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Knowing your place

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Knowing your place
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When you use the term minority or minorities in reference to people, you’re telling them that they’re less than somebody else.

Gwendolyn Brooks -American Poet.

The average age of knowing that you were born out of wedlock in my village was 5.

For boys, you learnt this news on a football pitch. I don’t remember the slight misdemeanor that prompted the insult. Neither did I know the meaning of the expletive, but the viciousness with which it was uttered sent a chill down my spine and I froze on the spot. Afterwards, my mother (a young widow then) could not explain what the word meant, but she warned me never step in that field again. I never did.

The word for a child born out of wedlock in Ekegusii, ekerentane, reduces the child to an inanimate object. Loosely it would translate to: something you bring along. Its connotations are untranslatable, there is an undisguised ring of contempt to it. Illegitimate children in my community were objects of ridicule and hostility. The boys at the pitch had put me to my place.

An illegitimate boy was always a target of insults, sometimes even by his own brothers. I scarcely remember any illegitimate boy who ever fully integrated into the new society the mother married to. Illegitimate boys were always forbidden from even performing certain rights like breaking ground for a grave to be dug, or even digging a grave. Such a privilege.

With hindsight, I now know it is the diminishing farming land in my community that motivated the hostility from our male peers and relatives. Illegitimate girls were the first target of pedophiles and any creep with incestuous inclinations, inured by the belief that as long the child was not related to them by blood, it wasn’t incest.

The message was clear: You are an outsider, you can’t have an opinion in our village. I recoiled in embarrassment, hurt badly. I will never belong.

Within a short five years of living in our new home, my mother would die in her mid-thirties. I was an orphan at just ten years. Being an illegitimate boy was bad enough. Being an orphaned illegitimate boy was positively vulgar. Nobody wanted to pick you up. Thankfully, my maternal kin took me and locked me in a boarding school.

My mother’s eldest sister would take care of me for the next ten years. It was a lovely, inclusive and kind family, but I would always be an outsider. A fact I was once reminded rather painfully. My aunt’s brother-in-law died of throat cancer. The brother-in-law was renowned patriarch, the last of a dying generation. In the 1990s, there was still a sense of community, and his death attracted a sizable crowd for the wakes.

During the wake nights, women will huddle themselves in the kitchen (usually a smoky, makeshift, grass-thatched, mudwalled hut, separate from the main house). And men will gather in the main house. It was in one such gathering of youthful men, that I would once again be put to my place.

The gathering was a blazing sitcom; rapturous, filled with rancorous humour and mudslinging that drew the throatiest of laughter. It was during one of the heated exchanges that I made the capital offense of offering my unsolicited opinion. One of the older members of the crowd, shouted me down,

“Shut up! You are a just a relative* here!”. He said it with such deadpan fury, it scared me.

The rage in the voice may have been made to carry with a hint of humour -indeed, the whole house went up in flames of laughter at that putdown- but the message was clear: You are an outsider, you can’t have an opinion in our village. I recoiled in embarrassment, hurt badly. I will never belong. Long after the funeral, everyone in that host village would call me “relative” in good humour, and I took it up without begrudging anyone. But deep inside, I started withdrawing from the world to take solace in books. In retrospect, that is how I became a bookworm: To escape the harsh world.

***

My high school was a little-known entity buried somewhere in the innards of Gusii Highlands. I joined a fat boy, about to shed all the weight and morph into a 6’4 wiry mesh of bone and flesh. High school was a neutral, anonymous space where no one knew my background. I could be anything I wanted.

I was scared of bullies. But our high school deputy principal, soon to be our principal for the next four years, a man who inspired the fear of God in boys, banned bullying effectively. Only prefects would whip us, but even that they did surreptitiously; if caught, they invited the fist of the principal’s fury. Think of Samuel L. Jackson.

That principal now heads Nairobi School.

The high school was Catholic. I grew up in a strict Adventist family, and became an ardent one at a young age. Soon, I would learn what it means to be a minority. For the small portion—roughly about a quarter the school—that identified themselves as active Adventists, getting a chance to worship on Sabbath was always a hard bargain. There were all sorts of intimidation from the administration. And to meet for Friday evening vespers, or the Saturday afternoon bible study, depended on the magnanimity of the school management. We were rather isolated, ridiculed by some students and we had to know our place, and be thankful to the gracious Catholic administration for the piecemeal hours of worship granted. I never liked that experience.

