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.
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Africa’s Land, the Final Frontier of Global Capital
If the designs of global big money are not stopped in their tracks, Africa is threatened with environmental degradation and nutritional poverty.
Three great factors are coming together to constitute what may be a whole new, and final chapter in the book of horrors that have been visited on the African people since the birth of Western European capitalism.
If Native Africans do not begin to think very deeply about what this is going to mean for what is left of them, in terms of their livelihoods and ways of living, then the recent past will seem like a small piece of paradise.
Unlike our ancestors, who are often blamed — opportunistically — for the original conquest of Africa and the trade in enslaved Africans that came before it, this time round, there will be no excuses or debate. Africa now knows what colonial conquest is and what it does, in a way that our unfortunate ancestors could not.
The first factor is that capitalism is fast running out of things to destroy in order to make profits. The climate crisis is the best evidence of this. This has been a long-term trend, certainly since the 1960s. However, the most recent financial collapse of 2008 certainly intensified it. Of the grand things and sectors left for capitalism to ravage, there is the production of food for the masses of people crowded into the towns and cities of the West, with no space, time or fundamental skills to produce it for themselves from scratch.
The global corporate food industry is based on one key assumption: that the human race, as it continues to grow in number, will become less and less able to independently produce food for itself. These is because of embedded assumptions about the inevitability of intensive urbanization, as well as time and lifestyle choices, themselves often culturally encouraged, if not imposed, by the same industry.
Food, that indispensable need, is now recreated as a guaranteed industrial commodity.
And so, a lot of corporate interest and money has migrated into the corporate agriculture sector, globally. Global big money is now trying to colonise food production itself, on a global scale, in order to find new ways of keeping its money valuable. Writing in mod-2011, the late Dani Nabudere perceives a deeper conflict:
During the first three months of 2008-the year the global economic crisis intensified, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation-FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on the average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year. In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007. This sudden surge in prices was led by increases in vegetable oils, which on the average increased by 97%, followed by grains with an increase of 87%, dairy products with 58% and rice with 46%.
This means that investing in food, or the assumption of the future existence of food as a commodity to be traded. In short, what is known as the Futures market. But the problem with futures is that at some point, the commodity will have to come into existence.
The second thing native Africans need to be aware of, and arising from the first, is that African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.
Most of the world’s arable land is now found somewhere in Africa. It is unclear if by this is meant arable land under use, or also land that can be put to agricultural use (but may be located under a forest, or something, at present).
The March 2012 issue of Finance & Development Magazine sheds some light on that equation:
Throughout the world, it is estimated that 445 million hectares of land are uncultivated and available for farming, compared with about 1.5 billion hectares already under cultivation. About 201 million hectares are in sub-Saharan Africa, 123 million in Latin America, and 52 million in eastern Europe. . .
The third factor is that arable land is only arable if it has fresh water near it. And it is only viable for corporate exploitation if it also has no people on it. Africa is therefore the prime target: plenty of fresh water, and very few real land rights.
In my estimation, the area of Africa between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys running along the length of the Nile valley below the Sahel has been identified as on the last open, near-virgin territories, ripe for intensive mechanized agricultural exploitation.
That area’s human settlements have historically originated around the pattern of freshwater bodies. A lot of Uganda was once a wetland. As a result, the country will find itself located at the very epicentre of any such an enterprise.
Dr Mike Burry, a now legendary American stock market operator is reported in the Farmfolio website to have said, “I believe that agricultural land – productive agricultural land with water on site – will be very valuable in the future . . . . I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”
The website goes on to report quite sarcastically,
Over the next three decades, the UN forecasts the global population to increase to about 10 billion. How do you imagine farmland investments will benefit from an over 30% increase in mouths to feed? Good luck feeding two billion people with Bitcoin or gold nuggets.
In this sense, colonialism was just the attempted start, with the former white settler farm economies of Kenya and southern Africa as the increasingly decrepit leftovers. The goal now is African land in general, wherever land can be turned over to large-scale (and therefore mechanised, “scientised” and corporatized) production of the commodities needed to make factory food.
