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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world

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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world
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To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

~ Marco the Lombard’s counsel, from Dante’s Divine Comedy

Novelist Pankaj Mishra, referring to “the history of modernisation”, observes how despite pretentions to rationality and order described by the American originators of the term in the 1950s and 1960s, modernisation’s history “is largely one of carnage and bedlam” that disproportionately afflicts a targeted,othered”, dehumanised, inferiorised population invariably classified as poor, who by implication are also made responsible for the pathetic state in which they find themselves.

A polarisation of conscience means that little solidarity can be extended to those who suffer the greatest burden of the consequences of the worst of human impulses and choices. Do we imagine that the gaze infected by the paradigm in which it thrives can refocus its witnessing lens from a place of profound empathy for and with humanity, and see itself in the suffering of the other?

There is nothing objective in the human gaze. We know this. Yet we collude with this post-Enlightenment, neoliberal hubristic production system that even proposes its own transcendence and omniscience— and does so while denying or erasing the reality of the shared experience of suffering so that it can lay claim to transcendent objectivity. How can a corrupted witness purport to offer a truthful testament to human experience? How unbiased is the evidence (images, stories) that such a witness brings forth?

Humanity now thrashes about in a chasm of the absence of a real vocabulary of beingness today, while at the same time, makes excuses for a parasitic ideological structure that requires the stories of others’ vulnerabilities in order to shore up itself and its peculiar myths. An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

Against such a backdrop, what does our own articulation of post-coloniality, social development, vulnerability and poverty actually mean here and now? What does “representation” become when forged through an epistemological structure that fragments the world so that it can elevate itself as the “universal” and the standard by which the human race measures its progress. In referring to this dilemma, the thinker Santiago Castro-Gomes calls it the problem of the “hubris of point zero”.

This is the epistemology that, despite its, yes, many virtues, treasures, and achievements on behalf of its select, could also declare those on the right of the screen as virtuous and righteous in their actions against those on the left, who are consistently classified as soulless, valueless, ungovernable and unmournable savages, barbarians, terrorists and heathens— not entirely human and, therefore, exploitable and dispensable. The mostly Euro-American collective societal imagination, in particular, was co-opted into this belief. The paradigm deliberately enlisted science and academia to develop a literature and theory to absolve itself from this, its public evil. The desecrated bodies on the left of the screen are rendered undignified and nameless even in their ancestral homes—and there are no plaques to commemorate their histories, achievements, their existence – while museums are built to enshrine the so-called exploits of those on the right.

An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

What we see and hear now has a history and a template. Given this, what then should a person do with an array of stories and images embedded in a diminished, diminishing and disordered framing of life, that from its origins, and despite the evidence of its horrid impulses, has never been forensically interrogated?

In a 1999 New York Times article, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka reminded us how “the great philosophical minds of Europe, like Hume, Hegel and Kant, bent their prodigious talents to separating the species into those with rights and those with none, founded on the convenient theory that some people were human and others less so. The Encyclopedists of France, products of the so-called Age of Reason, remain the most prolific codifiers of the human (and other) species on an ambitiously comprehensive scale, and their scholarly industry conferred a scientific benediction on a purely commercial project that saw millions of souls dragged across the ocean to serve as beasts of burden. Religion and commerce … were reinforced by the authority of new scientific theories to divide humanity into higher and lower manifestations of the species. The dichotomy of the world was complete.”

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia. We are enduring a season of an unprecedented crisis of being and vision – and the devastation of lives we see and label as “precarious” are symptomatic of this.

Reality, they say, is relational, not representational. I retreat once more to Marco the Lombard’s counsel from Dante’s Divine Comedy for guidance:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

Do we really have the adequate tools of analysis that will lead us into an immersive experience of the realities to which we refer? We live a lie-laden un-reality where communities of the most resource-rich territories of the world are interpenetrated by the most devastating forms of poverty while those of the resource-consuming lands are lauded as the most advanced, the wealthiest, the best, when the questions that should be asked are: How does the world’s wealth get to be transferred, from where, by whom, for whom and at what price? Who sets the rates? To what obscene extent are precarity, marginalisation and poverty in themselves a profitable by-product of a way of being in the world? How are these accepted by-products of an accepted global industrial ideology? Will we explore poverty in its multiple designs and constructions in Bretton Wood cults, in the numerous multinational boardrooms, and in all those resource-hunting, territory-scouring Trojan horses that first appear as non-governmentals and then collude with emasculated, lobotomised post-colonial governors masquerading as leaders of so many nations?

We find ourselves entangled in and by a culture that, for example, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, still allowed its privileged liars, those contemporary high priests of baal, a gateway to create and launch a grotesque unending war fifteen years ago that has since devoured an ancient civilisation and pushed our earth into the cusp of a human-caused apocalypse. This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices have visited upon millions and millions of innocents.

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia.

The abomination is today visited on Yemen for no real reason other than Saudi Arabia, this paradigm’s favourite pimp, wishes to test its war chops and spread its particular version of self-rightousness. Saudi Arabia is spending trillions of dollars on weapons sold to it by nations, that offer themselves as ‘paragons of human values’ weapons that are sometimes procured through second or third parties. Money gratefully received without question. Later, when the images of devastating Yemeni starvation hits your Christmas screens, some scrawny Englishman will compose a “Do they know it’s Christmas?” dirge so that we can all send our one pound to help the poor, the starving and the helpless. Meanwhile, it is Christmas every day in our weapon-manufacturing communities; the war in Yemen is a ceaseless bounty.

I ask you, are there any stories today, any images of the full Yemeni reality? Of course not. We will neither reveal the images of the generals overseeing the devastation of an already weak land, nor will we show what bullets and grenades do to human bodies. Why should the truth of what sustains our economies and guarantees our lifestyles interfere with the pleasure of our morning cappuccino? But God help the ones who emerge from the inferno of our making. They become our revenants. Their bodies and haunted lives are fingers pointing at us, which without a single word, mock our presumed innocence.

Here is our world now, this massive entangled bruise of traumatised, alienated, marginalised, terrorised, impoverished hundreds of millions, a world offering itself to the possibility of self-annihilation as entertainment.

This epistemological framing by which we live has won for its adherents entire territories that are relabelled as, for example, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, and then elevated as “universal” beacons of high human values that also confirm the hegemonic paradigm’s transcendent delusions, those mythologies that are adorned with titles such as “civilisation”, “democracy”, “scientific”, “advancement”, “philanthropy” and “human rights”, so many gilded fig leaves positioned to conceal the wound and its questions, which may include:

What is the origin of this nation?

