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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world’s wounds, scars, fissures and pressures. The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches zones of abandonment remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should ideally be shared and held in common.

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Pandemonium! The Pathology of a Pandemic
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I. Pharmakon

The recent exposure of our bodies to foreign bodies has also exposed the cracks and limited sympathies that form the body politic. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us aware of a world that we all share. A world whose wounds, scars, fissures and pressures do not open up to an outside. A world where bodies and borders fold back into themselves, revealing the things that animate the current order, as well as that which is yet to come.

As we are told to distance ourselves from other human and non-human beings, let us remember that there are things that the act of distancing cannot prevent. That there are many separations and intimacies, as well as wounds, that it cannot heal. As we are encouraged to wash our hands and to stay at home, let us revisit the cultures of the home and dynamics of homelessness too. With critical care and compassion, with renewed passion and attention, let us question some of the presentist tales on retail and see the pharmakon — the remedy, the poison, and the scapegoat — that they entail.

For the past two years, the Kenyan political imaginary has been mediated and saturated by a dynastic handshake. A handshake whose supposedly reconciling touch has created new political alignments and theistic rearrangements. Like other diplomatic gestures aimed at repairing democratic fissures, the handshake has generated reports and initiatives of conjecture. For some, it is a breath of fresh air. For others, it is a political chokehold and a cause of breathlessness. For some, the handshake is a pay cheque.

With the current emergency measures being declared against the backdrop of an immunitary politics of touch and breathlessness, we should be wary of the emergence of untouchable officers who suspend or act outside of the law. But there is a doubleness to this untouchability. While it signals to the impunity and fear that marks our immunitary present, it also calls upon us to apprehend , embrace, and agitate with the millions that our political habits have abandoned and rendered precarious – the so-called “untouchables” whose everyday life and vision of the future is marked by hunger and breathlessness of one form or another, the millions for whom the curfew and other emergency measures carry the forces of life and death in equal measure.

In this time when faces sit behind masks or, as we have seen, so many black skins move without masks, we need to question the official protocols behind the disposal of the breathless dead in undignified ways. We need to heed the calls of homeward-bound travelers who are subjected to the familiar tools of repression while some —untouched by the familiar brutality of rungus and teargas —remain “safely” bound within their homes. As the home-bound people moralise and cheer on the few armed men who enforce the curfew against the so-called “undisciplined masses”, remember that home – that assumed space of safety – also causes premature death for others. Remember that on these streets some people do not need to commit an infraction; their very existence, their everyday movement, their way of being, is now an infraction. Today it is them, tomorrow it might be you.

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways. Beware of the fear of exposure to foreign bodies that makes one fearful or suspicious of foreigners. Beware of the war metaphors and mobilisations that urge people to withdraw into themselves, cut the ties and veins that connect them to others, and plug the nodes and portals through which contact and contagion take place. Beware of the calls to take the politics of touch too literally, such that one cannot be touched by the plight and joy of others. It is when we are all masked up and everyday touch becomes lethal that one must remember the touching words of Frantz Fanon at the end of his Black Skins, White Masks where he calls upon us:

[…]to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world…Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?

II. Care/Carefulness

In these times where we are called upon to shelter in place and distance ourselves from others, let us also distance ourselves from our habitual ways of being and the selves that they hold in place. Undoubtedly, the emergency modes of care and immunity generate regimes of carefulness that guarantee life and safety, but certain forms of carefulness also stand in the way of solidarity and attunement to the wailing and mumbling of the world.

With the recognition that solidarity is both a gift and a sacrifice that binds, we must ask what it means to stand with another without producing micro-fascisms and architectures of enmity that reduce difference to identity while subjecting it to dominant regimes of recognition. At what point, we might ask, do solidarities become sodalities or even a kind of new modality of being with others based on limited sympathies and forms of fear?

It is during this time – when habitual forms of touch, breath, intimacy, or even desire can be fatal – that one must find ways of touching and connecting to others in other ways.

As we witness abandoned African migrants being profiled, evicted, abused, and expelled from Guangzhou in China while African states receive personal protective equipment donations from China and test kits and masks from Jack Ma and as we see people of Asian descent being spat on, wailed at, and attacked on U.S. streets based on the notion that they are the originators and carriers of SARS-CoV-2 virus, how are we to respond? How can we attend to the double challenge that calls upon Africans at home to condemn the violence against fellow Africans in China as well as that which is waged against the Chinese and other Asians in the U.S.— a place where fellow black people are already disproportionately exposed to illness , injury, and death? How are we to ensure that we do not excuse or reproduce these violences here at home or anywhere else for that matter? Whither the spirit of Bandung? Insofar as this geography of pain and therefore ethics is concerned, Africans, it seems, are the behemoth that sees multiple sides of the violence, debt, gifts, and betrayals that summon us to condemn, mobilise, and sympathise simultaneously. Tragic as it may be, awareness of these layered precarities provides an orientation that remains crucial for negotiating and navigating the world of separations that is emerging in the wake of the pandemic and its related pandemonium.

***

Again, and owing to biocolonial and biopolitical concerns, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the globe has led to new discourses on African lack and excess. In some of these narratives, the low incidence of the COVID-19 disease in Africa is attributed to the systemic disconnectedness of Africa from the rest of the world. In other discourses, Africans are said to be immune to a virus that is ravaging humanity at large, given that they are a species apart from humanity.

Within this second figuration, imagined African immunity serves as evidence of a superhuman or subhuman status, thus legitimising the creation of drug trial regimes or resilience-based systems of abandonment based on the notion that Africans will always adapt to conditions that other human beings cannot live in. Either way, the African scene — just like the camps and refugee holding centers in Bangladesh and Europe, Gaza, and prisons in the U.S. — is seen as an exceptional incubator of disease. Accordingly, the abandoned, displaced, walled-off, or exploited collectivities are considered to be the source of enduring threat and fear to the isolated, who might remain uninfected yet but is still affected by the disease. As COVID-19 reveals connections and disconnections that are often disavowed and living conditions that should never have existed in the first place, further moves are made to separate and contain the refugees, prisoners, Palestinian, and African carriers of difference rather than abolish the apartheid orders and structures of exclusion that make the prospect of disease in these places so lethal.

The fear of an impending catastrophe when the virus finally reaches these zones of abandonment – where political and health systems, as well as living conditions, aren’t conducive for the enforcement of social distancing or other measures required to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease – tell us a lot about the “abnormality” and pathology of the spaces that we take as normal. The gaps — which in reality are a gaping abyss — remind us of the violence and partialities that partition a world that should be shared and held in common.

***

When we are called upon to clean the world, our homes, and ourselves, let us heed the words of Françoise Vergès who, in an essay on “Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender” carefully illustrates the gendered dynamics of care and cleaning and the intricate economy and circulation of exhausted bodies that work in spaces of everyday life. Accordingly, our solidarity and our cares should lie with those who are rendered most vulnerable, superfluous, and injured by racial capitalism, patriarchy, and neoliberal logics today.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world. It also renders mute the very essential people that one claims to be talking about and does not protect them from being disposable or easily replaceable.