I did attend an Adventist high school briefly also and I noticed that Catholics were also given very limited time, or rights to worship, same as other Sunday worshippers. You could see the big, authoritarian hand of the Adventist church infringing on the religious liberties of the young men. I immediately wanted the church to be separated from the school system, and I grew to hate any form of authoritarianism even from my own church.

***

Ten years ago, I joined the University of Nairobi’s Main Campus. To me it felt like coming out of a jail after the unfortunate first 20 years of my life. With guaranteed freedom and housing for the next four years, a burning desire to be a man of my own in my heart, and the financial stipend from Higher Educations Loans Board, I could afford to be a man of my own.

I remember the knife-edge tension in the small room where we were hurdled in front of the TV, incredulously watching Kibaki being sworn in at night.

Again, here I could afford to be anonymous. My being illegitimate, or an orphan were no longer a factor of life. At least on the outside. I joined other young men and women, mostly from rural and rustic parts of Kenya on a government loan to pursue my dream, which by then was clear: become a writer.

***

A brief detour

Bad things come in threes. The Christmas Break of my first semester coincided with the General Elections of 2007, the first elections I was eligible to vote. My ‘paternal’ grandmother, died. I may not have been her biological grandchild but, growing up she had this indifference (more of her temperament than any ill will) towards me, but still humane enough in the African way. I visited my ‘ancestral’ home for the first time in ten years. It was awkward. I will never belong.

The second bad thing: my high school crush, a woman who had unleashed a Sicilian Thunderbolt on me ala` Michael Corleone in The Godfather, died and I could not afford to attend her funeral. In my imagination, she would have been my wife. Or not.

Third thing: the botched elections and the violence afterwards. I remember the knife-edge tension in the small room where we were hurdled in front of the TV, incredulously watching Kibaki being sworn in at night. We had all voted for Raila Odinga cashing in on the ODM wave. I was in the village where I had grown up.

I grew up being fed a lot of nonsense about the Luo, but in that election, a brilliant cousin then studying Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Nairobi taught me a lesson on historical marginalization of not just the Luos, but of the Coastal people, of the people in Northern Kenya. He convinced me that Raila Odinga was the right candidate for Kenya, not just the Luos. He told me Kibaki had broken the MoU that would have probably ridden Kenya of the toxic tribal nature of our politics.

It is this kind of idealism that had led more than 50 per cent of my clansmen to turn to Raila Odinga in that election. But the blatant disregard of the wishes of Kenyans in that election was more than we could take. The men in the room were smacking, clicking, shouting, creaking, rasping and could not believe what was happening.

My cousin Shylock, a brilliant and laidback mathematician, in moment of absolute exasperation, sighed,

“HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT!”

He was beside himself with anger. Those words are still the realest, heaviest reaction I have ever heard from someone. Everyone in that house was mortified and I remember so many bad things were said about the Kikuyus, all in a moment of madness.

Then the violence erupted. In no time, we learnt that our clansmen were being killed in Kericho for “voting for Kibaki”. We were in town bordering the Maasai and the men in the room had ‘warrior’ instincts borne out of the many years of the inter-ethnic war with the Maasais. They wanted to pick up their bows and arrows and go fight the Kalenjins; indeed, the war did erupt at Borabu on the Kisii-Bomet border.

We got the more sad news—rumours really— that our clansmen had been killed in Kisumu. This was greeted by ambivalence. There was a Luo man, Ouma, who had lived in that market place I grew up, working as welder, widely loved for his wild laughter and boisterous personality. He had spent the evening with us, in readiness for never-would-be Raila presidency.

Even in our devolved units, for some clannish communities, smaller clans have little chance and will always be at the mercies of the numerically bigger clans, handed scraps of leadership to pacify them. Sadly, if you are minority, you have to accept and live with this.

But as soon as the Kisumu news hit us, some of the male cousins suddenly wanted to be hostile towards him, with one insinuating that we should discipline him, and more disgustingly suggesting that ‘we’ should go after the wife.

The thought itself scared me to death. Even then, I knew what it feels like to be a minority in a place dominated by people of a different kind. Luckily for Ouma, nothing bad happened to him, there were more sensible people in that room than the few rotten apples.

