In Yoweri Museveni’s fourth decade in power, the Ugandan state has shrunk into one man and a dog, himself and his police chief
Not since January 25, 1986 had I felt the slow-burning, debilitating fever that I did on May 20 this year, a fever you would know if you are Iraqi, Syrian, or Ugandan over 20, or South Sudanese of any age or era:
Although akin to malarial lethargy, it is not a proper fever, its toll on your body and mind operating at a remove from the latter. It will neither ground nor kill you, but as with malaria, you are sapped of energy, you have no appetite, the joie de vivre by which you claim membership to life has flown away. You want to withdraw into a dark corner and curl up.
I am labouring to describe in unfamiliar, personal terms, the physiological experience of being caught up in a violent military coup. To live through such a moment, is to experience war compressed into hours, days or weeks. There is a prolonged bath in adrenaline that is physically and mentally draining. There is the upending of routine and rule that kills your spirit.
So on May 20 this year, when I left the house and went to town, and this fever suddenly broke out in me, I instinctively understood that Uganda had turned a corner from which return may not be possible. And yet the trigger could not have been more trivial: My telephone line had been cut.
I had expected that to happen. In fact, I had wilfully participated in the loss of my line. An announcement had been made in early April saying that all phone users must re-register their lines or be cut off in seven days. I refused to comply. On the sixth day, the Prime Minister’s Office said the deadline had been extended by a month. I stayed home. The month came to an end and promptly, the lines were cut.
The people at the mall trying to get their phones reconnected were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN, jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion
When I got to town, I was more staggered than I could have expected. There at the mall, standing in ragged lines with the sun beating down on them, was a mass of people, local and international, who could no longer make or receive calls. It was the look on their faces that reminded me of 1979, 1985 and 1986, the coup years. It was the look of people in the midst of a calamity beyond prevention.
BETRAYAL OF THE DOCILE CONSUMER
I had refused to comply with the directive. But those in the lines had complied; was it just inefficiency or had they been guilty of forwarding memes the state disliked? It mattered not what had happened. There at the mall, with its high-end branded products, something heartbreaking was happening:
The people there were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion. This was their thing, this government and the economic ideology it espoused. Many had got their jobs by following regime diktats, not making noise, not being seen with noise-makers.
The economic encyclical they knew by heart had said that capitalist excess was good. Investors and consumers were protected by the regime. Yet now, the telephone, which had brought vast investments into the country, with its millions of dollars in taxes, had been switched off.
The regime had for over 20 years touted its openness. It had enthusiastically done what the IMF and World Bank had asked it to do, back in the early 1990s when it carried out what was then clothed in the euphemism of “structural adjustment policy” but today goes in the explicit nudity of “austerity”. It had punished its people with gut-wrenching impoverishment so it could please the Western powers and avoid regime change. Over the decades, barriers to “free trade” had come down. Uganda, the IMF told all who cared to listen, was business-friendly.
So to wake up that Saturday morning to the reality of a ham-fisted regulation, one that could strangle any multinational co-operation, was astounding. The faces in that mall asked all these questions but in the abstract: What had we done wrong? Had we not consumed (and done so conspicuously) like all well-brought up boys and girls are taught to? Had we not behaved like responsible adults by heeding Gordon Gecko’s dictum that greed is good? Had we not volunteered our energy and time on earth as a good, mostly Christian country and devoted our energy to making the rich richer? Why this punishment now?
In lieu of competitive politics, Museveni’s first decade in power had operated under a ‘broad-based’ system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks
To such exemplary behaviour were due such little rewards as walking into the most expensive restaurants, not so much to eat, as to snap pictures of the dinner for Instagram. Going out the door each day was a Facebook challenge. Now even that was no longer possible. I saw in their faces horror at the prospect of returning to the anonymity of the 1990s, to operating VCRs and having to twirl cassette tapes on a Bic pen to rewind them.
WE ALWAYS KNEW THE MILITARY WOULD TURN AROUND AND BITE US
The Museveni government had acted out of character. What had been concealed and contained for 31 years of his time in power had at last erupted, very publicly. We had lived with a military government for a full generation. One day, we always knew, it would turn around and bite us. If you had watched the Museveni regime for the past three decades, you would have noticed that at the close of each decade, his rule shifted gear in consequential ways. We were at the start of the fourth decade, which meant a new tempo had been embarked upon.
The first 10 years had been unchallenged rule by the complete set of ideologues he had brought with him from the bush war. They were the gushing, forward-rushing youthful stage during which the government could do no wrong and genuinely tried its best not to. That was the forward-rushing youthful stage. In lieu of competitive politics, the decade had operated under a “broad-based” system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks. The “good leadership”, “political will” by which Museveni has been described, were products of this period. Victory had brought goodwill and he was eager to show it.
The period ended with the passing of the 1995 constitution, the biggest goodwill of all. And then it started. Looking back, it would seem that Museveni’s longer lasting troubles began with that document. Ugandans had given the regime the benefit of the doubt in the first decade. Now they wanted something in return. The 1990s ended with the now famous “missive” Dr Kizza Besigye wrote in 1999 declaring Museveni a dictator. Besigye’s courage took Museveni aback, as did the massive crowds Besigye attracted when he first ran for president in 2001, dwarfing the numbers Museveni attracted, for the first time giving the president an undiluted assessment of what Ugandans thought of him.
The departure of Besigye from the war veterans’ camp opened the door for the haemorrhage of Museveni’s bush war colleagues, a bleeding he and the Movement were never to recover from; what was worse, the end of the second decade marked very emphatic victories against him from a Uganda Museveni thought he had vanquished.
Through a series of legal battles, lawyers of the Uganda People’s Congress and the Democratic Party, doyens of the anti-colonial years that had been banned from operating, revealed the contradiction between Museveni’s claim to have returned constitutional rule to Uganda, and his refusal to obey the same constitution. In an attempt to pre-empt the return of political parties, the government had organised the infamous Referendum of 2000, whose cloying rationale fooled few. The banned opposition parties, unwilling to lend political legitimacy to Museveni, refused to participate, whereupon the government propped up straw parties to act the part of the Yes side while it hogged the No role. In a poorly attended exercise, 90.7% of those that bothered to vote, estimated at 30 % of registered voters chose a “No Party” Movement system against the 9.3% who chose a “Multiparty” system.
To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44 %. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate
The result served as legal cover for one-party rule (described now as “no party rule”). But in 2004 a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court declared it null and void. As if to save face, to show that it had known what it was doing, the government organised a second referendum on the same question, in 2005. This time, it was a little tricky. The government decided it wanted parties back, which meant that it was now sentimentally on the same side as the parties it had banned. It therefore invited the parties, which by law did not exist, to take the government’s side in declaring that it, the government, had been wrong. The parties refused to agree whereupon the government stood alone in acting the Yes side. But for the suffrage to be legal, there had to be a No side. For two decades, the government had said No. Now the government was saying Yes and therefore no one was saying No. Once again, props had to be found and money found to fund their No.
To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time around. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44%. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate.
NOBODY LOVES THE JACKBOOT
Having kept them under the military jackboot for 20 years, Museveni now castigated the parties for refusing to support their own return to life. They were “not contributing to Uganda’s development,” he said.
That was the spirit in which Museveni ruled for 20 years, that play-acting at magnanimity, the third-rate theatre by which he blarneyed his way through, year after year. He was after all a “good” leader and that called for “good” behaviour. It is easy to forget, but in the first two decades, Museveni cut a figure somewhere between a likeable clown and a deadly fighter.
The judicial humiliations of 2004-2005 were not isolated events. The end of his second decade in power presented Museveni with new realities neither he nor Ugandans could have anticipated. This period of irrevocable change started in 2003 and did not end until 2006-2007. Museveni’s perennial bogeymen, the figures he could invoke to frighten Ugandans into obedience, Idi Amin and Milton Obote, died (2003 and 2005), deaths that left him exposed. Suddenly, he was left alone. The shadows of the past gone, he would now be judged by his actions alone.
