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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump

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The current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals in Trump’s America are futile argues MKAWASI MCHARO. The recent concluded mid-term elections, she posits, have shown that the Cinderella story in America’s politics will occur with the shifting racial demography and Generation Z who more than any previous generation have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity.

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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump
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When I was growing up in Kenya, I was taught that my ancestral land was the only place I was allowed to call “home”, whether I lived there or not. Anywhere else that I lived was a house. It was near sacrilegious to call a house in the city “home”.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I decided to resolve that post-colonial cultural disorder for myself. While living with my aunt and going to college at the same time, I consciously decided to defy the elders, the ancestors, and the feared keepers of cultural dogma. I started calling my aunt’s place “home”.

I had no knowing at that time how much that decision would help me find belonging in lands far away. Kenya is home, the land that has refused to surrender my first belonging, and where I continue to sow seeds of unwanted civic agitation. America is home, the stolen lands that have soaked in the sweat of my brow and sprouted the sprigs of my second belonging.

The road to voting

A few days ago, I joined the long early voting queues at the American mid-term elections and voted for the candidates I felt would best serve the interests of my State. A couple of days later, I checked in at a polling precinct where I was assigned to serve as an election judge. There, I spent sixteen hours with fellow officials helping run the voting process and ensuring the integrity of the vote.

On my way home, I reflected upon my service in this role. This was the third election I had served at the polls, and like always, I left with a sense that I had partaken in the serving of sacrament in a temple – to the rich and the poor, the old and the new initiates, the cautious cynics and faithful believers in democracy. I had come a long way too from the village that raised me.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades. We bring with us an already educated mind, most of us having finished high school or a first degree in an African country. We are the F1 student visa careers that got caught up in the change of immigration policies soon after 9/11, because most of the hijackers had also come in as students. Renewing one’s visa was no longer that easy, and working odd jobs was heavily restricted. Many felt stranded, unable to leave or to continue with their education.

This change in policy inadvertently led to many African immigrants staying much longer than they had hoped because they were determined to return home with some measure of success. History records the stories of American immigrants in the 1800s – men who left their families with promises to return. They went west in search of gold and lands and riches told in tall tales, and when they lost it all in life’s gambles, they chose not to return home. The shame of failure was too great to bear.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades.

African immigrants have also done what all immigrants who have come to the United States have done for centuries past – survive through shame, tears and tatters and eventually thrive. For many of them, seeking American citizenship was not an ambition they came in with; it became so with time, out of unforeseen necessity. They too have become builders of this land. They are the latest patch on the American quilt.

The African caravan

A smart government knows that immigration policies that allow for a fluid traversing of documented populations is the safest and most beneficial way to build a 21st century nation. It means you know where people are. The U.S. government can track my goings and comings, my toil and my taxes, because I leave a citizen’s footprint wherever I go.

The millions of undocumented and out-of-status immigrants in the U.S. simply present a conundrum that has to be addressed at some point, not by clamping down and purging, but by offering legal freedom of movement. You would be surprised at how many immigrants living in the shadows would leave the country if they had the legal means to do so. It would allow for a citizenry as physically fluid as what technology has wrought upon the world. They would also invest more as transnational citizens, a trend seen from Diasporas that have become Americanised.

It is confounding why the American power structure keeps going through this repeated cycle of fear of new immigrants when it is clear that immigrants have made America the industrial superpower it became. This fear and suppression has been happening with each new wave since the 1880s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Then came the National Origins Formula that restricted the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe as they were deemed unskilled and influenced by Russia. The legislation also gave preference to immigrants from ethnic Caucasian countries.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that African immigration to the U.S. shot up dramatically. The Refugee Act of 1980 opened the doors to a huge influx of Africans into the U.S., so much so that by 2018, Ilhan Omar, a 37-year-old Somali woman who had migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1995, was elected to the United States Congress. The large population of Somalis in Minnesota no doubt gave wind to her sails. It is worth noting that Ms. Omar lived part of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya, having fled from war-torn Somalia with her family. She would probably love to go back and make a difference in Somalia.

A Liberian refugee was also elected as mayor in the deep Trump country of Montana in 2016. He too had come in as a refugee.

However, the African home countries that have held our dreams of return have betrayed some of us as life there has become more difficult to knit into desired destiny. The suitcases that were never unpacked upon arrival in the U.S., awaiting triumphant return, were finally emptied of their content after lengthy years of study and surrender to American belonging. The continental African diaspora continues to develop the countries of their foreign abode, including in Europe where more are also taking up public office.

While many Africans in America will never feel truly American, they continue to thrive and grow in numbers. In an article published this year, the American reporter Molly Fosco identified the Nigerian diaspora in America as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. A Migration Policy Institute report also states: “Most members of the Kenya diaspora in the United States were well educated and more likely than the U.S. general public to have completed a university degree [and] to be in the labor force: 80% versus 64%.”

