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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic

14 min read.

In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic
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Oyunga Pala, Curator-in-Chief, The Elephant

Death knocks at your door and before you can tell him come in, he is in the house with you ~ Grace Ogot in Tekayo

Towards the end of January 2020, we discussed the coronavirus outbreak in China during an editorial meeting at The Elephant. At the time, the issue seemed not within the immediate scope of the important world events we should look into. A month later, we published a piece by Nairobi-based writer April Zhu on the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, and the subsequent wave of sinophobia that was spreading faster than the coronavirus. By the third week of March, Kenya was in the grip of the COVID-19 global health crisis. The coronavirus has now become our lived reality in a manner that none of us could have predicted.

Our core mandate at The Elephant is to explain society to the people and the advent of COVID-19 has brought society into extraordinary times; the pandemic has provoked an existential crisis across the world, reordering all facets of life in real time.

At a time when good journalism is constrained by corporate interests, a deluge of fake news, state propaganda and sensationalism, The Elephant seeks clarity for its audience. In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. Even as we adhered to the health protocols of physical distancing, we leaned into the social solidarity of our intellectual community to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

Normal Service Will Not Be Resumed

John Githongo is the Publisher at The Elephant

Across the planet, extraordinary circumstances have been precipitated by an invisible deadly viral threat whose freedom of movement has not only caused illness and death. The fear it has provoked, and the measures taken to contain it, have brought humanity to a unique point of inflection. The asymmetrical challenge the coronavirus has posed to governments has caused them to literally throw their economies at the pandemic in a desperate attempt to slow it down. Previous major pandemics have served to reorder society and this one will be no different. Even as the economic consequences of the coronavirus begin to be felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.

We have come to the stark realisation that, despite the experiments of the past 40 years, governments cannot shirk the responsibility of providing quality healthcare, security and education for all citizens. In the short-term, across Africa, we will have to free up resources to mitigate the economic blast that’s on its way and which will quickly become political if mismanaged. Debt will have to be renegotiated or set aside and if our elites insist on stealing even this, the next extreme stress test will be brought to bear on the security services called upon to manage the revolt of hungry populations. Ironically, the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity to transform our economy and politics in true service to the people. The greatest crisis will not have been the virus itself but rather, a failure of the imagination in the face of the massive disruption it will have caused.

Advent Season of the Virus

Yvonne A. Owuor is an award-winning writer, editor and theoretician

Elements from a surreal landscape we call earth: Wuhan. Wet Market. Dr. Li Weinliang (RIP), Kenyan students and citizens stranded in moving virus epicentres; an Ambassador who resorts to praying for them—turns out she was right: social isolation + moral support as the most effective solution. Animals strolling into humanity’s silenced cities (at least we now know that in the event of our mass demise, the animals who have been watching us, after all, will take over our cities, and nature, it seems, truly does abhor a vacuum), the halting of work as we know it, a new shared grammar; social distancing, COVID-19, curfew. Verbally adept Italian mayors, Mutahi Kagwe, startling Kenyans by being a state official in an entrenched “mediocraty” that looks and sounds competent and coherent.

The likelihood of a post-virus global economic recession and depression. The roles of States (with the primary pimps of Neoliberal Logic revealing themselves to be oddly inchoate now) and how each performed on the “capacity, management and delivery of public goods” scorecard, in the face of this equalising global existential threat, that has also offered the world a common language. (It has caused (for a while) persistent dumb dichotomies–Us/them; West/Other; Developed/Undeveloped… that sought to assert themselves to fizzle away in the face of chilling reality). The masks that concealed so many cracked facades, even in Kenya, are off and in this humanising moment where the only battle is Life vs Death spin only sounds like garble.

Most significantly, COVID-19 is the defining virus for a new generation. That generation watches in terror at the incompetence of their elders whose instinct it is to apply old tested answers to new untested crises. After this storm, the generation is likely to emerge from the womb of darkness furious and frothing, armed with a collectivised will to uproot the status quo by whatever means. They will use the unique grammar of their generation, wired by a preternatural technological savvy, to programme another imagination of being in the world. They will confuse the Emperor-elders, who they see, through the lenses of the virus, have, in reality been buzzing about stark naked even as they preached robes of many colours. That generation did it (as organised netizens) for Dr. Ai Fen’s article by resorting to assorted censor-algorithm-beating language forms. They succeeded. Something is coming: a virus is its herald. Let the games begin.

