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What Kamala Harris’s Nomination Means to Black America and Women

12 min read.

One encounters three streams of consciousness in America: unquestioned belonging of whiteness; uncertain discomfort of in-betweens; and the dangerous branding of blackness. Kamala Harris belongs to the in-between identities that have lately kept shifting and disturbing a nation that demands neat extremes.

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What Kamala Harris’s Nomination Means to Black America and Women
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When the air shifts its scorching weight just so, and begins to allow the cool streams of summer’s evenings to take over, I find my courage to venture out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Another full cycle has come knocking, I say to myself, in cautious tones so it does not ring out loud like an admonition against self; a reprieve that I may have stayed too long in this land of cyclic seasons and strange sojourning.

Yet there’s something about this place that has lodged itself deeply into my becoming. There’s a foreign bone packed with the marrow of experience, encounters and educating. That bone is stuck in there, and over the years of accommodating its foreignness, it has calcified into character. It’s a bone that has made the soldier in me more prepared to take up arms and go to war for that which makes us whole, restores our dignity, and against that which diminishes our civility. And I’m about to go to war for Kamala Harris.

Walk with me

But first, take a walk with me. Up the street, just a five-minute walk from my home is the Natural History Society of Maryland building. I’ve been here before for neighbourhood events like paint night to raise funds for our arts festival. I come to the building’s parking lot on occasional Saturdays to buy fresh produce from the local seasonal farmers’ market.

This building is also the place where something phenomenal happened in 1913. A group of women suffragists marching over 200 miles for three months from New York to Washington DC stopped here to rest up for the night. I live in the shadow of one of American history’s most inspirational women’s movement that fought for the right of women to vote.

I stand there in the quiet of the evening summer breeze and close my eyes. In my mind’s eye, I can see the reported 5,000 to 10,000 women marchers finally arrive in Baltimore, worn out, shoes and laces desperately clasping the feet they protected with fierce resolve. The neighbourhood has opened their homes for the women to spend the night. The local priest, Dr. Cyrus Cort, is against the women’s fight to be heard through the ballot, but he is voted down, and the women are welcome to stay in the neighborhood.

This connection to history fills me with inspiration. It’s enough for me that my neighbourhood played a part in this struggle. No matter what, I will carry on that spirit of welcoming the warrior, giving them rest, and replenishing their supplies as long as I have the means. It is because of these women that I, an African in America, have pitched my tent here and can vote for the leaders I want.

The women suffragists stopping in my neighbourhood is all reported in a New York Times article on February 1913. The marchers woke up early the next morning and marched on down past where I live and headed on to Washington DC. With them they carried banners, one which read: “New York State denies the vote to criminals, lunatics, idiots and women.” When they arrived in Washington DC, they held up another sign, which read: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” But things were not going to change overnight.

It wasn’t until seven years after those women came by what is now my neighborhood that the 19th amendment was signed, giving women the right to vote. But that’s not what’s shocking. This fight started in 1848 when the women established the National Women’s Suffrage Association. It took them 70 years to achieve that goal!

Let’s zoom out and get an even truer perspective. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, states that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it took over 130 years for women to achieve that equality as voting citizens. This did not include black women!

There’s a sadness about this struggle that only America’s foundation of racism could have enabled. White women who fought for equality left out black women. Some of those in the leadership ranks voiced out their concern that black women did not have the same rights as white women. Ida B. Wells, a black woman suffragists born into slavery, fought for black women’s place in the struggle. They were allowed to march from the back of the parade. History records that she bravely led her team of black women to the front. While the 19th amendment of 1920 gave women the right to vote, it wasn’t until 45 years later that black women gained their right to vote. This background connects the dots from women’s suffrage to the nomination of Kamala Harris, a black woman, for the vice presidency.

Kamala Harris in the African context

European society looked upon women as men’s property, childish, prone to irrational thought, and therefore dependent on their husbands for decision-making. Unfortunately, this is a worldview that European colonisation imposed on Africa.

