The Artful Dodge: Care in a time of Covid

Michael Onsando
12 May ,2020

When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he will see is his pockets.

In Sacred in the Everyday, Ram Dass talks about how we see through the projection of our desire. Another common way this is phrased is  expectations cause suffering. Take away expectation, you take away suffering. This happens because what we want will always colour how we see a situation – no matter how objective we try to be.  

Nothing has been more frustrataining than listening to the debates around COVID-19. Between mass misinformation and in the absence of historical data to back our decision making, we have seen who people are when they are forced to think on their feet. We have seen who people are when they feel fear. 

And it’s been something to watch. 

Whenever you  use the internet there is a self enforcing principle at play. Filter bubbles, described by Eli Pariser here, ensure that you get the content you like, so you can stay on the site. This means that if you’re left leaning politically, you’re likely to get more and more left leaning news. To the point that you might even forget a right exists. This is dangerous –  Cambridge Analytica showed us how it can be used to change election results by swaying undecided voters. While that kerfuffle opened our eyes and forced some oversight into play, there is little that has really changed. This is because that same functionality that creates filter bubbles allows for super duper micro targeting, which is convenient for meeting KPIs. The only real fix would be to take away the dependency this industry has on advertising but, let’s be honest, you’re not going to pay for Facebook any time soon – are you?

In many ways the restrictions imposed by countries seem to have drawn a line in the sand between the blue collar and the white collar. And the people talk and echo and talk and echo on all social media. We talk in public and in smaller social groupings discussing what next. How should we handle this global crisis. And every argument made matches who we are. The digital worker wants to stay home while the salesperson wants to go outside.Those who can stay home insist that those who must leave are being selfish. Those who are in bad jobs are called ungrateful for wanting to leave. Those in good jobs, can’t express their satisfaction for fear of social sanctions. 

Suddenly there must be silence and suppression – as if different pains cannot exist at once. As if any half of the economy could generate enough to produce to support the other half. As if the machine is not a sum of its whole. 

There is no hoard of plenty. “
Elon Musk 

And because we know this, we are uncertain. Even while we bay for accountability, testing and just better in general (as we should get and deserve), the question remains unanswered in the back – then what? This thing is in the air and the data is still unclear. The cogs that deal with this kind of problem have only communicated one thing. They’re going to need some time. And time is exactly all of us who are  dependent on this machine staying in motion (as we were assured it would) do not have. 

So tensions rise. 

But didn’t expectation cause suffering? Now, not knowing what to expect, we find ourselves falling onto another truth – having expectations gave us a sense of direction. In its absence we are left confused about what to feel and, if clear on that, where to put those feelings. 

Frustration builds.

It is in this environment that we drive around masked, breathing in our own carbon dioxide, unable to recognize even the people we know. Every trip outside the house begins with a pause “do I need this? Is this urgent? Is this important?” We realize the definition of important can vary. Some days are good, some days are bad. Most days are just days. Living in a more quiet, almost pious existence. Maybe punctuated by a risky venture to talk, to sell, to buy, to see, to get. 

Isolation increases. 

And the news tells us numbers. Every day there is a new number. Daily, weekly, monthly and comparative death rates, infection rates, number of tests, number of beds, number of ventilators, amounts of stolen money (this is a regular tho), days of lockdown, months to a vaccine – there’s tonnes of numbers to be worried about. If the numbers don’t get you – the incompetence will. It seems like no one who is doing anything knows anything about what they are doing. 

Fear and skepticism spread.

When the pickpocket comes across a saint, all he sees is his pockets. The saying seems to admonish the pickpocket. Look at him, marked by his own sin so badly that he fails to notice when a saint passes by. On closer inspection we see another implication. If a saint sees a pickpocket – all he sees is a saint (Or a saint in drag). We see what we want to see. And just knowing this makes it important, especially in this time, to make room in our debates and perspectives. To pause and ask ourselves at every moment. Does this position that I passionately hold on to leave space for the needs of others? Am I genuinely trying to help, or am I just looking to pick some pockets for change?

Believing with Binya

Michael Onsando
21 April ,2020

“ How do we make new things? How do we have an education system that makes us think and innovate?”

