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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.

Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.

What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?

This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.

There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.

In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.

A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.

So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?

We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.

True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.

Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.

An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?

How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?

I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.

In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.

The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.

Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.

Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:

“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”

I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.

Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.

The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?

Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.

To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.

Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.

A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.

China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.

I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.

I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.

Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.

I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.

“Mbote,” They might say.

The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.

The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?

A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?

There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”

What do you want me to say? That I stopped?

That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.

I hurried on.

I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.

None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.

The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.

There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.

Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.  

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid

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MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid

On 12th May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Tree Planting Day under the slogan “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya”. It was another of those Jubilee-ese slogans that ring hollow. The event took place in Kamkunji sub-county at the Moi Forces Academy in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. This was the government’s knee-jerk response to the heavy long rains season that sparked an environmental crisis around the country. There were 32 counties affected and over 300,000 Kenyans were displaced. In his official speech, the President repeated the familiar pledge to achieve at least ten per cent forest cover, as required by the constitution, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The news reporting of the event focused on the power politics between Nairobi governor Mike Sonko Mbuvi and Environmental Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko. Two weeks after the launch, news reports were awash with the latest financial scandal. Sh2 billion allocated to establish the green school project in all 47 counties under the auspices of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) had been embezzled. A task force chaired by Marion Wakanyi Kamau of the Green Belt Movement released a report that revealed that Kenya’s forest depletion occurred at an alarming rate of about 5,000 hectares annually and which implicated KFS personnel. Kenyans, numbed by the numerous other cases of grand theft in the Jubilee government, hardly reacted.

Kenya, the birthplace of the Green Belt Movement and its illustrious founder, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, remains stuck in the optics of environmental activism. Reforestation is an activity that the media reduces to a “tree planting exercise” and has evolved into an elite pastime where prominent personalities pose for photo opportunities in formal dress next to freshly planted trees. Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising. Of the several Wangari Maathai quotes I regurgitate, this particular one sticks:

“Anyone can dig a hole and plant a tree. But make sure it survives. You have to nurture it, you have to water it, you have to keep at it until it becomes rooted so that it can take of itself. There are so many enemies of trees.”

Planting trees is easy. Taking care of them requires a different level of commitment. This was Wangari’s enduring message and the one lesson my country fails to learn. This much I know because I have been involved in an urban afforestation project with Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a campaign of the Mathare Social Justice Centre ( MSJC).

Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising.

The two Nairobis

In August 2017, a group of concerned Kenyans from Mathare got together and decided that they were going to plant trees in memory of all their colleagues who fell to police bullets. Over months, the activity evolved into a concerted effort at ecological and social justice using the tree as a symbol of regeneration and resistance to structural oppression.

Planting trees in Mathare is a process and not an event because the soils of this informal settlement have lost their capacity to sustain trees. Mathare Valley is an infamous slum, a crucible of suffering where white tourists arrive in droves to marvel at the resilience of its residents and to photograph the miracle of optimism. The shanty structures, a canopy of rusty brown mabati roofs separated by narrow alleys dropping down precarious rocky slopes, is home to multitudes. Broken souls exist alongside delightful children. Complete despondence rides alongside cheerfulness and the kaleidoscope of intense human interaction has made Mathare a location of extremes with no middle ground to stand on.

The physical environment is devoid of life-sustaining features. The further east you go in Nairobi, the poorer the neighbourhoods become. The absence of basic amenities and greenery and the human congestion and neglect evoke caricatures of a dystopian city. Martin Oduor, a member of MGM, tried to conduct a tree census and came to the disturbing estimate of about one tree for every 1,200 residents.

The Mathare river is turbid, dark grey and sickly – an open sewer that occasionally turns rogue on its residents, sweeping all in its path. The extent of the long-term socio-environmental damage has created the existing spectacle of human suffering that draws in “saviours and observers” from around the world fascinated by the resilience of the residents. Children, accustomed to the white benevolent visitor on a poverty safari, switch character to become entitled beggars peddling the currency of hopelessness.

Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt. To get a sense of what I prefer to call environmental apartheid, one only has to shift one’s gaze to the thick wall of green that is the Muthaiga suburb to the west of Mathare.

The wealthy districts of Nairobi abut its poorer districts from where they draw much of their domestic labour: Muthaiga has Mathare, Karen has Kibera, Loresho has Kangemi, Lavington has Kawangware. A similar pattern is observed in the city’s greenery. From an aerial point of view, the classes are separated by a green belt. All of Nairobi’s best-kept public green spaces – Karura Forest, Nairobi Arboretum, City Park – are in the affluent parts of the city and maintain restricted access. The neighbourhoods to the east of the city centre have minimal public spaces and, where available, we find dusty fields with no green cover.

Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt.

The reality of trees as the markers of aristocratic privilege in Nairobi’s urban spaces is rooted in the colonial state. Between 1906 and 1926, Nairobi was colonised to serve the interests of the white settler population. Eighty per cent of the city’s residential land was reserved for its white elite. The two Nairobi’s were divided into residential areas for Europeans and Asians, and peripheral housing for African labour as an afterthought. One white half of Nairobi was serviced and the other black half was neglected. The colonial zoning policy created a pattern of racial and class segregation and social stratification that persist to this day.

