“Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.”
― Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
It’s hard to be a millennial and not navel-gaze on the state of millenials. Perhaps the proliferation of social media has made us more self indulgent. Or maybe the number of think pieces written on millenials has us thinking there really is a problem. Are millenials really the first generation to be obsessed by avocados?
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”
– Nina Simone
It’s impossible to detangle dreams from the fears and insecurities that birthed them. In order to know what a generation was collectively dreaming we need to know what they are running away from. When it comes to “the dream” as is consistently shifting and changing, it is impossible to disentangle it from the society at large with major happenings changing the course of our desire.
My grandfather was a member of the independence generation. For this generation freedom was important. Having lived through a rapid period of political change and witnessing several major structural changes they knew that change was possible. That the permanence of things was an illusion and it could be changed through repeated action and sacrifice – they respected what this sacrifice meant. Sacrifices whose consequences my father’s generation had learned to live with. Soon a generation came about that consistently made decisions toward stability. And the environment was perfect for this. The market that was hungry for skilled labour due to expanding infrastructure and a new government eager to lay the foundations for a new country.
This all came crashing sometime before or after ‘82. I can’t say it with much accuracy – I wasn’t born yet – but there seems to be a consensus that the generally psyche was not the same after the attempted coup. With his trust betrayed, Moi became more Moi than he had ever been. Conservative decision making was further enforced. Perform your role, stay silent and stay out of the way was the mantra.
So where did the loud, disrespectful millenials with their Kanga hoodies, Sauti Sol and natural hair blogs come from? And what purpose do they serve? (Besides perpetuating a love for casual clothing)
It is two decades now since Beijing began prioritising its relations with Africa, recognising the continent’s value as a source of minerals and other raw commodities and its potential as a market for Chinese goods produced at low cost. The relationship has grown at a staggering pace since, encouraging other emerging nations in turn to look at Africa with different eyes. On the heels of the Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Russians and Turks, among others, have all intensified their courtship.
To be a millennial is to be poised on promise.
We were brought up to follow our dreams because anything is possible. We are unsatisfied with the current state of affairs (especially when the person telling you it’s impossible can’t rotate a PDF). And the Internet has fueled this desire; suddenly things seem within reach.
In this way, I believe, we share certain optimism with the independence generation. Too young to remember Moi (some of us even claim to miss him) we are more aware to the idea of a Kenya that is changing – that can change. We have seen the fall of Moi and the construction of bypasses. We have also seen political violence, monarchial politics and terrorism. We know that anything – good or bad – is possible given enough willpower.
“We had become our parents, silenced, cynical of everything political, distrustful of those who did share our story and uncertain about what the future held for our children. It might be 2018, yet 36 years later Moi’s protégés continue playing by the same rule book of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, political assassinations, electoral theft and violent suppression of dissent. The uncertainty that defined the 80s is still here but the unbwogable generation that came of age in 2002, is invested in personal cultivated bubbles of security, no longer willing to rattle the status quo.”
- Children of a revolution that never was, Oyunga Pala
“To acknowledge that the ideals that make up the society should not erase or ignore certain people whose existence are in/within/revolve around the same society. It does not mean I am ignorant of the moral fabric of the society, but it allows me to believe in recalibration or readjustments of the society and to re-evaluate what works to include the largest number – as many as everyone – into this society.”
- To be a millennial is to believe in freedom, Troy Onyango
And maybe then to be poised on the promise that anything is possible is to hope and work towards ensuring that the possibilities we evoke are beautiful, because they will definitely be ours.
by Mukami Githagui
Housing is a fundamental human need. With the rising cost of inflation and other economic drivers making life very expensive, President Uhuru’s focus in affordable housing is a much welcome reprieve. In 2017 the President launched “The Big Four” agenda for economic development in Kenya, focusing onfood and nutrition security, manufacturing, affordable healthcare and affordable housing as his blueprint not only to deliver a legacy government, but also to bring long-term meaningful change to Kenyans.
The government plans to deliver 1 million housing units over the next five years. The president’s ambitious housing plan aims for at least half a million more Kenyans to own homes by the end of his second term. In Nairobi for instance among the areas to be covered include Park Road, Shauri Moyo, Bachelors’ Quarters, Suna Road/Toi Market, Pangani and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It has also been reported that at least 36 governors have signed agreements with the national government to extend the project to their regions. Can this dream become a reality or is it going to become yet another white elephant?
According to the National Affordable Housing Summit Group of Australia, affordable housing is housing that is reasonably adequate in standard and location for lower or middle-income households and does not cost so much that a household is unlikely to meet other basic needs on a sustainable basis.
The National Housing Corporation, puts the housing deficit at 2 million units cumulatively and it’s growing by 200,000 units per year. With a rapid population growth of 2.6% per annum and the rate of urbanization standing at 4.4% it presents a dire situation. For context, the global average is 1.2% for population growth and 2.1% for urbanization respectively. The supply of housing in Kenya is constrained and the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development estimates the total annual supply to be at 50,000 units.
To further underscore the need for affordable housing, the ministry indicates that 83% of the existing housing supply is for the high income and upper-middle-income segments, with only 15% for the lower-middle and 2% for the low-income population. In summary, while 74.4% of Kenya’s working population requires affordable housing, only 17% of housing supply goes into serving this low to lower-middle income segment.
Long story short, it’s not good. But what’s going wrong?
According to a Cytonn Investments report there is an inadequate supply of serviced land at affordable prices due to soaring land prices in urban areas. In Nairobi, for example, land prices have been growing at a 6-year compound annual growth rate of 17.4%. This has led to increased development costs as land costs account for 25% – 40% of development costs in urban areas, which consequently impacts on end-user prices. Even in most of the areas earmarked for this housing land prices are steep, which again begs question.
The report also cites costs of construction. Mid-level construction costs in Kenya range from Ksh44,000 – Ksh64,000 per square metre depending on the level of finishes, height and other related factors, and account for 50% – 70% of development costs.
According to Hass Consult Ltd, in Q3 of 2017 the prices of housing dropped by 5.1% due to the political instability we faced last year. However, the average value of a residential property in the country surged to KES 29.8M in September last year. The same report cites that property purchases in Kenya are purchased cash, mainly because the mortgage industry remains underdeveloped.
