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The Quest for the Kenya National Dress

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The Quest for the Kenya National Dress
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An Interview with Joy Mboya

Joy Mboya is the Director of the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi—a nonprofit institution for the convergence of the arts in Nairobi and East Africa. Between 2003 and 2005, the GoDown Arts Centre hosted the Sunlight Quest for Kenya’s National Dress; an interactive process that was designed to generate concepts for Kenya’s national attire. This project definitely advanced conversation but was not publicly adopted by a critical mass, with many Kenyans saying that the outfits were not practical or suitable for daily use. There has been little reflection on the objectives and scope of the project, the extent of its public engagement strategies, and its successes and failures. Joy spoke with us about her experiences with the project and her thoughts on Kenyan national identity.

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Back when I was in my 20s, there were very few spaces that had been fleshed out to support the newly minted fashion designer. So for the longest time, if you wanted to get anywhere, the Smirnoff Fashion Awards were huge. At this level it was quite your run-of-the-mill show; maybe somebody bought a piece or two but not too much else happened there. However, it was still exciting, and in the event that you won the local award, you qualified to compete for the global award at a ceremony attended by huge international designers and fashion houses, and maybe somebody important would notice you and something might happen.

Now, more and more, I think corporates do better in the arts when they form foundations that have a separate plan for their engagements from their general business agenda. This way, their support can be more deliberate and long-term, aside from having one moment in the light. But the Smirnoff Fashion Awards, other early fashion shows, and all the beauty pageants were real opportunities back then. Corporates were growing and solidifying their brands by linking up with fashion, glamour, contemporary style, you name it.

Patricia Ithau was a former Miss Kenya and had been a model for a long time, remaining very interested in fashion even after she left the scene.

So it was no surprise that when she had the opportunity to spearhead the idea of a national dress, she really ran with it. It would not have happened without her interest and her push at Unilever, without her saying “Here’s an opportunity, Sunlight,( a Unilever detergent brand) let’s do something”. She had a big connection with fashion designers because of her history in the industry, so she begun to seek out people she knew to see how they could be involved. She is the one who brought in the government through the Ministry of Culture, to ensure it was something the state bought into, to make everything national and formal.

The GoDown was still fairly new then—that was around 2003—and we said we would be happy to host the tangible parts of the process and coordinate whatever meetings they needed. Unilever would put out the call and then we would receive the submissions, exhibit them publicly, assist them in identifying teams of cultural experts for follow-up, that kind of stuff.

Ideating a National Dress

Early on in the process, our priority was moderating the designers to make sure they kept an open mind, that they did not get bogged down with individual perspectives but remained aware of the wider space. The first thing they did was gather all the ideas that had been submitted, pin them on the walls and stand back and ask themselves, “What’s happening here?” I think they recognized early—and this was of course rather difficult to relay—that the notion of a national dress, especially in Kenya, was going to be influenced by too many different things, and that they were never going to actually create a national dress, by themselves, from scratch. What the designers could truly offer was an informed way to see how we as Kenyans clothed ourselves, how we worked with the body and what parts of the body we emphasized, combined with what was happening in the contemporary space, and what elements of all this were worth carrying forward.

It was tough. The designers would make presentations during the earlier focus group meetings, and many people would come in actually expecting a final dress. But the designers would still be talking about concepts that were showing up in a lot of traditional dress: the cape representing a moment of ceremony or status for men; some kind of adornment across the chest; the loincloth with optional cover of the behind for women (this was where the notion of the apron came from); headdresses to make the face an obvious focal point and such. Everybody was hanging something around their ears, piercing their lips, or even wearing mud caps that they could stick feathers into, to give some examples.

The designers were wondering how to begin working with all these interesting sensibilities to create a final product. Just before they began, they wanted the public to participate in the process, so that there could be buy-in from the very beginning. Having them choose a dress at that stage was going to be impossible, so they thought through what would be a more realistic set of options. They decided that perhaps the public could choose the colours they would most prefer on a Kenyan national dress. Sunlight tied it in with a marketing gimmick about washing clothes that wouldn’t fade, which I think was a bit myopic. Marketing is fine, but not if it is going to interrupt an intricate, important process.

The ideas that the designers actually put forward were just concepts. They never, ever, described them as dresses. They wanted to put these out so that Kenyan fashion designers would begin to design original pieces interpreting them, which they would then sell to the people, also hoping that some members of the public would be a bit adventurous and absolutely do their own thing. Building familiarity with and acceptance of these would need a huge marketing push, obviously. Fifty million shillings had already been spent mobilizing ideas from the nation, taking the designers to visit different places to learn about different cultures, putting together focus groups, having presentations, and all.

So How Did You Sustain That Kind of Momentum and Energy?

This was where Patricia was really clever and strategic—she knew that once the brand was done making their statement, they weren’t going to throw any more millions into the project. That was her main reason for bringing in the Kenya Government, through the Ministry, because hopefully they would become excited enough to kind of keep this thing going.

That was the grand hope, that these things would find their own legs. Some of the designers who were not part of the original process began to pick it up. Wambui of Moo Cow* (*Wambui Njogu, one of the two founders of the Kenyan fashion label Moo Cow, which was established in 2002.) did some funky leather aprons that could be worn over denim jeans. People got excited about making their own extended aprons from the neck all the way down. Even the government picked up some elements of it. One of our sports teams actually made some of the concepts into the team costume, of course in the Kenya colours. The ladies had a red skirt, with black trim, embroidered on, which suggested the apron—I don’t think there was a separate flap. The men in that particular group had the three-notch treatment at their necklines.

