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The Evolving Politics of Death in Kenya

9 min read. Attitudes about death and bodies have evolved over time writes PATRICK GATHARA. But the politics of death in today’s context has been marred with colonial myths and narratives that influence death and burial rights.

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The Evolving Politics of Death in Kenya
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The cremation in August of the body of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, who died of cancer, is the latest challenge to Kenyan’s conception of not just death, and the handling and disposal of bodies, but also of the place of tradition and culture in contemporary society.

It came barely a month after controversies surrounding other high profile deaths. In July the passing of Safaricom CEO, Bobby Collymore, attracted unprecedented media coverage and dominated all the front pages, with the country’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Nation, dedicating 24 pages to a special report on his life and achievements. While as head of what is by far the largest company in the region, he was undoubtedly a major figure – dignitaries at his memorial included President Uhuru Kenyatta and former UK premier, Tony Blair- the media-driven public hype around his demise, from stories about his captaincy of the so-called “Boys Club” to his heroic stoicism in the face of cancer, seemed a bit over the top. One struggles to find parallels in Kenya’s past. Few local political or cultural figures have merited similar treatment. It may have been partly paid for by Safaricom, and provided an opportunity for the media to further ingratiate itself to one of its largest advertisers, but regardless of its merits, the episode opened a window into how the Kenyan media, and the society it serves, deal with death.

Around the same time, controversial blogger, Robert Alai, was charged with treason for posting online a picture of the bodies of police officers killed in a terror attack in the remote north east of the country a fortnight prior. For those officers, there was no public mourning. A passing mention in the papers, no names, and a forbidden photograph of their bodies dumped in the back of a pick-up truck was all they would get.

This raises questions about which deaths are worth noting, why and how? Which ones should go unmentioned and unmourned? Which bodies are we allowed to see and which ones are to be hidden? How have attitudes to death and bodies evolved?

When, in the second half of the 19th century, the Europeans arrived in what is now Kenya, they did not find “tribes” as we now know them. Some of the ethnicities they found were confusing and fluid. As described by John Lonsdale, no “tribe” had a unified government; none had a unified line of descent or even an agreed upon origin myth; none practised just one form of subsistence; and none had a standard language – just clusters of dialects that shaded into each other. Within we encountered a variety of beliefs and practices governing death. Few of these survived colonialism. “[TheAgikuyu] traditional mode of burial and funeral rites …has disappeared and has been replaced by methods and practices from other cultures, English culture being the largest contributor,” writes Prof Johnson Mbugua in his book Funeral Rites Reformation for Any African Ethnic Community Based on the Proposed New Funeral Practices for the Agikuyu. As described in his Amazon bio, during his PhD research which formed the basis for the book, Prof Mbugua found “that the mode of coping with death of virtually all African ethnic communities has taken propositions and turns that are neither cultural, scriptural nor necessary”.

This raises questions about which deaths are worth noting, why and how? Which ones should go unmentioned and unmourned? Which bodies are we allowed to see and which ones are to be hidden?

In essence, what Prof Mbugua is saying is that much of what passes for “traditional” funeral practice today is anything but. Which should not be surprising given that, as Bruce Berman has noted in his paper, Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Modernity: The Paradox of Mau Mau, many popular ideas of tradition and culture are not based on what actually existed but rather on a combination of the myths of British anthropologists and officials as well as the interests of small African elite. He writes: “It has been clear for many years that the concept of “traditional society,” and its particular expression in Africa, ‘tribal society,’ represent idealized constructs which very imperfectly reflect what is now understood about the character of pre-colonial African societies. In particular, the dominant image of traditional society as highly integrated, stable, relatively unchanging, and largely free of disruptive internal conflict has been challenged by increasing evidence of the fluidity of political boundaries and ethnic identities and the significant levels of internal conflict revealed in contemporary historical research. The concept of traditional society was not in any case based on substantial and systematically collected empirical evidence”.

In short, any appeal to tradition as a justification for particular funeral rites should be taken with a rather large helping of salt. The Kikuyu provide an excellent example. Today, burial of the dead accompanied with elaborate, supposedly traditional, rituals, is the norm.However, these have little resemblance to the burial rituals associated with the societies the Kikuyu of today are supposedly descended from. Prof Mbugua notes that in the time before the colonial upheaval, cultural practices differed considerably between groups as well as social and economic classes of Kikuyu. In some cases, folks of high status had elaborate funeral rites involving burial, beer, ceremonial sexual intercourse between widows and hired men (known asendia-ruhiu or sellers of swords – a reference to penises), as well as the slaughter of livestock. Other less-favored individuals were simply left out in the bush to be devoured by wild animals, at times being led out when sickly to a clearing to die. It would thus be reasonable to surmise, as Dr Yvan Droz of the Graduate Institute, Geneva notes in his chapter on Transformations of Death among the Kikuyu of Kenya: From Hyenas to Tombs in the book FUNERALS IN AFRICA: Explorations of a Social Phenomenon, “Kikuyu people very rarely buried their dead”.In fact, in describing the internment of an elder in the Agikuyu Guild, one of the groups that made up the Kikuyu (the other being the Ukabi Guild), Prof Mbugua notes that “the funeral was not attended by close family members, including wives or even friends. Agikuyu feared and avoided burials”.

Despite their aversion to dead bodies, the Agikuyu viewed death itself with equanimity and fatalistic acceptance. “Though death was never in ordinary circumstances welcomed, the Agikuyu did not have the haunting fear of [it] which grips people of other civilizations,” Prof Mbugua writes.

And just as they accepted death as a necessary transition to the spirit world, they also seem to have been keen to make the most of their time in the flesh. As narrated by Prof Mbugua and suggested by the endia-ruhiu, the Agikuyu of pre-colonial times were not as stuck up on sex as their proclaimed descendants of today would like to believe. In fact, it was remarkably liberal in some aspects. Widows could keep their endia-ruhiu lovers if they wished, even after they were inherited by their dead husbands’ relatives; pre-marital and extra-marital affairs were the norm, including wife-sharing practice of kuhandaitimu, in which a visiting agemate planted a spear outside the hut of one of his host’s wives and got to spend the night with her.

