“We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”— Saki Mafundikwa
In Crazy Normal, Trevor Noah makes a joke about South Africa that I think applies to all of Africa. In his sketch, Africa responds to the world moving in one direction with, “Okay…we’re going to go that way,” pointing in a different direction. The ‘rest-of-the-world’ is perplexed and Africa reassures, “No, don’t worry, we’ll find you there.”
What Trevor Noah illuminates is the ‘elsewhere-ness’ of Africa. Africa has impressive political, economic, social-ecological and cultural diversity – a diversity that is often un-understood for its defiance to being mappable by narrow Euro-American standards and statistics. So much so that Africa is today more often described in negatives than in anything else: lack, poverty, failed, corrupt and crisis being some of them.
But being elsewhere is not being nowhere. Studying Africa’s history is sense-making of this reality and truth, especially for Africans who have grown up in colonially inherited institutions, and are therefore at risk of reproducing an inherited scarcity mentality and inferiority complex. Engaging with precolonial and colonial African history is to remove inherited glasses, whose field of vision limits the scope of where and how ‘being’ is possible.
I discuss here three interlinked reasons for historical study of Africa: agency, possibility and imagination. Recognising Africans’ agency allows recognition of the worlds Africans create/d and opens up imagination for the continued creation of African worlds. At a time of ecological, political, and socio-economic crisis, this is not just about reclaiming identity, but also about regaining footing to create and determine the new worlds coming.
Africa’s history has been human history for the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been in existence. This makes African history the longest history of all the world. Precolonial African history makes up about 99.8 per cent of African history for the earliest colonised African entities, Madeira and Canary Islands (1420 and 1496, respectively), Kongo (1472) and South Africa (1652). Indeed, the term ‘pre-colonial history’ is a shorthand that centres European colonialism as Africa’s defining feature, rather than the 99.8 per cent of history preceding it.
Locating Africans’ agency through history counters the erroneous idea propagated by Western scholars that Africans had no history prior to Europeans. Interrogating multiple archives, including documents, environments, materials, practices, language, oral history and more shows Africans in their full range of humanity, a beginning point from which one can ask questions about what happened in the past rather than making assumptions.
Reflecting on the history curriculum I learnt in high school, I noticed that there were gaps. Kenyan history was taught separately from ‘world history’, and in it, we learnt about some ethnic communities’ cultural institutions; the Indian Ocean Trade emphasising Arab and Portuguese influence; and colonial encounters. Following the discussion of the local emergence of the homo species, history quickly propelled to a ‘world’ stage, represented by various linearly progressive revolutions: Neolithic-Agrarian-Industrial. These were described in a manner as to make one aspire to the ladder of progress they represented, but not to see what they left out – the gender and class stratifications and colonialism and slavery, and their ripple effects on injustice in the world today.
The curriculum only returned to focus on the local when there were particular interactions with foreign entities, such as with Portuguese influence on the East African coast in the 15th century, and with the later European colonisation of the African continent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Between species evolution in East Africa hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago, and present-day Kenya, the only significant events taught had foreigners as the main characters: Arabs, Portuguese, British. Indigenous history was limited to an ahistorical view of some ethnic groups’ customs.
Such gaps make significant processes, events, and local agents invisible in the history of what would later become Kenya, thus creating an incorrect view that only foreigners were and can be agents of Kenyan history. This negatively biases students’ view of their own agency in affecting history, making it appear as though Africans ‘froze’ while history was happening elsewhere, and only re-entered history upon contact with foreigners.
This experience speaks to a larger institutionalisation of silences and misrepresentations. The bias is evident in policies and popular media that undermine communities’ indigenous livelihood strategies and knowledge, depicting them as destructive and in need of reform in the interests of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ agendas, both of which are largely driven by foreigners and benefit a minority elite while harming a majority. These policies and narratives do not engage with indigenous histories to show the many ways in which Africans have been agents in engaging with and changing their environments with a variety of impacts, and not simply as passive responders.
They also don’t engage with colonial history that would show how Africans’ agency was hidden, diminished or skewed, and thus entrench denigrating and dangerous received wisdoms. For example, in learning about the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme in school, no mention was made of it being inspired by an indigenous irrigation system by ilChamus peoples, nor was there a discussion of the reasons why ilChamus practised irrigation, how they managed to produce significant surpluses, and how and why they turned to other livelihood strategies, and with what effects. There was also no mention of the subsequent exclusion of ilChamus peoples from the ‘modern’ irrigation scheme when it was started.
Breaking the silence around indigenous Africans’ agency through integrating precolonial history into institutions, such as schools and the media, in ways that do not fall into either essentialising or negative stereotyping would counter damaging racist bias that Africa was a blank slate awaiting discovery and awakening by Europeans, or a ‘wrong’ place awaiting correction by the same.
In 2017, I studied permaculture, an environmental design-with-nature system articulated by the Australian Bill Mollison. The techniques and system, for which I was paying $400 to learn, I later found out, are part of a repertoire of indigenous agro-ecological techniques and social ethics developed and practised in various parts of Africa and elsewhere. These origins were not acknowledged in the teaching, and fellow students, myself included, were enthused by the ‘new’ knowledge we were gaining.
In my exploration of ecological, economic and social restorative technologies, I encounter a number of these systems articulated by Westerners drawing on often unacknowledged and/or unrematriated indigenous knowledges and practices, including those from this continent. Permaculture, as already mentioned, holistic rangeland management, a reformulation of pastoralists’ ways of working with livestock, family constellation therapy drawn from Zulu family healing techniques, bodywork techniques in process-oriented psychology, some drawn from unnamed Giriama healers, and restorative justice circles celebrate their often white, often male ‘inventors’ and have courses you can pay good sums for to learn these technologies.
