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Sinophobia Spreads Faster Than the Coronavirus

10 min read.

The fears the epidemic has stoked have far outpaced its spread, and discussion of the disease’s politics, for better or worse, often outweighs that of epidemiology. Its ripple effects are familiar to anyone in a diaspora: negotiating how much distance to put between yourself and your origin—“origin” being that which others perceive it to be, and what ills they perceive it to embody.

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There is a children’s game where a message is whispered from one person to the next, down along a single-file line. By the time it reaches the last person, the message is inevitably mangled and barely resembles its original. This game is a schoolyard miniature of the real-life dynamics of rumours; it illustrates what happens when we pass on what we think we hear. In the U.S., we call this game “Telephone”. In Kenya, it is called “Chinese whispers.”

The video starts with a long frame: the door of a construction site office in Kakamega. Pasted on the top and sides of the door are red huīchūn, Chinese New Year banners with auspicious benedictions. In the background, a man says everything you need to know about the rest of the video: “Watu wanasema hawa watu wako na ugonjwa”. They’re saying these people have a disease.

A pick-up truck rolls in, and a young Chinese man hops out, backpack slung over his shoulder. Two Chinese men emerge from another door, each with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. These men are filmed long range, as in wildlife photography. The telephoto lens is long enough to capture their facial expressions—wry laughter while killing time and waiting, gathering for something—but too far to capture anything they’re saying. Silent, inscrutable smiles.

In the same week that a suspected carrier of COVID-19—previously known as the Wuhan coronavirus after the source of the outbreak—flew into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, there were at least two other instances of “coronavirus scares” at Chinese construction camps in Kenya that did not make the headlines. In Kakamega, a rumour about a Chinese man wearing a face mask with blood dripping from his nose prompted someone to alert the Ministry of Health. Medical professionals were dispatched, accompanied by police. The screening process was documented by local news agencies, including the rogue YouTube channel Magical Kenya News, which posted a video entitled “CORONA VIRUS SCARE IN KAKAMEGA”. (Magical Kenya has since taken it down, a representative said, because YouTube does not monetise COVID-19-related content.)

The rest of the video is the familiar molasses drawl of medical bureaucracy: some Chinese men being screened and paperwork filed, but mostly little else happening. In an interview later given by the OCPD (Officer Commanding Police Division) overseeing the screening, health workers screened seven Chinese people, together with Kenyans who had been in close contact with them, but found no flu-like symptoms, nor any history of recent travel to China.

“That’s Li… Chong…” the OCPD says, drawing the vowels into the back of his throat, referring to the young man with the backpack. “He came from China on 17 July”. “And since that time last year, no colleagues of ours have come from China”, said “Li Chong”, shaking his head, compliant but vexed. The OCPD, wearing a mask with only the top straps tied, says, “It’s good also to take precautions. Just like you did when you went to the… with the… with this”—gesturing to the dust mask the Chinese man had worn, which instigated this coronavirus scare—“you were taking precautions”.

But that is precisely the perversity of coronavirus, isn’t it? That, in this instance, no one did anything wrong. Better safe than sorry. It was just a Chinese man wearing a dust mask, but what if it wasn’t? An epidemic raises stakes so that biological risks force us to take actions that we feel are racist but which, we swear, aren’t.

COVID-19 is a diasporic disease—in the sense that it has lit up in its path the global tracks of the Chinese diaspora—but also because of the identities it has activated abroad. The fears the epidemic has stoked have far outpaced its spread, and discussion of the disease’s politics, for better or worse, often outweighs that of epidemiology. Its ripple effects are familiar to anyone in a diaspora: negotiating how much distance to put between yourself and your origin—“origin” being that which others perceive it to be, and what ills they perceive it to embody.

Isn’t it ironic that face masks make us look even more the same than they say we already do?

Five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre” that was meant to be doing something diplomatic. Five years ago, there was no Standard Gauge Railway stretching from Mombasa to Nairobi, built by World Bank-blacklisted Chinese contractors with loans extended by the Chinese Import-Export Bank and tainted with political graft. There was no Xinhua headquarters. No Chinese children at art summer camps. This is no longer the case.

The narrative of the Chinese takeover is a simple story, and simple stories are the strongest, like deep, ready grooves along which individual stories and images slide, all going in the same direction. The Chinese man caning a Kenyan employee melds into frozen Chinese tilapia thawed and sold in Gikomba as Lolwe’s fresh catch melds into “Made in China” vitenge melds into the Chinese man caught on video calling Uhuru a monkey melds into the swarms of passengers unloaded into Kenya twice a week from China Southern Airlines planes that refuse to stop flying.

Five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre”

The invasion narrative derives much of its power exactly from how powerless most Kenyans feel to stop it. What political agency do everyday Kenyan citizens truly have over the looming spectre of “China” in all its forms, political, economic, and demographic? Not very much. The centralised, national nature of Kenya-China negotiation—not to mention the current absence of a cohesive political opposition in Kenya, plus basal corruption within the entire political system—means that, on the whole, there are few avenues for an individual Kenyan citizen to exercise power, to resist.

Is this natural paranoia towards a national invader much different from that towards a pathological invader? After all, disgust is our bodies’ evolved reaction to the trespassing of boundaries, argues geographer Theo Aalders, PhD candidate in Environmental Social Science at the University of Gothenburg. Whether the boundaries are those of our own physical bodies or those of a nation, things that are out of their place, things that can move into our own space, can trigger the primary, deep emotion of disgust.

