“and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive”
These are the works that spoke to us the most in 2014. [Click the title, in bold, to go to the respective piece.]
by Olivia Kidula
“The nature of these attacks stems from the entitlement to women’s bodies. For so long women have been viewed as property, extensions of men and not their own independent entities. A woman’s body belongs to her and her alone. For men to strip a woman naked because they disagree on how she dresses is a direct violation of her rights. #MyDressMyChoice has been addressing demanding equal rights to privacy and public safety and debunking ridiculous notions are commonplace in society. However due to the brevity of Twitter posts it has been difficult for the supporters of the hashtag to properly articulate the issues with the opposer’s arguments. Here are some of the arguments that I have observed online and the reasons why they are inaccurate.”
by Keguro Macharia
“On December 19, 2014, Kenya’s president, former ICC indictee Uhuru Kenyatta, signed a very bad piece of legislation into law. Rushed through the National Assembly, the legislation was not subjected to much, if any, public scrutiny…Clearly, Kenya is far from any kind of democracy that depends on persuading others through convincing arguments, the kind of democracy that is much theorized, but nowhere practiced. The president has asked Kenyans to read the legislation. Following his advice, I will post five blogs on different aspects of the legislation: 1. The Police 2. Refugees 3. Citizen Reporting 4. Human Rights 5. Everyday Life …Each post will tackle how this new legislation transforms Kenya into a less free, less possible space.”
by Will This Be A Problem
“We’re big fans of fantasy here at WTBAP. Over the years I’ve talked about the rather inexplicable lack of African fantasy books. The content is really just begging to be written and I know African fantasy readers aren’t rare by any measure. But, somehow, there just isn’t much of it and when there is people tie themselves in knots to not call it fantasy. Magical realism pops up a lot and I’ve even seen Ben Okri’s work called (I’m not even kidding) African Traditional Religion Realism. It’s kind of the overlooked child of African literature. So, the minute we got a chance to make some fantasy we hopped right onto that train (though one could argue that we may have accidentally boarded onto the horror express. Oops). We made the theme for our first issue Fantasy and we got down to work. I think we’ve come up with something special.”
by Morris Kiruga
“Civilian leadership of the military is a principle that must not only be law but must be seen to be done. The capitalization of the entire legal command within the office of the President is meant to ensure that we do not slide into a military dictatorship. The President is bound by democratic principles; primarily that he will not extend the power of the arm of government he heads, the Executive, using his hold on the military command. The Constitution provides the basis of the President as Commander-in-Chief, specifically, a civilian head of the military. Had he been the Chief of Staff of the military, he would have first had to resign from his position to run as a civilian presidential candidate.”
“at a party three weeks ago, someone in the crowd caressed my fully covered breasts and disappeared before i could say anything. my friends explained to me that childbirth had given me an admirable bosom. i went home and chopped off my boobs and bled and bled and bled. my shirts no longer fit me. last weekend, my husband stumbled into our bed piss-drunk and grabbed my butt. i told him to leave me alone, and he said my butt belonged to him. i told him itdid not and he hit me hard across the head. i think i remember our daughter crying. i woke up and felt the pain he had left between my legs. he told me that’s what love felt like sometimes. he did not notice the holes in my chest.”
by David Ndii
“We are investing Sh300 billion or thereabouts in the standard gauge railway. A year of tertiary education costs about Sh300,000. The opportunity cost of the SGR is a million person years of tertiary education (250,000 degrees, or 500,000 diplomas). Which mega-project, the SGR or an additional million person years of tertiary education would have a bigger impact on long term economic growth rate?”
by Aleya Kassam
“It is said your whole life flashes before your eyes in a near death situation. November 26th 2014 is probably the closest I have come to tasting my mortality. And it stank of cheap alcohol. I had just driven home from work that night, and when I opened my car to get out, I was confronted by a shadow with a loud whisper. And a gun. In that moment, it was not the life I have lived that flashed before my eyes, but the life I wanted to live. I saw it all. The kids. The adventures. The book(s). The crows eyes. The bittersweet. The joyful. The falling. The getting up. The mundane. Each not-yet-memory tumbling out with a pang of disappointment at hopes that may never be realised.”
by Patrick Gathara
“Not even our justice system provides a refuge for those whom we have disempowered, including our women. Despite the existence of thousands of survivors and witnesses of the 2008 post-election violence crimes, we are told that there exists no evidence to prosecute any of the offenders. The rules and norms privilege the powerful. Even when we dare prosecute they can afford to tie up their cases in legalistic tape for years on end. They can even secure judgements to stop themselves being investigated! Many times, the presumptions and requirements of the courtroom serve not to protect the innocent but to shield the powerful. Many of the victims, denied justice inside the courtroom, find that outside it, their suffering is itself rendered illegitimate. They are said to have “moved on” or even to have “come out way ahead.””
On Brainstorm, the essays that were most popular were:
by Brenda Wambui
“Money: Almost everything is acceptable as long as it was done “for the hustle”. Whenever you can, steal from your place of work. Do you work at a bank? Steal from your customers. Are you a contractor? Skim. Once you are rich, no one will care how you got your money. They will love you, and pester you with questions on Twitter all day on how they can be like you. Fatten your chicken with ARVs. Use carcinogens to ripen your fruits faster. This same formula can be applied to any business. Brake fluid? Dilute it. Alcohol? A little methanol and formalin don’t hurt. Are you a matatu driver? Drive over kerbs, on pavements and through petrol stations. Some people might die…but that’s none of your business, right?”
by Samira Sawlani
“Somalis in Kenya not only live in fear of terrorists like the rest of the country, they also live in fear of those very agencies meant to protect them. Through “legal looting”, men and women who work hard to feed their families, run businesses which aid the Kenyan economy and largely mind their own business are being exploited. As if this is not enough, they then experience humiliation in police stations, in their homes and on the streets only to find that when they speak out, no one is listening. How many media houses have continuously reported on this? How many public figures came forward to clarify to people what their rights are?”
by Sheila Maingi
“There is an urgent need for us to address the problem of street harassment. We need to stop treating our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends like inferior human beings. As a man, you never have to worry about going to a certain shop because the men who sit outside might make an unwelcome comment. You never have to worry about male colleagues at work- some as old as your father- making inappropriate sexual comments and jokes directed at you. As a man, you’re not constantly in fear of darkness falling while you are away from home because some man on the streets might attack and rape you. When you go to the club, you don’t have to worry about not wearing your favourite skirt because some pervert might slip his hand under it. When taking that taxi home, you never have to worry about the cab driver turning on you. Most women end up having one or two trustworthy cab drivers who they will await for as long as it takes because it is much safer than taking an unknown cab.”
This list is not exhaustive – a lot of great writing happened in Kenya, and about Kenya, in 2014. Which pieces did you like that we did not include? Please share in the comments. From the Brainstorm team: thank you for the contributions, support and criticism this year. We look forward to to growing, thinking, learning and loving with you all in 2015. Happy new year!
On September 5th 2014, Uhuru Kenyatta caused a social media (and traditional media) standstill when he wore army fatigues for the first time in his presidency. All kinds of things were said: he looked “devilishly handsome”, “presidential”, “they fit him much better than his usual suits, he should get this tailor to make his suits”, “look at how cool my president is”, “oh my God you guys see how much swag he has”, and many others. He has done so at least once again since. This is a first for a Kenyan president: his predecessors have only worn their ceremonial Commander-in-Chief attire. As others celebrated, I was just sad, because this was yet another sign that Kenya was going in the direction of countries like the USA: becoming militarized.
Militarization occurs when a society organizes itself for violence and military conflict. It has many aspects: the threats a country thinks it faces, be it from terrorists, neighbouring states and natural resources such as diamonds and oil, will lead a state to wanting to achieve a certain level of military capacity to face these perceived threats. Arbitrary language also points to militarization, such as the “war on terror/drugs”. It is closely related to militarism, which is the military readiness of a state, and includes factors such as maintaining a standing army and actively developing advanced combat techniques and weaponry.
Militarism was a leading cause of World War 1. All over the world, there are conflicts, only varying in size and severity – these constitute militarization, and usually lead to war, when state forces (the police and the military) are actively deployed toward perceived or actual threats, such as resource wars and political wars between nation states, or inter-community clashes within a country. Globally, there has been a rise in militarization in the past two decades, since the end of the Cold War. As budgets for military spending increase, budgets for social goods such as education reduce.
Evidence of this in Kenya is daunting – other than our 2011 entry into Somalia to fight Al Shabaab, we have seen increasing military focus and spending since then, as well as a renewed focus in the militarization of youth through the National Youth Service (NYS). The NYS is a vocational training program for young people run by the Kenyan government. It was established in 1964 to train young people on tasks of national importance, such as service in the armed forces, national reconstruction programmes and disaster response. The NYS’s importance faded in the 1980s, and this renewed focus is supposed to “address insecurity, patriotism and morals” in the youth.
It aims to recruit 21,780 young people per year, up from the current 2,500. These 21,780 youth will then train a total of 227,670 young people across the 47 counties each year within a four to six month duration, after they complete their own training. The aim is to reach 1 million young people in four years and create a “social transformation army”, armed with skills and charged with the responsibility of transforming the other youth.
