Social Shifts That Mark the Present State of Kenya

Guest Writer
19 June ,2018

by Wangari Kibanya

Conversations around the word millennial make me wonder, why would we need to contextualize our social and economic shifts from a very US American lens yet our nation is only 53 years old and did not undergo some of the shifts that mark the demographic markers on that end? What happens when the word millennial is deployed in the larger Kenyan discussion? When we label young people and how they act or contribute to society?

When we discuss the different generations, we use the terms – Baby Boomer. Generation X, Generation Y or Millennials and Generation Z /iGen (yet to be crystallized.) This illustration shows what characteristics have been assigned to each of these demographic groups, and the language we currently use to describe people within our workspaces. It shows US American centric culture dynamics. What makes each generation unique? According to US Americans, it is differences in technology use, work ethic, values, intelligence, among others.

The thinking behind all the demographic labels we use to define our workforce dynamics are informed by the United States. Maybe it is time to localize these labels and develop the language and apply a different context for the Kenyan workspace (which may also hold true for a lot of African countries).

The recent history of Africa can be defined as pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. How has the Kenyan workforce morphed from independence to post-independence? What are the demographic characteristics that we can use to shift the conversation around how we develop strategies for understanding context and the role it plays?

Kenya gained independence from Great Britain’s colonial rule in 1963, and this ushered in the Africanisation policy. Pre-independence dynamics saw colonial Kenya define and demarcate drastic social shifts in systems of production, culture, religion and economies. Different communities that were merged to make the Kenyan project moved from agricultural, pastoral and gatherer means of sustenance to a money economy – new crops, language, religion and vocations.

This is the starting point of a change that brought Kenya into the world. The different markers for each generation also determine expression, how ideas spread, their conversations and world views. A person born in a certain time period may have more privilege that one born in another time. This privilege is rarely acknowledged. Maybe this is why talk of younger generations having it easy crops up in conversations about the good old times. According to many, younger generations are “spoilt”.

How can we think about the Kenyan workforce in a new way? What are the educational, political, and social markers of each generation? Within each of these broad categories, you can also map and expand different sub- groups and cultures to get more nuances on each demographic label.  The main consideration for the social, cultural and political characteristics what happened around them as they made the leap from childhood to adulthood.

1963 – 1978: Uhuru generation

This generation came up during the Africanisation of labor market, and took up jobs in the civil service, leading to rapid expansion of formal economy. Africanisation ensured that new jobs were created in Kenya’s post-independence economy. They had (and still have) jobs for life in the civil service, and there were limited education opportunities. This led to the wide availability of jobs. Public services were functional in their time.

First and second generation Kenyans were able to get through formal education system, from 3R (reading, writing, arithmetic) to university education. There were airlifts to the United States and Soviet bloc countries to train a professional class, as well as expansion of education facilities in Kenya, and Kenyan music (Benga especially) dominated the airwaves with influences from the Congo – they even had global recording studios such as Polygram set up shop here.

1978 -1982: Early Generation

This generation was born into a constitutionally embedded one party state, and witnessed succession from the first president of Kenya as well as a coup attempt, which radically shifted Kenya’s character.

1982 – 2002: Nyayo Generation

This generation experienced a change of education system from 7-4-2-3 to 8-4-4. We have experienced state repression, currency controls and price controls. Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) have had a great impact on our experiences of public services such as education, health and infrastructure.   We saw the liberalization of the Kenyan economy, including the free market, privatization of public services, and a public service hire freeze.

We have witnessed the rise of Information Technology as an industry, boosted by computerization and dial up internet access. There was increased uptake of opportunities abroad by Kenyan students and professionals (which led to “brain drain”) due to political and economic conditions. We experienced news from a monopoly broadcaster (KBC), and Congolese and vernacular Kenyan music defined our audio experience.

2002 – 2010: Children of democracy

This generation has witnessed the expansion of democratic space. Freedom of expression and creativity in the film industry, art and music was burgeoning at this time. The Kenyan Hip Hop scene grew due to the presence of labels such as Ogopa DJs and Calif Records, and there was an increase in literary output from collectives such as Kwani? TV and radio frequencies were liberalized, leading to a rise in independent/commercial media houses.

There was a geopolitical shift to engage more with the East, leading to the entry of China in megaproject infrastructure funding. This generation has experienced the enhanced use of technology for everyday life, as well as increased global connections due to internet use (due to the landing of fiber optic cable on Kenyan coast.) This led to better connectedness of Kenya to the outside world – more Kenyans got online as the cost of internet significantly reduced. Mobile telephony grew rapidly with the entry of KenCell Safaricom.

There were many diaspora returnees at this time, and new constitution was promulgated at this time. There were also curriculum changes in primary and secondary schools, with a reduction of examinable subjects.