How did the current governance structure evolve? Who and how many had to die to invent this “country”? How did they die?

Who atones? Who does not atone?

This dominant system, including its knowledge systems, generates and reinforces a malignant Military Industrial Complex upon which entire economies depend. And it seduces us with amnesia. Forget! it suggests. In exchange we may frolic carefreely amidst the flowers of Orwellian doublespeak – collateral damage, for example, a euphemism for lies, transference, prevarications, perception management, propaganda, erasure and rewriting and rebranding of horrors. Meanwhile, in a world of abundance, how is it even possible that eight men from the same cultural paradigm have gained control of 80 per cent of the earth’s wealth? Is this the culmination of the so-called Age of Reason?

Today we accuse Kim-Jong-Un of impoverishing North Koreans, but do we also reflect on the meaning (today) of the American war in Korea (1950-3)? The wilful carpet bombing of a country by one set of humans until everything is rubble, as the generals casually cited that 20 per cent (a conservative estimate) population death rate? Why do we act shocked when grieving, starving, devastated, traumatised people turn their backs on a world that turned its backs on them? And we suddenly have something to say about…what?

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not excusing insanity. What I ask is if the prevailing global paradigm and its tributaries—-modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism…with their penchant for laundering their darkness – are what can gainfully articulate the dimensions, meaning and language of profound human suffering. In the end, after we have described, or gazed upon, the poverty- stricken, the marginalised, the oppressed, the dehumanised, in whatever forms these take, what actually changes for the common good as a consequence?

A different point.

We neither see nor imagine the same thing when we say “poverty” or “precarity”, do we? Despite our preferred assumptions, there is no uber-state of poverty or precarity that is the universal template. Yet so very rarely do we allow an exploration of the varieties of consciousness that imbue human seeing, recognising, describing and attending; or the reality of philosophical and cultural divergences.

This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices visited upon millions of innocents.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured. As long as weapons can be sold and jobs created, a necessary magic happens—these economies are rich and stable again and can hold themselves up as beacons of world development and order, right? But the blood-price that designated scapegoats have paid remain obscured and untold.

Precarity does, however, explain how humanity has turned vampire to humanity, feeding on its own lifeblood, its harrowing collective gaze always turned outward and elsewhere. Precarity (or what some might refer to as precariousness, which is a less enduring/permanent condition) – a word that was apparently coined by the Catholic monk and anarcho-communist Léonce Crenier (1888-1963) – has been defined as “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks…becoming exposed to injury, violence and death”. Precarity is a condition that is often associated with neoliberal capitalism and its perverted logic of blaming the victim for his or her suffering, rather than examining the skewed power and economic relations that might have contributed to that suffering – a logic that relies on scapegoating to absolve the inflicter of suffering from any blame.

What the scapegoater’s target (the poor, the starving, the helpless, the victims) may have to give up is the power to name themselves. If they survive the struggle, they will be doomed to be spoken for, depicted, analysed and approached with the delicious frisson of Freud’s unheimlich — the uncanny. But sometimes, sometimes, it is true, that the monstered being growls back using the tools and technology of the paradigm against itself.

We, the inhabitants of this earth, are caught up in the matrix of a dark drama that services our fears, our violence, our silences, our looking away, and in some cases, our approval. This grotesque dance is justified with epic headers: Age of Discovery, War on Terror, Humanitarian Interventions. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mother of All Bombs. Later, imagine our surprise when survivors from such expeditions flee their homes seeking refuge and peace in our midst. Having even been robbed of their names, we are now able to label them poor, marginalised, migrants, refugees, precarious, as if what befell them happened through their own fault. We negotiate encounters so that their suffering is kept as far away from our lives as possible.

Their courageous odyssey, their spirit and strength in the face of overwhelming intimate losses are rarely voiced, lest they expose our cowardice. Their desperation is often criminalised, as if it is infectious. We may safely look at their drowned bodies on television, but having seen enough of these, no longer notice them. We engineer them into concentration camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, Greece and Libya. Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured.

In April last year, the American military dropped what they christened the “Mother of All Bombs” over the Achin district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a public display of the same casual evil that created the Nagasaki and Hiroshima slaughter, a prelude of what is to come, perhaps? There is still to this day a terrible silence over the actual number of Afghani casualties, which have already been pre-stigmatised as ISIS, not to speak of the devastation of the landscape and environment. There are no independent verifications, no counter-checks, no accountability, no display of bodies other than those of living American soldiers standing in caves that are still intact and whose locations cannot be verified.

So, when a surge of humans in deep distress whose environment has been poisoned and shattered will flee Afghanistan trying to find new homes, will they be returned to the source? Will we try and find the reason for their fleeing and hold to account the responsible nation? Of course not. That would require what seems to have been leached out of the human collective: a will to truth and courage. Indifference has been made cool. “Post-truth” has been invented. When the desperate immigrant carrying his remaining child peers through a fence, won’t we line our words and images to articulate a preferred trope that reinforces our framing of poverty, powerlessness, and precarity regarding him and his country?

Shall I go on?

Weeks before the bombing and Donald Trump’s foray into Syria, American soldiers and their Saudi friends were implicated in the mass slaughter of a boat filled with innocent people escaping Yemen. After the announcement of the mistake, nothing. There was also the horrible and mistaken slaughter of innocents in Mosul involving the so-called coalition forces. After the initial alarm, nothing. You who study representation, have you heard anything more of these crimes against the earth, decency, morality and humanity that sink without a trace, without a second bleep? The silence, though, does make it simpler to rationalise the sacrifice of humans to tomahawk missiles while the enabler eats chocolate cake—or was it vanilla?

It is to specific and targeted realms of anguish that we send our image capturers and story makers. The consistency of the ideology calls for the permitted symbols of doomed desires: the sacrificeable, the pitied and – despite the pathos – the unmournable body (preferably in a particular melanin shade and from a particular culture). This paradigm allows the media to use and expose them as the poor, the less fortunate, the marginalised, the victims. So the advantaged—and that is the adjective always used – might make meaning by pressing a forefinger on the donate button and dispatch two euros fifty to support one of a hundred thousand non-governmentals who promise the miracle of turning coins into medicine and water for the ones, who, fortunately, are not us. These days it is accompanied with a hashtag. But no questions.