And then the war in northern Uganda jolted to an abrupt end. What had provided political ballast, the spectre of Nilotic rule that had made the Bantu southerners so uneasy, faded rapidly. To further complicate life for Museveni, the end of the northern war left him without a diversion to distract restless, politicised military officers, nor cover for the classified budgets to defence that had hitherto provided a useful slush fund.
But not as yet. An election was still looming in 2006 and Besigye had learnt nothing from the beatings and imprisonment he had suffered. Yet if the returned political parties were triumphant, the electorate did not share this triumph. The 92.44% voters who wanted them back did not show up for them. The crowded field of presidential candidates, which included Milton Obote’s widow, Miria Obote, played supporting roles to the protagonists.
Museveni, realising that the constitution he had nursed to life would not be on his side, began to make the moves that would lead to the funereal pall of May 20, 2017. He appointed one General Kale Kayihura as Inspector General of Police. The disastrous militarisation of the police had begun. Kayihura had made his name as commander of the Revenue Protection Unit, which went after smugglers and tax dodgers with methods that threw the operation into disrepute. He was not a nice man.
KAYIHURA, UGANDA’S LONGEST SERVING IGP
Footage courtesy of New Vision TV
Not forgetting what it had done to him, Museveni also moved against the judiciary through appointments and outright humiliation. In a striking display of what would characterise the next decade in power, the so-called Black Mamba squad invaded the High Court and rearrested 22 suspects granted bail by the judges. They were allegedly part of the People’s Redemption Army, allegedly linked to Besigye.
Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda
The drift away from constitutionalism had begun. It is still unbelievable, the degree of violence that the army and the police deployed in this, Museveni’s third decade in power, from the brutal actions on the streets during the 2011 elections, to the disarmament of Karamoja pastoralists. Whoever was in charge, was not of the calibre of Besigye, whose stewardship of battalions in the first decade of Museveni’s rule had won so much respect in most parts of Uganda. These were a raw, untempered lot. As the decades piled up, principled men and women refused to work with Museveni, leaving the dregs to exercise power.
THE COST OF DOING POLITICS IN UGANDA GOES UP
And then, 16 months before the 2011 elections, something exceedingly alarming happened. In September 2009, the King of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, set off to visit a district his kingdom claimed as part of its territory. Kayunga, home to the Baruli community, had been a vassal state in pre-colonial Buganda, so the visit provided ironies all around, not least for Buganda, which was demanding the return of its properties from the Uganda state, the same kind of demand the Baruli were making of the Buganda Kingdom. The government blocked the visit, upon which Buganda erupted. The extremely ethnicised nature of the riots that followed were a frightening demonstration of what people felt, that Museveni and his ethnic group were “oppressors” hell bent on a massive land grab. It brought out fears of the kind that lie just under the surface of African politics.
The cost of doing politics in Uganda had gone up. In the run up to the 2006 elections, plainclothes operatives had fired live bullets and killed a man, just yards from where the Kabaka stood next to Besigye. It had been the single most chilling episode of that campaign period, one which left the Buganda, long mass supporters of Museveni who had in the previous two elections voted overwhelmingly for him, in no doubt of what they were facing. The 2009 riots were a delayed reaction. The country became a less happy place, if it had been happy in the first place.
But newer global forces, particularly “terrorism,” provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was “an ally” in the “war on terror.” Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and replace lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda. The modus operandi of Museveni has been that there must always be a war; as rulers throughout the ages know, war enriches soldiers and is also a neat way to get rid of problematic officers.
The opposition had gained traction by now. The public had seen a side to the regime it would not forget. Only voter intimidation and rigging ensured the ruling party stayed in power in 2006. In 2011, in a bizarre move, Museveni courted northern Ugandan voters. The ballots returned significant gains for the Movement. It was a shocking event, for Museveni had always ignored the northern vote. But now, he had also lost southern support. The cost of buying the northern vote, as well as the amount of fear-mongering needed to secure it, was too high. It was not tried again in 2016, when the opposition returned to its previous sweep of the region.
Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda
However, it must be noted that faith in elections ended in 2001; whatever little remained burned out in 2006. What the government may have missed was that by participating in the 2011 elections, the opposition was in effect, simply looking for a casus belli – daring the government to show its hand – by which to justify its next move. The state duly obliged. The world and the judges agreed that the elections had been a sham. The demonstrations that followed (this was Arab Spring season) in the well-reported “Walk to Work” protests in which political leaders “siding” with the poor ditched their cars and walked to parliament, initiated a novel approach to Ugandan politics. It also neutralised the use of armed force. It was a battle of image for which Museveni the guerrilla-fighter could not have been more ill-prepared.
NEOLIBERALISM BEGINS TO UNRAVEL
It was also in this decade that the economic policies adopted in the early days of the regime had so endeared Museveni to Western powers, began to unravel. The failure of neoliberal economics to deliver promised “trickle down” benefits had done its damage in the Third World countries forced to swallow it. But following the 2008 banking crisis, the failures of that ideology had crept up from its Third World laboratories into the heartlands of extreme capitalism. While it had never really had a chance to work in a country like Uganda, the crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time the third decade in power was coming to a close.
Enter Amama Mbabazi. He had been Museveni’s co-tribune, a Movement pillar and prime minister from 2011 to 2014. It had always been rumoured that he had been the organiser, the man who made things work. He first publicly expressed his presidential ambitions back in 2000 when he accused Besigye of jumping the succession queue. Had there been a pact between him and Museveni that he would be president after him? And how patient was he going to be? In 2015, when it became plain that Mbabazi had presidential ambitions, the Movement machinery whirred into action to do what it had rarely, if ever, done. It turned against its own.
The crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time his third decade in power was coming to a close
The subsequent ejection, failed presidential candidacy and fall of Mbabazi quickly faded out of sight and he was not to become a subject of public discussion afterwards. The essential rebellion had been Besigye’s 1999 missive. There was to be no repeat. Attention remained focused on the latter, whose arrests and trials continued apace.
That was on the surface. Underneath, the ouster of the cringe-worthily naive Mbabazi, as it is now turning out, was to provide the essential plot and character for Museveni’s entry into the fourth decade in power. It is the thread that led to the fear I read that afternoon of May 20:
The ouster of Mbabazi was accompanied by a purge of the government and of the Movement system of alleged Mbabazi supporters. The high-level paranoia that underneath his own system, rebellion was growing, denied Museveni trust in a system as complex as a government needs in order to function. And yet it had been that trust the knowledge technocrats had that the president was both reasonable and supportive, that had delivered the key achievements of his early days in office, like the economic recovery and the fight against HIV/Aids. These achievements had in various forms not survived beyond the first decade but the original impetus had created a momentum of goodwill, for the image of “good leadership,” once earned, is hard to lose, if only because society is desperate for it. At any rate, Museveni had always profited by the inexhaustible store of goodwill extended to him.
It was inexhaustible until it ran out. By 2014, when Museveni made the ill-advised and very public move to sign the so-called anti-gay Bill, there had been a considerable body of international opinion that he was not exactly a democrat. By inserting himself needlessly into the Western cultural wars, Museveni had blundered in a costly fashion. He may have calculated that it would improve his electoral chances back home, but his opponents were never going to support gay rights to start with. The advantage was cancelled out. His detractors in the West had their opportunity. They pounced.
Aid money was cut left, right and centre. They needed the money for their own people. What had been billed as economic recovery was revealed to have all along been baloney. Uganda under Museveni had never improved its productivity in real terms. It was an aid-money autarky all the time.
By the time the 2016 elections came and went, it was undeniable that the country was in serious trouble. Police and other civil servants, not least teachers, nurses and doctors, went months without pay. Medicine was unavailable in hospitals. At the same time, the internal witch hunt in government, and the air of fear and suspicion following the ouster of Amama Mbabazi was causing a cave-in from the other end: There was no money to pay public workers; at the same time, people in high office became afraid to work, in case they were seen to be ambitious.