The implications are clear: the goal of the huge capitalist formations that dominate public and foreign policy in the industrial countries, and whose agribusiness interests have a global reach, is to turn Africa into a huge farm, both as an opportunity, and as a response to an internal crisis.
In a May 2017 opinion piece published in the UK Guardian newspaper, then United Nations Environment Programme Head Erich Solheim made a similar point:
Several scenarios for cropland expansion – many focusing on Africa’s so-called “spare land” – have already effectively written off its elephants from having a future in the wild. These projections have earmarked a huge swathe of land spanning from Nigeria to South Sudan for farming, or parts of West Africa for conversion to palm oil plantations.
All this speaks directly to the immediate future of the African people. Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide, massive environmental damage, widespread human displacement, and therefore repression and conflict as the tools of implementation.
African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), calls the bringing of the US agribusiness model to Africa “a grave mistake”. They describe the model as “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide,” that “also fails to solve hunger, negatively impacts small-scale farmers, and causes environmental harm.”
It is in this context that the debates in Uganda and Kenya, for example, about land use and policy, can then be appreciated.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has launched a political offensive (once again) against the Kingdom of Buganda, describing its neo-traditional land tenure system as “evil” and in desperate need of reform.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone. First of all, Mr Museveni has firmly established himself as the pre-eminent fixer for imperialist ambitions in the Great Lakes Region. Whatever the owners of Western capital want here is what he will always try to deliver, no matter the collateral damage. Secondly, whenever the Ugandan president hatches a plan targeting the wealth and resources of native Ugandans, he begins with an attack on Buganda. Not because there is anything more valuable there, but because it enables the ideological seduction of a useful section of Ugandan political society: Ugandan “patriotism” was built on the notion that native identities are a bad thing, and that the Ganda identity is the worst of all.
It worked in the process of marginalising native voices in the independence movement and replacing them with smooth-talking “pan-Africanists”.
It then worked again with the creation of the culture of dictatorship between 1966 and 1979. Voices raised in opposition were easily dismissed as “divisive”, or retrograde. The mission now, was to build the new non-ethnic nation.
More recently, it has been deployed again to justify global neo-liberal designs on African land, through dismissing native resistance to it as “backward” and “parochial”.
Once it has been politically established that the overriding of native objections to anything is an essential and desirable part of development, then the “principle” can be applied in practice, to all other parts of the country.
Through its loyal and devoted client, the National Resistance Movement regime, Western capitalism is targeting all Ugandan land, regardless of which natives own it and under what system.
The same principle works differently in Kenya, but towards the same end. Initial white settler-based agriculture was never successful. Part of the story of Kenyan independence is actually the story of the Empire at headquarters becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy the economic, political and military resources needed to maintain a colony largely for the benefit of a small group of unproductive, self-regarding “middle-class sluts”, as one of the British commanding officers is alleged to have described the settlers.
However, a legacy of that time is that unlike in Uganda, vast areas of Kenya’s potentially productive land are still in white and foreign ownership. And a lot of this is in areas historically within a pastoralist ecosystem.
A succession of Kenyan governments neglected to address this historical injustice. In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.
Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide.
Today, the three-way contestation between native (often pastoralist) communities, dogged white and other land oligarchs, and a wavering, uncaring state, rumbles on.
Co-author of The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, longstanding Kenyan conservation biologist, and land rights activist, Mordecai Ogada, has long argued that the whole wildlife tourism-based “conservation” industry run off the vast settler-leased native landholdings is basically a landgrab. The question will be Is this just for tourism, or will it be open to other ventures, like industrial agriculture?
It could lead to something deeper. Arguments for “development” and “rangeland/wildlife conservation” will be mobilised as a cover to carry out large-scale land grabbing and the eviction of peasants and pastoralists from lands they have historically occupied. Not just for the parochial descendants of the original white settlers now turned “conservationists”, but the kind of mega-scale mechanised planting that has been so central (and destructive) to the American mid-west, the Amazon basin, and native Canada.