Folks of high status had elaborate funeral rites involving burial, beer, ceremonial sexual intercourse between widows and hired men as well as the slaughter of livestock. Other less-favored individuals were simply left out in the bush to be devoured by wild animals…

Anyway, back to funerals. So why and when did burial become universal? Well, as Dr Droz notes, it all happened in the colonial era and was driven by one event in particular. The British, he says, had been trying to get the Kikuyu to stop tossing bodies into the bush without much success until, in February 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu was able to demonstrate to the Carter Commission, set up a year earlier to investigate African land claims and grievances, that land grabbed by an English settler actually belonged to his family by exhuming the remains of his grandfather. Suddenly bodies were no longer just the unclean detritus from a one-way ticket on the ancestral plane, but were now effectively transformed into a title for land, and burial “into a means of ascertaining control over property…Burial became a means to assert one’s modernity and to mark out inherited property: a new concept of land ownership was born”. Where land was once a communal resource, it now became the basis of private wealth and completely transformed social, economic and class relations within the society with attendant consequences that Kenyans continue to pay for to this day.

An interesting parallel is evident when one looks at the contemporary meaning of graves to the Luo. In his book, Mortgaging the Ancestors: Ideologies of Attachment in Africa, Prof Parker Shipton of Boston University writes that “Luo people, and especially men, have made graves into tools of territoriality, and anchors of being”, meaning that where once it was claimed that “Luo did not look upon particular pieces of land, or ancestral traces on them, with great reverence,” today “graves, ancestral homestead sites, and cleared fields make the focal points for land claims”.

But burials denote not just ownership but also belonging, as highlighted by the famous case of SM Otieno, whose intestate death in December 1986 sparked a huge, bitter and very public 6-month legal battle between his widow, Wambui and the UmiraKager clan over who between them had the right to bury him. As Prof Shipton puts it, “not anyone may be buried anywhere, and contests over the disposition of bodies can become as intense as competition over land”.

In February 1933, Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiu was able to demonstrate to the Carter Commission, that land grabbed by an English settler actually belonged to his family by exhuming the remains of his grandfather.

Similarly, when it comes to rituals and forms associated with funerals, like with the Kikuyu “traditional” has been a moving target. For example, as Prof Shipton notes that “elders in the mid and late twentieth century spoke of earlier times when Luo buried their dead beneath earthen floors of houses, but by the 1980s, all or nearly all were buried outside.”

In 1903, Charles William Hobley, then a 36-year-old Assistant Deputy Commissioner in the East African Protectorate published a second tranche of results from his research into the habits and beliefs of the people of what became the Protectorate’s Kisumu Province. He took a note of a“curious” customs that one would be hard-pressed to find in today’s “traditional” funerals.

Among the Jo-Luo when a person dies, for days, perhaps months after, the whole village wails with great fervour, and at stated intervals according to the conventions laid down for the case. If however, a barren woman dies, the people of the village at once commence to wail in the usual way, and the brothers and sisters of the deceased proceed as quickly as possible to the village where the death occurred. The first blood-relation of the deceased who arrives on the scene takes a sharp acacia thorn, sticks it into the sole of the foot of the corpse and breaks it off; immediately this is done all wailing ceases at once, nor is it renewed as in the case of an ordinary death.

“Elders in the mid and late twentieth century spoke of earlier times when Luo buried their dead beneath earthen floors of houses, but by the 1980s, all or nearly all were buried outside.”

[A]mong, the Awa-wanga [the Luhya“tribe” hadn’t been invented yet]… if a young girl, a virgin, dies, her female relatives, whose duty it is to bury her, artificially deflower the body before burial; this is always done by the forcible insertion of the pointed bulb of spathes which cover the immature flowers at the lower end of a growing bunch of bananas. If this is omitted, it is believed that the sisters of the deceased will not be found to be virgins on their marriage; this would be considered somewhat of a disgrace.

The point here is not to simply take as gospel truth the observations of a young British official who may or may not have understood what he reported. Rather, it is to underline the fact that what we call “tradition” may not be as clear cut -or even as desirable – as we sometimes like to think it is.

It is thus clear that fulminations, such as those of “Luo elders” against the cremation of Ken Okoth cremation, need to be viewed with a fair degree of skepticism when grounded on the shifting sands of “tradition”. Even if his body were to be transported to Nyanza, any burial he would get would not be “traditional”, if by that we mean it would be carried out in a way the pre-colonial folks of Kavirondo would immediately recognize as upholding a belief system which was undermined and eventually swept away by a perfect storm of Christianization and Kenyanization.

The realization that “tradition” and “culture” have (and have always been) little more than inventions, products of former generations’ struggle to understand and cope with the world and to pass on what they learnt – imperfectly at best – to us, is a freeing thought. We do not need to be defined by what and who came before. We should learn from them but also have the courage to write our own chapters in the book of life, to define, reinterpret and reshape “tradition” as we see fit. And if that means someone prefers to be cremated rather than buried, then that should be fine too. Perhaps decades from now, a new generation will grow up thinking, as we do today, that that is tradition.

It is also clear from the historical record, that even in death there have always been discriminations when it came to the treatment of the high and mighty compared to the hoi polloi. That perhaps is the one true tradition that has survived as evidenced by Alai’s prosecution for showing bodies that should be kept hidden. The same was the case with those accused (however inaccurately) of showing the corpses of Kenyan soldiers at El Adde and Kulbiyow in Somalia. It is borne out in the subsequent government attempts to erase the victims of these attacks from the public memory in a bid to hide its culpability.

