Finding your Power

Michael Onsando
1 May ,2018

“Perhaps now it becomes clearer that when we speak of “reclaiming our power” we are not necessarily talking about moving in opposition to something, rather than moving towards actualization of our own will.”

In pursuit of power

But power is an intangible thing. To try to see it/touch it/discover it is to watch it dissolve. And because our mode of interrogation is outwards, to search for this power is often to outsource it. To ask, “is this a valid source?” Is to immediately validate the source. And to tell someone “you have my power” is to be asked “where did I put it?” So it makes sense that even statements like “reclaiming our power” seem to say a lot without saying anything.

In pursuit of power we tried to ask – where has it gone, this power? To reclaim something, you must have had it at some point. When talking about enlightenment Allan Watts uses an anecdote. When asked to provide a form of enlightenment his question is often – “have you forgotten something?” In further talks he goes on to speak on the nature of enlightenment and how it unfolds upon itself, leading to the meaning of existence being existence itself. I’d like to argue that power unfolds unto itself this way.

Especially when we remember that power is most often a way we are perceived.

The thing is, how we are perceived has very little to do with who we are – or even what any single individual thinks of us(if there even is such thing as a single individual). It is a collection of knowledges that we carry in our bodies, in our tongues, in our motions – and what these knowledges have meant to many people right? (or, what happens when truths collide?)

And, knowing the number (and multiplicities) in ways we are perceived, it begins to make sense why fighting perception increasingly becomes a losing battle. In taking on how we are seen in a debate it is almost as if we are saying, “Sit, bring me yourself and your ancestors, bring me all the ways in which they have thought- and let me tell you why you’re wrong.”

The things we hold close.

Eventually, these debates become draining.  Further, perception is a real time thing – happening with tens of people a day for the working adult. There isn’t enough time to break down perception barriers in every single conversation. And, because all these knowledges all hold truths in them – the murk becomes messy.

“Though you can see when you’re wrong, you know you can’t always see when you’re right.”

Billy Joel, Vienna waits for you.  

I’d like to argue that to give away our power is to see ourselves through the argument of another. So, when mucking through the mess, rather than follow our path back to ourselves, we move towards their truth (their perception of us) – for whatever reasons, vanity, fear, and so forth. Now, holding these truths in place of our own, we carry them with us. They define us.

And the problem here comes from several angles.

First, we need this ideas to be held in stasis. Or at least with the same stability that our own core gave us. This is highly improbable. One’s perception of you can’t be held in stasis, there are too many factors involved in a transaction of this kind. Second, under interrogation – these ideas always fail. Because they are not grounded in how you are perceived, when challenged to unfold into themselves, they unfold unto someone else. And this someone else doesn’t look like you – even to yourself.

This can cause a serious amount of cognitive dissonance.

The problem is, these ideas are often challenged because the world continues to perceive us as it has always perceived us. We are the ones who perceive ourselves differently. And so we relate differently to how we are seen:

“Increasingly, it seems to be about how we relate to our purpose and how that relation then shapes who we are. And then how who we are shapes how we are perceived. Which shapes our experience. Which shapes the ways in which we are (dis)allowed to navigate. Which shapes who we think we are supposed to be. Which shapes our purpose, with which we relate.”

Or, Whatever

 

Which is why even before we begin to reclaim our power from outside sources, we must begin by acknowledging our own. By saying, this is how the world sees me. This is what is expected of me. These are the ways in which I am feared. These are the ways in which I am loved. These are the ways in which I am acknowledged. These are the ways in which I am disregarded.

It is in this process of acknowledging that the cracks in our own foundations become apparent.

It is in this process of acknowledging that we realize whose power we hold.

And because the world, oblivious to your change, continues to see us as it has always seen us, then we can move in and out of our power and use it to create space where others can do the same (or not, it’s really your decision).

I fall back to Wambui Mwangi on remembering:

“To ‘re-member’ is to make a member again, to bring that member back into the community of imagination, re-awakening past trajectories and giving new momentum along new paths of the present.”

Silence is a Woman

What does it mean to make yourself a member of your community once again?

Or, have you forgotten something?

Writing Sunsets

Michael Onsando
17 April ,2018

Suppose I wanted to write about a sunset. How would I do that? Would I begin by describing the colours? The smell? The sounds? I ask because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to start this essay and the most apparent way was to write about a sunset. But how would one go about writing about a sunset without making it seem like they were writing about another banal thing. Even if it were the most fantastic sunset that they had seen – it would still be another banal thing to write about, because we know, as a thing, that the sun will set – fantastically beautifully at times too.

“They are here.”

Little has to be said after that. We will remember Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

A fragment of something I’ve been failing at writing:

I miss my grandfather. In many ways I imagine this is when our relationship would have been strongest. United by a common misunderstanding of the world. Except he’d lean towards hope – and I to despair, or the other way round. Maybe this is a romanticisation – it is the only thing you can do to someone who only lives through fragments of memory.