What solutions are available?
The government, the Capital Markets Authority, NSSF, Retirement Benefits Authority, Kenya Revenue Authority, private sector finance and development, all have a role to play and the specific solutions need to be wider.
Given the need for funding businesses in a growing economy where SMEs create majority of jobs, private markets such as structured products offer a compelling alternative for developers to seek financing.
Strong government support and strict housing policies are also necessary in order to boost home-ownership. It is necessary to set up and adhere to strict rules and eligibility measures for house-purchase such as minimum occupancy periods and housing to income ceilings, so as to restrict to prospective home-owners only as opposed to speculative buyers.
There’s need for efficient planning to allow the best use of land in a sustainable manner to cater for the growing population with key considerations on the provision of services such as water, power, garbage and sewage disposal. Hand in hand with this is exploring cheaper building technology to lower construction costs. Training of labour on the use of alternative building technology is essential so as to boost its application.
An article in Nairobi Business Monthly, argues that the construction industry needs to embrace technological changes that will result in a mind-shift on the use of innovative products and services whose aggregate effect would be to lower the average cost of building. Despite the emergence of innovative construction materials, building a house in Kenya is still costly.
In Nairobi where land prices have sky-rocketed significantly, we need to make use of land in the neighbouring areas outside the metro region such as; Kitengela, Ruiru, Ngong, Kiserian, among others to put up low-cost houses.
An efficient mass transport system linking the above areas to the city’s central business district will incentivise private sector investments in the greater metro region. Ethiopia is a perfect example where they have built a light rail system that connects Addis Ababa to the neighbouring towns where low-cost houses have been built. Due to the efficient mass transport system, Ethiopians are able to work in cities and towns but put-up kilometers away.
Given the rising cost of land, the cost of construction materials, taxation on these materials and of course corruption which sees title deeds irregularly issued, buildings constructed on riparian land and other irregularities, becoming a property owner is not a walk in the park. Only time will tell whether the government’s ambitious project is feasible or not.
Mukami Githagui is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. Mukami has covered business and written features for two of Kenya’s leading media companies, the Standard Group and Nation Media Group.
At the end of the day a country is build on the backs of labour. Policy and governance are tools towards the creation of a labour enabling environment from which the people can find a way to maximize the fruit of their labour. In this way, the organisation of labour cannot be divorced from organized politics or from the general discussion about creating frameworks within which citizens can grow.
“As I was contemplating to quit, my colleagues insisted and persisted that I must have another five year term, all positions I hold both locally and internationally I have never contested these positions,” he (Atwoli) said.
He thanked the trade unions for support throughout the three year terms he has been secretary general.”
- Atwoli re-elected COTU Secretary General for fourth term.
Let’s not even talk about the, soon to be, 20 years that Francis Atwoli has been the Secretary general of COTU (a tenure that long is definitely a sign of innovation in a field). The mechanics around the relationship between labour and capital have changed with the world. So much so that the importance of trade unions in a modern developing world is debatable. According to McKeena & Beech (2002) as quoted here:
“…the tradition of employee representation through trade unions and collective bargaining as the focus of engagement between the management and unions is being replaced by new relationships in the workplace, but the replacement is not a single type. It is made up of a number of different trends. In some cases the traditional model is retained, in others increased individualism, and yet in other cases a partnership approach is adopted in which unions take some of the concerns of the organisation and work with management in order to maintain the profitability and longevity of the firm.”
Closer to home trade unions are largely characterized by public politicized strikes and broken CBAs. As to their internal affairs, we know they are whispered as spaces used to leverage power and get mtu wetu ahead. And, given our unemployment rate of 11.5% and poverty rate of 42% it’s difficult to organize trade when there will consistently be labour willing to replace the people who are disgruntled. This is not just a notion in the air. It happened to nurses, doctors and teachers.
Capital argues that labour sets the standards too high for business profitability. Life argues that the current payscale does not match rising inflation and the general cost of living in the country (can anyone explain how fuel is 115 bob and Kersone is 108? I have refused to understand). Somewhere amidst this is the reality that Kenya, as a geographical space, is under industrialized. These are not new arguments, we grieve pan paper mills, we grieve the cotton industry and so forth.
Still we see that labour in the country is undercompensated and the working class continue to grasp at straws – ama hatuchukui tala kulipa mshwari? And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have access to that level of (extremely expensive) credit. So even as we hear that there are more modern ways for labour to bargain with capital the question remains – are they effective?
And labour remains the key to industry.
And the key to labour will always be care.
It’s hard to care enough about the outcome without vested interest – this might be part of the problem. I’ve been wondering about creating hope, mutual vested interest in this space called Kenya. A space that is so fractured along the lines of identity that political commenters are “talking divorce” and I guess pwani ni Kenya now given Joho’s position in the larger political chessboard.
The answer might lie in labour, something that cannot be taken away from a people. The work. Beyond just trade unions it’s along organized lines of labour that we see the most solidarity. An electoral vote happens every five years, but a boda guy will take a punch for another boda guy any other day. Artists will band together to take on Ezekiel Mutua whenever necessary.
“ “Poverty is a matter of choice. As Africa, we have chosen to be poor and complain over anything and everything, from colonialists to poor policies. Yet we are doing nothing to change this mindset,” Atwoli said.”
I agree with his larger point in the article – we really shouldn’t be looking for jobs elsewhere if the goal is to create livability here (and thus making the path to livability easy for those around us). I even see why, as the head of labour, he needs to preach the roll up your sleeves and work gospel. There are many who need this kind of talk to feel powerful, to have their excuses “taken away.” Coming from him this is to be seen as a show of strength, unbreakability – but not of care.
It’s care that we need to cultivate.
“Curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play.”
“The new curriculum has been touted as the ultimate remedy to limitations identified in the 8-4-4 system because it is entirely skills-based (…) Experts are of the view that it will enable learners to develop beyond academics and also focus on how best they can use their specific talents to make a living.”
Care is a product of choice. Power is the ability to choose.
This is why I have hope in the new education system. It seems, in a way 8-4-4 was not, designed to cultivate care for labour. With choices opened up from earlier on the future generation seems more set to make choices that they own and thus have vested interests in, perform labour they care for which might finally help unlock industry – or at least begin to recognize and take back the power of trade unions and demand more of those who protect the only thing we can really call our own – our work.
