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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

8 min read.

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.

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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal
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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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The Lies They Tell Us About Education, Work, and the Arts

Society pays a heavy price when the arts are not about human beings but about institutions. We become an autocratic society, and a society without soul.

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The Lies They Tell Us About Education, Work, and the Arts
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In my open letter to Kenyans, I talked about how the arts are a divine calling. The arts make us human, because the arts provide a space for us to be social and individual at the same time. With the arts, we accept what we can’t change and change what we can, while producing something creative and sometimes new.

Let me give an example of what I mean. The rituals we perform when someone we love dies help us accept death as something we all must face. However, we cannot raise our hands and say death is inevitable, because if we do, we would not have reason to live our lives to the fullest. So the arts is where we deal with that contradiction. When Amos and Josh sing “Tutaonana baadaye”, they are singing, “We accept your going is inevitable, but until we join you, we must still live our best lives, love with all our hearts.” And from this deep truth, Amos and Josh and King Kaka produced a beautiful song.

​That’s what the arts are – beauty that carries deep truth.

This beauty that carries deep truth is not liked by the people who want power. For them to be powerful, they must block us from the truth, and so they block us from the arts. The people in power combine the force of education, religion, business and media to make sure that either they block us from the arts, or they distort the arts so much that the arts don’t lead us to the truth but to a false impression of the truth.

So I’m going to talk about how education boosts this system.

The thing to remember is that the school system hates the arts for the same reason that the government hates them. Schools have structures of power, like principals, who in turn have their deputies and middle-level managers. The power they exercise is no different from that of the state, and in fact, in many instances their appointments are made by the state.

So the education system hates the arts for the same reason as politicians, the clergy and business people: arts will make teachers and students start asking questions about the education system, including questions about content and whether we must use violence to educate. For this reason alone, schools do not want arts education because it would make teachers and students less easy to control.

And how does the education system fight against the arts? By capturing and telling lies about three things: education, work, the arts.

Lies about education

The biggest lie that has been told to us is that schooling = education. I’m sure you know this, because I hear artists saying it, except that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Let’s start by defining education. Education is the formal way in which people expand their knowledge and refine their skills. In other words, education is done deliberately. This means two other truths that Kenyans, including artists, seem not to fully understand.

One, that people can expand their knowledge and refine their skills unconsciously, through life, habit and experience.  In this letter, I will call that process “culture”. In other words, you may learn to dance not because you deliberately decided to learn, but because dancing was happening around you and you also learned to dance. The fact that you did not learn your knowledge or skill consciously with the purpose of becoming a dancer does not mean that your knowledge and skill are less important than what others learn in the formal school. Culture was just another way of learning for you.

Two, formal learning is not restricted to going to school alone. Formal learning includes apprenticeship and mentorship. When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher, and then getting a certificate for it. One of the reasons why I used to invite artists to meet my students is because I wanted my students to hear that even other artists put time into learning their craft from others. So we heard from Juliani that he learned his craft from Ukoo Flani, or from Suzanna Owiyo that she learned to play the nyatiti from her grandfather.

So it is extremely important, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that artists must learn from others. When our artists are not being mentored artistically by anybody, we have reason to worry.

I have heard some artists say on TV that they didn’t learn their craft from anyone. I find that upsetting, because even if they didn’t go out deliberately to learn from elders the way Juliani and Suzanna Owiyo did, they were learning from what was being played in the house or what they heard or did as children. By saying they did not go to school, they are basically dissing their cultures and backgrounds. Or they don’t know them at all.

When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher.

But the second reason why that statement is upsetting is because it means that such artists see no value in creating arts traditions or archives. It means that if you didn’t learn from anyone, no one needs to learn from you. That means that we will always start our arts from scratch, over and over again. It means that with the arts, we are always reinventing the wheel. And the people in power like that, because the larger society never builds an archive of knowledge.

And without an archive of knowledge about the arts, society has no obligation to respect the arts as work that people spend their time doing, or that it is a skill they learn. And I’m sure you can know the rest of the story. But I’m going to go over it.