Ideally, we would be seeing pieces evolved from the national dress concepts all the time, not just for special occasions or trips abroad, until it was no longer new or weird and it became part of how we saw ourselves. We would be feeling like we needed these pieces for our full identity, and starting to buy them. We didn’t have that opportunity to make a lasting presence, however. One thing that ended up happening was that designers made items that the public considered overpriced and were labelled as luxury items when the designers didn’t intend them to be seen that way. They were just trying to make back their money and make a decent profit. Nobody quite picked up the cape. I wonder whether it was too expensive or if they just were wondering, “How am I going to pull this off?” But we almost introduced it again when Willy Mutunga was Chief Justice. We said we would be happy to pull together a team of designers to really think about the Supreme Court judges’ dress. He was excited about that*.

*Kenyan judges eventually opted to retain their existing robes, but made the donning of the whitish-grey horsehair wigs optional. Mutunga, Hon. Justice Dr Willy, S.C., Dressing and Addressing the Kenyan Judiciary, 2011, Kenya Law Journal, Nairobi, Kenya

One of the designers said, “Hang on, what if we revive the cape from the national dress? We could rethink it for the Chief Justice, maybe for the big ceremonies so he doesn’t have to wear it all the time?”

That idea was taken to the judges and some of them thought it was a bit too much. I remember meeting one of them in the corridor and he asked, “Joy, what are you guys about to dress us in? Taking us back to hides and skins?*”

*Kenyan Judges Change Titles, Dress Code, 2011, The Daily Monitor, Kampala, Uganda

People always come back to me and to the Godown, trying to find out what happened to the national dress, and why it just vanished into the ether. University students especially have come by to investigate this as part of their Master’s Degree, so all their theses must be sitting around somewhere*.

Misati, Beatrice N., Kenya National Attire: Factors Influencing adoption, 2008, School of Arts and Design, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya 

Imo, Beatrice Elung’ata, Adoption of the Kenya National Dress as a Basis for Developing a Decision-Making Model for the Local Industry, 2013, Department of Fashion Design and Marketing, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

Many of them were a lot more interested in the process of the design. But most feedback from the general public was asking the question, “Why did you think that you could prescribe a dress for us that was not the dress we wanted?”

We’d all conveniently forgotten the extensive public participation and iteration. But I also think that some things just take time, and perhaps people only really get into a thing like this when given a certain amount of time. Perhaps the national dress needed that kind of continuous engagement so that ten years on we would consider saying, “Actually, what happened to the apron? What happened to the shirt?” People needed to interpret their own nationhood through growing familiarity with the national dress concepts. They needed to be reassured that these concepts had actually come from long deliberations over our diverse origins and cultural heritage, and that the concepts were open for all kinds of interesting interpretations as time passed, not just what the designers had put together back then.

We needed exhibitions and discussions over a much longer period than we imagined, to get a project of this weight to stick and gain traction with the people. The Sunlight process with the public and the designers provided the opportunity to say, “If you create something that doesn’t reference heritage or doesn’t pay attention to culture, Kenyans will reject it.”

Coming To Terms with the Rejection

But diverse cultural references were there, and yet there was still rejection.

So was it that it was not pretty enough, and if so, what could people have wanted ‘pretty’ to be? I don’t know. The most interesting question now, for me, is how to get to the root of what Kenyans are actually complaining about, because it wasn’t clear then and in many ways it still isn’t. None of the shirts ever took off in any way so the men did not really have anything, but there had been a few ideas here and there that the women had found interesting. There was even a concept of the dress for women who wore hijab. I think there was also a real missed opportunity in the Minister for Culture—that was Balala*, then.

* Hon. Najib Balala, who served as Minister for Gender, Sports, Culture and Social Services between 2003 and 2004.

He would seize on anything that would amplify his ministry and his role. He could have said, “For as long as I’m the Minister for Culture let me just keep this thing alive.” I think that perhaps the urgency was just not seen at that time. Perhaps the designers didn’t succeed in communicating that the concepts they saw were prototypical aesthetics, if they can be called that. That the way that women in one community would cover themselves across the front was by using a loin cloth, certainly, but that loin cloth was not exactly the same from one community to another. Everybody did it in whichever material was locally available, for their local climate and regional sensibilities. So, again, there was never going to be a national dress in that immediately formulaic sense of, “Ah, that’s a Kenyan dress. Are you Kenyan?” “ Yes.” “ I see you’ve got an apron, and the other Kenyan’s got a different apron.”

How Do We Just Accept That We’re so Incredibly Diverse and Different?

It was not going to be like that for a long time, at least, not without continuity, public education and sustained visibility. It was always going to be a difficult project. It would have been progressive to keep it alive for a decade or two and see what would we would have had in the end. I think Kenyans are beginning to accept is that one of the things that stands out about us is our diversity. We haven’t reduced that diversity yet into a single thing or a few core things in the same way that the West Africans seem to have done. I do not know how they did it. Perhaps their kingdoms and organizational structures were much more visible, and therefore notions of kings, chiefs and ceremonial dress were much more immediate in their minds than in ours? I have no idea. But more and more now I wonder, “How do we first of all just accept that we’re so incredibly diverse and different?”

How can we become excited about that, and then allow it to organically find the things that will coalesce into the cores, into the singles? Everything else that remains can just be allowed to stay different, you know? Maybe trying to look at these things in only one way is a reason we will continue going astray, or asking ourselves questions that have no answers.