2010 – Current: Digital natives (Generation Z/iGen)

This generation is experiencing an even greater merge of Kenya with the global space on the digital frontier. They have grown up using mobile devices, high speed internet and broadband. There is an immediacy in the adoption of global trends, making it to almost every part of the country. There has been a screen shift to mobile rather than legacy media, and a change in news dissemination and cultural trends in the age of viral news and trends on Kenyan Facebook and Twitter (#KOT.)

This generation is coming up in a time of unemployment and underemployment, leading to a growing gig economy and the emergence of the “hustler.” There has been a demographic shift in the makeup of our population, and an expansion in the creative economy (we have photographers, videographers, writers, actors, poets, fashion influencers, Instagram and Facebook popup shops.) This generation has seen a rise in self-publishing on platforms like WordPress, and self-promoting created content on platforms like YouTube. There has been more privatization of services, and the rollout of a new curriculum in 2017.


With this basic frame of the different slices of the demographic shifts and labels, perhaps we can reimagine and develop strategies that blend both global thinking and local dynamics that underpin our interactions with Kenyan youth, and understand why it is important to contextualize demographic labels.

Where is Kenya? A Review

Michael Onsando
19 December ,2017

“Today we commemorate our 54th Birthday as an independent nation.  On this day, 54 years ago, the Union Jack came down and the Kenyan flag went up.”

With these words, a week ago, the president began his speech to mark our 54th year of independence. It was in this speech that he revealed his ‘big four’ i.e. food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare. These are all noble causes. At the core of human existence is food clothing and shelter – the four pillars address all three, and add longevity to the mix.

But, with 54 years of independence, we must continue to ask ourselves why we aren’t there yet. What are the things that are getting in the way of us and our ability to provide decency for the citizens of the country? An abstract question that could make for polite conversation at a bar that would last the whole night – and make little progress while at it. It is still an important question to be asked – to be considered by as many Kenyans as possible, because without answers from people with diverse interactions with the country, how can we be sure we have a full picture?

Perhaps this is what Footprints Press sought to do when they put together the book 50 Years since Independence, Where is Kenya? A collection of 50 essays in three parts, the book is a collection of views from a diverse group of Kenyans with different experiences of the country. From bleak:

“As Kenya marks 50 years of independence I have little to commemorate and nothing to celebrate. It bothers me that we are glossing over the past with such aplomb yet in the present we have outgrown our national significance.”

  • Anyango Odhiambo

To optimistic:

“It is my perspective that whether by design or accident, we have put the necessary building blocks that will pave the way for a sustained economic take-off”

  • Tony Githuku

The authors are drawn from various backgrounds with the book organized in 3 parts – Society and Culture, Politics and the Marco-Economy. Because of the nature of essays (an argument must be contextualized) the book is packed, not just with historical facts, but insights on mindsets and how those mindsets affected the decisions that were made. Take this by Margaret Wambui Ngugi Shava for example:

“I have often wondered how my parents, who endured the vagaries of a racist colonial power, whose lives were fundamentally touched by the Mau Mau resistance, managed to bring up my siblings and myself in such an even handed manner… how is it that as we grow older, most of our friends seem to speak the same language we do?”

This is of particular value to the ‘new’ generation. Those who live with little context to the current mess. Gladwell Otieno puts it best:

“What happens to an injury, an injustice unprocessed? Does it fester, burrowing into the psyche and leaving its traced being inherited from one generation to the next? As a country we are not good at dealing with the sins of the past or the present. The current motto of ‘move on’ in response to the presidential elections is typical. We do not learn from our history and are thus condemned to keep on stumbling over the same hurdles, committing the same crimes”

This book allows us to begin to contextualize current Kenya. In giving us their insights on where Kenya is at fifty years, the writers allowed us to see into their own world, into their own (versions of) history so that we can have a clearer picture of what here looks like. It is in seeing the collection as a whole, as an arena of debating voices, that we begin to understand that competing interests that have been pulling at our country for the last half a decade or so.

A lot of the essays agree on the significances of certain happenings. There are repeated mentions of the death of Kenyatta in 1978 and the attempted coup in 1982. The repressive nature of the Moi regime comes up repeatedly as well as an impediment to freedoms in business, in law, in media and in development of identity. The constitution (promulgated in 2010, I’ve decided we need to stop calling it new) also features a great deal.

But even on these things that they agree on, the perspectives are wide. When writing about the constitution, for example, Henry Awori writes:

 ‘The referendum overwhelmingly approved a constitution that set some high standards for leadership. But when the tenth parliament legislated for its operationalization, the threshold was lowered, making a mockery of the people’s wishes and throwing the principle of public goods to the dogs.’

