Whither Culture?

Michael Onsando
8 January ,2019

“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.

Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”

Rusinga Festival Rowers
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.

The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.

I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.

Tug of war at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.

The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”

It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”

“Except today it is fashionable to scream

of pride and beauty as though it were not known that

‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “

Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.

It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.

But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?

Dancer at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth.

We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.

Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.

Let them eat maize

Michael Onsando
18 December ,2018

Kenya is headed for a bumper maize harvest even as farmers in the North Rift region struggle to sell their last season’s crop. 

You only need to look up to know that maize is one of the key foods consumed in the country. Those of us who studied GHC (now social studies) might remember it being listed amidst one of the staple foods of the region. We use it, and have been using it, for a variety of meals. Whether pounded into flour, boiled, burned (yaani choma) or processed we have loved our maize for a very long time. Maize is so important that is one of the key factors considered when calculating the cost of living.

Given that maize is mainly grown in the rift area – a region that has been key in swinging votes over the last couple of elections – it makes sense that the crop itself has been politicized. Coming into a consistent market with high demand both the farmer and the consumers find themselves vulnerable to the whims of those who hold the infrastructure – a vulnerability that is exploited through every election period.

In the 90’s Maize prices were affordable as the buying and selling prices were favorable to households. Despite the fact that there were a number challenges, farmers were able to harvest the cereal and sell it at a price that favored both them and the consumer. 

In a bid to keep voters happy it is best for any incumbent government to show that they are in control of market forces by reducing the price of unga on the shelves (source: Making Elections Arap – A book on manipulating Kenyan voters by Daniel Moi*) . Last year amidst a drought, two elections and brokered maize from Uganda the maize prices were spiraling out of control and the government had to do something.

Their great idea was to hold the price of unga at 90 bob while subsidizing the prices between millers and wholesalers. Basically, they decided to make everyone happy, win the election, then figure it out later. But, as a wise saying goes, you can’t make everyone happy – you’re not pizza. And neither was this plan. The farmers were left unhappy by the happenings with the price per bag being unacceptable. Knowing that this year things would be better, they held on to their maize.

It’s now later and I never thought that a bumper harvest could be a bad thing. The simple math in my mind goes “more maize = more money.” That’s not what this year looks like. Speaking earlier this year, Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at the tegemo institute, said, “The country has enough maize stock to sustain the country until July 2019 but farmers are extremely broke and not making money. This is a bad year for the maize farmer in Kenya but a good one for the consumer.” Which means that the farmers that held on to their maize from last year find themselves holding onto maize (isn’t the damn crop perishable? How long can one feasibly hold on?) for longer, given the drop in demand.

And it’s not like the guys who sold their crop to the National Cereals and Produce Board(last year) have been paid. The board ran out of cash because it paid brokers who supplied the aforementioned-brokered maize from Uganda. The farmers are owed about KES 3.5 billion according to the Daily Nation. This scandal itself has had far reaching impact with Agriculture Ministry Principal Secretary, Richard Lesiyampe, former NCPB boss Newton Terer, Finance GM Cornel Kiprotich Ng’elechey and 15 other senior officials arrested and charged over irregular purchase of maize worth KES 11 billion.

“Kenya on May 16 announced Sh6 billion subsidy on maize imports to help lower the cost of flour which had shot up due to a regional drought and poor planning.”

 

“Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term.” 

Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like we are ever on top of the maize problem at all. It is being stolen, illegally imported, underpriced, overcharged unavailable or, as is the case now, over-available. The smart farmers have stopped allocating as much land to maize compared to other plants with one Uasin Gishu farmer only having 79 acres of maize this year down from the 210 acres he had in 2014/2015. Of course, given the cycle, this trend might lead to an undersupply, but there’s little recourse for the farmers faced by an indecisive government and fluctuating prices mostly due to artificial factors.

This takes me back to this government, planning and foresight. Where is the data that correlates maize consumption and the markets? Where is the data that the government uses to project the needs of the people? Do we actually know how much we are consuming and plan for it – ask for allocations and work around them? Or do we continue to react to factors a little planning could have revealed long before they became problems?