  • Binyavanga Wainaina, We must free our imaginations, 2014

I’m not sure what form my grief will take. Most of the time we spent together I spent projecting my frustration over the state of the literary scene onto him. Perhaps it is because I thought that if there was someone who could save us, it was him. Perhaps it was because everywhere one turned there he was. Trying to get something done, to get someone out, to figure something out, to build something. 

I don’t know. 

I know that on my birthday in 2015 I was wandering the corridors of yaya centre looking to get a royalty payment so that I could, at least, buy myself a dinner worth calling it a celebration when I bumped into the man himself. As he paid for his books he made small talk with me, asking how the writing was going and such pleasantries. After hearing it was my birthday he bought me a couple of books (one of which was his that he then signed) and took me for lunch where we talked about the industry for hours. Of course by this I mean that I picked his brain on how to tackle this monster that is establishing a life as a writer. He spoke to me about things I then considered irrelevant, like listening perception and compassion. I imagine he was trying to simplify things that I was clearly making more complicated than they were. 

Things like, you can’t save everyone – even if you try. 

The memories are complicated. 

Everything is complicated. 

Because of the nature of how I saw him I spent a lot of time hating Binya. No, hate is inaccurate. Perhaps it was a loud frustration – an anger. Always burning in his direction. Always finding fault. . Always willing him to do more. Always looking at the things he missed rather than the things he did. Always expecting him to be more than, better than, above some things. 

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how this is dehumanizing. But hindsight is always 20/20 and time continues to move steadily forward. 

Perhaps if I had outgrown my anger sooner my spirit would have settled enough for us to have a conversation that didn’t end in my blaming him for the world I saw crumbling around me. Maybe if I had taken off my rose coloured glasses sooner I would have allowed myself to listen a little more to the man and less to my own frustrations. 

“I want to live in an ecosystem one where we say not that there’s a demon next door; But rather there’s something I don’t understand next door and I don’t have to understand it, because that person’s right to be a demon is theirs.”

  • Binya, we must free our imaginations

He always, as far as possible, took it with grace. Trying to explain, trying to reach a compromise or, failing that, peace of mind.  Maybe it’s because he respected my right to be a monster. Maybe it’s because I refused to let him show anything but grace. Maybe this is the compassion he kept speaking to, looking at the world through kind eyes that saw the pain in others before the hurt they caused. 

“To make new things we have to imagine. It’s that simple.”

  • Binya 

I’m not writing a saint into this essay. 

But I am writing a dreamer. And if there’s anything one must admire of a dreamer as persistent and unrelenting as Binyavanga is the consistent work. It is the commitment that they have to their vision that inspires us. So then perhaps it was his belief in bettering imaginations. In creating more room for more to exist. Always expanding, always imagining, always believing. Binyavanga gave us the power to will our worlds into existence.

I’m not sure how to end this. 

It would be nice to wrap things up in a bow and say something sentimental that encapsulates Binyavanga. Maybe reduce him to a queer activist, or to a Kenyan writer, or to a thinker. Perhaps something that will give him the “literary patriarch” crown that would have been his if not for the queerphobic nature of Kenya. 

“But who is making new things? (…) How do we make new things? How do we have an education system that helps us think and innovate?”

But no one thing seems to be able to speak to the whole man. Maybe it is because he recognized the enormity of the task that is working towards an equitable, shareable world and the importance of having everyone on board towards this goal. Maybe it’s because he believed that none of us can truly be free until we are all free. Maybe it is striving towards making a space where everyone can be saved while knowing that no one can save everyone. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe the other was the reason we all loved him; the reason we all struggled with this man who promised to write about this place. 

“And it is our job, our generation to say ‘us we are now in charge. We are in charge of our fate and in charge of our future’ and we can agree not to cooperate but we can agree that our ecosystem needs many kinds of things and many kinds of people in all kinds of ways.”

  • We must free our imaginations

Or maybe it is that he genuinely believed that it was within our capacity to make the change; to make the world a bigger, more accommodating space for all. And that a small part in all of us wanted to believe along with him. 

It always has been – or it never was.

Michael Onsando
28 January ,2020

“It is important to remember this is all there is. And if it isn’t, then there isn’t any.”

Ram Dass

Perhaps it is the idea of the “journey” that has confused the metaphor of life for us. We are always heading somewhere, doing something, preparing ourselves for a moment. Knowing that when the moment gets here “we will know.” There will be a finality, an knowledge that all the time you have experienced has culminated.

