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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

My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice

As Kenya’s forgotten mothers get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers.

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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice
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It was around 2 pm, 9th August, a day after the 2017 general election. Bernard, 25, and Victor, 22, alighted from different matatus in Nairobi’s Mathare neighbourhood. Bernard got off at stage number 10, while Victor, who was technically his younger brother, was dropped off hapo kwa vitanda (at the roadside kiosks)according to their mother’s account. Born to sisters, Bernard’s mother passed away when he was barely in his teens. He then moved in with his aunt, Mama Victor, who raised him alongside her three sons and daughter.

‘‘They grew up together,’’ Mama Victor told me when I met her in Mathare. ‘‘They were both my sons.’’

Bernard was back from Gikomba, where he worked as a tailor. Victor, a casual labourer, had come from his place of work in Westlands. They had voted in Mathare the previous morning, before reporting to work a little late than usual. On reporting to work on the 9th, they were both granted a day off, seeing that the country was on edge awaiting results of the hotly contested presidential election. Upon arriving in Mathare, the brothers found the roads blocked by protestors coming from as far as Dandora and Kayole, held back by a police cordon. That is why both Bernard and Victor disembarked from their matatus before arriving at their designated stage.

‘‘When they got off the matatus,’’ Mama Victor narrates, ‘‘they found huge crowds gathered in front of them.’’

After quickly reconnecting, Bernard and Victor looked around, recognizing familiar faces. Curious to know what the hullabaloo was all about, they walked over to their friends, asking what the matter was.

‘‘They liked asking each other Rada?Rada?’’ Mama Victor tells me, Sheng for, what’s the plan?

‘‘They didn’t even get too far into the crowd,’’ Mama Victor recollects being told by witnesses what happened.

‘‘Bernard was suddenly shot in the head, his brains blown out. Victor was shot in the stomach. I believe Victor was shot twice, though the medical report says he was shot once. His intestines spilled out. He had to hold them back using both his hands.’’

‘‘When Victor’s intestines fell out,’’ Mama Victor says and pauses, drifting away in thought…‘‘You know there are those things which if they happen to you, your body suffers a huge shock. I think when both Victor and the policemen saw his intestines hanging, they were all terrified. So Victor tried holding his intestines back, as the policemen rushed to where he was, as if they had just realized whatever damage they had done.’’

‘‘He succumbed before getting to the local hospital,’’ she says, ‘‘where the police were rushing him to.’’

Bernard, who Mama Victor says died instantly from the shot in the head, was left lying at the scene. There was nothing to salvage, with his skull shattered. A third young man, who Mama Victor says was called Paul Omena from Huruma area, and whose parents she hasn’t been able to locate to date, was also shot dead. A fourth, the luckier one of the lot, survived with a bullet wound.

Mathare had swallowed her sons alive

News reached Mama Victor at her Mathare Area 4A home that kuna vijana wameangushwa ( Some young men have been shot dead). What no one told her was that two of those vijanas were her sons. At about 3 pm, a sympathetic eyewitness knocked on her door and broke the news. Her two sons were dead.

‘‘I didn’t understand what they meant when they said my sons had been killed by the police,’’ Mama Victor remembers, ‘‘They had never had any run-ins with law enforcement. I even wondered why they had to kill them both. It didn’t make sense. Families in Mathare lost sons, but losing two sons at one go was strange.’’

By the time she got to the scene, Bernard’s body had been taken away. There was heavy police presence at the scene, Mama Victor recollects. Mathare was uninhabitable and inconsolable.

Permission to Mourn

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘I was lucky because at least the police allowed us to mourn my sons,’’ she says. ‘‘Others are not so lucky.’’

One may wonder why anyone would need permission from the police to mourn their loved ones, usually shot dead by the police. But in Mathare’s stark reality, when young men are shot dead by the police, families have to negotiate with law enforcement for them to be allowed to either hold vigils, publicly fundraise or even erect a tent where mourners gather to condole with the family.

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘Here in Mathare,’’ Mama Victor explains, ‘‘if your son is killed and the police label him a criminal, they won’t allow you to mourn him. You can’t have any gatherings. They won’t allow it to happen and if you insist on going ahead with one anyway, they will walk in and arrest you. Everyone here knows that much”.

