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NOT YET UHURU: What Kenya can learn from Cuba’s healthcare system

The approach to provision of universal healthcare demonstrates that Kenyan political leaders are yet to develop a coherent philosophy to shape the nation’s development agenda. By REV. CANON FRANCIS OMONDI

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NOT YET UHURU: What Kenya can learn from Cuba’s healthcare system
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In his famous song Ayee Africa ee Africa oo Lipanda? (Ah Africa where is your independence?), the young Congolese musician Franklin Boukaka questioned the essence of independence from oppressive colonial rule. Why would the new African leaders indulge in luxuries and power while the masses they led were confined to squalor in his native Congo Brazzaville?

This, of all of Boukaka’s songs, was most popular on radio in the 1970s and remains to date. I doubt that the Voice of Kenya (VoK) radio presenters knew that they were playing a song outlawed in the country of its origin. A nimbus of sweetness in the music concealed the song’s subversive message. The emphatic climax of the song posed three questions: “I thought the colonisers left? Who then became independent? Ayee Africa where is your independence?”

The singer rebukes the insensitivity of the leaders to the needs of their citizens. One of the most beautiful African voices was, however, extinguished forever.  His song earned him silence on February 22, 1972.   Boukaka was executed on the orders of Joachim Opango in the crisis following a coup d’état that failed to topple Marien Ngouabi. However, his voice will continue to haunt our present context in Kenya and Africa as long as the benefits of our freedom are not realised.

Time has revealed the yawning gulf between the independence aspirations our forbearers struggled for and the realities we have experienced. The promissory note of freedom and prosperity has been unhonoured. The majority of Kenyans could not cash it. To paraphrase American civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr., it has been returned marked “insufficient funds”.  What was the point of the sacrifice for self-rule if wananchi (ordinary Kenyans) would be subjugated to oppressive poverty?  Whose independence was this?

Time has revealed the yawning gulf between the independence aspirations our forbearers struggled for and the realities we have experienced. The promissory note of freedom and prosperity has been unhonoured. The majority of Kenyans could not cash it.

The African leaders of the colonial days were clear about what they demanded. Freedom. While attending the American Committee of Africa’s Freedom Day in 1959, Hon. Tom Mboya, the then Secretary General of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – who had just been elected head of the Pan-African people’s Congress in Accra, Ghana – gave a revealing interview to American journalists in a session with the National Broadcasting Corporation’s The Press. He was articulate, expressing an urgent need for independence. Mboya understood freedom to be achieving the right to self-determination and to have a government elected by the people, not imposed on them and, therefore, one that was responsible for and accountable to the people. That was the reason for the struggle for independence all over Africa.

The colonialist perceived Africans to be too tribal to rule themselves without resorting to chaos. Perhaps this is why the host, during the interview, pejoratively reminded Hon. Mboya that with freedom there goes responsibility for self-government. She expressed her apprehension about the ability and readiness of Africans to self-govern with these questions: “Now, how can you say that people are prepared for such a responsibility when illiteracy is 90 per cent in many parts of Africa? When governmental experience personally for many is tribal and there is major dependence for foreign aid for economic development…?”

Hon. Mboya concurred with her when he recognised the need for literacy and development in form of better roads and schools. He pointed out that “… the motive behind our struggle for independence is our recognition that these things are not possible under colonialism.” He refuted her characterisation of Africans, identifying it as a colonial fallacy.

The vision of achieving independence to advance ordinary African people described development in terms of people’s welfare, not economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product or economic growth. It concurred with latter-day economists like Edgar Owens (1987) who suggests that development occurs when there is development of people (human development) and not development of things. According to the World Development Report (WDR 1991), “The challenge of development, is to improve the quality of life, better education, higher standards of health and nutrition, less poverty, a cleaner environment, more equality of opportunity, greater individual freedom, and a richer cultural life.”

It is this nexus between development and independence that Hon. Mboya had in mind when he said: “It is when people have attained independence that programmes such as more education, more hospitals, better roads, better houses can be implemented by a government concerned for its people.”

The Cuban example

The Cuba experience backs Hon. Mboya’s assertion, although he spoke before the Cuban revolution had taken place. The 1959 Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to leadership transformed the tiny Caribbean Island of seven million people. Castro created a socialist programme that focused on transforming the lives of ordinary Cubans. Consequently, they were provided a completely free education system uniquely adapted to Cuban needs, from nursery to university. Douglas Kellner’s, in Ernesto ‘Che” Guevara World Leaders Past and Present, explains how prior to 1959, the official literacy rate for Cuba was between 60 per cent and 76 per cent. This was occasioned by both lack of education access in rural areas and a shortage of instructors. The Cuban government under Fidel Castro, beginning in 1961, focused on the countryside by constructing schools and training new teachers who taught the predominantly illiterate peasants (guajiros). At the end of the campaign, the national literacy rate rose to 96 per cent. By 2009, according to a 2012 Central Intelligence Agency report, literacy levels across the population of Cuba were 99.83 per cent. This became the foundation of the development of the Cuban people. Again, it was the citizens who volunteered to achieve this.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Cuba’s healthcare system is an example for all countries of the world. It is recognised for its excellence and efficiency. Those responsible for its success include family physicians, nurses and other health workers who labour to deliver primary healthcare and preventive services to their cluster of patients. It is a very localised system; the patients and their caregivers live in the same community. There are now about 2,500 patients per physician-headed office at the primary care level. Their healthcare is premised on the preventive health system, which has produced positive results. As a result, Cuba’s vaccination rates are among the highest in the world. The country’s life expectancy of 77 years is exceedingly impressive for a developing country. The infant mortality rate in Cuba has fallen from more than 80 per 1,000 live births in the 1950s to less than 5 per 1,000. The improved health outcomes are also be attributed to improvements in nutrition and education, which are key variables that address the social determinants of health. Today, health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum.

