Making Kenya Work for Us

Michael Onsando
15 October ,2019

“Some of the kids only write about being deaf, others make a joke, other make a mention, some ignore the topic altogether. Not too different from the choices poets make anywhere else with gender or skin colour.”


If there’s one thing we know about the colonial era is that it did a number on us when it comes to figuring out our needs, priorities and, in general, centering ourselves. How the state was set up was purely to find a way to maximize the amount of benefit that can be derived from the protectorate for the benefit of our overlords. Large tracts of land were set aside to create cash crops, which were basically grown to sell overseas, industry was not set up by the “traditional capitalist” formula “see a need, fill a need.” Or rather, the needs being filled were not being decided by an inward looking metric but rather “how can we leverage this to make us happy.”

The re-organisation of this need has been felt in ripples across the continent where mineral, resource, farm etc – rich areas find themselves stricken with poverty and conflict because of the exploitative nature of the organisations that were (and continue to be) set up in those areas. Congo with its rare earth metals comes to mind. However, more closer to home, I think of crops like coffee and tea. Crops that we planted here en mass, and even hold ourselves proud on being the most recognizable global brands (as we should) despite despite coffee farming increasingly losing profitability and tea bonuses dropping.

Writing on the dual legacy of colonial cash crop production Tannick Pengl and Philip Roessler write:

“Across Africa, colonial authorities harnessed the economic, coercive and administrative power of their new states to increase production and bring these primary commodities to market. Toward this end, colonial governments provided extension services to increase yields, constructed processing centers, built roads and railways as well as power generation plants, administrative offices, hospitals and schools to service production areas.

Economic growth, thus, took off in those areas where cash crops were grown or minerals mined —- many of which were previously undeveloped due to a lack of infrastructure and a disproportionately high disease burden.”

It’s important to see the colonial state as what it was to avoid sounding like a conspiracy theory. They had no reason to “look out” for us. They were simply coming into a space to get what they can and go – which is okay. However, it is important to begin to understand what this means about the choices we make, the things we continue to continue, and the things that need to stop.

Further, it’s important to think about the way the choices we make is affected by the ways in which our choices are influenced by the way the setting of these blocks in place shielded or left us unshielded. For example, it easy to say that “colonialism was long in the past” if the decisions around the period were beneficial in your direction.

It’s harder to move on if you’re still hurting.

“I’m really happy for farmers in Kangundo who are freeing themselves of this colonial plant, coffee, to pursue other farming interests. As someone raised in one of those coffee farms I have no nice stories about coffee farming”

@Ndinda_ on twitter

And when you and all your people have done something for generations, it’s hard for the logic of dismantling to be heard. In response to Ndinda’s tweet about coffee @dndeti talks about demand for a different crop “Kitothya” in Kangundo. 

And how profitable it can be.

Which is exactly my point. Especially now  when we have roads increasing accessibility to parts of the country that had been deemed “unnecessary” by the colonial government, we need to ask ourselves what we need and how to create an ecosystem that sustains that rather than is designed for export. A friend talks about how as children we were brought up for export. He says this when talking about our education and dreams of Harvard, Oxford and other legacy schools. This is obviously more complicated than “use your own schools,” but there is something in here about finding ways to make the landscape that we have work for us.  And not even from a government perspective (although to imagine this change will happen without any policy work is madness) but from an us perspective. What decisions can we make within our own capacity to make Kenya work for us? And with the idea that Kenya should work for us in our minds, how would we navigate the world differently? How would we assign blame? How would we make our decisions?

But if he’s scared of me, how can we be free?

  • Gambino

Anyone who reads me regularly enough knows I love this quote. It’s mainly because this is the beginning. To look around and see the other as a part of ourselves. To move in a way that uplifts, builds, unifies and strengthens rather than destroys. Then maybe we can begin to find ways to make this space work inwards, building and growing together towards the shared dream.

Besides, we all know by now that we are limitless.

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