Remembering Freedom

Michael Onsando
13 February ,2018

“We will need writers who can remember freedom.”

It’s hard to hold today’s Kenya in isolation. As the world continues to shape itself, we seem to continue to grasp towards our place within it. As the winds of decolonization, identity and freedom sweep across, so we find ourselves poised to grow. And with this potential comes increased aggression from the state, hungry to establish its place in history as one through which we achieved progress.

“We must see killability as too high a price to pay for development, for peace.”

  • Keguro Macharia

‘An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb’


Of course this becomes tricky when we begin to look at the fickle nature of power. Power as a fluid thing that moves and morphs rather than as a static thing that is absolute. This becomes increasingly as the continent seems to be going through a phase of pulling down the generals of yesteryear. Last year saw the fall of Mugabe, and Zuma seems backed into a corner. It only makes sense that whoever is left holding the reigns of a historically oppressive system of power is on edge.

It is within this context that we hold our dear president freedom. Every day, the irony of his name is not lost on us. In  bid to maintain control over an already polarized country (let’s not split hairs over who is actually to blame for this polarization), we have seen him arrest key members of the opposition, deport a citizen, turn off major media stations and declare the NRM a criminal organization.

“It is critical for us to achieve the development agenda that we have set for ourselves going forward. Sasa si nyinyi mzime hiyo mavitu yenu na muende? Kazi imekwisha”

I would like to sit with this Kazi imekwisha. Especially its place within the speech that was given. Speaking at the Kenya School of Government, the president opens by talking about the importance of holding conferences in Kenyan establishments. He further continues to preach the establishment and growth of a ‘local’ something. That we must continue along the path of trying to develop the country and make the country better.

It is in this context that I place  the “Kazi imekwisha” and I would like to use this Kazi imekwisha to say something about what development means, and how language is used, what permissions it gives us (or it allows us to give ourselves).

In conversation, some friends and I were laughing about how functions are held outside Nairobi. At these events you have an MC who says things like where the toilets are, and which water is drinkable. This announcer often uses language to slip in and out of instructions, speaking to the locals in whatever local language so that the Nairobi people don’t understand. Whenever this slip happens it is used to communicate something that visiting company shouldn’t know or hear. When writing about the use of vernacular in music, Alexander Ikawah describes the nature of this language private and intended for the house. This tone, this “now lemme address our people” is where we go into language for. These Swahili asides are great for national dialogue. We have seen them used by previous leaders,  most notable being Mwai Kibaki’s “Mavi ya kuku,” a thing that would be completely absurd if used in English(Can you picture a president calling his opponents chicken shit on live tv and us being okay with it?) On a more sinister level vernacular asides were used to incite the public to violence in the post-election violence of 2007/2008.

So, what does it mean when the president tells the media “kazi imekwisha” following the end of his delivery of a ‘perfect’ speech?

I’d like to argue that the language of development is removed from actually policy. That development has become a thing that people are told as an excuse. A public relations spiel. And, increasingly, it becomes apparent that this administration are nostalgic of a time when KBC was the communications department of the government rather than an independent media house (yes, I know, to speak of independent media in today’s Kenya is laughable). That everything that is happening is line with the “Kazi imekwisha”

That, in the same way the media was connoted to “other” in that simple statement, anyone who dissents, or sees a different existence is othered by this government. It is this “for us” or “against us” mentality that has been the highlight of this administration’s leadership style. Whether it is in the ad hoc manner of policy making (I’m thinking of the overnight ban on plastics, or the ban on night travel, or the ban on shisha). This authoritarian model (stepping stones to fascism) that shows just how far this administration will be ready to go to maintain their grip.

And it is because of this fear that we can’t hold this administration in isolation.

Because it is this same fear of the absence of control (of resources) that we see in Trump’s administration. This same fear that is driving actions like Brexit.

“Fascist leaders are masters at shifting goalposts. For those who feel secure within the in group but are not in power, or those who do not belong to the fascist’s group of cronies – security is not guaranteed. One minute you are in, the next, you are an enemy of progress. Only the fascist knows where the goalposts are, and he can shift them at will.”

It is in this power to include and exclude that the state gets us. We see it in the deportation of Miguna Miguna. Where the state clearly shows that it intends to use its power, even beyond the mandate of the constitution. Those on the inside, hope that their silence, their compliance will leave them unnoticed. That keeping their heads down will allow them survival. And those ostracized continue to wonder whether their pleas will be heard. Meanwhile, president freedom continue to systematically shut down areas of dissent and we are left wondering if there is a place for freedom in this new Kenya.

“Journalism is not a crime.”


Kazi imekwisha.

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