In terms of diversity, one of the people who has a wonderful story around that is Tabu Osusa of Ketebul*, who says that when Kenya did a showcase at the 2014 Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Institution, our musical presentation was called exceptional because it was so diverse.

*Ketebul Music, a Kenyan record label and studio founded in 2007.

People already knew the South African sound, or the West African kora which was lovely and beautiful but nothing was really changing. It was just the same kinds of sounds all the way through. But when they saw the Kenyan spread, they began to pay attention because it couldn’t be defined by one thing or a few things. So my thought now is to interrogate that and figure it out, instead of panicking and seeing it as a problem.

It is not clear whether the failure of this project to gain traction with the Kenyan public was due to the communication and marketing, the underestimation of the work and time needed by the parties involved, or a combination of these and other factors. Several things have happened in the thirteen years since this process, with regard to urban national conversations on identity and fashion.

The Africa Rising narrative, with increased optimism about Africa’s future and greater continental esteem, has led to the opening up of cultural borders to new generations of young Kenyans. This has had a wider audience because of access to tech, information and social media, with more of them finding ways to integrate cultural pieces not just into ceremonial or occasion clothing, but also into practical, everyday garb. The 2009 publication of a national culture and heritage policy* openly declared state interest in development of national attire. (National Policy on Culture and Heritage, 2009.)

There is also a greater desire for and consumption of clothing designed by Kenyans and inspired by Kenyan cultures. It is possible that this set of brewing cultural conditions could better demonstrate the importance of a national dress, beyond an abstract need to stand out from other Africans in international fora. Perhaps wider cultural dialogue must occur before a national dress can truly evolve from our shared, diverse ethnic experiences in a way that will be more widely acceptable to citizens. It is also possible that national dresses evolve organically from cultures only when they are ready to do so, and that it is not a shortcoming to lack one.

 

Endnote

The 2004 Sunlight Quest for a National Dress remains a critical attempt to create recognizable national symbols through attire, beyond the flag, the national anthem, the coat of arms and the public seal*.

(Article 9: National Symbols and National Days, from Chapter 2 – The Republic, The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, Kenya.)

This interview was originally published in the fashion book Not African Enough ( 2017) by the Nest Collective and republished with their permission.

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Joy Mboya is the Executive Director of The GoDown Arts Centre, the leading nonprofit multidisciplinary arts facility in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a performer and cultural activist.

Culture

Remembering Toni Morrison

The literary world has lost yet another icon. Another healer of wounds is no longer with us. But Morrison’s language and words will always comfort us, especially in these trying times when extremism, hate and paranoia are fragmenting societies and spreading fear.

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Toni Morrison
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We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison

A writer who had a significant impact on how I viewed the African-American experience has died. Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate and author of The Bluest Eye, Sulu, and Beloved, among many other books, has passed on at the age of 88.

I read Beloved – a novel that explores the brutality of slavery in America – on the insistence of my friend Betty Wamalwa (also known as Sitawa Namwalie), who thrust the book in my hand when we were both in our 20s and demanded that I read it. The book shook me to the core. It is remarkable in that while it exposes the powerlessness and pain of generations of slaves, it also portrays slaves as deeply human, capable of love, hate, anger and empathy. But this love had to be measured, and taken in small sips, because slaves were even denied this right. So slaves learnt to “love small”, which was both a survival instinct and a form of self-preservation. However, while slavery emasculated slaves, it did not take away their humanity.

There are many passages in Beloved that left me speechless. Like the one of Paul D, a character in Beloved, describing what loving means to a slave who is denied the right and the permission to love by “men who knew their manhood lay in their guns”:

“And these men who made even vixen laugh, could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred Georgia.”

Morrison defined freedom as “a place where you could love anything you chose, not need permission for desire”.

Throughout her body of work, you could feel the rhythms of her slave ancestors. Morrison lifted the English language into a world that had its roots in her African heritage. Quite often the rhythmic music of her words would break into a wail, as in this haunting passage from Beloved:

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”

Loneliness is a common theme in her female-centric books – the loneliness of slavery and bondage, the loneliness of not being understood, the loneliness that comes with being a writer, especially a female writer of colour who has to maneuver a white literary establishment that is generally hostile to black authors.

Born to a father who worked as a welder and a mother who was a domestic worker, Chloe Anthony Wofford, who would later be known as Toni Morrison, like her contemporary, James Baldwin (whose collected essays she edited for the Library of America), was the embodiment of a black American writer who dissects society with the stealth and precision of surgeon. She laid bare all the sicknesses of her society, especially racism, then proceeded to cut them up into pieces through words and language.

She was particularly disturbed by racism, which she described as “a social construct” and an “insult”. She believed that the main function of racism was distraction – to keep black people so busy explaining themselves to white people that they would not have time for anything else:

“It [racism] keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary.”

Early in her career, Morrison taught at Howard University, where she met her husband, Harold Morrison, a Jamaican, with whom she had two sons. She later became a professor at Princeton University and then worked as an editor at Random House.

For her literary efforts and achievements, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1988, amid much controversy. Her detractors and critics claimed that the Swedish Academy was trying to be politically correct by awarding the prize to a black woman, and that her work did not merit such an award. Her response to accusations of political correctness was: “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”

One of the criticisms levelled against Morrison was that you had to be black to understand her novels, hence they lacked universal appeal. Often she was asked when she would write a novel where the main characters were ordinary white people, which she usually dismissed as a racist question because no one asks white authors why they do not write about black or non-white people. She also viewed such questions as a form of censorship because they assumed that writers seek the approval and permission of readers before they embark on writing a book.