The 1948 Master Plan for a Colonial Capital and the 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy employed segregation principles to maintain racial and class divisions. After independence in 1963, the white neighbourhoods of Karen, Lavington and Muthaiga became accessible to the emerging moneyed African and Asian upper classes who, rather than reverse the social apartheid, opted for the retention of colonial governance structures.

To cater for the unserviced poor masses, an informal modernism emerged in Nairobi, created with the sole intent of exploiting vulnerable city residents. Rural-to-urban migration brought a large influx of people to the city in search of a better life who found themselves trapped in “slums” and denied social mobility by the rigid class structures. The lack of formal housing gave rise to informal settlements operating outside the legal framework and, therefore, subjected to gross violations of rights and a culture of exploitation.

Kenyan filmmaker Tosh Gitonga illustrates the desperation of rural-to-urban migrants and the plight that awaits “shags-modos” in the brutal class-restricted spaces of Nairobi in the captivating film, Nairobi Half Life. Today the primitive accumulation and land expropriation of the post-colonial state has led to 70 per cent of Nairobi’s population of 4 million living on 5 per cent of the city’s land area. Mathare’s 500,000 residents fight for dignity in an area that is barely 3 square kilometres.

Anti-human environmentalism

In his forthcoming book, Paracitations: Genre, Foreign Bodies, and the Ethics of Co-habitatation, Kenyan scholar Samson Opondo describes the economic security and greenness (which had previously been a manifestation of whiteness) becoming inscribed on a class-based identity complete with a rhetoric of “threat”. When we see trees from the purely conservation ideology of the state, we fail to problematise the socio-economic and historical contexts within which possession and disposssesion and threats emerge.

The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored. Public forests are protected by armies with guns and access is restricted by high fees. Opondo futher notes in his 2008 paper, “Genre and the African City: The Politics and Poetics of Urban Rhythms, that Nairobi’s hides (in the open) an ugly history of racial segregation based on the South African model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept where greening of the city corresponded with creation of structures of racial exclusion.

The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored.

In both South Africa and Kenya, the impoverished masses cluster in shanty towns where environmental rights only come to bear during hostile weather crisis management. Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre says, “ Our suffering is invisible.” In Kenya’s election cycle, the slum areas are hotspots that are heavily policed and a ready tinder box of ethnic rivalry, police brutality and gang violence. After every election cycle, we witness the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of corporate media from the spectacle of mass violence of poor against poor, state crackdown on protesting poor masses, and lockdowns.

Elections spell death, destruction and despair for the residents of Mathare. In the lead-up to August 2017 bungled elections, Mathare was marked as a “hotspot” that was heavily policed by rogue units who relish brutalising residents under siege. When it all simmers down, the politicians invariably end up negotiating new pacts, leaving residents to fall back on resilence. As soon as they turn their backs, the slow violence resumes, felt only by those within who are invisible to those on the outside – a violence that is exaceberated by an environment that is metaphorically lined with unexploded landmines. The environmentally dispossessed only make the news in the midst of great tragedy and calamities.

Hunting grounds

In the book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, author Rob Nixon shed lights on the inattention to calamities “that are slow and long lasting, continuously dispensing devastation but without the necessary spectacle required to raise public outrage or sustain the fleeting attention (that) spans breaking news corporate media spectacles.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Kenyan public remains unaware of the humanitarian crisis in the form of extrajudicial killings in Nairobi’s slums. The MSJC brought this to light in 2017 after the launch of “Who is Next: A Participatory Action Report Against the Normalisation of Extrajudicial Executions in Mathare”. Between 2013 and 2015, over 803 cases were documented.

The report was the first major concerted effort by a grassroots movement to raise awareness about the reality of extrajudicial executions. Despite the moderate buzz created in human rights spaces, the killings have not stopped. The policing culture persists. In the month of May 2018, for instance, Wilfred Olal of the Dandora Justice Center reported that 15 young men had been gunned down. Justice for the victims is a long shot. Wangui Kimaru, a researcher at MSJC, told me that there have been only 4 convictions despite 9,000 cases being forwarded to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA).

Human rights defender Kennedy Chindi says that there are between 10 to 15 cases of young men reported missing or killed by police every month in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Cases of police threats and intimidation deter the aggrieved from coming forward with information. “Everyone knows the killers but no one even dares call them by their names,” says Wyban Mwangi, a young musician. Instead, they use a codename, “Mjamaa”, for even in a valley of hundreds of thousands, the walls have ears. The names Hessy of Kayole and Rashid are whispered and the youth live in dread of who is next?

The Bill of Rights in the Kenyan constitution guarantees every person the right to life. Howeve,r in an unequal society, the rights of the poor come with no guarantees. The normalisation of the extrajudicial killings is an existential generational crisis. Amnesty International, Haki Africa and emerging grassroots organisations in Mathare, Dandora and Kayole have harrowing documentation of enforced dissapearances and deaths that are often atrributed to the police.

Encounter killings have turned urban ghettos into legalised hunting grounds, no different from the death match in the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy by American novelist Suzanne Collins. Or perhaps District 9, a South African sci-fi feature by Neill Blomkamp that astutely explores social segregation in a scathing satirical analysis of urban populations treated with the level of vile contempt reserved for pests. In Kenya, Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life dramatises this unofficial routine killing of young males in a complex narrative of the cyclical violence of toxic masculinity where the line between the criminal and the police is blurrry.