This was also partly how the war that eventually split Sudan played out in the now separated south, and still plays out in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. A significant section of Arab-descended northern economic elites was centered on the production of wheat. According to the Sudanese intellectual Dr Fatimer Babiker Mahmoud, in the late 1980s, this sector was making millions of dollars annually from the large-scale planting, harvesting and export of the grain to Europe, Asia and the Arab world.
Sometimes this meant the clearing of the more fertile lands of the south, the Nuba mountain lowlands and the Darfur region – all largely inhabited by Black Africans – for the mechanised growing of wheat. This is what gave the conflict its racial character, as Arab chauvinist arguments were used to justify this genocide.
But, as with the white settler projects, these should be seen as trial runs in the greater measurement of our economic history. There is a need to understand the sheer scale and scope of these operations.
What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.
Of the top ten foods listed as traded the most within global trade by the Just-Food Magazine website in 2014, (fish, soybean, wheat, palm oil, beef, soybean meal, corn, chicken meat, rice and coffee) there are five key items that drive the processed food industry: palm oil, wheat, soya and corn. It seems sugar cannot be accurately measured because it features in just about anything processed.
In addition, meat production (chicken, beef and pork) is dependent on the others on the list. Cattle are fed on corn, and soya (and the soybean meal) comprises part of what is fed to chickens.
The scale of the operations means that huge sums of money are invested. In today’s world, this means money from banks and institutional investors (hedge funds, etc.) as shareholders in agribusiness corporations. Poultry factories can contain up to forty thousand chickens permanently locked in cages for laying, or just warehouses of several thousand square feet. In early 2020, some 20 million chickens were being slaughtered each week in the United Kingdom. Corn and other grain are usually planted on lots measuring thousands of hectares apiece.
When investing on this scale, certain guarantees must be put in place. These are not matters that are left to chance, or fortune. And the primary purpose of all capitalist economic activity, especially in the West, is to obtain the biggest private return possible on any investment. And also usually in the shortest possible turnaround time.
This is why “insurance” measures are locked in from the start. In particular, chemical-based fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides and also increasingly, the use of genetically modified seeds and livestock, as well as steroids and antibiotics to promote rapid growth and prevent sicknesses.
In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.
The goal is huge, regular volumes of uniform products to be processed and marketed to huge urbanized populations.
The whole commercialisation process begins in the West, where this industry is the most developed. The European conquest of the continents of north and South America, also mark the period when food production migrated from being a community-based activity, to an industry.
This led to the clearance of human settlement from large areas of land, as well as the destruction of forests and wetlands, all to make way for the animal ranches and very big plantations.
This way of life is now being increasingly imposed on all societies, as “the normal”.
The recent riots in the Republic of South Africa for example, are an illustration of the dangers of becoming prisoners of a privately owned, mechanised food supply system, and also an attempted repudiation of it.
The rest of Africa is quickly “catching up” to this advanced backwardness, with the increasing rate of unplanned migration to urban centers due to loss of opportunities in community-based agriculture.
In Uganda for example, this process was driven by the intentional Museveni-led neo-liberal disruptions to the adapted system of community-based agriculture that has been built up in the country over a period of nearly eight decades.
Agricultural production remains at the heart of this struggle. The Africans sought to ensure that they continued to produce their indigenous food crops so as to retain food sovereignty, while at the same time engaging in the new cash crop economy that was encroaching on their land and labour power.
Official African policy within each African state, as well as in the regional economic blocs and the various policy and finance bodies (such as the African Development Bank), remain uncritically in support (or at least not opposed) to this general strategic direction.
What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.
“Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business,” wrote African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr Akinwumi Adesina, in African Business magazine in 2017. “It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in south east Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.”
Our official planners suffer from a tragic tendency of conflating any activity involving money and machines, with “development”. The intention is to duplicate life as it is almost universally led in the Western-style countries. They think is will bring “industrialisation”, and through that, jobs.
There are four significant conflicts or budding conflicts on the continent right now, in which arable land for mechanisation will increasingly become a factor. These are in southern Ethiopia, Congo and the whole Sahel zone, anchored on Nigeria (and Sudan), and Kenya.
If these developments are not challenged and stopped, Africa can look forward to environmental degradation, and nutritional poverty.
