A few years ago, I attended a public lecture by Micere Mugo at the University of Nairobi. The event was electrifying, and three memories have stayed with me.
First was to hear Prof. Mugo’s journey as an African woman in an anti-African world. Recounting her journey was not a story about herself, but a story about all of us. From the toxic space that was (and still is) Kenya, to Zimbabwe where she initially landed, and finally the United States, Prof Mugo was profoundly African and connected with brothers and sisters wherever she landed. She would later speak at a lecture at Riara University words which I tweeted and which may therefore not be verbatim: “If you have chosen the path of struggle, you must have the courage to build a new home wherever your path leads. Don’t romanticise home; you must have the courage to make new homes and new roots.”
The second memory was a brilliant orature-performance by Mshai Mwangola in her introduction of Micere Mugo. The performance included the rehashing of a heated conversation on African studies that had been launched in 1995 by Phillip Curtin, the eminent African history scholar in the United States. Curtin expressed concern that African history scholarship was being reduced to a “ghetto” because American universities were reserving African history positions for African faculty rather than considering competence. Prof. Mugo’s response then was captivating, and Mshai’s performance seared it in my memory so deeply that a few years later, I was inspired by Prof Mugo’s courage to take a similar stand.
The third memory was a sadder one. In the afterglow of electrifying performances by scholars and students, a University of Nairobi student asked Prof. Mugo during the question and answer session: “How can you help us the youth [it’s always “the youth”] get the opportunities you got?”
Clearly, the student didn’t hear Prof. Mugo recount being arrested, fleeing the country with two young daughters and having her Kenyan citizenship nullified. In an act of amazing mental acrobatics, the student’s mind cut out Prof. Mugo’s journey and fixated the whole time on the optics. All that the student saw was an elder (that’s what the term “youth” is for — to disconnect young people from the stories of their elders) who was based in the US (where we all aspire to go) and who was now launching a book. Kenyan youth need to be successful like that (never mind the tears) and this student wanted to know, not how to do what Prof. Mugo had done, but how Prof. Mugo could help her achieve the same feat of working in the US and standing at a podium in Kenya.
That disconnect, between the stories of the elders and the fixation of the youth with optics, is something with which we teachers of literature constantly struggle. Students these days are spectacularly unable to enjoy stories and to explore their imagination. The school system teaches children to turn off their hearts and minds when they listen to stories. Kenyans have told me on social media that when they encountered our folk tales in class, the primary thing they were asked was to identify “the moral of the story”.
My own difficult experience teaching literature bears this out. Students’ response to every African story is that “the white man stole our culture, we are ashamed of our identity and need to return to our cultures”. But even as they limit colonialism to an exclusively cultural enterprise, they are not able to connect with stories of the past to which they say we should return to.
For instance, when I teach one of my favorite Kenyan plays, Omtatah’s rendition of the Luo legend Lwanda Magere, the students cannot see a story from the past. They see politics, not humanity or esthetics. Some see the story as ethnic and exclusively Luo, so they cannot discuss the legend as an artistic and human expression. Other students who’ve heard something about feminism say that the legend demonstrates how African women are relegated to the role of “housewives”. Who can blame the students for thinking that way when the theater performance Brazen missed the tragic aspect of the legend and sensualised the Lang’o princess? Another student said that Lwanda Magere was an ogre and read the story as a motivational speech with teachings which “help one to live to its optimal success”.
And just before Kenyan adults distance themselves from these responses and blame the 8.4.4 system, they need to see that the youth are just responding with the language we have taught them. Remember the excitement about the movie Black Panther which electrified the world? For Kenyans, the primary concern was the authenticity of the accents and the depiction of Africa. Some went so far as to say – no chills – that they are glad not to have the same identity crises as African Americans. At least we Kenyans know who we are, they said, something that I highly doubt when I look at how profoundly Eurocentric the Kenyan government is.
Educated Kenyans are spectacularly unable to suspend reality and enjoy a story for what it is, because esthetics and imagination have been alienated from the arts in Kenya. Even our drama festivals are about competition and “talent”, not a celebration of the richness of our cultures. These days, the festival even requires plays to be written to the chosen political theme of the year, and now students are not writing plays because the schools are hiring professional playwrights to improve the schools’ chances of winning.
