“Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This is Dickens’ take on the slogan of the French Revolution, “The Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death,” and I do not think there is a better statement to describe the happenings in Kenya, the rest of Africa, and perhaps the rest of the world than this one. We are wont to think of liberty and equality as concepts that go hand in hand, seeing as liberty is often defined as independence from arbitrary rule, and equality is thought of as the provision of the same rights to all in the republic (usually before the law).
What happens when we think of liberty in the same way, but equality as not just as equality of rights before the law, but that of results as well? Such that when a rich man and a poor man are tried before the courts for theft, for example, the outcome is the same? Perhaps a jail term or a steep bail? Then we begin to see tears in the fabric of our republic, and this has been very clear in Kenya this year. To suggest brotherhood, or fraternity, in such a republic then becomes a joke, for how can we have fraternity in the absence of true liberty and equality? And when there is a lack of fraternity, coupled with false liberty and lack of equality, what can exist except death?
These are our favourite pieces from 2015. [Click the title, in bold, to go to the respective piece]
by Aleya Kassam
“To the Shareholders and Directors of Imperial Bank,
Exactly one month ago on a cloudless morning, a message soundlessly snuck into our family whatsapp group. It sat there nestled underneath photos of the newest addition to our family – a floppy eared Alsatian pup with a vicious teething problem.
Imperial Bank had been placed under receivership.
Overnight we were rendered effectively broke. Just like that.”
by David Ndii
“Queue-voting was the smartest rigging strategy ever as it left no trail — once the queues were disbanded that was it. And so it is with this Eurobondgate. The only thing we are certain of is that it happened. The rest is smoke and mirrors.”
Also worth reading is an earlier article by Dr. Ndii on the same issue, Eurobond billions: Curious incident of a dog in the night-time.
by Samira Ali
“The statistics for rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence are terrifying. Especially if you are women reading these stats is enough to give one, nightmares. However, the problem with these abstract numbers, is that it desensitizes you from the issue so you are left separating yourself from it entirely. Therefore, I decided to ask four simple questions to 60 girls in my contact list, 42 of them got back to me…Have you ever started something and just wanted to turn back? I wanted to be informed and inform others but this was horrifying. I couldn’t separate myself from this because it was my reality and the reality of all girls. I started off angry and halfway through receiving the answers, I put off my phone and just cried myself to sleep. Our reality is far more horrific.”
“In 1896, builders of Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. But the plains were different. There was something captivating, if not majestic, about the rather brash plains. The small supply depot would be right at the middle of the line from Mombasa to Kampala, the target destination for the line. In 1899, the rail-head reached Nairobi. With it, a new future begun.”
by Cera Njagi
“There are many more stories such as the few I have briefly re-told, both documented and undocumented, lost to the vagaries of time. This loss of peoples’ memories has happened all over the world: to Africans, Native Americans, Aborigines in Australia, the peoples of India, and even in Europe. Even in instances where some of these stories are documented, they are often ignored in the formal body of knowledge. The heroism of women remains silent, with the formal education and mainstream media choosing to perpetuate the narrative of powerful male heroes, often from dominant communities, while women remain behind the scenes or completely out of the picture.”
by Billy Kahora
“I’d long been fascinated with accounts of criminal life and the sociology of Nairobi’s surrounding danger zones: Wangige, Kinoo, Uthiru, Lari, Riruta, Kangemi, Ruiru, Kiambu town, Gachie, Mucatha, Kikuyu. Some of the older spaces had been the first sites of pre-independence Central Province urbanisation and later became home to Nairobi’s middle-class citizens. Ultimately, population explosions, failing agro-economies and changing sociological conditions created informal settlements side by side and in between upper middle-class homes. At first these areas provided informal labour and eventually raw material for organised crime in the city. The peri-urban areas became the openly criminal retreats that eventually turned on the more affluent and respectable citizens, who also became victims of armed robbery. Ultimately, these areas became informally controlled by criminal overlords, who used their new wealth to buy or forcefully occupy the old middle-class homes. The context from which Mwas came from in Nairobi Half Life was as a result of this evolution.”
by Magunga Williams
“The moment I hang up, I receive a message from Mother Karua. Before Mabiria’s call I had told her about the incident at Strathmore University. I had told her about what I was getting from tweets and Facebook posts. That in order to examine their level of disaster preparedness, Strathmore University admin had decided to stage a mock terrorist attack, in which masked gunmen stormed into the university, firing live bullets. However, the students and staff thought it was a real attack by the Al Shabaab; that whatever happened during the Garissa University terror attack had been reincarnated in their campus. So some students had jumped into the slimy Nairobi River that cuts across Madaraka Estate, Strathmore University, Tuskys-TMall, Nairobi West and then further down to wherever rivers that are full of shit flow to. Other people, who had been trapped in the buildings, thought they would rather try their luck with a free fall than face sure death of terrorists. So they jumped. And one of them was my brother, Deogratias. They had no idea it was a drill.”
On Brainstorm, the essays that were most popular were:
by Brenda Wambui
“Every time I have been made to recount my story, it is as if I am reliving the violence. This is why we must be careful whenever we unnecessarily ask victims of sexual violence to tell us what happened. We are forcing them to relive the violence. I always knew that the stripping of women never has anything to do with what a woman is wearing. It is an act committed by men (or women) who wish to disempower a woman when she acts in a manner that is too empowered for their tastes. It is a cowardly act. I have experienced several people asking me “What were you wearing?” as if it matters. I was dressed in my regular uniform, a shirt and pants, and the issue of stripping only came up when I punched the makanga who thought he had a right to my time, space and body. When I showed him he did not, he aimed to humiliate me in the worst way he could imagine.”
“The level of ethnic profiling that goes on every time there is an attack, whether in Garissa or in South C or Eastleigh, is built on this security paradigm. It is a rather interesting way to look at it; that it is outsiders who spoil citizens. Yet, the truth is that Kenya will never know peace until the North Eastern region it annexed is peaceful and thriving socially and economically.
That peace will not come from police crackdowns and ethnic profiling. Fighting the Al Shabaab should stop being about fighting the Somali people, because profiling is not the solution. Neither is a border barrier or a closed refugee camp. Both ideas are as terrible as the idea of training Kenyan Somalis to fight in Somalia. It will only furnish Kenya’s enemies with new recruits.
The real battle is not in Kismayu or Mogadishu, it is right within Kenya’s borders, and it cannot be won with guns and armored tanks.”
by Wanjeri Gakuru
“Why are we so ill at ease about clinically discussing sex in public?
We have the triple misfortune of being a nation that clings to outmoded traditional values, straight-jacketed religious beliefs and a government prone to selective prudishness. Former President Moi famously banned the Kenyan TV show Tushauriane for showing a kiss on the national broadcasting station KBC. And, in 1995, we also suffered a two-year ban on condom communication.”
by Michael Onsando
“I remember this in isolation, without context. I must have been at that age where time is only counted in a series of nows. Again something had happened. Again I was in tears. My aunt gave me a book titled “Real Men Don’t Cry.” The book was way above my age grade – she didn’t even imagine I’d read it. I tried but the words were too complicated, and harder to focus on through waterlogged eyes.
I got her point though.”
As always, this list is not exhaustive – a lot has been written about Kenya or in Kenya in 2015. Which pieces did you like that we did not include? Please share in the comments. From the Brainstorm team: thank you for your contributions, support and criticism as we turned two and began our third year. We look forward to to growing, thinking, learning and loving with you all in 2016. Happy new year!
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Location: Nairobi, Kenya. April 2013 and beyond
Dad picks me up from the airport. I am sure to apologize for the trouble and let him know it’s not his fault. We don’t hug, and I do not cry too loudly. My mother hugs me; my sisters are home to look at me and ask what is wrong. I have lost weight, I am not eating, I cannot sleep. I had practiced what I would say when they asked…because they were going to ask! Looking at them, I think of all my childhood nicknames…weirdo, demon child, crazy daisy.
“Do you even have emotions?”
My sister had asked me once.
“Of all my children, only you can do a PhD. PhDs break people’s minds…and yours is already broken.”
My father had said to me as my sister went for her masters. Why are they shocked that it came to this? I tell them about the Asperger’s and the schizotypy.
“Not everyone is a hundred percent upstairs.”
My crying sister assures me.
Nairobi is blurred and beautiful through my uncontrollable tears, full of things that make me anxious; noises, people, smells, sunshine that threatens to pierce your skin with thorny rays. It feels like someone painted it a slight sepia tint. The ground seems too alive. I haven’t seen ants or felt grass rub itself against my ankles in months and it all makes me want to scream at nature to leave me alone! Here, everyone and everything is watching everything I do and I am trying to smile and pretend, but I woke up and there was a red broom in my room which looked like a vein and I thought the wall was pulsating and closing in on me, and I tried my best to hold back the screams.
I miss the darkness of Canada, the silence, the lack of humanity, the lack of eyes. My mother comes to check up on me, standing there with her concern wielded like a bat, beating me back into shape. I always leak out though, as soon as she leaves I leak out and search for a darkness to hide in.
I can’t go outside…I don’t trust outside.
I can’t sleep when I can hear the neighbour’s dog breath as if it was right in my ear and when every car that passes bye assaults my senses.
Dad hasn’t been around and it has been weeks of me uncurling myself and crawling out of dark places to appease my worried mother. I trick him into taking me to the hospital and beg the doctor to refer me to a psychiatrist. The doctor is reassuring;
“You don’t look Schizotypal at all…and Asperger’s is something you can just look at someone and say they have. You’ll be fine. I’m referring you to a psychiatrist; she’s a nice lady. You will like her.”
I always wanted someone to love me for my mind…but this psychiatrist is crazy! No…apparently I am crazy. I thought it was not possible to be more depressed. She arrived late. I was there, sitting in a room full of people, drawing my niece so that I wouldn’t have to interact with them or smell their life stories and wonder after them as I usually did. The woman next to me is impressed by my charcoal drawing. She announces to everyone that I could draw everyone in this room!
You are not my family. I do not care for you. If you try and prod me into normalcy I will hiss at you!
I want to say this, but I smile.
The nurse asks me a few questions; I can’t answer them.
“Any history of mental disease in your family?”
My family is mental
She smiles at this, as if her family is too.
My Aunt Hellen committed suicide. My sister is named after her.
That is all I know. I who asks people for their deepest pleasures have never asked my family for our deepest secrets…looks like my dad will be the one to answer her questions.
The psychiatrist apologizes for being late and stares at me as if she is looking through my soul. I know she isn’t and I do not play along. There is no art in her office, no sign of books, no photographs, no whispers of humanity. I had practiced what I was going to tell her…I had traced my weirdness to its very roots and was going to lay them bare before her and say “How can we put this together without blunting my edges. I do not want to fit in a box” but sitting there with her looking through me, I just wanted a pat in the back and a send-off.
Actually I would like a short stay in a mental ward…It’s very Sylvia Plath, I know, but it would give me some space from my family and their constant need to see me up and running again.
“We don’t do asylums anymore.”
She says when I ask casually.
So…the Canadian Psychologist thinks I may have Asperger’s, I have always thought of myself as functionally schizotypal like Dali, she thinks I am schizophrenic, and my sister took it upon herself to find me another psychiatrist, one whom I could like and relate to, and this one thinks I am bipolar; fine! I am not mentally sound! I get it! How I am not mentally sound is subject to great intellectual debate apparently.