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

American-born second generation continental Africans identify with their countries of cultural origin only when they grow up to discover the value of claiming a cultural identity. However, this identity is only seasonal. Among Kenyan-American youth, for example, you will only see this identity on display during festivities organised around Kenyan public holidays, such as Madaraka Day or Jamhuri Day. It is the kind of seasonal pride displayed by Irish youth on St. Patrick’s Day. But both are bound by the common identity of being American. And it is in America where the Kenyan-American, the Irish-American, the Chinese-American, the Hispanic-American will run for office and shape the future of the United States. If this diverse ethnic make-up of America is a foregone conclusion, then the current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals are futile.

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

White fury, brown fruit

There is rising fury of white nationalism in America that is based on a fear of extinction. Immigrants are accused of needing healthcare, food, housing and education at the expense of American taxpayers who themselves have few opportunities.

This unfounded argument has been used on every new wave of immigrants. The white race at the top of America’s social pyramid is more afraid that their kind will be “browned out”. But the face of America is slowly changing, as is the face of the world. Robert Wuthnow, author of The Left Behind, reminds us that 90% of rural America is white, a population that brought Trump to power. It is also the population from whence this wave of white nationalism has steadily risen. But this 90% white rural America base is slowly eroding, especially with the ever-increasing Hispanic population.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe. The raging storms of white supremacy seen in Charlottesville and in the rise of the lone white male terrorist are all a waste of good energy that would be better used figuring out how to make amends for past injustices that have contributed greatly to a world of resentment between the privileged and the hoi polloi. It is not lost on the world that in the past several centuries our world has been shaped by a dominating race that enslaved, colonised and plundered other nations.

America’s current president recently came out openly as a nationalist. It is unclear how this helps America’s future. America’s diverse races cannot be exterminated. A continental African who arrived here in 1998 and voted as an American citizen in the recently concluded U.S. mid-term elections has the rights and responsibilities to ensure a just and equitable American society as much as the descendants of the Pilgrims who arrived from Europe in the 1600s escaping religious persecution, the grandchildren of those who escaped war, poverty and famine from 19th century Czarist Russia and Ireland, the progenies of Chinese labourers who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; the children of Jews who escaped the Holocaust in the 20th century, and many others who formed the United States of various peoples, all seeking a home away from home.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe.

There is some sorrow and irony in the burden of racial superiority. This became clear to me upon reflecting on an encounter I had when I had just started my graduate studies in New York. A white male student struck up a conversation with me at the college library and told me all about his woes as a student immigrant from Poland. He had come on an F1 student visa but had fallen out of status. I knew little about immigration woes then. Like most of my African student peers, I had no interest in staying in America beyond graduation. My mind and soul were still tethered to my country of birth. Of course, American life would later on slap me silly and awaken me to the need for new belonging. It wasn’t until I ventured out beyond my college cocoon that I began to encounter other immigrants with legal status issues.

The Polish student’s story went in one ear out the other. He might as well have been telling me about cheese. He was the first “illegal” immigrant I’d ever met, and for a while, the people I thought of anytime I heard about “illegal” immigrants were white people from Europe stuck in limbo in America. There are many white immigrants grossly alienated because they choose the comfort of blending in with their race at the top of the pyramid even when they do not have the legal papers they need to survive and thrive in America. But they don’t get called names, they don’t get go-back-to-your-country spat in their face with disdain, and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb and get punched at Trump rallies.

Dismantling America’s caste system

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

It gets worse when the name on your résumé is strange and definitely not white. Once, after receiving a letter of regret for a job I had applied for, I submitted the very same résumé with the whitest name I could think of, and I got a call for a phone interview immediately. My accent, however, didn’t do me any good. It is no different from Rwanda’s past when citizens were required to have their ethnicity on the national ID. After the genocide, they got rid of this tribal identifier, and it helped build a new nation.

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

In the United States, those with access to race and ethnic data easily use it to remap legislative districts in a way that is favourable to the person or party wielding the power of manipulation. Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot. This was never more evident than in the recent mid-term elections that led to the recount of votes in at least three races.

The manipulation in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial race had been done systematically and over time by the person who had the means to manipulate voter registration – Brian Kemp. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, he got the upper hand and paved the way for himself to win the governor’s seat, and this affected the integrity of the vote. Calls for Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, to challenge the election in court have been reminiscent of Kenya’s bitter election in 2017. It is likely that Kemp will preside over a bitter people, half of whom will not recognise him as a legitimate governor. Political rancor that looks an awful lot like third-world politics has become the norm in America since 2016.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot.

If there’s a dim light in the sinking story of American politics, it is that American society still highly values the Cinderella story. If a person deemed least likely to succeed dares to conquer all odds, chances are that a wave of support from all races is going to cheer this person on until he or she reaches the mountain top. In the mid-term elections, the Obama phenomenon has been repeated in the wave of minority candidates – women and Muslims who had been bartenders, refugees, and socialists are now headed to Capitol Hill.

Even more evidence of the browning of America and the hope of the future is the Generation Z phenomenon. In a New York Post article, Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, describes this generation as diverse and only 55% white, making them quite likely the tail-end of white majority America. “And they have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity of any previous generation,” wrote Professor Brauer.