“You will begin to forgive when you understand the many ways in which the world has killed those who try to survive it.”
“We’re not evolving emotional filters fast enough to deal with the efficiency with which bad news now reaches us”
It’s easy to lose hope these days. Especially when one gets themselves sucked into the cycle of rage and the restorative labour necessary in nation building. When looking around yields nothing but stories of stolen money, unnecessary projects, rises in taxes and a debt problem we are yet to solve it hard to start calculating positive outcomes.
It becomes even easier when you begin to notice that the people who are supposed to be fixing those problems are often the major cause of the problems, and those who stand up to “fight the good fight” turn on the people in the end.
Eventually, we get tired of throwing ourselves at the windmill over and over again. And the pain that we carry from the numerous battles we fight carry on into the next one. In this state of rage fatigue, it’s easy to lose sight of the cause and begin to lash out.
“Part of the privilege of a privileged identity is being insulated from things that people who don’t have it often face. A shadow of that is immediately checking their tone when they express their truth.”
When dealing with intersectionality it is important that we are able to organize bodies into groups. The way a body is perceived will often define the experience the body is allowed to have. To go against this experience is to have your body act in ways that people do not expect from bodies like yours. To have a large intimidating body is to work extra towards not being seen as aggressive. To have a smaller, frailer frame is to work extra towards being seen as capable of aggression, and so forth.
I use the word body very particularly because it speaks to something that one largely has no jurisdiction over. Modern science allows us to change our bodies to fit our perception of ourselves rather than the ever moving shadows of how other’s perceive us. This is particularly helpful for those who are most affected by this discrepancy in identity but these operations are still far outside the financial and imaginative reach of the general population.
And bodies speak in many ways, most of which are involuntary – or at least impulsive. They fold, they turn away, they swell, they shiver and so forth and so forth. Tongues fail to form letters properly, shaping language that points to a history. A history that tells a story of class, of tribe, of upbringing. Faces show echoes of who your people are.
“Babiness signals a beingness in place. To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?” Without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”.
In this way there is no running away. What this means is that, no matter how much you do, your body will be recognized as your body. And whatever memory your body evokes will be how you are seen, which will affect how people relate to you, depending on their own relationship with that memory. And how you relate to that perception will create the image that people have of you (perhaps this is what we mean when we say step into your power – navigate your perception with knowledge of that landscape).
Those who do the work of remembering take notes on bodies. These bodies carry violence. These bodies carry deceit. These have a tendency towards shame. These ones are not to be trusted.
It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.
The rise of identity politics brings more significance to this. In order for identity to exist there must be a body to be identified. Bodies are the markers of identity. And of course we remember. And, in a time like this, it’s easy to lose hope. For the bodies themselves to become the enemy, to lash out in the name of calling out. To forget the collective labour of undoing, unearthing and pursuing to better each other and focus on the destruction.
But the truth is indifferent.
The truth just is. It bears no ill will, it carries nothing with it other than itself. And in knowing this, we know what to listen to when trying to hear the truth and know how much of ourselves is between what we are trying to say and what the truth is.
“We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.”
- Krista Tippet, On Being
Perhaps in seeing how far away we are from each other, buried by whatever blindnesses surviving in our bodies lived experience imposed upon us, we can begin the work of moving together, towards unburdening, untangling and rebuilding the systems of perception that oppress us all, creating new truths and, possibly, hope.
by Robert Munuku
Africa has been the hub of a rich cocktail of resources from potent extractive mineral deposits to diverse tourism-attracting flora and fauna coupled with tropical climate that supports agriculture – the backbone of many Sub-Saharan African economies. Many of these economies are making major gains in growth bolstered by substantial development in information technology; this has enabled the breakdown of geographical boundaries offering more opportunities to the market mobility of goods and services.
Given how fast information is moving in the 21st century, over-reliance and dependence on commodities has shifted to focus on service provision and data dissemination. Lerato Mbele, a business journalist, puts this best when he says, “What Africa lacks in infrastructure it compensates for in character. There are natural endowments of minerals; fertile agricultural lands; virgin industrial zones; plus a proud and resilient body-politic”
It is also worth noting that ICT has been used in most sectors of the economy invariably as a vehicle to spur business growth (e.g. mobile money transfer stage as a parallel and alternative to traditional banking).
M-Pesa, for example, has enabled many Kenyans to transfer money without the need of having bank accounts and the lengthy technical procedures that come with banking. Mobile money was adopted by the other 3 telephony companies following stiff competition that the innovation posed from Safaricom which still enjoys the lion’s share of market capital. Airtel has its equivalent mobile money transfer service named Zap; Orange Telkom has Iko Pesa; and, Yu Essar has Yu-Cas. This has further widened the landscape offering Kenyans more access to the facility that is now indispensable in everyday transactions like school fees payment, payment of utility bills, business transactions among other forms of financial transactions.
And that it is such a wide variety of transactions is widens the net from which data can be captured. As a result of this, data as a virtual commodity is growing fast. The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) reported that 98% of the internet market share is through mobile platforms. This means that a majority of us access the internet through their mobile phones – a service one can acquire by attaining a basic feature phone that now retails as cheaply as Ksh2,000. The growth momentum was well put in a joint article by both heads of Airtel and Safaricom, “In the last quarter of 2010, something interesting happened in Africa; the number of mobile connections on the continent overtook those in Europe. There has been a ten-fold increase in coverage over the past 10 years.”
SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises) and other small business persons are now exploiting the fast growing ICT sector to market and sell their products and services across geographical boundaries.
Obstacles to growth
The major obstacle to economic progress has always been poor leadership which usually breeds corruption and hence incompetence that eventually leads to poverty (& rampant insecurity). In many countries major steps have been made towards the democratization process but a lot still needs to be done to delink leadership from patronage and big governments. This would then see the rise of strong state-run institutions and subsequent service delivery.
The private sector which forms a bulk of GDP must also be empowered and given enough room to maneuver. “Public-private partnerships between governments and ICT players are another way that the telecoms industry can positively contribute to development in Africa. It is crucial for governments to create an enabling environment through enlightened regulatory regimes and supporting infrastructure.”