And so we journey on. Always looking forward to our destination. We “hope” that when “something” happens, we will arrive at a present called “happiness.” Somehow we fail to see the irony that is in this same hope that keeps us blinded. The second of the four noble truths as described by Buddha talks about clinging as the root of suffering, yet somehow we also know that we must cling to something in order to maintain our sense of self. We see it all around in how we cling to tradition, to religion, to science, to ideals, to anything. To be human is to hold on and to be held on to.

There’s a story/parable/fable of sorts that talks about love and holding on to love. It compares the way we hold onto it to holding sand in your palm. Clenched too closely and the sand runs through your fingers back to the ground. Held loosely and the sand sits still in your palm, for as long as you would like. We cling to hope, hoping it will bring us happiness as if there is only one present – and it is in the future.

In many ways it is this hope that keeps us from ever arriving at the present we desire. Like an unclenching, all it takes is a small release for the fog to clear. Maybe this is why this idea of life as a series of achievements has us thinking that we can only really be happy 7 or 8 times across our lives. In the transitions, as the “major” things happen.

But then even those are quickly followed by their anxieties. You get a job – you are worried about keeping it/the next one. You graduate – you have to find a job. The great lie keeps us pursuing in perpetuity, the pursuit keeps us exhausted and our exhaustion weighs heavy on our shoulders. We end up walking around in this existential haze wondering what next? What now? How long until we arrive wherever we were headed? Eventually we begin to look at death as the finality we have been waiting for. As if death itself isn’t a transient state, because we are attached to this version of ourselves. This one we know and touch and remember and feel.

But I digress.

They say you cannot dream of a face that you have never seen. Nothing you create can come from a place that isn’t real. We only produce what we experience, we only experience what we know, we only know what we are aware of, we are only aware of what we see, we can only see what we don’t filter out. As we continue along this strange phenomenon, we shape the world around us. From the “truth” (as we have defined for ourselves) we create the world around us. From the way we see how we are seen and the way we interact with these interpretations we create the world. And we tell each other of the worlds we create “life is beautiful,” “life is suffering,” “life… is hard.”

Life is.

Maybe then, taking off our glasses gives us the chance to see and understand the chaos that is around us and to create presents that keep us content. In letting go of hope we find that we have arrived. Not only that we have arrived but perhaps that we’ve always been there – or, if not, we never will be.

This word “Fundi”

Michael Onsando
12 November ,2019

In many Bantu languages this word fundi exists. It usually means a master, a guru of some sort. Someone who has learned the art of whatever it is they are a fundi of (maybe if we had created the education system degrees would be called “fundi of medicine”).  The internet is a mess when it comes to finding the etymology of non English words. Urban dictionary guy says that the word fundi comes from the Turkish word funda, which translates to healthier. Other sources (also urban dictionary) on the internet tie it to the Nguni word umfundusi, meaning teacher – I prefer this definition.

What we can derive from the shape of the word itself shows the lineage of thought. One can easily see the progression from mtu anayeunda ni fundi. From mwanafunzi through to fundi via a process of kufunzwa. The word itself sounds something like “to make a fundi of” the process of kufunzwa has no other outcome other than the fundi.

The most natural meaning of the word fundi to me is “one who fixes.” That’s how I experienced its use in my life growing up. When something was broken we would take it to its corresponding fundi. Fundi wa mbao, fundi wa nguo, fundi wa viatu, fundi wa saa, fundi wa stima and so forth and so forth.

The fundi can only fix, however, because they are the master. They know how it works. And, in knowing how it works, they can identify what isn’t working as it should, like the mechanic in that story, the fundi is not charging for the moment of labour, but for the moments learning labour.

Nowadays, the most likely association of the term “fundi” is a car mechanic – and not any kind of car mechanic. Not the ones you find at autoexpress or DT Dobie, rather the kind of fundi you find on the side of the street with overgrown overalls. Where you make sure you don’t leave your car with a full tank of fuel or you might just be donating fuel to his errands. The type of fundi we look upon with distrust and a level of disdain. Who we are always in a tussle with about price.

