Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Equal Justice Initiative
Multimedia: Montgomery, Alabama
Written on the body
Stage play: Andia Kisia
Non-fiction, memoir: Kiese Laymon
Film: Silas Miami, Wanjeri Gakuru, Oprah Oyugi. Story mentor: Mbithi Masya
The film Lusala (directed by Mugambi Nthiga) begins with a child being woken up by his drunk father, who forces him to dance as the father sings circumcision songs. The child, Lusala, dances grimly as his father sings and berates him for not knowing the song, and strikes the table menacingly with his bakora to keep the beat. The child cannot know the songs that are sung to make boys into men; he is still a boy. But the father sings his surly song and strikes the table again and again; the scene ends the way we know it will – with that bakora being used to strike the child’s body, a painful end to a painful song.
A few months ago, I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a beautiful spring day in March. The sun was shining and warm, the air was still. The sky seemed impossibly blue and perfect.
The museum and memorial are two separate but related sites – the former is an indoor museum located in a former warehouse that was used to hold enslaved people; it chronicles the harrowing story of black people in America from slavery, to racial terror, segregation and mass incarceration. The memorial, on an outdoor, six-acre site atop a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, memorializes more than 4,400 black men, women and children that were shot, hung, burned alive, drowned by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.
We — me, and the friend I was with – began by walking through the museum. He is black, American, and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, about 300km north of Montgomery. We looked at the notices for slave auctions and newspaper advertisements for the sale of human beings. We read the numerous humiliating laws that made blackness a stain on public spaces, and regulated the most mundane things in the Jim Crow Era, from beaches to billiard tables. We saw the soil that had been collected from sites where people had been lynched, displayed in jars on a shelf – red, brown, and black soil, Abel crying out for justice from the ground.
We got to the memorial, where a statue installation of a black family in chains designed by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is the first thing that confronts you. It had begun to rust, rivulets of bloody-looking ferric oxide running off the statue. We walked through the 800 steel columns hanging from the roof, each representing a county where a lynching had taken place, the names of the lynched engraved on the columns. They were intended to simulate black bodies swinging in the southern breeze – as Billie Holiday would have put it – and by this time I was thankful that this was outdoors or I might not have been able to breathe. The sky was now like a blanket, bright and blue and suffocating. But I knew I had to hold myself back from tears or breaking down, for I was there with a black American from Alabama. If I was shattering inside, how much more painful would it be for him, looking at places and histories he knew much more intimately.
At the end of the day, after a dinner of shrimp and grits at a restaurant across the road from the museum, I went to bed at 7.30pm. I was exhausted, a different kind of fatigue, one that both comes from the bones and settles on them, and sleep is a small comfort for 400 years of historical and ongoing terror that has taken hold of the body.
The next morning, we went to visit his family in Huntsville, he joked that this little country town was surely nothing like Nairobi city, and I half-agreed – in my eyes it was far too sprawling and sparsely populated to be a city. We played Cornhole, a kind of beanbag tossing game, with his family – his mother, brother and grandparents – in their backyard as the sun went down, and my embarrassing lack of hand-eye coordination threatened to make my team lose badly.
Oppression is written on the body. Just like those three hours in Montgomery made me feel like I had run a marathon, every act of political exclusion, judicial injustice, and intentional impoverishment leaves its mark on the body. Some marks are visible, like Lusala’s as a child at the hands of his violent father. Some are invisible, like later in Lusala’s life when physical scars have healed, but the fear has found a permanent place to live in his mind, until he eventually has a mental breakdown. Even so, the line between his mental state and his body are not clear-cut: Lusala’s terrors live in his body, manifested in frequent bed-wetting. By the end of the film, one realizes that his experiences cannot simply be described as “hallucinations” – they are real, at least as real as the violence and trauma he has suffered in his life. And Brian Ogola, who plays Lusala as an adult, inhabits these tragedies with devastating clarity – even the most fleeting look on his face speaks to so much that cannot bear to be spoken aloud.
Andia Kisia’s stage play Written On The Body, a collection of vignettes uncovering Kenya’s national traumas from the colonial moment to the present day, then turns our attention to the way these terrors can live in a body politic, the brutalization of an entire nation. In this way, Lusala and Written On The Body are in conversation – and coincidentally (or not), both directed by Mugambi Nthiga – speaking to each other and both exploring, in their own particular ways, Francis Imbuga’s famous quote, “When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”
It is not enough to say that Lusala is mentally ill, that he has anxiety or paranoia or psychosis. He is, instead, the solitary mind that the madness of this entire nation has taken residence. Lusala is all of us – all our pain, trauma, and catastrophe – which Written On The Body forces us to look at ourselves, and trace the outlines of this collective brokenness.
Written On The Body tells us that Kenya is an on-going war zone, with bodies, minds and spirits of its people the daily casualties. Still, in Kisia’s subtle rendering, Kenyan-ness is something tart rather than bitter, a junction where bleak nihilism sometimes takes a turn into dark humour. In one memorable scene, Kisia places a pair of pathologists – they might be medical examiners or mortuary attendants – at City Mortuary in the days and nights following the attempted coup in 1982. Bodies are coming in faster than the two (exceptionally played by Elsaphan Njora and Charity Nyambura) can process them, and they devise a way to quickly figure out some identifying characteristics for these anonymous cadavers.
It goes exactly where you think it’s going, for we are a country where tribal stereotypes are an instant shorthand for reading bodies – this one is too dark to be a Kamba, and this one is too well-dressed to be a Kisii – but by the time the scene ends in a phallic joke, circumcision making its grim return, the audience’s laughter had turned into embarrassment, even shame – is this what we have become?
Like Written On The Body, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy traces these same threads, of what happens to bodies when violence becomes the air we breathe. It is set in the Deep South, the place of strange fruit swinging in the southern breeze, whose painful story is ground zero for the memorial atop that hill in Montgomery.