The recruits will take over traffic control in selected parts of the country and provide security for slum areas and in non-strategic government installations. NYS will also have a security firm where Kenyans can hire NYS guards to protect them. The intention here is to make NYS the alternative to militia groups and vigilantes. It is also to stop the radicalization of the youth by vigilante groups – which have proven to be attractive to jobless youth seeking a purpose for their lives.
I have spoken before on why patriotism as a concept is fallacious, and even dangerous to human beings. The effort being put into the NYS also seems to be as a response to our poor and terribly bureaucratic system of education. Who do these NYS recruitment drives target? People who have traditionally been denied opportunities to complete their 8-4-4 education either due to poverty or living in marginalized areas. Such programmes do not have as high enrolment in affluent, urban areas as they do in less affluent, rural and marginalized areas. This is essentially a resource distribution problem.
Even more dangerous is how such a programme makes a military culture, as opposed to a civilian one, natural. This is escalated by the fact that there is a plan to make the NYS mandatory for all high school leavers. Young people are inducted into the military way of life; its hierarchy. They have uniforms that resemble those of the military; their goal becomes to move up ranks while in the programme, just like in the military. All of these aspects are aimed at creating a militarized mind, such that these recruits, upon leaving the NYS, will feel most at home in the armed forces and likely enroll for military service, perhaps without regard to the hazards that come with the job: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, and other mental health difficulties.
If Kenyan youth need “discipline, morals and patriotism” (I don’t think this is a problem with the youth, if the education and employment system change, this programme will be unnecessary), let us find ways to provide these things, but not through militarized training. Civilian forms of youth development, such as sports, physical education, after school activities, clubs, music and visual arts programmes can achieve this for youth across the country, and even better, can be provided through the current education system should it be streamlined.
As this happens, and our armed forces continue to expand via such fertile recruitment grounds, we may find Kenya more and more predisposed to using military force to solve our problems, both with our neighbours and internally. Perhaps we could have a dispute with our neighbours about the waters of Lake Victoria, for example, and rather than solving it amicably through dialogue, we opt for military intervention just because we have a strong, well equipped army. When a country has a huge military which is well-funded, it will feel inclined to use it to solve all manner of real and imaginary problems – if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. The USA is a great example.
Closer home, since the Westgate attack of September 2013, we have become comfortable with military deployment within our borders. When 48 police officers were killed in Baragoi over what seemed like a cattle rustling dispute, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) were deployed there. Earlier in 2013 during the elections, when eight police officers were killed in Mombasa and Kilifi, KDF were deployed there. When there were clashes in Mandera and Wajir earlier this year and 18 people were killed, KDF was deployed to quell them. Most recently, KDF has been deployed to Kapedo to recover firearms from bandits after 21 police officers were killed there.
Rather than invest in improving the intelligence and police services, the government has opted for the nuclear option: deployment of the military within national borders. This constant reliance on the army to solve domestic problems is a clear sign of the failure of the police service as an institution. And, as we always do in Kenya, rather than fix the institution, we circumvent its failure, only that in this case, the stakes are very high – it’s a matter of life and death. It instills terror into the people living in the area where KDF have been deployed. Military intervention always leaves behind cases of torture, murder and rape, regardless of whether it is within or outside the country. But what is the government to do, you ask?
The paradox of government is thus: can a government be both empowered and constrained? For a government to perform its functions, the people it governs must cede control over some aspects of their lives to it. However, the inherent danger in this is that said government abuses its power and mistreats its citizens. One way in which governments do this is through their monopoly on military force.
The military has a well-defined organizational structure, weaponry and tactical training; as such, it is the ultimate tool of government abuse. Using the threat of force, especially of the violent kind, increases the cost associated with disagreeing with the government, and serves to repress the people. This leads us back to the aforementioned paradox: this force, technically speaking, can be used to protect the people from threats to both themselves and their property. On the other hand, however, it can also be used to trample on the very rights and freedoms it is supposed to protect.
The police are trained to protect and serve the Kenyan public. Even when a person is suspected to have committed a crime, a police officer is expected to continue to treat him/her as just that – a suspect. The police are still expected to protect the rights and freedoms of such people. They are trained to operate within a certain legal framework to solve problems, and to use physical violence as a last resort. This is why we must fix the police service.
On the other hand, members of the military only see two categories of people: “the enemy” and “not the enemy”. When deployed into a community, or region, the people inhabiting this community or region view them as intruders – occupiers. As a result, soldiers then view them as the enemy. Soldiers are also not trained to uphold domestic laws – they are trained for combat with the enemy. They see “the enemy” as a threat to their country, even when they are in their own country. They are out to subdue and/or destroy the enemy at all costs. This is why the military must be deployed within our borders sparingly, if at all.
I am worried when our president, an elected civilian, dons fatigues and goes about smiling as if such days are the best days of his life – considering the aforementioned situations. His comradery with the army is not something that should sit comfortably with Kenyans – it reads to me like a silent message about who is in charge, and who has the backing of the country’s most powerful institution if/when all goes to hell. Perhaps he does it to intimidate his enemies. Perhaps he is sending a warning to Kenyans. Perhaps, and this is very unlikely, he thought nothing of it other than “it would be so cool for me to wear fatigues!” Whatever the reason, he should stop it.
In Africa, countries too easily fall into military control, and once this happens, most times it ends badly for the civilian population. This has been the case in Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, the DRC, Somalia and others. A president wearing military fatigues all too easily evokes the image of a dictator – all we need to do is look at Kenya’s Western neighbours, Uganda and Rwanda, where the presidents occasionally do so. Kagame and Museveni both came to power through armed struggles, and occasionally feel the need to remind their people what they are capable of by donning fatigues. Why must Uhuru Kenyatta do this? Is he planning for an armed struggle within the country? Does he have an alliance with the military for protection against “his enemies”?
We should know that militarization has real, grave consequences: remember, a soldier’s mandate is to terminate the enemy. We must not celebrate when our president wears fatigues, we must question. We need to dig deeper into the NYS, rather than accepting is as a wholesale solution to “the Kenyan youth problem.” We must resist the constant deployment of KDF within our borders. This is a matter of life and death – the more we militarize our country, the more we put ourselves at risk.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Otieno Sumba
The first thing I learnt to climb was a fence, a rickety wooden fence. My friends and I would climb up and jump down all day, and our paper planes flew a lot better when launched from this elevated platform, especially because there were no trees around. Alone, this would hardly have been able to deter intruders, but the fauna that had grown around it was quite restraining. Having had to free my friends from the seemingly endless soft twig clutter on several occasions, I knew. The dry leaves on the ground would rustle loudly when trampled upon, a sound that could be heard adjacent block of flats, acting as a rather cheap but effective alarm system.
This fence had replaced a chain-link fence, which my friends and I had dissected over the years. During the last two play seasons (April and August during the school holidays), Musa, a teenage boy from the neighborhood had developed a new technique for manufacturing his wire toy-cars. While hip-high bamboo steering wheels and plastic mudguards were standard, Musa’s heavy duty cars were said to be able to carry 1 kg packets of Maize flour, and were obtainable at the unbeatable price of 30 bob, provided one brought his/her own raw materials. Straightened wires from chain-link fences in the neighbourhood were preferred. Musa then slit bicycle tubes from questionable sources into rubber bands, which he used to make the tires and to tie the car frame, interior and fittings together. Nobody realized that the chain link fence was gone until the bushes that covered it caved in. Meanwhile, going to the Shops to get maize flour had never been more exciting.
The intruders had long since found their ways around the wooden fence: they were brazen enough to come in through the gate. The red, wrought-iron Gate was flanked by a roofless watchman’s house and stood on slanting wrought-iron pillars.
The chokora mapipa (street kids), curtly called machokosh on the streets, were courteous enough to close the gate as they went in, inconspicuous in their rummaging around in the plot’s trash bins for anything that looked like plastic, ignorant of the flies that frenzied around them, and dutiful in their wielding of gunias (sacks) full of plastics onto their backs on their way out. Occasionally, a house help from one of the houses gave them a packed lunch of leftovers in a tin of Kimbo to eat, hurriedly placing the tin near them and scurrying off, stifling a giggle while the other house helps watched from the windows of the flats they worked in. The unspoken consensus was that the machokosh, despite their stench, were harmless and were therefore tolerated from safe distances. All the house helps would call in the children they were entrusted with when the distinct squeak of the gate was followed by a sack lugging chokosh and only release them to continue playing when a second squeak announced the departure of the said chokosh.
The robbers also found their way in. Like the machokosh, through the gate. Unlike them, at night, and they were less interested in the trash, and much more in the blue Audi saloon that was always parked at the far left corner of the yard. KPLC (Kenya Power and Lighting Company), having conspired to let us sit in the dark for a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday night, offered them a great opportunity to sneak in. Even the gate, which normally would squeak when opened, did not squeak that night. It is still a matter of contention as to whether or not the robbers lubricated it beforehand.
