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The Sinicization of Christianity: How China Is Responding to Religious Threats

11 min read. China is fending off the influence of religion, particularly Christianity, by “rewriting” the Bible, and adapting it to the goals of the ruling Communist Party – which include becoming the world’s most influential superpower.

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The Sinicization of Christianity: How China Is Responding to Religious Threats
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It is around 4.00 pm on an easy, quiet Sunday. At the Kingdom Hall in the upscale suburb of Kilimani, off Elgeyo Marakwet Road, a church service begins with a song. Kingdom Hall is where the Christian denomination of the Jehovah Witness (JW) meets to praise and worship God. In fact, unlike many other Christian denominations, they call their church service a Christian meeting.

After the song, the congregants will pray and then follow the prayer with a 30-minute Bible lecture. The lecture could be on any of the ethical and moral scriptural teachings, as captured in one of the more famous JW’s teaching tracts, Watch Tower. The other is Awake magazine. While, Watch Tower deals with biblical teaching, Awake tends to concentrate on contemporary issues. These two pocket-size, simple and well-written, and available in many of the world’s languages, including African languages, have been the selling point of JW’s proselytising mission wherever they are stationed.

The Bible lecture is followed by a one-hour discussion on the selected theme of the late afternoon. The discursive session closes with a song and then a prayer, just like it had begun. Unlike many of JW’s meeting across the country, this is a special meeting: the Bible, the prayers, songs, the Awake and Watch Tower tracts are all in Mandarin. And that’s because the worshippers are Chinese expatriates and migrants living in Nairobi.

“The Jehovah Witness believe in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people, in their languages and without discrimination,” says one of the Chinese converts, who didn’t want to be named. Even though they are thousands of kilometres away from mainland China, the Chinese, wherever they are, are wary of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s surveillance on Chinese citizens abroad. “Especially when they are engaging in activities considered anathema to CPC’s national interests – like participating in religious activities.”

This particular meeting comprises Chinese entrepreneurs and high society Chinese men and women living in Nairobi. The congregation number between 50 and 60 worshippers. They are joined by a smattering of Kenyan JWs who speak and understand Mandarin. “In its mission to spread its creed to all the peoples of this world, Jehovah Witness in Kenya grabbed the chance to evangelise to the discerning Chinese foreigners in the country,” said a Kenyan JW adherent, who speaks fluent Mandarin and attends the church meeting.

The Kenyan, who also sought anonymity, told me that the Jehovah Witness has one of the most robust websites of any religious organisations in the world. “We have Bible teachings, general information, messages and notices, practically in all the major languages of the world.”

The Jehovah Witness is a good place to commune and worship because it offers a convivial experience of oneness, there’s spirit of brotherhood and there isn’t any racial discrimination,” said one of the Chinese Jehovah Witness.

Ge Yuchen, in his article, “Chinese Migrants in Kenya: Why Do They Seek Religion?quotes a Chinese dentist who says, “Jehovah Witness is not only a church that forsakes all kinds of racial prejudices, but also an ideal place for interacting with the local people. It is an excellent place for social communication.”

Yet,it has not always been easy for the Jehovah Witness to reach out to some of these Chinese expatriates. “The Chinese living in Kenya are segmented: there are those that come through government agencies such as the China Global Television Network (CGTN), a public broadcasting station that used to be China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, road construction workers, and those who migrant on their own in search of freedom (subjective as it may sound) and business opportunities,” said the Kenyan JW, who speaks Mandarin and lived in China in the early years of this century.

“Chinese working for the government cannot be seen in or go anywhere near a church sanctuary or a religious gathering – Big Brother CPC is ever alert to Chinese flouting its rules and the punishment can be dire once you’re recalled or when back for home holidays,” said the Kenyan.

He said he learned this when visiting a Chinese friend who works for a huge construction firm and who he got interested in an Awake magazine. “We Jehovah Witnesses are called to spread the ‘good news’ to all the people, wherever we meet them, more so, to people who may have not heard about Jesus Christ. That’s why we carry these tracts wherever we go.” But as soon as he was done seeing his friend, the supervisor approached and told him never to discuss religious matters with any of the Chinese workers.

“Chinese working for the government cannot be seen in or go anywhere near a church sanctuary or a religious gathering – Big Brother CPC is ever alert to Chinese flouting its rules and the punishment can be dire once you’re recalled or when back for home holidays”

The Chinese migrants in Kenya not only attend the JW meetings, they also attend other churches, mostly evangelical/Pentecostal churches, while a few are to be found in the mainstream churches such as the Catholic and Protestant churches. However, no Chinese person living in Kenya wants to discuss his or her religious beliefs, especially to a non-Chinese stranger. So, although Wang Wei (not his real name) has lived in Kenya since the turn of the century, and converted to Catholicism, and is today a parish member of a well-known Catholic parish, he pleaded that I should not expose him.

“For some of the tens of thousands of Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs who are working in Kenya, following religious creeds helps to establish good codes of conduct in their business operations. Those who convert to Christianity are often able to receive positive recognition from the public. The way that they look at their situation and surroundings is also often altered for the better.

“By deliberately guiding us the exploration of life pursuit, the Bible is just like a beacon which gives us light and illuminates the dark roads forward,’ said Mr. F, a middle-aged merchant who trades in shoes in coastal Mombasa,” writes Yuchen. He continues:

“Perhaps most significantly, believing in a religion seems to allow foreign residents in Kenya to integrate into the local community more easily. In particular, believing in Christianity helps Chinese residents understand the local culture and lifestyle. In contrast, according to Mr. D., as a result of a reluctance of learning and understanding the local people’s lifestyles, many Chinese residents have failed to assimilate into the local social environment of Kenya. When I spoke with a few Chinese employees at a company on Nairobi’s Mombasa Road, they described how they seldom have any opportunities to interact with locals.”

Conversion as a means of assimilation

In his article “How Africa is Converting China”, Christopher Rhodes, a Boston University don who has been studying Chinese migrants in Eastern Africa and their affinity to Christianity, observes, “Many Chinese who have gone abroad, especially Africa, have met alien cultures and traditions – leaving them feeling alone and foreign.”

For many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live and work in Africa, life is often not easy. Low pay, long hours and extended assignments in unfamiliar cultures often lead to feelings of isolation and disillusionment, says journalist Eric Olander. “Connections with friends and family back home, largely using WeChat, are often difficult to maintain over extended periods of time, which prompts some to look for comfort closer to home. And in places like East Africa, some of these disaffected workers are finding their way into the evangelical Christian community that is so pervasive in that part of the continent. Seeing the opportunity to grow their parishes, church leaders are readily embracing this new population with services in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.”

But after they return to China, notes Olander, they become a potential problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which imposes strict regulations on religion and bans any unapproved religious activity.

