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What Washerwomen Would Say on a Webinar

7 min read.

Waiting for increasingly elusive work at stakeouts without shelter and facing police harassment is the itinerant washerwomen’s daily lot in this COVID-19 season.

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As the signature tune for the 9 o’clock evening news floats on the airwaves, Elizabeth Mbatha wearily pushes open the door to her house in Kangemi.

She has just walked 22 kilometres across the city from Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani where she completed her day-long court-ordered community service to sweep the streets because she could not raise the Sh200 fine for “failing to observe social distancing rules” and not properly wearing a mask in public.

Police from Kileleshwa station in Nairobi enforcing public health measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, had arrested Mbatha and a dozen other women the previous day at the spot where they habitually sit, sometimes all day, waiting for someone to hire them for a day’s cleaning work.

In this COVID-19 season, webinars have become the middle class replacement for workshops, but on July 15, a different variety of this urban phenomenon occurred as itinerant washerwomen from Nairobi spoke about coping amid the crisis.

On a normal day, Mbatha walks a five-kilometre round-trip from her house to Kileleshwa to wait for work cleaning houses and washing clothes. Often, police order the women who sit waiting along residential streets back to their homes where they have nothing with which to feed their children.

“We face innumerable problems. If you leave your child in the care of a neighbour, she will want Sh100 at the end of the day”, Mbatha said.

Cleaning and laundry work has contracted as employees in the formal sector—grappling with pay cuts and disappearing jobs—stay home and take on the household chores. Live-in domestic staff have been laid off because of fears of COVID-19 infection, and also because households are surviving on reduced incomes.

Some employers called their former domestic staff and asked them not to come to work: Don’t call us, we’ll call you once the crisis is over.

Former live-in domestic workers have now joined day labourers like Mbatha in the search for work.

For some 50 women at each of the 40 waiting spots dotted across the wealthier parts of Nairobi, it is not so much a search for work as it is a game of wait-and-see. According to the Centre for Livelihood Advancement, up to 2,000 women sit in the open around Nairobi waiting for someone to offer them cleaning work, and so far, CFLA has registered 500 of them. Police regularly drive by and order the women to disperse to their homes as part of enforcing anti-crowding regulations. “Do not bring corona to the roadside”, the police bark at the women. “Stay at home until COVID-19 is over”.

Work is irregular, and when it comes, the load is heavy because employers who previously hired once a week are now taking in washerwomen just once or twice a month. It is a headlong dive into the unknown.

Mbatha, a mother of two children, says her husband is on furlough from his contract work in construction. She took the job because sometimes her husband would return home after a day out without finding any work. She has been washing and cleaning for three years.

“Living with an unemployed husband can be very stressful because when you enquire what you will feed the children, fighting can break out—sometimes even in front of the children”, she adds.

Depressed household incomes have forced many people with precarious occupations like Elizabeth Mueni—also a washerwoman—to move houses. “I used to pay Sh3,000 for rent every month but I had to move to a cheaper house. Even here, I had to negotiate to pay the Sh1,800 in instalments”, she adds.

Washerwomen start walking out of Kawangware, Kibera and other informal settlements adjacent to the middle class residential ones early in the morning. They stake out supermarkets, and sometimes road junctions, waiting for people looking for a day’s domestic help.

Employers who offer one-day jobs for Sh500 are of all varieties: homemakers seeking a helping hand with large catering; men who live alone; or people nursing patients and other household members with special needs.

The criteria used to select a washerwoman is capricious: some want plain looks while others are looking for neatness, some seek mature-looking older women while others call up those they have hired before.

“Employers are not the same”, says Rosemary Ambeyi, a widowed mother of five who works as a day-wage washerwoman. “Some [employers] invite the women into their personal spaces so that they can exploit them”, she adds.

Ambeyi has used this work to put two of her children through secondary school and is still educating another three.

“The challenge we have is assuming they want you to work”, she continues. “Once you get to the house, some start to make inappropriate advances, and you get into a fight—meaning you are not able to work. If you do not finish work, your pay is docked”.

The problems in the domestic work sector have persisted for over 12 years, says Mary Kambo, the programme manager for labour and corporate accountability at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. “Domestic staff work in isolation and their social connections are threatened. Raising your voice when you are alone could mean the loss of livelihood”.

Last year, an Africa Labour, Research and Education Institute study estimated that there were some two million people employed in domestic work in Kenya. Although domestic work is not properly documented, the sector is quite significant and plays an important role in driving the country’s economic growth and development.

Nannies, caretakers, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, drivers, and security guards among others, perform important work that makes it possible for professionals and people in business or other occupations to go to their jobs away from home. “The value of domestic work has, however, not been properly recognised”, says Kambo, adding that labour laws in the country have proved to be insufficient in dealing with the issues affecting domestic workers.