The pastor who lived in the ground floor flat in front of which the Audi was parked, swore he had a revelation that compelled him to look outside his bedroom, upon which he spotted the gang and raised alarm. By the grace of God he was still alive, never mind that the “gun toting gangsters” were not toting anything. The theft was botched and God thanked. Five years on, a self- proclaimed bishop, he was still giving this testimony, to the delight of his growing congregation at Praise International Ministries, some of whom had been attracted by this very testimony.
The second thing I learned to climb was a wall. It was more challenging than climbing the wooden fence, and more dangerous. Over two metres high, there was no getting over the wall without assistance. Friends’ shoulders and heads served well at the beginning, until we learned how to hug the wooden mast that hoisted the telephone wires and wriggle our way up, to the delight of our onlooking friends.
Playing on this wall was dangerous. At the top, it was lined with broken glass: bottles of Stoney Tangawizi, Coke and Sprite had been destroyed specifically for this purpose. Within a month, we had knocked off the glass over a stretch of a metre, so that two of us could stand side by side on top of the fence. Our newspaper jets flew even farther. We jumped down from the wall with open umbrellas hoping to glide, and when that failed, we tied stones to rectangular plastic bags, crumpled them together, then threw them from the wall and watched them glide as they descended, imagining ourselves as the stones. It was a blissful childhood, within the walls.
Outside the walls, our parents required us to walk to school in as straight a line as possible; no unnecessary turns, no stops to play, no stealing guavas over the hedge from a neighbour’s tree – and woe unto us if we talked to a strangers. Rogue drivers and crossing roads were the least of our parents’ worries. It was the thuggery “out there” that they were worried about: the kidnappers, thieves and what not. Soon, we had a carpool with our next door neighbour’s kids, and the following year, my school bought a bus whose services we were enlisted to.
We were picked up and dropped off every morning and evening respectively, each child was handed to a waiting brother, sister, house help or parent personally by the driver. If the brother, sister, house help or parent was late, the engine was put off and one of the older pupils was shown where the child in question lived. He was then duly instructed to deliver the child to his/her doorstep. Only then did the engine come on again.
When I got robbed, I did not tell my mother. Fresh out of primary school, I needed my freedom of movement, especially now that my curfew had been extended by two hours to 7 pm. This was unnecessary, since I would have come in to listen to the Top 7 at 7 radio show on Kiss 100 anyway. On my way home from buying meat one afternoon, I was intercepted by an angry looking chokosh on a path through an open field that I had chosen to take since it was shorter and less dusty than the parched murram road that connected to the main street that led to my house.
He lamented angrily about me being one of those “watoto wa wadosi” while forcefully searching and emptying my left, then right, pockets of my Champion sports trousers. Though scared, I managed to secure 50 bob of my pocket money in my back pocket with my left hand, which I later combined with another 50 bob (from my savings of 250 bob) to give my mother her change back.
In retrospect, this was my first adult decision, handling an instance of insecurity by myself. It could have been worse. I could have been beaten, stripped of my clothes or smeared with human scat. Kenyan life is transcended by measures against intrusion, Kenya being one of the few countries in the world where gated communities of various forms are not exclusively a preserve of the rich.
Secure living means living in a walled environment. While gated living may be attractive for reasons that are not limited to security such as amenities, reliable water and electricity supply, solid infrastructure, landscaping and community, for a majority of Kenyans, gated living is a choice that stems from security concerns. While the government is mostly to blame for failing to provide security for its citizens, walling and gating is hardly a solution to the problem. It is a band-aid solution – a reaction to our perceptions of a social problem rather than to the problem itself. Insecurity in Kenya is not the problem, it is a symptom.
In essence, only the poor have the “luxury” of living in “freedom” in Kenya. Slums and poorer neighbourhoods are sprawling and open, while everybody else is walled and locked up, busy creating an adjusted form of social reality – a perfect tiny world where crime and violence do not exist. The more one has, the higher the walls need to be surrounding it. The haves are afraid. Afraid of the day the have-nots will come and demand redistribution (I’ll save the Marxist arguments for another day). For example, for the chokosh who robbed me, I was rich simply because he presumed I lived behind a wall, and while I do not condone his actions I also do not, and cannot, blame him.
We have failed to create a society in which everybody belongs. Enclaves of prosperity by default physically segregate non-prosperous people. The receptiveness for the prosperity gospel preached in our religious institutions does not help matters either. When confronted with these facts, anybody will say that wanting to live in relative safety is a natural thing. Indeed it is, but what is often forgotten is that human beings are social beings, and they compare themselves with others in their environment.
It is therefore natural to want to have what your neighbours, friends or compatriots have, especially if your vicinity is shared. Walls in Kenya try to deny this immediate vicinity, with every slum bordering a “leafy suburb”, as the enclaves of the well-to-do have come to be known. If poor Kenyans have no other way of accessing the wealth that is flaunted to them every day by well-to-do Kenyans, the walls,no matter how high, will not prevent them from wanting it, yearning for it, taking it, or at least trying to.
And so young Kenyans will continue to die. Their bullet ridden bodies will be strewn on the street, again reaffirming the cheapness of African life, and their blood will seep into the soil after yet another botched robbery. Well-to-do Kenyans will commend the police for fighting “insecurity”; for shooting young men in the head without the slightest chance of fair trial, even when they were on their knees, their hands high up in the air in desperate surrender. Pictures of their lifeless bodies will be leaked on social media, captioned “Look at these lazy, sleazy school dropouts who don’t want to work hard for their money and to eat their sweat like honest and hard-working Kenyans!” and liked, shared, retweeted and favourited.
The truth is they did. They worked hard. They worked to build the fence around a villa in which their mothers cleaned, and their brothers tended lawns for 200 bob a day, just like their fathers before them. They worked hard for money that was not enough to take them through school, so they dropped out and looked for menial work to supplement their families’ income. They saw the wealth that they would never earn if they built a wall every day for the rest of their lives.
Peer pressure mounted from age-mates, who had earned a quick bob doing untaxed, illegal “labour” – who were trying to make life for their families worth living. Pressure mounted from their families, who asked them why they couldn’t be more like Jose, the neighbour’s boy who had dropped out of school the same time last year and who, recently, had bought his parents a new sofa set. With each day they hesitated, a younger sibling dropped out of school, a mother needed medication for her broken back, and food for the following day had to be bought.
They gave in, but were not too lucky.
Otieno Sumba is a BA student of Political Science and Sociology who finds fascination in the Akan Empire and African (sage) Philosophy. He reads, rides his Fixie, skates, attends film festivals and dissects Development Aid in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @_Otieno_
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
In the dead of the night, two groups methodically approached the small serene police station. The outer wall of the station had seen better, cleaner days. Its dark blue and white paint had been peeling for years, and the little of the police crest that was left was now indiscernible. Tonight, it would get a shade of red.
The leading group wielded traditional weapons such as knives, and bows and arrows. It was both the decoy and assault group and it would, by the end of this first attack, have traded its rudimentary weapons for something with a greater punch. The second group kept a distance, with each of its members carrying a gun to cover the first group’s activities. As the first group entered the open police station door, the police officer on duty yawned, groggily registering the ragtag militia of young men coming his way. They must be bringing in a thief or something, he thought. It had been a quiet year. The last time anything big had ever happened was five years prior, and the local police station had remained untouched. To the young officer at the Occurrence Book (OB) desk, this was just as any other night.
Only that it wasn’t. The small group of visitors suddenly turned vicious, attacking the police officer and his two colleagues. They approached the armoury, their main object of interest, while the second group outside returned fire to a few officers who responded to the call for help.
For neighbours of the police station, what was weird about that dark night in Likoni was the fire that engulfed their beacon of hope. The Kenyan Police Service, albeit notoriously lax and underfunded, is still better than nothing. They provide some semblance of order when they want to, and when they can (although they are more likely to come in the morning to collect your corpse than to come in the dead of the night to rescue you). But tonight, the protector was burning, and all hope was lost.
As if cloned, a similar group of attackers, organized in the same way, was attacking a small police post at the ferry. At the same time. It was a night to be remembered, and for the young Digo men who formed this two cadres, it was the first of many nights of war and blood. As the police station and post fell, and screams filled the night, the attackers filled their own armoury and grew in strength and firepower.
Before long, they turned their sights on their primary targets, the civilian population. They had a specific profile for their victims, and they knew who they wanted to slaughter to terrorize those who were lucky enough to survive. For those victims, even police presence would have done little to save them but their absence, with six casualties by midnight of that night, made the already grim situation much worse. It was a bloody night in as the attackers ran rampage, killing hundreds in their eight-hour spree. They faced little resistance, except from the few brave men and women who lifted a panga or a rock to defend their families. Or the few young men who tried to save their own lives. Those died the most brutal deaths. By first light they had disappeared.
This cold night marked the first of many in that cold August. It was the beginning of the slaughter of ‘outside’ tribes in areas around Likoni, and it spread faster than anyone wanted to mount a response. Those who died became numbers on a Red Cross list, at least those who had relatives and friends who cared to look for them. Others were lost forever in the melee of the massacres and murders that would define the next three months.