I thought my visit to the psychiatrist would be a relief… I only feel a solid dislike for her. She gave me a prescription and asked to see me in a week. This worried me because the person before me was being seen after three months. I stared at the pills for a long time… I even thought of taking them, a perfectly functioning individual could rise from five pill bottles. I would need five bottles of pills for the rest of my life just to keep my feet on the ground. Who needs feet!
“You look worse.”
I shake my head.
What does she want, that I spring out of depression in a week? That I run through a meadow with my coconut bra and loin cloth singing praises to Ra and Hathor?
“Did you take the medication?”
I want talk therapy…but not with her; so I don’t say anything.
”“If you don’t take the medication then we will have to inject you.”
I do not fear injections.
I don’t have the energy to tell her that that’s not a threat.
The nurse notices that I am a human being and not a brain that needs to fit into a DSM definition of some kind of psychosis or another. She speaks to me softly. She has a daughter (fictional or real) about my age and thinks I am just too young to be in this position. I can put my life together and get past this.
It is important in life that you function…otherwise society will have no use for you; and society is dangerously utilitarian.
I look up schizophrenia. I only remember Halle Berry in a movie where she was a “crack whore” that had left her child in a dumpster during a schizophrenic episode; she was in court fighting for custody. I look like a crack whore who would leave her child in a dumpster. I watch “Perception” with my sister….the main character has the same symptoms I have…he is schizophrenic, so maybe I am. My sister says I was special from the very start, that it is a gift not a burden; that my senses are seventeen times as alive and I should use their screams for something. Dr. Pierce in Perception seems to be dealing with his shit quite well. I research Schizophrenia, so does my mother, she thinks she does it secretly but computer history and the folder downloaded on her desktop with the title Schizophrenia sell her out.
My father thinks it’s because I haven’t been to church in a few years. He is also the only person who dislikes the psychiatrist more than I do. I think she asked him some uncomfortable questions. How dare she diagnose his precious future ICC judge with schizophrenia? He is always threatening to find me a new psychiatrist, and I am always hoping he does; as long as it’s not my cousin. He always shouts at her during my visits at the psychiatrist.
Once I went with my mom, because my psychiatrist asked nicely. We sat in the waiting room when I recognized someone. I sat there for a while, staring at him as discretely as I could, until I was too excited to be quiet! My mind was roaring with possible meanings to this coincidence.
My mom leaned in
That’s Billy Kahora!
My mom can’t whisper and he looks up. I almost jump out of the window but my mom won’t let it go
“Who is Billy Kahora?”
He’s a writer mom.
You sat next to David Rudisha during an eight hour flight, looked at photos of him on a dias receiving a gold medal in a Kenya uniform and still had no idea who he was; but now you’re sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room excited about a writer no one else in here knows. Do you see the world you live in?
She doesn’t say this, of course; but I hear her think it.
I smile apologetically, wonder if I should walk up to him and ask if he’d like to see my writing.
Why would he want to see my writing? What good will it do me? I can’t even write anymore; impulsive writing is a sign of schizophrenia!
I met this girl at the psychiatrists and she said she could write; I picture him saying. He’s not here to see my psychiatrist. He’s seeing a dermatologist who shares the waiting room. I saw Billy Kahora today!
I have to go outside with my sister and two friends by my side; it’s embarrassing. I am usually the strong one. We end up at The Nest for a chill movie night where the rest of my friends are.
“What are you doing home?”
I quit Law School. I’m also depressed and possibly schizophrenic
Silas carries me off my feet and says
“About goddamn time! What were you doing in Law School anyway?”
Someone else says
“Oh my god! You have to watch ‘A Beautiful Mind!’”
These are the problems with intelligent, creative people! You, Van Gogh, Jack Kerouac…y’all need to keep your shit together! Keep your shit together!!!!!
These were my friends! I could be a raging lunatic of a post-coital murderer and they would be okay with that; not just okay, but supportive.
No one has explained why I am home. My mother told her friends that I was sick and they all prayed for me. My sister and I had a misunderstanding and I cried for an hour; she had to apologize, but I was so overwrought with the thought of losing the one family member who sometimes understood me that she was just left sitting on my bed riding out my sobs until I fell asleep.
My mom always comes home and asks ‘How is she doing today?’ and they discuss me in silent voices…except my mom can’t whisper and I have the hearing of a bat because of my reduced latent inhibition. What happens is the brain usually picks out what to block out and what to pay attention to, sieving which stimuli to reply to and which one to ignore. My brain has basically decided ‘screw that’ and lets in almost everything. I can look at a fly, hear it buzz, feel its rough skin without touching and see its proboscis pulsating even hear its eyes move; imagine how I feel being in a room full of people!
I have managed to guilt my father into paying for Art School. I watch him cry. This is the second time in his life that he has cried; both times I have watched him. The day I arrived home from London for the summer, my uncle died in a helicopter crash; it was in the news when I woke up from the excitement of home. My father was sitting at the dinner table with tears in his eyes. I apologized, he said we had to go see Aunty Margaret, he and I, because my uncle had always taken a special interest in my education and we had to show respect.
This time he was seated on his bed, his hands covering his eyes as he cried.
“Of all my children why you?”
He felt guilty, confused, lost…he didn’t understand what had happened. He feels as if he traded me in for his aspirations. If only I could feel the pain he felt! He hasn’t even told my uncles; just one or two to ask for recommendations about psychiatrists that could heal me.
On an ordinary day I would heal instantly and be there for him, but today I feel an indignant rage.
I am the one who cannot trust my own brain! Me! And I have been here before and I have survived it, and I am trying to survive it this time with your help. You either offer it or watch me degenerate! Whichever you choose, do it in silence!
I leave him there crying. I would never do that to my father, yet there I was without remorse.
He pays for art school, after letting me know that the Dean of the Law School said I could join Nairobi if I wanted. Almost a year later, he gets me a psychiatrist I can stand. When I have to take the day off from school to see the psychiatrist I always say I am going to see the doctor; I have a kind of terminal illness and I have to go for a check-up every once in a while.
Once in a while I tell someone that I suffered from depression; I never mention the schizophrenia. I am still too attached to the Schizotypal personality disorder to believe the schizophrenia. I also still picture myself as a crack whore who leaves her baby in a dumpster during a schizophrenic episode. I am not free from it…at some point something will happen and I will be back on my bed, rowing my way through the turbulent carnivorous seas. It does not leave you…depression, Schizotypal personality disorder and schizophrenia…they stain your being, ever threatening to spread across your face and silence you forever.
Sometimes I walk through Harlem in search of Langston Hughes. He once asked what happened to a dream deferred; I would like to add to his question the fate of a madness foretold.
Awuor Onyango is a former reader of Laws who now has a vested interest in the creative industry with a focus on Fine Art, Photography, Fashion and Film. She is currently studying Fine Art and Film at Kenyatta University while also writing, taking photograph assignments and using her legal background to navigate the complicated arts, culture and societal murk through organizations such as African Art Agenda, which she co-founded, and others.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
In light of the ongoing NYS/IFMIS scandal in which amounts ranging from KES 695 million to KES 791 million are said to have been stolen by alleged relatives of top NYS officials hiding behind a few companies, it is important that we as a nation take pause to appreciate the extent of the mess we are in at the moment as a full blown lootocracy. The money stolen in this scandal is said to have been obtained by introducing an extra zero on each transaction they posted on IFMIS.
Just before this, ironically, the president cited the unmanageability of the annual wage bill at KES 568 billion as the reason teachers cannot have their pay increased as the court ordered, broken down as follows: KES 141 billion for teachers’ salaries, KES 94 billion for national government salaries, KES 66 billion for staff allowances, KES 153 billion for the military and parastatals, and KES 107 billion for counties. This amount was eloquently discredited by David Ndii.
This year, Treasury tabled Kenya’s largest budget statement yet, targeting revenue collection of KES 1.358 trillion (20.8% of GDP), and overall expenditure and net lending of KES 2.002 trillion (30.7% of GDP), leading to a budget deficit of KES 644 billion. KES 1.28 trillion was allocated for recurrent expenditure, while KES 721 billion was allocated for development.
According to the budget tabled earlier in the year, there are six key development areas that the government plans to focus on – infrastructure, agriculture, security, health, education, social protection and youth empowerment – with a focus on boosting growth, creating jobs and enhancing social equity. The government has failed on all accounts. We are on course to fail in achieving our Vision 2030, whose goal is to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle income country providing a high quality life for all its citizens by 2030. This is to be done through macroeconomic stability for long-term development, continuity in governance reforms, enhanced equity and wealth creation opportunities for the poor, infrastructure, energy, science, technology and innovation, land reform, human resource development, security and public service. Our current government would not pass the reasonable person test when it comes to making sufficient progress towards the achievement of these goals.
It may be argued that Vision 2030 was Mwai Kibaki’s idea, and that the Jubilee government has its own. Indeed, they had a manifesto at the time of their election. They had three pillars: Umoja (to be achieved through eliminating ethnic divisions, security, trade and foreign affairs, healthcare, education, youth empowerment, women’s empowerment, social protection and arts, sports and culture), Uchumi (to be achieved by building an enterprise economy, manufacturing, ICTs, tourism, land reforms, energy, agriculture and food security, clean and safe water, protecting the environment, transport and infrastructure and housing), and Uwazi (to be achieved through reducing corruption, working with civil society towards good governance and supporting devolution). By their own standards, they are doing terribly.
As the head of this monster, we have the president. The Presidency used KES 1.4 billion (out of its KES 6.3 billion budget in the last financial year) on hospitality, catering and conferencing, and KES 203 million on trips abroad. He has made double the number of trips Mwai Kibaki made in his two terms (a total of 10 years in office) in just over two years. This expenditure accounts for over 10% of the foreign and domestic travel spend in the year. Many joke that the president is never in Kenya to govern for more than a week in a row, and when he is, he always finds time to get on our nerves or insult us.
Because of the desperate situation the government has gotten itself into, it is now borrowing money for three months at over 20%. A 91 day Treasury Bill was floated at a weighted average interest rate of 20.6%, raising a total of KES 7.68 billion – the last time we witnessed such high interest rates on Treasury Bills was during the Moi era when looting was at an all-time high, a situation we seem to have returned to only two years into Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. The rates on the 182 and 364 day instruments have also shot up to 20%, signaling that this situation will be with us for a while.
This is a major problem, given that National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich tabled the budget with the assumption that interest rates would be steady at 8.50%. Worse still, we are borrowing to pay off loans, which in turn are used on recurrent expenditure. The inter-bank rate has shot up to 25.65%, and one is left to wonder what rate the Kenyan citizen will be charged by the banks to access financing if the government is willing to pay so much, and if they are lending each other money at 25.65%. Worse still, banks will prefer to lend money to the government because of the profitability and risk-free nature of the investment. So what about the average mwananchi? He/she will have to pay more to make it worthwhile for the banks. Even 40% interest rates for loans are foreseeable.
This will lead to the stifling and death of Kenyan enterprise, given that credit facilities are important to the growth of businesses. Yet this consequence is at odds with the Kenya Revenue Authority’s (KRA) plans of more than doubling its annual collections to KES 2.5 trillion by 2017 (up from the current baseline of KES 1 trillion). Their plan is to do this by increasing the number of SME taxpayers. My question is, what SMEs? Won’t most of them be dead by then?
The alternative, which Henry Rotich is working on, is to borrow externally since the cost of internal borrowing is expected to continue rising. Treasury’s initial plan was to finance the budget deficit using KES 229 billion raised from internal borrowing, and the rest from external financing. However, part of the KES 229 billion will have to be sourced externally. This would be comforting, except for the fact that the government has recently borrowed externally with disastrous results.
