Invisible to everything but blame

Michael Onsando
9 April ,2019

Perhaps the most critical question to the establishment of a capitalist system is the idea of the individual. In order for capitalism to exist the individual must not only exist but be a “productive member of society” contributing in whichever way to the distribution of resources and the gross domestic product. With this came the ideas of weighting and quantifying these contributions and deciding that this has further value than the other. And, of course, keeping the “high value” labour for the individuals that are held in “high esteem” or considered “better than” other members of society. In this way capitalism continues to reward those who have the capital/knowledge to exploit the system while consistently taking away/erasing the labour of those who are structurally held back. What’s more it continues to undervalue/devalue any labour that will not show immediate returns in terms of profit.

Anne Moraa writes:

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker (…) It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Unseen and unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

And we don’t need to go that far to understand the implications of erasure. Feminist politics has done a vast (very vast) amount of labour in touching and exposing forms of invisible labour and how the invisibling of this labour perpetuates age-old myths of value and roles. And of course with these myths of value told through a capitalist mind frame comes ideas of “laziness”  and “disposableness.” It’s not a large leap from “disposable” to “burdensome” – and who wants to carry around a burden with them? The individual, in a capitalist society, is free to use their capital as they deem fit. The capital, after all, has been earned and is a true reflection of the value of their labour (as has been pre-ordained by a capitalist patriarchal society).

A cycle of oppression that has continued to redefine the boundaries of what it is to produce value and has left us all pursuing the fast paced big deal life that is reserved for the people who hold capital, the so called “creators of employment.” This life, we imagine, is “better.” (Not going into this because who knows what better even means? But we all know that wealth gives you more access to things, which are generally nice). Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, says this about starting from money:

I could be a billionaire if I wanted to be a billionaire, and I’m not because I don’t want to be a billionaire. That’s an insane amount of money. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to make money if you start with money. And then people give themselves credit for being that smart when they’re not.

And, of course, when a person in the right suit tells us how to make money we are likely to believe them – don’t they have money? Surely they know a thing or two – this is how network marketing is still a thing, or how we were caught by the quail egg bug. And, just like any network marketing * cough* pyramid * cough* scheme by the time we know it we are left holding a batch of useless information, a lot of debt and wasted time, as the individual collects their profits from the activity and walks away to be interviewed by whoever or the other financial empowerment magazine/blog.

“We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies. Those of us who have managed to entrepreneur ourselves out of it are living in a very false security in Africa. There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing. And we have to questions why is there this big push for us to innovate ourselves around problems that our leaders, our taxes, our policymakers, ourselves, to be quite frankly, should be grappling with.”

This individualized thinking does a lot of work in moving and shifting the narrative away from the problems that do not fall squarely on the individual’s shoulders. It creates a situation where the individual is solely responsible for their rise and fall. And, in this environment, hunger goes up a notch. With the knowledge that we must find a way to pay for our own medical insurance, a premium for good education, naviagate overpriced, unstructured transport systems and more we leave the house with a weight, a burden on our shoulders every day. And (whatever kind of) capitalism (we have) demands that this weight is our own. And indeed it is, because the human next to you bears an equal if not greater weight.

This, in turn leaves citizens in a situation where whatever resources they can access are far thinner than whatever demands are placed upon them, creating a desperation in that hunger. It is in this desperation that we are left vulnerable to predatory loan products like those created by Tala and Branch (what even are those interest rates?) while consistently praising them for, at least, creating access to credit.

This backwards way of placing responsibility steers us way from the individuals that are actually culpable for happenings in society and turns it back on the citizen. Gathara writes:

Instead of blaming individuals for fomenting chaos, we have chosen to see entire communities as culpable. We accepted the “official truth” that we were all responsible for the 2007 tragedy, that we were all potentially murderous. In doing so, we have generated a climate of fear and hatred wherein every dispute is seen as an existential threat. Since every neighbour is a potential machete-wielding psycopath in disguise, every action and utterance is the potential spark for mindless, all-consuming violence. This is the genesis of our mutual terror of one another, the consequent quashing of dissent, and the loud and incessant calls for a peaceful silence.  

“But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?”

Gambino, Boogieman

This idea that there’s a certain level of productivity we must achieve to “deserve” certain things is a dangerous and dehumanizing one that steers the conversation away from the one we need to be having. Which is – when will our government provide actual safety nets? Or are we to continue by exploited by state capture and self-benefiting policies while we continue to see each other as the enemy?