African societies had women in positions of power and public influence long before European intervention. They were queens who ran kingdoms alongside men. They were warriors who fought in battles and medicine women who healed. They were priests who held oracular power that could be more powerful that the king’s political office. They also comfortably occupied the private space of their homes as mothers and nurturers of life.

While the 19th amendment of 1920 gave women the right to vote, it wasn’t until 45 years later that black women gained their right to vote. This background connects the dots from women’s suffrage to the nomination of Kamala Harris, a black woman, for the vice presidency.

Sufficient research by African scholars shows that before the intervention, African societies recognised the complementarity role that both male and female genders played. The ordinary African woman was not considered fickle of mind like the European woman. In fact, in most societies, she ran the markets, determined the prices, and controlled the location of trading. This phenomenon is still very present in African countries where, for example, “mama mboga” is the predominant trader in local markets. If something happens to the market spaces, it is women who speak out and fight to have things corrected. The Western concept of markets, on the other hand, is dominated by men. There are still very few white women in political and trading spaces. In the United States, there are only seven black women who have conquered the heights of financial bosses in big companies. The Western world has a lot to learn from pre-intervention Africa.

So why are African women celebrating the nomination of Kamala Harris to the vice president candidacy in America if they were way ahead in recognising the complementarity of genders? Because things changed, and now we draw inspiration from the global black woman who rises against the odds. Colonial powers in Africa strategised to place men in powerful positions and relegated women to private spaces where decisions affecting society were not made. Over time, colonial and post-colonial African men began to think of themselves as superior to their women. This was never the reality.

When Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi admonished the environmentalist, Professor Wangari Maathai, in public, telling her she should know that African culture demands a woman should be subservient to men, he was wrong. African elders raised in colonial Africa are not to be trusted with Africa’s memory. They are the ones who sided with the white usurpers and kicked our mothers out of their places of honour. Many have misled a generation that is now slowly beginning to discover the truth about an Africa whose civilizations fully included women. In ancient Africa, from a gender perspective, Kamala Harris’s nomination would have been ordinary.

We have forgotten the African institutions that had nurtured powerful women who were not an oddity to Africans. In spite of the destruction of Africa’s gender complementarity systems, Africa’s new nations have not needed to fight the same battles that Western women have had to fight. Kenyan women do not need a suffrage movement.

When Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi admonished the environmentalist, Professor Wangari Maathai, in public, telling her she should know that African culture demands a woman should be subservient to men, he was wrong. African elders raised in colonial Africa are not to be trusted with Africa’s memory.

To arrive at the place of complementarity that satisfactorily caters to women’s needs and talents in leadership, African women activists must include a restoration of memory, an education on how African societies so naturally came to produce women like Mekatilili wa Menza, Yenenga, Asantewa, and a string of queen mothers across Africa. What white women have been fighting for is a place that African women had long figured out how to structure, and then violently forced to forget.

The novelty of Kamala Harris in American politics comes from a society that is still very young in building institutions of gender complementarity. America is culturally a baby compared to Africa’s ethno-cultural nations and territories before they were arbitrarily bunched up together as Westphalian nation-states. Yet the irony is that African women now find inspiration in Harris’s nomination as one of them.

Perhaps someday, African scholars will teach and inspire America in building what Africa once had so that the occurrence of a Kamala Harris or a Barack Obama in the 21st century would not be so shocking an achievement. When Cheikh Anta Diop attempted to teach about the ancient wisdom of Africa’s matriarchal systems and civilizations of black Kemet that contributed to Western knowledge, he was fought ruthlessly by the French and denied the right to teach.

Slowly, the present-day Anta Diops will arise, return memory to Africans, and gift the Western world with the idea of how to make a black woman presidency as common as that of a rich white male. When Shirley Chisholm, an educator and writer, became the first black woman elected to the US Congress in 1969, where she served seven terms, and then boldly ran for president on a major party ticket in 1972, she carried within her this easy knowledge from her African ancestors – the knowing that there was nothing out of place about a black women leading a country, a kingdom, an army.

