Reading the Dragonfly Sea

Guest Writer
7 May ,2019

by April Zhu

Verses and aphorisms acknowledge that nothing is really ever new; they carry history well. Not all languages hold poetry naturally in daily speech, or are old enough to speak of ghosts with mundanity. Kiswahili is one, and Chinese is another. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor looks for the ghosts that fit in the timbres of these two languages, to hear all the frequencies of China’s relationship with Kenya, a 600-year-old story of which “China in Kenya” as we know it today (chinkuus and railroads) is only a very recent chapter. Her latest novel, The Dragonfly Sea,is an intuitively emotional piece, centered on the marginalized, deeply fluent in the ways in which negative spaces—history, memory, death—shape lives.

The “dragonfly sea” is the Indian Ocean, an 11,000-kilometer stretch across which millions of dragonflies cross from Asia to Africa. The journey at the center of the novel is an echo of this natural epic migration. Ayaana, a girl from Pate Island off of Kenya’s north coast, is chosen to make a momentous trip across the Indian Ocean to China. It is a fictitious re-imagining of Mwamaka Sharifu’s real-life journey in 2005, upon discovery that she had Chinese ancestry, that she was a houyi (后裔), a Descendant, “someone to walk the space between the past and the present, so the future can be shared.”

Traces of China on the Lamu Archipelago point back to Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who, in the early 15th century, reached the shores of East Africa with a flotilla many times greater than that of his European contemporaries. On his seventh and final voyage, a large storm shipwrecked part of his fleet off of Kenya’s north coast, where it is said survivors sought refuge, converted to Islam, married, and named new homes after old ones (Shanga from Shanghai).

Before Ayaana was a celebrated houyi, she was the product of shameful circumstances. Her absent father forms a void that shapes her life and and that of her mother Munira on Pate. Munira, a woman who “does not believe in men,” teaches Ayaana early on that identity is no less valid if chosen rather than inherited. They choose their own family name, and Ayaana “chooses” into her life a father: Muhidin, the “sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed, and brawny” fisherman with a poet’s mind, who gives her the gift of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya’s poetry, verse in a woman’s voice that becomes Ayaana’s lodestar in strange countries. The lives of Ayaana’s patchwork family are ghost stories, shaped by deaths and disappearances that drive them towards the ocean. When Ayaana speaks of her “family” later to her Turkish friend Koray, he responds, “Life is crafted from absence to absence.

In The Dragonfly Sea, Owuor centers the margin. The Kenya in this story is the Swahili Coast, it is Pate, it is Muhidin when he leaves Pate to “go to Kenya” and, while in Nairobi, is captured and interrogated as a terror suspect for being Muslim, hailing from the north coast, and, really, not being Kenyan enough. Each character, from Teacher Ruolan, Ayaana’s subtly racist Mandarin instructor, to Nioreg, the Congolese widower hired to be the ship’s security detail en route to China, is delicately crafted, a victim of something, their backstories a map of brokenness and the resulting plot simply points where these intersect. Owuor places us in a position of empathetic omniscience, which often feels alien and improbable, where, as in a Baroque painting, everything is at once, impossibly, fully in focus.

As with Owuor’s debut novel Dust, The Dragonfly Sea turns on the axis of an interracial relationship, unexpected because it does not fit the expected power imbalance, but through its incidental-ness, tests the norms of race and sex (and our assumptions thereof), especially between Asians and Africans. (It also refreshingly embraces the desirable, sexual Asian man.) As Ayaana embarks on the ship MV Qingrui to reach Xiamen, where she will be paraded around China as the houyi from Africa, she meets and is almost at once—through some undefined familiarity—drawn to the ship’s captain Lai Jin. His face and body “written” by a fire that claimed his wife, Lai Jin had become a “life member of a noisome asylum that was at its core, a void,” and he too, like the tragedy-battered members of Ayaana’s family, turned to the ocean. Owuor makes a good-faith attempt to draw the stages of love between two individuals without defining it by their grasp of a shared second or third language. English is not the center of Ayaana and Lai Jin’s relationship; sometimes, neither is prose.

At the center of this story is a question: how does one complicate the present “return of China to Kenya?” “China in Africa,” a category so broad it means nothing (or, rather, chooses only politically important meanings), is meant to embody an impossible multitude of stories: aid and debt, migration, proliferation of informal and illicit trade, cultural diffusion, cultural imperialism, demographic anxiety, racism, and coloniality. But coverage of these issues is so often flattened to a geopolitical plane populated almost entirely of elite men, one that exists in official, poorly translated English on banners, speeches, press releases, and mottos.

