Changing Landscapes

Michael Onsando
28 August ,2018

“The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?” 

It’s been particularly well known that, while Kenyan elections run on tribal math, this has always just been a narrative used by people in power to maintain their status as the ruling class. Still, tribe has been to blame for most of the problems facing Kenya’s political landscape. So much so has tribe been at the root of our problems that “tribless Kenya” is a movement hoping that, in organizing across tribal lines we can work towards a united country.

It makes sense that we can be herded around using tribe. The concept plays on our base ideas of “us” “ours” and a “sense of belonging.” (and participates in creating “them,” “theirs” and a “sense of unbelonging.”)

“In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.” 

So what happens when the tribal numbers stop making sense? When it increasingly becomes apparent that “our man” will not help us?

“When my competitors are through with(mon-sun)sponsored headlines, paid opinion polls & fake news they are welcome to the real contest based on real mwananchi issues SGR, roads, connecting people to electricity, equipping our hospital &Tivets and matters water. Nawangojea huko.” 

The narrative changes.

“Siasa ya 2022 imengoa nanga (…) hii siasa si ya monarchy ukiamka asubuhi enda kwa huyu, jioni kwa huyu, kesho kwa huyu – hapana. Hata sisi maskini tutazaa kiongozi wetu maskini 2022 William Samoei arap Ruto” 

Mohammed Ali

It’s impossible to ignore that sanitizing effect that the defection of Mohammed Ali has on William Ruto’s character. How can you claim that a person is corrupt if the very person who was voted into government to fight corruption has aligned themselves with them? Buildings are destroyed, commissions are called, rumours are started, reports are written, life moves on – we forget about corruption.

Instead we focus on kiongozi wetu maskini.


The new narrative is the same old narrative. Just the objects that hold space of fearing the “other” have been changed. We begin to see battle lines drawn along the story of the people versus the empire.

“As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?” 

It’s worth understanding why these narratives are sticky. One theory states that the independence struggle, while won, took its toll on the country. The only hope left on the other side was catching up with an ever-moving world. In this sense the goalposts shifted from self-determination to gathering resource (I imagine because it became more apparent that resource was the key to this self determination). It is from here single career stories were birthed (be a lawyer doctor engineer or embarrassment to the family). This kind of thinking thrived strongest in the Moi error where following a template and keeping your head down was a surefire way to success. But time passed and we are looking for different definitions of freedom, beyond the pursuit of capital to sustain a life that hadn’t been chosen. Increasingly people are looking for agency over their decisions and looking to where this agency will take (would have taken) them. And the gaps in infrastructure are becoming more apparent.

And the people are getting impatient (Africa is rising, why are we being left behind please?)

Juxtapose this emotion onto the landscape with dwindling tribal numbers and the stage is set for the class to thrive as a key driving story.

And it’s not that hard a story to sell. Kenyatta the first’s government systematically grabbed and redistributed resources amidst the political elite. Every government that has come after has participated, to some degree at least, in this tradition of creating wealth for the elite. And this wealth never translates into proper economic growth because it is not created with a plan or structure but rather through pilfering public funds and redirecting public resources.

So in this way, the Kenyan populace remains vulnerable to the “working president” as a narrative. Change looks like having a president who did not come from legacy and has no ties to empire to the Kenyan people because this is something we have no experience of.

Elections, however, are in 2022 and this is only 2018 – a lot can happen in 4 years. And it is impossible to say the age of political patronage is over. But it might be worth pointing out that it will not be enough to get by on “my people” alone moving forward. Already loud declarations are being made about holding the value of labour over identity so much so that the president had to say that he will not protect his brother if found guilty (he said he will, whether he will well…)

So how can the current landscape be used to the advantage of the people?

First, as already explained the narrative is strong because it is true. Kenya is long overdue a leader that is not part of empire (that leader is not the guy who stole land from a primary school or sold the country’s grain). Look around and find ways to support the leaders you think are actually working.

Second, use the narrative and circumstances to create pressure for the people currently in power. Remind them that the tribal numbers won’t help them next time and that it is the current scorecard that matters. Keep track of the things you and members of the community need done and present them to the people who need to get them done (you can email, tweet or whatever). Make sure your issues are heard – then watch for who is listening. If the battle is for who is listening to the people – then speak your truth.

From the Roof Down

Michael Onsando
2 August ,2016

Only once we place human dignity at the centre as opposed to capital can we fight this disease.

Why the World is on Fire

Previously, on Brainstorm, Brenda Wambui closed her article with a note on human dignity. To place the idea that hall human beings are “worthy of honour and respect” (dignity). It seems completely impossible to think about dignity without thinking of bodies and how we are around bodies. Which is to say it’s very difficult to be dignified, or act in a dignified manner, if your body is being infringed upon.

We ask, for example, that the person who was harassed in the workplace to be dignified in the same place, and often before the same people, that harassed them. Or we ask of the worker who was mistreated to be dignified in the same household where they were mistreated. To demand for dignity without taking what this demand entails is to unevenly distribute the burden of understanding. And I call it a burden because to be in privilege is to be able to go through life completely unaware. To be able to not understand – and be understood.