But others were not lucky in the Rift Valley and Nairobi. Depending on where you voted, you were targeted for either offensive or vengeful attacks. The rest is well documented.

***

When school reopened, in the first class after the coalition government was formed, a Japanese instructor married to a Kenyan and who had lived in Kenya long enough, tried to prompt a conversation on the violence. There is something foolish about being 20-years-old with youthful idealism. Our feelings were raw, and we said bad things against each other, full of stereotypes. We stopped short of a fist fight. The Japanese lecturer was so scared she had to stop the discussions.

A section of the class wanted to move on. A section of the class felt hurt and cheated by the coalition government. The rancour in our nation politics would visit our campus, only uglier, during the charged Students Organization of Nairobi University (SONU) elections. Ethnicity was a big factor. We had ODM Tribes and PNU tribes.

There were tribal kingpins in college who decided which seat went to which tribe. The big seats went to the ‘big three tribes’; (Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins). I remember one friend telling me, straight-faced,

All I would have wished for is an electoral body that is above reproach in its conduct and delivery. It is not too much to ask. It is not because my party lost that I think the process is not credible.

“You Kisiis, have to give us the Organizing Secretary.” No irony. It was the default set up under which the university operated. Even the university management, top-down had to reflect a sense of equitable distributions of positions, with “minority” tribes in Kenya having a zero chance of ever being in charge of Kenya’s largest learning institutions. It was disgusting. Ditto the Kenyan political landscape. Even in our devolved units, for some clannish communities, smaller clans have little chance and will always be at the mercies of the numerically bigger clans, handed scraps of leadership to pacify them. Sadly, if you are minority, you have to accept and live with this.

Another reminder that coming from a minority tribe or clan in Kenya, you must be ten times as good before you even stand a chance. Recently, there were arguments if the newly elected Nairobi senator is a Sabaot or a Luhyia, the import being, he would rather identify himself as a Luhyia and get Luhyia votes than risk identifying himself as a Saboat.

***

The 2013 elections gave us the phrase for our pathological condition of sweeping everything under the rug and forgetting: Accept and Move On. Yvonne Owuor, in her novel Dust that was set against the backdrop of the 2007 contested elections, called Silence our fourth national language. Besides the 2007 post-election violence, Owuor visited parts of our violent history that have been hushed up to the convenience of one part of the country, and the constant agitation of others.

2017, I expected better. But regardless of the legitimacy of the declared results and how the Supreme Court will decide, the outcome will disappoint a section of the country.

For me, there is no such a thing as ‘third time is the charm”. All the three elections I have voted, neither my vote, nor my voice has counted. It would be tolerable if the opponents’ victory was incontestably clean. The first election was fraudulent. We lived with it. The second time, the opponent’s victory was doubtful, made the worse by the curt dismissal at the Supreme Court. We took it on the chin. Third time, we will still go to the Supreme Court, not after a brief, premeditated round of violence on Raila Odinga’s supporters by the state. Thankfully, no large-scale violence, but there is large-scale hurt and internal bleeding that will not go away.

***

I’m proudly Kenyan. Given my background, I’m condemned to live in a city or a cosmopolitan county. But, I’m not blind to the deep-seated differences that will sooner or later boil over along ethnic lines. It has made settling in places that are not our ancestral home a scary prospect, as every election approaches.

Our differences can be solved peaceably through constitutional means; amending the constitution to have a better power sharing arrangement, adopting a different voting system that is not based on the tyranny of numbers like in the US, whose constitution we badly plagiarized. Or even increasing funding as some of the measures that can forestall the call for secession – a number of Kenyans are buying into economist David Ndii’s call for self-determination.

I have come to understand why people vote the way they vote. Both parties have valid reasons; fear on one side, hope on the other. Fear always prevails. If I was a Kikuyu, and my community has been a target of ethnic displacement or cleansing in 1992, 1997 and 2007, I would probably vote for someone I believe will protect me, especially if the utterances of some of the politicians urge my community to “lie low” hours before the election. Last time someone said such words, our clansmen died. Understandable.

If I have been under systemic neglect and discrimination since independence I will turn to a candidate who promises to address historical injustices, redistribute the national cake and inclusion.

All valid reasons. All I would have wished for is an electoral body that is above reproach in its conduct and delivery. It is not too much to ask. It is not because my party lost that I think the process is not credible. Power is a very temporary thing; the incumbent can lose and another person can take over. I will hate it if the political elite will abuse their power.