We will all become Africans in South Africa, and poor people in the West.
Assuming the Western industrial system lasts much longer. And that the planet also does.
How Capitalism Uses and Abuses the Arts
The arts business is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model but artists continue to rely on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.
In my last piece, I talked about how our education system destroys the arts by corrupting the meaning of education, work and the arts. And I said that these lies that are perpetuated in the name of education come from the unholy and abusive marriage between education and business. (I have said elsewhere that this marriage should be annulled immediately.)
In this piece, I’m going to talk about how capitalist business is the prime beneficiary of the terrible state of the arts in Kenya.
Businesses swing artists between two extremes. On one hand, which I already explained in my previous letter, the business (parasite) sector encourages the education system to degrade the arts, so that art does not look like real work that takes skill and resources. By doing that, the business sector justifies artists not being paid for their work. If you have noticed that you are not getting paid, or your payment is delayed, it is because of that madharau for the arts. The accountants cooking books look at you and think to themselves “Why should I pay someone for shaking around or singing for people? Even I could have done that work if I wasn’t here balancing books.”
On the other hand, capitalism does pay artists huge amounts of money, like we see in Hollywood where people like Oprah and Jay Z have become billionaires through entertainment.
In the end, artists are treated like battered spouses. One minute, a spouse is being abused and beaten, and the next minute, when the battered person has had enough, the abuser apologizes, swears how much they love the battered person and promises not to beat the spouse again. And the cycle starts again.
Art and wealth
The first thing to understand about the arts business is that it is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model. I will talk mainly about music, but book publishing and other types of art business work using the same principle.
Basically, the art business uses the rentier model, like a landlord. A landlord builds a house once but earns money on that house as long as he owns the right to that house. The “work” of living there, or the business carried out there, is done by other people, but the landlord earns a cut of that work despite doing no work. Simply because he owns the property in which the work was done.
And that is the same thing record labels and studios do. They provide initial capital and make the artist sign a 360-degree contract that allows the label to earn from everything the artist is involved in for the rest of the artist’s life: performance, recording, brand merchandise and even artistic license. An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person. In the US, artists who are lucky earn 10 to 15 per cent of the revenues they generate for the music industry. The rest are unlucky and earn much less, if anything.
Imagine that. For every artist billionaire we know, their record label earns nine times more.
As an artist, you’re probably thinking, “Well, it may be exploitative but at least it works. Why can’t those exploiters come and work in Kenya?”
Actually, they are working here, and we know it. They have names like MCSK and Liberty Afrika. And the way these companies exploit artists is the same way other companies exploit everybody else in employment. The wages we earn are nothing compared to the profits that entitled, lazy and ignorant fat cats make from our work, and yet — as we see with the doctors — companies are constantly coming up with new schemes to avoid paying us for the work we do.
An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person.
I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts. For instance, 360-degree contracts should be considered slavery and outlawed. Saying that every future income of an artist is tied to the initial capital invested in their recording is just as ridiculous as a food supplier to a restaurant saying that they should earn 90 per cent of every plate or meal served by the restaurant. Once the food is delivered and paid for, the contract should end there. Artists should pay studios, publishers and marketers separately as bills, not on promise of royalties.
But because my students have been told that education is only for jobs, none has ever taken up my challenge to think about this.
There is another form of abuse and exploitation of artists that is less talked about because it is less easy to quantify. That is idea theft.
Through platforms like hubs, and through demanding proposals for shows and other performances, institutions exploits the artist’s energy and innovation, then pull the rug from under the artist and run off with the idea. That is why artists will start small concert gigs and before long, corporates, instead of sponsoring those gigs, create their own versions because they can pour in the money to make it big.
And these initially sustainable and indigenous ideas soon turn into monsters. These corporates invade natural parks like Hells Gate to sell even bigger than they should. Not only do they subvert eco-systems, they also crush their conservation opponents with media blitz and economic blackmail. What started as a Kenyan artistic initiative is not only hijacked but also turned into a short term, exploitative and destructive tsunami that dies almost as soon as it is born.
I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts.
