In the past, opening a bank account in Kenya was an elaborate and tedious affair. It was akin to applying for a job: you presented your “curriculum vitae” to bank officials who would determine your fitness as a financially serviceable client. There were forms to be filled (in duplicate) that captured details such as date of birth, schools attended, employment history, reasons for choosing that particular bank and referees to vouch for your suitability. Some banks even asked whether you had spent nights in a police cell and whether you had a criminal record. It was like joining an exclusive members’ club – the odious scrutiny made it look like it was a privilege to be allowed to join the “banking club”.
The procedure for getting a loan was even more stringent and punitive: you would be asked to deposit a valuable item, such as a log book, jewellery or a title deed, as collateral. Money matters were serious business.
That was then. Today technology, particularly smartphones, has revolutionised the financial sector, so much so that traditional banks must be ruing the day smartphones became second nature to humanity. These days getting a personal loan online is easier and faster than calling your nearest bank or micro-finance lending facility. Thanks to mobile banking, a smartphone owner can borrow from as little as Sh500 to as much as Sh70,000 without breaking into a sweat. All he or she needs is to be social media savvy. Having a social media account, such as a Facebook account, is understood by both the online loan apps and the borrowers to be an unstated primary requirement for accessing a loan. There are at least 50 mobile phone lending apps operating in Kenya.
A FinAcess (financial access) survey done in 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya, the Kenyan National of Bureau of Statistics, FSD-Kenya and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found out that 77.5 per cent of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Out of this group, according to a 2018 digital credit survey, 35 per cent, or roughly six million people, have taken at least one digital loan. In essence, the survey found that digital credit had become a leading source of credit in Kenya. Using a sample size of 3,000 Kenyans, the survey showed that digital credit appeals to younger customers, out of which 55 per cent are male and from urban areas. The study also found that by far the most common reason for taking a loan is to meeting day-to-day needs. Financing education also drives use of credit while just over a quarter of users take loans to support their business and agricultural activities.
However, many of these borrowers struggle to pay back their loans. According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200. (CRB is the body charged with the task of flagging or blacklisting all loan defaulters and ensuring that they are barred from borrowing from or transacting with any financial and legal entity, including the government.)
Eliud Njoroge, a financial risk management and private equity fund consultant, told me that mobile phone lending firms financed by venture capitalists were taking advantage of the vulnerability of impressionable youth. “The youth of today want instant gratification – they want it now and here. The notion of delayed gratification, that is, the idea of being patient and thinking through your financial needs, wants, opportunity costs and apparent risk considerations are alien concepts to them,” said Njoroge. “The ‘Java’ generation lives for the moment and developers of these digital apps are exploiting this social phenomenon in the epoch of social media, where the imagined reality of life is being played instantly.” (By Java generation the private equity fund manager, who himself is a millennial, was alluding to the Java restaurants in Nairobi that are popular among the city’s slick young urbanites.)
According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200.
“The crux of the matter is that today the aggressive marketing gimmicks by the owners of these apps are singularly directed at the post-millennials – guys barely out of their teens and who have zilch idea of what constitutes a financial budget, leave alone a plan,” notes Njoroge. “Because they still solely rely on their parents, guardians, benefactors, relatives and friends for their upkeep, they have no qualms misusing and squandering money. Hence, the apps have specifically been developed largely with this group of people in mind. They are ready and willing to spend, but most importantly, borrow money to feed their peer-driven lifestyle habits.”
Njoroge’s opinion is based on his wide experience in advising multinational banks and international financial corporations and, more specifically, financial start-up companies that are being funded to loan cash to young people (read anybody below 33 years of age). Njoroge has worked as a financial risk management consultant in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. Now based in Kenya, he currently works with start-up companies on the look-out for potential big and small loan risk takers. “I will tell you for free that these online apps will explicitly not come out to state that they are targeting these young adults, but I know it from experience and interactions with today’s bankers and venture capitalists that this is the case.”