Besides the ‘privilege’ of mourning Victor and Bernard, neighbours warned Mama Victor that she had to transport the bodies of her sons out of Nairobi before the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of the August 8 presidential election. By this time, the opposition coalition was in the final stages of arguing its petition against what it considered an irregular presidential vote. Kenya continued to be on tenterhooks.

‘‘There were fears in Mathare that whichever way the Supreme Court ruled,’’ Mama Victor remembers,‘‘a fresh wave of protests and police killings would break out, meaning no one would risk coming out to help me with either fundraising or funeral arrangements. I had to move fast. I was mourning and simultaneously thinking on my feet. You carry the pain of unfair deaths in your heart, but still keep your head functioning.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

‘‘It was a quick burial,’’ Mama Victor narrates. ‘‘By the time we got to Western Kenya, we found the graves had already been dug and went right ahead with the internment. My sons had overstayed at the morgue.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

The Pursuit of Justice

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in Mathare that Victor and Bernard were killed by the police. Hundreds of protestors witnessed their shooting.The police themselves went as far as attempting to save Victor’s life, seeing that he hadn’t died instantly. In an ideal scenario, the case should have been an open and shut matter, with the National Police Service owning up to its officer’s excesses. Even more encouraging was the fact that there now existed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian agency created by an Act of Parliament (2011), which is mandated with ensuring civilian oversight on police action.

However, to the surprise of Mathare residents who have been following the case, justice remains elusive.

‘‘There are people here in Mathare who have video recordings of the police either summarily executing or beating someone to death,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘If you asked people to bring those video clips today,they’ll come forward. But what we have learnt is that no matter what amount of evidence you have, there are no guarantees that justice will be done. I have waited since 2017 for something to be done to get justice for my sons. To date, nothing has been done by either IPOA or the numerous human rights organizations.’’

After the shooting of her sons, the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC), one of the pioneer grassroots documenters of extrajudicial killings, reached out to Mama Victor. In a sense, MSJC has become the last line of defense for Mathare residents, where beyond just securing and preserving evidence in the form of detailed statements, young men have literally sought refuge at the center while being pursued by killer cops. However, for a community-based organization, MSJC, like other social justice centers across Nairobi’s informal settlements, has huge limitations, starting with budgetary and capacity constraints. MSJC therefore acts as a conveyor belt for IPOA and more established human rights organizations, to whom they hand over statements and evidence, with the expectation of an escalation of matters; prosecution and compensation.

MSJC was therefore Mama Victor’s first port of call, from where she was assisted to lodge her case with IPOA and a number of human rights organizations, whose mandate includes seeking legal redress in cases such as hers. Mama Victor must have been mistaken to imagine that her case would be given first priority, because of the available evidence and the enormity of her loss. The death of her two sons. To date, IPOA is yet to present her case to court over a year and a half later.

‘‘A lot of times these women don’t even have bus fare,’’ Wangui Kimari of MSJC, tells me. ‘‘Yet we try to convince them to miss a day’s work for them to record statements with IPOA or attend follow up meetings. Sometimes we take their cases to human rights organizations with capacity to prosecute, but after going through the motions, they send us back to IPOA, citing one technicality or another. It gets extremely tiring and frustrating for these women. It starts to feel like justice is a mirage.’’

‘‘Being a witness in a case against the police can be difficult,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘You can be killed either before or after you testify. Yet if you go to IPOA, it doesn’t matter if you have video clips. They want witnesses, yet everyone is afraid. Why don’t they use other methods like examining bullets found in the bodies of victims and determining whose gun they originated from? People are totally afraid of testifying.’’

If you asked anyone in Mathare to testify in a courtroom against a policeman, they will most likely remind you of the case of Christopher Maina, where the lead witness was assassinated. Maina, a twenty-something year old who was picked up from Pirates base in Mathare just before the 2017 general election and shot dead by a plain clothes policeman. The summarily execution was witnessed by one of Maina’s friends. In the course of justice for Maina, the friend became a voluntary witness, going as far as recording a statement with IPOA. It was not long before Maina’s friend was murdered, a murder that Mathare residents attribute to a notorious killer cop.