Researcher Naomi Van Stapele, in her book Respectable “Illegality”: Gangs, Masculinities and Belonging in a Nairobi Ghetto, explained that the killings in Mathare continue without raising any public outrage because the dead are labelled as criminals or thugs, which justifies the executions. “Let the police do their work”, is the divorced public response. No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”. In middle class circles, a conversation with a journalist friend turned into a sermon heavy on class snobbery. “Kenya’s ghetto mentality is what is holding those people in slums back.” Then he cherry-picked the example of musician Juliani as the mascot of possibility.

No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”.

Local media has made a profession of reporting poverty through derogatory frames. Therefore, the numerous reports, occasional protests against police harassment and demonstrations do not draw media attention or public solidarity beyond the spectacle of tragedy.

Structural violence

These examples show that the slum ecology harbours systemic and structural violence that is silent. Johan Galtung, the celebrated Norwegian mathematician and sociologist, coined the term “structural violence”, which may be described as a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

Like soil erosion, the effects of structural violence are not immediately obvious. Because its consequences only become evident in the distant future, there is little incentive for long-term solutions. Zangi, a resident of Mathare notes that it does not matter who comes to power; the problem is the system and the police culture. The problem is also the enabling physical environment that legitimises extrajudicial killings.

The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies. The problems of social justice are too many, too complex and not sexy enough for short-term political strategists who live for the optics in between elections to sustain popularity. Remedial environmental policy takes years. The benefits cannot be accrued in one political cycle and are certainly not bankable in the transactional nature of Kenyan politics. Article 42 of the constitution confers the right to a clean and healthy environment but is yet to interrogate systemic issues. The issues of the environment may be important but they not urgent.

The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies.

Therefore, to muster the political will needed to implement real change is difficult in a country where leaders cannot think beyond the next election. There are no immediate political rewards for planning to avert a human catastrophe. In nature terms, no one wants to plant a tree under whose shade they won’t sit or whose fruit they won’t eat. Long-term benefits may accrue for others and that is just not smart business in this instant gratification culture where exploitation and extractation is a privatised enterprise.

It is this context that we have to broaden the idea of what violence is. Personal violence is a consequence of structural violence. Lack of basic resources leads to competition that degenerates into violence in the quest for dominance. Gangs in urban ghettos organise around resources that leverage power and influence. Public toilets, garbage collection, water points, electricity connection and security are centres of frequent conflict. Kenyans awake to the economic and political realities of the 80s and 90s can track back how the slow violence of neoliberal policies began as a benign condition known as Structural Adjustment Program.

Beyond counting and documenting the victims of slow daily violence, the Mathare Green Movement is conscripting nature’s healing powers to challenge and alleviate the long-term effects of and sustain attention towards social injustice causes. Those grassroots environmental activists that Wangari Maathai called “foresters without degrees are at the forefront of plotting new futures, imagining new worlds and planting ideas of hope. Wangari Maathai underscored the need to keep environmentalism connected to global questions of human rights and social justice.

In a letter smuggled from a Nigerian jail, the writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote: “The environment is man’s first right. That notion seems to have been forgotten in urban ecologies and serves as a focal point in articulating the experiences of oppressed people who are rendered invisible in the national economy and silenced when they demand to be heard.

Seeds of peace

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement brought a new discourse to the public consciousness, linking the slow violence of environmental degradation to its consequences, while at the same time proposing a public participatory methodology to advance environmental recovery. The Mathare Green Movement’s focus is young men facing the threat of extrajudicial executions who plant trees to reclaim lost life and dignify in the memory of peers labeled as criminal and forgotten after death.

The lesson of the Green Belt Movement is that poverty does not operate in a vacuum. Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other. She correctly diagnosed that corrupt exploitation of resources impacted vulnerable masses directly and insisted that environmentalism of the poor is inseprable from redistributive justice

Like the Green Belt Movement, the theatre of the tree gives the Mathare Green Movement a new vocabulary that is loaded with civic duty. Prof. Maathai called it “doing my little thing”. It is fitting that the new millennial generation of her disciples would emerge from Kenya’s marginalised urban spaces. Planting, not merely trees, but the seeds of life, healing, ideas, courage, hope and solidarity.

Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other.

The greening campaigns create the connection between environmental injustice and the erosion of social justice; the link between a healthy environment and quality of life. A tree has a right to grow to maturity, to fruit and bloom as every young life does in Mathare.

Planting trees in this spirit is more than a public relations exercise; it is work towards changing spaces so that they are less vulnerable to the elements and the forces that exploit the sense of deprivation. Importantly, it is the deliberate and conscious action of engaging in intergenerational optimism and responsibility, and accepting that we may never sit under the shade of the trees we plant.

Just as violence in Nairobi’s urban ghettos is continous and slow, so does healing through tree planting have to be a continous process. Urban reforestation that is people-centred is the primary symbolic vehicle for demanding ecological and social justice. The slow and deliberate effort of rehabilitating green spaces forces one to examine the systemic challenges that sustain these conditions. These young men choose to be eco-warriors, creating an enabling environment, restoring dignity and demanding the right to life from a state that minimises their existence. Wangari Maathai called it planting “seeds of peace” to stop the poverty profiling that disproportionately targets the poor. The existing structures of slow violence is why politicians consistently exploit the tensions in Nairobi’s slums during election cycles, easily igniting violence because below the surface, old antagonisms linger unresolved.