But that is not as annoying as the clichéd lament about talent that is repeated in almost every sphere of Kenyan life. The lament goes something like this: “Our drama festivals show how much talent we have, but that talent goes to waste because nobody gives the youth the chance to use it”. I detest that line because what Kenyans call “talent” is a concept which refuses to see the arts as work, skill and knowledge, and instead seeks comfort in the quasi-Senghorian idea of arts being in our DNA as Africans because our skin is black. The concept of “talent” demeans African work, knowledge and skill, and demeans Africans as thinking beings. But as the public narrative goes, knowledge in Kenya is “useless theory”. We Kenyans don’t waste time on thinking, imagining and creating; we benchmark solutions which work.
In any case, talent is not wasted after school. What happens is that Kenyan artists who outgrow the narrow drama festival box will meet another headmaster called Ezekiel Mutua who will crush their work in the name of morality, and he will get support from a significant proportion of the Kenyan church. Ironically, Mutua will praise drama festivals as producing people who “make money and find a life”, establish industries comparable to manufacturing, and promote the programmes of government ministries. In other words, humanity is not at the heart of the arts.
And that logic seeps into the universities and education policy. It is now a Kenyan truism that arts education is a waste of the country’s resources and that arts programmes should be shut down. And the impact of this onslaught may not be immediately visible to people in public universities, because it is reserved for private universities where the arts are largely absent.
A more insidious development is being ushered in by private universities, which the current the Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha said he is committed to supporting. Universities increasingly train students in the applied arts without training them in the arts. So universities train economists or peace and conflict experts with no knowledge of history, sociology or anthropology. They train journalists who are not skilled writers, and flood the arts spaces with public relations graduates. They have film students who confidently discuss film festivals, camera angles and lenses but cannot say much about the stories which the films tell. They train graphic artists who never paint or sculpt. A few years back, celebrated writer Yvonne Owuor wondered at this absurdity: “I hear that high schools are sending students to university engineering, design and architecture faculties, who cannot draw, who cannot even describe a painting. How? Really, how? Is it ignorance or is there a secret plan to bankrupt the Kenyan imagination?”
The problem is not so much that we have no students in arts programmes, but that we are producing a generation of graduates with no esthetic or emotional sensibilities, and as Owuor says, with no imagination. We have left these areas to be weaponised by corporations and the imperialist state. So Cambridge Analytica was able to have a field day in Kenya during the 2017 elections by manipulating our emotions, and now Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is taking us through the pandemic with imperial orders about how we must express our grief for Dr Stephen Mogusu’s death. When the state has the gall to tell us how to mourn the victims of its own corruption, there’s a problem.
In the political arena, politicians sponsor music for campaigns and for turning ethnic groups against each other. Performances of traditional arts are most celebrated at political rallies or at contrived “elders’ councils” which anoint politicians for office. Oaths, spears and arrows are at their most useful not for teaching our children the history of African military warfare, but for gerrymandering, the American term for what we in Kenya call “election violence”, a tool for fixing election results. Wazungu are pleased when we’re fighting over ballots with oaths and spears, because it shows they still have something to teach us savages about liberal democracy. And now the BBI proposes to further control not just the arts, but also memory, by writing an “official history of Kenya” dating 1000 years, appointing an Official Historian and putting the National Archives under the Office of the President.
When the arts are not suffering from government suffocation, they are being corporatised. Safaricom, the country’s largest corporate, was the sponsor of its own arts forums while Kwani? and Story Moja festivals limped and eventually fell silent.
In the end, the only space left for the arts to publicly thrive uninhibited is the university. But as the Department of Literature’s installment of the University of Nairobi’s 50th anniversary celebration shows, even that is fraught with the same contradictions.
After the official welcome remarks from the Head of Department and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. Indangasi conducted a reprise of his questioning the hallowed status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o in African literature. Indangasi had most recently done this with an analysis of the Spanish separatist politics underlying the award of the Catalonia International Literary Prize, which Ngugi accepted with a speech in Kikuyu. During this commemoration, Prof. Indangasi presented archival records to cast doubts on Ngugi’s claims to credit for renaming the Department of English to the Department of Literature. The argument he has always made is that Kenyan literary studies have shut off the universal, denied students the pleasure of studying non-African literature and have put political ideology above academic pursuits. The iconic status of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he suggests, remains an obstacle to addressing these issues.