Colonisation infused with ‘scientific racism’ placed Africans at the bottom of a ladder of humanity. It was unthinkable that Africans accomplished anything remarkable or constructive. This ladder perpetuated the myth that Africans don’t know and must be taught. Our knowledge and technologies are repackaged elsewhere and sold back to us at a premium, and we don’t recognise them. A permaculture practitioner I met in Tanzania, for example, confidently told a room of American undergraduates that there were no sustainable indigenous African food growing techniques except in her Chagga community. As Saki Mafundikwa comments, “We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”
By bringing agency and possibilities together, studying African history can reclaim our humanity and world-making over 200,000 years of living. Tracing past creativity, innovation, technologies, and their lifeworlds re-presents innumerable possibilities of being and doing. Importantly, it helps Africans step outside of disadvantageous psychological, economic and technological dependency.
Histories of indigenous food provision illuminate the variety of technological skills, and knowledge-based practices in use in different parts of Africa, how these developed, and where they were curtailed by colonial officers, thus hampering their efficacy. Looking only at agriculture, indigenous irrigation technologies, such as dams and irrigation canals, were/are in use in Marakwet, Pokot, Baringo, and at Engaruka in East Africa for many decades if not centuries.
Other forms of water management, including mulching, cover cropping, pit planting, terracing and weather manipulation, were in use across the continent, as were fertility technologies to manipulate soil chemistry, such as burning and tilling in of weeds and crop residues, creating areas of high fertility dark earths, using animal manure, and managing insects such as termites. Practices such as mobility, fallowing, and cultivating or encouraging a diverse range of plants and plant varieties harnessed land and climate variability. The latter also selected plants for taste, maturation, ritual suitability, colour, drought and pest tolerance, effectively making indigenous African farmers crop scientists par excellence.
Social-ecological innovations, like building partnerships across livelihoods to harness symbiotic benefits, were also food provision innovations. There are several examples of pastoralist-cultivators-forager partnerships, such as between the Maa-Agikuyu and Mukogodo-Maa peoples in East Africa, and Bambara-Fula and Bambara-Maure peoples in West Africa. Interrogating the development, context, and practice of these and more food provision technologies would illuminate useful knowledge for continued innovation. Histories of food provision would also include pastoralism and foraging, which are marginalised in popular and political discourse, perhaps because they are less easily dominated by capitalist commercialisation for export and state benefit.
Archaeological research indicates the depth of indigenous sciences knowledge in various parts of Africa. The bronze sculptures of Igbo-Ukwu that were created using the lost-wax technique and dating prior to 1000 AC (after Christ) are unique for their age, fine pattern detailing and technological skill. Similarly, Africans independently developed a wide range of iron smelting techniques (more diverse than anywhere else in the world) – including some unique in the temperatures they achieved – invented in central Africa at least 4,000 years ago. That indigenous African technologies, such as pyramid building in Kemet and Nubia, are yet to be deciphered, are a testament to their depth of skill and innovation. The presence of such sciences counters the received wisdoms that there is nothing to show for Africa in terms of indigenous innovation.
Remarkable rock art is found in many African countries. These art forms were created using a variety of techniques and intents. Rock art also informs historical understanding of human movements. Saharan rock art from a wetter period than the present indicates the likelihood that Kemet (Ancient Egypt) was formed from people migrating from a drying Sahara. Rock paintings and a 100,000-year-old paint laboratory in southern Africa demonstrate the manipulation of various materials (including ochre, blood, egg yolk, shells, bone marrow and fats) to create different coloured paints, and the development of varied painting techniques, including fine line brush paintings, finger, and hand paintings, and the use of art to depict and enact complex cosmologies and healing arts.
The diverse ways in which Africans made worlds are openings for diverse ways of being and for understanding Africa’s technological legacy. They are also a basis for the imagination of alternatives to the present moment.
Africa’s colonisation ushered in a period of global homogeneity that solidified a global political (the nation-state) and economic (capitalism) template that has so dominated the global imaginary of the following 150 years that it seems nearly impossible to imagine alternatives to it. This has come with grave consequences, including the climate crisis we in Africa are increasingly going to bear the brunt of. Pre-independence African history is a key to breaking the totalising nature and lure of the present moment.
Studying pre-colonial and colonial history enables understanding of how the world’s narrative came to occlude Africa’s abilities and possibilities, and how this continues into the present. Looking at this history by focusing on agency and possibilities makes one realise that Africa’s pasts are not ‘less than’ but a resource to be built on.
Formal schooling, which focuses mainly on Africa’s post-independence history, can lead to feelings of impotence and resignation that make one believe that that is how things are in the present are how they will forever be. Engaging the 99.8 per of African history to know that things can be different – that as an African one is an agent, and that there is no dearth of examples of knowledge and skills from Africa – allows one to imagine something else in the present, and to “dare to invent the future”, as Thomas Sankara challenged.
Breaking the lure of the present moment involves countering the notion of African timelessness through attending to change in our pasts. For example, though we are often presented with African traditions as though they have been static, we know that practices are fashioned to respond to the goals of a group of people, and that both goals and practices can change. For example, many Bantu communities moving into eastern and southern parts of the continent did not practise circumcision as part of their rites of passage for young people coming of age. Circumcision was added onto pre-existing practices that varyingly included seclusion, adorning the body with clay and other emollients, ancestral and nature rituals, instruction from family, clan or community elders on new life responsibilities in adulthood, and the celebration of successful passage. Circumcision was added to pre-existing rites often as a result of mixing with non-Bantu communities who practised this, possibly due to, or to enable, intermarriages. Using analysis of divergences in words and ideas, historians show how even this inclusion waxed and waned with increasing and decreasing contacts with other communities.
