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Kikuyus Will Wear Kaptula and Other Short(s) Stories

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On September 1, 2017, the day the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified the 8 August elections, I was riding in a city-bound minibus matatu on Nairobi’s Waiyaki Way. I sat in front with the driver. The passenger seated next to me must have received a text message on his mobile phone because he began howling at the driver to tune in to the radio. The matatu was blasting hip-hop reggae at the time. It was a few minutes after 11.00am. What followed can only be best captured by a tragic-comedy playwright.

“The general election of August 2017 was not conducted in accordance with the constitution and the applicable law, rendering the declared results invalid, null and void. A declaration is hereby issued that the third respondent was not validly elected and declared as the president-elect and that the declaration is null and void,” pronounced Chief Justice David Maraga on Citizen Radio.

My fellow passenger, on hearing the words “invalid, null and void”, wailed loudly in agony, like someone who had been pricked by some sharp object, and called to his God – “Ngai” – so loudly that the driver was startled.

“Now see what these western people have done to us (one riu uria andu a ruguru matwika),” he harangued in the Kikuyu language. Shattered and stuttering, he spoke in staccato, unable to string his words together coherently. When his phone rang, he answered, “I am not in a frame of mind to talk right now……”

What followed was the incoherent muttering of someone possessed with schizophrenia. He cursed Maraga. He cursed the Kisii people collectively and insinuated how Maraga and his Kisii community were foolish and idiots. As if momentarily posing for introspection, he blamed the Jubilee Party political barons for allowing a non-Kikuyu to ascend to the Chief Justice’s position.

See what they have done to us

“Now see what these western people have done to us” (one riu uria andu a ruguru matwika), he harangued in the Kikuyu language. Shattered and stuttering, he spoke in staccato, unable to string his words together coherently. When his phone rang, he answered, “I am not in a frame of mind to talk right now……”

Since then, that matatu incident has variously manifested and replicated itself in different settings among the Kikuyus – individually and collectively. It is as if the Supreme Court ruling damaged their ethnic group’s psyche, causing a schizophrenic attack that cannot be explained rationally.

Days later, a friend confessed to me: “So this is how these people felt in 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled in our (Jubilee’s) favour?” It was a rhetorical question. “I was so angry, so affected on the day Maraga said Uhuru had not won, it looked like my world had gone on a tailspin.” Emotional and irrational, this friend even admitted to me that if he had his way, he would kill the Chief Justice.

“For how long will Raila disturb our peace?” is a refrain that has been gaining momentum in Kikuyu gatherings – in homesteads, churches, social functions and some select exclusive clubs in Nairobi – since the Supreme Court ruling.

The first ever Presidential Election Petition case No. 5 was taken to the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in March 2013 by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the opposition coalition led by Raila Amolo Odinga. It sought to overturn the election victory of the Jubilee coalition led by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who today is the fourth president of Kenya.

The Supreme Court judges, led then by the president of the court, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, in arriving at their verdict, said: “In summary, the evidence in our opinion, does not disclose any profound irregularity in the management of the electoral process, nor does it gravely impeach the mode of participation in the electoral process by any of the candidates who offered himself or herself before the voting public.”

That Supreme Court judgment, read by Mutunga in under ten minutes (Kenyans, who had been waiting for days with bated breath for the judgment, were asked to read the entire judgement online) cast a shadow of devastation and disquiet among the opposition’s core supporters. Yet they took it in their stride, even as they were chided by the Jubilee coalition brigade to “accept and move one”. As much as they were hurt, they did not go into a frenzy of “political madness”, threatening to kill Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, and condemning and deriding his Kamba ethnic community.

Since September 1, 2017, I have numerously and repeatedly heard presumably reasonable and well brought-up Kikuyus propounding sickening theories about how some communities “need to be taught a lesson”, how David Maraga should not presume he is so important as to think “he cannot be taken out”. Such careless talk has been taking place among Kikuyu folks in social functions and places, including birthday parties, funeral services and restaurants.

To the consternation of even the most hardcore Kikuyus, the man claimed that if Raila ever became president, all Kikuyu men would be forced to wear kaptula – colonial-type khaki shorts that used to be worn by the regular police until early 1970s and which today are still worn by prisoners.