Uhuru Kenyatta made a case for the KES 289 billion Eurobond right after the Anglo Leasing payment saga, telling us lies about how it would stop domestic borrowing by government, drive down interest rates, boost investment and spur economic growth. He has been proven wrong on all those counts as shown above. However, what’s worse is that of the KES 289 billion (US$ 2.75 billion) received from the Eurobond at 7%, KES 78.8 billion was used to pay for syndicated loans and infrastructure development, while the rest (KES 210 billion) was likely used on government spending, most of which is recurrent. The Auditor General raised a red flag last year, fearing that the remainder of money (equivalent to US$ 2 billion) may as well have been stolen, as it was not deposited in the Consolidated Fund account, and the signatories to the offshore account in which it was deposited are unknown. This is worrisome, as in the last financial year alone, this government has also increased public debt to 2.84 trillion up from 2.36 trillion, and increased borrowing by 20.3%.
What is happening to Kenya right now is the equivalent of a business running out of working capital and eating into its capital base to finance its day to day activities. This is the key cause of the death of businesses. It is what led to the collapse of the Greek economy, and should we fail to arrest the situation, it is what will lead to the collapse of the Kenyan economy.
This is not to say that Kenya is unique because it is in this position – many countries have found themselves on the brink of economic collapse before – key examples being South Korea and Germany. However, to pull themselves out of these situations, they required contributions by their citizens and foreign governments, and these parties contributed because of the trust they had in these countries and their governments. Our neighbour Ethiopia asks its citizens to contribute one month of their annual earnings towards growth/infrastructure projects – they have come to see these projects materialize, with the construction of the Addis Ababa metro system being completed this year, and many other projects scheduled to be completed in the future. Ethiopians have reason to trust that their government. The Kenyan government, on the other hand, cannot rely on trust as a currency, be it that of its citizens or of foreign governments, because it has proven to be unworthy time and time again.
We continue to be robbed from all sides by the rich who have incessant greed. We have Moses Kuria on TV every other day accusing unknown ghosts of “fixing” William Ruto at the ICC, and Jubilee MPs on the papers asking Raila Odinga to testify on behalf of William Ruto at The Hague. We have allegedly murderous pastors on TV as well, giving “their side of the story” and sanitizing their names. We are treated to a round-the-clock circus by people who do not seem to understand the dire straits they have put us in; people who only care about themselves and how much they can steal from us. They continue to rob us of billions, which could be used to build schools, hospitals, upgrade infrastructure and housing, pay policemen, teachers and other poorly paid civil servants.
Meanwhile, we have an innocent Kenyan dying after 18 hours in an ambulance because of our poor public health system, and because private hospitals wouldn’t take him in without a deposit of KES 200,000. We have a government that has essentially not paid the September salaries of public sector employees across the 47 counties, yet we are midway into October. We have over 300,000 internally displaced persons in our country, dispossessed of their homes and livelihood by our constant clashes and the 2007/08 post-election violence that we conveniently ignore. We are hiving off parts of a forest that our only Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai, was willing to give her life for. We continue to have an unemployment rate of 25%, and witness only 1.69% of the children who enrolled for Standard 1 complete university.
We continue to inconsequentially rail against Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, which stands accused in the court of public opinion for grand theft, impunity and what we might term as an appetite for threatening the lives of Kenyans. The verdict? Undeniably guilty. The sentence? Unknown.
by Orem Ochiel
In the fifty years following Kenya’s independence, successive governments have managed to entrench what is both a continuation and a perfection of the colonial penal system: The varieties of colonial incarceration – labour camps, torture camps, detention centres, prisons – seem to have been maintained, essentially, as they were. We might also imagine contemporary slums as the urban manifestation of colonial-era Reserves. The overwhelming majority of prisoners have little education, are unemployed (or irregularly employed), and live in poverty. Slums and prisons—the former feeding the latter, the latter feeding the former—become the places and spaces in which the nation-state houses its poor.
In Kenya, as of 2005, female prisoners comprised 3.6% of the national prison population. In 2006 and 2007 female prisoners comprised 12% and from 2008-2011 female prisoners comprised between 10% and 9% of the Kenyan prison population. The average number of women prisoners from 2006 to 2011 was 10,578 while the average number of imprisoned men during the same period was 85,947. That, consistently, the largest numbers of women are imprisoned under the “Liquor Act”, and the “Employment Act” points to the fact that criminalisation in Kenya is almost entirely a war against the poor (the second largest category of “Various Cases” seems to be a catch-all and is difficult to analyse without additional data).
A confluence of factors makes the incarceration of women in Kenya an urgent feminist issue: the oppression of women within a patriarchal regime, the marginalisation of prisoners—”prisons disappear human beings”—within a carceral regime, the marginal number of women in prisons (which further diminishes their already much-diminished visibility), the historically brutal disposal of women in colonial detention facilities, and the recent and continuing usage of detention as a means of political repression and ethno-national oppression.
Furthermore, the mass incarceration of men (the obverse of the Kenyan pandemic of extrajudicial killing) places additional social and economic pressure on women, who have been systemically alienated from resources that might enable self-reliance, and who already live day-to-day with very little security. Women, who are often primary caregivers in a family, are left without means by which to support their households further entrenching the generalised impoverishment of the women left behind. This makes prison reform, prisoner release, and prison abolition important feminist issues in Kenya.
I had to bring up our family single-handedly and had to support my parents: In fact in our life together, I have supported him [my husband] with all his needs because most of the time Kathangu has been unemployed. Since he started his battles with the state, potential employers have blacklisted him. (Mrs. Rosana Kathangu in The Other Side of Prison)
It is from the point of view of the women left behind that “The Other Side of Prison: The Role of the Women Left Behind” (ABANTU for Development, 2004) documents the experiences of women who lived through the two and half decades (the 1980s and 1990s) of dictatorial rule under Daniel arap Moi. This period was characterised by the rigorous policing and total militarisation of public life. It also normalised political detention and extrajudicial killing in Kenya. The extent to which this normalisation occurred can be discerned from the name and location of two crucial sites of state violence and civilian resistance: “Nyayo House”, the Moi regime’s torture headquarters was located underground, in the heart of the central business district (and minutes away from the State House) of Nairobi, the national capital, while the multi-year protests to free political detainees was centred at what was baptised “Freedom Corner” in Uhuru Park (and later at the All Saints Cathedral), on the edge of the central business district of Nairobi. Thus, power relations in Kenya were describable within the realities and metaphors of the towering prison-house of the state and the marginal corner of burgeoning freedom.
The Other Side of Prison is a crucial historical document detailing the lived experiences of women under some of the darkest oppression Kenya has faced since independence. Each of the women in the book is a mother, grandmother, daughter, or sister of a man who was a political detainee of the Moi regime. Each of these women participated—even if at a remove—in some way, for some duration, in solidarity with the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group and the mothers who protested for “the unconditional release of our sons” at Freedom Corner. It is these women who endured years of activism and labour that was aimed at, and effective in, the recovery a generation of men that would otherwise have been lost.
“The Freedom Corner” by all accounts was a huge success. Mothers who participated were extremely proud of what they achieved. It led to their sons’ freedom. […] This demonstration by women aged between 50 and 80 years was a landmark in the struggle against injustice in Kenya. (13)
The eagerness with which these women spoke out is illustrative of the extent to which a political detention regime, one in which bodies are disappeared, is also a regime of silence. The end of that regime in 2002 created a gap through which long-silent voices were impelled to flow and be heard. The story of these women is nothing less than the story of survivors and of veterans of concerted national struggle.
In the book, it is noted that there is little to no documentation of that period (the 1980s and 1990s) in Kenya’s herstory and that there is a lack of systematic analysis of women’s coping strategies under repressive conditions. Crucially, of that long period in which democracy was tightly constrained and suffocated, there is a “need to document women’s participation in the democratic process in post-independent Kenya and to highlight and document women’s leadership roles in defending their rights and those of their children and spouses.” (10) Women’s participation is an aspect of Kenya’s democratic life which continuously goes through un-writing and erasure. Documenting women’s lives in this manner is thus not only a necessary means of securing the afterlife and re-circulating the energy of activism but is also an important act of resistance in a post-colonial, post-independence, post-dictatorial regime that is nonetheless built on the reproduction of disposable women and men.
During the Mau Mau war women played an important and crucial role yet their role was not recognised and has not been recorded in history. Sadly, during the 80s and 90s a large number of the women whose spouses, brothers and sons were arrested had no clue of why they were arrested so they were taken by surprise. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
Each of the stories in The Other Side Of Prison is a brief but incisive recounting of what each woman remembers to have happened, what she saw, what she did, and what she endured. Threads run through all the stories: suddenly finding out that one’s spouse or son has been taken, not knowing “whether he was dead or alive”, a lack of information as to where they were taken or precisely by whom, the need to collect funds in order to travel and locate the taken men, the terror of not knowing, the endless red-tape, stonewalling, and lack of official cooperation, the continuous police searches and harassment, fearfulness within one’s community, straitened economic circumstances as detention dramatically reduces the household income, worry about children’s mental health, schooling, and care, a determination to find and support the taken men.
When I heard that Paddy was arrested, I was stunned and very confused. I wanted to know where they had taken him. […] It was not easy […] I did not give up. (The late Marcella Ojuka)
Some of the beloved men have well-known family names, names that are inscribed into national lore. Others are less known while a few are anonymous. What this highlights is that women of all walks of life acted in solidarity against the government and the blanket of repression that treated the farmer, the fisherman, the community organiser, the student leader, and the lecturer, all alike, as “not a human being.” In a regime whereby political assassination was frighteningly common, the act of speaking against the government carried with it the possibility of fatality. That these women engaged with the government in peaceful protest must thus be seen as more than a re-investment in the nation-state or as an earnest, determinedly vociferous, appeal to power. The women at Freedom Corner were actively subverting the dominant order and re-imagining new expressions of direct democracy.
We showed how under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, the constitution had been changed frequently, leading to serious violations of human rights and strengthening of dictatorship in Kenya. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
In the Foreword to The Other Side of Prison, Prof. Wangari Maathai’s observes that, “[i]nterestingly no woman was detained or imprisoned although many were beaten up and locked in custody. Some went into exile.” In saying so, she is perhaps making the distinction between long term detention without trial or imprisonment (detention with trial) in one of the 99 prison institutions in Kenya, and detention in police cells as well as house arrests. Indeed, Rael Kitur and Veronicah Wambui Nduthu were held in police cells in 1982 for over a week until after their sons were arrested. Florence Nyaguthie Murage was arrested on August 7, 1990 (on suspicion of possession of seditious materials), interrogated, and tortured while pregnant at Nyayo House then held at the Langata Women’s prison for two weeks. While it is not clear exactly how many women were similarly maltreated, it is suggested that they were numerous.
This mode of political repression continues in Kenya, and was most recently exemplified by the killings at Mombasa’s Masjid Musa Mosque and the subsequent detention of seventy men and at least one child on suspicion of being linked to Al-Shabaab. In the coastal regions of Kenya, political detentions (under the rubric of the war against terror) have effects, described by a woman witness, that echo the lamentations of an embittered Elizabeth Orchadson Mazrui about the carceral Moi regime:
[T]he political detentions of the 80s destroyed whole families. They destroyed lives; a lot of families were destroyed and the wounds these detentions caused cannot be healed. In almost all the families that had somebody detained, there are broken marriages or traumatised children. […] This is particularly painful for the women who fought so hard for these people, fighting for themselves and their children. […] We felt that this government has destroyed many lives. What I know for sure is that this government has destroyed a lot of families.
