Foreign Cities, Local Talent

Michael Onsando
27 November ,2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what happens in the meantime?

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

(Libraries might be a good place to start)

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. 

Social Shifts That Mark the Present State of Kenya

Guest Writer
19 June ,2018

by Wangari Kibanya

Conversations around the word millennial make me wonder, why would we need to contextualize our social and economic shifts from a very US American lens yet our nation is only 53 years old and did not undergo some of the shifts that mark the demographic markers on that end? What happens when the word millennial is deployed in the larger Kenyan discussion? When we label young people and how they act or contribute to society?

When we discuss the different generations, we use the terms – Baby Boomer. Generation X, Generation Y or Millennials and Generation Z /iGen (yet to be crystallized.) This illustration shows what characteristics have been assigned to each of these demographic groups, and the language we currently use to describe people within our workspaces. It shows US American centric culture dynamics. What makes each generation unique? According to US Americans, it is differences in technology use, work ethic, values, intelligence, among others.

The thinking behind all the demographic labels we use to define our workforce dynamics are informed by the United States. Maybe it is time to localize these labels and develop the language and apply a different context for the Kenyan workspace (which may also hold true for a lot of African countries).

The recent history of Africa can be defined as pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. How has the Kenyan workforce morphed from independence to post-independence? What are the demographic characteristics that we can use to shift the conversation around how we develop strategies for understanding context and the role it plays?

Kenya gained independence from Great Britain’s colonial rule in 1963, and this ushered in the Africanisation policy. Pre-independence dynamics saw colonial Kenya define and demarcate drastic social shifts in systems of production, culture, religion and economies. Different communities that were merged to make the Kenyan project moved from agricultural, pastoral and gatherer means of sustenance to a money economy – new crops, language, religion and vocations.

This is the starting point of a change that brought Kenya into the world. The different markers for each generation also determine expression, how ideas spread, their conversations and world views. A person born in a certain time period may have more privilege that one born in another time. This privilege is rarely acknowledged. Maybe this is why talk of younger generations having it easy crops up in conversations about the good old times. According to many, younger generations are “spoilt”.

How can we think about the Kenyan workforce in a new way? What are the educational, political, and social markers of each generation? Within each of these broad categories, you can also map and expand different sub- groups and cultures to get more nuances on each demographic label.  The main consideration for the social, cultural and political characteristics what happened around them as they made the leap from childhood to adulthood.

1963 – 1978: Uhuru generation

This generation came up during the Africanisation of labor market, and took up jobs in the civil service, leading to rapid expansion of formal economy. Africanisation ensured that new jobs were created in Kenya’s post-independence economy. They had (and still have) jobs for life in the civil service, and there were limited education opportunities. This led to the wide availability of jobs. Public services were functional in their time.

First and second generation Kenyans were able to get through formal education system, from 3R (reading, writing, arithmetic) to university education. There were airlifts to the United States and Soviet bloc countries to train a professional class, as well as expansion of education facilities in Kenya, and Kenyan music (Benga especially) dominated the airwaves with influences from the Congo – they even had global recording studios such as Polygram set up shop here.

1978 -1982: Early Generation

This generation was born into a constitutionally embedded one party state, and witnessed succession from the first president of Kenya as well as a coup attempt, which radically shifted Kenya’s character.

1982 – 2002: Nyayo Generation

This generation experienced a change of education system from 7-4-2-3 to 8-4-4. We have experienced state repression, currency controls and price controls. Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) have had a great impact on our experiences of public services such as education, health and infrastructure.   We saw the liberalization of the Kenyan economy, including the free market, privatization of public services, and a public service hire freeze.

We have witnessed the rise of Information Technology as an industry, boosted by computerization and dial up internet access. There was increased uptake of opportunities abroad by Kenyan students and professionals (which led to “brain drain”) due to political and economic conditions. We experienced news from a monopoly broadcaster (KBC), and Congolese and vernacular Kenyan music defined our audio experience.

2002 – 2010: Children of democracy

This generation has witnessed the expansion of democratic space. Freedom of expression and creativity in the film industry, art and music was burgeoning at this time. The Kenyan Hip Hop scene grew due to the presence of labels such as Ogopa DJs and Calif Records, and there was an increase in literary output from collectives such as Kwani? TV and radio frequencies were liberalized, leading to a rise in independent/commercial media houses.

There was a geopolitical shift to engage more with the East, leading to the entry of China in megaproject infrastructure funding. This generation has experienced the enhanced use of technology for everyday life, as well as increased global connections due to internet use (due to the landing of fiber optic cable on Kenyan coast.) This led to better connectedness of Kenya to the outside world – more Kenyans got online as the cost of internet significantly reduced. Mobile telephony grew rapidly with the entry of KenCell Safaricom.

There were many diaspora returnees at this time, and new constitution was promulgated at this time. There were also curriculum changes in primary and secondary schools, with a reduction of examinable subjects.

2010 – Current: Digital natives (Generation Z/iGen)

This generation is experiencing an even greater merge of Kenya with the global space on the digital frontier. They have grown up using mobile devices, high speed internet and broadband. There is an immediacy in the adoption of global trends, making it to almost every part of the country. There has been a screen shift to mobile rather than legacy media, and a change in news dissemination and cultural trends in the age of viral news and trends on Kenyan Facebook and Twitter (#KOT.)