‘‘If they can kill an IPOA witness,’’ a Mathare resident posed, ‘‘then who is safe to ever testify?’’

Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) have taken up some cases involving police shootings, which complaints were originally with IPOA. However, there is discontentment in the manner the cases are selected. Mathare residents wonder, why some cases are seemingly more equal than others.

‘‘We want the police prosecuted and our families compensated,’’ Mama Victor offers. ‘‘That’s all we want.’’

In the process of speaking to residents of Mathare, I learn that there are more families whose loved ones were shot during the 2017 general election. However, due to the amount of fear the police have instilled in Mathare, these aggrieved families have opted to suffer in silence than dare step up and speak up against police brutality. They won’t even record statements, suffering from a mind numbing mix of fear and trauma.

‘‘The other reason why some mothers and wives choose to live quietly with the pain is because they feel that even if they speak up, justice can never be done,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘They can see the trouble some of us have gone through, yet to date, nothing has happened. Not even a mere court case has been opened.’’

‘‘Some of those who are suffering the most are survivors of police shootings during the elections, from the campaign period,’’ a resident who sought anonymity tells me. ‘‘We have some who can’t even afford healthcare. They are rotting in their houses, straining their financially incapacitated families as they await death. Majority have become disabled. In fact there’s one who is still living with a bullet. Doctors said if they remove it, he would die. He is traumatized because he knows death is only a matter of time. Another one was shot on the shoulder. He was released from a moving police vehicle, and as he was running into his home when he got shot. We have all these cases in Mathare. But IPOA doesn’t want to come and setbase here.’’

Mothers and Widows

United in grief, Mama Victor joined a number of women and widows whose sons and husbands were either killed or injured by police bullets during the 2017 general election. They formed an association, the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors, borrowing a leaf from the hundreds of mothers and widows across Nairobi’s informal settlements, who have lost loved ones to extrajudicial killings over time.

‘‘Currently, my network has mothers and widows of 35 survivors, 12 victims and 12 orphans,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘The victims are the dead, survivors are those who were shot but didn’t die. Some are disabled.’’

Mama Victor, who is the group’s coordinator, tells me that after she met the mothers and widows inside the network she realized how dire things were for these women, not only for her who had lost two sons.

‘‘The youngest widow in my group is an 18 year old,’’ she says, ‘‘who lost her first husband to police bullets before she was 16. On turning 16, her second husband was shot during the 2017 general election. She’s now raising a three year old without a job or anyone to fend for her. Her own mother is bed ridden. Imagine that.’’

Aside from Mama Victor, the group, which has representation from various informal settlements in Nairobi including Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru, Kiambio, Kibera, among others, has a 27 year old who is raising two sons, a 12 and 7 year old, as the oldest member. The median age of group members is below 25, with majority of their children aged under 5. This terrifying reality is a function of a poverty stricken environment, where early marriage becomes a way out of destitution for most young girls.

On the passing of Victor and Bernard, Mama Victor was left with two young widows to cater for.

‘‘Both Bernard and Victor left a wife and a child’’ she says, ‘‘and so for the months following their killing, I had to support the young wives as much as I could. But in the end, I couldn’t manage to keep them afloat. Bernard’s wife, who was an orphan, remarried. She now has a two month old baby from her new marriage. Victor’s wife, who lost her mother, retreated to her village. They’re both just trying to move on with life.’’

From time to time, women in Mama Victor’s network have to make tough choices. One of the more common ones is the decision whether to work or pursue justice for their husbands and sons. But seeing that most women from Mathare work as domestic workers, it becomes difficult for their employers to allow them consecutive off days, especially when they need to interact with either human rights organizations or IPOA, in pursuit of their cases. Therefore a good number of the women end up either losing their jobs, or not earning enough to support their young families.

‘‘I had to quit my job because I had to seek justice for my sons,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘My employer couldn’t allow me to keep missing work. It became difficult chasing two birds at one go. I had to let go of one.’’

