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 www.artofunlearning.com

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?

I pity the talent

Michael Onsando
24 September ,2019

“Life is cheap here, but wisdom is free.”

  • Knaan, What’s Hardcore

It was August this year that the Kenya Morans basketball team posted a video online talking about how they haven’t been paid despite being in the quarterfinals of the FIBA AfroBaesket Women Championship. The Kenya 7s team is yet to be paid for last year’s Safari sevens and have had several payment woes that I’ve written about here. This week Moses Ojuang writes about Philemon Otieno in the Nation. He talks about how, having been injured and in need of knee surgery it doesn’t look likely that the nation is going to pick up the bill. And even if they do now, or in the case of the Morans (or many other athletes) it’s often after a few rounds of loud public shaming. Which makes one wonder about the other athletes who are too proud or too shy or too anything. to put their matters in public.

“To play for Harambee Stars these days is a curse that many may not comprehend. It is a curse that cannot be stemmed.”

“I mean it’s sad traveling and living in all the 5star hotels and coming back home to a locked house because you haven’t paid rent, I mean how do you expect results with this kind of environment?”

The competency-based curriculum is designed to let students focused on the areas in which they thrive. In essence the new system is preparing the children coming up to live in a world where there is dignity in all forms of labour. In a world where labour is labour is labour. Whether they decide to pursue a career in arts, sports, finance, medicine, mechanics or anything else, we will have made a space for them and trained them to see the dignity and skill in their field of work.

In Africa our career options are lawyer, doctor, engineer and disgrace to the family.

  • Twitter Proverb

“There is no dignity in poverty”

  • The wolf of wallstreet

Recently I’ve wondered about whether these decisions we thought we were shamed into making came from a place of hiding our shame. Whether the limitation of the choices available to us were because our parents were only trying to get us on a path that would allow us to take care of ourselves. It’s not that our career options were limited because there is anything “superior” about the labour undertaken by more traditional professions but more that their value is easily recognised and monetised and, in some cases, legislated. You MUST have a lawyer to start a company, you MUST have your books looked at by an accountant of sorts. With the way our budgets are shaped and the perspectives of our leaders talent is easily replaceable and excellence is not necessarily a guarantee of success (then again, excellence isn’t a guarantee of success in any profession).

And it’s not just sports that are suffering. The response to this status by Tetu Shani shows that music is struggling with proper models and infrastructure for musicians outside “write us a club banger.” And this video of Ethic shows vitu kwa ground ni different. Not to mention we haven’t even gone into the struggle of a visual artist.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not even looking to create millionaires (although that wouldn’t be horrible). Just wondering about whether it is possible to be a working class artist/athlete in the country. And about the kind of world we are so willingly training more artists and athletes for. Are we doing the work to plug the infrastructure gaps that exist in the world around us? Or will we wait for them to come out into the world holding nothing but dreams and hoping against hope that they don’t get injured playing for their national team? 

Nothing to write anywhere about

Michael Onsando
17 September ,2019

Despite Macdonald Mariga being cleared to run in the Kibra by-election, Tob Cohen’s thrilling murder, dreadlocks being made legal in schools(thus raising the hijab question)  and the various electoral shenanigains, there is nothing to write about in the news this week. There is nothing to write about because there is nothing inherently new about what has happened. And whatever you want to read(or will be written) about any given issue would be an articulation of what you already know and agree/disagree with.

Let me explain.

The Tob Cohen story births three fundamental questions first “are rich men safe from the women they are living with?” Second, what is the complex relationship between the expat and the local (or should I use immigrant and native?)? Third “what is the perfect murder? And in what circumstances is murder, not necessarily acceptable but, understandable. Everything written will be based off these questions or an offshoot of the same. The dreadlocks story births questions on religious expression, a few jokes about weed smoking and maybe a long form piece on decolonization and the steps we have taken towards it. The same about Mariga and electoral shenanigans in the country, attainable documents and psychophancy.

After about 6 years of running this site I’m beginning to wonder if there really is anything new that actually happens. Whether the act of writing does the work we think it will do, spur people to change, to think differently, to act different or to even consider a different perspective. Especially this form of writing where we try to frame issues and provide larger contextual information. Perhaps journalists knew this all along, thus reporting aligns itself to telling the facts of the story, trying to be independent of any thought outside “this is the thing that happened. And this is what followed. Tune in next week for more data.”

Maybe it’s a form of public catharsis. So the people who read us can align themselves with the writers they agree with and hurl stones at the other side. In this way the column must be absolute, grounding itself in a certain side’s complete truth and avoiding any single nuance that may challenge or even taint that truth.