But I like the classical definition more – an artisan or craftsperson. I like how the process mwanafunzi – funza – fundi – unda, speaks about a different way of organizing and seeing the world. I like the equality in dignity of labour that comes from knowing you can be fundi wa (whatever) (although kina daktari and wakili still stand outside for some reason). It is well known that culture hides in the breaths  between words  and this word fundi, for some reason, gives me hope that something else is possible.

Maybe this is why I have always loved watching fundis at work. When watching this work I am reminded of Gibran’s work is love made visible. Through their hands you can see years of repeated effort condensed into simple motion. And their approach to a often looks like how someone would approach a puzzle, not insurmountable but rather as something that needs patience and can be overcome.

In the greater glamourisation of things I see in the word fundi, the image of the mad genius. The person so fixated by their one problem (making the perfect, whatever) that everything else comes secondary. And in seeing this I go back to the dignity of labour, that every part is necessary and should  be seen and treated as necessary for the motion of the greater society. And that each of these masters, having dedicated themselves to one part of the larger picture are also people themselves dedicated to a larger goal. And because work is love, the larger goal is ultimately, a history of love. A history of love layered over hundreds and hundreds of generations. And to be a fundi is to add your layer, your thin layer of skin, over the top of whichever corner of the world ulifunzwa kuunda.

Twitter Bans Political Advertising but will that Help?

Michael Onsando
5 November ,2019

There’s probably no one happier with the news that twitter has banned political advertising on the platform than social media influencers. This category of industry players are set to make more money during any election season than ever before with politicians looking for a way to leverage the power of social media to sway the vote their way.

It makes sense that a social media platform would try to do something about political advertising, especially after it is being blamed for tampering with the US election. And, given that they are looking to do whatever they can to make sure Trump’s being voted in is not blamed on the record breaking ignorance of the American people, it’s time to blame the ads. And this makes sense because it is not just in the US that Cambridge Analytica data driven targeted advertising has fudged election results. Writing about the 2017 elections Rasna Warah wrote:

“The unethical tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica were revealed last year by the whistleblower Christopher Rylie, who claimed the company harvested Facebook data from millions of people around the world and then targeted them with political messages and misinformation without their knowledge or consent”

  • Cambridge Analytica and the 2017 elections

It also makes sense that it would be twitter seeing as Facebook, who recently went the completely opposite direction when they announced that they would not fact check political posts, owns all IG, Whatsapp and Facebook. Of course this makes sense because Twitter are still trying to gain more mileage in the market while Facebook can sit back and “allow” for cards to fall where they may because they have already dominated their corner of the market. As long as more ads are booked Facebook makes more money. And who books more ads en masse than Cambridge Analytica?

Even before we can move forward we need to ask “what is a political advertisement?” A question that has some obvious answers “Vote for me for mayor!” for example, falls squarely in this category. However, the things that are political change as the politic of the season morphs. Dams in Kenya have been highly political after the money that was supposed to build them disappeared. But would that mean that twitter has then to monitor posts related to dams for a season? Or would that be a gap for political candidates to gain mileage on social media?

It has also been argued that for political candidates with smaller fanbases the absence of this form of advertising will be a disadvantage as they will be speaking to a smaller audience (god forbid that they have to do on ground campaigns like it used to be before social media).

Both Facebook and Twitter CEOs have made a simple slippery slope argument. What happens when you start down that road? How far do you have to go? Facebook are talking about keeping free speech free and twitter are talking about protecting the end consumer and, eventually, democracy in general. Both of these decisions are also in line with the revenue received from political advertising and with their business model. For Twitter, the ban affects a small part of their revenue. Whereas some reports have Facebook and Google splitting up to 60% of any given campaign’s digital advertising budget (twitter does not get the remaining 40%).

Many words to say the bigger question remains unanswered – How do we curb mass manipulation by the political elite?

While Twitter seems to have the idea, as stated earlier, this just moves the incentive to influencers, who will charge top shilling for the platform they now offer. Facebook, on the other hand, seems to have made it clear – top budget wins the day on any of their platforms, again leaving the end user vulnerable.

“If education is the key, then tell me why the people have to make it so expensive for we”

There’s no question to the disruption that the digital world has done across all sectors of industry, communication being one of the hardest hit. Whereas before digital media the voter was at the mercy of whisper campaigns and official propaganda through newspapers and leaflets the rise of cyberbubbles has created a different type of monster. Micro-targetted bubbles means that messages one receives are the types of message that they would already be suspect to fall for. A Uhuru supporter is likely to receive even further Uhuru enforcing messaging and so forth.