FEAR AND INTIMIDATION TAKE OVER
Museveni’s innate instinct, the use of force and intimidation, seems to have taken over. The perennial troubles of Kasese, the Rwenzururu Kingdom, which predated colonial Uganda, and which had been handled diplomatically since the Obote I government in the 1960s, now met military force. More than 100 people were gunned down. It was not as if such a small kingdom could have caused national damage (its cause remains obscure outside the Rwenzori region), but it reflects what one analyst told me is the mentality of those whom the president now puts trust in – use maximum force.
Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming
Without respect and trust in the seasoned technocrats who shepherd political masters through the jungles of laws and acts and regulations that are effectively the “system,” a number of odd things have been happening in Uganda. Foremost among them is the failure to manage a looming food crisis in eastern Uganda. The coming environmental crisis, the first of which is the developing collapse of fish stocks, could have been avoided had the civil service been allowed to do its work. Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming. The spectacular bungling of telephone registration brought these issues to the fore.
A BOYISH, ALMOST FLAGRANT INFORMALITY
An order was given that telephone users “verify” their numbers. However, Ugandan citizens were told they could not use driving permits, passports, work IDs, local council IDs, only National IDs. It was a telling admission that the Ministry of Internal Affairs was inept, that its identity documents were a sham. A properly functioning government would have been advised against such a move for the demands of one arm of government must be reconciled across all government arms to ensure systemic uniformity. It is the reason there is a prime minister and a Secretary to the Cabinet. This one was a weird call, until it was revealed that the call came from the IGP’s office.
At his first press conference back in 2005, which I attended as journalist at The EastAfrican, I watched Gen. Kayihura’s demeanour. I observed his short attention span, his easily distracted manner, twiddling with his phone in the middle of taking press questions and his affinity for a boyish, almost vagrant informality. It was a frightening projection of things to come.
In 2017, you could see Gen Kayihura’s hand in that telephone debacle. A chess piece moved at the end of the second decade in power, had showed its own hand at the beginning of the fourth decade in power.
What it said, and what precipitated that fever that we felt on May 20, was the fact that the administrative state in Uganda, had been overthrown by the security forces. There had been a coup. The Office of the Prime Minister, which supervised the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which supervised the Police, was forced to humiliatingly “follow” the orders of a policeman; parliament recognised its own impotence by attacking the line minister who formally made the announcement, knowing well that the minister had simply been following the orders of the IGP, whom they dared not touch. Prime minister, parliament and line minister were all to be further humiliated when the NRM parliamentary caucus overruled all of them. Four days after shutting down phone lines, they switched them on back again, and said we would have three more months to comply with the registration order.
It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP
There is the misled belief that an Orwellian-sized national biometric database will give the state means to track everyone and prevent an Arab Spring-style social media uprising. Sources say the government’s investments in electronic surveillance have been extensive. When it first asked citizens to acquire National IDs in 2013, very few people bothered to register. Then someone had a brain wave – threaten to take away their phones, that will bring them running. And so for all of April and May, the entire country was thrown into turmoil. We wait to see what happens in August when the three-month extension runs out.
It has become clear that there are now two centres of power in Uganda, President Museveni and IGP Kayihura. Everyone else, from the vice president to district officers, has gone quiet. In a sign of how disastrous this leadership model is, the “old” model was forced to intervene after President Museveni jumped protocol and directly accused fictitious Chinese diplomats of ivory trafficking. The incensed Chinese put their foot down and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had not been consulted when the letter of accusation was sent out by the president’s office, apologised publicly to China. What it demonstrated was the manner in which Museveni now micro-manages Uganda.
It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP Gen Kale Kayihura. But even in there, things are not going swimmingly, which may explain the ultra-violent execution of Gen Kayihura’s deputy, Felix Kaweesi, on March 17 this year. It was the killing that provided the justification for shutting down telephone lines. There is a deadly power struggle even within the securocratic redoubt into which Museveni’s fourth decade is retreating. The new front of cyber security and fear of the power of social media has meant that a new front of enemies has opened up; it is no longer just past leaders, Nilotics or opposition who are “against development”; it’s also now a teenager with WhatsApp who must be closely monitored.
There is a general realisation that time is running out. Those in positions of power and opportunity are taking as much cash out of the public and through their offices as they can while they still have the chance. Principled and seasoned individuals are opting out, leaving a bevy of the callow and ethnically loyal to take positions of authority. The centre retreats into self-serving fiction.
EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods
Ismael Kulubi is a 66-years-old radio production guru with a scintillating voice that is still in great demand even after retirement. Advertising executives in need of an experienced voice hire him to do radio promos. By all measurable standards, Ismail has had a fulfilling career – he is a widely travelled man who has enjoyed life’s successes as a professional media man.
But his advertising and media professional friends have been always been puzzled by Ismael. With all the riches he made over the years and his ascribed social status, Ismael has lived all his life in Eastlands area, the eastern part of Nairobi that every Eastlander seeks to run away from at the slightest hint of money and success.
Eastlands: “No pretensions here”
A practicing Muslim, Ismael grew up in Majengo, the sprawling slum sandwiched between the famous Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, the inner-city neighbourhood that is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived. Women living there were believed to be sex workers who met the sexual needs of the black immigrant labourers employed in Nairobi who were not allowed to bring their families to the city.
After every Friday afternoon prayers, which he religiously observes at Jamia Mosque in central Nairobi, Ismael heads straight to Majengo in his gleaming beige metallic Mercedes Benz, something he has done for many years. His vintage German engineering marvel is still a spectacle to be behold among the ghetto dwellers. But Ismael is considered one of them and his posh car parked outside on Majengo’s main street is as safe as the Kenyan currency locked at the Central Bank building’s underground vaults in Nairobi city centre.
Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived.
“Majengo has the best pilau you can find anywhere in Nairobi,” Ismael tells me matter-of- factly. Every Friday afternoon, his hot pilau, specially catered to his culinary tastes, awaits him. “Majengo made me and it is a place that gives me immense joy, helps me stay firmly grounded and connects me with the people.” For Ismael, the Friday afternoon sumptuous meal served on large dishes called sinia is a social affair: He has his usual group who he eats with that ranges anywhere from five to ten people.
At one time, Ismael earned a salary that was commensurate with what is paid to top executives of blue chip companies. But that never stopped him from driving from the Karen and Lavington suburbs, where his offices used to be, to enjoy a meal cooked in the ramshackle kitchens and restaurants of Majengo. “Good food is a social engagement, it is not so much about how much money you spend on it,” says Ismael. And he can spend a lot. On any given Friday afternoon, Ismael can spend an upward of Ksh5000, depending on the number of people he is eating with. They will eat from the same sinia with their hands, seated on the floor. “There are no pretensions here, we eat together the way we eat in our respective houses,” says Ismael.
As they eat, Ismael’s Mercedes Benz will be attended to by between three to five young men who give it a clean shine like no other. This is another ritual in Majengo. “My car is never washed anywhere else – the boys know it, they have cleaned it for many years, it is like going to the same barber for many years. You do not want to change him because he has learned the nooks and crannies of your bumpy head.” The young men know that every Friday, some good money will come their way. “Ismael ni boy wetu… yuko chonjo…ua anatucheki kitu poa,” (Ismael is our man…he’s cool and pays us real well), say the young men.
After the sumptuous meal, drowned by the freshest of unadulterated juice, Ismael does not leave Kije (Majengo’s popular name). He has his spot outside where he sits with other men to chew gomba (also known as khat or miraa) that is specially delivered to him by his supplier of many years. He will then chew gomba – handas and veve are variants of the same thing – accompanied by copious amounts of black coffee throughout the evening, after which he will drive back home to his house in Buru Buru estate.