This generation is coming up in a time of unemployment and underemployment, leading to a growing gig economy and the emergence of the “hustler.” There has been a demographic shift in the makeup of our population, and an expansion in the creative economy (we have photographers, videographers, writers, actors, poets, fashion influencers, Instagram and Facebook popup shops.) This generation has seen a rise in self-publishing on platforms like WordPress, and self-promoting created content on platforms like YouTube. There has been more privatization of services, and the rollout of a new curriculum in 2017.

*

With this basic frame of the different slices of the demographic shifts and labels, perhaps we can reimagine and develop strategies that blend both global thinking and local dynamics that underpin our interactions with Kenyan youth, and understand why it is important to contextualize demographic labels.

The Babylon System

Brenda Wambui
9 May ,2017

We refuse to be what you wanted us to be

We are what we are

That’s the way it’s going to be.

You don’t know

You can’t educate I for no equal opportunity:

Talking ’bout my freedom, people freedom and liberty

Yeah, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long

Rebel, rebel!

Yes, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long:

Rebel, rebel!

Babylon system is the vampire,

Sucking’ the children day by day,

Me say de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,

Sucking’ the blood of the sufferers,

Building church and university,

Deceiving the people continually,

Me say them graduating thieves and murderers;

Look out now: they sucking the blood of the sufferers

Tell the children the truth/ Tell the children the truth;

Tell the children the truth right now!

Come on and tell the children the truth;

Cause – ’cause we’ve been trodding on ya winepress much too long/ Rebel, rebel!

And we’ve been taken for granted much too long/ Rebel, rebel now!

Trodding on the winepress/ Got to rebel, y’all!

We’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long

From the very day we left the shores of our Father’s land, we’ve been trampled on.

Bob Marley and The Wailers – Babylon System

Babylon features heavily in reggae music, and it is usual to hear Rastas blame things on the Babylon System, as did Bob Marley and The Wailers. In my years of listening to reggae music, the only other words that feature as heavily are “Jah Rastafari” and “Haile Selassie.”

To understand the origin of this reference, we need to look at scripture – the Bible mentions Babylon 260 times, second only to Jerusalem. Babylon was a city of great wealth, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It grew through agriculture and trade, and developed a bureaucratic system to manage this growth, making the people even more materialistic. In many ways, Babylonians originated capitalism. This led to much of the behaviour the book decries, including slavery. While Jerusalem is viewed as a holy city, Babylon is seen to be a place of depravity. Seemingly everything bad that can happen according to the people who wrote the book happens in Babylon. It is not just a place, it is a system of evil.

Babylon, according to the Bible, seeks to take away the promised land from God’s chosen people, the Israelites. This land was their right. Marcus Garvey made this reference when he likened the presence of Afro-Caribbean people in the West to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. Just like the Jews were captured and enslaved in Babylon, so were Afro-Caribbean people captured from Africa and enslaved in the West (the subject of yet another Bob Marley and The Wailers song, Buffalo Soldier.) Rastas rightfully recognize the similarity between this biblical story and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Remember, similar tactics were used during slavery and colonialism – the same way we were stripped of our culture, identity, and rights, and allowed to read mostly the Bible was the same way Afro-Caribbean people were – hence the biblical references in reggae music.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade may officially be over, but black people in the Caribbean still suffer from racism and poverty, which went hand in hand with slavery. Likewise, colonialism may officially be over, but black people on the African continent also continue to suffer from racism and poverty. This Babylon System so well described by Bob Marley and The Wailers remains.

Our global economic system is built on the coerced and unpaid labour of slaves (most of them black due to the racialization of slavery) and Africans, and on the theft of resources from Africa and other colonies. It capitalizes turning a profit at whatever cost, be it human lives (the diamonds from Sierra Leone, for example), human rights, animal rights or the environment.

It reduces human beings, with all their rights and freedoms, to a factor of production – labour. Thus is becomes a priority to effectively and efficiently use this labour. To eke out as much as one can from it for as little as possible. This is why we create free content on Facebook and Twitter all day, every day, get paid nothing (we are “sharing” with our friends after all) while these services sell advertisements against our content and make millions of dollars. Even friendship, it turns out, can and will be commoditized.

This is why Uber and its driver partners are constantly at war. Kenyan Uber drivers even protested against being Uber slaves. The rise of the gig economy sees tech companies that act as platforms and not employers drive down the cost of professional services while attaining billion dollar valuations. What is this, if not wage slavery? Yet, as Karl Marx would say, labour is a fictitious commodity that should not be included in market exchange because it cannot be produced on market demand.

The Babylon System is alive and well. It co-opts all of us – the Nyabinghi, for example, say that both white and black people can be downpressors (oppressors). Anyone can be a part of the Babylon System, so how does one get out? As Bob Marley and The Wailers point out in the song, it begins with historical and identity awareness. Once we are aware of all the ways we remain oppressed by this system, we must resist its effort to re-shape us in its image. The global economic system is supposed to serve and create value for us, not the other way around. We make this system, and we must be careful not to allow it to make us instead. Human rights and dignity have to be centered if we are to see a better world.

Now and always, chant down Babylon!