The events of the night of 13th August 1997 seem eerily similar to those of the Mpeketoni attacks in 2014. The same ethnic profiling defined the victimology, and it was clear that the attackers were not just random spontaneous assailants. They had been funded, trained and fed by someone, or a group of people, and went on to fulfil their part of the bargain. Such planning always leaves a trail that should be easy to follow, as was the case in 1997 when an unassuming diary of the planning stages was found. Its contents bore details that revealed just how organized the group was, as has been almost every other group of attackers before and after that.
As has become common in the days since the first six people, all officers, died in Likoni in that election year, thugs and assassins have become more and more daring. The firepower is also getting better as terror organisations connect with home-grown terrorists, making the situation even worse.
The problem with Likoni is that it shows the lack of proper response services in the country. One might justify the fact that the police response was slowed down by just how quick and brutally efficient, and strategically genius, the first attacks were. There was no time to make radio calls, and hence, the world remained in the dark for eight hours as civilians and police officers died. But Westgate and Mpeketoni tell a different story.
In one of the security camera clippings featured in a recent HBO documentary on the Westgate attack, the four attackers seemed lost on what else to do. It takes a keen eye to notice the immediate lack of direction before they go back to their spree. In launching such a blatant attack in an opulent urban area, they had anticipated a full attack within the first few hours. It is likely that all they needed was an hour to do their damage but in the structural failures that would follow, they got at least two days. They had not surprised the security forces as the Kaya Bombo raiders did in 1997, yet for the first two and a half hours they experienced little resistance from the few officers and armed civilians who jumped into the melee on their own accord.
In Mpeketoni, news leaked out that the intelligence services had warned the security services days prior to the massacres. The police seemed not only complacent but also part conspiratory as they redirected traffic and went missing as the attackers turned the settlements into killing fields. They did the same thing the next day, as happened on the night of 14th August 1997 in Kaya Bombo, and then spread out their attacks into other smaller ones. Terror, it seems, has been winning all this time.
The problem is part police and part societal. The Kenyan way of handling everything, including insecurity at such a grim level, is to make do where the government fails. The answer to rampant insecurity is not demands for heightened police presence, for example, but the coming together of neighbours to hire security companies and Maasai guards. The private sector, both formal and informal, thus thrives in the government’s ineptitude, yet the masses for whom public services are meant cannot afford the comfort of making such decisions.
On the part of the police, the problem is multifaceted. While the organisation problems such as low pay and bad working conditions are common knowledge, there is a general institutional lethargy that bedevils the entire Kenyan public security system. Mix this up with organisational rivalry that exists between its different wings and you have a recipe for chaos, where the bullets of terrorists will continue mowing down Kenyans as security bosses decide who has the mandate to shoot back.
Consider Westgate, one of the most recent examples, where the media frenzy around the four-day attack allowed the country to see its police and army soldiers jostling for control and jurisdiction. That rivalry cost at least three lives, one of a General Service Unit (GSU) commander, and at least two soldiers who were shot in retaliation. It should have been a revelation that the rivalry was not a mere joke anymore but one that had gone to the extent of an internal war.
What it showed was a Mafia-like unspoken rivalry between the forces meant to protect Kenyans, both from themselves and from outsiders. Within the typical Mafia organisation, a murder must be avenged for there to be any forgiveness. Every cartel has its own territory, and breaching such territory is a declaration of war for which assassins will get paid to clean out the competition. Such competition exists in all spheres of life, although not all of them are marked with bullets and combat gear. They are what we have come to expect of drug gangs and Mafia organisations but not from security organisations.
The question of who should protect the country should be a fairly easy question to answer. It is not one that a civilian should even be expected to contemplate as terrorists aim to maim him or her. As a law-abiding, tax-paying, peaceable civilian, one’s right to life should be more than guaranteed. The social contract that drives this relationship demands that the civilian population only cede its rights to the government on the primary promise of security. If that promise is breached due to one reason or the other, such as foolhardy competition or incompetence, the contract should be assessed. But the Kenyan civilian population has grown numb to pain.
When the bullets rang in the air and the machetes were sharpened in Tana River, over 100,000 people had to flee their homes to survive. The terror that spread as each night approached meant that little or no work got done and the local economy suffered. In what often seems like a peaceful country, 0.25 percent of the population could not sleep at night for fear of attacks. The rest of the country, numbed by decades of rampant attacks, discussed the issue for a few days and then moved on to the next big issue.
Such has become the only way the national psyche can handle death and drama. Our legendary amnesia has moved from being a behavioural reaction to being ingrained in our social DNA. Within it has emerged a disconnect from the subject, and an acceptance for the government’s ineptitude as its unchangeable character.
As part of society, the ability to forget even the greatest of pain is actually derived from the pre-colonial era, although it is during the colonial era that people learnt to flinch when the needle pricked but say nothing about the jab in the days to come. It was necessary to forget. To accept and move on.
With Kaya Bombo in 1997, a flurry of calls to bring the obvious political influences to book followed. Investigations included a commission of inquiry which, spurred on by international organisations and other pressures, was one of the most efficient in the country. Of course few, if any, of the actionable points in the report were ever read even a second time. With Westgate, an attack on the higher income classes mostly, a new sort of silence followed. One year after the attacks, no such inquiry has ever been done, and the event seems to have been accepted as a disaster. Not a disaster that could have been prevented, or even stopped in its tracks within hours, but one that happened. The numbness to traumatic acts of public murder that now defines our social nature is frightening.
For societies to grow and develop, history shows, they have to be highly efficient and forward-looking. One of the ways to do this is to redefine the security parameters in such a way as to ensure that the farmers beyond the castle walls have access to the castle walls. Without them, the country burns and the Lord of the castle will starve and die with his nobles. Since an economy is essentially an ecosystem, each limb and organ must do its part for the entire system to be complete. Numbness denotes lethargy first, but the apathy of Kenyans towards their own security is not only a death warrant, but a shaky hand on the crystal ball.
The Russian mass murderer, Josef Stalin, once quipped that the death of one is a tragedy, and the death of a million is merely a statistic. He had a point, that until the death of each human being is considered a tragedy, it is impossible for mass murder to ever be anything more than a statistic.
In Kenya, at a different time and place, the likelihood that the next answer to a knock on the door may be your last is the harrowing possibility you have to live with. Even worse, that once the obituary page has yellowed and the mound of soil on your grave has flattened, and the flowers withered as the termites gnaw away the cross, your death will have taught us nothing, and will have meant nothing.
Morris Kiruga is a writer, blogger and researcher.
For as long as I can remember, there has always been conversation about development on the African continent, where the terms “African Development” and “Development in Africa” were used interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. I believe that the two are completely different concepts, distinguished mainly by their drivers, and consequently, the depth and breadth of outreach and transformation.
African Development is an old, pre-colonial concept, one characterized by economy with a conscious: its politics are ideological and consultative, not selective and purely exploitative. It is void of pure self-interest and uncontrolled greed, where destitution is a cause for shame, not another money-making venture. Its basic ethos are founded on community and the common good.
This concept ensures that the family, as the basic unit of a society, is founded on service and responsibility. Selfishness is frowned upon and evil doers get ostracised, not celebrated. African Development is driven by the people, for the people – those who know where the shoe pinches and exactly how adjustments should be made to ease the pain. Its success lies in home-grown solutions, not third-party prescriptions with a high risk of misdiagnosis.
Times change and adaptability is key, but so is the sense of responsibility especially if one holds a position of authority. With great power comes great responsibility, but in the world today, Sub-Saharan Africa especially, this has been turned into a hard task of ensuring that a minority continue to prosper as the powerless majority wallows in poverty and an unnecessarily difficult life. It is therefore important that as Africans, we revisit our sense of responsibility; to understand that one lives not for themselves, but for others. We need to revive our sense of collective action – community. We are certainly vocal on social media, but clicktivism without dedicated action plans does nothing to change the status quo and effect change.
We are so caught up in making our life better that we forget that one can only be great if the environment they are in supports greatness. How is one supposed to pursue greatness in an environment where insecurity continues to be a concern? An environment where the oppressed have no option but to disrupt the peace, for example by committing robbery, just to fend for themselves. An environment where they often resort to violence as a way of highlighting their plight, for example the constant protests by hawkers in Nairobi. We choose to overlook these disruptions as a cry for help – a cry for visibility.
Development in Africa, on the other hand, is a colonial concept. One characterized by re-written narratives that will continue to plague us even after we have cut down all our forests and replaced them with malls and skyscrapers. It is the birthright of capitalism: borderless economies, and modernity without progress in humanity.
A foreign construct of the politics of progress, Development in Africa is a comparative disorder of Africa versus the others – those at the core of the current world order – whether you prefer to call them the West or the Global North, and the new world order.
It is a phenomenon driven by a tyranny of experts and their warped sense of solidarity with us. This is why the Bretton Woods institutions will not acknowledge the failure of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), but are instead quick to provide alternative development policy frameworks. Frameworks that our leaders will, thanks to their short-sightedness and having greed-bones where their backbones should be, agree to. Frameworks that work hard to ensure that even our nth descendants will be born into massive debt.
