Changing Landscapes

Michael Onsando
28 August ,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?” 

It’s been particularly well known that, while Kenyan elections run on tribal math, this has always just been a narrative used by people in power to maintain their status as the ruling class. Still, tribe has been to blame for most of the problems facing Kenya’s political landscape. So much so has tribe been at the root of our problems that “tribless Kenya” is a movement hoping that, in organizing across tribal lines we can work towards a united country.

It makes sense that we can be herded around using tribe. The concept plays on our base ideas of “us” “ours” and a “sense of belonging.” (and participates in creating “them,” “theirs” and a “sense of unbelonging.”)

“In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.” 

So what happens when the tribal numbers stop making sense? When it increasingly becomes apparent that “our man” will not help us?

“When my competitors are through with(mon-sun)sponsored headlines, paid opinion polls & fake news they are welcome to the real contest based on real mwananchi issues SGR, roads, connecting people to electricity, equipping our hospital &Tivets and matters water. Nawangojea huko.” 

The narrative changes.

“Siasa ya 2022 imengoa nanga (…) hii siasa si ya monarchy ukiamka asubuhi enda kwa huyu, jioni kwa huyu, kesho kwa huyu – hapana. Hata sisi maskini tutazaa kiongozi wetu maskini 2022 William Samoei arap Ruto” 

Mohammed Ali

It’s impossible to ignore that sanitizing effect that the defection of Mohammed Ali has on William Ruto’s character. How can you claim that a person is corrupt if the very person who was voted into government to fight corruption has aligned themselves with them? Buildings are destroyed, commissions are called, rumours are started, reports are written, life moves on – we forget about corruption.

Instead we focus on kiongozi wetu maskini.

Wetu.

The new narrative is the same old narrative. Just the objects that hold space of fearing the “other” have been changed. We begin to see battle lines drawn along the story of the people versus the empire.

“As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?” 

It’s worth understanding why these narratives are sticky. One theory states that the independence struggle, while won, took its toll on the country. The only hope left on the other side was catching up with an ever-moving world. In this sense the goalposts shifted from self-determination to gathering resource (I imagine because it became more apparent that resource was the key to this self determination). It is from here single career stories were birthed (be a lawyer doctor engineer or embarrassment to the family). This kind of thinking thrived strongest in the Moi error where following a template and keeping your head down was a surefire way to success. But time passed and we are looking for different definitions of freedom, beyond the pursuit of capital to sustain a life that hadn’t been chosen. Increasingly people are looking for agency over their decisions and looking to where this agency will take (would have taken) them. And the gaps in infrastructure are becoming more apparent.

And the people are getting impatient (Africa is rising, why are we being left behind please?)

Juxtapose this emotion onto the landscape with dwindling tribal numbers and the stage is set for the class to thrive as a key driving story.

And it’s not that hard a story to sell. Kenyatta the first’s government systematically grabbed and redistributed resources amidst the political elite. Every government that has come after has participated, to some degree at least, in this tradition of creating wealth for the elite. And this wealth never translates into proper economic growth because it is not created with a plan or structure but rather through pilfering public funds and redirecting public resources.

So in this way, the Kenyan populace remains vulnerable to the “working president” as a narrative. Change looks like having a president who did not come from legacy and has no ties to empire to the Kenyan people because this is something we have no experience of.

Elections, however, are in 2022 and this is only 2018 – a lot can happen in 4 years. And it is impossible to say the age of political patronage is over. But it might be worth pointing out that it will not be enough to get by on “my people” alone moving forward. Already loud declarations are being made about holding the value of labour over identity so much so that the president had to say that he will not protect his brother if found guilty (he said he will, whether he will well…)

So how can the current landscape be used to the advantage of the people?

First, as already explained the narrative is strong because it is true. Kenya is long overdue a leader that is not part of empire (that leader is not the guy who stole land from a primary school or sold the country’s grain). Look around and find ways to support the leaders you think are actually working.

Second, use the narrative and circumstances to create pressure for the people currently in power. Remind them that the tribal numbers won’t help them next time and that it is the current scorecard that matters. Keep track of the things you and members of the community need done and present them to the people who need to get them done (you can email, tweet or whatever). Make sure your issues are heard – then watch for who is listening. If the battle is for who is listening to the people – then speak your truth.