So what do we have to show, we humans speaking about poverty and precarious lives lived in ineffable margins? What do we have to show that amplifies our abysmal and wilful unknowing of the actual and inner lives of those whose histories we choose to condense into a single, transient thumbprint, captured, edited, and distributed by a thinned-out imagination? In the academy’s retelling of precarity, poverty and their representation, what room exists for a multidimensionality and multiperspectivity that breathes fresh knowledge and insight that might actually transfigure our humanity?

Let us change track and look at some art, okay?

The cover image of Job’s Friends by Lenny Caccio is inspired by the biblical Book of Job. It features three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite – who show up to supposedly console a terribly afflicted Job. Encountering the extreme suffering and wounded spirit and body of their friend, they first choose to sit in shock. After a suitable interlude, now accustomed to the spectacle of suffering, they proceed to diagnose the disease from a safe space that does not require them to touch Job. They also evolve a branding plan in which they excuse everything but Job, who is somehow made responsible for his fate. They offer a scholarly treatise on meaning, suffering and Job’s responsibility. They wonder why Job is not more like them, they who are favoured by God. If he were, such suffering would not be his fate. Nay indeed, since they know the mind of God, actually, in a way, this makes them, like God…if not God Himself.

Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

Suddenly, certain of their transcendence, they authoritatively proceed to make decisions for Job. They go on and on until Job became a scientific and social development project. They discuss the alleviation of Job’s poverty, precarity and disease. Dear Job is sucked into the eye of the cyclone of stupidity and is compelled to reclaim a semblance of humanity by trying to explain the inexplicability of his existential harrowing.

In the eyes of the three idiots, Job, the scapegoat, must not be perceived as innocent, for through this judgment he is designated as the carrier of the pathologies and terrors that afflict the human journey; upon him rests the entire mystery of human suffering. Now Job is the heathen. The savage. The pagan. The terrorist. The infidel. The Third World hordes…or was it swarms (David Cameron). The extreme other from whom our lives are detached, whose suffering is alien to our righteous ease. Behold this, the detached collective observing human suffering, not as witnesses, but as judges and gossips. They fail to see that Job is a mirror and witness to the reality of life. These idiots (yes, I am judging them) look and look and turn blind.

It does end rather well, with a schadenfreude twist. The mysterious Source of Existence in whose name much was suggested by the trio shows up from out of the whirlwind, the storm, the chaos, and is in a very bad mood. He stormily affirms and underlines the truth of human unknowing before the immensity of life. Some paraphrased bullet points from within the storm: You are not the authors of nature or life. You are all subject to the mystery of suffering, pain, death, and the unknowing. In other words, as a millennial friend once put it to me, you know shit about life.

The three self-appointed dunderheads get their knuckles thoroughly rapped by a God who makes them dependent on Job for a dramatic gesture of forgiveness and sacrifice that will release them from the hell their presumptuous babblings have driven them into, thus demonstrating another useful point: You need one another other in order to get yourselves out of your self-created hell.

Back to earth.

On January 24, 2017, a 22-year-old human being, a man named Pateh Sabally, either jumped into or slipped into Venice’s Grand Canal. Witnessing this were about two hundred men and women. They were cited as cursing, mocking and abusing him as he flailed and cried.

What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal?

A dying man entered the doorway of death with the sound of over two hundred apparently “sane” human beings mocking his life, urging him to annihilation, amused by his suffering. What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal? And death and dying are such a private, intimate happening, even among creatures. So, what has become of a people and their interior values who seek and find intense porno-visual satisfaction in the death of a stranger? What turns these people into a howling beast, a mob that has lost access to the grammar of life? What is in the gaze of the human in the canal looking at his audience?

We have been here before, haven’t we?

I was surprised, and then not surprised, that the horror did not generate greater contemplation in the media or in societal reflections and that the only images published were those of the drowning Pateh, with the mob offered as a faceless mass without a shape that melts into the day when invited to account for their manner of witnessing. I am struck by the length of time that the mob spent observing, archiving, recording and commenting on Pateh’s dying, and the eerie idea of profound satisfaction in the experience. The mob is so preoccupied with their perception of Pateh’s otherness, his immigrant-being, that nothing of his humanity penetrates their gaze. What is this epistemology of life that makes of human beings a thing that finds pleasure in the dying and death of a man? Why has it not been hacked to pieces yet? Unless, of course, its diminished conceptualisation of who a human being is has its worshippers. In this event, who in our epistemological structuring would be the subject of our reflections on poverty, precarity and pity? Pateh or his mob?

Second case: On September 8, 2015, a woman who had veiled her face, protecting herself from the contagion of encounter, filmed the flow of human sufferers crossing into her country, Hungary. She would at some point drop her camera to focus on extending her foot to kick two children and their father, a former Syrian football coach, Osama Abdul Mohsen, who carrying one son, stumbled to the ground. It is not possible to list the many ways that this man, travelling without his wife, was humiliated. A man has lost his home through no fault of his own, has lost his country, is compelled to impoverishment, and struggles with life in ways that not many in the world can. He traverses unknown worlds, deserts, storms, wars, water, death, displaying the noblest human spirit and its will to live and hope.

This human seeks refuge among other humans, strangers. Reduced to scrambling across a man-caused frontier, he runs in the direction of a camerawoman, who is masked to preserve herself from the diseases he purportedly carries. Let us think carefully about the gesture as she pauses her filming and puts out a leg to trip a man carrying his son, who flails and falls. That fall, friends, is a wounded gong in the deepest soul. A warning. This episode is enshrined as the Petra László incident. It travelled as a cold slithering shiver across the world. In our house in Nairobi, when we saw it, no one could speak. But it was recognised for what it was.

I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them.

My own gaze stays on the camerawoman Petra László. I want to meet her. I have questions to ask. What drives a human being to this place of cruelty? I have traced her narrative of defence. Her first explanation: “I just snapped.” The second: “The man lied.” The third: “I am in danger.” The fourth: “I shall sue Facebook, I shall sue the witnesses.” It goes on.

The discomfort for us is this, the reason for our unspeaking witnessing: Here is the public revelation of the disintegration of humanity, the evidence of the wound. And no, this is not about privilege. Petra is a mirror, you see. Here also is my emptiness. Here is my terror of the mysteriousness of another. Here is a symbol of my impoverished humanity. Here is the sign of the unspoken wound that tears through my own soul, that if unattended for much longer will turn septic and evil—for here precisely is what I do not wish to be.

So who are these people? And why does society and popular media collude in an act of amnesia and erasure, not of the dead or suffering, but of the agents who amplify the suffering of others? It is not labelled as anything, is it? There is no name offered for this precarious condition. Why? There is the gaze. But what is heard? What is told and repeated? What gets muted so that an image can be explained differently?

