In many Bantu languages this word fundi exists. It usually means a master, a guru of some sort. Someone who has learned the art of whatever it is they are a fundi of (maybe if we had created the education system degrees would be called “fundi of medicine”). The internet is a mess when it comes to finding the etymology of non English words. Urban dictionary guy says that the word fundi comes from the Turkish word funda, which translates to healthier. Other sources (also urban dictionary) on the internet tie it to the Nguni word umfundusi, meaning teacher – I prefer this definition.
What we can derive from the shape of the word itself shows the lineage of thought. One can easily see the progression from mtu anayeunda ni fundi. From mwanafunzi through to fundi via a process of kufunzwa. The word itself sounds something like “to make a fundi of” the process of kufunzwa has no other outcome other than the fundi.
The most natural meaning of the word fundi to me is “one who fixes.” That’s how I experienced its use in my life growing up. When something was broken we would take it to its corresponding fundi. Fundi wa mbao, fundi wa nguo, fundi wa viatu, fundi wa saa, fundi wa stima and so forth and so forth.
The fundi can only fix, however, because they are the master. They know how it works. And, in knowing how it works, they can identify what isn’t working as it should, like the mechanic in that story, the fundi is not charging for the moment of labour, but for the moments learning labour.
Nowadays, the most likely association of the term “fundi” is a car mechanic – and not any kind of car mechanic. Not the ones you find at autoexpress or DT Dobie, rather the kind of fundi you find on the side of the street with overgrown overalls. Where you make sure you don’t leave your car with a full tank of fuel or you might just be donating fuel to his errands. The type of fundi we look upon with distrust and a level of disdain. Who we are always in a tussle with about price.
But I like the classical definition more – an artisan or craftsperson. I like how the process mwanafunzi – funza – fundi – unda, speaks about a different way of organizing and seeing the world. I like the equality in dignity of labour that comes from knowing you can be fundi wa (whatever) (although kina daktari and wakili still stand outside for some reason). It is well known that culture hides in the breaths between words and this word fundi, for some reason, gives me hope that something else is possible.
Maybe this is why I have always loved watching fundis at work. When watching this work I am reminded of Gibran’s work is love made visible. Through their hands you can see years of repeated effort condensed into simple motion. And their approach to a often looks like how someone would approach a puzzle, not insurmountable but rather as something that needs patience and can be overcome.
In the greater glamourisation of things I see in the word fundi, the image of the mad genius. The person so fixated by their one problem (making the perfect, whatever) that everything else comes secondary. And in seeing this I go back to the dignity of labour, that every part is necessary and should be seen and treated as necessary for the motion of the greater society. And that each of these masters, having dedicated themselves to one part of the larger picture are also people themselves dedicated to a larger goal. And because work is love, the larger goal is ultimately, a history of love. A history of love layered over hundreds and hundreds of generations. And to be a fundi is to add your layer, your thin layer of skin, over the top of whichever corner of the world ulifunzwa kuunda.
“In the colonial countries, the spirit of indulgence is dominant at the core of the bourgeoisie; and this is because the national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons. It follows the Western bourgeoisie along its path of negation and decadence without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention, stages which are an acquisition of that Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances.”
- Franz Fanon, The Pitfalls of National Conciousness
Before I begin I should probably say that this essay might wind a little – bear with me, the thing I’m trying to talk about is not as straightforward as I’d like it to be. As a writer and someone who dips his feet in the arts industry every once in a while, I’ve been fascinated by trying to understand where our hearts and minds are turned to. Where do we get our stories from, who are we listening to? Who are we reading? Basically, who forms the identities that we shape ourselves around?
This is mainly because it is the work of the artist to craft work that can be consumed by their people. And this is often to look at their current palate and ask questions like “how is this cuisine made?” “what goes into this mix?” and “where can I find these ingredients?”
Looking into the past we can see, with some clarity, the cycle of influences on the zeitgeist by simply following things like top songs, movies and books of a period. We see the (for the most part) cycle between pursuing purely Western interests to vivid periods of “decolonization” where there is a peak in consumption of local art before the inevitable swing back to the consumption of Western media.