Indigenous history provides an arena to destabilise European Enlightenment divides such as nature-culture, mind-body disciplines, and anthropocentric notions of agency, all colonial inheritances that continue to define the present and contribute to the ongoing crisis. The practice of acknowledging those who came first, including land and forest spirits, is common in various African communities. When Anlo-Ewe peoples migrated into lagoon areas in West Africa, they incorporated ritual knowledge and the sea deities of neighbouring peoples, thus enabling them to develop a maritime fishing tradition, which was previously non-existent amongst them.
African symbologies, syllabaries and alphabets, such as Adinkra, Nsibidi, Chokwe veves, and Ge’ez scripts, illuminate communities’ values as well as the design and communication principles used to communicate them. These carriers of peoples’ aesthetic thought and principles can be used today both as reminders and harbingers of alternative futures, as Saki Mafundikwa, a graphic designer, and Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author, are doing.
Breaking the lure of the present moment also entails complexifying grand narratives through attending to histories of the particular and of change. For example, Sundiata Keita is famed as a great ruler of the Mali Empire. A charter he pronounced upon ascending the throne is celebrated as one of the first ‘constitutions’ in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta, and lauded for its humaneness because it instructed that slaves should get one day off a week and own the property of their bags. Sundiata, in fact, reinstated slavery, which the guild of hunters had abolished a few years earlier in a charter they delivered. This history points to the fact that life, and therefore history, is processual and encourages a shift from linear progression and teleological thinking.
Indigenous African polities demonstrate heterarchy as a form of societal organisation in which power is diffuse and vested in multiple spheres and people, none more important than the other, thus entrenching checks and balances. One person could belong to their family or clan lineage, an age-set group, a secret society, a knowledge or crafts guild, a deliberative body (e.g. council of elders), and a spiritual practice (e.g. a spirit medium or devotee) at the same time. Each of these institutions performed activities necessary for the health of the whole community rather than for the importance of single individuals, be they chiefs or kings. Amongst the Nanumba and others, chiefs were farmers like any other community member. Equally, deposition of leaders when they did not meet the reciprocal obligation to work for the health of the community was practised, as were migrations to start new communities in new areas.
Among the Alur, the power of the central polity increased rather than decreased as groups separated and left to start their own political formations. The hunter’s charter and ‘egalitarian/stateless societies’ like the Igbo of West Africa also provide examples of alternative political models. These different ways of organising the political can open up a discursive and praxis imaginary of the political that goes beyond the nation-state.
In many indigenous African societies, people, relationships and the knowledge embedded in them were more valued than material goods. The global capital system, however, has steadily devalued people, especially knowledgeable Africans who are placed at the bottom of a hierarchy, even while the system profits off the knowledge they hold in agriculture, medicine, knowledge production, and various other domains. In Equatorial Africa how much knowledge one had, understood as skilful generative action (not information) was highly valued. At present, however, extractive control over people, and the Earth, not the ownership of knowledge (productive skilful action) is what is more highly valued. A reframing of wealth using indigenous concepts of knowledge and skill might change how we organise our economies and societies, re-appreciating both the time and knowledge inherent in agroecological food production, craftwork, and forms of artistic production. It can also provide pathways out of global capitalism.
Statistics about Africa’s rapid urbanisation abound. Valuing and integrating indigenous forms of urbanism might hold answers to the challenges this presents. For example, urban agriculture was an integral part of several indigenous urban centres. Encouraging and supporting urban agriculture in African cities today might allow us to create cities that feed themselves. The floating city of Makoko in Lagos lagoon was settled 200 years ago. Today the ingenuity of design, construction, and socio-economic life in Makoko is under threat of demolition for ‘development’. A historical understanding of living in Makoko, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of knowledge and skill represented might allow imagination of indigenous urban development. Indeed, the residents of Makoko have been innovating it for 200 years already.
Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, to challenge the privileging of whiteness and Europeanness, and to debunk myths about Africans as people who are destructive or unchanging. It allows us to illuminate diverse possibilities of human living to build on against the hegemony of a present moment that unsees and devalues us. For Africans, studying African history is an opportunity to trace the stream of African living for the last 200, 000 years.
Unseeing was a colonial predicament. There is no reason why we must continue with these glasses on.
Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets
All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.
“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH
To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.
This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.
It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.
All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.
Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.
Knowledge of truth.
What truth? Which truth?
Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.
The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.
The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.
It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.
In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.
Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.
The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.
Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.
Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.
There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.
Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.
This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”
Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.
In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.
This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.
The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:
Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.
He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.
Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.
Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.
His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.
Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.
Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.
It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.
Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.
From scholar-activists to organisation activism
For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.
The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.
Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.
The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.
Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.
This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.
For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.
Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.
Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.
Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.
Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.
Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.
But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.
That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.
History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.
Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.
It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.
The need has never been greater.
An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.
We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.
A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.
We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.
The situation is critical, the need urgent.
The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination
The Kenyan government’s misguided and costly investments in big infrastructure projects are compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Meanwhile, elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.
The Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project was officially launched at Magogoni, the site of the new Lamu port, in 2012. The two heads of the coalition government attended.
At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki told the people of Lamu that they had a new constitution and that they should familiarise themselves with its provisions to protect their land rights. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said something to the effect that the train is now leaving the station and either you Swahili can get on board and go forward with the rest of us, or you can remain behind as is your usual custom.
After the launch, LAPSSET progressed in fits and starts. A modern building to house the secretariat was built in Mokowe, an official website came online, and construction of three of the 32 planned berths began.