Brauer sees this generation as likely voting for Trump if they had a chance, simply because they find him authentic and disruptive of the status quo. However, I disagree with this opinion. Generation Z is an equally politically diverse group, which was evident from the protests of the high school students whose power recently shook America following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. They marched to the capital, took to the media and linked arms with racially diverse students across America whose voices were heard for the first time. It was a show of solidarity that challenged the impenetrable conservative wall of power that shields gun lobbyists. If this is the future of America, then the future is bright.

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Ms Hall is a freelance writer based in the USA

Politics

Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner.

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Even before the 9 August general election, it was expected that the loser of the Kenyan presidential contest would petition the Supreme Court to arbitrate over the outcome. Predictably, the losing party, Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition, petitioned the court to have William Ruto’s win nullified on various procedural and technical grounds. Azimio’s case was predicated on, among others, three key allegations. First, that William Ruto failed to garner the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote. Second, that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati had announced the outcome without tallying and verifying results from seven constituencies. Finally, that the commission could not account for 250,000 votes that were cast electronically.

As we know, Azimio lost the case as the judges dismissed all the nine petitions that the party had filed, unanimously finding that William Ruto had won fairly.

Adjudicating electoral fallouts

Since its inception in 2010, the Supreme Court has played a decisive role in adjudicating fallouts linked to contentious presidential politics in Kenya, with the court deliberating on the outcome of three out of the four presidential elections held after its inauguration. Prior to this, the losing party had no credible institutional mechanism of redress and electoral disputes were generally resolved through mass political action (as in 2007) or consistent questioning of the legitimacy of the winner (as in 1992 and 1997).

The Supreme Court’s presence has, therefore, been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent, with the court operating as a “safety valve” to diffuse political tensions linked to presidential elections. It is, hence, impossible to conceive of the relatively peaceful elections held in 2013, 2017 and 2022 without the Supreme Court whose mere presence has been key in discouraging some of the more deadly forms of political rivalry previously witnessed in Kenya.

Relentless petitioning

While the Azimio leadership were right to petition the court in the recent election, first because this successfully diffused the political tensions among their supporters, and second because the court was expected to provide directions on IEBC conduct in future elections, it was clear that Raila Odinga’s relentless petitioning of the court in the previous two elections, and the nullification of the 2017 elections, was in essence going to be a barrier to a successful petition in 2022.

In so far as the court had nullified the 2017 elections, the evidential threshold required for any subsequent electoral nullification was going to be substantially high for any petitioner. The relentless petitioning of the court and the nullification of the 2017 elections had in essence raised the bar for the burden of proof, which lay with the petitioner(s) and, therefore, reduced the probability of a successful petition.

The Supreme Court’s presence has been crucial in providing losers with an institutionalised mechanism to channel dissent.

The reason for this is both legal and political. Legal in the sense that the IEBC is expected to conduct the elections under the law, which, among other issues, requires that the electoral process be credible and the results verifiable before any certification is made, otherwise the election is nullified, as was the case in 2017. It is political because the power to select the president is constitutionally, hence politically, delegated to the Kenyan people through the ballot, unless electoral fraud infringes on this, again as was the case in 2017.

The court in its deliberation must, therefore, balance the legal-political trade-off in its verdict in search of a plausible equilibrium. For instance, while the majority of Azimio supporters had anticipated a successful petition based on the public walkout and dissent by the four IEBC commissioners, it seems that the decision to uphold the results displayed the court’s deference to political interpretation of the law by issuing a ruling that did not undermine the Kenyan voters’ right to elect their president.

While the settlement of legal-political disputes by a Supreme/Constitutional court is a common feature across democracies, and continuously being embedded in emerging democracies like Kenya, it does seem that in this election, the political motivations for upholding the vote outweighed the legal motivations for nullifying it. In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Supreme Court power grab 

A counterfactual outcome where the evidential threshold for the nullification of presidential results is low would foster a Supreme Court power grab, in lieu with the 2017 nullification, by marginalising the sovereign will of Kenyans to elect their president.

In many ways, nullification of the results would also have incentivised further adversarial political behaviour where every electoral outcome is contested in the Supreme Court even when the outcome is relatively clean, as in the case of the 2022 elections.

It is this reason (among others) that we think underlined the Supreme Court justices’ dismissal of Azimio’s recent petition. The justices ultimately dismissed the evidence presented by the petitioners as “hot air, outright forgeries, red herring, wild goose chase and unproven hypotheses”, setting a clear bar for the standard of evidence they expect in order to deliberate over such an important case in the future.

In essence, the court demonstrated its institutional independence by ruling against the Kenyatta-backed Azimio candidate due to insufficient evidence.