*not an actual book

Liberty and Demagoguery for all

Michael Onsando
11 December ,2018

“People should stop panicking about my traversing the country saying it is 2022 campaigns, I’m yet to start my campaigns because when I start they will be in for a rude shock”

“Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka now says he will be Kenya’s next president after Uhuru Kenyatta.”

The year is 2018. We had not one but two elections last year, finally Kenya gets the time it needs to take its mind of the divisive nature of electoral politics and focus on unifying, restoration.

“You mentioned democracy, earlier. I have qualms about the nature of our democracy itself. It did not matter whether one went to the polls or not; the ruling class had its own agenda and we were there to make sure it was the legitimate agenda. I dispute the idea that the vote was the ultimate culmination of a citizen’s civic responsibilities, that after this event, one was required to do little else for five years.”

It was Socrates who questioned the idea of the democratic vote by talking about how voting is a skill and should be taught to the masses. And only those who are educated in this sense would get a right to vote. Given the current elitist nature of education (and how horribly the electoral college seems to be doing for the US) this might not be the most popular of ideas. But Socrates didn’t believe that this (civic) education should be for a narrow few, rather he was more afraid of creating a system of demagoguery where leaders would gain popularity by exploiting the prejudice and ignorance rather than reasoned deliberation towards possible solutions. Or, the politics of tibim and ngai! versus politics that look towards creating solutions that work in the long term for the betterment of society.

This is definitely what it feels like is happening, and has been happening for a while. We have developed a politic that is centered on gunning for the top job and waiting for our turn to eat. Which is why the year after an election still somehow has the news focusing on the next presidency. The current presidency seems more set up as the president and leader of opposition on one side – and brother Samoei on the other. The dynamics of which point towards a conversation around class and heritage.

And this isn’t the first time we see this kind of manipulation. Every presidential election sees coalitions, political parties and allegiances built and dissolved based on winning probabilities (tyranny of numbers anyone?). Often these combinations are revised machines of what we saw from previous elections. Even further, across all sides we often see the same faces in different places. One can confidently say there hasn’t been a really new face at the top level of politics since independence. Somehow, despite battling for freedom, constitutional reforms and numerous hashtags and protests we seem to be in a semi stable, semi monarchy – and 2022 is the first time (at least it seems) that there’s little to hold the kingdom in place.

Which explains why everyone and their laptop thinks that this is the opportune moment to gun for the presidency.

The problem with demagoguery is that it puts aside current issues in favour of the flavour of the month. Rather than focus on looking for ways to fix problems and to find ways to grow us towards a sustainable future we have leaders caught on the current issue. Every week there’s something new to focus on (we’ve written about this before – the cycle of rage). The worst part is even if a leader came in with a proper agenda, where would they begin?

The problem, Socrates shows, is the public’s appetite for immediate answers. He uses the example of a debate between a doctor and a sweetshop owner. The sweetshop owner would simply claim that their product makes you feel good (skimming over the long term effects of excessive consumption of sugar) and it would be hard for the doctor to explain that their solution, while difficult to swallow would be better in the long term.

Perhaps the nature of the campaign has something to do with it. The labour of solving difficult complex societal problems demands one type of person, while the showmanship of the electoral campaign demands another. Rarely do  we find these two people in the same body. Maybe it’s our failing education system that leaves the larger population exposed to this type of manipulation.

“As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somewhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication.”

Whatever it is, when your goal is the job rather than the solution policies come last. It’s like the idea is first get the money and get in, second pay it off and then finally try and fix some problems so you can get voted in again. And this kind of thinking leads to myopic ideas that won’t really fix anything in the long term. Rather we get debt for flashy but useless projects, roadside policies and a generally shortchanged public. So maybe for a year or three we focus less on who is going to be president think about how to enough go forward momentum as a country that the next time we try and change presidents the space doesn’t grind to a halt

Government now, questions later

Michael Onsando
4 December ,2018

“Kenya’s ban on plastic bags went into effect on August 28, with offenders subject to serious fines or jail time. The ban covers the use, importation, or manufacture of plastic bags. Although it was passed in February, the new ban didn’t go into effect until this month so that Kenyan consumers would have the chance to adjust to the change. The delay also gave importers a chance to challenge the ban in court, which were ultimately rejected by the country’s High Court.”