Despite its extremely limited resources and the negative impact of the American blockade and economic sanctions for more than half a century, Cuba has managed to guarantee access to healthcare for all segments of the population, which has enabled the country to obtain results similar to those of the most developed nations.

Cuba’s experience mocks our post-independence achievements. Our literacy levels are most disturbing. The key findings of Kenya’s national adult literacy survey in 2007 indicated that, on average, 38.5 per cent of the Kenyan adult population is illiterate, implying that more than one in three adults cannot read or write. This is despite the fact that they have been major increases in enrolment in educational institutions at all levels, and a plethora of education commissions constituted to rectify the education conundrum Kenya has faced since independence. Shockingly, this was almost where Cuba was in 1959.

Despite its extremely limited resources and the negative impact of the American blockade and economic sanctions for more than half a century, Cuba has managed to guarantee access to healthcare for all segments of the population, which has enabled the country to obtain results similar to those of the most developed nations.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to invite 100 Cuban doctors to serve Kenyans, therefore, speaks to us with a forked tongue. We are grateful that these specialists are contributing to ease the pressing healthcare needs in our hospitals. However, it should concern us gravely that the government refuses to undertake the arduous task of developing Kenya’s healthcare system to Cuban levels. Why import Cuban doctors when adopting their system is within our reach?

The celebrated Universal Healthcare proposal in the Jubilee government’s Big 4 Agenda misses the point of our healthcare needs. It assumes a solution by availing financial resources. It, therefore, proposes to reduce the cost and ensure universal access to quality and affordable healthcare by 2022. The government plans to ensure that every Kenyan is covered under the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) medical insurance cover. This plan will require: a strong collaboration between the NHIF and private sector insurance providers; reviewing the rules governing private insurers; lowering the cost of coverage; protecting both the government and Kenyans from fraud and abuse; and letting private insurers to invest more in providing medical coverage.

This solution is set up to profit the insurers and other supplies of medical products rather than ordinary Kenyans. We stumble not for lack of examples to emulate, but for refusal to care. WHO notes that lack of access to healthcare in most parts of the world springs not from lack of resources, but from a lack of political will on the part of leaders to protect their most vulnerable populations.

With limited resources, the Cuban health care system has solved problems that ours has yet to address. Even though their healthcare system addresses those problems in ways that grew out of Cuba’s peculiar political and economic history, the system they have created — with a physician for everyone, an early focus on prevention, and clear attention to community health — may inform progress in other countries as well.

With the strict economic embargo, Cuba has developed its own pharmaceutical industry and now not only manufactures most of the medications in its basic pharmacopeia but also invests in developing biotechnology expertise to become competitive with advanced countries.

On July 14, 2014, WHO General Director Margaret Chan urged nations to follow the example of Cuba and phase out the curative model, which is ineffective and more expensive. She noted that Cuba’s healthcare system is based on preventive medicine and the results achieved are outstanding. “We sincerely hope that all of the world’s inhabitants will have access to quality medical services, as they do in Cuba,” she said.

Shouldn’t we have developed access to health services first? Shouldn’t we have provided for effective and relevant personnel and medicine before provision of funding? Shouldn’t we be demanding an effective healthcare system that puts the lives of Kenyans above “tenderpreneurs”?

The spectre of revolt looms large

What did our leaders do once in power?  What can explain the obscene affluence of a few in the sea of poor Kenyans?  A 2014 survey conducted over a span of eight years by New World Wealth, a South African-based research firm exposed a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. It showed that 46 per cent of the country’s 43.1 million people live below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day. The report further stated that: “nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor”.

Shouldn’t we have developed access to health services first? Shouldn’t we have provided for effective and relevant personnel and medicine before provision of funding? Shouldn’t we be demanding an effective healthcare system that puts the lives of Kenyans above “tenderpreneurs”?

Inequality is immoral.  Moreover, the proportions we have here kills. Göran Therborn, who has appropriately titled his book The Killing Fields of Inequalityhighlights several ways in which inequality kills. It violates basic human rights. It excludes “people from possibilities produced by human development.”  It is divisive; it tears people and families apart, it creates exorbitant squandering, self-indulgent profligacy and, therefore, dehumanises both the poor and the rich.

This appalling situation is a result of political leadership bereft of a moral guiding philosophy. Leadership is viewed in transactional and contractual terms; it is a means to acquire wealth. This may explain why we are confronted on a daily basis with grand scandals of greed, corruption, and looting of public or state resources. Isn’t this what Jean-Francois Bayart described as the “politics of the belly”?  Do leaders care that they took an oath to serve the people of Kenya?