Working behind closed doors in gated communities, places domestic workers in personal spaces where they are vulnerable to abuse and harassment without any recourse because the laws of trespass make it difficult for labour officers or rights defenders to check what goes on in homes.

“The employee deals with one employer in a private space. When there is a dispute, it is difficult because they are alone. This type of work threatens the worker’s social connection. They do not know each other’s experience, and so cannot receive community assistance and support”, says Kambo.

For itinerant domestic workers like the washerwomen, the perils are double those experienced by live-in staff.

“You can be summoned and instructed to work from outside the house, working long hours until late”, says Mbatha. “The houses we work in are not the same. There are some places that are okay, and others are so hard but you cannot even speak about it. If you speak out, you will jeopardise future work”.

Staking out for work is a dicey game of chance. There are no toilets, and in the event of rain, there is no shelter from the elements. From their stakeouts, many washerwomen often have no way of estimating the amount of work they are signing up for and so cannot charge appropriately for it. They end up working long hours with no food. They can only leave when all the work is done, and sometimes it is too late to walk home.

“No one knows or recognises us . . . All we want is to be recognised so that we are not harassed and can raise our children from there”.

As the country moves to adopt home-based care for the rising number of COVID-19 patients, itinerant domestic workers will likely play a critical role in supporting families to cope. They have to protect themselves in environments where there might not be water or hand sanitisers.

Although the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied mobilises and speaks for workers in domestic service, those who undertake itinerant day-wage labour without the protection of contracts remain undefended.

Kenya has yet to accede to the convention on decent work for domestic workers. The convention requires member states to ensure the effective promotion and protection of human rights for all domestic workers, and to respect, promote and realise the fundamental principles and rights at work, such as freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. States are also required to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour, child labour, and discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

Attempts at organising domestic work usually run into strong headwinds. People seeking live-in work in the domestic service register in private bureaus where they are required to pay up to Sh500 and asked to wait for a call, which often never comes. Live-in work has long hours—staff are the first to rise and the last to bed, often eating food of low quality. Those in itinerant labour fare worse.

Unlike motorcycle riders—who are largely male, have mobilised into self-help groups and cultivated a saving culture—washerwomen are not organised and do not go beyond making collective savings. Without enough to live on, meeting and organising becomes that much more difficult. On days when work is scarce, washerwomen borrow money from one another to cross into a new day hoping for better luck.

Beatrice Lucas, a washerwoman living in the Gatina area of Kawangware in Nairobi, says none of the relief assistance meant for people impacted by COVID-19 measures has reached her. Washerwomen have missed out on official emergency relief and assistance because local administrators like location chiefs often map urban dwellings under their jurisdiction when the women are out looking for work.

“You can go a week without assistance or work. Food is handed out to the chief for distribution but the names of beneficiaries are never made public”, she adds.

Community activist Ruth Mumbi, who recently led a protest by washerwomen in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi when they were locked out of work by the lockdown, says the government’s COVID-19 bailouts are focusing on big companies, with Sh2 billion going to the hospitality industry, yet the women who do this work are also in the hospitality industry but they have received nothing.

Kambo argues that the COVID-19 emergency response should broaden its definition of vulnerable populations to embrace daily wage domestic workers beyond the usual categories of the aged, orphans, and people with preexisting health conditions.

There is an urgent need to formalise the domestic workers sector, especially daily wage earners. “We need space set aside for us to meet, register and plan our programmes”, says Ambeyi, adding that women have a variety of skills that can be monetised, such as car washing, which they perform as part of their daily labour.

Mary Wambui, who has done laundry work in Upper Hill for years, wants permanent sheds established with washing machines, and a linkage with motorcycle riders to collect laundry and drop it off after it has been cleaned and pressed, thus reducing personal contact and the opportunity for abuse. House cleaning can also be undertaken commercially, together with car washing.

Many government agencies are unaware of the rights violations in the domestic service sector because of poor documentation, leaving victims with no voice. Kambo reiterates that labour laws do not differentiate workers—domestic, office, plantation and the rest. Domestic workers are different and unique, deserving a separate categorisation. A special regulation is required to accommodate the domestic worker because this is the one person who cannot unionise.

And because washerwomen serve fellow workers, they should receive treatment free of charge and have their health insurance and social security protection paid for by the state.

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Kwamchetsi Makokha is a journalist with over two decades on the frontline of the struggle for human dignity. Co-editor (with Arthur Luvai) of the East African poetry anthology, 'Echoes across the Valley', he escapes into literature, the performing arts and agriculture. He is currently Programme Advisor at Journalists For Justice.