Unravelling the African Union Elections

Brenda Wambui
7 February ,2017

We have been treated to weeks of intrigue following Kenya’s failed campaign for its current foreign affairs cabinet secretary, Amina Mohammed, to become the next chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC). The AUC is the executive arm of the African Union (AU). The election was instead won by Chad’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Our response this loss has been anything but diplomatic, with Aden Duale, who is the National Assembly majority leader, blaming Kofi Annan, a former United Nations (UN) Secretary General for manipulating the elections, and Amina Mohammed, the failed candidate, said that we should investigate our neighbours who may not have supported us. These include Burundi, Uganda, Djibuti and Sudan. In the seventh round, Tanzania also did not vote for Kenya. This was after the president, his deputy and a select team had lobbied 51 African countries (allegedly spending KES 4.5 billion on lobbying) and were convinced they had this in the bag. She had name recognition, a good network, and was supposed to be boosted by the fact that the East African region had never produced a commission chair. Kenya however lost to Chad after seven rounds of voting. Many people feel betrayed, and a lot of fingers have and will continue to be pointed.

It is worth looking into why we failed, as well as the importance of this institution that has long been an afterthought of our political leaders, until now. Uhuru Kenyatta has rallied African heads of state against the International Criminal Court (ICC) since he took the presidency in 2013, and this would have been a perfect position for mobilizing African countries that are members of the ICC to pull out. This was a key element of his personal agenda, seeing as he and his deputy spent a significant amount of their first term facing charges at the court.

Many have said that it may be because Francophone Africa is much more united than Anglophone Africa, using the same language, and the same currency (the CFA Franc). Others said it was because we did not clarify where we stood on the Western Sahara – Morocco issue, what with Morocco wanting to rejoin the AU. It was also said that Chad’s win could be attributed to the fact that it was leading the regional fight against Boko Haram, a menace in West Africa.

It may be as simple as the fact that our current government has a poor record on the platform items it was running on. Amina had said she would take a business-first approach to solving Africa’s problems and focus on job creation and economic growth – focusing on foreign direct investment, innovation, trade, industry and tourism. This approach fails to acknowledge that most of our problems as a continent stem not from these areas, but from poor governance, hostility to human rights, neocolonialism, insecurity and armed conflict. She also said she would promote integration, support young people and help open up markets – stating that she was the best candidate to implement Agenda 2063, which is Africa’s 50 year plan (from 2013 to 2063). I wonder how, since the most immediate target is to stop armed conflict by 2020, yet her focus was to promote commerce. Our government’s track record on these issues is also wanting, at best.

I believe this loss is an indictment of our government and its approach to governance, one that we discuss here every other week. At a time when regional integration is becoming more and more important, ironing out the kinks that make it difficult – such as terrorism, war and poor governance needs to be given top priority. Agenda 2063 also prioritizes the elimination of oppression and discrimination based on gender – something Kenya has been unable to formalize in its parliament by passing the two-thirds gender bill.

One of the AU’s key priorities is self-funding – if we are to truly pursue a pan-African agenda, decolonize and dictate our own path to prosperity, we must be able to fund the AU’s operations, at least to a large extent (the target being to self-fund all operational costs, 75% of development programs and 25% of peace and security by 2018). At the moment, the AU is extremely dependent on donor funding – every 9 out of 10 shillings it spends comes from donors. Efforts to free us from this cycle are being led by Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, and will perhaps lead to the body gaining more relevance in member states among their citizens, many of whom do not really understand what the AU does or feel its impact in their lives.

Perhaps once we are funding our own operations, the AU will become more invested in what happens in its member states, and act decisively when there are crises such as Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to give up the presidency, or when terror groups like Al Shabaab and Boko Haram paralyze entire regions. If further integration and unity is the key to solving Africa’s problems, then it follows that we have to put our money where our mouths are.

The Year of Finding New Paths to our Freedom(s)

Michael Onsando
27 December ,2016

We close the year to a doctor’s strike that has no end in sight and a call from the opposition that there will be civil action early in 2017. In many ways, the world seems grim. Our president himself told us this year that there is nothing that can be done about corruption in a kind of throwing his hands up kind of way. And these are just the problems that we must focus on because they exist here in front of our noses. We have not even begun to talk about the election of he who shall be named too often  in the land of the free.

It causes us to question – what is it of this freedom? Is it then too much to demand proper healthcare and a functional government. Will the world come stop because people are demanding accountability? The moment only asks that we wait, and try to make sense of the chaos.

Here are a few moments of stillness from 2016, click on the title to read the full piece:

Sofia’s Nine Lives

by Isaac Otidi

“My friend’s father – who never failed to attend Sunday mass, and had a rosary hanging above the dashboard of his old Toyota saloon  –  had built his house exactly at the border between Kenya and Uganda, such that to get to his house, one had to use the earthen road which was used as the border between the two countries. If one left the gate to my friend’s home – which was in Kenya – and crossed the road right outside their gate, then one was in Uganda.”

The City as a Photograph

by Ndinda Kioko

“A matter for consideration in this is how between the 60s and the 80s, the state attempted to articulate a national architecture. Buildings like KICC and the parliament not only became a central feature of urban topography but they also shaped how the city is consumed and articulated even now. One then wonders what it must mean to shape the images of a city with a symbol like KICC that is sanctioned by the state. What happens when state sanctioned buildings become urban icons?”