Development in Africa has introduced an “otherness” to relationships between economies, the “Global North” vs the “Global South”, that only worsens our situation. Its warped sense of solidarity and responsibility is founded on the premise that we can only be of help to others if our realities are absolutely contrasted. This responsibility continuously seeks validation for existence, and is deeply founded on inequality as the path to seeking equality – it stems from the realization of just how different we are from the “others”. Development in Africa basically institutionalizes our failures, and we do little to change the narrative. If anything, we have become co-authors of our failure, both in action and words. We distance ourselves from the institutions we have created, the leaders we have elected, and the shame they have become – the shame that is in all ways our shame.
Yes, we are working to re-write our stories: we call out foreign media houses when they misrepresent us, and headlines/stories are changed. This happens a little too often, though. Why is that so? Perhaps they don’t particularly take us seriously, however, we don’t take ourselves too seriously either. We continue to consume their political propaganda and their expression of reality, and that is why we continue to see each other as different. This leads to our children growing up without a shred of responsibility to others, and to a great extent, over themselves.
African Development is about celebrating our strengths and doing our best to reverse the shameful narratives. We have lost this in the wave of Development in Africa, where shame forms the epicentre of intervention, and our strengths as a people are conveniently ignored most of the time. Development has in itself become a business unit, this is why the development sector continues to expand, yet there is an apparent lack of sincerity to actually meet the development needs.
If we are to be truly honest with ourselves, the only development needs the world should be faced with today are emergency responses to natural disasters and outbreaks, such as the current Ebola one. We should be past children dying of malnutrition, maternal mortality and recurrent droughts – routine problems if I may term them such.
This can happen, and it has happened not only in certain European countries, but in an African country as well – Libya (with Rwanda hot on its heels). The case of Libya however presents a classic example of the difference between the two development discourses, and the effect of buying into foreign definitions of what it means to be truly developed. Libyans enjoyed free education and healthcare, and regardless of what others might argue, human development.
However, Libya today is a testament to what happens when democracy as a key factor in Development in Africa, is used to thwart all efforts towards achieving African Development. I have nothing against democracy but as in all things, the difference lies in how the “purpose” is pursued.
Until we as citizens take the reins back, until our leaders selfishly guard our interests and realise that to truly be a ‘life president/leader’, you must have the common good at heart, Africa will continue to be plagued by routine problems such as drought and high mortality rates, regardless of our vast resources – both natural and human. It is all about what and who drives us.
This is what terrifies me: one day, we’ll wake up and find that all of the stories are gone.
Let me explain.
I find myself thinking more about endings as I grow older. Of late, I’ve been thinking specifically about what comes after the end. Not in the sense of what comes in the afterlife – although I have been compiling a list of questions to ask God when I meet him/her/them – but more, what do we leave behind us when we are gone? Some people might call this a legacy. I’m going to call it the stories we leave behind.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed something else about growing older, which is that the older people in my life become more expressive, more open to sharing the stories of their childhood and their past as both of us grow older. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not speak with us much when we were children. When she did, she was usually shouting at us for doing something that we shouldn’t be doing (which happened often). But something really cool seems to have happened since I turned 20 – nowadays she wants to tell me about her life. Like, really tell me. Not in a way that’s an attempt at giving me advice, but as if she’s honestly sharing her own past. I’d like to hope that it is therapeutic for her to let out some of these thoughts, memories and feelings.
The last time we talked, she told me about what it was like to live during the State of Emergency in colonial Kenya. She described to me the way that young boys, their only crime being the fact that they were Kikuyu, would be rounded up, tortured, taken to prison; killed. At this point in the story, my young cousin, who’s about seven years old, was playing close to her feet. My Cucu pointed to him and said: They would kill boys as young as him.
I grew up treating history as something that was far removed from me: notes we read off of Social Studies textbooks for the sake of memorizing years, passing exams. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I ever “felt” the impact of history. I mean, sure, at the back of my mind I knew that the story of colonialism featured in my life history in the sense that I am a descendant of people who survived it, but the actual effect felt so distant from my existence in Nairobi. I used to think: Yes, colonialism happened, but it’s all in the past now. We’re all right. We got independence. We survived it.
My grandparents survived colonialism. They lived to have children and grandchildren. They were strong and hardworking people who believed in God and in the promise of education. But surviving does not mean that everything that happened is finished and done, it just means that we pick the pieces together and we learn to carry all of the pain, the fear and the memories in a way that’s dignified and socially acceptable.
Think about it: when you fall in love and lose that love, it changes you as a person. You can’t go back to who you were before, because you now carry the lessons gained from the relationship. So, too, we cannot just be done with colonialism. We continue to carry it within ourselves, in the systems of government and of law of our nation, in the languages that we use to communicate with one another, in the fact that our country is shaped like an uneven swimming costume.
Warsan Shire writes about maps and bodies and pain. In this one poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” she talks about receiving the news that someone burnt down her aunt’s house. She ends the poem with these words: “later that night/ I held an atlas on my lap/ ran my hands across the whole world/ and whispered: where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere”.
When I first read this poem, I thought that she was just talking about the fact that there’s so much pain and conflict in this world. But when I read it again a few weeks ago, I saw something different. I thought of the very idea of the map, the very existence of countries that are shaped a certain way, the fact that boundaries do not just come into being, they are negotiated and renegotiated with the use of force. And the names of countries and continents– Chimamanda Adichie says this: “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
Pain is embedded in the geography of our land and of our identity. So when Warsan Shire says “everywhere/everywhere/everywhere”, it could be that she’s talking not just about the geographical existence of pain, but to the fact that it has been there in the past, in the present and in the future, and to the fact that it’s contained in all of us.
I am Kenyan. I am African. I claim my heritage with a sense of pride and of passion because to me, being Kenyan does not just mean simply existing in the boundaries of this state: it means identifying with a certain story, a certain set of stories (not everyone feels this way, and that is completely valid). But in claiming my Kenyanness and Africanness in an article I’ve written in English, I need to also acknowledge that there’s a history behind how all of these things came to be a part of me.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a friend, and I were looking at the different exhibits and she pointed out something that I’ve never really paid attention to: when you walk in a museum, there are those pieces of art that have a name attached to them “Art by Rembrandt Harmesz. van Rijn”, and there are those that are simply presented as “Art by the Congo People”. So, too, “1,200 people have died of Ebola in Africa” versus “Keith Brantly” and “Sarah Writebol”.
Chimamanda Adichie, again, puts it aptly: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
There’s a moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Christina Yang is speaking about her ex fiance Burke, and she says that when she was with him, he took so many pieces of her that she lost herself. Violence and wars, even when they are finished, take away pieces of us. And this is why I am so terrified about us losing our stories: when history stops being something that we can relate with, when it becomes reduced to a thing that happened many years ago that we read about briefly in our text books so that we can pass our exams, then we lose pieces of ourselves. And one of the things that we lose is the ability to know where it is that our pain and our beauty come from.
This is my fear: that one day, we will have lost so many pieces of ourselves that there will be nothing left.
But maybe that’s not how it ends. Maybe, before that day comes, we speak with one another. We ask for the stories. Like, really ask, not for exams, not so we can win debates, not so we can know how to make money, but so that we can understand each other and our world better. We ask the people around us, “Hey, tell me a story?”. Our friends, loved ones, grandparents, great grandparents, even and especially those people with whom we disagree most vehemently.
I think you could call this hope: this thinking that maybe, asking for and sharing our stories could be the thing that saves us.
From Wednesday 18th June to Friday 20th June 2014, I got to experience life in Kakuma, at the refugee camp. A couple of bloggers and I went there courtesy of UNHCR to commemorate World Refugee Day, and each day, we had opportunities to interact with the host community, the Turkana, and the refugees, who are of more than 13 nationalities, and are about 150,000 at the moment.
Every morning, between 8 – 9 am, a lorry would arrive full of people displaced from their home countries, and they would head to the UNHCR offices to register themselves. Many of these people spoke English, and one could tell they were well-educated. Each day, we went into the camps and interact with the refugees. They told us stories of their countries, some like Somalia which have not known peace for over two decades, others like South Sudan which had earned a fresh start, only to throw it all in the wind and return to where they started.
The camp was hot and dusty, and a majority of the structures were made of either mabati (corrugated iron sheets) or mud (bricks). We heard stories of journalists from Ethiopia having to run away because they published stories the regime did not approve of. One such man was now making a living constructing bottle brick housing for people in the camps. There was a principal of one of the schools on the camp, who had come to Kenya as one of the first South Sudanese refugees, studied here and made a life for himself. Once South Sudan attained independence, he and many others went back, only to return to Kenya and have to start from scratch as refugees because of the infighting in South Sudan.
We heard stories of fights between the Turkana and the refugees, over firewood, water and other resources. The Turkana were resentful of the refugees because they received these things from humanitarian organizations while the Turkana had to go out and look, while the refugees insisted that they did not receive enough, thus they had to venture into Turkana territory. The Turkana complained of their children being like chokoraa (homeless/street children), not being allowed to study at the schools for refugees, and even having to work in the camps to eke out a living. There were frequent battles inside the camp that leave people dead, with the disagreements usually boiling down to cultural differences.
On World Refugee Day, a government official working with the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) had the gall to say that “There is no pride in being a refugee,” as he spoke of initiatives the Kenyan government was involved in to better their lives. On a day meant to celebrate these brave human beings, he decided to put them down.