Of course, there are deviations in this data. And to say “this is being consumed” is not to say that “this has entirely been ignored.” But there is something in, say, what the globalization of rap culture says about where we, as a whole, are looking for our social cues. And it only takes one look around to see who is in charge of how we dress.
But this is not an essay about the depth of Western influence on our lives. I’m reminded that to see moving towards ourselves as a moving “back in time” is reductive. This is actually an essay on infrastructure, building, growth and imagination.
Take David Ndii:
“Before London built its iconic underground, it first built the world’s first modern sewerage system. Before Japan industrialised, it reformed governance and modernised and massively expanded education. The East Asian Tiger economies industrialisation was preceded by the Green Revolution.”
Because it’s one thing to say we are listening to music from here or watching there’s TV shows. That takes away from us in certain ways but mendable ways. It’s another thing altogether when we have defined what it means to have infrastructural progress by these same metrics. In his essay on Nationalism Fanon talks about how the middle class of colonized nations will define themselves by their ability to enjoy the same level of decadence that the previous middle class (comprised mostly of colonisers) has enjoyed. In order for this to happen they have to be ready to keep the means of production running as it was. Which will basically mean further enforcing the social engineering that brought in by the colonial state. We already spoke here about how Kenya is still (for the most part) stuck in models of production where we are a nation for export. Which is to say, mainly, exporting raw materials overseas for value addition before importing finished products at a much higher cost. Not only that, the goods we decide to maximize on are not necessarily aligned to our needs as a nation.
“The search for truth in local attitudes is a collective affair.”
- Franz Fanon, The Pitfalls of National Conciousness
Of course this all begins to have some kind of listening from the state (which opens up a whole conversation on trust, citizen investment in state actions and modes of governance). But even framing this as the state “listening” sounds like a sort of naomba serekali. It sees the government as having the power to listen and discern what is of value and what isn’t. When rather the level of listening needed needs to come up to a level of inclusion in the decision making process rather than this “daddy knows best” form of governance that we find ourselves stuck in.
And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice our state’s aversion to any form of public participation. All one has to do is look at the Huduma Namba process, or at the implementation of the CBC or even at the SGR project.
The problem, of course, with state building is there are no pauses for thought. The work cannot be suspended for one month as we hold statewide dialogue about re-organising from the ground up. The people invested in the already existing system will always seek its continuation for their prosperity. And it’s wrong to assume that everybody who dreams of a different order has the best interests of the people at heart. But this isn’t to say steps can’t be taken to create a more inclusive Kenya, organized for Kenyans. Instead it is to ask at what we might need to put aside in the short term to create a more plausible long term situation.
After all, there’s only so many times we can raise the debt ceiling in the name of keeping up appearances while a little rain still causes “flash floods” across the country.
“Some of the kids only write about being deaf, others make a joke, other make a mention, some ignore the topic altogether. Not too different from the choices poets make anywhere else with gender or skin colour.”
- Sign language, Reves
If there’s one thing we know about the colonial era is that it did a number on us when it comes to figuring out our needs, priorities and, in general, centering ourselves. How the state was set up was purely to find a way to maximize the amount of benefit that can be derived from the protectorate for the benefit of our overlords. Large tracts of land were set aside to create cash crops, which were basically grown to sell overseas, industry was not set up by the “traditional capitalist” formula “see a need, fill a need.” Or rather, the needs being filled were not being decided by an inward looking metric but rather “how can we leverage this to make us happy.”
The re-organisation of this need has been felt in ripples across the continent where mineral, resource, farm etc – rich areas find themselves stricken with poverty and conflict because of the exploitative nature of the organisations that were (and continue to be) set up in those areas. Congo with its rare earth metals comes to mind. However, more closer to home, I think of crops like coffee and tea. Crops that we planted here en mass, and even hold ourselves proud on being the most recognizable global brands (as we should) despite despite coffee farming increasingly losing profitability and tea bonuses dropping.
Writing on the dual legacy of colonial cash crop production Tannick Pengl and Philip Roessler write:
“Across Africa, colonial authorities harnessed the economic, coercive and administrative power of their new states to increase production and bring these primary commodities to market. Toward this end, colonial governments provided extension services to increase yields, constructed processing centers, built roads and railways as well as power generation plants, administrative offices, hospitals and schools to service production areas.