But this isn’t about nuance. I’ve written about that again and again and again (and again).

This is about how, after leafing through the papers the whole week, going through my favourite websites and trying to look at things from different perspectives this particular week there is nothing to write to you about. I thought of talking about the irony in Kenya trying to gain a security council seat despite our own problems with extra judicial killing but that just tied back to what we know – the police are killing people. Or perhaps the negative impact the SGR is having on the coast economy but that was both expected and would only lead to a question we have asked here severally – is our debt really serviceable or was the SGR project a white elephant gifted to the government by itself?

In the predictable nature of corruption Brenda Wambui writes about, well, the predictable nature of corruption. Not that it is predictable that we will corrupt something at somepoint, but that the steps that will be taken following the scandal are a dance that the people and the government are so used to that it happens like clockwork. In the same way it is becoming dull, writing this place out. There are few things that actually happen differently and even less that changes.

So in this same spirit I decided not to write a column this week. There’s no point in telling you the things that you already know and framing them to either fit or challenge your confirmation bias. This week, instead I have decided to share a picture of something that you could not have seen coming in any way or form.

Have a great week.

Learning to Share

Michael Onsando
10 September ,2019


Questioner: How are we to treat others?

Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.

“We recognize someone as a stranger, rather than failing to recognize them.”

  • Sara Ahmed

If there is anything that stokes the fuel of divisive politics it is this idea of the other. This creating a caricature of people who don’t identify the same as you do. What it does is it takes the way in which the things we are afraid of manifest and use them against us. This phenomenon is more easily known as stoking our fears.

I find the word stoke most appropriate because fear is like a fire. The face of fear is not tears and hiding but violence. And like a fire, fear catches on. Especially in this shareable world where we are all on the Internet sharing our experiences and perspectives it’s easy for fear to catch on and spread itself around. It becomes even easier when we fail to see the human on the other side of any conversation and leave ourselves susceptible to reducing people to a batch of traits that we have read somewhere.

In an eloquent thread on the recent reporting on xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Sho Majodzi outlines a few key truths:

“The reason we have bad leaders is because we want bad answers. We want people to say “foreign nationals are completely innocent” or to say “foreign nationals are completely responsible for crime.” We get dishonest leaders because we want things to be black and white and the truth very seldom is. Good leaders would require us to be more nuanced. Good leaders would require us to understand that more than one thing can be true at once. And that some things can be partially true. But good leaders are not successful because we don’t want the nuanced, complex and multidimensional truth. It’s not neat and easy to consume or attack. This is why we either get inactive leaders or populists.”

I’ve written about truths and histories here before. About how a lot of issues arise not through manipulation and falsehoods but because two or more things, known to be true, are held in opposition to each other rather than as parts of the whole. When this happens we eliminate the needs and experiences of the people around us and focus on keeping our selves unharmed. When we ground ourselves firmly and absolutely in our own perspectives we give those around us an impossible decision. Either to set their own experiences aside and live in a world that has been created by our fears (often to their own detriment) or to stand firm in their own ways of seeing and brace for impact.

“And towards this end, knowledge itself becomes a trap. Just because you are aware of oppression and the many ways in which it works doesn’t mean you have analysed the agreements you had made with the world. And because the agreements you have are based on factors rooted in this same world you are critiquing then how much of that world exists within you? Which of your decisions, attitudes, mannerisms and biases were decided for you – do they align with who you decided you want to be?”

I’d like to take this argument a step further and ask – how many times do you refuse to see the forest of truth for the trees? We’ve heard the age old advice – avoid fake news. But what seems to be even more urgent is to now avoid news that you agree with too deeply. News that has been tailored to confirm and affirm everything that you believe in. When this happens you must ask yourself “why?” “What am I failing to see? What other perspective exists to this story?”

And it’s even more urgent now. With big data companies like Cambridge analytica tearing through the data to create echo chambers we need to be able to sift through for ourselves. To place the burden on the people who create the fake news is to take the power out of our own hands. We must seek to read and understand things and people we disagree with. To see where they are coming from and what their fears are made of.  It’s only with this nuanced approach will we be able to elect the leaders we need and begin the work to creating a truly shareable world.

Bridging Public Trust

Michael Onsando
3 September ,2019

“Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.”

Give us your data – or else

Last week I wrote about public trust – especially in relation to the census process. Aside from voting this is perhaps one of the times that public participation is most needed in a governmental process. While they may be comfortable passing all kinds of laws without even considering the public’s view, the census process demands that they go to the citizen and ask that they share their data.