Kenya just banned plastic bags

If Environment CS Judi Wakhungu had her way the ban on plastic bags in the country would have happened in February rather than August 2017. Speedy action from Okiya Omtatah as well as the Kenya Institute of Manufacturers got in her way, delaying the ban for (a further) 5 months. This time could have been spent researching into plastic alternatives and ways to make the transition as seamless for the consumer as possible.

Instead it was spent hoping Okiya won (or lost) his court case.

I’m tayad of these f***** copy pasting ideas from elsewhere without an actual ground analysis when they can easily pay for benchmarks”

@Mumbe_Carole

I’m not sure there is much need to argue for or against the Matatu CBD Ban. Finding a solution to mass transit in the country has been the birthplace of many bad/badly-formulated ideas. Just as the plastic ban floated in and out of public conversation, this was an idea that Mr Sonko had played with for a while. First he wanted to turn Uhuru park into a bus terminus, and then he tried banning matatus from the CBD last year before caving to pressure not to. So that he has ideas around what the problem might be is not up for discussion. This is either a problem he feels strongly about – or a pain point he strongly believes dealing with will gain him political mileage. Neither of these reasons pushes me too hard to judge him.

“Where are the pavements?”

@RasnaWarah

But, just like the ban on plastics, the nature of this ban calls all out our models of governance on all their cow feces. Where was urban planning when this ban was envisioned? We are just going through one of the most aggressive road expansion periods – where are the pavements? Where are the walkways? Where is the plan that is supposed to allow for transition, accommodate for the (unfit?) citizens?

The problem might run deeper than we think.

It was Moi’s government that really enforced the roadside declaration as a form of governmental communication. Ministers were fired on the news, high level government officials found out about changes in their docket at the same as the public and the mighty hand of harambee led us all. With most of his opposition coming from the universities it became difficult for the president to trust anything coming out of the places – which also happen to be the birthplace of research. The absence of this research led to government policies being built off hunches, gut feelings and “commissioned papers” (often skewed to show that the original hypothesis is correct). And it seems we haven’t really made much headway since. Kibaki’s government tried to focus on education but much damage had been done, by the time he was done we had free and primary education and Uhuru already wants to make secondary education free from 2019.

But the government is yet to fully reintegrate itself into the university. Worse still – over the period campus politics have grown to ape the politics we have in the country. SONU is now a conduit for corruption tribalism and greed with SONU leaders playing this same divisive politics and then using that as a platform to make it onto the larger political stage.

A good indicator of this is that there are about 5000 PhD students nationally. Larger societal questions are often answered at this level through rigorous study and data collection. But the truth is that there is little reason for PhD students in any field to believe that the information they collect will be put to good use – or that their conclusions will be implemented (after all, it’s not like we have a great track record implementing any of the reports generated by the government themselves). So they leave.

“And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own” 

Foreign Cities, Local Talent

As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somwhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication. Without really thinking (for example) that Kenya has only 24 cars per 1000 people whereas Israel has 384, USA 910 and South Africa 165 to name a few – how do you replicate an idea in an area where the number of people walking is destined to be significantly more? In Foreign Cities, Local Talent I ask about what it means to develop and implement solutions based on our own realities. Maybe the first step is finding a way to remind the government where the data they are seeking resides – and to demand plans before declarations.

Or we could carry on with this force now, questions later approach and see plastic bags replaced by plastic nets again.

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?

Immigration and Identity: Comparing the Kenyan and European Mindset

Guest Writer
13 November ,2018

by anonymous

As a Kenyan citizen, only two or three generations removed from independence, the memories of colonialism are far deeper than the pages on history books. The stories of heroes, traitors, the heroes who became traitors and the trauma that the colonizers wantonly imposed on a free people are very much alive in what used to be my idea of a European. I still find it difficult to remove myself from the classical image of a blonde haired frail missionary woman on the one hand and a debonair, yet incredibly violent mustachioed rancher or businessman as the very definitive nature of the European. French, German, British or Belgian it hardly matters, across Africa and in many parts of South America and South-East Asia – this image does ring true almost as the silver thread in the canvas of a vast, diverse and painful history.