We fear COVID-19, this mysterious, invisible, deadly pathogen that enters bodies without permission, precisely because—short of very extreme measures—we are almost powerless to stop its entry. COVID-19 and China: both foreign contagions, carried by air, indifferent to borders and boundaries, indifferent to the bodies they enter and “colonise,” yet capable of wreaking havoc on core functions.

However, if disgust results from the trespassing of boundaries, then this emotional reflex to invasion is not inherently bad. “On one hand, this reflex is at the root of every anti-colonial movement of every revolution against foreign invaders, so it’s something very progressive, something extremely liberating”, says Aalders. Take the proposed Lamu Coal Plant, for example: its promoters steamrolled past the voices of the local communities its construction would threaten and whose livelihoods it would destroy, a coal plant whose construction would ravage the rich archive of Swahili culture that is Lamu Town. The activists and communities that organised to defeat the coal plant—and ultimately did—drew from a form of repulsion at neoliberal development, at conquest, at invasion of their “boundaries.” But they were able to do this without sliding down the grooves of a simple “Chinese invasion” narrative. The remedy to sinophobia is not sinophilia; it is nuance.

What political agency do everyday Kenyan citizens truly have over the looming spectre of “China” in all its forms, political, economic, and demographic?

But once the scale shifts from a national level to an individual level, according to Aalders, then suddenly this potentially very liberating emotion or reflex turns into its own opposite. That “disgust” is now projected towards an individual, perhaps a Chinese man wearing a mask.

It was the second Sunday in a row that we all had to wear masks to church in Nairobi. I have been attending a Chinese immigrant church in the small rented room of an office building—vacant on Sunday mornings but for us—with grey plastic picnic chairs, a blue carpet over-ripening to brown, a projector for lyrics and sermon PowerPoints, but very little else. At the door, the usher politely requested us to take one light blue surgical mask from a plastic box, plus a pump of hand sanitiser. As we sang, the masks would cling to our faces as we breathed in, and puff out as we breathed out: words pulsing in and out on blue masks like heartbeats on our faces.

The first week that we wore masks in church, the pastor told us that the masks did not symbolise a lack of faith. The church headquarters in Taiwan had suggested that its congregations begin taking extra precautions because they were diaspora churches after all, comprised of people travelling from greater China, especially right after Chinese New Year. COVID-19 had wrought chaos and tragedy on what ought to have been a celebration comprised of millions of family gatherings, many hard-earned after a year of migrant work far from home. But now, because of limited flights from China and general uncertainty, people were travelling in disorganised spurts from China back to countries like Kenya where they usually worked. Now, Pastor said, we must make use of the means God has provided to protect ourselves.

But the second time we wore masks in church, the pastor told us we needed to take a vote. Direct flights from China to Kenya were still running, and although the Chinese Embassy in Kenya had suggested travellers from China self-quarantine for 14 days upon landing in Kenya, many were still going about their normal lives, frequenting grocery stores, offices, restaurants. Perhaps we should consider worship from home for the next two Sundays, Pastor said. He gave us a couple of minutes to pray about it.

“Ok now, who is in favour of suspending meeting at church temporarily for the next two weeks?” Eyes darted around. Four hands. “Don’t look at others!” A couple more hands. “And who is in favour of continuing to meet here?” It was a tie.

COVID-19 and China: both foreign contagions, carried by air, indifferent to borders and boundaries, indifferent to the bodies they enter and “colonise”

The pastor asked one woman how her husband, who had just left to use the bathroom, would vote, and she said she didn’t know. But just then he walked in and, chuckling as he realised he was to break the deadlock, said, “Zài jiā bei”. Let’s just stay home.

After the worship service was over, one man who had voted to keep coming to church—a northerner whose voice resonated within his stout, square body and throughout the room—was yelling. Not at anyone in particular, just about the situation, about the strictures that were hemming in his life. “Masks, masks, wear here, wear there!”. He wanted to will normalcy into being. A Taiwanese brother tried to soothe him, saying that he too had never worn masks until now, and see how he even had to take his off while singing because it was bothering him, but at the end of the day we still needed to be careful.

The northerner sighed. “They’re saying we have to wear them everywhere, even in front of black people”.  Even in its absence—or perhaps because of the potential of landfall, that fear of coronavirus which outpaces coronavirus itself—the disease was demanding that we change our movement and gathering. Those light blue masks that we hated, in the eyes of those around us, were ironically omens of the very disease from which we were trying to protect ourselves. We manage our lives against gazes.

I imagined what someone in the hallway would see, looking through the window into our little, dim, grey church with a telephoto lens, our mouths moving silently, our faces ever inscrutable.

Diaspora has its own set of physics. It distorts us through the gaze of those around us, just as I, growing up in America, have always been more Chinese than I have ever wanted to be, only to find when I go to China that I had been seeing myself through a diaspora funhouse mirror and will never be Chinese enough.

The relationship between “homeland” and present-land determines how big or small you appear in the mirror, and this changes completely depending on where you happen to be. In Kenya, as if with a tilt of the head, my image changes in an instant. No longer an ethnic minority in a white country, I am, rather, an unwilling participant in a story of exploitation. My face represents a force against which Kenyans feel they have no power.

Surely sinophobia does not map in the same way in every country. Surely the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, complicit, whether we want to be or not, in some form of exploitation, does not experience sinophobia in the same way that the Chinese living in Italy do. The phobias that orient those of us in places far from home—sinophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia—are barely sufficient to describe these shapeshifting spectra of power and shades of unbelonging.

Sometimes when we feel too much a stranger, we look for something familiar where we are. What a precious little paradox, to seek small replicas of home that comfort us even as they remind us how far away we really are. It was only when I began reporting on the coronavirus epidemic that I began regularly attending the Chinese church in Nairobi.