This is not a tribute.

“She will forever be revered and remembered as a social worker, a consummate leader of our Struggle, a mother not only to her daughters but to us all and, most important, our firebrand shero.”

Maybe only a little.

Another in a series of notable deaths:

“As folks mourn Matiba, it must not be forgotten that he was one of that class of Kenyans who used public office to enrich themselves; and while he did take a brave stand for multipartyism, it was he who wrecked the original FORD, condemning us to an extra decade of Nyayo.”

As the sun sets on the independence generation and we see icons fall to nature (rather than to the other brutal ways in which we have seen icons fall) we are pressed every day to see the world through their lenses. Increasingly we are forced to ask ourselves – is this the world for which was fought and bled?

And, in holding ourselves to this light we find ourselves returning to the vision of freedom.

“You need to talk to Kenyans, explaining why you did this [deal] and what is the objective of it all. And this must not be about power-sharing”

To remember that freedom is a negotiation. And that the question on freedom must be asked to all. And that the answer, in truth, will always be complicated. And, because we know it is complicated, we know we must ask – for to ask is to interrogate further towards the truth. Because we know that those that lead us can, and will, let us down.

We look at ourselves – the ones who were supposed to be free. And we find ourselves still unfree despite it all. Despite an entire generation having gone past.

“But what do you know of the freedom that you seek?”

Now one can ask – but what is freedom? Well, freedom is a multi-faceted concept. Just like oppression, freedom is custom made. So to that question one responds “fees must fall” and another responds “repeal 162” and so forth and so forth. But freedom is not something that is given to you. And so the paradox – of being told you are the free and yet feeling unfree.

It is this space between where we are and what is free that their vision allows us to see. In holding ourselves to a nation that could only be dreamed, we see the places where our reality just fails to live up.

Still, even as we hold ourselves to these visions (and pursue accurate representations through research, debate and google) we must remember that these dreams were also just dreams for a time. And that we need to also actively shape what we have for a future that might not look like where we are coming from (despite moi era alarmists. The alarm might be necessary, but the moi distracts).

We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us.”

Which is why I ask about a sunset. Like death, we know there will be a sunset tomorrow. And so to write about it would be to say, “This thing. This thing that we knew was going to happen. It has happened, as things happen. Except this time; it was fucking beautiful.’

In Pursuit of Power

Michael Onsando
3 April ,2018

What is power?

I ask because we need to look closely at this thing that we spend a lot of time assuming we all understand. We say that people have power of others and what do we mean? One could say power is the ability to allocate resources (financial, emotional, opportunities). Perhaps it is the ability to influence the way people make decisions using a variety of tactics. Still, these definitions seem to be a result of power rather than the thing power itself.

Without becoming overly philosophical – I ask this because there are assumptions we make in conversations that might be hindrances to the truth. We assume, for example, that the priviledged person will have power of the less privileged one – but is that true?

And if so, what is power?

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”

It becomes evident that power lies in will. In this case, who the sellsword wills to kill. Will is, of course, the initial driver of ability – we will ourselves to do things. It is the collective will of the people that moves societies. This will comes from authority. We will ourselves to do what we want but we bend our will when faced by an authority(real or perceived). The thing about authority is, there are few places where we must bow to authority. In the office, for example, we must follow what the people in charge want. In society, we must follow the law – but there are few others. All other ways in which we succumb to the will of others are voluntary. Or beyond voluntary, transactional. For example, you still bend your will sometimes for your parents because you would like to continue to receive their good graces.

And, of course there are people who bend their will to suit what you want – tis the nature of life.

Hence creation of authority creates an illusion of power. And, because power itself is an illusion then it might as well be the real thing.

The reason this is important is perhaps in realizing this we can begin to see how we have assigned authority based on our definitions of power and how that has affected our interactions with people. For example – how does your assumption that all women are emotional affect how you interact with women? Do you thus perform actions that provoke an emotional reaction and confirm your theory? Or your idea that all men are cold and emotionless – do you go around being pre-emptively microaggressive and thus making sure people keep their distance from you and confirm your theory? What authorities have we given people (how have we organized the worlds in our heads) and how does this authority shape who we think people are (and who we think we should be)?

Perhaps now it becomes clearer that when we speak of “reclaiming our power” we are not necessarily talking about moving in opposition to something, rather than moving towards actualization of our own will. And in order to know what our own will is we must start by trying to see the world we are trying to create – what it looks like, who can live there and how to get there. It might seem like the same thing, but is very different from simply identifying the things we do not want in the world.