Since the earth-shaking nullification of the 2017 elections, the Supreme Court transcended an epoch, more political than legal by “invading” the sovereign space for Kenyans to elect their president, thereof setting a precedence that any future successful petition to contest a presidential election requires watertight evidence.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the successful 2017 petition. In so far as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court by Azimio in 2022 was at the same level or even lower than the 2017 base, their case at the Supreme Court was very likely to be dismissed and even ridiculed as the justices recently did.

The precedent set by the 2022 ruling will, actually, yield two positive political outcomes. First, it will in the future weed out unnecessary spam petitions that lack evidence and rather increase needless political tensions in the country. Second, it has signalled to future petitioners, that serious deliberations will only be given to petitions backed by rock-solid evidence.

Missed opportunity

From the recent ruling, it is evident that the judgement fell far below the precedent set in 2017. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the IEBC should make the servers containing Form 34A publicly available, was crucial in improving the credibility of the 2022 elections, by democratising the tallying process. At a minimum, the expectation was that the justices would provide a directive on the recent public fallout among the IEBC commissioners with regard to future national tallying and announcement of presidential results.

By dismissing the fallout as a mere corporate governance issue, the justices failed to understand the political ramifications of the “boardroom rupture”. What are we to do in the future if the IEBC Chair rejects the results and the other commissioners validate the results as credible?

Additionally, by ridiculing the petitioners as wild goose chasers and dismissing the evidence as “hot air”, the justices failed to maintain the amiable judicial tone necessary to decompress and assuage the bitter grievances among losers in Kenya high-octane political environment.

In a sense, Azimio were victims of Mr Odinga’s judicial zealotry and especially the 2017 successful petition.

The Supreme Court ought to resist the temptations of trivializing electoral petitions, as this has the potential of triggering democratic backsliding, where electoral losers might opt for extra-constitutional means of addressing their grievances as happened in December 2007. It is not in the petitioners’ place to ascertain whether their evidence is “hot air” or not, but for the court to do so, and in an amiable judicial tone that offers reconciliation in a febrile political environment.

The precedent set by the 2017 ruling that clarified the ambiguities related to the IEBC’s use of technology to conduct elections, set an incremental pathway towards making subsequent elections credible and fair, and increased public trust in the key electoral institutions in Kenya.

The justices, therefore, need to understand that their deliberations hold weight in the public eye and in the eyes of political leaders. Therefore, outlining recommendations to improve the IEBC’s conduct in future elections is a bare minimum expectation among Kenyans. In this case, while they provided some recommendations, they failed to comprehensively address the concerns around the walk-out by the four IEBC commissioners.

At the minimum, chastising the IEBC conduct was necessary to consolidate the electoral gains made thus far but also recalibrate institutional imperfections linked to how elections are to be conducted and, especially, contestations around the role of the commissioners in the national tallying of results in the future.

This article is part of our project on information and voter behaviour in the 2022 Kenyan elections. The project is funded by the Centre for Governance and Society, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

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Politics

GMOs Are Not the Only Answer

In a country where agricultural production is dominated by smallholders, the decision to allow genetically modified crops and animal feeds into Kenya as a means of combatting perennial hunger ignores other safer and more accessible alternatives such as Conservation Agriculture.

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Newly elected President William Ruto has, to use a much abused expression, hit the ground running. I am, however, not certain that he is running in the right direction. On 3 October 2022, during the second meeting of his recently (and unconstitutionally) constituted cabinet, Ruto announced that his government had authorized the cultivation and importation of genetically modified crops and animal feeds, sweeping aside the grave concerns raised by Kenyans and lifting a ten-year ban with the stroke of a pen.

The decision was made at a time when Kenya is facing the worst drought in four decades that has left over four million people facing starvation. According to President Ruto, the adoption of GMOs is the solution to the recurring cycles of drought and famine that Kenyans have been increasingly experiencing.

I shall not go into the merits and demerits of what some call Frankenfoods here. However, it seems to me that Ruto’s decision is driven solely by the political imperative to bring down the price of maize through cheap imports of GM maize following the withdrawal of the maize subsidy.

Already, back in November 2018, the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI), the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC), the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) and Greenpeace Africa had issued a joint statement raising “concerns over recent disconcerting developments in the country, that [suggest] the Government has made [a] unilateral decision to adopt genetically modified crops”, and adding that “an all-inclusive nationwide discourse through public participation, which addresses whether the technology is appropriate for us, is being circumvented”.

The group also voiced their suspicion that the report of the Task Force to Review Matters Relating to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Safety that was set up by the Ministry of Health in 2013 was being withheld because it was against the adoption of GM foods. This suspicion may well be founded since, in making the announcement, State House said that the decision to lift the GMO ban was “made in accordance with the recommendation of the Task Force”, while failing to make the so-called Thairu report—which was submitted in 2014—available for public scrutiny.

The cabinet said that in reaching its decision to lift the ban it had also referred to reports of the European Food Safety Authority, among others.

The European Union’s policy on GMOs “respects the right-to-know by ensuring clear labelling and traceability of GMOs. This requires reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification (for authorised GMO) in food, feed, and the environment”. There is zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs and stringent regulation of products originating from or containing GMOs.