Killing Asnina: The Trouble with Investigating Murder in Northern Kenya

by John Allan Namu

“Eyewitnesses claim that four days earlier on Thursday the 2nd of December, at about 1:15pm, Asnina was picked up and bundled into an unmarked vehicle by a group of not more than four men, in full view of all her fellow stall operators at the town’s main market place. She ran a food kiosk there. Once the car drove off, a KDF Armored Personnel Vehicle that had been perched at the edge of the market slowly followed the unmarked car. That same evening, her father, Omar Mohammed made a report of her disappearance to the local police. Her name was now part of an open inquest file. Four days later, on the morning of the 6th of December 40 kilometers away in Omar Jillow, it’s said that a herdsman was grazing his goats when he saw her body, half jutting out of the ground.

It’s alleged that he saw twelve more mounds like Asnina’s.”

The Vinyl Man of Kenyatta Market

by Anton Spice

“Right here, between the stalls selling beef and goat meat, is one of a handful of places in Nairobi trading in vinyl records. Although the city was once the musical hub of East Africa, with scores independent record labels and multinational record companies establishing their regional headquarters here and a pressing plant which was in operation until the early 1990s, vintage records are hard to come by. In downtown Nairobi, off a noisy street by the bus station, is Melodica Music Stores, one of the few places other than Jimmy’s place that sells records. Established in 1971, Melodica recorded and produced hundreds of East African records, many of which can still be found, piled high and unplayed, in the shop’s storage room. But while Melodica is a treasure trove for original, untouched African singles, Stall 570 is the only place in the city which has a large collection of used LPs and singles for sale.”

Decolonise da Police: How Brutality was Written into the DNA of the Kenya Police Service

by Nanjala Nyabola

“The fact that the AP system survives means Kenya is still policed by a colonial service and is more proof of the country’s stillborn independence. Kenya may have become politically free in 1963, but the ruling elites’ interests in maintaining and profiting from colonial structures led to several incomplete transformations.”

The politics of Koffi Olomide, music superstar who leaves cheers and tears in his wake, and tells of a different Congo

by Christine Mungai

“But there’s something else. Although Koffi Olomide is the apex of a huge pool of talent coming out of DR Congo, the spread of Koffi fever in East Africa followed a familiar route that others had travelled before him – through western Tanzania and then, western Kenya, finding fertile ground in cities like Mwanza, Tabora, Kisumu and Busia. There, the rumba sound – and its local iterations, often broadly called benga – is the region’s bona fide pop music.”

Garissa University Attack 1 Year On: Not Just a Number, Not Just a Hashtag

by Samira Sawlani

“The trial of the five men accused of being behind the Garissa massacre continues, while criticism of the Kenyan authorities’ response to the attack has been swept aside by the Government. Kenyan commentator and journalist Patrick Gathara says, “I think the government has been rather opaque about what happened that day and why it happened. As for the victims and their families, it is clear that they feel abandoned by the government”.”

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And here are your favourite pieces from Brainstorm this year:

Dear Uhuru Kenyatta

by Brenda Wambui

“It is true that this issue frustrates you.

That is, if your facial expressions whenever you address the issue are to be believed. What is not true, however, is that there hasn’t been an administration that has taken action on corruption like yours has. You see, in the work most of us do, we measure outcomes to establish effectiveness. Thus your colleague could have worked for 2 hours and she generates 20 sales, while you worked for 5 and generate only 10, and you would not be able to tell your boss that you work harder than she does. Because that doesn’t mean anything for the bottom line. It’s sad, but that’s how things work. You sir, have corruption at between 25 and 27, (out of 100) based on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. This is similar to Daniel arap Moi’s era, which many (including myself) would call a dictatorship. Do you work harder than Mr. Moi? Perhaps. But your results are the same, and given the direction we are going in, yours are getting worse. This is not a comparison we should even be able to make.”

Entrepreneurship is Not for Everyone

by Alan Ong’ang’a

“But why do many young enterprises fail? The pressure to become entrepreneurs perhaps is too great for some to weather the storm. Many young minds will launch startups without enough managerial experience to help navigate the murky waters of the business world. When this happens, what follows is an array of poor business decisions, one-man show approach and a tendency to suffer founders’ syndrome. Coupled with poor financial management, since most can barely afford to hire financial experts to manage their books, the businesses’ only path is an assured oblivion.”

The Rise and Rise of Nationalism

by Brenda Wambui

“This income inequality thus creates new challenges, such as welfare and other social support structure concerns on the part of the government. And, we must never forget that globalization only continues to exist due to the goodwill of populations around the world, which has been on the decline since the 2008 global economic crisis. Fringe right wing nationalist groups, also known as the far right, have quickly become mainstream due to their capitalization on the pain of those affected. They have positioned themselves as against “the global/liberal elite” who are the only ones to have benefited from globalization and increased multiculturalism. They practice extreme nationalism (nationalism is the shared belief that your country is great and superior because you, and the other people in it, were born in it).”

This list is not exhaustive – much has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2016. Any other pieces that we should have included? Please share in the comments. Thank you for your contributions, support and critique – we are now three years old, and appreciate you all coming along for this journey. We look forward to an even better 2017. Happy new year!

To Africanize, Decolonize Or Both?

Brenda Wambui
6 December ,2016

This conversation on what it means to be African has been happening since the days of the independence struggles in many African countries, and has been a major part of African post-colonial discourse. The conversation has mostly focused on knowledge, since knowledge is the beginning of identity formation, with some commentators saying that we need to Africanize, others saying that we need to decolonize, and many saying that we need to do both.