Because many times the very thing we don’t like is a reflection of ourselves, and positions based on negatives often lead to debates about exceptions. For example “we would like to eliminate murder from the world” leads to questions like “what about self defense? Or manslaughter?” Whereas building from a place of “we would like a world where people are not pushed to violence” allows us to have the conversation from a place of laying the groundwork and creating the environment for the non-existence of murder.

The second statement starts from a place of before the murder has happened and begins to address the root cause, rather than begin from “okay, a murder has happened – the person who murdered is bad, how do we punish them?” Rather than destroy what has already been willed it begins with the bottom – what moved the will in the first place? And this conversation leaves room for solutions that could be more sympathetic rather than punitive towards the murderer and hence leaving room to break long term cycles. This is because the first position assigns that murderer the authority of evil. All evil begins and ends with the act of murder. Whereas the second position distributes the violence – allows for the murder to be part of a larger picture.

Just to clarify that I’m not saying that this should be how we write laws. Rather it is how we should approach conversations. Rather than assign privilege the authority of evil in a conversation, how would it change if we walked into conversations and stripped people of the authorities they are supposed to have – and ourselves of the ones we assumed ourselves to have – and tried to reach/understand? Where would conversations go? What kind of solutions would show themselves?

“…get firsthand information. Know for yourself what it feels like. And then you too can become a superhuman empathetic person. You can care about people you never met, and worry about problems you don’t even have.”

So this week, maybe a question. Who have you given authority? Who have you given your power? Where do you bend your will? And how can you stand up straight?

The Future is a Handshake Away

Michael Onsando
13 March ,2018

Having the perfect handshake is one of those things we are taught to obsess about. How we shake hands reveals who we are. Handshakes are very political. Hands themselves are not. Hands simply carry out the will of the mind, express what has been felt. Perhaps this why handshakes are seen this way – hands, carrying the will of two minds meet and, depending on what they learn of each other in that moment, they may never meet again.

The handshake above is one we are all familiar with by now. Following a closed door meeting at Harambee house Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga spoke and shook hands in front of the press for all to see. The president(s?) spoke about the ideas of building a better future and putting a final end to the ethnic division in the country.

Of course, we remain wary when two men meet and tell us that the solution to all our problems has been found. A point that was driven home in the several speeches given by NASA co-principals before they fell in line with the conversation sometime yesterday.

“Through its research and hearings, the Commission identified several causes and drivers of ethnic tension in the country.”

“This process has reminded us that as a nation there are more issues that unite than divide us. We have been reminded that we must do all in our power to safeguard our peace – that is the foundation of our national unity, social cohesion, economic growth and political stability.”

Watching the two speeches alongside each other one can’t help but notice how Raila has changed. His dynamic, almost upbeat body language in the 2008 video is more comparable to what Uhuru looks like now, while his current speech, read and delivered in a monotone is more like Mwai Kibaki’s body language from the earlier video.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is the idea that this is a process that need to be started afresh.

That Kenya needs a fresh start, a platform from which to launch ourselves into the future. This begs the question – what happens to all the work towards cohesion that has been done? Do we cast it aside and start again? Do we imagine that the TJRC report doesn’t exist and clearly outline the things we should address? Do we not talk about the Ndung’u report on land allocations? And, if we do, how does that affect the nuances and the parties involved?

How does this process of social change that will ‘find solutions that will (…) give us a life cycle that is beyond the five years that we have established for ourselves’ actually work? How deep will this introspection go? And what makes it different from other introspections that we have had in the past?

In the speech the president(s) called for the moment to be seen as a moment that we should view with hope for our country. This was impressed heavily upon us under the invocation of independence and the metaphor of a sinking ship. This moment, they say, is to be seen as the moment when, led by the two, Kenya was moved into a better future.

I am hopeful.

But not that much will come of this process. Rather I am hopeful because of the what we have been through over the last half year or so. I am hopeful because we saw the elections annulled, we saw the cracks in the systems, we saw how firmly people held their positions, and we have seen how easily that these things change. I am hopeful because there are mixed  feelings about this meeting – and Kenyans are disappointed. I’m hopeful because we are asking questions and refusing to take this ‘resolution’ at face value.

It’s here that I choose to place my hope.

“It is not forgetfulness, but the state in which it is deemed necessary or at least desirable to go through a process of forgetting.

(…)

Through this process, issues and people are washed clean of their identity and significance.”

But even this hope is frail. Given our history with memory one can only wonder if this time we will remember to hold ourselves, and our leaders, accountable to the betterment of this country. Or whether this handshake will slowly slip its way into the past as we fill our hard drive with unread PDFs.

Under the Same Light

Michael Onsando
27 February ,2018

And, as the winds of change continue sweeping across the continent, we continue to push ourselves to find more spaces within which we can look at ourselves critically. The more we go into the act of realizing our own freedoms, the more important the question of creating space for each other becomes. And, as this happens, the more the questions on sharing space press upon us (and of course included in this question are questions on identity, perception, representation and so forth and so forth). On twitter Zoe Samudzi writes:

“Inclusivity is the recognition of a diverse set of narratives, experiences and identities. And while intersectionality can and often does mean that, it often doesn’t. It has specific political origins that are erased when it is made synonymous with inclusivity.”