Racism, Ecology and Conservation Politics

Dr Mordecai Ogada is a writer, conservationist and co-author of the book The Big Conservation Lie

Our warped conservation sector hasn’t been spared the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, I have advised that tourism should be treated as a by-product of conservation, rather than the basis for it, precisely because of the fickle nature of the tourism business. Kenya’s relentless pursuit of tourism at the expense of more resilient indigenous livelihoods like pastoralism, is a fallacy that is only matched by our obsession with tourists of foreign extraction as some kind of validation of our standing as a country. Now that tourism has crashed for the foreseeable future, the weakness of this model has been brutally exposed, with tourism interests begging for donations and bailouts, while livestock production continues unimpeded.

This trauma may just be the “reset” button required to rouse our conservation sector from the slumber that styles the Kenya wildlife service as a tourism organisation under a Ministry of “Tourism and Wildlife”, led by a minister who was a long-term tourism practitioner. A “woken up” Kenya would hopefully come to the realisation that we should conserve first for ourselves and then receive the visitors who come to partake of what we have conserved to serve our own needs. Our obsession with foreign (preferably white) tourists and conservation thinking is what provides fertile ground for the racial prejudice, corruption and unseemly dependence on charity that still persist in this sector. May there be a bright dawn at the end of this dark night.

Pandemics, Tech and the Future of Work

Njanja Mwangi is the founder and Director of Apex College in Sydney City, Australia

The recent discussion online and elsewhere on how the coronavirus will force Kenyan firms to rethink the way work is done, ignores the fact that expectations of a virtual work revolution accelerated by this pandemic are overblown. The optimistic belief is that we will abruptly move into a future where offices and the nine to five workday will be replaced with virtual work and results-only workplaces.

I think this optimism about a revolution around work is premature. Allow me to explain. A question I have often asked any manager I have met over the years is, “What proportion of the workforce would you say is below average to terrible at their job?” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone give me a number of less than 70 per cent. This means that in any workplace or society, 7 out of 10 people can’t be relied upon to consistently understand and effectively execute work instructions.

A number of tools have been perfected over the years to mitigate this reality including in management, human resources departments, offices and work schedules. Talk to any Baby Boomer who owns a business in Kenya and they will tell you that “waKenya ni lazima wakaliwe” (Kenyans must be sat upon, i.e. micro-managed).

This means that, firstly, once this crisis is over, a lot of workplaces will resume business as usual to allow the tools that make up for workplace incompetence to do their thing. Secondly, there definitely will be people who will transition to working from home but I think it would be foolish to assume that this change will not come with a lot of controls, many of which will make working from home much less appealing than it currently appears.

A Braver, Newer World

Rasna Warah is a writer, editor and author of Unsilenced

The coronavirus has heralded an age of uncertainty around the globe, but one thing is certain: the world will never be the same again. After the coronavirus pandemic has run its course, and even after a vaccine against the disease has been developed, a shaken world will be forced to reevaluate its priorities.

We may be forced to ask ourselves difficult existential questions, such as: should we continue ravaging and plundering the earth in the name of profit and economic growth? Can we sustain a world where a tiny number of people own and control the majority of its resources? What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? One where sharing and cooperation are the norm or one where greed and individualism trump compassion and generosity?

What use are armies when a virus like this one can silently and stealthily decimate unsuspecting populations? How do we prepare for such a disaster in the future? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? What really is the meaning of life? Maybe human beings still have a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe now is the time to reassert our collective humanity.

Terror, Security and COVID-19

Abdullahi Boru is a security expert and writer with a focus on the Horn of Africa

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a trifecta of impacts: health, the economy and public order.  All are inextricably interlinked.

In the Horn of Africa where the national health infrastructure is fragile and there are hardly any formal social safety fallback options, the proposed iterations of lockdowns announced by the governments as a means of containing the spread of the virus could ignite public order crises. And considering that some of the countries in the region are landlocked, public disruption in one country could spread to neighbouring countries.

Such vulnerabilities provide a window of opportunity for transnational non-state actors. With the security agencies preoccupied with the local public order crisis, non-state actors like Al Shabaab, while sensitive to public opinion, are not averse to inflicting maximum damage to the state at its point of weakness.

The dawn attacks at Camp Simba in Manda show that Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to soft and hard national military targets, but also target American bases in the region. Moreover, AMISOM bases will be particularly in the group’s crosshairs now that drawdown of the forces has been announced. Over the last few months, Al Shabaab fighters have been seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and some have been arrested while taking flying classes, an indication of the group’s ambition to remain the pre-eminent Al Qaeda franchise internationally.