Another obstacle is not that the Africas lacks the requisite resources, but rather the necessary ‘bargaining power’ that is a demand of such markets. Major steps have been made on this with many attempts at regional integration through trading blocs of old, i.e. ECOWAS, EAC, COMESA, etc, along with economic legislation such as AGOA (Africa Growth & Opportunity Act instituted in the year 2000). These trading blocs facilitate easier access to global market at the same time improving quality standards of products marketed abroad. This notwithstanding many economists feel that the blocs can do better in their mandates.
Mobile money as a financial alternative to corporate banking is but a taste of the pliable nature of data or if you will, information velocity, that have now placed us on a critical geopolitical plane.
In the words of Aly-Khan Satchu, “The 21st century is not about the money, it’s about your brain-power.”
 Africa Forbes (Mock-up Issue 2011), ABN Publishing (Pty) Ltd South Africa
Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku
The simplest definition of democracy is one given by Abraham Lincoln, a former president of the USA: democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is all about the people.
It sounds better than other forms of government, such as monarchy, in which a single family rules from generation to generation. The power is vested in one person, the monarch. Or oligarchy, in which all power resides with a few people or in a dominant class or group within the society. Or authoritarianism, where the people do not participate, and have no say in what happens. When you add powerfoam, you get totalitarianism, where power and authority are concentrated in one person, such that he/she controls government and, therefore, the people. Dictators tend to be authoritarian or totalitarian.
However, democracy does have its weaknesses. It is not easy to represent more than one person and reach consensus. Aristotle asked two simple questions when classifying states. Question one: who rules? How many people exercise supreme power? Question two: in whose interest? Self-interest or that of the community? So he classifies states into six: where one person rules for the benefit of the community, it is a monarchy. Where a few rule for the benefit of the community, it is aristocracy. Where many rule for the benefit of the community, it is polity.
On the other hand, when one person rules for his or her own benefit, we get tyranny. Where a few rule for their own benefit, we have an oligarchy. Where many people rule for their own benefit, we have democracy. We can see that Aristotle believes that democracy is perverse in a way. Democracy is selfish in his view, while polity is selfless. Whether we will ever attain polity is a question that may boggle the mind for years to come.
Why is democracy the form of government most associated with development? Is it because democracy is inherently and instrumentally good? Because it facilitates free human choice and it furthers political participation? Because it enables people to live freely and autonomously? Democracy provides institutional guarantees that the policies and laws created by a government will have a reasonable fit with the fundamental interests of the people. How? Because the people vote for the people in government.
The debate about the relationship between development and democracy is long and unending. Martin Lipset noted a positive correlation between wealth and democracy. But correlation does not mean causation. Does democracy lead to development? If one thinks about development through purely economic terms, then any form of government we’ve discussed before should lead to some level of development.
Even a dictatorship can witness growth in the productivity of labor, agriculture, and capital, leading to growth in per capita incomes and per capita assets, and ultimately GDP. Take for example China, which is not a dictatorship, but is more of an oligarchy according to some, and an aristocracy according to others. There was a general assumption when they opened up their economy that this economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization which would eventually lead to democracy.
The theory? That economic growth leads to a larger middle class that is more empowered. This middle class then begins to demand control over its destiny, and eventually even repressive governments are forced to become democratic. But here we are over 35 years later: China is not a democracy but still continues to develop economically. Authoritarian regimes around the world continue to prove that you can have economic development without relaxing political control.
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, however, classifies development as freedom. This moves past economic indicators and looks at the wellbeing of the human. It includes human rights and freedoms, political rights, access to social opportunities through education and employment and so on, transparency guarantees, social security, protective security and so on. If we look at development as freedom, then democracy does lead to development.
According to Joseph Stiglitz, development is understood as a ‘transformation of society’ that goes beyond economic growth alone to include social dimensions like literacy, distribution of income, life expectancy and so on. These aspects are known as human development. To add on to human development, we must also have redistribution of wealth, otherwise poor people are doomed to remain poor, in which case what is the point?
In Kenya, the top 10 percent richest households in Kenya control more than 40 percent of the country’s income, while the poorest 10 percent control less than one percent. We have inequality when it comes to access to resources. Houses in urban areas are five times as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas. Only 1% of those who enroll in primary school go on to complete university. 80% of our unemployed are aged under 35, so much for access to opportunities. The list of worrisome statistics goes on and on.
It would be great if we moved away from the narrative prevalent in Kenya that development equals roads, the Standard Gauge Railway, a port, an additional runway at JKIA. The view that economic development is the only kind of development is narrow and not beneficial. It has been shown that low income democracies outperform autocracies over time when it comes to development indicators. So when we witness our government trying to shrink our democratic space, we should be concerned because in the long run this does not bode well for us.
The impact of democracy on development is many times indirect, but can be felt through policy certainty, political stability, the establishment and enforcement of rules that protect property rights, the promotion of education, the ability to promote private capital, and the reduction of inequality. These are the sorts of things Kenya says it wants to do to attract investment, not because it has living, breathing people here who need these things to live comfortably as well.
We have to remember that the reason we concern ourselves with building systems and institutions is to maximize social good and utility. We have a social contract with our state, in which we give up unfettered freedom for security. This is the foundation of our state. We should not forget, however, that we have to be at the center of this contract for it to work. Economic development means little in the long run if it is not accompanied by human development, and systems that are purportedly built to serve human beings that do not center these human beings are doomed to fail.
“We will need writers who can remember freedom.”
It’s hard to hold today’s Kenya in isolation. As the world continues to shape itself, we seem to continue to grasp towards our place within it. As the winds of decolonization, identity and freedom sweep across, so we find ourselves poised to grow. And with this potential comes increased aggression from the state, hungry to establish its place in history as one through which we achieved progress.
“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace.”
- Keguro Macharia
‘An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb’
Of course this becomes tricky when we begin to look at the fickle nature of power. Power as a fluid thing that moves and morphs rather than as a static thing that is absolute. This becomes increasingly as the continent seems to be going through a phase of pulling down the generals of yesteryear. Last year saw the fall of Mugabe, and Zuma seems backed into a corner. It only makes sense that whoever is left holding the reigns of a historically oppressive system of power is on edge.