Which is probably why the rift between the citizenry and the government was most apparent in this time.

Nation building is a dance of sorts. It is impossible for the state to move forward with their plans without some form of permission, or at least complacence, from the citizenry. And, because of the scale of the project, it is impossible for it to be run like a campus group assignment. There must be some order, some selected representatives who are trusted to carry their people’s message for dialogue to occur on a national level, aligning goals, dreams and aspirations. Even further, nations must align regionally depending on the state of the global politic to create a block of nations strong enough to bargain from a position of strength.

The trust in the system is implicit when it is drawn out theoretically. It is easy to say that the citizens, of course, trust the state that they have placed in power. And that the national dialogue will happen from a position of “messenger” bringing the message of their people to other peoples and negotiating for the greater good. And even further, that negotiations between states will happen from a similarly noble place.

When we look at the situation practically, a whole other set of facts comes to light.

“While a majority of politicians from across the country have insisted that the headcount meets the minimum threshold of credibility, it is feared that some figures could have been cooked. In the 2009 census, a dispute arose but the figures were upheld by the courts (…)The 2009 controversy now casts a long shadow over the 2019 census in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. State officials in the region have been accused of facilitating irregularities by inflating household numbers in their areas of jurisdiction”

There’s not a single large project in the country that moves through the entire process without being marred by a scandal or a possible scandal. The new curriculum is currently under fire for being hastily implemented and not being thoroughly thought out. No one even knows why we built the SGR and the big oil that was supposed to save us is actually churning out a measly 2000 barrels a day with estimates expecting up to 100,000 barrels per day (for comparison, Nigeria exports about 2,200,000 barrels of oil a day).

It’s not all gloom and doom. The new roads are a joy to drive on (despite what they are doing to our debt) and our GDP seems to be steadily on the rise. We have new currencies, driving licenses and passports – so one could say our swag factor has gone up by X to the power of n. 

The media (us guys) are not making it easier in the trust game either. Incetivised by clicks and sales we know the easiest way to get a story circulating to a wider audience is to sensationalise it. To speak using stronger language and to avoid looking at the nuance in the conversation. As such every issue is set up as the government vs the people. The people v the power (I am reminded that binaries are unwinnable).

“Can’t win if it’s me against me, one of us ain’t gonna survive”

  • Lupe fiasco, Beautiful lasers

And so we continue trapped in this cycle. The people eye-ing the state, the state eye-ing the people and money, ideas and progress falling in the cracks. Last week I wrote about the tone the government uses with the citizens, the utafanya ama utafanya  tone that is alienating rather than brining together. Still, in this time of tough talk, how do we bridge the gap? How do we get everybody on board towards believing that this space can work for all of us?

Give us your data – or else

Michael Onsando
27 August ,2019

If you’ve watched any Iron Man/ Avengers movie then you are well versed with Jarvis, Tony stark’s trusty number two computer who responds to Tony’s voice, works side by side with him and even has a few jokes up it’s sleeve. If you aren’t then you surely know about the future as imagined as a place with responsive machines and AI amped up to the power of n.

It’s slightly disappointing to leave the cinema and walk into a Kenyan court where the judge is still writing down witness testimonies by hand – asking them to slow down to the pace of their longhand.

The thing is, the gap between here and there is mainly data. Computers work on programming, they need to be taught how to read patterns, how to understand what these patterns mean and how to derive solutions from data. It follows that the only way for machines to get to the future is for the amount of data made available to them to increase.

It is in these crosshairs that the world is currently poised. Who is in charge of this data? What happens with it when we give it? Can it be leveraged against us? There is no time in the history of humanity that the sensitivity of data has been more publicly and openly discussed than the modern era. With your phone mics asking for permission to listen in to your conversations, every app asking for a “few details about you” and huduma number needing to know how many times you brush your teeth daily, we’re sensitive about who we give our data and what they do with it.

It is with this sensitivity towards data that the census process was met. A process that I was doubtful would happen given the time and effort put behind the Huduma Number process and the amount of data that was asking for. But, on Saturday 24th August we were shepherded away from the bars and into our homes so we could answer a question “where did you spend the night on the evening of August 24?” And then asked for a little more data for state purposes.

“Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.”

– Wachira Maina, State Capture: Why Kenya has been unable to slay the corruption dragon

When Wachira speaks of state capture in Kenya, he doesn’t speak of anything that we don’t know already. We know that Kenya is run by both the government and the “shadow government” that has access to everything that is the government. We know because we see the effects of it. We see the misappropriation of public funds and we wonder – what’s going to happen to this too?