Therefore, in an interesting twist of fate, these Chinese have found religious solace in the evangelical Christianity of the Pentecostal persuasion that has been spreading so fast in sub-Saharan Africa, like the devastating bush fires wreaking havoc in New South Wales, Australia. Spurred on by an expansionist ambition and appetite to attract new converts to swell their numbers, these churches have stumbled upon a ready fishing ground of a people in search of fellowship and meaning.

For many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live and work in Africa, life is often not easy. Low pay, long hours and extended assignments in unfamiliar cultures often lead to feelings of isolation and disillusionment, says journalist Eric Olander.

For these churches, winning the souls of the Chinese is a big project, especially seen in the wider context of the fact that many of the evangelical churches in Kenya and Africa are proxies of mother churches in the US. Hence, bankrolled by those organisations to carry their global agenda, part of which is to spread the American version of Christianity through evangelical Christianity. Similarly, for the migrant Chinese, attending a church service freely and openly, unhinged and uninhibited, is a liberating experience of religious expression and belief in a supra-natural deity other than the CPC. In mainland China, this is practically impossible.

Christianity in China

“Religious freedom in China has really reached to the worst level that has not been seen since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao (Zedong) in the 1960s,” writes Samuel Smith, a journalist with the Christian Post. He points out that the Chinese government is supervising a five-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism. There will be a “rewrite” of the Bible. According to a prominent religious freedom activist, the Rev. Bob Fu, the revision of religious regulations will actively guide religion to “adapt to socialist society.”

Religious control in China today is even more severe than it was even just a few years ago, observes Rhodes. “The CPC has always been anti-religion, but after (Premier) Xi Jinping assumed Party control in 2012, China enacted a level of religious persecution not seen since Mao attempted to eliminate religion and other sources of dissent during the bloody Cultural Revolution.”

The plan proposes “cultivating and implementing the socialist core values.” One way in which they plan to “Sinicize” Christianity, Fu is quoted saying, is by “re-translating” the Old Testament and providing new commentary to the New Testament to make socialist ideals and Chinese culture seem more divine. Fu said that in order to comply with the new religious regulations, the Three Self-Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Christian Council (China’s state-sanctioned Protestant bodies), have developed a five-year plan on “promoting the Sinicization of Christianity.”

“Religious freedom in China has really reached to the worst level that has not been seen since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao (Zedong) in the 1960s,” writes Samuel Smith, a journalist with the Christian Post. He points out that the Chinese government is supervising a five-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism.

Thence, posits Rhodes, Catholics in mainland China can legally practise their faith only through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a government body that regulates them into a tightly managed and Communist-friendly version of Catholicism. “Under President Xi, Chinese officials have literally exploded churches, arrested entire Christian congregations, forcibly removed images of the Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhists’ homes, and detained up to one million Muslims from the minority Uighur ethnic group in ‘re-education’ camps.”

This notwithstanding, it has not stopped Msgr Agostino Cui Taim 69, the “controversial” Catholic bishop of Xuanhua, of being seen as a threat and treated as a rebel by CPC. Sanctioned by the Vatican, he is derided by CPC and viewed as an enemy of the state. Since 2007, he has been constantly harassed and placed under surveillance by the CPC. He was recently released temporarily to spend some time with his ageing sister on the eve of China’s Lunar New Year celebrations, which began on January 24. The celebrations were supposed to end on January 30, but they have been extended for another three days because of the sudden explosion of the coronavirus disease, which has hit the populous Wuhan province.

“In a more disturbing move, last year, the Vatican and the CCP concluded years of negotiations with a deal to merge the government-controlled Catholic organization and the underground Catholic Church in China, while allowing Beijing to maintain a substantial role in approving the appointment of new bishops. Many have viewed this deal as a win for the Chinese government, extending its oversight over all Catholics in the country,” wrote Rhodes.

He adds: “From the days of Confucius until now, Chinese governments have been consistently focused on social order, and the Chinese Communist Party is downright obsessed with maintaining stability. Between a quarter and half of the Chinese population now believes in one religious tradition or another, and the CPC fears any large group of organized and ideologically motivated citizens could challenge the Party.”

“Religion is seen as a weakening influence and an existential threat to the very existence of a new emerging Chinese order that is bent on ruling the world in the coming years,” said a Chinese national living Kenya. “China is in constant fight and struggle with the West, which it believes wants to undermine its stranglehold on world power through the influence of Christianity. On this one, China cannot and will not relent.”

He alluded to the six-month Hong Kong city demonstrations by the unrelenting Hong Kongians and the CPC’s backlash. CPC views these demonstrations, not as a demand for more democratic freedom and space, but as one of the West’s strategies of sneaking in religion into Chinese culture, hence weakening its power. Because of the Hong Kong riots, CPC has tightened its already strict controls for Chinese Christians going to Hong Kong for retreats and seminars.

Although it clear the churches are not in control and are not the originators of the unending strikes, CPC believes the churches have surreptitiously been lending support to the strikers. “From criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and supporting underground churches both before and after the handover, to calling upon the population to defy repressive Chinese-proposed laws in the early years of the ‘one country, two systems’ era, the churches of Hong Kong have actively mobilised opposition to Beijing and created an atmosphere of defiance against the CPC,” said Rhodes. “And so, the current round of protests in Hong Kong reflect the larger ongoing battle between the CPC and the church. So far, the protesters have stuck to singing the eponymous chorus of ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.’”

Currently celebrating their Lunar New Year, whose celebrations commenced last weekend (many of the road construction workers in Kenya are back in China for the fete), CPC is also luxuriating in the fact that it is living in the “New Era”, an epoch of the emergence of Chinese global power. In this New Era, China is definitely reclaiming its past glory and influence from centuries of exploitation and humiliation from the West and is viewing religious infiltration as a real threat. The one area CPC will not compromise on is religion. From 1839 to 1949, China faced a “century of humiliation,” an epoch that China does not like remembering and has vowed is a thing of the past, never to recur again.

The world’s new superpower

Before Lee Kuna Yew, the indomitable Singaporean Prime Minister, died in 2015, he noted that “China under Xi Jinping is driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past glory. The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It’s not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

Today CPC believes that America is no longer a power to be frightened of; it may have a slight edge in military might for now, but CPC forecasts that by 2049, it will bridge the gap and then accelerate with speed to further widen that gap. It is also aware that it has to deal with the “little problem” of 300 million Chinese people living in poverty. Once it has sorted out those two issues, China will be ready to conquer the world. From then on, China will take its place of pride in global power play by cementing its overall dominance – economically and politically.

