Centering Ourselves

Michael Onsando
6 September ,2016

I’d like to begin where we all are. Consider the images of Mark Zuckerberg at Mama Oliech restaurant and how they have travelled. Think of this one in particular. I won’t focus on how his whiteness permeated through how we treated him. We have, for a long time, held white people who do something “African” as gods. And so it makes sense that we would hold Zuckerberg in such esteem.

As Bisi Alimi wrote:

“… white has been set as the standard of how the world works. When a white person speaks any African language and posts videos online, that video will go viral among Africans. Even with the worse attempt at speaking language with horrible accents. But I remember how many times black people have been called out by white people for their accent, or their poor attempt at speaking white people’s language.”

It also makes sense that we would use this image to shame women. The number of tweets and Facebook posts that came out demeaning women because Zuckerberg ate a fish with his hands speak for themselves.

Instead, I’d like to think about what Kenya would do to a Mark Zuckerberg. And, what this curiosity would actually mean to someone on his path. Not only would he have to come from a place of privilege – but he would also have to have a level of access. Access to people, access to resource and access to knowledge.

In order to do this, we would have to actually care about things like increased access to knowledge, resource and ourselves. This is not something that we have shown that we can do. A story done by Africa Uncensored (here) shows how primary schools across the country – with particular focus on Naka primary school in Nakuru – have had their land grabbed. Just last year, the students of Lang’ata primary were fighting the same battle. Earlier this year, high school students were burning down schools, yet we still don’t want to admit that there might be a serious problem in education in the country.

Even assuming that somehow our young eager mind would survive the rigor that is 844, there is no telling what would happen to them once they go out into the world. The Silicon Savannah is not for the fainthearted, as the founders of Angani could tell you. Writing the full story here, Brenda Wambui states:

“This is not to say that terrible things have not happened before in this community. They are commonplace, and people are usually afraid to speak up in fear of the consequences. In my research, I heard from sources who opted to remain anonymous about a senior official at a leading telco who participated in blatant fraud, before moving to yet another leading telco, seemingly without paying his dues. I was told about how a community space was practically snatched from its founder by someone he owed money in exchange for his debt, not knowing the creditor had an ace up his sleeve.”

In many ways, I’d like to be able to take race and other forms of privilege away from this situation. This is not to say that these things did not play a role in his “success” – they were definitely driving forces. Major ones, in fact. Which is to say, it is almost impossible to have a Zuckerberg without thinking of centralization of resources and how this centralization allowed him to be.

So what role does it play to look at the situation without considering privilege?

In order to do this I would like us to go back to the image.

In the image we have Zuckeberg, centre. On his right there is cabinet secretary Joe Mucheru. The people in the photo are smiling – or at least attempting to feign some form of happiness. There is pride in the eyes of the cabinet secretary – he is happy to be in this photo (through no fault of his own. I’d be happy to meet Mark myself). It is very clear that it is the Facebook founder who is at the centre of the gaze. He is the one that is to be looked at.

I’m wondering if the centering of the image would be the same if the person in question was a young Kenyan. If the person in question had done things that were globally recognized. Take this image of David Rudisha – the men’s 800 metre world record holder – and the president. In this picture everyone is still smiling, but the president is definitely at the centre of the image. If anything, there are vacant seats upfront that one can imagine were occupied by “more important” people. It’s an image of the centre, congratulating the margin.

So what work do these images do?

I’d like to suggest that there’s something in this imaging about attention and centering. In the image of Zuckerberg – and in the way the image has travelled – we are centering Mark. We are catering to his needs. We are applauding him for doing things that would not otherwise come naturally to him. Everything around this image shows that we are here to make him comfortable. In the image of Rudisha we see the reverse. A person who is supposed to be happy – and honoured – to be where he is. No seat has been provided for him (or the other athletes) despite seats being available – and there’s the power at the centre. All eyes are trained on the president. It is not about what any of the athletes have done, but more about how they have been allowed into State House to meet the president.

I’m worried about this idea of how we cater to others while destroying each other. Especially in this age of the entrepreneurship rhetoric. We keep asking why we haven’t made great things, how can we if we don’t allow each other to be great?

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