Economic growth, thus, took off in those areas where cash crops were grown or minerals mined —- many of which were previously undeveloped due to a lack of infrastructure and a disproportionately high disease burden.”
It’s important to see the colonial state as what it was to avoid sounding like a conspiracy theory. They had no reason to “look out” for us. They were simply coming into a space to get what they can and go – which is okay. However, it is important to begin to understand what this means about the choices we make, the things we continue to continue, and the things that need to stop.
Further, it’s important to think about the way the choices we make is affected by the ways in which our choices are influenced by the way the setting of these blocks in place shielded or left us unshielded. For example, it easy to say that “colonialism was long in the past” if the decisions around the period were beneficial in your direction.
It’s harder to move on if you’re still hurting.
“I’m really happy for farmers in Kangundo who are freeing themselves of this colonial plant, coffee, to pursue other farming interests. As someone raised in one of those coffee farms I have no nice stories about coffee farming”
And when you and all your people have done something for generations, it’s hard for the logic of dismantling to be heard. In response to Ndinda’s tweet about coffee @dndeti talks about demand for a different crop “Kitothya” in Kangundo.
And how profitable it can be.
Which is exactly my point. Especially now when we have roads increasing accessibility to parts of the country that had been deemed “unnecessary” by the colonial government, we need to ask ourselves what we need and how to create an ecosystem that sustains that rather than is designed for export. A friend talks about how as children we were brought up for export. He says this when talking about our education and dreams of Harvard, Oxford and other legacy schools. This is obviously more complicated than “use your own schools,” but there is something in here about finding ways to make the landscape that we have work for us. And not even from a government perspective (although to imagine this change will happen without any policy work is madness) but from an us perspective. What decisions can we make within our own capacity to make Kenya work for us? And with the idea that Kenya should work for us in our minds, how would we navigate the world differently? How would we assign blame? How would we make our decisions?
But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?
Anyone who reads me regularly enough knows I love this quote. It’s mainly because this is the beginning. To look around and see the other as a part of ourselves. To move in a way that uplifts, builds, unifies and strengthens rather than destroys. Then maybe we can begin to find ways to make this space work inwards, building and growing together towards the shared dream.
Besides, we all know by now that we are limitless.
Despite Macdonald Mariga being cleared to run in the Kibra by-election, Tob Cohen’s thrilling murder, dreadlocks being made legal in schools(thus raising the hijab question) and the various electoral shenanigains, there is nothing to write about in the news this week. There is nothing to write about because there is nothing inherently new about what has happened. And whatever you want to read(or will be written) about any given issue would be an articulation of what you already know and agree/disagree with.
Let me explain.
The Tob Cohen story births three fundamental questions first “are rich men safe from the women they are living with?” Second, what is the complex relationship between the expat and the local (or should I use immigrant and native?)? Third “what is the perfect murder? And in what circumstances is murder, not necessarily acceptable but, understandable. Everything written will be based off these questions or an offshoot of the same. The dreadlocks story births questions on religious expression, a few jokes about weed smoking and maybe a long form piece on decolonization and the steps we have taken towards it. The same about Mariga and electoral shenanigans in the country, attainable documents and psychophancy.
After about 6 years of running this site I’m beginning to wonder if there really is anything new that actually happens. Whether the act of writing does the work we think it will do, spur people to change, to think differently, to act different or to even consider a different perspective. Especially this form of writing where we try to frame issues and provide larger contextual information. Perhaps journalists knew this all along, thus reporting aligns itself to telling the facts of the story, trying to be independent of any thought outside “this is the thing that happened. And this is what followed. Tune in next week for more data.”
Maybe it’s a form of public catharsis. So the people who read us can align themselves with the writers they agree with and hurl stones at the other side. In this way the column must be absolute, grounding itself in a certain side’s complete truth and avoiding any single nuance that may challenge or even taint that truth.
This is about how, after leafing through the papers the whole week, going through my favourite websites and trying to look at things from different perspectives this particular week there is nothing to write to you about. I thought of talking about the irony in Kenya trying to gain a security council seat despite our own problems with extra judicial killing but that just tied back to what we know – the police are killing people. Or perhaps the negative impact the SGR is having on the coast economy but that was both expected and would only lead to a question we have asked here severally – is our debt really serviceable or was the SGR project a white elephant gifted to the government by itself?
