t go according to plan.
Our political past is littered with several examples of such agents. Typically, the agent is a highly effective, zealous and fiercely loyal individual. The principal will normally pick them and elevate them over their peers with resultant perks and trappings of power. The agent is normally a means to an end and as such is quickly disposed of as soon as the end is met. The fierce loyalty of the agent is hardly reciprocated by the principal.
The agent must know their place. They must not let newly acquired power get to their head. They must always remember that they serve at the whims of the principal, and therefore must always remain subservient and accountable.
By virtue of their position, the agent normally attracts envy and admiration in equal nature. Because of the high risk nature of the political maneuvers tasked to them, the agent inevitably makes many enemies, some very powerful enemies in the course of carrying out their assigned duties. It is these factors that make the position of agent, a blessing and a curse.
“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards
No politician in history used this agency relationship as cunningly and effectively as former President Daniel Arap Moi. The August 1 1982 coup attempt transformed Moi from a soft spoken, amiable character whom some had described as a passing cloud to a seemingly intolerant political chess master who demanded unquestioning loyalty from the rank and file of KANU – the only party then.
It therefore came to pass that on December 17, 1986, after a series of provincial KANU conferences and a national conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration in Kabete, Moi unveiled the KANU Disciplinary Committee, KDC, chaired by one David Okiki Amayo to purge any dissent and disloyalty from within the party.
The committee’s formal brief was to grill members on discipline issues and punish those found to have flouted the party’s code of conduct or brought it to disrepute.
The KDC would quickly gain notoriety as a platform through which political scores were settled with little or no regard to due process. Its grilling sessions began with those summoned stating their name, occupation and whether they had pledged loyalty to the government, the party, the president and the ‘Nyayo Philosophy’. What would follow thereafter would be a charade of trumped up, comical and sometimes childish charges against respondents who were almost always found guilty. For many the best outcome of appearing before it would be writing an apology letter to the party with the worst case scenario being expulsion from the party. With Kenya being a one party state at the time, said expulsion was a death knell for many political careers.
The Amayo led committee was a law unto itself, paying no regard even to the constitutional protections accorded to sitting members of parliament. In 1987, the then Labour minister, Peter Okondo , himself a victim of the committee described Amayo’s conduct of party affairs as “boisterous, bloated and so bombastic as to make utter nonsense of reality and the truth”. Such was the notoriety of the KDC that a cabinet minister would have no recourse but to lament of its excesses in parliament.
On September 10th 1987, upon returning from a trip to Finland and Romania, President Moi unceremoniously disbanded the KDC at JKIA with a few terse words; “I want to dissolve the KANU Disciplinary Committee and it is hereby stamped out. I want wananchi to live without fear!”
And thus ended David Okiki Amayo’s reign of terror. Whilst he had served his purpose, he had also allowed power to get to his head. He had become too big for his breeches, punched way above his station and effectively become a thorn in Moi’s flesh. His political fortunes would slowly dwindle after that having more enemies that he could count. His loss to Phoebe Asiyo in the Karachuonyo Parliamentary race in 1992 ultimately dispatched him to political oblivion.
“For those of us climbing to the top there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted”
Frank Underwood, House of Cards
If I were to pick a historical figure with whom to draw parallels with CS, then it would be Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya. Like Matiangi, Mboya was intelligent, focused, intense and arrogant to boot. Mboya had a way about him, he got things done by employing charm and his exemplary oratory skills. With little effort he managed to cut himself a niche above his peers at the Lancaster House independence negotiations and thereafter. His unique set of skills did not go unnoticed by founding President Jomo Kenyatta who appointed him in his cabinet, first as Minister for Labour and later on as minister for Economic Planning where he is credited to have authored, alongside others, the Sessional Paper Number Ten which defined the country’s economic policies.
Mboya’s first rather overt show of loyalty to Kenyatta, came in response to a report written, ‘Who Rules Kenya’, written by Nigerian journalist Zeeky Rukari. Rukari wrote: “Kenyatta is today one of the biggest land owners. He possesses 6000 acres of choice land”. This statement angered the Kenyatta administration and Mboya, leveraging on his international connections, volunteered to reach out to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to avoid similar embarrassment in the future.