The Chipko movement, which originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh in India in the 1970s, gained notoreity as a non-violent social and ecological movement whose members protected trees by hugging them to discourage loggers.

They are no trees to hug in Mathare. However, following in the footsteps of Wangari Maathai, the young people of Mathare will one day pass down trees of peace that stand for their right to security and protection from a state that terrorises its own citizens.

The lasting solution to ending direct and indirect violence against young lives is by adddressing the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence. Planting trees we must, but we can no longer fail to see the forest.

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NAIROBI: A city in which ‘contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent’

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NAIROBI: A city in which ‘contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent’

“The people are the city.”Citizens in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

At the crack of dawn, roughly between 5a.m and 7a.m, the “Great Trek” in Nairobi begins. Hordes of security guards, domestic workers, office cleaners, factory workers, vegetable hawkers, office messengers and jua kali artisans, among others, start their journey to work – on foot. It is a scene to behold. Thousands of people purposefully walking on roads meant for cars – sometimes for as long as three hours – to report to work by 8a.m., if not earlier.

These are the forgotten people, the ones the city’s urban planners have not catered for since Nairobi came into existence more than a century ago – when the city was planned as an apartheid city, built for a minority white elite that owned cars. Since then Nairobi has been characterised as a city that lacks pavements. Road builders either fail to build pavements during construction or pavements are so small or dilapidated that people have to use the road when walking.

However, even the roads meant for cars are failing the city’s residents. Traffic jams have become so normal in Nairobi that people plan their days around them. Moreover, recent proposals to have “car-free” days will not have the desired impact because those who use private cars are unlikely to walk to work or use public transport. To make matters worse, the frenzied construction of apartment blocks in residential areas has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in the number of roads and pavements. On the contrary, the construction of office blocks and apartment buildings in many neighbourhoods has led to the uprooting of precious green spaces.

A World Bank study estimates that around 40 per cent of trips in Nairobi are made on foot. Matatus and minibuses account for 30 per cent of these trips while buses account for 10 per cent. Only slightly more than 10 per cent of the city’s population uses private cars. Unlike in many European cities, where walking is considered a lifestyle choice, and where pedestrian pathways and public transport is part of the transport infrastructure, in Kenya a large number of people walk because they can’t afford any other means of transport. Urban transport here is, therefore, not only deeply related to poverty and inequality but also to poor or non-existent transport infrastructure, including sufficient roads and pavements.

A World Bank study estimates that around 40 per cent of trips in Nairobi are made on foot. Matatus and minibuses account for 30 per cent of these trips while buses account for 10 per cent. Only slightly more than 10 per cent of the city’s population uses private cars.

According to Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity, a UN-Habitat report published in 2013, Nairobi has allocated just 11 per of land to roads, which is way below the optimum level of around 30 per cent. (About a third of the land in Manhattan, for instance, is allocated to roads and pavements.) Moreover, the scarcity of roads is evident in both rich and poor neighbourhoods. For example, only 3 per cent of the land in both the up-market Muthaiga and the low-income Kibera is made up of streets. This is worrying because roads and pavements are not just important for mobility, they are also important for the development of related infrastructure, such as water and sewerage systems, which are usually laid down along existing road networks. According to the report, fewer roads and poor road connectivity make cities less prosperous.

Build it and they will come?

But will the construction of more roads improve mobility in the city? Not necessarily. Evidence suggests that more roads in urban areas can actually make mobility more difficult. During the Mwai Kibaki administration, for example, there was a concerted effort to build more roads and highways in Nairobi, ostensibly to ease congestion and improve transport infrastructure. The irony is that despite having more roads in the city, traffic in Nairobi has reached nightmare proportions

This contradiction was predicted some years ago by Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota, when he gave a public lecture at Nairobi University a few months before the construction began. Penalosa said that expansion of the road network in many cities had shown that instead of reducing vehicular traffic, the traffic actually increased. This could be attributed partly to the “build it and they will come” logic that is based on the idea that the building of infrastructure is itself an incentive for more people to use it.

In Nairobi, there has also been a marked increase in the number of private vehicles and matatus on the roads. The construction of highways has also improved connectivity with satellite towns, which has increased traffic flow into the city. These are probably some of the reasons why, despite the construction of several bypasses on Mombasa Road, Uhuru Highway remains the most congested main artery in the city at all hours of the day. The construction of the Thika Superhighway has had a similar effect: the highway has led to urban sprawl as satellite towns have emerged along it, with the result that more commuters from peri-urban areas are now using the highway.

The former mayor of Bogota said that instead of making more room for cars, cities should make more room for pedestrians, cyclists and mass rapid transit systems. This would encourage residents to use alternative forms of transport, which would lessen traffic on the roads.

When he was mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota between 1998 and 2001, Penalosa created a bus rapid transit system featuring bus-only lanes. Penalosa will also be remembered for building an extensive network of bicycle paths and pedestrian-only streets at a time when cities such as London and Paris had not even thought of them. (Now both London and Paris are emulating the Bogota example.)