Even for those willing to work, Mama Victor tells me of kukaa kwa mawe (Sitting on stone blocks), where women go looking for work, but because the economy is doing badly, they end up sitting on the roadside the whole day, waiting for families to call them in for menial work. When the jobs aren’t forthcoming, it means families sleep hungry.

‘‘I visit them and feel their pain,’’ she says, ‘‘just to make them know we’re in this together. Someone should come to the rescue of these women, even if they’ll just take care of the kids. We’re already well organized.’’

‘‘I am sorry to say this,’’ Mama Victor opens up, ‘‘but the most heartbreaking thing I have had to live with has been knowing that some young widows have had to turn to prostitution. As a mother, nothing hurts me more than seeing young women resort to selling their bodies for survival. It tells you they have reached the end of the road and given up. They come to me hoping I can offer them something, anything. But when they get to my house, they realize that I am also literally living hand to mouth. We are really suffering.’’

‘‘My heart hurts deeply,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘It’s just that I can’t always display my heartbreak.’’

Being Mama Victor

After telling and retelling her story, either to human rights organizations documenting extrajudicial killings or to investigators at IPOA, Mama Victor has gotten to a point where all she can afford in terms of emotional giveaways is to strike a forlorn look. She tells me she has run out of tears, to a point where she now speaks about her sons’ deaths as if it were a distant occurrence from a faraway dream. She is a lonely spectator, burdened with nightmarish enduring memories.

Three weeks after burying her sons, Mama Victor was back in Mathare. She would have wanted to stay in the village longer, but things were a little complicated. Following Baba Victor’s death in 2010, she had run into problems with her husband’s family over her children’s inheritance, land. A helpless widow, she lacked financial or other muscle to push back against errant family members. She surrendered to her fate.

‘‘The entire village was on my side,’’ Mama Victor tells me, ‘‘but at the end of the day, there’s nothing they could do. The immediate family had the final say on the matter, and no one could overrule them. I lost out.’’

Mama Victor first came to Nairobi with the sole intention of pursuing her husband’s pension. He worked as a civil servant, but on investigating what had happened to Baba Victor’s retirement benefits, she was informed that the money had been disbursed to his bank account by the government, but that someone had mysteriously withdrawn the entire amount. There was no way she could be assisted, unless she pursued the matter with the police. Broke and dejected, Mama Victor retreated to a church in Eastleigh, where she was urged by a group of women congregants to start afresh, lest the weight of her tribulations overwhelmed and killed her.

‘‘I started doing domestic work for families in Eastleigh,’’ Mama Victor recalls, ‘‘earning 2,300 shillings per month. At the time, my children had moved in with my parents at their rural home in Busia.The money was so little. I felt stuck, unable to provide for my children in any meaningful way.’’

With the help of women from the church, who donated household items; a blanket here, a mattress there and a few sufurias, Mama Victor managed to start all over again. Her plan was to stabilize before bringing the children over, to join her in Nairobi. With a meagre salary and chattel from the women, she rented a place.

‘‘Rent was 1,300,’’ she says. ‘‘The deposit for the house was another 1,300. That means on the first month when I rented the place, I was left without a coin. In fact, I had to look for an extra 300 to clear the payment.’’

In her little house in Mathare, Mama Victor lived with her daughter and four sons, among them Victor and Bernard. They were joined by two sons born to Mama Victor’s brother in-law. It was a full house in the literal sense, but Mama Victor had no complaints. They were all happy together. With time, the boys started getting work, marrying and moving out. Other than her youngest son, who is now 12, Victor was the youngest of the lot, much as he seemed older than everyone else due to his impressive height.

‘‘He was handsome and tidy,’’ she says of Victor. ‘‘Everyone wanted to be like him, to imitate him. He loved cleanliness from the time he was a little boy. He always stood out. He was such a lovely boy.’’

Mama Victor runs out of adjectives describing her son. There is no doubt that Victor was his mother’s pride.