After independence, Kenyatta and Odinga, his Vice President, clashed on many issues, key among them being land and the East- West divide, an ideological rift. This was a far cry from a few years back when Odinga had declared Kenyatta his “next God” whilst demanding for his release before independence! Tables had now turned and Kenyatta needed to neutralize Odinga. He knew Mboya was just the man for the job.
In a genius move, Mboya – then KANU’s Secretary – proposed amending the party’s constitution splitting Odinga’s party vice chair position to eight positions, one from each of the provinces. The rhetoric accompanying the changes was that KANU needed a more inclusive, national face and not seem like a Luo-Kikuyu affair. After long drawn political intrigue expertly managed by the young Secretary General, Odinga’s fate was sealed on March 9th 1966 at the Limuru KANU conference. The eight Vice Chairmen were elected with Odinga, who was absent, missing from the lineup.
Odinga then resigned as Vice President and formed his own party, the Kenya Peoples Union. Not one to take things lying down he planned a motion of no confidence in President Kenyatta in parliament. This was after a slow yet deliberate defection of MPs to the opposition benches in parliament. To forestall the vote, Kenyatta once again turned to his fixer in chief, Mboya. AG Charles Njonjo had crafted a legislation requiring any defecting MP to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.
The house was called from recess and Mboya was tasked with ensuring that the legislation passed. From the dispatch box, Mboya managed to defend the legislation with such charisma and charm that it passed. The defections from KANU stopped as quietly as they had begun. Faced with the prospect of having to spend resources in fresh campaigns, many MPs simply stay put. In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.
Unfortunately however, with Odinga out of KANU, Mboya was now more vulnerable to the political intrigue within the party. For being such an effective fixer and by extension a frontrunner in the Kenyatta succession race, he had managed to paint a bright red target on his back, so to speak. Mboya would fall to an assassin’s bullet outside Chhanni’s pharmacy, along the then Government Road (now Moi Avenue) on 5th July 1969.
Whilst it is unlikely that Jomo Kenyatta sanctioned Mboya’s death, it would be foolhardy to assume that he did everything in his power to protect his dear fixer.
The cases of Amayo and Mboya illustrate that proximity to power is a cup containing sweet yet perilous wine.
Granted the consequences of drinking from it could mean a step up to higher political office, an exception to the rule (at least according to history), but are more likely to result in political oblivion or worse!
This is the cup that Dr. Fred Matiangi holds today. He has no choice but to continue sipping on the wine, once you hold the cup, it is difficult to let go. If indeed President Uhuru has elected to neutralize his deputy, William Ruto, as his father elected to neutralize Odinga, and if indeed Uhuru has chosen him as his ‘Mboya’, then the peril increases several fold.
For Matiangi, this cup is a high risk, low return affair. He must develop eyes at the back of his ears, he must build bridges in the most unlikely quarters across the political landscape. He must understand that because perception matters, sometimes more than reality, DP Ruto’s friends are now his foes, and his foes are now his enemies. He must always be stoic even in the most challenging times. More importantly it would be helpful to derive lessons from the late Nicholas Biwott. He should never come too close to the fire as to get burnt, at the same time; he must not go too far from it as to freeze.
In conclusion, if nothing else, those close to power, the agents, must realize one thing, that the power derives from elsewhere. It is akin to the wings Daedalus crafted for himself and his son Icarus. They are wings made from feathers and wax. As they navigate the political scene, from such a precarious position, they must remember not to fly too high, lest the sun melts their wax, nor too low, lest their wings get weighed down by the spray of the water. Ultimately, it seems they are doomed to strive relentlessly until either happens.
Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.
by Joash Onsando
On 21st January 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued his first executive order in 2019. The purpose of the order is to realign the manner in which government projects would be carried out. In the order, he established The National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee. The committee, tasked with five major functions, chief among them being supervising government projects, will be chaired by Interior CS Dr Fred Matiangi, who will be deputized by his Treasury and Planning counterpart, Henry Rotich.
No other Executive ordered by the President has received as much attention or raised as much controversy as order number 1 of 2019. However, the attention had little to do with its probity, either in law or otherwise (as has been the case with other controversial orders) but rather what it portends to the relationship between the President and his Deputy. There could be two reasons for this.