“That CS miscommunicated this thing completely. The @KNBStats

 team that came was very helpful and very professional. And there was no compulsory question.

There was no need at all for the threats and big volume. That stuff has antagonised people for no reason at all.”

“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.”

Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.

“Explain to Kenyans what you are doing, we are not children”

Johnson Sakaja

And maybe rather than issuing threats at that big volume this is the work that the government should be focusing on. Building public trust and finding a way to start working in tandem with the Kenyan people rather than working at loggerheads with us. To start from understanding why the lack of public trust exists and communicating from a standpoint that understands this. So far it seems like the government is not particularly concerned in creating a situation where the citizens are ever on its side. Rather citizens are dragged along as unwilling participants on whichever initiative the government decides is valid

This idea of the authoritarian state, perhaps, is why data in particular is so sensitive. Because we’ve seen how China has decided to use their data – creating a   black miroresque social surveillance system that ranks citizens as per their social credit. So it makes sense that Kenyans would be jumpy around sharing their personal data and maybe then our government should be asking itself how do we make this better? Or maybe even that might be asking for a thought too far.

Down River Road

Michael Onsando
20 August ,2019

Down River Road

“Going down river road you can find yourself anywhere.”

  • Clifton Gachagua

No, this is not a book review of Meja Mwangi’s classic. But, as I find out on a Umoja rooftop one cold evening, there is something classic about it.  The brainchild of Clifton Gachagua and Franklin Sunday as Kavochy and DRR welcome us to choma, readings, music and drinks.

The premise is simple, Franklin reveals to me a few weeks earlier over as we sit on a different rooftop, Pawa 254, in a more affluent area of town. The question he asks is simple “what happens when we move these spaces closer to the people?” Perhaps this is why the name Down River Road is so enticing. Because if there is somewhere you will find “the people” it is on riverroad. You will find them selling wares on the streets, looking for buses to go home, looking for buses to go to their homes (and there is a difference). Walking down river road you will feel the bump of shoulders, the smell of labour and the taste of cigarette smoke.

Which is why the deliberate thinking around the recently launched Down River Road journal is so important. And, perhaps why their call for papers for their first issue is interesting. Take this from their about page:

“Place has always been difficult in two ways. Firstly, the subjective spaces we exist in, the product of the senses. Then: the imaginary places. Often we inhabit both places at the same time, creating varied possibilities and realms as we claim our existence in each reality. Place is always changing, moving, even when our bodies remain static. And when our bodies do finally move, place moves with us. In these new places we create homes for ourselves because our survival depends on it.”

And as places move and change, we move and change with them. Like listening s Kamwangi Njue play tunes that fill the chilly evening with warmth. Or  hearing Ndinda Kioko read about lovers and being close enough to touch them. When the setting is made properly a place can turn into any place. And any place can be found as long as you get on the right bus and alight at the right stage. 

Down river road promises to be the bus for the people who are looking to get a taste of arts and literature that is born of the people – of art that occurs rather than is occurred. Like reading about Sir Owi’s rise in the ranks of the music industry or letting M K Angwenyi take you to places where you can no longer see.

And they are open for submissions.

The journal is looking for submissions for its debut issue themes on ‘place’ with the submission deadline being 1st October 2019. They are looking for:

“…work ranging from poetry to (non)fiction between 3500 – 5000 words. We’ll accept 3-5 poems maximum of 40 lines each. Flash fiction pieces should be between 500 – 1000 words. We also welcome other experimental forms (mathogothanio) and medium including interviews and conversations, maps, photography, illustrations, video and audio.”

So join in. Take a walk down river road and share where you end up – it could be anywhere.

Viva la Capitalism!

Michael Onsando
13 August ,2019

“mkono inahonga imevaa bracelet inacolours za flag”

Besides all the other necessary things that this long and beautiful piece of writing contains it particularly has me thinking about rhetoric as a key. How language as a kind of shibboleth into spaces. With our words we signal to each other – I see you, I side with you, I understand you, I disagree with you. Perhaps this is why lying and manipulation are a large part of our fears. That we will realize someone had learned enough about our language to use it to navigate our emotions, hiding in the blindspots and never revealing themselves.

The problem, of course is that acceptance is at the core of the human. We are social beings. And not everyone has a healthy attitude towards confrontation. In order to be vulnerable and honest we must always be ready to lose everything – especially with the proliferation of cancel culture. As jools puts it, consensus becomes king. It becomes more important to agree with the larger whole than to express an original or dissenting thought.