In the words of Tebello Letsekha:

[Africanization] is a learning process and a way of life for Africans. It involves incorporating, adapting and integrating other cultures into and through African visions to provide the dynamism, evolution and flexibility so essential in the global village. Africanization is the process of defining or interpreting African identity and culture. It is formed by the experiences of the African Diaspora and has endured and matured over time from the narrow nationalistic intolerance to an accommodating, realistic and global form.

The Sankofa Youth Movement says:

By “Africanization”, we mean the embracing of our African heritage, and developing a sense of loyalty towards the Motherland – Africa. This involves adopting and promoting African culture, putting it on the pedestal currently occupied by the west.’ These reflections seem to suggest conflict between the idea of being African and the need to adopt aspects of Western culture. It is a situation that might impact negatively on the development of appropriate African curricula in education in general, and in higher education in particular. In fact, Le Grange (2007, 581) warns educators to be aware of this interaction between cultures, because it could complicate the learning process: ‘For non-Western learners, interaction between two worldviews characterizes much of their school experience, complicating the learning process and potentially resulting in cognitive conflict.’

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.

However, there is great, uncharted territory when it comes to re-writing our history from our own perspective. To begin with, our experience as Africans should form the foundation of this revisionist history. It should capture both the unique histories of our countries/peoples, and the common history we share by virtue of coming from the same continent, being othered by the rest of the world, and experiencing many other similar challenges. We have great stories of our peoples that do not begin and end with colonization, we must capture those.

We have been taught that we have no knowledge. That we do not like to read. This is not only false, but extremely damaging, and is as a result of seeing Africa through a Western lens. Our histories must be revised and expanded, and taught to our children. They must also be inclusive.

Chimamanda Adichie says this in her talk, The Danger of a Single Story:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

If the African story has traditionally been told through the white, male lens, then the revisionist history must be inclusive. I am reminded of the constant retort I receive whenever I speak of feminism, or the LGBTQI community. I am told that they “are unAfrican.” Which then begs the question, what qualifies as “African”? Who sets the standard? Because I would argue what many consider “African” is in fact 1800s Victorian England’s intolerance, prudishness and small mindedness.

Our revisionist history must include the voices of women, of the queer community, of all other minorities on the continent. Africanization is a process in memory, both past and present. Thus even as we live our lives in the present, we are creating our history, and it is important that we tell our stories. From our perspective, and that these stories be inclusive, capturing the beauties and vagaries of every day African life, and resisting the two simplistic, prevailing narratives of our continent. Africa is not Schroedinger’s cat, that it could only ever be dead or alive; that we must endlessly speculate and bloviate on whether it is “the dark continent” or “rising.” Africa is many things to many people. It always has been, and will continue to be so.

If Africanization is a process in memory, decolonization is the removal of shackles – mental, economic, social and political. Decolonization was narrowly viewed by the West as the process in which African countries attained independence from their colonial rule, but the exit of the colonialists did not mean that the African had been fully decolonized.

In the words of Frantz Fanon:

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies.

Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler–was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing “them” well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say, his property, to the colonial system.

Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.

If decolonization is the removal of shackles, what does that mean for the trauma of colonization? I believe that this is the first point at which the paths of decolonization and Africanization cross. The memory of colonization should remain alive, just not centred as the main memory. We should think about the trauma, and everything that can possibly be done to alleviate it should be done.

It is important that reparations be made by colonial powers to the people they harmed. These amends should be direct, except when doing so would lead to more harm. The most vivid example I can think of in Kenya is when some members of the Mau Mau won a settlement of 20 million pounds against the British government for their crimes during colonialism. If we are to truly have justice, all the colonial powers must atone in a similar way to the peoples they colonized, because many of these countries remain shackled years later, relegated to the “third world” due to the pillaging of their economies and the presence of extractive, oppressive institutions that have their roots in colonial times.

It is also important that we address our new colonizers, the elites in African countries that continue the oppression that stemmed from colonialism. Many African countries merely switched colonizers. One only needs to read the 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report to see the violence that our very own have occasioned on us. They too must pay reparations, and be held accountable for their crimes if we are to truly decolonize.

Decolonization involves the removal of power structures and symbols that serve to keep us subjugated, disempowered, and forever at a disadvantage. Much of this includes denial of access to the public of what should be theirs.

Access to education, for example. The mere fact that only about 1% of the children in Kenya who start primary school go on to complete university is evidence of colonization. Especially because we place high importance on university education. We are denied access to public spaces, which we have already paid for using our tax money. The Nairobi Arboretum, for example, now charges KES 50 for access. We are denied access to land, which many of the rich and politicians grab from the public and privatize, when it does not belong to them in the first place.

It becomes apparent that it is necessary for us to both Africanize and decolonize. It is important that we remove others from the centre and place ourselves there instead. That we assert that blackness is not a backdrop against which white lives play out. We are living in an age when identity politics have gained new importance, and it is important that we claim our identity and our narratives. In this endeavor, we must prioritize freedom, and human dignity. We must accord everyone their rights, and avoid creating new strata which will only serve to oppress us. If all oppression is connected, then our freedom is intersectional, and it begins at the crossroads of Africanization and decolonization.

Dear Uhuru Kenyatta

Brenda Wambui
1 November ,2016

I hope this finds you in good health. It has been a while since I addressed you directly, but I have been busy with work, and life, you know how these things are.

I saw you in the news recently, looking visibly frustrated and complaining about corruption, as you like to do. I must say, you have really nailed the act. Well done. The delivery was quite sympathetic, and for a moment there, I almost fell for it. Allow me to quote you for reference.