Loving in mono – dreaming in stereo

Michael Onsando
7 August ,2018

“I surrender this isn’t love it’s torture” 

  • Hold me down

Love, or ideas of what love can be, has the ability to bring us to our knees. With our backs against the wall and confronted by the harsh truth that no one is subject to your will – that illusions of control are just that. Love, we are reminded is a battlefield for preservation of the self, in a landscape that continuously asks for compromise, for a little letting go for a little more space – just a little.

My first encounter with the album “Dreams in Stereo” happens in Eric Wainaina’s studio. I have wandered into the space on other business and Eric has just come from recording “Okay,” the opening track on the album. The song takes us to all the places we know and trust Eric to take us. Heavily layered choir like melodies over intricate piano and guitar with the trademark tenor that brought us “nchi ya kitu kidogo” immediately let’s you know one thing – you’re listening to an Eric Wainaina record.

But if love itself has the ability to bring us down to our knees then what does its absence do? At what point in the process of unraveling and bringing back together does one decide enough is enough? And, post this decision, what does it look like to put oneself decision in the absence of the person they had decided was supposed to be with them for the rest of their lives?

I miss my second encounter with the album. Having made it to the album launch I barely make it through Sage Chemutai and Tetu Shani’s great openings before a my body decides that it has had enough of my nonsense. The migraine has me in bed before Eric takes the stage.

Speaking at an interview this is what he had to say about the album,“It is an even more personal and intimate album in many ways, where I felt freer to just be myself. It also explores a wide range of musical genres that are close to my heart.”

“Nilikukosea nini, ukanichukia?” 

  • Don’t bury me

The tapestry takes us through a variety of sounds, with each song painting a particular place in the landscape that our attention is being drawn to. There is clear evidence of very deliberate thought about where each note is placed, where every sound effect resonates and every echo. Even when he brings other artists in, we see why they are where they are. A personal favourite is how the diverse style of John Nzenze, Kendi Nkonge and Blinky Bill come together on “don’t bury me” creating a bouncy, snappy track that moves at the everyday rhythm of life – in a song that talks about moving on, moving forward without anger or angst, but rather letting go to move forward.

Can we fly away together, tell no one – don’t leave a number.”

  • Fly away together

I spend the week after the concert streaming the album almost every day. Not only because I was supposed to conjure up a few words about it, but because I am drawn to find more in every listen. To find more of the narrative, to move through the nostalgia and hope once again – I tire my kid brother on one such listen – so perhaps the music intended for more errr mature audiences.

Life has a way of not stopping. No matter what happens, life trudges on. And even as we tell ourselves that love is irreplaceable, we find ourselves slipping once more. We find ourselves loving, despite ourselves. We find ourselves caring, despite ourselves. And, no matter how careful we are, we find ourselves asking, once more to love and to be loved.

“Paid my dues, now I’m ready for the loving, ready for loving – no substituting.”

  • Long time coming 

As I write this essay I am still listening to the album. At 41 minutes long, the piece of work lends itself to a long drive, a long walk or the mindless listen at your work desk as you wait for 5pm. Packed with lyrical and musical content, this is more than the songs you play in the background and ignore – this music demands being listened to, demands being heard – again

“I need you to take me to a brand new day”

Brand new day

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

  • Hejinian

Perhaps this is why we turn to art for the answers. When love pushes us to our knees we already know what we are supposed to do. We already know that there is little to be done. Instead we need someone to remind us that, eventually, it gets better. Eventually, we see the world as beautiful again. Eventually we love – again.

Dreaming in stereo by Eric Wainaina is available on Songa, and iTunes. 

When something has to give (or, towards hope)

Michael Onsando
24 July ,2018

“The system adopted in Kenya is African Socialism, but the characteristics of the system and the economic mechanisms it implies have never been spelled out fully in an agreed form.”

  • Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, Part I, 6

“There are two African traditions which form an essential basis for African Socialism—political democracy and mutual social responsibility. Political democracy implies that each member of society is equal in his political rights and that no individual or group will be permitted to exert undue influence on the policies of the State. The State, therefore, can never become the tool of special interests, catering to the desires of a minority at the expense of the needs of the majority. The State will represent all of the people and will do so impartially and without prejudice.”

Perhaps the imagining of an idea must always happen at it’s purest. Perhaps there was more room to be optimistic at the birth of the nation. Whatever it is I always feel a sense of possibility when I read article from around post independence Kenya. There’s a feeling of thought and deliberateness from the collective on what things should mean/how they should be.