Penalosa believes that today’s cities need to be totally re-designed to cater for pedestrians and cyclists. In an interview with the online Citiscope magazine, he stated: “For 5000 years we designed cities for people without cars. When cars appeared, we should have begun designing totally different cities. We did not. We just made bigger roads.”

When he was mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota between 1998 and 2001, Penalosa created a bus rapid transit system featuring bus-only lanes. Penalosa will also be remembered for building an extensive network of bicycle paths and pedestrian-only streets at a time when cities such as London and Paris had not even thought of them.

Streets as public spaces

In Nairobi, planners and policy makers are planning for vehicles, not pedestrians. This is in sharp contrast to trends in Europe where citizens are reclaiming their streets as “public spaces” by re-designing streets so that they are accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists. For instance, London has made parts of the famous Trafalgar Square inaccessible to cars and many European cities, including Copenhagen and Amsterdam, encourage the use of bicycles. Apart from the health and environmental benefits, the reclamation of streets as public spaces has immense social benefits. Streets become the great levellers where people from all walks of life meet and interact. This promotes social inclusion.

The idea that streets should be public spaces gained momentum in the mid to late 20th century when American urbanists, such as Jane Jacobs, suggested that “you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul”. More recently, the American economist Edward Glaeser suggested that the most successful cities in the world are those that “enable us to work and play together” in close proximity and through physical interaction. These interactions are only possible when people mingle on streets and public spaces.

Penalosa is also a great advocate of public spaces, such as parks and playing fields. He notes that New York City created Central Park in 1860 when the city was much poorer than it is today, and that London, a heavily built-up city, has 1,500 public football fields that are open and free to all residents. (In contrast, Nairobi County Governor Mike Sonko had at one time suggested that Uhuru Park – Nairobi’s largest public park – be turned into a matatu stage. Neither under Sonko nor under any of the city’s former leaders have there been plans to build more public parks in the city. What’s worse, in recent years land grabbers have even attempted to steal playgrounds in Nairobi’s public schools.)

The idea that streets should be public spaces gained momentum in the mid to late 20th century when American urbanists, such as Jane Jacobs, suggested that “you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul”.

Nairobi, like many African and Asian cities, seems not to have learnt lessons from European and other cities where there is a growing “liveable cities” movement that emphasises reduced dependence on motorised transport by making streets more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians. Nairobi’s streets are clogged with cars, matatus and private vehicles, and pavements are fast disappearing or are in a dilapidated state. Many streets do not even have pavements, and those that do are often encroached upon by hawkers and even by motorists. As one Kenyan commented on Twitter, “If there were pavements in Nairobi, motorists would drive on them.” The lack of adequate pavements and bicycle paths has also resulted in unnecessary deaths of pedestrians and cyclists; in fact, cycling and walking are considered among the most dangerous forms of transport in Kenya.

Penalosa is also against the new trend of shopping malls (which has become a rage in Nairobi), which he says deprives city dwellers of walking in and enjoying their city. Local corner shops disappear as the rich flock to enclosed malls. In Nairobi social apartheid that separates the urban rich from the urban poor is now becoming increasingly apparent in these up-market malls and gated communities.

Kenya Urbanization Review, a World Bank report published in February 2016, says that Nairobi is at a particular crossroad and can go down one of two main routes: It can either build its way out of congestion by building more roads to serve the increasing motorisation rate, or it can invest in public transport networks to promote a more compact and environmentally friendly city. “Either way,” says the report, “the fundamental priority is to avoid a trade-off between access and sustainability” that will lock Nairobi into highly land-consuming and car-dependant development patterns.

Devolution: Challenges and opportunities

Like most African cities, Nairobi did not grow as a result of a grand master plan – much of the city has grown spontaneously and haphazardly. Even when there were plans, they were largely ineffective because they did not reflect the reality on the ground and did not anticipate the rapid urban growth rate (driven largely by rural-to-urban migration) after independence in 1963.

For instance, if urban planners and policy makers understood that a large proportion of the city’s 4 million or so residents walk to work (because they cannot afford public transport), they would be ensuring that there would be more and wider pavements in the city and more affordable mass public transport. Urban planners are also in short supply. According to the World Bank report, in 2011 there were only 194 accredited urban planners in the whole of Kenya, compared to 1,690 in South Africa.

Nairobi has ambitions to become a “world class city”, but these ambitions are being hampered by the city’s delusional sense of its own importance that fails to recognise that more than half of the city’s population lives in overcrowded slums with few amenities, such as piped water or electricity. It is estimated that only 36 per cent of households in the city’s informal settlements have direct access to piped water. The urban poor in the city also pay more for water than rich households, as water has to be purchased from water vendors who sell them by the litre. Slum dwellers in Nairobi do not even have access to sanitation and are forced to use makeshift pit latrines. It is estimated that only 18 per cent of Kenya’s total urban population has access to a sewer system; 70 per cent of urban dwellers rely on septic tanks or pit latrines.

Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes in September 2009, described Nairobi (along with Lagos, Karachi, Lima, Cairo, Jakarta, Dhaka, Caracas and Manila) as “an utterly charmless city” – “edgy, aggressive and inhospitable”, a city in which “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent” and where there are “few parks and sidewalks, and scarcely any of the amenities that comprise the core of urban civilization”. Varadarajan’s assessment of the city may appear harsh, as other observers have commended the city for its vibrant culture and cosmopolitan nature. (Lonely Planet, for example, has described Nairobi as one of the best cities in the world, and has praised it for its “excellent nightspots and good music scene”). However, it is clear that Nairobi lacks the one thing world class cities have – a safe, affordable, reliable and well-regulated public transport system.

Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes in September 2009, described Nairobi (along with Lagos, Karachi, Lima, Cairo, Jakarta, Dhaka, Caracas and Manila) as “an utterly charmless city” – “edgy, aggressive and inhospitable”, a city in which “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent”

Poor leadership and corruption have further contributed to creating an urban culture that lacks vision. If Nairobi was a place that catered for the majority of its residents’ needs, there would be more pavements, bicycle paths, public parks, public toilets and playing fields in the city. But a land grabbing frenzy has ensured that even the few green spaces (and even public toilets) in the city have now become concrete blocks.

The fundamental reason why Nairobi is so dysfunctional is because its dysfunction is self-perpetuating. Urban dwellers do not demand better infrastructure and services and expect little from the authorities, which leads of a vicious cycle of low expectations, little infrastructure investment and low productivity. When the city fails to provide services, such as garbage collection, those residents who can afford it hire private garbage collectors. The same applies to security, water provision and other essential services. This has resulted in widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Devolution may have actually contributed to the city’s woes as there is no longer a City Council or Ministry of Local Government to blame. The 1963 Local Government Act created 175 local authorities in Kenya, which were abolished under the new constitution that was promulgated in 2010. As required by Article 184 of the constitution, national legislation should provide for the governance and management of urban areas.

The Urban Areas and Cities Act (Revised 2015 edition) does provide for a system of city and municipal boards and town committees that are tasked with adopting urban policies and strategies, including on service delivery and land use. However, the criteria for the creation of these boards are rather restrictive, and could serve as a deterrent to the formation of such boards, especially in poor and largely rural counties.

One of the conditions for the creation of a city or municipal board is that the city or town should have the capacity to generate sufficient revenue to sustain its operations, which is difficult for many of the poorer counties that rely on the national government to carry out operations, including the building of roads that are not part of the national highway network. Nairobi, Kenya’s largest and wealthiest city, collected Sh11.7 billion in revenue in 2015/16, but it is the exception in a country where the majority of towns have populations of less than 250,000 and where urban-based activities are not the mainstay of largely rural economies. Another condition is to have the capacity to effectively and efficiently deliver services, which is a tall order for most smaller towns in Kenya.

One of the pitfalls of devolution is that urban areas may suffer under a system where devolved funds are being used to cater mostly for rural populations in the counties, rather than to the needs of urban dwellers. While this is understandable, given that the majority of counties are predominantly rural and considering the marginalisation of several regions under the previous centralised system, neglecting urban areas may come to haunt counties in the future.

As the World Bank’s Kenya Urbanization Review report concluded, Kenya’s ambitious experiment in devolution holds great promise and comes at an important period but aspects of the process may weaken urban centres at a time when they need to be strengthened. “On balance,” says the report, “Kenya still has an opportunity to leverage urbanization to drive economic growth. It is in the early stages of urbanization, and evidence suggests that cities can drive economic development – especially when they are developed through a ‘system-of-cities’ approach and where devolution empowers counties…to develop strong urban centers.”

One of the pitfalls of devolution is that urban areas may suffer under a system where devolved funds are being used to cater mostly for rural populations in the counties, rather than to the needs of urban dwellers. While this is understandable, given that the majority of counties are predominantly rural and considering the marginalisation of several regions under the previous centralised system, neglecting urban areas may come to haunt counties in the future.

Urbanisation and economic growth

The 2009 Kenya census shows that nearly one-third of the country’s population is now urban, but urbanisation levels are still way below those of other African countries. In fact, along with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, Kenya has among the lowest urbanisation levels in the world. This has implications for the country’s economic prospects.

Nairobi, and Kenya as a whole, need an urban strategy that increases productivity and promotes inclusion. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between levels of urbanisation and economic growth – in general, most countries do not attain middle income status until they are at least 50 per cent urban. In 2009, the World Bank published a report by the Commission on Growth and Development that showed that there is a clear and robust relationship between urbanisation and per capita income in nearly all countries. The report stated that to achieve middle-income status, countries need to have at least half their populations living in urban areas and that “in all known cases of high and sustained growth, urban manufacturing and services led the process”.

The first challenge, of course, is to make cities and towns sites of high-productivity industries. The second challenge is managing the negative consequences of growth on urban areas, including congestion, pollution, inequality and slum formation. Both challenges require investments in infrastructure – but only if that infrastructure does not contribute to other problems (like pollution and congestion) and if it contributes to making productivity more efficient.

In its current state, the transport infrastructure in cities like Nairobi has proved to be an impediment to productivity as most workers spend more time commuting than engaging in productive activities. Over-dependence of private mini-buses (matatus) has also led to a situation where other forms of public transport have been crowded out, leading to increasing congestion and air pollution.