Firstly, the order explicitly states the Matiangi led committee’s reporting obligations as ‘’to His Excellency the President”. Before this, jubilee formal and informal communication has always made reference to “the Presidency” as though Uhuru and Ruto are attached at the hip. By breaking away from this norm, the President seemed to suggest said attachment was an inconvenience to him.
Secondly, the order seemed to have given the committee the exclusive mandate to do two things: i) Monitor and evaluate the progress of national projects, and ii) Provide coordinated strategic communication to the public and other stakeholders on the progress of national projects.
These two, seem to be the very functions the Deputy President purports to be carrying out in his whirlwind tours across the country (now aptly christened tanga tanga). On multiple occasions, the DP has dismissed critics who claim he is engaged in a premature campaign for the 2022 general elections. Together with his allies, the DP claims to be making his forays around the country strictly for development purposes. He has often stated that, as the President’s Principal Assistant, it is his job to communicate (read launch), supervise, and evaluate the status of Jubilee development projects. So to many pundits, the executive order seems to usurp roles and responsibilities assumed by the DP and handing them over to the Interior CS. If indeed this is the case then it is no accident that the President picked the CS as his hatchet man.
Fred Okenyo Matiangi is no stranger to controversy. However, little was known about the former university don, before his appointment to the cabinet as ICT CS in 2013.
Since then, none of his cabinet colleagues have had to encounter and overcome as many challenges as he has. Further, none has accumulated as much notoriety as he has, in the execution of their duties. Dr Matiangi is also the only CS during Uhuru’s tenure to have held substantive and acting cabinet positions on two separate occasions, having acted in the lands ministry whilst at ICT and acted in the interior ministry whilst at Education.
His meteoric rise in public service began with a baptism of fire at the ICT ministry in 2015. He was tasked to oversee the migration of the broadcast industry from analogue to digital platforms. This move would prove to be particularly unpopular amongst many industry stakeholders, particularly media owners.
According to the MOA, the media owners lobby group, the migration exercise needed more time and consideration. Many observers saw their hesitation as being informed by the need to protect their business interests rather than the greater good they purported to be their motivation. The government position was a polar opposite. According to Matiangi, change was inevitable, and had to happen immediately. Both sides dug in, spoiling for a fight, a long protracted battle or at least it seemed so.
Kenyans had become accustomed to private corporate interest, holding sway over government policy positions that were in conflict with their own. Given how powerful the MOA lobby is, the expectation was that the CS would ultimately buckle under pressure and give in. Surprisingly however, Matiangi held his own and successfully oversaw the migration process. This was the first feather in his cap!
In December 2015, Matiangi was appointed CS for Education, Science and Technology. At the time, instances of leakages and cheating in national examinations had become so rampant that some education stakeholders openly expressed a complete lack of trust in the examination process and ultimately, the integrity of its results. The phenomenon of cheating in exam results had grown to what was then described as a cartel involving KNEC (the examinations council) officials, teachers, parents and students.
Upon assuming office and in his characteristic, bullish style, Dr. Matiangi moved to disband the Kenya National examination Council. Alongside reconstituting it under the leadership of a hardnosed, kindred spirit, Prof. George Magoha, the CS also instituted radical reforms to the process of administering and marking national examinations. Security measures during examinations were the most stringent ever seen. The marking process was also significantly expedited. The ultimate outcome was the announcement of KCSE results two months early and its results being hailed by many, as the closest reflection of the candidates’ performance the country had seen in a long time. Popular opinion was that the CS had taken on a powerful cartel and prevailed.
On July 8, 2017, Kenya awoke to the sad news of the demise of the then Interior CS Joseph Nkaiserry. The interior docket is not one to be left vacant for long. The president needed to find a replacement, fast! Matiangi was an obvious choice. He had proved himself many times over! However, one political consideration stood in the way; for some inexplicable reason, the internal security mandate seemed to have become a reserve of the Maasai community. From Prof George Saitoti and Katoo Ole Metito under the Kibaki regime to Joseph ole Lenku and Maj Gen Nkaiserry under Uhuru there seemed to be an unwritten rule or tradition that the docket was a preserve of Maa speakers.
