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The Land of Jilali: Travels Through Kenya’s Drought-Stricken North

This is the journal of the journeys of a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) team studying natural resource management in Marsabit District. Our mission – to assess environmental degradation, and how sedentarisation may be contributing to desertification around settlements and on the range.

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The Land of Jilali: Travels Through Kenya's Drought-Stricken North
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As we zoom across the flat hardpan of the Chalbi desert, the sun is spreading its soft, brilliant blanket over the silhouette of Mt. Kulal. We pass small Rendille camels from the fora satellite camps, grazing in the twilight, unfazed by our speed. We are in no hurry, and on a twilight break we inspect the Chalbi’s crusty, salt-impregnated surface. When precipitation exceeds evaporation, insoluble minerals and salts are leached out of the soil. Eons of rainfall have concentrated soda in the wind-scoured floor of this former inland sea. Once upon a time, this was a very lush land.

It is early June, 2000. Kenya is hurtling toward a massive combined crisis of power shortfalls, water rationing, and shrinking informal sector employment. The drought-crippled economy is fueling new and unique expressions of social tension: rioting school children in Nairobi capture a Tusker beer truck, and drink it dry.

But we are far from Nairobi. Out of the desert we suddenly enter glades of stunted doum palm. We have arrived in Maikona, a small collection of houses that in the glimmer of early starlight seem to have sprouted mushroom-like out of the Chalbi’s sun-baked mud. A small crowd gathers. Over a plate of leathery meat I ask, “Habari ya Maikona?” “Jilali tu“, is the reply. (What news of Maikona? …. Drought, only.) A hyena crosses our path on its way out of town.

On our way here we passed through Isiolo, immediately after the clashes there between the Waso Borana and the Degodia Somali. These cattle people were fighting over land rights; others are invading Laikipia ranches in search of grass. Here, in the distant north, the camel herding populations tread the thin line between survival and jilali-induced disaster.

Jilali describes the conditions in the rangeland of Marsabit after the rains have failed for the third straight season. Isiolo and Laikipia look lush in comparison. “Since El Nino,” people tell us, “it has only rained once, for a few hours.” Pressing on, we re-enter the Chalbi and proceed to Kalacha. As I discover during the coming days, the landscape appears far less bleak in the cool, muted light of night.

Gabrastan

The Gabra people range into Ethiopia, but their main settlements are located on the edge of the Chalbi for the simple reason that this is where the most permanent water sources are found. Since 1971, each successive jilali has forced more nomads to settle around these springs.

Pastoral dropouts are swelling the size of Kenya’s desert towns. Relief food provides the pull; loss of their herds exerts the push. This demographic shift is presumed to be driving environmental degradation. Fuelwood consumption is depleting tree cover around settlements; the herds of the settled degrade forage resources beyond the zone of naked plain. Actually, things have been going downhill since Homo sapiens crawled out of a local hole 1.8 million years ago.

Downtown Kalacha is a wide avenue of desert separating lines of modest houses and shops, giving way to tiny suburbs of traditional huts interspersed with the occasional block of more modern “maisonettes”. Kalacha is sandwiched between the Chalbi and a barren expanse of lava rock that we will later cross on the way to Badhahurri. Decapitated stumps of Acacia tortillis along the roadside appear to confirm the human-impact hypothesis.

A mother and daughter talk to us as they make final adjustments on their load camels. The men have headed north in search of grazing. KARI research officer Godana Jilo Doyo remarks that the Gabra art of packing one’s worldly possessions on a camel–a scene reproduced on Kenya’s fifty shilling notes–is a disappearing tradition. The two camel, two women caravan sets off, perhaps for good, for Kalacha, forty kilometers of rocks and boulders away.

We continue on toward Badhahurri. Outrageously spindled Acacia seyal trees mark the approach to the Hurri Hills. The track rising from the desert pavement transits a series of small valleys. The hills on either side are tapered cones with uniformly scalloped windward slopes. Gravel and boulders segue into a dirty carpet of cropped brown grass as we pass through overlapping ecologies.

A few cows lounge inside a copse of Erythrina burtii, gnarled and deeply grooved trees closely related to E. africana, whose bright red-orange flowers add a dash of color across Kenya’s central highlands. On the high plateau of Badhahurri, the area’s dusty rain catchment, naked plots attest to the severity of the drought.

Several hundred Borana and Konso agropastoralists, immigrants here from the escarpment beyond Ferole, occupy scattered human settlements. Kulal, the sacred mountain of the Gabra, is a jagged silhouette marking the Kenya-Ethiopia border. This fairy-tale landscape is otherwise protected by its total absence of water; there is nothing here to fight over.

The Sands of Horr

Ubiquitous rocks and boulders are the principle feature distinguishing Gabrastan from Rendille country, whose sands and intermittent stretches of gravel support significantly more bush and trees. North Horr, however, is the rockless and sandy exception; shifting dunes threaten to engulf the town. North Horr’s periphery is devoid of trees and grass except for patches of the evergreen Sueada monica, which form a barrier of sorts against the Chalbi.

Average rainfall here is 150 mm per year, compared with 800 mm for Nairobi in a very dry year, and the soil is extremely alkaline, with a pH between 9.5 and 10.5. Not ideal tree-planting conditions, but this is what a local women’s group is doing. One fenced-in enclosure protects a few dry sticks. But another boma shows off a mix of Salvadora persica (the mswaki or toothbrush tree), Acacia tortillis, and Azidirachta indica (neem)-most of which are flourishing. Women arrive during the late afternoon, each carrying a pair of one litre containers of precious water to share with their personal plants. Why did the plot next door fail? “Improper organisation.” Will their twice-daily devotion make a difference? It’s hard to say. On the other side of town another enclosure houses a small community of coconut palms. They are several feet high, and if they make it to maturity it may mark the start of a new agro-industry.

We depart. The vegetation begins to improve on the track south. One of our riders tells us about his life with the Dassenech, who snatched him from his Gabra manyatta at a tender age. He escaped back to his people many years later, and now runs a shop in the small oasis of Gas, on the southern fringe of Gabrastan.