However, she was also aware that her books would appeal to people like her who do not see characters like themselves reflected in novels.“I’m writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio,” she said.“I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t write about white people – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”

The question about who a writer writes for also becomes irrelevant at some point. Most writers don’t write with a particular reader in mind, just as an orchestra recording classical music doesn’t think about who will buy its album when it is eventually released.J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series could as easily appeal to a child growing up in the British countryside as it could to a child living in a city in Bangladesh. If Morrison wrote only for black men and women living in America, then how is it that her books resonated with a woman of Indian heritage living in Kenya? Surely, her books’ appeal was universal.

Yet, it is ironic that nearly thirty years after Morrison won the Nobel Prize, racism has remained stronger than ever in the United States. Donald Trump would agree with Morrison, who once said that “American means white” (though he probably wouldn’t notice the cynicism in her comment).

The literary world has lost yet another icon. Another healer of wounds is no longer with us. But Morrison’s language and words will always comfort us, especially in these trying times when extremism, hate and paranoia are fragmenting societies and spreading fear. As Morrison noted, language has the power to heal. “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names,” she said. “Language alone is meditation.”

Morrison believed that something beautiful can emerge even out of pain. “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore the pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”

Born: 1931 – Died:2019

Rest In Peace

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Culture

A Park Named Freedom

Uhuru Park is more than a public green space in Nairobi. It is a space with a glorious history of contestation, a symbolic national shrine and an embodiment of the essence of freedom.

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A Park Named Freedom
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If you are ever walking or caught in traffic in Nairobi’s central business district, you might notice the yellow school buses. Many of the schools are not based in Nairobi some traveling a fair distance to get to the city. Having attended schools with limited resources for travel, these sightings always remind me about the excitement I felt every time I got to be part of a student group travelling anywhere. These trips made for some of my best school memories. That children from all over Kenya travel to Nairobi, to see monumental places like the National Assembly, the Nairobi Stock Exchange, the Supreme Court, the Nairobi National Park, museums, universities, and historical sites such as Uhuru Park might be a small thing, or it might be significant.

I wonder what the teachers in Uhuru Park, walking alongside their students, say about this place. What makes this park significant enough to warrant these daily visits? Have you ever been to Uhuru Park? People I have asked this question tell me that they’ve only ever been there for organised events – walks, runs, or public protest.

Last year, in 2018, while attending the NaiNiWho tour organised by The Godown Arts Centre, I learnt that this space was at first a waste disposal site for the predecessor of Kenya Railways Corporation. The 12.9-hectares was designated as a recreational park in 1969 and launched by Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta. Uhuru Park is one of few free access recreational green spaces in Nairobi. It has a small and thriving pond with lilies, and a vast manmade lake, where people can enjoy boat rides. The park has a few monuments, the Pope’s pyramid slab installed in 1985, the Nyayo Fountain, one of many monuments Moi monuments installed across the country during President Moi’s 24-year rule. There is plenty of open space to do nothing. It is a place where people could enjoy picnics, take long walks, sleep, play, dance, pray, and rest. Every day there might be approximately 5000 or more people just walking through or relaxing in Uhuru Park.

Nairobi’s other free- green public spaces are Jeevanjee Gardens created by Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee in 1906, Nairobi City Park declared a public park in 1925, Central Park where a monument to President Moi’s Nyayo era stands out prominently.

Green spaces in Nairobi’s colonial physical design were markers of the colour barrier and they continue to serve as indicators of how Nairobi’s physical space – housing, schools and other social amenities, remains segregated along racial and class lines. Uhuru Park borders Kipande House. During colonial times, this building was the place where Africans had to stop and their much-loathed passbooks verified before entering the town. It also borders Nairobi hill, Valley road and Statehouse road which were the locations of the more affluent residential neighbourhoods of Nairobi. Though many of these homes have now been converted into nonresidential commercial buildings, the churches these residents founded and used among them, All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi Central SDA Church, The Holy Family Basilica, St. Paul’s University Chapel, St. Andrews, The First Church of Christ, Scientist and the Lutheran Church close to University of Nairobi continue exist.

Nairobi’s public parks largely stem from Kenya’s colonial legacy before evolving into spaces held for the public in trust post-independence. The John Michuki Memorial Park (named after the late John Michuki) in contrast has a different history. This park was created in 2008 after the state violently evicted mechanics along the Nairobi River adjacent to Kipande Road, and cleared what was an enormous dumpsite behind the buildings on Kijabe Street, away from the view of the uptown publics. This insistence on creating a thing of beauty while simultaneously disenfranchising its purported beneficiaries is best exemplified by this park. The tiny forest with footpaths might have been an attempt to increase access to green spaces for all Nairobi residents. The Michuki Park project was part of a larger goal to rehabilitate the Nairobi River basin. The awful stench from the polluted river remains a major feature of this park. Even here, people find relief resting under the shade of growing trees. Still, Michuki Park – without benches, without public toilets, is far from being whatever ideal recreation space, that was so aggressively restored.

Public Green spaces in Nairobi have a littered history of contestation from the state or government agents intent on hiving off chunks and converting them into private and commercial properties. As a result, there is an ever-present paranoia around the threat to civic space alongside the demand for prime real estate. So significant is the threat that a common response to any significant maintenance is viewed with skepticism. For example, at Jeevanjee Gardens, the loud resistance witnessed in 2015 when Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero launched a project to rehabilitate the park can be traced back to the memory of the government’s 1991 and 2007 attempts to convert Jeevanjee Gardens prime green space into commercial property.