Laymon, today a professor of creative writing at the University of Mississippi, tells the story of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi at the hands of a loving and complicated family, where love hurts and also heals, and it is difficult to see where one scar ends and the other begins.
But Laymon’s book goes further than I’ve seen a memoir go, especially one that inhabits and explores black masculinity. In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak—a hard man.”
Laymon is not a hard man. His vulnerability, his fear and weakness are real in Heavy, they are literally written on his body – the scars on his body from childhood beatings, in the stress eating, in the 300lbs (135kg) he carries on his body while still a teenager, in the starvation he forces himself to undergo until he faints from lack of food, in the obsessive running that shatters his joints. The body is the site, the agent and the victim.
Still, what we may call vices, addictions or traumas – sexual violence, gambling, alcohol and drug addictions, eating disorders, broken relationships – are, in Laymon’s telling, scenes of tenderness. And by this I mean that he renders the story of black existence tenderly, with sensitivity and kindness, and that the stories themselves are tender – they are raw, inflamed, bruised, still bleeding.
Ultimately, the story in Heavy is that life is complicated, that it is a combination of multiple entanglements “that are so interwoven that it is easier to discard the entire box of tangled threads than to spend the time untangling them,” as C. Leigh McInnis, author and instructor of English at Jackson State University, described Heavy in this review. “[Laymon] provides a process of healing by showing that the first thing that people must do is realize just how multifactorial their hellish lives are and, then, realize that those multifactorial elements can be separated and analyzed even if the process is laborious.”
And so, Laymon gives us a scalpel to do this necessary, heavy work, which, although is inevitably painful, it can at the very least be precise.
What can one do with the anguish of these truths? With the knowledge that one cannot escape one’s body, no matter how hard one tries? That the past will always find you, in fact it is never past – the present is, in fact, the past in present-time? With the knowledge that if you are caught on the underside of power, your body will become a site of the accumulation of various strikes, until the last chapter of any successful genocide, where the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My god – what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other.”
These are the questions that Lusala, Written on the Body, Heavy and the Legacy Museum & National Memorial for Peace and Justice are asking us to confront, in their own particular yet related ways. Together, they present blackness, black corporeality, black existence – both in Africa and in the African Diaspora – as a site of great struggle, with some victories, but the struggle is ubiquitous, it is continuous, it is cosmic, it is seemingly eternal.
Over the three months that I watched, read and experienced the four works cited in this essay, I also listened to theologian and writer J. Kameron Carter present blackness as something else – a site of true spirituality. In a podcast recorded at Fuller Theological Seminary, Carter presents blackness as a kind of spiritual practice, the forms of life together created at the bottom of slave ships where black bodies are forced to be in contact, in the fields where a “violent arithmetic” reduces them to items on a balance sheet. Yet it is these spaces that are the possibility for alternative practices of the sacred.
In Carter’s reading, blackness as practiced in community always open, always accommodating, there’s always room for one more at the table, and this is how black communities survive – before Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, they welcomed him to join them for bible study, and later he said that the warm welcome he received almost made him not go through with the shooting.
This openness makes black communities vulnerable to infiltration, sabotage and attack, but also, paradoxically, makes them impossible to eliminate completely, because they are always renewing themselves in community, together, even through the forced intimacies enforced upon black bodies. “It is a kind of sociality that presumes embrace, not protection,” says Carter, “If there’s any self-defence for blackness is that it keeps on loving, which is why it can’t be killed… which is, in some curious way, a kind of self-defence.”
In other words, the vulnerability and finitude of individual bodies (in Greek, soma), is transfigured in and through community into the messy, unbounded, resilience of the flesh (in Greek, sarx). Blackness is more like flesh than it is like body, as Carter sees it, where flesh is a mode of material life where we are composed in relationship to each other, like compost. “Compost is a number of things put together. You can’t say compost is this, and not that – compost is compositional, it is many things put together…Blackness is like flesh in that way, it is always in touch with everything else, it is unbordered and non-exclusionary.”
This, as painful as it is, is true spiritual practice – a possibility of life together that makes something beautiful from the rubble, from the disaster around us. I was thinking about this on that perfect day in March as I laughed and played Cornhole in the embrace of a family I had just met in Alabama, until my wrist, in fact, my body, gave out.
Hope and Survival on the Streets of Kisumu
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking?
I met Isaac Juma in May 2006 at HOVIC — Hope for Victoria Children — a street children rehabilitation programme I was employed by as a social worker. HOVIC was established in 2002 to provide essential services to Kisumu’s street children as well as rehabilitate and reunite them with their families. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 children and young adults working and living on the streets of Kenya’s major towns and cities. When HOVIC’s drop-in centre opened its doors we had a running register of up to 400 children, with about 120 children visiting daily for food and various other services.
When the HOVIC programme started there seemed to be no methodology developed to undertake a census of Kisumu’s street children. A number of NGOs had tried to establish registers by organising parties at the Kisumu Sports Ground where the children and the youths would enjoy a meal and receive the gift of a t-shirt but these events always descended into chaos as fights broke out. To track the children we catered for, HOVIC created a database and register with the basic description and photographs of the children who came to the drop-in centre. The register was kept by a burly staffer aptly named Bouncer whose job it was to keep the children from hurting one another during the fights that frequently broke out at mealtimes. We had obviously underestimated the challenges of having in one closed environment hundreds of children and youths who were accustomed to solving their problems using violence.
I was fresh from university when I took the job at HOVIC, heading the rehabilitation programme. I was idealistic and overwhelmed by a strong sense of community and a desire to give back. The programme was run from the heart of Kisumu in an old concrete building that still harboured the ghosts of the one of the town’s first wealthy families. It was surrounded by Indian shops and open-air mechanics operated from a nearby Jua Kali yard filled with the carcasses of vehicles and ancient jalopies. The salary was paltry and any positive rewards of the job were counterbalanced by the depression that came with daily witnessing the reality of the children’s lives on the streets.