I had been to this particular office-building-church before. Its congregation included white- and blue-collar Christians from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Chinese immigrant churches are in many ways all cut from the same cloth, and for me, this little church—in its particular smallness and messiness and diversity, and its big post-service Chinese lunch—was very similar to the churches that I had grown up in, Chinese churches that—with no significant time spent in China—were my only point of reference to the homeland.

I had spent at least a couple of weeks reporting on COVID-19, especially around the first suspected case in Kenya, writing about everything from how test kits work to the situation of Kenyan students trapped in Wuhan. Tweeting about coronavirus filled my mentions with snakes, bats, and go-homes, which was neither surprising nor unbearable. Coronavirus has become a racialised problem everywhere in the world, and Kenya is no exception. But the entire process left me feeling alienated in ways I did not want to admit to myself. Something, in the end, turned me towards “home,” which, in the absence of actual home, meant church.

Those light blue masks that we hated, in the eyes of those around us, were ironically omens of the very disease from which we were trying to protect ourselves

That first Sunday when we had to wear masks, in the bridge of one of the songs, the slide said “individual worship”, and everyone prayed aloud by themselves. The man behind me, a Beijinger who always wore the same black jacket and pants to church, prayed loudly. Loud, but not just so others could hear. This I knew because his sentences were elliptical; they didn’t make sense strung together. He begged God to draw near. He prayed for Wuhan, for China. For Kenya. Protect us, Lord. Every so often, he would pause, inhale, and, on the exhale, breathe out: “Zhǔ ah”, O Lord. Draw near.

Perhaps it was the dry cracks in his voice, or how loud he prayed to Someone who already knew his heart. Maybe it was because it sounded like a solo cutting through a chorus of other solos, or the fact that all our words were a little muffled by our masks. I started to cry.

I realised then that, though I was for a long time steeped in everything coronavirus—numbers, policy, statements, projections—as well as the thick, thorny political discourse about it online, this was the first time I had been exposed to people who were merely, truly grieving. People who, between breaths of begging God, entreating with small sentences simplified by pain, were hurting on behalf of those who had been rent apart by this disaster. People who were themselves rent apart.

In the polemic and racism weighing down this diasporic disease, I thought, the missing timbre has been grief. For as much as sinophobia maps differently around the world, there is one thing it requires all of us in the Chinese diaspora to do: consider how we are seen. And, in a time of coronavirus, this means that others’ gaze has shrunken the space within which people can grieve.

This, perhaps, is the cost of speaking in “Chinese whispers.”

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April Zhu is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Culture

Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg – Beyond, and Against, the Conventional

Heike Becker reviews a book, Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, which speaks to a generation of anti-colonial activists, from Cape Town to Cairo, London and Berlin, who are using a new language of decoloniality, with which they claim radical humanity in struggle and theory. The heart of the book puts Rosa in conversation with thinkers of the Black radical tradition.

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Arundhati Roy once memorably wrote that mass protests, which have been nourished by the memory of generations of repression return with “a kind of rage that, once it finds utterance, cannot easily be tamed, rebottled and sent back to where it came from” (2009, p. 169).  Her words ring true for the decolonial uprisings of a new generation. Inspired by South Africa’s Fallist movements of 2015-16 and in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter surge of 2020, (mostly) young and black protesters have turned against the “thingification” – to which Aimé Césaire equated colonization. This generation of anticolonial activists, from Cape Town to Windhoek, London and Berlin, speaks a new language of decoloniality, with which they claim radical humanity in struggle and theory. They have turned to theorists of the radical black intellectual tradition, such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, and more recently Amilcar Cabral and Walter Rodney. Not all their revolutionary heroes are Black and male, though.

Rosa Luxemburg as a person, thinker and revolutionary is particularly attractive to the postcolonial ‘things’, who stand up against their objectified status, and who have been stirred by radical anticolonial humanist desires. More than a century after her violent death in January 1919 Rosa speaks to young radicalising activists because of the ways in which she went beyond, and against, the conventional and predictable in her writing and activism as much as she followed new pathways in the intimacy of her personal life.

It is thus quite appropriate that a new edited volume has set out to Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg in decolonial perspective. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell have put together an introduction and nineteen chapters by authors from the Global South and North, who come from different intellectual disciplines and traditions but share the view that the coloniality of power permeates capitalist modernity as a worldwide mode of domination.

Gordon and Cornell’s volume aims to revisit Rosa’s perceptive writings through the lens of creolizing theory to demonstrate how timely the Jewish-Polish-German activist-theorist’s insights are right now. They draw their orientation from a concept of creolizing as processes, which join together groups of people in unpredictable, yet recognizable ways. Creolizing as an approach to social, cultural and political theory originated in the Caribbean, yet has since been appropriated in endeavours to understand the ties between those “who were supposed to be radically unequal and separated through Manichean social orderings” (p.1). Creolized elements of life embrace ideas, yet also attributes of everyday life such as, among others, food or music. Gordon and Cornell argue that creolizing takes two primary forms. They summarise these as ‘historical and reconstructive’ and ‘constructive’ respectively. The first aims “to identify relations of influence and indebtedness that have been hidden and obscured. In its constructive mode, creolizing stages conversations that could not have taken place historically but that would have been and still remain generative” (p.1).