And so the more things change, the more things remain the same. Now, more than ever, an informed educated voter is the only way to stop the cycle of electoral tampering.

The Citizens Know Best

Michael Onsando
29 October ,2019

“In the colonial countries, the spirit of indulgence is dominant at the core of the bourgeoisie; and this is because the national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons. It follows the Western bourgeoisie along its path of negation and decadence without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention, stages which are an acquisition of that Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances.”

Before I begin I should probably say that this essay might wind a little – bear with me, the thing I’m trying to talk about is not as straightforward as I’d like it to be. As a writer and someone who dips his feet in the arts industry every once in a while, I’ve been fascinated by trying to understand where our hearts and minds are turned to. Where do we get our stories from, who are we listening to? Who are we reading? Basically, who forms the identities that we shape ourselves around?

This is mainly because it is the work of the artist to craft work that can be consumed by their people. And this is often to look at their current palate and ask questions like “how is this cuisine made?” “what goes into this mix?” and “where can I find these ingredients?”

Looking into the past we can see, with some clarity, the cycle of influences on the zeitgeist by simply following things like top songs, movies and books of a period. We see the (for the most part) cycle between pursuing purely Western interests to vivid periods of “decolonization” where there is a peak in consumption of local art before the inevitable swing back to the consumption of Western media.

Of course, there are deviations in this data. And to say “this is being consumed” is not to say that “this has entirely been ignored.” But there is something in, say, what the globalization of rap culture says about where we, as a whole, are looking for our social cues. And it only takes one look around to see who is in charge of how we dress.

But this is not an essay about the depth of Western influence on our lives. I’m reminded that to see moving towards ourselves as a moving “back in time” is reductive. This is actually an essay on infrastructure, building, growth and imagination.

Take David Ndii:

“Before London built its iconic underground, it first built the world’s first modern sewerage system. Before Japan industrialised, it reformed governance and modernised and massively expanded education. The East Asian Tiger economies industrialisation was preceded by the Green Revolution.”

Because it’s one thing to say we are listening to music from here or watching there’s TV shows. That takes away from us in certain ways but mendable ways. It’s another thing altogether when we have defined what it means to have infrastructural progress by these same metrics. In his essay on Nationalism Fanon talks about how the middle class of colonized nations will define themselves by their ability to enjoy the same level of decadence that the previous middle class (comprised mostly of colonisers) has enjoyed. In order for this to happen they have to be ready to keep the means of production running as it was. Which will basically mean further enforcing the social engineering that brought in by the colonial state. We already spoke here about how Kenya is still (for the most part) stuck in models of production where we are a nation for export. Which is to say, mainly, exporting raw materials overseas for value addition before importing finished products at a much higher cost. Not only that, the goods we decide to maximize on are not necessarily aligned to our needs as a nation.

“The search for truth in local attitudes is a collective affair.”

Of course this all begins to have some kind of listening from the state (which opens up a whole conversation on trust, citizen investment in state actions and modes of governance). But even framing this as the state “listening” sounds like a sort of naomba serekali. It sees the government as having the power to listen and discern what is of value and what isn’t. When rather the level of listening needed needs to come up to a level of inclusion in the decision making process rather than this “daddy knows best” form of governance that we find ourselves stuck in.

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice our state’s aversion to any form of public participation. All one has to do is look at the Huduma Namba process, or at the implementation of the CBC or even at the SGR project.

The problem, of course, with state building is there are no pauses for thought. The work cannot be suspended for one month as we hold statewide dialogue about re-organising from the ground up. The people invested in the already existing system will always seek its continuation for their prosperity. And it’s wrong to assume that everybody who dreams of a different order has the best interests of the people at heart. But this isn’t to say steps can’t be taken to create a more inclusive Kenya, organized for Kenyans. Instead it is to ask at what we might need to put aside in the short term to create a more plausible long term situation.

After all, there’s only so many times we can raise the debt ceiling in the name of keeping up appearances while a little rain still causes “flash floods” across the country.

Does the State Even Listen?