“People who live in the so-called leafy suburbs have ghettoised Eastlands,” quips Ismael. “They live in a make-believe world that has blinded them to real-life happenings outside their presumed safe cocoons. They think Eastlands is one huge criminal world. You can imagine what they think of my hood Kije: we are all sons of harlots. That young people here neither have ambitions nor dreams. They are so wrong.” Ismael, whose long dead parents came from Saba Saba location in Maragua, Muranga County, says, “In Kije, the people are real, they have what it takes to live comfortably and decently and they are as informed with local and global current news as the Kenyans of Karen and Lavington.”
If you fly over Majengo slum, you would be amazed by the satellite TV dishes that adorn iron sheet rooftops. Inside some of these mud-plastered houses are some of the latest and funkiest hi-fi equipment and exotic furniture that one can only imagine in a Kileleshwa high- rise flat or in Loresho’s leafy suburbs. These dishes beam news outlets from such channels as Al Jazeera TV, BBC, CNN and France 24 English TV.
I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area.
“If you entered some of the houses here in Kije, you would literally be taken aback,” says Ismael. “There are houses that have 42-inch smart cable TV and Persian Bukhara rags and Turkish carpets that can only be a dream for many of the pretenders to middle class tastes. You know those houses where you have to remove your shoes to enter?” Many of these items are imported from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Yemen.
The traditional suspicion about Eastlands as an area where “dreams are made” and once those dreams are actualised you flee from the area to go and live those dreams elsewhere is a long-held stereotype that persists to date. Indeed some of the Nairobians who started life in the Eastlands estates, dingy or otherwise, comprise a big chunk of the most successful Kenyans who now live on the west side of the city’s spatial suburbs. Their pastime is nostalgically recounting how they are wasee wa mtaa (estate mates). Yet many, having bought into the Eastlands narrative themselves, are publicly embarrassed to be associated with the area.
My recent encounter with a high school chum of many years convinced me that the Eastlands narrative is not fading away in a hurry. Steve Ngotho, who has lived in Pretoria, South Africa, for a long time was in town recently. When he gave me a shout, we met at a restaurant in central Nairobi. After the usual pleasantries, Ngotho, who I had always known to shoot straight, asked where I lived…nowadays. “I live in Buru Buru,” I told him. “Ah, you mean you still live in Eastlands?” he asked. What he really meant was: What in God’s name would you still be doing in Eastlands?
Ngotho grew up in the western side of Nairobi, the general area that is west of Uhuru Highway. Uhuru Highway is the trunk road that cuts across the city centre and links the city to the highways that lead to Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the port city of Mombasa.
I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area. Ngotho, you can bet, is not the only former Nairobian to still harbour the “Eastlands narrative” (even when he lives abroad) – a place for people with failed ambitions and aspirations, where dreams did not take off.
The Eastlands narrative has its roots in the colonial era when some “African” areas were associated with congestion and crime. Hence, Eastlands to date is viewed as a place that does not have the attraction and aura of suburban “posh living”. For Eastlanders, the “leafy suburbs” imply breezy air, lots of jacaranda and pine trees, bungalows and maisonettes with compounds and open spaces that can only be found across Uhuru Highway.
Dr. Mosley Owino, a consultant dentist, likes to remind me that East London, where he trained as a dental surgeon, has many of the same characteristics and reputation as the Eastlands area of Nairobi: It is a place riven with deep poverty and overcrowding and which is not immune from the social problems that afflict such areas – the existence of rival gangs, loafers, social misfits and petty and hardcore criminals.
Buru Buru: “Like a suburban British hood”
Buru Buru estate, where Ismael bought his house in the 1980s, is one of the iconic estates that sometimes still salvages the Eastlands reputation, even as the estate itself, which has five phases, struggles against ghettoisation. Largely built in the 1970s, with the last phase five completed in 1982, Buru Buru was the estate where newly graduated architects, accountants, lawyers, physicians, quantity surveyors, among other graduates, aspired to live and start out because it captured their upward mobility aspirational lifestyle, its Eastlands location notwithstanding.
Construction magnate John Mburu has lived in Buru Buru ever since he graduated from the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. With a yearly turnover of hundreds of millions of shillings, Mburu’s friends in the industry cannot understand why he still lives in the same house he started out in. A shilling billionaire, Mburu says Buru Buru is a suitable place to live in – it does not have the wannabe pretentious suburban lifestyle like many of the new estates that have come up: “It still retains decent, respectable and habitable estate characteristics that represents the lifestyles of people who have progressively grown their incomes.”
Buru Buru is among most famous suburban estates in East and Central Africa. When I first went to Tanzania, a quarter of a century ago, my newly acquired Tanzanian friends would ask me which part of Nairobi I came from. “Ule mtaa ambao unaishi mawaziri na wakuu wa serekali, unaufahamu?” (Do you know the estate that Kenyan ministers and top civil servants live in?) It was amusing to learn that my Tanzanians friends considered Buru Buru to be such a posh estate that only elite government people lived there.
“Buru Buru is very much like a British suburban hood,” says Stacy Wanjiku, who lived and studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. “Even the way people park outside their houses on the roadside is so British.” Wanjiku, who herself lives in Buru Buru, says the picket fencing may have long gone, but Buru Buru still retain its stand-out character with its shopping centres and it semi-detached architectural design uniformity.
Woodley and Kimathi: Civil servant estates
The estate that comes closer to once being a residential area for senior government civil servants is Woodley, which is located in the south-east of Nairobi, adjacent to Moi Nairobi Girls on Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Woodley is a fashionable estate made of a mixture of high-rise flats and bungalow houses with huge compounds and while it was not largely inhabited by cabinet ministers – at least certainly not in the 1980s – for some reason, Woodley was the residence of the senior-most Luo civil servants.
Alex Oduor, who lives in the estate, which is owned by Nairobi County, tells me that Woodley has all the trappings of a proper middle class neighbourhood: his house is in a safe secluded area, has a big compound for kids to romp about and to host a barbeque and is big enough to entertain guests and host visiting relatives from rural areas. Oduor himself lives in the three-bedroomed house once owned by Washington Okumu, the humongous jolly professor who brokered peace between Nelson Mandela of the African National Party (ANC) and Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1990s.
The estate closest in resemblance to Woodley in terms of design and layout is Kimathi estate in Eastlands. It is ensconced between Bahati and Jerusalem estates. Built in the early 1970s, Kimathi is your archetypal middle class neighbourhood that has a family ring to it: an “enclosed” estate with modest houses and little compounds. Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya, kept a house there for the longest time. Up to 1974, he represented Bahati constituency which Kimathi estate was a part of. Hudson Mwangi, a businessman who has lived in Kimathi estate for many years, says the estate is unpretentious and allows him to operate “below the radar”, without attracting too much attention from the prying eyes of gossipers and nosy people.
Kilimani and Kileleshwa: “Lonely jungles”
The estates that were truly classical middle class neighbourhoods were the adjoining suburban areas of Kileleshwa and Kilimani located in the west of Nairobi. They were your conventional neighbourhoods for senior civil servants from 1963 to early 2000s. “But today, these areas have become concrete jungles; the high-rise flats that are coming up daily have completely erased the beautiful memory of the semi-detached bungalow and maisonette residential houses that adorned the area,” says print journalist Oyunga Pala, who grew up in the Kilimani area. “In the days that I grew up in Kilimani, the area was attractive and scenic, the houses had huge compounds for children to safely play and run around in, and the neighbourhood had lots of trees and kaiyaba (Kei apple) fences.”
The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts. Lilian Rice, a British national who lives in one of these flats, told me there is a “fake friendliness” among flat mates living in Kileleshwa. “Every time I visit my friend and workmate in Donholm in Eastlands, I notice the stark differences: the place is bubbly and full of life. The children are running helter-skelter, playing football or hide-and-seek. The neighbours pop in (unannounced) to share a funny anecdote or to enjoy a cup of tea together… I tell you the camaraderie is real and unpretentious.”