Prof. Aloo Mojola of St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, explains our reality as one “peopled with many atomistic leaders and a populace whose one and only preoccupation is personal gain and aggrandisement at whatever cost.” He further observes that for the vast majority, the present African situation could simply be characterised as Hobbesian. This description is derived from the words of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who in the mid-17th century wrote in his classic text Leviathan (1651): “The condition of man … is a condition of everyone against everyone…in such a condition there is no place for industry…” Sadly, for these Hobbesians, “the notion of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place…force and fraud are…(the) two cardinal virtues”.

This appalling situation is the result of political leadership bereft of a moral guiding philosophy. Leadership is viewed in transactional and contractual terms; it is a means to acquire wealth. This may explain why we are confronted on a daily basis with grand scandals of greed, corruption, and looting of public or state resources.

Unless our leaders adopt a covenantal approach that obliges leadership to better the lives of ordinary citizens, we will be stuck in this quagmire. Our leaders must develop a political philosophy that puts Kenyans at the centre of their agenda. The depth of our problem is explicit, particularly when government policies lean more towards sustaining local and foreign entrepreneurs rather than solving citizens’ problems.

What options remain for citizens when their government fails perpetually to secure their wellbeing? Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues in the American Declaration for the Independence of 1776 were emphatic that the task of government was securing its citizens’ rights to certain unalienable rights which were: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It further provided for redress if the government fails to live up to this call when it stated: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The spectre of revolt looms large over Kenya. The youth have lost faith in law reforms or societal reorganisation. They dismiss the “building of bridges” – the now famous handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Rt. (Hon.) Raila Odinga – as a political gimmick that is slowing down the country’s transformation. Revolution is what they are working at. I doubt that they have thought through the end-product of their craving.

Tanzania’s founding President Dr. Julius Nyerere was disturbed and horrified when he realised that he had become the architect of a government-sponsored system of inequality. He was moved to do something about it. His Ujamaa system of African socialism offered a response and attempt to remedy this situation. Aren’t our political leaders able to develop a coherent philosophy to shape our nation’s development agenda?

The spectre of revolt looms large over Kenya. The youth have lost faith in law reforms or societal reorganisation. They dismiss the “building of bridges” – the now famous handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Rt. (Hon.) Raila Odinga – as a political gimmick that is slowing down the country’s transformation.

Since political leaders have failed Kenyans in this respect, can religious leaders provide alternative leadership and nudge the country towards the poor who are perpetually left out? The similarities between Kenya and Latin American countries are striking. David Tombs, in Latin American Liberation Theology, illustrates how the great Latin American independence movements, which had promised liberation and new hope through independence from the Iberian empire, only benefitted an elite sector of society. Here the Creole class assumed governance replacing the peninsulares, yet they did little to alleviate the struggles of the lower classes.

The clergy and theologians in Latin America were on the vanguard of change in addressing the grievances of the poor and transformation of their society. During the Conference of Latin American Bishops held in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, the bishops agreed that the Church should take “a preferential option for the poor”.  One of the architects of this movement was Father Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest from Peru, who acknowledged to have been inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959.  He laid out clearly the concepts he referenced during this talk in 1968 in his 1971 magnum opus, “A Theology of Liberation”. Consequently, liberation theology emerged as a new way of “being human and Christian”.  In proposing a “preferential option for the poor,” the Church was encouraged to extend its work to directly address the struggles of the impoverished and to work specifically to ameliorate “physical and spiritual oppression”.

Rather than small ineffective reforms, liberation theology supported work towards systemic change and even the possibility of revolution as a means of freeing the poor from oppression. While violence was not encouraged, it was justified as a possible last resort or necessity of the revolution.

We must credit liberation theology for changing the role of the Church in Peru and all of Latin America forever. By giving a voice to the impoverished, liberation theology held the Church accountable for the welfare of the lower classes, recognising the essential role of social justice in Christian teachings. The Christians demanded that the Church do more than simple charity and work towards playing a more active role in the promotion of systemic change. This movement realigned the power structures of Latin American society and showed that religion could deliver change in society by forcing the hands of politics.

Where are the Kenyan theologians who will develop a theology that will focus the Church away from solely eternal salvation to the more pressing necessity of earthly liberation of the poor from oppression and suffering? The genius of the religious figures like Gustavo Gutiérrez was in integrating the liberation of the working class into Biblical interpretation.

Independence in Kenya has proved not to be the low-lying fruit ordinary folks anticipated. Prof. Micere Githae Mugo’s (1973) poem “I Took My Son by the Hand”, in David Rubadiri (ed), (1989), depicts this sorry state in the dialogue between a mother and her son who yearned for the fruits of independence.

“Mother?” he asked, “Do we have matunda ya uhuru in our hut?”

Mother: “I laughed foolishly”

Son: “Mother!”

Mother: “Yes son? ”

Son: “Do we have some?”

Mother: “Silence…”

Son: May I eat one, when we get there?

Mother: “Move on son darkness is looming fast around us”.