Michael Onsando
22 October ,2019

On 28th July 2016 the central bank issued a statement on the adverse consequences of capping rates which included consequences like “inefficiencies in the credit market, credit rationing, the promotion of informal lending and undermining the effectiveness of monetary policy.” A few days later, after the rate caps became law, the bank had “nothing to say on the matter.”

Millions of closed loan accounts, the rise of tala, branch, okash and whoever else you can think of later, President freedom has had enough and is calling on the law to be repealed. This move, that came into play as the president refused to assent the 2019 Finance Bill, has led to a rallying bank stocks on the NSE as seven of the 10 banks listed on the NSE gained with investors showing more willingness to invest in the right environment.

But this is not just about whether investors will put their money in banks or not. The interest rate cap meant that banks have had a hard time pricing high risk loans with many of the banks actually choosing not to lend money to them. This means that rate caps have effectively cut off lending to the private sector, something that Anzetse Were attributes to our Government’s “debt appetite” (which is something we are well aware off). As a result, the people who were touted to be helped the most by this rate cap are left turning to other sources of credit with interests as high as 35% in some cases. This, of course, is bad for everyone, because no one even knows where that money is going. One could even argue that the lower end of the market is paying a separate tax to access credit – something that the rate cap was going to bring a stop to.

Of course, though, if you make any market section price their profit at a certain amount, the only people who will buy it are those who can buy it at a scale for that price point to make sense. Especially when it comes to money, which loses value faster than it can be paid back in most cases.

“Interior CS Fred Matiang’i has taken particularly bullish delight in this respect. When he is not terrorizing teachers, lambasting non-Huduma-registered citizens or preaching doom and exile to alien traders, he is in a conference flexing regulatory muscle on tax-defaulting betting companies. If you have caught one of his many tirades then, like me, you have probably thought one of either two things: (1) “Bah, we’ve arrived yet again at that precarious intersection of capitalism, the consumer and the state.” Or (2) “I’m not sure I like your tone, public servant.”

Betting, the Consumer and the State

The government’s contempt for any “outside” reasoning has, perhaps, been the key marker of being led by Jubilee.  Whether we’re hearing this in their “blame the citizen” tone, or we’re seeing it in several projects undertaken against all advise. A debt ridden SGR that leads to nowhere and dams that were never built come to mind as infrastructure projects that swallowed a lot of money even when all forecasts were calling them unfeasible. The CBC was forced down teacher’s throats despite their cries of unpreparedeness until the then CS for Education, Amina Mohamed, had to pull the programme for teacher training to happen at length. And we haven’t even talked about how we were all threatened into registering for the Huduma Namba – something that is now being unraveled before the courts.

Perhaps rather on focusing on every single time the government makes a less-than-ideal decision to get drawn into the cycle of rage, this is the larger pattern we should be working on getting through to the government. That there are professionals who know what they are doing out there. And that maybe, just maybe, paying a little attention would do us all a lot of good.

Making Kenya Work for Us

Michael Onsando
15 October ,2019

“Some of the kids only write about being deaf, others make a joke, other make a mention, some ignore the topic altogether. Not too different from the choices poets make anywhere else with gender or skin colour.”

If there’s one thing we know about the colonial era is that it did a number on us when it comes to figuring out our needs, priorities and, in general, centering ourselves. How the state was set up was purely to find a way to maximize the amount of benefit that can be derived from the protectorate for the benefit of our overlords. Large tracts of land were set aside to create cash crops, which were basically grown to sell overseas, industry was not set up by the “traditional capitalist” formula “see a need, fill a need.” Or rather, the needs being filled were not being decided by an inward looking metric but rather “how can we leverage this to make us happy.”

The re-organisation of this need has been felt in ripples across the continent where mineral, resource, farm etc – rich areas find themselves stricken with poverty and conflict because of the exploitative nature of the organisations that were (and continue to be) set up in those areas. Congo with its rare earth metals comes to mind. However, more closer to home, I think of crops like coffee and tea. Crops that we planted here en mass, and even hold ourselves proud on being the most recognizable global brands (as we should) despite despite coffee farming increasingly losing profitability and tea bonuses dropping.

Writing on the dual legacy of colonial cash crop production Tannick Pengl and Philip Roessler write:

“Across Africa, colonial authorities harnessed the economic, coercive and administrative power of their new states to increase production and bring these primary commodities to market. Toward this end, colonial governments provided extension services to increase yields, constructed processing centers, built roads and railways as well as power generation plants, administrative offices, hospitals and schools to service production areas.