This year, China is supposed to achieve an urbanisation level of 60 per cent, and to become an Internet power and a moderately well-off-society. This means that its per capita income will have doubled from the 2010 figures. It also hopes it will have established its global image and refashioned its soft power. Next year, China also hopes to showcase its accomplishments at the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the CPC. CPC views these goals as the “Chinese Dream” or the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Before Lee Kuna Yew, the indomitable Singaporean Prime Minister, died in 2015, he noted that “China under Xi Jinping is driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past glory…It’s not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

Two important milestone years – 2021 and 2049 – mark China’s hegemonic project. 2021 marks the first of China’s “two centenary goals” that are pegged to the 100th anniversaries of CPC and the People’s Republic of China. At the centre of these patriotic goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the centre of the universe. In the Chinese language, the word for China, zhong guo, means “middle kingdom.” In the lead-up to the centennial celebrations of 2049, CPC has the ambition of galvanising the great China as one unstoppable hegemonic behemoth, devoid of any external influences (read the West) and especially religion. CPC sees religion as a Trojan horse that can never be let into the kingdom.

According to Xinhua, China’s major news agency, by 2049, the centenary year of the People’s Republic of China, the ultimate goal is to build a modern democratic, socialist country that is prosperous, strong, culturally advanced and harmonious. The Chinese powers that be are nostalgic about a world where China was the dominant power and where other states looked upon it in supplication as a superior power. These states came to Beijing as vassals bearing tribute, said Lee Kuan Yew.

As CPC fends off the powerful influence of religion, particularly Christianity from the West, Xi Jinping has promised to make China great again. How? By returning China to the predominance it once enjoyed in Asia before the West interfered, and commanding the respect of other great powers in the council of the world.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness

12 min read. No Roses from My Mouth, Stella Nyanzi’s collection of poetry that was written in prison, and which has won awards, is a deliberately provocative – and apt – response to a dictatorial regime that fails to see the folly of imprisoning writers.

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Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness
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The drama of picking up the book would have been wholly farcical were the circumstances not surreal enough already.

The ridiculousness of furtive telephone calls in which names were neither asked nor given, the long, curving drive that skirted the city, suspicion as to why the boda knocked the car, and then arriving at the drop-off point only to be told the delivery man would not make it, underlined just how psychologically precarious it is to be in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda.

It was bound to be that way the day Stella Nyanzi was sent to prison in 2018. The activist and scholar had opened what amounted to a second front in the fight against the Museveni dictatorship. The means the way such a war is fought is rarely visible, so that while the placid surface of a society going about its quotidian slog remains even, nerves are getting chewed thin underneath. Along with Bobi Wine, one a poet, the other a singer, both of them versifiers, Nyanzi has deployed weapons and tactics dictators are wholly unprepared for:

The reaction of the state apparatus when it moves in on creatives is to always get it wrong. It may have looked like victory to the goonery when Stella Nyanzi was jailed nearly two years ago. But the result has been an Oxfam and PEN International award, and counting. This has been quickly followed by a poetry collection that will now underpin Nyanzi’s repute and bring to all the sheer courage of this woman. As with censorship of books, the argument that not imprisoning writers is the best way to silence them never gets through the collective thick skull of tyranny.

And yet the forceful Nyanzi had made it impossible for Mr. Museveni to not act. Her provocation – for it was, and Nyanzi proudly owns it – was delivered in such terms that Mr. Museveni was doomed to respond, even though he may have been aware of the folly of doing so. How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand. But the history of Big Man-badly- mauled-by-activist woman is a long one. The late Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, might have heeded wise counsel and kept clear of Wangari Maathai. But as with Nyanzi, Maathai too had set her challenge in terms that cornered the late Moi into attacking her. The day he laid hands on her was the day she won.

The diatribe Nyanzi aimed at Mr. Museveni more than found its mark; it paralysed the warmonger who is so used to operating from the outer limits of decency (and being feted for it, by no less than the World Bank), that the bounds of propriety are lost on him, a man who set fire to four, perhaps five, countries, killing millions of Africans and comprehensively corrupting Uganda. He stepped on everyone.

How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand.

He stepped on Stella Nyanzi. Like the feisty girls highschool boys live in fear of, Nyanzi has shrieked out in pain. Here, she describes graphically where she has been touched in language so stark that her attacker remains disoriented. Mr. Museveni has since stumbled from one vaguary to another, like a man searching for firm ground. He led an absurd anti-corruption walk of shameless self-mockery. He went on an aimless self-promoting trek retracing his bush war days, returning to the mythical ground of his self-declared “liberation” war, in what can only be a para-Freudian return to a time when he did believe in something. It was the subconscious speaking louder than the man could ever admit – that he has led a life of hypocrisy. Since Nyanzi spoke, we who pay attention have noticed declining changes in Museveni. There is no going back for him.

And so the irony that a man who in the 1990s used the feminist cause to build an impregnable bulwark of political support has been taken down by a feminist. We can only imagine what went on in Mr. Museveni’s mind when Nyanzi used the Luganda words “lutako” and “butako” to describe him. International media picked and amplified the translation: The Ugandan president had been called a pair of buttocks

“If you put your hands in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble,” Mr. Museveni said in the heat of election campaigns in 2015. He had dangled a bawdy, self-assured illusion of himself. He was the first to use an obscenity against himself, a “crime” for which he still walks freely. But he had left the scatological door wide open and Nyanzi did not need a second invitation.

And so here we are. A plummet from the heights of the Marxist speechifying of the 1980s, when he had been a frequent guest of Kim iI-Sung in Pyongyang, to the whiplash, road-to-Damascus conversion and pre-eminent neoliberal economic mandarin of the 1990s, a shift done without missing a beat (so we doubt how much he had understood of either) as though Karl Marx’s middle name had all along been Hayek. The Museveni regime had at last hit a literal bottom:

“Means of production”, “macro-economics”, “leveraging comparative advantage”, “stabilising the economic base” – words (for they had really been mere words) that had one time been stock-in-trade of clever revolutionaries, had been replaced by “anuses and “thick thighs”, “vaginas” and “buttocks”, the classic declining narrative of cinema that opens with high-end screenings but find that pornography sells more tickets.

This then was where things Ugandan had ground

State reaction to Nyanzi has been a stumble from botched inelegance to overcooked crudity. Two charges – cyber-harassment and disturbing the peace of the president – were brought against her. The double charge was the judicial fishing expedition to guarantee a conviction. There had been an earlier attempt at stifling Nyanzi via the coarse chicanery of a mental illness test, which we can only assume would have been rigged and would have seen her locked up to rot in a mental asylum.

The Directorate of Public Prosecution, whose head at the time has since been elevated to a judicial bench, further besmirched the reputation of an office not wanting for infamy by going ahead with that framing, and then not stopping there.

That test never went ahead. They attempted another ruse. They offered bail, that special form of clemency within the gift of state power. Nyanzi saw through this. Acceptance of the offer of bail would mute the campaign, show that the state had been just all the while.

Makerere University, a tragic shambles under its current vice chancellor, was pressured to dismiss her from her job (we writers have all gone through employers who are forced to let us go). Vice Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe, a man put there to make the university look stupid, terribly botched the dismissal – not that anything other than botched can be possible with Mrs. Museveni as Minister of Education.