However, the 2018 digital credit survey found that “digital borrowers are more likely than average to run their own business or be employed” and “less likely to be … dependent on family or government transfers”.
Njoroge says that the apps make young people believe that they can both save and borrow money, but this is not the case. “There is no saving. The apps exist solely for ensuring that you borrow endlessly.” He says another lie being perpetrated by these apps is that they promote small business enterprises. “A complete lie. These apps would like to masquerade as micro-finance entities. They like to market themselves as tools that reduce the cost of borrowing through technology. But I can tell you for a fact that micro-financing is a different financial ball game, technology or no technology. If indeed there are times when they will provide loans for micro-financing, it is because they must be seen to do so, and therefore, it will be incidental and not the primary intended goal.”
The tragedy of these apps, says the financial consultant, is that the cost of repaying these loans can be very punitive. “Firstly, their interest rates are way above the rates charged by banks. The Java generation is impervious to these high interest rates – they borrow and spend money that they have not sweated for. The developers of these apps figured this a long time ago.”
In addition, “if today you default, your name is immediately forwarded to the CRB. If that happens, trust me, you will not even be allowed to borrow from Okoa Jahazi (a platform for borrowing airtime from Safaricom, the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya).”
CRB has to date blacklisted half a million people, according to the Transunion Credit Bureau’s CEO, Billy Owino, Just three years ago, there were only 150,000 loan defaulters in Kenya. Woe unto you if you are ever blacklisted. You are not off the hook even after you have repaid your loan. CRB still considers you a credit risk for seven years. What this means is that for seven years financial institutions will be wary of you when you approach them for a loan. “Most of the borrowers don’t know that they got blacklisted. We get 200 calls daily from individuals in this category, asking how they ended up in the blacklist.”
Twenty-year-old Charles, a University of Nairobi student, says that he took the trouble to compare the interest rates of the various online money lending apps. He eventually settled for KCB-M-Pesa because it had the best rates.” He says that on average he borrows between Sh2,000 and 3,000 twice a month.
“What do you borrow the money for?” I asked him. “I use the money to finance my Sport-Pesa (gambling) expeditions. I bet for big matches.” Although Charles is a college student, he has not yet outgrown indulging in play-station games. “Apart from betting, I also borrow money to afford my play-station games escapades.”
The digital credit survey found that only 3 per cent of borrowers get a loan in order to gamble. It is possible that this number is an underestimate given the finding that “digital borrowers are almost twice as likely to have tried mobile betting at least once in their lifetime”.
Sports betting has become big business in Kenya and ensnared an entire generation. A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.
SportPesa, a sports gaming company that was established about five years ago, is today the biggest sports betting platform in Kenya. It is among the dozen or so sports gaming companies that have sprouted in the country recently. These sports gaming companies have developed an impassioned craze among millennials and zillennials (the post-millennial teenage youth born after 2000) who have taken to betting as a way of life. The GeoPoll survey found that Kenyans gambled more frequently than their fellow Africans, spending an average of Sh5,000 a month. Charles has yet to win big cash (most people have never won more than Sh5,000) but feels that he has to keep on feeding his craving, which started as a hobby.
A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.
According to Banker Awards held in the UK in December 2017, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the largest bank countrywide in terms of asset size and has 12 million customers registered for the KCB-M-Pesa mobile service. The KCB M-Pesa loan app, which started in 2015 as a savings account, charges between 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rate. Its phone loan service rose from 35 per cent between January and March 2016 to 41 per cent in the same quarter in 2017. Because of the success of mobile money borrowing, financial transactions at the branch level fell to 20 per cent from 31 per cent previously. Said KCB Group CEO and Managing Director, Joshua Oigara, in an in-house 2017 KCB newsletter: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in loan requests on all our mobile loans following the decrease in interest rates.” The newsletter stated that the average value of loans per customer was Sh1,800.