Maraga has been denounced and renounced in equal measure. The Kisii people – including all the communities that live in the western sphere of Kenya, mainly the Luos and Luhyas – have been collectively lampooned and considered to be “not too clever people” (ti andu oge). Ultra-Kikuyu sub-nationalists have been advocating for the murder of the Chief Justice and the leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga, as the “final solution” to this unceasing menace.

“For how long will Raila disturb our peace?” is a refrain that has been gaining momentum in Kikuyu gatherings – in homesteads, churches, social functions and some select exclusive clubs in Nairobi – since the Supreme Court ruling.

Fuelled by the MP for Gatundu South, Moses Kuria (jamba ya ruriri, or the brave warrior of the Kikuyu nation), who is on record for publicly and unapologetically advocating for the assassination of Raila, the Kikuyu people are now being primed, after being conditioned and socialised over time, that Raila encapsulates all their political problems, and that they would be better off and safer if he were to be taken out.

Let me illustrate this schizophrenic delusion that seems to have attacked a section of the Kikuyu community with a few anecdotes. Three weeks ago, I attended a birthday party in one of the gated, leafy and posh suburbs of Nairobi. After the people had settled down to whet their appetite, and later in the evening as they engaged in social drinking, the conversation naturally and ordinarily turned to politics.

As the conversation gathered more heat (as opposed to more light), one of the guests propounded a theory on why Kenyans (many Kikuyus conflate Kikuyu sub-nationalism with national patriotism and vice versa) should never vote for Raila Odinga. To the consternation of even the most hardcore Kikuyus, the man claimed that if Raila ever became president, all Kikuyu men would be forced to wear kaptula – colonial-type khaki shorts that used to be worn by the regular police until early 1970s and which today are still worn by prisoners. As ridiculous as his pronouncements were, he defended them fervently and vigorously. It was blatantly clear he was not bluffing.

“But as a Kikuyu I cannot vote for that Luo. As Kikuyus, we are called to vote for one of our own. It doesn’t matter if he is a drunkard, a thief or just plain inept. He is ours. That is who God has given us.”

Taken to task to explain where his weird theory emanated from, he reminded all and sundry that sometime in 2003, Raila had purportedly said that if he ever become the president, Kikuyu men would be hauled to Kamiti Prison. His interpretation of Raila’s warning (which yet to be proven): All Kikuyu men will be wearing shorts as long as Raila is the head of state.

This loose, flippant talk might have been treated as a sick joke, one which would have elicited awkward laughter, but it wasn’t. It was taken seriously by the crowd. The tragedy was that the middle-aged man spreading this falsehood was once the finance director of a blue chip company.

Ordained by God

Days after the Supreme Court overturned Uhuru’s win, my close friend’s mother – a respected leader of the Mothers’ Union of the Anglican Church of the Mt. Kenya region – called him and told him that she had an urgent thing she wanted to discuss with him. When they met, the mother went straight to the point: “John you must sack that housegirl of yours from western Kenya (the housegirl is from Kakamega County). You cannot continue keeping her. Do you know these people well? I will get you a housegirl from Murang’a.”

“Were it not for the fact that she is my beloved mother”, John told me afterwards, “I would have tongue-lashed her.” He told me that his mother had told him that “since these western people have no respect for us (how could they have overruled our win?) we should not have mercy on them.” His mother, a born-again Christian and well-educated in Kenya and the USA, did not find any contradiction in her counsel to her son, and if she did, she was not going to lose sleep over it.

Yet, it is my lawyer friend Nguru who encapsulates the irrational mood of the Kikuyu people that has pervaded their space post-September 1, 2017. “Yes the government of Uhuru and William Ruto has been corrupt, incompetent and messed up,” he told me two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling. “But as a Kikuyu I cannot vote for that Luo. As Kikuyus, we are called to vote for one of our own. It doesn’t matter if he is a drunkard, a thief or just plain inept. He is ours. That is who God has given us.”

A litigation lawyer of long standing, he argued that “where we have reached now, it matters not whether Uhuru won or lost, whether the Supreme Court’s decision is right or wrong. We must defend uthamaki (kingly leadership ship) by all means and by any means necessary. We must cast our lot with one of our own – and that is not a point for discussion or rationalisation.”