LAPSSET is by far Africa’s most ambitious project. Its description on the website is a testament to Kenya’s central planners’ imagination:
This mega project consists of seven key infrastructure projects starting with a new 32 Berth port at Lamu (Kenya); Interregional Highways from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba (South Sudan), Isiolo to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lamu to Garsen (Kenya), Crude Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba; Product Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Addis Ababa; Interregional Standard Gauge Railway lines from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba, Isiolo to Addis Ababa, and Nairobi to Isiolo; 3 International Airports: one each at Lamu, Isiolo, and Lake Turkana; 3 Resort Cities: one each at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana; and The multipurpose High Grand Falls Dam along the Tana River.
During the interim, the local community fought back through Save Lamu, a coalition of community organisations. Their objective was to make the Kenyan government hear their voices and to facilitate local participation.
Save Lamu was ignored, harassed, and accused of opposing the region’s development. The organisation constantly repeated they were not against the project, but rather, they were fighting for the right of the local community to be consulted over its impact on the environment and local livelihoods. At one point, the office holders were summoned to Nairobi by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). For two days, CID officers interrogated them about their imputed involvement in the horrific Al Shabaab attack in Mpeketoni. They returned safe but frazzled by the experience.
Several months later, the coalition extended its advocacy to the Lamu power plant, a 1,050 Mw coal-fired electricity project to be built next to the port at enormous cost and protected by Treasury-sapping guarantees for payment of the power whether the electricity was used or not. Although some people in Lamu supported the new port for the prospects of the jobs it would create, the community in no uncertain terms did oppose the coal-fired plant.
Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention. The lack of acclamation reflects the simple fact that the tide has been going out on LAPSSET for several years.
Kenya left holding the baby
In 2016, the Ugandan government announced plans to build a railroad that would connect Juba to another planned rail line from Kampala to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. Kampala explained that although the Tanzanian route was longer, the lower cost of construction justified the decision to withdraw from the planned link-up with the LAPSSET route through Kenya. In September, Ethiopia set in motion plans to build a 1500-kilometre railway to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The planned rail line effectively removing Ethiopia from the LAPSSET equation added another nail in the project’s coffin.
In 2009, major Western and Asian governments were queuing up to finance the diverse components of LAPSSET. South Sudan, or more correctly, the oil in South Sudan, was the main prize. At the time of LAPSSET’s initial conceptualisation, the country was forced to export its oil through Port Sudan. Newly independent South Sudan was exporting over 350,000 barrels a day in 2012. Although the supply was expected to decline over the decade, exploration held out the promise that much more crude oil would be coming, complementing the even larger deposits found in northern Uganda and eastern Congo.
Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention.
The sea of oil reportedly floating underneath the long neglected region made the grandiose infrastructural investment appear sensible at the time. The peak oil theory was making waves. But a matrix of factors, including climate change, the discovery of new oil reserves across the planet, and the falling cost of renewable energy, shifted the calculus. The financiers slowly melted away, leaving the Government of Kenya holding the baby.
This was also due to the other usual suspects: unreliable state partners, the fickle nature of investment capital, and the multiple problems that come with big projects in this and most parts of the world – all of which was compounded by the fact that exporting the thick crude required building the supporting superstructure from scratch, including heated pipelines to prevent coagulation en route. The pipeline to Lamu was estimated to cost US$ 8 billion circa 2012. China, the primary purchaser of Sudan’s oil, told Salva Kiir they would loan him the money for the pipeline but would not pay for it as many local stakeholders had assumed.
LAPSSET was already losing its shine at that juncture, and even before the pandemic, Kenya’s investment in big infrastructure (epitomised by the financially challenged Standard Gauge Railway project) was proving to be a debt spinning mirage. If this is not a concern for those playing the front-end game, the Big Project mentality should be a concern for everyone else.
Colonial conquest and economies of scale
The expanding powers of Europe invaded the continent when the age of industrial capitalism was taking off. Material progress and the conquest of nature became the measure of man and nations. During the first half of the 19th century, world trade doubled; between 1850 and 1870 it expanded by 260 per cent.
Coal and iron fueled industrial commerce. Steamships and railways provided the sinews. The length of European railway tracks increased from 1,700 miles in 1840 to 63,000 miles in 1870, and passed 100,000 miles ten years later. Progress in other infrastructural domains followed a similar trajectory.
The unification of countries, new constitutions, and an increase in civil liberties preceded these developments in Europe. The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.
The contrast accounts for why the British colonial administrator, Charles Eliot, found little to recommend in the socio-economic domain during his tour of the East African Protectorate. The country’s future, he opined, “lay in the vegetative kingdom”, but it was infrastructure that led the way. Eliot’s comment, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country”, conveyed not only the inverted logic of colonialism, but also the outsized impact of the Uganda railroad.
The establishment of industrial capitalism redirected the pathway to include investment in public goods like education and scientific research. The knowledge creation enabling the imperial surge came from a different mindset. The work of Charles Babbage in informatics, the engineering audacity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Alexander von Humbolt’s quest to map the planet’s geographical features all stemmed from an outsized imagination.
The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.
The process supported a complicated system dedicated to the maintenance of growing armies of labourers and soldiers while erecting monuments, heroic statuary, and grandiose houses of worship. For generations, communities bought into the idea because it improved their security and facilitated trade.
The scale of such intellectual agendas is different than the Thinking Big model of development. Expanding vistas of science and the imagination is not the same as building a gigantic dam or assembling the King of Bahrain’s new robot bodyguard. Such toys and vanity projects, like Dubai’s artificial islands, represent one endpoint set in motion by the capture of surplus, the rise of elites, and the formation of states.
Once upon a time the rise of the state offered a pathway out of a world of fear, superstition, conquest by neighbours, and punishments ordained by the gods. Half a millennium later, the Leviathan became the new god of economic rationality that substituted hierarchy for cooperation, replaced the commons with capitalist extraction, and generally raised the quality of life in exchange for the mega-accumulation benefitting a small group of individuals. All this was done in the name of efficiency and progress.