On the day the MV Qingrui embarks from Mombasa to Xiamen, Chinese and Kenyan bureaucrats gather to be photographed: “The merry-makers disembarked in undulating descent, careful to support one another, and demonstrating proof of the power of cheap champagne to forge loving connections between two uneven countries.” Ayaana and Lai Jin watch, together, above and separate from the optics. Owuor is hardly naïve about modern (or historical) Chinese involvement in Kenya and the injustices and humiliations it has exacted on Kenyans. What she does do is ask what seismic geopolitical shifts look like when seen from the margins. Later in the book, Ayaana thinks aloud to Lai Jin: “China says she has come back. An ‘old friend.’ But when she was here before, we also had to pay for that friendship. Now she speaks, not with us on Pate, but to Nairobi, where our destiny is written as if we don’t exist.”

At the Nairobi terminus of the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway, tainted as an omen of a second colonization, there stands a colossal bust of Zheng He. The label beneath asserts that his fleet made several trips to Mombasa, “embracing mutual understanding between China and Kenya and strengthening Kenya-China friendly exchanges.” Zheng He and his shipwrecked sailors who put down roots in Kenya, were proof—so it goes—that “friendship” between China and Kenya predates European colonization, proving that China’s interests, unlike those of the predatory West, are beneficent. The admiral’s ghost, not only in Kenya, has been increasingly invoked by the Chinese government to carry out the political work of justifying China’s modern imperialist moves. What is the houyi exercise, after all, if not one of China’s many “emblematic ways of excavating, proving, and entrenching Chinese rootedness in Africa,” in the poetry through which China speaks of geopolitics?

To make sense of (and authenticate) narratives of the powerful, it will only be more important to look towards the margin, as Owuor does. “But maybe as it approaches us, this earthquake that is ‘Zhongguo,’” Ayaana muses, after the completion of her journey, “it will do us the honor of recognizing that Pate Island is also the keeper of its graves?”

Owuor’s optimism—if we can call it that—is that, if we look to the margins, we may find old ghosts that that play no part in national stories. Old cyclicalities, like the pervasiveness of shame, how powerless a woman is to prevent passing to her daughter the experience of rape. The potency of art,  silently passed down from a disappeared mother to her not-enough son. Older ghosts, which can be found if we look beyond political ghosts cast in bronze and search instead for those who washed ashore in a foreign land, said the Shahada, and took the purgatory bath—those who find rose-scented love and finish their lives in a new land.

The Dragonfly Sea is published by Penguin Random House. Find it here.

April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya

Huduma kwa Wengine

Michael Onsando
23 April ,2019

It’s as if Raila’s endorsement of the Huduma number as loudly as it has happened has put the final nail in the coffin as to whether he is trustworthy. Say what you will about it, but the handshake has changed (or perhaps just cast a different light) on the politic in Kenya. With the leader of the opposition working closely with the president (look, politics across the divide!) and Ruto being shunned to the side, where he continues to complain about uprooted railways.

It has somehow made apparent what we always knew – when threatened, the elite will gather together in protection of themselves, putting their battles aside. There, however, is a problem here:

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.

I’m not even going to go into why I am not boarding this Huduma number initiative, Ndii says several things about it here and Rasna says some other things here – I agree with most of the things said. But, like any good speculatist, I take note of DP Ruto’s skipping the launch (yes, I know he had reasons).


Politics has always been a game of resources. Especially in a democratic society where one must win by the popular vote. Here, a situation is created where the populace must know about you. This involves a large amount of campaigning, roadtripping, billboarding, palm greasing and speech giving. If you come from money it is easy to see it as a business opportunity to expand what you already have. Ndii from the same place:

“During Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term the consumer price of milk increased 67 percent (from KES 36 to KES 60 per half-litre packet), while producer prices remained unchanged at KES 35 per litre), effectively increasing processors’ gross margin by 130 percent (from KES 37 to KES 85 per litre). Given the industry’s 400m litre annual throughput and Kenyatta family’s market share, which stands at 45 percent, the consumer squeeze translates to an increase of the Kenyatta Family’s turnover from KES 13 billion to KES 22 billion, and gross margin from KES 6.7 billion to KES 15 billion a year.”

All it takes is a policy change here, a government contract there and voila! You have almost doubled your annual turnover. Good businessmen know this – hence why they put together money and “install” presidents or whichever politician they can afford (here’s another app that the silicon savana guys should put together, like Uber but for politicians for hire). But when you play the game without the resources to back yourself you might get burned – something Arap Sang almost learned the hard way at the international criminal court.