Like Branch International Inc., an international online money lending consortium that has its headquarters in San Francisco in California, and which launched its services in Kenya in 2015, KCB M-Pesa, vigorously advertises on Classic FM’s most popular morning radio show. Its target audience, just like Branch’s, is post-millennial youth who have just turned 18, who are college-bound and who have just acquired a national identity card. Branch is giving loans of up to Sh70,000, and according to the radio promos, it claims to have up to a million Kenyan borrowers. “You do not need any collateral, any bank account or a referee, all you need to do is download the Android app and you will receive your loan in 10 seconds flat,” proclaims the ad.
The advertising language used to sell the online borrowing apps is deliberate and intentional, targeted at a generation that is just starting to discover itself and excited about owning a gadget that, to them, seems to unlock hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. The one-minute radio promos of these online lending apps are couched in language that would appeal to young adults. “Unlocking your growth potential” and other slogans are targeted at a generation that had little or no financial knowledge.
Ken, like Charles, borrows to finance his gambling habits. “So I will borrow every time there are big matches being played on the English Premier League,” admitted Ken. “I bet on Sport-Pesa and I borrow between Sh1,500 to 3,000. He said his favourite app was Tala because, “it is very prompt when relaying the money. I wanted an app that does not waste time in giving me instant cash.”
Dates and other emergencies
The online app of choice for 19-year-old Steve, a Technical University of Nairobi student, is M-Shwari. “I opted to use M-Shwari because it is a solid brand that works together with KCB, another solid brand.” Steve said he borrows between Sh1,000 and 3,000 a month to finance his college lifestyle habits. “Cut a brother some slack,” he said. “I need to enjoy some good life while I’m a student.” Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.
Steve told me it is not just once that he did not have the cash to entertain some girl in a fancy restaurant. “On several occasions I have had hot dates, but trust me, I did not have a penny. But tell me, would you let slip a date you’ve been chasing like there’s no tomorrow just because you’re not liquid?”
Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.
Steve said he has walked confidently into a Java restaurant a couple of times with a “beautiful catch” with not a single penny in his pocket because he knows he can borrow money from M-Shwari “of course, without her knowledge”. The instant loan is deposited into his M-Pesa account, which he uses to settle his bill. Meanwhile, the Java generation belle will not have the slightest hint that her expensive lunch treat was financed by a loan and that the young man will have to figure out how to repay it later.
By 2017, the M-Shwari (shwari means to be calm or peaceful in Kiswahili) online loan portfolio had 420,000 applications every day; of that, 70,000 are processed daily for repayment every 30 days. It has more than 80,000 agents countrywide and processes US$20 million daily payments, according to a study done by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay. M-Shwari is operated by Safaricom, the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya, and is considered to be the mother of mobile phone lending apps, largely because it was the first mobile phone loan application in Kenya.
Started in 2012, M-Shwari has to date 21 million customers in Kenya. The minimum threshold required of an M-Shwari borrower is to possess a Safaricom sim card and to be registered as an M-Pesa user. Therefore, technically speaking, anyone with an M-Pesa account qualifies to borrow from M-Shwari. The beauty with M-Shwari, its users tell me, is that you can borrow offline so long as you are on the M-Pesa platform. M-Shwari charges a one-time “service fee” of 7.5 per cent on all loans.
M-Shwari is actually a creation of a partnership between Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) and Safaricom, who split the revenue accrued from the lucrative business. According to the How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far report written by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay in 2015, Safaricom provides access to customers and transactional data on mobile phone and mobile money usage. CBA, on the other hand, develops credit scoring algorithms that analyse the transactional data to make credit evaluation decisions. The actual lending is done by the bank. One of the single biggest reasons why the M-Shwari app is preferred is because money is promptly credited to your phone immediately. But just as you receive money on the spot, you must also pay it back on time. Deferment and delayed payment can be costly and punitive. “I have always endevoured to pay back on time,” said Steve.