Economic growth, thus, took off in those areas where cash crops were grown or minerals mined —- many of which were previously undeveloped due to a lack of infrastructure and a disproportionately high disease burden.”

It’s important to see the colonial state as what it was to avoid sounding like a conspiracy theory. They had no reason to “look out” for us. They were simply coming into a space to get what they can and go – which is okay. However, it is important to begin to understand what this means about the choices we make, the things we continue to continue, and the things that need to stop.

Further, it’s important to think about the way the choices we make is affected by the ways in which our choices are influenced by the way the setting of these blocks in place shielded or left us unshielded. For example, it easy to say that “colonialism was long in the past” if the decisions around the period were beneficial in your direction.

It’s harder to move on if you’re still hurting.

“I’m really happy for farmers in Kangundo who are freeing themselves of this colonial plant, coffee, to pursue other farming interests. As someone raised in one of those coffee farms I have no nice stories about coffee farming”

@Ndinda_ on twitter

And when you and all your people have done something for generations, it’s hard for the logic of dismantling to be heard. In response to Ndinda’s tweet about coffee @dndeti talks about demand for a different crop “Kitothya” in Kangundo. 

And how profitable it can be.

Which is exactly my point. Especially now  when we have roads increasing accessibility to parts of the country that had been deemed “unnecessary” by the colonial government, we need to ask ourselves what we need and how to create an ecosystem that sustains that rather than is designed for export. A friend talks about how as children we were brought up for export. He says this when talking about our education and dreams of Harvard, Oxford and other legacy schools. This is obviously more complicated than “use your own schools,” but there is something in here about finding ways to make the landscape that we have work for us.  And not even from a government perspective (although to imagine this change will happen without any policy work is madness) but from an us perspective. What decisions can we make within our own capacity to make Kenya work for us? And with the idea that Kenya should work for us in our minds, how would we navigate the world differently? How would we assign blame? How would we make our decisions?

But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?

  • Gambino

Anyone who reads me regularly enough knows I love this quote. It’s mainly because this is the beginning. To look around and see the other as a part of ourselves. To move in a way that uplifts, builds, unifies and strengthens rather than destroys. Then maybe we can begin to find ways to make this space work inwards, building and growing together towards the shared dream.

Besides, we all know by now that we are limitless.

When unlearning is an art

Michael Onsando
8 October ,2019

“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

  • Rob Siltanen

We all have a picture of what kind of person becomes the “creative.” The one who can’t sit still, with a head full of ideas and a heart full of passion. The one who you couldn’t convince to sit through anything because their mind was racing too far too fast. The one, as I read somewhere, who clings to childhood all the way through to their adulthood and has the ability to bring the child out in almost anyone.

Even if they don’t see it themselves it is seen by the people around them – the creative “genius” is often led down every path except the one that is painfully obvious is best suited for their temperament.

And it became even harder for the generation that came up during the time when art and music had been scrapped from the national curriculum. It’s not even that the subjects were unavailable to be taught (which they were). But because they were completely removed there was a connotation of non-importance that came about. So even to an uncomfortable child who had the means to learn art, music, sports and so forth outside school “why should I?” and “What’s the point?” quickly became the questions in their minds. These questions were then further reinforced by societal pressure, further insisting that a skill be buried, not worked on, pursued as a hobby in lieu of  something more “serious.” And so those who could draw pushed into architecture, those who could write to the law and so forth and so forth.

“Even if you let em’ kill your dream. It’ll haunt you”

  • J Cole

It never goes away.

We know this because Sting only became Sting after being a teacher for all those years. Our very own Mwalimu Gregg Tendwa only really broke out after working in the NGO world for a good number of years (bad number of years? What constitutes… I digress). This is because by the time one digs beyond the years of social conditioning to find their voice the path has often been long and winding. The path to being an artist here often involves leaving (for a residency or course or something) or self discovery through whatever you find along the way as you work odd jobs – something I wrote about here.

The art of unlearning by Chief Nyamweya charts the winding path taken by one Gituma in his bid to cling to his own creative voice while still trying to make something bigger than him. The 112 page, beautifully illustrated graphic novel is packed with vivid imagery and philosophy as his three mysterious teachers hand him the key to unlocking the vault within his own mind.