Tech and Our Lives Post-Corona

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, writer, policy analyst, advocacy strategist and musician

Digital technologies will be a cornerstone of life after the pandemic. Development, investment, policy and governance plans will carry the term “digital” as a prefix.

Today, we may welcome proposals like digitally tracking infected persons’ movements to flatten the curve. The flipside: they are also the building blocks for a surveillance-ridden future. Our consent lies in our desire to see governments “do whatever it takes” to put an end to the rona.

But it won’t be as simple as switching off the apps and algorithms tracking the virus, and by extension, people. These “solutions” are also feeding the appetite that states and tech providers already have for the datafication of every aspect of our lives; to monitor our every move, every transaction, every activity.

The justification to keep the digital surveillance in place will be that there will be other crises for which the activated technology can be put to use. Going cashless today may mean saying goodbye to autonomy tomorrow. Today’s coronavirus victim could be any one of us that will be deemed to be out of line with the system’s rules in the future.

We urgently need narratives and strategies to counter the overwhelming tide of techno-solutionism sweeping in and positioning itself as the silver bullet. Or else, life after the coronavirus will come to imitate our dystopian fictions.

Institutionalised Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Darius Okolla is a writer, editor and curator of audio-visual content at The Elephant 

Many Kenyans will not know that there exists a corpus of colonial-era writings and policies grounded in scientific racism, many of which have been incorporated into the current laws, mindsets and worldviews that govern our public life. The marketisation of basic services – water, education, healthcare – arbitrary application of the law, endemic corruption, and even the theft of blood from our blood banks are the manifestations of this institutionalised racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront the cluelessness and heavy-handedness of a ruling regime that has perpetuated this historical racism which has engendered feelings of cultural inferiority and encouraged anti-intellectualism, elite ineptitude, collapse of moral courage, predatory public instincts, commercialisation of public life, and corruption, particularly in the healthcare sector.

In imposing a curfew and partial lockdown, the state should have taken into account our communal existence, particularly our conception of space, social relations, interdependencies, and supply chains. How, for example, does this lockdown shape night travel? Marikiti 4 a.m. agro-purchases? Where on the scale of essential services do critical “non-essential” ecosystems like Gikomba fit given their place in the crucial informal economy? Thus far, however, the state’s haphazard policies have only served to precipitate the chaos and pushback that happened in Likoni, the defiance of curfew in Eldoret, and the citizen violence against the police in Malindi.

We need to intellectualise more and securitise less, using a pandemic mitigation advisory panel consisting of epidemiologists, urban planners, public interest lawyers, urban anthropologists, public health teams, virologists, economists, and the clergy to craft county-specific lockdown policies. This pandemic should be a road back to crafting human-centred, data-informed public policy.

Tech, Pandemics and Viruses

Alan Kawamara is a techie and a software developer at The Elephant

With the world quickly realising the benefits of digital-ready workspaces and teleworking, COVID-19 has handed digital transformation evangelists a huge opportunity to spread the tech gospel further and faster. Everywhere in our digital spaces, online workspaces hitherto unknown are mentioned, shared and applied with a new-found zeal as workplaces try to find new ways of keeping the work going.

Going forward, organisations will rethink their working models, embracing Cloud technology and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) solutions to cushion themselves against future disruptions. Therefore, in many ways COVID-19 can be said to be as much a tech virus as it is a biological virus. It has unleashed a disruption similar to the infamous Stuxnet virus, the world’s first digital weapon.

Having gone through the challenges of having to perform in the unpredictable time of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals and organisations will have to embrace cultures of experimentation, being willing to quickly adapt, scale or drop tech solutions depending on new and fast-changing variables.

With greater digitisation, reliance on data and analytics for decision-making will become key, with managers keen on obtaining almost real-time measurement of team and work efficiencies. Governments will make more determined investments in internet infrastructure, allowing for faster and cheaper access to connectivity as an enabler of this new way of working.

Pandemics, Power and Foreign Lands

Shingai Kagunda is an MFA graduate student at Brown University

Isn’t it much harder to write when the speculative possibility of a globalised pandemic becomes reality? The worldwide scourge and its ramifications have now become this bottomless anxiety sitting in our being, making itself comfortable. COVID-19 has ensured that many aspects of national and racial existence now carry with them clear or tacit signs that say “Not welcome here”.