For five hundred years, the state expanded, culminating in big government experiments, such as the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China. Its post-1989 retreat left us with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Water, Big Data, Big Finance, Big Retail, and even Big Foreign Policy in the guise of Xi Ping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The skewed rewards of stardom has made competition a Winners Take All game across the board, from corporate salaries, sports, to social media.
The Big State was colonialism’s parting gift to Africa and the neoliberal economy now incentivises its agents to transact resources and to cash in on their geopolitical location.
Mentalities of scale
The United Kingdom’s Whitehall model replicated itself across the Empire’s colonies. Everything from the formal school system, the conventional assumptions of developmental policies, and the inability of the colonial-designed African nation-state to remake itself following the unsuccessful post-independence alternatives championed by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere reinforces this state of mind.
Historically, infrastructural development takes care of itself once the factors of production, exchange, security, and basic rights are in place. No one planned or financed the Great Silk Road but it sustained Central Asia’s contribution to world civilization from the pre-Christian era until about two hundred years ago. Even the succession of invasions, conquests, and dynasties that swept over the region did little to disrupt the underlying system that supported the trade network until Russia’s colonial ambitions instigated the 19th century imperial great game in that region.
Now China is seeking to build a grander Great Silk Road spanning the Eurasian Steppe as part of the Communist government’s Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen if the outcome will work the way XI Ping’s planners anticipate. In the meantime, the mega cities built on the country’s margins remain uninhabited and many of the centrally-planned BRI projects are experiencing cost overruns and other problems. The New Silk Road may yet set in motion a revival of the complicated oppositions and conflicts characterising the region’s history.
Back in this part of the world, where the historical template is totally different, it is still mind-boggling that big failures, from the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme to LAPSSET, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme and the Jubilee government’s faltering Big Four agenda, continue to propagate themselves. The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.
There is a difference between tapping economies of scale and scalability. This also applies to the world of ideas. We live in a world where the critique and testing of concepts and beliefs that long underpinned human processes is being reduced to the circulation of memes. This is reducing political discourse in the democratic West to the capture of single-issue constituencies and battle lines based on memetic tribes.
In Kenya, the political arena has long been dominated by a dynamic based on the control of the monolithic state. In these conditions, the problem of scale is not a function of small-to-large, even though the educated elite have been conditioned to think in these terms. Politics in these conditions descended into a monetised exercise based on ephemeral ethno-linguistic coalitions.
The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.
This approach has proven to be poorly suited to the challenge of fitting together multiple units of different sizes into a synergetic economic configuration. The history of the pre-colonial era provides an alternative political economy template. Kenya’s constitutional reform marked a step in this direction, but replicating the dynamics patterned on regional initial conditions will remain a work in progress as long as the power concentrated in the centre works to break creative devolution and participatory development.
We are witnessing shifts in workplace and settlement patterns that make it possible to envision the process reaching an equilibrium point where entities based on the old clan and new tribe continuum may reemerge as an asset. But who is thinking about the future in terms that question the conventional assumptions about organisation, or that tap into the co-evolutionary potential inherent in Kenya’s cultural mosaic?
Kenya’s superstructural poverty
In social science, superstructure refers to the ideational domain – the world of concepts, languages, myths, ideologies, science, religion, superstitions, beliefs, and shared assumptions that define the societal mind. Culture is an overlapping concept that is typically defined in terms of a population’s superstructural orientations and the behavioural patterns they generate.
The influence of superstructure and the cultural domain occupies a secondary role in materialist and evolutionary analysis. For example, the use of tools and fire resulted in the reduction in the size of early human beings’ jaws because they no longer had to use their mouths to rip and chew meat. This in turn led to the rise of language, a primary enabler of cultural development.
Things were simpler during the Paleolithic. Today societies are complex systems where prediction based on infrastructure variables, such as the development of roads and communications, is confounded by the influence of non-linear dynamics and unpredictable forces. This is because superstructure is a mutable domain. It acts as both a critical source of both system maintaining and system changing feedback. This is a key element of societal transitions that allows us to translate our collective experience into resilience. Once deemed an epiphenomenon, evolutionary ecology studies now document the role of culture in accelerating the slow process of biological evolution.
The colonial model superstructure worked to stabilise Kenya’s development during the first decades after independence. When the rigid organisational order began changing due to a release phase during the Moi era, the ground began to shift under the received paradigms of development. Before that the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy contributed to the intellectual debate about Kenya’s and the developing world’s progress in general. Both sides of the discourse acted as mechanisms selecting for the regional ideological convergence we now take for granted. Promoting integration is a good idea but the utility of the current top-down approach is debatable.
A recent journal article examining LAPSSET and three other similar infrastructure corridors described the political economy of corridors as “contests over the framing of development interventions influenced by a range of social and technical imaginaries”. Kenya’s politicians’ and policy makers’ embrace of large-scale centralised planning comes with high costs; the benefits of Kenya serving as Eastern Africa’s hub are slipping away. Kenya’s reputation of maintaining an even-handed regional foreign policy has also been marred.
The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind. Preachers, social media, and identity politics expanded into the vacated superstructural space. The influence of the Chinese model contributed to passive acceptance of the techno-infrastructural developmental pathway. Behind-the- curtain dealings have generated the funding.
As a result, Kenya’s public-private cartels continue to benefit from a succession of revenue-draining projects and a succession of massively overpriced feasibility studies that render local stakeholders invisible. The Infrastructural Master Plan for the LAPSSET Corridor and Lamu Port, for example, is a thousand-page document that does not mention the regional population and communities affected. The attempt to build a technologically obsolete pollution-belching coal plant next to one of the planet’s most unique near zero-carbon urban settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is proof of what can happen in the absence of a countervailing developmental narrative.