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

The tragic disconnect is how tyrannical state goonery never understands how writers see the world. Judges and prosecutors (judicial guinea fowl with eyes firmly stitched to their legalistic navels) see prison as the ultimate tool of ostracism, for is it not proof of guilt that you are locked up?

And so with alacrity they paid for Nyanzi’s 18-month writing retreat by sending her to prison. As a bonus, they handed this creative research scholar thousands of captive respondents via which to study Uganda. Might the advisory council to Mr. Museveni, creaking under its own dead weight, have pointed out to him the folly of putting writers in prison and how that has always turned out?

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

Prison has at last given us and Nyanzi what had always been missing – a substantial enough work from which to see her outside of the high voltage media filter. Had there ever been doubt about her intentions, that has now vanished, and Nyanzi joins a stellar orbit of writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ken Sarowiwa, Jack Mapanje, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose voices were amplified.

Over the course of the past year, Stella Nyanzi smuggled dozens of poems out of prison. As she says in the book, dozens others were confiscated by prison officials, and presumably destroyed. Reading this collection comes with the urgent knowledge that there are bound to be consequences for Nyanzi and her colleagues.

No Roses from my Mouth has that rough and ready samizdat feel. The urgency to get it out was such that the conventions of publishing, the page-setting, the mulling over cover design, was not possible. Here and there, text overruns page, the guillotine chops words midway. There is no table of contents, and the wine-coloured cover feels more like a stain.

All of which do not matter.

Of those that contrived to sentence her to a mental asylum, Nyanzi says, via the poem, They Must be Schizophrenic: 

They want me to upbraid the
Dictator with sweet Apples,
To rebuke him with sweetened
Milk and honey,
To reproach him with a thick
Slice of red velvet cake.

No! In the eponymous poem, No Roses From my Mouth, the last stanza sets the terms of this front:

There will be no orgasm
Coming from my mouth
Who cares about pleasure during war?
Instead there is venom and acid

The fighting tone defines the work, as it defines the woman, through 159 poems, the urgency ranging across insights, observations, a haiku, a call to arms. We have not had a book like this in this region. It is hard to think of another writer doing what Nyanzi is doing. Her language is direct. It is more than direct. It long broke the boundaries of conventional politesse and set as its starting point the far reaches of the acceptable, and then it goes beyond that.

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers. It is not uncommon. We don’t hear too much of it because the people at whom it is often aimed, being aged men in power, rarely dare push their way to the point that this is called for.

When an elderly woman strips naked or uses obscenities, we do not ask if she is mad. We turn to the old man and say, “See what you have done? Mr. Museveni, have you no shame that now women have to strip naked?”

Nyanzi’s poetry is that. It is textual stripping, textual ritual shaming for an old man whose heedless actions threaten to destroy society. This is how we must read this book.

Thus the heavy sexual allusions, the references to castration in Missing Jewels, the provocative threat to “bitch-slap” the “tyrant” in He Cries at Mere Poetry. These are verse equivalents of clothes coming off before the masses, reading in public as a mother declares that the man in power has taken everything society has, so what is left to cover up? What does decency mean when the fount of honour is dishonourable?

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers.

But naughtiness too. Who Pinched My Buttocks? is arguably the funniest poem here. Nyanzi’s narrative skill is plain to see. A poem that opens as a plaintive call for understanding, Who Pinched my Buttocks? sets off rhetorically, asking for understanding, to each her own, saying Let me do my bit to the best of my ability/Do your bit, too, as well as you can. Hence, those who speak diplomatically should not stop those who sing ragga. The religious must not drive out the demons of nude protestors. So it goes on, with calls to writers of legislation not to stymie the writers of tweets and Facebook. Fair enough. Except, that opening line was suspended and reconnects to the final lines thus…But let me grow my finger nail that pinch/When my time comes I want to be effective/The dictator will say, “Who pinched my buttocks?”

It is the tone with which the collection opens, the clarion call to action of A Plea for Decongestion. (Sure enough, four verses in, the F-word appears). Nyanzi proceeds to describe how prisoners sleep packed like sardines as…

My thighs pressed hard onto someone’s arse
My arse pressed hard onto another’s thighs
This sequence of adult thighs pressing adult arse
Is repeated in two rows of 30 women each

Nyanzi may be in prison, but her sense of humour is sharp at the ending of this poem:

If fighters of sodomy in Uganda cared at all
They would start by decongesting the prison

We will be led down this path only for sombreness to end in jest, again and again. And we have to be thankful for it.

The collection is a totality of prison life. News arrives to Nyanzi that Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina has died. She says in Is Binya Really Dead?:

Binya broke hard ground at a difficult time!
Binya took the bull by the horns
And inspired me with boldness.
Binya inseminated my mind. 

The closing sections of the collection are more personal and introspective. They are about Nyanzi’s family life. The lowest moments do come as she wonders in No Padlock on Your Loin whether her marriage will survive prison. Thoughts about her children come close to breaking her. She pulls up and says in How to Visit Prison that visitors to prison must not come with their tears because prisoners have trouble enough. Break down and dry after the visit is done.

It is painful to read Nyanzi retell how she lost her unborn child due to negligence by prison staff.

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula. These could be a separate collection by themselves. Though they are windows into the locked-away world of incarceration, they are really insights into the world outside. We count here what values society considers acceptable by examining the obverse. Solitary souls in prison, plucked clean off the margins of society from whence they had fought to survive, the mangos hawked by the roadside to feed the 8-month-old baby who must now survive six months motherless because the mother has been locked away, the young woman who needed just that stick of weed, just the stick from inside prison. The androgynous prisoner in Intersex in Prison, personalities viewed via versfication, poetry that captures snatches and glimpses of their being. It is their souls we feel, and what we feel lies heavy upon us.

And then the realisation dawns: But is this not what it is all about? Nyanzi’s struggle, lest we forget, began with the backtracking of the promise by Mr. Museveni during the election campaign of 2015/2016 to provide sanitary pads to all school girls if elected president. Once duly declared the winner, he sent his wife, who had been elevated to Minister of Education, to say that there was no money for the promised pads. Hence the fiery Facebook post for which Nyanzi is in prison. We must ask how many women might not be in prison had their education not been interrupted by menstrual cycles?

That is the asking price here. It is the stiff penalty. If Nyanzi’s language ensures that we don’t casually look away from class, ethnic and gender violence, how do we then address a female Minister of Education who says there will be no pads for young girls under her watch? Which is the obscenity – the language of Nyanzi or Mrs. Museveni’s sentencing into poverty and abuse millions of school girls?

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula.

The furore surrounding Nyanzi’s work has nearly succeeded in obscuring her poetry, how it is conceived, how it works. The judge that sentenced her declared that it was not poetry. And although Nyanzi responds emphatically to this in Your Aesthetic Standards (a title surely missing an expletive) with Pooh to your bourgeois snobbery!/Your aesthetic what-what again? We have now come close enough to Nyanzi’s mind as a writer to know that she need not to have mentioned “standards”. Arguing over literariness is a cat-and-mouse game we can play in this collection, but we would be missing something more important.

