Abraham Maslow once said that to those who only have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. The reactions of world governments to the coronavirus pandemic is proof of this. Around the globe, it appears that a one-size-fits-all basket of prescriptions – from closing borders to locking down societies – seems to be all the rage. Catchphrases like “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” abound in international media reports and political speeches and proliferate all over social media.
Not to be left out, African governments have followed suit. Last week, the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, ordered all schools closed, forbade entry into the country to all but a few foreigners with residence permits and urged citizens to work from home, to wash and sanitise their hands, and to avoid crowding in public spaces, including transport. A few weeks ago, these measures would have seemed extreme. But not today, as the global advance of the virus sparks a stampede for the global system’s exits.
However, while the government’s rhetoric may make sense when viewed from a public health perspective, a closer look reveals the dangers inherent in blindly following the crowd. Take, for example, the situation in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Here, two-thirds of the city’s 4.4 million people are crammed into informal settlements, which cover just 6 percent of its land area. Within these crowded slums, entire families are forced to share single-room dwellings. With no running water, conditions are unsanitary and disease is rampant. Many slum residents work in the informal economy, running small businesses or providing casual labour to nearby rich and middle-class housing estates or to factories in the industrial areas. Few have job security or get sick leave.
The city’s public transport system is similarly crowded, unsanitary and chaotic. It is dominated by matatus – privately owned minibuses in which passengers are routinely packed shoulder to shoulder for journeys that, thanks to the city’s horrendous traffic, rarely last less than an hour. Another popular means of getting around are boda bodas or motorcycle taxis, where passengers share filthy helmets (when available) and can sometimes squeeze three to a bike.
In these circumstances, what do concepts such as “social distancing” mean? How practical is it to ask people to work from home? How exactly is someone who shares a single room with half a dozen other family members be expected to “self-quarantine” if they were to fall ill with symptoms associated with COVID-19? How are they to avoid infecting their neighbours or make it to the city hospitals – themselves hopelessly overcrowded and unsanitary at the best of times – without spreading the infection?
These practical considerations do not appear to have troubled President Kenyatta and his mandarins as they regurgitate the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), which seems to take Western lifestyles as a template for life in the rest of the world. Perhaps this is because the government is fond of issuing “directives” when dealing with social issues, rather than consulting with its citizens. For example, researchers have noted that “approaches to reducing exposure to air pollution in informal settlements…have very little input from the people they target. As a result, they may have a low rate of acceptance”.
The people making decisions exhibit little awareness of or acquaintance with the realities of everyday life for the majority of urban Kenyans. Safely ensconced in their gated estates, accustomed to having the roads cleared for them and to being treated in well-equipped private hospitals (when they have opted not to fly abroad for medical treatment), these folks have no qualms about simply repeating the dictates from global elites. From where they sit, it can seem quite reasonable to propose that those in self-imposed quarantine have their own separate room and bathroom at a time when access to a flush toilet and piped water is a luxury for many of their fellow countrymen.
Public health in the colonial economy
The lack of appreciation for the circumstances of their fellow citizens stems from the fact that for over a century, Kenyan elites have been happy to exploit their poor neighbours for their cheap labour while doing little to invest in public services. The model was made during the colonial period. European authorities were not overly concerned with the health of the African population. In a 1987 paper titled “The 1920s Anti-Yaws Campaigns And Colonial Medical Policy In Kenya”, Marc Dawson notes that prior to 1920, “colonial medical officials were not responsible for the health of the bulk of the African population, only for caring for the health of government employees and European settlers and ensuring that epidemic disease did not disrupt the colonial economy”.
These practical considerations do not appear to have troubled President Kenyatta and his mandarins as they regurgitate the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO)…Perhaps this is because the government is fond of issuing “directives” when dealing with social issues, rather than consulting with its citizens.
Thus the focus of the colonial government was on ensuring that Africans did not carry diseases to work and did not threaten the health of Europeans, not that they were themselves healthy. For example, the outbreak of plague in Kisumu in the first decade of the 20th century elicited a quick response because of the potential for economic disruption, as well as the threat to the small European population. One can see a similar dynamic in the treatment of the poor in Nairobi’s slums today. Like the Africans in colonial Nairobi, their presence in the city is only tolerated because their labour is required. While typically their lives are blighted by disease and squalour, the government is not interested in them unless their illness poses a threat to the economy.
The response of the colonial authorities to the Third Plague Pandemic, which broke out of China’s Yunnan Province in the mid-19th century and spread globally via European steamships and merchant routes, is also illustrative. The pandemic reached Nairobi in 1902, where an outbreak led to the burning down of the Indian Bazaar, the city’s first business district. Nairobi would suffer frequent plague outbreaks over the next two decades. The persistence of the plague, according to Owaahh, “stimulated the first official town planning efforts for Nairobi, although most of the efforts were to segregate Indians whose sprawling townships were thought to be breeding grounds for carrier rats”.
In 1914, a report prepared by Prof. W. J. Simpson proposed not just the segregation of residential and commercial centres, but also, according to the book Indians in Kenya by Sana Aiyar, a “neutral belt of unoccupied land of at least 300 yards around European areas to ensure the healthfulness of the locality”. Following the outbreak of plague in Kisumu in December 1904, according to Health, State, and Society in Kenya by George Ndege, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies declared that “great care should be exercised in the selection of sites for settlements, in keeping the native and European locations well apart”. Over the years, this segregation of the races has morphed into the class segregation that is a feature of Kenyan cities today.