Beware of the narratives that commoditise and moralise, rather than politicise, the realm of care. Beware of the sacrificial fetishisation, rather than politicisation, of the labouring body that makes it difficult to contest the practices and dispositions that continue to lay so many lives to waste. Beware of those who turn the space of care into an extension of the policing apparatus or those who proclaim their individual freedoms to move and transact “normally”, thus putting undue pressure on already overstretched caregivers.

***

While the language of care is sometimes mobilised to speak of sustaining and rejuvenating practices of self-care, we have to ask ourselves what it is that causes the exhaustion that we are being rejuvenated from and what we are returning to in this re-energised state. In the time of the pandemic, the “care of the self” and the philosophical injunction to know oneself is not something that can be closed unto itself or cordoned off from worlds that any human being is entangled with. With this eroticism of carefulness, the condom – that erotic membrane mobilised to keep the outside outside in the wake of an earlier pandemic – is now joined by masks, gloves, and other membranes. The whole body becomes “condomised” and “sanitised”. The world becomes “moralised” as borders are enforced, as body parts and prostheses are sanitised, and as the fear of the other and suspicion of the self increase.

In New York, they have produced a guide to taking care during sex in the age of COVID-19:

Kissing can easily pass COVID-19. Avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contacts. * Rimming (mouth on anus) might spread COVID-19. Virus in feces may enter your mouth. *Condoms and dental dams can reduce contact with saliva or feces, especially during oral or anal sex. *Washing up before and after sex is more important than ever. Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. * Wash sex toys with soap and warm water. * Disinfect keyboards and touch screens that you share with others (for video chat, for watching pornography or for anything else).

In Nairobi, the Gengetone music group Ethic released their songs Quarantei and Soko, each articulating the violence, sex, and exuberance that accompanies this moment and that, unfortunately, reflects some fantasies and actual realities of urban sex life.

While the economy and ecology of care and cleaning are now recognised as essential to containing the spread of COVID-19, the periodic clapping and heroic chants still overlook the scars, hunger, sleeplessness, and liquification of the skins and hands of the people who clean the world.

In this time of care, and carefulness, in this time of sorrow, grief, lamentation, and burdens of the mind, let us take care of each other. Let us also be wary of the insidious moves that seek to take charge of politics, popular imagination, and desire or fear in the name of freedom. Let us beware of those that prey on vulnerable others and generate fantasies of male domination. Let us beware of the moralists who use these Nairobi scenes of excess to generate a moral panic that normalises and regulates or defines what counts as “proper” desire for everyone. For in the exceptional moment of enclosure, for in the search of a cure, a new “curia” can curate an order of heteronomous morality (unquestioning rule following) where their “orders” and even playful seductions re-order individual and collective life in the service of religious, misogynistic, capitalist, and even fascist ideals rather than amplifying an ethics of care predicated on a radical altruism and attention to more life-affirming practices (sexual or otherwise).

III. Exceptions/ Exemplarities

As we receive the communication on immunity and calls to wash our hands in order to prevent the spread of this microbial “agent”, remember those excommunicated from the sphere of ethical concern. Remember that the dry taps and inability to observe the stay-at-home orders or to even self-isolate in cramped living spaces are not geographical accidents; they are not the historical outcome of poor choices by the poor. They are the material manifestations of old and new structures of exploitation tied to the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism as well as resilience governance in Kenya today.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week. Remember the attritional violence and white-collar crime which, unlike its red-collared counterpart, kills millions slowly, and with a clean conscience. Remember the dataism and algorithmic life that is becoming part of the Kenyan reality as a result of blockchain governance, biometric registration, Safaricom FinTech futures, and the popular and expert ethnic arithmetic, as well as Cambridge Analytica’s psychographics that supplement the idea of insurmountable differences or tyranny of one sort or another. Remember how the Moi era involved patterns of surveillance where the right to know every detail of individual life coincided with the sovereign right to rule in exclusion of others.

When we encounter the unwashed hand or the overpriced jerrycan of water, remember the washed money and the laundered conscience that is baptised in holy water every week.

While resisting technophobic conspiracy theories is necessary, one must recognise how the desire for more elaborate regimes of outbreak analytics and Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response Systems (IDSR) can help contain the spread of COVID-19 but also set the stage for other biopolitical and immunitary forms of governance that target and eliminate the dissenting political body. The crisis, as we come to see, is not one of immunity alone but also of community and its dynamics of superfluity. Let us question our limited sympathies and the discourses on responsibility and discipline that dictate how, or for whom, one must care, be accountable to, know, and even mourn.

IV. Spectacular/ Spectral Handshakes

With the disappearance of the handshake here and elsewhere, let us not forget how this habitual gesture became so common – how it has been banned and reinvented over time, and how it has shaken the world so many times. Remember Mussolini’s anti-bourgeois campaign that replaced the handshake with the fascist Roman salute just after the First World War and the devastation of the Spanish flu. Remember the Boy Scouts’ friendly left-hand handshake invented by Baden-Powell (now buried in Nyeri) as he colonised the Ashanti and subjected King Prempeh to the British crown.

The “genius” and deception behind British geopolitics and the colonial handshakes behind it is illustrated in Nicholas Rankin’s reflection on figures like Richard Meinertzhagen, who is well-known for his love of birds, his execution of the Haversack Ruse in Gaza, and the assassination of Koitalel Arap Samoei in Kenya. The killing, the fatal sleight-of-hand, took place when Koitalel reached out for a conciliatory handshake with the colonial officer who, in familiar anti-diplomatic fashion, denied him the privilege or immunity guaranteed to emissaries and shot him at point-blank range. Meinertzhagen also decapitated Koitalel’s body and took his head, his ornaments, and adornments as trophies of this colonial conquest.

Meinhertzhagen saw war as a metaphor for hunting, which he enjoyed immensely. The only difference for him was that in war you hunted men rather than animals. In Quetta, he used a polo mallet to bludgeon to death a worker who had mistreated his ponies. He then bribed the police to cover up the cause of death by claiming the man had died of the plague. Nearer home in Tanganyika, Meinhertzhagen and his troops searched the German latrines for soiled documents, which acted as “filthy though accurate information” in the service of the British Empire. He also killed birds and put them next to watering holes in order to deny his enemies access to the water, which was marked as poisoned. This man’s blood-soaked fingerprints and the spectre of his deceptive and man-hunting methods are felt from Kenya to Tanzania, Quetta and Palestine.

Beware of the ghosts and methods we summon when we hope to contain today’s deaths and maladies. Beware of the new manhunts, the surveillance, the handshake betrayals, the civilizing missions, the colonial logics of discipline, non-contamination, and the politics of water, toilets and toilet paper, that is sometimes never too far away from profiling, carceral, and other colonial practices. Beware of the desire for “tough” maternal and paternal love and discipline based on the notion that the only language Africans understand is that of brute force. Beware of the notion that the protection the collective is always achieved through sacrifice, punishment, and disregard for the meaningful practices, intimacies, and the little pleasures and compassion that define human and communal dignity. Beware of the interplay of customary norms and governmental exceptions, as well as the quest for a new normal that is to be built on negation rather than negotiation, or conversion without any space for conversation.