Building more roads has not helped either because the roads fail to cater for the majority of residents who walk, cycle or use public transport. As Edward Glaeser reminds us in his book, Triumph of the City: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier, “The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.”

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AN ODE TO SILENCE: The Church’s abdication of its role in society

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AN ODE TO SILENCE: The Church’s abdication of its role in society

The Church in Kenya struggles in silence while endemic corruption ravages the public and private sectors of the country.  On this matter, I’d rather lament with Prophet Jeremiah when he supplicated the appalling backsliding of his people by asking: “Is there no Balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is the wound of my people not healed?”, rather than sing in faith, the Negro spiritual affirming: “There is a balm in Gilead to heal a sick, sick soul…”

Wounds inflicted by corruption on this nation will need a more “potent balm”, yes, more than an “expert physician”, for neither the laws enacted so far nor the commission instituted to deal with the scourge have proven effective.

The law is clear: Corruption, active and passive bribery, abuse of office and bribing a foreign public official are outlawed under the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act 2003, which is further reinforced with the Bribery Act of 2016 ostensibly to aid in the fight against the supply side of corruption.

Comprehensive enforcement of Kenya’s anti-corruption framework, however, remains a challenge because of weak and corrupt public institutions.

But in choosing silence in the face of this obscene level of corruption, perhaps at the counsel of the English poet Thomas Carlyle (“Silence is Gold”) or the American rock song by the Tremeloes (“Silence is Golden, but my eyes still see, Silence is Golden, but my eyes still see…”), the Kenyan Church is abdicating its unique and vital role in society. What has become of the once-vibrant voices within the Church who challenged the draconian Moi rule, risking their lives for a just cause?

Then the Church took a radical and militant approach. It was not afraid to say, like the prophets of old: “Thus says the Lord…” It had clarity on matters of national importance affecting the people, unlike its counterparts today, who are even failing to define their own mandate.

Pope Benedict XVI is emphatic about the role the Church should play in society.  He defines the Church’s role in the political sphere as primarily education (understood not as schooling, no matter how important that is): “The Church must awaken man’s receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience. It must give men and women the courage to live according to their conscience and so keep open the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, which is none other than the narrow way of peace.”

Then the Church took a radical and militant approach. It was not afraid to say, like the prophets of old: “Thus says the Lord…” It had clarity on matters of national importance affecting the people, unlike its counterparts today, who are even failing to define their own mandate.

He also highlights the need for society, both local and global, to recover the divine element in our humanity, which includes moral consensus, without which society flounders and humanity is endangered.

There are some though, who would rather have an aloof Church and one that is measured in contentious matters of public concern. Stephen Carter, the Yale scholar, in his book, The Culture of Disbelief, laments that “our public culture more and more prefers religion as something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen.”

Could it be that the dearth of the prophetic voice is a sign of a Church struggling to define itself and its societal role in the post-2003 era? Kenya needs to hear what the Church is thinking and saying on corruption. The Church cannot extricate itself from politics because it cannot refrain from the task of reflecting on the implications of its faith within our political context. It has reason to intervene, for we cannot afford the haemorrhaging of this country through corruption.

A 2016 survey released by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) indicated that the rate of economic crimes in Kenya is 25 per cent above the global average. It further revealed that every record set against stealing is broken. In the year 2015 alone, economic crimes rose to 61 per cent from 52 per cent in 2014 and maybe worse today. Philip Kinisu, a retired auditor and a former chairman of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) told Reuters: “Kenya is losing a third of its State budget – the equivalent of about $6 billion (KShs. 608 billion) – to corruption every year.”

Our plight did not escape the notice of former United States President Barack Obama during his visit in 2015. He rightly criticised Kenya’s corruption, inequality, and tribalism before an audience, which included President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Cabinet, at Kasarani Sports Centre in Nairobi.

Obama quoted a study showing that every year corruption costs Kenya 250,000 jobs. He said rising prosperity in the economy was leaving out the vast majority of the people, the burden of which is borne by the poor.

This is exactly what Samuel Paul of the Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore established in “Corruption: Who Will Bell the Cat?” His study found that in five Indian cities, poor households were much more likely to pay “speed money” for public services than households in general. Consequently, when access to public goods and services requires a bribe, the poor may be excluded. Given their lack of political influence, the poor may even be asked to pay more than people with higher incomes. Furthermore, when corruption results in shoddy public services, the poor lack the resources to pursue “exit” options, such as private schooling, health care or power generation.

We can learn from the struggles of the 1980s, during which Galia Sabar, Professor of African Studies at Tel Aviv University, observed that limited political association paralysed the process of transforming information and ideas into action. As such, she gave credence to the emergence of informal individual activism and the culture of defiance that was growing day by day.

On the frontline of Kenya’s individual Church activism during the Moi era were the Anglican Church’s Bishop Henry Okullu of Maseno South Diocese, Bishop Alexander Muge of the Diocese of Eldoret, Bishop David Gitari, the Anglican prelate of Mt. Kenya East diocese, and Rev. Timothy Njoya, a moderator in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). These clerics triggered the much-needed change in the country through their political engagements.