According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers (known as mama mboga). From as early as 3 in the morning, the women vegetable sellers begin to borrow money from M-Shwari because they need to go their respective markets to buy their wares, fresh and in good time. These women are experts in M-Shwari borrowing. By the evening, when they are reconciling their figures, they will begin repaying their loan, usually from between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, in preparation for the dawn borrowing. The women borrow anything from between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 daily. On a good day, the mama mboga will repay her M-Shwari debt and still remain with a tidy sum as profit. However, these women, who are M-Shwari’s most loyal customers, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to paying back their loans.
According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers.
Chebet, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not even care to know the interest rates charged by these mobile phone apps. She told me that she borrows between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 per month. And she was very forthright on why she borrows the money: “I borrow to satisfy my spendthrift behaviours. I am always buying shoes, bags and clothes that my meagre allowance that I am allowed by my parents cannot satiate.”
The 19-year-old said her favourite borrowing app is Tala. “I got used to Tala because it is advertised a lot on mobile smartphones. Tala is truly one of the money-lending apps that is advertised 24/7 on Android smartphones. The pop-ups are constantly in your face every time you navigate through the phone.” (Tala was previously known as Mkopo Rahisi, Kiswahili for “easy loan.” The app has devised a system where it rewards referrals: for every person you recommend Tala to, you are paid Sh200. Users of Tala, nonetheless, have to part with an additional charge in the form of M-Pesa transaction fees because the app uses a Pay Bill number. I asked her whether she paid her debts in time; she said she had defaulted a couple of times.
Tasha, like Chebet, has no clue how much interest rate she is charged by Tala. Blandly honest, the 20-year-old student told me she told me she borrows “to buy myself make-ups.” Hence, every three months she will borrow between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 from Tala.
Tala, which was started in March 2014 by Shivani Siroya, a former United Nations employee, began by dishing out Sh10,000 loans in Kenya; today it gives loans worth up to Sh50,000. The app has the highest interest rate among its competitors – between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. (Branch charges 8.4 per cent.) Tala charges 11 per cent if you pay your loan weekly and 15 per cent if you choose to pay monthly.
Tala has also come up with a system that can detect when customers change their mobile phone number. It has a default message that reads: “Your account is linked to another device.” It is a polite warning from Tala that it would be improper and risky to run away with their money, for example, thinking that by changing your sim card, you will be off the hook insofar as repaying your loan is concerned. Chebet, in not too many words, confirmed to me Tala’s tightening of its lending procedures: “You can run, but you cannot escape.”
Mariam, another 19-year-old, is hooked to Tala. Although not a spendthrift like Chebet, she nevertheless said a good thing will not pass her simply because she cannot afford it. “That’s why these apps came about; to be rescuing some of us when we are stuck.” Getting stuck often means not being able to do things, like going to concerts with your peers, because you don’t have the money. “The first time I borrowed money from my phone was when there was a big music show in town and I just could not afford to miss it. All my friends were going there. How could I be left behind?” Mariam uploaded the Tala app and in the blink of an eye she had money in her M-Pesa account. “I resorted to Tala because it’s really advertised on the phone, plus my friends invited me to use it.” Mariam says Tala’s interest rates are high, yet she opted to stick and continue using the app because she finds it convenient. She borrows between Sh1,000 and 2000 every month.
In an interview she had with the Business Daily in January, Siroya said that Tala’s association with the M-Pesa platform had given her company access to 27 million users. Worldwide Tala has given out 4.5 million loans worth Sh25 billion to clients in the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania. Ninety-five per cent of her clients are repeat customers.
George, 20, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), was as candid as a college student can be. “What do you borrow the money for?” I asked. “To finance dates at fancy restaurants that I know very well I can hardly afford with my own meagre cash.” George also said he borrows to patronise expensive pubs, which ordinarily he would not afford. “How often do you borrow?” Often enough was his curt answer. “Which app do you usually use?” The student said he does not have a specific app and therefore did not also care to find out their respective interest rates. “I will use any as long as it gets the job done. But I have noticed, by and large, I tend to rely mostly on Tala and M-Shwari.” I also asked him whether he repays the loans, if at all. “I do, although I am always falling behind schedule.”