Culture

The Power of Connection Through Literature in the Era of COVID-19

Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

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Just over a year ago, in February 2020, I flew to Nairobi to award the 5th Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at a ceremony at the Intercontinental Hotel. While disembarking from the plane, every single passenger had their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, causing a long, mildly disgruntled queue in a confined space at the arrival gate. We all knew this was because the coronavirus had started to appear outside of China, but we didn’t think there was much risk of contagion at that point. When I flew back to London a few days later, I changed planes in Paris and mingled freely with thousands of passengers from all over the world. On arrival at Heathrow, my temperature was not checked at all. In fact, it took until February 2021—a year later—before the British government restricted entry to the UK and enforced mandatory quarantine on arrival.

I had a similar experience when I flew to Lagos in 2014 for the Ake Festival while Ebola was raging in nearby West African countries; at the time, these countries were struggling to contain the deadly, appallingly contagious virus within their borders. At Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos, all passengers had their temperatures checked, but on my return to London, I only saw a few posters that warned of Ebola in West Africa. Nobody checked where I had come from or whether I had been in contact with anyone who could be infected, even though there was a Liberian writer at the festival in Abeokuta and a Liberian woman being taxed for a bribe in the passport queue in front of me in Lagos. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone were the three countries affected by this outbreak, the worst in the history of Ebola.

Two weeks after I left Nairobi last year, the chair of the Kiswahili Prize, Mwalimu Abdilatif Abdalla, was told he could not leave Kenya to return home to Germany on March 26. After I left, he had stayed on to go to Mombasa and Tanzania and visit relatives in his village in Kenya. Instead, his return flight was canceled and he was confined to government accommodation for over two weeks. When I asked him on WhatsApp how he was coping, he said that after three years in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison (1969–1972), he was managing very well. His sense of humor always defies belief! His friends even joked that he could write a quarantine memoir called “Sauti ya Korona” (The Voice of Corona), after Sauti ya Dhiki, his prison anthology.

By March 16, 2020, the UK was in lockdown and coronavirus had spread all over the world. I couldn’t help thinking that I had been safer in Africa—and I promptly caught the virus and lost my sense of taste and smell for 10 days. The friend I had probably caught COVID-19 from developed long COVID-19 and was ill for six months, whereas I recovered quickly. It seems this roll of the dice reaction was the same for many people: symptoms varied and doctors struggled with the scale and variety of immune responses. A year later, this coronavirus has realized the fears of a global pandemic precipitated by SARS and dreaded for Ebola; at the time of writing, the world approaches 5 million COVID-19 deaths, with 163 million recoveries among the 178 million recorded cases globally. Notably, the Kenyan death toll is currently under 4,000, and the Nigerian count just over 2,000.

In Veronique Tadjo’s book In The Company of Men (2019), first published in French in 2017, we find a timely reminder of “the destructive powers of pandemics.” The book focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, which preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by six years but has been present in parts of Africa since 1976, when it was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo and named after the Ebola River near which it was found. Tadjo has commented that she sees a clear link between Ebola and COVID-19, although they are very different diseases. “For me,” she writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic is a continuation, not a break. It inscribes itself in the same context of climate change and its consequences. Ebola wasn’t a one off and Covid-19 won’t be either.”

Through five sections comprising 16 different points of view, Tadjo presents the impact of the Ebola pandemic from the perspectives of different characters including trees, nurses, those infected, survivors, and the virus itself. For example, in a chapter titled “The Whispering Tree,” the narrator declares, “I am Baobab.” The choice of the baobab tree’s perspective is unique, telling of Tadjo’s concern with environmental degradation as a key factor in the development of such a deadly virus. Reviewer Simon Gikandi, a Kenyan novelist and scholar, comments that “Tadjo weaves a story that turns the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa into a parable of what happens when the chain that connects human beings to nature is broken.” And this is perhaps where we have the most to learn in terms of new ways of seeing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gikandi remarks, “In the Company of Men gives voice to the natural world and mourns the loss of the well-being that existed before the destruction of the environment and the arrival of postmodern pandemics.”

In the context of such questions, I was struck by a recent BBC documentary called Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, in which David Olusoga and Steven Johnson examine the history of vaccination starting with the rise and eradication of smallpox. They detail how an African man was purchased in 1706 by a Puritan congregation in Boston as a gift for their minister, Cotton Mather, and was “forced to take on a new name,” Onesimus, after a slave in the New Testament. When Mather asked whether Onesimus had ever had smallpox—rife in Africa at the time—he replied, “Yes and no,” and then described the variolation procedure he had undergone in Africa before his capture. Variolation involved cutting the arm and putting fluid from a smallpox wound onto the cut, creating resistance in the host’s bloodstream without transmitting full-blown smallpox. This practice precedes Jenner’s experiments with cowpox by 90 years and had been present elsewhere in the world since the 1500s. This is a key example of effective preventative medicine that was present in Africa before slavery. And yet, the onset of modern transatlantic slavery is when the destruction of the global environment seems to really begin.