I’m caught between celebrating Kamala Harris and chastising America for its exceedingly slow pace in bringing women to powerful public spaces. The black movement does not yet have the power to steer more Harrises to the top. There’s a war of intra-black identities brewing. And I’m caught between different blacknesses. Racial identity in America is a web of chains that you struggle through. One encounters three streams of consciousness: unquestioned belonging of whiteness; uncertain discomfort of in-betweens; and the dangerous branding of blackness. Kamala Harris belongs to the in-between identities that have lately kept shifting and disturbing a nation that demands neat extremes.

Kamala, the in-between

She’s black, she’s Indian, she’s American. In this country, race is everything. It is the thread that knits this country’s identity, with the warp and weft of black and white extremes inextricably holding together the character of a nation knit with the needles of structural and performative violence. This aspect of violence comes out with shocking clarity in the dissection of George Floyd’s murder.

In spite of her mixed-race heritage, in the American construct, Harris is considered a black woman. In Kenya, she would be called white – mzungu – either as a result of her Anglophone American culture or on account of her much lighter skin. The black/white racial dichotomy in Kenya holds little to no relevance in the functional identity of Kenya. And if you are mixed-race with one of your parents being white, you are still more mzungu than mwafrika in Kenya. The way it goes in America, if you even have a drop of black in you, you are considered black.

Historically, some people with that drop of black chose to pass for white in order to have an easier life in a country where being black is a heavy cross upon which one is hung and bleeds from wounds of indignity to the end of their days. It doesn’t matter that a black person becomes the president, a billionaire, a Nobel laureate… if they are black, they are just below the line of consideration as human beings. Kamala Harris, a black women who is also in-between races, to have been nominated as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, is both discomforting and at once dangerous for Americans.

Conspiracy theories as puerile as birtherism and their manic regurgitation have been a hallmark of this current regime. That Ms. Harris is now a victim of this idiocy fueled by the president is no surprise. Something tells me she has the firepower to fight back that Obama did not have. She showed her mettle during the Democratic presidential candidacy campaigns when she fearlessly confronted Joe Biden. The debates against their Republican opponents can’t come soon enough. Black people do not have the luxury to play nice. They have to know how to throw lethal punches using nothing but their smarts. And as a Howard University alumna, Ms. Harris comes with confidence and pride. She is fearless because she inculcated black intellectualism as a dominant body of thinking during her four years at this university.

But the black identity is growing more complex in America, especially when it comes to power. Harris’s nomination is not only discomforting to white nationalists and good white folk who silently feel threatened by the encroaching shadow of darker-skinned people that translates to lowered value of life and living; it is also discomforting to some black people who are unable to think outside of the compartmentalisation of race purity.

The identity psychosis of black purists

On the black identity extreme, accusations of “she’s not black enough” have already started. The smear campaigns that she’s not black at all are staples that benefit both extremes of racial purity. The keepers of both black and white racial purity have built a thought citadel of power and belonging that is tiered, with the top level of political representation, social influencers and paradigm shifters belonging to a select few for the rest to gaze upon and feel proud and well represented.

These citadels of black racial purity are heavily fenced in with qualification criteria that range from parentage, ancestry, political ideology, social association, upbringing, and yes, the unspoken inanity of skin tones. Black purists, such as the American Descendants of Slaves movement (ADOS), are peddling she’s-not-black-enough prejudices – an accusation that is as callous as the president’s fueling of birtherism conspiracies.

Harris has fully embraced her mother’s Indian heritage and proudly declared her black identity in America. Yet there is still a problem for some vocal ADOS members who argue that her black Jamaican father who came to the United States as a student is not a descendant of American slavery, and therefore his progeny cannot claim to understand the issues that black people in America really face. It does not matter to these black purists that Harris was born and raised in America as a black person with the same racist experiences an ADOS would have faced.