It is within this context that we hold our dear president freedom. Every day, the irony of his name is not lost on us. In bid to maintain control over an already polarized country (let’s not split hairs over who is actually to blame for this polarization), we have seen him arrest key members of the opposition, deport a citizen, turn off major media stations and declare the NRM a criminal organization.
“It is critical for us to achieve the development agenda that we have set for ourselves going forward. Sasa si nyinyi mzime hiyo mavitu yenu na muende? Kazi imekwisha”
I would like to sit with this Kazi imekwisha. Especially its place within the speech that was given. Speaking at the Kenya School of Government, the president opens by talking about the importance of holding conferences in Kenyan establishments. He further continues to preach the establishment and growth of a ‘local’ something. That we must continue along the path of trying to develop the country and make the country better.
It is in this context that I place the “Kazi imekwisha” and I would like to use this Kazi imekwisha to say something about what development means, and how language is used, what permissions it gives us (or it allows us to give ourselves).
In conversation, some friends and I were laughing about how functions are held outside Nairobi. At these events you have an MC who says things like where the toilets are, and which water is drinkable. This announcer often uses language to slip in and out of instructions, speaking to the locals in whatever local language so that the Nairobi people don’t understand. Whenever this slip happens it is used to communicate something that visiting company shouldn’t know or hear. When writing about the use of vernacular in music, Alexander Ikawah describes the nature of this language private and intended for the house. This tone, this “now lemme address our people” is where we go into language for. These Swahili asides are great for national dialogue. We have seen them used by previous leaders, most notable being Mwai Kibaki’s “Mavi ya kuku,” a thing that would be completely absurd if used in English(Can you picture a president calling his opponents chicken shit on live tv and us being okay with it?) On a more sinister level vernacular asides were used to incite the public to violence in the post-election violence of 2007/2008.
So, what does it mean when the president tells the media “kazi imekwisha” following the end of his delivery of a ‘perfect’ speech?
I’d like to argue that the language of development is removed from actually policy. That development has become a thing that people are told as an excuse. A public relations spiel. And, increasingly, it becomes apparent that this administration are nostalgic of a time when KBC was the communications department of the government rather than an independent media house (yes, I know, to speak of independent media in today’s Kenya is laughable). That everything that is happening is line with the “Kazi imekwisha”
That, in the same way the media was connoted to “other” in that simple statement, anyone who dissents, or sees a different existence is othered by this government. It is this “for us” or “against us” mentality that has been the highlight of this administration’s leadership style. Whether it is in the ad hoc manner of policy making (I’m thinking of the overnight ban on plastics, or the ban on night travel, or the ban on shisha). This authoritarian model (stepping stones to fascism) that shows just how far this administration will be ready to go to maintain their grip.
And it is because of this fear that we can’t hold this administration in isolation.
Because it is this same fear of the absence of control (of resources) that we see in Trump’s administration. This same fear that is driving actions like Brexit.
“Fascist leaders are masters at shifting goalposts. For those who feel secure within the in group but are not in power, or those who do not belong to the fascist’s group of cronies – security is not guaranteed. One minute you are in, the next, you are an enemy of progress. Only the fascist knows where the goalposts are, and he can shift them at will.”
- The Makings of a Fascist State, Brenda Wambui
It is in this power to include and exclude that the state gets us. We see it in the deportation of Miguna Miguna. Where the state clearly shows that it intends to use its power, even beyond the mandate of the constitution. Those on the inside, hope that their silence, their compliance will leave them unnoticed. That keeping their heads down will allow them survival. And those ostracized continue to wonder whether their pleas will be heard. Meanwhile, president freedom continue to systematically shut down areas of dissent and we are left wondering if there is a place for freedom in this new Kenya.
“Journalism is not a crime.”
- Why it’s a Perilous Time to Be a Journalist in Kenya. Larry Madowo
A man in Kisumu is wailing. He will have to be my proxy as it’s easier to write about someone else’s tears. He is not wailing because Raila Odinga lost this election. That is what a cynical, narrow view of Kenyan politics would say. He is crying because, along with all the other Kenyans who watched the proceedings of the Supreme Court, he saw compelling evidence that the elections lacked credibility.
- Wailing, Gukira (2013)
Gukira writes this in 2013. I find it difficult to think about now without thinking of 2013, without thinking of 2007, without thinking of 2002, without thinking of 1997 ad infinitum. Transitional periods are difficult. In the time of changing and shifting we find it within ourselves to put life aside and focus our energy on the nation in ways we normally wouldn’t. We ask each other incessantly “did you vote?” “who are you voting for?” We discuss policies, histories, motivations and legacies. We fixate on this idea of power and what it means. More dangerously, we allow ourselves to hope.
Hope is a dangerous thing.
To hope is to plan. To rely on certain outcomes when considering the future. In many ways, when our hope is dashed we see our future being taken away from us. We mourn the loss of this future that could have been because we wanted it to be. The present loses its lustre, for it doesn’t look like what we had planned for it to look like – and when this happens we must ask ourselves why? What changed? Why did we hope, and what dashed our hopes? It is in this questioning that it becomes impossible to disentangle this election from all other transitions before it.
But what do dashed hopes mean in the age of accept and move on? How do we collect the pieces?
Gathara reminds us on twitter about the relation between the state and the media. How the media can be used as a tool for repression, to conceal what needs to be seen in order to create – contstructing an alternative reality. How KBC would talk of peace while police clashed with protestors. Then again how do we hold this in the same light as accusations that the media largely propagated the violence through irresponsible reporting in the 2007/2008 elections? What’s the line between truth and responsibility. Rather, what’s the balance between the responsibilities to truth, to peace, to justice?
Alexis Teyie writes:
When is critique acceptable, and when is it ‘incitement’? Why is state machinery being deployed selectively across this country? Is there a difference between containing violence and perpetuating it? Poleni, academicking. Ntaacha basi.
Let me tell you what I know about violence. I know small violences: walking into Nakumatt to buy sugar, unga, rice and soap, and leaving with soap and unga only; listening quietly when the people in the matatu start arguing over ‘hao watu’; paying school fees in nine installments; chai bila sukari! I also know moderate violences, but let me tell you about strong violences. One, Chris Msando.
Nami pia, nimeshindwa.