Loyangelani

I last visited Loyangelani in 1976. During the interim, Loyangelani has evolved from a hamlet of drought refugees into a tourist town on the shores of the Jade Sea. Now it is a cosmopolitan community of Rendille, Samburu, El Molo, and growing numbers of Turkana taking the place of the Luo fishermen who have shifted to the Lake’s west coast. This port could support a lucrative fishing industry.

A tan and slender European, escorted by several uncircumcised boys, walks his heavily panniered mountain bike up the main drag. He is Dutch. He began his journey in India; South Africa is his destination. Asia was easy, he says, but the heat nearly killed him in Sudan, and Ethiopia tested his limits. “It’s good to be back in civilisation” (defined as food, water, and a common language) he tells us.

Gatab

On a landscape otherwise devoid of vegetation a Turkana boy tends a large herd of goats feeding on invisible shoots of Spirobolus, a spiky grass growing in the cracks between rocks. We leave the fortress-like walls of the Turkana escarpment behind and turn onto the road to Mt.

Kulal, which passes through richer country dotted with trees and grass cover, undisturbed due to insecurity.

In the past, raiding was rare during droughts; basic survival is an all-consuming task.

Driving weakened livestock across waterless countryside is a low percentage gambit; raiding after the onset of rain a conventional re-stocking technique. But the world is no longer normal; a Turkana raiding party successfully attacked a group of Samburu in this area several days ago.

The bandits came from distant Lokorio, perhaps the inhabitants of a recently abandoned Turkana manyatta we passed on our way.

At the Kenya Telkom relay station above the small plateau which is home to Gatab, Kulal’s only permanent settlement, we listen to the President’s Madaraka day speech, in which he tells the nation, “Moi si mvua” (Moi is not rain.) In the land of famine relief, rainmakers are redundant.

Kargi and Korr

The Rendille are the true wenyewe of Marsabit District, by virtue of never having lived anywhere else. Their tenure in this exceedingly austere environment is the product of a resilient techno-cultural adaptation personified in the Rendille camel, a small but highly drought-and disease-resistant animal also herded by the Gabra. Though not prolific milkers, they boast attractive anti-jilali features, such as a narrow body profile designed to reduce radiation absorption in the absence of shade.

Marsabit’s camel-centric communities’ demographically-conservative strategy includes delayed age-set initiation, primogeniture favouring the first son, and a high canon of reles and centralised rituals. The cultural matrix makes for late marriage, smaller households, and in the case of the Rendille, a steady spin-off of individuals and groups responsible for the replication of their clans among the Gabra, Sakuye, and Somali Garre, Ajuran, and Degodia.

The Arial embody the transitional dynamic. Rendille by origin, they have adopted Samburu ways and cattle, while living in symbiosis with both groups. The Gabra are allied to the Borana; the Turkana are allied to no one.

Modern change had overtaken traditional cultural strategies. The settlements of Korr and Kargi reveal the most advanced environmental degradation we have yet seen. Korr enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most widely cited examples of the process of desertification. Over a decade ago, Herlocker and Dierk noted in The Marsabit Range Management Handbook that in many places erosion had worn soils down to the bare underlying rock. There is a point where environmental degradation is irreversible.

The concept of non-equilibrium environments is the new orthodoxy in African range management. Simply stated, it holds that the vegetation change and erosion formerly attributed to pastoralists and their herds is actually insignificant over time, that ecological changes are more the product of long-term rainfall patterns.

Empirical studies of range conditions and stocking rates in this region support the thesis. But permanent settlement is another phenomenon: the pressure on forage and fuelwood has now extended the naked perimeter around Korr to a radius of ten kilometers.

Network Shungwaya

Mobility has always been an important coping strategy in the face of environmental crisis. In Kalacha, I came across the following passage while rereading Gunther Schlee’s brilliant work on proto-Rendille Somali clans, Identities on the Move.

“One group [of the Garre] moved to Giumbo, near the mouth of the river Juba, but after being repeatedly attacked were forced to cross the river and eventually moved north to Merca. A second group of Garre moved to the coast and then crossed to the Dendas Islands where they sought the protection of the Bajuni and were eventually absorbed by them.”

On the same page, Schlee quotes a document from the Kenya National Archives which says that these “refugees” came from the Banna sections of the Garre, lending support to Jim Allen’s interpretation of the Shungwaya legend.

Allen hypothesizes that Shungwaya, the homeland once shared by the Bajuni, Miji Kenda, and Segeju, was not the capital of an ancient multi-ethnic kingdom as depicted in oral history. Rather, he marshals archaeological and linguistic evidence showing that Shungwaya was actually the hub of a trade network linking early Swahili settlements to areas of the interior as far inland as Lake Turkana. Artifacts not found anywhere else connect the distant interior to ancient Baghdad and Cairo. Satellite photography shows that the Uaso Nyiro river once reached the coast, entering the sea through the channels of Mongoni and Dodori. Have water, will travel.

The people of Lamu town used to perform an annual ritual of purification called kuzungusha ng’ombe. A cow is led through the town’s streets, prayers are recited, the animal is sacrificed and the meat roasted for a public feast. During a visit to Lamu last year, we were discussing the petty political infighting responsible for the community’s disunity when I commented that perhaps the kuzungusha ng’ombe ceremony should be revived. A Bajuni friend responded that they had in fact performed a sorio only a few weeks before.

I double-check to make sure he really used this proto-Rendille cultural term for the important ritual in which dispersed herders gather at a central location and sacrifice an animal to invoke blessings for the community. Different communities now associated with the Borana and Somali still perform it, albeit cloaked in Islamic garb. The Bajuni-Shungwaya-Proto Rendille Somali link is just one variation on the precolonial pattern: almost every Kenyan tribe is composed of multi-cultural clans on the move.

Forward to the Past

In late June, the team returns to Kalacha for the KARI/Marsabit field station annual review.

We stay in several tourist bandas gracefully nestled among the doum palms that mark the spring. The ruffling (racket to some) of the palms I have come to associate with the oasis at night is interrupted by the yipping of a hyena, a voice that can agitate penned-up animals until they stampede.