In the predictable nature of corruption Brenda Wambui writes about, well, the predictable nature of corruption. Not that it is predictable that we will corrupt something at somepoint, but that the steps that will be taken following the scandal are a dance that the people and the government are so used to that it happens like clockwork. In the same way it is becoming dull, writing this place out. There are few things that actually happen differently and even less that changes.
So in this same spirit I decided not to write a column this week. There’s no point in telling you the things that you already know and framing them to either fit or challenge your confirmation bias. This week, instead I have decided to share a picture of something that you could not have seen coming in any way or form.
Have a great week.
Questioner: How are we to treat others?
Ramana Maharshi: There are no others.
“We recognize someone as a stranger, rather than failing to recognize them.”
- Sara Ahmed
If there is anything that stokes the fuel of divisive politics it is this idea of the other. This creating a caricature of people who don’t identify the same as you do. What it does is it takes the way in which the things we are afraid of manifest and use them against us. This phenomenon is more easily known as stoking our fears.
I find the word stoke most appropriate because fear is like a fire. The face of fear is not tears and hiding but violence. And like a fire, fear catches on. Especially in this shareable world where we are all on the Internet sharing our experiences and perspectives it’s easy for fear to catch on and spread itself around. It becomes even easier when we fail to see the human on the other side of any conversation and leave ourselves susceptible to reducing people to a batch of traits that we have read somewhere.
In an eloquent thread on the recent reporting on xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Sho Majodzi outlines a few key truths:
“The reason we have bad leaders is because we want bad answers. We want people to say “foreign nationals are completely innocent” or to say “foreign nationals are completely responsible for crime.” We get dishonest leaders because we want things to be black and white and the truth very seldom is. Good leaders would require us to be more nuanced. Good leaders would require us to understand that more than one thing can be true at once. And that some things can be partially true. But good leaders are not successful because we don’t want the nuanced, complex and multidimensional truth. It’s not neat and easy to consume or attack. This is why we either get inactive leaders or populists.”
- Sho Majodzi on twitter
I’ve written about truths and histories here before. About how a lot of issues arise not through manipulation and falsehoods but because two or more things, known to be true, are held in opposition to each other rather than as parts of the whole. When this happens we eliminate the needs and experiences of the people around us and focus on keeping our selves unharmed. When we ground ourselves firmly and absolutely in our own perspectives we give those around us an impossible decision. Either to set their own experiences aside and live in a world that has been created by our fears (often to their own detriment) or to stand firm in their own ways of seeing and brace for impact.
“And towards this end, knowledge itself becomes a trap. Just because you are aware of oppression and the many ways in which it works doesn’t mean you have analysed the agreements you had made with the world. And because the agreements you have are based on factors rooted in this same world you are critiquing then how much of that world exists within you? Which of your decisions, attitudes, mannerisms and biases were decided for you – do they align with who you decided you want to be?”
I’d like to take this argument a step further and ask – how many times do you refuse to see the forest of truth for the trees? We’ve heard the age old advice – avoid fake news. But what seems to be even more urgent is to now avoid news that you agree with too deeply. News that has been tailored to confirm and affirm everything that you believe in. When this happens you must ask yourself “why?” “What am I failing to see? What other perspective exists to this story?”
And it’s even more urgent now. With big data companies like Cambridge analytica tearing through the data to create echo chambers we need to be able to sift through for ourselves. To place the burden on the people who create the fake news is to take the power out of our own hands. We must seek to read and understand things and people we disagree with. To see where they are coming from and what their fears are made of. It’s only with this nuanced approach will we be able to elect the leaders we need and begin the work to creating a truly shareable world.
“Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.”
Last week I wrote about public trust – especially in relation to the census process. Aside from voting this is perhaps one of the times that public participation is most needed in a governmental process. While they may be comfortable passing all kinds of laws without even considering the public’s view, the census process demands that they go to the citizen and ask that they share their data.
Which is probably why the rift between the citizenry and the government was most apparent in this time.