But most importantly, is my wish that our country can start having statesmen who think beyond raw power, tenders, real estate, stashing cash in foreign reserves. I hanker after statesmen who will think about future generations and build a world, where race, tribe, religion and such play a tertiary role over competence, humanity and empathy.

Where a child born in Turkana or Wajir, or Kisii, or a slum in Nairobi has as much chance to be a president, as the one born in Kiambu or Siaya. Or Uasin Gishu.

***

These things are cyclic. In 1960, Ronald Ngala led Kenya African Democratic Union (an outfit for Kalenjin, Maasais, Turkana and Samburu) to oppose the dominance of the Kikuyus and Luos. If the so called big tribes continue to dominate the political scene, other tribes will continue having deep antipathy towards them.

We need both a political and constitutional solution to this. Otherwise elections will always be a problem, since more and more Kenyans will feel that Kenya is not a place for them. They will find another place they can call home. Hardly the right way. But if pushed…it will be the only way. It is not as farfetched as some people think.

By Silas Nyanchwani
Silas Nyanchwani is a Kenyan writer who writes for the Standard Group. He is also a Journalism Instructor at Riara University. 

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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Reflections

Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare

Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

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Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Photo: Flickr/Rachel Strohm
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Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist:  “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.

I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.

My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.

I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.

Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous.  It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.

The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.

We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!

I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.

In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.

We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.

Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.

When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.

The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.

Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.

The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest  — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.

As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.

Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.

In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.

Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.

When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.

***

Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.

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Reflections

I’m Black, I’m Proud. Still

You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.

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I'm Black, I'm Proud. Still
Photo: Unsplash/Oladimeji Odunsi
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Growing up down south in the aftermath of the 1960s Negro Revolution in America was truly the best. During that period, three out of every four Black children in America were born in a two-parent home. By the 80s, that number would drop to one in every four.

Education and opportunity were becoming more accessible to black and brown communities everywhere. It would be the force that would get us out of the hole history had placed us in.

We were moving forward and everybody could feel it, but as much as I liked going to school and learning new things, my favourite memories are of when, after school, I got to spend time with my brothers and cousins. There was just something magical that happened when we were together.

We would meet over at grandma’s house in that part of the city we called the village. The village was a straight, two-block walk from school, down King Street, past the Piggly Wiggly store parking lot and then to the stoplight where you take a right turn onto Rommey Street, and another right on to what looks like a parking lot on the side of the church, and just at the bridge, before you crossed the old train track or you would have missed it, the entrance to the court. Thirty or so homes behind the old Methodist Church on a road invisible from the street laid out in the form of a horseshoe.

I cannot talk about the village without talking about the city and the state. Charleston, South Carolina is a peninsula city located on the South Carolina coastline. It was one of the thirteen original colonies and the very first state to break away from the Union, and one of the founding states of the Confederacy.

The village was a housing initiative following the 1964 Civil Rights Act aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty by moving Black families out of the old housing slums and projects and into new affordable homes.

The difference between the projects in the South and the projects up north is the space and design. In most cases, southern projects were designed to be communal properties, different from the stacked high-rises up north or in the Midwest.

The projects down south were simple properties where people learned to share. They shared the backyard when the sun got too high and the front when people just wanted to be outside and catch a breeze. Everybody knew one another and called each other by name. Family arguments, celebrations and losses spilled into neighbouring apartments causing people to act like one big extended family. And even though everybody was poor, they would have been hard-pressed to admit it. Poverty was a state of mind. The community spirit emphasised generosity and everything was shared. If you were hungry and didn’t have food, you could always ask next door.

Having lived in the projects for decades, my grandparents were one of the very first people to be offered a house in the village. I can remember the move like it was yesterday, everyone was so excited.

The year was 1973, I was eight years old. For the first time Black families in Charleston would have the chance of a normal life.

My grandparents, long into retirement, coupled with our large, extended family of cousins, uncles, aunts and three brothers – two older and one younger – were a great source of pride and joy until I learned that the American egalitarian beliefs which I thought were as perfect a foundation as there could be, were but an illusion, a well thought out scheme. We weren’t freed, we were just moving boxes.