“As president, if there is one issue that has frustrated me, it is this issue. And I will say why. Because the pressure is on meShow me any one administration since independence that has taken action on corruption like I have done. I have removed everybody. I have done my part, at great expense also, political, by asking these guys to step asideThen where do we go from there? They say, ‘I am innocent’. I don’t know where they are innocent or what, move aside

I have taken the actions that I can take, within the Constitution. When we sit down, and I challenge all the agencies here, they say we don’t have the resources, we don’t have this and that. I challenge them here to stand up and say we have been denied the resources we need The Judiciary, I even have no role. I challenged them and they wentbut yet I stand accused that the executive is not doing enough. Ladies and gentlemen, what do you want me to do?

We have the Auditor-General who says Eurobond money had been stolen What do you want me to do? I did not appoint you, I can’t even sack you. Corruption is just being used as a political circus. Do you expect me to go and set up a firing squad at Uhuru Park so that people can be happy? Are we not a country that respects the rule of law…? If we as Kenyans want to make progress, then we as Kenyans must do our part. The only question we should ask is, have we been given resources we need. And the answer is yes. Even in the last budget, we added you money

And those charged with investigating. Stop the blame gamedo your job.”

As you can imagine, people didn’t take this well. But I saw this for what it may actually be – a cry for help, and thought I should answer your questions.

It is true that this issue frustrates you. That is, if your facial expressions whenever you address the issue are to be believed. What is not true, however, is that there hasn’t been an administration that has taken action on corruption like yours has. You see, in the work most of us do, we measure outcomes to establish effectiveness. Thus your colleague could have worked for 2 hours and she generates 20 sales, while you worked for 5 and generate only 10, and you would not be able to tell your boss that you work harder than she does. Because that doesn’t mean anything for the bottom line. It’s sad, but that’s how things work. You sir, have corruption at between 25 and 27, (out of 100) based on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. This is similar to Daniel arap Moi’s era, which many (including myself) would call a dictatorship. Do you work harder than Mr. Moi? Perhaps. But your results are the same, and given the direction we are going in, yours are getting worse. This is not a comparison we should even be able to make.

You are quite adept at pointing fingers and shirking personal responsibility, and you have done this with the Judiciary, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Auditor General, and your employer – Kenyans. You are one of the few people in the world who is able to fail to meet most of your performance targets (that you set for yourself, lucky you) and still get to keep your job, enjoy its benefits AND blame your employer. Imagine for a minute that the guards at State House let in thieves (oh, the database was down, CCTV wasn’t working) and blamed it on you. You’d laugh, right? These things could be true, but it is still their job to ensure that you and your staff are safe. They should be scrappy and figure out a way to do this anyway. That’s what you pay them for. You’d probably even fire them. So how come you don’t get this about your role?

You ask repeatedly what we want you to do – we want you to do your work. And that is the work of leadership. We are facing multiple challenges as a country – corruption, poverty, insecurity, inflation, poor infrastructure, unemployment, poor healthcare and education, violence against women – and are desperately in need of serious leadership to help us solve them.

You need to be able to have a bird’s eye view of the problem as opposed to being on the ground pointing fingers with everybody else. You of all people do not get to do this. The people have vested their power in you – you are the head of state, and you lead the executive branch of government. You do not get to complain like the ordinary citizen given all your power – that is patently unfair and quite possibly immoral. Once you have a bird’s eye view of the problem (by being on a higher ground), you will be able to spot the patterns that have brought us to this sad, sad place. These patterns may be operational, or they may be strategic. Can you imagine that by doing this alone, you will be able to identify the “mashetani dark forces” that plagued you in 2012? Not so bad, hey?

You are called to do greater than get caught up in the field of action – your work is that of a visionary. Do our value systems need to change? Our work systems? You need to set the stage for radical change, and set the people and events necessary in motion. You will inevitably run into a lot of pushback, and cause many people who benefit from the status quo distress. But that is how you actually know that what you’re doing is working. Your work is now to balance the levels of distress with the work that needs to happen. To ensure that people understand that with their positions in government, there are tradeoffs that will have to be made for progress. For each of them.

The first to go is the idea of exulted leadership. You and your staff instead need to embrace the idea of servant leadership, and realize that you serve at the pleasure of the Kenyan people, and are their agents. You need to unify them on this principle, rather than divide them by pointing fingers at them – that is no way to lead. You need to imbue them with the confidence to do their jobs. You need to protect the leadership and the voices of those that come from below you. Since you are the president that means everyone else in your government.

There are well meaning, effective people that are good at their jobs in government. Many. The reason they are not felt is because you have not given them the confidence, and the assurance, that you will have their backs as they do their jobs, even when their work means painful consequences for the powerful and those close to you. How do I know this? Because you may have asked people to step down, but what happens after that? Do they get arrested? Do they get prosecuted? Do they get jailed? Why is that? We haven’t seen you saying this at every event you attend: “Arrest, prosecute and jail corrupt public officials!” Why?

Instead, you fly to Israel to represent us, your employers, and call us “experienced in stealing and perpetuating other crimes.” How do you think this makes you look as the leader of such people? Especially given that members of your own family have been implicated in a multi-billion shilling theft scandal from the Ministry of Health? Or are you going to say you didn’t know? How can you have your lackeys busy saying that it is your family’s right to transact with government when it clearly goes against the law of the land? When companies like Safaricom are running competitions, they do not allow the relatives of people working in the organizations putting the competition together to participate, because they realize that there is a conflict of interest. Is Kenya not greater than Safaricom? Why are you so keen on hustling backwards?