Writing about unlearning Chief Nyamweya himself writes:

“Unlearning is simply an inverse vision of learning. Whereas the traditional view of learning was about accumulating information, unlearning recognizes the abundance and ubiquity of digital information and therefore emphasizes instead how we can discover our innate potential or passion and share it. Passion is the rocket fuel behind all learning pursuits. Unleashing this energy is the purpose being The Art of Unlearning.”

With increased digitization we are left with an unsure image of what the future will look like, whether the traditional economies will be able to absorb as many people into working roles or even whether traditional jobs will exist. Yet still we seem interested in creating a future of prosperity of opportunity (not even sure if the present is one of prosperity, but that’s an entire different essay altogether). And, in these uncertain times, it’s the builders of a new terrain that hold the advantage – something that the Art of Unlearning explains.

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

  • Miles Davis

But more than explains, it encourages, affirms and offers tools to aid the still lost, still confused, still reaching and still trying artist to reach within themselves to find a way to sound like themselves in a world that’s constantly telling them to sound different.

In the words of the chief – this is your time.

The Art of Unlearning by Chief Nyamweya is available at

Build the School at Lenana, then do More

Michael Onsando
1 October ,2019

Back when Lenana School was the auspicious Duke of York students were housed at the residence of the British Colonial Governor, currently known as State House. This was temporary as they waited for construction of the 9-hole gold course, rifle range, horse stables, cricket oval with pavilion, sports fields, swimming pools and numerous dormitories to be completed.

It would not be until 1963 that the school would see it’s first African and Asian students being admitted and not until the 1969 that James Kamunge, the first African principal was appointed to head the all-white staff. By this time the country had changed hands, priorities were being re-organised and it was almost our turn to eat. Lenana school with its laundry services that needed paid staff, golf course that needed watering and horse stables that needed hay was quick to fall to the wayside. Kamunge himself wrote a report on the deterioration of education in the 70s and 80s which was quickly buried in the graveyard where reports go to disappear.

“State departments of Public works,Education & Youth (NYS) will work with Board of Lenana school to put up a public primary school to be ready by next term to cater for the children of Ngando area where the school tragedy occurred. The process kicked off this morning in earnest.”

The wake of the tragedy at Precious Talents Academy School in Nairobi was like the wake of any other tragedy in the country. Like the death of Ken Okoth suddenly brought cancer to the forefront of discussions for all of 2 hours (don’t @ me. It might have been 3) so did this tragedy call our attention to the lack of infrastructure in the country. Politicians, as they invariably do, came out with their guns (figuratively) blazing and MP John Kiarie noted that the prestigious schools with over 200 acres of land could easily donated an acre or two to develop a primary school for the area.

And this isn’t the first time it has been suggested.

But it IS an interesting suggestion with interesting implications.

Marvin Sissey, in the Business Daily, writes that it shouldn’t be done because Lenana School was designed to be “green” (and we all know two acres going to make a primary school means that the ice caps will melt TODAY). He also notes that the informal settlements need other resources such as hospitals and housing and as such, I guess, they don’t need schools. After all – it isn’t like a good education will give people the tools to solve their own problems… wait.

But I’m not here to argue with a sentimental laibon – being one myself. Besides, the school board, in a statement released on Monday, already said that they will be building “a Junior Academy as a Centre of Excellence” which “will be in line with the School’s Strategic Plan for the period 2020 – 2030” Still not sure if this means a primary school, but it definitely is a step in the right direction.

No, this is about legacy institutions, what they mean, why they stand and how they can be adapted to suit our current realities. What do these things signal to? I’m reminded of kipande house, what it stands for and why it is still named that. Or the ironically named nyayo house that has a different kind of legacy. What are the luxuries we protect that denote class brought from? Lenana school, even if restored to it’s former glory, still reeks of a British elite having four o’clock tea and heading out to the paddocks for a ride on the horse.

And what does it mean to hold on to this idea of elite as the idea that we need? When will we start to re-imagine the role of these institutions and who they need to work for and create an “elite” learning environment for them? When, for example, will we tear down the name Carrey Francis from all the dormitories he has named after him and find people of our own to celebrate? Or, at the very least, build them a school on an acre of land?