With the export of “valuable commodities” from Africa, including human beings, there soon followed deforestation, mining, farming, and building projects that formed the foundations of colonialism, western capitalism, the industrial revolution and imperialism. The rapacious nature of this conquest, which ignored indigenous knowledge systems and ways of living in harmony with the environment, also often spread disease, occasionally leading to new discoveries in medicine (which were not acknowledged or credited at the time).

The presenters of the documentary rightly laud the eradication of smallpox in just 18 years (1967–1985) as one of the great achievements of mankind, one which epidemiologist Larry Brilliant called “the end of an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to Rameses V.” Prior to vaccination efforts, smallpox had been killing 2 million mostly poor people a year, and the subsequent campaign involved the cooperation of 73 countries, including Cold War enemies the US and USSR. As Lucy Mangan writes in her Guardian review, “We can be so terrible, and we can perform such wonders.” And it is these wonders that Tadjo brings to our attention by writing In The Company of Men. The containment of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 is due to the combined heroic efforts of people on the ground and the local people who heeded public health messages, attended clinics, separated family members, stopped attending funerals, and got vaccinated.

Tadjo reflects in an interview that “the Ebola epidemic has a multi-layered dimension. It seemed to me that listening to various voices was the best way to get closer to a form of reality. An incredible number of people were involved in the fight against the virus and I could not bring myself to focus on one voice only.” Interesting correlations and discoveries were made by zoologists, for example who,

discovered a phenomenon that greatly increases Ebola’s catastrophic impact. When an outbreak is about to happen in a forest region, the virus will leave gruesome traces in the natural environment. It attacks antelopes, deer and rodents, but especially big apes such as chimpanzees … The remains of hundreds of animals are scattered on the ground … Whenever the villagers notice an unusual number of wild animal carcasses, they’ve learned to alert the local authorities at once, since the carcasses signify that an Ebola outbreak among humans is about to happen.

This connection to the rest of the natural world seems crucial to understanding epidemiology itself and answering the question of how these viral mutations arise (e.g., swine flu, bird flu, etc.). This is why we should be paying closer attention to the other (mass) extinctions occurring in this Anthropocene epoch.

Using the voice of the baobab is inventive and useful in establishing a timeless link to the forest and to ancestral points of view. But using the voice of a virus itself is fairly unusual in African literature. Kgebetle Moele was the first South African writer to do this, writing from the point of view of HIV in his novel The Book of the Dead (2012), which I have written about elsewhere. Moele’s HIV is a malevolent, predatory infiltrator of the human body. This infiltrator, once personified, seems to corrupt its host while replicating itself in unsafe sexual encounters, killing hundreds if not thousands of men and women in deliberate acts of aggression. The Ebola virus, on the other hand, is immediately established (in its own words) as less malignant than humans themselves; Tadjo writes of “man and his incurable, pathological destructiveness.” Humans are blamed throughout for having destroyed the environment and the natural harmonious link between man and nature. However, this is countered by the assertion of human solidarity as a powerful weapon or antidote. Early on in the book, the nurse welcomes the help of volunteers, saying, “when I see solidarity, it makes me want to work even harder.” Even the virus admits that “I understood that their true power showed itself when they presented a united front.”

Much of Tadjo’s writing, including The Shadow of Imana (2002), articulates what “cannot be written or heard.” By writing the voices of the perpetrators and victims of genocide, Tadjo enables us to reach a point of understanding—or, at the very least, consciousness—of what many consider unspeakable. The art of her storytelling lies in this ability to synthesize factual accounts and information first with the lives of real people who lived through the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and now with the experiences of those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the Company of Men works similarly to unveil the voices of the hidden and, most significantly, those of the dead who cannot tell their own stories. Her writing itself is an act of solidarity. If we listen, we can not only empathize—we can learn from these stories. The accounts should also act as a warning, as pandemics will continue to threaten humankind alongside climate change.

Tadjo’s book reminds me of an aspect of Colson Whitehead’s The Nikel Boys that I have admired so much—that it is so difficult for a narrator to tell a story when the protagonist is dead. Usually, the telling of the tale gives away the fact that the protagonist has survived, or at least lived long enough to narrate the story, but Whitehead twists the ending of his novel to such an extent that we do hear a tale from the grave, from an impostor. This almost reinvigorated story describes the tragic fate shared by many Nikel Boys, whose identities are now lost. This is what is important about Tadjo’s writing: by including the voices of the dead in In The Company of Men, she inscribes the lives of those whose pitiful deaths don’t make it into the real story of Ebola (except as death toll statistics).