Prof Indangasi’s presentation was followed by more mellowed considerations of Ngugi’s legacy from Prof. Evan Mwangi, who is based at Northwestern University in the US. Prof. Mwangi acknowledged the blind spots of Ngugi’s work, but ended with a call to envision literary studies within the inclusivity politics of the American academy, where expansion of literary studies is measured by how many more identity groups are included.
Prof. Peter Amuka followed with a historical contextualisation of the targets of Prof. Indangasi’s criticism, especially Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi. He credited these two men for Africanising the curriculum by breaking the disciplinary boundary limits beyond the snobbish classics and encouraging the study of the literature of the people. An interesting but troubling anecdote he gave was of being a student in the US in the 70s, and being told by an American political science professor that the Literature department of the University of Nairobi had now been “tamed” and relieved of its firebrands.
As is expected of we women academics who do not separate our biographies from academic and national discussions, the women speakers reflected on their personal journeys as threads of national and academic histories. Prof. Wangui wa Goro spoke of how her growth as a translator of literature intersected with the department’s scholars and literary activities. Prof. Ciarunji Chesaina began her presentation with a song for Micere Mugo, in the spirit of Prof. Mugo’s poetry, to pay homage to Prof. Mugo for her legacy in the study of oral literature.
Before Micere Mugo gave her keynote speech, Kithaka wa Mberia went through the contributions of self-publishing to the Kenyan literary space.
Micere Mugo’s celebration of the department, in her classic and moving orature style, gave the audience the backdrop of what her generation was confronting in the 1960s and 1970s. The education system was still controlled by British civil servants even after independence, and the urgency was to Africanise the system. Micere Mugo was the first African chief examiner for ‘A’ level literature and was part of the team that pushed for an African literature curriculum in schools. In her day, she said, it was a compliment to be told that one behaved like a mzungu or looked like a mzungu. She also called for affirming the integrity of African knowledge and African systems of knowing.
What is the link between the reflections of our elders and the current situation facing the arts that I have described?
Initially, I felt that there was no link and that these elders were stuck in the past. But upon further reflection, I remembered that one of the lessons I have learned from oral literature is that there is value in the elders repeating the past over and over again, because each time, new lessons are learned.
That is when I saw what my discomfort was about. It was about the failure of our generation of scholars to take the baton from the elders and continue the race. Because various political and historical events which some of us are still trying to understand, our generation is stuck in the battles between the so-called “universal” scholarship and academic culture on one hand, and Africanising the curriculum on the other. The political class reduced the Africanisation of the curriculum o a spectacle, and then used that spectacle to crush our children’s imagination.
In fact, when you think of it, the side that is hostile to what Prof. Indangasi calls “literary activism” is the side that dominates arts and education. He may be a lone voice on this position within the Literature Department, but that “universal” view has now colonised Kenya’s education system. Only a few years ago, I was the sole African on a panel with a “global” face, in my own country, fighting like Micere Mugo for Kenyan scholarship to be part of the post-graduate curriculum. In addition, Prof. Indangasi’s lament that Owuor Anyumba and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are not academically qualified is now the rungu with which the Commission of University Education beats us through demands that all university educators must have PhDs. In the area of music, for example, the Commission alienates Kenyan musicians who are more skilled in the craft than many music academics. Several times, I’ve personally raised this question with CUE officials and have received no answer: where are we going to find a seasoned performer of the nyatiti, for example, with a PhD? Our fixation on papers denies students the opportunity to learn from Kenya’s rich cultural heritage.
This is what our generation has not told our elders like Micere Mugo: the colonialist is still in our education system. These days, the colonialist is not a British civil servant sitting in Jogoo house. Rather, it is a British nursery school teacher working at the British Council and sponsoring the return of the ‘A’ level system, otherwise dubbed as CBC. PR has given colonialism a new vocabulary to re-assert its power over our education system. Colonialism now calls itself “quality” and “benchmarking” as it asserts the policies of corporations and Western governments in our education system.
The elders Africanised education, but my generation did not take over that struggle and Africanise power. When the colonial logic of power remained intact, it was only a matter of time before power appropriated the tools of Africanisation to perpetuate itself. Thus, when Binyavanga was starting Kwani?, it is us academics who called the artists “literary gangsters”. We even turned African culture into a tool of condemnation by saying that those artists were not tied to their cultural roots. As writers struggled to find publishers, we berated them for the quality of their publications. Now politicians have solidly captured African culture and made it synonymous with enmity, tribal hatred and sexism.