And Githu Muigai writes:

‘The recent constitution making process remains one of the greatest achievements in our nationhood in the last fifty years… this design has brought new ideas, a transformed conception of government, and, certainly, new applications of old ideas.’

Perhaps if there was something that stood out sharply for me in the book was the importance of hope. The need to believe (or at least try to believe) that this thing called Kenya is possible – that it can be done. Each essay attempts to shed a perspective on the mechanics – how it can be done, what needs to go, what needs to stay, what has been forgotten, what needs to be forgotten and so forth. But it seems strongest that even before we begin to think of how, we must first accept that it is here and that we have a stake in it – then begin to work towards making it better.

‘Where is Kenya? 50 Years Since Independence’ is available from Footprints Press for KES 3,500. Click here for more details.

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.

Systemic Begging

Guest Writer
4 March ,2014

by Caroline Maina

Since Form 1 placements started, there have been several articles in the Daily Nation featuring students risking illiteracy due to poverty. Were I an outsider reading this paper, I would conclude that Kenyans are poor, their politicians are greedy and that Machakos is the capital city based on its development.

These articles are about children who performed well and have placements in national schools. In response, Kenyans from all over the world will generously offer to partially or fully sponsor their school fees. This will be followed by pictures of a smiling young boy or girl fully dressed in his/her new school uniform, thanking the well-wishers.

It is not unusual to not have enough school fees, neither is it wrong to ask for help when it is needed.

My problem with it is that we are creating beggars out of these children.

There are several scholarship programs that a child who scores 350 marks and above can apply for like the Equity “Wings to Fly” scholarship, KCB Foundation scholarship, among others. Why would someone who scored 390 be unable to access it? Is it because they were late to apply for the scholarship? Or is it that the organisations were not good at advertising their activities?

But, more importantly, what are we teaching the child? This child will learn that with the right amount of sadness on their face and an eager journalist looking for a story, (s)he will get whatever (s)he wants without going through rigorous vetting and crazy deadlines. If so, expect them to beg again for university tuition.

This goes for the children sent in the streets – what will they become when they grow up? Do their parents think about the future of their children?  Shall they beg for the rest of their lives?

Of course, with the current poverty levels and the ever rising cost of living, many parents are forced to use all their means to put food on the table. Since the retired president Moi’s error – when he frequented the West in search of donations – we as a country have been losing our dignity. With the carrot-dangling style of many donors, Kenya as a country has had to beg. We have a well oiled begging system based on colour and social status. Those parents make their children believe that the well dressed Kenyans walking up and down the streets are just lucky, as their children, on the other hand, disregard hard work.

At a much higher level, governors spent KES 1B  in travel for just three months in search of donor funding, as well as foreign investors. It’s like leaving your house and spending a considerable amount of energy and money to go ask someone else to feed your family. Couldn’t we as a country have been in a much better position if we used that money for an irrigation project in Turkana or a hospital somewhere remote? Our leaders are constantly reinforcing the idea of begging our lighter skinned big brothers, not by their words, but by their actions.

The first time I came to Norway, my boss was very eager to meet me, another Kenyan. She had been paying school fees as well as food for a family in rural Kenya. It is really nice that she does that, but do you know what position that put me in? A begging position. Nothing could be discussed without the mention of the family she helps in Kenya. She commented, confidently, on the elections and felt she had the right to critique the process because she was supporting the Kenyan poor. One time, a bus driver asked me which country I was a refugee from.

What am I getting at? While it may seem harmless or just a little bit annoying that there is so much begging and beckons of “Mzungu, give me one dollar to buy food!” in the streets, these people go back to their countries assured of their supremacy and we loose all the pride and dignity of being Kenyan. This affects the middle class more that it does any other category of Kenyans.

There is no better feeling than earning something for yourself and being completely independent of others, whether it’s your parents or any other providers. It gives one a great sense of accomplishment. The worry of not having food on the table or lacking school fees should not be on a child’s mind. It is the responsibility of the government to have an education system that creates hard working and responsible citizens for a greater future. Citizens that will compete in the global market with great confidence and not pity seekers.

The Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism will not make any headway in improving Kenya’s image if there is no change of mindset of our leaders and wananchi. I appreciate the efforts of the Kenyan government by not including aid in the national budget, it certainly gives Kenya freedom to make its decisions. More still needs to be done to position Kenya as a global competitor, but this will not happen if the Kenyan government has to be helped to provide health (which receives a great deal of donor funding), food or education to its population.

“Never stand begging for that which you have the power to earn.”

Miguel de Cervantes

Caroline Maina is a fun and experimental being who is expressive in her writing and speech.  Twitter: @carolmsuper