When the nostalgia for “the handshake” returns, remember how Fides, that old pagan mark of trust, reliability, and conciliation, became the ritualised sign of Christian pacification. Remember Romeo Dallier who “shook hands with the devil” in Rwanda and even “smelled him”.

Let us not forget those who refused the handshake and watched as opportunity slipped through their fingers. Remember sister Farah Alhajeh who sued and was awarded 40,000 Kronor by a Swedish labour court for discrimination after the translation company Semantix ended her job interview in May 2016 due to her refusal to shake hands with male workers because of her Islamic faith. If Alhajeh was lucky, this was not the case for an Algerian woman who, also citing her religious beliefs, refused to shake hands with the male official at the end of her citizenship ceremony in France, which led to a denial of her citizenship application. The court hearing her appeal supported the denial of her citizenship, noting that she had not assimilated into French society in spite of having been married to a French man for six years.

It is not surprising that now, owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, both countries have banned the handshake that was hitherto considered an indispensable part of their cultures. It is also not surprising that as part of a long-standing biocolonial hexagonal imagination, French doctors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht suggested that new COVID-19 vaccines be tested in Africa. For the two medics, Africa is nothing but a zone of experimentation and insurmountable difference rather than a place of shared humanity.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty. Remember the era of privatisation that commodified life, normalised African privation, and gave birth to the side-hustler and the sufferer.

V. Banalities

So let us reassess the idea of the gentleman’s handshake and all the promises, bodies, and hearts that it has broken. From the unwelcome lingering or limp fish-like handshake to the firm grip that promises too much, duplicity and the sleight of hand has often accompanied this gesture. Here, inattentiveness to the lives of those who are not at the table where the agreements take place is the rule rather than the exception.

As private hospitals turn away the sick, recall how the golden handshake of SAP-induced voluntary early retirement led so many to a hand-to-mouth existence. And remember the crafty business deals and pyramid schemes that emerged in that era of Goldenberg-induced uncertainty.

As we are all told to wash our hands, remember there is a lot more to wash and that not all can do it the same way. Remember the dry callused hand whose labour is denigrated as the “farmhand” is called upon to be resilient. Question those tender manicured hands that have been washed, sanitised, and made supple by the softening touch of the business tender and laundered money. Beware of the soft blood-soaked hand that has just signed away the commons and now asks us to clap as he gives back the scraps as acts of personal charity or captures the commons as part of a glittery public-private partnership (PPP).

Beware of the sovereign handshake from the hand that remains unwashed after a bout of butt-scratching anger.

VI. Embracing Humanity/Animality

On ambitious and superfluous presidential handshakes, remember the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) who shook hands with 8,513 people during the 1907 New Year’s Day White House celebration. But this shaker of hands was also a shaker of the world. He was a conservationist. In the company of his son, a team of naturalists, taxidermists, and African porters and guides, Roosevelt’s African safari expedition, taken shortly after his retirement, trapped, shot, classified, and chronicled over 11,000 animals from British East Africa, Belgian Congo, and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The collected specimens were donated to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum where they serve a pedagogical function. The collections educate some on nature conservation, others on the legacy of man as sovereign knower with dominion over nature, while others are reminded of the destruction of man, knowledge, and nature arising from a colonial order of knowledge and its ideal of man-the-collector and classifier.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues, or when we look at big and small game hunters from other parts of the world, let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other. Let us remember the foundational con game that this conservationist performed and the cruel history of some of our knowledge practices and the fetishes that seek to capture the wild.

Beware of foundational conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and Madison Grant who created public parks in the U.S., developed xenophobic policies, and caged and killed non-human beings in order to “conserve” them while preserving “their” ideal of man. Beware of today’s eco-fascists who see man as the virus on the planet and whose nihilistic desire for green spaces involves the elevation of white races and the idealisation of blood and soil in a world without us.

But Teddy Roosevelt was a man of contradictions. In a change of heart during a Mississippi hunting trip, he refused to shoot an injured bear that a guide had dutifully tied to a tree so as to please his by then exhausted master. The presidential pardon for the animal became an icon of pity, and thus the Teddy Bear was born.

Today, Western children and some Westernised Southerners go on a veritable teddy bear hunt to distract them from the COVID-19 lockdown. These, and other stuffed animals, adorn home and shop windows for children to spot as they walk around their walkable neighbourhoods.

However, others wait for the African peak of the pandemic so that teddy bears, trauma bears, and other stuffed animals may be sent to Africa as part of humanitarian teddy bear diplomacies or marketing campaigns, such as the Swedish “Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012”. Receive the bear, anticipate the bear hug for those seen as bare life, and beware of the bio-expectations they entail. These icons of sentimentality sometimes disavow the lived and material conditions of things or the simple fact that the night of bombs and gunshots is followed by the day of teddy bears, often sourced from the same place. Note how after the abandonment, after the disparaging remarks, after the deportations and incarcerations, comes the teary embrace — albeit for just a short while.

Today, when some Kenyans decry the loss of safari tourism revenues…let us not forget the history and geography of this ecological catastrophe. Those who walk through the museums should remember that collection and theft are never too far away from each other.

As one embraces and beholds the teddy bears in this time of zoonotic transmission of novel viruses, let us also remember and scrutinise the other things and knowledges that are going viral. The knowledge and conspiracy theories that are the rage of our age have many analogue precedents. For instance, the 1 April 1972 issue of the British peer-reviewed journal Veterinary Record carried an article about the diseases of Brunus edwardii — a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article, which also carried sketches of the teddy bear (Brown Edward), warned that “the public health implications of this fact are obvious, and it is imperative that more be known about their diseases, particularly zoonoses or other conditions which might be associated with their close contact with man.” Beware of the hoaxes. Pay attention to the nuances. Let us read the stories of the animal and us and heed the reality of the animals in us or the animals that we are. Feel the disavowed animalities that make up our humanity.

***

The hand, we are told, is one of the things that makes the human being human. With the opposable thumb we get the tech of life, ranging from the fist, to tool handling skills, and all manners of gesticulating habits of crafting and communication. But hands are also carriers of difference. The privileging of dexterities and discrimination of those without hands or with limp limbs is part of the order of things.

Ours is the age of thumbs. The “all thumbs” awkward one of yesterday is now the master of the phone texting keyboard and drone controls. With the interruption of rhythms of work, school, and life, new forms of mutuality, aid, and care become imaginable in this new dispensation where we are told to keep our hands to ourselves. As we compose our worlds anew, beware of the pedagogies of apartness. Beware of those who speculate and gamble away the collective futures. Also remember those who have shown the commoner their middle finger as they feed off of our hands, bite them, and now try to keep us all at arm’s length— for our own sake, for the sake of others, but mostly for their own sake.

In the age of public notices and jeremiads, in a time of conspiracy theories and public orders, this lamentation on what we all see but sometimes shake away is a call for us to recall and recompose the things that we already know and experience. These are things that the invisible microbe forces us to look at and hold in our hearts even as the invisible hand tries to inscribe us as man-the-buyer and alienates our labour as the labouring hand becomes more restrained.