With the general election only a few weeks away, it remained to be seen if the President was willing to antagonize the Maasai community by givin away ‘their seat’., therefore risking the loss of an important swing vote. A few days later the president took the gamble and appointed Matiangi, albeit in an acting capacity. Surprisingly, there wasn’t an iota of grumbling from the Maasai community. Seemingly, the CS was such a formidable pick that it wasn’t politically expedient for the Maa to grumble. Such is the position that Matiangi had horned for himself in the Jubilee administration. He had, over time, managed to establish himself as the poster boy for fighting cartels and corruption networks, at least in the eyes of the president’s support base.
Matiangi was, however not done endearing himself to the administration and its supporters. With the Commander in Chief being rather destructed by a strenuous campaign and the prospect of a general election too close to call, he was able to depend on him to hold fort, on matters security. And that is exactly what he did.
With the Supreme Court ordering a rerun of the presidential election, the Jubilee administration was thrown into a tail spin. Its hitherto unchallengeable grasp on power hang on a thin thread and a firm hand was needed to restore the status quo. It was because of controversial and highly unpopular decisions such as proscribing the NRM as an illegal organization that allowed the president the kind of leverage he needed to prevail past the Jan 30th swearing in of the president and ultimately the handshake.
In the post handshake era, the CS has managed to widen his approval base beyond Jubilee supporters, particularly by his oversight of the clamp down on counterfeited goods and his ability to step into the gaps in the Transport ministry’s role with regards to reducing road carnage. This was further buttressed by his commitment to purge the country of not only illegal immigrants but also of undeserving holders of work permits.
When it is all said and done, one thing remains undoubtable; Matiangi has established himself as President Uhuru’s fixer in chief. His critics might disagree with his intentions and methods but even they would agree that he gets things done for his boss! There could be many factors that could have led to this. After all, no phenomenon is mono factorial in nature. He fondly refers to the President as ‘commander in chief’ as opposed to the more commonly used ‘his excellency’. This betrays a man whose unity of purpiose to drive the president’s agenda is to be carried out unquestioningly and with military precision!
Dr. Matiangi was born in Borabu, Nyamira County. His academic journey culminated with him being conferred a doctorate degree from the University of Nairobi. His career before cabinet was illustrious to say the least. Hehas more than 12 years’ experience in democracy development including a six year stint at the Kenya Parliamentary Strengthening Project, rising through the ranks to the position of Chief of Party. He also has extensive experience in governance related research, civil society advocacy as well as donor funded democracy and government projects. Clearly his past roles served to prepare him well to understand government bureaucracy as well as the vagaries of navigating public sector environments while getting things done.
The CS has enjoyed the mentorship and patronage of former Gusii political supremo, Mzee Simeon Nyachae, who is rumoured to have influenced his appointment to cabinet. Mzee Nyachae will be remembered for having risen through the ranks of provincial administration faster than his counterparts. In fact, after being appointed as the PC for Rift Valley, a Senior Chief Titi quipped that Mzee Kenyatta had appointed a child as PC.
The 1975 assasination of Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki happened whilst Nyachae was the Central Province PC. The general belief in the region was that government machinery eas behind the popular MP’s assassination. So great was the bitterness in the region that a song, ‘Maai ni maruru’ (water is bitter) was composed to condemn the killing. Realizing the need to contain a potentially volatile situation, Nyachae invoked the then Chief’s Act to ban the song! As if that was not enough, the PC stood up to be the only senior government official to have attended JM’s funeral. In fact he ended up reading the Jomo Kenyatta’s speech, a task that a number of senoir officials, including cabinet ministers Jeremiah Nyagah and Dr. Julius Kiano had turned down.
This is the kind of dedication and unquestioning loyalty to the powers that be that the CS inherited from his mentor and political Godfather.
CS Matiangi is also an ardent member of the SDA Church. His public pronouncements betray a person who derives a lot of strength and resolve from his spiritual faith and doctrine. He seems to justify his zeal and bulldozer approach to issues by a firm held belief that his work is part of a wider divine agenda and plan to which he is only accountable to the God he serves.
