Here, Have Your Safety.

Michael Onsando
10 June ,2014

The President made an infomercial for security.

This seems to be something we need to think about. What does it mean when safety is packaged and given to us in a 1 minute 45 seconds long clip? Morgan Bassichis writes:

“… we internalize and embody this understanding—“you make me feel unsafe, that’s an unsafe neighborhood, we need someone to keep us safe”—as if safety is something that is done to us.

We might instead think about “safety” as a self-generating process over time that is impacted by external conditions but not dictated by them. We will not look to people, spaces, policies, or institutions to “make us safe” but will instead look to the resources that rest in ourselves and our communities that can decrease our vulnerability to harm and increase our ability to make grounded choices that will foster our wellness.”

In the informercial, President Kenyatta tells “terrorists, criminals and thugs” to run and hide. He further backs this threats with “thousands of cameras and millions of pairs of eyes.” Yet, this is something we all know. The video wasn’t really meant for the bad guys. The video was meant to be seen as a consolation. Something is being done for our safety. Safety is being given to us – finally.

As if safety is a thing, like chocolate or a hug.

“Citizens and residents of Kenya, we are together in the fight against terror and, together, we will prevail.”

Usually, I’d ask who this “we” defines – but the President himself has already answered this question. He is talking about citizens and residents. This is a very important distinction to make, given recent “war on terror” tactics. Now, of course, the nationalists will come here and say that Uhuru Kenyatta only has a duty to the people who elected him. That, as the President of Kenya, he can only take care of “citizens and residents.”

That’s like saying you can only take care of family members in your home even when you have guests. And this is my answering a nationalist question within a nationalist framework. I’d much rather just people care for people without thinking about nationality.

“Ulinzi unaanza na mimi, ulinzi unaanza na wewe”

(protection begins with me, protection begins with you)

This rhetoric has been brought up by the government a few times in the last year. It echoes the Nyumba Kumi initiative almost verbatim. The idea that community policing is a good one. This is a very dangerous idea because community policing relies on the idea of the people within a community identifying a stranger. It then couples this with the idea that being a stranger is, in and of itself, a reason to be feared. This is a thing communities have been socialized into thinking. And, as Sara Ahmed reminds us constantly,

“Strangers are not simply those who are not known in this dwelling, but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognized as not belonging, as being out of place.”

It’s tricky.

How do we recognize someone as a stranger? The simplest explanation in this context is the Kenyan Somali who, even as we name them, we have only given half a foot it. Already, by the name, we refuse to let them fully into our space. We keep them in Somalia, even after they’ve been here for generations. And then, because of this “Somaliness” in them, we recognize them as strangers. As people we cannot trust.

This has been seen in instances where passengers alight from buses when a Kenya Somali comes on board. Or in the numerous instances Samira Sawlani recounted for us last week. The creation of stranger danger is very important in systematically dehumanizing. In 2007 the stranger we were afraid of was tribal. We fit people into the mold of a stranger – even people we knew like our friends, family etc. All became strangers. Aleya Kassam reminds us of a time before that when the stranger was the Kenyan Indian. She writes:

“What does it do to a community….to feel that they don’t belong?

I have given my whole heart. It lies nestled in Kenya’s mouth. I have nowhere else. I am alive nowhere else. But it is like having an abusive lover. One that beats you up, humiliates you, taunts you about whether you are worthy of belonging to them. But I love. And for that reason, I can never leave.

What does it mean to be Kenyan. For me right now, to be Kenyan is to feel helpless.”

This is important. It is important to know that the language and tactics used to manipulate us are largely the same. And they all centre around stranger danger.

They all assume that the leader was doing what was best for “citizens and residents.”

The worst part about all this is that, no, I don’t feel any safer. While the words of the informercial are meant to be comforting, all that I feel is wary. I’m wary about the idea of the state of Kenya implementing mass surveillance (although, now they might not because the contract wasn’t tendered). I’m worried about a president whose words are about bringing an end to terrorism but whose actions only seem to foster it. I’m worried about a government that is actively targeting its own citizens and, most of all, I’m worried about a society that celebrates all this.

At the end of the video the Kenyan flag fills the screen and the words “Tuwe tayari kuilinda” (Firm may we stand to defend) are sung out. It is important because these are the only actual words of the anthem we hear apart from the first line “Eh mungu nguvu yetu” which was translated to “Oh God of all creation” but directly means “Oh God, our strength.” The focus is, of course, on the production and distribution of safety. Which, as the video insists, can only be achieved through the providing of a military defence and mass surveillance. More guns can’t possibly be a solution to a gun problem. Violence only begets violence.

Corruption and Terror: Somali Community in Kenya Caught in the Crossfire

Guest Writer
3 June ,2014

by Samira Sawlani

“The Country chose its prey. Seduced them, made them believe they owned it and then gobbled them down, often in the most tender of ways—like a python.”

“Kenya is treacherous.”

The above are excerpts from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel “Dust”. Though they form part of a fictional story, for many in Kenya, these sentiments currently reflect reality.

Over the last two months the Kenyan Government has launched an exercise aimed at tackling the dark cloud of terrorism hovering above the country, an exercise which has inadvertently highlighted the many ills in society today, for in fighting one threat, others have been fuelled, particularly corruption and xenophobia.

As part of Operation Usalama Watch, raids targeted at identifying those illegally in Kenya have been sanctioned. The government has denied that any specific nationalities or ethnic groups are being targeted, yes there have been reports of individuals from Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda being arrested and screened, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the Somalis in Kenya have borne the brunt of this crackdown.

Many have defended the actions of the state as being in the interest of the people and not singling out any one community. Well, denial is often nirvana.

As a 35 year old woman from Eastleigh said to me, “The attitude of the Kenyan Government towards us is that of a landlord trying to get rid of his tenants. He cannot tell them to leave so he goes out of his way to make the house as unlivable as possible so that they will leave.”

Be it Somali refugees, Somali migrants or those who hail from North Eastern Province, I found one striking similarity in the views of those I spoke to: they all felt like they live on the cusp of a forced exodus from the Kenyan identity they possess.

Due to the long silences of the mainstream media (bar a few articles on this matter) it is very easy to be oblivious to exactly what reality is like for Somalis in Kenya, particularly Nairobi, at this moment.

As should be public knowledge, thousands of people are currently being screened at Kasarani Stadium in order for the authorities to determine their status.

Officials say that those held at what has been branded “Kasarani Concentration Camp” are being treated well and their human rights are being respected. Why then have no media organizations, aid agencies or local NGOs been allowed in to inspect conditions?

Some of those that shared their experiences of being held in Kasarani said the following: “It was cramped and dirty. The worst was what to do with our children who were frustrated, when we would ask the police how long we were to be kept for they would not answer.” Meanwhile, Fartun, a mother of two, stated, “Due to how cold it would get in there my daughter fell ill. I expected the police to help but they did not pay attention. Only after I paid a bribe did they go and get me some medicine. Most people that came in had been held in other police stations where they had been mistreated, and some ladies shared that they had been touched inappropriately by some male police.”

Shop owner Omar shared his story, “The police entered my home at around 2 am, and the noise woke up our 4 children, all of whom were very scared. We were then taken to Kasarani and split apart. My wife is pregnant and suffering from morning sickness – there were no decent facilities for her to even be sick in.” Upon release the family returned to Eastleigh. “As my phone was taken from me when I arrived at Kasarani, I had no way to let my staff know what was going on, so my electronics shop has suffered much loss. Because of all this trouble many of my neighbours have vacated their premises and gone. The Somalis who would come to the shop now do not because they know the police are always patrolling the streets looking for bribes. Unfortunately they have visited my home twice since we left Kasarani and demanded money even though we have IDs. This constant paying of bribes and slow business has put much financial strain on us, but the police know Somalis are economically successful and are vulnerable with no one to speak for them.”