The volume speaks to both approaches. In historical and reconstructive perspective, Rosa’s pioneering practice of internationalism, and her efforts to look in her analysis and practice to global circuits that were already evident in local ways, rested in her understanding of revolutionary solidarity. In her seminal work of political economy, she extended the perspective of continuing primitive accumulation in global perspective, and specifically to Africa and Asia. However, her revisionist theorising of primitive accumulation, mass political action and imperialism always insisted on attention to the specificity of suffering. Her cross-species solidarity with her ‘brothers’ is well known, as she referred to the abused and violated buffaloes that pulled a heavy cart into the yard of the prison where she was incarcerated because of her fierce anti-war stance. In a fascinating chapter of Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, Maria Theresia Starzmann extends this (post)humanist view with a discussion of Rosa’s herbalism and plant collecting while imprisoned, which Starzmann pronounces “first and foremost an act of care toward the natural world [and] also a political tool and an archival practice” (p.170).

Rosa Luxemburg: a letter from her prison cell

Oh, Sonyichka [Sophie Liebknecht] …Recently … [a wagon] arrived with water buffaloes harnessed to it instead of horses. This was the first time I had seen these animals up close. They have a stronger, broader build than our cattle, with flat heads and horns that curve back flatly, the shape of the head being similar to that of our sheep, [and they’re] completely black, with large, soft, black eyes. They come from Romania, the spoils of war. … The soldiers who serve as drivers of these supply wagons tell the story that it was a lot of trouble to catch these wild animals and even more difficult to put them to work as draft animals, because they were accustomed to their freedom. They had to be beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war and that the motto now applying to them was “woe unto the vanquished” … There are said to be as many as a hundred of these animals in Breslau alone, and on top of that these creatures, who lived in the verdant fields of Romania, are given meagre and wretched feed. They are ruthlessly exploited, forced to haul every possible kind of wagonload, and they quickly perish in the process.

And so, a few days ago, a wagon like this arrived at the courtyard [where I take my walks]. The load was piled so high that the buffaloes couldn’t pull the wagon over the threshold at the entrance gate. The soldier accompanying the wagon, a brutal fellow, began flailing at the animals so fiercely with the blunt end of his whip handle that the attendant on duty indignantly took him to task, asking him: Had he no pity for the animals? “No one has pity for us humans,” he answered with an evil smile, and started in again, beating them harder than ever. …

The animals finally started to pull again and got over the hump, but one of them was bleeding … Sonyichka, the hide of a buffalo is proverbial for its toughness and thickness, but this tough skin had been broken. During the unloading, all the animals stood there, quite still, exhausted, and the one that was bleeding kept staring into the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child. It was precisely the expression of a child that has been punished and doesn’t know why or what for, doesn’t know how to get away from this torment and raw violence. …

I stood before it, and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face—they were his tears. No one can flinch more painfully on behalf of a beloved brother than I flinched in my helplessness over this mute suffering. How far away, how irretrievably lost were the beautiful, free, tender-green fields of Romania! How differently the sun used to shine, and the wind blow there, how different was the lovely song of the birds that could be heard there, or the melodious call of the herdsman. And here—this strange, ugly city, the gloomy stall, the nauseating, stale hay, mixed with rotten straw, and the strange, frightening humans—the beating, the blood running from the fresh wound. …

Oh, my poor buffalo, my poor, beloved brother! We both stand here so powerless and mute, and are as one in our pain, impotence, and yearning.

Write soon. I embrace you, Sonyichka. Your R.

(Christmas 1917 from Rosa Luxemburg’s prison cell in Breslau to Sophie Liebknecht).

It is such moments of specificity and solidarity, which are at the heart of some of the book’s most fascinating chapters, where authors put Rosa in conversation with thinkers of the Black radical tradition, who she didn’t and couldn’t meet: from W.E.B Du Bois and Walter Rodney, through to Claudia Jones and Lorraine Hansbury.

So why should we be re-reading Rosa Luxemburg from a decolonial, creolized perspective? What does she offer internationalist, anticolonial readers, analysts and activists in the 21st century? In the remainder of this review, I will highlight points made in some of the volume’s particularly perceptive chapters.

Two chapters connect Rosa’s political ‘strategy’ writing on The Mass Strike with 21st century moments of spontaneous mass action, one (by Sami Zemni, Brecht De Smet and Koenraad Bogaert) on the Arab revolution on Tahrir Square in Cairo; the second one (by Josué Ricardo López) on the Central American migrant caravans from 2018 onwards.

The longest section of Gordon and Cornell’s 500 pages book is dedicated to Rosa’s revisionist analysis of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, starting with an insightful contribution by the late historian Jeff Guy on, what he calls, “a rousing and provocative treatment of South Africa [with which] Rosa Luxemburg applied aspects of her theoretical arguments on the necessary structural links between capitalist and non-capitalist systems to the contemporary imperialist world” (p. 269).

Apart from a few exceptions, such as Patrick Bond’s and Ahmed Veriava’s chapters on the resonances of Rosa’s critique of political economy for contemporary South Africa, the volume tends to lean towards close considerations of her radical humanism. Many chapters speak to the enduring significance of Rosa’s thinking for contemporary concerns, including anticolonial nationalism, a decolonial and anti-racist approach to a critique of political economy, and in the final, particularly strong section of the book, articles on reading decolonial-socialist feminism with Rosa. These are the discussions at the heart of some particularly insightful chapters.

Jane Anna Gordon reconsiders Rosa’s thinking of the role of slavery and shows how she went beyond the conventional Marxist parameters in consistently including the connections between imperialism and capitalism. Gordon concludes that “many contemporary theorists of racial capitalism are tied genealogically to Rosa Luxemburg and her indispensable insights and orientation” (p. 143).