Blustery wind and an overcast sky above the white sands give the following early morning landscape an oddly wintry cast. Could even the most brilliant of team scientists, operating with unlimited resources, devise technological alternatives approaching the complex of finely tuned resource management and cultural systems of the pastoralists who have survived and flourished in this impossible environment? No, they can only expand on it.

The traditional system included critical mechanisms for keeping population inline with carrying capacity. Though the more expansionary proclivities of cattle people contrast with the conservative strategies of the Rendille and Gabra, in the end the result was roughly the same: small populations. But in modern Kenya, small populations mean social exclusion, the continuing post-Uhuru marginalisation of many northern and coastal communities.

Large-scale famine relief first appeared during the drought of 1971, and each successive jilali has quickened the rate of change and the number of pastoralists dropping out of the livestock economy. This time around, even the husky local camels are already dying, and the worst is yet to come.

Kenya’s poorest districts are the ones where today’s indigenous peoples were confined to ghettoes by laissez faire colonial policy. Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as a lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain- bearing clouds.

The trajectory of modernisation-for farmer, forager, fisherman, and herder alike-involves migration, settlement, and diversification of livelihood. As towns grow, degradation of the peri- urban fringe paves the way for expansion. Tree cover improves within the new pastoralist settlements even as it is denuded without. Tree planting, unless for generating future income, is unlikely to solve the environmental crisis.

The Borana recall two famines of decades past by the blueflies that swarmed over the cattle, both dead and alive. Perhaps the system-level impact of the jilali, underscoring the national crisis of planning and resource management, will be reforms that promote the comparative advantage of cultural diversity, like the Shungwayan example. Kenyans, despite some parties’ best efforts to prove otherwise, are poor tribalists simply because, over the long- run, the environment selects against it. The drought has exposed the futility of petty local agendas.

Our landrover dies in the Chalbi night. A jury-rigged repair gets us moving again. A hyena slinks across the track as we approach Kargi, where we diagnose the problem-a faulty wire to the fuel pump. Two cheetah streak across the desert rocks as we approach Marsabit mountain in the early morning light. I see my first bluefly.

 

Editors Note. This article originally appeared in: East African Environment and Development Magazine: Ecoforum, Volume 24, Number 3, Cold Season, 2000.

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Mr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too.

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Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be
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A fable I was taught as a young Kikuyu boy seeks to explain the rise of the patriarchal society. It speaks of a time, long ago, when women ruled over men. Unhappy with the state of affairs, the “oppressed” men conspired to get all the women pregnant at the same time, and so easily overthrew them. They have since been the undisputed rulers.

The misogyny and fear of women expressed in that tale are alive and well in contemporary Kenya’s male-dominated society. Today they manifest in the repeated refusal of the country’s parliament to enact laws mandated by the country’s constitution that prohibit any public body (including Parliament) of having a composition of more than two-thirds of their members from one gender. It is manifested in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s own refusal, which gives the lie to his rhetoric at last week’s Women Deliver Conference in Canada to implement the same rule in his appointments and nominations. It is a fear that may, ironically, be also driving discrimination and oppression of men – specifically, homosexual men.

Banning homosexuality

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”. The High Court in Botswana recently struck down as unconstitutional an identical law, also introduced by the British, declaring it “discriminatory” and warning that “human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised”.

Many times, such harmful laws are supported by the same Kenyan men who rabidly oppose women’s empowerment. As it turns out, this may not be a coincidence. According to researchers at the University of Geneva, prior to the feminist revolution of the late 1960s, men had largely constructed their masculinity in opposition to women as anti-femininity. However, as society moves towards greater gender equality and as men are encouraged to get in touch with their “feminine” side and to show emotion and vulnerability, some men, particularly those of a more traditional bent, look for something else to serve as a foil for their idea of masculinity. Typically, they emphasise their heterosexuality. As, Prof Juan M. Falomir, who led the research team says, “homophobia is the alternative way of asserting their masculinity.”

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”.

The trajectory of Kenya’s legal prohibitions exemplifies this. As women in Victorian Britain teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times, their menfolk were imposing draconian decrees targeting specifically male homosexual behaviour in their colonies. Today, as women in Kenya increasingly assert themselves in public spaces and challenge the norm of masculine domination, the blowback is not just against them but also against gay men.

Gay women too suffer bigotry and violence. As is true in many other countries, they are subjected to horrific abuse, including assaults and rape, as research on their lived experiences in Kenya has shown. “Masculine presenting” gay women or “studs” experience more discrimination and abuse and are “deliberately locked out of conversations around protection of women by State actors,” the research found. Infamously, the Kenya Film Classification Board last year banned the multiple award-winning movie Rafiki “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya”. The constitutionality of the ban is currently being challenged in court.

Here too, constructions of masculinity are at play. “Patriarchy becomes panicked at these women denying men an opportunity for sex on demand, power on demand, or both. Their power and ability to live the life…outside the autocracy of male influence…becomes a threat to society as it is constructed,” says Dr Njoki Ngumi. Men see lesbians both as sexual rivals taking “their” women, and also as women denying them sex and power.

The link between misogyny and other bigotries is particularly visible online, a platform that has been described as “the gateway drug for extremists”. Today in the West, the rise of populist, far-right governments has also coincided with the accession of an increasing number of women to the pinnacle of power. Donald Trump was widely expected to lose to a woman in 2016. The outgoing Prime Minister of the UK is a woman as is the Chancellor of Germany. And Santiago Zabala has also linked the inclusion of “a racist, homophobic and anti-immigration party” in Spain’s ruling coalition to “the patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that it incubates”.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, for example, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when – as witnessed in the public violence meted out on female politicians in Kenya at the hands of their male counterparts – they dare to confront or deny a man.

Reconstructing masculinity

But how exactly do we go about reconstructing masculinity? Is that even possible? Or does the solution lie in abandoning the idea of gender altogether as fundamentally anti-human? After all, masculinity and femininity are social, religious, political and cultural constructs, only incidentally related to biological accoutrements. When the Standard newspaper calls Amina Mohammed “the only ‘man’ in Uhuru’s Cabinet” or Macharia Gaitho says the same about Martha Karua in the Daily Nation, they do not mean to suggest that the two are in possession of penises and scrotums. When one is told to “man up” or “don’t be a pussy”, the reference is not to biology. All these are pretty offensive – and plainly wrong – cultural constructions that suggest that traits like bravery and assertiveness are to be associated with males while fear and submissiveness are inherently female.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when they dare to confront or deny a man.