Again, we find ourselves insisting that property can’t have more value than a human life. Again, we find ourselves questioning the electoral process. Again, we ask ourselves what peace can mean. I turn to Muste:
We cannot have peace if we are only concerned with peace. War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life. If we want to attack war, we have to attack that way of life.
But all this strikes a highly theoretical chord. How do we find peace when the environment has not been laid for it? How do you ask someone whose door was kicked in by the police at night to maintain peace? What is there to maintain? How do we even begin to think about the importance of keeping the state moving when, with every step, the state destroys us? Are we to work towards our own destruction?(a brief lesson in counter intuition)
There are few things that can be said about this election that weren’t said about previous elections. There are few things that have happened in this election that didn’t happen in previous elections. Yet we still allow ourselves to hope. We still watch the news repeatedly telling ourselves to believe. That everything is okay, that everything will be okay. People around the world call with concern – is are you well, are your people well?
We are well, we insist. Nothing to see here, we insist. Kenya, we say, is progressing. We remind ourselves that it could be much worse. That we could have outright eruptions across the country. That many nations have fallen into civil wars for a lot less. So we grapple this space between tension and relief. Between hoping for better, understanding there’s worse and wondering what to call here – what to call now.
And still there is death. There was death before the election and there was death after. Disposable bodies stay disposable. I’m left wondering whether transition will always mean loss of life and how to hold this truth amidst the chaos and the incentives. I wonder about the man who was wailing in 2013 – where is he now? Is he wailing? Did he still believe in the possibility of change or did the court results destroy his faith? Did he vote? Does he feel safe enough to wail again? Or is he suppressing himself for fear of being caught out?
Whither do we grieve?
In part 1 of this two part series Alexander Ikawah takes us through campaign music and what it says about us, who we are and where we are. Look out for part 2 next week.
Each political season campaign trucks drive around town blaring music as frenzied youth dressed in campaign merchandise dance in, on, and around them. You might imagine that the choice of what music to play is critical. Inevitably, some songs rise to the top of the pile and come to embody the message of one or the other side of the campaign. In the period preceding the 07/08 election, the song that had come to occupy that spot for the opposition was an ohangla hit called ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ by Onyi Papa Jey. It is a magnificent song. Magunga Williams captures it thus:
“His song “Raila-ODM” did not become a favourite simply because Raila Odinga was currently the heartthrob of the nation, most favoured to win the 2007 election and highly likely to become the 4th Commander-in-Chief of the Kenyan forces. No. Well, maybe in a small part this was also a factor. But to give credit where it is due, this was not just a song. This was a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream that Luos had longed for, for nearly 40 years. A presidency.”
And indeed the song is epic in scope, covering a multitude of Raila’s achievements but particularly the struggle for constitutional reform embodied by the orange movement. It attempts to rally all the coalition’s allies and acknowledge their support. It urges calm in Kisumu(Beduru mos) and features a soccer game in which Jakom scores the winning goal.
This year, the airwaves are ruled by Onyi Jalamo’s ‘Tibim’ a song you have probably heard. I intend to discuss it because it is the most popular, however, there is another song perhaps more deserving of the limelight that I shall discuss too. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ by Amos Barasa. The former appeared on youtube as a grainy video that quickly became viral. As of now, two versions of the original have a total of about a million views. It is the noisiest tune on the streets at every NASA event, the campaign song by popular demand. The latter is a more musically and lyrically complex traditional song by Amos Barasa that made its debut early this year. The most popular youtube version had a modest 271,206 views by the time I was writing this article but I intend to discuss it as well because it is, by my judgement, the best composed of the lot this year and the closest in scope and emotion to Onyi Papa Jey’s classic.
I also wish to discuss something else, the disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. These campaign songs are undeniably crucial to the political process and yet they operate in some lesser media space, occupying the airwaves of local radio stations and emerging to seemingly surprise the national media who then do inadequate and token analysis of their meaning and significance, confident that after the season, they shall be irrelevant once again. A cursory understanding of the music scene suggests that these musicians are largely invisible to the media in the period between elections and then if their song becomes a hit, suddenly become news. And the media often neglects to do its due diligence in covering and discussing their role and impact. It is as though there is a caste system in the music world and the election season presents the only chance for a certain group of musicians to achieve national relevance.
In a news story aired this April, Ouko Okusah declares that this season’s hit song ‘Tibim’ is, “one of the lousiest piece of music ever produced in this millennia.” He proceeds to denounce its lyrics as being empty and reeking of substandard creativity. In particular, he singles out the word ‘tibim’ whose meaning he does not explain. He declares the video pathetic as well. He is only half right about the video, but he is dead wrong about the quality of the song. He looks at the video but he does not see what it shows. He hears the music but its meaning is beyond him, so he assumes there is none. And he marvels at the ‘masses’ dancing to the song all over the country. Ouko Okusa is no stranger to ohangla, I am tempted to wonder what it might be that made him miss the meaning of this song, hiding in plain sight. And in this case, in plain lyrics. He ends his story with no insight into the song, and no reasons given for the insults levelled at another’s art. A professional attacks another professional’s work with no reasons given?
Okusa is not alone. Magunga went on to write this after we spoke,
“…every time Raila has offered himself for an election a theme song has to be composed. I cannot remember who sang what in 2013. It was that obscure. In 2017, Onyi Jalamo just gave us this useless arraignment of verse with no meaning whatsoever; a 7-minute waste of time that merely rides on a catchword, TIBIM, invented by former SONU Chairman, Babu Owino. NASA (the song, not the coalition) is, at best, a pile of fermenting garbage. That NASA (the coalition, this time) even chose it to be a campaign anthem is a tragedy. That jingle is so bad it can cause brain decay.”
I wish to shed some light on the song in question and perhaps in so doing, offer Ouko, Magunga, and any others like them a chance to come to a different conclusion about the song. A small service in literature.
Jalamo is singing about what he perceives as the country finally agreeing to unite behind Raila’s presidency. This is precisely the same thematic content that Onyi Papa Jey had tackled with the more acclaimed ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ from the 2007/8 political season. The mood of the song is celebratory. For those who remember Gor Mahia’s unbeaten streak in 2013. And the hashtag #Giniwasekao (we have already taken this thing), Jalamo’s song is in the same vein. A pre-celebration/encouragement message. It is rooted in the Luo culture of ‘pakruok’ –praise giving- to celebrate and encourage heroes, leaders, teams(e.g. sports), and I am sure in the past, armies. It is a cultural song, in the ohangla genre.