Nation building is a dance of sorts. It is impossible for the state to move forward with their plans without some form of permission, or at least complacence, from the citizenry. And, because of the scale of the project, it is impossible for it to be run like a campus group assignment. There must be some order, some selected representatives who are trusted to carry their people’s message for dialogue to occur on a national level, aligning goals, dreams and aspirations. Even further, nations must align regionally depending on the state of the global politic to create a block of nations strong enough to bargain from a position of strength.
The trust in the system is implicit when it is drawn out theoretically. It is easy to say that the citizens, of course, trust the state that they have placed in power. And that the national dialogue will happen from a position of “messenger” bringing the message of their people to other peoples and negotiating for the greater good. And even further, that negotiations between states will happen from a similarly noble place.
When we look at the situation practically, a whole other set of facts comes to light.
“While a majority of politicians from across the country have insisted that the headcount meets the minimum threshold of credibility, it is feared that some figures could have been cooked. In the 2009 census, a dispute arose but the figures were upheld by the courts (…)The 2009 controversy now casts a long shadow over the 2019 census in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties. State officials in the region have been accused of facilitating irregularities by inflating household numbers in their areas of jurisdiction”
There’s not a single large project in the country that moves through the entire process without being marred by a scandal or a possible scandal. The new curriculum is currently under fire for being hastily implemented and not being thoroughly thought out. No one even knows why we built the SGR and the big oil that was supposed to save us is actually churning out a measly 2000 barrels a day with estimates expecting up to 100,000 barrels per day (for comparison, Nigeria exports about 2,200,000 barrels of oil a day).
It’s not all gloom and doom. The new roads are a joy to drive on (despite what they are doing to our debt) and our GDP seems to be steadily on the rise. We have new currencies, driving licenses and passports – so one could say our swag factor has gone up by X to the power of n.
The media (us guys) are not making it easier in the trust game either. Incetivised by clicks and sales we know the easiest way to get a story circulating to a wider audience is to sensationalise it. To speak using stronger language and to avoid looking at the nuance in the conversation. As such every issue is set up as the government vs the people. The people v the power (I am reminded that binaries are unwinnable).
“Can’t win if it’s me against me, one of us ain’t gonna survive”
- Lupe fiasco, Beautiful lasers
And so we continue trapped in this cycle. The people eye-ing the state, the state eye-ing the people and money, ideas and progress falling in the cracks. Last week I wrote about the tone the government uses with the citizens, the utafanya ama utafanya tone that is alienating rather than brining together. Still, in this time of tough talk, how do we bridge the gap? How do we get everybody on board towards believing that this space can work for all of us?
“Going down river road you can find yourself anywhere.”
- Clifton Gachagua
No, this is not a book review of Meja Mwangi’s classic. But, as I find out on a Umoja rooftop one cold evening, there is something classic about it. The brainchild of Clifton Gachagua and Franklin Sunday as Kavochy and DRR welcome us to choma, readings, music and drinks.
The premise is simple, Franklin reveals to me a few weeks earlier over as we sit on a different rooftop, Pawa 254, in a more affluent area of town. The question he asks is simple “what happens when we move these spaces closer to the people?” Perhaps this is why the name Down River Road is so enticing. Because if there is somewhere you will find “the people” it is on riverroad. You will find them selling wares on the streets, looking for buses to go home, looking for buses to go to their homes (and there is a difference). Walking down river road you will feel the bump of shoulders, the smell of labour and the taste of cigarette smoke.
Which is why the deliberate thinking around the recently launched Down River Road journal is so important. And, perhaps why their call for papers for their first issue is interesting. Take this from their about page:
“Place has always been difficult in two ways. Firstly, the subjective spaces we exist in, the product of the senses. Then: the imaginary places. Often we inhabit both places at the same time, creating varied possibilities and realms as we claim our existence in each reality. Place is always changing, moving, even when our bodies remain static. And when our bodies do finally move, place moves with us. In these new places we create homes for ourselves because our survival depends on it.”
And as places move and change, we move and change with them. Like listening s Kamwangi Njue play tunes that fill the chilly evening with warmth. Or hearing Ndinda Kioko read about lovers and being close enough to touch them. When the setting is made properly a place can turn into any place. And any place can be found as long as you get on the right bus and alight at the right stage.
Down river road promises to be the bus for the people who are looking to get a taste of arts and literature that is born of the people – of art that occurs rather than is occurred. Like reading about Sir Owi’s rise in the ranks of the music industry or letting M K Angwenyi take you to places where you can no longer see.