In August 2016, police in Rome received a phone call from a stranger asking them to investigate a situation. An 84-year old woman and her 94-year old husband were in their apartment. They had been wailing so loudly for a good part of the day and their cries were now disturbing their neighbours. When the police entered the house, they found an elderly couple who were so overwhelmed by an existential loneliness, who having watched the news were horrified by the state of the world, that all they could do was wail, and wail, and wail. The media story slides quickly to the part where the police cook pasta for them. But I am interested in the spaces of silence and absences of neighbours, of family, of community. I am interested in the gaps occupied by this profound human keening, the sensitivity of a man and woman who feel the wounds of the world so profoundly.

But I am mostly struck by the communal unhearing and unseeing and unfeeling and unregarding. The story is not only about the police and pasta, but also about the meaning of that human cry, and the reactions of those who heard it. I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them. Yet here are the kind of people who would press the contribute button on the computer to send one euro to pay for a borehole in Timbuktu.

The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people.

What has happened? Do you know? I don’t. But does our lexicon for poverty and precarity encompass this, the marginalisation of persons from themselves? The meaning of lives no longer at ease with embracing, holding, comforting, or mourning each other?

For the Bretton Woods and United Nations indices on global well-being, this scene scores high on the wealth index. It shows evidence of the consumption of pasta. Poverty or precarity, under the dominant paradigm does not figure, does it?

There is an adjunct to this that often skips our global headlines: The state of the elderly in European and American societies, evidenced in excessive winter mortalities, is a reality that is carefully left out of developmental indices and global conversations about precarity. Yet the paradigm to which our world has pledged its visioning will implode before it admits that its mythology is erasing the top end of its generations. It would be cynical to imagine, I guess, that the wild reaping of a generation judged as no longer productive is a desired outcome for a worldview obsessed with human usefulness, wouldn’t it?

What I am trying to say, perhaps not too eloquently, is that perhaps, primarily, for me, this conversation we are having about ‘precarity’ is about humanity and its choices, this is an examination of a communal consciences in an attempt to see a way to engage that is transformative to our humanity and its dignity.

Allow me to make brief references to two key aspects in the global value chain of the misery economy that have a role in informing our constructions and perceptions of poverty and precarity:

First, the matter of forced philanthropy, one of the studios and markets for the representational images of poverty and devastation that social development paradigms offer. The business of imposed philanthropy is a fascinating study of human delusion to omniscience, the exercise of power through the mask of pity and the subversion of genuine human compassion for the purposes of profit and personal glory. It too has a history that reaches deep in the roots of the alleged Age of Discovery that I do not need to go into now. Its patterns are the same. The designated beneficiaries are always rendered choiceless, voiceless and nameless and subject to the character profile the philanthropist imposes upon them. Their most intimate lives are exposed to an irresistible gaze. The philanthropists have the power to speak for and represent an entire people and their experience. It is like the ventriloquist who seeks dummies into which he can throw his voice and reiterate his agenda.

Deus ex machina. I will not names.

Caught up in a devastating existential struggle, the targets rarely fight this denudation of their humanity—because, admittedly, some coins to alleviate immediate suffering are made available. Those who object to this business model are often labelled as out of touch, people who are denying or manufacturing reality. For the patron society must always reaffirm its intrinsic goodness. Its people are good. Its intentions are good. And the vulnerable are a blank canvas upon which stories can be repackaged. And if the images are from the imagined African milieu, I promise you a fly on the face shot, even if it has to be photo-shopped in. But this imposed philanthropy serves its most potent purpose: it offers the paradigm a messiah, or many messiahs.

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria.

An overview of this ecology of suffering would be dishonest if it did not refer, at least once, to the role played by the useful idiots, those too-numerous colonial (they pretend to be “post-independent”) governments – those impotent venal agents of collaborative coloniality, betrayers of hopes, repellant homeguards. The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people. Entangled in a grammar of violence and oppression, they have woven their individual lives into a life-destroying global economic paradigm at the expense of a vision for the world and their own people; they create new demons and excel in the creation and sustenance of a hell that destroys even the future of their land and generations of people. They engineer displacement, and do so in the name of social development. Yet their governments spend twenty times the resources allotted to national development to buy weapons abroad for incompetent armies trained to turn their weapons inward. These caretakers of disaster have nothing to say about a reality that has turned their people’s bodies into the most tradeable and the most disposable, mere containers for other people’s organs. (Many of their people now lie on the bed of the Mediterranean as undersea ghosts.) What a wreckage. What an abysmal poverty of spirit and imagination.

Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria. In the representation of poverty, precarity and alienation, where are the images and stories of the weapon factories and the military or prison industrial complexes? We side-eye bodies that have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea but block our ears to the reality of a multi-billion-dollar human trafficking/slavery network owned by an amoral global elite for whom business has never been better, certainly in the supply of human organs that had been a problem before but is no longer an issue in most of the world now.

How can one enter the soul of this theme without a life-giving mythology of presence so that when we speak of human poverty and precarity we do so justly, and in a way that shelters all that is shamed, broken, unjust, flawed, deaf, blind, lost, wounded or sad? What framework do we have that can call out the normalisation of unmitigated evil and our human dalliance with a violence that excuses itself and erases the voices of the most vulnerable?

Is there a way to interrogate the entrenchment of a seemingly omnipotent economic complex that mocks humanity by calling itself not only humanitarian but also just? What do we do with processes and ideologies with which we cohabit that glorify hatred, injustice, fear and violence that turn others into bogeymen? What ideologies of being exist that are capable or brave enough to hold perpetrator predatory systems and cultures accountable for their wilful desecration of life and meaning? Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

Paraphrasing Mignolo, it must be possible for our humanity to imagine “institutions at the service of life rather than life at the service of institutions.” There has to be a way of being and seeing that deepens the witness’s gaze, a daring to first love—yes, I said it, love – and, therefore, make representation a true gift, a grace of human encounter, of human discovery, dignity, enchantment and knowing.

 

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien / Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS)Annual Conference on the theme, ‘Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World’, held from May 25 – 27, 2017 – at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Author’s preamble:

The ideas this essay puts forward are mined from many disciplinary spaces and are especially energised by proposals from thinkers like Enrique Dussel, W.D. Mignolo, Santiago Castro-Gomes, Arturo Escobar, among others, who dare to interrogate the reality of the extended and always-morphing life-cycle of coloniality existing in a dominant historical framework that informs the state of the world today. My intention is to exhume a few sacred graves, particularly those masked in silences. This is a basic exploration of, to borrow from Dussel, “negated alterities”.