It was lunchtime and as a strict Catholic, he was headed to the Holy Family Cathedral in central Nairobi for the lunch-hour intercessional prayer to the Holy Mary Mother of God.

“The Kikuyu people are living in post-truth times,” says a Kikuyu elder associated with the Kenya Church group – an amorphous grouping of evangelical Christians that came together in the late 1990s. “Kikuyu professionals do not want to deal with justice issues, it is unpalatable” said the elder who did not want his name disclosed. “It is the elephant in the living room.”

To demand and sue for justice is to agitate for chaos, is to upset the status quo; justice has been criminalised to mean “destruction of property”.

As tragic as it is, said the elder, it is the church that has been fanning this fight against pursuing justice and truth. “Justice and truth have a way of being disruptive,” he said. “And the Kikuyu business and political elites have sworn that they must hold onto state power come what may.” The professional leadership coach and speaker told me that many Kikuyu evangelical pastors have aligned themselves to the Jubilee coalition and have been bribed to propagate pro-Jubilee messages of peace and stability. Anything outside of that boxed message is anathema to the preservation of Jubilee’s agenda of hoarding power. To demand and sue for justice is to agitate for chaos, is to upset the status quo; justice has been criminalised to mean “destruction of property”.

“The Kikuyu evangelical/Pentecostal pastors and new churches’ proprietors are involved in religious enterprise. They are in it for self-aggrandisement but also with a specific agenda: push Jubilee Coalition’s message of preaching that the president of the country is God ordained.”

A week after the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision, pastor wa Ngunjiri, who preaches on Sunday mornings at Kameme FM, a Kikuyu vernacular station, took the trouble to explain in biblical terms why President Uhuru Kenyatta was cantankerous and furious in the afternoon of September 1, 2017. “When the ruler of the nation is agitated and seemingly untoward in his behaviour, there is a powerful message that God is relaying to the nation,” said the lady pastor, whose three-hour programme is listened to religiously by hoards of Kikuyus.

“God is asking us Kenyans to rally around the ruler, because it is not every day that a ruler is annoyed and unsettled,” cried the pastor on the airwaves. “The almighty God has already ordained a leader for us and that leader is Uhuru Muigai wa Kenyatta. It is the duty and obligation of every Kikuyu voter to come out and cast his or her vote for him, because we Kikuyus believe in and serve a living God.”

The mainstream established churches are no better, said my Kikuyu elder friend. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) used to be a powerful Christian platform that kept former President Daniel arap Moi in check in the 1990s as the country grappled with a decade of reestablishing multiparty politics. “But today, it is a pale shadow of its former self.”

NCCK is mainly composed of five denominations – the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Quakers (otherwise known as the Friends Church) and the Salvation Army. When the Secretary-General is speaking, he is presumably speaking on behalf of the five churches, a consensus that is normally agreed upon in its General Assembly.

“Yet, from a cursory glance of the press conferences that NCCK has held in the recent past, it is evident that Peter Karanja, an Anglican, is not really speaking on behalf of the five churches,” said my friend. “I can tell you without a doubt, the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a section of the Anglican church have been suing for justice and truth, and this is what leaders within NCCK have been fighting for every time the Christian body seeks to talk truth to power.”

But the PCEA, Methodist and another section of the Anglican church will hear none of that message. “Peter Karanja has been put on a tight leash – he can only speak of maintaining peace and the need for NCCK to respect the laws of the land and the government of the day. If he ever attempts to go outside of that script, he will be kicked out by the more powerful Kikuyu wing of the Protestant church body.”

The church in Kenya has never pretended that it is not ethnically aligned in its mission and vision. The PCEA and Methodist churches are regarded as Kikuyu and Meru churches. And rightly so, because a majority of its adherents and top leadership are Kikuyu and Meru.

The PCEA leadership openly threw its weight behind the President Mwai Kibaki government (2003–2012) and during the 2007-2008 post-election violence; some of its top leadership was allegedly even adversely mentioned as having abetted “retaliation violence” in sections of the expansive Rift Valley region. Although the Methodist church is not as “loud” as the PCEA, it also backed to the hilt the government of Kibaki, as it is currently backing the Uhuru-led Jubilee coalition government.