If we understand that, then we can begin to see the idea of gender itself as just another weapon in the service of patriarchal domination. Rather than a dictate of biology, it is a way of ordering society’s power structure in much the same way other fictional constructs, such as race or tribe, have been historically used.

But while we may rightly take umbrage at media folk ascribing particular qualities to race or tribe (imagine the uproar if the Standard were to describe Mohammed as “the only Kikuyu” or Gaitho were to call Karua “the real mzungu” as a way of recognising their contributions), we seemingly have no problem with the false dichotomies of male as strong and female as weak.

Even the Kikuyu fable I cited at the beginning is an attempt to use biology as a justification for the tyranny of man over woman. Women, it suggests, are weak because they can become pregnant – an assertion that has been shown to be scientifically bogus. If anything, it is the other way around. A recent study in the US found that elites athletes and pregnant women have similar endurance levels. Pregnancy, researchers found, “pushes the body to the same extremes as endurance events like long-distance triathlon competition Ironman or the Tour de France.”

But the fable doesn’t stop there. It constructs female rule as inherently oppressive and men as victims who are justified in using women’s biology against them – kind of like waylaying a cyclist at the end of the Tour de France, which is hardly a fair fight. It is interesting to observe how these ideas then play out in real life as when men deny women access to birth control or abortion and the persistence of practices like FGM or early marriage, all of which are meant to serve as a form of control.

It is no accident that the gender roles and attributes that patriarchal societies have invented tend to favour the dominion of men and to construe biology as women’s inescapable prison. Men, they believe, have freedom that women don’t because women can be raped, need to be defended, cannot hunt or fight. So, the logic goes, biology has decreed that their place is in the home, to serve as the caretaker and caregiver for the man who is able do those things. Yet every day, women are demonstrating the falsehood of such ideas. Sure, the average man is physically bigger and stronger than the average woman, but that does not tell us if he’s braver, more intelligent, a better hunter or a better fighter. After all, humankind’s rise to the top of the food chain has little to do with the size of our muscles.

Femininity is associated with silly and frivolous pursuits while masculinity is about serious things. Women gossip, men talk; women are vain and illogical; men are practical. Yet this script is quickly flipped when it suits the latter, especially when it involves labours that are long, non-stop and are most likely to be devalued or demanded for free. Suddenly women are inherently better, more loving and more attentive parents, while men are inherently incompetent assholes who should not be left alone with either the house or the children. This despite numerous studies demonstrating that supposedly hardwired gender differences are really the result of social conditioning – “it is the experience of parenting, and not some inalterable genetic factor or hormone, that constitutes what we call the ‘maternal instinct.’”

Playing the victim card

Of course, this is not welcome news for men. Most of us like the world just as it is. We can do pretty much what we want – boys will be boys – and we justify it (and comfort ourselves) with the delusion that nature decrees that it is the women who must pick up the pieces (and our socks). We are the kings – why would we want to give that up? When nature is no longer a sufficient prop, we resort to inventions like culture, tradition and even the law and conveniently interpreted religion to cement our place at the top. When those are themselves undermined by reason, we turn the tables and, like the folks in the fable, don the garb of the victim.

“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate,” declared Adam. “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little,” is how the eighteenth-century English poet and essayist, Samuel Johnson, sought to justify the oppression of women.

Today in Kenya, we are assailed by online calls for the uplifting of the “boy-child” who has apparently been hard done by as a result of the focus on empowering girls and women. Now it is not in dispute that many boys need help. What is telling is the assertion that the help has to come at either the expense of or as a reaction to that given to girls – even though it is undeniable that across the board, girls and women suffer much more violence and denial of opportunities, mostly at the hands of men. However, the boy-child (and male empowerment) activists many times betray their motives by behaving as if the boy-child problem stems, not from the same patriarchal system that oppresses girls, but rather from the attempt to abolish it and its effects.

This construction of masculinity as victimhood is also evident in the resistance to attempts to decriminalise homosexuality. A typical example is provided by Ghetto Radio, which is popular with Nairobi youth, and which recently reported on the “Alarm Over Rising Rate Of Lesbians In Eastlands”. As Dr Ngumi explains, “Women who are not coded as heterosexual, and thus available for male desire, are going about their business. But here, they are reported to be stirring up ‘fear of being rejected’ in men [in] a falsely alarmist and bigoted news piece which can instigate violence against them.”

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

For men who construe sex as something men do to women as an expression of power and penetration as conquest, men who allow themselves to be so penetrated are seen at traitors who endanger the status of all males. It is this idea of a loss of status that is behind the popular notion that homosexuality is somehow “spread” or people are “recruited” into it and that the homosexuals are coming for us all – the patriarchy’s version of the zombie apocalypse.

Biology is not destiny

Gender is probably an irredeemably oppressive way to organise the world. Modelling the world as inherently divided into a male and female half with gendered responsibilities and roles has terrible implications. Take for example Nigerian feminist and academic, Obioma Nnaemeka’s assertion that “each gender constitutes the critical half that makes the human whole. Neither sex is totally complete in itself. Each has and needs a complement, despite the possession of unique features of its own”. This creates the clearly problematic image of a world of incomplete people seeking to find their “other half”, rather than one where relationships are voluntary and can take a variety of forms.

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

There is absolutely no reason why, in this day and age, biological differences should be assumed to ascribe limitations beyond the physical – just because nature decrees that it is the women who give birth and breastfeed, there is no reason to assume that they then must be the sole, or even primary caregivers. In the vast majority of instances, men and women can competently perform the same roles and share responsibilities. There is therefore no need to encourage men to get in touch with their supposed “feminine” side since what is coded feminine – such as a desire for and work towards cleanliness, hygiene and beauty in one’s self and their surroundings, as well as a desire to socialise with, care for and listen to others – is actually just human.