For some Nairobi residents and visitors, recreation happens at Uhuru Park despite the present-day deficiencies. There is drinking water close to the lily pond, there’s a foot bridge that looks good in photographs. A section of the park has amusement rides including merry-go-rounds, trains and bouncing castles for those desiring more activity. Though the park’s newest memorial monument has cracked and missing tiles, you’ll see people walking past Greenbelt’s rusty Freedom Corner proclamation sign, straight to this monument dedicated to Kenya’s Mau Mau heroes, to take pictures. Maybe to learn about and to honour Kenya’s freedom fighters. Perhaps to just sit on the benches provided and stare into space, read newspapers, or wait for friends.

If your walk into the park starts at the top of the hill from Cathedral Road, at the flagpole and flag erected to commemorate the Constitution of Kenya 2010, you might wonder about the heaped uncollected rubbish and old tyres at the Ministry of Agriculture offices, so close to the Ministry of Health offices, so close to this flag. Marabou storks. You can’t miss the flag though, you might even dream. Remember where you were, if you existed, when Kenya got this Constitution, and what your part in it was. How you were dreaming. Looking down from the viewing deck that is adjacent to the flag, beyond the terraced field facing the raised podium and the lake reflecting the city’s skyline, Nairobi is tranquil.

I associate Uhuru Park with Wangari Maathai and Greenbelt’s work in securing the park in 1989 against the force of the state, the Release Political Prisoners campaign by the mothers of political prisoners jailed by the Moi government who subsequently staged a mothers’ hunger-strike in 1992. This place is also evangelist Reinhard Bonnke and many more preachers after him always so loud. It holds the memory of my classmates at University of Nairobi escaping dreary study to attend that historical Rainbow Alliance Rally and the free of charge Kool and the Gang concert.

In 1996, during a ceremony at Uhuru Park, the Catholic Church in Kenya presided over the burning of condoms and AIDS-awareness material.

For me, it is a place where teargas has been used in response to peaceful processions. After the General Elections of December 2007 elections, and the disputed presidential election results, there was violence across the country. For a while in 2008, it was an eerie empty inaccessible place guarded by GSU officers. Uhuru Park is a symbolic space, a National centre, with a podium where presidents are sworn in Along with restricting free movement the State did not want to risk ceding control of this space to the opposition movement. Following the 2017 General Elections, in 2018, the same tension was witnessed in the park prior to Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s controversial swearing in ceremony. This time though, security forces stayed away.

It is much easier to associate this park named freedom, with rage, insecurity, tear gas and physical harm. Just recently, in June this year, protesters gathered here in solidarity with the people of Sudan, had their protest disrupted with teargas. In July, the SwitchOffKPLC (Kenya Power and Lighting Company) march was also disrupted with teargas. At the end of July, more people held a memorial for the late Kibra MP, Ken Okoth.

A recreational park is a place we visit when we have free time, or a place we might go to get temporary relief from our immediate troubles. Gabriel Omollo’s song Lunch time chronicles the struggles of Nairobi’s workers including not having enough money to buy good food or any food at all…

wengine wanakwenda
kulala uwanjani
kumbe ni shida ndugu
njaa inamwumiza”

The song refers to workers going to sleep in the park when they have no food to deal with their hunger pangs. Even when one cannot improve a situation, going to a green space can be cathartic. More than any other green space in Kenya, Uhuru Park is a place Kenyans return to, to assert and proclaim freedom whenever it threatened. Uhuru means freedom.

Not just for Kenyans. In July 2011, some of South Sudan’s citizens living in Nairobi, congregated at Uhuru Park to celebrate their independence.

That this park remains open and fairly easy to access suggests that even the most cynical among us agree that everyone, no matter their station in life, deserves to have a beautiful and peaceful place to relax. How is it that many of us, in middle class Kenya, are grateful and even proud to have it at the centre of our city, willing to celebrate it, defend it, but unable to imagine ourselves relaxing here, ever? Who is it for, and why is it not for us? Are free-of-charge places only for people without money?

The sorts of things we do for rest and relaxation often look like crimes in a city that enforces bylaws that punish people for being present in public spaces. A leisurely walk looks a lot like loitering and vagrancy when the walker mets the stereotype of the undesirables. A person using a camera is so easily assumed to be a terrorist. A bulky bag filled with food always looks suspicious. A person standing still for too long can be confused for a hawker. Those who have regular jobs often grapple with the guilt and the discomfort around taking necessary breaks or using up designated breaks to rest. To be seen to be resting in an unmeaningful way can be a problem. To be visible, and to be seen resting in certain places, another problem. We have a situation where it is acceptable only to have our bodies visible during particular respectable or performative acts of civic duty while simultaneously accepting the invisibility of other types of bodies, often the bodies of disenfranchised people, who make full use of Uhuru Park.

Visiting Uhuru Park in its present state means resting with homelessness and destitution, deciding what to feel or not feel about people cleaning themselves and washing their clothes at that stream so close to the big All Saints Cathedral and the Serena Hotel. It is coming to terms with the fact that there are people for whom the minimum charge for a public toilet is too much. You could argue that more ought to be done to make this park friendlier or safer for those who do not feel welcome here. Then you might have to consider what to do about not excluding those whose bodies are presently considered undesirable or even threatening.