‘Tibim’ is not a nonsense word. It has onomatopoetic meaning. It describes the sound of something being struck. A point hitting home. A final blow. It evokes the emotion of triumph after struggle. A striker might be described as hitting the winning shot ‘Tibim!’ and subsequently scoring. Dholuo has words like that. Words with onomatopoetic meaning and Jalamo uses several in this song. ‘Tialala’ might describe the sound of a veil being torn. ‘Riaaa’ is an exhortation. You may shout ‘Riaaa!’ to your hunting dog to encourage it to catch the game you hunt. The bulk of the song is made up of lyrics that name a politician and request the replies ‘tibim’ and ‘tialala’ from participants.
Raila tibim. Tibim!
Wetangula tibim. Tibim!
Obado tialala. Tialala!
Perhaps Ouko does not know but these words had already found use in the political process well before Onyi Jalamo borrowed them to use in his song. They were already being used in campaigns all across Nyanza in precisely the way that Onyi uses them in his song. I was home in Migori for the party nominations and Obado was ‘tibim’ in the red corner, Ochilo was ‘tialala’ in the other. The people Ouko Okusa observes dancing know precisely what the words mean, however repetitive and mundane they sound to him. Onyi Jalamo’s song is deeply relevant to its ohangla audience and that is a mark in favour of its quality.
We often criticize contemporary music based on perceived moral content. Jalamo does not moralise. He does not pontificate. He does not beg you to vote for NASA. He simply celebrates a victory that he wishes to sing into existence. His lyrics are clean. He points out a few of Raila’s finer points.
‘Amolo Odinga, gik ma itimo dongo. Ikelo Democracy.’
Amolo Odinga you do great things. You have brought democracy.
To those who may accuse him of buttering Jakom’s behind, I ask you, are the lyrics untrue? Does Jakom not count among his contributions the very recent and hard-won struggle for a new constitution? Is that not a great thing? And is Onyi Jalamo not entitled to his interpretation of events?
The women leaders of NASA are celebrated equally. He devotes an entire verse to their praise, some names he mentions repeatedly.
Gladys Wanga. Tibim!
Amilo Gesagesa. Tibim!
Again the song scores. In comparison to most recent local hits, even crossing over to the side of gospel, such recognition and praise of women leaders is without comparison.
The song makes a point to be ethnically inclusive, mentioning leaders from all the different parts of the country that NASA has secured alliances within. All the NASA principals are Tibim. Joho is Tibim. Muthama is Tibim. This too is a point in the song’s favour.
It is not a posh composition by any means. One can discern from the sound that it was not produced on a large budget, but it did not need to be. This limited budget is perhaps what Okusa is noticing with the quality of the video. In fact, I do not fault Onyi for the original video quality. I pointed out that Okusa was half right about that because the cameraperson took really bad shots. Onyi Papa Jey’s classic was not the best shot of videos either. These political hits never are when they first appear. They are spontaneous, reactionary, expressions of a groundswell of emotion. The emotion Okusa fails to observe in the dancing masses shaking to NASA.
It is not a perfect song either. Not all of Tibim’s lyrics are happy and celebratory. There is a line, casually dropped but ominous where Jalamo sings, ‘ma kata kochuno to wadonjo gi balangewa’ – If needs must, we will climb in through the rafters.
It is a veiled threat. If Okusa wants something to fault the song on, this is what I would submit as a fault. At the NASA rally on Saturday, this rhetoric was reiterated by incensed politicians on the podium in front of a mammoth crowd and international media. I disagree with this threatening rhetoric. I wished for Onyi Papa Jey’s classic with its more level-headed ‘Beduru mos’ message but unfortunately, this is not his season. A more mature artist, he was wise enough to warn of violence without threatening it.
In the meantime, Jalamo has realized the potential of his song and there is a new Tibim video out with slightly better production quality and more Swahili lyrics than the original. Jalamo wants more Kenyans listening. I would suggest that Ouko revisit this artist and both versions of this piece of art and do another news feature about it except this time, to treat them with the professional courtesy they deserve. NASA(Tibim!) is probably the most nationally significant piece of music that will be recorded in Kenya this year.
Amos Barasa’s ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ is a humble giant of a song. It is composed with traditional instruments and features Barasa plucking on a litungu as a talented orutu/wandindi offers counterpoint for the lyrics all through and his band backs him up. It is not a big budget production either, but the video is creative and ambitious.
In an interview on K24, he explains the lyrics a little and it is clear that he did not intend it as a NASA hit. Music is alive however and even though it bore a more general message at composition, its meaning has evolved and its key lyric ‘Bindu bichenjanga’ –things change- has found application on the campaign trail and resonated with NASA supporters from Western.
This political season, the Western alliance seemed to present the hardest challenge for Jakom to secure. Seasoned and advanced politicians had to be brought into the fold. It was hard fought but eventually, it was achieved. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ hints at the feelings among the electorate in Western that might have motivated the region’s heavyweights to lay aside their own ambitions and back Jakom.
At last Saturday’s rally at Uhuru Park, it was the second most popular tune blasting from the campaign trucks and vans after Tibim. In the video, Barasa seems to track the story of the country, pointing out different things that have changed over time and offering them as evidence that change is inevitable. This desire for change, if the song reflects it correctly, is what consolidated the Western region behind Jakom. ‘Bindu Bichenjanga’ is to the people of Western and NASA what Onyi Papa Jey’s song was to Jakom and Nyanza. In Magunga’s words, “…a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream.” But whose dream?
WHOSE MUSIC, WHOSE DREAM?