‘‘Bernard and Victor loved to fool around,’’ she says, ‘‘you can’t say they were violent. Bernard was talkative whenever he was with Victor, but wouldn’t talk much ordinarily. He used to stutter. They loved each other, but beyond that, they had so much love and respect for me. I wish you saw how they behaved around me. If they had passed here and seen me, they’d have come running, saying mathe, mathe, we hadn’t seen you. ’’

Listening to Mama Victor talk, there is no doubt that something truly precious was brutally taken away from her. She speaks fondly, especially of Victor, as if he left with some unfulfilled promises, possibly to work hard and lift his mother out of the precarious existence of his birth. Despite her stoicism, one cannot miss the moments of frailty in Mama Victor’s voice. No one can bring Victor and Bernard back to life but they should at least be consensus that their deaths were unfair and unjustified.

‘‘Vitu zilienda mrama,’’ she says, things went south.

‘‘Sijui nitafanyaaje.’’ I don’t know what to do now.

Tell Uhuru and Raila

On the day I am meeting Mama Victor, she has just come back from her last born son’s school, where the 12 year old is facing a disciplinary case. The teachers have refused to allow him back in class, demanding a considerable sum of money as compensation for whatever damage the boy caused at school. Mama Victor doesn’t have that kind of money, and therefore the headteacher turned her away, refusing to give her back her son’s school bag or allow him anywhere near the school.

With her is Terry, Victor’s three year old daughter, who keeps pulling at her dress, calling her shosho. After Victor’s wife retreated to live with her father in the village, Mama Victor was left with the responsibility of raising her grandchild, who was pretty unwell at the time of our meeting. Looking at Mama Victor nursing Terry – holding her in her lap, giving her water as if breastfeeding and offering her a sole ten shillings coin to buy candy at a nearby kiosk when the little one got restless, one is extremely moved by the plight of a woman, who has had to bury her sons and now single handedly raise their little children.

‘‘Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent.’’

After our long chat, Mama Victor tells me she has a message for two individuals; former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to her, Victor and Bernard, among tens of others – over 100 individuals according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), including a six-month infant and a 9 year old – all died because the two men were fighting for Kenya’s presidency. But after the dust settled, Uhuru and Raila made peace, and are now bosom buddies. Mama Victor’s question is, were Victor and Bernard, and the many others, mere collateral damage in a game of political chess? She wonders how the country can ever heal yet the bearers of the nation’s collective terminal pain and wounds have never spoken to it. Are they a sore reminder, to be erased and forgotten?

Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent

‘‘I want them to come here,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘We want nothing from them. We want to see them with our eyes, for them to see us and know that we exist. They need to know curses come in different forms. Our pain alone is a curse to them. We want absolutely nothing from them. But they must come here and see us.’’

Are Mama Victor’s words a warning shot, a threat, a plea, or all of them rolled into one? Will the big men and their peace-architects listen, or will Mama Victor’s cries and those of others go unheeded? As Kenya’s Mama Victors get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers. That day, the chain holding Kenya together shall surely break.

 

Postscript: The network of mothers and widows of victims and survivors invited the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC) on 04 July, to ‘‘reflect on case management, witness protection, advocacy and psychosocial support.’’ IPOA didn’t show up. 

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Politics

Borders versus People – Part II: Congo – A Classic African Tragedy

The spat between the Rwandan and Ugandan leaders may have more to do with their interests in their neighbour Congo than with any ideological or political split, argues KALUNDI SERUMAGA in this second of a three-part series. How long will the DRC remain the hunting ground for foreign predatory forces? And what does this spat say about the future of Pan-Africanism and regional integration?

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The borders between Uganda, Congo and Rwanda were drawn in the early 1900s. This was not an African decision. A joint team made up of officials representing the German, Belgium and British empires surveyed the hills of the region and made a decision. It was not a simple matter. At one point, they were attacked by a party of rebels led in 1911 by the anti-colonial Nyabinghi warrior Muhumuza, who ambushed a joint Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. It was to be her last operation. She was injured, captured and imprisoned by the British in Buganda for the rest of her life. Forty of her fighters were killed.

But that is the story for Part III of this series.

For now, the story is this: Those white man’s borders still eat African lives. On 27th March this year, a Rwandan national named Elizabeth Mukagarukwiza collapsed and died on the Ugandan side of the closed border while running from Rwanda security officials trying to take her back to Rwanda. She was reportedly in search of medication related to her pregnancy.