I want to now confess to you that writing this was a struggle for so many reasons, some not too clear. For one, what really is an adequate analytical framework through which to enter a thorough exploration of the contemporary iconography of profound human suffering? In considering this question, I was forced to recoil before the dominant post-Enlightenment, modernistic ideology and paradigm that fakes its break with its myriad pasts, while embedding and consolidating its humanity-displacing values and intentions To pretend that the paradigm—modernism, post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, whatever – is not also a violence-based, suffering-denying, scarcity-inducing, wound-causing, human-dividing, difference-criminalising, consumption-adoring, crisis-creating, self-aggrandising, disordered belief system, with its prosperity gospel, slaughtering priests, elaborate infrastructure, instruments, and institutions that favour a pre-selected few would be ingenuous of me.

In which case, how then does one truly speak about representation, for example, within the framework of this overarching epistemological ecology? How does one address its systemic propensity for blood-letting, dependency on the commodification of life, a habit that is soothed by an instinct to euphemise atrocities that include presiding over a protocol that governs which images and narratives are allowed, sought, desired, derived, edited, distributed, sold and pre-explained? This essay is my attempt to deconstruct the representations and present a life- and human-affirming mirror to those doing the gazing.

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

Politics

The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. But the contrast between the two countries remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

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Magufuli’s Legacy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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In 2015 John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s accidental President. Colourful and charismatic, Magufuli charmed the masses during his five years in office. He demanded results and pulled off successes that were elevated to the status of minor miracles. He channeled his inner Julius Nyerere to revive Tanzania’s distinctive internal self-reliance-based identity.

The state was back, and the state was Magufuli. He used his campaign against the mabepari class to grandstand on a regular basis, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the former chemist with an opportunity to elevate his anti-imperialist credentials. His controversial stance won him approval across the region: several of my colleagues remarked that “Magufuli is the only African President to speak truth to the pandemic”.

Then his government ministers began getting sick. Magufuli disappeared from public view. After two weeks of rumour and speculation, Tanzania’s Vice President announced his passing due to a chronic heart condition. Corona or coronary? Magufuli’s outsized sending off soon overtook conjecture about the cause of his death.

It began with the usual laudatory speeches by his fellow African heads of state. The dead president then set off on a grand tour that took him across the country by land, sea, and air. The wananchi paid homage by throwing their clothes on the road in front of the motorcade escorting the casket. People lining the road chanted, “jeshi, jeshi!”

The lionisation of the dead president was a fascinating trope, amplified by the mellifluous High Swahili commentary accompanying the televised coverage of the Magufuli hegira. My wife had become a Samia Suluhu Hassan fan. She insisted that the TV remain tuned to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation channel.

The stature of Tanzania’s domestic Shujaa grew over the course of the week. Like the mythical wrestler Anteus, who grew stronger when he touched the ground, Hayati Rais appeared to be drawing new power from the landscape as the conquering hero’s body made the long journey from Zanzibar to Chato, his lakeside home.

By day three of the roadshow, Tanzania’s state media was praising the departed leader, as Jabali ya Africa, “the rock who stood up to the West”. But Twitter was providing an interesting counter-narrative; for Tanzania’s online opposition, the “Jabali” was “Jiwe”, the “stone” who terrorised his critics and pummeled the political opposition. Day four brought the claim by a Chama Cha Mapinduzi party sycophant that the Magufuli show was attracting an audience larger than that of the last two World Cups.

I was looking forward to seeing Chato, the village that during Magufuli’s tenure had been transformed along the lines of Houphouët-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite home in the Congo. I was not able to catch the end of the journey because of a close friend’s funeral. But I did witness the dead president’s final apotheosis, which led me to pause on my way out the door: “With due respect to our respective religions”, one of the TBC commentators was remarking, “it should be recognized that President Magufuli was a Nabii.”

The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President.

Nabii is the Swahili term for prophet. The proof of his prophethood (unabii wake), the commentors went on to explain, lay in the fact that President Magufuli was the only world leader God sent to warn us that the pandemic is a crisis manufactured by the global elite to extend the hegemony of Big Pharma and other agents of the international capitalist order.

The real news for some of us was Vice President Samia Sulubu Hassan’s swearing in as the Republic’s sixth Head of State. Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was further enhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community. My wife, who is from Lamu and has never seen anyone of her background in a position of power, declared, “Samia is my president.”

It is hard to envision a similar sequence occurring in Kenya, or for that matter in any other country in the Horn of Africa.

Dog eat dog versus man eat nothing

“No contrast, no information”, my field linguistics professor used to tell us. The large number of African states and the interesting dyads they form makes for a lot of information. Nigeria and Ghana, Mozambique and Angola, Egypt and Sudan, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are examples that come to mind. But the Kenya-Tanzania contrast remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. They are linked by centuries of interaction on the coastal strip and a common history that gave rise to Swahili as the region’s lingua franca. Together they host the world’s most famous concentration of wildlife. Artificially divided into two countries by European powers, the modern nations created by imperial intervention were shaped by the same colonial model. Both gained independence under leaders inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was furtherenhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community.

Tanzania’s more uniform geography supported the intricately networked small-scale societal adaptations documented in Kjekjus’s classic study, Ecology Control and Environmental Management in East Africa. Kenya’s physical environment conditioned the country’s more complex ethno-economic composition diversity; late precolonial era migrations contributed to Kenya’s more variegated population of Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking communities.

Where the harshness of the German occupation in Tanzania inoculated the population with a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, many Kenyan communities welcomed the Pax Britannica, in part due to the disruptions of the decade preceding it. Efforts to force peasants to cultivate cotton for export in Tanzania triggered the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905, and the movement rapidly spread across southern and parts of central Tanganyika until its brutal suppression.

The commercial economy introduced by Kenya’s colonial rulers created new opportunities and avenues for accumulation. The first stirrings of anti-colonial opposition only emerged after World War II. The ethnic base of the Mau Mau insurgency contrasted with the nationalist focus of Tanzania’s liberation politics. The new countries nevertheless came into existence driven by a common vision of the future and its possibilities.

It was a time of idealism and political experimentation. Shared orientations propelled Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to form the East African Community soon after independence. The union represented a practical first step towards Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa—before political liberation gave way to an era of competing ideologies, superpower patronage, and military coups. Much of the ideological superstructure of that period ended up either dissipating gradually or collapsing for reasons that have been rigorously documented.

