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Food for Thought: Culinary Cultures and Their Discontents

7 min read. Peoples are what they eat and the dietary consumption and what we choose to imbibe, or not consume based on habits, health, religion, or taboos symbolically reflect this dynamic.

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Food for Thought: Culinary Cultures and Their Discontents
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Meals, beyond meeting our dietary and nutritional needs, is pretty much one of the most telling signallers of Kenya’s social sensibilities, in which food preparation, serving, availability, and taboos give insights into our people’s histories, geographies, ethnicities, tragedies, and self-perceptions.

That we’re a crop people, with crops making up 81% of our food output and yet milk products records the highest consumption belies the fact that our supply systems are still better geared towards industrialized supplies.

Still, maize and wheat and their related products come in at a close second and third respectively in national food consumption. According to the status of traditional vegetable report, 200 species growing naturally in Kenya are used as leafy vegetables. About 10 more exotic species introduced during the pre-colonial period have been integrated into the traditions of various communities and can therefore be regarded as traditional vegetables.

Ethnobotanist Patrick M. Maundu’s research documented 10 exotic species introduced into Kenya in the pre-colonial period of which the top three of maize, milk and wheat have recorded higher profitability pegged on the large scale technological production. Consequently this has entrenched the food industries the primary arbiters of Kenya’s culinary aspects with the resultant cartelism, artificial shortages, oligopolies, market inefficiencies and food safety issues. Food occupies this complex place in society and social order, a fact that led the pioneer gastronomy Jean Brillat-Savarin to remark ‘Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.

Pretty much all indigenous foods chiefly Cassava (8th), Sorghum (15th), and Millet (19th) position, have been edged out of the primary consumption basket. Mass production of the top industrial food items, pegged on their mass marketing, industrial production and the resultant lower prices put them at the top of the totem pole of food intake. Even then, the distinction between foreign and indigenous foods is fluid and often tentative given the transitory nature of ethnic cultures including food and culinary habits among ethnicities over time.

Food and Meaning

Food, therefore as a cultural and ethnic text, expresses the truism that man, since his prehistoric times, was able to link nutritious foods not just with robust health but also its capacity as a social marker, cultural identity, and insight into the economic, myth-making, and resource constraints of his immediate ecology.

Peoples are what they eat and the dietary consumption and what we choose to imbibe, or not consume based on habits, health, religion, or taboos symbolically reflect this dynamic. Our respective food traditions communicate to others, our beliefs, cultural and social backgrounds, incomes, and experiences. Granted there are many reasons why we exclude certain foods from our diet, from basic health issues to deep cultural and personal beliefs.

An intuitive survival need such as eating, that all humans share, is also something that we use to differentiate ourselves; our psychologies, anthropologies, individual preferences, desires, sense-making, economic capacity, health concerns, farming practices, and social limitations.

Food political Failure

At the economic level, resource constraints and starvation occasioned by the current political failure, limits dietary choices in terms of available food, pricing, alternative meals, and future food needs, with drought warning mechanisms estimating one-third of the 4 million Nairobi residents as starving.

In many ways the frequent food shortages and the attendant perennial famine are reflections of political and policy failure to modernize our supply systems, audit our food systems, and mainstream food security initiatives. This phenomenon isn’t just a city problem as shrinking land sizes have necessitated the need for food purchases even in rural Kenya.

New City Norm

The average Kenyan therefore, robbed of the capacity to consistently afford, and access quality variety of meals is forced to a primary dependency on the Kibanda food stall culture. These Kibandas as profit-making ventures definitely go for the cheapest easy-to-mass-produce foods on the menu item.

Their lack of proper food safety notwithstanding, the Kibanda culture plugs the gaps in urban food supply systems, and shortens the elaborate process of food production at home, for an exhausted and fast-paced urban dwellers.

Grocerants and delis in supermarkets meanwhile play the same role Kibanda do but for the middling and upper classes. Keenly aware of the changing lifestyles of the ingredient shoppers, supermarkets shifted from only selling ingredients and recipes to also fixing the meal and selling it like a restaurant. This trend started with the retail outlet Tuskys supermarket in 2014 before their competitors caught on, buoyed by the convergence of tech and hospitality, and the desire for fresh food, access, and convenience at decent prices.

Cucumbers on Sale

What’s never obvious to the average Kenyan is that the structure of society closely correlates to the nature of its status foods. Societies with small social classism tend to have more elaborate staple foods and go for larger portions, while highly unequal and stratified societies place inordinate emphasis on culinary style, quality and even presentation. Hence, depending on the society’s structure, food either becomes a bonding mechanism for neighbours and friends, or a signifier of exclusivity, distance, class, and prestige.

Further to that, culturally homogeneous communities designate uniqueness of an occasion based on quantities of foods served. Meanwhile the interactions in heterogeneous cultures say during inter-ethnic dowry negotiations, special occasions are designated uniqueness based on the variety of cuisines served. Despite the stratified nature of our local society haute cuisines and fine dining haven’t taken root since Kenyans-even the elite strata-still prefer foods they know. This lack of experimentation with food has curtailed fine dining restaurant culture even as casual dining, kibanda culture, and fast food outlets continue to grow and expand.

The underlying issue here could be that Kenya lacks a notable process of aristocratic acculturation such as can be spotted among Rwandese, Ugandan, French or South African nobilities. Hence we’re stuck with a financial and economic elite who besides monetary outlay do not have any binding social sensibilities, dining rituals, and any unique markers of identity formation outside of high incomes.