There may be comfort in imagining and defending Uhuru Park as a particular type of civic space. For many Uhuru Park is reduced to Freedom Corner and all its accumulated symbolisms and not the rest of the park. Even when we by right occupy these spaces, do we stop to think about those we displace with our proclamations? What use are our victories for those who have to stay behind, make themselves comfortable with the residue of whatever good or bad we leave? Claiming all the things Uhuru Park could be to Nairobi and Kenya by extension would require constant presence. This could ignite the public participation we desire. We would have to imagine that many of the destitute people who use public spaces also need private spaces, roofs over their heads and shelter.

It is better if you have a little money, you can go to Nairobi Arboretum or Karura Forest. Take pictures. It is less work.

I think about the imperative Tembea Kenya which is often interpreted to mean tourism and spending money. Does going or not going to Uhuru Park then signal one’s position in whatever hierarchies we imagine for ourselves?

It forces one to consider again, the students from all over the country stopping at Uhuru Park. What freedom dreams do these visits ignite? What dreams do they transport back to friends and family? What must we do to make Uhuru Park a place where all of us, in our different bodies, Nairobi residents and Nairobi’s visitors, are free.

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Ken Okoth: The Pauper’s Son Who Would Become King

Ken Okoth was a visionary and inspirational leader whose death has left a nation in mourning and reflection.

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Ken Okoth: The Pauper’s Son Who Would Become King
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“Ken Okoth did more for Kibra than any other M.P. We are losing young people who care, while old people who robbed this country, and continue to do so are living long lives.

This was an impassioned tweet from Rasna Warah, a seasoned writer and social commentator upon the demise of Ken Okoth, M.P for Kibra who had been battling colorectal cancer. Rasna spoke my thoughts and that of many people who saw his death coming but continued to live in denial.

Her lament, reminded me of a sigiiya – dirge I had heard in Luo land many years ago. It went thus: “Jo”mabeyo tho rumo, jo richo ema odong…jo richo ema dong’” (While the good and noble people die and heading to extinction, the evil ones remain and live long).

The lamenters since Ken Okoth passed away, have mourned the untimeliness of his passing. This is not only because he died prematurely, it is clear that there was a sense that the youthful MP’s work was not yet done. Ken was doing and saying all the right things and demonstrating what real leadership is and can do. Prior to his elevation to the seat of MP for Kibra, Ken Okoth was not a household name. All he was publicly known for, was his service as a legislator and representative par excellence to the people of Kibra and Kenya. It is my feeling that the gravity of the loss to the Kenyan nation, is yet to be comprehended.

Ken Okoth was several great people rolled into one: he was an eloquent pacifist in a midst of a volatile place like Kibra much like Martin Luther King. He was a compassionate and dedicated humanist with a caring heart for the poor much like J.M. Kariuki. He was a revolutionary feminist in the midst of a patriarchal and at time misogynistic polity that has refused to implement the 1/3 gender rule in parliament, like Thomas Sankara. He was an intelligent, inspirational visionary servant leader like Tom Mboya. The irony, and indeed the thrust of Rasna’s cry of anguish, and which resonates with the Luo dirge, is that all these luminaries died young. Sankara at 38, Martin Luther King and T.J.Mboya at 39, J.M.Kariuki at 46 and Ken Okoth at 41 years.

Odhiambo Okoth: From the pits of Kibra to the streets of excellence.

Ken’s rise from abject poverty has been told and re-told many times. He himself lost no opportunity to speak about it. He was a child of Kibra, born and bred in the slum, he endured a childhood of extreme want, hunger, vulnerability and humiliation. Admission to secondary school, afforded him his first-ever bed and the experience of a three square meal life. He underwent the trauma of seeing the family house built precariously beside the Kenya Uganda railway line in Kibra flattened by bulldozers and his family rendered homeless and destitute, as a child. He attended Olympic Primary school in bum-bare tattered clothes, and it is only his brilliance in school where he scored 613 out of a possible 700 that secured him a place at Starehe Boys Centre and technically out of the ghetto. Even then, Save the Children Fund had to intervene with a full four-year scholarship to enable Ken join high school. He went on to excel and qualify for a Law degree at the University of Nairobi, but poverty came knocking again. He missed that opportunity, because he could not raise the requisite monies to top up what Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) offered students in education loans.

The system had failed Ken Odhiambo Okoth once again. Undeterred, Okoth went to the Nation newspapers where he had once volunteered and got a gig selling newspapers to survive. He also did a two-year stint as a security guard, or plainly put, a watchman at the Goethe Institute where he had been gifted German lessons. Through providence, Ken managed to meet a benefactor as he delivered The East African Newspaper who supported his application to study in the US. Ken continued to excel academically; completed his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and with these accomplishments, his uniqueness emerged. While in the US, Ken formed an NGO called ‘Children of Kibera Foundation’ (Watoto wa Kibera) in 2006 and began mobilizing resources to support the education of the children he had left back home in Kibra. Through his fundraising and networking efforts, he supported the education of the underprivileged, orphaned children in Kibra. By 2008 his charity had funded the setting up of a computer lab at a local slum school. Since 2006, 10 top needy students from Kibra have benefitted from annual bursary scholarships. Before he was elected M.P, he was already impacting the lives of the children in Kibra.

