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.

Let them eat maize

Michael Onsando
18 December ,2018

Kenya is headed for a bumper maize harvest even as farmers in the North Rift region struggle to sell their last season’s crop. 

You only need to look up to know that maize is one of the key foods consumed in the country. Those of us who studied GHC (now social studies) might remember it being listed amidst one of the staple foods of the region. We use it, and have been using it, for a variety of meals. Whether pounded into flour, boiled, burned (yaani choma) or processed we have loved our maize for a very long time. Maize is so important that is one of the key factors considered when calculating the cost of living.

Given that maize is mainly grown in the rift area – a region that has been key in swinging votes over the last couple of elections – it makes sense that the crop itself has been politicized. Coming into a consistent market with high demand both the farmer and the consumers find themselves vulnerable to the whims of those who hold the infrastructure – a vulnerability that is exploited through every election period.

In the 90’s Maize prices were affordable as the buying and selling prices were favorable to households. Despite the fact that there were a number challenges, farmers were able to harvest the cereal and sell it at a price that favored both them and the consumer. 

In a bid to keep voters happy it is best for any incumbent government to show that they are in control of market forces by reducing the price of unga on the shelves (source: Making Elections Arap – A book on manipulating Kenyan voters by Daniel Moi*) . Last year amidst a drought, two elections and brokered maize from Uganda the maize prices were spiraling out of control and the government had to do something.

Their great idea was to hold the price of unga at 90 bob while subsidizing the prices between millers and wholesalers. Basically, they decided to make everyone happy, win the election, then figure it out later. But, as a wise saying goes, you can’t make everyone happy – you’re not pizza. And neither was this plan. The farmers were left unhappy by the happenings with the price per bag being unacceptable. Knowing that this year things would be better, they held on to their maize.

It’s now later and I never thought that a bumper harvest could be a bad thing. The simple math in my mind goes “more maize = more money.” That’s not what this year looks like. Speaking earlier this year, Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at the tegemo institute, said, “The country has enough maize stock to sustain the country until July 2019 but farmers are extremely broke and not making money. This is a bad year for the maize farmer in Kenya but a good one for the consumer.” Which means that the farmers that held on to their maize from last year find themselves holding onto maize (isn’t the damn crop perishable? How long can one feasibly hold on?) for longer, given the drop in demand.

And it’s not like the guys who sold their crop to the National Cereals and Produce Board(last year) have been paid. The board ran out of cash because it paid brokers who supplied the aforementioned-brokered maize from Uganda. The farmers are owed about KES 3.5 billion according to the Daily Nation. This scandal itself has had far reaching impact with Agriculture Ministry Principal Secretary, Richard Lesiyampe, former NCPB boss Newton Terer, Finance GM Cornel Kiprotich Ng’elechey and 15 other senior officials arrested and charged over irregular purchase of maize worth KES 11 billion.

“Kenya on May 16 announced Sh6 billion subsidy on maize imports to help lower the cost of flour which had shot up due to a regional drought and poor planning.”

 

“Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term.” 

Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like we are ever on top of the maize problem at all. It is being stolen, illegally imported, underpriced, overcharged unavailable or, as is the case now, over-available. The smart farmers have stopped allocating as much land to maize compared to other plants with one Uasin Gishu farmer only having 79 acres of maize this year down from the 210 acres he had in 2014/2015. Of course, given the cycle, this trend might lead to an undersupply, but there’s little recourse for the farmers faced by an indecisive government and fluctuating prices mostly due to artificial factors.

This takes me back to this government, planning and foresight. Where is the data that correlates maize consumption and the markets? Where is the data that the government uses to project the needs of the people? Do we actually know how much we are consuming and plan for it – ask for allocations and work around them? Or do we continue to react to factors a little planning could have revealed long before they became problems?

*not an actual book

Liberty and Demagoguery for all

Michael Onsando
11 December ,2018

“People should stop panicking about my traversing the country saying it is 2022 campaigns, I’m yet to start my campaigns because when I start they will be in for a rude shock”

“Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka now says he will be Kenya’s next president after Uhuru Kenyatta.”