On May 24th, two men, one Ugandan, one Rwandan, were shot dead after being intercepted on a goods run into Rwanda. Like many others, they were not carrying anything ordinarily illegal.

First, as usual, it will be the peasants. The rest of us, all things remaining constant, will be caught up with later.

Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Read Also: Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Both incidents were immediate victims of the increasingly absurd bouts of megaphone diplomacy between the two countries. At one point, in a bid to deny their border incursion, some Rwandan officials even found themselves claiming that the smugglers – one Ugandan and one Rwandan – had been shot dead inside Rwanda, despite their bodies being found on the Ugandan side.

Overall, the crisis has enabled us to more clearly discern two things previously held tight by the now unsettled inner circles.

First, the people of Rwanda, for all their country’s reported developmental progress, remain seriously poor. Many will continue living outside their country, or seek to do so, for economic reasons, rather than political ones.

Second, President Yoweri Museveni’s support to the 1993 Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel invasion of Rwanda, and the eventual overthrow of the regime in Rwanda was much more extensive and explicit than many thought at the time.

Third, that the enmity between these two hitherto sister regimes is rooted in their joint sojourn in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

Let me put it this way: Who holds the legitimate voice of the various peoples of East Africa? That question is critical to the future of the idea of a regional integration.

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

First, who exactly is in conflict with whom, in this instance? Clearly, it would not be correct to call this a conflict between Uganda and Rwanda for the simple reason that despite grand claims to the contrary, neither government can prove they actually represent the will and aspirations of their citizens. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda came to power through armed might, relying on narrow ethnic-favouring armies, and have been energetically stage-managing presidential elections – not to mention constitutional controls on their tenures – ever since.

On the other hand, neither can we call this a conflict between two men. Clearly there are interests broader than the personal views of the two principals involved, not to mention the hundreds of minions that have been scurrying about in their name, arresting, deporting, vilifying, abducting, counter-deporting and spaying on each other.

This is a clash of regimes, and the corpus of the respective crony interests that have built up around them over the decades.

Ironically, it is also unavoidable, given that both leaders chaperone exactly the same competing global ambitions and interests in the Great Lakes region, which is exactly what led to the great falling out between their respective armies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until then, it did not seem possible to imagine any kind of disagreement ever-emerging between them or their leaders, certainly not in the Pan-African mind.

Congo: Heart of dark foreign forces

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

In that sense, Congo is the heart of light, in that it illuminates all the dark places of a person’s soul, and lays bare their true character, as Joseph Conrad’s Congo did with Kurtz. Ugandan and Rwandan armies entered the DRC as liberating heroes. Today, they are rightly seen as the villains who brought the place to final ruin.

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

It is this centrality to the continent, bordering nine other countries that led Frantz Fanon to call Congo the “trigger” for the coming African revolution. The whole bounty of Africa’s riches seems to lie within her reach.

Along with its current membership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Congo, if it so wished, could be a member state of the East African Community (EAC) and technically even of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Its size seems to match only its sheer known mineral wealth, upon which this historical procession of predators feast.

If there is one population on the entire continent least deserving of further depredations, robberies and violence, it is the people of the DRC.

Before even Leopold, so much of its population was fed into the ships of the transatlantic slave trade for centuries that there is even a location called “Congo Square” in what is now the American city of New Orleans, in which the building blocks of American jazz were shaped by enslaved Africans on their occasional days off.

There followed a slavery-in-place, as Belgium’s Leopold organised the extraction of rubber and cocoa through forced labour camps.

William Lever, the British industrialist, was so impressed by the economic efficiencies of the slave labour system that he went into partnership with Leopold for the steady supply of the palm oil he needed to massively expand his soap manufacturing business.