You may say that what I ask of you is hard, but it has been done before. Successfully. There is no shortage of role models. You just need to look around our continent to see them. You have Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and my favourite, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara.

Thomas Sankara, who ruled for only four years and was only 37 when he was assassinated, embodied the transformational, accountable and revolutionary leader we need in our country today. He embodied the vision he had for the Burkinabe himself. He had high integrity, and thought deeply about the role of women in his society (he outlawed polygamy, FGM, forced marriages, and hired women to top positions in his government) and climate change (he launched a tree-planting program to stem the advance of the desert on fertile land, and more than 10 million trees were planted in its first year). He also fought actively against corruption and indebtedness to our former colonizers. He was a man of letters, who clearly articulated his thoughts and hopes for his people, and he was extremely committed to the spirit of nationhood, and to his people. (Please note that this doesn’t mean wearing a Kenyan-flag-themed wrist band and leaving it at that).

He believed strongly in the self-reliance of the Burkinabe, and of other African states. He eschewed foreign aid, fought for debt reduction and cancellation, reduced the IMF/World Bank footprint in his country, and championed local production and consumption of these goods/services over importation. He enabled every village in Burkina Faso to build a medical dispensary, and over 350 communities to build schools using their own labour. He built almost 100 km of rail with little external assistance, and total cereal production rose by 75% between 1983 and 1986 (they were plagued by food scarcity before that).

Thomas Sankara knew that leadership started with him. He was disciplined, and voluntarily declared his assets and handed over to the treasury the gifts he received during his travels. He also made it clear to his relatives that they were not going to receive special treatment because he was president. He also did not engender any fanfare due to his presidency – and was keen to lead an average life. He even slashed his salary to US $450, making him the lowest paid leader in the world at the time. This is not to say that he was not without flaws – he had many, but he also took responsibility for them. Nobody wants you to be perfect, either.

This is the kind of leadership our country needs if we are to have a chance at becoming the people we say we want to be. If we are to live the dream the Mau Mau fought for. Our freedom is not free – many lives were lost so that we could have this country, and each day our country operates as it does is another day we spit on the graves of those who died, and in the faces of those who fought that are still alive.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare

You need to take up the mantle of accountability yourself. We need a great leader, and there is still enough time for that to be you. Remember that history is very unforgiving, and will judge you harshly for your failings of the Kenyan people. What you will have done and failed to do will not be undone. There will be no one singing your songs, and we will see you plainly for who you were, and there will be many others to compare you with. Some who, like Thomas Sankara, chose greatness. I hope you do the same.

Sincerely,

Brenda Wambui

Back to Basics: The Value of History

Guest Writer
30 August ,2016

by Robert Munuku

Often, while growing up in primary school, we challenged each other to name the capital cities of African countries, and it was a thing of pride to be the child who could name the most. There was one boy called Kieven Yu, of Chinese origin but born and raised in Mombasa town by his mother. Kieven could name ALL the capital cities, not only of African countries, but of all countries. Many times, I would sit for minutes on end with the Atlas trying, not only to cram the capitals, but also trying to look for that one country Kieven did not know about. I mean, how could he possibly know all capital cities?

At the time, this exercise would be compartmentalized into the subject Geography and was taught & examined as such. I however now feel that History would have been the more appropriate subject to teach the capital cities. What I’m alluding to here is a general observation (that has become more pronounced in recent times) that many Kenyans (especially youth) do not know much about Kenyan history. Moreover, most Kenyans do not know a lot about the general areas in which they live.  For instance, many youngsters born and raised in Nairobi do not know much about other areas in Nairobi other than those areas that they reside in, work at, and more importantly, that fall under the scope of their ‘class boundaries’.

I grew up in Eastlands, went to school in Westlands and now live in what one would call ‘Nairobi South’. Those who are aware of the class stratification dynamics in Nairobi know that Eastlands is the place where (according to many who are not from Eastlands) all the riff-raffs, the scary robbers, and vagabonds hail from.  Eastlands is also ridden with street litter, and is home to what is arguably the largest dumpsite in East Africa – the Dandora dumpsite.

Eastlands is also next to the Industrial Area, where dozens of factories manifest themselves as grey clouds of copious waste emissions from a forest of chimneys.  Eastlands further lives up to the stereotype by having itself dissected in sections by railway lines – a thing affluent areas are never close to. How could they be?  Imagine Kitusuru (upmarket Nairobi) being butchered topographically by railway lines – unthinkable!

Now, a majority of my Eastlands compatriots have never lived, been schooled, worked in or even visited the upmarket suburbs of Westlands just as (is more often the case) most of the upmarket Nairobians (most of whom comprised my schoolmates) have never visited Eastlands. It’s not surprising, they would be mugged on the spot, no? Besides, how can they enter a matatu and go to Eastlands, that’s risky!

My sister, part of the same ‘born in Eastlands, schooled in Westlands’ sub-culture of children, almost choked on her shock when she overheard her classmate ask, “You mean matatus have (route) numbers?” What seems like a very naïve and annoying remark is actually further testimony to the class reclusiveness that exists not only in Nairobi, but in other parts of the world as well in its many variations. A remark like “You are from Eastlands? Aren’t you scared of being mugged when walking home?” is as severe a display of naivety (or what some have described as ‘class blindness’) as the remark, “You are from Africa? Do you guys see giraffes and lions walking in the streets?”