Cramped cells, no access to food or lawyers and being asked for bribes are common experiences among those Somalis who have been arrested and held at Kasarani or police stations across Nairobi. Shrouded in mystery are the stories of those that have not been deported, but been sent to refugee camps in other parts of the country, often separate from their families.

Life, however, is not much better for those from the Somali community that are apparently “free” and not in police custody. One young man said, “My ancestors hail from Wajir, I have lived in Nairobi my whole life, I am Kenyan and all of a sudden people are getting off matatus when I board or telling me to go back to where I came from? I have no connections with Somalia, where exactly do they expect me to go? Kenyans are not like this, and it may be a one off, but it is very telling.”

I interviewed a gentleman living in Eastleigh who told me that the police try to target elderly Somalis because they are vulnerable and often do not speak much Kiswahili, so they are more likely to pay bribes out of fear, and to avoid being hassled. He mentioned that the police have visited his neighbour, who is an elderly man with a young family. Despite his having identification and a passport, they threaten to take him to the station knowing full well that because of his age the family will pay to stop this from happening. For this reason, they keep visiting his home, posing the same threat and increasing the amount of money they want every time.

In another case, a 60 year old diabetic man was arrested despite having a copy of his British passport, the original of which was away for renewal. He was taken to the Police Station at 6pm and his phone and documents confiscated while his family had no idea of his whereabouts. The following morning his family traced his location and the Police demanded KES 30,000 to release him, stating that otherwise, they would keep him in for another five days. Knowing his age and health condition would garner success, they received KES 26,000.

Other stories include trying to scare individuals into paying bribes by threatening to take them to the station with no intention to do so, threatening young women with rape, and destroying or confiscating Identification Cards or papers. The most bizarre story yet is of a man showing a police officer his Kenyan passport and the officer saying, “But where is your Kenyan visa?”

Destruction of property, breaking gates of homes and asking for bribes and using threatening language in front of children are all common. Police now frequent the same areas of Eastleigh every night, extracting more and more money from innocent people who just want to be left in peace. Many officers allegedly go to the area after their shift is finished (ironically, they are also making a huge profit out of those who do not have IDs or papers to be in Kenya, so if there are any potential terrorists around, they too are able to pay their way out of arrest). In an attempt to fight one problem another has been fuelled: corruption.

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?

As a 20 year old Somali-Kenyan student said, “The media are of no help, in fact sometimes their reporting on Somalis and Muslims in general has stereotyped us and led to us being held out as scapegoats. The media are supposed to speak against injustice but they have been mainly silent or quietly taken part.”

Terrorism is a very real threat to Kenya and urgency is required in tackling it, however these tactics are simply encouraging alienation which in itself is the cause of much dissatisfaction. A culture of police impunity is not the solution to terrorism, nor is targeting and marginalizing a particular community or racial profiling. Screening for those in the country illegally is important, however, locking individuals and families up without legal basis or using them as ATM machines does not read as a legitimate strategy, and it reinforces the view that the police are above the law they are meant to exercise and protect.

At a time when social cohesion and a feeling of “being Kenyan” and being valued should be encouraged the exact opposite is taking place.

As Nairobi born and bred 26 year old Abdi Sheikh said, “I will never be Kenyan, always Somali Kenyan and that translates to not Kenyan enough. We keep one foot out the door, not because we want to, but because we don’t know when the foot inside Kenya will be chopped off, forcing us to run.”

Samira Sawlani is a writer/journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. She can be found on Twitter @samirasawlani

The Rape Issue

Guest Writer
6 May ,2014

[Trigger Warning: This piece may be traumatising to victims of rape or sexual abuse]

by K. A. ALI

A court sentenced an 80 year old woman to seven years imprisonment for circumcising a young girl without her parent’s consent. The Daily Nation reported that when she was offered mitigation she responded that “the court could do what it wished with her.”

Women have had to deal with gender violence at every corner, and in this case even perpetrate it. A seven year sentence does nothing to punish those who refuse to apologize. This is one of the more recent a reminders that gender violence is still very much prevalent in our society. That though our legal system might make admirable stipulations in dealing with gender violence as a crime, it can do little to effectively execute justice. Why? We’re already working with a flawed system.

You know the posters on the streets of Nairobi, you’ve seen them. “Don’t be the next rape victim.”

As many as eight out of ten Kenyan women have experienced physical violence and/or abuse during childhood. A report from Kenya’s national commission on human rights in 2006 found that a girl or woman is, like the poster says, raped every 30 minutes.

However, there’s a problem with this line of thinking because it’s not addressing the real issue. Society loves telling women not to get raped, this is easier and considerably less effective than starting the conversation with telling men not to rape women.

Women have been shouldering the brunt of their sexual offenders crimes because society has accepted rape as a normal response, society has cultured us to believe that a man is hardwired to rape, that this behavior is uncorrectable, and therefore the man’s responsibility for the act is dismissible, as he is only acting on natural instincts. Society believes that rape is like rain; natural, unstoppable, unhindered, and what’s the rain to blame if you weren’t already equipped with an umbrella?

Men tell women to be careful, women tell each other to be careful. Dress appropriately, don’t walk home alone. Be careful.

Arming women won’t stop rape. Telling women not to walk outside at night won’t stop rape. Telling women to do everything in their power to avoid sexual attack won’t stop rape – it will stop individuals getting raped, but it will not stop rape happening to our peers, and rape happening to other people, because rape is still a societal epidemic, and prevention is a temporary solution that will never be better than a cure.

Kenya Police investigations into rape often start with leading, indelicate questions to the victim, casually dismissive of the trauma. The victim of the Busia rape case was asked what she was wearing, and in dealing with the physical, irreparable damage done to her, was asked to repeat the event to police men several times, without anything actually being done. Law enforcement’s natural attitude towards women who have been raped is skepticism, and an uncomfortable reluctance to carry out justice. What were you wearing? What did you do to provoke your attacker? Victims are not only first received with clear skepticism, have their cases second-guessed, but they also have to deal with very real judgment about their personal behavior, and how their vulnerability, and inability to shield against rape was a complicit invitation for rape.

The message of this poster, as with typical outreaches to rape victims and women, is that it is a woman’s burden to prevent rape, rather than on men not to rape. The truth is that rape is not committed by some faceless transgressor; a lot of cases are domestic and are as likely to come from people you trust as from strangers. We need to understand that rapists don’t wear their crimes on their faces, they don’t have a uniform, they are walking among us, allowed anonymity in the crowd, and reasonable doubt when they come from someone within the family. God help you if your rapist is a respected family member.

Three of the people involved in the Busia rape case were pupils, in school. Not grown men, not hardened criminals leaping out of some foreign nightmare. These were boys from school’s near the victim’s own. What does it say about our society that young boys like this thought their actions were at all permissible? What mindset do we operate in that allowed them to even think of getting away with gang rape and attempted murder? It is disgusting. When police came to arrest the boys, teachers asked if the arrests could be postponed so the boys could take part in exams. Ridiculous, you think? This request was granted!

Rape cases did drop sharply once the Sexual Offences Act was introduced, however rape victims still don’t come forward because they rightfully don’t trust the police’s ability/willingness to investigate, and they are still fearful of the stigma associated with coming forward as a rape victim. Who can blame them? Strict punishments for rape have done little to minimize the rape culture prevalent in Kenya, but this is in part because of our dismissive society, and our rather ineffective police commission whose indifference was illustrated with the Busia rape case where when the rapists were identified, the police response was to round these boys up, put pangas in their hands and give them an afternoon of cutting grass. The fact that this case was only investigated three months after it occurred (and only after the efforts of Busia Police Commander, Halima Mohamed), and after an online internet poll is sad indeed.