Lies about work

The second lie that the education system tells us is that going to school is for employment, and employment is for national development. And we artists know the second part of that lie: to develop, we don’t need the arts; we need STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

And to support these lies, the educators and the media tell us junk like 80 per cent of students are in arts subjects. It’s not true. Let me just give the worst example of arts education in Kenya: out of 70 universities in Kenya, only six universities teach music. Only one university teaches fine arts. There is no Master of Fine Arts degree in Kenya.

But the other problem with the lie about employment is that without arts education, we are not able to teach generations of Kenyans to appreciate the importance of arts in society, whether they become artists or not. We need to teach arts education to create a society that will support artists. In other words, if we want the Kenyans to buy your albums, your books and your paintings, to go to the cinema to watch your films and to the theatres to watch your plays, they need to have grown up learning the importance of the arts for their own lives and for society as a whole. They need to understand the importance of protecting public parks and social halls where musicians can perform. They also need to understand the work that goes into art, so that they stop negotiating with you to pay almost nothing, if they pay you at all.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education, so that the next generation of farmers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers will not spend their resources paying for your work. In other words, you are encouraging people not to see your work as work that needs to be paid for. So please think again before talking badly about schools.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education.

Also, when the school system says that the only work worth respect is the work you went to school for, we are encouraging schooling-based discrimination. There is a lot, a lot of work done in Kenya, not only by artists, but also by people who did not get certificates in order to do it. The rich still profit from that work, but they pay even less for it because the workers did not learn it in school. That is why the government is actively discouraging people from pursuing university education. They want Kenyans to learn university level work but not pay them for the value of their work. This problem is no longer about artists alone. It’s affecting all young people.

So the lesson here is 1) value your education, even if you did not get it in the school system, and 2) do not diss the school system as irrelevant to the arts.

Lies about the arts

This third lie about the arts is repeated by artists so much, it’s embarrassing. The lie that the arts are about “talent”. The problem with “talent” is that it suggests that arts is not work that takes skill and time. In fact, businesspeople exploit artists precisely because of the attitude that “Why do you want me to pay for just shaking your body around or splashing colour on a canvas? Si it’s just talent? Even I can do the same work if I wanted to.” For them, performance has no rehearsals, painting has no sketches, and writing has no drafts. You’re just talented. Your art required no work or skill.

This lie was picked up by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, so that you believed the government when it said that Competency-Based Curriculum is different because it will have a pathway for the “talented” students who do not do well in the sciences. How on earth could you accept such madharau as “arts education”? And yet, as I explained on Citizen TV, the “talent” pathway is where they are going to throw the kids who are poor or needed extra help from teachers. In other words, the arts are the place to dump the students let down by the education system.

With that kind of attitude expressed about the arts, we should not be surprised that professionals coming out of the school system don’t see the arts as worth paying for.

But there is another insidious thing happening within the education system that should make us very worried. We are producing periphery professionals without the core artistic skills. Universities, for example, are producing film-makers who don’t learn to tell stories, journalists who don’t learn language or how to write, conflict experts who have no knowledge of history, politics and anthropology, or musicians who cannot play instruments. How is this acceptable?

It is acceptable because the universities have bought the lie that the arts are not “marketable” and are not investing in teaching these subjects. So universities are cheating students that they will produce good films and produce good music without learning story-telling and composition work.

And as a country, we pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map. For instance, Hollywood makes its biggest and most award-winning films from stories of real people, or from their own novels and plays. Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar for a film based on a real-life story.

But year after year, Kenyan film-makers guilt-trip us into watching local films but are yet to produce the story of Wangari Maathai or Syokimau or Elijah Masinde on screen. We have few of our oral stories in cartoons, and instead we watch Lion King. By now the column “Surgeon’s Diary” should be an ER-type series, “Mwalimu Andrew” should be a sitcom. But why can’t Kenyan filmmakers think like this? Because they don’t study stories. They study cameras and scripting and Western film festivals. Remember what I said about “reinventing the wheel?” That is what we do.

The last concern I have about education is the most serious of all. This one pains me.

Arts in Kenyan education is taught like science. Literature, the most prominent example, is taught so badly, that students leave school hating it. They are not taught to enjoy stories for what they are.