There is a possibility to reorient the policies of our nation towards the vulnerable. It should take all of us to achieve this – the government, civil society, and religious communities. If we do not sincerely address the dire challenges faced by the poor, we must get ready for chaos.

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Rev. Francis Omondi is a priest at All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own.

Politics

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing

In the 1980s and 1990s parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the large scale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa and a booming local economy emerged that has since become a major source of contestation between the police and the residents.

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing
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On Tuesday 2 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare in Nairobi, hurdled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station at Juja road as they watched in horror, as two schools were set alight by police. Thick, black smoke circled up and soon blanketed the entire valley. Alongside the two schools, another thirty or so houses quickly burned down to ashes in the raging fire. People raced to quell the fire with buckets of water, but were blocked by police in their tracks. Furious shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed what residents had built over decades; businesses, schools and homes, all gone in minutes.

This criminal act of arson by police of a part of a Nairobi neighborhood took place on the third day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ Rashid. This police officer gained notoriety after being filmed executing two teenagers on a busy street in Eastleigh in broad daylight on 31 March 2017. Ironically, the raid against the local alcohol economy in Mathare under his command started exactly two years later, on Sunday 31 March 2019. In between, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, especially young and poor men, in Mathare and beyond, and with absolute impunity.

Subsequently, Rashid was free to walk into Mathare on the aforementioned Sunday while guiding a troop of police officers down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. Shockingly, the Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claimed to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses who stated that regular police and AP officers and equipment (such as a well-known land rover used by AP) were employed during the raid. Residents wondered how a full-blown war be waged on residents for days by police without the police officers in charge ‘having nothing to do with it’?

As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa

That first Sunday night of fear chaos and gunshots transpired without dead bodies, but many had lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts from trying to defend homes and properties from the pillaging police. One of us found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; a woman who has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. She lost 4000 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left in deep debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy. This went on for yet another day and night, until on Tuesday tensions between angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local alcohol economy

To understand the impact of this crackdown on people living and working in Mathare, a brief insight into the history of the alcohol economy is crucial. As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. This area was wedged in by several military and police bases, and the influx of soldiers during the war period (1940-45) attracted a growing number of women in search of work. These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their homesteads in the colonial confinements of people called ‘Native Reserves’ in the rural areas following soil erosion, population pressures and the demand for ‘hut tax’ (which had to be paid in cash to the colonial government). Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men increasingly migrated to live here—often after being chased from colonial settler farms when mechanization of farm work took hold during the late 1930s. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the nexus of urban resistance against the colonial government and formed an important node in the Kenya Land and Freedom Armies (KLFAs)—also known as ‘Mau Mau’.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Also, they soon found that the profit margins for chang’aa were much higher than for instance busaa, and soon multiple cooking sites emerged along the banks of the Mathare river. Profit margins have fallen significantly since the 1990s, following a convergence of rising food prices (especially a type of molasses called ngutu) and increasing demands for police bribes since the 2000s. Still, the local alcohol economy sustains thousands of people in Mathare directly and is fundamental to most other economic activities located here.

For example, a major shortage of firewood often plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, a neighborhood in Mathare, sells large quantities of this wood. These firewood sellers have arrangements with construction companies for frequent early morning deliveries. Old wood from scaffolding at construction sites is transported to the area in trucks so large they can barely enter the ghetto. Every day, these trucks drop off mountains of firewood intended to fuel the widespread and constant distillation of alcohol at the sites near the river. At the same time, young men in search of work hang around these businesses from sunrise to midday to help offload the bulks of firewood and chop them into smaller pieces in return for a small stipend. Suffice to say that thousands more depend indirectly on the alcohol economy in Mathare. All this provides some insight into the abrupt devastation to the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people caused by frequent crackdowns on the local alcohol economy by police.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa

After days without work and consequently food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. The few media outlets describing the protests squarely blamed ‘angry youth’ for starting the fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have spoken to many eyewitnesses who saw police officers deliberately setting the houses and schools alight. The so called ‘angry youth’ were alcohol distillers who had not earned a living for three days. These (mostly) men who make on a good day, Kshs 300 for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. These families do not have any savings to rely on when work is disrupted by state violence, and the illegal raid by police had left hundreds of families hungry for days. This provoked husbands, fathers and brothers to take to street and fight for their families, and they burned tires on the road to underscore their demand to work by blocking traffic.

As has been witnessed by several people, during the ensuing fracas one officer carelessly threw one of the burning tires into a row of make-shift houses and carpentry workshops along Juja road, all constructed of highly flammable materials. Other eyewitnesses saw police officers violently dispersed people trying to stop the fire from reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively enabling the fire to destroy several houses and properties. Teargas was lobbed at the crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water trying to rescue their homes and belongings. The teargas canisters further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to the ground.

The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police

Distraught, many slept outdoors in the cold on Tuesday night. The fire also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased insecurity. One resident recounted that, “For nights, gun shots have become our ringtone.” Another lamented, “We live in a war(zone), but nobody cares.” As Mathare endured this terror for three days and nights, residents watched in disbelief as the evening news headlines either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or apportioned the blame decidedly on them using the pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame. Mathare residents were profiled as criminals and the local alcohol economy as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa was legalized in September 2010 and is not an ‘illicit brew’. The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police. If the production is not up to standard, why not encourage or enable owners, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved production? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is.