Earlier, I had mentioned a disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. I like to refer to these groups as ‘the ground’ and ‘the elite.’ It appears to me that these two groups are as distinctly separated as conflicting tribes. It seems to me that these groups have different musical cultures. ‘The ground’ is rooted in cultural musics, languages, and identities that are often missing from the national mediasphere before election time. ‘The elite’ value and seek national and international identification and acceptance and consume music in ‘national’ or foreign languages such as English. NASA leadership, if they had been given a choice, would not have picked Jalamo’s Tibim song or even Bindu Bichenjaga. They had repeatedly chosen Helena Ken’s ‘Mambo Yabadilika’ for official events and rallies. The NASA principals were announced to this song. A song in Swahili, a national language. Ouko Okusah’s critique of Tibim’s quality is an elitist critique. The ground doesn’t care for video quality. They consume the music from the speakers of radios, whatsapp groups, and roadshow trucks. They choose songs that best represent the emotion they feel, and if that song is missing, they sing it.
Suzanna Owiyo composed her own NASA anthem, an attempt to achieve the same feat as Jalamo. She isn’t the only one. In the run-up to the vote, NASA anthems have proliferated online as musicians from all genres toss their hats into the ring. There is a Kamba NASA anthem, a ragga NASA anthem, a ghipuka NASA anthem, a Benga NASA anthem, a Kalenjin NASA anthem, and there will be more. None of them is produced with stellar quality, but all are popular and widely shared online. This art has not been solicited, it is happening on its own. These artists all see a ground ripe with listening fans and are eager to endear themselves by paying homage to the party. They are betting their futures on NASA and Jakom. Nothing like this is happening with music on the Jubilee side. This is significant.
It is also troubling. It hints at the lack of support and opportunities for independent artists in the country, especially those performing in local languages. It highlights the magnitude of the challenge that candidates who offer no cultural or populist affiliation face in the current political paradigm. And it also highlights a failure on the media’s part to adequately and consistently represent all in their coverage and programming. A debate about the place of local languages and cultural music in the national mediasphere is long overdue.
At Uhuru Park, everyone danced to these local language, cultural songs. Despite the differences in language, they seemed to be unifying factors, not divisive ones. Everyone shared the emotions these songs carry, in the hundreds of thousands. The feeling of being part of the same emotion with so many, it is powerful. It is powerful enough to sway votes and to change minds. Nothing is a better barometer of the sentiment on the ‘ground’ than the music that the ground is singing and dancing to. The IPSOS and SYNOVATE polls may have their numbers but in the musical polls, NASA is winning by a landslide. They say politics is fought and won at the grassroots, ‘the ground.’ I believe the musical polls are a far better barometer of the sentiment on the ground than any opinion poll. If you wish to know what the ground thinks of the presidential candidates as they head to the polls this week, just listen. You will hear Tibim! And Bindu bichenjaga.
Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. His work has been published in magazines Jalada, Kwani? and Lawino.
There is community everywhere. You have your social media community, work community, school community et cetera. And these communal areas have certain codes. Some rules are spoken, most are unspoken but generally people know what to do (which is, needless to say, also organized by all kinds of problems like race, class and gender). And so not knowing identifies one as an other. Perhaps this is why questions are such a violence. Questions call knowledge into question. The act of asking a question itself becomes a question. So a question like “Could I search your bag?” requires the response “You should know people.”
A form of power, then is the power to be assumed of knowledge. And to hold power with grace is often to allow yourself to be asked questions. To allow for questions. But because power is thought of as a place of knowledge there’s only so many times one can “not know” the answer to a question.
Given that there is a limit on the lack of knowledge then – it becomes easier to control the ways in which questions are asked. To control the questions is to control power. One way to control questions, of course, is fear. So if say, a dead businessman or maybe just a couple of bruised journalists will do the work of staving off unwanted questions – then that is what it takes.
And it makes sense, because a properly timed question can often do a lot of damage. A properly timed question with an audience more still.
This is why bodies end up being very important. And this is why the aesthetic is a heavy point of politic. How bodies present themselves gives history. This we know and we have touted around as career advice – dress for the position you want. How you present yourself determines how you are seen. But clothes are only one part of how your body presents itself. Hair, nails, skin, scars, fat, bones are all involved in this presentation. And when it comes to moulding oneself to a set standard just how far is liposuction from cutting nails? This is not a tirade against any form of grooming (which many who have met me would be convinced that I am deeply involved in). Rather to think about the ways in which we are recognized and ordered.
Because, as earlier said – to belong is a mixture of knowing and being known. Bodies that are known often need to be matched with their questions. Bodies that fail to match their questions are heavily pushed back to the place where they have achieved the right questions. “Why would you do that? You’re a man.” “But surely that’s not feminine at all, young lady!”
The thing is a body whose set of questions is known is manageable. It is now simple enough to figure out what spaces to put that body in, how to mould it. So it’s clear how, then, that carefree bodies are a problem – especially if you’re trying to run a form of authoritarian meritocracy. When questions start showing up from the wrong bodies – then they start showing up in the wrong spaces, they cease to be bodies.
They begin to gain personhood.
Suddenly it is not that simple to think of them as bodies. The process of questioning involves the ability to feel, analyse, understand the reasons behind that feeling and vocalizing. A rational path that is difficult to think of in abstract terms as bodies anymore. In asking, the act of asking itself – there is power. Questioning power becomes a question of power. Questioning power gives power to the questioner.
“We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
- Orwell, 1984
Which brings us back to questions being a violence.
Because only bodies that present themselves in certain ways are awarded the esteem of personhood from which questions must be asked then only certain bodies gather the power through questions. Of course, this becomes one of those self serving traps that can only be escaped by unimagining the cage. To see oneself through this lens is to find reasons not to ask questions “I am a man – I cannot be curious about this.” And it is in these ways that we chose our brands of ignorance. Not in the way that refuses to see the flip side of the knowledge we possess (which is still another way to pick a form of ignorance) – but in closing curiosities for abstract reasons.
But questions are not limited currency. And because all our cages are of our own design – there is always someone with the question that leads one down the path of unimagining their own cage.
But not everyone wants to be free – or rather not everyone has imagined freedom in the same way. And no one is ever really sure if they chose the right form of freedom. So in many ways, to ask the question is to shake at something that is yet to be fully formed – the violence. Especially when the source of the question itself is not open to question.
If knowledge is power (gadget boy said it so it must be true) and questions are the key to knowledge how do we give each other spaces if communal spaces do not condone questioning? If, instead, we continue to be controlled by respectability. If “don’t ask” continues to be the mantra? And, if community doesn’t give power to its members – then what’s the point?