Debt, Opportunity Cost or Money Lost?

Michael Onsando
16 April ,2019

By this point in time the younger generations of African nations must have made peace with the massive debt burden that we will be inheriting when it is finally our turn to take the wheel. Take this paragraph from the conversation for example:

Many of these Eurobonds will mature between 2021 and 2025. It will require these sub-Saharan African countries to repay an average of just under $4 billion annually in that period. But they are already currently bleeding a rising total of just over $1.5 billion in annual coupon payments on these Eurobonds. This represents a total of an additional $15 billion across the term of the Eurobonds. The total accumulated bonds are in excess of $24 billion. The principle amount of this is $35 billion.

35 billion is intense right? Well, here’s the clincher – that was in 2016. Kenya currently is considering another Eurobond for about $2.55 billion despite not receiving a vote of confidence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without out a programme from the IMF we are unlikely to secure investor confidence which means, you guessed it, this is expensive debt (we’re basically borrowing from Tala to pay Branch now).

Why would the IMF refuse to give the trade the nod? Well turns out we failed to meet the requirements needed to keep the programme we had. Requirements such as repealing the interest rate capping law. You know, the kinds of laws that these things were written about:

“Despite good intentions, interest rate ceilings have actually hurt low-income populations by limiting their access to finance and reducing price transparency.”


So, basically, laws that might not even be protecting the people that they claim to be taking care of.

But the point of this essay is not to go on about bad debt (or even good debt) and how much of it that we have. Instead it is to engage with the concept. Having themselves inherited a country that was focused on robbing itself clean rather than development, our leaders find themselves with a window of opportunity (which could be closing), as there is a paradigm shift in power. The west is not completely consolidated in its will (and that’s putting it in the most delicate terms possible) and China is rising faster using capitalism – the tool of the west themselves – against the world. Somehow, the Africas have become the battlefield on which this war plays out. Whether it is our “burgeoning middle class” or our largely youthful population it is increasingly important to have Africa on your side.

This also comes at a time when African markets are working through their distrust of local brands. Increasingly it is important for big brands not only to have their logo on some shops in major cities but also to demonstrate presence in tangible ways (beyond bare minimum legal stipulations). More local brands are holding their “localness” in high esteem and foreign brands trying to look as local as they can without having to lie outright. Simple examples of this are the current transition of Barclays to Absa or AoN changing to Minet Group Africa to make their brands more comfortable to local audiences. Jumia, on the otherhand, is being taken to the cleaners on twitter over claiming Africanness despite being registered in Germany and doing most of its white collar heavily lifting out of Portugal.

And, given the winds of the global politic, it is only likely that this trend is set to rise as consumers continue to make the link between local shareholding and wealth redistribution.

So perhaps it is this opportunity that African governments seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of. Amidst this chaos is the perfect time to call for an increment of investment in the region by both local and foreign investors. Indeed we have seen a lot of work to encourage investment with business set up costs going down and the ease and processes being cut to the point that one can basically start up a business on their own. However, we also have to deal with increased taxes and licenses such as excise duty on bank withdrawals and the cost of bringing equipment into the country – which was supposed to be solved by the SGR, a story on procurement and ideas that deserves (and has received) several essays of its own.

And this isn’t even the biggest problem facing manufacturing in the country. Take this from the star:

While the cost of energy in Kenya has been the subject of debate time and again, efforts targeted at lowering the cost of energy have had minimal impact on the overall cost of energy. However, with the modernisation of Kenya’s energy legislative framework, through the Energy Act 2019 and Petroleum Act 2019, it is expected that the cost of energy will subsequently decline, signifying a reduction in the cost of production and ultimately an increase in Kenya’s international competitiveness.

Policy measures to support the manufacturing sector

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass Alice (from wonderland) comes across the Red Queen, the interaction goes as follows:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Perhaps it is because they too inherited a country that was unprepared for the opportunity that lay ahead and, in a rush to meet the deadline, they have been forced to overleverage themselves, leaving us in a very vulnerable position. Or maybe it’s just bad management. Whatever the reason is, the rate at which debt is growing in relation to the amount we produce has set us up with the red queen’s race and it seems that we might have to run as hard as we can just to ensure that we don’t collapse under the weight of a burden in whose size we had no say.

Thank god we’re also a generation fascinated by running shoes.