I find it strange that this is the image that comes to my mind even though this hasn’t been true of the European existence arguably since the 1950s and certainly not the since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, Europe, post world war II has been less Christian, more liberal and, on paper, providing the most gallant government efforts in the war on Climate Change.

So why even ask if there is a European identity crisis? As with all things in a Brexit, Trump world it begins with the narrative – particularly with the narrative around immigrants. Currently the narrative on which policies are created a poor blend of cliché stereotypes that started in rural and mid-west America and became a rallying call to the extreme right the world over – They are taking our jobs and they are raping our women.

I would argue that the only reason the European identity crisis comes to the fore front is that the performance of many European economies haven’t rebounded post 2008 recession. In a world with dwindling resources, shifts in geo political power imbalances and the rigidity of the European Union rules set in Brussels, there is little left to point a finger at than the new comers in the neighborhood.

Much like Canada of today, Europe once took pride in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Held in high esteem as a Utopian like kingdom where even the poor and despondent got their chance. It was this dream that lured immigrants, running from unstable political situations or just pursuing their shot.

The one parallel with globalization and music is perhaps best summarized in the line from Dead Prez’s ode to Hip Hop “one thing about good music when it hits, you feel no pain.” Nothing could be truer on the impact of globalization on the changing demographics of the world as we once knew it. Demographics of which, historically, had been synonymous with identity. The effect of globalization on the concentration of capital and eradication of market valued human labor continues to dominate the political conversation the world over.

Europe’s shores had been open and tolerant to immigration well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was unnoticed because the economies of these European countries were largely taking off. Shocks in the financial systems were not rare but the spread of capitalism into large swathes of formerly soviet territories occasioned a massive expansion in private purchasing power and a largely prosperous Europe.

A rich neighbor can suffer visitors for so long as there is enough bread and water. Once decisions have to be made between the satisfaction and comfort of the rich man’s family and his visitors, questions are asked.

Why did the visitor really come?

  1. They could no longer live in their home – it was unsafe, and it would be immoral of me to turn them away (what we now call a refugee)
  2. Was he looking to live a better life, stay with me until he can find a way to feed himself in my lands (what we now call an immigrant)
  3. Do we share the same values for our faith, lack thereof, families, education and freedoms? (is he a Muslim?)

That third question only found life in the post 911 world and only comes to bear becomes it has become impossible to separate modern immigration without tying it to persons from Islamic countries.

War has and continues to force millions of refugees from the Middle East (Syria most recently) to seek refuge in Europe. Angela Merkel called for 800,000 refugees and whereas many other European nations declined, refugees made their way through the middle east and into continental Europe on their way to Germany.

In an age of unpredictable political movements, climate change orchestrated droughts and floods, global wealth inequality teetering at the edge of a cliff and automation eroding jobs faster than any economic crisis the world has ever known, immigration will become the new normal. This will mean that the image of the white debonair couple as the face of Europe has and will vanish(the royal wedding anyone?).

A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.

Either choice requires an examination of Europe’s historical choices, we must hope against hope, that the right choice prevails.

Yet globalization has a global face. This is not a European crisis in singularity. What does it look like from the Kenyan perspective?

Our scorecard is low and high. High, historically because Kenya has always been a nation that received neighbors from famine and war-torn nations of Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia. This I remember was a matter of pride for our country – the island of peace(at what cost) in a sea of turmoil. This is who we were, and I like to believe who we still are. The concept of borders is a foreign concept designed by the colonizers first above referred. It is natural therefore, if at all there is an “African culture” to welcome and accommodate our neighbors in need.

Yet here again, the Muslim question arises. Kenya’s Islamic population has never been hidden or removed from mainstream society. We have always said that we are a multi-cultural society, albeit under the guise of a predominately Judeo-Christian legal system.

It was us who condemned our brothers and sisters to concentration camps In Kasarani. It was us who called for the police to do random house and in person inspections and arrests. Shamefully, we accepted the fear and chaos from a very tumultuous period between 2013 and 2017 to mask terrorism in the name of Islam and we forgot who we were.

Just like the right-wing European who decries immigrants of Islamic decent, we saw in Kenya, our friends even our families casually make jokes about Somalis and other individuals from Islamic states labelling them by the same terror groups they fled. We distanced ourselves from our neighbors in the name of fear and there hasn’t really been a conversation on what the past 5- 6 years of trauma have meant for these people whom we once cherished.