People brought their vehicles for repair in the sprawling yard. Women brought meat, tomatoes, onions and maize meal to the makeshift restaurants that dotted the yard. Crisp new notes and old ragged ones exchanged hands. Vehicles left happier than they had come. Some stayed longer. To be resuscitated or to die. Young boys, their bodies blackened by a life lived on the streets, collected the old oil that haemorrhaged from old engines. They scavenged discarded pieces of metal and plastic which they would take to the weighing scales of scrap metal dealers. All scrap metal had value but copper and aluminum were at a premium. On a good day, a kilogram of either would guarantee a meal. Plastic bottles were not of much value though; it would take hundreds of them to move the needle on the scale. The children moved through the sprawling yard like vultures, cleaning this ecosystem of waste. For food. For money. And for the occasional expression of sympathy.
Sympathy came mostly from people who had never before encountered humans in that state of existence. These people wondered what was wrong with the children’s homes, with their parents. How could they allow their children to wallow in waste? But expressions of sympathy were few and far between. More frequently, the street children were at the receiving end of the anger of those whose cars couldn’t be fixed quickly enough. Or who found the cost of repair too exorbitant. Or who felt that the mechanics were cheating them out of their money. Or those who simply needed someone to vent their frustrations on.
The locals called them Ninjas, for if they were not, how then could these children – some as young as five – survive their hard lives? How could they endure their pain without breaking? Their bodies absorbed the abuse hurled at them, and like human sponges, they soaked in the hate and the oil in equal measure.
Kisumu’s street children came mainly from Nyanza and the western region. Most were orphans, left under the care of relatives when their parents died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Others had run away from violent parents and yet others to escape punishment from their guardians for petty crimes. But whatever the reasons, they all pointed to a deteriorating social order.
But even as the influx of street children grew, child protection services shrunk and soon the existing children’s homes within Kisumu could not accommodate them all. There are those who oppose the existence of children’s homes, believing that they act as magnets for street children, increasing their numbers on the streets. But from my experience, and having visited hundreds of families, the homes were sanctuaries for desperate children and filled the gap left by the government to provide child protection services. In effect, the government’s default setting was to send children to the Kisumu juvenile detention centre for crimes committed in the streets or for loitering in the streets at night before releasing them back into the very same streets with no attempt being made to locate their homes and reunite them with their families.
The hope was that the hardship suffered at the detention centre would act as a deterrent and motivate the children to return to their homes but my observation is that detention only hardened the children. To go through the police cells became a badge of honour and juvenile detention a rite of passage before the return to the streets.
In the meantime, the community hoped that the street children would one day disappear as if by magic, that the government would find a solution to the “menace”. Many were adamant that it was for the parents to take care of these children and hoped that this could be enforced legally to keep the children off the streets.
Instead, their numbers just kept growing. The streets provided these children with a space in which to discover themselves – through necessity and adversity. It could build them. Or break them. Had they been at home, chances were that they would be sober, in school, helping with family chores, teasing young girls at the watering hole while herding cattle. But instead they were here. And Kisumu streets were different and their darkness also different. It had teeth and it was biting off huge chunks of these children’s lives, leaving nothing but the basic instinct for survival. And hope.
The reality of street life was most manifest when night fell, when the good people retreated behind the reinforced doors that kept thieves at bay, that protected their television sets, their stereos, their microwaves, their flourishing lives away from the ghettos of Nyalenda and Obunga.
I once visited the places where the street children retreated to at night and found human beings folded into various shapes, bent into various forms, inside sacks that served as blankets and covers against the darkness and the mosquitoes, the full moon lending a surreal quality to the scene. They were lost in deep slumber, as if without a care in the world, some clutching plastic bottles to their breasts, the shoe glue that conjured up a more bearable reality, an alternative reality to help them navigate their waking nightmares and their sleeping terrors.
Some children were squeezed together into a single sack. Like twins in a womb. Forced together by circumstances not of their own making. Others had bigger sacks to themselves. Queen size sacks. King size sacks. Even here in the streets there was a hierarchy of power and influence. I looked over to Isaac, catching his face in the moonlight. This is how they start learning how to love each other. To protect each other. Brotherhood. This is also how they feel the initial warmth of their comrades. Kiss each other. Touch each other. Sometimes abuse each other, Isaac said matter-of-factly, pointing at the bodies that were tightly welded together in one sack. The older ones sometimes prey on the younger ones, Isaac continued, emphasizing each detail. As if concerned that I was missing important points.
Kisumu is hot. The ground absorbs heat from the sun like a loyal lover and when it is full, it vomits the excess heat into the environment. The doors of HOVIC would open to a frenzy of old faces and newcomers, each child bringing with him a thick layer of sweat from the heat and the story of their young life. The story of their families and their homes. Of a narrow escape from the police last night. Some came with fresh wounds inflicted by their peers. Or by the police. Or by dogs.
Others came high, floating on the cloud of euphoria that the shoe glue created in their minds. Glue was the street children’s opium. They bought it from cobblers who, like smalltime drug dealers, measured out glue meant for shoe repair into small bottles which they sold to the street children, a sticky yellow mess that seared the nostrils, numbed the brain and killed the hunger pangs and the pain. Sleep came easily, the hard ground now as soft as a downy mattress and safe as any home. Hypnotised into an alternative reality, they became quick to anger and violence was never far away.