That her writing is a radical, political position is underscored by the poem, Your Aesthetic Standards, where she writes, of her writing:

Bitch, I penned my pieces on the prison floors.
My sounding boards were suspected vagabonds

…..

Druggies and junkies offered some rhymes

….

Convicts of common nuisance passed the meter
Sex workers and fraudsters approved lines.
Impersonators and thieves approved lines.
Suspects of murder and assault gave symbols
Suspects of manslaughter advised on ideas
Political prisoners cried at some stanzas
And just for size, Nyanzi adds
Prison wardresses confiscated some poems.

Far from gratuitous iconoclasm, Nyanzi’s ethos is a time-honoured tradition of radical criticism, which is also at the very heart of Marxist thought, of historical materialism. Here, the human body, as the material, is posited as the central platform upon which history is generated. Stripped to its essential, the human body is the active reagent of politics and economics, from black legs, arms, torsos and heads (needed together and functioning) being sold into slavery to generate the capital in Western capitalism, it is the parts of the human body called upon to operate tools, fingers that pick cotton, the human body that is targeted as the primary digestive tool and fat storage for the fast food empire, the feet that are covered by Clarke’s shoes, legs, buttocks and arms and shoulders that Vuitton and Hugo Boss target.

The colour of the skin you wear will, in America and England, determine whether the police pull that trigger or not.

The human body is the generator and archive of culture, what we do with the hair on top of it, which bits of flesh are trimmed, shaved and cut off depending on gender and religious persuasion. The body of Christ, for Christians, is the ecumenicalism that binds the religion together.

The human body is power. Entire civilisations convulse at the showing of an ankle, shoulders, breasts. Priests and judges police the human body more than they police anything else. When a tyrant wants to show who is boss, it is the eyes and nostrils at which tear gas is aimed, the head is for the baton, wrists and ankles for manacles, the heart for the bullet of the firing squad.

The body carries everywhere it goes, from temple to a football game, a litany of “unmentionables”. Breaking the command of priests and judges (the perennial handmaidens of dictators) by baring some parts while covering others at once dissolves their source of power.

In Nyanzi’s collection, the body plays the vital role of offering insight into society. There is the transexual with both male and female genitals whose elusive category erases gendered response: Does he/she have power or not? The state must break the body to acquire power, hence, the prisoners must sit on the floor, stooped, kneeling before the upright standing guards.

Nyanzi returns us to the basics, disavowing metaphysics (the acceptable politics of “beyond the body”) that can and often comes riddled with falsehoods. A return to the body is, in political terms, a handing of power back to the masses – the working, labouring “body” of society, away from the ruling “head”.

A return to the body is a threat to the ruling ethos, for once covered up and policed, those that decide what we wear, which parts we cover up, or which words we can use, can misreport to us what the body says – which is what culture and law and “civilisation” more or less add up to. A return to the body is insisting on seeing the exhibits for ourselves, to judge if what we are being told about human society is accurate or not.


No Roses from My Mouth is published by Ubuntu Reading Group, with an introduction by the writers and activists, Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. It can also be purchased on Kindle.

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Tedium and Cannibalism in America’s Democratic Primary

13 min read. As Democratic Party candidates hurl insults at each other, and fail to inspire voters, the Trump machinery is gearing up to prepare for another victory in the 2020 election. What future can liberals in Trump’s America expect, especially in an environment where rational debate has been replaced by idiocy?

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Tedium and Cannibalism in America’s Democratic Primary
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“Who the f**k are you, man?” Some awkwardly dressed long-haired pale kid asked out loud to a quiet bar at the appearance of six or seven of the candidates crowding the stage of one of the initial Democratic debates back in July 2019. Now, nearly seven months later, that statement, then met with tepid chuckles over 8 dollar draft beers and local artisanal fried cheese with “hand-made” aoili, rings truer than ever.

It still hangs heavy over the entirety of the Democratic Party; one that is now in a crisis of identity, and being repeatedly body punched in a fight that it does not fully understand. The question was asked in the heart of what has rapidly materialised as the singular most vital swing state in the entirety of the country; which is rapidly proving to be the mid-western state of Wisconsin (the one that looks like a mitten, north of Chicago).

The audience within that state, and one imagines, many other states, is rapidly erring on the side of indifference. In the crucial Democratic zone of Dane County in the overtly liberal capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, there have been sinfully few actual inroads towards actually doing the crucial thing – getting the base frothing at their mouths with a sense of urgency.

We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019. How to sum up these last six months of “serious” presidential campaigning on the Democratic side? Quite possibly, pointless, although it is honestly nearly impossible to tell – such is the minimal impact that the last half year seems to have had in influencing the mind of the “Democratic base voter” to be inspired enough to get out and campaign, to sign up their friends, to back a candidate, to even vote.

Truly, it should have been more memorable than it was, and therein lies the problem. The Democratic Party doesn’t realise that the entire year was seemingly spent whilst laying as little infrastructure and making as few viable inroads as they possibly could. Just as the race started to become solid, as one would expect the party to come together after the posers and long shots began to drop out across the latter months of 2019 and early 2020, the problems grew bigger as the campaign grew more “serious”— highlighted in bizarre on-stage fights between two of the three arguable front-runners, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the former of which threw barbs at sexist sentiments; the latter whose supporters claimed vast establishment conspiracy.

We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019.

Right now, key predictions are stating that there are four states that can be judged as “absolute toss-ups”: Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania went to Donald Trump in 2016 – arguably the biggest shock of that awkwardly rolled-out night, the announcement coming shortly before John Podesta shuffled aimlessly out onto the stage in New York City to tell shattered Hilary Clinton supporters to go home, probably shortly followed by the chair of the campaign wandering home to stare into the depths of a bottle of Scotch and wonder when his failings would bite him in the ass. Pennsylvania will have blue (Democratic) money poured into it; there is next to no chance of it going for Trump again.

Florida, while it is called a toss-up, has the controversies of six political thriller novels every two years with each new election cycle. The deck has been rigged Republican in the state to ensure the suppression of votes – taking away voting rights, not allowing former prisoners to vote, or as in 2000, when all else fails, just giving shitty ballots to the states multitude of senior citizens (albeit the old liberal Jewish ones). It may be called a toss-up, but it will fall red (Republican) in the 2020 presidential ballot.

Arizona cuts the same way; consistently touted as having the potential to flip over to the liberal side of the voting trend, the state never truly arrives at voting “left”, and the same will almost definitely ring true in favour of Trump in 2020.

That leaves Wisconsin, and given the above estimates, if the predictions hold, it will put the electoral college score at a dead heat of 268-260 towards the Democratic candidate. (In this screwball American system of elections, it takes 270 to win and to the victor goes all the power.) Now it seems that the ball has rolled slowly to our feet; whether Wisconsin possesses any ability to pick it up and run with it is a drastically different story. Right now, indifference reigns supreme.