Technically, both Kenya and Tanzania subscribed to the third path option championed by the non-aligned movement, but their economies were moving on diverging paths. The East African Community foundered, undermined by economic differentials fueled by Kenya’s colonial economic legacy and Tanzania’s Fabian socialism. The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

The clash between Jomo Kenyatta’s conservatism and Julius Nyerere’s idealism highlighted their contrasting political ideologies and the external support they attracted. In 1975 the submerged tensions between the two countries surfaced in an exchange of words between Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Attorney General, Charles Njonjo. Nyerere referred to Kenya as a “dog eat dog” society; Njonjo retorted by describing Tanzania as a “man eat nothing economy”.

The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

There is a simpler explanation. Where Kenya retained the hierarchical Anglo-colonial template after independence, Tanzania adopted the more integrative Swahili model of nation-building. As Jomo Kenyatta once told his fellow East African presidents after Milton Obote adopted the socialist Common Man’s Charter in Uganda, “I cannot experiment with [the] lives of my people.”

Donor-mandated structural adjustment policies of the 1990s brought the countries’ economies into closer alignment. But the different trajectories pursued by Kenya and Tanzania continued to reflect their contrasting developmental strategies, and the delicate balance of competition and cooperation defining the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Convergence revisited

Kenya and Tanzania’s ideological differentials are sufficient but not necessary explanations of the two nations’ post-independence divergence.

Crawford Young’s seminal work published in 1981, Ideology and Development in Africa, confirmed as much for the two decades following independence. Young concluded that the strong ideological groundings informing Africa’s capitalist, socialist, mixed, and Afro-Marxist economic models, although important, did not significantly influence their performance. This is consistent with historical studies that show how countries within a geographical region tend to converge over time.

This trajectory appears to hold for the comparison examined here. Tanzania has recorded impressive economic growth under the neoliberal policy regime. Although Kenya is still East Africa’s strongest economy with an annual GDP of US$37 billion versus Tanzania’s US$28 billion, Tanzania’s per capita GDP is now only US$200 less than Kenya’s (US$1,600 vs. US$1,400). Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Tanzania was catching up to Kenya in the Transparency International annual corruption rankings until Tanzania’s position improved slightly after Magufuli took office. His anti-corruption campaign saw hundreds of civil servants lose their jobs, but only a few cases of prosecution. The offensive targeting international investors and domestic business interests took up the slack. The state charged international investors and domestic businessmen in court for underpaying taxes and other violations.

Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining company that has helped make gold the country’s leading export commodity, received a notice claiming it owed US$190 billion in fines and unpaid taxes. Many of these cases resulted in negotiated settlements and revisions in the terms of their contracts. Barrick ended up settling by paying US$300 million and increasing the government’s stake in their operations to 50 per cent.

Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Both of these campaigns, and Magufuli’s rejection of China’s debt diplomacy and IMF loans, enhanced the President’s reputation as the “Bulldozer”, but did little to effect the structural changes needed. Tundu Lissu, the head of Tanzania’s main opposition party, reported that many of the settlements were actually shakedowns initiated by the President’s CCM faction. Such behind the scenes venality accounts for Magufuli’s silencing of Tanzania’s media and the intensified persecution of the opposition during last year’s national elections.

Sources on the ground report a more complicated picture than the pumped-up legacy conveyed by state media. Although Tanzania joined the ranks of lower middle-income societies in 2020, the improved household income generated by the pro-market policies enacted by Magufuli’s predecessors is being eroded by the rising cost of living, while demographic growth is increasing pressure on the country’s land and natural resources.

Presidential activism failed to arrest the downward drift of conditions across Tanzania’s rural areas. Magufuli’s opposition to international capital limited smallholder access to the contract-farming arrangements that have enabled Kenya’s small-scale producers’ participation in global supply chains. While the benefits of contract farming are contested in academic circles, participation in out-grower schemes has led to improvement in producer terms in a number of cases, and improved access to inputs while diversifying livelihood options for many rural households.

The revival of the East African Community in 2010 was boosting both countries’ commodity exports to each other until tit-for-tat border disputes contributed to a drop to pre-2010 levels. Bilateral trade is a sub-set of the policy frame promoting regional integration, which has in turn triggered a scramble to upgrade the infrastructure facilitating trans-national linkages. This brings us to the governments’ penchant for mega-projects like Kenya’s grandiose Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project (LAPSSET) and Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT).

LAPSSET came to be viewed as a cash cow for Kenya’s state-based cartels before it stalled due to the withdrawal of once enthusiastic international investors. Analysis of the SAGCOT corridor indicates it has generated mainly just-for-show benefits while facilitating the entrance of large-scale agribusiness actors at the expense of local smallholder communities. Both countries are beneficiaries of economically dysfunctional Chinese railroads, contrasting monuments to that country’s contribution to regional linkages over the years.

Even in the presence of more comprehensive analyses of the two countries’ development, it is difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Kenya and Tanzania models. They are more connected — Kenya-based companies are the second largest source of foreign investment in Tanzania — than at independence, yet seem even farther apart now with respect to their political sensibilities.

Local folk models provide more succinct perceptions of the differences. Talk to Kenyans and they will characterise Tanzanians as laid back, loquacious, and xenophobic; talk to Tanzanians and they will tell you their neighbors are arrogant, aggressive, and hopelessly tribal. But if you pursue the conversation further, most will show that they understand their neighbours better than formal analyses like the one above convey. Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

Political theatre and executive revisionism

Is Magufuli’s hyper-nationalism at odds with Kenya’s constitutionally mandated federalism? In reality, each of these shifts from the previous status quo have been manipulated to reinforce the two states’ tradition of top-down governance. Both governments face an ongoing crisis of constitutionalism, and both have resorted to elaborate exercises of political theatre to camouflage their respective political elites’ strategies to remain at the top of the food chain.

Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative began with the handshake marking the reconciliation between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, then morphed into a comprehensive gambit to revise the nation’s new constitutional order. Two years later the government released an eloquently worded BBI task force report that was long on promises to fix long-festering problems, but short on how they would be implemented.

Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

The provisions to double the seats in the senate, create 80 new parliamentary constituencies, and create positions for a prime minister and four deputy presidents are hard to justify for a country that already expends 48 per cent of its budget on state salaries. Unlike his father, Uhuru Kenyatta is not averse to experimentation. But the circus orchestrated by the BBI’s political beneficiaries has worked to redirect attention away from such inconvenient details.

Since the handshake the Kenyan public has been subjected to an unrelenting procession of media publicity, traveling pep rallies, and tactics used to herd reluctant politicians into the BBI corral. The campaign has been an amped up version of the Moi playbook, featuring theatrics reminiscent of the anti-Nyayo charade the former President used to outmaneuver his opponents during his early days in office.