Invisible to everything but blame

Michael Onsando
9 April ,2019

Perhaps the most critical question to the establishment of a capitalist system is the idea of the individual. In order for capitalism to exist the individual must not only exist but be a “productive member of society” contributing in whichever way to the distribution of resources and the gross domestic product. With this came the ideas of weighting and quantifying these contributions and deciding that this has further value than the other. And, of course, keeping the “high value” labour for the individuals that are held in “high esteem” or considered “better than” other members of society. In this way capitalism continues to reward those who have the capital/knowledge to exploit the system while consistently taking away/erasing the labour of those who are structurally held back. What’s more it continues to undervalue/devalue any labour that will not show immediate returns in terms of profit.

Anne Moraa writes:

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker (…) It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Unseen and unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

And we don’t need to go that far to understand the implications of erasure. Feminist politics has done a vast (very vast) amount of labour in touching and exposing forms of invisible labour and how the invisibling of this labour perpetuates age-old myths of value and roles. And of course with these myths of value told through a capitalist mind frame comes ideas of “laziness”  and “disposableness.” It’s not a large leap from “disposable” to “burdensome” – and who wants to carry around a burden with them? The individual, in a capitalist society, is free to use their capital as they deem fit. The capital, after all, has been earned and is a true reflection of the value of their labour (as has been pre-ordained by a capitalist patriarchal society).

A cycle of oppression that has continued to redefine the boundaries of what it is to produce value and has left us all pursuing the fast paced big deal life that is reserved for the people who hold capital, the so called “creators of employment.” This life, we imagine, is “better.” (Not going into this because who knows what better even means? But we all know that wealth gives you more access to things, which are generally nice). Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, says this about starting from money:

I could be a billionaire if I wanted to be a billionaire, and I’m not because I don’t want to be a billionaire. That’s an insane amount of money. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to make money if you start with money. And then people give themselves credit for being that smart when they’re not.

And, of course, when a person in the right suit tells us how to make money we are likely to believe them – don’t they have money? Surely they know a thing or two – this is how network marketing is still a thing, or how we were caught by the quail egg bug. And, just like any network marketing * cough* pyramid * cough* scheme by the time we know it we are left holding a batch of useless information, a lot of debt and wasted time, as the individual collects their profits from the activity and walks away to be interviewed by whoever or the other financial empowerment magazine/blog.

“We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa. There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing. And we have to questions why is there this big push for us to innovate ourselves around problems that our leaders, our taxes, our policymakers, ourselves, to be quite frankly, should be grappling with.”

This individualized thinking does a lot of work in moving and shifting the narrative away from the problems that do not fall squarely on the individual’s shoulders. It creates a situation where the individual is solely responsible for their rise and fall. And, in this environment, hunger goes up a notch. With the knowledge that we must find a way to pay for our own medical insurance, a premium for good education, naviagate overpriced, unstructured transport systems and more we leave the house with a weight, a burden on our shoulders every day. And (whatever kind of) capitalism (we have) demands that this weight is our own. And indeed it is, because the human next to you bears an equal if not greater weight.

This, in turn leaves citizens in a situation where whatever resources they can access are far thinner than whatever demands are placed upon them, creating a desperation in that hunger. It is in this desperation that we are left vulnerable to predatory loan products like those created by Tala and Branch (what even are those interest rates?) while consistently praising them for, at least, creating access to credit.

This backwards way of placing responsibility steers us way from the individuals that are actually culpable for happenings in society and turns it back on the citizen. Gathara writes:

Instead of blaming individuals for fomenting chaos, we have chosen to see entire communities as culpable. We accepted the “official truth” that we were all responsible for the 2007 tragedy, that we were all potentially murderous. In doing so, we have generated a climate of fear and hatred wherein every dispute is seen as an existential threat. Since every neighbour is a potential machete-wielding psycopath in disguise, every action and utterance is the potential spark for mindless, all-consuming violence. This is the genesis of our mutual terror of one another, the consequent quashing of dissent, and the loud and incessant calls for a peaceful silence.  

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

Gambino, Boogieman

This idea that there’s a certain level of productivity we must achieve to “deserve” certain things is a dangerous and dehumanizing one that steers the conversation away from the one we need to be having. Which is – when will our government provide actual safety nets? Or are we to continue by exploited by state capture and self-benefiting policies while we continue to see each other as the enemy?

How Long will Africa be Rising?