In a time where everyday touch, even when it does not bear any arms, is said to be potentially fatal, a time where touch is being virtualised for some and others have the rungu waving over their heads, remember that the ties that bind can be cut, created anew, or extended to generate a more life-affirming humanity with the possibility of a deeper mutuality.

But this time can also be captured by the forces of disaster capitalism or worse, those of disaster fascism.

So Beware! Be aware …

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Sam Okoth Opondo is Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics and Africana Studies at Vassar College N.Y. His research engages race, biopolitics, aesthetics and ethics in colonial, settler colonial and postcolonial societies with a focus on the dynamics of ‘mediating estrangement’ and co-habitation.

Ideas

Beyond the Hustle and Towards a New Philosophy for Agriculture

As the city turns hostile and Kenyans fearful of suffering hunger flee to the rural areas, COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to eliminate the colonial mentality that views the rural countryside as the segregated homeland of a silenced underclass and to renew the rural-urban relationship as a mutually beneficial support system.

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Beyond the Hustle and Towards a New Philosophy for Agriculture
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“A Global Food Crisis Looms”, headlined the New York Times in April 2020, drawing attention to the millions of vulnerable populations around the world facing hunger exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Kenya, “We fear hunger more than corona’’ is now a common refrain among the urban poor who earn a living in the informal sector. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed deep structural and policy fault lines in Kenya’s food systems.

In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, Kenya ranked 86 out of 117, a position categorised as serious. But long before COVID-19, Kenyans have endured hunger and famine attributed to climatic factors, the rising cost of basic food commodities and a fractured food distribution system. In Nairobi, where 60 per cent of the population lives in informal settlements, rising prices of basic foodstuffs have reduced millions to a hand-to-mouth existence.

After a three-month restriction of movement out of Nairobi was lifted, a number of my cousins and friends told me that they were headed straight to their rural homes to set up food security bases. Among the urban middle class for some of whom it had formerly been a side gig, agriculture has now evolved into the main hustle and as Dauti Kahura has reported, they can now be found parked by the roadside, selling fresh produce from the boots of their cars.

The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has turned a health crisis into a security and corruption problem that is putting the most vulnerable at risk. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, Kenya’s political soap opera goes on uninterrupted as the media focus remains locked on the rivalries of the wealthy 1 per cent.

Under these circumstances, to escape the city is a matter of pragmatism as writer Alexander Ikawah observed in a recent article. Inhabitants of African cities have one foot firmly planted in a rural village somewhere, ready to seek refuge at “home” if the city turns hostile. And so, as the labour market struggles and industries shed jobs, many Kenyans have fled Nairobi as a temporary measure, retreating to the security of the rural areas where ancestral land provides a buffer against hunger and guarantees the basics of living and rent-free shelter.

A day before restriction of movement was lifted, my cousin Oluoch sent me a message telling me of his plans to go back home to the village to start work on the shamba. Oluoch is a father of four children who has stopped hedging his bets on things returning to “normal”. He got me thinking about my own small rural farm 7,000 kms away as I cycled along a straight, narrow road cutting through farmland in the Dutch municipality of Amstelveen, 10 kilometres south of Amsterdam.

Sheep and diary cows grazed on pasture as ducks swam in a canal in the early summer sunshine. I stopped to take a picture of this idyllic scene and sent it to my cousin Oluoch who promptly replied, “Ondiek, we have to learn how to farm like the Dutch. This is the future”.

As small-scale, part-time farmers who had inherited family land in our rural homes, we had believed we would be the generation that would adopt modern farming techniques, our motivation for commercial agriculture driven by the promise of high yields and maximum profit, just like the Dutch, we imagined.

The Netherlands is a flat country of green fields stretching far off into the distance, subdivided by water canals and fences in a symmetrical pattern. From the air, the land resembles a huge chessboard. The country has one of the world’s most efficient agricultural and food production systems and is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural produce after the United States, whose landmass is 237 times the size of the Netherlands. In 2019, Dutch exports of agricultural products were worth 94.5 billion Euros.

The Netherlands is also a world leader in potato production, export and processing. The potato yield per hectare on the average Kenyan farm is approximately 6 to 7 tonnes with large-scale farms averaging 10 to 14 tonnes according to the National Potato Council of Kenya. The yield per hectare on the average farm in the Netherlands is 40 tonnes.

The success of agricultural productivity in the Netherlands is buttressed by science and innovative solutions developed by institutions such as the Wageningen University, one of the world’s top agricultural institutes. Here a brain trust is pioneering the thinking to meet the challenge of feeding a global population expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050.

The story of the Netherlands agricultural revolution can be traced back to 1888 with the formation of the Heidemaatschappij, the Association for Wasteland Redevelopment that introduced the reclamation and cultivation of wastelands by improving the soil quality of vast areas of heath. The Heidemaatschappij laid the foundation for a new culture of farming, based on generating high yields from fallow and neglected land and the input of new knowledge and skills. Land consolidation became a matter of industry policy, combining fragmented pieces of land and taming idle land around the country for agricultural exploitation. The winter famine of 1944-45 that followed the end of the Second World War and led to the death from starvation of 20,000 people, created the motivation to find a lasting solution to food insecurity. The result is the grand design of the country’s landscape with geometric precision and infrastructural support, roads and water, and the move from small, mixed agriculture farms to the consolidated mono-cropped large farms that define contemporary Dutch agriculture.

The major cost of the green revolution has been the disappearance of nature as the practice of monocultures has led to a visible decline in animal and plant biodiversity. In a series on nature curated by Amsterdam’s De Correspondent, writer Jan Van Poppel investigates the Dutch policy on nature, which he describes as little more than putting a fence around a patch of green and building on the rest of the country.

The natural environment in the Netherlands is almost entirely lost, and what appears to be natural is in reality an elaborate environmental design, a kind of colonialisation of the natural world. As an example, the Amsterdamse Bos, a forest that sits between Amsterdam and Amstelveen that measures over 1,000 hectares (equivalent to the size of Karura Forest in Nairobi) is man-made. All the trees were planted in the 1930s as part of a work-relief programme.

The Netherlands is now proactively dealing with the negative consequences of agriculture monocultures, applying a stringent pesticide policy, cutting down on nitrogen emissions from livestock operations and facing up to the problem of ground water pollution.

In 2019, the Dutch government put forward a proposal to limit nitrogen emissions that had hit crisis levels by reducing livestock-holding farms, triggering national protests by farmers who mobilised to defend livelihoods that were threatened by the new environmental pollution rules. They used tractors to cause traffic jams and occupied public spaces to give voice to their plight and counter the stereotypes that single out farmers as environmental polluters; the agricultural sector is the second leading cause of environmental pollution after the transport sector.