There are three main ways in which literature is taught. One is to cut up literature scientifically into themes, characters, style and other details and make students repeat those analyses without ever enjoying or understanding the story. The other is to insist on morals, a development agenda or a specific anti-colonial story. The last is to shame students into saying they have no identity because they don’t know the songs their great-grandparents used to sing.

The purpose of all these methods is to prevent the type of arts I talked about in the previous letter. It’s to prevent individual enjoyment and expression through the arts. It’s also to reinforce the idea that the arts are not for us, human beings, but for grades (the school), the church (morals), the state (development) or politics (limited to anti-colonialism).

We pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map.

This view of the arts explains some disturbing things I notice in my classroom. Our students can’t enjoy art or talk about real life. For instance, when I recently gave some love poems for students to analyze, they said that the praise of a loved one was a lie or an exaggeration. These days, when we are in class, students will tell me about fascinating things in society, but when they hand in the write-up, I find they have not written what they said in class, but have written notes like a schoolteacher. One class finally got what I was complaining about when I said that in Kenya, if I wear a nice dress, people will not say, “That dress is beautiful” or “You look nice.” They will give an analysis: “I always find kitenge dresses very smart.” That’s how disconnected the Kenyan psyche has become. We’ve lost our human warmth.

When the arts are not about us, human beings, but about institutions, then we become an autocratic society. When the arts are treated in this way, it gives permission to the government to censor us, to businesses to exploit us, to churches to condemn us, and to society to not value us. And the price the whole society pays is the loss of our soul.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops

Ten years ago this month Kenyan troops invaded Somalia. Coverage of the incursion by the Kenyan media has consistently and uncritically favoured the Kenya Defence Forces.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops
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Precisely ten years ago, Kenyans woke up to the news that about 2,000 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had been deployed to fight al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group.

In an invasion dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, the troops made their way into southern Somalia through the semi-arid porous border that divides the two neighbouring nations. The deployment followed news reports that al-Shabaab was behind abductions targeting aid workers in northern Kenya and tourists along Kenya’s coast.

But while there is no shortage of reports on the hidden reasons behind this decision, analysis of how the Kenyan press has constructed the narratives about the conflict for its audiences is limited. Scholars and analysts have scrambled to put forth solid analyses of the dynamics of the Kenyan elites, al-Shabaab, and other actors involved in Somalia yet few have attempted to address the question of how the Kenyan mass media mediates this war.

Further, researchers have undertaken the essential task of informing us how media outlets in the global north cover wars involving troops from their countries’ perspectives. However, analysis on how invasions in countries like Somalia are mediated by news media organizations from invading countries like Kenya remains minimal.

Wars and the news media 

The intersection of news media and conflict is complex. There is consensus in the existing academic research that journalists throw away their professional hats when covering wars involving their home countries. This is explained by the fact that they are guided by military elites who control the information coming in from the frontline. The shared cultures and ideologies with soldiers on the battlefield render journalists sympathetic to their governments’ interests. In short, they remain patriotic and loyal.

As primary agenda setters, the news media remains a powerful force. In Kenya, the existing digital divide reminds us that the traditional press still dominates the dissemination of information across the country. This requires that we explore what shapes the decisions of Nairobi-based editors when bringing the war in Somalia to Kenyan living rooms.

The KDF has participated in numerous peacekeeping missions across the world since its inception. From the Bosnian war in the 90s to the Sierra Leone civil war that ended in the early 2000s and Sudan’s Darfur conflict, the Kenyan government has generously contributed its military troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions. These missions largely go uncovered by the Kenyan press since the country is effectively not at war, and also because distance discourages editors from spending resources on these countries.

However, the October 2011 decision to invade Somalia, a country that shares a border with Kenya, was unprecedented. The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country. And for the first time, Kenyan journalists were covering a war in which their own country was prominently involved.

Undoubtedly, Kenya’s hasty decision to invade Somalia cemented al-Shabaab’s prominence as one of the deadliest terror groups in the continent. Helped by Kenya’s weak security system which was a result of rampant corruption and limited resources, al-Shabaab executed some of its worst attacks in the country.

The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country.

