Viva la Capitalism!

Michael Onsando
13 August ,2019

“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.

Another excerpt:

“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.

Last excerpt:

“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.

Ethics and Perspectives

Michael Onsando
9 July ,2019


“And I’m the asshole in the room?”

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?”

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?

Twisted fates: On the Complications of Legacy

Michael Onsando
2 July ,2019

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.

Another Essay on Poverty

Michael Onsando
26 February ,2019

There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.

“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”

  • The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud

This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.

Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.

“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”

The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.

The elephant here being poverty.

Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.

Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?

As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.

Jameni.

Aint nothing but a hair thing

Michael Onsando
29 January ,2019


The 15 year old teenage girl who was allegedly kicked out of Olympic secondary school in Kibra for having dreadlocks will continue to stay out of school after the court failed to issue orders for her unconditional return to school.

High Court Declines to Order Dreadlocked girl back to school

The things we hold onto are the things that will eventually become the things that define us. And when we hold on to definitions  like “proper” and “neat” as defined through the colonial lens, then we continue to ensure that the world doesn’t change. That we remain in the past, controlled by the same things that we claim to be leaving behind.

When CS Amina Mohammed asked that the Rastafarian girl be allowed back to school there was a refusal to hang on to things that should not matter.

“The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 24, however, reversed the decision by the Appellate court stating that each school had liberty to determine their students’ dress code. “

Supreme court reverses order allowing muslim girls to wear hijabis to school

“The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”

Recognising Strangers, Ahmed.

 I keep going back to this definition of the stranger whenever I think of identity. Ahmed does a great job of breaking down the image of the stranger and further of stranger danger.  I like going back to her work because it’s easier to see how this position of stranger can be created as a phenomenon and how no amount of explaining, unmaking and remaking of oneself can turn them from being a stranger.

What’s worse is we are socialized to fear what we don’t understand or, to frame it better, what we recognize as outside our frames of understanding.

“It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.”

How does it end?

And, in knowing the stranger as well as we do – we know the shape of our fears exactly. Wagalla becomes Mpeketoni becomes Kasarani becomes Garissa becomes El Adde. We cry, one Kenya and ask ourselves how it stops, but do little work to untangle the mess that is created by the idea of a core identity and fringe identities.

Which brings me back to the debate on schools and hair. I find it interesting that the two questions surround identities with complicated history. The dreadlocked rastafari spelled nothing but fear to the colonial administration – ripple of which continue to  be seen today. The hijabi, on the other hand, has been used to symbolize islam, which our fear has problematically interlinked with terrorism.

In this way, I’ve been wondering about the value of the heavily Judeo-Christian values that we insist on espousing as a society. Whether it is through Mutua’s consistent banning of films, through our militant and persistent homophobia or just the looks that one gets after admitting they don’t believe in god, how does it help us?

How does it help when the courts have to step in over a debate on how a girl should wear her hair to school? What anarchy will be born of accepting that the choices we make with our bodies are our own? How does it look when we are allowed to grow within our own parameters and towards our own goals, rather than holding ourselves back because who we are might step on the toes of something that we have been afraid of for so long that we only recognize it’s presence through our own fear?

And let’s not act like we don’t know what fear can do. Remember that a pervasive culture of fear in white America contributed largely to the voting in of Trump – a disaster whose results we are yet to fully experience.

“The Garissa Township legislator said Kenyans of all faiths have the right to hold true to their religious edicts and Muslims are no exception.”

Duale trashes Supreme Court ruling on hijabs

Identity runs deep. People are more likely to follow their god than any court ruling and to enforce the court ruling further leads to religious persecution which is not only wrong but continues to perpetuate the same fear that we are working so hard to get past. And in our fear, we lash out and in their pain they retaliate. And yesterday becomes today becomes tomorrow – again.  

Whither Culture?

Michael Onsando
8 January ,2019

“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.

Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”

Rusinga Festival Rowers
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.

The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.

I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.

Tug of war at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.

The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”

It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”

“Except today it is fashionable to scream

of pride and beauty as though it were not known that

‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “

Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.

It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.

But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?

Dancer at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth.

We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.

Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.

Winging it with Blinky

Guest Writer
25 December ,2018

by April Zhu

Photograph by Nairobiphoet

“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”

Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.

“My dia my dia my dia you do not know me very well
So let me tell you little something

I am looking for no drama.”

– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”

The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”

Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.

For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.

Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.

“We’re at the most interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014

You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.

“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”

But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.

“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”

This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.

Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.

Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.

He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.

Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.  

“What’s inspiring my new album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as interesting as the destiny.”

– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014

But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.

“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.

“I keep the hate up on the dinner

Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer

Throw away the throwaways till I discover

To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”

            – Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”

Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?

And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”

A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.

April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya

Government now, questions later

Michael Onsando
4 December ,2018

“Kenya’s ban on plastic bags went into effect on August 28, with offenders subject to serious fines or jail time. The ban covers the use, importation, or manufacture of plastic bags. Although it was passed in February, the new ban didn’t go into effect until this month so that Kenyan consumers would have the chance to adjust to the change. The delay also gave importers a chance to challenge the ban in court, which were ultimately rejected by the country’s High Court.”

Kenya just banned plastic bags

If Environment CS Judi Wakhungu had her way the ban on plastic bags in the country would have happened in February rather than August 2017. Speedy action from Okiya Omtatah as well as the Kenya Institute of Manufacturers got in her way, delaying the ban for (a further) 5 months. This time could have been spent researching into plastic alternatives and ways to make the transition as seamless for the consumer as possible.

Instead it was spent hoping Okiya won (or lost) his court case.

I’m tayad of these f***** copy pasting ideas from elsewhere without an actual ground analysis when they can easily pay for benchmarks”

@Mumbe_Carole

I’m not sure there is much need to argue for or against the Matatu CBD Ban. Finding a solution to mass transit in the country has been the birthplace of many bad/badly-formulated ideas. Just as the plastic ban floated in and out of public conversation, this was an idea that Mr Sonko had played with for a while. First he wanted to turn Uhuru park into a bus terminus, and then he tried banning matatus from the CBD last year before caving to pressure not to. So that he has ideas around what the problem might be is not up for discussion. This is either a problem he feels strongly about – or a pain point he strongly believes dealing with will gain him political mileage. Neither of these reasons pushes me too hard to judge him.

“Where are the pavements?”

@RasnaWarah

But, just like the ban on plastics, the nature of this ban calls all out our models of governance on all their cow feces. Where was urban planning when this ban was envisioned? We are just going through one of the most aggressive road expansion periods – where are the pavements? Where are the walkways? Where is the plan that is supposed to allow for transition, accommodate for the (unfit?) citizens?

The problem might run deeper than we think.

It was Moi’s government that really enforced the roadside declaration as a form of governmental communication. Ministers were fired on the news, high level government officials found out about changes in their docket at the same as the public and the mighty hand of harambee led us all. With most of his opposition coming from the universities it became difficult for the president to trust anything coming out of the places – which also happen to be the birthplace of research. The absence of this research led to government policies being built off hunches, gut feelings and “commissioned papers” (often skewed to show that the original hypothesis is correct). And it seems we haven’t really made much headway since. Kibaki’s government tried to focus on education but much damage had been done, by the time he was done we had free and primary education and Uhuru already wants to make secondary education free from 2019.

But the government is yet to fully reintegrate itself into the university. Worse still – over the period campus politics have grown to ape the politics we have in the country. SONU is now a conduit for corruption tribalism and greed with SONU leaders playing this same divisive politics and then using that as a platform to make it onto the larger political stage.

A good indicator of this is that there are about 5000 PhD students nationally. Larger societal questions are often answered at this level through rigorous study and data collection. But the truth is that there is little reason for PhD students in any field to believe that the information they collect will be put to good use – or that their conclusions will be implemented (after all, it’s not like we have a great track record implementing any of the reports generated by the government themselves). So they leave.

“And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own” 

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somwhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication. Without really thinking (for example) that Kenya has only 24 cars per 1000 people whereas Israel has 384, USA 910 and South Africa 165 to name a few – how do you replicate an idea in an area where the number of people walking is destined to be significantly more? In Foreign Cities, Local Talent I ask about what it means to develop and implement solutions based on our own realities. Maybe the first step is finding a way to remind the government where the data they are seeking resides – and to demand plans before declarations.

Or we could carry on with this force now, questions later approach and see plastic bags replaced by plastic nets again.

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

Michael Onsando
27 November ,2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what happens in the meantime?