As an amateur farmer who arrived in the Netherlands brimming with the ambition to learn the best practices I grapple with this contradiction. While the Netherlands is without doubt a leader in efficient agriculture, the focus on volume, efficiency and profit has produced negative consequences that can no longer be ignored. This is the model many small-scale farmers in Kenya aspire to but I am no longer a true believer in intensive agriculture as a model for small-scale farms.

Small-scale farming in Kenya accounts for 75 per cent of the total agricultural output and meets 70 per cent of the national food demand, so I know I am part of an important constituency. The challenge of my generation, those with access to land under 3 ha in size, is to craft a new farming philosophy that is built on progressive ideas through investigation, dialogue and exposure to alternative sources of knowledge grounded in the African experience. We need more philosophers and fewer technical experts to redefine what we call sustainable farming. Africa’s own knowledge systems and philosophy in agriculture are held in the memory of a generation that is dying out and dismissed as backward. Yet my grandmother’s practices resonate with those of emerging natural farming systems around the world that espouse new ideas grounded in the environmental, social and historical realities of the non-western world.

In the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer and philosopher from southern Japan, I encounter farming concepts of my childhood rural experience, farming techniques that used no machinery, no chemicals, involved little weeding and that are now back in vogue, in particular in the permaculture concept that advocates for the harmonious integration of the environment and the people.

Where land is valued as a collective resource that sustains a community, its conservation and sustainability become sacred, as opposed to being merely the source of perpetual extraction of profits. Organisations such as Survival International are involved in advocating for the human and territorial rights of indigenous communities that are under attack from the international barons of the conservation industry who are destroying their cultures and forcefully removing them from territories that they have inhabited and conserved for generations. Scientists studying forest systems have only in recent decades come to acknowledge the role of long-forgotten generations of indigenous communities of the pre-Columbian era and their positive impact on the Amazon forest. The role of forest conservation and reforestation to mitigate climate change is mainstream knowledge in Kenya today as a result of concerted mass awareness campaigns but trees are just one aspect in an elaborate ecological system.

So, as custodians of the land, what becomes our mission? To be socially engaged and philosophically grounded, my farming decisions must consider the long-term consequences of the choices I make.

The principle of sustainability guides the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. This involves thinking beyond consumption-oriented values that are dictated by our industrial economies to evolve a deep ecological philosophy that challenges the toxic ideas of dominance, colonialisation, exploitation and extraction where nature is viewed purely as a resource repository to be conquered and dominated.

Nature is the life source and, beyond the concept of mere conservation, an eco-pedagogy is needed to transmit culturally relevant forms of knowledge. There are ideas out there—such as Arnes NæssDeep Ecology, Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka’s, One Straw Revolution, the Slow Food movement—that all share a philosophy and a set of principles that place humanity and its connection to nature at the core of enlightened agriculture.

Chinese artist, activist and filmmaker Ou Ning—whose work titled, The Bishan Commune: How to start your own utopia explores ideas for an alternative community in rural China—has become a leading voice in the new rural reconstruction movement at the forefront of reimagining rural-urban relations. The power of narrative is what artists and thinkers use to weave alternate realities to help societies reimagine the holistic value of small-scale farming and eliminate the colonial mentality that views the rural countryside as the segregated homeland of a silenced underclass. The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for artists to lead a call for a return to the countryside and to renew the rural-urban relationship as a mutually beneficial support system. Philosophers have to deepen their thinking on the fundamental root causes of food insecurity and re-imagine new systems by returning to basic values and practises.

For a generation undermined by the immorality of policy makers and the political leadership’s bankruptcy of ideas, this global crisis is an opportunity to meet the challenge of truly achieving food sovereignty and to resist the allure of the industrial model as the only one suitable for the development of small-scale agriculture.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: The Plight of Smallholder Farmers in Kenya

Small-scale farming accounts for roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output in Kenya. The future of food security in the country, therefore, lies in safeguarding small-scale farmers. However, Kenya’s agricultural policies are focused on cash crops and industrial agriculture. This has led to the food crisis we face today.

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In the pre-colonial days of the early 1900s, Africans predominantly farmed finger millet, sorghum, pearl millet, amaranth, jute mallow, spider plant, and lablab, among other indigenous crops. The farms were so rich in biodiversity that food production thrived. This subsistence nature of farming saw crops being transferred from farm to plate.

In the western Nyanza belt, for instance, ugali was brown (a mixture of sorghum and millet) and often accompanied by indigenous vegetables, such as elisaka (spider flower), omurere (jute), and chimboka (amaranth). During bountiful days, farmers thronged the local food markets to sell off their surplus produce. Food was diverse, high in nutrients, locally grown, and locally available.

In contrast, most farms in Africa today have morphed into monoculture (cultivation of one type of crop) farms. In Kenya, maize is the most dominant food crop on most farms. Cash crops, such as tea, cotton, and coffee introduced by the colonial enterprise, still dominate most farms, and food markets mostly sell kales (sukuma wiki), spinach, maize, and cabbage. Consequently, meals in most households have shifted to either white processed ugali and sukuma wiki or beef and chapati or rice. Food is now processed, low in nutrients and 14% of it is imported.

The diversity present in farmers’ fields has continually declined and the threats to diversity are on the rise. Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.

Such has been the evolution of food systems that farmers intuitively gravitate towards producing what has a ready market as opposed to what is nutritious and indigenous. Cash crops have replaced heritage foods that fed people for generations sprawling back to the dawn of human life.

Cash cropping: A profit-driven paradigm  

Mass cash cropping (popularised by industrial agriculture) has done more harm than good to smallholder farmers. Fertile lands in the Kenyan highlands are occupied by multinational tea corporations, such as James Finlays and Unilever Tea. These corporations pocket high profits at the expense of Kenyan smallholder tea farmers, who constantly grapple with low prices for this produce and remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, tea pickers work and live under destitute conditions and some suffer from sexual harassment.

Whereas the proponents of cash crop farming might argue that this type of farming has placed farmers on the global market (thereby increasing their chances of earning an income, which could, in turn, address food insecurity) health, economic and social concerns have assumed a secondary place to profits.

Of the more than 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 make substantial contributions to global food output, with only 9 accounting for 66 per cent of total crop production in 2014.

The development history of cash crops in Africa over the last few decades, however, shows that cash crops have produced minimal cash. In the previous three decades, real income from cash crops has declined. African shares in world markets of most commodities have worsened, and most African countries have been sinking deeper and deeper into debt.

The cash crop monopoly has led to the inhumane exploitation of smallholder farmers. This system has consistently oppressed farmers economically and socially through land grabbing, repressive seed laws, and dependency on multinational corporations for farm inputs. Farmers can no longer save and share seeds from the current harvest to plant the next season, as these seeds are patented by multinational seed corporations and protected by intellectual property laws. In Tanzania, farmers risk a prison sentence of at least 12 years or a fine of over €205,300, or both, if they sell and share seeds, including their own farmer-bred seeds, that are not certified. Smallholder farmers now have to buy the seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilisers each planting season. They have increasingly found themselves at the short end of the stick in this profit-driven paradigm.