Scrolling myself to sleep one night, I saw a tweet that I will loosely paraphrase (because google has refused to reveal its secrets to me). It was something along the lines that most of our current crises are born of the fact that a lot of our rules were created by people who died a long time ago, for their own context and we’re only now realizing that we can change them.

Which is why this (same) piece has me thinking about the rhetoric we have been programmed to accept and whether we have examined the changing paradigms around them. Take this excerpt:

“Those 60s-70s firebrands were born at a time when the CPUSA had 80,000 members, and even within the Democratic Party it was possible to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. McCarthyism did much to smash this, but the contemporary existence of attempts (however imperfect) by the dispossessed to wrest control of their destinies, particularly in China and the Third World, proved an irresistible inspiration. Since then the left has had to contend with the destruction or reversal of these attempts, and a vigorous retrenchment of the power of capital. The “establishment left” in the United States is basically limited to the unions now, who are almost universally in thrall to the Democratic Party.

We also live in very different times economically. In many Western countries, the 1970s were the peak of both the average standard of living and income equality. Today we face a crisis of capitalism on the scale of the Great Depression – and that crisis only ended with the Second World War’s bonfire of value.”

And this seems to be a real problem. Instead of solutions arising out of our current problem state and working towards an end goal it seems like we are fitting our current problems into old rhetoric of “change” and hoping that it will give us the solutions that we need for what is facing us now. I imagine we cling to old rhetoric because it’s safe and because we are lazy. The pursuit of capital has us focused on doing “what we need to do” in order to get ahead. I imagine there’s also something in there about the shape and face of a revolutionary. The need to be like Malcolm X or Che Guevara with thousands of people marching down the street behind us. The need to be great as greatness has been described to us, rather than the drive to make actual tangible change in the world around us, regardless of whether greatness comes as part of the package or not.

Another excerpt:

“Herein lies my problem with what were essentially soup kitchens that Occupy sites the world over set up: feeding the homeless is a laudable aim, but you are not seizing your chance properly here if you’re just happy with that. The free breakfast program set up by the Black Panthers was not at all just because children in the ghetto were going hungry – it also included a comprehensive program of political education, it was based on the principle that militancy and resistance is much easier if you aren’t hungry, and it also massively increased the passive support they received from a neighbourhood’s population.”

This is why I’m increasingly wary of revolutions, especially self-titled ones. Because a revolution is only called so deep into its happening and measured by impact. Till then here are only plans to create change and how these plans are implemented over time. And these plans must be grounded in a common cause i.e what are we trying to achieve and does this thing that we are currently doing align itself to said goal? Nowadays it seems like the main thing being achieved is acknowledgement of one’s contribution in a race to being the next icon, the next revolutionary person. And so we ask, what must I say, what must I do in order to be perceived in this way that I can leverage my image?

How can I make my way into the halls of history?

Capitalism, of course, encourages this pursuit of greatness. It is the very stuff that capitalism is founded upon, how to do you leverage the shadows to create an untouchable image? And the internet, with its unforgiveable memory insists that we maintain a perfect online persona, align ourselves to the right arguments on twitter, post the right images and such. It gives us a detailed guide of rhetoric – speak to this group like this, acknowledge this, refuse this. In this way we end up regurgitating rather than understanding and because to question is to accept that maybe we might not agree or understand (and might not be received well) we continue to follow and impose these rules upon others.

Last excerpt:

“In fact, I would go so far as to say that history has been rewritten and this idea of a single New Left is an invention. Two concurrent but separate movements for liberation (one primarily racial/economic, and the other primarily sexual/narcotic) have been conflated for various reasons, such as the primarily rhetorical support they lent each other. This cleavage still exists today, although modulated by the changes in conditions between now and then.”

And so we have long complicated posts on the nature of intersectionality and feministing and other 3 or more syllable words reconstructing the same class barriers that they are speaking against. Where the barrier of entry remains an education that has taught you to navigate this rhetoric. Where instead of seeing people we see ideological loopholes and flaws in thinking with little compassion and then wonder why we can’t create a shareable universe.

Because the vision itself is not shared.

Like arguing with a christian set on converting you, it is not a two sided conversation. Rather it becomes a class condescension that is quick to categorise and place one’s problems in these “oppression boxes” instead of listen to see what solutions may present themselves – if any. And because the solutions themselves are often messy. It’s often more complicated than a twitter thread. It’s often more complicated than “that’s white people” or “that’s men” (binaries are unwinnable) and to admit that punctures a hole in our savior mentality. If problems are complicated, nuanced and call for analysis then we can’t just fix the world. We can’t just save everyone. And if this if so then we might need to do actual labour, actual political uncovering, discovering and organizing – ugh.