Why Kenyan Journalists Must Tell Stories of Sexual Abuse Better

Guest Writer
2 April ,2019

by Muturi Njeri

I recently read a story in the Daily Nation that infuriated and disappointed me. This is not news though—more like the norm for any reader of the Kenyan newspaper. What was uniquely heart-breaking about this story was the way it was reported. The story by Mohamed Ahmed entitled Girl gives baby away hoping to be accepted by family is about Mary (not her real name), a 16-year-old girl from Vihiga County, who was sexually abused and impregnated by her stepfather in April last year. It is painful to read about how Mary has been treated by the two major institutions primarily meant to protect her: her government and her family. Her government arrested and locked her up for three days and her family—her grandmother—sent her hundreds of miles away from home to an aunt in Mombasa as banishment (and presumably punishment) after abuse by another member of the family. However, doubly frustrating is how tone-deaf Ahmed’s article is in reporting on Mary’s experience to the extent that it appears to justify her sexual abuse and subsequent mistreatment, teetering dangerously on the realm of victim-blaming. Ahmed writes:

According to the Luhya traditions, incest is a taboo and culprits are banished. The Class Six pupil was defiled on April 10, 2018.

“My (step) father turned on me as he was taking me to my grandmother’s home at around 11pm. He threatened to kill me if I revealed to anyone that he had defiled me,” said Mary.

Why should we be worried about this kind of reporting? Steve Jobs famously said, “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” Storytellers—journalists, essayists, novelists, photographers, preachers, filmmakers, historians—wield this power, primarily, by framing the narratives they tell their audiences about their subjects. At the core of framing lies the decisions that the storyteller makes on what to include and what to leave out of the story. A photographer, for example, frames a shot by selecting—and accentuating—a few elements in her environment in her composition and cropping out everything else. However, framing isn’t just about what is told—and not told; it is also about how the storyteller defines (implicitly or explicitly) the problem in a story, the causes of the problem, the characters in the story as well as possible remedies to the problem. No matter how much a storyteller claims to be neutral, the mere fact that they frame the narrative means that they make conscious and subjective decisions that ultimately influence the audience’s perception of the problem and characters in the story. Unfortunately, going by the way Ahmed (and his editors) frame the narrative in their article on Mary, they seem unaware of this power—and that is assuming the best of intentions on their part.

Take, for instance, the way the article focusses on Mary, the victim, and not her stepfather, the perpetrator. There is a single line in the whole article talking about what happened to the stepfather: he fled to Nairobi. While the article tells us about Mary’s arrest, banishment, delivery and desire to return to school, there is no mention of any attempts to bring the stepfather to justice—or even calls for such attempts. This focus on the object—in a grammatical sense—of the violation draws attention away from the subject—the doer. This functions like a sentence written in the passive voice (Jane was beaten), instead of the active voice (Anna beat Jane). In the first sentence, the best the reader can do is pity Jane, but in the second one, they can clearly see who beat her (Anna)—and act to fix that. By omitting—or de-emphasizing—the subjects (perpetrators), stories like Ahmed’s partly absolve them by cloaking them in invisibility. Before you know it, as if by magic, there are thousands of victims and zero perpetrators.

Ahmed also chooses to frame the narrative primarily as a case of ‘incest’, ‘a taboo’ among the Luhya. This choice is disappointing because, in her quotes, Mary states that her stepfather “turned on her at 11 pm” and threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it. By interpreting this as ‘incest’, Ahmed implies that Mary is one of the “culprits” who ought to be punished, yet it is clear she had no choice in the matter. Also, at 16, she is a child—per the Kenyan constitution—and has no power to consent to any sexual act with an adult. Just a few days later, Daily Nation tweeted about teachers who had been sacked over “love affairs” with students. Clearly, these are cases of sexual abuse—often coupled with emotional violence like the death threat in Mary’s case.  Framing it as ‘incest’ or “love affairs” takes away the emotional punch that framing it as sexual abuse of minors would have had on readers. Incest and love affairs may be wrong, but they do not scream injustice like child rape does.