The destruction of Muslim families and communities in Kenya finds a seemingly infinite source of renewal in the bodies of ethnic Somali and Ethiopian asylum seekers. While the Refugees Act assures us that “[i]f police stop a Somali national entering Kenya without a permit, they may only arrest and detain that person if he or she does not wish to claim asylum,” Kenyan police routinely ignore such requests for asylum and detain refugees for “illegal presence”. This presumption of illegality is extended to Kenyan Somalis and Ethiopians:
Throughout the ten weeks of abuses in Eastleigh, police arbitrarily detained at least one thousand people in homes, streets, vehicles, and police stations, including in inhuman and degrading conditions. Police also falsely charged well over one hundred people—and possibly many more—with public order offenses, with no evidence of any kind to substantiate the charges. […] Arbitrary detention was not limited to specific sweeps following the bomb or grenade attacks in Eastleigh. (HRW 2013)
Kenyan Somali and Ethiopian women have also been subject to mass imprisonment under false charges, with no consideration given to whether they are pregnant, have children, or are the sole caregivers in the household. The de facto encampment of refugees within the Daadab refugee camp places women without male relatives and minority women at particular risk of sexual violence (HRW 2010). The mass detention of Kenyan Somali men then clears the space for the mass abuse, rape, and extortion of ethnic Somali women by Kenyan Regular Police, Administration Police, and the General Service Unit. These situations are becoming re-enactments of the abuses that occurred during the Wagalla Massacre in 1984 where 3000 ethnic Somali men were detained and subsequently slaughtered at an airstrip in Wajir District. Describing that day, one survivor recounted that having stripped and detained all the men and keeping them under armed guard, the Kenya military proceeded to ensure that “every single woman was raped that day.” The Wagalla Massacre might thus be differently thought of as The Rape of Wagalla.
Having detained Kenyan Somalis in their homes between November 2012 and January 2013, “a day after the November 18 bus attack [Kenya] police entered apartment blocks throughout Eastleigh, particularly in Section 1 of the district near where the attack took place, and raped and beat women and girls in their apartments.”
Other GSU officers brought the other three women to the truck. Their dresses were ripped and they were totally silent. We didn’t have to say anything to each other because we all knew what had happened to all of us. […] Similarly, a 50-year-old Somali woman told Human Rights Watch that in December 2012, two AP and two GSU officers seriously assaulted her with batons—including after she had collapsed onto the ground—when she tried to prevent them from taking her 17-year-old daughter away on 4th Street. More than two months later she said she was still in significant pain and was unable to sleep properly, while her daughter had fled to the Dadaab refugee camps out of fear of further police violence. (HRW 2013)
We need more research into the use of police custody (short term detention) in relation to the corruption which allows the police to operate a system of rent-seeking incarceration: In the case of the Somali and Ethiopian refugees, putative cash “bail” averaging KES 5,280, was demanded of all detainees. Human rights defenders often report bail amounts of KES 30,000. All these amounts are criminally extortionate, are effectively bribes, and serve only to exacerbate imprisonment (when bribes cannot be paid) and more deeply entrench poverty (as the practice is widespread and targets the poorest citizens). This system of corruption is only possible because the overwhelming and devastating threat of incarceration exists and is made visible in the physical presence of the police force and of prison buildings.
Kenya retains the spirit and much of the letter of the English colonial penal system, a system that was designed to sustain and secure the imperial project through violent and sophisticated modes and architectures of punishment. As such, Kenya operates a system of criminalisation, incarceration, abuse, and extortion that is an immediate feature of a broader system of state violence against the marginalised. For Kenyan women imprisoned for three years or longer, it is the case that because women’s prisons are less overcrowded than men’s prisons, the condition of incarcerated women is considered to be (but is not) better and therefore not worthy of as much attention as that of the men (Vetten 2003). The lack of comprehensive research into the condition of incarcerated women in Kenya defines these women as precisely those who are truly left behind.
The colonial system which we retain, and which purported to reform and rehabilitate inmates, in reality makes impossible any kind of widespread or meaningful restorative and transformative justice. This is especially true when the most wealthy and powerful perpetrators of widespread violence are able to occupy the presidency of Kenya with absolute impunity. That incarceration has always been an undeclared war on the poor, as well as a tool of political repression, means that prison reform is unlikely to yield meaningful results in guaranteeing prisoner rights and dignity.
The main documents guiding prison reform in Africa—the 1996 Kampala Declaration, the 2002 Ouagadougou Declaration and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—all “overlook the distinctive aspects of women’s incarceration, which include the marginal number of women in prison, women’s gender roles [and the reproduction of these oppressive roles through gendered prison training programmes] and their reproductive functions.” (ibid.) As such, it is likely that even if some meaningful prison reforms were to occur in Kenya, incarcerated women would still be subject to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Such treatment has been continuously repeated in the unjust arrest and imprisonment of women human rights defenders in Huruma and youth in the slums of Nairobi, Mombasa, and certainly throughout Kenya. In 2011, Ruth Mumbi reported,
The term dignity does not exist in prison. We were ordered to remove all of our clothes for body search and they don’t even care whether you are on your periods or not. It’s such an awful experience, as soon as you remove your clothes you are supposed to put your legs apart for the body search. I was humiliated but could not help it when I saw a woman old enough to be my grandmother removing clothes together with us. From that moment I would not be referred as Mumbi anymore I had a new identity my prison number was 306/11 and Vicky’s 306/12. […] I was taken to Langata not because I was a criminal but because I had stood my grounds for peoples and women’s right to health care. 
Again, in February 17, 2014:
Around 11 am today, members of the Highway Self Help group were having a meeting in Kiamaiko, in Mathare constituency. For reasons which are unclear, the police stormed the peaceful meeting, disrupting and dispersing the surprised members, arresting Sarah Ashina, George Luvala, Susan Mutindi, Alex Kamande, Francis Gachui and Steven Muturi.
The treasurer of Highway Self Help group, Ms. Sarah Ashina, a 34 year old mother of two who is eight months pregnant was, “senselessly assaulted” by the cops, an incident which left Ms. Ashina bleeding profusely. The police still insist on incarcerating her and have denied her access to urgent medical attention.
Sarah Ashina has been at the forefront of condemning arbitrary arrest of youths by the police in Kiamaiko.
Prison reifies and concentrates the powers of the state in creating and maintaining a legally justified injustice. What Ruth Mumbi describes is the enforced “ritual practice of mortification” which is the “legal fiction of civil death” that is always constitutive of the penitentiary system. (Smith 2008)
[S]he loses all signs of her identity. Her nourishment is minimal and coarse. She performs the possessed labour of the slave. In her costume, scene, and gestures, she enacts her living death. […] In order to understand the prison, we will have to see how living death was neither an accident nor an excess, but part of its design.
We remember Sophia Dolar, Pauline Wanjiru, and Ester Wairimu, women human rights activists:
They were reportedly arrested in March 2000 with eight other human rights activists, held for five days in Nakuru Prison, Rift Valley Province. Upon arrival the women were reportedly forced to strip naked in full view of other prisoners and jeering prison guards, and beaten with sticks during interrogation. They were allegedly held in a large overcrowded cell holding 39 women, many of whom were ill. When they refused to eat uncooked food, they were reportedly beaten with canes and forced to eat the food. No official investigation is said to have been carried out. The Kenyan Government failed to respond to the letter of the two [UN] Special Rapporteurs [on Violence Against Women].
We remember Eunice Wanjira Njira, 44-years-old, who in October 2013 was “convicted to a 15-month jail term” after being charged for “sending offensive text messages […] and claiming to have had an intimate extramarital affair with a former Member of Parliament.” We remember also, the numerous women who have been and continue to be imprisoned in the Langata, Kodiaga (Kisumu), Nyeri, Meru, Shimo la Tewa, Kakamega, Nakuru, Eldoret women’s prisons, and other prisons and police cells countrywide. We remember the large numbers of mothers and their children held in our prisons.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the ‘Bangkok Rules’) which recognised that the unique conditions that surround crime by women, their conviction for crimes, and their imprisonment. “The Bangkok Rules are also the first international instrument to address the needs of children in prison with their parent.” (PRI 2013) These rules also recognised that prison is often ineffective in its stated goals of rehabilitating women offenders and protecting society from such offenders. It made specific provisions for women’s hygiene, menstruation, reproductive health and history, and childbirth. It emphasised and detailed the preservation of women offenders’ dignity and their protection from violence. These rules also documented all the levels of state, government, and civil society that are impacted by and required to act in order to successfully implement them. “The Bangkok Rules supplement the existing UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Tokyo Rules on alternatives to imprisonment.” (ibid.) It remains to be seen to what extent the Bangkok Rules will be implemented in Kenya.
In 2011, the Kenya government began talks with G4S with a view to privatising prison services and building new prison infrastructure. The handing over of prisoners to private enterprise is always a recipe for the intensified enslavement of human beings in the name of profit. The movement towards privatised correctional services portends a proliferation of new and concealed modes of dehumanisation.
Kenyan feminism, in order to retain its impetus to end the oppression of all Kenyan women thus has to concern itself with the abolition of prisons which perpetuate a regime of deepening precarity and human disposability that is “punitive, criminal and legal focused.” Within a hetero-patriarchal regime, a penal justice system will always apportion its punishments unevenly, skewing its violence towards and against women.
Alternative interventions are necessary to ensure the safety and health of our communities not only because there is no clear evidence that prisons improve community safety, or because prisons are a recent import into Africa but because, importantly, “prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools.” (Kaba 2013) These interventions must in turn lead to a dismantling of the police-state which is coextensive with the prison-state.
Because the core of the problem, poverty, is unlikely to be solved within a capitalist neoliberal context that requires and produces the militarisation and marketisation of all life and a maintenance (and expansion) of the wealth gap, it is urgently necessary that we turn towards systems of reparative and transformative justice, and of community accountability. These might draw from African pre-colonial systems of justice which were not built around detention or focused on punishment. In such systems, “perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. [A] context [outside of the courts, jails, and prisons] within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm [and] provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it.” (ibid.)
Perhaps then, we can ensure that women, who are already the victims of the most egregious violence a patriarchal society has invented—and many of whom resort to violence as a result of themselves being exposed to sustained domestic violence (Mc Evoy 2012)—are not forced to face compounded violence and disappearance through incarceration. Perhaps then, “we are able to be compassionate to both survivors and perpetrators of harm,” and in doing so, create a Kenya in which violence and criminalisation of the most marginalised among us is a distant memory.
Orem is a lapsed mathematician and perspiring writer from Kenya.
 Lisa Vetten, “The imprisonment of women in Africa” (2003), in Human Rights in African Prisons edited by Jeremy Sarkin, HSRC Press, 2008.
 Kenya Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Abstract 2012”
 Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, 1998.
 Caroline Elkins, “Chapter 7: The Hard core,” in Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, 2005.