Siddhant Isser, Rachel H. Brown and John McMahon take this thread further in their important discussion of ‘race’-making in their chapter on ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the Primitive Accumulation of Whiteness’. They turn to Rosa’s reworking of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation to theorize the relationship between capital accumulation and constructions of ‘race’ and whiteness as a continuous component of capitalism, across its history. Their writing speaks directly to Silvia Federici’s socialist feminist approach to the primitive (ongoing) accumulation of capital as ‘an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule’ (2004, p. 63).

The development of the concept of primitive accumulation as an accrual of racialised and gendered social relationships is crucial for pushing radical theorizing that generates incisive accounts for feminist anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist practice. The book’s concluding chapters by Paget Henry and LaRose T. Parris on reading – and creolizing – Rosa Luxemburg through the Black Radical Tradition, illustrate this in fascinating close conversation of Rosa and her – imagined – encounters with thinkers and activists Claudia Jones and Lorraine Hansberry.

Rosa Luxemburg dedicated her life to intellectual reflection and political mobilisation because she could not tolerate injustice of any kind. She expressed and lived solidarity with all who suffered under exploitation and oppression – humans, and members of other species. Her yearning for a more human world undoubtedly resonates with today’s thinkers and activists in the movements for radical humanism in the Global South and North. Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell must be thanked for bringing together a captivating collection of articles that look at Rosa’s beguiling legacy for our times.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Culture

Back to the Future: The Infamous Dangerous, Ugly and Dark Days of “Nairoberry” Are Back

Criminal incidents in Nairobi are on the rise. The bad, dangerous and ugly days of “Nairoberry” are back. With elections looming, the Jubilee government has all its guns trained on the impending tumultuous polls. An economic meltdown, an underpaid and agitated police service and the election fever — it’s a free-for-all, which has seen the city’s crimes soar to the detriment of its habitats.

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In the last years of President Daniel arap Moi’s Kanu rule, the central business district of the capital city Nairobi, become a bad, dangerous and ugly town. Nairobians were being mugged left, right and centre. It didn’t matter what time of day, one was being robbed, so long as the opportunity availed itself.

During the day the town was unpoliced, or let me put it this way, the police (both plain clothes and uniformed) become part of the problem. They watched as people got hassled and those who didn’t watch, participated in the hassling.  The alleyways were unkempt and unpassable. Few street lights worked, so once dusk set in, the town was thrown into an abyss of darkness. From then on, anything went.

Hordes of marauding hoodlums and muggers prowled the CBD unfettered, searching for their victims. It was a horrendous time to be a Nairobian.

The expatriate community was weary of venturing out and if it did, it moved in groups and certain specified areas. It created its own security arrangements, whereby, it collected data for everyone who was in its circuit, hence easy to keep track of its members.

Recently, I spoke to some of my expatriate friends who live in the Westlands suburbs of Nairobi, and they told me the “Nairoberry” days are back, where after a very long while, they are now having to rethink about their safety and security, especially in the evenings.

Then, police disguised in civilian clothes, were mugging people openly. In 2001, a professional journalist colleague one evening was going to catch a matatu as he headed home. It was just about past 7pm. On crossing the famous Kenya Cinema on the other side of Moi Avenue, he was met by a mob of men who stripped him of nearly every valuable item, including his belt and spectacles and a feature mobile phone which was in vogue then.

The “Nairoberry” days are back, where after a very long while, [people] are now having to rethink about their safety and security, especially in the evenings

In a split of a second, he was on the ground, shorn off everything. Describing the efficiency with which he had been robbed, we suspected it must have been the work of trained hands. For the next three months, we investigated the incident and true to our fears, it was a group of criminally-inclined policemen who were robbing people in the CBD.

Those times are back: Between January and April, 2022, mugging incidents from people that I know alone, have been staggering – from a university don being robbed by uniformed police right in the middle of the CBD late in the evening, to boda boda riders mobbing a man to rob him off his personal effects, including the prized mobile phone in broad daylight, to hoodlums snatching ladies’ handbags and just slithering away, unperturbed that they could apprehended.

In January, an international news agency that has offices in Nairobi and that had just employed a new foreign correspondent was warned that Nairobi is full of “pickpockets and street-smart hoodlums” and therefore he was being warned to be extra careful. Hardly would a news agency that itself deals in reporting newsworthy information, miss to report on an aspect that it considers to be of concern to its employees.

Of course, the CBD has mutated from those terrible Moi days of dangerous boulevards and streets, where it was not uncommon to have potholes in the middle of avenues that no one could remember the last time they had fresh tarmac.

Today, many of the thoroughfares are in better conditions, the street lights, by and large are operational and on the face of it, well, the CBD is a wee cleaner. The CBD is apparently manned by CCTV cameras, but guess what, the mugging instead of decreasing, has actually gone up. What was the point of installing those cameras?

But beneath the cabro works, which are mostly to be found in the uptown, the entire CBD is not a safe place to be, uptown or otherwise. Chatting with a friend outside the Stanley Hotel, next to the newspapers and magazines kiosk, which is at the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue, a boda boda passenger brazenly nicked a man’s mobile phone as he was making a call and rode away, onto Kenyatta Avenue. It was a 1pm, a hot, sunny day. It must have been a team effort, some boda boda riders move around, pretending to ferry passengers, but in real sense are they are just muggers.

The CBD is manned by CCTV cameras, but the muggings instead of decreasing, have actually gone up

The hotel’s security guards told us the area around the five-star was no longer safe, rogue boda boda riders had become a menace to unsuspecting passers-by exposing their mobile phones as they wait to cross the zebra-crossing, either on Kimathis Street, or Kenyatta Avenue. The Stanley Hotel environs should be one of the safest areas in the CBD, but not anymore. I asked the hotel’s security detail what happened to the plainclothes police that are always a whistle-stop away. “It looks like it’s a free-for-all nowadays,” said one of them.