Framing it as ‘incest’ also influences the viable solutions. ‘Incest’ means the problem can be fixed by banishment—for both the victim and the perpetrator. As such, the best possible outcome for Mary is re-acceptance by her family (not safety from her abusive stepfather or counselling to deal with her trauma or support to catch up with the school-year she missed). Framing it as a case of sexual abuse would call for the prosecution of the stepfather as punishment and for Mary’s protection. It would also mean questioning the logic used in punishing Mary instead of caring for her—and the impact this has on her rights to safety, education and development both as a Kenyan citizen and as a human being. In a country where, according to World Vision, some 150,000 children are sexually abused every year, one cannot help but wonder if attitudes like these are partly to blame. Some might argue that questioning this cultural framing would negatively portray the Luhya culture. Far from it: there are plenty of wonderful things about Luhya culture and traditions. But, surely, protecting elements of culture that shield sexual predators and hurt children’s lives in 2019 is unconscionable, even for the staunchest cultural relativist.

As storytellers—and therefore setters of our society’s values and visions—Kenyan journalists must do better than this. As their audiences, we must demand better from them too. Especially now, in the #MeToo era, when numerous people are standing up to sexual abuse and misogyny around the world. It is not enough to report stories like these “neutrally” —because that, at best, is a myth, and at worst, an affirmation of cycles of abuse. Furthermore, this is not a war for just women to wage, especially regarding the abuse of children. This is a moral and human issue with social, political and economic implications for our country. If we cannot have empathy for our own children, then what kind of society are we living in? What do we even care about then? What kind of people are we? I know some will be quick to point out that both Ahmed and I are male—and therefore should not be involved in this conversation. Still, I believe with the right attitudes and systems, anyone can contribute to ending sexual abuse and supporting survivors (a significant proportion of whom are male). I am inspired by Ronan Farrow, a 31-year-old, male, Pulitzer-award winning journalist for The New Yorker, whose reporting on the stories of survivors of abuse by influential men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby has shown that no one is too powerful to avoid consequences for their actions. If we are to tackle the epidemic of sexual abuse in Kenya, our storytellers must be at the frontlines. We must set the vision for a nation that loves its people—more so its children—and that will do anything to protect them from those who (seek to) harm them.

Muturi Njeri is currently pursuing his MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh. He’s a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and an alumnus of the African Leadership Academy and Colgate University. He writes on https://muturiwanjeri.com/

How Long will Africa be Rising?

Michael Onsando
26 March ,2019

It’s always been imperative – perhaps even fundamental – to the western neoliberal narrative that Africa is rising.  This, of course is something we know. The developmental complex has, for years, been reliant on this image of a “rising” Africa to push reports full of words like “sustainability,” “effective,”  “emerging” and “give us funding.”

The narrative itself is obviously complex. It cannot be erased because it is grounded in some truths such as the expanding middle class and high growth rates on the continent vis-à-vis other continents (and not even talking about the potential for growth with large underdeveloped areas).   So let’s talk about Kenya instead.

A recent budget forecast shows the country will continue to import China’s fish for at least three years. The 2019 budget policy statement, the basis of the national budget, pegs local fish production at 180,000 tonnes a year. That’s against Kenya’s “requirement of 500,000 tonnes.” But “the government is working towards producing more fish”, the national treasury said in the February 2019 document.  

But many times it feels like we stubbornly place ourselves in this space of hatuna uwezo and insist that it is the case, falling on more expensive less forward thinking solutions to plug temporary stopgaps. Then, after tiring ourselves out by pursuing temporary solutions, we turn around exhausted and throw our hands in frustration delivering “stern talk” rather than results.

“ “People don’t want to buy Chinese fish because they don’t trust the [farmed] production process, but we don’t have much of a choice,” says Mechak, standing next to a big wicker basket of whole Chinese tilapia fish.

The trampled cardboard boxes used to ship the frozen fish 8,000 km (5,000 miles) are stashed away in a corner, and the fish itself is more than two years old.

It will expire in less than a month, according to the dates on the boxes.”

Chinese imports “driving fishermen to despair”

The country needs about 500,000 tones of fish per year – only 140,000 tonnes of which can be provided by local farmers. So the fish import question (like all other import questions) becomes complicated. Do we develop local capacity to fulfill demand or do we allow this fish in at risk of killing the local market?