Michael Onsando
26 March ,2019

It’s always been imperative – perhaps even fundamental – to the western neoliberal narrative that Africa is rising.  This, of course is something we know. The developmental complex has, for years, been reliant on this image of a “rising” Africa to push reports full of words like “sustainability,” “effective,”  “emerging” and “give us funding.”

The narrative itself is obviously complex. It cannot be erased because it is grounded in some truths such as the expanding middle class and high growth rates on the continent vis-à-vis other continents (and not even talking about the potential for growth with large underdeveloped areas).   So let’s talk about Kenya instead.

A recent budget forecast shows the country will continue to import China’s fish for at least three years. The 2019 budget policy statement, the basis of the national budget, pegs local fish production at 180,000 tonnes a year. That’s against Kenya’s “requirement of 500,000 tonnes.” But “the government is working towards producing more fish”, the national treasury said in the February 2019 document.  

But many times it feels like we stubbornly place ourselves in this space of hatuna uwezo and insist that it is the case, falling on more expensive less forward thinking solutions to plug temporary stopgaps. Then, after tiring ourselves out by pursuing temporary solutions, we turn around exhausted and throw our hands in frustration delivering “stern talk” rather than results.

“ “People don’t want to buy Chinese fish because they don’t trust the [farmed] production process, but we don’t have much of a choice,” says Mechak, standing next to a big wicker basket of whole Chinese tilapia fish.

The trampled cardboard boxes used to ship the frozen fish 8,000 km (5,000 miles) are stashed away in a corner, and the fish itself is more than two years old.

It will expire in less than a month, according to the dates on the boxes.”

Chinese imports “driving fishermen to despair”

The country needs about 500,000 tones of fish per year – only 140,000 tonnes of which can be provided by local farmers. So the fish import question (like all other import questions) becomes complicated. Do we develop local capacity to fulfill demand or do we allow this fish in at risk of killing the local market?

But the question doesn’t seem to have been considered. And when considered it seems more to be a response to “Chinese imports” as a threat rather than a proactive “where we finna find this fish we need folks?” Consider this lead paragraph from Business Daily:

“Kenya is investing Sh14 billion in the fisheries sector under a new programme to bridge the deficit created by the controversial ban on China fish imports.

The aquaculture business development programme, a partnership between the government and The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is aimed at addressing the scarcity of fish in the country.

This comes barely a month after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that fish imports from China will be banned.

“We are implementing a new fisheries model aimed at addressing the current challenge that the country has faced over years,” said Sammy Macharia, assistant director of Fisheries.”

Sh14bn spend to bridge Chinese fish imports ban

Reactionary decision-making has been the way in this country ever since William Omamo heard of his sacking on the radio as he drove to Nairobi from Bondo. But reactionary decision-making is just a symptom of the pre-occupation of the people in power with things other than their job:

“Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid.”

Considering the public in policy

Anyway, according to WITS (World Integrated Trade Solution) Kenya is one of the countries with the largest negative trade balances in the region only out-imported by Ethiopia – which is a problem given that we are also one of the largest economies in the region.

This isn’t a simple “buy Kenya, build Kenya conversation, rather it is a question. Is it about time we dug ourselves out of this “rising” narrative? Or are we comfortable to be the perpetual little brother in the world – a market for dysfunctional, discarded products and short-term sustainable, emerging and effective developmental aid?

Then again, maybe Akothee will save us.

Cheza na Nare

Michael Onsando
12 March ,2019

“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”

There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.

“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/

Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/

Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)

It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/

Bila mziki bado namanga/

Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”

The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.

“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”

In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.

 “The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”

We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”

And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…  

Considering the Public in Policy

Michael Onsando
5 March ,2019

A friend of mine recently quit their job in policy lamenting that it was a waste of time. Not because policy is a waste of time but because “policies in Kenya are not guided by anything other than the whims of the people in power.” Recently, reading about the idea to have Kenya Airways take over JKIA, I see their point.

“The PIC(Public Investments Committee) says it is concerned the country would lose Sh8 billion in revenue annually if it allows KQ to run the airport — KAA’s main revenue-generating asset which also contributes 5.1 per cent of the country’s GDP.”