The same could be said of arguments that ideas of masculinity need not solely encompass violence and domination. Given that gender and its attributes are social constructions, Nigerian professor of history, Egodi Uchendu, notes that “yardsticks for assessing manifestations of masculinity could differ from place to place and from continent to continent”. There is no one masculinity, rather a multitude of ways to define manliness (as opposed to maleness). Some, like the Zulu, include traits such as honesty, wisdom and respect. Uchendu points out that among the Hua of Papua New Guinea, masculine subjects are seen “highly placed but physically powerless and weak”. And masculinity “is lost by men as they age but gained by women through childbearing”. Yet it is unclear why certain human qualities should be reserved to a particular sex at a particular time (or why their acquisition should necessarily come at the expense of other desirable traits) when they are clearly available to everyone at every time. And worse, they inevitably set up a power dynamic and competition that opens doors to violence and domination.

Towards a gender-free world

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that. This, however, will not be easy, just as creating a world free of other bigotries is not. The legacies of millenia of discrimination and marginalisation will need to be addressed and people, especially women, should be afforded help to overcome it. It is that legacy, for example, that necessitates measures like the not-more-than-two-thirds gender rule.

Unfortunately, we do not have recourse to a Thanos-like snap of the fingers that would dissolve long-standing bigotries and hostilities. Legal changes, while necessary, are not sufficient. They will need to be accompanied by targeted efforts to help women, as well as civic and cultural education campaigns and societal willingness to learn new ways to live and relate with each other. Change would take time to effect and to take hold. There will be many false starts, as there have been in the fight against racism and tribalism. But in the end, it will be worth it.

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that.

Getting rid of gender-determined roles would require men, for example, to shoulder their fair share of unpaid household labour – cooking, cleaning and caring – most of which is foisted on women. This would free the latter to pursue education, dreams and careers. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that what we often think of as a gender pay gap is more accurately described as a childbearing pay gap or motherhood penalty. Basically, women take a lifetime earnings hit when forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of children. In Kenya, a 2018 report by USAID notes that “unpaid care and domestic work burdens limit women’s contributions in and benefit from productive activities, constrains their mobility, and limits their access to market resources”. The same does not happen to men. In fact, a New York Times piece on pregnancy discrimination noted that while “each child chops 4 percent off a woman’s hourly wages…men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers”. Yet there is no physical or biological reason why childcare and domestic duties cannot be more equally shared.

Dr Ngumi notes that “if masculinity is defined by oppression, for men it cannot be practised without it”. Going forward, Kenya, like other societies around the world, will need to address the problems created by the toxic idea of gender and to create better, more meaningful, and more complete notions of humanity that are not legitimised by the oppression of someone else. Men, in particular heterosexual men, will need to understand that life is not a zero-sum competition with and over women. The truth is, as Kenyan lawyer and writer, Marilyn Kamuru says, “There is room for all of us, men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to live more authentic, freer lives.”

Breaking the dominance chain

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too. Kenyan academic Godwin Murunga notes that “the idea of flawed or hegemonic masculinity has been used to indicate that though all men enjoy the “patriarchal dividend” by the sheer fact of being men, these dividends do not accrue to all of them in the same manner and in equal measure”. It is perhaps more useful to think of it as a spectrum of domination, with women and sexual minorities at the bottom but with dominance being expressed right through the chain. Masculinity causes men to harm other men who are weaker, poorer, or who are of a different race or religion.

During the recent brutal attacks on protesters in Sudan, many men, as well as women, were raped by the Janjaweed militias. In fact, the rape of men is well-documented as a weapon in conflicts ranging from the Syrian civil war to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, as with the rape of women, it is about power, not sex. As a harrowing report on the rape of men in the Guardian explained, notions of gender and masculinity force a conspiracy of silence between perpetrators and victims with the latter often stigmatised and deserted by family and friends once their story is discovered. One victim in the report was afraid to let his own brother know: “I don’t want to tell him…I fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man'”. This demonstrates the truth of Lara Temple’s observation that “the rape of men is a form of gender oppression in which gendered hierarchies are reproduced”.

As alluded to above, men are also forced to give up a part of their human self in order to become more manly. The prohibitions against showing emotion, the constant competition to be First Bodi – or Alpha Male, the pressure to accumulate sexual “conquests”, all these take their toll, constantly shrinking their pool of experience, isolating them from the world, turning them into tired, grumpy, angry, old men, who have no idea how to love, how to be tender, how to be kind, or how to maintain mutually beneficial human relationships.

And they are downright dangerous. Studies have shown that “the system that keeps men in a collectively dominant position over women and in competitive relations to other men comes at a cost for men in terms of their health and quality of life. Faced with an ideal where physical resilience is valorised, men find it harder to seek healthcare and engage in preventive activities.”

On the other hand, equality has clear benefits for men. As Thomas Sankara said, “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

Women’s empowerment need not – and does not – come at the expense of men. On the contrary, it is indispensable to their welfare and to that of all of society. The World Bank estimates that gender inequality in 2014 cost the global economy $160 trillion – which is double the total estimate for global GDP. And that figure has been rising along with population growth. Twenty years before, it was $123 trillion.

Bigotry, in the end, is incredibly short-sighted even as concerns the bigot’s own interests. “The repeal 162 case is an excellent example of this,” says political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, citing the High Court ruling upholding laws criminalising gay sex. “Was it worth unraveling constitutional protections against discrimination just to protect a heteronormative idea of marriage which wasn’t even on the table?” she asks pointedly.

The cost of discrimination is not just to the victims but is borne by society as a whole. All of Kenya would benefit from a more diverse Parliament in terms of better governance. And the refusal to implement a constitutional principle is not just troubling for women. For if the people in power can ignore that provision, who is to say they cannot ignore any other provision? Are men really willing to forgo their own protections just to keep women in their place? Rather than be king of a small pond, wouldn’t it be better to share the bounty of an ocean of humanity? Only a man blinded by the idea of masculinity would say no.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics
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The United States of America has a fundamental issue with using certain terminology. When it comes to certain hills, the cultural norm is to die upon them without admitting certain ugly truths. The issue of American tribalism is one such battle of attrition.