Not all hope is lost though, for the Kenyan people are rising up, fighting and demanding justice for rape victims. When women and youth activists marched to the offices of Inspector General David Kimaiyo demanding justice for the Busia rape victim, they were told by the Inspector General that there was considerable doubt about the “girl’s version of the story”, and that there might not be evidence to charge the boys because Liz delayed in her testimony, disclosing the rape late after her condition deteriorated.

Delays! Is there anything more illustrative of delays in justice than the issue of the P3 form? The procedure for rape cases determines that the rape victim must first get a form from the police, then take it to a hospital and have it filled out by the doctor assigned to examine them. This long trail of paper work often means that victims are delayed treatment, and in most cases the process of acquiring these forms means that the cataloging of evidence takes place too late; when crucial evidence has been destroyed! Doctors just recently stopped charging KES 1,500 to fill the P3 form out, which had essentially been a barrier for rape victims (who had been responsible for paying this amount) to justice.

Police stations have women’s and children’s desks to deal with issues affecting them, however most of the police officers manning these desks haven’t been equipped with the gender responsive crime treatment training needed to treat the issues presented to them delicately, and do not know how to offer counselling, or referral when treating with victims of sexual and gender based violence. The funding required for handling these desks has been handed over, and instead channelled into other areas of policing. The program is embarrassingly underfunded and undermanned, which means that rape victims aren’t getting the care or the services they need, both in arresting their rapists, and in securing care.

Victims are fighting a tough battle, entrenched in a system that is willing to blame the victim or shunt them aside, and in a system that is unwilling to respond to their needs in a proper or timely manner. A system that more than often delays, very well knowing that justice delayed is justice denied.

Khadija Taib (K. A. ALI) is a student of journalism. She is currently working on a poetry anthology which will hopefully impart a rallying, positive and emboldening message to women of colour. Follow her on twitter @kaalisea

Even The Streets Aren’t Safe

Guest Writer
1 April ,2014

by Sheila Maingi

A few weeks ago, I shared an incident on Twitter that happened to me on my way from work.

It was a normal weekday evening and, having wrapped up at the office, I set out for home. I had hardly walked a few metres from the office when I saw three young men walking in my direction. They had a belligerent air about them. I would have been more frightened had it been late at night and I was walking alone on some deserted street. But it was still broad daylight and lots of people were making their way home.

As soon as the three men came within inches of me, one of them tried to grope my breast in the full glare of passers-by. I was quick to duck to his side before he had the chance. But what transpired after was much worse. The man and his two friends began to insult me. One said I had no reason to feel so proud with such big breasts; the other called me a slut while the attacker laughed loudly. Another group of about nine young men seated by the side of the road chimed in, not in my defence. They joined the three men in hurling expletives at me. One of them shouted that had I encountered them elsewhere (to mean in a less crowded place), I would have learned my lesson (implying physical and/or sexual assault).

Mortifying as it is, I wish this were an isolated incident – a one off occasion by some ill mannered and rogue young men. But it was not. This is the kind of street harassment women have to endure everyday as they traverse public spaces when making their way to their different occupations. I cannot keep count of the number of times in a week I undergo one form or another of street harassment. Many women can attest to this as well. Street harassment is so common, so normal that most women have come to accept it as a way of life, despite how offensive, infuriating, violating and demeaning it is for them.

Street harassment is not a preserve of a particular class or socio-economic stratum. Men in their different capacities, professions, age and ranks harass women on the streets. Only to them it is not viewed as harassment, but the manly right to offer unsolicited opinions and spew lewd comments at any woman they so desire.

Street harassment is that man on Tom Mboya Street who will make a sexual comment about your breasts or your butt. It is the men seated by the side of the road who will whistle at you or catcall you in the morning as you make your way to school or work. Sometimes, it will be the well dressed old man who rolls down the window of his Range Rover Sport and honks at you or asks you to get into the car with him. It is the makanga who winks at you or orders you to smile.

Another common manifestation is when a man(stranger) on the streets creepily thrusts his unwanted face in yours and tells you how beautiful you are then expects you to show gratitude for his compliment. If you’ve been near the Ngara Exhibition stalls, you have probably had your hand forcibly pulled by the young male vendors. When you tried to free yourself from one’s grip, three others blocked your way and had a merry time humiliating you. If you were unluckier, they squeezed your breasts or your butt. In extreme, but not rare cases, street harassment has ended up with a woman being physically assaulted or getting raped.

Street harassment is defined as form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces with the intention of intimidating the target and making the harasser feel powerful.

It is, very much, an element of patriarchy. Privilege gives men a sense of entitlement, allowing them to harass women in the streets without any feelings of wrongdoing. For instance, many men will argue that there is nothing wrong with stopping a woman in the streets to tell her she is beautiful or in forcing a woman to say hi to you. It is after all just a greeting, why refuse to acknowledge it? The truth however is that these attacks – and I intentionally refer to them as attacks because that is what they are – are never gestures of friendliness or a genuine desire to compliment.

In most cases, a man will want to ‘compliment’ you when in the company of other men. His intention is to show off to the others, to let them know that he is ‘man enough’. He is as macho as they come. By calling you a slut when you refuse to respond to his so called compliment, he not only affirms his masculinity, but asserts his gender superiority. The more he belittles you, the more his man card accrues points and the more manly he feels. Suppose you were to meet the same man outside the comfort of the company his fellow men, chances are that he would not display the same level of aggression.

But mob mentality is not always the case when it comes to street harassment. Some men will individually, by the powers granted to them by patriarchy, harass women on the street as a showmanship of their sexual/gender superiority as a single entity.

Women’s bodies are objectified and depicted as men’s playthings.

Men own us.

Patriarchy grants men the freedom to possess and control women’s bodies, so that a man finds it perfectly okay to comment (either positively or negatively) on a woman’s breasts in public. Her feelings on this matter are inconsequential. Such overt displays of privilege are channels of self-reassurance to men. It reminds them of their elevated position in the gender hierarchy.

The problem with this false perception of privilege is that, in most cases it starts to become a reality in the minds of many men. A man begins to feel entitled to a woman’s body whether he knows her or not, whether she is old enough to be his mother or is someone else’s wife. Society has already informed this man that any woman is his for the taking without him expecting much resistance.

Consequently, when this privileged man says hello to you and as a woman you refuse to respond, he feels wounded. His free pass to your body has been challenged. His privilege has been questioned. In the company of others, especially men, to let this slide without a word would be an insult to his masculinity and a cause for banishment from the masculine fraternity. And so he takes vengeance while reasserting his position by calling you a slut or a whore. This brutal act secures his membership among his peers.

In most cases, women are called too proud or their bodies negatively dissected when they refuse to respond to catcalls, whistles and car horns. This mirrors another aspect of our patriarchal society – that to put a woman down, you must attack her physical attributes or her sexual reputation, if not both. Destroy her image in a sexual context. If you can’t own her sexually, tarnish her name, her sexual behaviour and her reputation, so that no other man will desire her. Make her as undesirable as possible. In a nutshell, it reflects society’s attitudes about women, their bodies and who owns them.

Sexual harassment hurts women.

There is nothing appealing or flattering about having 10 strange men by the road scream how beautiful or ugly you look. It is utterly offensive when someone you don’t know grabs your butt in the club because you are in a short skirt and they assume this means you want them to. It’s completely depressing when you have to take three girlfriends along when shopping to create a safety net because you are afraid of the young men who will yank your hand and refuse to let go until your blood clots.