The Culture of Policing In Mathare

Everyone living and working in Mathare is familiar with the daily routine of police visiting the distilling sites and bars where alcohol is produced and sold to solicit bribes. For each drum of kangara, the police receive at least 200 KES. Let us assume that there are seven distilling sites (we don’t disclose any specific details for security reasons) which have the capacity to process seven drums simultaneously, meaning there are 7 fires operative at each site at all times. Each drum takes three rounds to cook and each round takes 1 hour (45 minutes to distill and 15 minutes to cool). So seven sites and seven fires operating for 24 hours can process 392 drums of distilling mixture per day. For each drum, police receive Kshs 200 and the figure adds up to an average of kshs 70 000 per day and in excess of Kshs 2 million per month. This is a conservative estimate since it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who run their own alcohol operations. And the number of drums along the riverside also vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only three or four. The above calculations, though based on thorough research, only serve to give an indication of police involvement and investment in the alcohol industry in Mathare. Considering this, why then does the police initiate a raid to clamp down on the very industry that ‘feeds’ them?

A first part of the answer pertains to internal divisions within police. Police does not entail a homogenous entity, and rumors have it that Rashid and his team were eventually stopped by other police officers in the course of the week because they saw their avenues to ‘easy money’ destroyed. That, at least to some measure, explains why on Thursday the raid was abruptly halted. What’s more, crackdowns on the alcohol economy are not uncommon, despite the entanglement of police in this business. In July 2015, Mathare residents lived through a similar period of police terror which left two people dead and thousands people without work for weeks. Many believe that such attacks are often triggered by a desire of particular police units or individual officers to show, as one resident put it to us, “the ‘higher ups’ that they are doing their ‘job’ and/or deserve promotion”. This time too, many residents believe the notorious Rashid went out of his way to impress in the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai. A resident shared with us that in his view Rashid demonstrated his exceptional cruelty during the course of the raid by forcing a customer of a local bar to drink bleach while he compared bleach to chang’aa. The young punter barely survived this ordeal.

The police officer mentioned here is not the only one. Similar notorious policemen who are known to execute and torture mainly young and poor men frequently patrol most informal urban settlements in Nairobi. According to several of our fellow activists, these plain cloth police officers, called ‘killer cops’ or maspiff by some, are not part of regular police units that are locally known to be connected to specific police stations and which patrol Mathare and surrounding neighborhoods on a daily basis. They told us that these police officers operate under the direct command of the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO). Several (non-state) security groups in Mathare that work together with these police officers revealed to us that several of them also enjoy substantial support by influential business owners, for instance in Eastleigh. The exact operational and support structures of these ‘killer cops’ and how they collaborate with regular police units remain somewhat opaque to local activists and residents, but all agreed that these plain cloth police officers enjoy considerable power and are able to kill with impunity through their powerful back-up.

When considering the relative opacity of their operations, the public visibility of these police officers in Mathare (and other urban settlements) is indeed rather astounding. They are also not a recent phenomenon. Most Mathare residents above 25 years old can easily recall the cruel reign of different ‘killer cops’ as far back as the late 1990s, such as the ruthless Habel Mwareria a.k.a. ‘Tyson’ in early 2000s who was also popularly dubbed ‘the Ghost’ because he often seemed to materialize out of thin air when- and wherever problems occurred. He killed suspects without asking questions, in front of people and in broad daylight and would vanish as rapidly as he had appeared. He was later promoted to the ATPU ( Anti Terrorism Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cops’ gained new strength in popular discourse when in April and May 2017 alleged police officers calling themselves ‘Hessy’ became rapidly infamous by posting pictures on different Facebook pages, under this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date about who or what ‘Hessy’ really is. Some people claim it started with an actual police officer who was shot in the leg and while he was recovering home in the month of April 2017 he started this network of ‘Hessy’s’ on Facebook. This is substantiated to some extent by the fact that there is an infamous police officer who is nicknamed Hessy and who is known to kill mostly young male crime suspects in Kayole. Others say that one officer or a group of police officers from different police stations in Eastlands chose this name because of the reputation of this particular police officer. Others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook were not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers working in collaboration with specific ‘killer cops’. The ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages (such as Nairobi Crime Free and Dandora Crime Free) soon gained a massive following online and continue to be a topic of intense debate offline, for instance among residents in Mathare.

Local Dynamics and the Future of Chang’aa

Police violence in Mathare, such as extra-judicial killings and illegal raids on people’s livelihoods, are enabled by a combination of factors. In contrast to the knee-jerk homogenization and criminalization of ghetto residents, for instance in mainstream media in Kenya, people inside Mathare are equally divided about the use of (criminal) violence by police. Police use such local divisions inside this neighborhood to push their own agenda. For instance, they work together with residents, popularly dubbed informers or watihaji, who are paid by police for information on people, business activities and other developments locally. This explains how police were able to find the entrance to the jiko’s at the river or the places where bars are located.