When one’s country has imploded and you have been forced to run away, trading your valuable iPad, smart phone and everything else you have to your name to gain passage across the border, is there time for pride? When one has come from being a senior manager at a company to operating a boda boda (motor cycle) in Kakuma refugee camp for a living, what happens to their pride?
Yet it seems that many of us are as insensitive and idiotic as this government official. We do not imagine that a time could come when we could be seeking refuge in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda because our political situation got out of hand. That we may have to trade our cars, laptops, smartphones and other comforts in order to gain safe passage across the border. That we would then be packed like cattle, in a lorry, and ferried to safety, and once there, no amount of “pride” and “Do you know who I am? I am on the fast track to partnership at my firm!” would save us from our new reality: that we have burned our country, and that we are refugees.
This possibility has never seemed more real to me, especially after this trip.
We have already managed to displace people in their own country severally. An internally displaced person is a refugee in his/her own country. They rely on humanitarian aid, and experience the same troubles in the camps set up for them as external refugees do, including friction with the host community. It must be jarring to imagine that your own country would do this to you. Yet Kenya keeps doing it. As at January 2008, 404,000 people had been displaced from their homes as a result of post-election violence. Let us not forget those displaced by drought, floods and inter-community clashes.
Monday 7th July 2014 marked yet another Saba Saba Day. This is a historically important day for Kenya. In 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called for a protest against Daniel Arap Moi, and the one party state system. Moi’s government responded by arresting them, Raila Odinga, George Anyona and others. However, Rev. Timothy Njoya, James Orengo, Martin Shikuku among others led a rally at Kamukunji Stadium, which ended with the protestors being attacked by security forces and KANU insisting that multi-party democracy would lead to violence and friction along tribal lines.
This act of civil disobedience led to the birth of the multi-party democracy we enjoy (or suffer under) today, along with relative press and other freedoms. However, when one surveys the internet today, civil disobedience is portrayed in a negative light, with every other Kenyan and their grandparents posting messages like “Let us be peaceful and not fight. Let us love one another…” One cannot help but notice the fear and potential chaos bubbling under these messages. We have a government that has all but failed to protect us, security personnel who do not take their jobs seriously, and a president who barely seems to care. People have every right to be furious, in fact, it is insane not to be. Our problem tends to be that we take this furiousness personally, as if we have been attacked as individuals, just because we share a tribe with the person/people under fire. The worst part is how we never seem to learn.
We come close to burning our country every so often, for example, on 19th June 2014, leaflets were distributed in Rift Valley asking all Luos to vacate or be attacked. This is the same idiocy that led us the 2007/08 post-election violence. When Kenya is attacked by terrorists, we oppress Somalis and put them in a concentration camp. When people are killed in Mpeketoni and Al Shabaab takes responsibility, our president comes out and denies that it was them and instead blames the opposition, leading to idiotic Kenyans attacking their neighbours because they come from opposition strongholds. In all this, it is we the people who suffer, who die, yet we continue to propagate the same stupidity over and over, somehow convinced it will yield different results. Perhaps we are a nation of idiots, and we deserve each other.
We need to understand that our problems are endemic, and of a much deeper nature, and “cleansing” the country of one ethnic group or the other will not solve them. Poverty and corruption are not by-products of ethnicity, they are born of greed and lawlessness. We need to abandon this constant state of fear and chaos, which has been used time and time again to keep us in check.
There are only two tribes in Kenya: the haves and the have-nots, and this constant ethnic tension and chaos ensures that the demarcations between those two groups remain, and that few cross over from one to the other. We are at a very important place in our democratic journey as a country: the true shambolic nature of our government is clear for all to see. We have a constitution that gives us recourse on what to do, let us not be afraid of our constitutional rights and powers as citizens, and hold our leaders to account.
Democracy is government of the people BY THE PEOPLE for the people, yet we always forget that little part – by the people. It gives citizens great power compared to many other systems of government, but this power comes with great responsibility. The work of change is hard, as our heroes Rubia, Matiba, Odinga, Anyona, Njoya, Wamwere, Shikuku and others would attest. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult, but it must be done. Once we confront the fact that our attitudes are flawed, and our leaders are hopelessly inept, we will have made the first step to recovery. Your neighbour’s tribe has nothing to do with your poverty. In fact, your neighbour is likely as poor as you are. What has her tribe done for her lately? Does it put food on her table? That is unlikely, which is why it is foolish of us to even allow ourselves to be pulled into ethnic violence.
I believe in market forces – demand and supply. I also believe that demand is a much more powerful force than supply. If we demand better leaders, and behave as we demand them to behave, the supply side (i.e. the leaders) will have to acquiesce. We will get what we work for, but we must first work. The next time there is an election, do the right thing. Vote on principle, not based on your tribe. Stand up against injustices, do not be afraid. The work of liberation has never been easy, but it is worth it. The first step is to liberate our minds. Otherwise, we are steadily on our way to joining Somalia, South Sudan and other war-torn countries in their crises, and I would hate for us to go that way.
“Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They’ll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society – how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.”
It is easy to think of poverty as a thing that once solved, will lead to unending human prosperity. We just need to find its source and cut it off. Only that poverty has several causes, and once you begin to think about it, it begins to seem like a hydra: when you cut off one head (i.e. when you solve one cause), two more grow in its place. It is exceptionally complicated.
Since money has become the key measure for human well-being, and a human being’s wealth and subsequent value is measured by how much money s/he has, one is considered to be in a state of absolute poverty if s/he lives below $1.25 a day. Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. A person living on this amount of money is unable to access the aforementioned goods and services, and his/her human dignity is undermined.
Poverty is also measured relatively, and this is where studies on income inequality come in. This way of looking at poverty applies social context. The Gini Coefficient measures inequality among values within a frequency distribution, in this case, inequality of income. A Gini coefficient of zero represents income equality, while one of 100% represents a situation where one person has all the income. As at 2005, the World Bank put Kenya’s Gini coefficient before taxes and transfers at 47.7%, while the CIA put it at 42.5% in 2008. For comparison, the global Gini coefficient lies between 61% – 68%. The world’s income Gini coefficient has increased from 43% in 1820 to 68% in 2005. There is no doubt that relative poverty is on the rise. It has been made worse in most countries by both the economic crisis of 2008, and climate change.
There are several theories that attempt to explain poverty. The two major schools of thought are cultural theories and structural theories. Cultural theories blame poverty on the traits of the poor. These theories assert that it is the behavioural patterns and attitudes of the poor which prevent them from being socially mobile. On the other hand, structural theories blame poverty on the conditions in which the poor live: poor education, poor health, poor housing, unemployment, underemployment among others. The distinctive traits of the poor at the heart of cultural theorists’ explanations as to why people are poor are, to structural theorists, reactions or adaptations to the structural conditions the poor live under.
Poverty is more than just an income deficit. Because of this income deficit, poor people are unable to make choices or take advantage of opportunities that would enable them to live long lives with a high standard of living, human dignity and respect from others. Poor people do not live how they do because they want to – it is because of the lack of opportunities to improve their lives. This is why I strongly disagree with cultural theories of poverty, and lean towards structural theories of poverty.
Oscar Lewis, a cultural theorist, coined the term “culture of poverty” in his 1961 book The Children of Sanchez. Lewis based his thesis on his ethnographic studies of small Mexican communities, and his studies uncovered about 50 attributes shared within these communities, for example:
- A community with little social organization beyond the extended family
- Mother-centred family organization
- General feelings of helplessness, fatalism, dependency, and inferiority
- A strong present-time orientation, including a desire for excitement
- An early initiation into sex
- An emphasis on masculinity
- Frequent violence
- Middle-class aspirations and values which are not translated into behaviour
Lewis extrapolated his findings and suggested that there was a universal “culture of poverty”. Over 50 years later, many poor communities across the world share these traits. However, to blame their poverty on these traits, as opposed to looking at them as an adaptive technique is fallacious. Certain societal conditions are necessary for the poverty cycle’s continuous perpetration according to Lewis:
- A profit-based cash economy
- High under and unemployment for unskilled labour
- Low wages
- Little social organization among the poor
- A bilateral kinship system
- A value system stressing the individual accumulation of wealth.
This is the portrait of many capitalist societies, and one would even argue that capitalism is the reason why we are poor, but history suggests otherwise. Back when feudalism was the order of the day, the average person was wretchedly poor.
“Capitalism did not create poverty—it inherited it.”
So, if capitalism as a system inherited poverty, and we are more prosperous than generations that came before us, what does this mean for us? What can we do on a global scale? Should we wait for things to evolve at their own pace until we have a better system than capitalism, or should we focus on tweaking capitalism until it works?
I believe we should tweak capitalism until it works. Yes, capitalism has brought mankind great prosperity, but its current method of distributing wealth does not work, and this can be seen in the rising Gini coefficient. Our current system allows a small minority to control capital – land, factories, machinery – which are used to produce wealth, encouraging the accumulation of wealth and income by the elite and leaving a relatively small portion of the total of income and wealth to be divided among the rest of the population. With a majority of the people competing over this remainder, it follows that many people are going to be poor. It is inevitable.