The rapid deterioration of Magufuli’s health clearly caught his CCM faction by surprise. The media coverage of the President’s elevation from politician to prophet contrasted with the opaque treatment of his last two weeks on earth — or was it actually one week, as the intelligence that he actually passed away on the 10th of March claimed?

The Nabii failed to prophesise his departure from the stage. The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President, who receded into the background after her eloquent speech at the funeral. In the meantime, critics were pointing out how the new government’s key appointments violated the process mandated in Tanzania’s constitution.

These games, however cynical, are part of a larger contest being waged across the larger Horn of Africa region, pitting executive power at the centre against distributed governance. Museveni’s Uganda presidency has dynastic ambitions, Rwanda is a developmental dictatorship, and Farmajo wants to restore the same kind of centralised state in Somalia that led to its collapse in 1991. Ahmed Abiy’s ugly war in Tigray is linked to his ambition to reverse the devolution established by the 1994 constitution that declared all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.

The strategies to bolster control at the centre that we are witnessing in Kenya and Tanzania may be benign by comparison, but the actions taken to muzzle the press and critics of government policies, along with political impunity, and institutionalised corruption, are not. They differ from the efforts to recentralise the state elsewhere by degree, not in kind.

Reimagining the African state?

The trend is part of a wider global pattern. Since 2017 opposition to heavy-handed governments and their policies has erupted across the world, occurring mainly in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states. These surging protests correlate with the reversal of gains in democratisation, respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy across the world.

Liberalisation catalysed a universal movement towards self-determination and the deconcentration of political power. Twenty years ago, scholars were even predicting the end of the nation-state as we know it. In recent years the state has fought back with a vengeance. Recent African developments, for example, reflect the influence of the surveillance state in China that is now challenging the democratic values guiding the post-1945 world order.

There was near-universal belief in the monolithic state at independence, and in the assumption that Africa’s leaders would use its power for the benefit of their populations. By the end of the 1960s these beliefs and assumptions were in tatters. African nations’ largely trial-and-error efforts to balance the nation-building equation since that time still represent the prerogative to adapt the state to the continent’s unique initial conditions.

The unique combination of scholarship, deep historical inquiry, and political imagination that flourished during the post-independence period, at least in theory, remains a useful resource for navigating Africa’s developmental future. The reforms of the post-1989 period come over as dismal and devoid of spirit in comparison, incapable of generating the creativity and passion inspired by the ideas that preceded them.

Tanzania was one of the continent’s leading exemplars of that era’s critical thinking. To his credit, John Pombe Magufuli fought to establish an equitable relationship with international capital while his counterparts in Kenya were drinking the foreign debt Kool-Aid. Theory is useful but trial and error empiricism is the best teacher. We hope that President Samia Suluhu Hassan will use the information generated by the two countries’ contrasting experience to negotiate an adaptive middle path without too much fanfare.

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Politics

It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation
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Kariuki* hustled his way through Nairobi as a personal trainer, masseur and occasionally sold sportswear. Then COVID-19 happened. His income stream went down to zero. He got tired of begging friends and former clients for 500 bob here, a thousand bob there, decided to sell off what he could and went back to his parent’s farm in the country’s central region. This young, handsome, muscle-in-all-the-right-places, rangi ya chocolate, ambitious gay man, needed to live, and for that, he needed to eat. Nairobi had stopped feeding him. He was one of the many LGBTIQ individuals who found themselves going back to homes that had either forced them out or that they had fled.

Kariuki had left home soon after university and since then visits to shags were to his grandmother with whom he had a strong relationship. But it was not home. To be accepted back he had to renounce his gay ways, which he did. Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold. His parents gave him an acre of land and promised him another five if he stayed on the straight and narrow. Every pun is intended.

Kariuki started poultry farming, and he was surprised at how well he took to it; he started seeing a future for himself back on the land. Unbeknown to his parents, Kariuki is still actively living his gay life. He acknowledges that if going back into the closet and being on the “down-low” was what he needed to do keep hunger at bay and get him back his inheritance, so be it. I now had a gay friend who was a poultry farmer.

You see, I had resigned myself to believing that agriculture wasn’t really for us. Us being queer people, and I bet I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many queer individuals don’t see a future for themselves in agriculture. It is not within reach of our imagination. Young queer folk find security, freedom, opportunity, visibility and invisibility in urban settings. Plus, there is also greater access to health services that target LGBTIQ people and, more than anything, there is access to our community. Agriculture, the mainstay of our Kenyan economy, isn’t within our rainbow reality. Yet, it can be.

Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold.

Kariuki was “lucky” that he could go back home, and that there was farmland that he could access.  Plus, he was “not so obviously gay”. But what if how you present yourself in public doesn’t fit in the box that family or society wants you in? Are you still able to easily access services without fear of discrimination? Are you able to access land or even food without having to look over your shoulder?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned Kenya and the world. A friend of mine opted to move back to her rural area when the initial restrictions were announced. The reason for this migration was that she was unsure she’d be able to provide food for her children in a town that she had no affiliation to, where she had no kin she could turn to in case she was too broke to buy food or if there were any food shortages.

The song Mzee Kasema Rudi Mashambani by Equator Sounds came out during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency and was a rallying call for Kenyans to go back to tilling the land. Many years later, this land, which is such an emotive and sensitive subject in Kenya, is not equitably accessible to Kenyans. And if you have come out publicly as queer, then access to this land becomes even more complicated if you want it. Turudi wapi, kama tumefukuzwa? 

Wanja Mugongo has always loved farming. Her mother, who was the principal’s secretary at a Nyeri college, seeded that love for the soil.  Mugongo’s mother was allowed to farm on the college land, and this supplemented her meagre earnings. She supplied the college with maize, potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Mama Wanja banked on land and therefore invested in it whenever she could. Wanja inherited this astute perspective, and despite the many years spent in LGBTIQ activism, she never forgot that she had green fingers and never lost her love for the soil.

“Farming was my place of joy, and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I was out of employment. I didn’t want to retire and then farm for a living; I wanted to retire and farm for pleasure,” she states.

Mugongo was fortunate that she did not have to go to bank for a loan, that the land was hers. As I researched this article, I came across a number of LGBTIQ farmers who have accessed family land only because they have buried their sexuality.