I’d like to talk about deconstruction – and how we hold the things we find, and how this in itself, is a way things become what they are. Or, as it has been put before, “can’t change the world until we change ourselves.  In this way I would like to talk about vulnerability, how we handle vulnerability – and what that means for who we allow to be vulnerable.

It has been said that the work of building men must be done by men. And, of course, in creating that space, we must begin with a simple preposition. That we exist and that the realities created and rooted in our experiences are valid. This is important in a world where you rarely hear the word masculinity without the word toxic before it. If the problem lies within masculinity and must be resolved within it – then we must allow for an examination of masculinity itself.

I’d like to argue that there’s little space for this expression within feminism (and, of course, why should there be? The space, as designed, is safe for women and, in doing that must first of all begin with the perceptions of women (or, to see through feminist frames is to see through women’s eyes). Again, which is important because the unlistening of women has been happening (and continues to happen) globally.

Somehow though, the discussions seem to come up in opposition of each other. It is impossible to have a conversation about feminism without someone coming along to talk about the boy child. And it becomes increasingly more difficult to look at masculinity without it being dismissed as “masculinity so fragile” or just “men are trash” (Yes, I know men are trash is a structural critique, but if used to silence vulnerability in a conversation that was opened up deliberately to speak about one thing it gets in the way of vocalization).

At this point it would be important to emphasize that this is not to argue for the creation of a space within feminism. Perhaps it is an echo of an earlier essay where I wrote about the importance of creating a space for men outside the space of feminism (which goes back to what Zoe said about intersectionality vs inclusivity). Even as we see intersectionality as a tool towards greater freedoms, how do we begin to understand and create inclusive spaces?

I’ve always been big on breaking perceptions. Part of the problem, as always, is the ways in which we see people and the ways in which we treat them based on who we have decided they are before we kno who they are.  And how these decisions affect the ways in which we refuse to see (and hear) them. Because with continued unlistening and unseeing comes silencing. And with silencing comes the destruction of empathy (or, why must I see you as human in this same way that you have refused to see me?).

And, with the destruction of empathy, comes the cyclical collapse of everything else.

Can you live

in the radical world

you imagine?

From a practical perspective it would be as simple as saying “well, we’re all stuck here – where do we go from here?” Are the radical utopias we imagine actually habitable when we place humans within them? Or are they a collection of political positions that lack the human at the centre? Can we deconstruct your radical utopia backwards through time towards the present? Did you start with a sense of where we are? Or did you simply present where you would like us to be?

Towards this, perhaps it would be helpful to stop seeing the issues at play as opposing each other (no one wins the oppression olympics). Perhaps, when engaging with conversations. It would help to first contextualize. And, when presenting our arguments, it would be best to speak towards a clear forward rather than against whatever it is that is presented.

Speaking on listening, Jordan Peterson argues that one of the best ways to listen is to begin by trying best to articulate the other person’s point from a place of understanding, rather than from standing ready to defend your ground. The argument being, if both parties in a debate work towards this, they are more likely to find consensus that those that begin with the perception that the other side must be destroyed. Especially when we find ourselves handling each other’s vulnerability as we would handle a debate. Especially if one person in the debate is more skilled at debating (or, sometimes people just submit rather than agree).

Perhaps, before we question whether we have been heard, we must first ask ourselves – are we listening?

And, if we can’t hear each other – then how do we create inclusive spaces?

Or, where do we go from here?

Remembering Freedom

Michael Onsando
13 February ,2018

“We will need writers who can remember freedom.”

It’s hard to hold today’s Kenya in isolation. As the world continues to shape itself, we seem to continue to grasp towards our place within it. As the winds of decolonization, identity and freedom sweep across, so we find ourselves poised to grow. And with this potential comes increased aggression from the state, hungry to establish its place in history as one through which we achieved progress.

“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace.”

  • Keguro Macharia

‘An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb’

Achebe

Of course this becomes tricky when we begin to look at the fickle nature of power. Power as a fluid thing that moves and morphs rather than as a static thing that is absolute. This becomes increasingly as the continent seems to be going through a phase of pulling down the generals of yesteryear. Last year saw the fall of Mugabe, and Zuma seems backed into a corner. It only makes sense that whoever is left holding the reigns of a historically oppressive system of power is on edge.

It is within this context that we hold our dear president freedom. Every day, the irony of his name is not lost on us. In  bid to maintain control over an already polarized country (let’s not split hairs over who is actually to blame for this polarization), we have seen him arrest key members of the opposition, deport a citizen, turn off major media stations and declare the NRM a criminal organization.