A detailed risk analysis and the availability of a validated method for locating, identifying, and quantifying GMOs in food or feed are prerequisites for authorization. For any GM launch, biotech businesses that want to market their product in the EU must submit an application. A very precise way of detecting each unique GMO is included in the application dossier.

The terms of reference of the government’s GMO task force included, among others, assessing Kenya’s infrastructural capacities to monitor genetically modified products in the country; assessing the adequacy of qualified human resource capacity to monitor research, use and importation of genetically modified products into the country; and recommending approval procedures for imports of GM foods.

If we are to look only at the procedures established by the National Biosafety Authority for the importation of GM products into the country, then we may conclude that Kenya lacks the infrastructural and qualified human resource capacity to monitor their research, use and importation. In effect, an entity wishing to import a GM product into the country is merely required to provide the particulars of the supplier, the nomenclature of the GMO, proof that the GMO has been registered in the exporting country, its use in the country of origin, its intended use in Kenya, a summary risk assessment, methods and plans for safe handling, storage, transport and use, and the emergency response foreseen in the event of an accident with the GMO. The second of the two-page the application document is reserved for the applicant’s signature before a commissioner for oaths, a magistrate or a judge. Means of detection of GMOs are not mentioned.

It would seem then that Ruto’s government has fully devolved the responsibility for Kenya’s biosafety and biosecurity to the authorities of foreign nations. This is very frightening when you consider, for example, that the European Union Regulation EC304/2003 allows EU companies to produce and export to other countries pesticides that are banned or restricted in the EU. This double standard is the reason why active ingredients which have been withdrawn in the EU find their way to Kenya, poisoning our bodies and our environment, and destroying our biodiversity.

Maize is not the only ugali

The lifting of the ban on GMOs may have sounded the death knell for Kenyan small-scale maize growers; GM maize is to be found on the international markets at prices that defy all competition, which will now prove to be a boon for well-connected maize-importing cartels.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

As Noel Vietmeyer observes in the foreword to the first volume of Lost Crops of Africa,

“Lacking the interest and support of the authorities (most of them non-African colonial authorities, missionaries, and agricultural researchers), the local grains could not keep pace with the up-to-the-minute foreign cereals, which were made especially convenient to consumers by the use of mills and processing. The old grains languished and remained principally as the foods of the poor and the rural areas. Eventually, they took on a stigma of being second-rate. Myths arose—that the local grains were not as nutritious, not as high yielding, not as flavorful, nor as easy to handle. As a result, the native grains were driven into internal exile. In their place, maize, a grain from across the Atlantic, became the main food from Senegal to South Africa.”

But with initiatives such as the Busia County Biodiversity Policy, which recognises the role that biodiversity can play in addressing food insecurity, the tide is turning and Kenyans are rediscovering and embracing the culinary habits of our forebears. You would think then that the GMO decision will not, in the main, affect the choices we make in the foods we consume. That those of us a tad squeamish about eating foods that have been genetically interfered with can opt out.

Were it that simple.

Many Kenyans are unaware that the Seed and Plant Varieties Act Cap 326 of 2012 prohibits farmers from sharing, exchanging or selling uncertified and unregistered seeds. Yet, to mitigate against the effects of perennial droughts and the escalating costs of hybrid seeds, community seed banks have been conserving indigenous seeds—that are demonstrably more climate-resilient—for sale during the planting season, in contravention of the law and at the risk of a one million shilling fine, or two years’ imprisonment, or both. Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity. Small-scale farmers are fighting back, however, with a group from Machakos recently going to court to challenge the legislation. It remains to be seen who between David and Goliath will prevail.

But maize, a staple in the majority of Kenyan households, is a relatively recent arrival on our national menu, becoming a major staple during the First World War when disease in millet led to famine.

What is clear is that Kenya’s David, while remaining impoverished over the decades since independence, is the mainstay of the country’s agriculture in terms of productivity. The Economic Survey (2021) of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reports that,

“The share of marketed agricultural output for small farms increased marginally to 73.3 per cent in 2020. This is a reflection of the continued dominance of the smallholder sector in the marketing of agricultural produce during the year under review. The value of sales through small farms increased by 9.4 per cent from KSh 341.4 billion in 2019 to KSh 373.6 billion in 2020. Similarly, the value of sales by large farms increased by 8.9 per cent from KSh 125.0 billion in 2019 to KSh 136.1 billion in 2020.”

The survey defines large farms as those above 20 hectares.

The small-holder has consistently outperformed the large-scale farmer despite government policies that have since the 70s viewed smallholders as without agency beyond adopting technologies that are presented as capable of transforming agriculture and building livelihoods. The adoption of GMOs is likely to be yet another of these technologies that, together with unjust seed legislation, will increase rather than decrease Kenya’s food insecurity.