In the US, in all brutal honesty, there is no admittance to looking at issues through a tribal lens; it is considered an almost uncouth term, inaccurate, sensationalist and (through a more ugly lens) applicable to an interchangeable “other”. I’ve had conversations revolving around this, when Americans are quick to point out that the issue of “tribalism” is a fundamentally African problem, something that occurs overseas, within countries that are painted with an unspoken brush of “lesser” – less developed, less “civilised”, less democratic, less Western, depending on the kind of jingoistic plug they want to apply to racism or neo-colonialism.

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya. The issue is, above all, an insidious indictment against another group. It is an inherent and unfounded bias against perceived characteristics that cuts across facts and rationality. Tribalism is, in many aspects, the very epitome of the “us against them” mentality. So how does this play into American politics?

The very definition of tribalism, according to Merriam Webster, is “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”. Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

As Kenyan citizens are all too aware, the very nature of tribalism is its pervasiveness. For those prescribing to fall in line with tribal ideas, it can become all-encompassing and derogatory of other groups in the extreme. In the mind of a “tribalist”, Kikuyus are shrewd business minds and are surely taking over the country to their own ends; Luos are loud and boisterous, too uncouth for political control; Merus have long fuses but terribly explosive tempers once the fuse is completed; Kalenjins will borrow things but are not to be trusted with them; Kambas are flashy in their style but have spent the rent for the style achieved. All of these stereotypes, when manifesting as the first and foremost notion of a group, can become deeply engrained, however head-slapping they may be.

Despite the progress made over these divisions in Kenyan society, it is still a common occurrence to come across an individual who holds true to their notions about others, and can’t be told otherwise. It is the last aspect, that of being unable or unwilling to deviate from a divisive perception that is most applicable to the political situation in the United States approximately 17 months ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The liberal and conservative wings are at each other’s throats to an extent that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the darkest days of the clashes between those against the Vietnam War and those supporting the military action.

Therefore, it is only right to look with a critical lens towards my own side, my own social identity, my own political “tribe”. It is time for me to admit my personal political views. I fall into the liberal camp and have always done so. Despite my leanings, it is impossible to look at the tone of the liberal wing of American society objectively and not view them as part of the problem, at least with regard to the furthering of the tone. I will pause here and allow for a multitude of familial connections and social acquaintances to send me sharply worded messages explaining that their side is worse; it is them that are furthering the division, that it is Republicans who are on the wrong side and that good liberal democrats could never think as cruelly as conservative voters do. They prove my point: one of the ugly realities of tribalistic thinking is to buck criticism from those within your own ranks and to view such criticism as a betrayal to the group.

From the liberal side of things, the perception is clear. There is open talk among the left that Republicans are a “threat”; that they are “seizing control” and are “selling out to a dictator to get what they want”. It is rebounded off left-leaning media echo chambers, in satire, from Democratic politicians themselves. Tribalism, in its essence, is finding societal safety in a group, and damn the others if you think they impede on your safety.

The messaging from the left-leaning side is that the right-wing tribe is a threat, that they are a minority in the US that are seeking to maintain their ill-gotten political control by any means necessary, including those means that are less than democratic. They are only in the game for themselves, while exploiting members of their own political base (who will, of course, follow them blindly) to gain more of a stranglehold on American society; the Republicans are trying to form the United States as moulded around the conservative ideal (which was based on oppression in the first place, of course) in spite of what would be a “positive outcome” for the long-suffering masses. (The Kenyan reader will probably find that prior statement uncomfortably familiar in tone to some of the talk swirling about before the 2007 elections. This is meant in no way to diminish the horrors of the post-election violence and elevate American problems as to somehow “more so”; merely to point out tonal similarities.)

The conservative tribe must also be examined in close detail, as there a direct line to cut towards tribalistic tendencies in both tone and action. From this end, some of the divisions have been made more acute, if not deepened in a more extreme fashion. When dealing with issues of the politically tribal, the top brass should be the major holder of any responsibility for the messaging and resulting actions of their followers.

There is no clearer example of an individual who should be held accountable than that of Donald Trump himself. It isn’t an exaggeration to state that he has frequently engaged in incitement along tribal lines. His words must speak for themselves. Mexicans (and other Latin American migrants) are rapist criminal invaders, hell-bent on taking the “homeland” for their own ill purposes. Democrats are disgusting, manipulative and treacherous, seeking to overthrow the very power that the conservatives currently lay claim to within the United States. Muslims are a threat, and are to be banned. Political dissidents are committing treason. Those who investigate serious allegations of ongoing criminal activities are actively engaged in a “witch hunt” and must be ignored by those loyal to the White House, regardless of evidence.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

In recent weeks and months, Trump has spoken repeatedly and publicly (without proven basis) of a conspiracy against him aimed at usurping the White House and launching some sort of coup (as those loyal to the left could never accept the outcome of a controversial election in 2016 and are thus trying to undermine the administration). Violent action is repeatedly hinted at, to be carried out at the hands of “those with the guns” in America.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

So what is the result of this political climate in America? Both sides have gone further towards their respective ideologies, leaving a gaping gulf between them, with little room for political maneuvering, social interaction, or public discourse within it. At a localised level, the true extent of tribalism comes to fruition: neighbours fuming at each other, families not on speaking terms, friendships ending and punches thrown at political rallies. This is fundamentally a problem of communities being pitted against one another; and is a question of being primed to do so, with the loudest voices being lifted to the forefront and drowning out what one report on tribalism in America called “the exhausted majority” – those tired of the constant fighting but resigned to the untoward realities therein. Those at the fringes hold more and more sway, and hold the rest of the community accountable to fall in line, encouraging that silence. Right now in the United States, that is the pervasive tone. The average person, upon hearing a political discussion, seems spent by the very idea of engaging in it, turned off, angry and unsure of what to do; there seems to be an air of not knowing exactly what to do about the perceived takeover of the political discourse.

A fundamental misunderstanding of tribalism is that is the entirety of a population that becomes ensnared and takes extreme action. This largely isn’t the case; it is usually a small proportion of the population yelling the loudest and taking to the streets in numbers that would intimidate other disorganised citizens. In America, those few yelling the loudest often have semi-automatic guns.