However, the incentives of informers to tell on their neighbors often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge plays a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intelligence because the local turnover of police, following frequent transfers, is quite high thus limiting the time police have to understand local dynamics. As a result, local informer-networks have some power to manipulate police behavior towards their own agendas. To illustrate, sometimes ‘killer cops’ like Rashid parade a suspect throughout Mathare and when they receive calls from as little as three informers confirming the identity of the suspect, the suspect is taken to a backstreet and executed. Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern.

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

The recent raid in Mathare on the local alcohol economy stopped as suddenly as it had started and without any outcome other than destroyed livelihoods, schools and homes and injured people. Slowly, alcohol distillers went back to work on Friday and gradually the local economy picked up again. Such crackdowns have never stopped the local alcohol industry and never will. If the government wants to make the local alcohol industry safer and bring it in line with regulations, it needs to work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to improve production standards. If alcohol consumption is the problem, why not invest in rehabilitation programs and explore underlying factors that contribute to widespread cheap alcohol consumption, such as vast unemployment and extreme stress? If the government wants people to stop working in this industry all together why not develop alternatives together with them?

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

On Thursday 4 April 2019, one resident asked us: “Who is Rashid? How can he do all this, kill our young men for years, then come to destroy our work, huh? Who is he?”

“Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

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Liberty for Whom? D-Day’s African Ghosts

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the start of a war to save Western Europe from Nazi occupation. American and European leaders gathered at the scene last week to memorialise and honour those who fell, including on the German side. The US President, Donald Trump, began his tribute to them thus: “On this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.”

Undoubtedly, much of that is true. From the perspective of those in occupied Europe, it was the beginning of their liberation and the defeat of fascist tyranny. It would inaugurate, for many, an era of democratic freedom and economic prosperity that was at the time unparalleled in history.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

President Trump went on to state that “the GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier but the fate of the world.” This may be true, but the world is not just Western Europe; from the perspective of those on the African continent, the GIs were not there to shore up liberty and democracy, but rather to free countries that were themselves engaged in colonial plunder and occupation.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

But there was little that was “good” about what these same countries were doing and would continue to do to the people in Africa whose land and resources they were continuing to steal and whose people they not only oppressed but also press-ganged into their wars. More than a million Africans fought in World War II – hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the front in Europe, others to India, Burma and the Pacific islands. Few understood why they were fighting, let alone why they volunteered to do it. Many died and survivors today receive nothing of the recognition and adulation bestowed on their European and American counterparts.

Now it is probably true that a world governed by the Nazis would have been much worse for Africans than the present one, so in that sense their defeat was good for the continent. But in that case, it could also be argued that the two World Wars, which exhausted the European powers and shattered the myth of white invincibility for the returning African veterans, were also good in that they paved the way for the end of colonialism. In either case, the uncontested fact would be that these were not wars to free all people but rather to determine who would be their overlords – despite the rhetoric, they were fought less for global liberation than for global domination.

David Frum, in his brilliant piece for The Atlantic, “The Ghosts of D-Day”, notes how the memory of D-Day and the liberation of Europe have been distorted in French and American imaginations. In truth, it is not just American memories that have “become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing”. The memorials at Normandy are not so much about remembering history but rather spinning it. And within that spin, the tale of the Africans has no place – it muddies the moral waters to admit that the liberation the Allies sought did not include that of the black and brown peoples they were oppressing; that those on this continent had, and to a large extent still have, little share in the freedom that was heralded on that day.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art.

For Africans, the irony is that the tools for making concrete the memory of what the European nations were actually doing – the records and documents that tell the story of the occupation and the crimes that were committed against Africans – are, for the most part, either deliberately destroyed or safely hidden away in European vaults. Many were stolen at the end of the colonial occupation in an effort to maintain the fiction of its benevolence.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art. Yet, unlike the Germans, who have owned up to “the unforgettable rupture of civilization that [they] provoked in Europe” and to the fact that “the fallen German soldiers are resting in foreign soil not because they came as liberators to this country but as occupiers”, there has been no such admission from the Europeans with regard to their occupation of Africa. Today, they still repeat the lie that colonialism was about bringing civilization and the benefits of modernity to the primitive peoples of the continent rather than implementing a system of extraction that continues to bleed the continent to this very day.

In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, published the article, “The Case for Colonialism” (withdrawn after a public uproar and death threats), in which he argued that Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate”. He further advocated for “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. While much of this has been debunked, he is hardly the only one to go public with such views. In the same year, the former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was removed from her leadership roles after she put out a series of tweets touting the benefits of colonialism.