A university lecturer on his way home was recently accosted by regular police on Muindi Bingu Street, near Jevanjee Gardens. It was about 7.30pm. At gun point, they forced him to go a Mpesa (mobile phone money banking) agent and withdraw all the money he had on his mobile phone. He lost KSh30,000 in total. The street wasn’t dark like Moi days, in fact, at the point where he was mugged by the police, there are CCTV camera, at the junction of Muindi Bingu and Moktar Dada Streets, but just like in Moi days, the rogue police are back. They were most probably from Central Police Station, because the station covers that area of the CBD.

Accompanying a friend to the station to report about his stolen items, which included credit cards and of course his mobile phone, all forcibly snatched by boda boda riders’ in broad daylight, one of the officers, a burly policeman, manning the crime desk, laughed uproariously and said; “hahahaha, welcome to Nairobi. Hii Nairobi iko na wenyewe,” this Nairobi has its owners. unabahati haukunyoroshwa sana, you’re lucky you got off lightly, it could have been worse.”

The Kenya police become very sensitive when the media reports of its iniquities, against the very people they are supposed to protect. But on the streets of Nairobi, they are known to abet crime and collude with CBD thugs. If you want to know, just talk to the multitude of the downtown street hawkers. “Pickpockets, bag-snatchers and petty thieves are always roaming these streets, we know them, the police know them, they are always going about their business unrestricted, how come the police don’t arrest them?” Poses a hawker on Tom Mboya St.

The Stanley Hotel environs should be one of the safest areas in the CBD, but not anymore

“It is because the police and the thugs work together, in partnership, in a fellowship of some kind, where the thugs share their stolen loot with the police afterwards. Many of the police patrolling Tom Mboya St for example, are always in plainclothes, we see them, also walking up and down, just like the pickpockets, oftentimes crisscrossing each other, but no arrests are made. It is what it is. On these streets, everybody minds their own businesses, that way you don’t cross anybody’s path.”

At the tail end of his regime, Moi was sucked up by succession politics more than possibly the security concerns of a big city like Nairobi. Already a lame duck President, even the police could afford to be rogue and not fear the consequences. In any case the police always seem to have a leeway, especially the Kenya Police, who are known to be involved criminal activities.

Less than 100 days to the much-awaited succession presidential elections, the Jubilee government has all its guns trained on the forthcoming tumultuous polls. The Nairobi city crime incidents have always been with us, but with an economic meltdown, an agitated police service that is aggrieved because of its unfulfilled remunerations’ promises, the election fever, it’s a free-for-all, which has seen the city’s crimes soar to the detriment of its habitats.

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Tegla Loroupe: Defying Patriarchy to Become an Agent of Social Change

Patriarchy has always undermined the involvement of women in athletics, discouraging them from meaningful involvement in sports. But trailblazers like Tegla Loroupe have defied gender stereotyping and used sports to bring change to their communities.

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Tegla Loroupe: Defying Patriarchy to Become an Agent of Social Change
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Kenya’s general appreciation of the role of sports in national and individual development notwithstanding, the exemplary performance of Kenyan women in athletics and in sports generally, including related social enterprises, has been inadequately recognized. Even when they achieve notable successes, the low representation of women in sports leadership over the years testifies to their exclusion. Their marginalization is mainly based on their gender and geographical regions, rendering their participation in sports nearly incidental, if not inconsequential. Female athletes continue to bear the brunt of gender stereotyping and cultural practices and traditional values that define gender roles still deter women from participating meaningfully in sports.

Alarmingly, despite recent global and government efforts to promote the freedom of women to participate in sports and to protect their sovereign choices and their lives, they are still subjected to discrimination and continue to be targets of gender-based violence.

Running has undoubtedly been an essential feature of Kenya’s history. However, even with the involvement and achievements of female Kenyan athletes in every Olympics since 1968,  studies of Kenyan sports have focused on men; women’s participation in sports has only just started to generate interest in historical accounts within East Africa Athletics. The impediments and successes of East Africa’s sportswomen have only been sporadically noted and the concept of gender is rarely employed.

Susan Sirma, Sally Barsosio, Tegla Loroupe, Pamela Jelimo, Susan Chepkemei, Hellen Obiri and Sabina Chebichi have all brought home track and field medals from international competitions. Chebichi’s name came to the fore in 1973, when at a Brooke Bond-sponsored meet in Kericho she won her first race. Nicknamed the “Petticoat Princess” for running barefoot dressed only in a green petticoat, the 14-year-old from Mlimani Primary School near Kitale was given her first kit after winning that race. Chebichi’s wins that year were record-breaking as she recorded some of the fastest times in Africa for 800 metres and 1,500 meters. Chebichi also won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, becoming the first female from Kenya to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. However, she soon dropped out of athletics following a pregnancy.

Women have recorded many achievements in sports despite inadequate support, and deserve more from all stakeholders and from Kenyans in general.  “There is a need for all to celebrate all Kenyan female athletes including Agnes Tirop to whom we are paying tribute today who has always shone on track events and won many medals at the Olympics and other competitions at the international and continental level,” Kenya’s Supreme Court Judge, Njoki Ndung’u said during the memorial of murdered cross-country champion Agnes Tirop.

Northern Kenya’s sporting fortunes

Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, northern Kenya — and especially the northeastern region,  which comprises Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa counties — has “remained silent, almost forgotten” as far as sports and its development are concerned. There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the region, particularly girls.  