This classic African tragedy, however, did not stop the two great Pan-African armies from clashing there three times, and in the process, basically laying waste the eastern city of Kisangani. Some truly epic levels of energy were expended in the stealing of minerals, lumber and other valuables from the DRC. This progressed from the mere looting of mining company stores to the taking over or establishment of artisanal mines, and even the importation of slave labour made up of “idle” ghetto youth swept off the ghetto streets from as far away as Kampala.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

It would be a mistake to see any of these crimes as events that happened a long time ago, and far away. Lever’s company lives on today as Unilever. Find a moment to go and check how many of the manufactured items on your kitchen and bathroom shelves are made by this company. Congo’s long misery put Unilever in a position to be able to put them there.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

And by taking the role of Mobutu, these two friends’ occupying armies and proxy militias have enabled other Western corporations to hold Congo in that position ever since. The quarrel is about which of these twins will be the principal instrument in the facilitation of this plunder, with more than a little benefit to itself.

Either this Pan-African idea does not really exist, or these leaders have never believed in it.

This is simply the story. Now we need the story behind the story, which I will explore in Part III of this series.

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Politics

Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”. In this first of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines tribal or ethnic identity in the context of shifting political alliances and loyalties.

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Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum
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Africa’s borders are one of Pan-Africanism’s foundational obsessions. Are they ours, or Europe’s? Do we keep them, or erase them? Did we ever have our own?

Since just before the February decision by the Rwandan government to prevent access to its side of the border with Uganda, we have witnessed a shadowy quarrel between the presidencies of the two countries conducted in shorthand. The border closure was the first openly physical expression of this private argument. Since then, the language has become more robust, and the actions more direct, and even deadly.

With that act, Pan-Africanism came up against the realities of the European-designed political power upon which its member states rest. Perhaps, it will finally now look for an answer to its foundational riddle.

Some background may help here.

Yoweri Museveni, first as anti-Amin rebel activist, and later President of Uganda due to the bush exertions of his National Resistance Army (NRA), was seen –and saw himself – as the embodiment of the Pan-African ideal. Among his victorious soldiers were not insignificant numbers of refugees from Rwanda, some of whom had joined his crusade as far back as the days of General Idi Amin (1971-1979).

Museveni’s embrace, and even promotion to high office, of these excluded Africans was seen as real pan-Africanism in action. Paul Kagame was Uganda’s Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, and Major Fred Rwigyema (who died and was replaced by Kagame as the head of the Rwanda Patriotic Front [RPF]) was the Deputy Minister for Defence.

All this was celebrated, not least by the then luminaires of the attempted revival of the global Pan-Africanist movement led by the magnificently deluded Nigerian activist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who went on to hold what was to be a major re-organisational 1994 conference in Kampala, which was gifted with a permanent secretariat afterwards.

Finally, the notion was cemented by the generous assistance Museveni’s NRA lent to the RPF invasion of Rwanda. In fact, the array of names of the Rwandan personalities (some now deceased) now quarreling among themselves contained a few alumni of Uganda’s Makerere University, as well as former employees of the Ugandan government. During broadcasts, if it were not for the bloodletting, it would be almost amusing watching them dispute in their Ugandan-accented English.

The genesis of the current stand-off

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

The current stand-off is, therefore, a culminated development in a political history reaching back over four decades, which has come to define how a generation or two understand politics, war and regional diplomacy. The details of all the attendant schemes, betrayals and illegitimate victories, are theirs. The implications, however, belong to all of us. If these two peas-in-a-pod cannot get on, then who in the region will?

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

But perhaps the problem is precisely that many were seeing something that was not really there?

For its part, Kigali eventually made it known that it believes Kampala had already been offering support to a nascent armed rebellion being assembled, it claims, in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and led by Kayumba Nyamaswa, a former RPF general. This was flatly denied by Uganda’s long-standing Minister of Foreign Affairs (and even longer-standing in-law to the president), Hon. Sam Kuteesa, who said: “Uganda cannot allow its territory to be used to threaten the security of a neighbouring country.”

Given the military role of the government in which Kuteesa serves in changing the governments of the DRC twice, South Sudan (through helping the secession), and of course Rwanda (by which means Paul Kagame became president in the first place), this must be the ultimate demonstration of diplomat-speak.

And given the fact the President Paul Kagame willingly accepted assistance offered by the Ugandan government (in which he was serving at the time) in that interference that led to the collapse of the regime of then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, perhaps this alleged assistance to his erstwhile General Nyamwasa should not be a cause for surprise, let alone outrage. He will certainly know what may follow.