In some instances, women find themselves having to change their routes home, to work, to church and so forth because they are afraid of encountering some sort of harassment along their normal routes. It becomes an inconvenience when you have to use a longer route just to avoid men who will stop at nothing short of making you feel terrified. It is completely unfair that some streets automatically become no go zones for women because of possible attacks.

Most of us walk with fear at the back of our minds 24/7. We walk with our eyes fixed on ground or with loud music playing in our earphones to avoid any confrontation with street harassers. We are constantly thinking and planning on how we can minimize any unintended situations of unwanted attention. In a country where citizens are granted so many freedoms, women are forced to do with even less freedoms than their male counterparts when it comes to safety in accessing public spaces.

Another disturbing fact is that these attacks also happen to underage girls, both in primary school and in high school. I have seen grown men harass young schoolgirls in uniform. Some of these men are old enough to be their fathers. In some cases, these girls are even sexually assaulted and raped. Some get pregnant and have to deal with unplanned for babies or health risks that come with abortion. When it is not schoolgirls, it’s old women, some of whom are grandmothers.

And this is exactly what happens when that sense of entitlement thaws in some of these men’s heads. They start to think that any woman who turns down their advances deserves to be punished. When a woman ignores their greetings on the streets, they will sexually assault her or rape her so as to teach her a lesson in respecting men. We have all heard or read stories of women getting physically attacked because they would not cooperate with a man they did not know on the streets.

What men fail to understand is that, no woman owes a stranger anything. Be it accepting a compliment or responding to greetings. Greetings are voluntary. Men need to realize that a woman does not have to smile on the streets if she doesn’t want to. Stop asking her to smile. She owes you nothing and the best thing you can do is leave her alone.

It is a fact that not all men harass women. But most of the times, a man has friends who do. Yet most men won’t say anything when they see their friends, for instance, making an unwarranted sexual remark at a woman in the gym. They will occasionally feel embarrassed on their friend’s behalf but that’s as far as it goes. In some instances, you find fathers and sons; uncles and nephews seated somewhere together catcalling women as they pass by.

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.

How then can we move away from this culture of intimidating women on the streets to respecting them instead? One, would be to have these conversations with our children, both boys and girls. It is important to let ours sons know that women are not sexual objects to be violated on the streets, or anywhere else for that matter. It is important to drill into our kids the fact that women need to be able to walk freely in the streets or any other public space without fear of being attacked regardless of their background or status and at all times. Men need to serve as role models to younger men, teenage boys and even little boys.

In the same breath, men should be in the frontline supporting women in the fight against street harassment. A man should be able to castigate his friend when he has crossed the line by violating a woman’s space. Men ought to have these conversations among themselves . The few men who are lucky enough to understand how street harassment is degrading to women need to share and try to convince their fellow men to see things in the same light.

The Kenyan law and the Sexual Offences Act do not address street harassment in detail. Understandably so, because it is difficult to have a stranger arraigned in court for calling you a whore or for grabbing your butt in public. The nature of these attacks is that they happen within minutes and are orchestrated by strangers who we cannot have arrested because they vanish in seconds. Evidence is hard to produce in such instances and there is only so much legal institutions can do. It is also impractical to have the police monitoring all streets for cases of harassment.

In developed nations, women’s groups and individuals have come up with websites where women can discuss and share their street harassment ordeals. Others have created apps like Hollaback which allow users to share their experiences in relation to street harassment. They also organize events and seminars where they discuss such issues and brainstorm on how best to approach this problem. It would be helpful if we too, tried to come up with such sit downs where we can share and formulate solutions.

The most important thing we can do in order to undo this age old practice, however, is to completely shift our attitudes and consequently our behaviour towards all the women we live with and interact with on the streets everyday.

Next time you want to make a sexual comment directed at a woman you see on the streets, think about whether your remark is welcome. Is it in the right context? Will she be offended or embarrassed by it? Would you be at ease if someone did the same thing to you? This is not to say that all compliments on the street are bad and unwelcome, but it is crucial that you re-examine your motive. Why am I doing it? Is it a genuine compliment or am I merely showing off my undeserved gift of patriarchal privilege?

Sheila ‘daidey’ Maingi is a full time ambivert who enjoys flipping through books in detail, staring at the ceiling for hours , playing old school hip hop, advocating for women’s rights and dreaming about a world that runs on equality for all. Follow her on Twitter @daidey

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s first e-book, #WhenWomenSpeak – (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Footnotes On Death

Brenda Wambui
25 March ,2014

In our sometimes unfortunate journey through this planet, we must experience death. We experience the death of loved ones, unloved ones, and ultimately, our own deaths.

I rarely meditate on the meaning of many of life’s phenomena – I like to joke that I have the emotional depth of a banana – but this week, death has really been with me. Michael Onsando has written extensively on killing (here, here and here), more than I ever will. Still, we have barely touched on death here, and with what has happened this week, it is necessary.


I never thought the biggest mystery of my lifetime would be a missing plane. I have followed the story behind the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, MH370, like I follow a movie. It has even become material for my nightmares.

Flight MH370, carrying 239 people en route to Beijing, disappeared from the radar off the south coast of Vietnam on 8th March 2014. On 24th March 2014, the Malaysian prime minister cited an analysis of satellite data from a British company as well as accident investigators, stated that the plane went down over the southern Indian Ocean, and that as it were, there were no hopes of anyone having survived.

Several planes, ships and search parties from 14 countries have been searching an area of 7.8 million square kilometres for the plane. Australian officials spotted two objects that could be related to the flight, but no one is sure as yet.

It frightens me that this has happened in the 21st century, when people are lining up to take recreational trips into space. Flying is the safest way to travel – a traveller could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before dying in a fatal crash. Yet an accident like this happens and manages to instill extreme fear in anyone who has ever thought of taking a flight.

In moments like these, we are reminded of the fleeting nature of our lives. One minute, we are here, the next, we are not. And the fact that this could happen at any time terrifies us – perhaps this is why long conversations about death inspire discomfort as opposed to interest. One minute we are on a flight after having said goodbye to a loved one, the next, we are fighting for our lives, be it in the middle of the ocean or on land.


On 23rd March 2014, three gunmen stormed Joy Jesus Church in Likoni and opened fire. Official reports had the death count on that day at 3, and it has now risen to 6 as at the point of writing this article. A first person account by a witness at the scene, however, puts the death toll on the day of the attack at 18.

Reports on the number of suspects that have been identified differ, with some sources saying they are 59 and others, 100. This is said to be retaliation for the raid of Masjid Musa mosque by the police some weeks earlier, where an official death count says at least two people were killed. Yet again, a witness account wildly disagrees, putting the death toll at a minimum of six. This all happened because of a standoff between the police and worshippers at the mosque, in which protests by members of both sides lead to death, agitating them and leading to further death.

In the week beginning 16th March 2014, the police found out that a car they had impounded and parked outside their station in Mombasa was a massive bomb, attached to a Nokia detonator. Someone could have called that phone at any moment and blown up the police station. The vehicle was only thoroughly checked when foreign counter-terror experts recognized it from an international alert list. Two or more truck bombs are believed to be on the loose in Mombasa, and the police are desperately trying to find them.

I am afraid now, whenever I am in traffic and a truck pulls up next to my vehicle. Is this one of the truck bombs? They are believed to be in Mombasa, yes, but these are trucks – they have wheels. They could be anywhere, including next to my vehicle. What if the truck next to me were to blow up?

Am I ready to die?

What if I feel particularly touched one Sunday and head to church bright and early, only to meet my death at the hand of a couple of gunmen on a revenge mission? Will I die because the police were late to the scene? Will I be turned away from the nearest hospital because I do not have my medical card on me at that moment? Will I be a victim of a revenge attack?

