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A few days before “Super Tuesday”, the 18th of June 2024, an undated video surfaced online showing a member of parliament at a church Harambee, donating 20 million shillings as casually as if he was buying mahindi choma by the roadside. He stands on a small podium with the demeanour of a colossus, an expensive-looking watch dangling luxuriously on his wrist. In the other hand, he holds what appears to be a cheque, as he leads his minions, sorry, audience in a kind of singsong declaration of the content of the cheque. “Millioni nne, million saba, million kumi, kumi na moja, kumi na tano… million ishirini!” he sings as he waves the cheque about like a flywhisk. Then he drops the cheque in a basket and walks – more like floats off – the stage. It’s his country in every conceivable way, and everyone else just happens to live in it.

The president is yet to contain his insatiable appetite for foreign travels, an affair that continues to gobble billions of taxpayers’ money. State House is undergoing continuous, never-ending multi-million-shilling renovations, possibly inspired by the president’s desire to match his residence with the palatial abodes he frequents abroad. The government continues to purchase high-end cars, even eclipsing the machines used by first-world heads of state. The political class continues to flaunt the latest designer wear and accessories and buy multi-million-shilling homes. Millions of shillings are channelled towards executive spouses as doctors go without pay and hospitals lack medicine. As teachers go without pay. As basic infrastructure deteriorates. As floods sweep shanties away, rendering thousands homeless and drowning babies. As universities luck funding, taking us back to the dark days when university education was a preserve for the rich.

This same government throws its empty hands up in the air and tells the country that it is broke. Then it comes up with a Finance Bill containing some of the most punitive tax laws ever proposed anywhere, all the while setting aside 0.8 billion for confidential expenditure, whatever that means, another 0.6 billion for refurbishing the deputy president’s house, and another 0.2 billion for more government vehicles, because hey, what this country needs is not more doctors, it’s more government officials driving the latest German machine. I can see how any non-Kenyan reading this would be forgiven for thinking this is fiction.

But the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote fiction, Africa Kills Her Sun, a short story that laments the complacency of his people in the face of corruption and other societal ills. “Were it not for the unfeeling nation, among a people inured to evil and taking sadistic pleasure in the loss of life, some questions might have been asked. No doubt, many will ask the questions, but they will do it in the safety and comfort of their homes…” he writes. Sound familiar? Just last year we made fun of femicide cases, and we sit idly by, even cheering on as corrupt politicians accused of embezzling millions of shillings walk scot-free. Now, while the rest of Kenya is resigned to the status quo and has grown complacent like Saro-Wiwa’s countrymen, the Gen Zers are just getting started. Our lives cannot end when we have just begun living.

So why now?

The first step towards solving any problem is recognising there’s one. And my generation, Gen Z, is informed enough to recognise this country has been driven to the trenches, but that it is still worth fighting for. We’ve known that we have leaders who don’t care whether we live or die, who are determined to destroy our future, to subject us to an existence of survival rather than living, a life of want and endless suffering till our last day. Just give up, they tell us with every tax law they pass. Resign yourself to a life of floundering, they say as they fly in private jets beyond the seas because it was always their childhood dream to fly. If you’re lucky to be employed, settle for a job that pays a pittance because we tax it all to fund our flashy lives and our basest desires. Marry or get married to equally frustrated partners. Have malnourished kids who hunt rats and shy away from you. Have all the confidence of your youth replaced by a seething, boiling ball of frustration and hopelessness, until one day, there’s another flood that sweeps you to your death in the shack you call home. It’s OK, they tell us. Don’t be such a whiny, weak, and entitled generation. Give up, these elected leaders say by their actions, life is supposed to be this difficult. But we do not know how to capitulate to callous looters whose leadership has progressively steered the degradation of our society. We refuse to cower in the face of those who would favour tyranny and haughty governance.

So why now you ask?

We were born right at the dawn of democracy, when a 24-year-long dictatorship was uprooted by men and women singing, “Who can bwogo me? I’m unbwogable!” heralding a hopeful new way of life unbeset by fear and guided by the rule of law. We saw a man with a Kenyan father and a Kenyan last name become the president of the most powerful nation on earth. We saw our nation heal from the wounds of post-election violence, watched burnt-down churches rebuilt, and two sons of formerly warring communities shake hands, wear matching red ties, and form a government. We saw a skinny dark-skinned Kenyan girl win an Oscar and another skinny dark-skinned Kenyan man become the greatest marathoner of all time and achieve so many feats as to be immortalised by a statue in Oregon, USA. We saw our democracy tested, and a court of law nullify a presidential election – a first in Africa. We saw a pandemic threaten the world and our country shut down in fear. And we watched us live past this fear, go back to work and to school, and become a nation again.

