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.


How is This Even a Discussion?

Michael Onsando
23 January ,2018

“Disposability is a long word. It speaks about the value of an object within a certain space. Say, for example, the wrapper of the chewing gum that you just had. That is very disposable. Unless  you collect chewing gum wrappers. The idea of disposability of people within a community works the same way. How can society work with or without, say, you? Are you collectible, or disposable? Do you have value?”

One only needs to google “Kenyatta Hospital Screenshots” to read about the atrocities that have been happening at Kenyatta Hospital recently. But, if you don’t want to google, and are yet to hear, there are allegations of all sorts flying at the hospital. These allegations have nothing to do with poor services rendered (something that we can talk about), but of robbery, people being drugged and rape. There’s something especially wrong when we are discussing whether you are safe at a hospital (before even discussing whether they are getting treated).

Still, this is where we find ourselves.

Disposability shows its face in many ways. When a place is made for you, it is created to enable your continued survival. To be disposable is to speak of the attitude of the state towards a people. It is more than neglect, because if it was neglect, the state would at least acknowledge the responsibility held. To be disposable is to live in a state where the assumption of responsibility itself does not exist.

“We wish to state that there is no mother or patient who has reported being raped or attempted rape at Kenyatta Hospital”

““Did you report?” as the first thing a victim is asked does not address what the victim has just gone through. It does not deal with the violation. It does not allow the sexual assault victim control of what happens next. Reporting will only help a victim if they are allowed to make this decision.”

But, what do we want? By the time the screenshots were hitting peak circulation KNH had responded. In typical fashion blame was shifted to the victims but an investigation was promised. We are now in the stage where we wait for some action(and forces push for something to happen). We can speculate that this will go round on social media, pressure will be increased and soon the public declarations by government officials will start. Once this has happened a report will be generated that will be given to parliament, who will discuss this report over 90 to infinity before it slowly slips out of the public conscious. Part of a Facebook post reads:

“My wonder, after 6years, is this. If the KNH story hadn’t been told on social media, not many would have known nor cared. Ignorance has been blissful.  Pia, inakaa Akili nyingi imeondoa maarifa mengi. (…)Those that need that social revolution the most, are not ardent social media users. Aren’t nearly well-enough read to comprehend this post. And yet we, who have that luxury.  We talk. Sensationalize issues for a bit; months, even. Then, more often than not, forget. “

This reminds me of the discussion we had a few months back about travel. We see a series of road accidents, then national outcry, followed by a decisive declaration which is soon overturned because it really isn’t a policy. Even with the NTSA – we saw them on the road, then a quick sudden death meant they aren’t on the road anymore.

Is anything really being thought through?

I ask this in light of Sonko’s various squads as well. Who is on these squads? What is their mandate? (especially because one squad is also meant to help with security. Do they use force? Under whose authority?) I ask because women aren’t safe going to give birth. Because this isn’t really even a large policy question – rather a simple question of security and efficiency. How, and when, will we demand to receive the services that we need?

“Yet what is baffling to me is that we continue to think of these moments as glitches; flaws in the system that runs Kenya, as opposed to proof that it is working exactly how it was designed – to keep the majority poor, hungry and desperate, never with enough time to realize that their dignity is inherent; that they are deserving of rights; that it has never been about tribe, but about class and power, and that ultimately, the power was always theirs to use and give. We continue to sacrifice our nation’s most vulnerable at the altar of corruption and anyhowness, and we can only get away with it for so long.”

As I write this essay, I realise that I am working towards showing the nuance in something that, honestly, isn’t quite nuanced. It is important that the oldest and, arguably, most accessible hospital in the country be safe. Hospitals are the place we go when our bodies have failed us. When we are at our weakest. I’m not equipped to do it – but I’ve heard that giving birth is hard and both physically and mentally straining. Surely, we need not add insecure and unsafe to, what is already, extremely difficult.

It’s 2018, the city is Nairobi and we’re discussing mothers giving birth without being raped. Seriously though, how is this even a thing?


But It’s My Body

Michael Onsando
25 November ,2014

I return to Saul Williams,


What is the price of freedom,

how is it paid?”


At the protest march for #MyDressMyChoice, we marched past another group of people at Dedan Kimathi’s statue on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. They couldn’t have been more than 10. As we walked, by they watched silently, holding their placards: “Free our freedom fighter.” Questions about the protest are responded to with mumbles about Dedan Kimathi’s body – no one’s really sure.