Other artists report having given studios or media houses an idea for a show, leaving with a promise that they will hear from the producers. Within a few weeks, they see a bad version of the show they proposed. Is it a wonder that television entertainment is so unimaginative and poorly executed?
But this is the nature of capitalism: like a paedophile, it lets nothing mature and thrive. It instead derives a perverted sense of pleasure from exploiting the vulnerable and destroying budding ideas before the ideas develop to maturity.
Impunity and abuse
This paedophilia is replicated across all institutions. As someone recently said on Twitter, we are often employed on the promise of our ideas, upon which we are promptly frustrated and prevented from developing them.
No institution has escaped change and democratic supervision like the workplace. Workers around the world are succumbing to the abuse of the workplace, whether they are employed or not. Stress levels are high, and sexual bullying, mental illness, addiction and suicide are on the rise. The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.
But what is slightly unique about the arts is that when artists suffer from the same vices, the business world convinces us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is why the high rate of depression and suicide among artists is not treated as a pandemic. When artists suffer violence such as being shot in clubs and being drugged and raped, we the abused and terrorized Kenyan public thinks that their abuse comes with the artistic territory.
In fact, we even accept that the business community does not treat artists as workers like other employees. Artists are not paid a salary, pension and benefits. They don’t go on leave. They are on the road all the time, or constantly searching for new gigs and new contracts, and never taking a break. The constant toil takes a toll on their minds and bodies and they start to use substances to stabilize their lives instead of getting some rest. Then there is the parasite industry of the paparazzi who make sales from intruding on artists’ lives and selling the details to the world.
The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.
But instead of us criminalizing these vices committed against artists, we let the business world convince us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is utter nonsense.
Worse, the impunity also makes every new generation join the arts thinking that creativity requires criminality, substance abuse and insanity.
And the business sector has an evil, devilish interest in making literal murder and depravity acceptable for artists. Because of the power of the arts to free people, capitalism cannot let the arts thrive on their own, for the arts will inspire the people to challenge the tyranny of business by looking for alternative business models.
But at the same time, capitalism needs the power of the arts to manipulate people to behave in the interests of business. It puts the arts on a leash, so that the arts go only where capital wants the arts to go — to sedating the masses into accepting exploitation or into buying things.
And the artists, unfortunately, are joined to corporations at the hip and naively celebrate their reliance on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.
And we artists need to understand that this abusive relationship is made possible by the hostility of the church. Instead of the church being our refuge in times of trouble, the clergy side with the state when the state crushes us through bans and censorship that are implemented in the name of morality.
Laikipia Land Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb
Historic land injustices, changing land ownership and use, and heightened competition for natural resources — exacerbated by the effects of climate change — make for a perfect storm.
“Here we have a territory (now that the Uganda Railway is built) admirably suited for a white man’s country, and I can say this with no thought of injustice to any native race, for the country in question is either utterly uninhabited for miles and miles or at most its inhabitants are wandering hunters who have no settled home . . . .” Sir Harry Johnstone
There have been significant changes in the pattern of land ownership in Laikipia in the last two decades. These changes are set against a background of profound inequalities in land ownership in a county where, according to data in the Ministry of Lands, 40.3 per cent of the land is controlled by 48 individuals or entities. The changes have not brought about an improvement in the lives of the pastoralists and other indigenous communities who occupied Laikipia before colonisation. These groups — and the Maasai in particular, following their 1904 and 1911 treaties with the British — were forced out and relegated to reserves in southern Kenya to make way for the establishment of large commercial ranches owned by White settlers. Those indigenous inhabitants who remained were pushed by subsequent colonial legislation to Mukogodo in the north of the county, the driest part of Laikipia.
The pastoralists did not recover their land with the end of colonial rule. On the contrary, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, encouraged White settlers to remain after independence and today, some of the descendants of those settlers who decided to make Kenya their permanent home still occupy vast swathes of land in Laikipia County. Those who were unwilling to remain in Kenya under majority rule sold their land to the Kenyatta administration. As Catherine Boone, Fibian Lukalo and Sandra Joireman observe in Promised Land: Settlement Schemes in Kenya, 1962 to 2016,
With the approach of independence, the settler state and the British government stepped in to protect the interests of Kenya’s white land-owners by creating a land market for white settlers who wanted to sell their agricultural holdings, and supporting land values for those who wanted to stay. The buyer of most of these properties was the Government of Kenya, using loans provided by the British Government and the World Bank. Through this process, the Kenyan state acquired about half of the land in the (ex-) Scheduled Areas.