The group was behind the killing of over 4,000 people across East Africa in 2016 alone. The Garissa University terror incident in early 2015 that led to the deaths of 147 students and staff remains the deadliest attack by the group in Kenya. Inside Somalia, the group was behind the January 2016 massacre in El Adde and the 2017 attacks in Kulbiyow that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of KDF personnel. Thus, the Kenyan mass media found itself covering a war that was killing military personnel in Somalia and Kenyan citizens across the country.

KDF and the media

It is almost impossible not to think about patriotism when discussing the intersection of the Kenyan mass media and the country’s military institutions. Even before its invasion of Somalia, the KDF consistently enjoyed favourable media coverage and, with the exception of the people of northern Kenya who carry the scars of attacks such as the Wagalla massacre perpetrated in Wajir in 1984, Kenyans’ perception of the KDF was positive.

The Kenyan media’s uncritical treatment of the KDF when the invasion commenced was therefore not surprising. Kenyan journalists share cultures and ideologies with the troops and this creates a bias in how they view this war.

We have often seen how citizens of African countries—with Kenyans leading by example—react to Western media misrepresentations of their stories. From #SomeoneTellCNN to #SomeoneTellNewYorkTimes, Kenyans have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to vociferously criticise how the Western press covers terror in their country. And while pushback against misrepresentations and negative portrayals by foreign media is necessary, it is equally important to question how our own news media portrays war and terror in Somalia.

It is common knowledge that US reporters tend to interpret foreign news with American audiences in mind. But this is not only true of Western reporters; journalists across the globe tend to behave this way when they cross their borders to report on a war led by or involving their own country.

Kenyan news media gatekeepers <> through the lens of nationalism when reporting conflict across the border and within the country. Moreover, whether it be the shifta war, the atrocities in Somalia, the Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp, the Kenyan mass media places Somalia and northern Kenya within the same frame, and the published stories are perceived as synonymous with Kenya’s policy in Somalia. Kenyan reporters write these stories with Kenya in mind, creating the ideal environment that enables Kenyan citizens to accept and approve of the conflict.

After conducting a content analysis of how the Daily Nation and Standard newspapers have covered the war, Cliff Ooga and Samuel Siringi conclude that the Kenyan press has “relied a lot on the news from government agencies instead of residents and eyewitnesses accounts of the combat in Somalia.” This cements the argument that the sources used in covering the conflict frame the KDF as the winning side and shape a favourable public opinion that approves the mission.

My findings of an analysis of over 200 articles in Kenyan and US newspapers about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack were consistent with those of scholars who had examined other attacks such as the Garissa University and Dusit Hotel terror attacks. More than 70 per cent of the sampled articles received episodic framing, meaning they were covered as a single event.

This type of framing doesn’t inform the audience about why these attacks are occurring. It lacks in-depth analysis, nuance, and thematic demonstrations of how Kenya found itself in the conflict. Tellingly, these findings were synonymous with how American newspapers covered the same attacks.

Embedded journalism 

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism. This type of journalism occurs when reporters are invited and attached to military personnel in the battleground to cover conflicts. This approach defeats critical journalistic values—fairness, neutrality, and impartiality are replaced by patriotism, loyalty and empathy. The value of ethical journalism and independence on the battlefields is lost since military personal provide security to these reporters.

Moreover, the military covers the journalists’ costs and sets the ideal timing for combat. The location of the coverage, how and who is interviewed,  these are strategically structured so as to portray Kenya as winning the war, a classic example of public relations through the mass media. Kenyans are presented with news coming in from the battlefield wrapped in such headlines as KDF, No Retreat, No Surrender in Somalia Operation, and The Frontline: KDF Continues to Combat al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The concept of embedded journalism flourished in the 2003 Iraq war. The US military was eager to control information coming out of the oil-rich country. The use of this tactic by American military elites was motivated by the embarrassment it experienced in the Vietnam War, often referred to as the “first television war”. The advent of television technology took journalists to the frontline, a perilous yet enticing undertaking that brought with it recognition among their peers and prestigious prizes that acknowledged their prominence in the realm of journalism.

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism.