The same argument too can be made for Chinese immigration. As more and more skilled and semi-skilled labourers come into the Country, small pockets of Chinese individuals are starting to become concentrated across this country. Will we accept them too? Should we as a people look to the West and say that they should accept those of us who migrate to their shores while at the same time reject people from the East who want to work, live and play in Kenya?

These are tough questions. A poor man can only welcome so many neighbors especially if some of those neighbors are perceived to be richer than he. This is true especially because colonialism, comparatively speaking, only just happened. Are we ready to accept another highly capitalized minority to live and work freely in our Country? It didn’t work out well for us last time and all across the developed world, the undertones of rejection and rebellion to the ideals of an open society for Chinese persons are already getting louder and louder.

Perhaps a conversation, locally, nationwide and globally is required, because unlike music, when the pressure on our finite mounts and globalization hits us, truly hits us, there might be some pain.

And we continue to Kenya

Michael Onsando
6 November ,2018

“In this room I was born. And I knew I was in the wrong place”

Spaces, Arkaye Kierulf

 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.

Owaaah 

It’s impossible to dismiss the value of identity in creating cohesion in a space. The words that are used as markers of identity carry perspectives with them that have been shaped over history. To say I am male, black, kisii-suba, is also to say that my body, my knowledge has travelled through these traumas. That the stories that I am likely to tell you are coloured by the experiences of a runaway brother and a journey from Misri. That my perspectives are informed by my position and expectations made of me (and bodies like mine) over the years.

The modern society is inherently multicultural. Whether this is has been achieved by an influx of immigrants looking for better opportunities, or immigrants looking to “fix the world,” most spaces are now a blend of identities – tribal and national. Our perspectives towards immigrants changes wherever you go (bodies are remembered by societies). But, at the end of it all, whether you are in the most remote village or the developed city, you are likely to find those who “are not from” or are considered “foreign” and those who are “local.”

“I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”

Arab Proverb

 I’d like to talk a bit about what it means to be “local”

How the “local” relates to the “foreign” depends on which type of foreign it is. To be local in Kenya is to understand the foreigns around you and how to relate to them. It’s to know to smile “Jambo” at the Caucasians and to keep the Asians at a suspicious distance. It’s to know that “we are one Kenya” but also that it is “our turn to eat.” It is to know to keep your eye on the ever-changing “we” and how that shifts in relation to your “I”

To be local is to be aware of the number of locals that exist, those that have been erased, those that are allowed to occupy space – and how much space is allocated to each. It is to know that, while Kenya has 44 ethnicities, only 3 or four of them matter. It is “kuomba serekali itusaidie” while greasing palms to get your way.

It is to be expected to understand the state of affairs that is “Kenyanness.” To not kick up a fuss, not cause a scene, not fight too much. To be comfortable in knowing, this is Kenya – and this is how things are. It is to see the collective hunger, desperacy and grappling for resources as what it is – a 50 something year old democracy trying to heal and bring together 40 plus ethnicities while playing catch up in a globalized capitalist world.

The problem with multiculturalism is that the idea that “no culture be held superior” begs the question “off which culture do we create our law?” At Kenya’s inception, the latent assumption was white culture was superior, we adapted this assumption into our law system. To date we continue to ask ourselves what kind of systems would exist if we had drawn up the assumptions for ourselves? We see these questions rise to the surface when it comes to marriage (a church wedding and a traditional wedding because all the gods must be pleased). Or with the Community Land Act (is land ownership an individual or collective issue?). Or institutionalized in our police system.

As such, to be local is to know which when and how the law actually applies.

You know that

you carry their history.

But you also know

you don’t carry their scars.

And that, you hope,

will make all the difference.

Burns

Given the number of cultures we’re trying to amalgamate into a whole – would a thing such as a “Kenyan culture” exist? How would it apply? (A question that actually stalled the creating of a “national dress”)

Perhaps this is why Owaah’s tweet stuck with me.

We are retold stories of how “we” are the perpetrators of a violence and we reject them. We refuse to see ourselves in these stories because we cannot recognise the version of ourselves that is shown in them. We reject these stories because they do not carry our truths, because they erase what we know about ourselves, what we have been taught to aspire towards. And when we place our narratives against these stories they don’t add up.

