Creating Others: A Two Story Dialogue

Michael Onsando
10 May ,2016

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Ed: Today we are running two essays. Both of these essays are from the same book and circle around insecurity. In reading these essays I’d like us too pay close attention to “othering” and how othering happens. In both these pieces, for different reasons, community fails as a security mechanism. When faced with our selves/ our privilege would we still hold ourselves to our principles? These are the questions demanded by intersectionality and, in many ways, these are the questions that these two short pieces ask.


by Nyambura Chege

My Uncle ‘Mucene’ (gossip) came to visit. He said he had news to tell us, so my father and I listened keenly while indulging in a cream tea. “I tell you, it’s been a long night for me and Mama watoto,” he started saying.

“Why, what happened?” my father, his brother-in-law, asked.

“Our neighbour’s house was burglarised, and I think some of them were beaten because all we could hear from our bedroom was Mama watoto screaming in pain.”

My father was astounded. “You did not go to help them?” “

Go where?! And expose ourselves voluntarily so that they can rob and beat us silly as well? Ah-no, be serious! No way. We waited quietly, and prayed for them…just hoping that the thugs would leave. It’s all we could do.”

“You think cowering away in your home while your neighbour was being terrorised is all-that-you-could-do for them, uncle Otieno?” I asked, incredulously.

Readjusting himself in his seat, he said, “You people just don’t want to understand what I’m saying, Nyambura.”

The matter was laid to rest.

Then two weeks later, my father got a call from Uncle Otieno in the middle of the night. He told me how their conversation went:

Uncle ‘Mucene’ was sobbing. “Peter! Please do something! They’re in the house asking us to come out!”

“What are you talking about? Who is in the house?”

“The thugs, they’re here! Please call for help. Please come and help us! We’re going to die!”

At this point, Uncle ‘Mucene’ was barely audible. “Otieno, call your neighbours! Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for you!” my father said, and terminated the call. It so happens that my Dad had relayed Uncle ‘Mucene’s’ philosophies to some of their shared friends, and they in turn had decided that he needed to be taught a lesson.

Security in our beloved Kenya has to begin from the grassroots. We have to change how we think and how we react to people being robbed, carjacked, kidnapped, raped, terrorised, and even murdered. Why don’t we start minding each other, it has to start somewhere, so why not there— mind each other. It is easier said than done, yes, but it is achievable.

Mind each other.

Still Unhuman

by Aisha Ali

The other day I was involved in a debate about street harassment when the man I was debating confidently proclaimed “Women get harassed on the streets because they allow it.”

This statement shut me up for a few seconds. As soon as I recovered, I inquired:

“What does this mean?”

“If women stood up against men who harass them, they wouldn’t harass them.”

“You do know that the average woman was no match to the average man, and standing up to men most of the time means physical violence. Women have even been killed.”

“If you believe in something, then you should be willing to face violence for it. Even if you have to die,” he said in a very matter-of-fact tone.

Since then, I have been thinking about the number of times I have been harassed by men simply for existing female. One day three men surrounded me in a bus at night, and harassed me to the point of tears in the presence of the bus conductor who didn’t do anything. Another, a man said hi to me and when I refused to respond, grabbed my arm and shook me, and followed this with insults.

It hit me that day that women are not human. When a person requires your death to believe that you are worthy of safety, you know that this person doesn’t consider you a human being who deserves to exist in a safe environment. Women are getting physically attacked by men who feel entitled to them. Women are being killed for not accommodating these men.

Yet this person could stand there and demand more harm towards women, more death of women, before he can admit that the problem is men. He would rather see women die, before he accepts that the fault of harassment of women lies firmly on men. Every time I leave the comfort of my home, I know that my body, my being female makes me a target. And that I am responsible for my own safety.

And I know that if anything were to happen to me, I’d be the one to blame. If I were to die, I’d be responsible for my own death.

The man I was talking to didn’t notice the shift in my body language. He didn’t notice me folding into myself a little, moving away from him. He didn’t notice me recognizing yet another man I can’t trust to keep me safe.

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

I Quit!

Guest Writer
10 November ,2015

by Patrick Gathara

Editor’s note: this following piece was first published in 2011. Still, it continues.

On my way to work today, I had an epiphany. As I sat in one of the unending traffic jams that have become part of the daily ritual of trying to get to work, fuming as matatus “overlapped” the queue, it occurred to me that it wasn’t they who were the stupid ones.

The rule of law, whether we’re talking about the highway code, commercial law or criminal statutes, assumes a universal application. So, when I accept to religiously abide by it when others consider it only as a guideline, to be discarded whenever it is convenient to do so, then it is I who is refusing to see the reality as it truly is.

This notion was reinforced when I finally got to my office and read in the papers that Rift Valley MPs were planning to ditch the National Accord in a bid to replace Raila Odinga as the Prime Minister with William Ruto. According to The Standard, the plot is an attempt to shield Ruto from potentially facing charges at the International Criminal Court relating to the 2008 post-election violence. “If it means repealing the Accord, then we will act and move with speed to replace the PM, ,” the paper quotes the chairman of the Rift Valley Parliamentary Group, Dr. Julius Kones, as saying.

Putting aside for one minute the questionable wisdom of the move (after all, Omar al-Bashir’s position as President of Sudan didn’t save him from similar indictments), the statements simply emphasize the fact that there is one law for some and another for the rest. Just like the enlightened matatu drivers, our politicians believe that the rules do not apply to them and can be discarded whenever one of them gets into trouble.

Our whole system of governance aids and abets this logic. So when Cabinet Ministers are forced out of office after being caught with their hands in the till, the government creates a new taxonomy in which those who “step aside” are allowed to keep their fat salaries and allowances without actually having to work for them. That, they tell us, is how we will win the war on corruption!