In July 2020, Athletics Kenya acknowledged through its senior vice president Paul Mutwii the “more than enough struggles” that northeastern Kenya has faced, including in pursuing its dreams in athletics, and in sports in general. Girl athletes were almost impossible to find in the region ten years ago despite the right of women and girls to participate in sports having been affirmed in 1979. Like in other historically marginalized parts of the country, various upcoming athletes and their promoters in northern Kenya advise that youth empowerment must include recognizing that mistakes have been made. This would encourage all stakeholders to embrace current and future challenges and forge stakeholder synergies and possibilities for corrective measures. Such measures would include aligning Kenya’s efforts with the global ground-breaking initiatives of various agencies, including UN Women-run projects such as One Win Leads to Another, to empower women and girls in order to achieve regional and gender inclusivity in sports.

There is hardly any sport that can be associated with the region because of the various impediments placed in the path of sports and athletics enthusiasts in the area, particularly girls.

Tellingly, there is not a single training camp in northeastern Kenya. Athletics enthusiasts can only meet at the Northeastern National Polytechnic grounds in Garissa. Athletics Kenya (AK) North-Eastern region chairman, Abdullahi Salat, notes that raising athletics standards in the region is a major challenge and that poor sporting infrastructure has further distanced many budding athletes from the sport as they only depend on the Polytechnic grounds which do not even have a standard track. Climatic conditions in the region have also inhibited the growth of the sports, as it is very difficult for athletes to train during the day because of the heat. As such, it should be made possible for athletes from northern Kenya to train in other cooler regions.

The possibilities

For the residents of Kapsait in Lelan, West Pokot County, news of the birth on 9 May 1973 of another daughter to a local family just like any other in the area would have been no more than the addition of a new sibling to the 24 children of a polygamous Pokot household.

When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children. He could not suspect that his “useless” child would one day break world records, that together with fellow retired former world record-holders Haile Gebresellasie of Ethiopia, Paula Radcliffe of Britain, and Kenyan distance running legend Paul Tergat, his daughter would be inducted into the New York Road Running Hall of Fame (NYRR). There is no such a hall in West Pokot County or in Kenya.

That child was Tegla Chepkite Loroupe.

When that young girl later expressed her interest in sports, her polygamous father told her she was “useless”, only fit to herd goats and mind children.

Neither her father nor the people of her village had any idea that she would turn out to be a world A-Lister in long-distance track and road races. And so it came to pass that during the course of her life, that child (who first ran barefoot to school and later, symbolically, in several races early in her career, including one 10,000 meter-race a day after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, explaining to the international media that she had done so “out of a sense of duty to all the people taking her as a bearer of hope in her home country”) became a truly phenomenal woman in many respects.

Social-cultural struggles

Tegla’s decision to pursue her dream in athletics was met with solid resistance from her father and the male members of her family.  “Those days, they don’t reckon much with women because they see sports as men’s affairs, especially in my community. No one was willing to support me except for my mother and late sister who stood by me through it all. I have always been determined and I believe I have something special in me,” she noted.

Like women the world over, Kenyan women and particularly those in northern Kenya, have had to endure social-cultural struggles for decades, especially against patriarchy. Patriarchy has always undermined the involvement of women in athletics, the sort of patriarchy that discourages them from participating in sports and instead directs them to reproductive roles. It is the type that insists on the gender socialization of roles, a practice that continues to exclude many women from meaningful involvement in sports, especially those that yield monetary and other material rewards.

Gendered ‘unfreedoms’

Women in athletics ought to be viewed as indicative of development, freedom, and choice. Amartya Sen’s theory of freedom as “both the primary end and as the principal means”, and as understood in the context of social choices theory, is instructive. In Iten, a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, women’s success in running has seen them return home with Olympic medals and prize money totalling more than US$1 million. Their visibility has inspired other women not just to run, but also to set up businesses. These women have seen that their well-being can be improved by making entrepreneurial choices that are outside the roles traditionally assigned to them.

When asked whether she would like her daughter to become a runner, Kathleen Chepkurui’s answer was representative of many responses in Iten. She highlighted what Pamela Jelimo, the first Olympic gold medal winner in Kenya, has accomplished (Jelimo earned over US$1 million on the athletics circuit during her widely publicised four-month streak of victories in Golden League competitions across three continents) saying, “When I saw Pamela Jelimo, I said ‘I will support my children’. They can all be runners – my daughters. So, I would like my daughters to be runners.”

Female athletes have used their income to develop Iten. As Caroline Jeptoo notes, “Female athletes help Iten to grow more…. Building schools, churches. Piping water to those places. And especially helping the needy people in society to pay fees, food … and some many things”.

Kenyan women, and especially those in the northern part of the country, are far less likely to pursue running as a career than men. Several barriers in both formal and informal spheres militate against women’s participation in sports. First, parents in the region are more likely to take boys rather than girls to school, which limits girls’ chances of accessing choice-giving forums. This in turn limits their access to coaching and mentorship services. Second, an uncooperative partner or husband can be a hindrance and, third, poverty and limited resources often restrict women.

“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports. Of course, I will choose him,” confesses a female athlete.

Lydia Stephens-Okech, an Alliance Girls High School alumni who was one of three female athletes to represent Kenya when women were first included in the country’s Olympic team at the 1968 Games in Mexico, corroborates the evidence of the tribulations of female athletes. “Some of the problems we faced still impede our female athletes’ advancement today and better ways must be found to help them.”  Stephens-Okech notes that lack of education, sexist male officials and traditional views on marriage remain major stumbling blocks for Kenyan girls aspiring to become athletes.

Goodwill and leadership

Standing barely five feet tall, demure, humble, and unassuming, Tegla Loroupe emerged to become the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon after being initially rejected by Athletics Kenya (AK) because of her small frame.