President Ruto worries about food insecurity but fails to consider the very ready solution available to his administration and recommended in the Agricultural Policy (2021) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Cooperatives, namely, conservation agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO – also quoted in Ruto’s decision to lift the GMO ban) recommends conservation agriculture as it is a sustainable system of production that conserves and enhances natural resources; enhances biodiversity; assists in carbon sequestration; is less labour and fertilizer intensive; improves the health of soils; and increases yields over time.

Criminalising a system through which small-scale farmers acquire 90 per cent of their planting material does not augur well for Kenya’s food security, or for our biodiversity.

The very promising results obtained among the small-scale farmers that have adopted the system following training under the FAO beginning in 2015 show that the government would do well to promote conservation agriculture among smallholders as a means of mitigating both against food insecurity and the effects of climate change, rather than hastily reaching for GM technologies that the country is ill-equipped to safely handle.

But clearly, the president is not on the same page as his Ministry of Agriculture and so, like others, I can only conclude that Ruto’s lifting of the GMO ban is for the benefit of the seed multinationals and their clients, the large-scale farmers who have taken over most of the productive land to grow cash crops for export, leaving small-scale farmers to exploit marginal lands for the production of food crops for local consumption. And for the benefit of maize-importing cartels.

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Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya

Mary Kanyaman Ekai was a peace ambassador from Turkana County who lost her life in the course of saving her family’s livestock in Turkana East on September 24th 2022. Kanyaman’s case illustrates the complexity of “cattle rustling” at Kenya’s northern frontier from a gender perspective. 

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Mary Kanyaman Ekai: Gender and Livestock Rustling in Northern Kenya
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Following the recent rise of incidents at the border of Baringo, Turkana and West Pokot County, it seems timely to learn more about a strong female figure, a woman who dedicated her life to the fight against the frequent outbreaks of violence. By providing a short portrait of Kanyaman, we are able to illustrate the role of women in conflict resolution. Grounded in the authors’ ethnographic research conducted in both West Pokot and Turkana County, the article is based not only on an in-depth interview conducted in 2020 with Kanyaman, but also on the broad expertise of social scientists working in the respective areas.

It was pure luck that led to the meeting with Mary Kanyaman Ekai in December 2020. Mary was visiting Kapenguria on some errands for the Turkana County Government and I (Elizabeth Ndunda), on my part, was seeking information from influential elders from the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya. The tall lady in the elegant dress was introduced to me as mama wa maji na amani, Swahili for mother of water and peace. I immediately recognized Mary the moment she entered the room. I knew her from various news feeds and meetings with officials where she prominently acted as peace ambassador and environmental and gender activist.

On this December 2020, Mary was on a sad mission. The previous day, bandits had attacked the village of Lopii in Turkana East and killed three young men, taking off with a considerable number of livestock. Although these kinds of violent outbreaks often involve brutal, reckless murder and criminal marketing chains, they are commonly labelled “cattle rustling” or “cattle raiding”, with the act of stealing cattle portrayed as culturally intrinsic to pastoralist societies. Yet, the shifting nature of the raids, which are driven by economic logic and modern forms of violence, should more accurately be referred to as “predatory raiding”, according to international security advisor Dylan Henrickson.

Mary and her entourage were in Kapenguria to seek the County Commissioner’s help in following up the bandits and ultimately punishing them before more attacks occurred. This has been a continuous cycle between the government and the communities of north-western Kenya.

Later the same day, while we were enjoying a cold soda in the unforgiving heat of West Pokot, Mary remarked that, for this specific meeting, Kalya Hotel was very aptly named, as kalya means peace in the Pokot language. The objective of our encounter was to discuss the weaknesses and challenges of the current conflict resolution mechanisms in northern Kenya. These mechanisms usually include disarmament measures, peace barazas (Swahili for meeting), peace caravans and arbitration measures. Disarmament involves the military and police, a common state response to regain control after a period of violence. Peace caravans are the latest, trendy mechanism for peacebuilding. Professionals from each county organize themselves and move from county to sub-county gathering villagers together and speaking of the need for peace. The colourful events usually include a lot of entertainment in order to attract many participants. However, Mary’s biggest concern was that women were simply left out and not considered able to play an important role in conflict resolution. She is far from being alone in holding this opinion. In a 1991 book titled Women and Things: Pokot Motherhood as Political Destiny, anthropologist Barbara Bianco states that the majority of peace projects target the men. Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors. And yet they play a significant role.

So, who better than Mary Kanyaman Ekai, with her deep insights into these mechanisms, to be the perfect source of information on the subject? Born in 1979 in Turkana East, Mary learned the sad reality of raids early in her childhood, when she had to flee her home after the painful loss of family members to livestock rustling. Despite this stroke of fate, the girl’s athletic skills came to the fore in school as did her driven ambition to acquire an education. A Bachelor of Microbiology and Biotechnology and one of the few female Turkana professionals, Mary was predestined to become a public servant in the Ministry of Health. However, she didn’t rest on her laurels but pioneered the Golden Valley Cooperative Society, whose objective was to enhance resilience through improved and commercialized livestock production and to champion peaceful coexistence between neighbouring communities in the border areas of Baringo, Samburu and Turkana. Mary believed that peaceful coexistence among the pastoralist communities could be achieved if only pastoralists had alternative livelihoods and women had a greater voice.