The bodies we are allowed to see and grieve have always been hostage to power. Decisions over who is to be feted and buried and who is to be forgotten and tossed to the hyenas (literally and figuratively) are less about tradition and more about control. After all, if you control narratives, you can control society. This is how we end up with a mausoleum for Kenyatta’s dad and an unmarked, forgotten grave for Dedan Kimathi. And why so much attention is lavished on dead MPs and businessmen and relatively little on KDF dead soldiers. It is a marker of whose lives are important and whose are disposable.

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society

8 min read. The backlash against the women’s movement has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women, especially in music videos, says RASNA WARAH. This has had a negative impact on how women view their own bodies.

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Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society
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I do not normally agree with self-appointed media censor Ezekial Mutua, who gained notoriety recently for banning the film Rafiki because of its homosexual content, but I think we should not dismiss his claims that some Kenyan music videos are so crude and offensive that they should not be viewed by the public, especially the youth.

Mutua says that videos showing explicit sexual acts promote immorality in society. It is clear that the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board is approaching immorality from a purely sexual – dare I say Christian? – perspective. As Christine Mungai argued in a recent article, Kenyan society is immoral at so many levels that confining immorality to sexuality obscures the many ills that bedevil the country. “If we steady our gaze on the nihilism and purposelessness that our young people have been forced – by the older generation – to inhabit, then their lewd chants and booty-shaking becomes less an indictment on their morals and more on our own,” she wrote.

However, if we shift the debate from morality to women’s rights, Mutua’s concerns could be valid. His views might be based on his warped sense of what is moral and immoral in society, but by calling for the ban, he inadvertently became a champion for women’s rights. Let me explain why.

I have stopped watching music videos of Kenyan, Congolese and black American hip hop and rap artists because I find them offensive to women. As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood. The skimpy outfits, the suggestive gyrating of the extraordinarily large buttocks, the focus on women’s surgically enhanced breasts are all meant to show that women are first and foremost sex objects.

In the majority of these music videos, the men are fully clothed; I have yet to see a man dangling his penis in front of the camera, yet women are expected not just to dangle but to wiggle their nude or semi-nude private parts. These videos are a slap in the face of all those women who fought for women’s rights and who continue to advocate against pornography, which they view as a form of women’s oppression.

As a woman who has spent a lifetime fighting the notion that women should be judged by the size of their breasts or buttocks, I find the hypersexualisation of women and girls in many of these videos to be an assault on womanhood.

Many people believe that the anti-pornography movement denies men and women the right to freedom of expression and has prudish and out-dated views on sex and sexuality. What they don’t recognise is that most anti-pornography activists, such as the inimitable Andrea Dworkin, identify themselves as feminists. They are not against women and men having sex; they are against the debasement of the sexual act and the degradation of women in most porn films.

A former porn star who has started a campaign against the porn industry recently told the BBC’s Stephen Sackur that the sex shown in porn movies promotes unhealthy sexual relations between men and women. Some studies have also shown that men and boys who watch a lot of pornography become desensitised to violent sexual acts committed against women; they see women as purely sexual commodities whose main function is to please men.

The branding of women’s bodies

Unfortunately, the commodification and hypersexualisation of women and girls has gained a new impetus in this today’s money-worshipping world. Memories of slavery and female subjugation have been erased by advertisers, the music industry and the media in general, who use women’s bodies – especially black women’s bodies – to sell everything from cars to watches.

The sexualisation and sexual exploitation of black bodies is nothing new. Myths about black/African men and women’s extraordinary sexual prowess was one reason for the enforcement of strict segregation laws in the United States, South Africa and Kenya. White men feared that white women would not be able resist black/African men, or that black/African men were unable to control their sexual urges (unlike white men who were considered to be more cerebral) and so would be tempted to rape white women. (Yet, black/African slave women were routinely raped by their white owners.) There was even a belief that black women’s bodies were made differently from white women’s bodies and that they could endure more pain. It is therefore sad to see black male musicians perpetuate similar myths in their videos.

The sexualisation of women is not confined to music videos. In Kenya, some female news anchors and TV hosts act as if they are on a catwalk, with each competing with the other to show off their cleavages and legs. This sexing-up and dumbing down of presenters had turned the 9 o’clock news into an indecent show. Radio has not been spared either. Morning shows on some FM stations in Kenya would even make porn queens blush.

As Oyunga Pala noted in an article titled “Slay Queens, Socialites and Sponsors: Sexual Violence in Kenyan Society”, this commodification of women can result in sexual or other forms of violence, including murder. It also reinforces the notion that the only thing women have to sell in today’s market is their bodies. “The message young people hear and see is that eroticism is an investment in itself. To raise one’s sexual potency is a privilege and a currency that can be translated into real material benefits,” he wrote.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market themselves. The more hits, likes, shares or followers you get, the more money you make from the platform and the company whose products you display. Social influencing is now considered a respectable career choice, thanks to women like Kim Kardashian whose empire is built entirely on this concept.

An article titled “How to Monetise Yourself Starting Now” published in a recent edition of the Saturday Nation shows you how one can become a rich social influencer. Among the author’s recommendations to become a successful social influencer are: “Be the talk of the town”, which includes being “photographed with the right people”; “Break the Internet”, which includes posting a daring or provocative photo of yourself on social media; and “Bring on the drama”, which means “never being too far from the rumour mill” and being “witnessed by the biggest gossip in town”.

The idea that women’s bodies can be used to make money for the women themselves has gained more currency in this age of “social influencers”, who, thanks to the Internet and social media, compete with each other to gain the most followers. Young women are now “brands” who market their bodies.

All these attention-seeking behaviours are then supposed to translate into money in the bank. Some Kenyan politicians have also bought into the notion that scandals will earn them notoriety, as illustrated by the sex videos posted by politicians or their sexual partners. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has not lost his job for his “pussy-grabbing” and making pejorative remarks about women, the disabled and minorities. That is how crude politics in today’s world has become.

Modern-day Hottentot Venuses

Dede Hunt, an African-American woman, recently put out a video that decried the “Baartmanisation” of black women in music videos and on the Internet. She wondered why African-American rappers constantly referred to black women as “whores” and “bitches” and why they used titillating images of black women’s breasts and buttocks in their videos. Is this what slavery had done to a people, she wondered, where former slaves humiliate their own, all in the name of record sales?