Will the United States look to Kenya to learn from the nation’s recent history? There is, unfortunately, little to no chance of that, as American society is nothing if not jingoistic and bullheadedly independent. If one was apt enough to look though, the entire blueprint of the darkness of tribalism invading politics would be laid bare in the Kenyan example; the same tones used, the waters of messaging getting muddied, the divisions deepening, and finally, in the wake of a disputed and inflammatory election, an entire nation taken to the very brink of irreversible damage.

If tribalism, at its very core, is identity politics, are the political climates within the two countries truly all that different? It reflects badly upon the US, in a further parallel to view itself as somehow “above” sinking to political violence at levels comparable of those “other” countries. After all, in much of the West, Kenya pre-December 2007 was talked about in a patronising tone of being a “good” African country incapable of slipping into a vacuum of politically stoked bloodshed. The explosion in Kenya was largely sparked by a rough year-long period of fear-mongering and polarising rhetoric and speech so questionable that six prominent Kenyan public figures of politics and the media were investigated by Kenya and the International Criminal Court for incitement to violence. This period of amplification came atop decades of divisive politics and tribalistic tension.

Within the US, although the overall feeling remains that the nation will somehow carry on unscathed, historical evidence points to a potential for a darker outcome. Already, there have been calls that the 2016 election outcome was somehow “rigged” on the part of the Democrats, stealing a result that wound up in an electoral college victory regardless.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions.

The protectionist mantra has also been intensified, with “armies” of Latin American immigrants allegedly due at any second to stream across the border and snatch away power. There have been explicit nods to white nationalist causes from the White House, making the statement that in fact, yes, white America has something to fear. Trump in essence has been stating that he alone can combat the causes of those fears, real or imagined. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to look at some of the statements made by the current administration as acts of tribal incitement. He’s offered protection to his supporters who would act violently at political rallies against protesters, offering to even “pay their legal fees”. He’s repeatedly attacked his critics, even, in the case of Senator John McCain, after their passing due to their political opposition to him. He has repeatedly dehumanised those outside his support group, calling them cowards, liars, cheats. He has heralded the most vehement and extreme among his base, even to point of promoting them to be members of the White House staff. He’s even claimed publicly that if an attempt to formally remove him from office were made, a revolt would take place in the US. If tweets, including such inflammatory language, had come from an African leader’s phone at 3 am, it might well end up as exhibit A at International Criminal Court proceedings.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions. That is the case with Trump currently; even as he’s preyed upon the pre-existing divisions within the US for his own personal exploitation and “all coverage is good coverage” political PR strategy, nothing concrete has stuck to him. He still holds the office, he still wields power, he’s consolidated his political base around him to the extent of commanding the highest ever approval ratings among his base, all the while pushing the left further away and across the void. No charges have been made against him. There has been no formal announcement of impeachment. The powerful political figures in his party have largely fallen in line. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there was an outpouring of violence at political rallies. It is yet to be seen if the continued toxicity of the last three years will bleed over into the ramping up of the political season, and if that dye has already been cast.

In 2007 it did in Kenya and in the aftermath of it all, no one was really held to account. Those who suffered the most were far away from the lush compounds in Lavington or Karen; far away from jetting out of the country for an extended holiday or a jaunt in Zanzibar, and that, more than anything, is the inherent tragedy of tribalism; that those who champion division, rile the sides to rattle sabers against one another and possibly incite actual violence never end up holding the water for anyone below them.

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry.

The likes of Donald J Trump have the capital to stay away from it all and to give the same sleazy statements feigning outrage at the very notion that they should somehow be held to account for their words and actions on media platforms, on the campaign trail, and within the very halls of power. Floyd Mayweather has nothing on the ability of a tribe-stoking politician to duck a punch. No lessons have been learned in the US, not from our own recent election, not from Kenya’s past and not from any international voice or citizen of the “political bubble”. The problem is that in a nation so driven to the extreme of division, in this far out of the actual depths of election season (and the actual ballot day of Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020), the bottom is very hard to see. After all, the Democratic Party is still a year out from picking a champion and it is yet to be seen if any in the Republican Party would dare to challenge Trump (a move which would inevitably push him to consolidate his base by bringing them closer into the fold).

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry. Just the other week, on the steps of the state capital of Wisconsin in Madison (itself an incredibly divided so-called “swing state”), a protest against the recent anti-abortion measures passed in Alabama took place, and I joined in the ranks of those protesting against the recent ban. I watched as in front of me members of the two sides yelled into each other’s faces over the shoulders of police ranks formed to keep proceedings calm. Nothing was resolved, but in that exchange I saw a microcosm of such confrontations that can only increase in frequency and vehemence in the months and years to come. But to what end is impossible to say. Neither side is willing to give an inch at this point, a precarious position to take when at the precipice.

If ever there was a time for America to listen, for once, to Kenya, it is now. For the people in the Rift Valley, nothing was resolved despite all the posturing and promises. Those who lit the fire in Kenya stood back and watched the flames rise. Right now in the United States, it seems, that some in power are willing to flick the matches.

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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 Wednesday 3 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare, huddled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station off Juja road in Nairobi, as they watched in horror, as two schools were engulfed in a fire. 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 police blocked their paths. Angry shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed businesses, schools and homes in a matter of minutes.

This act of arson by police of a part of the Mathare neighborhood took place on the fourth day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ known simply as Rashid. A public execution of two teenagers in Eastleigh on 31 March 2017 caught on amateur video that went viral established Ahmed Rashid’s notoriety. Ironically, the raid under his command, targeting the local alcohol economy in Mathare, started on Sunday 31 March 2019—exactly two years since that public execution. Over that period of two years, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, particularly young poor men from Mathare, and with absolute impunity.

On Sunday in late March, Rashid walked into Mathare accompanied by a troop of police officers from different police squads down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. The Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claim to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses sharing accounts of regular police and AP (Administrative Police) officers and equipment active during the raid. Mathare residents wondered how the police could conduct a full-scale police raid lasting a number of days without the consent of the authorities. That first night of the raid in Mathare was marked with fear, chaos and gunshots. Residents lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts whilst defending homes and properties from the pillaging police. By Monday morning, that part of Mathare sunk into deep lamentation.