And they are open for submissions.
The journal is looking for submissions for its debut issue themes on ‘place’ with the submission deadline being 1st October 2019. They are looking for:
“…work ranging from poetry to (non)fiction between 3500 – 5000 words. We’ll accept 3-5 poems maximum of 40 lines each. Flash fiction pieces should be between 500 – 1000 words. We also welcome other experimental forms (mathogothanio) and medium including interviews and conversations, maps, photography, illustrations, video and audio.”
So join in. Take a walk down river road and share where you end up – it could be anywhere.
“mkono inahonga imevaa bracelet inacolours za flag”
Besides all the other necessary things that this long and beautiful piece of writing contains it particularly has me thinking about rhetoric as a key. How language as a kind of shibboleth into spaces. With our words we signal to each other – I see you, I side with you, I understand you, I disagree with you. Perhaps this is why lying and manipulation are a large part of our fears. That we will realize someone had learned enough about our language to use it to navigate our emotions, hiding in the blindspots and never revealing themselves.
The problem, of course is that acceptance is at the core of the human. We are social beings. And not everyone has a healthy attitude towards confrontation. In order to be vulnerable and honest we must always be ready to lose everything – especially with the proliferation of cancel culture. As jools puts it, consensus becomes king. It becomes more important to agree with the larger whole than to express an original or dissenting thought.
Scrolling myself to sleep one night, I saw a tweet that I will loosely paraphrase (because google has refused to reveal its secrets to me). It was something along the lines that most of our current crises are born of the fact that a lot of our rules were created by people who died a long time ago, for their own context and we’re only now realizing that we can change them.
Which is why this (same) piece has me thinking about the rhetoric we have been programmed to accept and whether we have examined the changing paradigms around them. Take this excerpt:
“Those 60s-70s firebrands were born at a time when the CPUSA had 80,000 members, and even within the Democratic Party it was possible to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union. McCarthyism did much to smash this, but the contemporary existence of attempts (however imperfect) by the dispossessed to wrest control of their destinies, particularly in China and the Third World, proved an irresistible inspiration. Since then the left has had to contend with the destruction or reversal of these attempts, and a vigorous retrenchment of the power of capital. The “establishment left” in the United States is basically limited to the unions now, who are almost universally in thrall to the Democratic Party.
We also live in very different times economically. In many Western countries, the 1970s were the peak of both the average standard of living and income equality. Today we face a crisis of capitalism on the scale of the Great Depression – and that crisis only ended with the Second World War’s bonfire of value.”
And this seems to be a real problem. Instead of solutions arising out of our current problem state and working towards an end goal it seems like we are fitting our current problems into old rhetoric of “change” and hoping that it will give us the solutions that we need for what is facing us now. I imagine we cling to old rhetoric because it’s safe and because we are lazy. The pursuit of capital has us focused on doing “what we need to do” in order to get ahead. I imagine there’s also something in there about the shape and face of a revolutionary. The need to be like Malcolm X or Che Guevara with thousands of people marching down the street behind us. The need to be great as greatness has been described to us, rather than the drive to make actual tangible change in the world around us, regardless of whether greatness comes as part of the package or not.
“Herein lies my problem with what were essentially soup kitchens that Occupy sites the world over set up: feeding the homeless is a laudable aim, but you are not seizing your chance properly here if you’re just happy with that. The free breakfast program set up by the Black Panthers was not at all just because children in the ghetto were going hungry – it also included a comprehensive program of political education, it was based on the principle that militancy and resistance is much easier if you aren’t hungry, and it also massively increased the passive support they received from a neighbourhood’s population.”
This is why I’m increasingly wary of revolutions, especially self-titled ones. Because a revolution is only called so deep into its happening and measured by impact. Till then here are only plans to create change and how these plans are implemented over time. And these plans must be grounded in a common cause i.e what are we trying to achieve and does this thing that we are currently doing align itself to said goal? Nowadays it seems like the main thing being achieved is acknowledgement of one’s contribution in a race to being the next icon, the next revolutionary person. And so we ask, what must I say, what must I do in order to be perceived in this way that I can leverage my image?