Hunt was referring to Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, who was a South African woman whose naked body was put on display for four years in London, where she was caged, mocked and leered at by Europeans. Baartman’s unusually large buttocks became the object of much scientific curiosity, amusement and voyeuristic stares. She was even taken to Paris, where an anatomist further examined her body at the Museum of Natural History. Her miserable life was cut short in 1815 when she died of an illness at the age of 25.

However, even death did not spare her the humiliation she had suffered while alive. Her skeleton, genitals and brain were preserved and exhibited at the museum in Paris for the next 150 years; the exhibit was only removed from public view in 1974.

Many would argue that dancing provocatively for a music video or posting nude pictures of yourself on social media is a woman’s right – a type of freedom brought on by the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. These women see themselves as modern, successful professionals who turned their natural physical assets into money-making enterprises.

But I would argue that while the sexual revolution (brought on partly by the invention of the contraceptive pill) did benefit women in many ways – for instance, by removing the stigma associated with “losing one’s virginity” before marriage – it also did them harm. Men viewed the sexual revolution as a licence to have sex irresponsibly – if a woman got pregnant as a result of a sexual liaison, it was both her fault and her responsibility. It also gained men access to more sexual partners, which they didn’t have before; in a sense, it allowed them to have sex for “free” because neither did they have to pay for it, nor did they have to marry the woman. This resulted in a significant rise in sexually transmitted diseases among both men and women.

Unlike Baartman, who was forced to strip and entertain people against her will, modern-day exhibitionists are willingly degrading themselves in front of cameras. They are not the victims of pimps or slave owners; they are the products of a modern world where misogyny has become the norm, and where the backlash against women’s liberation has seen a rise in the hypersexualisation and infantilisation of women.

The undeclared war against women

The advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s – with its push towards open market economies and societies where money is worshipped more than gods and goddesses – unleashed regressive, conservative forces that cancelled all the gains achieved by the women’s movement. It was the beginning of an era that elevated pornographers like Hugh Hefner, who, instead of being vilified for objectifying women in his Playboy magazine, got his own reality TV show where naked women young enough to be his granddaughters frolicked with the aging sex maniac in full view of cameras. Meanwhile, conservative religious forces decided what women could or could not do, including use contraception or have an abortion.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In the late 1980s, when Reaganomics and Thatcherism were at their peak, the beauty industry, alarmed by the decline in the use of its products by women who no longer cared for make-up and skin-hugging and revealing clothes, embarked on campaigns to lure women back into the sexist fold. The backlash was not so much a conspiracy against women as it was a calculated business decision to improve sales of cosmetics, plastic surgeries, skin-lightening creams, and other potentially harmful products, whose sales were plummeting.

The beauty industry, on its part, popularised the “baby doll” look that infantilised women, who were never expected to age gracefully. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi chronicles the demise of the feminist movement and how the beauty industry helped fuel what she calls “the undeclared war against women”.

In societies where women are valued mainly for their bodies, women will go to extraordinary lengths to make their bodies attractive to the men who decide what is attractive and what is not. This has spawned entire industries where women will self-mutilate, through, for example, skin-bleaching creams, tummy tucks and vaginal tightening procedures, in order to achieve a standard of beauty prescribed by the male-dominated culture. This, says Faludi, has had a devastating impact on women’s health and self-esteem. Women and young girls with low self-esteem become easy prey for predators. The impact on their physical health can be deadly: anti-wrinkle creams expose users to cancer-causing agents; silicone breast implants leave painful deformities; liposuction causes infections; and harmful eating disorders among girls and young women escalate.

“Feminist” in this post-feminist world has also become a dirty word, and women who led the women’s movement are now relegated to the pages of history. Some, like Donald Trump and his ilk, have even suggested that such women become feminists either because they are ugly (and so have a grudge against beautiful women) or because they are lesbians (and so do not like men). Meanwhile the rape of women and girls has reached epidemic proportions around the world, with “date rape” being cited as the most common form of sexual violence among college students in the United States.

In other countries, such as India, the Bollywood movie industry has stopped producing serious films on women’s issues; instead films are rated for their sex appeal. “Item numbers” – song-and-dance routines focused on titillating male audiences – are now de rigueur in Bollywood blockbusters. Meanwhile, incidences of rape have increased in cities such as New Delhi, which has been dubbed the rape capital of India.

The backlash against women has entered a critical stage. Women must fight back and remain vigilant.

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The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya

10 min read. Ali Zaidi and I parachuted into Kenya when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

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The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya
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Jubilee supporters invoke the “colonial mentality” trope to defend the government against critics of Kenya’s spiraling debt burden. Kenya’s inequitable land legacy resurfaces in attacks on the white owners of wildlife conservancies. A chief rapes a minor in the Rift Valley; a social media influencer tweets that the blame lies with colonialism. A commentary on Kenya’s Failed Independence in these pages detours to take aim at “the hare-brained ideas and visions peddled by middle-aged white men,” enroute to calling for a new narrative based on the African experience.

I could not agree more. But the current backlash against the colonial intervention and its post-colonial aftermath points to the decades-wide gap in the conceptualisation of this new narrative. Problems of land, inequality, citizenship rights, and Kenya’s fossilised elitism have not gone away. Several decades after the political economy debate that predicted the failure of the independence project in the first place, the discontent signifies a deeper malaise.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia. The iconic Mau Mau were barely keeping body and soul together. I came in search of the ecstatic poly-rhythmic antecedents of avant-garde jazz only to discover Kenyan hipsters listening to Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, and Roger Whitaker.

The conservatism of cosmopolitan Kenyans clashed with the progressive critique dominating the civil rights movement and the robust Third World studies of that era. To be sure, the debate over neocolonialism and capitalism was raging among the university crowd. No one disagreed on the need for some form of colonial detoxification. Secondary students shared frayed paperback copies of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The rhetoric tallied with many of my own assumptions after growing up in America’s Deep South.