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

(Libraries might be a good place to start)

Trusting that Kenya will Kenya

Michael Onsando
20 November ,2018

“Fresh produce growers are expected to be the main beneficiaries of trade deals that President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign on his visit to China next month.” 

Farmers set to reap big from China trade deals

 “Juzi mheshimiwa rais ameenda China amefungua soko, sasa tukona mkatgaba maalum ya soko ya kuuza mali yetu China. Na sisis watu wa sehemu hii, itabidi tumejipanga vizuri. Na wale watu wa China hawanunui mahindi, hawanunui miwa. Wanataka kahawa, wanataka chai, wanataka nyama, wanataka mambo hio”

 William Ruto

Perhaps one of the consequences of devolution is regional leaders are being held accountable more rigorously. Having been so publicly stated that the resources and power are in the hands of the county government the “big man has refused” excuse has been taken away. Of course devolution hasn’t worked like a charm as expected (ask the folks in the health sector, they’ll tall you a thing or two).

Especially in this second term presidency with campaigning haven started literally the year after elections and Okiya Omtatah calling for the polls to be brought forward by one year, most leaders are under pressure to show how they are best positioned for the reshuffling of the cards come 2021. In the absence of an incumbent for the uthamaki train, Jubilee might have Ruto as a front runner (or he’ll go start his own thing). Whatever happens, the political playing field is more open than it has been in a while – and this has every politician fighting for dominance, a swipe at the throne.

Maybe this is why Mwangi wa Iria turned to put the squeeze on Nairobi for 25% of the revenue from selling water from Ndakiani dam. Under pressure to, at least, show residents of his county that he is pursuing resources for their protection, this was one of the great ideas that came to him.

“The stranger here is not somebody we do not recognize but somebody that we recognize as a stranger, somebody we know as not knowing rather than somebody we do not know.” 

Who knows, knowing strangers and strangeness Sara Ahmed

“In essence then, belonging to a nation is simply the sense of connectedness with people one does not know and is unlikely ever to meet. The intellectual problem of the study of nationalism is understanding why and how people develop or fail to develop this belonging. Of note, the fact that this connectedness is not necessarily unproblematic.” 

Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talked divorce David Ndii

I’m not sure whether nationalism is the answer (because reasons ) but I am fascinated by identities, how they are created and what they mean for the things that we hold onto. And, in holding onto this Kenya, how bringing together of the 44 cultures and identities through a cohesive process. Especially since the borders didn’t naturally evolve through bargaining, conquest, allegiances and disagreements, we find ourselves in a bind fueled by the question “where do my interests lie? To whom does my self belong?”

Devolution, increasingly insists that the answer to this question is “look up, look around.” Which creates the pressure on local leaders to ensure that the county can squeeze the next county for money on water.

But what are the elements of identity other than the things we choose to agree to see as true, as common between us? And, in reaching for the things that are true – what do we find?

“Ni nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo” 

Nchi ya kitu kidogo, Eric Wainaina

So maybe a more interesting question begins with the assumption that there are no things that exist to hold us together. Rather looking at the truth and asking, what “Kenyanisms” have we accepted as who we are? And how do these Kenyanisms affect how we interact with the things we hear, the things we understand? 

“Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, and his Chereng’ani counterpart, Joshua Kutuny, alleged Ruto was advising farmers to abandon maize farming and start growing avocado and other crops because he wanted to monopolise the local maize market.”

Rebel Jubilee MPs claim Ruto is growing 500,000 acres of maize in Congo, Tuko news

It’s difficult to talk about trust when it comes to the political circus. Who does one trust, how does one trust? But increasingly what I’ve been wondering is how does the lack of trust stifle efforts? And what must be done to fix it?

This is one reason I’m very interested in this return to Michuki rules and the process currently ongoing on the streets. Because currently we trust the government to shake us up for money to pocket. We trust all the cops to be bribed for freedom. We trust that when the state moves to serve personal interests, rather than the common good.

Devolution creates a “common” and an “other.” So when I hear Ruto asking rift farmers to invest in different plants for export to a market in China I desperately want to hear a leader who is looking for opportunities for their people. But then I am taken back by how quickly and easily I believe a story (with no evidence) about a farm somewhere in the Congo. And, in that moment, I can’t help but wonder – how do we create systems we can trust? How is trust cultivated? And, in its absence, how can we build towards a together?