One evening Isaac told me he had defaulted on his TB medications. He told me this with a smile on his face. Like it was something funny. I raised my head from my desk and asked him to repeat what he had said. “I have defaulted on my TB drugs. This is the second time I am defaulting.” Silence. I tried to look outside. I couldn’t see outside. The windows of my offices were so high. This building had not been built for office use. It had been built as a workshop for repairing old buses. “I know if I default again. I may get MDR-TB.”, Isaac continued. MDR-TB, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, was wreaking havoc within Kenya’s healthcare system. I quickly made an appointment with the nurse who worked part-time at HOVIC.
Isaac could not keep track of his medication while living on the streets. He would lose his medication from the constant cat and mouse games with the police at night. On the other hand, the hospital needed him to account for every pill before he could get a refill. When he failed, they told him he needed to show up every day and take his pills at Kisumu District Hospital in the presence of nurses. And at each visit, he would have to go through the script of his life. And then the question he dreaded most would be thrown at him: “You are so smart. What are you doing in the streets? Why are you destroying your life in the streets?” He would soon get fed up and not go back.
To live, to survive, Isaac needed housing. Living on the streets is a complex affair. It gets even more complicated when one has a debilitating disease like TB. Survival starts with housing and food. We had figured out food. Children and youths could drop in at the rehabilitation center and get a warm meal. They could shower. The could get basic healthcare. But in the evening they would go back into the world, to the humming underworld of Kisumu Bus Stop. We needed safe housing.
There are many theories as to why children leave their homes to live and work in the streets. I have learned that it takes a lot for a child of seven years to decide to leave home for the streets. In one of the counselling sessions we held with the children, Isaac came along with a seven-year-old called Frederick Omondi. Or Freddie. Freddie had arrived in Kisumu from Gem. He had gotten into a matatu and somehow made it to Kisumu. He had never been to Kisumu before. He had no idea what Kisumu had in store for him. He was travelling by faith, the belief that a random stranger would hear his story and give him a chance at a life better than the one he was running away from. Isaac implored me to take Freddie home with me. I was living with my mother and my siblings. I obliged. Mostly out of fear for Freddie’s well-being than anything else.
Freddie’s home, like Isaac’s, was a world filled with nothingness. Freddie’s home had rocks. Big rocks. And his parents’ graves. His parents had died when he was very young. He barely knew them. He was left in the care of his uncle who, not knowing what to do with his life in that environment, resorted to drinking copious amounts of the local brew. I met him once. Drunk. Tall. Incapable of coherent speech. He was burdened by the loss of his relatives and took this loss out on his wife. Not knowing what to do, the woman took out her frustrations on Freddie. The cycle of violence was established. From the strongest to the most vulnerable. Until one day Freddie decided to run to Kisumu, and was brought to HOVIC.
Freddie’s journey to Kisumu was guided by a conspiracy of coincidences and good fortune. A lot could have gone wrong. He was lucky to make it to Kisumu with no bus fare. His aunt could have killed him. He could have ended in another town. He also arrived at a time when Isaac was friends with a young Australian man called Peter Dunkley. In his own unique way, Peter was looking to give back by helping to sponsor a destitute child. Isaac met Peter at Kisumu Sports Ground and struck up a conversation with him. The fact that all these random factors aligned is pure luck.
Isaac’s home on the other hand consisted of one room and one bed. His paraplegic brother, his other brothers, his mother, were all confined in this one tiny space. They were happy to see us. His paraplegic brother was trying to speak. His seizures were worsening and they were struggling to buy him the monthly supply of phenobarbitones. Isaac had also left home young. He wanted to save his family. He left to look for help.
People living in the streets are perceived as liars right from the word go. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Part of my job as a social worker was to conduct home visits. To witness and document the realities of the home environments and the circumstances that compel children to come to the streets. The realities of the homes the children came from always hit me hard, without warning. They came in the form of Freddie’s uncle. His alcoholism. In the form of Freddie’s aunt. She stood at a distance from us when we visited the home. In fear. Overwhelmed that the first white person she was encountering in her life had been brought to her home by a child she had persecuted violently. A child she had thought was long dead. What was the chance of that? It was a revelation of biblical proportions to all of us. We decided that Freddie was not remaining in that home.
The image of Isaac’s paraplegic brother brought home to me the reason for Isaac’s decision to leave home. Risking everything. Leaving the love of his family and abandoning some degree of predictability within the confines of poverty, for the unknown of the streets. He was barely a boy. What have we become as a society? Why does it take us so long to see that it takes a lot for these children to be on the streets? To put their lives at risk? It certainly wasn’t for fun. Or for adventure. These children had seen things we have not seen. The nightmare they faced on the streets was in many instances lesser than the nightmare they faced at home.
I have since stopped slicing up my brain trying to understand these children and I feel no shame in keeping the company of those who have spent a part of their lives in the streets.
It’s the 23rd of July 2019. I am seated across from Isaac in his house in that concrete jungle teeming with humanity that is Kahawa West. Isaac is talking to me about politics. His time abroad. His work at an international NGO, and his plans to finish his post-graduate degree at the University of Nairobi. I am not sure what would have become of Isaac or Freddie if they had not made the decision to run away from home and seek help in the streets.
But Isaac and Freddie are exceptions. They had the will to stay away from drugs and from the other temptations of street life. Isaac had a very clear vision of who he wanted to be, and how his success would be channeled to help his family. He has achieved that vision. Freddie is on track to achieving his vision too.
I still encounter some of those who were on the streets with Isaac and Freddie back in 2006 and 2007 every time I walk down Oginga Odinga Street. They are now adults. Many of the others have died; killed during the cycles of post-election violence or succumbed to disease or drowned in Lake Victoria. A few lucky ones were helped to return home by relatives or well-wishers, or through street children programmes.
I cannot point to one singular factor that would explain why some make it out of the streets and others do not, except perhaps a chance encounter with the right people, a strong will to survive. And luck.