I expected to find this kind of racially-tinged anti-colonial fervour in full swing when I first came to Kenya in 1974. Instead I found pipe-smoking civil servants in knee-length socks, district commissioners in pith helmets, and a near-ubiquitous Anglophilia.

But in the countryside and the towns hosting most of Kenya’s population, the post-uhuru betrayal articulated in English-language polemics like Odinga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru occupied a narrow band in the public imagination.

Not yet decolonisation

Theory predicted a population receptive to the Marxist arguments of those days but the empirical reality of independent Kenya got in the way. Agrarian commercialisation generated multi-sectoral economic growth while preserving the role of estate agriculture and foreign investment. The transfer of land through the Million Acre scheme cooled anti-colonial passions even though the land problem remained. Kenya’s early post-independence success and stability augured for a continuation of the same.

The Kenya model provided a pragmatic counterpoint to the socialism being championed by Algeria, Mali, Mozambique, Guinea, and post-Haile Selassie Ethiopia. Support for anti-colonial policies nevertheless continued to exert a strong ideological and political influence across the continent. The radical critique advanced by African scholars and writers at home and in the diaspora enjoyed the advantage of authenticity that the liberators who turned conservative once in power could muster little intellectual ammunition to counter.

They did not have to. The Kenyan government conjured up its own version of “African Socialism” in Sessional Paper No. 10. We all know how that played out. The new elites were not content with harvesting the low hanging fruits of uhuru. Anyone standing in their way became enemies of the state. Kenya’s stability bought international support.

In his coloruful memoir, The Reds and the Blacks, the anti-communist US ambassador William Atwood dismissed the post-uhuru angst of Odinga & Co. by explaining that the contest for the political soul of Kenya was really about superpower patronage and ethnicity. The neo-capitalism versus socialism debate was a red herring. The assassination of Tom Mboya two years after the book’s publication suggested he was right.

When Julius Nyerere castigated Kenya as a man-eat-man society during the foreplay that led to the break-up of the East African Community, Charles Njonjo replied that Tanzania was a man-eat-nothing society. The jibe became a political meme. J.M. Kariuki’s comment that the country was becoming a land of “ten millionaires and ten million beggars” arguably came closer to how many citizens felt. The disappearance and death of the outspoken politician in March 1975 triggered the government’s first serious crisis. The crowd heckled Jomo Kenyatta when he addressed the public at Uhuru Park. The president mobilised the military, jets buzzed over Nairobi.

Back on the cooperative farm hosting my field studies programme, our Swahili teachers told us they were going to take up arms. Most of us were sympathetic, although a few of our fellow students did not tune in. Nothing happened, but the martyrdom of J.M. did refocus attention on Kenya’s capitalist problem, at least for a while.

The experience that preceded my arrival in Kenya contributed to my eclectic and nuanced view of developments in Kenya. I participated in the April 31 and May Day anti-Vietnam war protests in Washington D.C., but I was not pro-Ho Chi Minh. I immersed myself in the feed-your-head radicalism of the university environment, but I found the student Marxists pedantic, arrogant, and overbearing.

I took off and spent nine months in Central America, where the time spent in Maya Indian villages converted me to the cause of peasants and indigenous peoples. Like many of my generation radicalised by the war and Anglo-American racism, it was perfectly logical to lionise Che Guevara while rejecting Fidel Castro.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos. I headed to the lightly colonised periphery where I found that “the idiocy of rural life” provided rich insights into Africans’ creative tradition of adapting to their distinctive environmental and social conditions.

In any case, life in the shags offered a more useful pathway to personal decolonisation, an objective that tempered one’s perceptions of Kenyan politics. Moreover, Kenya’s high profile as an exemplar of capitalist development in Africa actually cut both ways. Ideological opposition to the government contributed to the country’s vibrant intellectual milieu, which in turn translated back-handed support for the status quo. The contradiction manifested in the detention of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for staging his vernacular play Ngahika Ndeenda in 1977, while his English-language books remained on the national secondary school syllabus.

The role of Marxism in the region’s political discourse was, however, already diminishing at this juncture; the detention of several other Marxist critics of the state signaled that in Kenya the party was over. The dominance of the Dependency school, and the mess created by the neo-Marxist shortcuts implemented by its African adherents – as I was to realise many years later – hastened its decline elsewhere across the continent.

I resonated with the radical anti-colonial analyses of Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, and Franz Fanon before travelling to Africa, but was ambivalent when it came to the record of the continent’s socialist leaders. Once in Kenya, I found my Marxist peers at the University of Nairobi to be even more over-the-top than Gringos.

The activism inspired by the radical Marxist narrative returned for a swan song several months after Daniel arap Moi became president in 1978. Nairobi University students registered their dissatisfaction with his government by staging a protest on behalf of striking doctors. A boisterous crowd marched down River Road chanting and carrying placards with the usual slogans: A Lucha Continua, Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth, and Not Yet Uhuru in Kenya.

I watched the impending collision from a box seat on the balcony of the New Kenya Lodge. The General Service Unit ambushed the students when they reached the corner of Latema Road. The ringleader was wearing a red cap. He and several of his mates melted into the crowds of unsuspecting pedestrians. “No maize in Kenya!” they shouted as they weaved their way to safety.

It turned out to be the last time I witnessed Kenyans rallying around Marxist slogans.

The Moi dialectic

The Marxist bogey had returned in the guise of the MwaKenya movement after Moi assumed power, but it did little to slow down the long slog of his “passing cloud” presidency. The failed military coup that almost did on August 1, 1982 had dispensed with the anti-capital clichés. Its inebriated leaders exhorted the gathering mob to loot by shouting “Power!”; the traditional “to the people” refrain was conspicuously absent.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Not that Marxism mattered anymore in the febrile narratives of the next twenty years—the direct link between the Air Force coup-makers and the Odinga family had dissipated any political legitimacy the formerly Marxian opposition once enjoyed.