Rice says that the corner kiosks and green grocery vibandas (sheds) of Donholm really enchant her. “They serve as meeting points for people to banter and chat.” Rice concludes that Kileleshwa is “a lonely jungle” and Eastlands, with all its “dirt and disorder”, has “variety and vivacity.”
The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts.
This variety of life was best captured for me by Rhoda Mbaya, who was brought up in an old Kileleshwa neighbourhood. When their father, a senior civil servant, died suddenly, the family had to move out of their five-bedroomed government house and relocate to Uthiru, a peri-urban and semi-rural area on the outskirts of Nairobi, 12km west of the city centre, in a place called 87. “Of course, it was at first traumatising, but we quickly adjusted,” said Rhoda. “The thing about living in the old Kileleshwa was that we led a secluded and shielded life, so when we had to move to Uthiru, it was obviously a scale-down, but we soon realised that Uthiru had its own advantages.”
Used to a subsidised life all her life, Rhoda was gratified to find that Uthiru had a cheaper and affordable lifestyle that was commensurate with her middle class tastes and which did not compromise her family’s social upward mobility. Her five siblings still rent out a five-bedroomed bungalow there, which is much more affordable than a house around the Kileleshwa/Kilimani “posh” areas.
“The vegetables are fresh and cheap, we get the milk straight from the cow, fresh and unskimmed and kienyeji (indigenous) chicken and eggs. The crux of the matter is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” said Rhoda. “Uthiru is teeming with people, we weren’t used to that, but yet again, the people are cosmopolitan, friendly and hospitable…but you know what? We discovered mutura (a sausage-like delicacy made out of stuffed offal) and pork. Uthiru has the best pork place in town.”
The rapid gentrifications of the city’s better known neighbourhoods, says Oyunga, are robbing the city of its iconic suburbs and traditional beautiful look. Kilimani’s expanding gentrification is already encountering opposition. The Kilimani Residents Association is up in arms against Cytonn Investment Company, a real estate private equity firm that intends to mobilise funds and put up a multi-storeyed building in the area.
Eastleigh: “Where dreams are incubated”
Gentrification in Nairobi has not been confined to the western side of the city. The Somali people’s influx in Eastleigh has led to a rapid and haphazard gentrification of the area. High- rise buildings have risen: some magnificent, some ugly and an eyesore. The buildings are both commercial and residential. A couple of years ago, a former powerful cabinet minister was persuaded to visit Eastleigh – a place he himself had confessed he had not visited for “donkey years”. The minister was astounded beyond belief when he found the area was home to two- and three-star hotels, complete with deluxe suites for accommodation and a la carte three-course menus.
Amid Eastleigh’s chaos, confusion, grime, mounting garbage, open sewers and systemic failure of services, there are Somali residents who live like Arab sheikhs in some of the most crowded and ugly flats. When Abdulrahman let me into his house on the top floor of a flat facing Pumwani Maternity Hospital, I was taken aback by the apparent affluence: The large sitting room was bedecked with jewelry and Arabian Nights-like ornaments, an imported sofa and a thick Afghanistan carpet. His prayer room was a wall-to-wall carpet affair. His expensive cutlery was like that of an emir. It was only after I came out of the house that I realised that indeed I was in the shambolic Eastleigh neighbourhood. Inside Abdulrahman’s house, it felt like I was in an affluent flat somewhere in Qatar or Yemen.
One of the areas that has been under perpetual threat of gentrification is Eastlands itself. The vast estates of Bahati, Hamza-Makadara, Jericho, (Lumumba and Ofafa) Jerusalem, Kaloleni, Makongeni, Maringo, Mbotela and Uhuru that make up the “real” greater Eastlands area and whose fame has rested on council houses belonging to the now defunct Nairobi City Council, are being targeted by “private developers” who have been marking them for a long time to bring them down in the name of constructing “better” and more spacious accommodation for the residents.
“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies”
It is true that many of these houses could be past their building life cycle. Their average lifespan is 60 years – Maringo estate was built in 1958, for example.The Kaloleni “bungalows” were built in the 1940s. During the 1960s, this was one of the poshest African quarters. Jericho Lumumba was built in 1962, a year before Kenya got its independence from the British. A beautiful, well-designed and laid-out estate, with ample open spaces for recreation, it still retains its shine despite obvious neglect that includes peeling paintwork that no one remembers when it was last undertaken, uncollected garbage, dilapidated plumbing and open sewers.
Peter Mugo, who is a resident here, allowed me into his “humble abode” for a cup of African tea that has the milk, tea leaves and sugar all boiled together. Mugo’s humble abode is a two-roomed affair but the house is nonetheless as middle class as they come: it has all the gadgets and trappings of modern urban living. He has the latest Samsung smart TV, Sony Hi-Fi music system complete with woofers, stylish settees and an expensive carpet to boot. “My subsidised rent allows me to save enough money to send my kids to quality private schools,” Mugo told me. His youngest 10-year-old son is busy with his play-station, while his second born daughter is on her laptop googling her school homework on the Wi-Fi that her dad has installed in the house.
“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies,” says Victor Ochieng. Before moving to the west of Nairobi, Victor lived in Donholm for several years. “I used Jogoo Road (the trunk road that runs through the major Eastlands estates). All the time I lived in Doni I can tell you the traffic snarl-ups on Jogoo Road used to give me incessant headaches. Doni was also not an easy estate to live in: if it’s not water shortages, its garbage strewn all over. And when it rains, it floods. That was enough stress for me.”
Still, after moving to the west side of Nairobi, he now appreciates that people in Eastlands at least live within their means. “There’s a lot of flush money in places like Kileleshwa and the majority of lifestyles are sustained by credit cards. In essence, people here live beyond their means, all in the name of maintaining class and status.”
8-4-4 AND ITS AFTERMATH: Is the new CBC system a solution to Kenya’s education crisis?
In early 2005, I went to see Geoffrey Griffin, the director of Starehe Boys Centre, just before he died in June of that same year. We discussed many things, among them the 8-4-4 education system. “The fact of the matter is that there is intrinsically nothing wrong with the 8-4-4 system,” Griffin told me then. By the time of his death, he had overseen the system at the centre for 20 years. “The 8-4-4 students that Starehe has produced since its inception in 1985 are just as good and as vigorous as the students of the previous (7-4-2-3) system,” said Griffin, who explained that the system was based on a Canadian model of education. Even though the 8-4-4 system was supplanted onto a tested system, his students had excelled in it academically and even assumed professional jobs – locally and abroad – in which they had also excelled. “The system had fitted just well,” said Griffin.
Griffin, who maintained an annual tradition of taking a select number of Starehe students to study in universities abroad, said he had continued with this tradition. even with the onset of the 8-4-4 system. “In the beginning, I closely monitored their progress because I was interested in finding out how they were fairing compared to their predecessors, who had gone through the previous system and who I had been always confident they would have no problems pursuing further studies in top universities abroad,” said Griffin. “I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that my 8-4-4-students coped well and still stood out.” Throughout his leadership at Starehe, Griffin sent scores of his students to Ivy League universities in the United States and the Russell Group of universities in the United Kingdom.
“The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.”
We spoke during an entire afternoon in his office and by the time I was leaving the school I gathered that even though Griffin had embraced the 8-4-4 system wholeheartedly, he was nostalgic about his beloved 7-4-2-3 system. “The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.” Had it been his choice, it is unlikely he would have changed the system he had been used to. “In considering the merits and demerits of the 8-4-4 system,” said Griffin, as he rounded up our discussion, “you must always remember that the system began because of politics.”
Exactly two years ago, on April 3, 2016, former President Daniel arap Moi was presiding over a thanksgiving day at Sunshine Secondary School in Langata, Nairobi, one of the high schools started by him. The school’s prize giving day gave him the platform he needed to tell off the government’s impending plans to do away with the 8-4-4 education system. Moi said the system had served Kenyans well and had proved itself as an education system whose students had gone on to doing well in both local and international universities. “The students brought up under the 8-4-4 are excelling…who’s that telling us that we got it wrong?” Moi asked the parents rhetorically.