And after the Africanisation of the ‘A’ Level curriculum, we have since discovered a truth which was smothered by the brutality of Moi: the ‘A’ level system was designed to exclude and limit the number of Africans attending university. Moreover, that exclusion disproportionately affected people from communities outside Central Province and Nyanza. But that exclusion has now returned with CBC which has increased the number of examination hoops which students have to go through (but which have been baptised “assessments“), and has restored the number of years in high school to six.
What my generation did not see is that capital capitulated to Africanisation and gave us the logic of inclusivity – which Prof. Mwangi called for more of – and which, in the American academy, goes under the banner of postcolonial theory. In this logic, culture is reified to the exclusion of everything else, especially material conditions.
A few years ago, I witnessed an expression of this dynamic at the Samosa Festival conference held at the University of Nairobi. Some presenters said that the Mau Mau took up arms to fight for the right to practice their culture. It appeared that for them, the fight was not about land or against oppression. At the conference, we who said that not everything is about ethnicity, were derided as entitled Kenyans who had never been outside Nairobi, yet the point of the festival was to discuss the alienation of people like Asians, Nubians, Somalis, the Shona and the Makonde, from Kenyan citizenship.
Which brings me back to the dilemmas of younger Kenyans and how our generation is mis-teaching them. Coloniality of power has now clothed itself in “African identity” to entrench itself in the education system, so that students who interact with African arts are spectacularly unable to imagine or to connect with humanity, and instead parrot whatever government or NGO slogan comes to their mind. Moreover, the media has occupied the space that should be occupied by culture, performance and academic research, so that, as Mwenda Kithinji recently said, the junk which the media consistently feeds us has made us academics impotent in flagging the return of racist policies to our education system.
And that was the ultimate point of westernising our curriculum in the first place. It was not for us to forget our cultures, as my students innocently but mistakenly repeat. It was for power to keep exploiting us by killing our ability to imagine a different reality.
And that discussion is happening not within the academy, but outside it. Most of the Kenyans addressing these issues are not allowed to teach in Kenyan universities. To adapt Mordecai Ogada’s observation, the people who sing the songs which Micere Mugo sang are still being exiled from the education system and from spaces where the songs can be heard by the next generation.
But the songs are still being sung. We have not been tamed by neoliberal regulations about qualifications and morality. We have not been tamed by what Ogada called an internal brain drain, where our skills and ideas are wasted on dead bureaucracy. We are still singing those songs. We are singing them outside the academy in online spaces and through self-publishing. Our young people are singing them as they battle with the hammer of censorship and the snobbery of the academy. To adopt the words of Maya Angelou, and of Paul Lawrence Dunbar before her, we may be caged by neoliberalism, deadened minds and soulless people. But the caged bird sings, not because it has a solution, but because it always has a song.
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Of Election 2022, the EAC And Completing the Circle
With William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, we now have a string of governments in the East African region that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position. The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the region’s resources on behalf of foreign capital.
The basic idea behind hustling is not to change the world, but rather to game its rules so as to change one’s status within it, going from low to high. This ultimately means accepting the world as it fundamentally is.
Kenya’s new president William Ruto has demonstrated this most ably, even using it to ramp up his campaign persona during the recently concluded elections. Having started out as a ruling party hatchet man in the 1990s Moi era, he rose to become a key player in the ethno-politics of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It was the interest taken by the International Criminal Court in the 2007 post-election violence that created a marriage of convenience between himself and what was until then his nemesis: Uhuru Kenyatta, scion of an earlier hustler-founded, but now grand, family, the epitome of what Ruto had been pitched against his whole political career—the entrenched interests of a new and landed elite.
This became an opportunity to operate fully on the national stage. This last election became in part the story of his successful determination to stay there, despite the best efforts, or so it would appear, to dispose of him once the threat of ICC convictions had receded.
A problem here is that what Kenya has always desperately needed is fundamental change. Candidate Raila Odinga’s biggest handicap was his having lived a life of being half-and-half; on the one hand, he presented himself as the anti-establishment player, determined to smash this system of historical exploitation and undeserved wealth. In that respect, he was the last of the dwindling band of 1980s would-be revolutionaries that led a meandering and error-plagued voyage in search of the kind of change needed in a former European settler economy and Western anchor-state.