Inside Kenya Airways – KAA Partnership Deal – The star

The struggles that Kenya airways is undergoing are not new to any passing observer of the country. Plagued with strikes, falling stock prices and an ex-CFO who just wouldn’t go away, the company has been bailed out by the government twice already. This deal is said to be the only thing that will keep KQ from completely falling through. If we choose to go deeper we find that the national carrier had made dubious decisions when it comes to financial longevity that range from fuel hedging (a practice it might start again) to which aircrafts to buy and when. 

“To generate this kind of surplus, the railway would have to have a turnover of at least Sh120 billion. Assuming that it charges the prevailing tariff of US$1,000 per container, it would need to carry 1.4 million 20-foot containers a year, 4,000 a day. That would take about 48 very long trains every 24 hours. The busiest single line railways in the US, for instance, run 20 trains a day.”

The SGR is a great example of a megaproject that, despite numerous warnings, was pushed through anyway. Now we’re straddled with a contract that states (in part) “Neither the borrower (Kenya) nor any of its assets is entitled to any right of immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise from arbitration, suit, execution or any other legal process with respect to it’s obligations under this agreement.” It’s this loophole that had people wondering about how vulnerable we had left the port, especially after China had already taken over one port in Sri Lanka.

What’s going on?

The system isn’t broken, it was built this way

  • Anon

I don’t like statements that assume people in power are stupid/unthinking. Rather, I prefer thinking about what it would mean if the things that are happening are deliberate  and, maybe not planned, but a reaction/proaction towards or away from something. In this sense perhaps the mistake we have made is that assuming the state is an egalitarian democratic space (yaani, that Kenya cares about us all – and all equally). Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid. 

The burdens and benefits of the use of resources and public borrowing shall be shared equitably between present and future generations.

A good state snowballs into growth. With previous generations gathering momentum from previous decisions to continue to push the mantra of progress (whatever it has been imagined as). This works because the people in power are tasked with imagining projects that would catapult their society into the future. However, a group of people clinging to legacy will find themselves caught in the past, making decisions that promise to bring back something that was. Restoring past glory, compounding bad decisions into an eventual clusterfuck that forces them to act. This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfill an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.” After all, we really needed to spend 25 billion shillings on student laptops so we could know that the project wouldn’t work and finally kill it – no one could have seen that one coming.

Another Essay on Poverty

Michael Onsando
26 February ,2019

There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.

“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”

  • The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud

This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.

Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.

“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”

The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.

The elephant here being poverty.

Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.

Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?

As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.

Jameni.

Aint nothing but a hair thing

Michael Onsando
29 January ,2019


The 15 year old teenage girl who was allegedly kicked out of Olympic secondary school in Kibra for having dreadlocks will continue to stay out of school after the court failed to issue orders for her unconditional return to school.

High Court Declines to Order Dreadlocked girl back to school

The things we hold onto are the things that will eventually become the things that define us. And when we hold on to definitions  like “proper” and “neat” as defined through the colonial lens, then we continue to ensure that the world doesn’t change. That we remain in the past, controlled by the same things that we claim to be leaving behind.

When CS Amina Mohammed asked that the Rastafarian girl be allowed back to school there was a refusal to hang on to things that should not matter.

“The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 24, however, reversed the decision by the Appellate court stating that each school had liberty to determine their students’ dress code. “

Supreme court reverses order allowing muslim girls to wear hijabis to school

“The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”

Recognising Strangers, Ahmed.

 I keep going back to this definition of the stranger whenever I think of identity. Ahmed does a great job of breaking down the image of the stranger and further of stranger danger.  I like going back to her work because it’s easier to see how this position of stranger can be created as a phenomenon and how no amount of explaining, unmaking and remaking of oneself can turn them from being a stranger.

What’s worse is we are socialized to fear what we don’t understand or, to frame it better, what we recognize as outside our frames of understanding.

“It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.”

How does it end?

And, in knowing the stranger as well as we do – we know the shape of our fears exactly. Wagalla becomes Mpeketoni becomes Kasarani becomes Garissa becomes El Adde. We cry, one Kenya and ask ourselves how it stops, but do little work to untangle the mess that is created by the idea of a core identity and fringe identities.

Which brings me back to the debate on schools and hair. I find it interesting that the two questions surround identities with complicated history. The dreadlocked rastafari spelled nothing but fear to the colonial administration – ripple of which continue to  be seen today. The hijabi, on the other hand, has been used to symbolize islam, which our fear has problematically interlinked with terrorism.

