Watching Our Own Backs

Michael Onsando
27 January ,2015

“What’s in a name? that which we

call a rose

by any other name would smell

as sweet”

– Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.


It’s something else when we begin to imagine the amount of damage that has been done to humankind in defense of names. Names are an extension of authority. Saying a name is to bring, for a lingering moment, the presence of the person named. And, if this presence is invoked then this presence must be defended.

“Halt! In the name of the king!” is one such statement. If it were not for the king’s name one could easily ask the question “why?” and “in the name of the king” is the answer.

Names are answers.

Think about the question that comes along with entitlement “Do you know who I am?” It asks the listener to think about the name of the person, and all that name stands for. When a name is invoked and not recognized, it is as if a wound has been inflicted. A perceived authority shattered.

There are two ways to handle this rejection. The first is to accept that no such authority exists, and the second is to deny the rejection.


“We are the ones who make the laws in the government, we can break them.”

– Alfred Keter


“Has activism gone too far?”

– Citizen TV

It is with this knowledge that I question our media’s approach to names. When Larry Madowo announced that he was having Keter on the news, what name was being given credence to speak? What does it mean to have a media that constantly values the voices of the perpetrators of violence over the voices of its victims? What did Alfred Keter have to say? Hadn’t we already heard what he had to say? Hadn’t we heard him loud and clear?

(but give him a chance to clear his name…)

What names do we allow that chance, though? When you’re giving powerful perpetrators of violence a stage to defend themselves against claims from victims of said violence, are you working? This is the same media that drags the names of victims of said violence from same powerful people through the ground. That slut-shamed Mercy Keino after her brutal murder. That refused to cover #kasaraniconcentrationcamp and runs all forms of islamophobic, sexist, racist messages.

Something broke somewhere.

Inside many homes victims sit, watching the person who threatened them explain everything away. Already, they know that no one wants to know what happened. Knowing that even the people who tell stories would quickly spin away any sudden disappearance.  How can they compete? How can they challenge this?

Yet every time there is a media gagging bill, the media hits the streets claiming they have a right to speak. To say what? If the plan is to already say government approved words or have government approved names, then why demand freedom?

Even as I use the word freedom Gukira reminds me that it is a flawed concept. The larger idea is to have a shareable world. To imagine that there is space for all of us, for all our names. Instead I remember the media giving all the airtime to Tony Mochama and completely shutting out Shailja Patel in the claim of getting “the other side of the story.”

Thus, violence continues to propagate itself. Stuck with a media that is centered around reiterating reporting and forgetting, we are lured into that cycle. The violence, being always presented to us as novel, always appears to be novel. Despite the attempts of many we are, predominantly, presented with new, unanalysed, information every day.

And this is how we find ourselves here, barely a month into the year and already a Member of Parliament is caught on camera talking about how “he fucks stupid, innocent people.” He literally insulted every single citizen of the country.

The novel case for last week was Weston Hotel. Again, the media focused on Ruto. Let us hear what he has to say about these allegations of his hotel being on a school kids playground. Willfully obtuse, the media focused everything else except the matter at hand.

Last year all major papers ran a ‘Moi at 90’ piece. Articles were dedicated to clearing the name of the man who commissioned the Nyayo torture chambers.

“Are we just going to sit around and wait to be blown to bits by terrorists?”

– Actual Headline

“Every little two-bit Somali has a big dream – to blow us up, knock down our buildings and slaughter our children.”

– Actual excerpt

This is something that the media here has been doing for a while. It is not new. It is not different. It doesn’t matter if the faces have changed. It’s the same game. Repeatedly, the media in Kenya has shown that its primary role is to defend the ‘good names’ of some people at any cost.

We do not have the names of the 1300+ people who died during the Post Election Violence anywhere. We do not have the names of the witnesses who have been disappeared in Kenya’s case at the ICC. We do not have the names of the girl from Lang’ata primary who has been hospitalized twice because she was teargassed by the police. We do not have the name of the child who was born in #Kasaraniconcentrationcamp, umbilical cord snapped by their aunts’ fingernails. We do not have the names of the street merchants whose stalls were torn down at 3AM in the morning. Nor of the people who had a house collapse on them because of dodgy construction.

Instead we have been given private developers, dark forces, faceless grabbers and other monsters that we chase in a bid to protect the names that we do know, but whisper. The names that we know can be attached to various crimes but are afraid to say out loud.

We need our names. Give us our names.

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