On the other hand, he was also a scion of an established political dynasty. In this way, he more than once made himself part of inter-factional elite schemes and plots—of which taking the endorsement of outgoing President Kenyatta against his own Deputy President candidate Ruto was arguably the latest gambit—which only served to dilute whatever claims he may have still been making to be the progressive candidate.
Despite coming from a political dynasty of his own, birthed by his father’s own long record as a contemporary, comrade and finally victim of Jomo Kenyatta, Raila has always positioned himself as an outsider seeking to enter the system in order to break it. Then candidate Ruto’s message was the same in reverse: an actual outsider who was going, not to smash the system, but to hustle his way to its topmost levels. With his ascension, or more relevantly, with the defeat of Odinga, one can say the last of the hopes and memories of a kind of change that could favour the ordinary Kenyan are dead; this victory finally cements Kenya as a place impervious to radical political change, in which a dominant oligarchic system will remain in control, no matter who wins or loses a particular election.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.” one veteran Kenyan Kenya observer, glumly wrote to me.
However, the real point here is that this can be said of the whole region. And with this development in Kenya, a circle has been closed and the country has become fully like the rest of East Africa.
The failings of the Kenyan progressive/revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s (of which Raila Odinga was a very visible part), left a situation whereby change was not going to come from outside the system, leading eventually to this “hustler” culture. First by the wider civil society that joined in the post-Moi governments in pursuit of change, and then the more directly cynical exploits that have culminated in the Ruto presidency.
“There is now in place a regime of right-wing thuggery that will run this plantation for the next twenty years.”
The few but significant reforms that actually enabled the Ruto victory to be declared were ironically the only real change that the civil society movement managed to bring to the very rigid political system. So, the irony is that these came to serve Ruto in a way they never served Odinga, despite his years of struggle that helped put them in place.
Apart from the social migration of that section of anti-colonial figures who made peace with the system and agreed to form the post-colonial regimes in partnership with those Africans that had worked for the repressive colonial state to begin with, most Kenyans remained poor, landless and exploited.
In this, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, veteran anti-colonial agitator, co-founder of the Kenya People’s Union and of course father to fifth-time losing candidate Raila, represented the first political tradition, while Jomo Kenyatta, father to the outgoing president Uhuru, famously represented the second.
This began the great dichotomy in the mainstream of Kenyan politics: between those who felt that Independence could and should mean more for the ordinary Kenyan, and those who felt that the struggle had done enough and, increasingly, it was for every citizen to make the best they could out of the new circumstances. In short, hustlers.
There were always more options. But in the politics of pragmatism, the most accessible position, least burdened of principles, usually wins.
Hence, Museveni over Nabudere in the Ugandan struggle against Obote; Garang against the void that killed him in the quest to shape a post-Arab-Apartheid Sudan; Desire Kabila over the impenetrable musings of dia Wamba during the race to remove Mobutu, and so forth.
There is always the one “who is” versus the idea of the “who might have been”. In Kenya, this has been Raila Odinga against just about every Kenyan President from Daniel arap Moi, onward. Until now.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics. In that sense, Kenya now fully folds into the regional template of practical fixers and hustlers willing to work within the strictures historically imposed on their people, as opposed to embarking on a quest for genuine change.
This tells us one thing, that the largest and best organized-for-extraction economy in the region is now firmly in the grip of a very determined set of interchangeable oligarchs. Their mission in life will be to do what oligarchs do: get richer.
We can now look forward to the consolidation of a region-wide elite consensus regarding the purpose of power: which, put simply, is to get rich, and then richer.
I have written it before: the wealth of Congo has enriched many a Ugandan elite group. My prediction is that our region’s politics will increasingly take on the look of a region-wide joint elite conspiracy against the ordinary peoples of the countries therein. The entire East African region, and its resources, seems up for grabs. And the vast riches of the DRC will be at the epicentre.
William Ruto’s coming to power is the ultimate triumph over idealism, an ultimate mass endorsement of the idea of pragmatism over idealism in Kenyan politics.