What knits the above phenomena together is a failure to access, or desire to access, information & knowledge. I have never been to Turkana in Kenya yet I am a Kenyan. I want to go to Turkana, partly because being a Kenyan I should, but also because I acknowledge the value of universality and moreso the need to continuously gain knowledge of others other than myself.

This is especially so when these ‘others’ are fellow countrymen. I often talk to my friends about Pan-Africanism but how can we talk of it when we have barely grazed the surface of knowing our own history as Kenyans? Worse still, when we do not know Nairobi in its totality (for those who hail from Nairobi)? We are busy indulging our peculiar appetite for what is foreign, constantly seeking to satiate it with accolades, scholarships and fellowships to the Western World as we dance to the fiddle played by overly benevolent donor agencies.

I want to attend a fellowship in Africa; I want to visit people in Turkana and Moyale before even contemplating a visit to Berlin & New York. To discuss Pan-Africanism as a philosophy is to presuppose an already achieved premise of a complete understanding of the very elements you wish to synthesize with this Pan-Africanism. This has not happened yet, but can.

Back to History. History for me is as important as Philosophy. History as a taught subject in the formal education system must be revised thoroughly. I will not get too much into the education system, but a curriculum that elevates History to a compulsory subject at high school level (and as a core compulsory course unit at university level) is critical. This, however, must be done accordingly – content has to be continually updated, diversified and revamped. In short, know about your city (say, Nairobi), then know about your County, and then know about other counties and the people who live there. Then only can one consider breaching the borders to venture into other African countries (hence a move towards Pan-Africanism).

African Fellowships – my new area of interest. How do we make these possible? How do we get Africans to interact with each other and share their rich experiences which, as diverse as they may be, still bare threads of similarity that make the very same experiences not too far removed from each other? How do we celebrate our own artists, musicians, poets, journalists, photographers and writers without first waiting for them to go abroad, win a prize, get foreign validation, then return home and finally get a clap from us?

To be able to make a difference in your society is to be able to first acknowledge the need for change. To acknowledge the need for change is to first become aware of your society, such awareness is not automatic and takes conscious effort only made possible by knowledge whose appetite to pursue stems from information, which then comes from knowing your history.

I urge all Kenyans to learn their history if not anything else.

Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent with the shared goal of independence and art-driven, community based creative education.

Why the World is on Fire

Brenda Wambui
26 July ,2016

“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Thomas Piketty

Few books are as meticulous (and as boring, because of the great detail) as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, from which the above quote is taken. The book studies inequality and wealth concentration, and their implications to economic growth across twenty countries, with data dating as far back as the 1700s. He establishes that faster economic growth will reduce the importance of wealth in a society, while slower growth will increase it. Only spurts of fast growth or government intervention can stop this increasing inequality. He recommends a global tax on wealth to prevent increasing inequality that has already begun to cause economic and political instability.

Enter Kenya, where it was recently reported that 8,500 people control two-thirds (KES 4.24 trillion) of our KES 6.2 trillion economy. The wealth of those classified as high net worth individuals grew by 75% from 2007 to 2015, while they only increased in number from 8,300 to 8,500 in that time. In the next decade, the number will almost double to 15,300. This happens while most Kenyans are poor, lacking access to quality and affordable education and healthcare, basic building blocks of a good society.

This reflects, according to another report, the effects of Kenya’s anti-poor policies. Pro-poor policies reduce poverty by accelerating economic growth and/or changing the distribution of wealth in favour of the poor. This type of growth is sustainable, and directly reduces wealth inequality and, as a result, poverty. Two potential engines of growth in Kenya, manufacturing and agriculture, are seen so be declining and stagnating respectively, however.

To solve for this, lower and middle income countries (Kenya included) would need to create ideal conditions for capital to flow from rich countries to theirs, driven by production (which is where manufacturing, agriculture, ICT and other sectors come in). Yet, in the world of economics, they are constantly researching why this doesn’t happen at the rate it should, a phenomenon called the Lucas Paradox. Robert Lucas Jr. asks: why doesn’t capital flow from rich to poor countries? One obvious answer is that economics relies on too many assumptions that do not hold true in the actual world, however a more nuanced answer would be the one that Lucas proposes: the flow of capital is impeded by differences in human capital, external benefits of human capital and capital markets imperfections.

As Robert Lucas finds, labour not only needs to exist, it needs to be effective as well. We need to invest in the upskilling of our workforce. We need to fix the imperfections in the capital markets that stem from our days under colonialism, where real wage levels in the “third world” were kept artificially low by stemming the flow of capital, all to the colonialist’s benefit. Key to doing this are the following fundamentals: (omitted) factors of production such as human capital and land, government policies and institutions. Building better and stronger institutions should be at the heart of any campaign to end poverty. This will then support the investment in human capital through education, healthcare, sanitation and social services. We also need to put our land to the most efficient use, as opposed to endlessly subdividing it for people to hold onto for speculation, we should zone it for productive use, and tax those who keep it idle/for speculation.

Perhaps if we begin here, we can begin to solve for the inequality that is surely behind phenomena such as terrorismBrexit and the rise of Donald Trump, and prevent further division and violence in Kenya. Only once we place human dignity at the centre as opposed to capital can we fight this disease.