In 1968, under the World Bank-funded Kenya Livestock Development Programme — whose stated objective was “to increase beef production for home consumption and export mainly by subsistence pastoral groups” — the government enacted the Land (Group Representative) Act (Cap. 287) that saw the creation of 13 group ranches in the northern part of Laikipia, which is the driest part of the county. However, well-connected local elites helped themselves to part of the land, excised as individual ranches. There are 36 such individual ranches that should have been part of the group ranches.
Those ranches that were sold to the Kenyan government by the departing British settlers are within the expansive Laikipia plateau. The government later sold them to land buying companies formed by Kikuyus that in turn subdivided them into individual holdings. Examples of such lands include Kamnarok, Kimugandura, Kirimukuyu, Mathenge, Ireri and Endana, among others. The remaining land was gazetted as government land such ADC Mutara and Kirimon, or outspans such as Ngarendare and Mukogodo, which were used for finishing livestock for sale to the Kenya Meat Commission.
Land tenure and use
In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production. The map below shows the different land use and tenure systems in Laikipia County that include large-scale ranches, large-scale farms, group ranches and smallholder farms.
There are 48 large-scale ranches sitting on 40.3 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County, 9,532.2km², some of which are still owned by the descendants of the colonial settlers. The ranches occupy huge tracts of land, the three largest being Laikipia Nature Conservancy with 107,000 acres, Ol Pejeta with 88,923.79 acres, and Loisaba with 62,092.97 acres.
Source: Ministry of Lands
Most of these large-scale ranches — many of which have an integrated economic system that includes livestock, horticulture, wildlife conservation and tourism — were acquired during the colonial period and legislation governing their ownership was taken from the colonial law and integrated into the constitution of independent Kenya under the land transfer agreement between the colonial government and the Kenyatta regime. It should be noted that the Maasai land campaign of 2004 pushing the government to address historical injustices following the forced ouster of Maasai from their ancestral lands in Laikipia, brought to light the fact that some of these ranches had no legal documents of ownership. In an article titled In the Grip of the Vampire State: Maasai Land Struggles in Kenyan Politics published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, Parselelo Kantai observes,
Ranchers interviewed could not remember how long their own land-leases were supposed to last, were unaware of the Anglo-Maasai Agreement, and, in at least one case, were unable to produce title deeds to their ranches. And when opinion was expressed, it bordered on the absurd: the ‘invaders’, observed Ms Odile de Weck, who had inherited her father’s 3,600-acre Loldoto Farm, were not genuine — not Maasai at all. They were, she noted emphatically, Kikuyus. The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.
Immediately following the campaign, the Ministry of Lands started putting out advertisements in the print media inviting those landowners whose leases were expiring to contact it.
Twenty-three large-scale farms occupy 1.48 per cent of the land in Laikipia County. These farms are mostly owned by individuals from the former Central Province who bought the land following sub-division by the Kenyatta administration, or through land buying companies, which opted not to sub-divide the land but to use it as collateral to access bank loans.
Source: Ministry of Lands
Smallholdings sit on 27.21 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County. These farms were initially large-scale farms bought by groups of individuals who later sub-divided them into smallholdings of between two and five acres. There are three categories of farmers in this group: those who bought land and settled to escape land pressure in their ancestral homes, those who bought the land for speculative purposes, and those who bought land and used it as collateral for bank loans. A majority of the first group still live on their farms, practising subsistence, rain-fed agriculture. Most members of the other two groups are absentee landowners whose idle land has over time been occupied by pastoralists in search of water and pasture for their animals, or by squatters seeking to escape the population pressure in the group ranches. In some cases, pastoralists have bought the idle land and have title.