The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
In Kenya, rising water levels in lakes along the Great Rift Valley have forced thousands of people from their homes, submerging huge areas of farmland. Schools, hospitals, roads and water pipes have been destroyed. Crucially, there is a real fear that Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria, one fresh and the other saline, will contaminate each other. Ferdinand Omondi writes about this threat of an ecological disaster.
It was an easy Wednesday morning when the phone call came in. I was seated in my study, pitching ideas, studying for my semester exams and trolling the net for news. The COVID-19 pandemic has us working from home and away from offices and fieldwork unless absolutely necessary. My producer, Joe, told me there was a situation developing down in Baringo that fitted the “absolutely necessary” description.
Early the next day, I packed up to leave Nairobi for the first time since March, an overnight stay. Risk assessment? Check. Equipment? Check. PPE? Check. Headphones? Check. Waterproof shoes? I forgot to buy those.
The Landcruiser meandered its way down the winding highways and picturesque scenery of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Up at Mau Summit, Mount Longonot’s imposing mass upon the lowlands reminded me of the breath-taking scenery that is Great Rift Valley’s gift to Kenya. But this marvel of nature has been sending warning signs lately. Two years ago, the ground split open at Suswa, leaving a giant crack several kilometres long and forty feet deep in some areas. Geologists wondered whether Africa was beginning to split again, whether two tectonic plates were moving away from each other. Thousands of people were forced to relocate.
This August it was the lakes in the Rift Valley, some 280 kilometres north of Nairobi, that had us heading out to investigate. Our drive to Baringo was uneventful, except for a stop in the middle of Marigat to move a tortoise off the road. The noise of passing vehicles had driven it to recoil into its shell in the middle of the highway. Baringo is teeming with wildlife.
We eventually pulled up at Kampi ya Samaki, a sleepy lakeside fishing and tourism settlement. A group of excited young men crowded the windows and aggressively tried to get our attention.
“No hotel here sir, they are all flooded. I take you somewhere else. Please. Good price”. I hear the words, but can’t figure out who spoke.
“All of them?”
“Yes. All of them. The flood is very bad. All the good hotels are gone”.
These young men are tour guides, starved of revenue since lakeside resorts in Baringo became submerged under water. One of them identifies himself as Rama. Rama says it has been months since he last had a good day’s pay. We are standing at the green gate of what would have been the entrance to Robert’s Camp. The entire facility is flooded. Every structure is under water. It was a beautiful lakeside resort with cottages and tents, camping grounds and a bar. We would probably have spent the night here. But today we will have to make do with the Tamarind Garden, situated several hundred metres away and across the road that runs alongside the lake. It is modest, clean and basic. The rooms are a bit claustrophobic, but the service more than assuages my insecurities. We retire for the night, to begin a fresh day in the early morning and really digest the extent of the damage caused by a lake that is aggressively extending its boundaries.
The sun is just rising over the hills, the rays beautifully reflecting on the calm water. It is early morning, and we have hired the services of Julius, a boatman whose thriving tour business now depends on ferrying stranded locals from one end of the lake to another, and occasional visitors like us. Dickson Lenasolio, a middle-aged local, is taking us to the place he used to call home, which he says is now all under water. As we weave through the trees and shrubs that were once Robert’s Camp’s lush gardens, I am warned not to trail my bare hands in the water. This is crocodile territory.
We move slowly along the edges of the lake. We sail past a building half submerged in water, only the green roof protruding above the morning waves. This was the fisheries department, and just beyond it was a health centre. All around me used to be dry land on which a community once thrived. There were homes, farms, schools, and hospitals. Much of that has been submerged. As we speed up, another tourist resort comes into view. The Soi Safari Lodge, a striking 74-room hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool stands desolate and ghostly. It was deserted after the lake flooded the ground floors. I am told the owners had only recently made renovations in preparation for tourists.
We speed up across the lake, past a dead crocodile floating in the water. After about twenty minutes, the boat slows down as we approach Dickson’s former village. I can see the protruding roofs of houses where people used to live. I can make out sections of maize plantations from the extended stems of dying maize plants swaying in the waves. I can make out paddocks and homestead fences from the dangerously sagging wires and posts that are threatening to stall our boat. Dickson is now guiding us through the maze of roofs, trees and weeds, his wrinkles too prominent for one aged only 54. As he points to the spot where his house once stood, he tells us he was once a wealthy dairy farmer, before Lake Baringo swelled and swallowed up all his material wealth and he lost everything.
“I had Sahiwals [a breed of high-yield dairy cows]. I sold milk to the locals and it was good business. I would sell milk every day, and I had lots of grass in my farm”.
Dickson goes on to describe what he lost.
“My farm here was wire-fenced. We were using solar power to keep out wild animals. But when the water approached and we kept thinking it will recede, it did not, until it became impossible to retrieve the wire. Now it’s all below here, and the wire was very expensive. One roll is over 200 dollars. I fenced over 40 acres with it. My brother fenced 60. All of that is gone. It’s had to get it out because you can hardly even see the posts. These were 9-foot posts”.
“It wasn’t just me. There were other farmers who also did the business. They kept cows either for beef or milk. We suffered heavy losses. Because all the farms are now under water. We had no means of preventing it. At first, we thought we could seal the farms off. But, no. The lake kept rising night and day. Until it covered all the farms and we moved”.
Dickson says they have never seen the water levels rise like this since they were born. Not even his father, who he says is now 92. He recalls how the flooding began during the heavy rains back in March and everyone thought it would ease off with time. It did not.
“I brought down my buildings and so did my neighbours”, says Dickson. “We moved up about 800 metres. We started living there, and the water still got to us. We pulled our homes down. Now many have moved up the hill, to Marigat, Leberer, all the way up. Unfortunately, when we moved the animals up there, away from the grass they were used to, they fell sick and died”.
