Trusting that Kenya will Kenya

Michael Onsando
20 November ,2018

“Fresh produce growers are expected to be the main beneficiaries of trade deals that President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign on his visit to China next month.” 

Farmers set to reap big from China trade deals

 “Juzi mheshimiwa rais ameenda China amefungua soko, sasa tukona mkatgaba maalum ya soko ya kuuza mali yetu China. Na sisis watu wa sehemu hii, itabidi tumejipanga vizuri. Na wale watu wa China hawanunui mahindi, hawanunui miwa. Wanataka kahawa, wanataka chai, wanataka nyama, wanataka mambo hio”

 William Ruto

Perhaps one of the consequences of devolution is regional leaders are being held accountable more rigorously. Having been so publicly stated that the resources and power are in the hands of the county government the “big man has refused” excuse has been taken away. Of course devolution hasn’t worked like a charm as expected (ask the folks in the health sector, they’ll tall you a thing or two).

Especially in this second term presidency with campaigning haven started literally the year after elections and Okiya Omtatah calling for the polls to be brought forward by one year, most leaders are under pressure to show how they are best positioned for the reshuffling of the cards come 2021. In the absence of an incumbent for the uthamaki train, Jubilee might have Ruto as a front runner (or he’ll go start his own thing). Whatever happens, the political playing field is more open than it has been in a while – and this has every politician fighting for dominance, a swipe at the throne.

Maybe this is why Mwangi wa Iria turned to put the squeeze on Nairobi for 25% of the revenue from selling water from Ndakiani dam. Under pressure to, at least, show residents of his county that he is pursuing resources for their protection, this was one of the great ideas that came to him.

“The stranger here is not somebody we do not recognize but somebody that we recognize as a stranger, somebody we know as not knowing rather than somebody we do not know.” 

Who knows, knowing strangers and strangeness Sara Ahmed

“In essence then, belonging to a nation is simply the sense of connectedness with people one does not know and is unlikely ever to meet. The intellectual problem of the study of nationalism is understanding why and how people develop or fail to develop this belonging. Of note, the fact that this connectedness is not necessarily unproblematic.” 

Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talked divorce David Ndii

I’m not sure whether nationalism is the answer (because reasons ) but I am fascinated by identities, how they are created and what they mean for the things that we hold onto. And, in holding onto this Kenya, how bringing together of the 44 cultures and identities through a cohesive process. Especially since the borders didn’t naturally evolve through bargaining, conquest, allegiances and disagreements, we find ourselves in a bind fueled by the question “where do my interests lie? To whom does my self belong?”

Devolution, increasingly insists that the answer to this question is “look up, look around.” Which creates the pressure on local leaders to ensure that the county can squeeze the next county for money on water.

But what are the elements of identity other than the things we choose to agree to see as true, as common between us? And, in reaching for the things that are true – what do we find?

“Ni nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo” 

Nchi ya kitu kidogo, Eric Wainaina

So maybe a more interesting question begins with the assumption that there are no things that exist to hold us together. Rather looking at the truth and asking, what “Kenyanisms” have we accepted as who we are? And how do these Kenyanisms affect how we interact with the things we hear, the things we understand? 

“Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, and his Chereng’ani counterpart, Joshua Kutuny, alleged Ruto was advising farmers to abandon maize farming and start growing avocado and other crops because he wanted to monopolise the local maize market.”

Rebel Jubilee MPs claim Ruto is growing 500,000 acres of maize in Congo, Tuko news

It’s difficult to talk about trust when it comes to the political circus. Who does one trust, how does one trust? But increasingly what I’ve been wondering is how does the lack of trust stifle efforts? And what must be done to fix it?

This is one reason I’m very interested in this return to Michuki rules and the process currently ongoing on the streets. Because currently we trust the government to shake us up for money to pocket. We trust all the cops to be bribed for freedom. We trust that when the state moves to serve personal interests, rather than the common good.

Devolution creates a “common” and an “other.” So when I hear Ruto asking rift farmers to invest in different plants for export to a market in China I desperately want to hear a leader who is looking for opportunities for their people. But then I am taken back by how quickly and easily I believe a story (with no evidence) about a farm somewhere in the Congo. And, in that moment, I can’t help but wonder – how do we create systems we can trust? How is trust cultivated? And, in its absence, how can we build towards a together?

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.


When something has to give (or, towards hope)

Michael Onsando
24 July ,2018

“The system adopted in Kenya is African Socialism, but the characteristics of the system and the economic mechanisms it implies have never been spelled out fully in an agreed form.”

  • Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, Part I, 6

“There are two African traditions which form an essential basis for African Socialism—political democracy and mutual social responsibility. Political democracy implies that each member of society is equal in his political rights and that no individual or group will be permitted to exert undue influence on the policies of the State. The State, therefore, can never become the tool of special interests, catering to the desires of a minority at the expense of the needs of the majority. The State will represent all of the people and will do so impartially and without prejudice.”