Five years earlier, on August 1, 2011, while presiding over an Anglican Church of Kenya fund-raising event in Voi, Taita-Taveta County, Moi cautioned the government against scrapping the 8-4-4 system. He told the churchgoers that 8-4-4 was the best education system so far that had served Kenyans well, and therefore, there was no “urgent need” to change it. Every time Moi has smelt a whiff of change in the 8-4-4 system, he has always vehemently and vociferously opposed the idea. It has become his personal crusade.
Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.
The 8-4-4 education system was ostensibly started with the sole intention of making education in Kenya more amenable to vocational training. Then, as now, the government of the day did not prepare and train the teachers (the core implementers) in the system adequately. Hence, the 8-4-4 system never really achieved it primary objective – that of producing and training more technical-oriented graduates.
In his defence of the 8-4-4 system, Moi no longer speaks of these (noble) intentions. He invariably talks of how the system has (remained) competitive to the extent that 8-4-4 system students are “accepted by even the best universities” worldwide. The technical/vocational training that Moi had said would prepare the students to be self-driven and self-sufficient is no longer talked about – because it has always been non-existent.
Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation, and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.
Academic versus creative learning
Fast forward to a dozen years later. It seems to me that both parents and teachers are at a crossroads concerning the 8-4-4 system. In the years since talking to Griffin, 8-4-4 has been beset by massive exam cheating. There is unprecedented corruption in the education sector. Rich parents have been gradually removing and shuffling their children from public and private schools that teach the 8-4-4 system to schools teaching international curricula, convinced that schools offering 8-4-4 are not giving them value for their money. This has been accompanied by a rapid commercialisation of the education sector.
Faith Wambugu’s two children used to attend a private primary school that taught 8-4-4 until a year ago when she transferred them to a private school teaching the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) Cambridge syllabus. “For a while I had been agonising about whether my children should continue with the 8-4-4 system,” Wambugu, who is from Nakuru town, said to me recently. “When I found a suitable school with an internationally tried and tested educational system in Nakuru, I did not look back.” I asked Wambugu why she was dissatisfied with 8-4-4 system. “The system does not build confidence and impart skills to children; it is too focused on book learning and that this is not what I wanted for my children,” said the mother of two, who herself went through the 8-4-4 system.
“I want a system that does not only concentrate on academics, but one that also recognises other talents, such as music and drawing.” She said that the 8-4-4 system is straightjacketed and does not bring out the hidden creative potential that a child might possess.” The introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) system that is to replace 8-4-4 equally does not give her confidence that it is the best system for her children. “I do not have a problem with the CBC system per se, but is the government ready to roll out the system? I was worried my children would be caught up in an experimental project and I was not ready for that.”
As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”
Although Calisto Ogutu is yet to remove his two children from the 8-4-4 system, he has already identified the school he wants them to attend. “I will be removing my children from the system,” said Ogutu, whose children go a well-regarded public primary school in a rich suburb in Nairobi. “I have had to wait for my children to be interviewed since last year because the waiting list is long.” The private school in Nairobi County that he wants his children to attend teaches the (General Certificate of Education (GCE) system. “I have done my due diligence and I am persuaded that this is the system that will serve my children’s educational needs.”
Ogutu faults the 8-4-4 system’s teachers for having a limited understanding of how to nurture talent and creative minds. “All what these teachers do is bombard the children with bombastic theoretical knowledge that cannot be of any help in the 21st century.” Ogutu said he wanted a school where his daughter will learn art and craft and be encouraged to learn a musical instrument. According to Ogutu, the 8-4-4 system produces students who are boring and cannot think on their own or on their feet. “The 8-4-4 system presumes that one can only succeed in life if one becomes a doctor, an economist or a lawyer. Yet if the quality of current professionals produced by the system in the last 20 years or so is anything to go, we have a long way to go as a country.”
The issue of an academic curriculum versus creative and exploratory learning was starkly brought home to me by Flora Muthoni, who narrated to me the story of her son who used to attend a well-known and expensive private primary school in Nairobi that teaches the 8-4-4 system. “Some time in 2016, I received a report card from my son’s class teacher that made me ponder over it for a long time,” said Muthoni. The report form said in part: “Your son is always doodling and twiddling under the desk when I am teaching. His concentration is poor. If only he could pay attention in class, his marks would improve.”
“That report card was my wake up call,” said Muthoni. “Ordinarily a rash parent would have set upon the son with tough talk about how it is important to pay attention in class when the teacher is in front teaching. But I decided to approach the matter differently.” Muthoni said she sought to find out from her son what interested him most in his life and what he would like to study in school. She found out that her 12-year-old son enjoyed drawing and painting. “I decided to look for a school that would encourage him to tap into his interest in the creative arts. After shopping around and asking colleagues and friends, I found a school that I thought would tackle my son’s ‘doodling and twiddling’ problem.”
The new Nairobi-based international school that teaches the International Baccalaureate (IB) system that Muthoni found for her son was a dream come true. “My son no longer doodles, he draws and paints without being afraid that he will be chastised,” said Muthoni. “I could not believe my eyes when during the school’s open day, my son’s two paintings were exhibited for all parents, teachers and visitors to see.”
Be that as it may, it was the deliberate and systematic neglect of public primary and secondary schools, beginning in the mid-1980s, that led to the rise of the so-called academies and private schools. This “apparent neglect” created a void for “educational private developers” to commercialise education by building “centres of educational excellence and wellsprings of education”. In essence, we created a class of educational entrepreneurs, whose primary motive was profit, all in the name of providing “special and quality education”.
The cumulative net effect of this privatisation of education was the creation of “class education” that dichotomised and segregated schools – an apartheid-like separation that pitted moneyed parents against less-moneyed parents. This is in sharp contrast to the previous system that was more egalitarian and merit-based, and which offered quality education to all, irrespective of financial capabilities and social status. As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”
The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason.”
As some parents who have had their children go to school in these private schools told me, some of these private schools are over-rated and over-priced for nothing: They neither offer “private” education in its strictest sense nor quality education. It is about the bottom line – they are businesses that have invested in education to reap profits for shareholders.
It is no wonder that some rich parents, after sending their children to expensive private primary schools, will do anything to wean their children off private education to join national public high schools. A paradox, but one that explains the commodification of the education system in Kenya. Public high schools, such as Alliance Boys and Girls Schools (aka Bush Boys and Bush Girls), Kenya High (aka Boma), Lenana Boys (aka Changes), Limuru Girls (aka Chalks), Mangu Boys, Nairobi School (aka Patch), Maseno School (the only national school on the Equator), Moi Girls Eldoret (former Highlands School), Moi Nairobi Girls and Catholic-sponsored schools, such as Loreto Convent Girls, St. Mary’s, Precious Blood, Riruta, Bishop Gatimu Girls School (formerly Ngandu Girls) and Strathmore School remain to date star attractions for parents, who value high schools imbued with a sense of missionary and civic philosophy.
Luis Franceschi, the Dean of the School of Law at Strathmore University in Nairobi, says that over time he has been observing differences in his Bachelors of Law (LLB) students. “I can outright tell which students underwent the 8-4-4 system and those that went through international systems such IB, IGCSE and GCE,” says the Dean. “The students who have gone through international systems are confident, open-minded, better in analytical skills and research methodology. The students who have gone through 8-4-4, even though not lacking in knowledge, tend to be inward-looking and are not adventurous.”
Franceschi’s sentiments are echoed by a University of Nairobi don who says that today’s 8-4-4 system students arrive at the university expecting that their lecturers and professors will provide them with photocopied lecture notes. “They lack the simplest of analytical and conceptual skills. They are not imaginative. It is not them to blame, it is the system that they have been made to go through,” said the university don.