Hubris and hot air

The entire summer last year, it seemed to rain, and people seemed to get angrier every time the clouds broke long enough to melt the earth with a heat wave that would make Mombasa blush. The attitude surrounding the debates in the early and mid-stages of July wasn’t helped along by this acclimatic side effect to global warming; all of the candidates seemed to rise and fall, punching themselves out and then landing a knockout blow, only to be slapped down days later in a circular firing squad of their own demise.

Each formed their own fate and rapidly dug their grave on the small hill that they chose to die on on a separate occasion. For Warren it was continuing to address the claims of Native American heritage; for Kamala Harris, it was burrowing down the rabbit hole of staying the “most woke” as a former prosecutor in the state of California (albeit before she randomly dropped out to yawns on a Tuesday in early December); Bernie engaged and engaged on some of his former campaign staff (not him, specifically) being accused of sexism. Mayor Pete had a race relation issue as the black police chief of his city was controversially fired; Joe Biden continually tripped over his own dick at every possible turn and Amy Klobuchar kept getting slammed with terrible answers over her alleged abuse of former staffers.

Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain. John Delaney dropped out on January 31st, mostly to general surprise that he’d ever been in the race at all. Cory Booker dropped out in mid-January, having thoroughly missed his shot. Just three days before him, Marianne Williamson dropped out to much disdain as the race had been much more interesting watching her have assorted drug flashbacks live in front of a studio audience. Julian Castro, considered a long shot dark horse, dropped off shortly before Williamson and promptly threw all of his swing state clout behind Elizabeth Warren, resulting in much speculation towards vice presidential angling.

Trust me, I know even reading the previous paragraph is an exercise in exhaustion. After several bruising campaign events and debates, the knock-out and reemergence of seemingly irrelevant candidates at the said debates and a continual media firestorm to navigate, no one has truly emerged as a winner; even the clear front runners are met with trepidation, doubt and the lack of real cohesion among what is passing for the “base” in the Democratic Party. It has become politics by participation – no one deserves to lose yet, let’s just hear what they think, okay?

Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain.

Even as one alleged competitor (albeit one with little claim to the throne), Beto O’Rourke, dropped out of the race (to assorted shrugs of indifference), another challenger with the cache and cash to go far, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has jumped into the Democratic fray. He has kicked up several weeks of bizarre ads (including a multi-million-dollar spot during the Super Bowl) and has still managed to fail to crack into the upper echelon. He has taken on the role of kingmaker, seemingly self-aware enough to know he stands little chance months into his run. He has vowed to play dirty and throw millions behind the eventual Democratic winner (assuming he is to inevitably lose). The whole affair seems to be a party held by the voters. Even typical political alliances are failing to take shape as the race progresses; no one is on anyone’s side, dogs are eating dogs.

At this point, trying to keep any rational track of the proceedings is akin to gaining your bearings in an all-out blizzard; the light at the end of the tunnel rapidly fades into a mirage.

In the meantime; Trump has continued to weather storms that would destroy anyone else: if they are ships to be sunk, he is an ugly little rock that gets battered by the hurricane and doesn’t go under the surface. It has been a summer and early fall that quite frankly came across as some kind of strange record: what that record would be categorised as is harder to pinpoint (douchiest quarter? Worst leadership month? Foreign policy fuck-ups per capita in an administration? Unforced errors in a day?)

Truly, the only way to properly see the scope of Trump’s mistakes since June of 2019 would be to sum them up in bullet form:

  • He held an unprecedented military parade on the Fourth of July;
  • He was booed at a baseball game in Washington DC;
  • He pulled US troops out of Syria, causing the Middle East to somehow become more of a quagmire in less than 12 hours. He gave into Erdogan for apparently no reason;
  • A massive scandal about Ukraine and quid pro quo broke. He admitted the scandal repeatedly. He called for investigations into those who were investigating him
  • He was linked to a notorious billionaire child sex trafficker who was then arrested and who committed suicide in prison under mysterious circumstances;
  • He callously mishandled the wake of major mass shootings the same weekend;
  • He was found guilty of stealing from a charity to bolster his own political efforts.

These events snowballed into a much-maligned months-long impeachment show trial, which once again the Democratic powers that be fell straight into, thinking that there were more than five “rational” Republican Senators left. (There aren’t.) On January 31st, 2020, Trump was all but acquitted when the Republicans held their line, put their middle fingers up to precedent and simply refused to even hear witnesses; ostriches with their heads willingly buried.

Yet, he doesn’t seem to have lost any real ground. There is talk of impending Republican collapse, sure, but talk in American politics is the cheapest of commodities, and right now Trump has a monopoly on that market. The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.

A classic counter-attack

The strategy of the Republicans is a classic counter-attack: in the face of impending disaster, send everyone into the opposition’s box to put shots on goal. Right now, it seems to be working like gangbusters. The Democratic Party has a rapidly dwindling opportunity, one that grows smaller and smaller every month. Meanwhile, there has been substantial consolidation by the right wing to influence possible battleground states.

This has always been a Democratic problem, and frankly, a Republican strength: that those on the right make awful politicians, but are utterly adept at winning in politics. It was showcased last fall when the Republican Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, was handed a resounding defeat by upstart Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, by an incredibly narrow margin. Defeat, however, may be a strong term, as Bevin is currently fighting tooth and nail to have the results nullified or even thrown out.

That race was the essence of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are Machiavellian; they’ll do anything to get ahead and win. The Democrats seemingly have no such ability; they repeatedly roll over, giving inches and miles, throwing in the towel before eating each other for not being woke enough. It begs the question often asked in post-colonial era elections in East Africa: If you know your opposition is going to play dirty and win, what’s the point of playing the game clean?

This is a ponderous question to be sure, but with all of this “polite” conversation, political angling and snippy remarks at each other, it is one that the American left wing is currently not answering with any real teeth. As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.

The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.

On his part, Trump must be given his due, just as the devil is. He is currently leading a political machine and movement with a deft touch, despite not having the character to wield such power. Every three months or so, in an act that can only be described as masochistic, I watch the entirety of a Trump rally live on YouTube. Sober.

Yes, completely sober. The latest of these little exercises of burrowing deep into the strangeness came in October 2019 at the much-less-infamous-than-it-should-be Minneapolis rally at which Trump made hate claims against Somalis in the state of Minnesota, made extremist claims against representative Ilhan Omar, called Joe Biden’s children assorted names, publicly made weird sexual dialogue about the FBI’s role in the Russia investigation after the 2016 election, and repeatedly admitted to wrongdoing during his call with the Ukrainian president (while framing the phone call as “perfect”).