President Ruto’s decision to immediately implement a commitment to the long-mooted idea of an East Africa “peacekeeping” force helps to confirm this suspicion. Kenya deployed a contingent of its Special Forces just days after President Ruto’s inauguration. This idea has always been curious; apart from the United Nations force (in its second form), Uganda’s military, and occasional forays from Rwanda (and “friends”), this adds a new layer of military presence in the country: not quite African Union, and not fully EAC either, as there is no joint command. But the goal is clear: a colonial-type pacification of the natives, so as to enable elite-managed foreign extraction.
To that end, apart from Rwanda’s occasional presence, the Congolese government made up of its own notoriously ambitious elites seems to present no real objection to other interventions, but the opinion of the general population is becoming increasingly different.
An ideal situation for the hungry wolves in Kampala would be for a consensus to emerge from among the regimes of the region as to how the region’s resources can be best looted in a sustainable way, under its overall leadership as the regime that has the best, deepest and longest established links with the Western corporations that are in need of them.
President Ruto publicly acclaimed President Museveni as the “father of the region”, which is certainly a step up from the usual “father of the nation” sobriquet pressed upon perennial African incumbents.
Long-time watchers of the Museveni regime will find this description of President Museveni as apt as it is worrying. On the one hand, it helps consolidate the long-held view that Uganda effectively works as the West’s anchor state for the region.
We may finally be reaching a point of harmony among the rulers, which will be good news for their cronies and those who want to loot the region, but disastrous for the ordinary people.
Such looting involves indentured labour, displacement, environmental destruction, as well as the attendant state-backed violence to ensure that this happens. Put bluntly, a regional “peacekeeping” force would simply be a modern version of Belgian King Leopold’s Force Publique and other colonial forces rolled into one, and designed to bring a concentration of arms to bear on any localised native rebellion protesting this state of affairs.
Progress is no longer the business of government. Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism. Within the expanded East African Community region, we now have a string of governments that hold no genuine or valuable ideological position on the long-standing, long-held, often diverted and suppressed quest for a national conversation about these things. That has finally come to an end.
The job is to manage the expanding exploitation of the mineral, labour, wildlife, fertility and energy resources on behalf of incoming foreign capital. As long as one can assure them of their security, and also help fend others off, then life is fine.
Democracy is no longer the concern, what we have is mere electoral-ism.
We may therefore finally be at a point where we have a region that thinks as one, where there are finally shared goals and talk of greater regional integration for markets, labour mobility and infrastructure. Unfortunately, these goals do not mean the same thing in their mouths, as they do in the mouths of the older traditional voices of pan-Africanism.
Instead, whatever the long-term plans of corporate America and the wider West in the region, these may now move ahead more smoothly. We can make a fairly informed guess as to what the key elements of those plans will be: “conservation”; agribusiness; energy, all with a knock-on effect on planning for massive urbanization, which means corporate finance for real estate. This may create just enough career jobs to settle the small but historically influential and noisy middle class into complacency. Certainly, the domestic Kenyan banking sector has been very nimble in getting into the DRC financial market already.
The Great Lakes Region/Nile Valley should now be best understood as a single space. It is a vast network of nearly all the major fresh water bodies on the continent. We should observe the privatisation and commercialisation of water in Kenya as the nascent stage to capture the regions water resources. With the expansion of the EAC to include the DRC, the imperialist dream of a single economic space from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic as sought by the lumpen-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, is finally realised.
In his career-long quest to always be of the greatest use to Western imperialism (and thereby guarantee his incumbency), one can be sure that President Museveni has long been positioning himself as the conductor of this grand orchestra.
While we may now have unity at last, it would not be a unity in the interest of ordinary Africans.
The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.
One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.
Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.
The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.
In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.
Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.
Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.
On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.
For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.
In Kenya recycling doesn’t work
Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states, numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?
While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.
According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.
These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.
Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.
Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.
Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.
Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.
Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste
The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.
Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic
A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.
The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.
This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.
Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.
Reimagining a post-plastic country
In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.
“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.
A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.
Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.
With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.
The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.
Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.
On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.
In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.
Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.
The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.
Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.
Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.
The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.
The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.
The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.
Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.
Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.
Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.
Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.
The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.
According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.
In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.
Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.
The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.
The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.
The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.
As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.
Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.
Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.
In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.
Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.
Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.
Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.
Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.
There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.
MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.
The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.
They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.
The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.
The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.
“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”
According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.
“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”
Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.
Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.
The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.
In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.
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