Citing the February 1990 edition of Finance magazine, Sabar in “Politics and Power in the Kenyan Public and Recent Events: the Church of the Province of Kenya, said: “Irrespective of how much we might belittle their social standing, the clerics represent the most cohesively structured, the most firmly organised and the most solidly unified institution in the country.”

Stephen Kapinde, a lecturer at Pwani University’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, observes how the vitality of the pulpit as a stable platform for change and the sermons of Bishop Gitari (at a time when the state had censored nearly everyone and proscribed gatherings of more than three people) gave credence to the Church in political discourses. The prelate and his peers developed a culture of resistance through the pulpit.

Prof. Robert Press, in his book, Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Civil Liberties, gave more insight into this culture by observing that:

Individual activists can only do so much in their role as ice-breakers in the reform process. Organizational activists build on their advances but need the presence of members of the public at their events to make a serious bid for reforms. The public, in turn, needs the forum for the activists to express their discontent. Together the resistance sends signals to the regime, the public and international officials and agencies that the demands for change have substance and visible public support.

For this reason, the clergy blazed the trail for democratic reforms from their pulpits. Amazingly, such activism was thought by many to defile the pulpit, while in essence, the clerics used the space to liberate the people of Kenya, thereby living up to their calling to be “salt” and “light” in the world.

The contrast is huge today – pulpits are not as sacrosanct and neither are their messages. The frequency with which politicians have graced churches with goodies from corruption, coupled with the silence of clerics, is troubling.

For this reason, the clergy blazed the trail for democratic reforms from their pulpits. Amazingly, such activism was thought by many to defile the pulpit, while in essence, the clerics used the space to liberate the people of Kenya, thereby living up to their calling to be “salt” and “light” in the world.

For instance, Deputy President William Ruto has been a darling of Churches during funds drives, notwithstanding the fact that he has been named in a litany of corruption-related scandals. Indeed, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga in 2015 described him as “the high priest of corruption in Kenya.”

The Anglican Church had an explicit stand on the widespread habit of inviting public figures as guests of honour at fund-raising events. Following the Provincial Board of Christian Community Services consultation on “The Theology and Philosophy of Development” held at St. Julian Centre between 11th and 13th May, 1983, the Church issued protocols to protect the likely erosion of the Church’s prophetic role in society:

Inviting public figures as guests of honour at Church harambees or giving them prominence in a church function merely because of the money they bring is not in accordance with our Christian principles. It tends to silence the prophetic voice of our church leaders (A report of the CPK Consultation on Theology and Philosophy of Development, 1989: p. 5, ¶4).

Today, however, several Anglican Churches have overlooked this protocol and indulged the said politicians on their pulpits, thus diluting their prophetic voice. How would they escape the tag of being an accomplice to corruption? They should have heeded Joseph Kamaru’s warning in his song, J. M. Kariuki, “gûtirí múicì na mùcudhìríria” (there is no difference between a thief and a mere observer).

The contrast is huge today – pulpits are not as sacrosanct and neither are their messages. The frequency with which politicians have graced churches with goodies from corruption, coupled with the silence of clerics, is troubling.

According to British evangelist and theologian G. Campbell Morgan, “Sacrilege is defined as taking something that belongs to God and using it profanely. But the worst kind of sacrilege is taking something and giving it to God when it means absolutely nothing to you.” If we accept this, then the Church would have committed double sacrilege in this indulgence: Knowingly giving platform to sanitise corrupt money in the name of God, and perpetuating delusion that that is investing in heaven.

How do I answer my friend Joe Kobuthi’s query: “What does it mean when the Church goes quiet or turns a blind eye to corruption to the extent that a politician like Ruto can claim his contributions to churches to be ‘investing in heaven’”?

The Church, by indulging in questionable money being “invested” in its programmes, undermines its own ability to help the poor. Proper “investing in heaven” is investing in Christ. St. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD), one of the greatest Early Church Fathers of the 5th century, warned: “Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that?”

How do I answer my friend Joe Kobuthi’s query: “What does it mean when the Church goes quiet or turns a blind eye to corruption to the extent that a politician like Ruto can claim his contributions to churches to be ‘investing in heaven’”?

How about using one’s position in government to save the annual 250,000 jobs lost to corruption? Wouldn’t that give many Kenyans opportunities to feed their hungry, and not to leave them to stare at Church tables embellished with gold? Investing in heaven would mean putting to proper use the US$6 billion lost to corruption to provide for proper health services and housing for homeless Kenyans.

The Kenyan public is livid at the multi-million-dollar scandals that have failed to result in high-profile convictions. They accuse politicians and top government officials of acting with impunity and encouraging graft by those in lower posts.

Again, Kinisu opines the real drive to stamp out corruption has to come from public pressure for change. Yet in an environment of fear and intimidation by corruption cartels and politicians, it becomes nearly impossible to set up any social movement against corruption.

A curious episode in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is instructive, as it well depicts our challenge on corruption:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.

It is not freedom from corruption, but rather the freedom to take a stand against it, that we must all pursue. If the Church is to retain its credibility and relevance, I believe it needs to utilise its eminent position to influence public opinion on matters affecting the nation. I would like to believe that, sooner or later, it will recover its earlier prophetic fervour for the sake of the public good and provide the moral leadership we so desperately need today in the epic fight against corruption.

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