“It is critical for us to achieve the development agenda that we have set for ourselves going forward. Sasa si nyinyi mzime hiyo mavitu yenu na muende? Kazi imekwisha”

I would like to sit with this Kazi imekwisha. Especially its place within the speech that was given. Speaking at the Kenya School of Government, the president opens by talking about the importance of holding conferences in Kenyan establishments. He further continues to preach the establishment and growth of a ‘local’ something. That we must continue along the path of trying to develop the country and make the country better.

It is in this context that I place  the “Kazi imekwisha” and I would like to use this Kazi imekwisha to say something about what development means, and how language is used, what permissions it gives us (or it allows us to give ourselves).

In conversation, some friends and I were laughing about how functions are held outside Nairobi. At these events you have an MC who says things like where the toilets are, and which water is drinkable. This announcer often uses language to slip in and out of instructions, speaking to the locals in whatever local language so that the Nairobi people don’t understand. Whenever this slip happens it is used to communicate something that visiting company shouldn’t know or hear. When writing about the use of vernacular in music, Alexander Ikawah describes the nature of this language private and intended for the house. This tone, this “now lemme address our people” is where we go into language for. These Swahili asides are great for national dialogue. We have seen them used by previous leaders,  most notable being Mwai Kibaki’s “Mavi ya kuku,” a thing that would be completely absurd if used in English(Can you picture a president calling his opponents chicken shit on live tv and us being okay with it?) On a more sinister level vernacular asides were used to incite the public to violence in the post-election violence of 2007/2008.

So, what does it mean when the president tells the media “kazi imekwisha” following the end of his delivery of a ‘perfect’ speech?

I’d like to argue that the language of development is removed from actually policy. That development has become a thing that people are told as an excuse. A public relations spiel. And, increasingly, it becomes apparent that this administration are nostalgic of a time when KBC was the communications department of the government rather than an independent media house (yes, I know, to speak of independent media in today’s Kenya is laughable). That everything that is happening is line with the “Kazi imekwisha”

That, in the same way the media was connoted to “other” in that simple statement, anyone who dissents, or sees a different existence is othered by this government. It is this “for us” or “against us” mentality that has been the highlight of this administration’s leadership style. Whether it is in the ad hoc manner of policy making (I’m thinking of the overnight ban on plastics, or the ban on night travel, or the ban on shisha). This authoritarian model (stepping stones to fascism) that shows just how far this administration will be ready to go to maintain their grip.

And it is because of this fear that we can’t hold this administration in isolation.

Because it is this same fear of the absence of control (of resources) that we see in Trump’s administration. This same fear that is driving actions like Brexit.

“Fascist leaders are masters at shifting goalposts. For those who feel secure within the in group but are not in power, or those who do not belong to the fascist’s group of cronies – security is not guaranteed. One minute you are in, the next, you are an enemy of progress. Only the fascist knows where the goalposts are, and he can shift them at will.”

It is in this power to include and exclude that the state gets us. We see it in the deportation of Miguna Miguna. Where the state clearly shows that it intends to use its power, even beyond the mandate of the constitution. Those on the inside, hope that their silence, their compliance will leave them unnoticed. That keeping their heads down will allow them survival. And those ostracized continue to wonder whether their pleas will be heard. Meanwhile, president freedom continue to systematically shut down areas of dissent and we are left wondering if there is a place for freedom in this new Kenya.

“Journalism is not a crime.”

 

Kazi imekwisha.

How is This Even a Discussion?

Michael Onsando
23 January ,2018

“Disposability is a long word. It speaks about the value of an object within a certain space. Say, for example, the wrapper of the chewing gum that you just had. That is very disposable. Unless  you collect chewing gum wrappers. The idea of disposability of people within a community works the same way. How can society work with or without, say, you? Are you collectible, or disposable? Do you have value?”

One only needs to google “Kenyatta Hospital Screenshots” to read about the atrocities that have been happening at Kenyatta Hospital recently. But, if you don’t want to google, and are yet to hear, there are allegations of all sorts flying at the hospital. These allegations have nothing to do with poor services rendered (something that we can talk about), but of robbery, people being drugged and rape. There’s something especially wrong when we are discussing whether you are safe at a hospital (before even discussing whether they are getting treated).

Still, this is where we find ourselves.

Disposability shows its face in many ways. When a place is made for you, it is created to enable your continued survival. To be disposable is to speak of the attitude of the state towards a people. It is more than neglect, because if it was neglect, the state would at least acknowledge the responsibility held. To be disposable is to live in a state where the assumption of responsibility itself does not exist.

“We wish to state that there is no mother or patient who has reported being raped or attempted rape at Kenyatta Hospital”

““Did you report?” as the first thing a victim is asked does not address what the victim has just gone through. It does not deal with the violation. It does not allow the sexual assault victim control of what happens next. Reporting will only help a victim if they are allowed to make this decision.”