The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind.
This is not to say the objectives of projects like LAPSSET will not be realised. The issue is not so much thinking big but the actors and incentives behind it. The corporate-empowered developmental state many African governments aspire to be should not be conflated with the moonshot mentality behind so many of humanity’s greatest achievements. The regional links will coalesce over time, Old Silk Road style.
In the meantime, Kenya’s superstructural deficit is compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate and multicultural vibrancy that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. Unlike infrastructure, investment in the exchange of ideas is not costly. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.
We will discuss the some of the concepts and practices framing the new developmental narrative emerging across the world in the second part of this epistle—which will also locate Kenya as an important player in our collective transition to the Anthropocene.
Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?
Poverty is the main factor in the transmission of coronavirus. What we need is a “vaccine” against the disruption of livelihoods, and a model might just be staring us in the face.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made a statement that has become the butt of social media jokes. He said, “If we continue to behave normally, this disease will treat us abnormally. Behaving normal under these circumstances is akin to having a death wish.”
The man in charge of the health docket as the nation is in the throes of a global pandemic moaning and lamenting the public’s apparent refusal to comply with the official prevention strategy sounds defeatist.
The government had curtailed movement into and out of the capital city, Nairobi, and Mombasa and Kilifi counties. A national dusk-to-dawn curfew had been imposed, and a health advisory required that all Kenyans wear masks, avoid social gatherings and other crowded places, including places of worship, and practice handwashing with soap and running water, preferably every half hour.
“Stay at home. Work from home,” was the official line.
“What work? Which home”? Kayole resident Albert Otieno, a 32-year-old father of two who lost his job when the economy was shut down by the virus and is battling a chronic health condition, puts the stay-at-home order in perspective:
Sasa ku-stay at home na isolation, pande yangu ilinifinya. Ilinifinya proper. Kwa sababu, for my family to eat . . . na mimi napata hand to mouth, yangu siwezi sema hata nita-save, yangu nikikuja nayo hivi, ni kuiweka kwa meza. Kesho unaenda tena kwenye umetoka. Unatoka kwa nyumba tena bure, bila hata bob, ya kuenda hata utasema eti nitaenda kula lunch huko kwenye ninaenda, ama utakula breakfast. So hiyo social distance iliniua. Hiyo working at home, mimi sina ati kazi nitaifanya kwa nyumba. Sasa kazi gani nitafanya na mimi kazi yangu ni ya mikono yangu? Now to stay and home and the matter of isolation to me was oppressive, properly oppressive. This is because for my family to eat, and I only get hand-to-mouth, for me I cannot even think of saving, what I earn lands on the table that day. Tomorrow you have to go back where you earned the previous day, you leave the house without even a shilling, nothing that you can say you will use to eat lunch or breakfast. For me when I put my earnings on the table it is all gone. So that social distancing is a death sentence, that working from home too. I do not have any work that I can engage in at home. What work will I do when I survive from the work of my hands?
The question that lingers is whether the government took into account what “normal” means for a majority of Kenyans before suggesting that behaving normally is akin to a death wish.
The Cabinet Secretary was addressing himself only to a small proportion of the Kenyan population, those with the wherewithal to host parties and deliberately disregard health advisories, and certainly not the majority of Kenyans whose existence is defined by poverty.
The coronavirus disrupted the livelihoods of a majority of Kenyans, and the only way that they could survive was to continue their usual, normal life struggles. The 17th edition of the Kenya Economic updates 2018, places 36.1 per cent of Kenyans below the poverty line, whereas a SIDA report indicates that almost 80 per cent of Kenyans are either income poor, or near the poverty line. This means that a majority of Kenyans are tottering on the precipice and risk losing their means of livelihood at the drop of a hat. The report paints a gloomy picture of the Kenyan economic situation. It states,
As much as 78% of Kenyan workers are employed in the informal sector, many of whom lack security of employment, have few labour rights, lack trade union organization, and suffer from low access to social protection. Women, youth and persons with disabilities are even less likely than other groups to receive benefits, including health benefits, when engaged in the informal sector.
The informal sector is made up of small-scale business people, typically, casual or domestic workers, mama mboga (vegetable sellers), mama fua (washerwomen), street hawkers, jua kali artisans, boda-boda (motor-bike and bicycle taxis), kamjesh (transport sector crew) and mjengo crew (builders). Seventy-two per cent of the households which earn their livelihoods in the informal sector do not have a stable income and live mainly from hand-to-mouth. In the 2019 census, Nairobi recorded a population of 4,397,073 of whom 60 per cent — about 2.6 million people — live in informal settlements. Of these city residents, 30 per cent or 1,446,549 are severely food insecure with only 25,000 having a semblance of food security.
According to a rapid food security assessment conducted in April 2020 by The Kenya Red Cross Society, a majority are experiencing severe hunger. Only one out of every four households in Nairobi’s informal settlements has a stable income. Only 20 per cent of the thousands of households in Mukuru and Korogocho are able to support 80 per cent of their domestic needs. This is the situation in Kibera, Mathare, Soweto, Majengo, Gitare, Marigo, Gatina, Lunga Lunga, Kayole and probably in many other informal settlements in the Kenyan urban areas.
The Kenyan economy was already doing badly when the coronavirus struck and COVID-19 was just one more nail in the coffin. Those who were struggling are now barely clinging to life by the skin of their teeth. As the pandemic intensified, food prices soared and reached an unprecedented three-year high, while the cost of essential items like paraffin for lighting and cooking went up by more than 20 per cent in some cases.