This is an even much more personal loss for those of us who are so far away from home facing so many unknowns. And it was even more strongly felt as I watched the last flight leave New York for Kenya, leaving a sense of “so now?” hanging in the air.

Currently, out here in the US, we have to stay home, and where possible take walks—six feet away from other bodies—and turn to Zoom for classes. This is a whole re-education of our lives. We have to rely on multiple video chats to speak to family and friends at least once a day. Ideally, this is an opportune time to dream up alternative ways of being because the pandemic has interrupted capital, supply chains, human connection, and life as we know it.

We must now begin to imagine what this will mean for the long haul and what our world and lives will be after the pandemic. No doubt, we must prepare for a radical shift of priorities in the after. We will need to set terms that will, and must, gain momentum in healthcare, redistribution of resources; we must choose life over profit. In the end we must sit and reflect and read and write and work and rest and draw and notice the earth breathing.

A New Philosophy of Man

Joe Kobuthi is a philosopher and a curator at The Elephant

For all creation, gazing eagerly as if with outstretched neck, is waiting and longing to see the manifestation of the sons of God. Romans 8:19

The scientific and technological advancements, the military-industrial complex, the sophisticated economic, social and political arrangements of the western hegemonic model now appear futile in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humanity and nature have been groaning with eager expectation for something other than this five-hundred-year European experiment that has revealed itself to be rapacious and genocidal where the world is concerned. The West now lives at such a crazy, reckless speed that it has lost all reason and moral authority as it sinks into the abyss.

Here in the global south, we must no longer benchmark with this edifice as the standard for human advancement. No, we do not want to catch up to anyone. What we want is to move forward in the company of all men. It is now time for the peoples at the periphery to begin a new history for mankind.

After COVID-19, if our desire is human progress, we must create other ways of being. For Mother Nature and for humanity’s sake, we must rebuild from the ruins, think anew and attempt to set afoot a new philosophy of man. 

Coronavirus and a Changing Media Landscape

John Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and team lead of Africa Uncensored

I’m hoping that mine will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I see a media landscape that will be changed by the virus, in many ways for the better. What we are observing in the face of the pandemic is the resurgence of expert opinion from actual experts, a curiosity and hunger for fact by some (not all) journalists and a deeper appreciation for the importance of quality information by the public. So in that respect, the bones of journalism are relatively intact even if they have been weakened over time.

What is much harder to establish is how journalism will survive. COVID-19 has thrust upon almost every country that it has touched economic strain unseen in the 21st century. The value chains that supported journalism that were already imperiled now seem like they almost certainly will break, and more than ever, media houses in Kenya will have to find a way to ensure a future for themselves. This could be done through decentralising the news cycle and moving resources to create a plethora of news products and a more robust ecosystem. Swanky news studios may either have to become more spartan or be used as much as possible to generate new income.

The best coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a window into what could be. The very nature of the pandemic is such that the numbers being tracked change every day, and the lack of clarity about when it will end means that journalists have to think deeply about how to make their stories less and less perishable. Hopefully, this will lead to institutional thinking about the kind of investment that must be made for news to be useful.  Otherwise, even more media space will be captured by those who can pay for it.

Alternative media will flourish in the short term, but to survive, boutique media houses will have to search for partnerships that allow them to collaborate on content and share resources. Finally, what I hope for is that people recognise that good journalism is a public good, and fight for a national broadcaster that reports for the nation, not for the holders of office whom we have confused for the overlords of this precious public commodity.

Post-coronavirus and the need for communal solidarity. 

Betty Guchu is a writer and editor

I am returnee, a former long-term remittance woman (in the sense that I was doing the remitting, gladly). I came back, jaded by the world of international development cooperation, where the cooperation seems to benefit only the highly paid functionaries and the development experts that hang on to their coattails, earning a handsome fee with every contract. The waste of resources, the corruption, the nepotism and the cronyism finally got to me and the racism that one day asserted that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, to justify the exclusion of the views of the so-called beneficiaries, was the final straw. I started casting about for another way to live and to earn a living. More simply and more meaningfully. Before it was too late.

Out in the Kenyan countryside I have found such a life, in a community where we are each other’s social safety net. A hospital bill is shared, not just among friends and family, but within the community. As is the cost of a burial. My neighbour watches out for me and it doesn’t take long to know who the chicken thief is. Tools are borrowed and lent and seeds and seedlings exchanged. Advice is freely given, some of it old wives’ tales until you find out that it is not, having skeptically applied it. New ideas are welcomed and knowledge freely shared. Projects are initiated, funds raised and labour provided, elected officials showing up at the tail end to bask in the reflected glory. As is their wont.