Perhaps the imagining of an idea must always happen at it’s purest. Perhaps there was more room to be optimistic at the birth of the nation. Whatever it is I always feel a sense of possibility when I read article from around post independence Kenya. There’s a feeling of thought and deliberateness from the collective on what things should mean/how they should be.

The story of the Ndungu Report is one of systematic perversion of established procedures meant to protect public interest for political gain and the unjust enrichment of a few. It needs to be told.”

Ndung’u Land Report

Still, the story itself is in the telling. It’s also around the time that these ideals were being spoken of that the country was being divided amidst anyone who could afford to be in the room (or, as legend has it, according to how long mzee Kenyatta slept).

“Corruption scandals have become a “fact of life” for many Kenyans, who have come to regard them as just another facet of Kenyan life, alongside high taxes, poor service delivery, our “cult of personality” approach to politics and religion, and the misfortunes occasioned to us by terrorism. These burdens seem to be ours for the long haul, and we seem to have accepted them, albeit half-heartedly. It is tiresome to watch or listen to the news; even being on Twitter at a time when one was not prepared for shock or disappointment can derail one’s entire day.“ 

Maybe it is the rise of report realism, maybe it is the coming out of 24 years of repression under Moi or maybe the writers are just often in a bad mood. Today’s tone is less hopeful, less believing. It’s impossible to go through the papers without sensing the despair. There is no hope, looking for hope or trying toward hope. Only a resounding cry of how deep in it we are – and how much deeper we are going.

A theory I’ve heard floating around involves institutional memory. This narrative begins with Kenya as an idea that was imposed upon these 43 peoples. Not through war, territorial battles and forging of trusted relationships are we bound, but by subjugation. 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.

A friend writes on email,

“At some point many of the people who start off working against corruption end up in the very positions of power that dictate that they steal. Because people have failed to realize that politics is not a subjective game. You don’t come into it with your feelings and try to change it. The people who have been the greatest change factors have always done so outside of the political system – especially when the issue was corruption.” 

There must be more at play here.

Another friend of mine talks about how it is not what power is but rather what it is about spaces (obligations, responsibilities and roles) and how those spaces shape us. To come up against institutional memory is to have an institution remind you what you are coming up against.

“If they want to fight drug barons if they want to fight the al shabaab, if they want to fight crime – they can do it. But they can’t fight crime, they can’t fight al shabaab, they can’t fight barons because everyone has a cut in it.”

Mohammed Ali

“In a video, the angry youth called out Moha for betraying the trust they had on him by associating with the Jubilee government despite corruption scandals rocking the government from within.” 

“The ultimate objectives of all societies are remarkably similar and have a universal character suggesting that present conflicts need not be enduring. These objectives typically include— 

(i) Political equality;

(ii) Social justice;

(iii) Human dignity including freedom of conscience;

(iv) Freedom from want, disease, and exploitations;

(v) Equal opportunities; and

(vi) High and growing per capita incomes, equitably distributed.”

Perhaps, when working towards this goal, and in defining this goal – we lost sight of what it looks like.

“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace.” 

  • Keguro Macharia

And maybe we’re tired of paying the price.

Something is Happening

Michael Onsando
9 January ,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?

Maybe this is why hope is fragile. Especially when it comes to hope for the intangible things. Things like freedom and peace.

The thing is, hope opens up a space of possibility. When we hope for something we make decisions toward its actualization. You hope that someone comes to see you – so you linger around the house waiting for them to get there. The longer you wait, the more you lose hope. Usually, by the time you leave you have not only lost hope altogether – you’ve probably also convinced yourself that the whole idea of hoping was silly in the first place. And, if this happens enough times, you learn to navigate this person differently to preserve your time. Every action though, has an equal and opposite reaction. You stop waiting for them, they get angry, and you have a confrontation.

To hope towards freedom in colonial days was to ask your neighbor “are you willing to sacrifice your life for this?” To even think of creating possibilities for freedom was to accept the sacrifice that came with it. Now, most people can agree, that freedom was something we needed. And to get it someone had to aspire to it, and sacrifice was made. However, given the level of sacrifice needed, one can begin to understand the people who decided not to sacrifice. Who looked at the question and said “Yes, freedom would be fantastic, but I have lost too much/I am too afraid/I cannot help” or whatever other variation.

Perhaps this is why we will (and must) always be wary of anyone who speaks of change. Not to frustrate the inevitability of change (another exercise in futility) but rather to ask ourselves – is this the world we want? And how can we move from where we are to where we need to be? And what does where we need to be look like?

Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake?

With (literally) our whole world at stake, we become very particular. We begin to take a closer look at things like identity, we study patterns in ideologies. And, once convinced we are on the right path, we are willing to do almost anything to get there (it is, after all, for the greater good). This, like everything else has some good and some bad in it as well. It is because of this drive that change is inevitable. Because we will always work towards it.

But sharing spaces will always be about compromise. And if there is no room for compromise in this drive then we end up with different sides to the same argument talking at each other, over each other and against each other without any real consensus building toward a shareable future. Discussions that often end in reproducing the same oppressive institutions that they set out to change.