In this way, I’ve been wondering about the value of the heavily Judeo-Christian values that we insist on espousing as a society. Whether it is through Mutua’s consistent banning of films, through our militant and persistent homophobia or just the looks that one gets after admitting they don’t believe in god, how does it help us?

How does it help when the courts have to step in over a debate on how a girl should wear her hair to school? What anarchy will be born of accepting that the choices we make with our bodies are our own? How does it look when we are allowed to grow within our own parameters and towards our own goals, rather than holding ourselves back because who we are might step on the toes of something that we have been afraid of for so long that we only recognize it’s presence through our own fear?

And let’s not act like we don’t know what fear can do. Remember that a pervasive culture of fear in white America contributed largely to the voting in of Trump – a disaster whose results we are yet to fully experience.

“The Garissa Township legislator said Kenyans of all faiths have the right to hold true to their religious edicts and Muslims are no exception.”

Duale trashes Supreme Court ruling on hijabs

Identity runs deep. People are more likely to follow their god than any court ruling and to enforce the court ruling further leads to religious persecution which is not only wrong but continues to perpetuate the same fear that we are working so hard to get past. And in our fear, we lash out and in their pain they retaliate. And yesterday becomes today becomes tomorrow – again.  

How does it end?

Michael Onsando
22 January ,2019


Since 1975 there have been about 350 attacks on Kenyan soil.

1998 was the first time knew of a thing called a terror. My mother, my sister, my aunt and I were heading home along Haile Selassie Avenue when there was an explosion behind us. I don’t remember much after that. My aunt held our heads down as my mum sped away. A few minutes later there was a second blast.

There was no social media at the time. If the New York Times published photos we knew little of it – or at least, sheltered from the adult world, I knew little of it. Prayer meetings, gossip, locker rooms and other informal gatherings were the main way we heard.  Teachers announced sudden absences that brought grief to our attention “Marube won’t be in class today, we would like to keep him and his family in our prayers.”

I remember the days that followed the attack – things that don’t make the news. I remember the alertness to loud sounds that followed. I remember rash “you can’t sit with us”. I remember the way fear, anxiety, anger and confusion hang in the air – emotional debris left behind long after blast dust had been cleaned up. 

Terrorism (noun)

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

The death toll for the attack last week at Dusit D2 now stands at 21 and the country is in mourning. There is little to say that hasn’t already been said. Already we have seen multiple calls for accountability. Already we have seen posts calling out against xenophobia. Already we have seen collective anger wielded and focused on the New York Times – ungrievable bodies continue to be ungrieved by the Western world. Already we have seen the posts about the “resilience of the Kenyan spirit” urging us to be unafraid, to be resilient.

“I am almost selling my house and anybody interested should contact me. Having undergone 11 main surgeries and an unknown number of surgeries remaining, I need more than KES200,000 for tissue grafting in my leg alone. I don’t know what the other operations will cost.”

There is nothing romantic about death and less in survival when it comes to these things. To die is to be dead and to live is to ask why. Years later, the pain remains in tangible and intangible ways. Perhaps this is why it is called terrorism. It doesn’t exist in the moment itself but in the days that follow. In the decisions that we refuse to make and in the memories that are tainted. The terror that grips and controls us when we come face to face with our vulnerability causes us to question our every step. Reminds us that we, too, are subject to the whims and wills of warmongerers.

And that feeling is not comfortable. We don’t like it. We lash out at people we shouldn’t. We look for answers where they don’t exist. But, most of all, we are lost. We wander and wonder – where will they hit next?

“All of us are paying already for this bout of blood-thirst. We will go on paying, for many years to come. We will pay with our taxes, our un-built schools and hospitals, our unpaid teachers, our still-jobless youth, our rapidly deteriorating security situation, our shattered relationship with our neighbours.”

On 15th January 2016 Al-Shabaab militants launched an attack on a Kenyan-run AMISOM army base in the town of El Adde, Somalia – it remains one of the largest defeats the KDF has ever suffered with the death toll estimated to be around 200. This date shows up again with more casualties, this time in 2019 in Nairobi. We know, because we know, that in war there are no coincidences. Just as we know that this death and killing has been going on for years and even before the late Saitoti declared war on Al Shabaab in 2011 we had been fiddling with ideas of war, invasion and destruction. All this to say, that this too is a boomerang of cause and effect that goes way beyond our lifetimes into the past.

How far back should we go?

It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.