It is not that folk here are nicer or more generous than folk anywhere else; it is that the environment is less alienating, that the inter-generational relationships are still quite strong, that the gap between the better-off and the less so is not a yawning chasm. But also, it is the realisation that “there, but by the grace of God, go I” that spurs the solidarity, the acknowledgement that unless we help each other, we all sink together. May the coronavirus bring all of us everywhere to that happy realisation.

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The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle

Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.

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The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
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Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.

We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.

We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.

Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.

We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.

Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.

Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.

The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.

That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.

Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.

This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.

Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”

Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.

Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.

Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.

Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.

The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved

The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.

The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.

Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.

When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.

It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.

Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.

The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.

Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.

The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.

Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.

With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.

The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.

The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.

And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.

As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.

His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.

Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.

In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.

To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.

The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.

It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.

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The Violence in Ethiopia

The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.

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The Violence in Ethiopia
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The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.

What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.

recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.

Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.

To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.

The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.

Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.

Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.

The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.

In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.

Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.

Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups.  Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.

According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.

The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).

According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.

To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.

The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.

As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands

The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to Oscar Sudi’s comments, and the open defiance of Sudi’s supporters, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.

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The furore over Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi’s recent comments regarding the first family has left many Kenyan women baffled, not least because Kenyan men are not known to be great defenders of women or their body parts. It has been alleged – and the media has erroneously reported – that, in alluding to her breasts, Mr Sudi insulted Mama Ngina, the former first lady and mother of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.

When I first heard about this on social media, I thought it was yet another typically crude example of Kenyan misogyny. There are countless examples of Kenyan men, particularly politicians, insulting and deriding women. Female politicians and activists are a favourite target. Women who dare to defy patriarchal norms do not find a comfortable home here. In fact, they have to fight tooth and nail to be recognised.

The late President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, once referred to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai as a woman who had “dudus in her head” when she was protesting the building of a tall office block in Uhuru Park. Recently, Mutahi Ngunyi, a State House operative, referred to Martha Karua, a former Minister of Justice and a presidential candidate in the 2013 election, as “a grandmother with average intelligence and a bloated ego” after she gave a TV interview that challenged the president and Raila Odinga to come clean on the motives behind their rapprochement. (Note: Ngunyi’s use of the word “grandmother” was to suggest that Karua had reached her sell-by date and that she should focus on family matters, not politics. In this case, the insulting of grandmothers was not viewed as hate speech by the authorities.)

Those of us who have cared to listen to the speech that caused so much uproar in the country will agree that Sudi did not insult Mama Ngina’s breasts. He merely stated that Uhuru Kenyatta should not believe that the breasts that he suckled are better than the breasts that Sudi suckled.

What Sudi was simply trying to say (and which got lost in the state’s accusations of “hate speech” and “incitement”) was that all Kenyans are equal and that Uhuru and his family should not believe that they are more important than the rest of Kenyans or that the country belongs to them.

In any other period in our political history, these comments might even be considered heroic – an act of rebellion against hegemonic forces. I would go further to say that Sudi has the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our constitution, so he can say what he wants as long as his utterances are not inflammatory or based on lies. After all, did the young Jomo not say similar things against the British in London’s famous Hyde Park? Is this not what the Mau Mau were saying to the British colonialists when they took up arms against them? Is this not what was conveyed to President Moi during the “Second Liberation” protests? Did Raila Odinga (who was once the leader of the opposition) not challenge election results several times because he wanted Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta to know that Kenya does not belong to just one tribe or to one political party? Fighting for your rights is guaranteed by the 2010 constitution.

But then you have to remember that it was during Jomo Kenyatta’s time that insulting the first family became a criminal offence. Jomo’s Machiavellian Attorney General Charles Njonjo deemed that even imagining the death of the president was punishable. Are we returning to those days of the imperial presidency?

Before I return to the issue of breasts and their significance in the Kenyan imagination, let us recall how we got to this place.

Faustian pact

You may remember that prior to the 2013 elections, Uhuru Kenyatta made a Faustian pact (some call it a marriage of convenience) with William Ruto – his fellow indictee at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The deal – amplified by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, which manipulated a highly gullible electorate – was that the election should be viewed as “a referendum against the ICC”. Part of the pact was that if the duo won the presidency, Uhuru would rule the country for ten years and then hand over to Ruto for the next ten years. In other words, Jubilee – their coalition party – would rule Kenya for the next two decades.

