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.
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.
Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.
South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.
History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.
A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.
Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.
In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:
However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.
It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.
Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin
By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.
The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.
At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.
This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.
Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.
Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.
Stoking the flames
African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.
South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:
Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.
After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.
Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.
On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.
Whither the Pan-African dream?
In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:
I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.
It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.
African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.
The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.
Glimmers of hope
All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:
Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.
Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.
Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.
Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”
The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.
Gambling Against the Kenyan State
7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.
In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.
It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.
After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.
Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.
Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.
Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.
Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.
Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.
Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.
While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.
Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.
Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.
What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’
For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.
Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.
This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)
Donald Trump: America’s ‘African Dictatorship’ Moment
8 min read. For decades, the grandiosity and excesses of Africa’s strongmen have been the subject of global ridicule and scorn. Now, under Donald Trump, Americans are finally getting a taste of what an African dictatorship looks and feels like.
Am I the only one who felt a growing sense of ugly familiarity while watching the 4th of July proceedings in Washington DC? It took me a few days to fully comprehend the oddity of the spectacle. It was atavistically American: a questionable real estate mogul; fighter jets roaring overhead; fireworks blowing off with abandon as vague tenants of “bravery” were touted. One only needed to add in grandiose Lynard Skynyrd music, a screw-on plastic bottle of Bud Light (for safety) and the tossing of an American flag football to make it the most US-driven spectacle ever put on display.
Apart from an eye-rolling display of questionable Americana, the whole display struck a deeper and more sinister chord. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: military equipment being trucked in from all over the country to be displayed as props; invites extended mainly to party loyalists; outlandish claims of nationalistic strength in the face of unknown “threats”; and an ever-ballooning budget taken seemingly from the most needy of social programmes.
Further, the entirety of the charade was put on by a leader of questionable (at best) morals, one who openly blasts the press as anti-democratic and who is known to engage in dubious electoral practices.
Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media, with well-established media houses with sterling reputations formed through covering the 20th century’s most brutal occurrences suddenly at a loss that anything so gauche could take shape in the form of an American leader.
When it comes down to it though, doesn’t it all reside at the doorstep of personality type?
From where I sit, it most certainly does. All of these strongmen (and they are all male) – whether they’re in power, in post-political ennui or dead – have done the exact same thing. It is different strokes painted with the same brush. Their canvas, on this occasion, is that of spectacle, of projecting something that is better, stronger (dare I say less impotent?) than themselves. It is a public display of strength, ill-needed by those who don’t secretly know that they’re inwardly weak.
Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media…
To start with, those who have systematically oppressed and plundered a country often rub it in to commemorate their “achievements”. For example, there is still a nationally celebrated Moi Day annually in Kenya, despite the former president’s record of extrajudicial measures, devaluing of the Kenyan shilling and rampant institutional corruption. Yoweri Museveni has been “democratically” elected five times, and makes sure to always inspect military guards dressed in full pomp at major Ugandan national days and events. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had an outright military parade during his latest inauguration in 2017. It is true, such days are often celebrated with a display of token military presence; at the inaugural “Trump Day” this past American Independence Day, an exception to the rule was not found.
A key tenet of such military-driven presidential events, at least within those run by would-be strongmen, is the heavy under-current of politicisation made more stark as the figurehead acts exceptionally stoic and well-behaved for the event. At the rally on the Fourth of July, chants of “lock her up” broke out among the crowd, and reports of minor clashes made the news. Therein, as they say, lies the key difference, the breaking point from a day of democratic celebration of national history into something more sinister. It is when the very essence of patriotism swings to identify with a single individual that the political climate can become potentially even more dangerous than it already is.
Within hours of the spectacle that put him at the centre, Trump made heavy-handed allegations of communism against his political “enemies”; within days he was saying that certain Congresswomen (all of colour) should go back to their countries of origin if they didn’t “love” the US enough. The standard, it seems, is political allegiance.
Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants, while directed at all four Congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US, where she eventually found a permanent home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This, when seen through the lens of escalating nationalism, jingoistic tendencies towards refugees (including the abysmal treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border with Mexico in a series of “detention facilities”), and thrown as chum to stirring crowds at politically-driven rallies, is a dangerous recipe.
The message being espoused and defended at the present by both the Trump administration and right-wing politicians loyal to it has taken root at the very celebration of American democracy itself. It is, in fact, association by patriotism. It is becoming a deeper-seated sense of national identity and the mere act of seeing such policies associated with the nation’s independence is, to put it mildly, a dangerous precedent. It is a continuation of a trend of both ramping up and normalising such attacks on what is deemed “un-American” by those currently in power. This designation, once considered “beyond the norm” within United States’ politics, has rapidly shifted towards becoming the routine.
While the rally was taking place, Trump harangued the crowd with a 45-minute all-American masturbatory salute to military hardware. He read off assorted names of different combinations of letters and numbers, each signifying a different tool of top-grade, American-made weapon of death and destruction. Fighter jets, tanks, humvees, all were given their due with a salute through the rain-soaked vista of the National Mall of Washington DC. They were each named nearly laboriously, in exquisite reverence for their ability to unleash death on vague “enemies of the state” (typically seen in the guise of unspecified foreigners in Hollywood action blockbusters).