And yet, none of it is capitalised upon, no front running is found, all instincts of stepping on your political enemy when they’re down have seemingly been lost on 75 per cent of the Democratic candidates, while the ones that do “get it” can’t message their way around a free marijuana giveaway. If they have tried; it has been a pitiful effort against arguably the most flawed opponent in political history. If they were a boxer, the Democrats would have let up their opponent back up off the canvas, with their backs turned and hands raised in meaningless presumptuous triumph. So why haven’t any of the Democratic candidates stated the seemingly obvious (and court ruling-backed) truth: that Trump is a terminally criminal asshole and should be kicked to the curb.

As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.

As drastic as the above language is, it serves a further point – that when dealing with meanness this extreme, and a political climate this drastic, all semblance of kindness and reasonableness should be thrown out the window at all possible cost. This very election seems to hold a kind of decade on the tail end of it; if Trump wins, his power will be consolidated for at least another decade.

In essence, the current election must be contextualised for the weight it truly holds for the future of the country, the region, global geopolitics, global warming and sentiments veering to the right on a global scale.

A quintessential East African election

The US presidential election of 2020 resembles Kenya’s in 1992, Uganda’s in 2011, or even Rwanda’s in 2010. The initial contrast between this year in the US and that of Kenya in 1992 lies in the stakes: Kenya had come through the autocratic era of the 1980s Moi regime and up the hill of struggle to gain multipartyism, only to have the dream shattered as Moi won controversially once again (marred by allegations of ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation) while in the Rift Valley pockets of brutal violence emerged along with the results. Similarly, in the US, Democrats’ efforts to throw out a man they deem to be a wannabe brutal dictator fall flat. Instead of the change towards a progressive future that Kenya had hoped for, the ‘90s for the nation were more of the same, even as the years of corruption steadily corroded the shilling. This could also reflect in this upcoming American election – all hope for getting back on course towards a sort of progressive political shift could slide back into another tedious decade of fear and anger.

There is further fear in the US ahead of the 2020 election of abject failings at a systematic level a la Uganda’s general election debacle of 2011. The vote pitted challenger Kizza Besigye against multi-decade ruler Yoweri Museveni, and early indicators showed that the incumbent may have vulnerabilities after sliding back on promises during his previous term and the country facing the possibility of economic turmoil. Instead, the proceedings saw rampant malfeasance, with Museveni in the end claiming a decisive victory even as local and international observers leaned heavily on the military’s intimidation of potential voters as a crucial factor in deciding the outcome.

There are similar fears in America – that minority voters will first face the struggle of getting past intimidation (some of which has been directly called for by Trump himself), and both local and foreign interference (once again directly called for with frequency by Trump) and in the end the results could be an utter foul-up. If the initial Democratic Primary Caucus election of February 3rd is any indication (in which the app used for tallying votes seemed to die due to the pressure of it all), this doesn’t uphold in the upcoming American vote running anything resembling smoothly.

In Rwanda in 2010, it seemed that the first presidential election since the nation mandated their necessity (in seven-year increments), the resulting vote seemed to be a referendum on the very future of the nation – a fruitful economic decade translated into much of the population overlooking any allegations of cracking down on anti-Kagame dissent and rumoured human rights abuses. The result? Kagame won with 93 per cent of the vote, an utter landslide and an utter rebuke to any naysayers within the country. As a result, his mandate was deepened and widened, his grip on the country, for better or worse, has been drastically legitimised. This is the fear among cynical American liberals three-quarters of a year away from the upcoming election: that much of the problem will see the band playing on with an endless stream of economic bounty- and capitalism-fueled orgies. The fear remains that the success is based on lies that both the American left and voters of Donald J. Trump simply are blind too; or perhaps even more worrying, that they’re aware of them and simply choose to ignore them.

It is exactly the same for the Republican Party. For the Trump faithful, this is a 2030 play and beyond: to make the future of the nation (and whoever America deems bombable next), economic inequality be damned and let the memory of ice caps fade away. What they fail to realise is that the temporary economic relief could give way to a much longer term disaster.

The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down. It is that brooding, constant question that many have asked prominent opposition figures: If you knew for certain that the incumbent was cheating in the election, why didn’t you cheat better?

In past elections (see Obama era), there were widespread watch parties and enthusiasm abounded amongst the “base”; there was something to galvanise there. Now, with less than a year to go, the rare battleground bar will play the political theatrics of a Democratic debate live; the atmosphere is almost too pervasively toxic. It seems as if many are afraid to even dare jump into that fray, as though the very notion of Trumpism could rear its ugly head in the form of a yelling “bro”, a drunk and disorderly patron, a disgruntled random who decides to go get his AR-15 and “finally show those libtards they should finally listen”.

Radicalised politeness

In the mid-west, especially in Wisconsin, there is a cultural norm that I once read described as “radicalised politeness” – the idea that politics shouldn’t be brought out into the light amongst decent people for debate; it could ruin an evening of Friday fish fries or (god forbid) an NFL game. From what I can tell, with the noxious fumes being spewed off over all things politic in this year 2020, the entire middle class in America is temporarily numb to it. Trump’s inherent gaucheness has goaded them into some kind of tepid silence, with lifelong pollsters desperate to gain some kind of rational grip on the polls.

The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down.

The ugly truth remains that as of right now, there isn’t a solid foothold to be found anywhere; if the ship is heading for the rocks, then the crew is squabbling over who should hold the wheel. It seems as though the honest direction of things is that Trump will maintain a grip on the White House in 2020, and that “liberal” America will try to take their last shot in 2024, probably to an even further depth of failure.

The stakes are high, but no one is there to meet them. At Thanksgiving dinner this year, in a house full of old-school union Democrats in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the essence of the problem was crystallised. Among the eight different voters at the dinner, not one shared a favourite candidate. The struggle for a political edge in the party has become a war of attrition to which voters are shrugging their shoulders.

Trump, on his part, continues to hurl idiocy in the air. Like so many tragically flawed opponents of dictators before him, the bait is being taken. What they seem to realise is that if they don’t manage to come together, there is absolutely no telling just how far down this rabbit hole could truly go.

I like comparing politics to driving; Americans, despite all their fancy roads and cutting edge cars, die in the thousands in car accidents every year. Why? Simple – they never anticipate a potential blind spot.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women

7 min read. The main objective of Kenya’s largest women’s organisation has been to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for Kenya’s women.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women
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MYWO has always existed to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the foreseeable future

We are witnessing the Kenyan government’s attempt to reimpose silence as the preferred political language in this next phase of politics. These attempts are hidden in plain sight. Take for instance the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO)’s recent public censure of the Member of Parliament for Kandara constituency, Alice Wahome, for criticising the president, or the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders demanding that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s popularisation is the preserve of those aligned to the president.

According to its website, MYWO is a non-governmental organisation of over 25,000 affiliate women’s groups and over 4 million individual members. Registered in 1952 by a group of white settler women as part of the colonial government’s Department of Community Development and Rehabilitation, its purpose was to focus on women’s social welfare, which it did through organising women’s self-help groups around the country. In central Kenya where the movement for land, freedom and independence (the Mau Mau) was active, MYWO was treated with suspicion and there were rumours it was used to collect information on Mau Mau activities.

MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independence government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development. The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987. MYWO, therefore, has deep roots in the state and the state as an institution for the control of people. It is an organisation by women but not for women; its purpose is to serve the interests of the state.

MYWO has never deviated from its historical roots and purpose. It has never been an independent women’s organisation, nor has it ever been invested in women’s political agency. Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

Because women were for all intents and purposes excluded from mainstream politics, MYWO was one of the few spaces for politically active women. Thus, some of its chairpersons include such politically active women as: Hon. Phoebe Asiyo, who was first elected in 1980 and was also the first person to table a bill for affirmative action for women’s representation in elective politics in 1997; Jael Ogombe Mobogo, who almost beat Mwai Kibaki in the race for Member of Parliament for Bahati Constituency in the 1969 elections; and Ruth Habwe, who was expelled from KANU in 1966 after she dared to run against KANU as an independent. Other chairpersons of MYWO include such prominent women as Hon. Zipporah Kittony, who was first nominated by President Moi as a KANU MP in 1988 and again by Gideon Moi, President Moi’s son and the Chairman of KANU, to the Senate 25 years later in 2013; and Jane Kiano, who was also a patron of the organisation until her death in 2018.

Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

However, MYWO’s influence began to decline during the “second liberation” as demands for multipartyism grew and civic space expanded. As the public space for women expanded, including through the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, MYWO continued to shrink. Its resurgence to chastise Alice Wahome for criticising the president is, therefore, worth reflection.It is also worth noting that President Uhuru Kenyatta first ran on a KANU ticket and his political mentor was President Moi.

For the first time in our history, men and women form a class of citizens, neither with superior status, and both with the right to representation in elective and appointive bodies. Yet over the past decade, and especially in the last seven years, we have witnessed some of the most hardened resistance by the state to women as citizens — from systematic violations of the Constitution to exclude women from Parliament, Cabinet, and parastatal and ambassadorial appointments (as required by the Bill of Rights Article 27) to laws undermining their equality in marriage and the increase in violence against women by men in the public and private spheres.

In other words, there has been no shortage of “women’s issues” over the past decade. Women and women’s organisations working in women’s interests have had to demand, advocate and fight for women against the state despite the law – from court cases challenging these unconstitutional actions by Parliament and by the president to public advocacy for compliance with the rule of law to ensure women’s full representation in public space and politics. Women working for and on behalf of women have been at the forefront of challenging state illegalities that harm women, undermine their citizenship and limit their opportunities. During this time MYWO has been missing in action.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment. MYWO certainly does not protect the interests of women as a class of citizens. This isn’t to argue that their position is invalid or does not deserve a platform but to provide context and to assert it is not the women’s position.

MYWO was established to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the future of women in the country. The Kikuyu Council of Elders is the preserve of men, and the emergence of a “women’s league” in a notoriously misogynistic institution is probably a sign that the interests and positions being advanced are those of men.

The homogenisation of women

Women have been speaking for the past decade on issues of national importance. Where are those voices of women who have been speaking when it wasn’t convenient or politically expedient? Indeed, what the 2010 Constitution did to the consternation of the political elite is to create opportunities for the largest number of women in Kenyan politics – women who demand public space and national platforms without apology and on the same terms as men, women who speak against the state’s failure to protect women.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment.

But the way in which women who have been speaking for and on behalf of women against the state are being covered today is an attempt to homogenise women, to deny women the right to multiple and diverse opinions (see how this is consistent with a view of women as not real citizens). A small class of politically active women are also trying use the media to manipulate the public into seeing them as the “leaders” of the constituency of women so that they can leverage this standing to secure positions in the negotiated politics that is the fashion post-BBI.

Women are insulted, raped and killed and MYWO is silent, but a woman politician doing politics in a way that upsets the establishment is a cause for national statements. No woman with an issue – from the alienation of inheritance land or rape of her daughter in a public high school, or even the death of her daughter allegedly by a governor – runs to MYWO. However, the state runs to MYWO when it has issues with women.

To deny women diverse political opinions is to deny us the fullness of citizenship; it serves to infantilise us as well as to deny us agency at a time when the political elite is most vulnerable. Our politics is bad but it isn’t simple.  Attempts by the political elite to gloss over differences or muzzle dissent should be met with suspicion.The only way citizens can influence the direction or agenda of politics is through critical political engagement not mere acquiescence.

MYWO’s resurgence, especially in the role of the disciplinarian of women doing politics, is a harbinger of a politics without basic freedoms: freedom of association and speech, not just for women, but all citizens. The nature of our popular, predominately male, political analysis is to render anything articulated by a woman as peripheral to the national discourse and only for the consumption of other women. Whereas men speak and do politics for the public, women speak and do politics only for other women.

This analytical framework fails to take cognisance of changes in society, as well as the expanded public and political role of women, especially post-2010. In addition, it is stubbornly ahistorical, ignoring this administration’s history of violating women’s rights as a prelude to more expansive and systematic repression. We see the same modus operandi with court orders. The Parliament and the president have consistently violated court orders on the two-thirds gender rule, including refusing to enact legislation on women’s representation and naming an unconstitutional cabinet. Now court orders are violated to deny some citizens the right to enter the country, as well as release them on bail.

We would do well to broaden our political analysis to take women’s role seriously as citizens with agency and with diverse political perspectives and, therefore, as proponents of both progressive and regressive politics. Part of what is most threatening in the current context is diversity of political opinion, complexity and nuance among all citizens, not just women.

MYWO and organisations like it are telling women what the proper political position is, thus pulling women back from complicating the public space by demanding to be heard. This is especially damaging for women because women as a class of citizens have legitimate litigated grievances that challenge the legality and legitimacy of any proposed referendum or constitutional amendment processes.

Why women are critically important is because none of the legal processes to amend the Constitution are available because these institutions are unconstitutional as they exclude women. We have an unconstitutional cabinet, an unconstitutional Parliament, an unconstitutional electoral body and a political elite that have all but admitted that elections are hijacked by those in power. The scope of the current illegalities would seem to exclude the current holders of those positions from initiating or overseeing any constitutional amendment process. Instead of an unconstitutional government overseeing amendments to the Constitution, what we should have is an independent transitional government. But the political elite know that this political moment works in their collective interest only if it is a binary choice, uncomplicated by facts and the law.

As citizens we would do well to be suspicious of those seeking to silence us or to mould us into well-packaged constituencies, whether they be organised around ethnicity, gender or age, for sale to the highest bidder. We are being encouraged to consider political choices that are both illegal and ahistorical and questioning the framing is considered heresy. We seem to have learned nothing from the silencing of critics and the faux “tyranny of numbers” scenario.

Shrinking the political space, especially the space to disagree and oppose the status quo, is bad for citizens and great for politicians. The politics of silence is the politics of oppression; it merely starts with women but will eventually silence and oppress all citizens equally.

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