This is what the novelist Maaza Mengiste refers to when she asks, “What do the living owe to the dead?” The sheer number of people who died in the Ebola epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic: this is what causes us to lose our sense of perspective and our ability to understand the real human cost of each universe that is lost to these deadly diseases. Mengiste’s further question—“What do they owe to the earth, which both protects and punishes?”—is one we will have to keep considering while we continue to destroy our earth. Is Tadjo’s Ebola virus right? Is man’s pathological destructiveness incurable? What do we owe the earth? Is there the political will, as there was with smallpox, to vaccinate every human against COVID-19, before it mutates into something far worse?

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Culture

Murder Inc: The Story of Rwanda’s Assassins Without Borders

Vividly sourcing her story with direct testimony from key participants, Wrong uses the story of the murder of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s assassination.

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Do Not Disturb, the latest of Michela Wrong’s Africa-themed books, is a penetrating examination of a gruesome murder committed in a posh hotel in post-Apartheid South Africa. This country was infamous for chasing African National Congress (ANC) officials and freedom fighters, whom it labelled communists and terrorists, wherever they hid. The boer regime had a special hit squad within its intelligence and security apparatuses that had all the names of the people blacklisted for death.

Akin to Murder Inc., a New York Mafia outfit that was notorious between the 1930–40s, the South African Boer regime sent hit men to wherever the ANC cadres were domiciled and to use Mafia parlance whacked them. As fate would have it, Karegeya was ensnared by a Rwandan hit squad in the night, at Michelangelo Hotel, room 905 Sandton and strangled to death. It was 20 years after South Africa’s transition into democracy.

After the job was done, the assassins professionally hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door and then slipped out of the country. In April 2019, five years after the murder had taken place, an inquest that had been delayed for political reasons, was held in Johannesburg. It concluded that Patrick Karegeya had been killed. The South African Directorate of Prime Crime Investigations, Hawks, also concluded the ‘Karegeya job’ was ‘directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government’

What explained the grim determination with which Kagame suddenly set about the task of dealing with Karegeya? Michela in her book, offers a lead: ‘Patrick certainly knew where all the skeletons were buried. The years he spent working in both Ugandan and Rwanda’s intelligence services meant he was on top of the region’s every secret.’

Reading Do Not Disturb, one is thrown back into those dark days of that notorious Apartheid regime: which sometimes would leave obvious tell tales signs to warn, whomever, that we will also come for you just like we did to XYZ. In those days, the death squad was efficient and feared and had the blessing of the racist South African state rulers.

The book also talks about the attempted assassination of Karegeya’s former comrade-in-arms General Kayumba Nyamwasa, who also spectacularly fell out with Kagame, in South Africa. The timing of the attempt could not have been more critical. It came when the ANC government least needed such an incident, on June 12, 2010, the second day of the soccer World Cup fete.

‘When the General was shot, the official reaction was one of total shock and outrage’, former South Africa ambassador Thembi Majola remembers. ‘The response was: really? You want to come and do this rubbish here when the whole world is watching the World Cup?’, Do Not Disturb records.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him. He always has.’ The book further states: ‘However drippingly contemptuous Kagame may sound in public – and the state controlled Rwandan media’s obsession with the general’s activities is a give way – he fears no one as he fears General Kayumba.’

Summoned to appear before a ‘disciplinary committee’ comprising top military, police, intelligence officers and RPF party honchos, he was grilled on his presumed insubordination: ‘Since you left, some people in the armed forces here always remained loyal to you. The newspapers write positive things about you all the time and criticise government, while you never deny it.’

Through the unravelling of the grisly murder of former Rwanda’s spy-in-chief Patrick Karegeya, the book offers the reader a kaleidoscope of a Mafia-like Murder Inc. hit squad that will go to any length to execute their mission, once the spotlight is shone on you. Once one-time Kagame’s bosom buddy, a kind of a special whisperer to the president’s ear, Karegeya spectacularly fell from favour, the spotlight would be turned on him.

Why is General Kayumba so feared by Kagame, his former boss? Do Not Disturb provides an answer: ‘The General clicks with ordinary soldiers, who instinctively trust him.

After finishing serving an 18-month jail sentence in one of Kigali’s notorious prisons in November 2007, the 48-year-old spy who had just come in from the cold and who loved Rwanda, although he had largely grown up in Uganda, seemed unbowed. But one of his military intelligence friends had the head and sense of forewarning his beleaguered friend: ‘Listen, Rwanda’s not for you now, please skip it and head for the mountains – and quick.’ Karegeya heeded his colleague’s advice and headed for Kampala. But, not sooner had he landed in Kampala he was already travelling to Nairobi.