Will I be just another statistic for the government to hide and obscure? Will I be one of the 18 that is forgotten, and reduced to 3?

I am reminded that a Kenyan life is unimportant.


I am an avid TV series watcher. I have bemoaned, on Twitter, the trend of shows killing off their main characters. At first, it was exciting – fresh and new. Now, it is not. It annoys me to no end when a character whose growth I have watched for years and invested in is killed off, never to be seen again, unless in flashbacks. This has happened on Person of Interest, The Good Wife, among others. I feel silly when the death of a fictional character gets me down – when I can’t help to stop the tear that rolls down my cheek when it happens.

Art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. When confronted about the killing off of a major character on The Good Wife, show-runners Robert and Michelle King say that “We’ve all experienced the sudden death of a loved one in our lives. It’s terrifying how a perfectly normal and sunny day can suddenly explode with tragedy. Television, in our opinion, doesn’t deal with this enough: the irredeemability of death. Your last time with the loved one will always remain your last time.”

I feel quite the opposite – television has taken up the random death of main characters up with gusto. They are shot dead in unfortunate circumstances, or slain using other means – perhaps imitating life, in that it feels really easy to die nowadays.

You could be walking down a street when a shoot-out between policemen and thieves erupts and you end up being collateral damage. The increase of deaths on TV, to me, is merely a reflection of life at the moment. It is a necessary reminder of how easy it is to die.


My grandfather is 100 years old, and has recently been in and out of hospital a couple of times. He is blessed to have made it this far – many of us can only hope to reach 70.

Whenever I have gone to hospital to visit him, along with other members of my family, I have wondered what to say to him. I often feel like there is nothing to say. In as much as death is an impending end to all our lives, I have not dared to bring this up with anyone in my family, partly out of fear of the outcome (I would be called insensitive), and a sense of it not being right.

But what happens if I have not said my last words to him and death, in its usual inconsiderate manner, decides to take him from us? What will I say to myself then, to salve the wounds my fear to speak will have inflicted on me? Why are we so afraid to confront the most certain fact of human life – that we are going to die?


The act of living is an act of defiance.

A Shot in the Dark

Michael Onsando
25 February ,2014

No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger nurses the trigger of an AK – 47 is less a tip than a ransom.

– Teju Cole, Every Day is for The Thief

Fact: Between March and August 2013 the police in Kenya shot, and killed, at least 100 ‘suspects.’

I have seen far too many guns in the last year. There is a certain despair to having an AK 47 pointed to your face and knowing that you are at the mercy of a twitch of the index finger. The one thing I have learned is that the fear that runs down your spine is the same whether the gun is held by a policeman, a thief or a terrorist. There is no such thing as a comforting bullet hole. There is no such thing as friendly fire.

Let me go back a little.

In September 2013 Cabinet Secretary Ole Lenku said there is no such thing as extra judicial killing. This is something that completely refuses to sit well with me. So I write about it here. One comment tells me that the essay is good, in theory, but completely out of touch with the realities on the ground. There will always be lives that must be lost in order for other lives to thrive. There will always be lives that we need to keep in the fringes. Lives will always be lost to keep lives from being lost.

In conversation, a friend noted to me that the people will always believe the police. He said that you could be shot and your own friends will start to doubt. Questions will come to light: “He always had money though, and he didn’t earn that much,” and other stories will be told about you. Another friend writes about a run in with the police where the (laughable) idea of rights came up.

On February 2nd the police raided a mosque and ‘officially’ killed 2 people. This, we are told, is the price of the war on terror. We must be on our toes. We must kill “them” or they will kill “us.” The media claims to be impartial and asking the difficult questions, yet when a survivor tells her story, no one airs it.

Reports are written. Reports will always be written. One quotes a police officer as telling a detainee “We are tired of taking you to the court. Next time, we will finish you off in the field.”

This casual-ness is what tires me. The ease with which we accept, and continue to accept, the precarity of our situation. It’s not that it happens but that, for the most part, it is okay. It is okay that the holding of a trigger while asking for a bribe is not seen as a death threat while it, very much, is.


I don’t like guns. Mechanisms that were created solely for the purpose of taking life away or, at the very least, causing serious injury, make me uncomfortable.

I find it impossible to celebrate death. It does not bring me a sense of comfort to know that the police are out there shooting people on the ground of being suspicious.

In Thrown, Like Another, Wambui Mwangi writes:

If you are a young girl, at the moment you become aware of yourself enough to look up and take in the workings of the world, a woman has always-already just been beaten or raped or killed.  Because the food was late, or burned.  Because she smiled at Another Man.  Because there was no reason.  Not-you has always just been killed.   Or she will be, soon.  Later today, or tomorrow, or perhaps it happened yesterday. Not-you’s body was found raped, torn apart, mutilated, dead.

In the same vein, I’d like to think about not you as a Kenyan. They have always been killed. Perhaps they were walking in the wrong place, saying the wrong things, looking at the wrong building. The difference is you have never identified with them. You have never known that not you could be you. It has never occurred to you that next time someone is shot, in the still of the night, it could be you.

This has kept you shielded.

It is a burden, emotion. Feeling is a labour, and it is exhausting. It is more comforting to tell yourself that the word “suspect” is a verdict.

People who are suspects are, more often than not, bad people who deserve to die. Our court system is broken and prisons are full. It is more efficient this way. These are the half truths we tell ourselves. They help us keep our faculties. They keep the other world, the one where poverty exists, at a safe distance. Far from everything, and everyone, it’s easy to imagine that it is a beautiful world.

The problem with the bubble of security is the bubble of security. By its nature, it is fragile and precarious, it can pop at any time. And, when your bubble pops it will only be your bubble.When that mugging, that police harassment, that carjacking happens, it will only happen to you. Your friends, whose bubbles are still intact, will tell you that you are over-reacting, if only a little. That you need to get over it, everyone goes through these things. From the safety of a security bubble it is easy to dismiss the pain of others.

“The government is murdering us.”

– Cleric in Mombasa

I’ve seen far too many guns in the last year. They’ve been pointed at me by thieves and by police.

Militarisation is a long word. Death is a shorter one. Death is one that is easier to understand. Death is a word that is easily seen, easily imagined, easily known, easily feared. At some point, we must see these deaths as deaths. We must see these deaths as a price. And, in being a price, we must ask what  they are paying for.

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

– Keguro Macharia

Dear Africa: Don’t Let Them Take The Internet

Brenda Wambui
28 January ,2014

By July 2014 or January 2015, the African Union (AU) is expected to ratify the African Union Convention on Confidence and Security in Cyberspace (AUCC). The AU is having its 22nd assembly in Addis Ababa currently, running until 1st February, and the ratification was to take place at this meeting until it was postponed.

Such legislation is necessitated by the rapid globalization of crime, largely made possible by the internet. Africa lags behind and is an easy target due to poor understanding of the security risks it faces, the lack of tools to ensure cyber security and lack of human resources to create a proper legal framework.

Cybercrime is a huge problem in Africa. It is defined as any crime committed using a computer, network or hardware device, for example computer hacking, child pornography and cyberbullying. By 2012, South Africa was home to the third highest number of cybercrime victims in the world, trailing only Russia and China. 419 scams, in which the victim is contacted by a “rich person” with a conundrum and asked to help out (usually by sending some money or sharing bank account numbers and other personal information) for a share of the wealth, did originate in Nigeria after all.

Kenya was estimated to have lost KES 2 billion ($23 million) to cybercrime in 2013 – and close to 1,000 Kenyans fell victim to fraud on a daily basis. The hardest hit industry was banking, with many attacks going undetected due to poor prevention and detection mechanisms. Sensitive data such as stolen debit and credit card information from banks can be easily purchased online. It is easy to see why a legal framework for cybersecurity in Africa is necessary.