I now believe that it is the ordinary, hardworking, tax-paying, law-abiding Kenyan who is stupid. We agree to faithfully pay our taxes, even celebrating when the government exceeds its revenue collection targets, while those who actually pass our tax laws do not feel obliged to live under the same regime. We accept that the leaders of the same government supposed to ensure roads are properly built to cater for the booming numbers of vehicles and that traffic rules are obeyed, should not themselves be inconvenienced when they fail to do their jobs. We allow them to provide our children with a failing education system -at our expense, naturally- while they take their kids to private schools and elite universities in the West. We acquiesce when they tell us all is well with our public hospitals but they fly abroad at the slightest sign of illness.

We insist on believing that a new constitution will somehow magically apply the law to them. Our politicians, like our matatu drivers, are not Kenyans. Kenya is their creation, not ours. Its policies, rules and laws only apply to Kenyans, the wananchi (the people of the nation), not to the wenye nchi (those who own the nation). They are designed to perpetuate the power and wealth of the latter, to transfer resources and dignity from the former. It explains why none of our systems work, for the wenye nchi have no interest in us spending our money on ourselves. It is why no one goes to jail when they steal maize while a third of the country is starving, why no one is punished when people are sold contaminated food and when public funds go missing. It is the sole reason that the fate of 6 of them is of more import than the deaths of 1,500 Kenyans.

I, for one, am tired of this charade we call Kenya. I am tired of countless commissions that only produce paper; of a Parliament that only represents itself. I am tired of the cycle of prosecutions that produce no convictions and reforms that generate no change. I am tired of being poor and having to work hard to fund the excesses of a wealthy few. I am tired of carrying a leadership, a state, a country, that is nothing more than a parasitic infection.

I am tired of being a Kenyan.

In 2008, after being treated like crap for years, Inetta the Mood-Setter, a part-time DJ in the US, refused to take it anymore. Her parting words to the radio station, delivered live on air: “I QUIT THIS BITCH”

So do I.

Patrick Gathara is a cartoonist, writer, columnist on. Kenyan and International affairs. Follow him on twitter @gathara.

Having Given it Little Thought

Michael Onsando
31 March ,2015

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are

– Anais Nin.

It was 1961 when Anais Nin gave us these words. ‘The Seduction of the Minotaur’ shows a strong sense of psychoanalysis. It talks about how Lillian studies herself and her actions “I don’t think about it, I just draw what I see,” says Michael Soi. This is the response he gives me when I ask him about the position of women in his art. The room both before and after the statement seems the same. Wine is flowing in direct correlation to the intensity of the hum of several conversations and he still stands before me with a slightly smug smile. However it feels like I am in a completely different room. As if the world has suddenly shifted, on its axis, a direction or two. I wonder what is this ‘not thinking about it’

I wonder about what worlds it makes possible.

More importantly, I wonder what kind of thinking ‘not thinking’ propagates.

We know, because it is easily knowable, that our thoughts are shaped by the world around us. We also know that the world is cruel towards women. In this same line of thinking it is not a far stretch to know that in the work of not thinking there is a certain thinking that exists. The thinking created by the worlds around us. It’s even more critical when you thinking about the artist.

Michael Soi joined the Kuona trust in 1996 after studying fine arts in art school. He began wood sculpting, but quickly realized that that medium wasn’t relating the story he wanted to tell. – so in 1998 he went into painting, which he has been doing since then.

For someone who has been doing this for about 16 years Soi’s work is a little disappointing. In ‘the boy is mine’ series he takes us through a journey of one of his characters. When we meet the character(Omari) he has been caught by his black wife (I make this deduction from the baby on her back, she could be a girlfriend) cheating with a white woman. She is angry at the white woman.

At this point it is important to note that all the women are defined through the man. While I spoke to Michael he talked about Omari, his wife and his girlfriends. They are brought to existence only through the existence of the man, without him – they are not.

The second in the series has him trying to calm her down. The third has her carrying a panga ready to kill the white woman, who is now pregnant.

The black woman, throughout the series, is portrayed as the problem. She is the bearer of an issue and, in being the bearer she then herself becomes the issue. There is no question here as to male accountability. There is no question here about the white woman. The black woman in the series is always the problem. In fact, the last piece in the series stretches it as far as the black woman is crazy.

The black woman is crazy.

The crazy black woman.

Black women are crazy.

This is the thinking that this kind of work creates and propagates.

Michael himself has talked about this character “… she gets violent whenever he goes to town and hooks up with a mzungu chick leaving nothing to eat at home.” Again, as if all a woman needs is food and money. Once providing this, a man is not accountable for any of his actions.

Art needs to be deliberate.

The problem with Soi’s claim to not think about his work is that in not thinking he is thinking. In not thinking we are deciding to keep the thought process that we were taught earlier in life. And, often, this thinking is flawed, wrong and cruel. The work of the artist is not just to depict, but to create a world.

It is, as it should be, because in viewing a piece of art we try to find pieces of ourselves and of the world within them. In Art on My Mind bell hooks writes:

“… many of the works that art canonically labeled great are simply those that lingered longest in individual memory. And that they lingered because, while looking at them, someone was moved, touched, taken to another place, momentarily born again”

She wrote this while talking about conversations she had while viewing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. While the entire piece does not resonate with Soi’s work, these words do. We talk about another place. This place we are taken to when we view art (and, indeed, when we listen to music, watch television and so forth). This is the place the artist has created. And, if the place created by the artist has not been thought through then, really, how is it different from the place where we are now? And, if it is not any different – what’s the point?

Q: Are you going to follow

in your father’s footsteps?

A: My father’s footsteps

lead to my mother’s bed

where I spent much of my childhood


why return where I have already been?

– Saul Williams, She