The story of the Ndungu Report is one of systematic perversion of established procedures meant to protect public interest for political gain and the unjust enrichment of a few. It needs to be told.”

Ndung’u Land Report

Still, the story itself is in the telling. It’s also around the time that these ideals were being spoken of that the country was being divided amidst anyone who could afford to be in the room (or, as legend has it, according to how long mzee Kenyatta slept).

“Corruption scandals have become a “fact of life” for many Kenyans, who have come to regard them as just another facet of Kenyan life, alongside high taxes, poor service delivery, our “cult of personality” approach to politics and religion, and the misfortunes occasioned to us by terrorism. These burdens seem to be ours for the long haul, and we seem to have accepted them, albeit half-heartedly. It is tiresome to watch or listen to the news; even being on Twitter at a time when one was not prepared for shock or disappointment can derail one’s entire day.“ 

Maybe it is the rise of report realism, maybe it is the coming out of 24 years of repression under Moi or maybe the writers are just often in a bad mood. Today’s tone is less hopeful, less believing. It’s impossible to go through the papers without sensing the despair. There is no hope, looking for hope or trying toward hope. Only a resounding cry of how deep in it we are – and how much deeper we are going.

A theory I’ve heard floating around involves institutional memory. This narrative begins with Kenya as an idea that was imposed upon these 43 peoples. Not through war, territorial battles and forging of trusted relationships are we bound, but by subjugation. In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.

A friend writes on email,

“At some point many of the people who start off working against corruption end up in the very positions of power that dictate that they steal. Because people have failed to realize that politics is not a subjective game. You don’t come into it with your feelings and try to change it. The people who have been the greatest change factors have always done so outside of the political system – especially when the issue was corruption.” 

There must be more at play here.

Another friend of mine talks about how it is not what power is but rather what it is about spaces (obligations, responsibilities and roles) and how those spaces shape us. To come up against institutional memory is to have an institution remind you what you are coming up against.

“If they want to fight drug barons if they want to fight the al shabaab, if they want to fight crime – they can do it. But they can’t fight crime, they can’t fight al shabaab, they can’t fight barons because everyone has a cut in it.”

Mohammed Ali

“In a video, the angry youth called out Moha for betraying the trust they had on him by associating with the Jubilee government despite corruption scandals rocking the government from within.” 

“The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include— 

(i) Political equality;

(ii) Social justice;

(iii) Human dignity including freedom of conscience;

(iv) Freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;

(v) Equal opportunities; and

(vi) High and growing per capita incomes, equitably distributed.”

Perhaps, when working towards this goal, and in defining this goal – we lost sight of what it looks like.

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

  • Keguro Macharia

And maybe we’re tired of paying the price.

Finding the unsaid

Michael Onsando
10 July ,2018

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life”

Life isn’t as straightforward and knowable as we would like it to be. Perhaps that’s why binaries are so convenient. In clearly labelling something as one way or the other we fail to see the cracks, between concepts – the nuances that hold our humanity.

On this site I try to write (and gather writings) about inexact things in an exact way. To catch a glimpse into that unknowable place in hope of some knowledge making its way through into the space where words exist. Where we can organise, touch and feel what the world around us. Or, at least, discover what blinds us from really experiencing the world around us.

“We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.” 

Ursula Le Guin

“Freedom is a multifaceted construct which extends beyond political ideology.”

Steve Hughes, Live at the apollo

 “Fear will make you reveal who you really are”

Nassir

In making our blindnesses known, perhaps we can work to seeing into the spaces that once represented darkness to us. Darkness, an apt metaphor for the spaces we can’t see into.

It impossible to think about darkness without thinking about fear.

Think about that feeling you get when walking down a dark street. Or the temporary panic sets in as soon as Kenya Power checks out at night. The paralysis of this fear does not come from knowledge of absolute harm but in the ambiguousness of it. The idea that harm could come at any moment creates a kind of fear that is a hyper-alertness. The absence of familiarity leaves us exposed to what we don’t know.

It is this exposure that creates fear.

“And at the end of the day,

We celebrate your protection.” 

But, to stay within the metaphor, where did the light go? In which ways are we left exposed? And whose job is it to cover those bases? Or, rather, in whom had we placed our trust to keep our vulnerabilities hidden?

“Now that I have your dreams, what would you I do with them?”