But the question doesn’t seem to have been considered. And when considered it seems more to be a response to “Chinese imports” as a threat rather than a proactive “where we finna find this fish we need folks?” Consider this lead paragraph from Business Daily:

“Kenya is investing Sh14 billion in the fisheries sector under a new programme to bridge the deficit created by the controversial ban on China fish imports.

The aquaculture business development programme, a partnership between the government and The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is aimed at addressing the scarcity of fish in the country.

This comes barely a month after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that fish imports from China will be banned.

“We are implementing a new fisheries model aimed at addressing the current challenge that the country has faced over years,” said Sammy Macharia, assistant director of Fisheries.”

Sh14bn spend to bridge Chinese fish imports ban

Reactionary decision-making has been the way in this country ever since William Omamo heard of his sacking on the radio as he drove to Nairobi from Bondo. But reactionary decision-making is just a symptom of the pre-occupation of the people in power with things other than their job:

“Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid.”

Considering the public in policy

Anyway, according to WITS (World Integrated Trade Solution) Kenya is one of the countries with the largest negative trade balances in the region only out-imported by Ethiopia – which is a problem given that we are also one of the largest economies in the region.

This isn’t a simple “buy Kenya, build Kenya conversation, rather it is a question. Is it about time we dug ourselves out of this “rising” narrative? Or are we comfortable to be the perpetual little brother in the world – a market for dysfunctional, discarded products and short-term sustainable, emerging and effective developmental aid?

Then again, maybe Akothee will save us.

Considering the Public in Policy

Michael Onsando
5 March ,2019

A friend of mine recently quit their job in policy lamenting that it was a waste of time. Not because policy is a waste of time but because “policies in Kenya are not guided by anything other than the whims of the people in power.” Recently, reading about the idea to have Kenya Airways take over JKIA, I see their point.

“The PIC(Public Investments Committee) says it is concerned the country would lose Sh8 billion in revenue annually if it allows KQ to run the airport — KAA’s main revenue-generating asset which also contributes 5.1 per cent of the country’s GDP.”

Inside Kenya Airways – KAA Partnership Deal – The star

The struggles that Kenya airways is undergoing are not new to any passing observer of the country. Plagued with strikes, falling stock prices and an ex-CFO who just wouldn’t go away, the company has been bailed out by the government twice already. This deal is said to be the only thing that will keep KQ from completely falling through. If we choose to go deeper we find that the national carrier had made dubious decisions when it comes to financial longevity that range from fuel hedging (a practice it might start again) to which aircrafts to buy and when. 

“To generate this kind of surplus, the railway would have to have a turnover of at least Sh120 billion. Assuming that it charges the prevailing tariff of US$1,000 per container, it would need to carry 1.4 million 20-foot containers a year, 4,000 a day. That would take about 48 very long trains every 24 hours. The busiest single line railways in the US, for instance, run 20 trains a day.”

The SGR is a great example of a megaproject that, despite numerous warnings, was pushed through anyway. Now we’re straddled with a contract that states (in part) “Neither the borrower (Kenya) nor any of its assets is entitled to any right of immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise from arbitration, suit, execution or any other legal process with respect to it’s obligations under this agreement.” It’s this loophole that had people wondering about how vulnerable we had left the port, especially after China had already taken over one port in Sri Lanka.

What’s going on?

The system isn’t broken, it was built this way

  • Anon

I don’t like statements that assume people in power are stupid/unthinking. Rather, I prefer thinking about what it would mean if the things that are happening are deliberate  and, maybe not planned, but a reaction/proaction towards or away from something. In this sense perhaps the mistake we have made is that assuming the state is an egalitarian democratic space (yaani, that Kenya cares about us all – and all equally). Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid. 

The burdens and benefits of the use of resources and public borrowing shall be shared equitably between present and future generations.

A good state snowballs into growth. With previous generations gathering momentum from previous decisions to continue to push the mantra of progress (whatever it has been imagined as). This works because the people in power are tasked with imagining projects that would catapult their society into the future. However, a group of people clinging to legacy will find themselves caught in the past, making decisions that promise to bring back something that was. Restoring past glory, compounding bad decisions into an eventual clusterfuck that forces them to act. This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfill an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.” After all, we really needed to spend 25 billion shillings on student laptops so we could know that the project wouldn’t work and finally kill it – no one could have seen that one coming.

How does it end?

Michael Onsando
22 January ,2019


Since 1975 there have been about 350 attacks on Kenyan soil.