Although everyone got their own private home, some did build fences around theirs but others opted against this, allowing for yards to overlap, creating a more open and vibrant community.

My grandparents had a high chain-linked fence, but there was still this sense of togetherness. When something went wrong in the village, the elders would be the first out to deal with it.

My exploration of the real workings of America would begin from within this village in 1976, the year that America celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence from British rule.

That year, I began to see that the ideals that gave birth to the idea of “We the People,” did not include people like me.

I remember a young militant uncle, oozing Black pride, spilling the beans and pointing out to me that neither he nor I, nor any of the millions of other Blacks had reason to celebrate America’s success.

As my White and Black classmates and a nation prepared for the grand July 4th spectacle that would include a  freedom train,  a scheduled stop in our city,  marching bands,  hotdogs, cotton candy and fireworks, I began my own re-education, reading keenly to understand the origins and the construct of the first Americans.

In the 200 years since the Protestant Christians invaded America they’ve enslaved millions, massacred the Indians, and everything we’ve suffered – the chains, the church bombings, our leaders assassinated, brothers lynched – all of it has been part of an elaborate scheme to keep Blacks subjugated.

In June 1740, the British Parliament passed the Naturalization Act of 1740 – the “Plantation Act” – into law.

In this decree, any White European Protestant alien who had been living in any of the thirteen colonies for seven years without being absent from that colony for more than two months, was deemed to be a natural-born citizen of the United Kingdom.

The Plantation Act of 1740 was a direct response to the September 1739 Stono River Slave Rebellion in South Carolina. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave insurrection in British North America that culminated in the deaths of 25 colonists and about 50 Africans. It was led by an Angolan known as Jemmy and a band of about twenty slaves, who broke into a store, armed themselves and demanded their freedom. They marshalled a group of 60 slaves in an attempt to reach St Augustine in Florida, where the Spanish guaranteed freedom and land to any fugitive slave. The rebellion was crushed at Edisto River, 80 kms away from where the rebellion had started.

The 1740 law criminalised the Black experience itself, restricting the right of free movement, the right to free assembly, and the right to be educated or to earn money. These punitive and discriminatory laws created by men who claimed to be good Christians, legislated the right of plantations owners to even kill rebellious slaves.

Most colonialists considered themselves British until the year 1776 when resentment began to fester among the settlers. Frustrated by taxation and a lack of representation in the British Parliament, these new Americans declared war on their own government demanding independence.

That same year, the British-born political activist, pamphleteer and immigrant to the colonies, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he argued the case for a new “America”.

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”

The American War of Independence was fought from 1776 to 1783.  Seven years later, the Naturalization Act of 1790, the first naturalization law of the new republic legislating who could be granted United States citizenship, was passed into law.

All Free White Persons of “good character” who had been residing in the United States for two years or longer could apply for US citizenship.  In effect, the law’s use of the phrase, “free white person” excluded blacks and immigrants of other races from being eligible for citizenship, and most importantly, for protection under the laws of the court.

As a child I had drank the Kool-Aid and believed that it was peaceful cooperation between the pilgrims and the native Indians that had established the widely practiced Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

I recall summers spent playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers. We took turns at who got to play the Indian. I felt no shame striking the Indians down with my rifle. They were always the bad guys, raiding the poor settlers’ forts, attacking their caravans. But I was baffled by the contradictions. Why would the Indians save the pilgrims who were dying from the cold and hunger only to try to escape from them later? It just didn’t make much sense.

Then it came to me: the Native Americans were fighting to protect their land. We weren’t playing a game; what we were doing was re-enacting a massacre. Over five million Native Americans were killed before the West was conquered.

Regardless the age at which one arrives at truth and understanding, it is always disorienting and disheartening. I’ve found that whether one accepts it or not, the only thing we can be certain of in this world of uncertainty is change.

I spoke with many people after the first 2020 Presidential Debate between President Trump and the Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden that took place in the midst of heightened racial tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic. I got many mixed views regarding the outcome of the debate; some were shocked by the childish display while others dug in, taking sides and displaying party loyalty like it was a football game. Of the many reactions I got, one zoom call from home with my older brother really got me thinking.

“Can you believe that man?”

My older brother is now 60.

I had noticed him wiping his eyes.

I asked, “What ‘s wrong?”

At first he didn’t (want to) speak, he just kept brushing the tears away, then he began,

“Little brother, we grew up together,” he said.