A PCEA church elder who attends the church’s Kirk Session in Kajiado County unabashedly said to me, “When it comes to supporting Uhuru, it is not about Christianity but about our political survival: we swore under oath to protect subsequent Kikuyu leadership after Mzee Kenyatta exited the scene.”

The Anglican church, on the hand, is a melting crucible of followers scattered across the country, much like the Catholic church. Hence, while the PCEA and Methodist churches are mainly concentrated in the Mount Kenya region and in the Rift Valley Kikuyu diaspora, Quakers and Salvation Army followers are mainly found in the western part of Kenya, specifically among the Luhya people of Bungoma, Kakamega and Vihiga counties. It therefore goes without saying that some leaders within the NCCK fraternity have been pushing for justice and truth for the simple reason that they hail from opposition areas that have been voting for Raila Odinga since 2007.

The financially and numerically powerful and stronger Kikuyu wing of the NCCK has not made the work of the religious organisation any easier. It has been unrelenting in its dogged determination to marshall support for the Jubilee coalition. A PCEA church elder who attends the church’s Kirk Session in Kajiado County unabashedly said to me, “When it comes to supporting Uhuru, it is not about Christianity but about our political survival: we swore under oath to protect subsequent Kikuyu leadership after Mzee Kenyatta exited the scene.”

Siege mentality

Obsessed with retaining state power at all and any cost, Kikuyu political barons have been bombarding the Kikuyu rank and file with messages of imminent annihilation if they do not band together to rescue the Uhuru presidency. The net result of this brainwashing is that it no longer matters how Uhuru wins the election – so long as he makes it to the helm. The peasant and urban poor Kikuyu are daily being socialised to look inward and to internalise ethno-centric values that inadvertently create a siege mentality. This mentality is then exploited by the political barons who can effectively use it to prey on their own people.

“The Kikuyu siege mentality, which is deliberately being created within their psyche, is preventing them from understanding the rest of the country’s anger about political injustices,” says Eric Wafukho, a leadership and management consultant. “So, with this apparent shielding of the average Kikuyu from the real political and societal problems ailing the country, the ordinary Kikuyu is made to live in a make-believe world, a world he thinks he controls, knows and understands.”

This statement rang true when my friend from Kangemi – a sprawling slum seven kilometres west of Nairobi city centre, who I had interviewed a month before the August 8 general elections, called me, a couple of days after Supreme Court ruling.

“We cannot allow these people to lord it over us and it does not matter that they now have enlisted the help of the Supreme Court – we will defend our leader by whatever means, because that is the only way we can ensure our survival,” said Thiong’o. “Uhuru has many faults and weaknesses, but we must overlook these shortcomings if we are to survive and are not finished by these western people.” To anchor his argument, he quoted a Kikuyu proverb: Iri Gikuyu, itire ukavi, which loosely translates to “As long as leadership is in Gikuyu hands, that is all that matters.”

The Kikuyu “business community” that was unleashed a few weeks ago in the Nairobi city centre and that was captured sporting dreadlocks are Mungiki members from Kayole – a densely and expansively populated ghetto located in the southeast of Nairobi.

I asked Thiong’o what he thought of the “Kikuyu business community” rolling into the central business district to ostensibly defend “Kikuyu property”. His answer was curt and to the point: “That is the way to go. We Kikuyus must defend our property.” Although my friend is nowhere near belonging to the Kikuyu propertied class, he, like many of the Kikuyu ghetto dwellers, have been unwittingly recruited to defend and fight for the class interests of his Kikuyu ethnic elites.

The Kikuyu business community is an euphemism for the notorious Mungiki youth group that cannibalised and preyed on its very own people in the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000s. When the youth group, which in the Kikuyu language means a multitude, descended from its base in the Kikuyu diaspora of the Rift Valley to seek refuge in Nairobi, it settled in the city’s slums, including Kangemi.

I can vividly recall Thiong’o being so terrified of his very own dreadlocked “brothers” who would show up at his house in the evenings to demand “protection” and “security” money. When the former internal security minister John Michuki cracked the whip on the group, he hailed Michuki as godsend. That was a decade or so ago. Today he does not find it a contradiction that the same group that used to send cold shivers down his spine is being resuscitated to surreptitiously defend a predatory Kikuyu elite leadership.