In the search for profit, capitalism as it exists now places a high value on competition and efficiency. This motivates companies and their managers to control costs by keeping wages as low as possible (by replacing people with machines or replacing full-time workers with part-time workers). This is rational. It is also rational to shut down entire industries and invest money in other businesses/industries that offer higher rates of return. However, what does this do to society?
It follows, therefore, that we have to do something about the system’s current state, and how it interacts with the people who live under it. To try to change one without changing the other, as has been done by aid programs and governance programs, is futile (their failure rates stand as proof). Wealth tax has been suggested as a means of redistributing income. There would also have to be a few socially geared regulations for companies that prevent them from being able to cause mass unemployment/underemployment because of profits. It may be argued that this goes against the spirit of free markets, but I feel that it would assuage the current situation. For more on inequality, this book by Thomas Piketty makes for excellent reading.
How about solutions that are specific to the Africas? Where can we start the fight against poverty? I believe we should start with food security.
Food insecurity/hunger and poverty in most African countries go hand in hand. Is it possible for all Kenyans to have enough food to eat, despite climate change, growing population and food dependence, inadequate investments in the agricultural sector, food wastage and land misuse? Hunger in many African countries is not because of the absence of food, rather, it is because of lack of income. This is seen in the number of famines we experience. Even worse is the rate of nourishment, or lack thereof. According to the World Bank, as at 2007, 50% of Africans were malnourished and 25% were direly so.
Many of these are urban families, slum dwellers, peasant farmers and casual labourers. Many rural peasant farmers have land, but not large enough or good enough to subsist on without buying from other sources. Climate change has also led to people running short of food during certain seasons, especially the planting season. During these seasons, food reserves are low, while labour requirements are high. As a result, the likelihood of illness increases, partly due to the oncoming rains.
This could be solved by having food reserves and adequate food storage infrastructure. We would need to cut our food loss and wastage. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), about 95% of the food loss and waste in the Africas happens during the early stages of food production and supply due to financial, managerial and technical shortcomings in harvesting, storage and cooling techniques in difficult climatic conditions; infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. Food preservation and processing also needs to become more of a priority. Once we are able to feed our people, we will also be able to ensure they are healthier.
Government failure, which can be argued as the reason why most Sub Saharan African countries have large numbers of poor people, would also need to be solved. People are poor because their governments and capital markets fail them. The youth are unable to get funds to finance their education, the education system is broken in the first place and cannot accommodate enough of them, private healthcare is too expensive and public healthcare does not work, and the poor cannot afford their basic needs because they lack the economies of scale to afford them – as the anecdote goes, being poor is expensive. These things also make it very easy for countries to be in a state of perpetual armed conflict.
One way to overcome government failure is to reach the poor and empower them with information and cause debate, since many of these structural failings that create and perpetuate poverty are in the interests of the rich and (politically) powerful. This is why the West threatening African governments over reform has yet to work. When the poor are aware of the implications of the laws and regulations political leaders make, as well as the importance of voting on principle, perhaps we can begin to see real change. Well informed citizens will also not be easily pulled into armed conflicts, another menace that constantly plagues African countries.
This is not easy, since most poor people work extremely long hours and may have little energy to spare to participate in civic discussions, but it can be done. They also need to be aware of the various ways they can hold public officials accountable, since lack of accountability is one of the biggest enablers of corruption and government failure. Perhaps then, we can begin to see a reduction in mass poverty, and a real increase in the average man’s income and standard of living.
– Dick, the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI
On attending the Centre for Intellectual property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT) World Intellectual Property day at the Strathmore Law School, I was a bit shocked at the turn out. Lawyers easily outnumbered the visual artists, despite the session being based on the film industry and the Intellectual Property Rights therein. As an aspiring film-maker, fine artist, photographer and a former reader of laws I am all too well aware of the legal issues that the creative industry in Kenya faces. Piracy, bullying by the broadcasters who sometimes tweak your script and broadcast your show as their own to your total exclusion, contracts whose terms are not fulfilled under the threat of being blacklisted by industry oligopolies, copycats who change the colour of your painting and then claim it as their own; these are just some of the complaints I come across daily.
I, at least, expected some of these complainants to be sitting in the room ready to raise hell. Instead the crowd was a mix of IP lawyers, some of whom were simply there to show face for their firms, and a sprinkling of industry giants inevitably linked to the Kenya Film Commission, Performance Rights Society of Kenya (PRISK) and Kenya Association of Music Producers all of whom were presenting on the issue. It seems the assumption that lawyers were hoofed animals with wings for ears and horns for noses was not enough to bring even the most curious of creatives to the venue.
In 2007, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) completed a study that ranked the creative economy in Kenya as the fifth largest contributor to the national economy. The total value added of copyright-based industries in 2007 amounted to about KES 85.21 billion, which represented 5.32% of Kenya’s GDP, doing better than the agriculture, forestry, education and health sectors of the Kenyan economy. Assuming the figure has grown, how then do we, as creatives, manage to sit back silently and not push for a cultural policy of some sort or even address our issues?
The answer is simple: we hate lawyers! How else do you explain an event, hosted for the benefit of an industry to enable its stakeholders discuss legal matters pertinent to their work, failing to attract its very stakeholders? We were, either way, invited to an impromptu discussion on the reasons why the creative industry at large was very shy of lawyers or legal protection of any kind, yet so loud when it came to complaining about the injustices they did not bother to protect themselves against from the onset.
The discussion brought some rather interesting points from the creatives:
- I don’t copyright my scripts because it costs money (but I will complain when my script is stolen, tweaked and broadcast as someone else’s)
- I can’t sign a non-disclosure agreement with broadcasters and producers because they have the upper hand and they are doing me a favour by looking at my script so they basically have a right to steal my idea; it’s a backhanded compliment to my artistry
- I can’t challenge a non-performance of contract by a broadcaster or producer because I risk “never finding work in the industry again” (they operate like a cartel/oligopoly anyway)
- I can’t go to a lawyer because they are expensive and lawyers are out for blood, they never leave a working relationship behind after dealing with two parties
- I signed a contract and now they are using my show on more than one channel, more than once a day and I’m not being paid for that; of course I didn’t talk to a lawyer before signing the contract or read that much of it anyway because lawyers are expensive and out for blood
- I acted in a movie and now it’s being shown all over Africa and I’m not being paid for that probably because I didn’t quite look at my contract or feel I had a say in what could go into it and what could not
- The real enemy is the broadcaster and there is no broadcaster present to defend themselves, but then we’re not quite sure we would say anything to the broadcaster because of the oligopoly threatening to blacklist us
- I decided to collaborate with someone and now they are earning more from the project than I am but we’re friends so we don’t want to bring an evil lawyer to break our friendship up with their legal jargon and blood-lust
- If I’m such a “hard head” another actor/director/producer will do the job for less and with less conditions and COTU won’t let us form any kind of guild or union from which we can dictate a minimum salary like lawyers do
- Court processes take too long and cost too much money, even though we know nothing about them and haven’t taken part in any, we just assume they do
- Is there a successful case of a creative suing and winning? Why would we risk being the first?
There was no shortage of problems from the audio-visual creatives in the room. Then it was the lawyers’ turn. Gerry Gitonga of Bryant &Associates advocates made a gruelling statement: “Creatives don’t sue enough!” and as there was no number of laws governing the kind of issues the creative industry faces, then it was easier to leave it to judges to interpret the laws and provide precedent (previous judgements upheld as law).
The solution was simple: use a lawyer. Of course this didn’t sit well and a number of creatives reiterated the points on lawyers “just wanting the little money we have” which is clearly more important than safeguarding the vast amounts of money we lose to piracy, combating bullying by broadcasters and our ever growing list of problems. Liz Lenjo of JGIP consultants then agreed that lawyers wanted a slice of the creative economy…but that wasn’t the main point because they often take on pro bono cases. Once the assumption of all our legal issues being handled for free settled the room, (perhaps we shouldn’t kill the lawyers after all?) the lawyers were free to advise us on what rights there were in film, seeing as IP rights are now constitutional rights under the new constitution of Kenya.
An Actor whose name I didn’t catch (he claimed to run the blog www.actors.co.ke ) then demanded severally for his rights in film, which elicited suppressed laughter from the writers, producers and directors in the room. The hierarchy of film rests with these three people, often with people arguing academically over who is supreme; the writer or the director. Yes, creating an audio-visual work takes a village…but even villages have chiefs! And when he was told that he had a right to equitable (fair) remuneration (payment) for his performance and that was all, he didn’t seem too convinced. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t provide for you to go into someone’s play, get dressed, made-up, directed and given the lines you are to say and then turn around and claim that you somehow own anything there other than payment for your work.
It is an unfortunate turn of events that someone should look into. It is unanimously agreed, world over, that actors are merely props and can depend only on their skill and fanbase to demand for higher pay. This is the norm in Hollywood, and I do not foresee a future in Kenya where actors can claim rights in a character they neither created nor envisioned; A character whose sentences, quirks, personality, world and purpose does not belong to the actor merely performing.