“We pretty much had the same childhood, but I’ll tell you, I have never had any white person call me a nigger or spit on me like these guys up here in Philadelphia tell me they have. I have had White teachers down south who were some of the nicest people you’d want to meet. But, looking at that debate last night and the President of the United States refusing to denounce white supremacy as racist, I just never, you know, thought White people hated us that much.”

I empathised with him because I knew the pain of sacrifice, service, abandonment, rejection and betrayal.

I joined the US Military at seventeen to prove my allegiance to the ideals that made America great in my mind, but war in a foreign land far away from the ones I loved taught me the truth about service and the value of my life.

My brother and I grew up five years apart in a changing post-civil rights America. We were kids of the Kool-Aid generation, the first of our kind. We had opportunities our parents could only have dreamt of. We were the hope of a brighter future, a brighter America. A post-civil rights America.

In the 1960s, the far right party was a party bent on preserving the privileges of natural-born Whites in America, Jim Crow’s America. However, during the 1960s a new consciousness emerged as young White Americans took to the streets to say that they had seen the attack dogs set on peaceful protesters and wanted a better America. In January 1961, a young President-elect  of Irish descent and a wealthy practicing Catholic would become the embodiment of the American dream and challenge the good American Christians to look into their hearts and minds and begin anew to create a better nation where the rights of every American, White and non-White, were protected under the laws of the land.

With a rousing inauguration day speech, JFK inspired Americans to think better of themselves, to think higher of themselves: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” He had spoken and the people spoke back. My parents gave me his middle name because they believed life for Blacks in America would be different.

But, in November of 1963, the 46-year-old president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gunned down by a lone gunmen while out in Texas promoting his ideas of equality to the American people.

This is America

My brother was crying because it was hard for him to accept people could be so calculating and one so naive. He, like so many others, wanted badly to believe in a land blessed by God.

I was twelve years old when my big brother left home. He moved up north straight out of high school, where he built a career and retired as a professional chef.  He found love, family and set up a home up north. But in the Trump years, the scales fell from his eyes.

“I never had a racist moment down south, not like the kind of racist moments these guys tell me they’ve encountered here in Philly. I mean I just never believed White people hated us that much.”

I knew the anguish, the shock.  We Blacks down south don’t complain, we see but at the same time we’ve learnt not to see.

My grandma in the village used to say, “You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People see what they want to see. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.”

But what you don’t do is stop living.

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Reflections

Gold and Gemstone Policy in Kenya: The Devil Is in the Detail

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining is decades-old but lack of knowledge and expertise, and limited support from the government have hampered the sector’s development.

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Gold and Gemstone Policy in KenyA: The Devil Is in the Detail
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The evergreen town of Kakamega is a picture of the hustle and bustle typical of any Kenyan town, with many hundreds of folks going about their daily business. But as you leave the town behind, the environment changes, a lush countryside of cultivated fields and densely planted trees giving no hint of the gold mining taking place in the nearby locality of Ikolomani.

Across the country, 432 miles to the southeast of Kakamega is the beautiful transit town of Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County which lies at the foothills of the Sagalla massif. But the much smaller town of Mwatate is the county capital, and the source of gemstones that Kenyans from other parts of the country know little about. Mwatate has rubies, red garnet, emeralds, moonstones, tsavorite, okenorite, and many more.

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining has been going on for decades in both Kakamega and Taita Taveta counties, undertaken mainly by local artisanal miners and by a few non-locals and foreign nationals.

The Mining Act 2016 recognises three levels of mining rights: artisanal mining permits, small-scale mining permits and large-scale mining licences. The small-scale permits and large-scale mining licences are issued at the national level through the Kenya Mineral Rights Board (MRB), while the artisanal mining permits are issued through the county artisanal mining committees. The Mineral Rights Board and the county Artisanal Mining Committees are administratively governed by the State Department of Mining under the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining. The Director of Mines and his representatives in the various counties are in charge of overseeing the implementation of the ministry’s policy frameworks. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining has key mining regulations in place to govern this process.

But even though the Mineral Rights Board is in place, the process of setting up the county Artisanal Mining Committees (AMCs) has been long drawn out and there seems to be no hurry to implement the mining regulations that were commissioned in 2017. Kakamega County’s AMC was gazetted on 27 March 2020 and the team commissioned on 20 July 2020. However, the AMC has yet to begin its work as the key governmental mechanisms necessary to run the committee are still pending and so no mining permits have been issued to artisanal miners in Kakamega County since the gazettement.