He might be a man of many firsts but Matiangi is definitely not the first ‘fixer in chief’ we have seen in our history as a country. This position has and will remain to be a precarious one for any person to hold. Almost without exception, previous holders of this position have fallen from grace quite pitifully. George Santayana said ‘’those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. If nothing at all, the good CS must pay heed to these famous words even as he soars close to the sun, on borrowed wings.
Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.
by April Zhu
“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”
Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.
“My dia my dia my dia you do
not know me very well
So let me tell you little something
I am looking for no drama.”
– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”
Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.
For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.
Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.
“We’re at the most
interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking
at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and
figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.
“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”
But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.
“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”
This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.
Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.
Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.
He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.
Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.
“What’s inspiring my new
album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the
answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as
interesting as the destiny.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.
“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.
“I keep the hate up on the dinner
Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer
Throw away the throwaways till I discover
To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”
– Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?
And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”
A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya
As a Kenyan citizen, only two or three generations removed from independence, the memories of colonialism are far deeper than the pages on history books. The stories of heroes, traitors, the heroes who became traitors and the trauma that the colonizers wantonly imposed on a free people are very much alive in what used to be my idea of a European. I still find it difficult to remove myself from the classical image of a blonde haired frail missionary woman on the one hand and a debonair, yet incredibly violent mustachioed rancher or businessman as the very definitive nature of the European. French, German, British or Belgian it hardly matters, across Africa and in many parts of South America and South-East Asia – this image does ring true almost as the silver thread in the canvas of a vast, diverse and painful history.
I find it strange that this is the image that comes to my mind even though this hasn’t been true of the European existence arguably since the 1950s and certainly not the since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, Europe, post world war II has been less Christian, more liberal and, on paper, providing the most gallant government efforts in the war on Climate Change.
So why even ask if there is a European identity crisis? As with all things in a Brexit, Trump world it begins with the narrative – particularly with the narrative around immigrants. Currently the narrative on which policies are created a poor blend of cliché stereotypes that started in rural and mid-west America and became a rallying call to the extreme right the world over – They are taking our jobs and they are raping our women.
I would argue that the only reason the European identity crisis comes to the fore front is that the performance of many European economies haven’t rebounded post 2008 recession. In a world with dwindling resources, shifts in geo political power imbalances and the rigidity of the European Union rules set in Brussels, there is little left to point a finger at than the new comers in the neighborhood.
Much like Canada of today, Europe once took pride in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Held in high esteem as a Utopian like kingdom where even the poor and despondent got their chance. It was this dream that lured immigrants, running from unstable political situations or just pursuing their shot.
The one parallel with globalization and music is perhaps best summarized in the line from Dead Prez’s ode to Hip Hop “one thing about good music when it hits, you feel no pain.” Nothing could be truer on the impact of globalization on the changing demographics of the world as we once knew it. Demographics of which, historically, had been synonymous with identity. The effect of globalization on the concentration of capital and eradication of market valued human labor continues to dominate the political conversation the world over.
Europe’s shores had been open and tolerant to immigration well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was unnoticed because the economies of these European countries were largely taking off. Shocks in the financial systems were not rare but the spread of capitalism into large swathes of formerly soviet territories occasioned a massive expansion in private purchasing power and a largely prosperous Europe.
A rich neighbor can suffer visitors for so long as there is enough bread and water. Once decisions have to be made between the satisfaction and comfort of the rich man’s family and his visitors, questions are asked.
Why did the visitor really come?
- They could no longer live in their home – it was unsafe, and it would be immoral of me to turn them away (what we now call a refugee)
- Was he looking to live a better life, stay with me until he can find a way to feed himself in my lands (what we now call an immigrant)
- Do we share the same values for our faith, lack thereof, families, education and freedoms? (is he a Muslim?)
That third question only found life in the post 911 world and only comes to bear becomes it has become impossible to separate modern immigration without tying it to persons from Islamic countries.
War has and continues to force millions of refugees from the Middle East (Syria most recently) to seek refuge in Europe. Angela Merkel called for 800,000 refugees and whereas many other European nations declined, refugees made their way through the middle east and into continental Europe on their way to Germany.