And how does being a shield against the things we are afraid of change them? To constantly face the things we turn away from?

Were these vulnerabilities ever theirs to hold?

“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 actualisation 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.” 

By holding sight of the worlds we are trying to create, we begin to see where we need to go, and which paths are not fully explored – where we must find the darkness, and grapple with our fear to make it to the other side. In living in those worlds, the difference in landscapes between where we would like to be and where we are becomes apparent.

And as we see this we begin to see places where we exposed ourselves – running into our own fear and looking to those who have kept us safe to keep the pace.

“You will begin to forgive when you understand the many ways in which the world has killed those who try to survive it. When you see how the scars have drawn themselves like maps on their bodies.” 

 And then, maybe, we will begin to see past the sayable.

Down came the market

Michael Onsando
29 May ,2018

“The curio shops near the Sarit Centre in Westlands will be demolished next week.”

  • Curio shops in westlands to be demolished, The Star, Feb 1 2016

It was not until May 10th2018 that the curio shops in Westlands were demolished. On the day of the demolition roads were closed and the internet was abuzz with questions on nostalgia, culture and gentrification.

Amidst the continuous labour we see on the streets these days, it is increasingly easier to make peace with the transient nature of things. The feeling of coming up against a familiar landscape and finding it different is now one we are all accustomed to – whether it is taking a wrong turn on a bypass, or driving into a ditch somewhere.

“For more than 40 years, 73-years-old Mzee David Waweru traded at the recently demolished Westlands Curio Market, selling African curios, carvings and Maasai jewellery, like hundreds of other traders who worked there.”

 

*

 

It takes a certain naiveté to believe in glorified narratives. Your dad is the biggest and strongest – until you see him as another man. Or santa claus is real, until you are the one who has to buy the gifts. Sometimes believing in the dream is a product of distance from it – from what it means to labour towards its actualization. And from the circumstances that make its actualization impossible.

“Growing up in the village back in the 80’s, we often used to hear stories of this place called Nairobi better known then as the ‘city in the sun’. According to the stories the city was this fabulous place which was clean, well organized and everything worked like clock work. The buses were always on time, garbage was always collected, newspapers and even milk was delivered to your door step just like in the movies and most importantly there was no water rationing. You have to understand that back then in the village these things sounded foreign to us and made us long to visit this place called Nairobi.”

Eventually, it becomes easy to forget the fragile nature of freedom actualizing circumstances.

“I lost my innocence of a predictable and certain world in 1982 on the first day of August. I was 8 years old. My elder brother returned from a party on the 31st July and had turned on his portable transistor radio to catch the 6 am news. That Sunday morning, the hesitant voice of radio veteran Leonard Mambo Mbotela on VOK’s national service announced that the government of Daniel Arap Moi had been overthrown.”

And, with a little of romanticisation, it is easy to re-member concepts that had been put aside

“To be a millennial is to believe in freedom. 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”

 

*

“This type of informal market is vital in Kenya, where so many people lack the education needed for skilled jobs. Money spent here helps support the artisans’ families.”

Narratives are sticky. What has been said will remain as what has been said, and what is done can never come undone.

 “Life is a lived experience. There is only one way to do that, to live it. To seek. To find, sometimes. To accept Trump as the clarion call to the next phase of American aggression, which might just drive us to the next war we historians will describe as the war of our generation. To accept that each generation has a purpose, and ours isn’t defined by colonialism and independence, as much as it is defined by our need for jobs, better Internet, fewer wars, more inclusion, and a more humanist approach to social problems. By rapid political transitions, a debt bomb, the traumas we inherited, and those we are inflicting on ourselves. Those are our wars, so far, and they are real. If the next generation has different wars, then so be it.”

 

And freedom is a multifaceted concept. What can look like revolutionary reclamation of a space in one era can serve to its own detriment in another. As the world changes, so we must change with it.

“I came here around 1976 to start my business. I found this Market here. There were traders here already.”

  • David Waweru, Westlands curios market was my life

 

There’s something cyclical about the reclamation of reclaimed space. The city takes back to give what had been taken back because it couldn’t give.

The first time I walked past the curio space after it was demolished, I couldn’t help but feel like something significant had died. Then I remembered it was just another shade of the sunset.

(they better build that road)

Situating Ourselves

Michael Onsando
15 May ,2018

“By saying, this is how the world sees me. This is what is expected of me”

“When bodies break it is not a moment but a culmination. Bodies that break tend to have been pulled, stretched twisted and torn. Bodies that break do not just break.”