But, what do we want? By the time the screenshots were hitting peak circulation KNH had responded. In typical fashion blame was shifted to the victims but an investigation was promised. We are now in the stage where we wait for some action(and forces push for something to happen). We can speculate that this will go round on social media, pressure will be increased and soon the public declarations by government officials will start. Once this has happened a report will be generated that will be given to parliament, who will discuss this report over 90 to infinity before it slowly slips out of the public conscious. Part of a Facebook post reads:

“My wonder, after 6years, is this. If the KNH story hadn’t been told on social media, not many would have known nor cared. Ignorance has been blissful.  Pia, inakaa Akili nyingi imeondoa maarifa mengi. (…)Those that need that social revolution the most, are not ardent social media users. Aren’t nearly well-enough read to comprehend this post. And yet we, who have that luxury.  We talk. Sensationalize issues for a bit; months, even. Then, more often than not, forget. “

This reminds me of the discussion we had a few months back about travel. We see a series of road accidents, then national outcry, followed by a decisive declaration which is soon overturned because it really isn’t a policy. Even with the NTSA – we saw them on the road, then a quick sudden death meant they aren’t on the road anymore.

Is anything really being thought through?

I ask this in light of Sonko’s various squads as well. Who is on these squads? What is their mandate? (especially because one squad is also meant to help with security. Do they use force? Under whose authority?) I ask because women aren’t safe going to give birth. Because this isn’t really even a large policy question – rather a simple question of security and efficiency. How, and when, will we demand to receive the services that we need?

“Yet what is baffling to me is that we continue to think of these moments as glitches; flaws in the system that runs Kenya, as opposed to proof that it is working exactly how it was designed – to keep the majority poor, hungry and desperate, never with enough time to realize that their dignity is inherent; that they are deserving of rights; that it has never been about tribe, but about class and power, and that ultimately, the power was always theirs to use and give. We continue to sacrifice our nation’s most vulnerable at the altar of corruption and anyhowness, and we can only get away with it for so long.”

As I write this essay, I realise that I am working towards showing the nuance in something that, honestly, isn’t quite nuanced. It is important that the oldest and, arguably, most accessible hospital in the country be safe. Hospitals are the place we go when our bodies have failed us. When we are at our weakest. I’m not equipped to do it – but I’ve heard that giving birth is hard and both physically and mentally straining. Surely, we need not add insecure and unsafe to, what is already, extremely difficult.

It’s 2018, the city is Nairobi and we’re discussing mothers giving birth without being raped. Seriously though, how is this even a thing?

 

Something is Happening

Michael Onsando
9 January ,2018

The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?

Maybe this is why hope is fragile. Especially when it comes to hope for the intangible things. Things like freedom and peace.

The thing is, hope opens up a space of possibility. When we hope for something we make decisions toward its actualization. You hope that someone comes to see you – so you linger around the house waiting for them to get there. The longer you wait, the more you lose hope. Usually, by the time you leave you have not only lost hope altogether – you’ve probably also convinced yourself that the whole idea of hoping was silly in the first place. And, if this happens enough times, you learn to navigate this person differently to preserve your time. Every action though, has an equal and opposite reaction. You stop waiting for them, they get angry, and you have a confrontation.

To hope towards freedom in colonial days was to ask your neighbor “are you willing to sacrifice your life for this?” To even think of creating possibilities for freedom was to accept the sacrifice that came with it. Now, most people can agree, that freedom was something we needed. And to get it someone had to aspire to it, and sacrifice was made. However, given the level of sacrifice needed, one can begin to understand the people who decided not to sacrifice. Who looked at the question and said “Yes, freedom would be fantastic, but I have lost too much/I am too afraid/I cannot help” or whatever other variation.

Perhaps this is why we will (and must) always be wary of anyone who speaks of change. Not to frustrate the inevitability of change (another exercise in futility) but rather to ask ourselves – is this the world we want? And how can we move from where we are to where we need to be? And what does where we need to be look like?

Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake?

With (literally) our whole world at stake, we become very particular. We begin to take a closer look at things like identity, we study patterns in ideologies. And, once convinced we are on the right path, we are willing to do almost anything to get there (it is, after all, for the greater good). This, like everything else has some good and some bad in it as well. It is because of this drive that change is inevitable. Because we will always work towards it.

But sharing spaces will always be about compromise. And if there is no room for compromise in this drive then we end up with different sides to the same argument talking at each other, over each other and against each other without any real consensus building toward a shareable future. Discussions that often end in reproducing the same oppressive institutions that they set out to change.