Because politics is a game of resources, having them puts one on the front foot from the beginning. Not only can they maneuver better but they are also in a position to frustrate their opponent’s efforts. But this also means that they can see when someone is coming for them, because the movement of resources is not something that is easily hidden. Especially not the kind of resource you need to run a challenge for the presidency against a (generations old) tradition.

For someone who was born too late to participate in the first pilfering of the nation that established a political elite the question becomes complicated from here on out.

How do you gather the resources necessary to put up an effective campaign against the establishment? One could go the Boniface Mwangi way, writing several proposals to NGO’s and people of goodwill as well as raising number through a paybill(warning, this might jade you real quick). One could(just as easily) go the Ruto way and try and loot as much as you can so as to be at par(warning, this might alienate you from the people you claim to be fighting for).

Whatever route you choose the establishment will try to quell you at some point. They might even adopt you for a while to co-opt your audience but eventually they will spit you out – or at least try to.

Maybe it is this pattern that has given the current government some of the audacity that they have. Knowing that they can deal with most threats effectively they continue to come up with more audacious ways to use the Kenyan people to further themselves, more loopholes that can ensure that they continue to amass wealth at a rate that keeps them further ahead in the political race, populating the parliament as they please, shuffling and re-shuffling who stands where to keep the populace confused. So maybe dreaming of a reversal might be a dream too far. But maybe we can start by simply saying no – at least I plan to, for as long as I can.


Debt, Opportunity Cost or Money Lost?

Michael Onsando
16 April ,2019

By this point in time the younger generations of African nations must have made peace with the massive debt burden that we will be inheriting when it is finally our turn to take the wheel. Take this paragraph from the conversation for example:

Many of these Eurobonds will mature between 2021 and 2025. It will require these sub-Saharan African countries to repay an average of just under $4 billion annually in that period. But they are already currently bleeding a rising total of just over $1.5 billion in annual coupon payments on these Eurobonds. This represents a total of an additional $15 billion across the term of the Eurobonds. The total accumulated bonds are in excess of $24 billion. The principle amount of this is $35 billion.

35 billion is intense right? Well, here’s the clincher – that was in 2016. Kenya currently is considering another Eurobond for about $2.55 billion despite not receiving a vote of confidence from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without out a programme from the IMF we are unlikely to secure investor confidence which means, you guessed it, this is expensive debt (we’re basically borrowing from Tala to pay Branch now).

Why would the IMF refuse to give the trade the nod? Well turns out we failed to meet the requirements needed to keep the programme we had. Requirements such as repealing the interest rate capping law. You know, the kinds of laws that these things were written about:

“Despite good intentions, interest rate ceilings have actually hurt low-income populations by limiting their access to finance and reducing price transparency.”

So, basically, laws that might not even be protecting the people that they claim to be taking care of.

But the point of this essay is not to go on about bad debt (or even good debt) and how much of it that we have. Instead it is to engage with the concept. Having themselves inherited a country that was focused on robbing itself clean rather than development, our leaders find themselves with a window of opportunity (which could be closing), as there is a paradigm shift in power. The west is not completely consolidated in its will (and that’s putting it in the most delicate terms possible) and China is rising faster using capitalism – the tool of the west themselves – against the world. Somehow, the Africas have become the battlefield on which this war plays out. Whether it is our “burgeoning middle class” or our largely youthful population it is increasingly important to have Africa on your side.

This also comes at a time when African markets are working through their distrust of local brands. Increasingly it is important for big brands not only to have their logo on some shops in major cities but also to demonstrate presence in tangible ways (beyond bare minimum legal stipulations). More local brands are holding their “localness” in high esteem and foreign brands trying to look as local as they can without having to lie outright. Simple examples of this are the current transition of Barclays to Absa or AoN changing to Minet Group Africa to make their brands more comfortable to local audiences. Jumia, on the otherhand, is being taken to the cleaners on twitter over claiming Africanness despite being registered in Germany and doing most of its white collar heavily lifting out of Portugal.

And, given the winds of the global politic, it is only likely that this trend is set to rise as consumers continue to make the link between local shareholding and wealth redistribution.

So perhaps it is this opportunity that African governments seem to be in a hurry to take advantage of. Amidst this chaos is the perfect time to call for an increment of investment in the region by both local and foreign investors. Indeed we have seen a lot of work to encourage investment with business set up costs going down and the ease and processes being cut to the point that one can basically start up a business on their own. However, we also have to deal with increased taxes and licenses such as excise duty on bank withdrawals and the cost of bringing equipment into the country – which was supposed to be solved by the SGR, a story on procurement and ideas that deserves (and has received) several essays of its own.