Without fail Fridays at Athi River meant screening, and the women hardly escaped the usual tactics of the government’s interrogators. They were beaten, whipped, and sexually violated with bottles, hot eggs, and other foreign objects, all in an effort to force them to talk. Alsatian shepherd dogs were also brought into the screening huts, where they would growl at and eventually maul those women who refused to cooperate. Compound 1 sent numerous letters to the governor, who, on occasion, responded personally by inspecting the camp. According to Shifra, Baring would “sometimes come and see us being screened. Other times we would be ordered to squat, and he would come around looking at us. He never asked us anything; he would just walk around glancing at us like we were animals.” […] For most of the Emergency, women were detained primarily at Kamiti Camp. Kamiti had previously been a maximum security prison for criminals, but the circumstances of the war forced its transformation into a multipurpose facility. It was an overflow site for Embakasi prison and held several thousand men convicted of Mau Mau–related crimes. Behind its walls and barbed wire was also one of the largest known burial sites for Mau Mau adherents killed in the forests, on the reserves, and in detention camps, as well as those executed under Emergency Regulations. In the spring of 1954 the colonial government decided to open the gates of Kamiti to accommodate a surge of female Mau Mau convicts and detainees. Once fully operational, Kamiti would be unique in that it functioned as a self-contained Pipeline. In it women of all classifications—from the blackest of “black” to “white,” and various shades of “grey” in between—were detained and moved to different compounds based on their level of cooperation. Female Mau Mau convicts were fully integrated with the detainees, living in the same compounds and laboring together. At the end of their sentences they too became detainees, little altering their lives.
 “Unlawful Arrest and Detention of Asylum Seekers and Abusive and Inhumane Conditions of Detention”, in “Welcome to Kenya”: Police Abuse of Somali Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 2010.
 “Torture, Rape, Beatings, and Extortion by the Kenyan Police,” in “You Are All Terrorists”: Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi/, Human Rights Watch, 2013.
Interviewees described 48 incidents involving GSU officers who extorted a total of Ksh 335,000 ($4,036), or an average of just over Ksh 6,979 ($84) per incident. Twenty-five incidents described involved RP officers who extorted a total of Ksh 286,900, or an average of Ksh 11,476. In seven incidents AP officers extorted a total of Ksh 38,500, an average of Ksh 5,500.
 Ruth Mumbi, “Kenya: Arrest of women human rights defenders in Huruma,” Pambazuka 521 (2011-03-17).
 Caleb Smith, “Detention without subjects: Prisons and the poetics of living death”, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall 2008.
The prisoner becomes a divided figure: a redeemable soul, but also an offending body; a citizen-in-training, but also an exile from civil society; a resurrected life, but also an animate corpse.
 Violence Against Women in Kenya: Report prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), 2003.
 The United Nations Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners: Short guide, Prison Reform International, 2013.
-  A considerable proportion of women offenders are in prison as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation.
-  Women mainly commit petty crimes closely linked to poverty, such as theft, fraud and minor drug related offences.
-  Only a small minority of women are convicted of violent offences, and a large majority of them have been victims of violence themselves.
 Mariame Kaba, “Cognitive Dissonance: Ending Rape Culture By Sentencing People to Judicial Rape”, US Prison Culture, 2013.
 Claire Mc Evoy, “No Justice”, in Battering, Rape, and Lethal Violence: A Baseline of Information on Physical Threats against Women in Nairobi, Small Arms Survey, 2012.
Data from the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (Nairobi Women’s Hospital) shows that very few of its clients obtain formal justice [for Gender Based Violence]. In 2010–11 medical hospital staff acted as witnesses in 178 separate cases, or six per cent of the cases reported during that period (GVRC, 2012, p. 31). That figure was just 75 in 2009–10 and 153 in 2008–09, or 3.0 and 5.4 per cent of the total number of cases, respectively (GVRC, 2010a, p. 20; 2011a, p. 19). There is no available data on the number of convictions in these cases.
 Jeremy Sarkin, “Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective”.
Incarceration as punishment was unknown to Africa when the first Europeans arrived. While pretrial detention was common, wrongdoing was rectified by restitution rather than punishment. Local justice systems were victim- rather than perpetrator-centered with the end goal being compensation instead of incarceration. Even in centralized states that did establish prisons, the goal of incarceration remained to secure compensation for victims rather than to punish offenders. 3 Imprisonment and capital punishment were viewed as last resorts within African justice systems, to be used only when perpetrators such as repeat offenders and witches posed discreet risks to local communities. […] As the history of the African prison makes clear, incarceration was brought to the continent from Europe as a means by which to subjugate and punish those who resisted colonial authority. The employment of corporal and capital punishment to stifle political oppression was the central aim of Africa’s first prisons. In light of this genesis then, it is hardly a surprise that present-day African prisons fail to meet their stated goals of rehabilitation and indeed persist in fulfilling the aims and committing the abuses set in motion centuries ago.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, 127.0.0.1 – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Renee Akitelek Mboya
You will call home.
They will read you the poem for the census and the forecast. Aunty so and so is very well though the cyst on her eye will not go away. We heard in church that Maureen had her baby but then they took it to a different church for baptism. It was 17 degrees outside yesterday – the forest is breathing cold air – where did you put that blanket? You must bring us souvenirs – but are you eating? Don’t eat anything that didn’t have legs. Do you know how much mercury they put in cans? What is ‘yassa’? Wear sunscreen. Eat your fruit. Brush your teeth, dentists are expensive. Did you find a husband?
There is no larger feeling than the abandonment that rests in that moment of transfer. You will resent those you leave behind for letting you go. You will linger, wait for the impulse that begs you to stay. You will create in your mind the fantasy of home every time you drop soap in the bathroom, every time you wipe your shoes on the mat, every time you meet a stranger – rest your fingers in the soft skin on the back of their hand. You will want to say ‘one day I will know you like the back of my hand’. You will try to leave bits and pieces of yourself lying around – clues. Home will not find you here. Those who should make you stay will not remember your name tomorrow. You will smile creepily at shopkeepers when you buy phone credit. You will hope that they will ask you where your path split to bring you to Nouakchott – Ferkesedougou – Cotonou. Instead they will adjust the dial on their transistor radio. They will crank up the weather report or the call to prayer. You will pass definitely, quickly, out of their present into the more foggy reserves of their past. This place that has touched you will think nothing of you once you are gone.
Running out of shampoo will become your greatest personal tragedy. Every hair on your body will literally shed the memory of the place in which you are rooted. Squeezing the last of it out of the green bottle will be heartbreak in every stead.
You will lose your language. This is not okay. It will slip through the cracks of the things that are half heard and half translated. When you speak in child like sentences, in languages that are far from your own, your tongue will start to desiccate. You will stop hearing yourself. You will be quiet and smiling, foreign in more ways than one. You will whisper the words of your national anthem to yourself – you will regret that it is the only prayer that you know in Swahili – Yoruba – Shona – Dinka. When people ask you where you’re from you will no longer be vague, but you will have no way to prove it. Language is only valuable to those who can hear it.
Your body will cry for a hot meal, a hot shower, the hot pepper sauce from the mama ntilie on your street corner. You will want to be touched, sometimes. You will want only space, other times. You will resent your roommates for sleeping. You will resent your roommates for snoring.
You will miss the smell of rain.
Renee Akitelek Mboya is a Nairobi based writer who works in fiction and narrative non-fiction. She has published work in Art Life Magazine, East African Standard Newspaper, Kwani?, and others.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, 127.0.0.1 – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Otieno Sumba
The newly beatified Sister Irene Nyaatha Stefani may hold a Gikuyu name dearly given to her by the community she lived and worked in, but she is not Gikuyu, Kenyan, African or Black. This holds true for many of the other Catholic saints, blesseds, and venerables that earned their halos by the historical receptiveness of Africans for charity, mercy, healing or saving. Indeed, as Edward Andrews puts it, they might as well have been “visible saints, exemplars of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery” in any colonialist ideal.
Daniel Comboni, one such specimen, is quoted to have selflessly said “Either Africa or Death” (in Italian O Nigrizia, o morte– notice Africa’s Name). According to Wikipedia, he went ahead to develop a “plan for the rebirth of Africa” after a vision in 1864 in Rome, which echoed his mantra, “save Africa through Africa.” Still very coincidental that the saint planned to save Africa in 1864 and the colonial conquest came so quickly, at least according to that story. So, following coincidence (and not trusting Wikipedia), I go ahead and Google who the patron saint of Kenya is.
I am curious.
The first place I find myself is answers.com. I stumble upon William Howe, rated “expert answerer” by the website’s users. His credentials:
“Born a Catholic and have never wavered in my faith in over 70 years. I had 12 years of Catholic education in my youth – both primary and secondary schools. I went on to teach science and theology in a local Catholic school for 13 years and, although retired, I continue with ministries in the Church. I have a large personal collection of genuine relics of Jesus Christ and many saints and use them to teach younger generations about the lives of the saints. My ministry has a website about relics and how to detect fake relics.”
William Howe´s answer: “I can find no patron saint for the country of Kenya.”
However, I disagree. I think Kenya has a patron saint. His name is St. Coloniality. I took the liberty of writing a short biography:
There are many contested accounts about the life of St. Global Coloniality. One such account postulates that St. Global Coloniality (named colonialism at birth) was born on the 26th February 1885 to a German father; Otto Von Bismarck and an unnamed Portuguese mother. It was a complicated pregnancy and the saint´s parents had been in an out of a hospital since November 1884. At the early age of 6 years, Coloniality was brought to Africa by his parents who were interested in mission and explorative work alongside other activities in Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, Mozambique and Angola because of their lifelong desire to evangelize distant lands. He grew up into his parents cause, and continued their work in many other African countries. Due to a tropical sickness, Coloniality is said to have fallen into a coma in early 1957 in Ghana. His helpers however continued his work on the continent, carrying him along. He died in Kenya in 1963. Many other countries claim he died in their countries, naming different years such as 1968 (Mauritius), 1975(Angola) and 1976 (Seychelles) and have produced certificates to confirm their claims. The name Coloniality stuck after his death, he is said to have commonly signed off with this name instead of his true name colonialism.
Coloniality was instantly venerated by faithful in many countries, which to this day have huge congregations swearing allegiance to colonialist religions. Many children have been named after colonialist Saints and a few convert Africans have even been canonized for readily dying for religion.
Coloniality easily translates into what the Swahili would refer to as ukoloni mamboleo. It is the persistent power of a bygone era of colonialism that continues to transcend our lives, it is:
“…one of the specific and constitutive elements of [a] global model of capitalist power. It is based on the imposition of a racial/ethnic classification of the global population as the cornerstone of that model of power, and it operates on every level, in every arena and dimension (both material and subjective) of everyday social existence, and does so on a societal scale
Anibal Quijano 2000
Colonialities of power exist in the worship of white people at airports, coffee chains and at your favorite beach hotel in Diani. It is the security personnel at various locations who – seemingly hypnotized – let the white person in front of you glide through security and then go ahead to churn out the contents of your bag and basically polish their dysfunctional metal detectors on your clothes. It is the ease of access to various hotels in Nairobi when one has a white person in tow, the sudden busybody-ness of receptionists when a white person walks in.
Colonialities of being happen when we proudly wear Coloniality on and in our heads, either as magistrates with a white horsehair-wig of unmatched awful flagrance in a court of law or when we would rather bear the brunt of the Nairobi sun under a straight hair weave or a wig than leave the house with our hair “undone”. We consider time honoured Maasai garb backward and traditional, yet run to Maasai market when our white friends visit to show them “our culture”. We watch, unbothered as Kikoi was almost turned into a British trademark, and LaLesso appropriates our dear Leso into unrecognizable pieces of patterned cloth. We resign to Coloniality, play into the roles created for us by the colonialists; Karen-Blixen-Country, Safari-Country, Kibera-Slum-Tours-Country, good-athletes-country.
Colonialities of knowledge include being taught that Mt. Kenya was “discovered” by Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann in a public, government financed school. That the history of Kenya began in 1900 and that there is little else before that, that the Mau Mau were thugs and brutes who killed indiscriminately, and that wearing locked hair links you to similarly shifty underground groups. That the british “granted” us independence out of the goodness of their hearts. Coloniality is the fact that no british official, military or civilian, has ever been investigated or prosecuted for the massive atrocities that happened in the suppression of Mau Mau; including the use of concentration camps and in their best days, the imprisonment of upto 71,046 Kenyans (without trial, in what would have been an illegal court anyway) in December of 1954.