Ken owns the story of his poverty-stricken background, not as a way to earn sympathy, or to justify entitlement. He does not use his deprived background to justify aggrandisement and the amassing of wealth. Ken has avoided the fetishization or romanticization of poverty throughout his public service. He describes poverty and want as ugly things. What Ken learnt from his experience was not to flee from poverty and the poor, but that instead made it his mission as the one who got out to pull up those stuck in that abyss. He once said, “Being poor is just a circumstance where you start in life. It is not your destiny and it can change.” Ken has been a change agent. He offers himself as an example, a challenge and an inspiration to the poor youth. He is evidence that one can transcend poverty and embark onto the road towards leadership while reaching out to rescue others. In the run-up to the 2017 elections he said,

We want to encourage more young people, stand up and be counted. You don’t have to be rich to participate. You know I was a young boy born and raised in Kibra, I serve in the National Assembly as a recognised leader in this country with a title. I want that, to be an encouragement to other young people. Stand and be counted. Fight for your country, serve for your country.’

Ken, never did glorify poverty, he questioned its entrenchment and the fact that the governance system did not seem to be able to do anything about it. During one function in Kibra graced by the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, he condemned the poverty porn that drives tourists to Kibra.

Kibra is not a zoo” he said.

Ken disliked the way that the governing elite gave the poor short shrift and in an act of defiance, broke ranks with his ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) party to vote against the 16% VAT bill that he deemed anti-poor.

My conscience could not allow me to subject the poor to more hardships via my vote. Granted that the price of unga, milk and other select stuff are spared the weight of the bill, other basics like textiles that hide our nudity, shoes, fuel and even mobile phones that are increasingly becoming a necessity will move further from the reach of the majority poor. I feel it as I remember my days at Olympic Primary School in worn out sandak shoes and patched uniform.”

Ken Okoth empathised with the downtrodden, for it was a life that he had experienced. Echoing J,M.Kariuki’s famous “we do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars” he decried the dichotomization of the Kenyan society into economic class based ghettos. He said,

We must make sure that Kenya is not a country of two tribes: the rich who live in exclusion and really, really have it, and the poor who are suffering in indignity. That is a recipe for chaos.

Champion for Education; Girls emancipation.

Ken Okoth believed that education had enabled him to alter the course of his life. He was passionate about ensuring access to education for the poor in general, but more so in his Kibra backyard. He once challenged the logic of imposing VAT on books, and questioned how any nation with the future of its youth in mind, would deny them, especially youth living in poverty, access to books via taxation? He recognised that education had transformed his life by opening opportunities for him, and this is what he desired to provide his constituents. As soon as he was elected to the National Assembly in 2013, he drew a strategic plan with education emerging as the priority issue, hence the ‘Elimu Kwanza’ – Education First mantra. His strategy revolved around increasing access to secondary education for those average children who scored low marks in primary school because he knew these children were underperforming because of challenges brought about by poverty.

His plans included building three secondary school: Shadrack Kimalel, Mbagathi and Kibera High school. He philosophically stated the empowering impact of education,

If you give a person a house, you have given them just that house and the dignity that comes from just that house. If you give someone an education, you have given them a skill-set and tools, the freedom and dignity of coming to choose where else they could live. What other career they could pursue.”

He finalised construction of a magnificent school through Constituency Development Funds ( CDF) with a record low budget. This is the loudest testimony of his integrity, and conversely, the depths of misappropriation and mismanagement by other CDF holders.   He was particularly passionate about the education of the girls. He declared in an interview, ‘I am a feminist. I support women, and I think that girls and our mothers and our sisters need equal opportunities to get into political leadership.’ Ken Okoth’s vision was consistent with that of a fellow revolutionary and avowed feminist, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who said,

“In the ministries responsible for education, we should take special care to assure that women’s access to education is a reality, for this reality constitutes a qualitative step towards emancipation. It is an obvious fact that wherever women have had access to education, their march to equality has been accelerated.”

He argued for increased access for women in positions of leadership and governance and was very concerned about opening up the political space so that women could play a bigger and more equitable role.

Courageous, non-conformist and independent-minded to a fault.

Ken Okoth was not one to shy away from controversial issues that other politicians avoided. Indeed, there have been loud murmurs that the big wigs of his sponsoring party were not always happy with his non-partisan approach to politics. Ken Okoth believed in ideology, but not sycophancy. From the onset, he stated that he was influenced politically by Raila Odinga, whom he referred to as his idol, and that he subscribed to the tenets of Social Democracy. However, he was not comfortable with the personality cults entrenched in Kenyan politics and political parties. During his first campaign, he raised the issue of land rights for the Nubian community in Kibra, an explosive issue that even Nubian politicians avoided. He believed that the Nubian community had a human and constitutional right to titles over the land that they occupied in Kibra. He argued that it was only fair that they were issued titles.

The issue of land and injustice and National cohesion and ethnic cohesion, who gets what jobs, what training and things like that. Let’s demystify these things, let’s give people title because land is a very special thing and our history of governance has always been that the governments of Kenya have always been cartels of land grabbers.

Ken was not oblivious of the fears of those who had occupied houses in Kibra of the wrath of new Nubian landlords but he felt that the social and human right outweighed that fear, and that the market could adequately regulate any such practice. ‘The Nubian landlords will need tenants” he retorted.

This notion of social justice was evident in the kind of legislation that he supported in the National Assembly. The Prevention of Torture Bill and the National Coroner’s Service Bill are among those that he eloquently seconded. In both these bills, the interest of the marginalised and poor was top of his mind. He argued that the prevention of torture was an essential safe-guard for human rights that Kenya was a signatory to, but there had been too many instances of breach. He must have had in mind the numerous unexplained cases of individuals who died in police custody. He also brought attention to the Northern parts of the country, where the Kenyan security apparatus was accused of gross human rights abuses during pacification missions. The Coroners Bill was of specific interest to Ken because of the rights to access autopsies by the poor who meet death in unclear circumstances. His concern also extended to the Muslims, whose religious rights are impacted by the manner that mandatory autopsies are carried out.