Women are mainly included in programmes to fulfil a funding requirement, to attract donors.

Although Mary immediately agreed to our meeting, it took us some time before we were able to settle down; Mary was constantly interrupted by many people claiming her attention. I could understand this as I too was drawn to her strong voice filled with emotion as she spoke of the deaths that cattle rustling has caused in the region. Her phone rang constantly during the interview, a reminder of the busy life that she led and the tight schedule that she kept.

“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.” Her brother, the lawyer Dr Ekuru Aukot, vied for the presidency on a Third Party Alliance ticket in 2017. Laughing, Mary says, “Here in this pastoralist culture, it is difficult for a woman to have her own identity, she is either a daughter or a wife of someone. I sit in the County Government yet even there I’m known as Ekuru’s sister.” With some resignation in her voice, she goes on to explain that it is this mentality and culture that has led to the role of women in conflict resolution being ignored by many peace projects and NGOs. Women from pastoralist communities are often considered victims, not active participants in the conflict. She asked me, “Isn’t it common to assume that women have little role to play in conflicts since northern Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society with archaic beliefs and supposedly harming norms including early marriage and FGM?”  Mary declared this point of view faulty.

“Many people know my brother Ekuru. Even in the villages, people call me Ekuru’s sister. I’m not sure they would listen to me if I was not related to him.”

Yes, women are victims of conflict and often face the highest security threats during periods of violence, being exposed to both physical and sexual violence. However, Mary was convinced that women play a significant role in motivating men to engage in livestock rustling. She explained that for a young man and woman to lead an accomplished life, they must marry and have children. While undergoing initiation is one important step in the journey from childhood to adulthood, young men are also required to show their courage, and acquire wealth which in turn attracts the “best wife”. This wealth is in the form of livestock—cattle, camels, goats, sheep and donkeys—that can be grown through careful breeding of animals, or simply through raiding. Dowry is often daunting and young men have little to show, and the list of fathers (every paternal uncle) who expect some livestock in exchange for their precious daughter is long. Their wives-to-be, in turn, encourage and motivate them to acquire the needed wealth and prestige as rapidly as possible.

This view is shared by officials of the county government’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. They state that while women understand the disadvantages and the calamities brought on by raiding, they are quick to defend and praise the sons and husbands who participate. This seems understandable, as men are expected to avenge death and destruction by recovering stolen livestock. Of course this creates a cycle of violence as each group feels the need for revenge. However, to simply assume pastoralists do so to impress their women would be to ignore the lack of security and justice in northern Kenya. The responsibility to recover stolen animals that are crucial for their livelihood is often left with the victims. Therefore, the women are not defending or praising violence per se, but are trying to ensure security, justice, and continuity.

Although “beaded” girls and mothers challenge their men to participate in raids through mocking and praise songs, they also want their husbands to come back alive. Lal is a ceremony during which returning warriors are anointed with oil held in a lal, a cattle horn of high symbolic value that has been blessed by spiritual elders. The honouring and cleansing of warriors with the lal after raids is done exclusively by women. It is the women’s duty to spread the oil in the lal on the warriors after a battle or to carry it to the areas where the warriors congregate. Mary encouraged women to stop the cycle of violence by refusing to protect the men during livestock rustling.

So, is it all women’s fault?

It is a little more complex than that. Professor Kennedy Mkutu, an expert in the field of violence and guns in northern Kenya, argues that pastoralists are under threat from inadequate policing, pressure on land and common resources, and the proliferation of small arms. The number of small arms circulating within the region is concerning; spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation. Another factor that adds to the complexity is the devastating long-term absence of rain. The pressure on communally owned and unregistered land is not only high due to the changing climate but is further exacerbated by outside interests in resources such as crude oil, gold or sand. And as if all this was not enough, politicians exploit the precarious situation.

“Now”, I ask Mary, “with declining resources—over which women have little to no control—and the increase in small arms, and as disarmament measures fail and guns become more common, what can women do?” I was surprised to see Mary laugh heartily, “You look at women as weak and lacking control. Women are the instigators of violence between the Pokot and Turkana. The men fight because of us. I may not have control over the use and ownership of cattle, animals or property but I do not want to be married to a poor man, worst of all a coward. Until their [women’s] participation is seen and understood, we cannot adequately address conflict.” For instance, women have begun playing a vital role in armament. With disarmament measures being stepped-up, and with constant checks and increased patrols along the borders, women transport small arms and ammunition from Somalia and Uganda, hiding them in their clothes and undergarments. It is easy for the women because they are not as thoroughly searched as men are.

“Spears and arrows have been replaced with more deadly weapons and it is now popular for a father to gift his son a gun during initiation.”