With unrestricted coverage, positive reportage of the Vietnam War soon turned to critical reporting that portrayed the government in a bad light. With journalists having free access to the affected communities, bloody images of innocent victims of the war found their way onto television screens in American living rooms. The footage contradicted “the official war narrative and undermined public support for the war effort” and calls by anti-war activists for the American government to end the war in Vietnam escalated. This is why military elites in Washington DC view the unfettered access of news media to the frontline as a threat that needs to be contained.

In 2003, embedded journalism played a significant role in advancing the interests of the US in the Middle East and beyond. Reporters were given protection by the military in cities across Iraq. This is little more than tourism on the battlefield, where the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Imitating the West, the KDF employed this tool to deal with the news media. Coverage of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia is Kenyan-centric, with sources comprising of military personal and the personal views of the journalists. Somalis are completely disregarded and the few who are interviewed are beneficiaries of KDF-driven humanitarian efforts such as free medical camps and distribution of foodstuff.

A culture change is needed

How can the Kenyan news media change this culture of violating journalistic values? Can Kenyan journalists redeem themselves by giving us a clear picture of the KDF’s engagement in Somalia?

These questions need immediate attention as we enter the second decade of Kenyan military activity in Somalia. We have witnessed how the lack of critical coverage of war and terror in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has derailed efforts towards finding durable solutions to end these wars.

Kenyan journalists need to acknowledge that their coverage of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has uncritically embraced the government’s position and that Kenyans have not been given an accurate picture of the ongoing conflict. Their editors, the decision-makers in the newsroom, should strive to allocate resources for journalists to be deployed independently to cover this conflict. This essential element in the news production process is key to a fair, impartial, and critical coverage of Kenya’s engagement in Somalia.

This is tourism on the battlefield and the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Journalists covering these stories should strive to reach out to different sources. Including the voices of those in the local communities who face the wrath of both the KDF and al-Shabaab would be a bold step towards constructing clear narratives for citizens in Kenya and elsewhere.

Newsrooms should also hire full-time, Somali-based journalists to cover the conflict; deploying journalists from Nairobi who lack contextual knowledge will make it difficult to produce fair and impartial reporting. Perhaps engaging properly remunerated local correspondents would address some of the challenges of the last ten years.

When news of the invasion was announced a decade ago, elites in Nairobi were quick to promise that it would be a short war. However, our troops are still “fighting terror” that has killed thousands of Kenyans inside and outside Somalia. It is conceivable that critical news coverage of this war by the Kenyan mass media would lead to the long-overdue exodus of KDF from Somalia.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah

Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah
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This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.

​I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint-hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced depression or panic attacks. A number of us have been shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.

When we work as artists, our work is demeaned. It is treated as “talent” and therefore not requiring any pay. We are cheated out of our earnings by not being paid at all, or by accountants lying to us that the cheques are not yet signed so that they can buy more time to play with our hard-earned money. When we are asked “What do you do for a living?” and we say that we are writers or painters or photographers or musicians, we are told, “That’s fine, but what do you do from 8 to 5?” When we say that we are studying the arts, we are asked, “So where do you hope to get a job with that?” One of my students studying music was once advised to have a back-up plan.

The only time we get recognized in Kenya is when we succeed abroad or get recognized abroad. Even here, because the politicians have grabbed the cinema halls, the playgrounds and the social halls, we cannot find anywhere where people can gather to watch or listen to a performance. Instead, we find ourselves running to the halls built by foreign embassies in the Central Business District, far from the neighbourhoods where we live.

Why is being an artist so abusive?

I will tell you why. In Kenya, the state, businesses, the church, the media and the education system (the hegemony) are united in making our lives as artists a living hell.

Divine calling

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules. In the arts, we privilege listening to God and the universe over listening to human power. When we dance, for instance, we switch off our consciousness about who is looking at us. We concentrate our minds on following the beat and on being in sync with other dancers. This means that, for that moment, we are focused on the arts – we suspend what the church thinks, what the government thinks, what the school thinks or what the media thinks.