Yet, there was no respite for the man who once called the shots in the Rwanda’s ruling party RPF’s intelligence service. Karegeya would later tell the author, ‘I’d been warned that Kagame knew I was in Kenya and I was asked to leave for my own safety.’ It was an advice he did well to obey – but only just. Nine years ago, before Karegeya landed in Nairobi, the city had been the scene of a grisly murder of a former senior Rwandan cabinet minister, who had also fallen out with the all-powerful Kagame, who was, for all practical purposes, the de facto Rwanda President. It was therefore an ominous warning.

On May 16, 1998, on a hot and sunny Saturday, at about 5.00pm, Seth Sendashonga was being chauffeured by Bosco Kulyubukeye in his wife’s UN number-plated Toyota SUV, UNEP 108K, on Forest Road, today Prof Wangari Maathai Road. As Seth sat in front with the driver, a vehicle suddenly sped in front of their car, just at the junction of the Limuru and Forest Road and three men jumped out, firing at the duo. Seth died on the spot, as he logged a bullet in his head and Kulyubukeye died on his way to Aga Khan Hospital, a private hospital that is located up on Limuru Road, less than 500m from where the assassination took place.

Seth’s luck had incidentally run out. This was not the first attempt on his life. Two years before, on February 26, 1996, there was an apparent attempt to kill him in broad day light. Contacted by a family member who told him he had some juicy, confidential document that he wanted to pass onto to him, Seth agreed to meet the contact at Nairobi West shopping centre, off Langata Road, and five kilometres from the central business district. Seth came along with his nephew.

But Seth quickly sensed a trap and immediately asked for the document. It was not forthcoming. So, he turned to his car and that is when he saw the waiting two men standing next to his vehicle. The young men must have fumbled because, instead of immediately getting on with their mission, they asked Seth in Kinyarwanda if they could get a lift. Seth, instead, gave them some money; 70 Kenyan Shilling, but as he reached for his car keys, the two gunmen pulled out their guns and fired five bullets at Seth and his nephew. Seth ducked in a split of a second by falling to the ground crawling behind his car. The bullet, which had been intended for his head, caught his shoulder. His nephew, though was critically injured.

As he recuperated in hospital, Seth said he had identified one of his killers: Francis Mugabo, an attaché at the Rwandese embassy in Nairobi. Arrested by the Kenyan police, the Kagame regime refused to waiver his diplomatic credentials, as requested by Daniel arap Moi’s then government, so that he could face prosecution in court.

Two weeks after his assassination, on 3 May, a quiet Sunday afternoon, Seth had met Yoweri Museveni’s step-brother and his consigliere, Salim Saleh, in a secret rendezvous in Nairobi. Apart from being Museveni’s eminence grise, he was also the acting Minister of Defence. The meeting had been arranged by French historian Gerard Prunier. Prunier, an Africanist and a Great Lakes and Horn of Africa specialist was Seth’s friend and had been meeting him in Nairobi prior to his demise. Suffice it to say, this was not the first time Salim was seeking out Seth: On December 21, 1995, Salim has spoken to Seth over the phone and agreed to arrange a meeting.

‘Why kill Sendashionga? Why was that necessary?’

In Do Not Disturb Michela Wrong narrates a conversation between Karegeya and an East African businessman in a Nairobi five-star hotel that took place in 2003. The conversation centres around Seth Sendashonga: ‘Why kill Sendashonga?’, the businessman asked. ‘Here was this Hutu leader, a credible moderate, an important symbol of ethnic reconciliation, a man of principle – and you murdered him. Why was that necessary?’

Why was that necessary? According to Prunier in his book: From Genocide to Continental War, ‘what made Seth a dangerous man (was) because he embodied a recourse, an alternative to the parallel logics of madness that were developing and feeding each other in Rwanda.’

Michela has written a scintillating account of a murder most foul. The book cannot be described as ‘unputdownable’ – as is wont with ground-breaking books – because you must, now and then, put it down to soak in the horrendous facts. If journalists write some of the best everlasting books to be remembered for years to come – it is because Michela has exemplified the art: the book is both well-sourced and well-narrated. The language is crisp and unpretentious, the leg-work is indomitable.

Famously known as the author of, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, the racy account of Mobutu’s Zaire, Michela’s name will flash across many Kenyans’ memory as the writer of, It’s Our Turn To Eat, a book about John Githongo’s government corruption exposure, as the Permanent Secretary of Governance and Ethics in Mwai Kibaki’s government. It’s Our Turn to Eat, was read like Pambana or December 12 Movement – underground and resistance pamphlets written in the 1970s and 1980s, by Kenyan dissidents that were digested like contraband, away from the prying big eyes of the state’s aficionados.