 

We all seem to agree by now that the current imaginations of purpose have been long outlived by the modern world. Increasingly the ethnopatrichal capitalist system is being called into question. Globally curiosity has been ignited in alternatives. So much so that flat earthing almost became a thing again.

But the system itself is a thing – and things are indifferent. Building off the previous essay, things only have the power we give them.

So we must ask – what is this thing – the system? And why does it have so much power?

Thankfully, this is not labour we have do ourselves. Several liberation struggles have given language and articulation to the various ways in which this system marginalizes. And, being a system born and bound to certain imaginations of freedom, it makes sense that some bodies were given preference. It is important to note that it is about bodies, because bodies are also things that we can do little about.

System (noun)

A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

Even systems have a purpose. And the system for survival. For whom? That will take us back to the question on bodies, which is a whole other debate. Maybe then it makes sense that the people who have made peace with their role in the system are disproportionately resistant to change – fear is a powerful thing.

And this is even before we begin to introduce the individual human into the equation. If one was to look at the system as a well-oiled machine then it would be a matter of switching parts, keeping it oiled and regular maintenance. But the individual insists on have a conscious mind, and the need to think, feel, live and be.

So we see static unchanging roles and purposes, held in place by an outdated system and we see the wrong bodies coming up to fill the wrong functions and faced with different problems. A woman comes out as the breadwinner in a family and comes up against the sexist nature of compensation. A gentile man seeking to paint comes up against the demand to provide. The system, indifferent, identifies the bodies in a certain way and assumes peace with the function the bodies are to fill – placing the burdens as expected. Those who find themselves aligned are overjoyed. Others are at battle.

This relation shapes us.

What’s true is [that] trauma makes weapons of us. And fools, and secret keepers, and collaborators in harm. What’s true is that trauma is both singular violent events and the ongoing constant socialization of ‘power over’ for those deemed superior because of skin or penis or ability or inheritance or something else they didn’t create or do. If we are going to grow, we must embrace truth telling. We must generate our compassion. We must learn to set and hold boundaries within community, on this planet we share. We must learn what is worth our attention, and how powerful our attention is. We must get more passionate about healing than we are about punishing.

 

But the system is just a thing. Which is to say, to change the system would be as easy as to wake up tomorrow and say ‘from now on it shall be.’ So what’s stopping us then?

There is need.

I keep going back round to this because I need it to be seen that the thing under discussion is tangible. More often than not it is like we are discussing some abstract system that exists eons away from us, but it is right within ourselves. Knowing, for example, that the system is perception bound, means knowing that the ways we have learned to see others are the things that are holding them in place. This ‘system’ is really our definitions of what roles people must fulfill in our lives.

Which makes sense because if the purpose of the system is survival then excommunication is the perfect punishment. Especially when you go into the nature of excommunication in relation to survival – it often meant death.

“It is the people we hold onto that hold onto us. As we shake people off, we too are shaken off.”

There are two things here. First, we must look at the ways in which we have trained ourselves to look at the world. The perceptions we have held and reinforced because ‘they are true.’ The people we have vilified and the people we have sanitized. There is need to shift the way we think – and this can only happen through open and honest debate. It is in the debate that we make peace with the nuance.

Second, it should be more apparent that no matter how we define ourselves in relation to the purpose our identity will be interlinked to it. Because we have only learned to see things as they have been seen and we are only seen as we have been seen, then the futility of fighting becomes apparent.

This is not to say that everything is predetermined and there is no such thing as free will.

Rather it is to say that the act of freeing one’s will must be a deliberate and, will often be, a painful task. As we refuse to become the person we are seen as people see less need in being the person we see them as (the level of peace we have made with this may vary).

“A void will always fill.”

This system doesn’t exist in a vaccum though. And survival as a purpose cannot be taken away from you. All the system did was distribute the labour (and unevenly distribute the benefits of) towards that survival. And so in freeing our will, we find ourselves differently burdened. And those who pick up the burdens we left behind find themselves differently burdened. I use differently because things trade hands, but it is difficult to speak of which is heavier.

It is this time that we take to analyse and understand these different burdens.

And it is with this new understanding that we begin to re-shape the ways in which we relate to the labour of survival. Then maybe, just maybe, we can take a shot at changing the system.

 

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.