This dependency has tied farmers to crippling debt that has sunk the farmers deeper into cyclic poverty. In India, many farmers have committed suicide on account of spiralling debt. In Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, 60,000 farmers committed suicide in 2007 because of debt, repeated crop failures, and the inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation.

Growing cash crops for export has taken more productive land from local food production. Resources that would otherwise have utility in local food production have been channelled into producing agricultural export crops. Consequently, smallholder farmers have converted marginal land with little agricultural productivity for local consumption.

Cultivating cash crops on lands traditionally meant for food crops has a significant impact on the food security of a community or nation. Conversion from subsistence farming to market-oriented agriculture, and shifting from the cultivation of traditional food crops to cash crops through the commercialisation of agriculture have led to an increase in malnutrition and food insecurity in most African countries. In Kenya, for instance, in 2008, an estimated 1.3 million people in rural areas and between 3.5 million and 4 million in urban areas were food insecure. This is despite Kenya exporting more than 3 billion dollars in food crops in 2010.

Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution. The need for more land for cash crop cultivation has led to massive deforestation, which has further degraded soils and increased water scarcity. According to the Ndung’u land report, from 1963 to 2003, 11,000 acres of forested land in Kenya was excised off to create the Nyayo Tea zones. In 1988, Transmara Forest Reserve lost 937.7 hectares to Kiptagich Tea Estates.

Monocropping issues

Agricultural commercialisation has led to monocropping. This introduction of new and similar crops into farmers’ fields has drastically altered the diversity of local varieties previously cultivated by farmers. Farm agricultural diversity has been killed under the false assumption that local varieties have low productivity. Ownership of diverse indigenous seed varieties has shifted from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations. The farmer no longer controls and owns the seeds he grows. New patented varieties, often marketed as high yielding varieties, require smallholder farmers to purchase the seeds from one supplier, in this case, the multinational corporations.

Growing monocultures on farms only advances the global agenda of globalisation, which is often controlled by global corporations. Monocultures have been proven to displace the biodiversity on farms. The UN International  Technical  Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig Germany, 1996, noted that industrial monocultures in agriculture had replaced 75 per cent of all agro-biodiversity.

Cultivation of cash crops has also led to the excessive use of fertilizers and agrochemicals, which have harmed our bees and soil and aquatic organisms, and left our water bodies choking with pollution.

In addition, Western agricultural corporations and governments are now pushing African countries to industrialise their agriculture. Consequently, food crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, are currently grown as cash crops. These crops currently account for more than 50 per cent of the world’s calorie intake. An indication of the loss of agricultural diversity is the fact that today we have more Kenyans consuming imported maize, wheat, and rice  as opposed to millet and sorghum so much so that the former have become the staple foods.

It is this reliance on food and agricultural imports that has seen most Kenyans go to bed on an empty stomach. What’s worse, in the wake of COVID-19, farmers are losing their produce due to lack of markets or are sell it at throwaway prices.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his March address, encouraged traders and farmers to continue with their agricultural activities so that Kenyans can have access to farm produce at all times – a clear indication that smallholder farmers produce the food consumed in the country.

Who feeds Kenya?

A World Bank Report shows that Kenyan agriculture covers small-, medium-, and large-scale farming. Small-scale production represents roughly 75 per cent of the total agricultural output. The report further states that small-scale production further accounts for 70 per cent of the marketed agrarian produce, as opposed to large-scale farming, which accounts for 30 per cent of traded agrarian food and mainly involves growing commercial crops, such as tea, coffee, maize, sugarcane, and wheat.

Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, in his book, Agricultural Land Redistribution: Toward Greater Consensus, makes a similar assessment. He notes that with just 37 per cent of the land, small-scale farms in Kenya produced 73 per cent of agricultural output in 2004.

It is therefore quite evident that small-scale farmers feed Kenyans as they focus on producing food for local and national markets and their own families. In contrast, large-scale farms specialising in cash crops tend to produce commodities and concentrate on export crops, many of which people can’t eat. They also focus mainly on return on investment.

Despite this realisation, there is little evidence of action taken to ensure that these small-scale farmers produce more during this COVID-19 pandemic. To cushion Kenyans against hunger, the Ministry of Agriculture has sought to import 4 million bags of maize to curb the shortage in the country instead of supporting the smallholder farmers who produce 70 per cent of the maize consumed in the country to produce more. This dependence on the international market for food security that prioritises the industrial agriculture paradigm (the frontier of the cash crop monopoly) is the very foundation of the food crisis we are facing today.

This lack of support has led to the reduction in the number of smallholder farmers. Dr. Vandana Shiva, in her book,  Who Really Feeds the World, notes that since the introduction of policies of globalisation of agriculture in 1991, farmers have sunk in numbers, from 110 million to 95.8 million – a loss of nearly 15 million farmers, or 2,000 farmers per day.

This reduction in the number of smallholder farmers is a direct result of the loss of their agricultural land. A large number of farming families have less than two hectares to feed themselves and humankind. The acreage available for cultivation is shrinking due to a number of factors, including population pressure, lack of access to land, and rules of corporate globalisation designed to make profits at the expense of smallholder farmers.

A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa. farmlandgrab.org noted that these massive new agribusiness projects were throwing a limitless number of small farmers off their territories.

As though the shrinking land size is not enough of a hurdle, farmers are even locked into debt as multinational corporations sell them costly inputs in the form of patented seeds, fertilizers, and agrochemicals while buying their produce cheaply. Multinational corporations such as Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, Land O’Lakes, BASF, Yara, PepsiCO, Unilever, and Carrefour are ripping everything off farmers. Consequently, farming has become unviable, and most farmers are leaving their farms for meagre jobs in the urban areas.

A World Bank report shows that between 2008 and 2010, at least 60 million hectares of productive farmland was leased out or sold to foreign investors for large-scale agricultural projects, with more than half of these in Africa.

The future of food security and food safety lies in promoting and safeguarding small-scale farmers. It is time to make farming feasible for the smallholder farmer, given that high input, resource-intensive farming systems have failed to achieve sustainable food and agricultural production.

Contradictory to this, is the decision by the government not to buy maize for its Strategic Food Reserve from local farmers but instead pave way for private sector warehousing. This will lead to no stabilisation of food supply levels and prices within the country during prolonged droughts. This move is likely to exacerbate the levels of food insecurity within the country by increasing the prices of food thus reducing its availability to majority of Kenyans. This is per the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019 -2020, which purports to boost food security in the country.

What needs to happen

Small-scale farms have already proven that they can produce more diverse foods for households and the market. The Ministry of Agriculture needs to prioritise domestic food production over international exports and increase investment in smallholder farmer-based food production.

The UN Environment Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the UN special rapporteur on the right to food estimate that small farmers produce up to 80 per cent of the food in non-industrialised countries. We need to stop the allocation of land to agribusiness-led ventures and make land accessible to smallholder farmers through appropriate land reforms. Land from the cash crop plantations needs to be handed over to smallholder farmers. Women farmers who produce most of our food have no access to land. We need systems that make it legal for women to own and cultivate land.

We need policies that enable farmers to grow locally, export real surpluses, and import what is not available locally. Policy interventions include stabilising market prices and regulating import controls through taxes to avoid dumping, which threatens local agricultural production.