The AUCC, however much it is well intended, must not be ratified in its current form. It infringes on Africans’ right to privacy and freedom of expression, is heavy-handed, places too much power in the hands of judges and could kill the free sharing and innovation that fuel the engine that is the internet.

Judges are allowed to intercept the electronic communications of individuals without their permission if it is found to be within “public interest”.

But what is public interest?

Its definition is vague, and the interpretation is subjective. For example, we may justify the jailing of a dissident based on interception of emails criticizing the government as being “good for the country”. As is wont to happen in many African countries, this “public interest” will likely end up being the interests of politicians and wealthy corporations/individuals, or even worse, the government. Your information may easily fall into any of these hands, and there is nothing you would be able to do to stop it.

The same applies to hate speech, racist and xenophobic content, which are not clearly defined and are left up to the judge’s interpretation. Ironically, the draft does not include hate speech due to gender or sexual orientation, which are two of the biggest reasons people are bullied online. Many judges on the continent, let us face it, are also not well versed in matters internet. To give them such power is akin to handing a power saw to a child.

The possibility of such interception will also lead to the curtailment of the freedom of speech, either due to self-censorship or interception by the government. Due to fear of prosecution and the subjectivity in the interpretation of public interest, the internet may cease to be a space for active discussions on the state of African countries and instead become permeated with fear and silence.

The AUCC also gives states the mandate to create a data protection authority, and then goes ahead to contradict itself. It says: “The protection authority shall comprise parliamentarians, deputies, senators, senior judges of the Tribunal of Accounts, Council of State, Civil and Criminal Appeal Court…” then one paragraph later, says that members of the authority should not be serving in government. Members of the authority would also enjoy full immunity for views expressed in the exercise of their functions, and would not receive instructions from any authority. This sounds very ripe for abuse.

In these times when user-generated content is king, one wonders who would be held responsible if content on a website was found to be in contravention of this law – the site owner or the user? How easy would it be to locate this user, what with anonymity and geographical dispersion? If we were to hold the site owner responsible, wouldn’t this curtail the recent IT boom we have witnessed in Kenya and other African countries so far? The AUCC wants to hold corporations accountable for offences committed using their technology, and for them to frequently test their technologies for vulnerability. Who would want to innovate when they could end up responsible for content they did not generate? Wouldn’t the cost of compliance be too high? Should we stifle innovations such as ecommerce and m-banking in the war against cybercrime?

The AUCC was drafted with little consultation with stakeholders in the industry across the continent. This is evident, as the scope in many cases is too wide, and the measures impractical. How can we attempt to regulate a space so crucial to African economies without consulting the people who work in the industry day-to-day, especially when there is little understanding of cybercrime and cybersecurity by the lawmakers themselves? The last time the world witnessed such an attempt was with the SOPA and PIPA bills in the USA, and they failed because of a similar approach.

The internet succeeds because it allows freedom of expression, sharing and collaboration. The cost of owning a web-page is currently also low. This is how it accelerates innovation. The AUCC is a half-baked solution to a serious problem. It will cost us potential jobs and infringe on fundamental freedoms and rights, all while stifling innovation and barely reducing cybercrime. Yes, we need a solution to poor cybersecurity in Africa, but the draft AUCC is not it, and we must stop it from being ratified.

What can you do?

  1. 1. Read the draft AUCC here.

  2. 2. If you are in Kenya, sign this petition to parliament and follow this blog to keep abreast with the happenings with regards to the draft. Contacting your MP with your contention will also go a long way.

  3. 3. If you are not in Kenya, please set up a petition for your country directed to your legislative body and ask them to oppose this legislation.

  4. 4. Share this widely to ensure that your networks understand the effects of this draft.

We are lucky that the ratification has been postponed, and that the CIPIT was given until May 2014 to come up with a memo from Kenya on the issues they have with the AUCC and suggested solutions. This battle will be easier won if other countries join the fight to keep the internet free and fair, a space where people can actually experience democracy.

We stand to lose our freedom to express ourselves on one of the few platforms through which we can hold our leaders accountable, through which we can, and have used to create change in our countries. We stand to lose our right to privacy, and dominion over our information. We stand to lose the internet as we know it.

Many things have been taken from Africa. Don’t let them take the internet.

Interrogating The Nyumba Kumi Initiative

Guest Writer
26 November ,2013

by Shitemi Khamadi

Two weeks ago this essay was published on Brainstorm about the Nyumba Kumi initiative. This is a reply.

The ambitious Nyumba Kumi plan in which people should know at least ten of their neighbours underlines how critically the government views security. It brings to the door step of individuals the mandate to ensure their own safety by knowing a few things about their neighbours. Guided by the reality that development is largely in the hands of devolved governments, security remains what could define the success of the national government.

It could mean that the government appreciates that it cannot handle the huge task of security on its own. Certainly, community policing has not worked to the expected results hence a rethink of policy.

Borrowing heavily from Tanzania, this system needs deeper thinking. In Tanzania, it worked perfectly because of the Ujamaa or socialism policy. To them, the African saying “I am because we are, and because we are so I am” is well exemplified. Communities develop a natural interest for one another and this becomes a springboard to other issues like security. For Kenya, so much leads to a pessimistic blank cheque on its possible success.

There are many issues that come to mind with regards to its application in Kenya. One can argue that the taxpayer pays government, so it should provide better security by employing both human and technology. This argument fails to consider the reality that resources are always scarce and everyone has the primary concern of their safety and should collaborate with government to make security both a personal and institutional endeavor. When you decide to conceal or not reveal a security concern to relevant officers, you tacitly accept to be a target of insecurity in one way or another.

There were 75,733 reported cases of insecurity in 2012 as published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in its 2012 report. In that same report 16,388 of ammunition and firearms were recovered and surrendered to police officers.

Police ratio to human population dynamics is also telling. The data available is not specific to Kenya, though. The ratio of police to citizens throughout Africa is roughly half of that in North America and Europe, with rates of 180 per 100,000 compared with 346 and 325 respectively according to UNODC report of 2009. It gets more interesting in Kenya, where this leads to an understaffed and struggling police force are a lack of training, poor equipment and general incompetence.

Corruption is rife in the sector. While the police are poorly paid and live in deplorable conditions, this does not fully explain why they keep taking bribes every now and then. It does not follow that if they are well remunerated, they will desist from taking the bribes. Even the most or highly paid people in government are not immune from corruption. Perhaps this is more of a software issue or concern, not just a hardware one.

When one thinks of the issues that hamper the possibility of successful implementation of Nyumba Kumi, one gets an idea of how well or far it will go.

First, Kenyans are heavily individualistic. The nation is wired solely on the principle of “me first”. Hardly does anyone create an interest in the other beyond one’s house. This is reflected every time you walk around and see people staring as others are being robbed of things, at best. They cannot even scream to assist – they just watch and move ahead. It is also reflected in other areas like jobs and routine processes where injustices go unabated and those in the know take comfort that it isn’t them. Injustice anywhere, is injustice everywhere, so asserted Martin Luther King Jnr.

Second, the villages offer good insights. In many villages, a neighbour knows who the thieves, night runners, witches, sorcerers and robbers are. They share moments together with this knowledge, including borrowing things like salt. This knowledge in no way means they feel less secure or unprotected or feel a greater urgency to spill the beans to higher authorities. Will Nyumba Kumi change anything in such scenarios?

Third, in many urban residential areas, especially low-cost housing neighbourhoods, thieves strike a deal with residents not to steal in neighbourhoods where they live. So, they practice their illegal trade in other estates and establishment and come back to share the loot with their neighbours. What will inspire a neighbour to a thief to reveal them if they lack evidence and have not been victims? Furthermore, they partake of the loot in some way, so where and how does Nyumba Kumi come in?