Ken Okoth also controversially advocated for the legalization of the medicinal use of Cannabis Sativa, a cause for which he was totally misunderstood. The very mention of, marijuana, blinded and deafened all moralists who read mischief in his draft legislation, an attempt at allowing bohemian excesses, or imitation of global movements for the de-criminalization of marijuana. A closer examination of Ken’s proposal reveals that not only was he addressing its therapeutic merits but its economic viability as well. Some later assumed that he was fighting for this legalization for personal reasons as a cancer patient. Ken’s vision was to make medicinal marijuana whose benefits have been clinically proven, accessible as a cheaper alternative for health care. It would be great, if this legislation found a new champion.

In public forums, Ken Okoth was not shy to admit where his sponsoring party, ODM was guilty of draconian tendencies. It is speculated that his open-mindedness did not earn him many friends in the party hierarchy, and that there had been clandestine efforts to replace him as he sought a second term as MP. Despite all these challenges, even the parties’ detractors esteemed Ken Okoth as a model MP and his openness with his Cancer ailment had endeared him across the political divide. Ken repeatedly called for increased internal democracy within ODM. At the height of the infamous ODM elections where the ‘Men in Black’ disrupted the elections leading to the Ababu Namwamba defection, he counselled that ODM needed to be more accommodating, inclusive and tolerant and less of a closed club of entitled hand-picked minions. He also spoke to the need for the party stalwarts to create room for incorporation of the ideals of the younger generation of leaders. When he appeared in discussions on television forums, he was not reluctant to acknowledge the achievements of the ruling Jubilee Coalition, but was equally adept at pointing out and criticizing their failures.

Ken’s biggest sour point with the Jubilee Coalition was the administration’s molly-coddling of corruption and dearth of pro-poor policies. Ken was very optimistic about the potential of Kenya as a nation and its people. He articulated this hope several times bemoaning the fact that economic inclusivity was still a pipe dream. He said,

I really think Kenya is set to go. We have to keep our eyes on the ball. Where do we want to be in 2030? What type of country do we want to be, will we have realised the goals of clean water, access to fair and quality education for all our people, health care and things like that? How do we grow our economy so that everybody benefits?”

If Ken Okoth’s demise offers an opportunity to change the narrative about health care coverage in Kenya, his death will not have been in vain. Ken, has narrated the story of misdiagnosis running for a year and a half before the diagnosis of colorectal cancer was arrived at. By this time the disease had reached stage four and was basically incurable. The case of misdiagnosis also affected Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore who died of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia a fortnight before Ken. In both cases, the delayed diagnosis – a factor of quality healthcare, is to blame. The current discourse around health, and more so prompted by the increasing visibility of cancer, is calling for the passage of legislation that will ensure every Kenyan has a medical cover.

Ken Okoth has been more pointed and asked that the state needs to remove taxes on cancer drugs as well as cancer diagnostic equipment such as computed tomography scans (CT Scans) and MRI machines so that the services are within reach of the poor. Ken’s concern has always been that cancer diagnosis and treatment cost is prohibitive to the poor. He noted that in his case he was lucky that he could access treatment abroad, but in typical Okoth fashion, he shone the torch back on the poor and questioned the fate facing poor Kenyans? Fundamentally, Ken was advocating for the revolutionary price rationalization of quality health care beginning with diagnosis and drugs.

When Okoth was in Paris undergoing treatment a follower on Twitter asked how he was doing and his reply was poignant, ‘Napambana na hali yangu kabisa’ (I am dealing with my situation).

Ken took ownership of his health and situation in a dignified manner. In his absence, he allowed Tim Wanyonyi the MP of Westlands Constituency to hold brief for him. When he returned to Kibera in what was a goodbye event he said how grateful he was for the partnership in the running of Kibra affairs such that even in his absence things continued to run smoothly.

Ken Okoth, was a visionary and inspirational leader. He had faith and hope in Kenya, and especially its youth. In a speech he made as closing remarks during a television discussion, he summarizes his dream and vision for Kenya, her future and her youth. Okoth’s words will undoubtedly continue to ring throughout this country.

I am proud to be a Kenyan, and I am proud of the accomplishments that we have achieved together as a nation, and even despite the challenges we have, I give great thanks to the leaders who fought for the independence of this country, who paid the sacrifices to give us multi-party democracy and our new constitution. And I pledge, and I know many leaders of my generation, I serve [with] in the national assembly, so many of us are there for the first time, we have accomplished something, based on the trust and faith in our people, in [a] peaceful manner to bring a new revolutionary class or leaders that countries like Egypt have not achieved, like Tunisia have not achieved, countries like Libya. So, let no Kenyan think that the way to solve this country’s problems is to go through violence. Let us debate, let us compete on issues, let us trust our people to vote for the right leadership and let that leadership serve, not for their own personal greed, but for improving this nation. Real patriotism without corruption, without tribalism without nepotism; Kenya can take off. We have smartest people; we have the most committed people.

Ken Okoth will be a hard act to follow. Now, just as he has dealt with his situation – we who survive him must, pambana na hali yetu.

Ken Okoth: Born 1978 – Died 2019.

Rest in Peace.

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