We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.

We need farming systems that protect farmers and consumers against the increasing monopoly power of vast, multinational, agro-industrial corporations. We require systems that encourage consumers to purchase food directly from farmers, systems that allow farmers to breed their seeds, save and exchange these seeds amongst each other, systems that will not make smallholder farmers dependent on the excessive use of agrochemicals and fertilisers.

We need to innovative and create eco-friendly farming systems, such as ecological farming that protects and enhances the natural resource base while raising agricultural productivity. Farming systems should encourage diversity to cope with climatic shocks.

These systems promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency, which are key to a future free of hunger, oppression, and starvation.

In the words of Thomas Sankara, “He who feeds you, controls you.” Because food is fundamental for the development of society, and serves the purpose of nourishment alongside enlivening our culture, its producers must be protected and supported.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Let’s Keep Universities but Do Away With Degrees

If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society.

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After two decades of the neoliberal gutting down of Kenyan universities, Kenya’s president has now gone for universities’ jugular. He has cut off the university as as a route for social advancement among the non-elite class. The slicing of the jugular came with the recent university admissions when the government announced that more than a half of them would be turned into technical programmes and institutions. At first, the government announced this move as a choice of the students themselves, but later on, it became evident that many students were caught by surprise.

Kenyan universities have maintained a semblance of independence from direct patronage by Kenya’s aristocracy. As long as universities have existed in Kenya, and especially after the expansion of university education by Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, a child from a village had a shot in the Kenyan imagination of becoming next in line to the presidency. (For the moment, the integrity of the process is not considered here.) Now that President Uhuru Kenyatta has ditched his deputy, he has got his bureaucratic robots to slice the jugular of Kenya’s schooling system and let it bleed to death.

As is to be expected, the Kenyan media has celebrated the event, thus becoming the conduit for fairly unbelievable stories that clothed Kenya’s feudal politics in the parlance of employment and The Market (as opposed to the regular markets that we all love). Like clockwork, the media published headlines such as “Are degrees no longer hot?”, wrote op-eds justifying technical and vocational education and training (TVET) as a better alternative to a regular university degree, or held town hall meetings that gave a semblance of public participation by fielding questions from youth who had clearly not understood that they are pawns in a system that just does not care about them. This move will not surprise anyone with knowledge of the aristocratic class system in Kenya and the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. It has been a long time coming.

Missionaries, colonial settlers and the colonial state

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil, dubbing, for example, herbal medicine as “witchcraft,” and all the while shipping indigenous knowledge and crafts to London.

When formal British education was introduced to Kenya, there was tension between the competing interests of the missionaries, the colonial settlers and the colonial state. The missionaries were primarily interested in converts, and so reading was essential to their education. The settlers, however, were interested only in manual labour, and were frustrated that the colonial government was not forcing Africans to work on the huge tracts of land that had been dispossessed from Africans. They were therefore hostile to schooling beyond trade schools, and accepted formal education for Africans only on the promise that the inclusion of Christian religious education would ensure that Africans remained compliant with the colonial interests.

Since colonial times, the Kenyan state has been hostile to Africans receiving any type of formal education that does not bend to imperial interests. At the start of colonialism, this hostility came through the missionary condemnation of African rituals, professions and apprenticeships as evil…

It is from the colonial settlers that Kenya inherited the narrative that education would make Africans unable to do manual work (or what today is called “useful” or “relevant to the market”), because all the African would acquire from education is big ideas and a desire for the status of the Europeans. And, from a certain perspective, the settlers were not wrong. In a stratified system such as colonial society, being at the bottom of the hierarchy, as Africans were, meant a cruel life of dispossession, forced labour and taxes. Africans could not be enticed to go to school if there was no carrot in the form of exemption from this oppressive life. And once that door was opened, it would only be a matter of time before Africans demanded, as Frantz Fanon famously said in The Wretched of the Earth, “to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.”

There was a second element of truth to the settlers’ fears. The settlers were familiar with the fact that even in the belly of the empire, aristocratic education had the effect of paralysing one’s thoughts and sense of reality. In Victorian England, the industrialists complained that aristocratic education from prestigious public schools and Oxbridge had rendered their children incapable of running the companies their parents expected the children to inherit.

The settlers did not need to point to London to see the truth of this: the bulk of the colonial administration was made up of graduates of elite British schools, and even the settlers called their own colonial administration stifling and suffocating. The list of complaints by the British settlers are depressingly similar to the complaints that a Kenyan today would make: the government borrowing loans at high interest rates, failing to address the economic depression, moribund, “dependent on an uninstructed electorate situated 6000 miles away, and characterised by a continuous epidemic of public meetings, which produce much eloquence, heady talk and little practical benefit to the [white settler] community as a whole”.

The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst.

The aristocratic values which the settlers were wary of would return to Kenya in the 1980s when the World Bank proposed to African Vice-Chancellors to eliminate universities, since African countries needed basic education, not higher education. The audacity of the proposal notwithstanding, it is hardly surprising that the university administrators would not comply and phase themselves out of a job. But later, as Ayesha Imam and Amina Mama report in their book chapter, “The role of intellectuals in limiting and expanding academic freedom”, the World Bank got their wish by starving African universities of money and going to the extreme of demanding that purchases of books and journals be first approved by the Bank.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To see that the complaint of “useless” and elitist graduates has not changed a century later gives us food for thought. But it is not as disturbing as the fact that Kenyan citizens today are strange bedfellows with colonial settlers and British industrialists, sharing the same complaints about the Kenyan ex-colonial state and its aristocratic schooling system. When communities of different geographies, cultures and political inclinations have the same complaint about university graduates, it is time for academics to abandon the old strategy of accusing society of not understanding what university education is for. We need to either concede that society is right, or we explain the truth.

I choose the latter.

Justifying why Kenyans don’t need university education

To explain the mess of the system that is now receiving its last kick from the president, I will address three justifications for the bizarre turn of events in university education:

  1. People shouldn’t get degrees because there is no employment.
  2. Degrees make graduates become employment seekers rather than employers.
  3. Degrees do not give Kenyans skills which are “useful” or “relevant” to The Market, such as entrepreneurial skills for business or technical skills for building infrastructure.

The lack of employment justification

This justification should be fairly easy to explain by pointing out that the availability of employment is an economic, rather than an educational, function. In Kenya, however, this argument routinely falls on deaf ears for psychological and ideological reasons.

Psychologically, tackling the economy is too daunting for simple minds fed on the Anglo-American logic of easy and instant solutions to complex and long-term problems. It would require addressing the political economy, being an active citizen and making certain demands politically.

The undermining of African higher education was motivated by the desire to elevate top-ranking American and British universities to luxury services afforded by the world’s elite by pushing for a global commodification of university education through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In contrast, blaming schools for unemployment is comforting. The majority of the school population is made up of minors who cannot speak back, and of teachers who are fairly powerless in terms of employment conditions and even the syllabus, especially in these neoliberal times when teaching has been transformed into slavery by managerial and regulatory regimes of accountability.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market. Unfortunately, the trade union movement has been too paralysed to come up with an effective counter-argument, and those who are still in permanent employment have failed to establish worker solidarity with their colleagues suffering on gig terms.