The year is 2018. We had not one but two elections last year, finally Kenya gets the time it needs to take its mind of the divisive nature of electoral politics and focus on unifying, restoration.

“You mentioned democracy, earlier. I have qualms about the nature of our democracy itself. It did not matter whether one went to the polls or not; the ruling class had its own agenda and we were there to make sure it was the legitimate agenda. I dispute the idea that the vote was the ultimate culmination of a citizen’s civic responsibilities, that after this event, one was required to do little else for five years.”

It was Socrates who questioned the idea of the democratic vote by talking about how voting is a skill and should be taught to the masses. And only those who are educated in this sense would get a right to vote. Given the current elitist nature of education (and how horribly the electoral college seems to be doing for the US) this might not be the most popular of ideas. But Socrates didn’t believe that this (civic) education should be for a narrow few, rather he was more afraid of creating a system of demagoguery where leaders would gain popularity by exploiting the prejudice and ignorance rather than reasoned deliberation towards possible solutions. Or, the politics of tibim and ngai! versus politics that look towards creating solutions that work in the long term for the betterment of society.

This is definitely what it feels like is happening, and has been happening for a while. We have developed a politic that is centered on gunning for the top job and waiting for our turn to eat. Which is why the year after an election still somehow has the news focusing on the next presidency. The current presidency seems more set up as the president and leader of opposition on one side – and brother Samoei on the other. The dynamics of which point towards a conversation around class and heritage.

And this isn’t the first time we see this kind of manipulation. Every presidential election sees coalitions, political parties and allegiances built and dissolved based on winning probabilities (tyranny of numbers anyone?). Often these combinations are revised machines of what we saw from previous elections. Even further, across all sides we often see the same faces in different places. One can confidently say there hasn’t been a really new face at the top level of politics since independence. Somehow, despite battling for freedom, constitutional reforms and numerous hashtags and protests we seem to be in a semi stable, semi monarchy – and 2022 is the first time (at least it seems) that there’s little to hold the kingdom in place.

Which explains why everyone and their laptop thinks that this is the opportune moment to gun for the presidency.

The problem with demagoguery is that it puts aside current issues in favour of the flavour of the month. Rather than focus on looking for ways to fix problems and to find ways to grow us towards a sustainable future we have leaders caught on the current issue. Every week there’s something new to focus on (we’ve written about this before – the cycle of rage). The worst part is even if a leader came in with a proper agenda, where would they begin?

The problem, Socrates shows, is the public’s appetite for immediate answers. He uses the example of a debate between a doctor and a sweetshop owner. The sweetshop owner would simply claim that their product makes you feel good (skimming over the long term effects of excessive consumption of sugar) and it would be hard for the doctor to explain that their solution, while difficult to swallow would be better in the long term.

Perhaps the nature of the campaign has something to do with it. The labour of solving difficult complex societal problems demands one type of person, while the showmanship of the electoral campaign demands another. Rarely do  we find these two people in the same body. Maybe it’s our failing education system that leaves the larger population exposed to this type of manipulation.

“As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somewhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication.”

Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term. Rather we get debt for flashy but useless projects, roadside policies and a generally shortchanged public. So maybe for a year or three we focus less on who is going to be president think about how to enough go forward momentum as a country that the next time we try and change presidents the space doesn’t grind to a halt

Government now, questions later

Michael Onsando
4 December ,2018

“Kenya’s ban on plastic bags went into effect on August 28, with offenders subject to serious fines or jail time. The ban covers the use, importation, or manufacture of plastic bags. Although it was passed in February, the new ban didn’t go into effect until this month so that Kenyan consumers would have the chance to adjust to the change. The delay also gave importers a chance to challenge the ban in court, which were ultimately rejected by the country’s High Court.”