And this isn’t even the biggest problem facing manufacturing in the country. Take this from the star:

While the cost of energy in Kenya has been the subject of debate time and again, efforts targeted at lowering the cost of energy have had minimal impact on the overall cost of energy. However, with the modernisation of Kenya’s energy legislative framework, through the Energy Act 2019 and Petroleum Act 2019, it is expected that the cost of energy will subsequently decline, signifying a reduction in the cost of production and ultimately an increase in Kenya’s international competitiveness.

Policy measures to support the manufacturing sector

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass Alice (from wonderland) comes across the Red Queen, the interaction goes as follows:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Perhaps it is because they too inherited a country that was unprepared for the opportunity that lay ahead and, in a rush to meet the deadline, they have been forced to overleverage themselves, leaving us in a very vulnerable position. Or maybe it’s just bad management. Whatever the reason is, the rate at which debt is growing in relation to the amount we produce has set us up with the red queen’s race and it seems that we might have to run as hard as we can just to ensure that we don’t collapse under the weight of a burden in whose size we had no say.

Thank god we’re also a generation fascinated by running shoes.

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

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.

Cheza na Nare

Michael Onsando
12 March ,2019

“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”

There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.

“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/

Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/

Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)

It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/

Bila mziki bado namanga/

Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”

The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.

“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”

In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.

 “The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”

We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”

And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…  

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.

Another Essay on Poverty

Michael Onsando
26 February ,2019

There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.

“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”

  • The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud

This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.

Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.

“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”

The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.

The elephant here being poverty.

Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.

Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?

As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.


Faith Based Censorship – the cliche. (Or, a case for free expression)

Guest Writer
19 February ,2019

by Njoroge Mugo

In the battle against censorship, men like Mr. Mutua ought to be fought only through the means they fear: Reason and law: rebukes, petitions, activism and advocacy, of humanism and liberty.

One phenomenon that you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter while attempting to convince a decidedly conservative Kenyan as to the merits of tolerance, of a democracy fully-realised, and of rationalising perceived maladies, is the inevitable prospect of running into any one of a number of possible thought-terminating clichés:

It is foreign. It is not within our cultural/national/moral values. It is immoral. It is repulsive. It is offensive to the majority of Kenyans.

In the latter half of this decade, the legal arena has been awash with battles between the moral whims of some people and the force of the bill of rights – a document to which every Kenyan is entitled. And it is nothing short of amazing just how much of this is actually a failure to reconcile individualism with the need to preserve societal values. All of these appear to beg a re-evaluation of our idea of democracy, and what entails its bare minimums. It is not enough for us to simply say of ourselves that we are a democracy and pat ourselves on the back simply because some paper says so. We must be willing to agree on essential attributes of it, attributes without which we could no longer claim ourselves to be a democratic state. What’s more, we must be willing to hold the people who break these attributes to a standard of legal action.

I am, personally, a free-expression fundamentalist, which is a self-nomer I assert with the full caution and knowledge that there can be, and are, unworthy forms of fundamentalism. Unfortunately for such like me, political breakthrough and approval from the masses are not depandably guaranteed by a lobbying for democratic tenets, nor are they guaranteed by an unflinching respect for human rights. As such, the case I attempt to represent here is that we need to protect people’s rights to hold and express ideas more than we need to protect the wellbeing of ideas.

Ezekiel Mutua—himself a walking thought-terminating cliché—does not believe in this. And it can be argued that his job quite literally requires it of him. His mandate charges him with the responsibilty of disbursing licenses to filmmakers, producers and exhibitors. The rational behind this is that we – Kenyans – need to protect ourselves from on-screen unpleasantness. A reasonable measure if we speak exclusively of children, but an indefensibly undemocratic one when we consider that KFCB ipso facto retains the authority to decide what sorts of films are made. That is, what sorts of opinions are stated.

The suitability of KFCB, Ezekiel Mutua’s state vehicle, as a manifestation of this faith-based conservativism seeps into state mandate manifests just how the premise of “opinion regulation” is at complete loggerheads with free expression. Appealing exclusively to the devout and reactionary, Mr. Mutua’s main agenda as KFCB CEO has been a campaign to purge the creative space of all unpleasantness, vulgarity, and any and all attempts to normalize anything his board might consider, at its own discretion, “offensive” to “decency” and “public interest”. A majoritarian propagandist through and through, Mr. Mutua has time and again proven himself capable of using the inordinate powers afforded to him by his state office to asphyxiate dissenting views (Shall we forget his endorsement of the suspension of press during the 2018 Raila-oath-taking when he said, “The media must regulate themselves or the Government will”?)