Just like her fellow college mate George, Barbara, 19, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not care about interest rates. “All that I care for is there is money coming my way.” She said she borrows “to get through to the end of the month, as well as to buy my writing books for assignments after squandering my allocated pocket that my parents give me for every month.” Barbara said she religiously borrows between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every month. “I use Tala simply because of peer influence – many of my friends use it and they recommended it to me.”
Perhaps it is because of his age that I found Joe’s reason for resorting to the online borrowing money apps reassuring. Joe is 21 and has almost completed his studies at JKUAT. He therefore is already thinking about what he will do after exiting college. He currently runs a mitumba (secondhand clothes) business, selling contemporary clothing to his fellow students. So when I asked him what he borrows the money for, he promptly told me that he borrows it to replenish his stock and to keep his business afloat,“because oftentimes, I’m not paid on time by my customers”. Every month he borrows a standard Sh2,000 from Tala, which he repays promptly.
Chomba, also a university student, borrowed just once because he had a real emergency. His sister’s child, who he was looking after when he was on recess, became sick and needed urgent treatment. “I had heard about KCB-M-Pesa and its reasonable interest rates, so I downloaded the app and borrowed Sh4,000. I later opened an account with KCB.”
Njoroge, the financial expert, pointed out to me that online loans are approved on the basis of the applicant’s reputation, “what they call reputational collateral”. Reputational collateral is dependent on such habits as how many times you make your calls and how often you transact on your M-Pesa account. “The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”
Danson Muchemi, CEO of Jambo Pay, the IT company that collects revenue on behalf of Nairobi County, especially revenue relating to parking charges, praises the online borrowing apps “because they brought down banking barriers. There is no more profiling. The technology has enabled the creation of ‘digital assets’ that approximates what type of a person you are. Armed with this information, the apps are able to sketch your character and identify your spending habits, needs and wants, even though there is a thin line that separates the two.”
“The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”
Unlike the banks, which depended on your “CV” to arrive at a decision about whether or not they will advance you a loan, the power of technology is such that it can, with near precision, detect whether or not you will be a defaulter. By analysing your social media profile, the apps can sum up your personality and your willingness or ability to pay back. “Technology, as opposed to traditional banking methods, which took ages deciding on whether you qualify for a bank loan or not, allows mobile banking financiers to make that decision fast and instantly.”
“Old habits die hard” is an English idiom that explains acquired habits that later become difficult to get rid of. When a loan is just a click away, it is not hard to imagine a future where online borrowing will become a habit, or maybe even a harmful addiction, among Kenyans.
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The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
Solidarity Means More Than Words
Although the South African government is one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, its actions tell a different story.
On October 15 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, decked in a black and white keffiyeh, pledged his solidarity with the people of Palestine. He was surrounded by colleagues in the same attire holding Palestine flags. This was a week after Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza strip. The situation in Gaza is an even worse nightmare than usual, with the death toll from Israeli strikes now exceeding 11,000 civilians, half of whom are children. Much of the open-air prison housing more than two million people has been reduced to rubble. South Africa’s already critical rhetoric on Israel has become significantly harsher, but the question being asked is, when will this translate into action?
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has stood unfailingly with Palestine, beginning with the close friendship and camaraderie between former president Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. South Africa was one of the first countries to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, a progressive stance at the state level, even in Africa.
Yet the current government’s bravery, even in diplomacy, is questionable. The pro-Palestine public and civil society are demanding answers to basic questions, such as why Israeli citizens can travel to South Africa visa-free, while Palestinians cannot. And although South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018, downgrading the embassy to a liaison office, it has yet to take the step to expel the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.