Fourth, it will largely depend on honesty and willingness. I could tell you, or even give you my business card indicating where I work. If necessary, we could even go to some office somewhere and I could convince you that is my work station. It could be a cover for what really I do for a living. How many honest people do we have out here? What is the price of honesty and diligence anyway in Kenya? The dustbins.

Fifth, the police are as culpable as criminals. Hardly does any crime happen anywhere without the knowledge of the police. They are stakeholders with the thieves and they advise them on where to go and where not to. They even delay in responding to a call from a victim to ensure that by the time they get there, the robbers have left. They then get a share of the loot. They then easily kill you when they are tired of you, when you refuse to share the loot with them or when you contravene some agreement with them.

Sixth, why bother with the small shoplifter? Only the poor have it rough. They work hardest and are paid the least. The mighty are comfortable, caressed by the powers that are, especially when their source of wealth is questionable. Our society celebrates grand thieves and even offers them strategic offices to ensure they continue stealing and disenfranchising the public. Voters prefer liars to truth tellers when it comes to the ballot. They want money now, and they forget about tomorrow. The big man knows well that an empty stomach is a poor political adviser and once he recaptures the seat, he ensures the poor remain where they are as it serves his interests best. So why bother with the small ones yet those at the top drive cars that make them immune to Kenyan potholes? Is the smaller thief more important than the grand one?

At the end of the day, it comes down to individual commitment and sacrifice. No amount of top-down approaches, especially when artificially superimposed, will see the light of day. A worthy effort to make people know and like each other, however, may. On paper, Nyumba Kumi is terrific. That is as far as it goes.

The writer is a blogger on governance, economics and development in Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @oleshitemi

Nyumba Kumi And Institutional Failure In Kenya

Brenda Wambui
12 November ,2013

After the Westgate attack of September 2013, Kenyans were forced to perform a post-mortem of the situation, and many questions came up. The one thing that was agreed upon was that the number of institutional failures that led up to the attack was jarring.

The terrorists were said to have rented a shop in the mall, and have transferred ammunition there over a period of time. It was said that some terrorists came in through the Kenya-Somalia border disguised as refugees, and that they registered at Daadab before travelling further south. It was said that one of the terrorists may have made off by blending in with escaping hostages. Some of the suspected terrorists were living in Kenya for a while under aliases, operating right under the noses of the police. A leaked document (which may just be propaganda) indicates that the police had been tipped off by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) about the attack, but had refused to act for some reason. Some members of the police were said to have been killed by friendly fire from members of the army – signifying the disorderly manner in which the attack was handled.

We are yet to hear a conclusive explanation of what happened that week – an account of what happened to each of the terrorists and the number of casualties and fatalities, how the terrorists got into our country, who they collaborated with and the conclusive action the state intends to take to secure our country from terrorism. What we have had is knee-jerk reactions. Our MPs debated on building a fence around parliament to keep themselves safe. They also debated on closing Daadab refugee camp. The President also instituted the Nyumba Kumi initiative.

This initiative, borrowed from Tanzania, involves dividing households into groups of ten, and the people within those ten households are to get to know each other and share information with their leader about arising threats. They also share with the leader information on any new people within the households. This means that a foreigner, or potential terrorist, cannot hide among them.

Most Kenyans are on edge about the threats that terrorism poses to our society, therefore they are willing to participate in any initiative that promises to make their lives safer. However, in instituting such an initiative, the government is basically accepting the failure of the police service, whose mandate is to protect and serve Kenyan citizens. It is an admission of defeat, and as opposed to committing to bettering the police service, we are looking for ways to circumvent its failure.

This is extremely trendy in Kenya today. When an institution fails to perform its functions, instead of committing to its rehabilitation and reform, we circumvent its failure and create a new mechanism that is not entrenched in the constitution to perform its function. For example, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) is tasked with ensuring that public officers maintain a high standard of ethics and integrity within the standards defined by the constitution. Its powers are entrenched in the constitution, however, it has not been as successful as Kenyans hoped. In light of this failure, the President launched a website where Kenyans can report corruption directly to him.

This is absurd on many levels. Should Kenyans expect that the President himself will go through each and every complaint of corruption forwarded to him? Does he have the capacity? After he reads it, then what? Who does he second it to? Why not have us report it directly to this person or entity? Why form yet another mechanism to deal with corruption when we have one that is enshrined in our constitution? Why not work on strengthening it and making sure it is able to perform its duties? What happens when the President’s initiative fails? Do we build another website to replace it?

The same applies to the Nyumba Kumi initiative. It is an indictment of the failure of our police service. They have failed to act on intelligence reports. They have failed to curb terrorism. They actively take bribes from the highest bidder and look the other way, with no regard to the lives of the people they have just handed over to death. This is frequently attributed to their job conditions – it is one of the most thankless jobs in the country. Their lives are constantly in danger, they are underpaid and unmotivated, and the culture of corruption has thrived for so many years in the police service, it will be difficult to kill it.

We have adopted Nyumba Kumi to overcome police failure. The system was at its height in Tanzania between the 1960s – 1980s when the country was still under Ujamaa, and the only party was Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). The people were few, and everyone either worked for government or government-owned corporations. Nyumba Kumi worked largely because of this system of government. However, since Tanzania became capitalist, the effectiveness of Nyumba Kumi has waned. The system has more or less been abandoned in Tanzania – with the rise of private sector jobs, rural to urban migration and people constantly moving in and out of houses, it is almost impossible to keep track of one’s neighbours. People are too busy working to keep up with the increasingly hard economic conditions, there is little time for brotherhood and being your neighbour’s keeper. When one considers that the spirit of brotherhood and concern for one’s neighbour is more in Tanzania than in Kenya, one is left to wonder how the system is expected to work to curb crime and terrorism here.

Another issue is that we still have remnants of the provincial administration in place, and the chief and his underlings are in a position to carry out these duties if they are willing to extend themselves. If they were to work in collaboration with the police, they could successfully smoke out criminals and terrorists from residential areas. This system would basically be a duplication of their job – passing on their responsibility to citizens yet again, a silent admission of institutional failure.

The potential for misuse of Nyumba Kumi is high. Since it has its roots in communism, it creates a network ripe for misuse as communist policies and institutions have little regard for human rights and the rights of the individual. There is potential for it to be used to create a “Big Brother” state, where the government wields totalitarian power over its people not for their sake, but for its own. It could serve as a tool for placation of the masses in times of genuine concern over the government’s misdeeds, and it could be used to justify telling on your neighbours for not having government friendly views, under the guise of “being one” and fighting crime.

In North Korea, for example, there is usually a government spy in a group of more than three people, and any criticism of the regime is forbidden. People are constantly reported to authorities by their very own neighbours. Those found guilty of anything the regime terms wrong end up in political prison camps. Encouraging neighbours to spy on one another is a common tactic in Fascist regimes, which whip up the spirit of nationalism whenever they are questioned about their tactics. Indeed, Nyumba Kumi is being justified as a patriotic initiative. This leads to a constant state of fear and silence among citizens because they do not want to face the wrath of the totalitarian state if found to be out of line.

Collection of intelligence on virtually anyone becomes extremely simple, and this information has the potential to be used for good as well as for evil intents. For example, if one wants to target someone for assassination, all one would have to do is access the information filed on the said person by his neighbours, and he would have an accurate representation of the basic on goings in the person’s life, making it easy to know when to strike. The police may use this information to extort people, while doing nothing about the reports. The government and other related parties would virtually have eyes everywhere, and they cannot be trusted not to misuse this power.