Wars with their noise affright us: when they cease,

We are worse in peace:

What then remains, but that we still should cry,

Not to be born, or being born, to die.  

There is no hope in this piece.

As stated earlier, there’s little to be said that hasn’t been said. There’s little to be felt that hasn’t been felt. Instead we bury our dead, tend to our wounded, hide our fears, wander and wonder – is it possible to bring the cycle of violence to a close? Are the people in charge even trying? Or are they more preoccupied with figuring out 2022 elections?

Anything’s Possible. The Millenial Conundrum

Michael Onsando
15 January ,2019

“Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.”

― Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

It’s hard to be a millennial and not navel-gaze on the state of millenials. Perhaps the proliferation of social media has made us more self indulgent. Or maybe the number of think pieces written on millenials has us thinking there really is a problem. Are millenials really the first generation to be obsessed by avocados?

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

– Nina Simone

It’s impossible to detangle dreams from the fears and insecurities that birthed them. In order to know what a generation was collectively dreaming we need to know what they are running away from. When it comes to “the dream” as is consistently shifting and changing, it is impossible to disentangle it from the society at large with major happenings changing the course of our desire.

My grandfather was a member of the independence generation. For this generation freedom was important. Having lived through a rapid period of political change and witnessing several major structural changes they knew that change was possible. That the permanence of things was an illusion and it could be changed through repeated action and sacrifice – they respected what this sacrifice meant. Sacrifices whose consequences my father’s generation had learned to live with. Soon a generation came about that consistently made decisions toward stability. And the environment was perfect for this. The market that was hungry for skilled labour due to expanding infrastructure and a new government eager to lay the foundations for a new country.

This all came crashing sometime before or after ‘82. I can’t say it with much accuracy – I wasn’t born yet – but there seems to be a consensus that  the generally psyche was not the same after the attempted coup. With his trust betrayed, Moi became more Moi than he had ever been. Conservative decision making was further enforced. Perform your role, stay silent and stay out of the way was the mantra.

So where did the loud, disrespectful millenials with their Kanga hoodies, Sauti Sol and natural hair blogs come from? And what purpose do they serve? (Besides perpetuating a love for casual clothing)

It is two decades now since Beijing began prioritising its relations with Africa, recognising the continent’s value as a source of minerals and other raw commodities and its potential as a market for Chinese goods produced at low cost. The relationship has grown at a staggering pace since, encouraging other emerging nations in turn to look at Africa with different eyes. On the heels of the Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Russians and Turks, among others, have all intensified their courtship.

The 21st Century Great Game is Africa’s to lose

To be a millennial is to be poised on promise.

We were brought up to follow our dreams because anything is possible. We are unsatisfied with the current state of affairs (especially when the person telling you it’s impossible can’t rotate a PDF). And the Internet has fueled this desire; suddenly things seem within reach.

In this way, I believe, we share certain optimism with the independence generation. Too young to remember Moi (some of us even claim to miss him) we are more aware to the idea of a Kenya that is changing – that can change. We have seen the fall of Moi and the construction of bypasses. We have also seen political violence, monarchial politics and terrorism. We know that anything – good or bad – is possible given enough willpower.

“We had become our parents, silenced, cynical of everything political, distrustful of those who did share our story and uncertain about what the future held for our children. It might be 2018, yet 36 years later Moi’s protégés continue playing by the same rule book of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, political assassinations, electoral theft and violent suppression of dissent. The uncertainty that defined the 80s is still here but the unbwogable generation that came of age in 2002, is invested in personal cultivated bubbles of security, no longer willing to rattle the status quo.”

“To acknowledge that the ideals that make up the society should not erase or ignore certain people whose existence are in/within/revolve around the same society. It does not mean I am ignorant of the moral fabric of the society, but it allows me to believe in recalibration or readjustments of the society and to re-evaluate what works to include the largest number – as many as everyone – into this society.”

And maybe then to be poised on the promise that anything is possible is to hope and work towards ensuring that the possibilities we evoke are beautiful, because they will definitely be ours.  

Whither Culture?

Michael Onsando
8 January ,2019

“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.

Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”

Rusinga Festival Rowers
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.

The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.

I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.

Tug of war at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.

The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”

It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”

“Except today it is fashionable to scream

of pride and beauty as though it were not known that

‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “

Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.

It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.

But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?

Dancer at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth.

We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.

Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.