“Our father lived here. Our grandfathers lived here too. But now we have no hope. We don’t see the water receding because it has risen to unprecedented levels”.’
We drop Dickson off as close to his new home as possible, and he alights and wades off into the distance. He fears he may have to relocate his home for the third time.
The flooding has also cut off essential services. Power, transport, health. A building that used to be a clinic sits lonely among the tall dead trees in the still water. We watch as sick women are brought in by boat. They wade to the shore in search of medication. They will meet nurse Emily, who provides free health care in a little green tent, from where she has noticed a surge in crocodile attacks.
“We were treating burns, wounds and snake bites”, says Emily. “We also helped women with family planning and gave HIV/AIDS support. Since the flooding, our work has been affected because many people can’t get to us because they used to come on foot. Others fear travelling over water because there are crocodiles and hippos”.
Next to Emily’s small tent a group of women are sifting quality grass seeds. The seeds would have been planted on the land which is now underwater. The health facilities and grass are provided by RAE (Rehabilitation of Arid Environments), a trust that helps local people turn arid land into sustainable pasture. The social enterprise runs a project called “Nyasi ni Pesa” – grass is money – which provides the locals with indigenous species of dryland grass which can survive the area’s arid conditions. This is the grass that Dickson’s purebreds thrived on. After harvesting, RAE then buys back the seeds, giving the women and their families a healthy income too. But the whole model is now under threat.
Murray Roberts, a Kenyan of British ancestry, runs the RAE project. He has lived in Baringo his whole life, and has watched the water levels rise and rise. Roberts shows me an extraordinary family photo taken in the 90s. It’s a photo of his two sons jumping off a cliff outside his home. It appears to be at least 30 feet high. We take another boat ride to the place where the photo was taken; the entire cliff face is now below the water.
But Murray has an even bigger fear than the loss of land and livelihoods. Less than 40 kilometres south of Lake Baringo is Lake Bogoria. The highly saline lake is home to a famous colony of flamingos and is a gazetted national park. But Lake Bogoria is also rising. I learn that the Kenya Wildlife Service has moved its main gate three times, each one submerged as the lake expands. Senior KWS Warden James Kimaru has been quoted saying that the water levels increased within one month from a width of 34 km2 to 43 km2. We see one of the KWS buildings in the distance, half submerged in water. New roads into the reserve are being constructed after previous ones were also covered by the water. As the lakes expand in width, the distance between them shrinks. Murray is concerned that with both Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria rising, the two lakes could eventually contaminate each other.
“The thing that is really worrying me about this situation is if Lake Bogoria starts flowing into Lake Baringo. What would be the outcome of that because Bogoria is a highly alkaline lake and it will be an ecological disaster. Once that water reaches Lake Baringo it will affect the fish, it will affect the bird life, it will affect the aquatic life”.
It is a concern that the Baringo County government shares. A post-floods report published in June by the Kenya Inter-Agency Rapid Assessment Mechanism concluded that the Rift Valley is becoming the most flood-prone region in Kenya. Much of that water ends up in the lakes, which inevitably swell. The report attributed the flooding to a combination of poor land use practices, deforestation and accumulation of silt. In May, the government counted over 200 deaths from flooding, with at least 800,000 people affected countrywide, Much of the destruction happened along river and lake settlements like Lake Baringo and its feeder rivers. Outside the Rift Valley, Lake Victoria was reported to have risen to its highest levels in over 50 years.
Helen Robinson, a geologist with extensive experience in East Africa, explained to me that when it is hot and dry for a long time the soils becomes so dry that they cannot absorb water. Then when it rains, huge amounts run along the surface to the rivers, then the lakes. Robinson explained that if the soils had some moisture content, much more of the rainwater would drain into the groundwater system. Trees help soils to retain moisture, but Kenya’s forest cover is only 7% of its landmass, 3 per cent less than the 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.
All these points reinforce the concerns that human activity is contributing to the extreme changes in our climate. The UN says climate change is a reality, and that human activity is the main cause. Scientists have stressed the importance of lowering our carbon emissions to limit the impact we’re having on our planet. Robinson said that if we don’t try harder, the damage could become irreversible including melting ice at the poles, rising sea levels, more climate extremes, loss of habitats and mass extinctions.
Baringo is experiencing extreme weather changes and destruction to its habitat. But across the Rift Valley, similar swellings were recorded in Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha this year, and even in Lake Turkana in the north, with the varying levels of destruction pointing to a pattern. Whatever the causes, it is a race for survival, and at the moment, nature is winning.
Are Kenyans Ready to Parley?
Kenyans are reportedly “being taken by storm” by Parler, a newish right-wing social media platform. But do they really know how toxic the storm sweeping over them is? The platform is racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, white supremacist – and that’s only for starters.
US-based Parler has been around since 2018, but was fairly unknown outside the US until recently. Billed as a conservative alternative to Twitter, it now has some two million users, including Kenyans, who post what Parler calls “parleys” rather than tweets. It champions free speech, claims not to censor, and has attracted many Twitter castaways who were banned for breaking Twitter’s rules – especially those concerning racist hate speech. (An FM radio station in Kenya claimed that Kenyans were “being taken by storm” by Parler.)
Parler has made concerted efforts to lure Donald Trump away from his Twitter addiction, thus far unsuccessfully, even though Twitter has started fact-checking Trump’s tweets and removing those that are false or misleading, which has made the US president very unhappy. Founded by conservatives fed up with the moderation of posts on Twitter and Facebook, it has become the go-to home for right-wingers and “libertarians” in the US, the UK and around the world.
But how popular is this social media platform likely to become in Kenya and the diaspora once its unbridled racism and Western-centrism becomes clear?