In an age of unpredictable political movements, climate change orchestrated droughts and floods, global wealth inequality teetering at the edge of a cliff and automation eroding jobs faster than any economic crisis the world has ever known, immigration will become the new normal. This will mean that the image of the white debonair couple as the face of Europe has and will vanish(the royal wedding anyone?).
A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.
Either choice requires an examination of Europe’s historical choices, we must hope against hope, that the right choice prevails.
Yet globalization has a global face. This is not a European crisis in singularity. What does it look like from the Kenyan perspective?
Our scorecard is low and high. High, historically because Kenya has always been a nation that received neighbors from famine and war-torn nations of Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia. This I remember was a matter of pride for our country – the island of peace(at what cost) in a sea of turmoil. This is who we were, and I like to believe who we still are. The concept of borders is a foreign concept designed by the colonizers first above referred. It is natural therefore, if at all there is an “African culture” to welcome and accommodate our neighbors in need.
Yet here again, the Muslim question arises. Kenya’s Islamic population has never been hidden or removed from mainstream society. We have always said that we are a multi-cultural society, albeit under the guise of a predominately Judeo-Christian legal system.
It was us who condemned our brothers and sisters to concentration camps In Kasarani. It was us who called for the police to do random house and in person inspections and arrests. Shamefully, we accepted the fear and chaos from a very tumultuous period between 2013 and 2017 to mask terrorism in the name of Islam and we forgot who we were.
Just like the right-wing European who decries immigrants of Islamic decent, we saw in Kenya, our friends even our families casually make jokes about Somalis and other individuals from Islamic states labelling them by the same terror groups they fled. We distanced ourselves from our neighbors in the name of fear and there hasn’t really been a conversation on what the past 5- 6 years of trauma have meant for these people whom we once cherished.
The same argument too can be made for Chinese immigration. As more and more skilled and semi-skilled labourers come into the Country, small pockets of Chinese individuals are starting to become concentrated across this country. Will we accept them too? Should we as a people look to the West and say that they should accept those of us who migrate to their shores while at the same time reject people from the East who want to work, live and play in Kenya?
These are tough questions. A poor man can only welcome so many neighbors especially if some of those neighbors are perceived to be richer than he. This is true especially because colonialism, comparatively speaking, only just happened. Are we ready to accept another highly capitalized minority to live and work freely in our Country? It didn’t work out well for us last time and all across the developed world, the undertones of rejection and rebellion to the ideals of an open society for Chinese persons are already getting louder and louder.
Perhaps a conversation, locally, nationwide and globally is required, because unlike music, when the pressure on our finite mounts and globalization hits us, truly hits us, there might be some pain.
by Mukami Githagui
Housing is a fundamental human need. With the rising cost of inflation and other economic drivers making life very expensive, President Uhuru’s focus in affordable housing is a much welcome reprieve. In 2017 the President launched “The Big Four” agenda for economic development in Kenya, focusing onfood and nutrition security, manufacturing, affordable healthcare and affordable housing as his blueprint not only to deliver a legacy government, but also to bring long-term meaningful change to Kenyans.
The government plans to deliver 1 million housing units over the next five years. The president’s ambitious housing plan aims for at least half a million more Kenyans to own homes by the end of his second term. In Nairobi for instance among the areas to be covered include Park Road, Shauri Moyo, Bachelors’ Quarters, Suna Road/Toi Market, Pangani and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It has also been reported that at least 36 governors have signed agreements with the national government to extend the project to their regions. Can this dream become a reality or is it going to become yet another white elephant?
According to the National Affordable Housing Summit Group of Australia, affordable housing is housing that is reasonably adequate in standard and location for lower or middle-income households and does not cost so much that a household is unlikely to meet other basic needs on a sustainable basis.
The National Housing Corporation, puts the housing deficit at 2 million units cumulatively and it’s growing by 200,000 units per year. With a rapid population growth of 2.6% per annum and the rate of urbanization standing at 4.4% it presents a dire situation. For context, the global average is 1.2% for population growth and 2.1% for urbanization respectively. The supply of housing in Kenya is constrained and the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development estimates the total annual supply to be at 50,000 units.