Brian Gitonga, a software engineer working for Google in Dublin, Ireland – one of only two African engineers at the firm (the other is a Nigerian) out of a total work force of 4,000 engineers working at the Google’s headquarters – told me that the 8-4-4 education system does not bring out creativity and imagination in a student, neither does it encourage the student to think outside the box. Recently in Nairobi, partly on home leave and partly to scout for talented Kenyan engineers, Gitonga told me that it was saddening that the graduate engineers he had a chat with “could not even in the widest margin qualify to work for Google”. And it is not because they make for poor engineers (there is a lot to be said about the teaching in the engineering institutions in Kenya, said Gitonga); it is because the graduate engineers have gone through an education system that teaches them to duplicate knowledge and material, instead of encouraging them to be exploratory and innovative.
CBC: What is it and why now?
The nervousness then shown by parents over the pending introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) that is meant to replace the much debated and doubted 8-4-4-system should therefore be seen in the context of parents being conflicted about what is the best system that will address their children’s educational needs in contemporary Kenya’s 21st century needs. To this end, I sought the views of teachers who will be central in ensuring that the new system is properly integrated and correctly implemented.
The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with pupils?”
“Parents, as well as us teachers, do not understand the new educational system,” says Mercy Mbai, a public high school Chemistry and Biology teacher in Kiambu County. “We are yet to be properly inducted and as it is currently many teachers are groping in the dark. We are learning as we go by.” The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason. Why wouldn’t the government take time to first acquaint the teachers with the new system, since they are the implementers?” Ms Mbai said she was slated to go for training in the CBC system in the coming weeks. “We are being trained on the job, we are learning the ropes as we go along.”
The CBC system, as I vaguely understand it, ought to be a practical and workable educational system, one that is able to tap talents and redirect the students to their special areas of interest, be it academics, creative arts, sports or vocational training. However, it is not clear why this new system was introduced at this particular time, and without much prior consultation with the main stakeholders (head teachers, teachers, parents and students).
“As a teacher who has taught the 8-4-4 system for many years, I have pondered over several questions,” said Ms Mbai. “Why did the government find it fit to change the system? What is wrong with it? If there is something wrong with 8-4-4, have we first tried to rectify the problem? CBC sounds great on paper, but if, as we are being told, it is supposed to identify gifts and talents among the students, do our we have the necessary resources and infrastructure to facilitate the new system?”
The science teacher told me that the country could be rushing into adopting an educational system that might, in the long run, come a cropper. “As a student myself, I went through the 7-4-2-3 educational system. It was an educational system well-suited to most students of our time. Why? Because it allowed students, once they were in secondary school, to select subjects that they enjoyed and that they would eventually peg their future careers on. The system was a good sieve.”
For those who did not go beyond GCE “O” level studies or who did not qualify to go to university, there were tertiary and vocational institutions that could absorb them, said the teacher. These institutions included teacher training colleges for primary and secondary school teachers that awarded certificates and diplomas and technical-oriented institutions, such as the polytechnics and vocational training institutes.
Some of the better known primary teacher training institutions included Thogoto and Shanzu teachers colleges in Kiambu and Mombasa counties. The best science teachers’ colleges were Kagumo and Kenya Science Teachers College (KSTC) in Nyeri and Nairobi counties. Kenya Polytechnic, Mombasa Polytechnic, Eldoret Polytechnic, Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology and Kenya Technical Teachers College trained some of the best middle cadre technical personnel that this country has ever produced. So what happened to these great institutions? “They were all converted to universities,” lamented Ms Mbai.
Victoria Achieng, a primary school teacher of many years, posed the same questions that Ms Mbai is grappling with: Why does the government seem to be in a rush to implement this new system? Have they (the state bureaucrats) told us (parents, teachers and all the people involved in education matters) what precisely is wrong with 8-4-4? Is the infrastructure ready and in place to roll out CBC? Have teachers been properly trained to teach the new curriculum? Do the current crop of teachers have the necessary skills to identify and scout for talent?
Ms Achieng told me that teachers have been “trained” for only three weeks and with that they are expected to fully comprehend the details of what they are supposed to teach. “I will tell you for free that many teachers – and head teachers – do not know, much less understand, what CBC is.”
Can the new system work in Kenya?
The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with the pupils?”
Ms Achieng said that ministry officials keep on assuring the teachers that they will acquaint them with all the necessary information and skills. “It is as if they are on a trial-and-error policy. Is the government piloting the students?” The teacher was categorical about what she thought about CBC: “It is a system that had been tried elsewhere and worked, no doubt, but it is not the panacea to our current educational crises.”
CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”.
The Competence Based Curriculum (CBC), is an educational model used in countries such as Australia and the Scandinavian countries like Finland. It is supposed to be implemented right from pre-primary level – PP1 to PP2, then progresses to Grade I, II, III, which signals the end of lower primary schooling. Grades IV, V and VI end primary schooling. Primary schooling is followed by three years of senior school that comprise grade VII to Form 1. This is followed by another three years of learning from Form 2 to Form 4, and finally three years of tertiary and higher learning.
According to CBC proponents, the 2-3-3-3-3-3, or for some 2-6-3-3-3 system, is transformational and is supposed to evolve a new educational methodology that taps into the students’ creative juices. The system, its architects opine, will be skills-oriented rather than exam-oriented. Students will able to acquire all-round skills, ranging from sports to academics. The students will be judged on how they display their skills, not on whether they pass exams. They further argues that the system will allow specialisation for students. While at senior secondary, students will go for the subjects they are best suited for. It will allow students to excel because they will only select their areas of interest.
Ministry officials seem convinced that CBC will curtail cheating in national examinations. They argue that since national exams will be scrapped, schools will not be tempted to engage in exam cheating as they will no longer be competing against each other. Proponents of the new system are also convinced that students will now have room to express their talents and abilities. They point to the fact that the current system had totally neglected non-academic subjects, with teachers spending all their valuable time pushing students to cram for exams.
CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”. Here is a summary of what the benefits of CBC are supposed to yield: focus on competencies, flexibility that creates room for specialisation, balanced and fair assessment of excellence, emphasis on education and learning.
We will just have to wait and see if the system will create a new breed of creatives and entrepreneurs who will propel Kenya into the 21st century. Let us hope that like the much-maligned 8-4-4 system, CBC will not be replaced with yet another system because it did not produce the desired results. Kenya, after all, is not Finland, where the government backs its policies with the needed infrastructure, training and budgetary allocations, and where the teacher-student ratio is one where teachers are able to not just spot talent, but nurture it as well.
BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future
Kisumu city’s landscape, like the bodies of some of its residents, bears the scars of recent political protests and state repression in the aftermath of the August 8 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court and the 26 October “Jubilee election” that was completely ignored by four counties in Kenya’s western region (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya).
The visceral scars are a testimony to a cityscape whose residents are yearning for a total break from the politics of despondency and for a muting or re-writing of its political history, a history that will not be absolved or corrected by the Uhuru Kenyatta–Raila Odinga handshake that took place on March 9, 2018, its bewildering symbolism notwithstanding.
The fact that the city yearns for a fresh start is apparent to David Ndii, the National Super Alliance (NASA)’s economic advisor and strategist, but not to the Raila-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) MPs, whose narrow articulation of the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement simply calls for the compensation of life or limb lost during the protests.
Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape
Kisumu yearns for what Ndii refers to as Kenya’s kairos, but whether or not there is a consensus that this is the moment, and whether Kisumu’s scars equally constitute this moment, is debatable.
Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape, especially along the highway road signage. Charcoal black powder from burnt car tyres pepper many intersections on Kisumu’s roads, despite the recent heavy rains. At the Kenya Commercial Bank’s T-junction, where the Jomo Kenyatta Highway and the Oginga Odinga Street meet, angry protestors scratched off Jomo Kenyatta’s name from the road sign. Like the silver surface of an airtime scratch card, this left a dull metallic gray centre on the white metallic arrows where the words Jomo Kenyatta had been.