Kenya just banned plastic bags

If Environment CS Judi Wakhungu had her way the ban on plastic bags in the country would have happened in February rather than August 2017. Speedy action from Okiya Omtatah as well as the Kenya Institute of Manufacturers got in her way, delaying the ban for (a further) 5 months. This time could have been spent researching into plastic alternatives and ways to make the transition as seamless for the consumer as possible.

Instead it was spent hoping Okiya won (or lost) his court case.

I’m tayad of these f***** copy pasting ideas from elsewhere without an actual ground analysis when they can easily pay for benchmarks”

@Mumbe_Carole

I’m not sure there is much need to argue for or against the Matatu CBD Ban. Finding a solution to mass transit in the country has been the birthplace of many bad/badly-formulated ideas. Just as the plastic ban floated in and out of public conversation, this was an idea that Mr Sonko had played with for a while. First he wanted to turn Uhuru park into a bus terminus, and then he tried banning matatus from the CBD last year before caving to pressure not to. So that he has ideas around what the problem might be is not up for discussion. This is either a problem he feels strongly about – or a pain point he strongly believes dealing with will gain him political mileage. Neither of these reasons pushes me too hard to judge him.

“Where are the pavements?”

@RasnaWarah

But, just like the ban on plastics, the nature of this ban calls all out our models of governance on all their cow feces. Where was urban planning when this ban was envisioned? We are just going through one of the most aggressive road expansion periods – where are the pavements? Where are the walkways? Where is the plan that is supposed to allow for transition, accommodate for the (unfit?) citizens?

The problem might run deeper than we think.

It was Moi’s government that really enforced the roadside declaration as a form of governmental communication. Ministers were fired on the news, high level government officials found out about changes in their docket at the same as the public and the mighty hand of harambee led us all. With most of his opposition coming from the universities it became difficult for the president to trust anything coming out of the places – which also happen to be the birthplace of research. The absence of this research led to government policies being built off hunches, gut feelings and “commissioned papers” (often skewed to show that the original hypothesis is correct). And it seems we haven’t really made much headway since. Kibaki’s government tried to focus on education but much damage had been done, by the time he was done we had free and primary education and Uhuru already wants to make secondary education free from 2019.

But the government is yet to fully reintegrate itself into the university. Worse still – over the period campus politics have grown to ape the politics we have in the country. SONU is now a conduit for corruption tribalism and greed with SONU leaders playing this same divisive politics and then using that as a platform to make it onto the larger political stage.

A good indicator of this is that there are about 5000 PhD students nationally. Larger societal questions are often answered at this level through rigorous study and data collection. But the truth is that there is little reason for PhD students in any field to believe that the information they collect will be put to good use – or that their conclusions will be implemented (after all, it’s not like we have a great track record implementing any of the reports generated by the government themselves). So they leave.

“And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own” 

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somwhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication. Without really thinking (for example) that Kenya has only 24 cars per 1000 people whereas Israel has 384, USA 910 and South Africa 165 to name a few – how do you replicate an idea in an area where the number of people walking is destined to be significantly more? In Foreign Cities, Local Talent I ask about what it means to develop and implement solutions based on our own realities. Maybe the first step is finding a way to remind the government where the data they are seeking resides – and to demand plans before declarations.

Or we could carry on with this force now, questions later approach and see plastic bags replaced by plastic nets again.

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

Michael Onsando
27 November ,2018

“The European Union, or a body like the World Bank, should build and run cities in Africa in order to boost job creation and development on the continent, Germany’s Minister for Africa, Gunter Nooke, told the BBC in an interview in which he outlined his thinking on how to stem migration to Europe. 

This will mean African countries leasing their land to a foreign body to “allow free development for 50 years”, Mr Nooke said.”

Matters land are always sensitive. Being a finite resource and one whose use affects most of the people who have to live with the consequences. A large number of communities are only now coming into leases that were signed in the colonial times, with some having to wait another 90 plus years for leases to run out before they can challenge for pieces of land that were signed over (for whatever reasons) almost a hundred years ago. Earlier in his first term Mr Freedom was giving out title deeds at the coast and then again in his second term (were they fake? No one knows). Then there’s the 50,000 he is set to give out to Eastlands residents.