Despite its free speech credentials, Parler does in fact ban those it doesn’t like. “Pretty much all of my leftist friends joined Parler to screw with MAGA [Make America Great Again] folks, and every last one of them was banned in less than 24 hours because conservatives truly love free speech,” one user wrote on Twitter.
This is largely the story of my experience on Parler. I joined in July, under a pseudonym, largely to find out what some of the British “castaways” were up to, and to continue calling them out on racism and Islamophobia, in particular. What I’ve experienced in this shouty, sweary bear-pit may act as a warning to those tempted to dive in.
Within days of joining, I was called (among other things) a tyrant, leftard, libtard, racist, fascist, pedo and peodo (sic), faggot, nonce, pervert, jihadist, globalist, c**t, twunt (a reference to Twitter), whiney Karen, baby raper, commie, Marxist, moron, and a “stanky, sweat-dripping, hairy balls dude”. One British man who lobbed constant anti-Irish abuse after I revealed my dual Irish/British citizenship, called me a “dirty peat-digging Paddy”, Tinker and “bog trotting Mick”. (The slur “leftie scum” is comparatively sweet.) Though I left my gender unclear (“bloke, possibly”), many have assumed I am a gay man, and have sent homophobic abuse that elides gay men and paedophiles.
Within days of joining, I was called (among other things) a tyrant, leftard, libtard, racist, fascist, pedo and peodo (sic), faggot, nonce, pervert, jihadist, globalist, c**t, twunt (a reference to Twitter), whiney Karen, baby raper, commie, Marxist, moron, and a “stanky, sweat-dripping, hairy balls dude”.
But this is nothing compared to the online abuse thrown at women of colour. When Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, many on the official Team Trump timeline called her a whore (“ho”) who has slept her way to the top. Revolting memes and doctored pictures showed her being f**ked from behind by a donkey (a symbol associated with Democrats), going down on the J in Joe, as a scantily-clad prostitute standing on a street corner next to a photo-shopped image of Biden dressed as a pimp, and so on.
The same “birther” slurs that Trump and Trumpites lobbed at Barack Obama – for allegedly having been born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be POTUS – are also being lobbed at Asian-American Harris, who was in fact born in the US. One sample racist comment stands for many: “You have to give Kamala Comealot Harris credit in one area… she has worked hard in her career. She has worn out 12 pairs of knee pads!” This kind of abuse continues unabate, whenever Trumpites refer to the Dems and their presidential candidates. I repeat, much of this is on the official Team Trump timeline. Let that sink in.
Shortly after joining Parler, I also began reading the online Front Page Magazine (FPM), founded in the US by far-right commentator David Horowitz, which features articles by former British Twitter queen Katie Hopkins (explained below). Some of the abuse in the comment sections on FPM is as bad if not worse than Parler
Much of what I’ve read cannot be reproduced here, because it includes unfettered racism, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, and all the other “obias” one can think of. Language that would earn the messenger an instant ban from Twitter. (I will give some examples later.) One can usually identify fellow travellers by the fact that they “up-vote” your comment, whereas right-wing nasties give you the thumbs down, often followed by a torrent of four-lettered abuse. Parler does not do “likes” as Twitter does, and neither is there an edit option. Occasionally, just to draw people out, I throw in the odd (tongue-in-cheek) far-right endorsement, which is enthusiastically greeted as presumably coming from “one of us”. I sometimes agree with Katie and her ilk; very few recognise this as sarcasm.
Why describe my Parler experience? Because while it is tempting to ignore Parler and the far right and to wrinkle your nose and turn away, I believe it is dangerous to do so. That’s also an empirical observation, grounded in my past experience as a newspaper hack who has interviewed far-right lads. In an earlier incarnation as a sociology student, I joined a gang in order to study youth deviance, and learned plenty about fledgling British Nazis. Turning a blind eye allows these folk to fester underground, largely unseen and unchecked, and to assume that the far-right threat has receded. At least these haters were in full view on Twitter, and could be called out by thousands of people, before being banned if they violated Twitter’s rules. Lift the lid on Parler and FPM and you find a hornet’s nest buzzing with people stoking hatred against anyone perceived as the enemy.
British migrants from Twitter
The best-known of these recent migrants to these platforms include far-right activist Tommy Robinson and his whacky pal Katie Hopkins, who is often described as a “media commentator”. Islamophobic racist white supremacists would be a better label, though they both claim not to be racist or white supremacist. Both call themselves journalists, which is infuriating to those of us who really are.
Tommy is fond of wearing T-shirts reading “Convicted of Journalism”, following his conviction and jailing for contempt of court in July 2019 after he interfered with the trial of a sexual grooming gang the previous year. (This is only the latest in a string of convictions; he faces trial for libel soon.) I helped to get Hopkins permanently banned from Twitter earlier this year after a sustained campaign (by me and others) that ranged from ridicule to flat condemnation. Hopkins never engaged with me, but eventually blocked me after the ridicule became acute. I dubbed her Shouty Nutkins, then Burkie Bonkins after she began wearing a burqa in videos sending up British “ISIS bride” Shamima Begum. So much for the great champion of free speech. Every time this happens I think: “They don’t like it up ‘em, do they? (That’s a famous line from the British sitcom Dad’s Army, about an amateur militia preparing to fight the Germans in World War II. It refers to a bayonet, a blade fixed to the end of a rifle which can be used to stab an opponent in hand-to-hand fighting.)
Why describe my Parler experience? Because while it is tempting to ignore Parler and the far right and to wrinkle your nose and turn away, I believe it is dangerous to do so. That’s also an empirical observation, grounded in my past experience as a newspaper hack who has interviewed far-right lads.