But things are shifting. Israel has acted with such violence that South Africa’s language has grown stronger to the point that the Cabinet called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza not just a genocide but a “holocaust on the Palestinians.” After a month of civil society and public pressure on the government to expel Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Ramaphosa recalled South African diplomats in Tel Aviv for “consultations,” and Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest and try Netanyahu and his Cabinet for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Notwithstanding these diplomatic maneuvers, the expulsion of Belotserkovsky is still in discussion at the parliamentary level, and in practice, the relationship between Israel and South Africa is in contradiction. South Africa is Israel’s biggest trade partner on the African continent. In 2021, South Africa exported $225 million worth of goods to Israel, mostly in the form of capital goods (tangible assets or resources used in the production of consumer goods), machinery and electrical products, and chemicals; it paid $60 million for imports, mostly intermediate goods (goods used to finalize partially finished consumer goods), and food products by far, making a total in trade of $285 million. This is one-third of Israel’s total trade with sub-Saharan Africa of $760 million.
In 2012, the government announced that products made in the West Bank need to be labeled as originating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as opposed to a “Product of Israel,” which led to an outcry from Zionist groups and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, calling the move discriminatory and divisive. But several Checkers and Spar branches still stock items labeled “Product of Israel,” with no repercussions.
Zionist entities have for decades been openly committing crimes under South African law. South African nationals have traveled to Israel to fight in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and some are there currently. This is illegal under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act which is very clear about citizens fighting under other flags. A South African citizen may not provide military assistance to a foreign army unless they have made an application to the Minister of Defence and received their approval. When the issue was raised at a recent parliamentary hearing, Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, admitted that the State Security Agency is aware of this phenomenon, and would provide the identities of these soldiers to the National Prosecuting Authority, as they are a threat to the State. Yet the fact that South Africans have been fighting in the Israeli army is no secret. Recently, a video emerged of a soldier leading other soldiers in South Africa’s national anthem. Another question being asked yet again is, why has it taken this long for any prosecutions to take place or even be suggested?
In July a group of Israeli water experts and state officials visited South Africa to pitch their technology to the South African government, a trip organized by the Jewish National Fund of South Africa and the South African Zionist Federation. The Jewish National Fund is notorious for planting forests on former Palestinian villages demolished by the Israeli army. Israel and South Africa are also connected in the agriculture sphere and South Africa is not alone in this. Israel had been using agriculture and military training to carve an increasingly wider economic path to make its way through Africa, and in 2021 Israel nearly obtained observer status at the African Union, a proposal suspended by South Africa and Algeria’s protests.
The Paramount Group, an arms manufacturer with offices and factories in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is strongly connected to the Israeli army, providing armored vehicles to Haifa-based Elbit Systems, who in turn supplies Israel with 85% of its land-based and drone equipment. The founder, Ivor Ichikowitz, is an outspoken Zionist whose family foundation has been known to raise funds to support the IDF and Paramount’s Vice President for Europe, Shane Cohen, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Army. Ichikowitz has been allied with prominent South African politicians for many years. In 2009 the Mail and Guardian reported that Ichikowitz had flown Jacob Zuma to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for free on his personal jet. He was also, bizarrely, a broker in a peace mission by African heads of state, including Ramaphosa, to Ukraine in June this year. By allowing for these sales to Elbit, South Africa is violating its own commitment to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, which, as a signatory, has agreed to cease the provision of weaponry when there is a reasonable expectation that such arms might be employed in severe breaches of international human rights or humanitarian law.
The South African government has been quietly allowing its own laws to be flouted by Israeli and Zionist interests. But pressure is mounting on the government’s need to convert its narrative into action. Minister Pandor has called for an immediate imposition of an arms embargo on Israel. Does this mean the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will prohibit Paramount sales to Elbit? The country’s National Prosecuting Authority has been instructed to prosecute South Africans serving in the IDF. Will this actually happen? Will the DTI stop stores from selling products incorrectly labeled and will South Africa cut trade ties with Israel and impose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?
Momentum has grown, and people are raging against the machine. The South African government is in the spotlight. It will be forced to show where its red lines are drawn and where its allegiance really lies. The people are watching.
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