How can I make my way into the halls of history?
Capitalism, of course, encourages this pursuit of greatness. It is the very stuff that capitalism is founded upon, how to do you leverage the shadows to create an untouchable image? And the internet, with its unforgiveable memory insists that we maintain a perfect online persona, align ourselves to the right arguments on twitter, post the right images and such. It gives us a detailed guide of rhetoric – speak to this group like this, acknowledge this, refuse this. In this way we end up regurgitating rather than understanding and because to question is to accept that maybe we might not agree or understand (and might not be received well) we continue to follow and impose these rules upon others.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that history has been rewritten and this idea of a single New Left is an invention. Two concurrent but separate movements for liberation (one primarily racial/economic, and the other primarily sexual/narcotic) have been conflated for various reasons, such as the primarily rhetorical support they lent each other. This cleavage still exists today, although modulated by the changes in conditions between now and then.”
And so we have long complicated posts on the nature of intersectionality and feministing and other 3 or more syllable words reconstructing the same class barriers that they are speaking against. Where the barrier of entry remains an education that has taught you to navigate this rhetoric. Where instead of seeing people we see ideological loopholes and flaws in thinking with little compassion and then wonder why we can’t create a shareable universe.
Because the vision itself is not shared.
Like arguing with a christian set on converting you, it is not a two sided conversation. Rather it becomes a class condescension that is quick to categorise and place one’s problems in these “oppression boxes” instead of listen to see what solutions may present themselves – if any. And because the solutions themselves are often messy. It’s often more complicated than a twitter thread. It’s often more complicated than “that’s white people” or “that’s men” (binaries are unwinnable) and to admit that punctures a hole in our savior mentality. If problems are complicated, nuanced and call for analysis then we can’t just fix the world. We can’t just save everyone. And if this if so then we might need to do actual labour, actual political uncovering, discovering and organizing – ugh.
“And I’m the asshole in the room?”
- Don Cheadle (as Miles Davis)
Miles Ahead, a movie on the life and times of Miles Davis, opens up on a moody Miles Davis locked up in his house, listening to session tapes and nostalgic on what is described as past glory. It is 1964, five years after Miles release “So what,” that took the world by storm. When a writer claiming to be sent from the studio comes to write about his “comeback” Miles flips. He drives all the way to Columbia records to demand his pay where he pulls a gun on an overzealous Artists and Repertoire executive who claims to own his music. As he pulls the gun he also ends up unwravelling the web of perception around him where the records are holding his money, the writer isn’t from the records and a young producer is trying to use the moment to give his own artist space to shine. Finally having his fill he leaves with the line “And I’m the asshole in the room?”
I go back to this scene every time I find myself coming up against a wall of perception (whether the wall is from me looking out or outside looking in). Anyone walking into the room would see a man with a gun. Instead the story unravels to show a man tired of dealing with layers of deception, trying to find the truth (and struggling with drugs)
“Honestly, ethic mayne – ni nini mbaya na nyinyi?”
- This lady (still not sure who she is tbh)
I’m always worried about what it means when we decide that one side of a narrative must be correct. That certain people acting must be perceived as acting in a certain way, and that their violence is always viewed through a lens of of erratic, without reason or just plain ghetto. And how these assumptions create the worlds where we exist.
I wonder, for example, how quickly the guilty verdict was arrived at. The question asked was not “what’s happening here?” “what has happened?” “why are you behaving like this?” Implicit within the question was the fact that assumptions made were not about the issue in question. Rather, “nini mbaya na nyinyi?” implies that there is a consistent wrongness. Not that this action is seen as wrong but rather this action is seen as a pattern of wrongness that is inherent within the question. In asking nini mbaya na nyinyi we are immediately drawn into a certain framing of the issue. The framing that shows Ethic as a group of rowdy young men out for trouble and directly implies them as on the wrong in this particular situation.
I wonder (some more) if the reaction would have been as loud, as blatant and as publicly shaming if it had been any other group or individual at the centre of the trouble. For sure, the issue would have been handled (violently even, it was, after all, a violent moment) but would the concert have been shut down? Would the MC’s voice blare over the speakers at the whole stadium about the problem? Would the DJ have hidden their computer?
Or would there have been some “technical difficulties” as everything was sorted out?