Mildred Lucia, a single mother of four living in Dandora who used to wash clothes to earn a living until the coronavirus struck, laments the rise in the prices of basic commodities. “Vitu zimepanda, kama unga tulikuwa tunanunua unga kilo moja shillingi 40. Saa hii imepanda hadi 50 to 55. Napia mchele imepanda. Tulikuwa tunanunua Pakistan 40 shillings saa hii imepanda ni 55 nusu kilo!” The cost of basic commodities has skyrocketed, like maize meal that we were buying at forty shillings now costs between fifty and fifty-five shillings. The price of Pakistan rice has also gone up. We used to buy at forty for half a kilo and now it’s fifty-five!
Food prices have risen by over 25 per cent since the pandemic struck. Food and rent are the highest recurring costs in the informal settlements, followed by health. With no work, residents in the informal settlement see their debts pile up day after day. The sense of desolation evident in Nairobi’s informal settlements is replicated in every informal settlement in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru.
The coronavirus pandemic and the government’s mitigating strategies disrupted livelihoods. Informal jobs were lost. Those working in the construction industry lost their jobs because building sites were closed and those that remained open could only operate within the limits of the curfew. At the beginning, the 7 p.m. curfew meant that construction sites closed at 3 p.m. having opened late as the curfew only ended at 5 a.m.
Workers were paid less for working fewer hours. Women who sell food and water to the construction workers and the washerwomen who make a paltry Sh200 per day washing clothes suddenly found themselves persona non grata in the homes of the wealthy who feared that they might transmit the coronavirus to them. The street hawkers selling food, groceries, vegetables and fruits were affected, not only because they were not able to freely ply their trade, but also because the incomes of their customers had been disrupted. And with movement curtailed, the earnings of boda boda riders dropped because they had fewer clients.
Children in the informal settlements had their education completely disrupted because they do not have access to online learning facilities and nor can they afford home schooling. Children stayed at home, or wandered aimlessly around the informal settlements making their parents very worried for their safety. Staying at home in the crowded informal settlements is untenable, yet when the children and their parents wander outside the anxiety rises further because no one knows who could be a COVID-19 vector. Parents return home after a day of trying to earn money to buy food and cannot hug their children because they do not have water to sanitise. Water in the informal settlements costs 150 per cent more than it does in the more affluent neighbourhoods where it is piped right into the houses.
As the loss of livelihoods ate up whatever savings families had, debts began to pile up: food credit, fuel bills and rent arrears. Landlords evicted the Incomeless tenants and locked up the houses, in some cases locking up the tenants’ belongings inside. Many residents of informal settlements built up huge rent arrears forcing them to adopt extremely desperate measures. Thirty-two-year-old Albert Otieno moved into the single room occupied by his old ailing mother, whose own house back in Budalang’i in Busia County had been swept away by the floods that preceded the coronavirus pandemic. In Albert’s culture, this is taboo and totally unacceptable. He says this has affected the entire family.
All these little traumas arising from valiant attempts to stay alive are taking a toll on the mental health of the inhabitants of informal settlements. Cases of domestic violence, homicide and suicide have risen significantly since the coronavirus hit. The National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) noted that 35.8 per cent of crimes reported just a fortnight into the coronavirus lockdown were of a sexual nature. The perpetrators were for the most part people close to or known to the victims.
Data from the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) shows a similar trend. During the pandemic, CREAW’s gender-based violence helpline has been recording an average of 90 cases a month, compared to 20 cases during the same period last year. The rate of gender-based violence was alarming enough for President Uhuru Kenyatta to order investigations into the rising cases. The National Crime Research Centre was tasked to probe the escalating cases of gender-based violence as well as the sharp rise in teenage pregnancies during the lockdown.
Distress calls to helplines have surged more than ten-fold since the lockdown measures were imposed. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that dealing with pandemics can be stressful, and that the prevention strategies suggested could lead to fear and anxiety thereby increasing stress levels. Stress can cause fear and worry for one’s safety as one is forced to continue doing what they must in order to live. This results in an upsurge of mental health challenges and a worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.
There are also other health-related challenges that further complicate the lives of the poor. In the informal settlements where cases of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are more prevalent, and cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease remain untreated for long, access to health services is disrupted because resources to travel to seek health services cannot be raised. The result is that scheduled medical appointments are missed, and respecting medication schedules becomes impossible.
There is also the reluctance to visit a health facility for fear of contracting the coronavirus there and cases have been reported where healthcare providers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) are reluctant to see patients they suspect could be infected. This means that expectant mothers are not able to access prenatal care, and new-borns cannot be taken for post-natal clinic appointments. Moreover, many children in the informal settlements will miss their immunisations and this will have long-terms effects well after the COVID-19 curve has been flattened. Mutahi Kagwe’s remarks rang hollow for the millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans forced to take risks and behave as they normally do as they struggle to eke out a living day by day.
Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19. This bold statement is the title of a blog by Kanni Wignaraja, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, and Balázs Horváth, Chief Economist, UNDP, Asia-Pacific. Kanni has been consistent in her writing in support of a policy response to the coronavirus that has universal basic income (UBI) as its centrepiece. She has argued that without a robust response targeting the poor and the marginalised, the long-term social effects could be grim, and could erase any economic recovery put in place to re-energise the economies devastated by the coronavirus lockdown.
Of all the models of social protection, universal basic income is probably the most radical approach. Social protection describes a wide range of interventions — direct and indirect, in cash or in kind, social services, reliable public and private initiatives that enable people to deal with risk, vulnerability or shocks such as the coronavirus, provide support to overcome acute and chronic poverty and enhance the resilience, the social status and rights of marginalised individuals.