A friend from Harvard once told me that Marxism was the last stage of Christianity. It is an interesting hypothesis. Like Christianity, the Marxian Gospel gave rise to many denominations and interpretations: the epistemological Marxism of the professors, the mobilising ideology of the freedom fighters, the liberation theology of Latin American priests, the Animal Farm Marxism of Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard school, and the magic of the French Structural Marxists who employed class analysis to account for inequality in pre-capitalist societies, to name a few.

The last stage of Christianity metaphor, however, was not about the religiosity behind the draconian purification of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Rather, he was referring to the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic’s similarities with the cosmology of the Christian Trinity.

Our friend Ali Zaidi arrived in Kenya from Delhi a year later. Economist by education and journalist by profession, he was a dedicated follower of the writings of Karl Marx, the middle-aged white man who wrote Das Kapital and several other of the modern world’s most influential texts.

Unlike Ali, I was not a member of that club. I had been initiated into the “consciousness-raising” cult of Marxist theory; I never drank the Kool-Aid. The religious Marxist discourse that had put me off during my youth had much in common with today’s Islamist narrative and the praxis of true believer movements like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram.

The radical influences that shaped both of us while coming of age steered us towards different compass points. Ali Zaidi believed in Hegelian progress towards the universal spirit as it unfolds through the resolution of capitalism’s contradictions. My quest was the more Fanonian salvation to be found in non-capitalist cultural systems.

The years had melted away since we embarked on the respective paths that had brought us both to Kenya. The twenty-eight year Moi interlude had in fact advanced Kenya’s dialectical process in a manner not anticipated by the middle-aged white, brown, and black men entrusted with charting the neoliberal’s pursuit of the end of history.

Moi was the forest fire that clears the way for new growth, the flood that forced the river to change its course. The largely donor-driven phase of the developmental cycle that unfolded in his wake had bulldozed the once vigorous ecology of ideas and concepts, and left a stagnant swamp of buzzwords, negative ethnicity, and flavour of the day policy analysis in its place. It was bad.

We were all trying to get by and to find a way through the degraded collective mindset when I met Ali Zaidi in 1995.

Commodity fetishism revisited

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences. He was an urbanite; I have always straddled town and country. I was a baseball person and he was a cricket guy; I was a fan of the Marx Brothers, Ali a dedicated follower of Karl Marx.

Ali underwent a catharsis after the events of 1989 that he described in an essay published in the Executive ten years later. Until his death this month, he retained the belief that Marx was still relevant to the fact that the world deserves better than the mess that was unfolding on all sides. The latter problem became the focus of many long conversations that gravitated towards the former’s work.

I was sceptical in the beginning but came to a new appreciation of the clarity Marx offered under Ali’s tutelage. Like many of the zealous Marxists trading in his ideas, I had actually read only a limited sample of the Prophet’s own writing. I owned up: although Marxist analysis had produced much of the best work in my field, I found Marx’s writing too dense.

Ali, who had actually read the full canon of Marx’s works, disagreed vehemently. I remember one discussion in particular that captured the quality of our discourse. It grew out of my misuse of Marx’s commodity fetishism: I had always assumed the concept was bound up with the anthropological definition of fetishism i.e. the practice of investing inanimate objects with power or some mystical agency.

We had come from different sides of the world, and we were both products of the eclectic countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s. We shared many of the same interests in music, literature, and international affairs, but with some important differences.

Wrong. “Commodity fetishism is not about personal identification with products and brands,” Ali told me. “It’s about the difference between the use value of an object and the exchange value of the same in the market.”

He went on to explain this difference. “For example, if you catch a fish and we eat it on the table I made, we are sharing in the use-value generated by our labour. But when conditions induce us to sell these products of our time and labour, the end result is the valuation of everything and everyone in monetary terms. Commodity fetishism dehumanises the relationships between people and communities by reducing them to factors of class, wealth, and status.”

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy. You can observe it at work in the tribalism, polarisation, and racism exploited by the architects of Brexit and the alt-right. The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Ali’s Marxism was not about quasi-religious abstractions; it resurfaced in the decategorised approach Ali personified through his highly interactive lifestyle. Everyone counted. He shared and communicated without pretention, and he was a positive influence on the ever-widening circle of those who came into contact with him.

We are all colonised. We go through life as vehicles for our identities and histories and cultural preferences. It is hard to escape, but the received influences defining our personas can be mitigated by our accumulated experiences. The tendency to categorise people by the language they speak, their clothing, appearance, age, complexion, possessions, and signs of origin was always there, but it has grown stronger as Kenya transits into the kind of atomised capitalist society Marx predicted.

No one had connected these dots in a way that brought this basic insight home. The invisible hand of this commodity fetishism is driving the transactional forces reconfiguring the global economy…The Kenyan version of this fetish has transformed the struggle for democracy into a violent game of votes, no end in sight.

Perhaps we were lucky. Ali and I parachuted in when it was easier to form relationships and friendships based on our shared interests and common humanity. We arrived as outsiders and Kenya became the reality wreck that forced us to co-evolve.

This brings us to the dilemma of the younger Kenyans who are now the majority in Decolony Keenya. They are discovering that when you are born is just as important as where you are born, and they think it is not fair. But as Fanon predicted, “For many years to come we shall be bandaging the countless and sometimes indelible wounds inflicted on our people by the colonialist onslaught.”

Yakubaliwa. Millennials, more than the post-independence generations preceding them, are the real victims of colonial rule. And a dose of Ali Zaidi-style political theory might help them fill the gap in their existential critiques.

Nothing is sacred – even the idea of decolonisation should be decolonised.

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One (Private) Ring to Rule Them All: A Case Study of One Acre Fund

9 min read. CHRISTINE MUNGAI travelled to western Kenya to meet farmers who had only good things to say about One Acre Fund’s activities in their communities, as the organization fills a gap created by the abandonment of smallholder farmers by government authorities. But more questions arise on how exactly the organization is able to circumvent the cartels that have gripped the sector, and on the structural inequalities that the company exploits and even exacerbates.