Conspiracy theories as puerile as birtherism and their manic regurgitation have been a hallmark of this current regime. That Ms. Harris is now a victim of this idiocy fueled by the president is no surprise. Something tells me she has the firepower to fight back that Obama did not have.

During desegregation, Harris was bussed to school as a black girl and faced the isolation and rejection of the white school she was being bussed to. When you are the instrument of experimentation in the pursuit of a more perfect union, the whip of the master’s fightback lands on you through the jeers and indignities you suffer alone in school. Regardless of privileges she might have had as a light-skinned educated woman – because this is America where human value is often measured by the shade of one’s epidermis – Harris has worn that branding of blackness since she was born.

But the psychosis of racism for black people has been long and brutal, and some have reacted to it by taking that very same excoriating system and building a caste system of black identity. This tiered privilege is presented by influential ADOS persons as “lineage”, where an up-coming black person is pushed into declaring her ancestry. By that declaration, she gets shelved into the appropriate caste of blackness: Pure Black; Pass for Black; Not Black Enough, Not Black at All.

As a continental African immigrant, I belong to the last tier – Not Black at All – and I dare not be caught by an ADOS speaking authoritatively on any issues of black experience in America regardless of the fact that the American system considers me a black person. The police will kill a black immigrant African with no less depravity that they killed George Floyd; and my resume will and has often been thrown into the bin as quickly as Shaniqua’s because we both have an African or black name.

Last year, Don Lemon, a CNN anchor sympathetic to ADOS, sparked a fury about Kamala Harris’s lineage: “She’s black, yes, but is she African American?” he asked. A splitting of black hairs and hierarchies. Like Barack Obama before her, these keepers of American black purity questioned where these problematic in-betweens should fit in the black identity spectrum.

Meanwhile, right wing blacks have also joined the bandwagon of policing the black identity against the collective interests of a people who share the same enemy. Observing all this is the Master who chuckles gleefully at the spectacle. So, gleefully, the president’s son retweeted a black right wing provocateur who claimed about Kamala: “She comes from Jamaican slave owners. She’s not an American Black. Period.” Whether such tweets are generated by Russian bots or not, there is enough communication with real black purists that hold the same views.

This tiered privilege is presented by influential ADOS persons as “lineage”, where an up-coming black person is pushed into declaring her ancestry. By that declaration, she gets shelved into the appropriate caste of blackness: Pure Black; Pass for Black; Not Black Enough, Not Black at All.

If these black purism voices rise to a critical mass, they would win the argument that Harris could not possibly represent or understand the grievances of American descendants of slaves because her Asian-Jamaican lineage disqualifies her. It’s mind-boggling.

The psychosis of exclusive belongings kneecaps black rising everywhere. Purposeful black unity is possible and necessary in conquering the 21st century institutions of modern slavery. In the United States, the main one is the prison industrial complex that incarcerates black people at over five times the rate of white people, according to the US Department of Justice. Globally, the institution of economic slavery binds us all. The Washington Consensus economic hegemony still holds hostage African nations and the global black economy. It is naïve to not understand this connection between all descendants of African peoples. It needs to be clarified that I speak of a black unity of purpose that could and should be achieved through black diversity and through the necessary recognition that blacks are not and never have been a monolith.

Healing the black mind

What has happened and is still happening to black people in America can never be fully expressed in any manner of language. The one thing that ADOS have right is the insistence that they have a unique experience that no other black person who has not borne the inherited burden on the enslaved ancestry can fully understand. Uniqueness though does not mean that a non-ADOS is incapable of learning the history of African Americans and making intelligent decisions that dare to build a country that helps heals the minds of black people, restores justice and recognises their humanity. Is Kamala Harris up for this challenge? Time will tell.

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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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