Africanization, then, is an exercise in offering context. In learning our history. In changing our lenses. Much of the history of our continent is written by white men from Europe and North America, and this no doubt affects how the world sees us, but more importantly, how we see ourselves. For our children, it has meant a very narrow view of our continent. In many school books, the history of our continent is written in three broad categories: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. In doing so, we single out colonization as the single most important thing that has happened to Africa, and centre it.

 

‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’

  • Audre Lorde

 

“And, if truth itself has a history – what happens when such histories collide? When the subject, rooted in their own truth and own history, meets another subject rooted in the same? How do we handle these situations? Does the way we do this further aggravate or does it create space for these histories to co-exist?”

Maybe this is why the work of change is slow. The constant negotiation and renegotiation until something finally manages to lodge itself into the place of “common knowledge.” So to say something is happening is to say “this is common knowledge in my circles/this change has reached the people around me” Maybe it might even be to say “I have removed myself from the spaces where the thing is yet to happen.” Rarely, “I am working to happen this thing”

Something is happening is often used to direct attention to the thing. To ask that the listener pause to observe and, perhaps even participate towards whatever is happening. And with attention comes the questions “why this thing?” “Why now?” What does this thing mean for me?” And it is these questions that we must be willing and ready to answer when we say something is happening. Because all conquest has been on the back of ideology (or nazi soldiers were willing to die for their beliefs as well). Because sacrifice will often fall on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. A president may start a war, but a soldier will die. A lawyer may open a case, but a witness will be shot. And, if we insist that this something, that is happening, must happen then we must accept that there will be sacrifice involved.

And, as with all sacrifices, we must be willing to ask “why?”

 

 

 

Where is Kenya? A Review

Michael Onsando
19 December ,2017

“Today we commemorate our 54th Birthday as an independent nation.  On this day, 54 years ago, the Union Jack came down and the Kenyan flag went up.”

With these words, a week ago, the president began his speech to mark our 54th year of independence. It was in this speech that he revealed his ‘big four’ i.e. food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare. These are all noble causes. At the core of human existence is food clothing and shelter – the four pillars address all three, and add longevity to the mix.

But, with 54 years of independence, we must continue to ask ourselves why we aren’t there yet. What are the things that are getting in the way of us and our ability to provide decency for the citizens of the country? An abstract question that could make for polite conversation at a bar that would last the whole night – and make little progress while at it. It is still an important question to be asked – to be considered by as many Kenyans as possible, because without answers from people with diverse interactions with the country, how can we be sure we have a full picture?

Perhaps this is what Footprints Press sought to do when they put together the book 50 Years since Independence, Where is Kenya? A collection of 50 essays in three parts, the book is a collection of views from a diverse group of Kenyans with different experiences of the country. From bleak:

“As Kenya marks 50 years of independence I have little to commemorate and nothing to celebrate. It bothers me that we are glossing over the past with such aplomb yet in the present we have outgrown our national significance.”

  • Anyango Odhiambo

To optimistic:

“It is my perspective that whether by design or accident, we have put the necessary building blocks that will pave the way for a sustained economic take-off”

  • Tony Githuku

The authors are drawn from various backgrounds with the book organized in 3 parts – Society and Culture, Politics and the Marco-Economy. Because of the nature of essays (an argument must be contextualized) the book is packed, not just with historical facts, but insights on mindsets and how those mindsets affected the decisions that were made. Take this by Margaret Wambui Ngugi Shava for example:

“I have often wondered how my parents, who endured the vagaries of a racist colonial power, whose lives were fundamentally touched by the Mau Mau resistance, managed to bring up my siblings and myself in such an even handed manner… how is it that as we grow older, most of our friends seem to speak the same language we do?”

This is of particular value to the ‘new’ generation. Those who live with little context to the current mess. Gladwell Otieno puts it best:

“What happens to an injury, an injustice unprocessed? Does it fester, burrowing into the psyche and leaving its traced being inherited from one generation to the next? As a country we are not good at dealing with the sins of the past or the present. The current motto of ‘move on’ in response to the presidential elections is typical. We do not learn from our history and are thus condemned to keep on stumbling over the same hurdles, committing the same crimes”

This book allows us to begin to contextualize current Kenya. In giving us their insights on where Kenya is at fifty years, the writers allowed us to see into their own world, into their own (versions of) history so that we can have a clearer picture of what here looks like. It is in seeing the collection as a whole, as an arena of debating voices, that we begin to understand that competing interests that have been pulling at our country for the last half a decade or so.

A lot of the essays agree on the significances of certain happenings. There are repeated mentions of the death of Kenyatta in 1978 and the attempted coup in 1982. The repressive nature of the Moi regime comes up repeatedly as well as an impediment to freedoms in business, in law, in media and in development of identity. The constitution (promulgated in 2010, I’ve decided we need to stop calling it new) also features a great deal.