We’ve been watching. We’ve been learning. And now is the time for us to show the nation who we are, what we stand for, and how to do things differently.

We Gen Zers have seen so much in the short time we’ve been around. And thanks to the internet, we have so much more information at our fingertips than any other generation ever. This is in no way to suggest that we’re the vanguard of society; just that we cannot be dismissed, underestimated, or ignored. We’re informed by things we’ve seen and the information we’ve consumed and we know that this country requires occasional disruption to challenge the status quo. The willingness to knock on the gates of parliament and speak out for what’s right because we know this country would not exist if some select people in history did not stand up for what was right.

We know that our society can fight for moral reasons. We can elect leaders who put their money where their mouth is, and who make and strike down laws for moral reasons. We can unite in fighting poverty, not poor people. We can care about our kids, about the disadvantaged members of our society, without beating our chests. We can build our economy collectively, brick by brick, without breaking the backs of the lowest among us. We can elect leaders with an appreciation of facts, logic, reason, and an understanding of philosophy, art, and science. We can elect policymakers who aspire to intelligence, who don’t belittle knowledge or get threatened by it.

We Gen Zers know these things; we can be these things and do these things because we are informed. Because we have grown up watching our parents make the same mistakes over and over again. Voting along tribal lines and for the same wrong people over and over again. We have taken the time to understand the issues, to read the rule of law, and to analyse and discern the contents of a bill. You still ask why now. Now we have learned from your failures, and we want to show you what is possible. Where you were afraid, we are not. Where you were blinded by tribal allegiance, we are not. Where you are complacent, we are awake.

When we left Tiktok, IG, Facebook, and X and took to the streets from Tuesday 18 June with the hashtag #RejectFinanceBill2024, we did not do so to only protest the bill. We wanted to show that protests could be peaceful. That we could throng the streets and let our voices be heard without looting or vandalising shops or stoning vehicles or harassing the public or wielding stones and weapons.

We wanted to discredit the idea that protests had to be along tribal lines, driven and led by the politicians. We know what we want for ourselves and for this nation, and we don’t need a politician telling us or speaking for us. We are decrying youth unemployment and the skyrocketing cost of leaving and we don’t need Raila Odinga to lead us to the streets and say these things for us. #RejectFinanceBill2024 is the people speaking for themselves. We are informed. We can read and understand legislation. And we have enough appreciation for logic and a sufficient grasp of reason to know what’s good for all the people and what’s good only for those we elected to represent us.

We wanted to show you we’ve learned that a failed state is as bad for Karen residents as it is for Mukuru kwa Njenga. A punitive law is punitive for everyone regardless of the car you drive or the number of rooms in your house. When the cost of bread rises, it does so for everyone. On the streets were kids from every class, from every neighbourhood, from every background, singing shoulder to shoulder.

From Nairobi to Mombasa to Kisumu to my hometown of Migori and every other town in the country, Gen Zers swarmed the streets with nothing but our phones and our placards that said in various iterations, “We know what we want and it is not what’s being tabled in parliament.” We exercised our constitutional right. We bothered nobody. And as we sang and chanted, we also made sure to shout, “We are peaceful!” because this indeed was the most peaceful demonstration ever witnessed in the history of this country. 

Inadvertently, we also showed you that the Kenyan Police are trained not protect the people of this country but to kill, because despite us being nonviolent and unarmed, the police still fired teargas and water cannons at us. And on the evening of Thursday 20 June 2024, they shot and killed Rex Kanyike Masai.

Rex Kanyike Masai. Remember his name.

We are not angry, we are just disappointed. Rex Kanyike Masai held nothing in his hands but a bottle of water. Rex had his entire life ahead of him. More birthdays, weddings, and kids of his own. A police officer saw him standing there on the street exercising his democratic right, and this officer loaded his gun, cocked it, set Rex Kanyike Masai in his sights, and probably saw that he was his son’s or his daughter’s age. And this officer, proudly wearing our nation’s crown, carrying a gun paid for with our taxes, shot Rex Kanyike Masai dead.

Gen Zers came out to show you that this country still has a long way to go. But we will save it. Even if we have to die to do so. You ask why now? Because we have realised we are the only ones left with the conscience, the solidarity, the strength, and the desire to lay our lives down for this country. And we will.

Rest in power Rex!