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One (Private) Ring to Rule Them All: A Case Study of One Acre Fund
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In Yala, Siaya County, Friday is market day. Wares of all kinds – farm produce, household goods, plastic knick-knacks and second-hand clothing – are lain out, the place is buzzing with activity. We arrive on Friday around 1pm, with the sun high in the sky and just as Friday prayers are concluding at Yala mosque. But just around the corner from the mosque and the market is Yala’s NCPB (National Cereal and Produce Board) depot. The place is still and eerie, the warehouses seem deserted, a railway track that runs through the depot has long rusted.

The only sign of life here is at one warehouse, which has been hired by One Acre Fund, a non-profit organization that supplies smallholder farmers with assets including seeds and fertilizer on credit, which are then paid back at the end of the season. One Acre Fund says it works with 400,000 farmers in Kenya – the majority in western Kenya, though it is now venturing further afield into other regions — providing not just financing for the critical assets, but also agricultural extension, training, support and crop insurance. Its loan repayment rates, going by its own data, are at 98% — extremely solid for any financial service provider, and especially one that directly serves rural, smallholder farmers, a constituency that is considered risky or otherwise unattractive to investors.

I first heard about One Acre Fund six years ago, when a book was delivered to my desk for review while I was a reporter at The East African newspaper. The book was titled The Last Hunger Season, written by American journalist Roger Thurow who spent a year in western Kenya chronicling the lives and seasons of four Kenyan farmers who had signed up to One Acre Fund.

The book was a beautiful piece of non-fiction: quite soon into the narrative, one gets invested in the stories of these four farmers, and far from merely being a glowing puff piece for the organization, Thurow handled the story with nuance and particularly brought out the risks and uncertainties that rural smallholders are constantly grappling with. Because of low prices of maize at harvest time, and a lack of proper storage, most maize farmers end up selling their maize at almost throwaway prices at harvest time, only to become net buyers of maize through the course of the year. In fact, as Thurow notes, the maize farmers in his story were actually food insecure and battled hunger at certain times of the year.

This, combined with the vagaries of nature and various unexpected costs, such as an illness in the family or an unforeseen expenditure at a child’s school, means that whatever benefit they received from One Acre Fund’s activities were ultimately tenuous: there were just too many moving pieces in their lives to contend with.

Still, during my recent visit to the western region at least, the positive testimonies of One Acre Fund’s activities in the region are many. In Bungoma, Kakamega and Vihiga, nearly all the farmers we spoke to had heard of One Acre Fund, and many gave us effusive accounts of how since signing up to organization’s programs, land that was producing measly yields or had even been abandoned altogether quickly started turning around.

Because of low prices of maize at harvest time, and a lack of proper storage, most maize farmers end up selling their maize at almost throwaway prices at harvest time, only to become net buyers of maize through the course of the year.

Winnifred Akiso, a communications officer at One Acre Fund, tells me that to join the program, farmers must be part of a group of about 16 farmers, and pay Ksh500 ($5). With that payment, they get a loan equivalent of about KSh8,000 ($80) worth of certified seed, fertilizer, pesticide and crop insurance; the company provides extension services such as soil testing and planting advice, drawn from a treasure trove of crop, weather and soil data. The organization has now expanded to Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Ethiopia.

I meet Benson Manyonyi, who runs One Acre Fund’s duka in Bungoma town, a repurposed 40-ft container that serves as a shop where farmers can come and buy all kinds of inputs – not just seed and fertilizer, but also chicken feeders, pesticide backpack sprayers and even the humble panga. Although not a farmer himself, Benson tells us of the travails at his parents’ two-acre piece of land, not far from the town centre.

“They had totally given up on farming,” he tells me. “On that two-acre piece of land, they would till half an acre, and the most they could get was a mere two bags of maize.”

“My parents would buy inputs from local agrovet shops, but the seed would either yield very little, or even not germinate altogether. Fertilizer was often adulterated with gravel and sand, and there was really nothing they could do. They might complain to the shop owner, but then they didn’t really have options. It was very discouraging, and I told myself I would never be a farmer if this is what it meant – constantly throwing money away.”

He tells me that since joining One Acre Fund’s program, his parents harvested 37 bags on two acres at the end of last season. “It’s really unbelievable that it’s the very same land that I saw causing them so much pain.”

Wilbroda Wangila is another farmer in Bungoma, who owns half an acre on which she grows maize, beans and groundnuts (njugu). Until a few years ago she had given up on farming too – it was taking too much of her time, energy and money – she was earning an income by working on other people’s land as a casual day labourer, or kibarua. On that half-acre, it would be a good season if she got two bags of maize on it; often it was less, one-and-a-half or even just one bag of maize.

“I signed on to One Acre Fund in 2010, and today I’m harvesting seven bags of maize on that same piece of land,” she tells me. “Two bags are usually enough to feed my family through the season, so last year I sold five bags of maize. I bought mabati (iron sheets) and finally finished building this permanent house,” she says as she proudly shows off her living room, pouring us copious amounts of tea and insisting we eat more njugu.

Stories like these abound in the homes we visited, and most farmers complained angrily about faceless, shadowy “cartels” that had ensnared the supply chains for seed, fertilizer and inputs of all kinds. The land in western Kenya is fertile but underperforming, they tell me, because of the poor quality inputs and the agrovet cartels that they believed were politically protected.

“How can someone supply fake seed and fertilizer year after year, you report them to the police and the local chief and nothing happens?” Benson says. “They always walked around here like there was nothing you could do to them. And that’s what most people believe – they are untouchable. And you know rural people are sometimes a little docile and they learn to live with such situations. People like my parents don’t want to stir up trouble.”