Kenya and Britain have done brilliant job at covering up colonialism, throwing a blanket of collective insomnia over millions of people a mere 50 years after the biggest atrocity in Kenyan history was committed. At independence the reconciling “father of the nation” referred to the Mau Mau as “a disease which has been eradicated and must never be remembered.” In 2006 we rebelled, we dared to remember Kimathi Waciuri (aka Dedan), erected a statue on Kimathi street and then instantly forgot again, our insomnia punctuated only by monotonous Mashujaa Day celebrations.
Religion continues to be a breeding ground for Coloniality in all its forms, particularly Christianity. Catholicism in Kenya remains under the tight grip of hegemonic structures straight out of the early centuries. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the less Africans you find. Nevertheless, the Kenyan Catholic church has managed to appropriate a few things here and there since 1970, prior to which holy mass had to be said in Latin all over the world. See:
“The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular”.
Pope John XXIII, 1962
This cultural-imperialist practice of belittling languages marked unworthy of the ears of the Lord was accompanied by strictly set liturgical practices. Singing, drums or dancing in the Kenyan Catholic church were unheard of before the 1970s, where chants in Latin were the norm.
Religious imagery within Catholicism is another ready site for colonial reproduction and literal worship of everything white. I am yet to come across black religious relics, such as a black statue of Jesus on the cross or the Black Madonna in a Catholic church in Kenya, let alone a picture. Hardcore Catholics would consider it blasphemous to even think about a black Jesus or Mary.
Back on the real internet we find pictures of Sister Stefani in Kenyan news with the newspaper features hailing her selfless charity. One picture shows her posing piously, with the typical lonely acacia tree and orange African sunset combo that can be found on the covers of countless African and Africa-themed novels and movies in the background. The second shows her semi-ascending into heaven in flowing white robes, with a group of stunned black faithful looking up to her in awe.
My problem is not Sister Stefani, Christianity or religion per se, my problem is no longer even the white savior industrial (or religious) complex that is ubiquitous in the “development´\” discourse. My problem is the culture of silence and complacency, the lack of agency in the face of such brazen assaults to black consciousness, spirituality, intelligence and dignity. We are so hypnotized by religion that we will let a pastor touch a woman’s breasts in public and say amen! We will watch a pastor train people to give false testimonies and still “sow a seed” to finance his new Range Rover.
Colonialism was a form of imperialism based on a “divine mandate” and designed to bring “liberation” in all its forms – spiritual, cultural, economic and political – by sharing the blessings of the Christ-inspired civilization of the West with a people suffering under “satanic oppression, ignorance and disease.” The entire missionary enterprise was therefore part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism. Today, Coloniality is based on a “divine mandate” to bring prosperity, it is the sharing of a gospel of Christ-inspired capitalism with a people suffering under poverty, ignorance and alienation. It is the beatification of a white saint in our country, and the subordinate status that black people/spirituality is accorded within in the Catholic Church. We cannot reverse history, and religion has since become a strong pillar for many of us, but I think that we need to own our spirituality, to claim ownership and take ownership, regardless of which religion we are in.
Otieno Sumba is a fledgling post-colonial Political Scientist who –as a former catholic- finds the little picture of a black Madonna hanging over his door highly empowering. Twitter: @_Otieno_
As the flowers begin to wilt on the graves of the 147 people who were killed in the Garissa University attack, it is essential for Kenyans to reflect on the journey that brought us here. This journey has been one of many mistakes and very few legitimate successes.
The story of how the Northern Frontier District (NFD) came to be a part of colonial Kenya, and independent Kenya, is intriguing, if not sadistic. Borders were arbitrarily drawn on the map of Eastern Africa, cutting through communities and clans; boardroom deals with Ethiopia and Italy further divided the Somali people, with the British governing their part from Kenya.
A few years before independence, the British canvassed the NFD in an informal referendum. The question was simple yet powerful, as it would chart the destiny of the Somali people on the Kenyan side of the border. An overwhelming majority rightly knew they were doomed if they stayed in Kenya, and they voted to join the Greater Somali Republic. Somalia would be a large state incorporating all areas that had a majority Somali population, including Djibouti and Ogaden in Ethiopia.
Kenya’s founding fathers, however, made it clear that they would not cede an inch of soil to anyone. Anecdotal evidence suggests the British prevailed upon Kenyatta to consider the idea but he rubbished it, to them and to the government of Somalia. Instead of a peaceful transition for Somalia and Kenya, Britain’s ignorance on the impact of its lethargy marked the start of a decade of mayhem.
Contrary to common history, the Shifta War was a term only right in one aspect: it was a war. There were no shiftas (bandits), but revolutions. The Somali people of the NFD united behind a group called the Northern Province Progressive People’s Party (NPPPP). This ragtag militia eventually grew into a full revolution, calling for unity with the Somali Republic.
The Somali people had been marginalized by the colonial government, especially after World War II. If the idea of annexing Northern Kenya was an embarrassment for KANU, the idea that the revolutionary war would ever be branded as such was even worse. The government immediately launched a military and a propaganda campaign. It was this campaign that branded the NPPPP shiftas, Somali for bandits.
The NPPPP received military and financial assistance from the Somali government, who were in turned trained and funded by the Soviet Union. Winning this war was paramount for Kenya as a capitalist state, and a friend of Western powers. The NPPPP’s military wing, known as the Northern Frontier District Liberation Army (NFDLA), had battalions of a thousand armed men deployed in smaller units of about 30 soldiers. Until 1965, their armory mostly featured old European arms such as rifles and grenade launchers. With Somalia’s support, however, the strategy changed to employing mine warfare, allowing the NFDLA to extend beyond Wajir, Mandera and Garissa.
KANU drew its lessons from how the British had handled the Mau Mau insurgency. They had everything, including genocides and concentration camps, down to an art. The difference was that unlike the British, the Kenyan government was now dealing with an enemy who had sophisticated weaponry. Security personnel were allowed to confiscate and kill animals, and detention camps with kangaroo courts and dubious legal processes were founded in the region.
Partly, the goal of the war was to curb pastoralism and make the Somali people easier to govern. Innocent civilians were herded into concentration camps branded as villages. Inside such camps in places such as Garbatulla, the torture and massacres continued unabated. The Kenyan military was allowed a free hand in Northern Kenya. In the course of battling the secessionist body, it also encountered real bandits who would often be found with bows and poison arrows.
The agreement to end hostilities between Nairobi and Mogadishu effectively cut off the lifeline for the NPPPP and allowed the Kenyan military to vanquish its central structure. Kenyans of Somali ethnicity who escaped the fighting by crossing into Somalia found it impossible to get back in. This created secondary and tertiary problems for Kenya that would eventually bubble into an insecure border.
The counterinsurgency strategy had similar effects to the one colonialists applied against the Mau Mau; it targeted the larger Somali community, just as the Kikuyu community had once been targeted. The previously oppressed became the oppressor. These efforts effectively decimated the informal Somali economy. An unknown number of cattle heads were killed or confiscated by the Kenya military. From Isiolo alone, it is estimated that more than 15,000 heads of cattle were confiscated or killed. This made an entire population desperate, and most of them shifted to other economic activities such as business.
However, the attempt to ‘create Kenyans’ failed miserably. Although the experiment reduced the population of pastoralists and established the authority of the Kenya government in the district, it spelled doom for the son of the man who led Kenya during the Shifta War. It also meant that Kenyans of Somali origin would never feel as patriotic or enthusiastic about their country as their neighbors. That the NFD always voted for the government of the day was wrongly read as their acceptance of the political powers in Nairobi, and not as an indication of the collective trauma that roamed the region.
The State collapse of the Somali government also meant that there was little hope for the Somali people. Even with that, however, the Kenyan state that had been fighting to keep them within its borders continued killing them. Although the guns of the NFDLA died out in the 1970s, the instances of state-sponsored violence continued. There was a shoot-to-kill policy in the region in the 1980s, the same period when the Wagalla and Garissa massacres occurred. The 1980 massacre started as an effort to flush out a local criminal called Abdi Madobe, and ended with the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Somalis. In 1989, there was a nationwide screening of Somalis living within Kenya.
The period of relative peace in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincides with the time when Mohammoud Saleh was the provincial commissioner of the NFD. A Kenyan-Somali himself, Saleh tried to mend the fractured relationship between the Kenyan government and the inhabitants of the NFD. He was said to have zero tolerance towards abuse by security forces, although anecdotal evidence suggests he suffered stigma under unknowing security forces who frequently stopped him when he was in plain clothes.
In 1991, the Somali government effectively collapsed, leaving social units with the mandate of finding ways to govern themselves. A system of Islamic courts filled the judicial gap, and spread into other roles such as policing, healthcare and education. In the first decade, most of them worked alone with no system of collaboration. However, this changed in 1999 when they decided to work together. They formed an armed militia that immediately started fighting for control of Mogadishu. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was funded by the Eritrean government and Ethiopian insurgency groups, making it an enemy of Ethiopia. In the next half a decade, the ICU grew in power and control, especially in areas around Mogadishu. Its military wing decimated warlords who had previously controlled the country. It was a time of peace and prosperity in Somalia, albeit short-lived. The Mogadishu airport and the seaport were reopened and the economy began to recover. Having a Sharia-based, largely informal government in Eastern Africa made Kenya and Ethiopia jittery.
At the end of 2006, Ethiopia-funded transitional government forces began attacking the ICU. By the end of 2007, the courts union was no more, mainly due to infighting and resignations that weakened its response to the concerted effort to remove it from power. It’s military wing, Al Shabaab, whose full name is Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, did not die off with the death of the ICU. Instead, it moved in fast to fill in the gap, transforming itself to one of the most formidable powers in Somalia. It eventually controlled a significant part of inhabited Somalia, and tried to transform itself into a national power. Uganda intervened, as did Kenya, uprooting the Shabaab from all its lifelines. The group fled to the background and became an insurgency.
Kenya’s actual reaction to the Somalia situation began years before the 2011 invasion. It was a foolhardy plan, and would eventually bring a war that was not Kenya’s right into its borders. In an attempt to shield her borders from attacks, Kenya turned to what looked like a brilliant plan by a former Al Shabaab leader, Ras Kamboni warlord Sheikh Ahmed Madobe. The plan was to form an autonomous Jubaland on the Somalia side of the border to act as a buffer zone for Kenya. A small force of Somalis would be trained by Kenyan forces to help the transitional government bolster its position. It was a terrible plan, and Kenya’s security partners told its officials as much.
Kenya went ahead to recruit and train 4,000 Kenyans of Somali origin, contrary to reports that they were Somali nationals. Half of the recruits were sent to camps at Archers Post and Manyani. They were promised jobs and money, and a destiny in Jubaland. They were then transferred to Somalia and as the clan infighting killed off the plan, most disappeared with their weapons and training. Many of them ended up as members of Al Shabaab.
During the April 2nd 2015 dawn attack, the attackers used what they called ‘Kenyan weaponry.’ One was revealed to have been a Kenyan-Somali from Mandera, one of the areas where the Kibaki government had recruited young men for its secret mission in Somalia. Although it is unlikely he was one of those trained at Archers Post or Manyani, it is likely he has links to those who were. The exact number of Kenyan-Somalis who underwent training and then ended up in Al Shabaab’s ranks is unknown, at least publicly, and the Kenya government is unlikely to reclassify the war against the terror group as an internal insurgency.