And so we try to find the words to grasp at this dissonance. Between living in a space that is yet to be fully ideologically formed and demanding for the right to claim space. Between trying to understand the hunger and battle the corruption. Between trying to understand the betrayals and pursue justice. This never ending dance between looking for ourselves in the past and disentangling the present to create liveable futures.

And The Drums

The Drums guide our feet

In this backwards-forwards dance

This forwards-backwards dance

This Husago Dance

This Misego Dance

The Dance into a Future

That ends in the Past.

Husago, Kofi Anyidoho

Towards Realising Affordable Housing in Kenya

Guest Writer
30 October ,2018

by Mukami Githagui

Housing is a fundamental human need. With the rising cost of inflation and other economic drivers making life very expensive, President Uhuru’s focus in affordable housing is a much welcome reprieve. In 2017 the President launched “The Big Four” agenda for economic development in Kenya, focusing onfood and nutrition security, manufacturing, affordable healthcare and affordable housing as his blueprint not only to deliver a legacy government, but also to bring long-term meaningful change to Kenyans.

The government plans to deliver 1 million housing units over the next five years. The president’s ambitious housing plan aims for at least half a million more Kenyans to own homes by the end of his second term. In Nairobi for instance among the areas to be covered include Park Road, Shauri Moyo, Bachelors’ Quarters, Suna Road/Toi Market, Pangani and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It has also been reported that at least 36 governors have signed agreements with the national government to extend the project to their regions. Can this dream become a reality or is it going to become yet another white elephant?

According to the National Affordable Housing Summit Group of Australia, affordable housing is housing that is reasonably adequate in standard and location for lower or middle-income households and does not cost so much that a household is unlikely to meet other basic needs on a sustainable basis.

The National Housing Corporation, puts the housing deficit at 2 million units cumulatively and it’s growing by 200,000 units per year. With a rapid population growth of 2.6% per annum and the rate of urbanization standing at 4.4% it presents a dire situation. For context, the global average is 1.2% for population growth and 2.1% for urbanization respectively. The supply of housing in Kenya is constrained and the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Development estimates the total annual supply to be at 50,000 units.

To further underscore the need for affordable housing, the ministry indicates that 83% of the existing housing supply is for the high income and upper-middle-income segments, with only 15% for the lower-middle and 2% for the low-income population. In summary, while 74.4% of Kenya’s working population requires affordable housing, only 17% of housing supply goes into serving this low to lower-middle income segment.

Long story short, it’s not good. But what’s going wrong?

According to a Cytonn Investments report there is an inadequate supply of serviced land at affordable prices due to soaring land prices in urban areas. In Nairobi, for example, land prices have been growing at a 6-year compound annual growth rate of 17.4%. This has led to increased development costs as land costs account for 25% – 40% of development costs in urban areas, which consequently impacts on end-user prices. Even in most of the areas earmarked for this housing land prices are steep, which again begs question.

The report also cites costs of construction. Mid-level construction costs in Kenya range from Ksh44,000 – Ksh64,000 per square metre depending on the level of finishes, height and other related factors, and account for 50% – 70% of development costs.

According to Hass Consult Ltd, in Q3 of 2017 the prices of housing dropped by 5.1% due to the political instability we faced last year. However, the average value of a residential property in the country surged to KES 29.8M in September last year. The same report cites that property purchases in Kenya are purchased cash, mainly because the mortgage industry remains underdeveloped.

What solutions are available?

The government, the Capital Markets Authority, NSSF, Retirement Benefits Authority, Kenya Revenue Authority, private sector finance and development, all have a role to play and the specific solutions need to be wider.

Given the need for funding businesses in a growing economy where SMEs create majority of jobs, private markets such as structured products offer a compelling alternative for developers to seek financing.

Strong government support and strict housing policies are also necessary in order to boost home-ownership. It is necessary to set up and adhere to strict rules and eligibility measures for house-purchase such as minimum occupancy periods and housing to income ceilings, so as to restrict to prospective home-owners only as opposed to speculative buyers.