An encounter with Tegla Loroupe reveals an ordinary Pokot woman, her “super-achiever” status not immediately apparent, yet she is royalty in the world of athletics. Tegla is a member of Champions for Peace, a group of 54 famous elite athletes committed to serving peace in the world through sport with the support of Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization. Tegla was named United Nations Ambassador of Sport in 2006 and is also an Ambassador for the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and UNICEF.

“When you love a man with no interest in the sport, you end up declining. The man will tell you to choose between him and sports.”

Tegla was Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year in 2007 and in the same year became Oxfam Ambassador of Sport and Peace in Darfur together with Elias Figueroa, Katrina Webb, George Clooney, Joey Cheek and Don Cheadle. Tegla maintains good friendships with Prince Albert of Monaco and Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

If leadership is a position of influence that enables a person to motivate, inspire, and to set the direction for the purpose of achieving certain goals, then Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, and Hellen Obiri, amongst other outstanding Kenyan female athletes, fit the bill.

While research reveals the important roles women play as agents of change, Kenya exhibits a markedly low representation of women in sports leadership. It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports. Baron de Coubertin, for instance, envisioned the modern Olympic Games as a celebration of masculinity, saying, “Women’s proper place was in the stands as appreciative observers and not participants”.

This low representation suggests a society with pre-set gender roles that perpetuate male hegemony in sports leadership. Such low representation can be attributed to several factors that may be historical, social, organizational, and political. They  include the perception of women as frail and inferior, male masculinity and dominance, cultural beliefs and gender stereotypes, feminine modesty, lack of institutional support, gender role expectations, work-family balance, lack of a social network and role models, lack of education and experience and organizational structures that inadvertently promote men over women. Generally, in Kenya, the entrenched and unchanging organizational cultures that favour male leadership are the major impediments to women’s progress into spheres leadership.

It is as if Kenya supports the views of some of the founding fathers of the modern Olympics games, who denied women participation in sports.

If any efforts have been made in Kenya to institute inclusivity in sports, the progress of women into leadership roles has been slow at best. It was, however, refreshing to see Catherine Ndereba lead the Gender, Welfare and Equality Committee in Sports. President Uhuru Kenyatta had directed that the committee dedicate itself to analysing “women inclusion in teams and federations’ management, existing challenges and opportunities for corrective improvement.” Among other things, the committee recommended stringent action against perpetrators of Gender-Based Violence (GVB).

It is hoped that the recently launched Trailblazer Programme of the State Department for Gender will meet its objective of facilitating women pioneers and icons to play a role in mentoring the youth. Rose Said Rutin, a family counselor and Director of Praise Celebrations, a Christian worship movement in Nairobi says, “All stakeholders, including state departments must work together to cast aside the constraints that have hemmed female athletes in … we must deal with a society in which honest merit is held back, a talent passed over and patriarchy arrogantly allowed to usurp the prerogatives of all. Let the cynic ask by what right we condemn it all. We condemn it at the altar of conscience, equity, and democracy”. Rutin adds, “Our women athletes have been carrying the sedan chair for others. They should sit on the sedan chairs themselves.”  For Rutin, athletes like Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, Brigid Koskei, and Hellen Obiri have what it takes to ensure that women athletes are treated with dignity and are allowed the freedom to play their meaningful roles in society.

Sports for peace and development

While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society. Sports were not entirely her end but a means to serve humanity, a way station, not a destination. “For me, sport is not just about competing and winning or achieving fame and glory. Rather, I see sport as a worthy platform that can help unite the world, bring peace where there is war and help foster the spirit of brotherliness.” Tegla explains her involvement with Sport for Development and Peace (SDP), saying that it is an intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development and peace objectives.

But way before the 5 May 2010 Inaugural Plenary Session of the United Nations that approved the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG), Tegla Loroupe had started using sports to effect social change in communities, having established the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation (TLPF) in 2003, whose aim was to put an end to the conflict between Kenya’s pastoralist communities. The foundation’s mission is based on three pillars: peacebuilding, education and supporting refugee athletes.  From 2003 to date, the Foundation has sponsored a series of annual Peace Marathons dubbed “Peace through Sports”. With the support of Prince Albert of Monaco, Tegla has also established the Kapenguria Peace Academy that takes in children from conflict areas in East Africa.

While it might be the case that Tegla followed her dharma as a long-distance runner, she aligned herself with the needs of her context and society.

Tegla was named the 2016 United Nations Person of the Year and in the same year was featured in the Olympians for Life exhibition for her work in promoting peace. Tegla was also the Chef de Mission of the Refugee Team, leading the first Refugee Olympic Team to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio to “remind the world of the sufferings and perseverance of millions of refugees around the world.”

Using sports as a tool to bring about social transformation in relation to conflicts, education, health, and the plight of refugees has elevated Tegla’s standing in Kenya, in the region, and globally, and brought her accolades. A unique woman who originates from a society in which men may themselves be the instigators and prosecutors of conflict and war, her effectiveness and that of fellow elite athletes is increasingly becoming a subject area for social movement theorists. It has been noted that their mobilization of resources, the pursuit of political opportunities, and devising a collective action frame have been possible not just because of the extant positioning of the athletes in the impacted communities, the active involvement in and personal investment of the athletes in the outcome of the peace-promoting activities, but also because of the unique Olympic ethos driving their action.

Tegla and others like her are described as “social movement entrepreneurs”. They do not just appear as mere “evangelists” who only demonstrate their solidarity with a cause by their “presence” at an event but act as businesspeople who must see results; as others “preach with their occasional presence”, they do more.

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