In a more current context, this is still a practice around the region. Military honour guards are inspected in ceremony by the head of state. In fairness, despite the US press’s fervent response, America has an awkward relationship with the fetishisation of the military on every official and unofficial national occasion. Fighter jets zoom over the heads of Americans. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have seen the rampant rise of forced acts of patriotism, many of which later turned out to be directly sponsored by the Pentagon to the tune of millions of US dollars (furnished by the US taxpayer). This continued to deepen the divide among the American public along the lines of military interventionism and military prioritisation. It is an underlying sentiment of “tanks are now alongside White House officials, and who are you to disagree with their patriotism?” The association, as it were, is the issue.
It is a slippery slope when the military is viewed as an extension of the leadership, rather than one that protects the national interest. All too often within strongman-type of leadership structures, the military (and their goals) become an arm of the central governmental figure, with such events as seen on the Fourth of July being a means to “stroke the ego” of the leadership.
An adept dictator always knows where their bread is buttered: the more that one inflates the importance of the military and raises its stature, the more likely the military is going be loyal to you. In a sense, the Fourth of July parade was a natural extension of Trump’s extensive rallies in support of “the troops”, “the cops” and “the brave people guarding our border from the invasion from the South”. Daniel arap Moi is a good example of this behaviour; in the post-1982 coup period, he closed ranks, gave the military more emphasis, and rewarded loyalty.
Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants…were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US…
In turn, this behaviour can drive the chosen narrative of the state – that the military is way too powerful to be challenged. The story is told, played out on screen, marched in front of the masses, splashed across newspaper front pages. It helps to reinforce an idea, one of division, that of being on an opposing side from the government if you dare disagree.
Make no mistake, however ridiculous the Fourth of July show was, it was most definitely intended to be a show of strength. How could one feasibly dare to challenge the seat of power when the very entirety of military might is on public display, with guns pointed squarely into the crowd from the very basis of the Lincoln Memorial? This is not unlike the grandiose trains of government vehicles that accompany Museveni as he zips around Kampala or Uhuru Kenyatta as he delays traffic whilst travelling out to play golf on the outskirts of Nairobi. (The number of cars isn’t the point; it’s that they would crush you if you were to stand in their path.) Think what you want of Kagame’s policies and the issues surrounding democratic practices in Rwanda; only a fool would doubt his closeness to the top military brass. What Trump is engaging in now is the classic appearance of alliances – the same outer projection that any opposition’ would be met with those same large caliber guns that faced outward to the crowd. Only the obtuse would see that positioning as merely coincidental.
It isn’t a coincidence that those in the Trump administration’s camp were given prime seats at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Those “in the know” are given strength by a sort of transitive property of influence. The man on the stage is in charge of those with the guns, and he approves of you enough to let you into the inner sanctum.
It is further not a coincidence that the “vicious, mean, hateful, disgusting democrats” weren’t even invited within shouting distance of the “in club”. They haven’t shown enough Trumpian loyalty to be positioned near the military hardware. Instead members of the Democratic Party were told to “sort themselves” and largely stayed away from the proceedings of the event at the National Mall in Washington DC that rainy evening.
The end consequences of these deepening of divisions could be seen during the event and in the immediate hours afterwards. Squabbles broke out, flag-burning protesters were angrily confronted, reports of arrests were made.
From the White House (or possibly from a late night flight down to a golf course) Trump began to launch public attacks against those who would have stood against his event, his party and his party’s party. The tirade began in public, with attacks that were based on race, classism and politics. The “haters” and “losers” were blamed, and the appearance of strength steadily deepened the already existing party line divisions.
It was in the hours after that that the evidence was most apparent that Trump had used the Fourth of July “Salute to America” as a means for further political grandstanding. The traditional 4th of July political “ceasefire” was sounded with the firing off of verbal and political shots. It was in the insults that the intended circling of the wagons became further crystallised. It was classic Trump and classic strongman – to put on the best of appearances only to sink several notches lower as soon as the cameras officially turned off.
Let’s finish with the gold standard of ridiculous self-congratulatory events – Idi Amin. Am I saying that the crimes of Idi Amin are equal to those of Trump? Obviously not, but am I comparing their gauche public tendencies and sub-par intellects? Absolutely. Amin was famous for his parades during times of extreme national duress. He continued on, medals ablaze with the military’s full might on display. Add to this his self-congratulatory nature, his vindictive political favouritism and his toxic displays of might. (Amin, it has been noted, was jealous of the then Central African Republic president, Jean-Bedel Bakassa, who visited him adorned with medals more extravagant than his own.)
As for Trump, he is not one to shy away from self-aggrandisement and self-promotion. His very own Boeing 737 is famously decked with solid gold interiors. His ego can even be described as all-consuming; it eats whatever stands in its path. It is a self-sustaining entity, a black hole from which there can be no escape. The same could be said about Amin – power went to his head, and quickly. Once it did, enemies were dispatched and invented to be dispatched.
Trump’s paranoia could be viewed as becoming extreme. There is an endless need for loyalty and deference to Trump, especially amongst his most loyal followers; the Fourth of July parade was simply the latest manifestation of it. With such parades, limits and moderation don’t typically follow suit.
There will be more events, bigger showmanship and more association with himself as the idyllic vision of America. He is filling out his strongman shows nicely now, and starting to walk around in them. He now needs feats of false strength in order to back himself up.
The key difference between Trump and Amin, of course, is that the US military is a global monolith, one that can destroy the world with the push of a red button by an orange finger.
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