In any case, there is an argument to be made against using educational accomplishment for employment. The reliance of employers on academic certificates is a form of discrimination, since those who are employed will always be those with the resources to get an education. Reliance on academic achievement also makes the school system subsidise employers by sparing them the cost of equipping their employees with the requisite skills.

Any country that has a backbone should tell businesses to shut up and train their own employees at their own cost. But in this era of state capture, that is unlikely to happen.

The education for employment justification

It is important to clarify that employment was never the immediate goal of the British-oriented university education system that Kenya inherited. In Victorian England, university education and admission through the examination system were primarily a tool of assimilation for the rising middle classes into the aristocracy. It was through the university system that members of the middle class gained access to the social and symbolic power of European aristocracy, which remains the source of cultural legitimation in today’s world. In turn, the middle classes were offered an opportunity to become part of the burgeoning British Empire. As a consequence, most of the colonial administrators were graduates of public schools and Oxbridge, and even now, the rising inequality in Britain has been attributed to the fact that this same cohort still dominates British politics and institutions.

Similarly, university education in Kenya was an opportunity to be assimilated into the colonial state. The first university graduates were the children of Chief Koinange, a colonial collaborator. One of his children, Mbiyu, received education from elite schools in three continents: Alliance High School in Kenya, London School of Economics in the UK and Columbia University in the US. He was also a Rhodes scholar at the University of Cambridge. He later became the brother-in-law of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and was in the president’s core cabinet for most of his life in independent Kenya.

Blaming the education system has an added ideological benefit – it justifies employers exploiting labour in the name of graduates not being adequately prepared for The Market.

With the outbreak of the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, and with the rise of the United States as a global power, the British government jacked up the availability of university education to raise a Kikuyu middle class that would provide the civil servants for the colonial state. After independence, the first president saw the university as fulfilling precisely the same role, and as Mwenda Kithinji argues in his brilliant book, The State and the University Experience in East Africa: Colonial Foundations and Postcolonial Transformations in Kenya, the first president had no intention to expand university education since he had the Kikuyu elites that he needed. The second president, a member of a minority ethnic group, then expanded university education in order to widen the Kenyan middle class to include people from other ethnic groups. It is therefore wishful thinking, if not delusion, for Kenyans to believe that the government schooling system was ever about employment. The schools have always been about class status and power.

However, the popular belief in education for employment is understandable, because the expansion of the control of the (ex)colonial state and global capital by the British and Kenyan elite was experienced by ordinary Kenyans as employment.

But almost 60 years after independence, there is no longer a need for the Kenyan elite to provide Kenyans with university education. In the 1960s, when there were not enough British-educated Kenyans to run the civil service, the Kenyan elites were the first generation in their families to go to British schools. . Today, however, there are enough British-educated Kenyans to run the ex-colonial state. The children of the elite are in power, and they also have children and grandchildren whom they want to ascend to power. Moreover, the inequality in Kenya’s education system necessarily means that those who perform well are children of middle-class parents who can afford private school education and can take over the bureaucracy and civil service through patronage, rather than through academic achievement.

The elites of Kenya, whom the current education system serves, have enough of their children and relatives to work in government, and enough of second-generation middle-class children to do their work. With families of a minimum of four wives and dozens of children, the elites have enough personnel.

Moreover, the elites cannot afford an educated Kenyan population outside of government. The Kenyan state needs to minimise the number of contenders for elite status that has been the goal of university education for almost three centuries. The idea, therefore, that we do not need Kenyans to go to university because there is no employment is a fantasy at best, and propaganda at worst. The goal of the government education system in Kenya has never been employment. Employment was simply a side effect. And employment seekers were not supposed to be ordinary Kenyans; they were supposed to be the elites entering top government posts through family ties and club networks.

The “useful” and “relevant” skills justification

Given this history of the imperial education system, it is almost laughable that university scholars have sought to justify themselves as providing skills that are useful for graduates in The Market. That said, it is a lie to which I dedicated a significant part of my career, until I realised that studying the arts can never be “marketable” in an anti-human economic and political system.

That aside, the fantasy of making university education appear “relevant” has been a public relations exercise in which even the British academy was engaged in the 19th century after industrialists complained that universities were not training their sons to take over the family industries from their fathers. In fact, John Brown argued in 1970 that the British elite university could not find a strong enough argument to defend the imperial education based on the Roman and Greek classics. However, it won over the industrialists by what he calls “the parlance of advertising” and an “imaginative sales effort”. Rather than argue for university education on its own merit, the universities assimilated the critique about their lack of “practical skills”, and claimed that elite class manners were a skill in and of themselves.

To put it simply, the universities told the business elite that they needed knowledge and habits of aristocrats for them to be “successful”. It was not enough to make money; one had to be sophisticated and convincing, able to talk across cultures and social class.

Before my road to Damascus conversion, I made this same laughable argument myself. Now when I think of it, this defence of university education belongs to the same whatsapp group as the products of business coaches and motivational speakers who promise “soft skills”, like how to speak convincingly, how to make an elevator pitch, how to dress to look presentable, and all other forms of self-improvement for The Market. We academics making those arguments are no different from those who give tutorials on how to have English “afternoon tea the correct way”.

We should do away with universities – as they are now

If universities, as they currently stand, are useful only to the elites, it should come as no surprise that the elites are now destroying them. After all, the universities are theirs.

But rather than fight for universities to remain public institutions in their current form, we the people need to fight for them to become truly public by removing degree programmes and turning them into a space for knowledge and culture. We should break down the walls of admissions and examinations. We should diversify and increase opportunities for people to learn through cultural centres, festivals and public libraries. We should make public engagement, like dialogues under a tree, and visits to what Odero Oruka called “sage philosophers” a part of formal education. For skills training, we could resort to apprenticeships as a way to enter a profession and facilitate peer review as a way to improve services.

Two things must definitely be removed from the university as an institution: 1) certification; and 2) the interference and regulation in university education by the state. Both have reduced university education to a cynical process of gaining papers to access elite status and titles, and of measuring outcomes and indicators like a balance sheet.

Most of all, we must remove the institution of the imperial elite, which is made up of people who gain wealth and power through their manipulation and control of the commons – land, natural resources, labour and knowledge.

​Africa may not always have offered degrees, but it has had universities for millennia. We can do away with degrees and retain universities. If we divorce training for the workplace from university education, universities can return to being sites of knowledge that are open to the public and that benefit society. Right now, universities are hardly different from members-only clubs for those who survive the hazing ritual of examinations and gain the right to become snobs who undermine democracy and social justice for the rest of their lives.

​But to scuttle such fundamental and dynamic reforms to education, the economy and politics, the president has now sacrificed the dreams of an entire generation of Kenyan youth – however contradictory those dreams may be – in order to sustain the exploitative social status of his family and the ruling elite. This situation is not only unjust; it is also untenable.

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