Now, I am someone who swore until recently that I would never use Twitter, never mind anything other social media site. Stupid, big waste of time and energy, who the heck has the time to tweet all day? But like many others, I’ve found that it’s addictive, especially during lockdown. Then the big migration happened, with fashes (that’s what we leftie trolls call fascists) gleefully bragging about their newfound freedom on Parler, and calling to their pals to join them and abandon “Twatter” It became tempting to see what was happening on the other side. I soon developed a second addiction.
Shocked Parler users
The daft thing about Parler is that its devotees – especially those who boast about migrating from Twitter to these sunny, sweary uplands – seem surprised that “the enemy” has followed them there. I was endlessly told it wasn’t the right place for me, that I should “f**k off back to Twatter”. Here’s one example from a woman writing on 27 July: “You ever heard the saying the left can’t troll? Thats why you want to de platform and censor us lol f**k off back to twitter you melt (sic).” And on 2 August: “Why are there so many anti Katie Muslims on here?”
Neither do these folk understand the concept of free speech, which they seem to think simply involves swearing. It’s been quite liberating to swear back harder when I am not being scrupulously polite, which winds them up even more. It’s not for nothing that I have been a tabloid hack, Hell’s Angel, and racing stable girl in my time. No experience is ever wasted.
The daft thing about Parler is that its devotees – especially those who boast about migrating from Twitter to these sunny, sweary uplands – seem surprised that “the enemy” has followed them there. I was endlessly told it wasn’t the right place for me, that I should “f**k off back to Twatter”.
Far-right racists have effectively kettled themselves, and are now shouting pointlessly into the void at each other. Recent topics of “discussion” (at least on Hopkins’ timeline, and before the run-up to the US elections began in earnest) are largely on Black Lives Matter, immigrants, Muslims, sexual grooming gangs in northern England, vaccines and COVID lockdown measures, which Hopkins opposes. The libertarian, gun-toting Trumpite Americans on Parler lap up Tommy and Katie, blissfully unaware that they are both reviled and mocked here in the UK. “We love you, Foreign Secretary!” (posted while she was visiting the US in August). Said another: “You are loved by a saviour and his church!” One up-voted my sarky comment: “Katie for Chancellor!” The same people are invariably Christian (I call them CINOs, Christians in name only), anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, “Deep State” freaks and COVID denialists, their profile pic bristling with guns, MAGA, images of POTUS, and the Stars and Stripes.
A key observation, from a British point of view, is that some of Tommy’s followers are now turning against him. They question his source of income (that includes donations from fans), his wealthy lifestyle (he lives in a £1m mansion, or did until it was allegedly firebombed recently by persons unknown), and his support for Israel. “Are you talking about Britain or Israel, Tommeh?” asked one former Tommy fan, whose profile declares: “100% white. 100% proud.” Another disgruntled self-confessed racist told me: “Who said I like Tommy? He loves wogs and Jews.”
Another observations is that working class Tory voters are turning against the British government, especially Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel, largely because of their failure to take tougher action against immigrants arriving by cross-channel dinghy. (More than 5,000 migrants have entered the UK this way so far this year.) Nobody wants to discuss Brexit much, despite my best attempts to draw them out.
Overall, there is seething anger and scapegoating of “others”, as one might expect. Cross-cutting themes, which straddle international borders, include a perceived loss of identity in the face of multiculturalism, a fear of being “invaded” by Muslims in particular, and foreign threats to “Western civilization” (“I think it would be a good idea,” said Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of it). Underlying it all is a strong sense of insecure masculinity and fragile identity.
The mantra is white America first, white Britain first, Western civilisation first, the rest of the world nowhere.
Tommy Robinson blocked me after a particularly good day (from my point of view) when I taunted him for the hypocrisy of running away to Spain after the alleged arson attack on his home. This from a man who has spent years railing against immigrants and asylum seekers, yet now appears to be seeking asylum abroad. A man who voted Brexit and against freedom of movement, yet ran to mainland Europe at the first sign of trouble. A man who rails against “commies”, yet is clearly in Putin’s pocket. Jokers on Twitter say he’s changed his name to Juan Kerr in order to assimilate more quickly in Spain. Katie blocked me soon afterwards.
I felt cheated: I’d only been on Parler about 10 days. Lots more folk started lobbing abuse and down-voting my posts before blocking me. On 10 August I got this:
While I could still follow Katie, I took the opportunity while she was in the US in August “pounding the sidewalks for Trump”, to sabotage her feed. Very politely, saying I am updating her followers on the “immigrants in boats” story which she can’t report on while away, I posted stories from the Guardian and anti-Brexit New European that punctured Priti Patel’s plans to send in the Royal Navy. Some naïve Yanks up-voted me (indicating approval), clearly before having read the stories.
Overall, there is seething anger and scapegoating of “others”, as one might expect. Cross-cutting themes, which straddle international borders, include a perceived loss of identity in the face of multiculturalism, a fear of being “invaded” by Muslims in particular, and foreign threats to “Western civilization”
Having been dumped by those two charmers, I turned to trolling people on the Team Trump feed. On 25 August, 17-year-old self-styled vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse shot dead two strangers at a BLM protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and wounded a third. This came days after unarmed Jacob Blake was shot in the back by cops at point-blank range, leaving him partly paralysed. I need not tell you who was white and who black. Rittenhouse (who has been charged with homicide) is being hailed by some as a national hero, while Blake is accused of the usual: guilty while black.
I posted a comment, which got this swift response from a Rittenhouse defender: “Did you miss the part where one of his assailants was carrying a pistol? And they were in the process of beating the shit out of him? The fact that he held back as long as he did is testament to his desire to NOT kill them. They created the situation that caused their deaths, not him.”
At this point our reporter left.
For more on Parler in Kenya: https://www.nation.co.ke/kenya/news/world/with-social-media-in-tumult-startup-parler-draws-conservatives-1446834. The quote “being taken by storm” is from kiss100.co.ke (21 July 2020).
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