Kingi from the Social Justice Centers Working Group found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; Shosho Kingi 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. Subsequently, she had lost 4500 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left seriously in 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 until on Wednesday, tensions between hungry and angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local 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 the 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. The colonial capital Nairobi only allowed a limited number of ‘native’ bachelors living in designated housing facilities. This area was also wedged in by the Royal Airforce Eastleigh Base (currently known as Moi Air Base), an askari barrack, and a transit camp for the Kings African Rifles. Other police barracks and army bases further away from Mathare also had close ties to sex workers in Pumwani, Pangani and Mathare. The massive influx of soldiers and prisoners of war (Italian POWs) during 1940-45 further attracted a growing number of female sex workers who increasingly settled in Mathare where rent was cheaper than in Pumwani.

As early as the 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

These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their increasingly overcrowded homesteads in the ‘Native Reserves’ in the pre-WWII colonial period in search of work for cash to pay for hut tax, among other things. Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men also increasingly came to live here. During the late 1930s, many of the rural-urban migrants also came from other illegalized squatter communities in the Rift Valley, where former farm workers had been displaced from European farms as a result of the gradual mechanization of farm work. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the bedrock 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’. The colonial government detained large sections of what it considered to be the ‘Kikuyu’ population and transformed many ‘Native Reserves into ‘emergency villages’, which functioned as concentration camps during the ‘state of emergency’. Close to a million people were locked inside these camps, and tens of thousands of people, suspected of being freedom fighters, were imprisoned in makeshift prison camps scattered all over Kenya. Upon their release, many of these ex-detainees could not return to the ‘Native Reserves’, as most of these areas were by now seriously overpopulated, while other places had been confiscated by the different authorities that had collaborated with the colonial government, with local chiefs being an example. As a consequence, released from prison, these men and women had no choice but to join illegalized squatter communities in either rural or urban areas, including Mathare.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy in Mathare, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the late 1980s and early 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. Demographic records and academic estimates vary greatly but it is safe to say that the population in Mathare rose from a few thousand during the colonial era to many tens of thousands between the 1960s and 1980s. The trend of rapid urbanisation, especially in informal settlements, that took off after independence in 1963 accelerated during the 1990s. Population growth in Mathare only declined slightly during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when even more ghetto areas rose up to absorb the bulk of rural-urban migrants.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy in Mathare, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the late 1980s and early 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.

A government decree banned chang’aa and busaa production in 1983 but the incoming MP of Mathare at the time allowed the continuation of home-based chang’aa production in return for electoral support (interview with Shosho Kingi, 3 November 2005). It was easier to distill chang’aa at home (and later at the river) without police detection than busaa, and the profit margins for chang’aa were also much higher. Soon, the Mathare river saw multiple cooking sites along its banks. Unfortunately, these profit margins have fallen significantly since the late 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, shortage of firewood plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but not in Mathare. Every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, one of the 13 ‘villages’ in Mathare sells large quantities of firewood. 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 large trucks. 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. 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.

The culture of policing in Mathare

After days without work and food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Wednesday morning, 3 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. A few media outlets, such as Ghetto Radio, 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 make at most 300 Ksh a day for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. Hence, 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 if not thousands of families hungry for days. This led several 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 who violently blocked people to try and stop the fire of reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively encouraging the fire to destroy as many houses and other properties as possible. Crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water were violently dispersed with teargas while trying to rescue their homes and belongings. Sadly, the teargas only further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to ashes.

Distraught, many slept outside on Tuesday night. The fire had also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased overall insecurity. One resident recounted to us: “For nights, gunshots have become our ringtone.” Another one added: “We live in war, but nobody cares.” While living through this terror for four days and nights, Mathare residents watched the news at night that either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or put the blame decidedly on them. On top of the above mentioned pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame, Mathare residents were sweepingly cast as criminals and the local alcohol economy was without fail depicted as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, a lot of misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa is not an ‘illicit brew’ after being legalized in September 2010. 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 bosses, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved manufacturing? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is. 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 collect bribes. A resident explained to us:

“Police eat a lot. For each drum on a fire at a jiko you pay 200 [Ksh] to 4 squads, so that is 800 [Ksh] for 12 hours. Before the raid there were uhm… like 7 jiko’s, so they operate 24/7. And on average there are 7 drums on the fires, at each jiko. At night it becomes more. For one day and night, together, these bribes can easily be something like 100k, for a month that is like, [calculates on mobile phone], wow, that is 3 million [KES]. Just for police. Wah!”

A lot of misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa is not an ‘illicit brew’ after being legalized in September 2010. 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.

This total is of course a conservative estimate because it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who produce their own alcohol. Most of all, the number of drums along the riverside vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only 3 or 4. The above calculations 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 are not 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 ‘killer cop’ Rashid went out to show the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai that he earned an upgrade of some kind. 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 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-Terror Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cop’ 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, carrying this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date of writing this article 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. Again, others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook are not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers that works together 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 as Kenyans are elsewhere. 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 neighbours often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge play a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intel 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 (see also Van Stapele 2016). Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern (see also MSJC 2017).

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 as Kenyans are elsewhere.

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 5 April 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 more safe and bring it in line with regulations, why not work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to make this affordable to them? 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 slow production for a little while but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depended on this economy bear the brunt given that they can’t 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?” Another one said: “Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

An interesting shift has taken place since the raid. In the weeks following the raid, resentment against police culminated in two clashes between police and distillers because they refused to pay bribes to police. Several meetings between police and Mathare’s ‘Big Fish’, i.e. wealthy and influential bar owners and distributors, have tried to re-establish the collection of police bribes, but the ‘Small Fish’, small-time bar owners, have sided with the distillers in rejecting police presence at the jiko’s. One small-time bar owner explained: “We pay these bribes to cook chang’aa, but this raid put us back so much. We have not recovered so why pay bribes to police? We refuse, and we [the ‘small fish’ and the distillers combined] are the majority, we have strength in number.” However, his face turned sullen when he said: “But the police cannot ignore their money for long, we expect them to come in and attack us any day to claim their bribes again. In the end they have the guns.”

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