Rather than the selective and hagiographic portrayals we are treated to today, a better memorial for D-Day would be to return the colonial archives and to acknowledge the truth – the whole, unvarnished truth – about what was being defended on that day. For it surely was not the ideal of liberty for all. Importantly, this would include an acknowledgement and compensation for the Africans who were forced to fight and die in the wars that were not of their making.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa

The rise of a global technology industry to support financial services, known as fin-tech, has grown enormously in Africa in the last decade. Across the continent, many commentators have proclaimed fin-tech as the solution to poverty and development. Examining the case of Kenya’s celebrated fin-tech model, M-Pesa, Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere reveal a flawed system that is not an answer to poverty, despite the wild claims of some academic commentators. Quite the contrary, fin-tech offers Africa a further case study of how contemporary capitalism continues to under-develop Africa.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa
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In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology). Defined as ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, the last decade or so has seen the rise of a new global fin-tech industry, a development that is widely regarded to be positively changing the world in a variety of ways. Thanks to almost daily reports of major new investments, especially in Africa, many investment professionals are of the opinion that something akin to a new ‘gold rush’ is clearly underway. At the same time, the fin-tech model is also touted as an innovation that will greatly benefit the global poor, with enthusiastic supporters claiming that a new golden age of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is upon us.

By far the most well-known example of the fin-tech model to date is Kenya’s M-Pesa – the agent-assisted, mobile-phone-based, person-to-person payment and money transfer system. M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor. Taking inspiration from M-Pesa, many in the international development community now regard the fin-tech model as a potentially game-changing private sector-funded driver of development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology)

In the academic community the apparent combination of poverty reduction with profit generation proved to be a very seductive pro-capitalist narrative that many mainstream economists were only too willing to engage with. The most well-known academic economists examining the impact of M-Pesa are Tavneet Suri, based at MIT, and William Jack, based at Georgetown University. With extensive funding from Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya and the Gates Foundation, since 2010 Suri and Jack have produced a series of outputs extolling the benefits of M-Pesa. Suri and Jack’s generally positive findings have resulted in mainstream media attention and large numbers of citations. This has played an important part in galvanising the international development community into supporting the fin-tech model as a development and poverty reduction intervention.

In particular, their 2016 article published in the prestigious journal Science, entitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’ has played a considerable role in sparking the imagination of the international development community. This is mainly because of its sensational claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.’ According to this article, M-Pesa was not just making profits, but the evidence seemed to show it was also making an astonishing ‘bottom-up’ development and poverty reduction contribution. This poverty reduction claim, often cited in full in media articles, quickly became the centrepiece of the evidence used by many in the international development community to justify its increasingly strong support for, and investment in, the fin-tech model.

M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. As we write in a Briefing just published in the ROAPE Suri and Jack’s hugely influential signature article actually contains a surprising number of errors, omissions, poor logic, and methodological flaws. Crucial labour market evaluation parameters, such as business failure (exit) and the impact of new businesses on existing ones (displacement), were entirely over-looked. The core issue of individual over-indebtedness, which in Kenya is now approaching crisis levels and which has a clear and direct link to the operation of M-Pesa, was not even mentioned as a possible downside of the fin-tech development model. For such an important and well-financed project, the methodology was also weak, diverging from many of the standard ‘best practices’ in the impact evaluation field. The important issue of causation was also raised, but in a way that we found to be questionable at best. In many ways, therefore, Suri and Jack’s analysis appears to misrepresent and vastly over-state the development impact of M-Pesa. 

Fin-tech represents a new form of resource extractivism

One of the most disturbing aspects of Suri and Jack’s flawed analysis, however, is that they completely bypass the crucial equity and distributional issues that arise from the operation of M-Pesa and other similar fin-tech corporations. This is inexcusable because there are clear warning signs today that the fin-tech model possesses the potential to extract immense value from the poorest communities in the Global South, with potentially calamitous long-term consequences. Like the gambling, sub-prime mortgage and payday loan industries in the United States and UK that before and after the financial crisis of 2008 were able to grow rich by expertly extracting massive amounts of value from the communities of the poor, one might argue that Kenya’s poorest communities are also being drained of much of their needed collective wealth.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform (which has become ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid). This includes microloans, money transfers, grant disbursement, credit card usage, pension payments, and so on. One simply cannot escape from the fin-tech ‘net’ that is gradually being lowered on to the poor. As more and more governments and elites are brought in as allies by the fin-tech industry, this value extraction process is only likely to speed up and intensify, with cash transactions being increasingly jettisoned and ever more transactions being mediated by fin-tech organisations.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform

By the same token, given the profit motive at play, it is inevitable that a range of services and products will end up being pushed on to the poor even though they largely do not need them, are not able to productively use them, or do not have any means to repay debt associated with them. The value realised through such ‘digital mining’ techniques is then extracted from the local community and deposited into the hands of the fin-tech entity’s owner(s). However, with so many fin-tech entities backed by foreign capital from the Global North, the chances are that a large proportion of this ‘digitally mined’ value will head abroad to the world’s leading investment locations.

What we have here, therefore, is a value extraction process that contains the potential to progressively undermine the development process in local communities in the Global South. It does this in two important ways: first, it denies the local community an extremely valuable aggregate amount of local spending power, which is instead appropriated by wealthy individuals and institutions, many of which are located abroad. This renders an important endogenous growth trajectory inactive, since it is rising local demand that often provides the initial impetus for local enterprises to emerge in order to meet this demand. Second, fin-tech institutions also starve the local (re)investment cycle by siphoning value out of the community, and thus make it more difficult for local businesses to access the meaningful amounts of capital needed to establish sustainable commercial operations. Experiences in Asia with local banking from 1945 onwards, for example, show that reinvesting/recycling the bulk of locally-generated value back into the local economy has significant potential to kick-start economic growth.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries. The ‘resource’ increasingly being extracted from Africa today might no longer be a physical one – such as diamonds, gold, platinum, or silver -and the process might not require slavery, the employment of ultra-exploitative waged labour, or involve horrendous working conditions, but the eventual negative outcomes of ‘digital mining’ could very well be the extension and continuation of under-development.