June Gachui of June Gachui Intellectual property (JGIP) Consultants made a presentation, though late in timing, which proved to be most useful with delightful titbits, like the very unique practice of going through a contract before signing it (something that many visual artists have not heard of), how to put a contract together because verbally agreeing to something isn’t the best for legal remedies, and even going to see a lawyer so they can add some fearful words in there so that each party knows this is serious (pursue you to the full extent of the law). She then went on to discuss the different types of contracts, that is Licences and Assignments, in which if you sign a licence you retain property in the work. If the broadcaster decides to show your work on another network then you can veto this decision, whereas an assignment is giving up all ownership of a project for a lump-sum, therefore if your project is going live in Africa after you assigned it to a media house in Cape Town for a measly amount, then you had it coming.
All in all, I felt that this was a useful platform, save for the failings that were the missing crowd and the lack of broadcasters to address the issues levelled at them. I could easily fault the marketing of the session, seeing as I was there via proxy (my friend, an advocate of the high court, received an invite and thought to bring me along) but the public perception of lawyers and legal issues, especially in the creative industry can easily be faulted too. It was reiterated that artists are not seen as professionals for the simple reason that we refuse to treat ourselves as such.
In an industry mired with friendly collaborations that turn sour, contracts that are signed in excitement and almost inevitably regretted, and scripts that are traded on trust and nothing else, you would think that legal recourse would be something creatives would welcome. The resistance to this idea of signing a contract before collaborating or reading a contract before signing it is mere folly. Should the creative industry be free of the mandatory minimum legal involvement that other industries partake in? Should we shun the legal safeguards that would save us millions in losses? Should we dare to trade in our misconceptions of lawyers for the legal protection a basic training could give us? So maybe we shouldn’t kill all the lawyers just yet, though the law firms present warned that going to a lawyer who actually practices IP would be a great start, seeing as some unnamed lawyer used the contract for selling a car as a contract for licensing a movie.
Should the entire industry undertake a behavioural shift? Upon entering the Kenyan Art scene I was at once steeped in the obligatory practice of the oral agreement. It seems taboo to mention a contract, and more so to take your time reading and analysing one when it is handed to you. Whereas businessmen may have expensive lunches over which they haggle through prices and profits, creatives have chill drinking sessions over which they discuss inspiration and prospective projects with the hopes that no one takes your idea and runs with it. Would it be simple to have a mutual understanding that can be upheld in court? Our problem with unwritten conventions, the ones our creative industry heavily relies on, is that there is no industrial action against the people who break them.
A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria, often taking the form of a custom. Certain types of rules or customs may become law and regulatory legislation may be introduced to formalize or enforce the convention. The constitution of the United Kingdom is riddled with conventions that are outdated but still upheld simply because interested parties will take non-legal action against the party that breaks the convention. There is no such reliance in the Kenyan creative industry.
As stated before, if one should pass up on an opportunity, someone else will jump at it. This divisive politics renders the use of conventions useless in the industry and paves the way for legal recourse. If a convention is broken, it is more likely that the victim will be more victimised than it is that the oppressor will face some kind of justice. The fear of being blacklisted for standing up when wronged is a clear indication of this.
In the face of these industry problems, a lack of unity in voice and industrial action, a common enemy and oppressor, and a common inability to determine, uphold and follow through with oral agreements, should we then maturely move on from constantly broken conventions to legally upheld contracts and agreements? Is it probable that we can set aside out popular dislike for the legal fraternity and perhaps attempt to save the profits of a growing creative industry?
 The Economic Contribution of Copyright-Based Industries in Kenya Dickson Nyariki (Main Author), Oliver Wasonga, Calleb Otieno, Eric Ogadho, Charles Ikutwa, Julius Kithinji: page 58, section 5.2 retrieved from http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/copyright/en/performance/pdf/econ_contribution_cr_ke.pdf
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.
One thing that is becoming very clear, as people continue to argue about climate change and its impact on society, is that if we want to change the situation, we need to address inequality before it threatens our way of life.
On a global level, this manifests itself in the strange mechanisms that have been developed to solve the problem. For example, getting people in rural Africa and Asia to stop using firewood for cooking and start using ‘efficient’ stoves and switching to bio pellets and solar energy cookers, while companies continue to dig for oil, run huge industries on coal and encourage rich countries to consume even more.
Climate scientists have started talking about doomsday scenarios, or what we can call the “Easter Island theory” – where an entire civilization collapses because the ecosystem was completely destroyed. It has happened over and over again in history – even in Africa – with the Rozi, Great Zimbabwe, the Egyptians, and the Romans.
Developed countries will be shielded from the worst of the damage caused by climate change – they have purchasing power and strong systems. But again, as more and more people fail to be able to survive, the chickens will eventually come home to roost.
This brings me back to the Climate Reality leadership training I recently attended. It was wonderful. We listened to inspiring men and women, such as Wanjiru Mathai, who spoke to us about climate related challenges facing Africans today, and how they are mobilizing communities with practical solutions that tackle both climate change and social injustice to improve their lives.
Then we had a full day with Al Gore, who is famous for bringing issue of climate change to ordinary people when he released his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. He has continued to encourage ordinary individuals to agitate for change through their personal networks and within their communities. The man oozes optimism and charisma, and has only one message to sell: Every individual has a personal obligation to fight against climate change, especially because the survival of the human race depends on it.
I was inspired by the young African entrepreneurs that came to speak to us. Two in particular caught my attention, as they were both from East Africa.
These boys share many similarities – they both grew up in the rural areas, and both spotted problems in their villages that they wanted to solve. One got the chance to go to university, the other did not. Both are successful entrepreneurs today, providing renewable energy (solar panels and lamps) to rural Africans.
We all know or have heard of people like these who beat incredible odds to make something out of themselves. They may not be billionaires or in power, but they have managed to lift themselves out of poverty, got themselves an education and are now fully functioning, confident members of society.
This is an example of the kind of Africa we live in. On one hand, you have people like me – urban, well-educated and obsessed with acquiring stuff, criticizing Western media for making Africa look like a shit hole and aspiring (consciously or unconsciously) to live up to what I imagine are Western ideals.
I don’t have any creative ideas to solve challenges in my society – I’m too busy fighting to get my little trappings – a nice phone, a good job, maybe even a nice car.
On the other hand, you have the rest of our population – disenfranchised, facing basic problems such as how to get food on the table, how to go to school and keep surviving in an environment that seems to crush you at every turn.
Like many Africans, I am keenly aware of this divide – but I am not sure how to bridge it. It can be awkward for us in many ways – for example, the misconception that I am somehow arrogant and feel myself superior for what was given to me without a day’s effort in my life.
Some of it is the fear that I will be perceived as arrogant and conceited by my less fortunate peers. I also imagine the sense of inadequacy some people may face. Because as much as our society is divided along tribal lines, we all know that the “money vs non-money” is much more pervasive.
“For them, it is about doing something to make them feel good. But for us it is about survival.”
This is what one young man running a youth group explained to me.
I knew what he meant. That the boy who started a business selling solar panels did not do it because he wanted to change the world – he did it because he needed to make money.
On one hand, middle class young people have education and intangible resources such as networks, access to information and strong role models to shape their safe little dreams. On the other hand, young people in rural areas and disadvantaged urban areas have the great ideas and the tenacity to bring them to life, simply because it is sink-or-swim for them.
What would happen if we brought ourselves together and united as young people, instead of rigidly separating ourselves based on the achievements of our parents? What if we actually came together – masters of social media and Twitter activism – with the folk willing and ready to go out and protest in the streets?
What kind of awesome ideas would come forth from this more open society? And what does this have to do with Al Gore and climate change?
Fighting for a more just society is intrinsically linked to fighting for a more sustainable society. But coming together, and no longer hiding behind clever social media updates and wordy blog posts, is critical if we want to see any kind of change.
There is a deep cynicism that has overtaken the youth, not only in Kenya but in Africa as a whole. We would rather talk about how society will never change and how our politicians will be forever corrupt. We think that we are being clever with this kind of thinking but the truth is we have disempowered ourselves.
Someone made an interesting comment recently: That young people in the world today are in a kind of ‘Animal Farm’ exercise. We criticize the system not because we hate it, but because we long to be a part of it and resent being excluded. We haven’t ‘owned’ our generation yet.
What can we do about it?
The easiest and most comfortable thing is to start changing the discussion. It is happening already. Kenyans on Twitter, when not launching scathing attacks on random objects, are a force to reckon with. Food drives, searching for missing people, raising funds, they can really do it all.
So why not start a new discussion? A discussion about what we can start doing today? Why not encourage each other instead of perpetually encouraging negativity?
The next step follows naturally. Organising ourselves for our causes using existing organisations or by creating new ones. Getting out there and roping in our friends and family to our cause.
Finally, when we have critical mass, we can stand as one voice and do the unimaginable – demand that our governments respect us and do as we demand.
The truth is, I did not need Al Gore to tell me that climate change is real. But I did need him to remind me that I have a responsibility to be part of the solution to our generation’s problems, because no one else will do it for me.
Kristin is particularly sensitive to environmental and social issues. She has a degree in Business Management that she doesn’t use and hopes to make a real contribution to climate change solutions someday in the future. Follow her on Twitter @mumbiwairimu