Mary must have seen my eyebrows rising and was quick to reassure me that women are indeed quite vocal in encouraging their men to engage in livestock rustling. However, they remain timid on issues of peace and collaboration. “Older women who have a strong standing in the community may become vocal about peace, but the younger women are more supportive of their raider husbands, arguing that this is the only means of gaining wealth, economic and social status.” Elderly women have probably seen more destruction from the violence, the lost sons, brothers and husbands. They have faced highly volatile situations throughout life and have become more inclined to peace. Their participation in peacebuilding stems from the knowledge and experience that violence has devastating effects notwithstanding the wealth gained. The younger women are more desperate to find a “suitable partner”, one who will bring them pride and wealth, and earn them respect.

Therefore, for women leaders in the pastoral regions such as Mary Kanyaman, women hold the answer to sustainable peace. Mary held onto the belief that cooperation among the pastoralist women would “silence the guns”. To illustrate, Mary showed me an intricate belt, made from cow hide and decorated with shells. This belt is known as leketyo and is a powerful symbol for some pastoralists women. The belt is given to a woman during her first pregnancy, to protect the child she carries. It ultimately connects her with the child and its lifeline. Interestingly, so explains Mary to me, when a warrior goes to raid, he requests his mother to wear the belt, to ensure her child is protected. “Every pastoralist woman, even we who are modern, has their belt,” says Mary, seemingly lost in thought, brushing away some imaginary dust from the shells on the belt.

During the March 2020 POTUMA peace campaigns that took place in Kapenguria, Kainuk and Marich, organized by the former Minister of Immigration, Linah Kilimo, women, both old and young, publicly removed the belts, a symbol that they would no longer be active participants in the conflict. Those going for war could rely on themselves for protection. By removing their belts, the respected elderly women had placed a curse on those involved in violence and especially in acts of rape, which is taboo.

“There was so much crying from 2019, so many of our children died as they fought for cows,” Mary said. Indeed, statistics from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) records show that in 2018 alone 11 raids and 4 fatalities occurred. In 2019, ACLED records more than twelve dead in the first raid, followed by various massacres that brought the fatalities to a total of 47. Only deaths were recorded. The injured, the traumatised and the destroyed families and livelihoods are not reflected. “Enough was enough. We toured hotspots including Kainuk and Sigor and we challenged women to take up the mantle of peacebuilding. The lal was silent, there were no songs composed for warriors that season. Women did not go to ceremonies honouring warriors and therefore there was no singing”.

According to Mary, this peace campaign had a significant influence because the women were finally involved. “While government officials were searching for the bandits, we women knew exactly where they were hiding. They rely on us for food and water as they prepare to raid. We told them clearly; we will let the police know where they are when asked. This ultimately led to a long period of peace and collaboration”. It seems it was a peaceful time; people travelled from Lodwar to Kainuk to get products for sale, and to do business. Women from Loyaa went all the way to Kapenguria to shop and sell milk. It was a good time. However, according to Mary, problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew. The seeds of hatred grew fast. “Within weeks, we were back to fighting again.” However, contrary to other times, there has been a growing number of women actively involved in and participating in peacebuilding. For instance, the current Bunge la Wananchi grassroots assembly in Kapenguria holds the highest number of women from Marakwet, Turkana and Pokot participants ever, who are working towards peace-making and peacebuilding within their villages. This is an achievement for Mary. However, there is still a lot to be done.

Problems returned when the campaigns for the 2022 elections started, and politicians began insulting each other anew.

That day in Kapenguria, I would never have expected that the energetic peace ambassador seated in front of me in the Kalya Hotel would become a victim of livestock rustling herself. After her brother Ekuru Aukot announced Mary’s death on September 24th 2022, social media channels reported that besides Mary, eight General Service Unit (GSU) police officers, one Senior Chief and two civilians were found dead after they were ambushed by bandits at Namariat Kakiteitei in Turkana East. The story of her death reads like a crime novel. In the night of Friday to Saturday, the village of Ngikengoi was searched by armed bandits who stole livestock and murdered two people. Mary called for security backup to recover the livestock and volunteered to have the law enforcement officials use her vehicle to pursue the suspects. But, for whatever reason, the bandits got wind of the operation and laid a trap for the two vehicles.

Social media channels were awash with devastating pictures of the crime scene, with some commentators crying for revenge, while others called for an end to the violence. Tears came to my eyes when I saw the picture of a mother of four, a wife, a government servant, and a peace ambassador—a role model for women—laying there shot dead. Would we fall into another cycle of violence and revenge?

It has become obvious that current state mechanisms are not effective enough. The short-term disarmament followed by highly publicized peacebuilding barazas seem nothing more than a cosmetic solution to an internalized problem. Mary’s death should be a lesson to both local and national leaders and calls for an immediate change in the response to the violence. Within a society where women have been both victims and motivators of livestock rustling, they must become actively involved in peace-making. As Mary said, “Women are in a unique position, but largely ignored. They can reach their husbands within their homes, they can admonish their sons. Men informally seek the advice and approval of their wives, and sons seek to bring their mothers joy and pride. Therein lies an opportunity that is yet to be explored in order to shift the tide of violence in northern Kenya”.

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