But maybe promising to honour a deal was not part of that deal. That Faustian pact has been broken. Ruto has now been relegated to the sidelines following another Faustian pact called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has brought Raila into the Uhuru fold, and which has resulted in an orchestrated assault against Ruto. Some might say that it is Kikuyu privilege and hegemony reasserting itself by coopting dissent. Others says it is a way of healing past wounds and uniting a country fractured by political divisions and disillusionment. Only time will tell which scenario will unfold.

Unfortunately, this pact might lead to more, not less violence. The government’s unreasonably aggressive response to Sudi’s comments, complete with police raids on Sudi’s home, and the open defiance of Sudi’s Kalenjin supporters, who threaten to go to war to defend their leader, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.

The “handshake” between Uhuru and Raila, instead of easing tensions, has created different forms of polarisation. Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters feel betrayed. Opposition and civil society activists who would have come to Sudi’s defence are now taking sides; those who might have defended his right to free speech are now silent because speaking up might be construed as siding with Ruto. These fractures are most evident on social media.

Let us be very clear on one fact, which somehow gets conveniently brushed under the carpet. The 2013 election was premised on fear. Fear that if the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu do not unite, there will be a constant threat of violence and mass displacement of Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Fear that historical injustices will resurface as a rallying cry during elections – a scenario that neither the Kikuyu nor the Kalenjin elite want because both have blood on their hands.

Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, some believe that the alliance between the two politicians was based more on primal instincts that had to do with self-preservation vis-à-vis the ICC, and the general fear in the country that the 2013 election would be as bloody, if not more, than the 2007one, as the issues that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin in 2007/8, and vice versa, had still not been resolved.

“Though tribe was the watchword in this [2013] election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal,” wrote James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. “Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.”

At that time, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo said that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of most of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multiparty elections in 1992 – had still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. “Those who doubt his [Ruto’s] grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now,” he wrote in African Arguments on 22 May 2013.

Breasts in the Kenyan imagination

The Faustian pact between Uhuru and Ruto, and now between Uhuru and Raila, has lessons for Kenyans. In the classic German legend from which this pact gets its name, Faust is a highly successful but dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. By selling his soul to the devil, Faust is condemned to “The Eternal Empty”. However, female spirits of the earth intervene on his behalf and forgive him for his foolish mistake. Faust suffers some tragedies because of his folly, but in the end he is granted redemption and his soul ascends to heaven in the presence of God and the Virgin Mother. (One moral of the story: female energy is more powerful than the devil.)

We might be tempted to believe that the attacks on Sudi and his ilk are invoking female power. The fact that so many Kenyans (including elderly Kikuyu women who have threatened to strip in front of Sudi) have come out in defence of Mama Ngina’s breasts might suggest that we have reached a Faustian moment. Or perhaps we have evolved into country that actually cares about women and their dignity.

But let us not fool ourselves. For one thing, Mama Ngina, arguably the richest woman in Kenya, is hardly “Wanjiku”. I do not recall her ever defending the rights of poor Kenyan women, or women in general. Two, we are not invoking female energy here to seek redemption. If Kenyan politicians, including Sudi, really cared about women, the two-thirds gender rule would have been enforced in parliament by now.

What we are doing is weaponising the former first lady’s breasts. And sexualizing them, which is very un-African. As Sylvia Tamale writes in African Sexualities, African women’s sexualities were the antithesis of European mores of sex and beauty. Traditional African women had no problems displaying their breasts because breasts in African culture were not objects of sexual desire or titillation; they had one primary purpose – feeding an infant. So talking about breasts was no different from talking about a nose or a leg. If Sudi had “insulted” Mama Ngina’s ear, would we be so upset? The African breast became the object of forbidden fantasy and fetishisation during colonialism when Christian missionaries began their “civilizing mission” in Africa.

In fact, in certain African societies, nakedness was associated with defiance. The Kenyan mothers of political prisoners who “cursed” the Moi government in the early 1990s by stripping at Uhuru Park – because seeing your mother naked is considered a curse in certain Kenyan communities – were not displaying their sexuality; they were displaying their anger. They were defying Moi. Kenyans with a political conscience saw them as heroines. In fact, these mothers will forever remain as symbols of defiance in the annals of Kenyan history.

Maybe now is the Faustian moment when positive female energy can be invoked, not to redeem those who have made selfish pacts, but to take Kenyans down a more enlightened path.

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