The 13 group ranches cover 7.45 per cent of the total Laikipia land area and are occupied by pastoralists who use them for communal grazing. However, some of the group ranches such as Il Ngwesi, Kijabe, Lekurruki and Koija have also established wildlife conservancies and built tourist lodges.
Changing land ownership, changing landscapes
Since the late 1990s, when agitation for political reforms and a new constitution began in earnest, and in the intervening period, new patterns of land ownership and land use have been emerging in Laikipia County.
Data from the Laikipia County Government indicates that 16 of the 48 large-scale ranches have been internally sub-divided into units of between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, with the land rates due for each sub-division paid according to the size of the sub-division. The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands. There are claims that the sub-divided parcels have been ceded to European retirees looking to acquire land for holiday homes in Laikipia, and to White Zimbabweans. There are also claims that the large, palatial, private residences that have sprung up within the sub-divided parcels are in fact tourist destinations for a high-end clientele in a business that operates outside Kenya’s tourism regulatory framework and violates Kenya tax laws.
In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production.
Whatever the case, the County Government of Laikipia confirms, “Most of the white settlers buying property are soldiers or tourists who loved the [county’s] climate, its people and natural beauty and want to experience it all over again. Big time investors [sic] in real estate flock the area, either to buy or construct multi-million shilling holiday homes, targeting wealthy European settlers and tourists.”
The Laikipia County Government also confirms that the large-scale ranches have also been leasing training grounds to the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), adding, “In 2009 BATUK expanded these grounds to 11 privately owned ranches, including Sosian, Ol Maisor and the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.”
Multinationals have also moved in, buying up the large-scale farms, particularly those situated near permanent sources of water, where they have set up horticultural businesses growing crops for export to the European market. The arrival of export horticulture in Laikipia has increased competition for resources as “agro-industrial horticulture, pastoralism and small holder agriculture compete for land, capital, and water, with access to water being particularly hotly contested.”
Absentee owners of smallholdings that have over time been occupied by squatters are also selling their land. With the help of brokers and officials from the Ministry of Lands, the smallholdings are consolidated and sold to individuals and companies who may not be aware that the land is occupied and that the sale could be a potential source of conflict.
Only the group ranches — which are occupied by pastoralists who use traditional grazing management techniques — have not changed hands and remain intact. They are, however, facing pressure from a growing population, intensive grazing and increasingly frequent droughts that are putting a strain on the natural resources.
On the other hand, most of the land gazetted as government land has been grabbed by senior government officials, politicians and military personnel. Of the 36 government outspans, only four remain. Outspans neighbouring large-scale ranches have been grabbed by the ranch managers and such grabbed land has since changed hands and been acquired by individuals.
Where farmers were settled in forests during the era of former President Daniel arap Moi, forest cover was plundered for timber and the forest floor given over to cultivation. When President Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi, these farmers were constantly under threat of eviction but they continue to occupy the forests to date. There are, however, intact forest reserves where on-going human activity has not had a negative impact. They are used and managed by pastoralists as grazing lands, or managed by conservation groups, or by the government.
Impact of change of ownership on other livelihood groups
Land deals are coming to compound an already existing multiplicity of problems related to the access, use and management of scarce resources in Laikipia County. Compared to neighbouring counties, in the past Laikipia received moderate rainfall and severe droughts like those experienced in 2009, in 2017 and now in 2021 were the exception. This attracted pastoralists from Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties to settle in the county in search of water and pasture for their livestock.
Over time, land pressure in central Kenya also forced subsistence farmers to move and settle in Laikipia, practicing rain-fed agriculture and keeping small herds of sheep, goats and cattle. This has led to competition for space and resources that has been compounded by frequent and increasingly severe droughts in recent years.
“The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.”
The consolidation of smallholdings belonging to absentee owners — where land that had previously been sub-divided into units of between two and five acres is now being merged to form bigger units of 500 acres and above, sold off and fenced — is further reducing the land available to pastoralists and to squatters who have been using such idle land to graze livestock and grow crops, leaving them with limited options and leading to an increase in levels of vulnerability as they have to rely on relief food in order to survive.