But even as the upbeat stories abound on the ground in western Kenya, among a more urban, middle-class constituency things are different. One Acre Fund’s headquarters is in Kakamega, a purpose-built facility which ticks all the right boxes for eco-features (its internal walls are made of maize stalks!), and hosts over 500 office staff – including agronomists, soil scientists, and weather specialists, and even in-house artists and graphic designers. The organization has more than 3,000 employees in total, the majority being field staff, extension officers and supply chain/ logistics managers. The staff roll has been expanding rapidly, and the company frequently posts job vacancies on various online platforms.

Stories like these abound in the homes we visited, and most farmers complained angrily about faceless, shadowy “cartels” that had ensnared the supply chains for seed, fertilizer and inputs of all kinds.

However, every now and then complaints bubble up on social media, especially Twitter, of the company seemingly re-advertising the same jobs over and over again, and taking applicants through a rigorous process that includes answering extensive case studies and test scenarios. Some suspect that the company is harvesting data and extracting labour from prospective job applicants as a form of “free” market research. There are also recurring complaints of huge pay gaps between local and expatriate staff, a grievance replicated in many organizations in Nairobi, a city whose reputation of opportunity – “Silicon Savannah” – has attracted investors and expatriates from far and wide, but has also ended up rapidly gentrifying certain parts of the city and deepening resentment among qualified locals who sense their value, labour and expertise is diminished simply because they are not expatriates.

One Acre Fund responded to these complaints – including a #SomeoneTellOneAcreFund hashtag – with a blog post published by the company’s co-founder and executive director Andrew Youn saying that their hiring process is “fairly unique” and that they are working on making the hiring process shorter and putting out better feedback, but iterating they “never reuse candidate exercises or share them beyond the hiring committee.”

I speak to Maurice Otieno, general manager of Mettā, a members’ club that supports entrepreneurs, connecting them with investors and creating spaces to collaborate. He highlights more structural challenges that have led to companies like One Acre Fund – and a handful of others in the tech space including Twiga Foods, Tala, Branch and a few more – taking up the bulk start-up and investment funds. For its part, One Acre Fund has received numerous grants, including $100,000 from the John Deere Foundation, $300,000 from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, $765,000 from the Skoll Foundation, $10.5 million from the Perishing Square Foundation, and more in partnerships with the MasterCard Foundation ($10 million), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($11.6 million) and others.

“The reality is if you are dealing with foreign investors, they really want to hear the ‘we-are-saving-Africa’ story. As a local entrepreneur you are entering a space with certain narratives firmly in place,” he tells me.

“It’s understandable we are angry [about the apparent racism in the space] but the question is, how do we navigate these realities? Local individuals and companies have the money, but we have found it to be a real struggle to get them to invest in great local ideas. Most of it goes into real estate. Perhaps it has to do with how many of these people made their money – if it is through unorthodox means, then they hold on tighter to it.”

Maurice adds: “This might be unpopular to say, but I think there’s also some reluctance by local investors to invest in sectors that most foreign money is going to – such as AgriTech, EdTech and HealthTech. Local investors tend to want to put their money in the shiny, glamorous, business-to-business solutions, especially FinTech which is the hot new thing today,” he tells me.

Some suspect that the company is harvesting data and extracting labour from prospective job applicants as a form of “free” market research. There are also recurring complaints of huge pay gaps between local and expatriate staff.

But Phares Kariuki, CEO of Node Africa, an information management firm, strongly disagrees with this view. “This is a very problematic statement,” he says. “First of all, new innovations struggle to find capital in all economies. Tech companies took a while to become an attractive sector for investment, even in the US.”

Phares adds that secondly, local Kenyan investors have been putting their money in ‘boring’ businesses that folks haven’t heard of; it’s literally the foreigners going into the shiny spaces.

“It was local investors, knowledge, developers and government policy that made Kenya one of the most connected countries in Africa and made it the attractive place it is now for immigrants and expats. And about not wanting to serve the poor — look at companies like Equity Bank that brought banking services down to the villages, where people had long been overlooked. Safaricom’s ‘Please Call Me’ and Sambaza features, were all ways of servicing the needs of the poor. It is not only foreigners that want to help poor people – they just monopolize the narratives and make it seem like they are the only ones doing so; they are good at storytelling.”

I see the gaps even more starkly on the ground in western Kenya. When you consider that a whole swathe of smallholder farmers were basically abandoned to their own devices by Kenyan authorities, left to contend with substandard seed and fertilizer and lack of credit, to the point where they had given up on farming, then entities such as One Acre Fund can come in and fill a gap that has been allowed to fester. The silent NCPB depot in Yala is proof of this — One Acre Fund is able to find warehouses to rent because NCPB is not working the way it used to. And the reason for this is, to some extent, neoliberal policies in the agricultural sector that diverted government investment away from places like western Kenya.

It didn’t have to be this way – with private (neoliberal, foreign-funded) solutions to public problems. And the gaps are so stark, and the bar so low, that even small interventions – only reliable seed, for example – can have such a huge impact.

The question though, is how One Acre Fund is managing to make such big gains in a bandit economy, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga described Kenya. How is the organization able to circumvent the cartels? Is it just a case of swapping one cartel out for the other?

“I no longer believe that the people who caused this structural inequality through colonialism, racial segregation, exploitation and more, are the ones who can resolve it,” Phares concludes. “Author Anand Giridharadas speaks about this phenomenon in his book Winners Take All. In Kenya, people who have privilege in the largest economy in the world – the US – come to Africa and many times capitalise on the very structural problems that they claim to be solving. These companies are, in fact, exploitative – they exploit local talent and labour, as well as taking advantage of the ‘white saviour’ narratives.”

But I obviously couldn’t say this to Wilbroda that day. She was just really happy about her new house and the progress she has made in her life. “You know, I only went to school until Standard 8,” she tells me. “Lakini sasa ninaheshimika, kama mtu anafanya kazi ya mshahara.” I’m respected in the community, like someone with a salaried job. That strikes me in a way that I can’t quite explain, and I keep sipping my tea.

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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