The rebellion against the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote basically involved arming refugees and exiles, among others, to help wage a war of the government of the country that was hosting them. This was followed by the arming of refugees to invade a neighbouring country, and then arming refugees and ethnic minorities to march against two DRC governments in Kinshasa, where the armies of Uganda, and Kagame’s Rwanda were to work together in driving the armed movement that removed the regime of Marshal Mobutu from the DRC, and backstopped events around the death of Mobutu’s first replacement.

After a lifetime of breaking rules and flouting the procedures and principles of International relations, President Kagame can hardly suddenly expect them to be upheld in respect to his own regime. And especially not by his former accomplice in such conduct.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda. He has also crossed it in illegal fashion, first as a child in a family seeking refuge, and lastly as a Ugandan-based armed rebel. And now he has shut it down.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country. This came about for two main reasons: first, there are significant communities of Ugandan citizens in the far southwest of the country that are of the same ethnicities as those found throughout neighbouring Rwanda. This is a common African situation.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda.

The other reason is that the NRA’s struggle for power did – as the case of President Paul Kagame shows – take on board very many Rwandan refugees (largely of Tutsi origin). These refugees’ initial attempts to obtain Ugandan citizenship after the 1979 fall of General Amin’s government were opposed by many indigenous Ugandan politicians. Despite that (or perhaps as a result of it), they had gone on to swell the ranks of the NRA as it battled the regime of the then President Milton Obote following the stolen 1980 elections. The NRA’s control of full state power on its own standing ushered in the change in their status.

Much as it has enabled Ugandans of Rwandan ethnicity from the Uganda side of the border to stop having to be named after the nearby mountains or to have other labels (sometimes epithets) foisted upon them by their neighbours, this situation only creates further complications for Pan-Africanism, which as yet remain unacknowledged conundrums, but that will be significant in the future.

To complicate matters further, Uganda also has many people of Burundian origin who migrated to the country in the decades following the establishment of the colonial state. How come they have not been recognised as a separate “ethnicity”? More closely, there has been the argument, in the case of the Rwandan “ethnicity”, that perhaps Uganda should have recognised Rwandan Hutus and Rwandan Tutsi as separate groups, as had historically been the case back in Rwanda.

A similar question has been raised about the Asians settled in the country for nearly a century who have made sporadic requests for “tribal” recognition. In their case, will it go back to the Hutu and Tutsi question: will they be labelled the “Asian tribe”, or will they get registered as the various ethnic or caste groups that they identify with in India or Pakistan?

Tribe or nation?

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”, the raw material out of which the new nation would be built. This an extremely deeply entrenched mindset among almost the entire African political class, irrespective of country, and whether in government or in the opposition.

But here’s the thing: In the case of the members of the relatively newly-established Rwandan tribe of Uganda, one only has to cross the border (once re-opened) to morph into a member of a nationality, without a change in ethnicity.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country.

The question arises as to how a European-drawn border developed the magical power to transform the same African ethnicity into either a “tribe” or a “nation”, depending on which side of that border it stood.

Other “tribes” in Uganda, such as (famously, or perhaps infamously) the Baganda, remain trapped. Their pre-colonial status as a nation cannot be as easily re-actualised, as they have no such border they can cross. These designated “tribes” have a dubious status within the given polity. Their rights are ephemeral at best. Their continued existence is viewed with official suspicion, a sort of pre-colonial hangover that must be progressively extinguished, through political means if possible, but by naked force, if necessary. They present in public life often as an abused bargaining tool by members of the petit bourgeois class found among them, as they blackmail those holding state power. “Tribalism” is the destructive political habit that results, and is then used to further stigmatise native identity.

Perhaps Kampala’s problem – evidenced historically by the belittling and patronising attitude towards Kigali since the RPF took power there – is that it cannot shake the thinking that the Kigali regime is little more than a Ugandan “tribe” that happens to control another country. In short, an extension of the attitude it holds towards all the ethnicities within the ambit of its own borders.

All these realities and events strongly suggest that the border is the least of our worries; it is what lies beneath, and before. This is what we shall examine in Parts II and III of this series.

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