“But if he’s scared of me how can we be free?”
– Boogieman, Gambino
I’ve been trying to write this piece without falling in defense of anyone – I’m not privy to what happened. As such, there are words and places I refuse to go because the aim of this piece is not to level accusations or defend actions. I’m trying, instead, to talk about how we deal with what we see and whether we question why and how we are responding to things the way we are. Because if not aren’t we just going around projecting our fears onto the world? And if we are creating a world shaped by our fear then are we doing the work?
It’s interesting watching the TL today discuss Bob Collymore’s death. There’s the side mourning him because he was a pretty affable fellow and the side who feel that death shouldn’t shield him from his actions including his role in rigged elections, national CCTV fiasco etc
It’s in the murk of death that things come to light. Somewhere in the aftermath of demise people either gain the courage or realize they have no more time left to say what they wanted to say – to do what they wanted to do. Like the way we hold our breath at the funerals of business tycoons waiting for the second wife to show up with her family. When someone dies we know that the unexpected is on the way – especially when the person has a public profile.
On 1st November 2010 Bob Collymore took over as the CEO of Safaricom. He came in to run the ship in a company where Michael Joseph had made the position of Safaricom CEO a rock star position in the public persona. Somewhere amidst the launching of M-pesa and their IPO, Safaricom had won over the hearts of Kenyans. Millions of us were holding on to the stock that had started off at 5 shillings. In many ways, Safaricom had already become the company that is almost synonymous with Kenya. It is this ship that Bob was given to steer.
And the former Vodafone Chief Officer of Corporate Affairs did not skip a beat. From music videos with Jimmy Gait to Blaze to Capture Kenya the man was on a charm offensive with a country, seeking to woo the nation – an offensive that worked so well that 9 years later the man earned an appointment to the board of the National Cancer Institute.
On July 1 2019 he died.
There’s no ignoring the hero/villain dichotomy that exists – especially when it comes to here. Here where it takes amplifying the worst of oneself to make it to the top we know to be wary of those who have succeeded – the same could be said of Bob Collymore. Already the accusations are flying hard and fast and all we are waiting for is the proverbial baby at the funeral.
And this is where I want to play.
Because I’m not sure if I have much more to say about that. I met the man once or twice but not sure I had enough information to tell you what kind of person he is – and I’ve recently grown wary of judging people based off what makes it through the well of whispers.
“Legacy, legacy, legacy, legacy
Black excellence, you gon’ let ’em see”
- Jay Z, Legacy
Rather, I’m interested in the things that we leave behind. And whether they take the shape that we think they’d take – that we hoped they’d take. Following Binyavanga Wainaina’s death social media was awash with noise attacking his life, and then there was the noise defending him. Somehow in the moment we seemed to be reduced to binaries Binyavanga was a gay man, hence he was a bad man. Bob was a wealthy man, hence he was a good man. Bob was running Safaricon as the CCTV scandal happened; hence he was a bad man.
Somehow stories do no labour towards showing us the sides of the human, instead they are carefully picked out to show what the teller is trying to demonstrate.
And this makes sense because the court of public opinion needs heroes and villains. It needs people to be held to absolutes so that we can take stances. It needs personalities to be flattened and journeys be judged based on decision points that the public has no information about. In Binya’s case we see heavy othering as society retreats to the safe place of tried and tested homophobia. And then we see heavy romanticizing in the “genius nationalist” In Bob’s case we see the same dichotomy. Bob the hero who knew half of twitter by name and showed up in music videos and Bob the villain who headed one of the largest monopolies in the country (And, possibly the region?).
Legacy is complicated and its pursuit has been known to bend and break even the strongest of us. When you’ve been pursuing legacy it’s easy to ignore the needs of the few for the larger picture. And, as Thanos showed us, sometimes the larger picture doesn’t justify the immediate action.
But maybe, just maybe, we’ll eventually realize that there are no heroes and villains only good ideas, bad ideas and willpower. Till then, I leave you with Anyidoho:
And when it is all over
we shall once more inherit
a generation of cracked souls
for whom we must erect new
monuments and compose new
anthems of praise and the eternal hope of life
beyond the recurring stupidity of war heroes.
- Ground Zero, Kofi Anyidoho