Community based policing has also been tried in Kenya several times before, and according to our previous Commissioner of Police, Matthew Iteere, it has failed. This was largely because of lack of faith in the police, and the officers’ negative attitude towards the initiative. Nyumba Kumi is a form of community policing, and when Kenyans find that they have suspicious neighbours and report to their leader, she will ultimately report it to the police, the very same people who have hindered the success of community based policing before.

As bad as this sounds, we must not give up on institutions that are enshrined in our constitution. We need to embark on deliberate efforts to reform them.

Democracies are only as good as their institutions – presidents and their regimes come and go, but institutions remain, and the people who run them largely remain the same. The process of institutional reform is long and hard, but it must be done for this exact reason.

When a new regime takes power, it largely inherits the old regime’s civil servants. When institutions have failed, even when a revolutionary group gets into power, they will likely fall into the same behavioural pattern as the last regime. We saw this during the Mwai Kibaki regime – he came in promising reform and the end of corruption, but at the end of his presidency, this was not so – because of the institutions he inherited and their entrenched corruption.

Institutions are the only way for the people to exert their power and influence in government – because we cannot all be in government, we create institutions to work for us. Because we do not want these institutions to have absolute power, we separate their powers. That is why government is divided into the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Because these institutions need checks and balances, we enshrine their pillars into the constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. When these institutions fail, we as a people need to be very concerned, and should devote ourselves to working to ensure that they begin to succeed.

The first thing we need to do is stop creating many institutions whose functions end up duplicating those of already existing institutions. For institutional reform to be feasible, there needs to be integration across institutions, and this becomes difficult when they are too many, or when they are unaware of where their mandate stops and that of a duplicate institution begins. They need to be able to work together to achieve a common goal, and share information and resources with each other that will enable them to do so.

Second, we need to realise that we have enough laws, maybe even more than enough. It is not laws we lack, it is implementation. Our constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, and we have largely failed in implementing to the extent that it should be. We are guilty of constant intent to change, but we rarely ever make the effort to do so. Before we legislate, it is necessary to pay attention to the contextual realities that actually shape our society, and come up with workable solutions, not impressive pieces of paper that are impossible to implement.

Lastly, both the citizenry and the government must play their roles in the implementation of good governance. The government must accept to be transparent and keep the citizens informed of their actions, and the citizens must actively hold the government accountable. Procedures – be they administrative or fiscal, need to be simplified and the number of participants in these procedures reduced to the bare minimum, making it easy to pinpoint individual failure. People who have failed their institutions need to be held personally liable, and not only fired, but prosecuted as well. The fight against corruption must remain spirited, and we must protect the freedom of individual and collective expression for this to be possible. Media gags only serve to impede institutional reform. Our legal system must also be free from duress, and the political system needs to refrain from pressuring them and intervening unnecessarily, as they have taken to doing recently.

We need to practice adaptive governance, where there is an iterative process of experimentation, learning and adaptation. As we proceed with every step, we will learn how our problems can and cannot be solved, and we will build public goodwill for these reforms as well as the capacity to implement them.

A good example of this is Rwanda’s Imhigo Program, where objectives towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and other local goals are set in a bottom – up manner. The learnings from each set of experiments in the process are captured and fed into the next wave of experiments, and every few years, there is an assessment of progress, adjustments where necessary and further steps forward. There is a public presentation by district mayors to a senior government official using testimonies and physical evidence of performance, and the lessons learned from different areas are captured and transferred to other parts of the country.

This program is deeply rooted in Rwandese culture, and has led to the adoption of small initiatives like homestead gardens to big ones like construction of schools across the country to provide quality, free education. It has become an important measure of performance for local government, leading to socio-economic development, and it is one of the largest contributors to poverty reduction in Rwanda. We need to create our own home-grown solution to remedy institutional failure, and we need to be willing to support and implement it over the long-term.

We already have enough laws to fight insecurity, corruption and other ills, it is the implementation of these laws that we need to ensure. Otherwise, initiatives like Nyumba Kumi being implemented by our police service in its current state will only serve to bring repression closer to the people – not to protect them.

Thought Begets Thought

Michael Onsando
24 September ,2013

 Strangers are not simply those who are not known in this dwelling, but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognized as not belonging, as being out of place.

–          Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters (Embodied Others in Post Coloniality)

At this time, in this country, many people are looking inwards. Trying to find themselves, some form of self actualization that will help cope with the happenings at Westgate Mall. How does one look at the images and not think “that could be me?” And I mean everyone, no matter what class – from the watchmen to the java lovers.This feeling, that quickly fades, replaced with guilt. Guilt for being slightly relieved that it wasn’t you. Then guilt, fades into empathy, into the work of imagining how the people who were shopping, buying coffee, working, washing, meeting could have felt. Trying to imagine the terror as they watched a gunman open fire; seeing bodies around them drop before the muzzle was in their direction. Then, after the empathy, comes the anger. It is in this anger you hear statements like “They will pay”

“They will pay”


In Strange Encounters, Sara Ahmed describes how a body is recognized as a stranger. How a society is conditioned to accept a certain body as one that belongs, and any other body as strange. The strange, she argues, has been put in our minds to mean the dangerous. All the way from those horrible movies where the aliens would always come to take over the world to the idea that somehow a different person in the neighbourhood would be a robber. This creates an “us” and, invariably, a “them.”

In Kenya it is extremely easy to identify a person who does not “belong” in a certain space. We have a created a very rigid definition of who a Kenyan is that anyone who does not directly fit that description can be spotted a mile away. And, even within the people that are Kenyan in the strict societal definition, the class divide is very easy to spot. There is a hunching, a hiding that the people who do not belong in a certain space have been taught to carry out. To try and go back into themselves, stay out of the way of others. As if somehow granting these individuals the ‘privilege’ to be in ‘our’ space should be enough.

We see this every day. The way a poor Kenyan will carry themselves in the presence of the upper class. How a person who cannot speak proper English will still strive to use it in certain company even if everybody in that space understands Swahili. And how these people will look down at the person who is trying to fit in. Trying to create an identity for himself within the group.

This sort of ‘us and them’ mentality often does more harm then good. In the rugby pitch, for example, after a game the team always prays a Christian prayer. All players on the team are Christian. One would say that, because all players are Christian, there is no need to diversify the prayers. However, it could also be argued that the situation created is where an individual who is not Christian is constantly reminded that they do not belong and, eventually, they go to a place where they feel that they ‘belong’. This space will, more often be with people of their community, which acts just as vehemently to keep the stranger, who is Christian, out. Where the community is saying that the people who are in this space are Christian, those who aren’t need find “their own” space.

The logic here is circular. With the rigorous protection every community does for itself there is an alienation of members who are attempting integration. This alienation confirms the fact that ‘they’ are different. Now they will go back to where they are the norm, where they ‘belong’ and protect those interests, alienating someone else. Repeat ad infinitum.

I write this as I think about the Kenyans who are Muslims. I think about how they have been ostracized over the years and how, following this attack, more is to come. I have already been warned about that people have gathered stones and began to throw them at cars with Somalis in them. I’ve been in conversations where the words “these Muslims” were thrown around with a correctness, and solemn nods. Where people say “We have let these people stay in our land for too long.”

Our land.

Forget the fact that most of the Kenyan born Somalis, Indians etc have been here for generations. Forget the fact that most other tribes didn’t even originate here. Forget the fact that, if you go for back, we all moved into this land at some point. We assume that, in according other communities the right to exist we are doing them a favour. We aren’t. We’re being human.

The words “Muslim” and “terrorist” are not synonyms.

And should never been used interchangeably, or even viewed in the same light. To do so is, not only to expose a deep seated ignorance of the faith, but to expose a disregard for human beings. We are all different and, because of that, we are all the same.