Africanization, then, is an exercise in offering context. In learning our history. In changing our lenses. Much of the history of our continent is written by white men from Europe and North America, and this no doubt affects how the world sees us, but more importantly, how we see ourselves. For our children, it has meant a very narrow view of our continent. In many school books, the history of our continent is written in three broad categories: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. In doing so, we single out colonization as the single most important thing that has happened to Africa, and centre it.


‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’

  • Audre Lorde


“And, if truth itself has a history – what happens when such histories collide? When the subject, rooted in their own truth and own history, meets another subject rooted in the same? How do we handle these situations? Does the way we do this further aggravate or does it create space for these histories to co-exist?”

Maybe this is why the work of change is slow. The constant negotiation and renegotiation until something finally manages to lodge itself into the place of “common knowledge.” So to say something is happening is to say “this is common knowledge in my circles/this change has reached the people around me” Maybe it might even be to say “I have removed myself from the spaces where the thing is yet to happen.” Rarely, “I am working to happen this thing”

Something is happening is often used to direct attention to the thing. To ask that the listener pause to observe and, perhaps even participate towards whatever is happening. And with attention comes the questions “why this thing?” “Why now?” What does this thing mean for me?” And it is these questions that we must be willing and ready to answer when we say something is happening. Because all conquest has been on the back of ideology (or nazi soldiers were willing to die for their beliefs as well). Because sacrifice will often fall on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. A president may start a war, but a soldier will die. A lawyer may open a case, but a witness will be shot. And, if we insist that this something, that is happening, must happen then we must accept that there will be sacrifice involved.

And, as with all sacrifices, we must be willing to ask “why?”




Between Hope and a Hard Place

Michael Onsando
29 April ,2014

On many occasions when talking about Brainstorm, the journal, the future and the work that we believe that this journal should do, I’ve been asked about hope. This question comes up again with people who read my blog. And it’s not just me, it’s like the message that is being passed across by many writers, many thinkers is, “we’re screwed.”

In Kampala during a question and answer session, I’m asked this by someone who reads me often. They ask why I don’t write happier things, why I don’t give people hope. In response I get angry. “If happier writers do not have a burden of sorrow imposed upon them, why must I carry this burden of joy?” are the exact words I use to reply. I remember these words verbatim because they stay with me for months.

In ‘Beyond Hope’ environmentalist Derrick Jensen writes:

“When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”

Then there’s this word ‘despair.’ It carries an utter desolateness within itself. It is defined as ‘the complete loss or absence of hope’ but, I believe, that is not the meaning that has attached itself to the word. While I do feel, to a large extent, completely without hope for Kenya, I do not feel despair.

Despair carries with itself the connotation that nothing can be done. And, because nothing can be done, nothing will be done. Further, in doing nothing, the original statement is proven – nothing can be done. Despair is, within itself, a self fulfilling  prophecy.

I have never been a big fan of hope. Even as I write that, however, I realize I have never been a big fan of despair either. Both seem to create a situation of inaction. In ‘Problems with Names’ Sara Ahmed writes:

“I would argue that if feminism is to have a future in the academy, we need to name sexism, we need to give this problem its name; we need to revolt against sexism.”

While she is talking about sexism, I think this applies to much more than that. It is important that we be able to give things names. That we be able to touch them, feel them, identify and analyze them. There is a space where I am now. It is not a place where I feel hope, neither is it a place of despair. What do we call this place? How do we interact with it if we can’t touch it?

When I started writing this, I was thinking about how to be hopeful about the country. How does one navigate and  keep their chin up when we are actively un-humaning an entire community? Even the things we find to be happy about are vastly outweighed by the others. I, for example, really like the ice cream at Sno Cream. How does this weigh in what I need to write about vis-à-vis everything else that is happening in the world, the continent, the country – my neighbourhood?

There is a two way divide that has been created in Kenya. This divide has been created for writers who exist here.  The writers who pretend nothing is wrong and are very happy about Kenya, and the writers who, basically, say that “We’re screwed.” Both these writers run off the need to tell a different story. (Think about how we repel stories of a backward village type Kenya with stories of skyscrapers). This divide has been extended to emotion. One is either hopeful for the future of the country or in complete despair.

This is obviously not true.

The first reason this can’t be true is that we know that human beings are complex creatures capable of holding more than one emotion at once. How many times have you been angry at someone you love, yet still loved them? Who said emotions must exist in this place of black and white when we know that everything is grey?

The second reason for this is the complete failure of English as a language. I toyed with the idea of naming this space but decided against it. I’m sure there’s a language that has a name for it (please tell me down there in the comments if you know it) and English, as a language has just failed us with its limited range – as it often does.

The third reason is slightly more nuanced. What does this divide do? In a country where everybody either hopes the place will fix itself or knows nothing can be done, we end up in a space where everything will remain the same. It creates two positions that are inactive and inactivity is great for the status quo.

I intend to stay in this place. This place is where the magic happens. It is where I am comfortable and functional. I just need to know where this place is so that the next time someone asks me “Michael, is there no hope?” I can calmly look them in the eye and say “There is no hope, there is only this – existence.”