While the government has continually portrayed the war as a war against illegal immigrants, and recently refugees, the real enemy is actually disillusioned Kenyans of Somali ethnicity. Born in a tormented land where their parents were traumatized and subdued, they were then given hope of finally doing something for the motherland. Whether Kenya’s officials actually knew the risks involved is another story, and one they are unlikely to be honest about because it would make them culpable.
The newest genius plan seems to be the construction of a border barrier on the border with Somalia. The border barrier, the government hopes, will solve the problem once and for all. The Daadab camp, the largest of its kind in the world, should be closed within the next year if the UN heeds Kenya’s demands. These efforts assume the enemy is a Somali national, and not a person who has a valid Kenyan ID card.
The level of ethnic profiling that goes on every time there is an attack, whether in Garissa or in South C or Eastleigh, is built on this security paradigm. It is a rather interesting way to look at it; that it is outsiders who spoil citizens. Yet, the truth is that Kenya will never know peace until the North Eastern region it annexed is peaceful and thriving socially and economically.
That peace will not come from police crackdowns and ethnic profiling. Fighting the Al Shabaab should stop being about fighting the Somali people, because profiling is not the solution. Neither is a border barrier or a closed refugee camp. Both ideas are as terrible as the idea of training Kenyan Somalis to fight in Somalia. It will only furnish Kenya’s enemies with new recruits.
The real battle is not in Kismayu or Mogadishu, it is right within Kenya’s borders, and it cannot be won with guns and armored tanks.
It is my belief that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Our lives are made possible by those who birthed us, and those who fought so that people who look like us can live, and we must always remember this.
I was recently asked why I am no longer as vocal as I used to be about issues I am passionate about on my Facebook/Twitter pages. Nowadays, I’ll mostly talk about the music I’m listening to or how I’m feeling, and some have felt that this is shallow compared to what I shared before. I agree – I could continue doing the same, but I will not, at least not for a while, because I am tired. Of saying the same thing. In different words. All the time.
It felt as if I (and many of my allies online) was going to die of exhaustion due to repeating myself to an audience that did not seem to want to learn. I spoke to a columnist I admire about why her column had gone from weekly to fortnightly, and she said “I feel that I am repeating myself. I’m getting tired of saying the same thing over and over again, just about different things.” Conversations online, due to our culture of outrage that has no doubt been fueled by the internet, tend to be in reaction to a stimulus, leaving little time and energy for people who want to create originally to do so. We are left reacting to our nemeses – sexism, racism, corruption – and it feels like there is a force, a group of people who stand to benefit from our busy-bodied reactionary nature. Whoever they are, they need us to stay distracted long enough.
I had been unable to find the best way to frame this until I came across a lecture given by Toni Morrison in 1975 at Portland State University on race, politics and art. It became very clear to me what I had to do after I read the transcript of this lecture, and the lessons were applicable to most, if not all, forms of oppression. Parts of the lecture are in italics, with my annotations interspersed.
More important, accurate scholarship and free, dedicated artists would reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a mark, a public mark, of ignorance; it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was. And all of those quotations from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune, the threat was always jobs, land, or money. And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you must have a reason for despising your victim. Where racism exists as an idea, it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. Its hoped-for consequence was to define Black people as reactions to White presence.
This gives me pause. Should we replace the word racism with sexism, homophobia, class prejudice, tribalism or any other form of discrimination we have institutionalized, this still makes sense. It has been proven that attacks on women increase when the men of that society feel that women are becoming more prosperous in relation to them; thus their sex is not the issue, profit and money are. Profit and money equal power – power is the issue, sex is merely a façade. The same applies to class divisions. We keep the poor entangled in their poverty, such that they have little time or strength for anything else. They are unable to awaken to their true power because their poverty is so consuming, they can think of little else. Which is why people will sell their votes for as little as KES 50. Black people serve as a backdrop to white people in such a society; women as a backdrop to men; the poor as a backdrop to the rich, and so on.
Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.
This was like a revelation to me. It is not that the people I was trying to communicate with did not know that gay people were people too; that women and men deserve equal rights; that the poor must have their dignity. They know these things. They just do not want us to believe these things. There is a heavy reliance by purveyors of the status quo on our low self-esteem. They demand that we participate in our own disparagement. Of course gay people are people too – they are birthed by human beings. Of course women are equal human beings, otherwise men would not date/marry them. Of course black people are people too (in fact, the invention of whiteness has been well catalogued, and it was created to retain wealth in certain circles).
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.
The same can be said of sexism – it keeps women from doing their work – as well as class prejudice, homophobia, tribalism and other strata along which we choose to divide ourselves. It keeps the oppressed on the defensive, forever justifying their humanity, and responding to the aggressions of the oppressor. When someone tweets online that women who are unmarried over thirty are doomed, hours are spent proving otherwise. Tomorrow another idiot comes online and says women who do not cook are not real women. The process is repeated. We end up distracted from our cause, which is usually the purpose of the inanities spewed by those in power.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, [sigh] not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
What is the disease? Greed and the struggle for power. Behind every sexist/homophobic/tribal/racist slight, this is the enemy. Even corruption itself is not a disease, but a symptom of greed and the struggle for power. When we see this, everything changes. We can spend our entire lives fighting acts/statements by fools who exhibit these symptoms. And in the process, it can feel like we have done a lot of work, for we will surely be tired by the end of the day. But we do not have to. This is not the best way. It is not up to us to educate our oppressors. They know exactly what they are doing. So, what can we do?
To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. Where the spirit hangs limp in silk cords of the racial apologists who want soft and delicate treatment for the poor victims is a very dim place. And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas. Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there’re no doors. And there are old, old men, and old, old women running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them. And they are very easily identified.
They are the petulant ones who call themselves proud, and they are the disdainful ones who call themselves fastidious, and they are the mean-spirited ones who call themselves just. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them; they are the ones who measure their wealth by the desperation of the poor. They are the ones who know personal success only when they can identify deficiencies in other racial and ethnic groups. They are in prisons of their own construction: and their ignorance and their stunted emotional growth consistently boggle the mind.
It is rare that we will succeed in changing the minds of those who oppress us. They hold on so strongly to their false beliefs, and it has been proven that the more we argue with such people and present them with sound logic and facts, the more tightly they hold on to their flawed logic. Yet they manage to wear us down with these constant runarounds while they continue boldly with their erroneous beliefs. This leaves us unable to do our work, while they go forth and infect others with their choice brand of foolishness. As Ms. Morrison says, such people are easy to identify, and our efforts cannot, and must not, be wasted upon them. It is far better to use our efforts where there is hope for substantial change.
We are the moral inhabitants of the globe. And to deny it is to lie in prison. Oh yes, there’s cruelty, and cruelty, because it destroys the perpetuator as well as the victim, is a very mysterious thing. But if you look at the world as one long brutal game between “us” and “them,” then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar, and the canary that might sing on the crown of a scar. And unless all races and all ages of man have been totally deluded, there seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony—all of which are wholly free, and available to us.
A question was asked to Ms. Morrison on how to eliminate racist rhetoric given white media ownership. She responded as follows:
There were several parts to your question. I think you were asking about methods, how was it possible for Blacks [the Black artist] to exercise any influence or control given the media is controlled by White people. Et cetera et cetera. I think there’s a layer underneath your question of assumption about what the media are and what its influence is. One has a tendency to have some enormous awe for it, as though it were some magic, television, play, or a book review. It really is of no consequence when it comes to doing important work. The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists. It can enlighten, and it can distort, but it does not initiate and it does not create. The best analogy for that for Black people, I think can be found in music. I was talking to Dr. Harris earlier: Black people’s music is in a class by itself and always has been. There’s nothing like it in the world.
The reason for that is that it was not tampered with by White people. It was not “on the media.” It was not anywhere except where Black people were. And it is one of the art forms in which Black people decided what was good in it, what was the best in it; no one told them. And if you want to be a Black musician now, you have to do what the best have done. And all of the mediocre musicians (Black) were blown off the stage [inaudible] and ridiculed by Black—by other Black musicians. So what surfaced and floated to the top were the giants and the best. And it was done without “the media,” in spite of the control et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That is true of any art form that is (a) not imitated, (b) it does not seek to justify or explain anything; it talks—artists—the Black artists must do what all the other artists do: talk to each other.
The same applies to all other oppressed groups. The only way to empower ourselves is to initiate. To create. Not to participate in the mindless reactionary cycle that the media (and those in power) so well initiates, be it on corruption, sexism, tribalism, homophobia or any of Kenya’s other ills. We support each other in creation. In building networks. In sustained action. And we listen to each other, and learn from each other. No one can speak for us but us. No one will fight for us but us. Which is why it is fallacious to imagine, for example, that the endless reporting of corruption in the media will somehow lead to its reduction. It won’t – because we are tired. We hear a new story almost each day, and pursue it with fervor, as we did the last, leaving us with little time and energy for follow-up, and most of all, distracted. Which is exactly what oppressors rely on.
Power structures have been built over decades, centuries even, and only sustained, organized efforts can bring them down. Thankfully, modern tools ensure that bringing them down happens much faster than how long it took to build them, but much work is still required. Which is why I will not drain myself online pursuing and discussing scandal after scandal, attempting to teach sexists and homophobes, or lambasting Kenyan leaders. They are counting on that. Instead, I am working to fight the disease at its roots. To teach younger people (for whom there is still some hope) much better than we were taught. To create better structures for the near (and far) future. To support others in their struggles.
This is not to say that there is no space for teaching others. Write your essays. Create your work. Send forth those wise tweets. Just do not waste any of your precious time validating yourself to the oppressor. Instead, speak to empower your fellow oppressed. That is where the room for empowerment lies. And only once we are empowered can we fight these toxic structures.
I have a bad habit when I, sometimes, meet people who are incorrigible racists. I like to leave them that way. I never do anything to change their mind. I want them to stay just that way. Ignorant. And I take great, great personal and private pleasure every time I run up against one. It never occurs to me to behave another way so they will not think X, Y, or Z. I want them to stay just like that. Always.
The phrase “new year, new me” cannot be said to apply to the year 2015 – for it appears that it will be a continuation, and perhaps a crescendo, of the gross inhumanity we experienced in 2014.
Nigeria has suffered yet another onslaught from the terror group Boko Haram, who have killed an upward of 2,000 people in the town of Baga. Many complained that the attack did not garner nearly enough public attention and outrage, as compared to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in which 17 people, mostly staff members of the magazine, were killed. A young girl (initially thought to be 10-years old) was also strapped up with explosives and released into a busy marketplace in Maiduguri, killing at least 16 people.
Forty world leaders went to France and staged a faux protest for free speech (faux because it was later proven that they were on a barricaded street on their own, as opposed to leading the people’s march as it had originally been thought they would.) Some of these leaders included Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, who killed seven journalists in Gaza in 2014; Foreign Minister Shoukry of Egypt, where journalists from Al Jazeera are still being held for over a year for doing their work; President Keita of Mali, which expels journalists for reporting human rights abuses; The Attorney General of the USA, where atrocities such as the unlawful killing of Mike Brown and Eric Garner happened recently, among others.
The irony here is palpable.
Ngunjiri Wambugu rightly said: Terrorists attack Kenya. European leaders advise their people to avoid Kenya. Terrorists attack France, they go there. These leaders did not issue the travel advisories they normally do when terrorist attacks happen in developing nations. Instead, they went to France and stood “in solidarity” with them. We are still waiting for the same in Nigeria. When asked why there was no public outrage and coverage of Baga on major international news channels, military analyst Major General James Marks said that Boko Haram and Nigeria were not a priority (because they were in black, and not white Africa), which is why even with the power to root them out, the USA has done little. Coupled with how the USA treats its own black citizens, the answer to the question “Do black lives matter?” is a firm no.