1998 was the first time knew of a thing called a terror. My mother, my sister, my aunt and I were heading home along Haile Selassie Avenue when there was an explosion behind us. I don’t remember much after that. My aunt held our heads down as my mum sped away. A few minutes later there was a second blast.

There was no social media at the time. If the New York Times published photos we knew little of it – or at least, sheltered from the adult world, I knew little of it. Prayer meetings, gossip, locker rooms and other informal gatherings were the main way we heard.  Teachers announced sudden absences that brought grief to our attention “Marube won’t be in class today, we would like to keep him and his family in our prayers.”

I remember the days that followed the attack – things that don’t make the news. I remember the alertness to loud sounds that followed. I remember rash “you can’t sit with us”. I remember the way fear, anxiety, anger and confusion hang in the air – emotional debris left behind long after blast dust had been cleaned up. 

Terrorism (noun)

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

The death toll for the attack last week at Dusit D2 now stands at 21 and the country is in mourning. There is little to say that hasn’t already been said. Already we have seen multiple calls for accountability. Already we have seen posts calling out against xenophobia. Already we have seen collective anger wielded and focused on the New York Times – ungrievable bodies continue to be ungrieved by the Western world. Already we have seen the posts about the “resilience of the Kenyan spirit” urging us to be unafraid, to be resilient.

“I am almost selling my house and anybody interested should contact me. Having undergone 11 main surgeries and an unknown number of surgeries remaining, I need more than KES200,000 for tissue grafting in my leg alone. I don’t know what the other operations will cost.”

There is nothing romantic about death and less in survival when it comes to these things. To die is to be dead and to live is to ask why. Years later, the pain remains in tangible and intangible ways. Perhaps this is why it is called terrorism. It doesn’t exist in the moment itself but in the days that follow. In the decisions that we refuse to make and in the memories that are tainted. The terror that grips and controls us when we come face to face with our vulnerability causes us to question our every step. Reminds us that we, too, are subject to the whims and wills of warmongerers.

And that feeling is not comfortable. We don’t like it. We lash out at people we shouldn’t. We look for answers where they don’t exist. But, most of all, we are lost. We wander and wonder – where will they hit next?

“All of us are paying already for this bout of blood-thirst. We will go on paying, for many years to come. We will pay with our taxes, our un-built schools and hospitals, our unpaid teachers, our still-jobless youth, our rapidly deteriorating security situation, our shattered relationship with our neighbours.”

On 15th January 2016 Al-Shabaab militants launched an attack on a Kenyan-run AMISOM army base in the town of El Adde, Somalia – it remains one of the largest defeats the KDF has ever suffered with the death toll estimated to be around 200. This date shows up again with more casualties, this time in 2019 in Nairobi. We know, because we know, that in war there are no coincidences. Just as we know that this death and killing has been going on for years and even before the late Saitoti declared war on Al Shabaab in 2011 we had been fiddling with ideas of war, invasion and destruction. All this to say, that this too is a boomerang of cause and effect that goes way beyond our lifetimes into the past.

How far back should we go?

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.

Wars with their noise affright us: when they cease,

We are worse in peace:

What then remains, but that we still should cry,

Not to be born, or being born, to die.  

There is no hope in this piece.

As stated earlier, there’s little to be said that hasn’t been said. There’s little to be felt that hasn’t been felt. Instead we bury our dead, tend to our wounded, hide our fears, wander and wonder – is it possible to bring the cycle of violence to a close? Are the people in charge even trying? Or are they more preoccupied with figuring out 2022 elections?

Anything’s Possible. The Millenial Conundrum

Michael Onsando
15 January ,2019

“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.

The 21st Century Great Game is Africa’s to lose

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.”

“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.”

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.  

Towards Realising Affordable Housing in Kenya

Guest Writer
30 October ,2018

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.

Protecting our Labour

Michael Onsando
16 October ,2018

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.” 

Factors Affecting Performance of Trade Unions in Kenya

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.” 

Atwoli urges Kenyans not to seek jobs abroad

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 blindspots of a STEM focused education reform

 

“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.”

New 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum: How different is it from the 8-4-4 system?

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.

Creating hope (or, when rage becomes the norm)

Michael Onsando
9 October ,2018

“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.”

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.

 

The Devil is in the Data

Michael Onsando
4 September ,2018

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, “[1]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.”

[1] 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