But even on these things that they agree on, the perspectives are wide. When writing about the constitution, for example, Henry Awori writes:

 ‘The referendum overwhelmingly approved a constitution that set some high standards for leadership. But when the tenth parliament legislated for its operationalization, the threshold was lowered, making a mockery of the people’s wishes and throwing the principle of public goods to the dogs.’

And Githu Muigai writes:

‘The recent constitution making process remains one of the greatest achievements in our nationhood in the last fifty years… this design has brought new ideas, a transformed conception of government, and, certainly, new applications of old ideas.’

Perhaps if there was something that stood out sharply for me in the book was the importance of hope. The need to believe (or at least try to believe) that this thing called Kenya is possible – that it can be done. Each essay attempts to shed a perspective on the mechanics – how it can be done, what needs to go, what needs to stay, what has been forgotten, what needs to be forgotten and so forth. But it seems strongest that even before we begin to think of how, we must first accept that it is here and that we have a stake in it – then begin to work towards making it better.

‘Where is Kenya? 50 Years Since Independence’ is available from Footprints Press for KES 3,500. Click here for more details.

Beyond Chants and Slogans

Michael Onsando
5 December ,2017

It’s been less than a week since Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as president and already we can see the questions slipping slowly into the past. The NSE has been steadily gaining the shilling growing stronger and the political discussion is shrinking. Even the arrest and release of David Ndii didn’t seem to get as much circulation as it would have a few weeks ago.

Soon names like baby Pendo and Chris Msando will disappear as well. Just like the names from the previous elections have. It won’t be long before we begin to classify this election as “not that bad” or “could be worse” even as families continue to count their losses.

Eventually (if not already) we will make peace with the fact that the country is largely mismanaged and, save for the periodical cycle of scandals, all will be back to “normal.” I return to forgettingness:

It is not forgetfulness, but the state in which it is deemed necessary or at least desirable to go through a process of forgetting.

The kind of forgetting in forgetingness is not a mere slipping away from memory, but rather a process of extraction from being.

Through this process, issues and people are washed clean of their identity and significance.”

Interlude #3 – Forgettingness

In essence it seems moot to try and insist that we remember when there’s little evidence that we actually will – and even less that it will make a difference.

Instead it seems important to talk about what politics is. Because it is around this time that we begin to lose interest in politics. As if somehow politics is this cage match between two principles and we come out to fiercely show our support and, once there is a winner, we go back to our apolitical lives.

But there’s no such thing as an apolitical life.

Because politics is not abstract – politics is tangible, measureable and important. It is access to a steady water and power supply. It is a question of how well schools will be equipped and how much they will cost. It is a road outside your house that is repaired every 3 months – because it breaks every three months. It is whether you can go to sleep knowing that were you live is secure. And, in this sense, politics is never over (and neither should our engagement with it be)

Do you know who your MCA is? Have you asked them about the sewer that’s always bursting and flooding the roads? Have you asked them about why your water is always being rationed? Have you asked your governor what they are going to do to better improve your living environs for yourself and your loved ones?

It is this kind of self-centered approach to politics that will allow us to build stronger societies. If it is about negotiation of need and proper allocation of resource to meet those needs then, have you made your needs known?

Writing this is not to say that we have, or are working with, the most competent, efficient government. Known for questionable procurement methods and faulty accounting one can’t say that Uhuru had a brilliant first term – and odds are not high that he’ll have a great second one either. And maybe this is exactly why we can’t stop engaging. Consistent pressure and letting the government know that we are watching and are aware of what is happening (in large numbers) is one way to insist that we get at least some of the things he promised.

And, even as bleak as that sounds, even ‘some of the things’ might be too much to hope for. The school laptops, youth development centers and stadia from 2013 are yet to be seen. This without even mentioning the several scandals that plagued the administration, with the president himself wondering what can be done about the problem.

So it is not without knowledge of how helpless the whole process can feel that I write this. Letters to your local government will probably go unanswered for a while. And you are not guaranteed that your complaint will be passed on by whoever you speak to on the phone.

What I’m proposing is that we give these people who we leave in the past significance. Significance in the shape of actively participating in the building and strengthening of institutions that safeguard against this in the future. In ensuring that your politician passes whatever law needs to be passed in order to have better computer systems – and avoiding another Msando during the next election. In ensuring that police reform and training programmes are supported within your county so that another Pendo is not shot. In questioning the legislative actions of your member of parliament and asking whether they align with your position, with your beliefs, with your values (and the compromises you’re willing to make – because without compromise there is no such thing as a shared space).

We can’t change the things that have happened. It is impossible to bring people back to life – or undo the trauma and the violences that we have seen and heard. But perhaps it is about time we began to think about how to create an environment where they won’t happen. To properly equip ourselves with the tools we need to create stability and some form of habitable peace – otherwise we’ll be right back here in 2022, mourning yet another series of unnecessary deaths.