In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka says ritual (or what I will call here the arts) is the space in which human beings collectively come to terms with their place in the world. Through the arts, we accept life as it is, both the good and the bad, and at the same time – not like an accounting balance sheet. We accept pain and love, life and death, as inevitable. We also accept that despite being human, the world operates on rules that even we humans cannot change. In the arts, Soyinka argues, we are even allowed to collectively call the gods to account, as Mother Nature and the gods also hold humanity to account.

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules.

So the arts is the space where we bend the rules and break the barriers. It is where we reset the cosmic balance and provide justice to the vulnerable and clip the powers of the mighty. In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

All these things I have described defy the human institutions of the hegemony. That is why the hegemony fights back at the arts.

The autocratic foundations of Kenya

In order to understand why Kenya is this way, it is important to understand that Kenya was constructed on a very narrow agenda – to control the resources (including us) for the profit of the few who did not even live here.

How do absentee plantation owners control a proud people with their own histories, identities and livelihoods? By creating a fiction or stories about how we are such degraded human beings who can only be helped to survive by the very same people who get rich from exploiting us. The arts inevitably became the enemy of our exploiters because the arts are where we can suspend these rules and connect to ourselves and to each other as human beings.

If you understand how power was handed over at independence, through careful selection of the Kenyan colonial sympathizers who joined the colonial civil service, then you’ll understand why that system has remained intact to this day.

The colonial rules which we never got rid of are still constructed on a narrow path to “success”, namely going to Western schools, getting employment, joining politics and becoming rich and displaying that wealth with cars, houses, children in foreign schools and other symbols of Western consumerist wealth.

For this system to continue, it also needs the stories that the colonizers told our ancestors. In church, we’re told that God loves the exploiters and that God is disappointed that we are not like them. In school, we are told to learn so that we become the next generation of exploiters, and that the only purpose of learning is to join the market. In the media, we are told that those who are successful are those who make the most money, not those who do the best for society. Meanwhile, the government sees its only role as setting laws and policy to rule us and sending us the police to punish us.

In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

As you probably know, the system supported by these stories is brutal. In school, children are on their feet from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the workplace, the more we work, the more we are insulted and the less we are paid. In the media, we are told that we are irrelevant to development. At church, we are told that God is disappointed in us. The government calls us immoral and the politicians patronizingly call us “talented youth”.

Many Kenyans who go through this brutal system make peace with it. But we artists don’t. And often, that’s not even a decision that we make. It’s just that the fire of God and the universe that burns inside of us is so strong, that we start to ask questions like, “What if God is not as brutal and punitive as we are told? What if we had another definition of success? What if I love the person whom the politician is telling me to hate? What if I dance instead of being miserable? What if I wear orange instead of brown? What if I sing instead of being quiet? What if I admit that I am sad? What if. . . .”

And that scares the people in power, because their power depends on us thinking we have no alternatives. And so, at the pulpits, on the airwaves, in the classroom, at the workplace and in government offices, people are taught to hate us for being different and for refusing to conform. We grow up being told that there is no future in a career in the arts and that we are responsible for immorality and underdevelopment. We are lied to that 80 per cent of students in university are in arts programmes, when the number is below 20 per cent.

Team Courage

So I want to encourage you not to give up. You are on the right track. The road may be difficult now, the system may be abusive, but we are suffering because we reveal the truth about the powerlessness of the system. If we try to suppress the creativity God put in our hearts, God will send a fish to swallow us and spit us out with the command that we must be artists. So we have no choice but to see this through.

We must see our calling through because society depends on it. The arts are the soul of a people. Without the arts, we will feel powerless to change anything, or too much in despair to hope. The arts are the quintessential space for democracy and freedom, because in the arts, we come together collectively but at the same time express our individuality. It is this magic that we know as freedom.

Think of a painting with different colours, or a choir with different voices. Although each colour or each voice is unique on its own and remains unique in the painting or in the singing, the combination of colours produces a sight that is pleasing to the eye and the combination of voices produces a sound that is pleasing to the ear.

That is what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

I know that this encouragement does not mean much when courage does not pay the bills or put a roof over our heads. But in my further letters to you, I will explain what we can do to resist the abuse. We have a lot of work to do in terms of education, media, economy and faith. I will talk about how each sector abuses us, but also how we also are sometimes complicit in the abuse.

Joy will come in the morning.

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