And this is even without touching the caricature that has been mentioning Ruto and land in the same sentence (ati plane za Ruto hu-arrive ju zikiland zitagrabiwa?)

So when we’re asked to put aside land for foreign cities I’m forced to ask – why?

“‘I just want you to be happy’. How does this speech act direct the narrative? To answer this question, we need to describe the conflict of the film, or the obstacle to the happy ending. The film could be described as being about the generational conflict within a migrant Indian Sikh family living in Hounslow, London. Jess the daughter is good at football. Her idea of happiness would be to bend it like Beckham, which requires that she bends the rules about what Indian girls should do. The generational conflict between parents and daughter is also represented as a conflict between the demands of cultures: as Jess says, ‘anyone can cook Alo Gobi but who can bend the ball like Beckham’. This contrast sets up ‘cooking Alo Gobi’ as common place and customary, against an alternative world of celebrity, individualism and talent.”

I’m often challenging our generation’s constructs of happiness, how we build these ideas and what forms our images of success and failure. A friend of mine quips often about how we were “raised for export” and I don’t think they are far from the truth. Our studies, or classes our efforts were all geared towards finding an opportunity – opportunity was often defined through leaving in one form or the other. And this search was amidst the class that could afford school and such pursuits. For most the desire to find happiness would come through finding another way to make it to greener pastures. These ideas become easily apparent when we look at a cross section of top selling African novels. In most of these books we see protagonists leave. It happens in Americanah, in We Need New Names, Behold the Dreamers, and Ghana Must Go – to mention a few contemporary examples.

This, of course, comes from much criticized “west is best” narratives that have not only plagued us for a while but have also been over analysed ad nauseum (decolonize your mind anyone?)

“A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.”

The “but shouldn’t we deserve a stake in lands that we built?” calls into question the ethical issues around immigration, slavery, labour and conquest. Having been pulled across the seas to build cities, fight wars and serve households, what does it mean to say, now that the cities have been built and wars won, that the same people have no claim to the space? Issa tricks.

Perhaps it is with all this in mind that led Mr Paul Romer to argue that “foreign-run cities could be a model of efficient governance and offer a good quality of life, stopping people from migrating for economic reasons.” Because the problem must be that local cities are run by the state – and the Kenyan state is vastly incompetent (this last bit was supposed to be sarcastic, but I suppose it is also true). Still, in the age of Trump and Brexit it becomes increasingly apparent that the king has no clothes – not since we stopped fashioning them and dressing him hundreds of years ago.

Which is what makes me question the logic here. Of course building foreign (west inspired) cities seems to follow the same “west is best” logic. Of course it came following the path that “if they want Europe to come, maybe we should take Europe to them.” But there’s already a lot of evidence that the extractive capitalism that drives Western nations depletes natural resources faster than they can be replenished. And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own (do we need to exploit our naturally giving environment as hard as they did for example?).

But what happens in the meantime?

I am not sure, but not foreign cities which will “operate under a set of laws separate from the host country” which basically makes them little protectorates. Nor is selling Nairobi to Chinese billionaires an idea (so happy this was thrown out faster than it came in). Perhaps the answer lies in restating the end goal. Rather than seeing New York –like or Amsterdam – like as the result, we understand that the strongest societies work for their citizens, encourage trade and create systems that are not imposed upon but drawn from the societies themselves. And, in realizing this, understanding that the real value lies in the people and finding ways to create dreams for people to thrive here – here dreams.

(Libraries might be a good place to start)

Trusting that Kenya will Kenya

Michael Onsando
20 November ,2018

“Fresh produce growers are expected to be the main beneficiaries of trade deals that President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign on his visit to China next month.” 