There’s need for efficient planning to allow the best use of land in a sustainable manner to cater for the growing population with key considerations on the provision of services such as water, power, garbage and sewage disposal. Hand in hand with this is exploring cheaper building technology to lower construction costs. Training of labour on the use of alternative building technology is essential so as to boost its application.

An article in Nairobi Business Monthly, argues that the construction industry needs to embrace technological changes that will result in a mind-shift on the use of innovative products and services whose aggregate effect would be to lower the average cost of building. Despite the emergence of innovative construction materials, building a house in Kenya is still costly.

In Nairobi where land prices have sky-rocketed significantly, we need to make use of land in the neighbouring areas outside the metro region such as; Kitengela, Ruiru, Ngong, Kiserian, among others to put up low-cost houses.

An efficient mass transport system linking the above areas to the city’s central business district will incentivise private sector investments in the greater metro region. Ethiopia is a perfect example where they have built a light rail system that connects Addis Ababa to the neighbouring towns where low-cost houses have been built. Due to the efficient mass transport system, Ethiopians are able to work in cities and towns but put-up kilometers away.

Given the rising cost of land, the cost of construction materials, taxation on these materials and of course corruption which sees title deeds irregularly issued, buildings constructed on riparian land and other irregularities, becoming a property owner is not a walk in the park. Only time will tell whether the government’s ambitious project is feasible or not.

Mukami Githagui is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. Mukami has covered business and written features for two of Kenya’s leading media companies, the Standard Group and Nation Media Group.

Why private prisons are not the answer

Michael Onsando
23 October ,2018

“It establishes the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation, a State Corporation, which is mandated to expand the scope of the prisons work programs with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.” 

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the country is really struggling with its finances. Between the Uhuru Chinyatta debt memes (apparently the post Uhuru period will be Post Ma-Loan) and the increased taxes on everything, the states flailing financial state has had far reaching effects that everyone has felt in someway or the other.

So when Mr. Freedom decided to sign the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation Order Of 2018 one can almost see where his pressure is coming from. Having announced his Big four agenda for his second term (the legacy run), private prisons kill two birds with one stone. They can count as job creation, plus the increased supply of (almost free) labour for can help in the steps towards industrialization.

“Many of us have had the police arrest us at spots on the road they have deliberately set up to shake us up for bribes. We have been arrested for merely being out at night. We have had the police accept bribes of KES 500 – 1000 from matatu drivers who have no business being on the roads, with no regard for the 14 – 48 people who may be in the matatu. They have allowed sexual harassers and assaulters to get away scot free even when they could have done something. The police have also been known to mete out brutality against those they believe are lesser than; those whose pain they think they can get away with causing; whose lives they consider disposable.” 

Police Brutality in Kenya

It’s difficult to imagine that private prison systems will work better here than in most places, especially given our affinity for corruption (haki ya mungu – itaisha). And it has been proven that private prisons increase the likelihood of incarceration and of higher sentences for pettier offences. And we know (because we know) that the burden of this need will fall on the marginalized in the society. We know that these extra arrests will come for reasons such as looking at a building suspiciously with intent to litter.

“If private prisons make their profit from criminal society, its goes against business sense to reduce criminality.”

The Problem with Privatising Prisons

The argument against private prisons is not a new one, creating a profit incentive for prisoners creates a demand for this labour and demands must be met. According to most news sources the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation will be wholly state owned – maybe that means that they will be as deliberately bad at their job as most state offices but betting on inefficiency seems like a losing struggle. Especially when it comes to managing 86 prison farms with over 18000 acres of land.

Before the establishment of this corporation the Kenya Prisons Farms Fund and the Kenya Prison Enterprise fund handled the production and sale processes. According to a press release from the PSCU

“The two funds will be merged to ensure the new Corporations operated under a typical business model purposely to spur economic growth in the Prisons Department”

So state corporation or not profit is emphasized. And any good company that needs profit must find labour – this cannot be said enough. The creation of private prisons creates a need for prisoners.

Even as we wonder how we’re going to pay off the close to one trillion shillings that we owe the Chinese we must ask ourselves – just how much money will private prisons make/save the state, at what cost and is it really worth it? Then again, that might be asking for good ideas and, as we’ve seen, all we can really get from this government is tough talk.

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.