Apollo* is married with children and lives in Bondo, Siaya County. He is an activist and farmer. The activist side of his life is only known to those who need to know. Apollo recognises that he would have been disinherited had he gone public about his sexuality. He informs me of a young man who has kicked off the family land after the family discovered he was gay. This young man was fortunate that a relative was kind enough to give him a small patch on which to build a house for himself, but he was denied his right to the family land.  Apollo is grateful that he was spared such an ordeal.

“You know, for some of us, this is the life we have chosen for ourselves and it is how things are done here for many of us. Things would have been very different for us,” says Apollo. “Very different” in this case probably means poor, landless, ostracised and maybe banished.

Wichlum Beach on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria is home to the Light Youth Group (LYG). The group works with members of the LGBTIQ community in that area. It has 15 members, but within its sphere of operation, it reaches close to 300 Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Many bisexual and gay individuals are also affiliated to the group.

Economic empowerment is one of LYG’s thematic areas, and being in a rural setting, the group is using agriculture and fishing to improve the economic status of its members. . The group is trying to lease three acres of land for farming activities; they were evicted from the land on which they were carrying out their activities when the owner discovered that LYG was a queer organisation. Once beaten twice shy, so this time round, LYG has come out clean with the prospective landlady who, fortunately, is not prejudiced against the community. Accessing capital to pay for the new piece of land is the next hurdle they need to overcome.  Expectations are high, but patience is needed.

Each member of the group is allocated a 50m by 60m plot of land on which to grow horticultural produce — sukuma wiki (collard greens), cabbages, onions, watermelons, etc. — which is sold to the surrounding community. By selling to the community, the group hopes to build bridges and expects that the local residents will see them as active members of the society. The project’s beneficiaries are drawn from both within and outside the Wichlum area; many have been disowned by their families because of their sexuality. The project offers an opportunity to a marginalised group of people who would otherwise have no access to land nor means to some form of livelihood.

Odhiambo* says he became a farmer by accident and has been farming in Ukwala, Siaya County, for the last three years on family land that he inherited after his mother passed away.  He says he is lucky as he and his siblings have a “your life is your business” approach to life and so Odhiambo, who is in his early 40s, doesn’t have to justify his unmarried status. His neighbours have tried to pressure him into settling down, but he informs me that he has warned them against meddling in his business.

“If my late mother didn’t pressurise me into getting married, who are they?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ve managed to build a life for myself here, and my business should be the least of their concern.”

American civil rights activist, the late Dr Martin Luther King III, states, “Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.” Unfortunately, many individuals have to keep their sexual orientation private just to access their birthright. But we as a nation should strive to ensure that one’s tribe, gender, sexual orientation, politics or faith is not an impediment to accessing the fruits of this land. It is a right enshrined in our Constitution that we as queer Kenyans should demand.

The country’s agricultural sector is the backbone of the economy, contributing approximately 33 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and employing more than 40 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of the rural population. By shutting out queer individuals from the farms, fields, lakes, rivers and the sea, we deny the country more food, income, taxes, producers, employers and investors.

In 2020, the Mombasa-based LBGTIQ group, PEMA Kenya, gave over 100 of its members who live in various neighbourhoods within and around the city, training in poultry farming to enhance food security and provide them with skills to earn an income. Such schemes, if successful, could be a way of better integrating queer folk into their communities and creating safe and queer-friendly spaces in which to live. Another group in Kitengela has opted to go back to the soil to produce healthy food for its members living with HIV/AIDS. This approach to ensuring food security and nutrition for vulnerable groups is innovative, practical and has impact.

“Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”

Urban farming should be supported as it could be a source of livelihood for the many young people who find themselves in the big cities and towns. And although access to land in urban areas comes at a premium or with terms and conditions that are difficult to comply with, urban gardening does not require vast amounts of space. Sack gardens can produce leafy greens like sukuma wiki, spinach, and traditional vegetables on as little as one square metre. There are lessons to be learnt from organisations like PEMA and what they are doing in building a pool of queer poultry farmers in urban areas. Their members can reap the benefits of both worlds — access to urban energies and to their chosen family, and the advantages of being food producers.

“Farming is not a get-rich-quick way of making money. If you have money pressures, it is hard to get into farming,” cautions Mugongo. “If you don’t know the soil, you will need time to understand the soil and its ways. You need time and money. Are queer people even considered bankable?”

Access to credit or capital is a huge deterrent for many queer individuals who would like to go into business or agriculture. Emerging Marginalized Communities (EMAC-Kenya) has established a system for its members that gets around the credit and capital hurdle. The organisation has set up a poultry farming facility and a greenhouse on the grounds of their offices, roughly the size of three-quarters of a football pitch. This pilot agri-business project supports seven queer men and two commercial sex workers who buy the produce on credit, for resale to consumers. EMAC-Kenya recoups its funds by deducting a specific amount when a member buys new stock from them. The organisation’s director informed me that the long-term goal is to create agri-businesses that can offer employment opportunities for other queer individuals; learning of this vision warmed my heart.

Bringing agriculture within reach of the imagination of queer youth might help prevent them from adopting precarious ways of earning a living. The queer community needs to be brought into the agricultural conversation and ways need to be found to support minority groups to earn a living within this sector that the country relies so heavily on.

There need to be discussions on how to make the sector more diverse, inclusive and innovative. Being a farmer, animal breeder, fisherman, rancher should be seen as a career option and not as a Plan D, to be adopted after all else has failed. Mugongo notes that the agricultural sector needs to be drastically transformed, and perceptions on agriculture need to change to make the sector attractive and within reach of the imagination of all youth, not just queer youth.

Unfortunately, there are those within the LGBTIQ community who dropped out of school or completed high school with poor grades. They have few employable skills, and when they do have them, the sectors in which they can work safely and freely are limited. The hustle is real, very real for them. The hospitality sector, entertainment, retail, personal care and grooming — the sectors in which many queer individuals have found work — have been severely impacted by the pandemic. If you don’t work, you can’t afford to eat, and many have been struggling to eat.

The one key attribute we must first remember about queer Kenyans is that we are Kenyans too. The fight for queer rights in the country is about giving us the same access as other Kenyans to the constitutional rights that are promised to us all as citizens of this land. This land that we prize so much that we have even killed one another over, that we go to whatever lengths to acquire, that feeds us all. This our soil doesn’t know our tribe, gender, faith, sexual orientation or class; all it knows is that it is meant to produce and feed.

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation. There are opportunities galore that we haven’t even begun to explore, and it is time to rejig and rethink a sector that feeds all Kenyans, for there is plenty to be found within our borders.

*Names have been changed.

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever
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At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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