Farmers set to reap big from China trade deals

 “Juzi mheshimiwa rais ameenda China amefungua soko, sasa tukona mkatgaba maalum ya soko ya kuuza mali yetu China. Na sisis watu wa sehemu hii, itabidi tumejipanga vizuri. Na wale watu wa China hawanunui mahindi, hawanunui miwa. Wanataka kahawa, wanataka chai, wanataka nyama, wanataka mambo hio”

 William Ruto

Perhaps one of the consequences of devolution is regional leaders are being held accountable more rigorously. Having been so publicly stated that the resources and power are in the hands of the county government the “big man has refused” excuse has been taken away. Of course devolution hasn’t worked like a charm as expected (ask the folks in the health sector, they’ll tall you a thing or two).

Especially in this second term presidency with campaigning haven started literally the year after elections and Okiya Omtatah calling for the polls to be brought forward by one year, most leaders are under pressure to show how they are best positioned for the reshuffling of the cards come 2021. In the absence of an incumbent for the uthamaki train, Jubilee might have Ruto as a front runner (or he’ll go start his own thing). Whatever happens, the political playing field is more open than it has been in a while – and this has every politician fighting for dominance, a swipe at the throne.

Maybe this is why Mwangi wa Iria turned to put the squeeze on Nairobi for 25% of the revenue from selling water from Ndakiani dam. Under pressure to, at least, show residents of his county that he is pursuing resources for their protection, this was one of the great ideas that came to him.

“The stranger here is not somebody we do not recognize but somebody that we recognize as a stranger, somebody we know as not knowing rather than somebody we do not know.” 

Who knows, knowing strangers and strangeness Sara Ahmed

“In essence then, belonging to a nation is simply the sense of connectedness with people one does not know and is unlikely ever to meet. The intellectual problem of the study of nationalism is understanding why and how people develop or fail to develop this belonging. Of note, the fact that this connectedness is not necessarily unproblematic.” 

Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talked divorce David Ndii

I’m not sure whether nationalism is the answer (because reasons ) but I am fascinated by identities, how they are created and what they mean for the things that we hold onto. And, in holding onto this Kenya, how bringing together of the 44 cultures and identities through a cohesive process. Especially since the borders didn’t naturally evolve through bargaining, conquest, allegiances and disagreements, we find ourselves in a bind fueled by the question “where do my interests lie? To whom does my self belong?”

Devolution, increasingly insists that the answer to this question is “look up, look around.” Which creates the pressure on local leaders to ensure that the county can squeeze the next county for money on water.

But what are the elements of identity other than the things we choose to agree to see as true, as common between us? And, in reaching for the things that are true – what do we find?

“Ni nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo” 

Nchi ya kitu kidogo, Eric Wainaina

So maybe a more interesting question begins with the assumption that there are no things that exist to hold us together. Rather looking at the truth and asking, what “Kenyanisms” have we accepted as who we are? And how do these Kenyanisms affect how we interact with the things we hear, the things we understand? 

“Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, and his Chereng’ani counterpart, Joshua Kutuny, alleged Ruto was advising farmers to abandon maize farming and start growing avocado and other crops because he wanted to monopolise the local maize market.”

Rebel Jubilee MPs claim Ruto is growing 500,000 acres of maize in Congo, Tuko news

It’s difficult to talk about trust when it comes to the political circus. Who does one trust, how does one trust? But increasingly what I’ve been wondering is how does the lack of trust stifle efforts? And what must be done to fix it?

This is one reason I’m very interested in this return to Michuki rules and the process currently ongoing on the streets. Because currently we trust the government to shake us up for money to pocket. We trust all the cops to be bribed for freedom. We trust that when the state moves to serve personal interests, rather than the common good.

Devolution creates a “common” and an “other.” So when I hear Ruto asking rift farmers to invest in different plants for export to a market in China I desperately want to hear a leader who is looking for opportunities for their people. But then I am taken back by how quickly and easily I believe a story (with no evidence) about a farm somewhere in the Congo. And, in that moment, I can’t help but wonder – how do we create systems we can trust? How is trust cultivated? And, in its absence, how can we build towards a together?