At the top of KFCB’s list of depravities, it needn’t be said, remains also that anthropomorphic evil proudly brought to us by the unscrupulous, foreign NGOs: the gay agenda. Last year, they banned Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki for glorifying homosexual behaviour. Again, their objections to its existence are not any we haven’t heard before: Homosexuality is—take your pick—unkenyan/unafrican/unnatural/unsightly/ungodly/of the devil. Our very own deputy president William Ruto, an excellent rhetorician but a man without a single trustworthy bone in his body, has openly and repeatedly said between walls of congregation that “homosexuals will have no room in Kenya”, among other variations of such. With every comment from the conservative faction comes a familiar echo consistently premised on an amalgam of unspecified denial and self-bestowed authority, and it appears there can be no limit to the possible permutations that can appropriately express this divine repugnance. But, avoiding for a moment the unavoidable question of quo warranto (i.e., by what right do these self-coronated moralists think themselves worthy interpreters of what is sufficiently Kenyan/African?), one is implored to assess the dangerous packaging of statements like “Homosexuals will have no room in Kenya” and their retention of an implicit okaying of dehumanization. 

It is not merely the fact that Ezekiel Mutua or anyone else finds the gay existence to be a disgusting one in society—everyone reserves the right to find and express disgust in whatever they wish—more than it is the fact that he is willing, and able, to impetrate public disgust into a currency for justified acts of intolerance, abetting, thereby, a society in which certain people are acceptably deemed, by virtue of the way they identify themselves, as undeserving of dignity, livelihood, and citizenship. Unpersons. (Think Hans Landa’s monologue: “You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.” Or Aboud Rogo’s: “Ukitaka kumuua mbwa mwite mbwa koko”.)

In the exercise of such a phenomenon, we discover an ungoverned extent to which a conservative society is willing to go to “conserve” whatever it is that’s preached conservable by faith-based statesmen. Granted, it may not be obvious to a devout person, brought up in strict religion to be against all forms of sexual deviance, how this ubiquitous narrative of those repugnant others can be harmful. But it is certainly obvious, I would hope, to anyone who has heard or read of the recent legal regressions in Nigeria and Uganda, or of the awful devaluations in the Gambia—the ascent into law of bills that allow for the stoning to death of convicted gays; and the open solicitation by president Jammeh for the on-sight decapitation of “homosexual vermin,” both known and suspected. (This in a country that has consistently failed to get its GDP-pc past $500.)

But all this would be to assume a reasonable discussion on the role of ‘repugnant wisdom’ in morality.

On the matter of free expression, however, a firmer rebuke must be made to meet horribly casuistic statements like, ‘Kenyan films must reflect dominant moral values of the country.’ This statement, and many others made by Mr. Mutua, essentially compels painters, musicians, cartoonists, writers, actors, filmmakers to create only the art that pacifies “national moral values”, and stems from the authoritarian idea that:

1. There exists persons and groups that possess a monopoly on free expression, and that these same persons and groups have a special right not to be offended.

2. Extrapolations can be made from the beliefs of a majority to be used to dictate the extents to which the rights and freedoms of individuals are exercisable. 

3. The right to free expression is granted by the state, and is subject to a supposed “moral consensus” and will of majority.

Much as it definitely was a valid objection that was raised against the New York Times’s distasteful decision to print images of fallen Kenyans in their publication, Patrick Gathara is right to fear that:

[…] It does have rather toxic implications for press freedom in Kenya. Not only does it make it easier for the state to isolate and target the foreign press corps, something it has previously done, but giving the government a taste of the power to decide what content media can carry could whet its appetite for more.

I’ll close with Hitchens, who – in his exploration of axis-of evil-states – talks about an assignement he was sent on in the 1980s, in the-then communist Czechoslavakia, in which he was compelled to invoke the mention of Franz Kafka as a way to free himself of arrest, much to his chagrin since he regards such invocations as tired and clichéd. But in his own defense, he summarises that:

Totalitarianism is a cliché; dictatorship is based on clichéd thinking, on very tried-and-tested uniform stuff. They don’t mind that they’re boring, they don’t mind that they’re obvious, their point is made.

And utimately he urges that:

The urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.

Perhaps in line with this we should remember that freedom of expression is not the same as freedom to express things that I agree with. And especially not take it as a hard line when forming policies.

Njoroge Mugo, is a 22 year old man living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an actuarial science student in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He loves to read, write, listen to music, play chess, engage in spirited, topical debates with friends, re-watch old Leonardo Dicarpio movie scenes where his eyes are red and he is shouting at the top of his lungs. In his idle time he bitterly contemplates the ugly and seemingly unsolvable problems of his country.