Artisanal miners in Taita Taveta County are in a different situation altogether. The list of members of the county AMC constituted through their appointing authorities has been forwarded to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining but the AMC has yet to be gazetted. When contacted on this issue, one of the reasons cited by the ministry officials was that factions within the mining fraternity have disputed the list of people proposed to be part of the AMC.

Applications for small-scale mining permits are submitted to the Mineral Rights Board through the Mining Cadastre Portal. The platform is meant to bring these services close to the miners but they complain of the slow response from the Ministry of Mining. They must travel to the ministry to submit the paperwork even after uploading it onto the portal. Access to a stable internet connection is also a challenge in the remote areas of Taita Taveta and Kakamega while some of the small-scale miners lack the capacity to use the online system. Most have to travel to the Ministry’s offices for assistance or else hire someone with the skills to undertake the work for them, rendering the application process both tedious and time-consuming.

The ministry has not undertaken any capacity building and shows a lack of commitment to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The biggest hindrance, however, is the low budgetary allocation made to the Ministry of Mining, which leaves the staff with limited options in their efforts to serve small-scale miners.

The stated goal of the Mining Cadastre Portal is “to provide an electronic platform for all stakeholders in the mining sector in Kenya to engage directly with the Ministry of Mining.” Existing mineral rights holders (those with mining permits and licenses for mining) or those with pending applications can download, complete and upload the requisite documents. Prospective mineral rights holders can also submit their particulars and other supporting documents through the portal.

The portal is also a one-stop shop for information on mining activities in Kenya. It has a cadastre map of the key areas with mineral resources, as well as details of licence holders, and on-going applications; a click on any part of the map automatically displays the existing information about that specific geographical location.

For artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) in Kakamega and Taita Taveta, the portal has had a significant impact on access to public information on mining in Kenya. But the portal also has its limitations. Mining is a highly skilled sector that requires high levels of expert knowledge. Some of the requirements on the portal are beyond the scope of knowledge of most gold and gemstone miners in Kakamega and Taita Taveta. For instance, the portal requires a miner to take the coordinates of the area for which they are applying for a permit. This requires equipment that is typically used by geologists and land surveyors and that is expensive to hire or purchase. A sketch of the area or locality where the miner intends to undertake extraction is another requirement, a very sophisticated process that miners in general cannot undertake on their own.

Lack of knowledge and expertise coupled with lack of access to the internet, or even computers, therefore leaves the small-scale gold and gemstone miners unable to fully exploit the portal.

Aside from these limitations, however, the Kenya Mining Cadastre Portal has been a game changer when it comes to eliminating brokers from the mining sector and it has proven to be a more efficient system than the manual issuing of permits and licences

For instance, unlike the manual system that had no clear guidelines regarding payments, all fees due to the ministry are clearly indicated on the portal and paid directly to the ministry through a cashless system. Moreover, as the portal has centralised all the country’s mining information, cases of loss or manipulation of files or documents have reduced significantly.

The gold and gemstones that are mined in Kakamega and Taita Taveta are exported out of the country with or without any value addition under the provisions of the Mining Act of 2016 which require an export permit from the Cabinet Secretary the application for which is made on the Mining Cadastre Portal.

But while the law on the issuance of mineral export permits is sufficiently detailed, its implementation is the biggest challenge and I have no doubt at all that gold and gemstones are imported into and exported out of Kenya without any form of declaration. There are many routes along the porous Kenyan boarders through which the minerals can slip in or out of the country.

For instance, most of the gold that is mined in Kakamega is taken to Uganda by road undeclared. How can this be remedied, especially for gold and gemstone miners who want to run a clean business? Also, the process of implementing the gold refinery centre in Kakamega and the gemstone value addition centre in Voi remains pending. If the sector is streamlined, then the issue of traceability of gold and gemstones will be resolved and the mineral export licence will be of value to the artisanal and small-scale miners in the sector.

The article is done with support from Diakonia Kenya Country Office under the Madini Yetu Wajibu Wetu (Our Minerals, Our Responsibility) Project. Views expressed in the article are those of the author.

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