And we continue to Kenya

Michael Onsando
6 November ,2018

“In this room I was born. And I knew I was in the wrong place”

Spaces, Arkaye Kierulf

 It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.

Owaaah 

It’s impossible to dismiss the value of identity in creating cohesion in a space. The words that are used as markers of identity carry perspectives with them that have been shaped over history. To say I am male, black, kisii-suba, is also to say that my body, my knowledge has travelled through these traumas. That the stories that I am likely to tell you are coloured by the experiences of a runaway brother and a journey from Misri. That my perspectives are informed by my position and expectations made of me (and bodies like mine) over the years.

The modern society is inherently multicultural. Whether this is has been achieved by an influx of immigrants looking for better opportunities, or immigrants looking to “fix the world,” most spaces are now a blend of identities – tribal and national. Our perspectives towards immigrants changes wherever you go (bodies are remembered by societies). But, at the end of it all, whether you are in the most remote village or the developed city, you are likely to find those who “are not from” or are considered “foreign” and those who are “local.”

“I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”

Arab Proverb

 I’d like to talk a bit about what it means to be “local”

How the “local” relates to the “foreign” depends on which type of foreign it is. To be local in Kenya is to understand the foreigns around you and how to relate to them. It’s to know to smile “Jambo” at the Caucasians and to keep the Asians at a suspicious distance. It’s to know that “we are one Kenya” but also that it is “our turn to eat.” It is to know to keep your eye on the ever-changing “we” and how that shifts in relation to your “I”

To be local is to be aware of the number of locals that exist, those that have been erased, those that are allowed to occupy space – and how much space is allocated to each. It is to know that, while Kenya has 44 ethnicities, only 3 or four of them matter. It is “kuomba serekali itusaidie” while greasing palms to get your way.

It is to be expected to understand the state of affairs that is “Kenyanness.” To not kick up a fuss, not cause a scene, not fight too much. To be comfortable in knowing, this is Kenya – and this is how things are. It is to see the collective hunger, desperacy and grappling for resources as what it is – a 50 something year old democracy trying to heal and bring together 40 plus ethnicities while playing catch up in a globalized capitalist world.

The problem with multiculturalism is that the idea that “no culture be held superior” begs the question “off which culture do we create our law?” At Kenya’s inception, the latent assumption was white culture was superior, we adapted this assumption into our law system. To date we continue to ask ourselves what kind of systems would exist if we had drawn up the assumptions for ourselves? We see these questions rise to the surface when it comes to marriage (a church wedding and a traditional wedding because all the gods must be pleased). Or with the Community Land Act (is land ownership an individual or collective issue?). Or institutionalized in our police system.

As such, to be local is to know which when and how the law actually applies.

You know that

you carry their history.

But you also know

you don’t carry their scars.

And that, you hope,

will make all the difference.

Burns

Given the number of cultures we’re trying to amalgamate into a whole – would a thing such as a “Kenyan culture” exist? How would it apply? (A question that actually stalled the creating of a “national dress”)

Perhaps this is why Owaah’s tweet stuck with me.

We are retold stories of how “we” are the perpetrators of a violence and we reject them. We refuse to see ourselves in these stories because we cannot recognise the version of ourselves that is shown in them. We reject these stories because they do not carry our truths, because they erase what we know about ourselves, what we have been taught to aspire towards. And when we place our narratives against these stories they don’t add up.

And so we try to find the words to grasp at this dissonance. Between living in a space that is yet to be fully ideologically formed and demanding for the right to claim space. Between trying to understand the hunger and battle the corruption. Between trying to understand the betrayals and pursue justice. This never ending dance between looking for ourselves in the past and disentangling the present to create liveable futures.

And The Drums

The Drums guide our feet

In this backwards-forwards dance

This forwards-backwards dance

This Husago Dance

This Misego Dance

The Dance into a Future

That ends in the Past.

Husago, Kofi Anyidoho