As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the informal settlements, a consortium of NGOs — Oxfam Kenya, The Kenya Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide, ACTED, IMPACT, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and the Wangu Kanja Foundation — have been running a cash transfer social protection project targeting 20,000 households in Nairobi’s informal settlements with funding from the European Union (EU). The programme began in June and was designed to complement the government’s Inua Jamii initiative that was offering cash support to the poor. The cash transfer project reached out to 11,250 households that were already receiving Sh2,000 from the government with a Sh5,668 top-up every month.
Through the Nyumba Kumi mechanism, the project identified a further 8,750 households which received Sh7,668 monthly. The sum was calculated to provide at least 50 per cent of what is described as the Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB), or half of what an average family needs to survive. The project also identified 1,200 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for legal and psychosocial support and even resources to find a safe house. The Royal Danish Embassy also signed a DKK20 million (Sh310 million) grant to provide cash support to 40,000 vulnerable households within informal settlements in Mombasa and Nairobi. By mid-September, Sh204,020,492 — approximately €1.6 million — had been transferred to 15,792 individuals. This is obviously a drop in the ocean, but does it present a model that can be scaled up as a solution to help alleviate poverty?
Social protection programmes that provide cash transfers have greater impact compared to initiatives run by the government. Studies have shown that government-run social protection programmes in Kenya typically missed out 90 per cent of the informal workers compared to a reach of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Workers in the informal sector, when compared to other workers in Kenya, are less likely to get involved with organisations or service providers through whom they can access medical benefits from employers. The elderly and persons with disabilities (PWD) are worse off in this respect.
Speaking for UNDP, Kanni Wignaraja has made it clear that there must be some sort of minimum income that acts as a safety net so that the most vulnerable do not succumb to hunger or other diseases well before COVID-19 gets them. In Nairobi’s informal settlements where this social support project was running, it was a case of pulling people back from the brink.
Beneficiaries of the cash transfers recount how the money literally gave them a lifeline. Albert Otieno was able to pay his rent arrears, buy medication to treat his cancer and buy food for his children. The money also eased the domestic tension and brought a smile to his wife’s face; for the first time since he lost his job his family were able to eat three square meals a day. Albert is still in disbelief that he was included in the social protection programme without knowing someone or having a godfather or being asked to pay a bribe. He describes himself as a guy who was a thorn in the flesh of the Nyumba Kumi chairman because whenever he had no money to buy his medication or food for his family he would go to the chairman. The transparency in vetting and the integrity of the programme is why he feels it should be adopted by the government. Otieno says that in Kayole where he lives, he has not heard of any beneficiary of the government’s Inua Jamii programme although it is supposedly on the ground.
Beatrice Mbendo, a 39-year-old pregnant single mother of three whose washing jobs had dried up, was able to pay her debts including rent arrears when she received the money. In her view, the government should have a social protection programme for the poor even in the absence of a pandemic. So does Mildred Lucia, who sells tissue paper in Dandora Phase 4. She is a mother of four whose business collapsed with the onset of COVID-19. She used to be a washerwoman, but all like her are now treated like pariahs because of fear that they might infect their clients. When she received the cash transfer, the money went to feeding her family which had been reduced to eating a single meal a day. Mildred also invested a little money to grow her business and she is hopeful that this boost will get her out of the clutches of poverty.
Margaret Mutambi was thrown out of her home after an abusive eleven-year marriage. When she received the cash transfer she was able to purchase household goods for her new home, pay rent arrears and buy food for her children. Margaret decries the fact that there are no formal jobs for women in the informal sector, saying that their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence is exacerbated by their dependence on men. At her lowest moment before she received the cash transfer Margaret had to re-use a face mask when she went out to look for work because she could not afford Shs20 to buy a mask and could not afford to stay put at home.
Cash transfer as a social support strategy has its critics, with the most vociferous saying that it is unsustainable and leads to a dependency syndrome that results in recipients not being keen to try and get back on their feet. Others have complained that receiving “hand-outs” is undignified and robs the assisted communities of their sense of self-worth. Yet others complain that cash transfers promote lethargy and laziness, that recipients adjust to being in the programme and have no incentive to exit even when their lives improve. Those against cash transfers also argue that poor people do not know how to handle money, and that they are wont to waste whatever they receive or invest in non-essentials. However, research and evaluative studies have debunked these myths and vindicated the cash transfer social protection approach.
The argument that UBI is unsustainable is the most challenging one to counter except from a moral standpoint. Kanni responds to it with an existential dilemma. She states,
The alternative to not having UBI is the rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration, and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalise and ferment on social disappointment. It is against this background that we seriously need to consider implementing a well-designed UBI, so shocks may hit, but they won’t destroy.
A properly designed social support programme should be able to transition the community from abject poverty to a state where social business can take over in uplifting living standards The Grameen Bank model has demonstrated that the poor have the capacity to work themselves out of poverty as long as they are given initial support. By the end of 2008, the bank had loaned up to $7.6 billion to the rural poor with a repayment rate of 99.6 per cent. Of these borrowers, 97 per cent were women. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recognised the work of Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus.
Grameen Bank believes that the poor know best how to better their situations and debunks the notion that unconditional cash transfers to the poor will be abused and lead to further poverty. Research findings show that cash transfers actually do provide the poor with support to pull themselves up, and notions of reluctance to resume work have been disproved.
In the informal settlements the normal cannot be avoided. It is a threadbare normal, rendered worse by the efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Without cash transfers, the risk of death lies not in ignoring the government’s advisory but in actually adhering to it.
Today, the cash transfers from the state and the bilateral partners have ceased but millions are still held hostage by poverty. Is there a lesson to be learnt from the UBI “coronavirus vaccine” that, for a while, shielded some 20,000 households from COVID-19? Could UBI be used as a blueprint for a national social support and livelihood system that could be run by the national and county governments?
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