To tackle the plague, the colonial authorities imposed harsh measures, including forced vaccinations, house burnings and quarantines. The Africans who bore the brunt of these measures were rarely consulted and quickly became loath to cooperate or to report plague cases in their homesteads, knowing it meant the destruction of their homes. This tendency to talk down to the people and to issue directives rather than consult with the citizens has been inherited by the current Kenya government.
Another colonial trait is the preference for quick, short-term fixes rather than long-term investments. When the first mass health survey of the African population was carried out in 1915 in the form of medical examinations of male conscripts for the Carrier Corps, the results sufficiently alarmed the authorities about the poor health situation in the African reserves from where they drew their labour. The main culprits were yaws and heart disease. The long term and more expensive solution would have been to improve the quality of life, especially as yaws has been described as a disease of poverty.
To tackle the plague, the colonial authorities imposed harsh measures, including forced vaccinations, house burnings and quarantines. The Africans who bore the brunt of these measures were rarely consulted and quickly became loath to cooperate or to report plague cases in their homesteads, knowing it meant the destruction of their homes.
However, while the 1920s anti-yaws campaign represented a first attempt by colonial medics to expand provision of healthcare beyond government employees to rural Africans, the government and physicians still chose to do it on the cheap. As Dawson notes, “rather than raising the living standards of the rural population (prevention), the colonial authorities tried to cure the population of yaws with injections of a drug of uncertain property”.
Similarly, to date the government has done little to raise living and sanitary standards in the slums. The big promises of slum upgrading have turned out to be little more than either looting schemes or empty talk. Many of the informal settlements that sprung up to house unwanted Africans when the colonials ran Nairobi persist to this very day. And while there will undoubtedly be a concerted effort to combat the coronavirus outbreak, it is unlikely that there will be any determined effort to improve livelihoods and eliminate slums.
The Spanish flu in Kenya
The next big foreign-born disease to hit Kenya in the colonial period was the Spanish flu, the deadliest pandemic in history. Originating in the United States and transported to the killing fields of World War I by American soldiers, the pandemic circled the globe, infecting between 3 and 5 per cent of the world’s population, including people in remote Pacific islands and the Arctic. It cut life expectancy around the world by about 12 years.
An interesting similarity with the current coronavirus epidemic is that the disease at the beginning was “mild, the mortality not unusually high”. Preoccupied with the events of the war, the first wave of the flu went largely unnoticed and it wasn’t until it started killing people in large numbers that the world paid attention. But by then it was too late. By the time it was brought under control, it had killed about 50 million people, more than had died in the war. And remember, this as all before the age of international commercial air travel.
The flu hit East Africa in two waves, the first beginning September 1918 and another in late 1919, killing at least 155,000 people, or an estimated 5.5 percent of the African population in Kenya. Again the reaction of the colonial authorities was largely driven by concerns over the loss of African labour. For example, as related by to Kirsten Moore in her 2013 paper, “Placing Pandemics: History of the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemics in Kenya and Uganda”, “the District Commissioner of Voi cited the influenza epidemic in arguments for a permanent native hospital, saying, ‘it is absolutely essential that adequate hospital provision be made to deal with sick labourers from […] Estates and Railways.’ A native hospital was up and running in Voi by 1921”. She points out that the pandemic was killing off African labour, “just as an influx of British settlers came to establish large, labour-intensive estates. Facing significant war debts and the prospect of bankruptcy, the administration depended on these new plantation enterprises to revitalise the economy”.
Again, it is clear that concern for the health of the natives was not the driving force behind the colonial provision of medical care to Africans. A century later, facing another epidemic, the Kenyan elite is showing itself to be similarly oblivious to the needs of the African majority and is really only concerned about its own economic and political interests.
Sink or swim together
Ironically, just as the colonials imported plague and influenza pandemics into Kenya, it is largely the wealthy, those with the means to travel abroad, who have brought the COVID-19 pandemic back to Kenya. Yet, as with the previous diseases, it is the poor, who did nothing to bring on the crisis, who will get to bear the brunt of both the disease and the government efforts to contain it.
However, there is a critical difference. As the pandemic exposes the systemic weaknesses in Kenya’s healthcare system, the shutdown of the global system means there is no escape for the wealthy who have profited from the plunder and neglect of public services. They will share the fate of the rest of the society. Thus, allowing the pandemic, whether through negligence or incompetence, to become established in the slums, will inevitably be fatal for the elite themselves.
A century later, facing another epidemic, the Kenyan elite is showing itself to be similarly oblivious to the needs of the African majority and is really only concerned about its own economic and political interests.
Since the virus threatens all, both rich and poor, it will require a whole society effort to confront it. Top-down directives will not suffice. In any case, after decades of hollowing out the state from within, the ability of the governing elites to enforce them is severely compromised. Thus it will be critical to work with communities to translate WHO advice into practical protocols that cater to the daily realities of the majority of the population rather than to the global imaginings of a privileged few.
In the short term, it is likely that the political elite will get its act together and do what is necessary to contain the pandemic. However, it is hoped that the lessons of history will not be quickly forgotten once the pandemic has passed. Maintaining a system predicated on inequality and the neglect of public services endangers everyone, not just those at the bottom of the pyramid. Kenyans, regardless of their station in life, will all sink or swim together. They can no longer afford to keep a colonial system where so few get so much at the expense of so many.
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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.
First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.
Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”
A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies. If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.
Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.
Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.
The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.
Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”
Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”
Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.
On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.
The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.
If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.
According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.
Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.
The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.
A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced. As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.
Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.
Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
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