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A Park Named Freedom

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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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Lutivini Majanja is a fiction writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

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?

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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.

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

2006 -During one of the street visits- William(left) and Norbert and some children working and living in the streets of Kisumu

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.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

Photo of children living in the streets of Kisumu taken in 2006. Some of these children were as young as 10years. The images at the back is of group children spread out on the floor in one of the abandoned houses.

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.

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

Isaac in 2020 in Nairobi. Isaac works as a Research Associate with Oslo Center

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.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

Fredrick and his young family in 2020. Fred plans to join ECD program soon, funds permitting.

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.

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Culture

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.

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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 Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“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”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
“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.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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”.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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.

The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
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.

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Culture

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.

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Are Kenyans Ready to Parley?
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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.

Some observations

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.

Blocked

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:

Breaking!!!!!
Watch out for xxx

Sounds like one very bitter and twisted individual. (obviously on summer vacation)

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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