The Kikuyu “business community” that was unleashed a few weeks ago in the Nairobi city centre and that was captured sporting dreadlocks are Mungiki members from Kayole – a densely and expansively populated ghetto located in the southeast of Nairobi. Many of the privileged Mungiki members run the minibus matatus known as Forward Sacco matatus. Their adherents are transported into the city conurbation by these matatus with the sole mission of countering NASA youth mass action demonstrators. Hired expressly by the Jubilee coalition mandarins (this docket is being handled by Moses Kuria), they have been telling all who care to listen: “We the Kikuyus will rule this country, whether you like it or not.”

Enter the Kalenjin

As the Kikuyus are rolled out in the streets of Nairobi and Kiambu counties to defend their stake in the Jubilee coalition government, the Kalenjins have been waging their battle on a different and separate plane. Impeccable sources within Deputy President William Ruto’s camp believe that they are the people in control of the government, “more so now after the temporary Supreme Court setback,” said a Ruto confidante, who has worked in the deputy president’s office since 2013.

The claim that the Deputy President is actually the one running the Jubilee government is one I have heard since Uhuru and Ruto joined hands and formed a coalition government in 2013. As early as mid-2014, core staff in his office believed that Ruto was in control and has been running the show ever since.

The sharpest NASA critics that have been unleashed by Jubilee, particularly after the Supreme Court’s verdict, have been the Senator for Elgeyo Marakwet, Kipchumba Murkomen and the MP for Garissa, Aden Duale. It is not by coincidence that the two are some of Deputy President Ruto’s closest and most loyal foot soldiers. “That tells you just how many stakes Ruto has in the Jubilee Party and the government.”

The claim that the Deputy President is actually the one running the Jubilee government is one I have heard since Uhuru and Ruto joined hands and formed a coalition government in 2013. As early as mid-2014, core staff in his office believed that Ruto was in control and has been running the show ever since.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Kalenjin elite close to the powers-that-be have become even more fundamentally wedded to the belief that without Ruto, Uhuru is a sleeping duck. Among themselves, the Kalenjin elite, in their city hideouts, gossip about Uhuru and his rumoured drinking binges. Ruto, the Kalenjins point out, is a masterful tactician who is just waiting for the appropriate time to unleash his full potential.

A recent incident the Kalenjin elite like reminiscing about is the Mark Too funeral. Too was former President Moi’s trusted acolyte. When he died in December, 2016, many of the who’s who among the Kalenjin business and political class attended his burial on January 10, 2017.

My Kalenjin friends were later to tell me that Ruto, who attended the funeral with President Uhuru, belittled President Uhuru in the Nandi dialect. He ostensibly told the gathered crowd that he was the one in charge of the government and that the Kalenjin nation should stay firmly behind him. The talk of Ruto being in charge has been recurrent among the Kalenjin elite circles for a while now, so much so that they consider Ruto as the de facto president.

To many Kalenjins, the 2017 presidency is a forgone conclusion. “We are already looking ahead to 2022 and nothing will stop us.” Once Uhuru Kenyatta settles down for his final term, Ruto will supposedly roll out his best laid plans, not once, but numerous times, my Kalenjin friends tell me. Ruto, they say, has never deluded himself that the Kikuyus love him. “If the Kikuyus think they can outsmart our man, they are in for a rude shock. We will show them why we have been running the government even when their man has been at State House.”

Extremist Kalenjins like to think that Ruto will rule for 20 years – four years shy of President Moi’s rule, which lasted from 1978 till 2002. “Ruto will have ruled ten years of President Uhuru’s term (2013–2022) and then commence to rule his own two terms (2022–2032). Together with Moi, they will have ruled Kenya the longest time – individually and collectively.” This would be a political record that they are absolutely convinced will never be repeated.

Invariably, for the majority of the Kalenjin people, “the Supreme Court ruling is just a small irritating hiccup that once it is dealt with – and we are confident Ruto is going to fix the mess – Kenyans will have to contend with a long Kalenjin reign.”

By Dauti Kahura
Mr Kahura is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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