Markedly, in cultures where there is an abundance of food, slender bodies are associated with privilege and status, while in societies where food is scarce, there is the perception that being chubby is a status marker. However body image, in relation to food, has increasingly lesser social meaning, given that we’re more inundated with Euro-American notions of fitness, beauty, and bodily aesthetics.

Eat Your Caviar

These Euro-American notions do not stop at how we perceive bodies, even what’s often considered good food whether in movies or Instagram is mostly white food, American food or generally processed foods. While I’m focusing on white foods here, coffee, tea and alcohol are also used in similar ways. Brand name Euro-American beverage and food varieties pasted on our digital profiles are overtly supposed to signify prestige and implicitly convey taste and status.

Indigenous Kenyan foods are then exoticised within the make-believe Kenyan high-society and sold as special cuisines. These classists and racial notions of food hierarchy relegate local dishes to healthy but low-status meals best left to the sick, the aged and those in the rural enclaves.

The politics of food much more poignantly plays out even locally with the Kikuyus and their stereotypical soupy foods, political connotation of wishy-washy politician as watermelons, and the signifier of tribal rank in the disdainful phrasing uthamaki witù, thamaki ciao, as well as Luhyas and their typecasted food quantities.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Further away from tribal stereotypes foods as religious markers distinguishes local sects, genders and communities who are bounded by certain edicts. The growing yoga community in the country desigantes certain food consumption so does the vegan society, as well as the vegetarian communities.

Adventists relation with red meat, Halal foods for Muslims, Kosher for the Jewish community and the organic feeders work within a wider framework of food censures and freedoms for cultural, health, ideological or religious reasons.

Eat of the Ground

The organic food network is gradually gifting a growing cluster of health and safety conscious Kenyans with a healthy and well-curated food system. The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) has designated the organic markets in Nairobi to include the Organic Farmers Market next to Hillcrest, US Embassy Organic Farmers Market, Kids Ventures Garden Estate, and Karengata Farmers’ Market both in Karen, Community Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Environment Programme (C-SHEP) farmers market in Rongai Township.

Grocery stores such as Kalimoni Greens in Karen, Zucchini at ABC Place, The Corner Shop at Diamond Plaza also sell organic food products. Chandarana Foodplus, Carrefour, and Tuskys retail outlets have organic food sections. Where tech meets food distribution deliveries; Mlango Farm, Sylvia Basket, Greenspoon, and Kalimoni Greens make doorstep deliveries.

The conservative dietary streak however, has not stopped a small but growing cluster of Kenyans who’ve begun exploring foreign dishes, newer urban cuisines, and flavours made accessible by online recipes, specialty meals, food carnivals and galas. For such a complex society Kenya makes up for a lack of unique and authentic Kenyan dish by constantly evolving its servings to meet the demands of a diverse community. 

The Semiotics of Kitchen tools

Curiously, unlike in large swaths of the urban homes where citizens lay out elaborate cutlery, in many rural homes, eating with the hands is the norm in many households. That even pop culture icon Oprah Winfrey couldn’t fathom such cultural differences through her now infamous phrase ‘’I heard Indian people eat with their hands still” belies the hard to discard stereotypes.

The underlying belief being that eating with well-set cutlery as is the norm in modern homes is superior, more culturally evolved and sophisticated. These attitudes towards eating with hands is grounded in the never-ending war on germs and hygiene-related Non-Communicable diseases especially in our informal settlements.

This health concern isn’t farfetched given that the rapid growth in the use of cutlery partly acted as the definer of space among diners, and later on as a means of dealing with the disease outbreaks that hit rapidly urbanizing metropolis. Cutlery therefore went beyond practical consideration to being an indicator of space, safety, class, cultures and the relationship between man, place and food.

The kids too need to eat

The place of children in the food system is significantly evolved from the traditional open homes setups that had no delineation or gender. Progressively most modern food outlets have had to develop manned indoor play area with small pitches, swings, huts, and ball games to accommodate family and kid’s needs.

Children are major influencers on where a family eats, wine and dine in which little attention given to amusement, food variety, space, gifts, and furniture, paying off hugely. The centrality of the kid’s concerns to parents elevate their comfort as among the primary determinant of whether the family will patronize a food outlet.

Food considerations built for convenience of toddlers equals happy family dining experience, a key premium for most parents that equals great returns for the food business. Kids nutrition, their allergies, preferences are front and centre in the Kenyan family dining experience and while the children may not have the most sophisticated tastes they are very discerning eaters. The modern day dining experience whether in restaurants, homes or events have to prioritize the kids comfort, and palate, especially child-friendly focus over the weekends.

Eat Your Heart out

In the midst of all this Kenyans have to contend with the implication of industrial mass food production model of their top food preferences maize, milk, and wheat. Whether out of modern speeds, convenience or prices we’ve come to believe that we can feed our bodies industrial, processed foods in perpetuity.

It’s this prospect replicated over large swaths across the world that columnist Mark Hyman remarked,

‘In the 21st century our tastes buds, our brain chemistry, our biochemistry, our hormones and our kitchens have been hijacked by the food industry.’

The Kenyan food industry tries to minimise losses even at the expense of consumers even as regulatory systems and institutions mandated to guarantee food safety such as Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS), Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) have capitulated to the tyranny of the rogue market. A core issue many Kenyans have to grapple with is the institutions mandated to monitor and ensure food safety understand that food systems are a national security issue.

 

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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Darius Okolla is a writer and a social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

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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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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Culture

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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