This is why this particular framing sits with me. What does it look like to place human dignity at the centre?

It surely does not look like laughing down the fact that students are burning dorms across the country. Neither does it look like holding onto an institution that was designed to maim and kill those who it is meant to protect. I’m not even sure if it looks like running away from justice in the name of self determination.

But, of course, to say that we have gone through a period where dignity and a dignified existence (whatever that may mean) is at the core of the things we would like to do is a lie. One only needs to look at the news to know that it is not people that are at the core of the agenda. Rather, we seem focused on cutting all the shortcuts to “catch up” with the west (without even thinking about what’s happening, and how the west is eating itself). Our imagination shaped by tall buildings, large highways and big screens in the centre of town.

All these things are not without advantage. To have a better road system is to have easier access. To have more office space – well that’s debatable. But largely ideas of development and progress are not without advantages. Even as I write this I am relying on fairly modern things, like a laptop, electricity and the internet.

But one does get the feeling that there is some opportunity being missed.

We seem to be in a space where we are either focused on moving forward into whatever we are chasing or continuously romanticizing the past. This leaves us particularly blind to the present. Instead of now actually sitting down and trying to imagine new ways (yes, that definitely emulate and are mainly formed by the old) we’re chasing an illusion.

Whether this illusion is something we would like to go back to, or something that we would like to become, none of these things seems based on what we have at our disposal right now. We don’t have the past at our disposal. At least not as readily as we’d like to. We are gathering and analyzing pieces to put it together but that isn’t there for us. We don’t have the funds to develop to the imagined future either (as our national debt shows clearly).

This is not to ignore the large capital disparity between nations globally. Or to say that these are not problems that we should work on.  The question of capital will always be one that must be addressed.

Perhaps it is to ask, if this is a journey – where are we going? And, is there space for us in this world we are creating. Or are we busying ourselves making the very things that will destroy us? Are we participating in creating institutions that will be as toxic to us as the institutions we found? These are things that must be considered right at the beginning. We don’t create and then try and fit humans into it. Rather, we place ourselves, and our needs as humans, at the centre.

Then we build around that.

Whose Revolution Is It Anyway?

Michael Onsando
20 October ,2015

“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

  • Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

I wonder if Jean Baptiste knew that these words would later shape themselves into a phrase that would be echoed across the world and be widely relevant almost 200 years later. Although perhaps, the phrase itself would show that it was here to stay, like a self fulfilling prophecy, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

It’s particularly interesting to think around now in this time of entrepreneurs and artists. When, on the edge of frustration, people are beginning to try new things. When change is not only the thing that we see, but the thing that we are driven by. The need for change is suddenly more urgent, is here. Buzzwords like “digital revolution” and “second liberation” are being thrown around but what do they mean?

I ask what they mean in light of the memory a teacher’s strike that fizzled out with no real benefits to the teachers. I ask what they mean as government procurement continues to surprise us with soap and wheelbarrows. I ask what they mean to the 40 sex workers killed across the country every month. I ask what they mean for those in the shrinking space that is civil society.

I ask because this question only speaks to whose revolution is it anyway? Are the discussions that are happening about addressing the issues that we have centered or about creating a new elite? Whose revolution is it anyway?

It becomes even more interesting as this thing we are watching begins to take on a familiar shape. A shape/an energy that we have seen before. And, with the taking of this shape we must remind ourselves to look to those that worked using the same energy, and what that has translated to today.

To see Brainstorm, for example, in isolation is to ignore other forms of critical discussion publications that went into creating the general psychology (for lack of a better word) as we know it. Publications like Mwakenya, which worked in a highly policed Kenya by Moi had him issuing threats in public:

“From today you should keep quiet. I don’t want to hear anything again about Mwakenya. Keep quiet. The government will deal with them one by one. We will collect them so don’t mention Mwakenya again. Let’s keep quiet and go on collecting them. I am happy that we have uncovered them and they are naming their fellow collaborators. If you were involved in this thing you should be worried. I think you can hardly sleep because you are scared. When you hear a knock on the door, you think those friends have come.”

We know, because history exists, that Moi’s Kenya was not kind to freedom of speech. Giving room to then build off that fact it is not hard to imagine that there must have been a lot of organizing and trust around creating something that would scare someone who had spies everywhere. To even begin to come up with a structure to undertake that task would be a lot. Yet, it was done. Many people were involved.

But, even with the radical nature of Mwakenya, there is still need for a second liberation, for a reminding. For something to happen (and something is, indeed, happening. To be unaware of it is to be willfully obtuse to the inevitable). And, as something is happening, it is important to remember that things happen, and have been happening for a long time. Important to not carry the mistakes of the past models with us into an even more uncertain future.

The problem with saying “something is happening” is how ominous it sounds. Part of it is a coming of age, listening tongues collectively speaking. This, then makes it important to pay attention to what tongues are saying what, who is speaking? What that are they saying?