Dedan Kimathi’s body has been missing since he was buried somewhere in Kamiti after his execution. His family has asked the government often to prioritise looking for the body – it’s been 57 years since his death. Every single government we’ve had has refused to make this a priority. They built him a monument – that’s about it.

For politics to take place, the body must appear.

Judith Butler

There is something symbolic about bodies. One of the most crucial bits of power is the ability to control bodies – to make bodies shift or change at whatever rate they they see fit. This is why the USA has such stringent visa application terms.  Controlling the flow of bodies helps them maintain power.

It is for this same reason why those men stripped the lady at the bus stop. And why all the other ladies after that were stripped.These men, showing these women that they have power over their bodies, create subjugation. It is also why Dedan Kimathi’s body has never been found and handed to his family. This happens so as to show that you cannot speak against power and continue to exist as you were.

Because of how important our bodies are to our existence (many words to state the obvious: our very being is tied to our bodies), power over the body is one of the most widespread tools of oppression. Or, as Shailja Patel puts it, “our bodies are our first homes,” especially in Kenya where “lanes” are something that we constantly talk about. These bodies homes collect, meet other body homes – find similarities, garther and isolate. Certain bodies are allocated more resources than others.

And we know this.

We know because our bodies shift differently in different spaces. Our bodies shrink and give way to people who we imagine to be of a more privileged body category we shift, cast our eyes down, and tame our language. In other spaces, we expand and take up more space – sit with our legs spread, arms on armrests. We know which bodies are allocated more space. And we know to follow that allocation.

In a conversation I had with a friend a few months back she insisted that without gender roles, humanity as we know it would fall apart. People, I was told, need to be told what to do. Need to be controlled (they cannot be trusted without their own agency). These are things we have heard before. When the colonialists insisted that Africans needed guidance. When slave owners said the slaves liked being slaves. When we were told to beat our wives to show them the path.

We listen to this, and our bodies act accordingly. We know the rules.

Which is why it was so important for the colonial powers to hide Dedan Kimathi’s body. Which is also why it is so important for men to challenge women’s agency.

“Our bodies are not your battlefields”

I don’t know who first wrote this, but it is Nebila Abdulmelik’s favourite placard. One wonders what is so striking about the statement. In the direct way, it is a pretty obvious statement (of COURSE your bodies are not our battlefields), but we know that this is not really a statement but a plea. The only reason she even has to hold that placard is because men aren’t listening. No, I will not qualify that with “some.”

Kenyan men, I am now speaking directly to you. If you get angry that you have to be lumped with those Embassava touts, then don’t attack the people that they are hurting. That makes you one of them. You are enabling the enacting of this battle upon the bodies of others. And this is happening everywhere. Increasingly, we are enabling the enacting of battle upon the bodies of others.


Some bodies are “in an instant” judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.

Sara Ahmed

I’m trying to look at this in a very physical way. Which bodies do we allow to hurt/not hurt? Or, more directly, which body’s pain do we consider as acceptable? Whose hunger can we live with? Whose death? Whose gunshot wound? Whose death is unfortunate and whose is a tragedy?

(Why were we allowed to speak ill of the dead when Mercy Keino died, yet we are urged otherwise when it comes to politicians?)

I’m reminded that much of the modern world was built on the backs on black bodies. And of the direct uprooting of people’s lives that this led to in the continent. I’m reminded that, even after they killed him, the colonialists still wouldn’t let the people have Dedan Kimathi’s body. I’m reminded of how physical torture was used in the Nyayo Chambers to manufacture the image of Kenya as an “island of peace.”

“Your silence will not protect you.”

Audre Lorde

Our bodies are sites of political warfare.

We did not get to choose the bodies we have and the socio-cultural associations that come with them. And we don’t get to opt out now. To choose silence is to maintain what exists. To choose silence is to actively refuse to create room for bodies that were told to shrink, to expand. It is to actively refuse to believe victims and side with people who are controlling other’s bodies. It is to listen to people when they claim that their body is their own and say “No.”  It is to bury Dedan Kimathi’s body in an unmarked grave somewhere in Kamiti.

“Our bodies are not your battlefields” cries for something. It begs for a recognition that seems just outside reach. It also carries confusion. Surely, if they are our bodies – why must we tell you that they are not your battlefields? At the core of this radical change is a simple cry for bodily respect.

Give us back our bodies – they’ve been buried for way too long.