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Our Words Must Count

Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

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Our Words Must Count
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On July 9 this year, Kenyan filmmaker Silas Miami posted a tweet asking Kenyans to share their most unbelievable experience in boarding school. Expecting replies about quirks and naughty incidents, Miami was in for a surprise. The stories that emerged from the replies were simply horrifying. They were stories of abuse and extreme violence, including broken limbs and rape, meted out on children.

That the graphic stories of violence against children in schools did not trend is indicative of how easily Kenyans accept torture in the name of education. The worship of the colonial school system is so entrenched, that stories of violence do not attract much public attention except in extreme cases. Even when these stories make the news, the government rushes to stabilize the system by pouring water on the stories. An infamous example was the reaction to news reports about bullying at the prestigious Alliance High School. Fred Matiang’i, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, promptly visited the school and promised that the government would help the school maintain its reputation as “prestigious, comfortable and nice.”

Kenya has caught the world’s attention with two landmark court rulings, namely, the Maraga ruling that nullified the presidential election in 2017, and the 2021 ruling that declared the Building Bridges Initiative unconstitutional. Activists, lawyers and public voices will laud the armed resistance against colonial rule, and will rail against abuse of power by the political class today, but when it comes to the colonial school system, there is no public uproar, even against openly racist education policies.

How is this contradiction possible?

I suggest here that the silence and complacency in the face of the torture of Kenyan children is maintained by the idolization of the colonial school system. Kenyans so worship the school system, to the extent that they are willing to accept the abuse of children. This idolization is a form of what Lewis Gordon calls “theodicy”, where the people whose experiences contradict a system’s claims to perfection are branded as a problem people. In the Kenyan case, the brutality against children is often blamed on the children themselves, which allows Kenyan adults to avoid the reality that the real problem is the school system. Ultimately, Kenyan society does not consider the abuse or injury of its children compelling enough to overhaul our idea of education.

This idolatry is maintained by a series of agenda setting and speech practices which ensures that the school system is never fundamentally questioned. I argue here that in Kenya, it is difficult to discuss the problems with our schooling system, especially the violence against children and students, because of a sophisticated system of rhetorical practices maintained by the media and the educated elite. Through the regular Kenyan fallacies such as ridiculing questions to absurdity, demanding solutions with impossible guarantees of success, and accusing questioners of generalization, the Kenyan public rhetorical practices block the mere conversation on the dysfunction of our school system.

The violence of language

These conversational roadblocks to the violence of our school system are tied to one larger and unspoken reality. As a hierarchical society built on the unacknowledged colonial foundation of apartheid, the Kenyan hegemony has developed a sophisticated public rhetoric that banishes regular Kenyan citizens without institutional positions from social relevance. In other words, ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

Two important concepts help us grasp this reality. One is the idea of “speech acts”, which was famously developed by JL Austin, among others. “Speech acts” refers to the fact that words have an impact on reality. For example, thanking someone carries out the act of expressing gratitude. Similarly, the verbal commands of a person in power cause certain actions to be taken.

Ordinary Kenyans are banished from participating in public life through speech by ensuring that their words do not become socially relevant.

When a citizen publicly comments on a social issue, the citizen is carrying out at least two speech acts. One is the affirmation of the self as a social being by transcending one’s own words, and the other is participation in democracy. When, for example, a Kenyan citizen writes or speaks about public spending, they are affirming that they can affect and are affected by public spending.

​It is therefore through conversation that the people seek solidarity with others in the pursuit of a larger truth beyond themselves. However, through the cultural institutions of the church, the schooling system and the media, the Kenyan hegemony sustains a discursive machinery for denying Kenyans a social voice. This machine imposes all sorts of prohibitions on conversations, with the net effect of reducing people’s words to their connotation and denying the social impact of their speech. This text, which I wrote on Facebook and which benefitted from input from fellow Kenyans, summarizes the way this system works:

When we use metaphors, that’s doublespeak

When we give our opinions, it’s too late – decisions have already been made 

When we make evaluations, we are told not to judge

When we question, we are ungrateful

When we lament, we’re not providing solutions

When we provide solutions, the solutions are dismissed as unworkable

When we refer to society or trends, we’re generalizing and blaming individuals

When we generalize, we have no facts and evidence

When we provide context, we’re denying personal (or parental) responsibility

When we express frustration, we’re attacking people personally

When we disagree, there is a conflict and we should seek resolution

When we maintain our position, we’re arrogant and we’re silencing others

When we say “sisi”, we’re told to speak for ourselves 

The only time we’re worth listening to is when we repeat what others think

But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?

What then shall we talk about in this Kenya?

These discursive strategies drown conversations in discussions of style and attitude, and deny people’s ability to transcend their own words and propel a larger conversation beyond the literal meaning of what they individually say. Our words hit walls and are prevented from causing action, essentially locking us in a linguistic prison and denying us access to society. The implied goal of this unofficial, yet widespread censorship is to keep the colonial school system stable and free from disruption, no matter how deeply the system hurts our children.