Across the road, on the walls of the city park’s main building, also known as Od Mikai, the name JARAMOGI, Palimpsest-like, has been superimposed on KENYATTA’s name. Never in Kisumu city’s history have the residents expressed such a strong desire to re-write, mute or erase the Kenyattas from the city’s political history and to obliterate memories of the traumas inflicted by the city’s bloody encounters with state brutality.
Despite the 1969 political tragedies – the annus horribilis in Kisumu’s post- independence history when Argwings Kodhek, the Mau Mau lawyer, died mysteriously in a road accident, when Tom Mboya was shot dead in broad daylight in in Nairobi and when Jomo Kenyatta’s security forces massacred at least 100 unarmed citizens, including children, during the official launch of the Kisumu Hospital (Russia Hospital) – Jomo Kenyatta’s name has always held pride of place in Kisumu’s central business district. The biggest public park and the longest road in Kisumu are named after Kenya’s first president.
Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire.
Further afield, Kisumu city’s market, officially named Jubilee Market, was popularly and hurriedly re-named Orengo Market by protestors in honour of the Luo lawyer and opposition leader James Orengo. Locally known as Chiro Mbero, it’s the market where the Kenyan historian, the late E.S Atieno Odhiambo, tells us the independence-era women traders sang “dine onge Odinga, nyithiwa dine Jomo otho e jela” (without Odinga, Jomo would have died in prison). Protestors scratched the name JUBILEE off the market’s signpost, and in uneven uppercase letters, scribbled the name ORENGO on the signpost’s half-scratched surface.
It seems Kisumu residents want nothing do with the Kenyattas or the type of government they represent. A few months ago, they swore to fight to the last man and woman standing for electoral justice. Angered by the conduct of the August 8 general election, the repeat presidential poll on October 26 and the state-orchestrated violence against civilians, many turned up for successive street protests, shouting in Kiswahili “ua ua…kill…kill” as volleys of teargas canisters were thrown at them by paramilitary or regular police and in defiance of the blood-curdling sounds of bullets that pierced through clouds of teargas.
Undeterred, certainly not by the rising death toll, these unarmed protestors were unflinching, angry, and contemptuous of the Jubilee government’s deadly use of force, shouting “ong’e ringo,” (no relenting) as they courted martyrdom, drawing cold comfort in the fact that their resolve to press for electoral justice was stronger than the government’s resolve to violently quell the unceasing protests. “Ok gi bi nego wa te,” (Kill they will, but they will not kill all of us.) Some of us will live to tell the tales of this war, others will be killed, but all will bequeath the next the generation with a different political world, they shouted.
Then, just when Kisumu residents thought they were done and dusted with the Kenyattas, Raila sued for peace in the name of “national reconciliation and unity”, pulling them out of their absolute resolve to detach themselves from their debilitating history and pushing them right back to the doorsteps of Harambee House, the seat of Kenya’s oppressive state power.
Raila’s handshake with Uhuru has effectively revived Kisumu residents’ cruel memories (memories they had hoped they could erase) of Kenya’s contested and chequered political history, a history that can neither be re-written from below, ORENGO Market style, nor from above, in the style of the famous handshake between the two leaders.
In the street corners of Kisumu, sounds of grand betrayal reverberate. The reverberations feel more like a spirited protest movement rather than the promising beginning of a national dialogue. At Kisumu’s K-city market, a scowl-faced middle-aged woman rhetorically asks, “Kalonzo, Wakamba osetho kodwa didi? Waluhya to….Nyithindo mane otho ne?” (How many time has Kalonzo, Wakamba died with us in this cause? And how about the Luhya…the children or the youth who died for him [Raila]?)
It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.
There is a feeling among Raila’s core constituency that he has betrayed his comrades and their support base for a brotherhood fellowship that is as confounding as it difficult to swallow. The net result has been the gradual disintegration of NASA, the once formidable opposition coalition.
“Wa chung Kanye?” (Where do we stand?), asks the woman at K-City market, as the news of the opposition NASA senator Moses Wetangula’s ouster and his replacement with James Orengo as the minority leader is broadcast in the car stereo next to the washing bay. It is now truly mindboggling to tell what either Raila Odinga or James Orengo now stand for after the handshake. Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire. The handshake has left Raila’s political base utterly confused. It’s a covenant that recalls Thomas Hobbes’ pithy quip: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
Currently, only David Ndii’s take resonates with the protest scars on Kisumu’s cityscape. The protest crowds want to rake up the past. The ODM MPs’ talk of compensation as opposed to the 12-point gamut of the Uhuru-Raila handshake agreement certainly misses the significance of the marks on Kisumu’s roads signs.
In an interview with Citizen TV, Ndii strenuously and variously suggested that the handshake signaled Kenya’s Kairos – that opportune moment when the tensions and contradictions of Kenya’s neocolonial state, laid bare by the bloody 2007 presidential election, must be resolved. It is an opportunity for Kenyans, on their own or led by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, to reconstitute the Kenyan nation and its moral underpinnings and to resolve its contradictions: It should be a moment when Kenyans decide whether we want to continue with dictatorship or want to embrace democracy. It should be a moment where we decide to do away with ethnic domination and consider ethnic inclusivity, through cross-party and cross-ethnic dialogues.
Ndii seems to suggests that the handshake signaled the end of ordinary times, times for everyday Kenyan political talk of “development,” “peace,” “unity,” “power-sharing or nusu-mkate”, the stock-in-trade phrases that the state and many reactionary Kenyans bandy around to silence dissent and to dismiss critics as unconstructive and unworthy interlocutors. For Ndii, Kairos is the moment for a markedly different kind of political conversation and action, which could rescue Kenya from its existential threat and ethnic implosion.
This moment underpins the desires of the Kisumu protest crowds, who have become cynical about both ODM and the Jubilee party.
Both the ODM and Jubilee’s disparate talks seem to be rewinding the historical clock, away from Ndii’s kairos, a historical watershed, and back to the Aden Duale–Fred Matiangi’s chronos, ordinary times, when and where evils still pays, and the soul of the men in charge of the government’s coercive powers is unrepentant. It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.
ODM MPs, having smelt state power, now have a spring in their steps as they arrogantly exert their powers within the now wobbly NASA coalition. Orengo, ensconced in his new position as the Senate’s minority chief whip, has now also come to symbolise betrayal. Increasingly, these MPs’ talk seems to be narrowing down people grievances to mostly to one type of injury: physical injury. They are also shifting towards the development/peace talk within the party’s core support base.
Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal.
At a newsstand in Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s bustling ghettos, a young man quips, “Kalonzo odhi omos Ruto…wan waduaro kwe…wanwiwa ruko…mono jopinje moko keto mwandu gi Kisumu,” (Kalonzo should go and shake Ruto’s hands…we want peace…our penchant for protest discourages others from investing in Kisumu.) It a remarkable shift, a shift that echoes mostly ODM party officials’ and MPs’ views regarding the handshake and which also elevates Raila above his comrades-in-arm, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi.
It is a disappointing end to a protracted struggle driven from below by fearless foot soldiers who had put their lives on the line for electoral justice and a Raila presidency. Kenya’s nascent broad-based opposition coalition has suffered a major setback. And the Jubilee Party has scored a major victory, albeit a momentary one.
The Jubilee securocrats believe that the opposition comprises dispensable actors in a liberal democracy, not insurgents who can defeat them through extralegal warfare. Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal. “Baba is always right,” say many, either as a way of expressing unquestioning loyalty to Raila Odinga or granting him the benefit of the doubt that he did not throw the opposition under the bus.
What will the two midwives of the Harambee House deal, Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi, a counter-insurgent securocat and Raila’s everyday lawyer, respectively, deliver? Will they initiate a process to re-write the tragic history of the neocolonial Kenyan state? Or will they recast recent events as merely a glitch that temporarily halted the country’s relentless pursuit of “development”?
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