The smallholder land consolidation process, which is being undertaken by former ranch managers who are brokering for individual buyers, is also blamed for the over-exploitation of natural resources in some areas and their conservation in others. In those areas occupied by farming communities, forest cover has been exploited either for charcoal burning, firewood or timber production as people look for alternative sources of livelihood. In the smallholdings where pastoralists have title, overgrazing of the rangelands due to constrained mobility does not allow the range to regenerate. This in turn has led to the degradation of the land and the emergence of unpalatable invasive species of plants like prosopis that render grazing areas unusable, further compounding the problem of access to pasture in the few areas left for pastoralists to graze.
In the group ranches, the most degraded rangelands are overrun with opuntia stricta, an invasive species of cactus whose fruit is harmful to livestock and has caused “economic losses in excess of US$500 in 48% of households in Laikipia”.
On the other hand, in the large-scale ranches, large farms, consolidated smallholder farms and group ranches where conservation and resource use fall under the intensive management of a few individuals, the availability of resources is assured even during times of stress. However, the availability of resources for one group of users and the lack of resources for another often leads to conflict as those without poach from those who have them. One example is when pastoralists graze illegally in the large-scale ranches whenever there is scarcity in their own areas, leading to arrests and sometimes confiscation of livestock from the pastoralists by government agencies in an attempt to protect the large-scale ranches.
Historical injustices and government failures
Article 60 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees equitable access to land and security of land rights. Further, Article 68(c)(1) states, “Parliament shall enact legislation to prescribe minimum and maximum land holding acreages in respect of private land.” Parliament has failed to pass such legislation and, indeed, the government has shied away from addressing historical land injustices in Kenya in general and in Laikipia – where they are most visible – in particular. Policy makers rarely discuss justice in the context of land reform and what has taken place are land law reforms in lieu of the essential land reforms that would confront the material consequences of unequal access to land. As Ambreena Manji observes in her paper Whose Land is it Anyway?,
The consequences of a legalistic approach to land reform are starkly evident in Kenya’s new land laws. First and foremost, it foreclosed debates about redistribution, prioritising land law reform as the most effective way to address land problems and so evading more difficult questions about who controls access to land how a more just distribution might be achieved.
The recent violence that visited death and destruction on parts of Laikipia is a continuation and an escalation of a crisis that first came to a head in May 2000 when pastoralists drove their livestock into Loldaiga farm. Then the Moi government intervened and allowed the pastoralists into the Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests while big ranchers supported the government by allowing some animals onto their ranches.
In 2004, pastoralists again occupied commercial ranches while agitating for the non-renewal of land leases which they believed had expired. This time the Kibaki government used force to dislodge them. However, the question of land leases remains unresolved to date. Outbreaks of violence have become more frequent since 2009, caused by a combination of factors including the effects of climate change and increasingly frequent droughts that force pastoralists from neighbouring Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu into Laikipia in search of water and pasture. This inevitably leads to conflicts with ranchers onto whose land they drive their animals.
Population pressure, from both humans and livestock, is another cause of conflict in Laikipia. The carrying capacity of group ranches is stretched to the limit while it is plenty on neighbouring commercial ranches. Moreover, population migration to Laikipia from neighbouring counties is placing additional pressure on resources.
The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands.
The proliferation of small arms in the county has added to the insecurity; pastoralists from neighbouring counties invade and occupy commercial ranches, conservancies, smallholdings and forests armed with sophisticated weapons. Laikipia pastoralists have also acquired weapons both to defend themselves and their animals and to invade other land.
Politicians have since 2009 also been encouraging pastoralists from neighbouring counties to move to Laikipia on promises of protection in exchange for votes. There are also claims that politicians have been helping the pastoralists to acquire arms and that most of the livestock being grazed in private ranches and farms belongs to senior government officials and politicians who have exerted pressure on the government not to act on the pastoralists.
In the twilight of another Kenyatta government, relations between the commercial farmers and ranchers, the pastoralists and the smallholders remain poor and there is a lot of suspicion among them, with each group acting as an isolated entity. But for how long can the big commercial ranches and large-scale farms continue to thrive in the midst of poor farmers and dispossessed pastoralists?
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