This reality leads me to the second concept, which was developed by Keguro Macharia: that of political vernaculars. As Macharia explains, political vernaculars are conversations that function like weasel words; they give us the impression that we are discussing politics when, in fact, they block us from discussing politics. They give us the impression that we are creating community when, in fact, they are atomizing us. Political vernaculars determine what can be said and what cannot be said, and most of all, they prohibit us from imagining a world beyond the problem being discussed.

“But how can we know what others think, if they won’t say it, since they’re locked in the same game?”

In Kenya, therefore, education functions as a political vernacular that prevents us from making a discussion of the dysfunction and violence of our school system politically relevant. Like the violence of all other state institutions, the violence of the school system is relegated to what Keguro calls “the whispers [which] we might catch.” And so, Silas Miami would inspire Kenyans to speak the truth of the violence we mete out against children, but those stories ended there. We were unable to imagine an education system other than the one we already have.

Why are Kenyans this protective of such a violent school system, that they have extended this protection to language?

Kenyans – especially the educated – believe the following:

  1. Violence in schools is solely responsible for the opportunities that educated Kenyans have. It is not uncommon to hear educated Kenyans attribute their post-school success to the beatings they endured in school, completely oblivious, or in denial, of the social advantages they may have enjoyed, or their individual or social contribution to their achievements.
  2. Traumatic injuries are harmless because they are not physically visible. A common phrase that Kenyans use to dismiss the impact of violence on the psyche is to say “tulitokea tu sawa” (we turned out ok). Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.
  3. Institutions are fundamentally good, and when they harm people, it is the people and not the institutions that should change. We have essentially fetishized schools, and have become more committed to protecting schools than to protecting children and their education. This fetishization comes from our extremely hierarchical society, in which schooling is the only state-sanctioned avenue of social advancement available to the majority of Kenyans. Although this avenue is open to only 3 per cent of the population, Kenyans are insulated from doubting the system by the abusive practice of examinations and the equation of academic qualifications to “merit”.

These beliefs block Kenyan citizens from connecting the dots between the individual, the social and the political. The result is the disempowering of Kenyans, because these beliefs individualize institutional and social problems and make individuals – especially the voiceless like our children – carry the weight of social contradictions through violence.

As such, Kenyans are discursively blocked from connecting school violence to the larger social violence. The violence wipes out our memory of the role which individual effort and social opportunities played in our education outcomes. The absence of a social language with which to discuss the violence silences the words of young Kenyans decrying their pain at the hands of the school system. And when our young people feel that their words mean nothing, they have no choice but to resort to physical violence.

Our words must count

The urgent task facing Kenyans is to open the discursive space in which conversations and critiques of the school system are possible. When we refuse to critically evaluate our school system, we make violence inevitable. But to have that conversation, we must be willing to conceptually suspend the school system and consider it independent of its survival.

Kenyan adults are therefore confronted with this fundamentally moral question: Do our children’s lives matter? What kind of society do we have to be, so that the rape and torture of our children becomes so unfathomable that we are willing to shut down the entire school system, dismantle the Ministry of Education, replace our society’s imperial philosophy of hierarchy, to stop the violence?

Yet the levels of domestic and intimate violence, the eruption of violence every five years in Kenya, indicate that we are a deeply traumatized people.

When I say that these are moral questions, I am not simplistically referring to the literal shutting down of schools. I am asking about commitment, about what we are willing to give up as a country for the sake of our children. The question is not what commitment looks like in practice, but how much we are willing to give up for our children’s welfare. When I suggest that the violence against children should be significant enough to shut down schools, the focus has shifted from this commitment to the efficacy of closing schools, which is an indicator of our instinct to protect the schools rather than to protect the children. ​That reaction points to the manner in which Kenyan public discourse restricts our words to their literal meaning, in order to prevent us from confronting the social situation to which the words are pointing.

The immediate problem is not what will stop the violence in our schools; it is the absurdity that stories of children being brutalized and killed in school have not been enough to horrify Kenyans to call for drastic action in the school system. However, we cannot mobilize action to stop the violence without a public rhetoric that renders the brutality suffered by our children unfathomable, unacceptable and abominable. Keguro suggests that such a rhetoric requires a political vernacular of love and freedom. Love inspires us to think of freedom from our current imprisonment in the state schooling system, and of an education that goes beyond the school to nurturing the humanity and freedom of our children. Love would inspire us to imagine a country where knowledge acquired from apprenticeship, work and culture is legitimized, and where people acquire social status from work and accomplishment outside employment by institutions. Love would empower us to be creative in terms of how we educate the next generation in a system free of the violence of the current one.

So the question is, do we love our children enough to imagine such a kind of education?

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