“We are also a political class with a unifying ideology”


“My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”

Flavia Dzodan

Class is difficult to discuss. There is something pervasive and slippery about it. Because is not a “real” thing with tangible references in the world every space gives the word a different abstract definition – often with different dimensions. Given this then, what is class? How do we touch it? How do we imagine it?

“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”

Ubabi huskizwa.

And that bothers me. Are we doing the work of change or just looking for our kind? We are echoing speaking, listening and encouraging. This is important. And this we must continue to do. But are we also taking the path that involves doing the actual work? The work of engaging the work of exchanging, speaking and listening? Or are we, together in our knowledge carrying out an elaborate “let’s point and laugh?” Is the work we are doing intersectional, or is it bullshit?

Disappearing Bodies

Michael Onsando
19 August ,2014

The man who sharpens knives  in my neighbourhood is a middle aged Kenyan man. He can’t be more than 38 years old, although the wrinkles on his forehead beg to differ. His hands don’t look like they were made for delicate work. They have a large awkwardness that comes with the life of a casual labourer.

His life can be seen in how he carries himself. In how he defers space to people who look more affluent than him. In how he silently agrees with everyone a class above him, even though his eyes tell a story (a you have no idea what you are saying story). In how he says:

Lakini mwanaume hawezi kubali mambo mengine.” (But a man cannot accept some things.)

He’s that guy. That Kenyan lower class, smiling, living just above the poverty line guy.

Politically, his views can hardly be called radical. He thinks all politicians are thieves but voted for “his person” in the past election. He knows that they’ll never do anything for him and he has made peace with that. The man and the woman have different roles in the world. The woman, in the kitchen, the man everywhere else.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put forward the idea that, in anything one does, 10,000 hours of practice is all that is needed to achieve a level of expertise. This idea has been challenged, debunked, reanalyzed and many other things over the years. There’s one thing that everyone agrees upon, though. In order to become very good at something you need to practice. As I watch his right foot on the pedal beat with the reliance of a metronome, it is not in doubt that he has put in his practice.

Labour is a complicated thing to think about. We are socialized to value different kinds of labour despite what their income is. Think about how many people would rather have a desk job and earn KES 15,000 a month than run a small roadside business and earn slightly more. The idea that some work is more valuable than others is something that I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while.

More interestingly, I’ve been thinking about how the value of labour creates something I’d like to call class blindness.

Let me explain. Have you ever been in a restaurant with a person who completely refuses to acknowledge the people serving them? While they may have to transact with them (ordering, paying, et cetera) this individual will not even cast a glance in the direction of them. This is class blindness.

And it’s everywhere.

It is seen in how the lower class (even as I remember how problematic a term this is) is socialized to disappear. To exist in the space between where life happens to the middle class/wealthy yet unseen. And, even as we continue to unsee these lives, we continue to erase them. We continue to move them into a space of disposability – of dehumanisation.

Judith Butler, in frames of war, reminds us of ungrievable lives:

Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed.

I’d like to build on this idea of lives that are already lost and destroyed from the start. Further, I’d like to think about how lives find themselves in a place of death before the death. These are the lives that are displaced when a market needs to be moved, when a road needs to be expanded. These are the dead things that keep crunching. And these are the people we give the labour that we do not value. Then demand that they be happy while doing it.

“(S)he shouldn’t complain – I’m paying him/her to do this, aren’t I?”

Such are common phrases that we hear, that we speak. As if, somehow, in outsourcing work we are the ones doing a service to society. Nyambura Mutanyi writes:

This article is about privilege, the things we take for granted, the questions we never think to ask ourselves. It’s about the ways in which we get comfortable in our niches and forget how small our group is until we are jolted into awareness, as I was.

Gee Brunswick adds:

“Privilege is a helluva drug.”

Instead we ignore structural causes of poverty and share toxic articles talking about how poverty is a result of laziness. We talk about hard work and preach the prosperity gospel in churches. At the back poor people continue to become smaller. Driven by a need to not interrupt these people, they are constantly reminded of their lack of importance. And, in being reminded, they then lose importance. The speaking becomes the acting, the acting becomes the becoming. It is a constant creating of worlds that creates a state of being.

The more accommodating you are, the less space you have to take up. The less space you have to take up, the more you have to accommodate.

Sara Ahmed

According to science, matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. To matter we must have mass and occupy space.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around labour and the amount of space it allows us to take up. And the mass it allows us to have. When we are asking people to become smaller because they do not matter, what are we saying? Would it be easier to say “We’d rather you do not exist.”

I see a link between this and gentrification. Eventually, we tell people to just move because, no matter how much they shrink, they are still visible, whereas what we would really want is to see them completely disappear. Or, get the poor off “our” streets. The streets we own. Not belonging to them because they do not exist and, in not existing, cannot own.

I realise that I still do not know the name of the man who sharpens my knives. He has sharpened my knives every 2 months or so for about a year. I have crossed paths with him. I greet him “Habari ya Mzee?” and he replies “Mzuri sana.” Maybe next time I should ask. Give him space and let him gain mass. Make sure he knows – he matters.