M-Pesa thus provides us with a valuable case study of how contemporary platform capitalism operates in neoliberal Africa and how ‘digital mining’ might actually affect Kenya’s potential growth and development. In recent years, Safaricom (M-Pesa’s parent company) has become far and away Kenya’s largest company, now accounting for a massive 40% of the total stock market valuation on the Nairobi securities exchange. Safaricom is also famous for its spectacular profits. In 2019 it set a record by registering profits of around US$620 million, which would be an impressive result in even the richest countries of the Global North. To put this into perspective, this figure is slightly more than the Kenyan government spends on the entire healthcare system in the country. However, along with an additional bonus paid out in 2019 to shareholders amounting to around US$240 million, a large percentage of this US$620 million in profit was paid out as dividends to foreign shareholders. The main beneficiary was the majority shareholder (at 40%) of Safaricom, the UK multinational corporation Vodafone. Other beneficiaries are a variety of mainly foreign investors located in ‘tax-efficient’ locations (the Caribbean mainly) and who hold a 25% stake. The Kenyan government also holds a further 35% stake in Safaricom.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries.

This demonstrates that significant value is being created by M-Pesa based on the tiny transactions of the poor, but most of it is spirited abroad via dividend payments to foreign shareholders. This helps explain why M-Pesa has become a beacon for global investors and financial institutions all seeking their own spectacular fortunes in Africa while framing their thirst for profits as altruism. Indeed, by embedding the fin-tech model in Kenya, the international development community is complicit in the establishment of a high-tech extractivist infrastructure similar to colonial-era equivalents.

‘Digital mining’ in Kenya and the foreign appropriation of the wealth generated by those languishing at the bottom of the pyramid is a less directly brutal undertaking than the value extraction process carried out in colonial times.  However, the extractivist logic, the wealth transfer, and the determination to accumulate on the back of the poor have a similar character to colonial-era economic regimes, and similar potential to seriously damage socioeconomic development in the long-term.

Furthermore, as in colonial times, a local elite has been allowed significant freedom to manage this ‘digital mining’ on behalf of the foreign owners. As with Capitec Bank in South Africa, it is no secret that the CEO and senior management at Safaricom have been able to use the company as a vehicle through which to extract fantastic rewards for themselves, enjoying Wall Street-style levels of remuneration in recent years and with several becoming multi-millionaires as a result. However, this also provides the obvious incentive to grow Safaricom as fast as possible because in that way the personal rewards attributable to those at the top are maximised. As a result, Safaricom’s CEO and other senior management have pushed growth to the limits and are now encountering problems in several areas on account of reckless over-expansion, including with regard to the company’s wilful engagement with gambling. In addition, in the early stages of M-Pesa’s growth, certain still unidentified members of the local Kenyan elite were able to secure for themselves a sizeable shareholding in Safaricom, which they later sold off for massive capital gains. Pointedly, the impact on inequality in Kenya arising from these narrow elite enrichment mechanisms has been very significant.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall.

In short, an effective value extraction process involving ‘digital mining’ has been established in Kenya, which has been misleadingly framed by many in the international development community as contributing to ‘bottom-up’ development. This process has ensured the stratospheric enrichment of a narrow group of foreign investors, Safaricom’s own senior managers, and a section of the Kenyan elite. However, this value has effectively been appropriated from M-Pesa’s overwhelmingly poor clients via their growing bundle of tiny fin-tech-mediated financial transactions.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall. Safaricom appears to have become a classic example of the ‘cathedral in the desert’ syndrome – a vastly profitable entity that exists only by ignoring the impoverishment it is helping to create in its wake. As fin-tech spreads across Africa, it is likely we will see similar deleterious extractionist scenarios emerging.

Might we not then consider M-Pesa to be the canary in the coalmine?

Parallels with the failed microfinance revolution?

Our analysis of Suri and Jack’s hugely influential 2016 article shows that it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. One might conjecture that this has something to do with the fact that much of the funding for their work over the past decade has come from FSD Kenya and the Gates Foundation, two of the world’s leading advocates for the fin-tech model.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how the now largely discredited microfinance movement got a game-changing boost back in the 1990s thanks to a study by two high-profile World Bank economists – Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker – claiming that microfinance in Bangladesh was generating major poverty reduction benefits for women Pitt and Khandker’s work was much later shown to contain many serious errors and its conclusions were unsound. Nevertheless, Pitt and Khandker’s work more than served its immediate purpose, which was to galvanise support within and around the international development community for an intervention that the World Bank desperately wanted to see go forward on ideological grounds. We might therefore pose the obvious question here with regard to the misrepresentation of M-Pesa’s impact: are Suri and Jack the new Pitt and Khandker?

 

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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