To further underscore the need for affordable housing, the ministry indicates that 83% of the existing housing supply is for the high income and upper-middle-income segments, with only 15% for the lower-middle and 2% for the low-income population. In summary, while 74.4% of Kenya’s working population requires affordable housing, only 17% of housing supply goes into serving this low to lower-middle income segment.
Long story short, it’s not good. But what’s going wrong?
According to a Cytonn Investments report there is an inadequate supply of serviced land at affordable prices due to soaring land prices in urban areas. In Nairobi, for example, land prices have been growing at a 6-year compound annual growth rate of 17.4%. This has led to increased development costs as land costs account for 25% – 40% of development costs in urban areas, which consequently impacts on end-user prices. Even in most of the areas earmarked for this housing land prices are steep, which again begs question.
The report also cites costs of construction. Mid-level construction costs in Kenya range from Ksh44,000 – Ksh64,000 per square metre depending on the level of finishes, height and other related factors, and account for 50% – 70% of development costs.
According to Hass Consult Ltd, in Q3 of 2017 the prices of housing dropped by 5.1% due to the political instability we faced last year. However, the average value of a residential property in the country surged to KES 29.8M in September last year. The same report cites that property purchases in Kenya are purchased cash, mainly because the mortgage industry remains underdeveloped.
What solutions are available?
The government, the Capital Markets Authority, NSSF, Retirement Benefits Authority, Kenya Revenue Authority, private sector finance and development, all have a role to play and the specific solutions need to be wider.
Given the need for funding businesses in a growing economy where SMEs create majority of jobs, private markets such as structured products offer a compelling alternative for developers to seek financing.
Strong government support and strict housing policies are also necessary in order to boost home-ownership. It is necessary to set up and adhere to strict rules and eligibility measures for house-purchase such as minimum occupancy periods and housing to income ceilings, so as to restrict to prospective home-owners only as opposed to speculative buyers.
There’s need for efficient planning to allow the best use of land in a sustainable manner to cater for the growing population with key considerations on the provision of services such as water, power, garbage and sewage disposal. Hand in hand with this is exploring cheaper building technology to lower construction costs. Training of labour on the use of alternative building technology is essential so as to boost its application.
An article in Nairobi Business Monthly, argues that the construction industry needs to embrace technological changes that will result in a mind-shift on the use of innovative products and services whose aggregate effect would be to lower the average cost of building. Despite the emergence of innovative construction materials, building a house in Kenya is still costly.
In Nairobi where land prices have sky-rocketed significantly, we need to make use of land in the neighbouring areas outside the metro region such as; Kitengela, Ruiru, Ngong, Kiserian, among others to put up low-cost houses.
An efficient mass transport system linking the above areas to the city’s central business district will incentivise private sector investments in the greater metro region. Ethiopia is a perfect example where they have built a light rail system that connects Addis Ababa to the neighbouring towns where low-cost houses have been built. Due to the efficient mass transport system, Ethiopians are able to work in cities and towns but put-up kilometers away.
Given the rising cost of land, the cost of construction materials, taxation on these materials and of course corruption which sees title deeds irregularly issued, buildings constructed on riparian land and other irregularities, becoming a property owner is not a walk in the park. Only time will tell whether the government’s ambitious project is feasible or not.
Mukami Githagui is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. Mukami has covered business and written features for two of Kenya’s leading media companies, the Standard Group and Nation Media Group.
by Sheena M
I arrived about 20 minutes early, and already there was a large gathering waiting to see Rafiki. The moment I walked into the waiting area at Prestige Plaza cinemas, I felt the stares. We were all sizing each other up. Who are you? Do I know you? Are you a threat? Do I have to be concerned about your presence?
It was all nerves, muscles tensed and ready to spring into action. It was like we were all doing something we knew our parents would not approve of. This feeling wasn’t unfounded. I mean, you only need to look at Ezekiel Mutua’s tweets about this movie to how bad it is. So being at the cinema waiting to watch a movie about two Kenyan girls falling in love felt like a risk in itself, whatever your sexual orientation.
The movie’s director Wanuri Kahiu has already given various statements in the media about why she chose to go ahead with Rafiki, despite it not being welcome in its own home. She insisted that she wanted to make a love story and “contribute to that language of softness.” I can confidently say that Wanuri accomplished that desire.
Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to be screened at a Cannes Film Festival –it was filmed earlier last year. To have a Kenyan film, about Kenyans, made by Kenyans, showcased at the largest international showcase of cinematic art is a feat to be celebrated. Wanuri is no stranger to the movie scene. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, won awards at the Pan African Film Festival and the African Movie Academy Awards. While that movie was based on the events of the 1998 bombings on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Rafiki’s inspiration was drawn from the 2007 Caine Prize Winning Short Story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Watching Rafiki was a reminder that we are really all the same. The 83-minute film was so captivating that I did not want it to end.
Set in a fictional place called Slopes in Kenya, Rafiki tells the story of Kena (played by Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy living a regular Kenyan life. As we watch Kena skating along and meeting up with her male friends, it’s clear that she’s been accepted as ‘one of the guys’, even though one of the guys calls her ‘his number one girl’. When Kena’s not hanging out with Blacksta, she’s helping her dad run his shop or making sure her mom’s fed – a good Kenyan girl doing the good Kenyan girl thing.
Then one day, Kena notices a girl noticing her. This girl is obviously different – you can tell from her long, multi-coloured braids and the makeup. Even though this girl is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opponent, Kena can’t help but be drawn to her. A friendship quickly blossoms between Kena and Ziki (played by Sheila Munyiva) and just as quickly grows into something more.
“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates.”
~ Wanuri Kahiu
The opening scene of Rafiki is like an ode to all things Kenyan. Kiosks, campaign posters stuck on walls and the noa noa guy sharpening knives at the corner all blend together to paint the picture of a local Kenyan neighbourhood. As soon as the movie started, whatever tension we all had within us began to dissipate. Watching such familiar scenes drew us into a sense of comfort, a feeling of being home, even before we heard anyone speak onscreen.
As an audience, that bound us instantly. Kena may as well have been one of us – going to church with her mother every Sunday, hanging out with her boys at the local spot, eating chapo dondo. It only made the tender moments more tender and the harsh ones more painful, more alive, more real. We laughed as one at the funny parts, held our breaths when we didn’t know what was coming, gasped at the moments that shocked us and cried silently as we watched Kena and Ziki struggle to stay true to themselves.
The music was on point as well. From Kena skating along to the gentle moments between Kena and Ziki, the songs that played throughout the movie matched the mood perfectly. It was no surprise that the artists featured include some of Kenya’s most dynamic musicians. Muthoni the Drummer Queen, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Chemutai Sage, Mumbi Kasumba, Njoki Karu, Trina Mungai and Jaaz Odongo all lent their musical prowess to the magic of Rafiki.
Wanuri’s directing shines brightest in the use of vivid close ups shots and nothing but facial expressions, showing us a lot of what is said through the unsaid, the sneer, the turn of the check, looking away and so forth. The first time Kena and Ziki share an intense staredown, it lasts long enough to undeniably feel the emotion behind it. It also lasts long enough to deliberately make us uncomfortable.
Not for any other reason other than the guilt of intruding on a moment of intimacy.
The movie tells the story of how Kena and Ziki find love and then face opposition from their family and friends because of it. Wanuri’s creative storytelling and the actors’ in-depth portrayal of their characters pull us in. The mirror image given by Rafiki is such an accurate reflection of our society that it’s impossible not to be moved.
All things 254
The hairstyles, the clothes, the buildings, the boda boda guy with his pimped out ride and even the local neighbourhood gossip were all familiar to anyone who’s lived in Kenya. Seeing all of them in cinema in a high-quality movie was surreal. It made everything seem possible. And the dialogue was so typically Kenyan we couldn’t help but relate. If anything it’s the way we say things that made many of us laugh out loud. Like Ziki saying, “A nurse? You? Why?”
Wanuri was right.
We don’t get to see as many moments of tenderness in cinema as exist in real life. Rafiki removed the veil from things we normally distance from ourselves. It helped us see that we are just as capable of love as we are of everything that is not.
And that is what makes Rafiki a powerful movie.
Sheena M is in love with words and how they shape themselves. That’s why she keeps a blog that’s not as ‘organised’ as most. To see her musings, check out her blog What She Thinks