Closer home, in a return to the Moi error, Twitter user @ItsMutai was arrested on 17th January at the behest of the Isiolo governor because his tweets on the impunity in the county “caused anxiety” and were a misuse of “licensed telecommunications equipment.” Only after online protest by Kenyans and pursuit of the matter by his lawyer was he released, after being harassed and held against his consent by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).
On 19th January, children from Langata Primary School were tear-gassed by police for protesting against the grabbing of their playground by a greedy Kenyan intending to put up a private development. This is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. On Twitter, defenders of the government have blamed activists, the parents of the children, teachers and even the “bad manners” of the children for this act. The land grabber, however, walks off clean.
- the children showed up
- and the government felt so threatened
- that it showed up, too, with helmets
- and rungus and tear gas.
- and then your eight-year-old was in prison,
- your ten-year old was in hospital
- and you still do not know where your seven-year-old neighbour is.
- how dare you allow your child to defend her humanity,
- the president challenges you,
- as if she came home last week with a permission slip you had to sign.
- as if she doesn’t know for herself the difference between good and this fresh hell.
- but the children keep coming,
- their parents are holding their hands now
- and the president, behind his beautiful doors
- behind his beautiful walls behind his
- beautiful security
- [remember, security starts with you]
- he smiles,
- because he owns all the milk that the people will use to wash the teargas out of their eyes.
One begins to feel overwhelmed by the news of all this injustice. Everywhere. It is a constant onslaught of impunity, unfairness and inhumanity, and it seems to get worse and worse, perhaps because we are all so interconnected now and know what is happening in most parts of the world. All oppression is connected. We are all connected. We are Baga. Some of us are Charlie.
This happens as it is announced that 80 people now own as much as 50% of the world’s poorest. Surely, there must be a correlation between this rising inequality and the violence we have witnessed in the last two weeks. Many scholars attribute the increase in terrorism to political, economic and social injustice. In a simplified explanation, I would say people turn to it when they feel stripped or denied of their rights and their property. When they try to correct actual and perceived social, political and economic wrongs that have been happening for years. In places where people’s voices are taken away from them, and where the public’s participation in governance is denied, people are more likely to resort to violence to make their point. Social injustice and poverty are rallying causes that many are sympathetic to, and they can be used to recruit for exploits that promise reprieve from the current situation. It is easy to see why terrorist organizations such as ISIL, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda have an easy time recruiting.
Unbalanced development and unequal distribution of wealth bring about a sense of frustration and having nothing to lose, which many who commit acts of terror have in common. Poverty is, in fact, the worst form of social injustice. People have limited employment opportunities, and many of those who are employed are overworked for little pay, and even after this, they cannot provide for their families adequately. This feeds into the high levels of crime and terrorism we are witnessing in many developing, and developed nations.
We also need to shed our self-righteous lens when evaluating both local and global terror. As we pay more and more attention to “the war on terror”, we ignore several injustices that occur on Kenyan soil, such as unemployment and the widening of the wage gap, hunger, misogyny, homophobia among others. Minorities, be they religious, tribal or sexual, continue to face systemic violence and discrimination. While this happens, it is impossible for the Kenyan, or any other regime, to stand up against the violations by other states, and to take a morally superior stand, as they are socially unjust as well.
In the same vein, when we look at the definition of terrorism (the use of violence and intimidation over a people so as to instil fear and effect change) we begin to realize that most of the world’s current regimes are terrorist. Several governments are complicit in allowing the oppression of minorities, and acts of terrorism against them. For example, when the USA can act against Boko Haram but chooses not to, it is complicit in their terrorism. When millions of people world over live in fear of violence, with little protection from it, this can also be considered as terrorism.
It then begins to become clear: to fix this mess we have created, we need to undertake radical social justice. Shirin Ebadi said that “Violence begets violence.” As opposed to increasing military expenditure year after year, perhaps as human beings, we need to seriously focus on fixing humanitarian problems. What if we addressed the education problem? We know that prejudice is an offspring of ignorance. What if we diverted funding for war into fighting ignorance and engendering tolerance? Education is key in achieving peace, and would lead to a world in which people respect others’ ways of being as much as their own.
Perhaps, as opposed to focusing on dividing ourselves along national, and other lines, we should focus on making sure that we care about problems that affect people other than ourselves, regardless of their nationality, because in our interconnected world, a problem in Syria very quickly becomes a problem in Kenya. A problem in Kenya equally becomes a problem in China very fast.
As Richard Horton said:
Principles of harm reduction are more realistic and practicable than false notions of a war on terrorism. Attacking hunger, disease, poverty and social exclusion might do more good than air marshals, asylum restrictions and identity cards. Global security will be achieved only by building stable and strong societies.
Human rights, as the name suggests, apply to all human beings, and must be upheld against all odds to ensure our survival as a race. The more we erode them, the less we have to lose. We have got to fight social injustice, no matter how much we feel it does not directly affect us, because all oppression is connected, whether we see it or not.
“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace.
But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, 127.0.0.1 – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
A Greek friend once shared with me the difference between Ancient and Modern Greek; in ancient Greek, words weren’t just words – they carried weight and concepts and whole philosophies behind them.
To use the word sacrifice, for example, one had to call to mind love and pain and tragedy, and in some cases even futility. The purpose of language was twofold, to communicate and to philosophize, to state what you wanted to say and to state your point of view of the world as a whole, physical and metaphysical. Swahili does that sometimes.
It’s not just the home you call home, it’s not your house in the city with your family and friends. Instead, it’s your real home. The one in the countryside, the one that carries gallons of your blood and kilos of your flesh.
The word carries with it a concept designed to combat the alienation and isolation that surely faced the first generation of rural-urban migrants. It told you that there was a real home waiting for you once you went and did what you had to. That first generation had children – children who grew up in the city, children who only knew the city, divorced from the culture of ushago and all that goes with it. Children who felt alienated and isolated there instead of here. But still they used the word ushago, diluting it and changing it, making it false. At least that’s how I feel. I don’t call it ushago, not in my mind at least. My ushago is Nairobi, and Gwassi is where my father was born.
I visited it for the last time two years ago
It’s by the lake, right by Lake Victoria. The mystical source of the great river. There are islands dotted all over. Migingo is a motor boat ride away, there are also a lot of close islands, one of which is Kiwa. There is no ferry to Kiwa. The traffic is not that demanding. Instead there is a boat that fits about thirty and rocks its way there. The boat is nothing special, wood carved to make a hollow that floats on water on the back of which is a motor that pushes it along on those occasions when the wind takes leave of its sails. You sit on these benches five apiece and wait to be taken across. At the beginning of the trip there is sound coming from everyone. The conductor demanding payment, and the people making fun of us city-goers as we cramp in and try in vain to fit. But the lake must be heard, and soon all this noise fades away, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly it ebbs like colour from cloth. A dark hue of noise becomes the white grey of quiet that is only possible near a large body of water. The silence of the wind finds your ears and that silence is one of the most beautiful songs nature can play you. A wealth of age and experience exists in that silence and as if on cue everyone sat quiet to listen and to look.
On the pancake shaped Kiwa we experienced a different lifestyle to even the rest of Gwassi. The twenty acres had a law of its own – as such places seem to. The demarcation between marketplace and domestic zone was purely theoretical. On our way to the only bar we found housewives frying fish just outside their homes in huge pans within smelling distance of the marijuana we could whiff being smoked openly, since the police never come here. We bought fried fish at KES 5, each asked for some salt and went to sit by the shore of the lake and listen some more to that song as we enjoyed our meal
Give it enough time and Lake Victoria turns into the River Nile.
It’s hard to explain the sheer size of the Nile. It’s the second biggest river in the world, a life giver to two of the biggest countries in Africa – but what does this mean? It means it’s huge.
I can remember the first time I saw it flowing through the streets of Cairo. It looks like a lake is finding its way through the city; the waters have millions of little waves in an expanse that takes the space of ten highways. A map of Egypt shows cities built near the river hugging their mother, afraid to let go. The railway runs almost parallel to it since this is where everything is found, and yet it is still impossible to fathom the necessity of this river until you have an aerial view.
In Luxor, we climbed the hill that separates the Valley of the Kings from the temple of Queen Hochipsou. At the top of the hill the land before you is desert and sand. Deserts are bright, the sun bleaches the sand leeching it of all colour so that the assault on your eyes is now twofold, the blaze on top and its reflection below. Suddenly, the desert stops and before you there is lush green, plants and plantations – the power of irrigation. A kilometre passes and there is the Nile, another kilometre, the desert. There is no preparation for the change in colour from white to green and back to white, it just happens. Immediately it’s green, the Nile, green, immediately it’s white.
The night before, we had taken a Nile boat known as a faluka to the other side of Luxor on the promise of a good shisha place. We piled into the boat and the quiet of the water piled into us. I looked out over the water to the millions of little waves frolicking. Calm waters seem to have more waves than turbulent ones. There is no huge show of strength, the kind that takes swimmers back to the shore instead there are millions of little ripples like creases on a cheaply laundered suit. They speak of untold power. A certain wiry strength you find in people who have grown up farming. The Nile tells you of strength and of history. A river that gave rise to Pharaohs and pyramids, to an elaborate 731-god religion, an almost indecipherable language and temples as colossal as the debt Egypt owes this river. Yet it doesn’t shout out its significance, it doesn’t spend its time trying to make you understand its importance. Its lack of assumption is enough.
We got to the other side as the stars sank into complacence, content to twinkle in place till sunrise. We sat down and ordered our shisha. One thing most people will be surprised about when they go to Luxor is the prevalence of hashish. It’s everywhere in every offer as if it’s all tourists do, hashisha [my own term] is also quite common.
Our eclectic group of travellers sat down and got to talking. Pretty soon the conversation turned to the dangers of the Nile, more specifically crocodiles, which in turn led to reminisces of home.
“…actually my brother killed a crocodile in the Amazon. He just went up to it and cut off its head, they’re very lazy after they have been eating and you can just walk up to it and cut off its head. Thwack!” said the Brazilian.
“My father killed a guinea pig by mistake once.” Briton.
“Is this really the time to bring up a dead guinea pig?” Greek.
One thing that happens to many people when they are away from home is that they start to remember it. They conjure up in their heads and in their dreams things about this place that are too bright to be real. If they miss it, they miss it with such passion as you would think they have been expelled from paradise. If they are glad to be away from it, they seem to have escaped a torture chamber. The feelings for this place threaten to eclipse its reality and you find people hunting all over a city for a taste of ugali.
At the same time though, this moment on the Nile, this moment too felt just the way home should. It was comfortable and perfect in itself, a small sliver of my life that just felt right. I wouldn’t say that the Nile was my home but this moment on it was a home for me. We enjoyed it but it was peppered with longing for the places we had come from. Thinking about that night I can’t help but feel a longing for it too.
This is what home means to some people, it’s not just a place but a time in a place. It’s not just this time but the fact that it’s past or in the future. Longing and desire are the walls and the roof of home. It’s not really home unless you’ve lost it or you are working towards it. This is not true for everybody, but at times I feel it is true for me. Home in the strongest sense of the word is an expression of things I lost, home for me too is ushago. David Foster Wallace said it best when he wrote that our endless and impossible journey home is in fact our home.