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Democracy Unleashed

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Democracy Unleashed

My friend “Derrick” has reason to be very concerned, scared even. He is a single father to three mixed race children of mixed ethnicity. And he is a Luo living in Pangani, a working-class suburb of Nairobi that borders some of the most expensive real estate in Africa. It should not matter that he is Luo or that he lives in Pangani – his home for over 6 years. But it does.

We have been friends since childhood and have a lot more history than I do with most of my blood relations. We chat on Whatsapp almost every day. We talk about anything and everything. Single parenting can get very lonely. Tonight, it is more than lonely.

Thursday 19:54 WhatsApp

[Derrick] “Have you heard anything?”

The elections are in two weeks and he is surrounded by Kikuyus, members of an ethnic group supporting a party other than that predominantly supported by many of his community. He is concerned.

Violence is not new to Derrick. He was once confronted and accused of kidnapping by a rowdy mob of young men and matatu touts in downtown Nairobi. His offense was walking with three very young, clearly mixed race boys – his sons.

I have not heard anything. We chat about politics a little then go onto more pressing stuff. Teenage boys, what to do about slipping school grades, an idea for a show, the hustle of dating. We sign off.

Sunday 20:19 Whatsapp

[Derrick] “What do you know that I may need to know?”

[Me] “???” “Like?”

[Derrick] “I feel like a sitting duck, I told u…” (sic)

Violence is not new to Derrick. He was once confronted and accused of kidnapping by a rowdy mob of young men and matatu touts in downtown Nairobi. His offense was walking with three very young, clearly mixed race boys – his sons. The mob screamed at him, shoving and kicking him. They called him Deya [after the infamous Kenyan self-styled “miracle babies” pastor]. It took the intervention of his three terrified boys who, when dragged a little distance away from him as he was held down, confirmed that he is indeed their dad, despite their “light skin”, more chiseled facial features and the fact that one of his boys carries a Kikuyu name.

If you are mixed, whether ethnic or race, you are impure, belong to no one and, therefore a justifiable target for attack by everyone.

In 2008, he had “shipped” his wife and children to the City of Peace, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Their twin income could afford them the trip then. She was alive then. Today, he is a single father of three, scared in the run up to what should be a peaceful election. Already, the threats have begun.

I ask my sources. They reassure me. There will be no chaos. Government has put in place, measures to ensure a swift crackdown if there are pockets of violence. The intelligence service is on the case. Be easy. We are safe. I pass the message to him.

Monday 16:32

[Derrick] “Chic, is there anything you know that you are not telling me?”

[Me] “No. Honestly.”

[Derrick] “If there was, would you tell me?”

I don’t know what to say. I have never thought he would even think that I would ever put him or the kids in danger. We are blood. Aren’t we?

It is this kind of suspicion and mistrust that the systematic promotion of tribalism in Kenya does. It pervades even the most innocent of friendships and corrupts them. It forces people to relate with each other with suspicion, then uses that same suspicion to justify the need to promote and preserve itself.

Do we ever ask, or care, about the effect of making 11-year olds, 15-year olds, choose a parent or disown another based on tribe? Who are we raising when young children are routinely separated from their families, friends and environment “until the election is over”?

The problem in the case of a parent with mixed ethnicity/race children is that they belong always to the “enemy”, the “weaker side”. When narrating the story of the Rwandan genocide, the highlight is very often on the millions of Tutsis killed by their Hutu neighbours. What is not often addressed is the number of Rwandans of mixed ethnicity who were killed by their relatives because they belonged to “the other side”. Derrick knows that his children are easy targets. And that his friends or neighbours could sell him out if chaos erupted. His question is not without context.

I have a riddle for you.

What is the difference between a tribal based campaign, apartheid’s so-called justification or the Nazi superior race argument? The answer is none.

The Nazis believed that they were entitled to expand territorially, that they were under threat from “inferior” races and they were divinely appointed. Proponents of apartheid believed in the superiority of their race, their divine right, the threat by the inferior races and the need for purity. The tribe argument… well, you can see the trend now.

If you are mixed, whether ethnic or race, you are impure, belong to no one and, therefore a justifiable target for attack by everyone. This is a problem particularly in urban Kenya where, increasingly, many children are born of mixed ethnicity and those who are not, very often do not know enough of their own mother tongue to be identified by language.

Tribalism. Nazism. Racism. They all play the same tune. The lyrics are simple. We are superior. They are inferior.

I tell Derrick to send his children away for the election period and go spend the week in a safer neighbourhood. It is more prudent to separate him from them. He, their own father, is a liability because of his physical features. Sound familiar? Trevor Noah, the famous South African comedian, often had to walk across the street from his own father, and pretend that his mother was his nanny just so they would not get into trouble for having birthed him during the apartheid era.

Do we ever ask, or care, about the effect of making 11-year olds, 15-year olds, choose a parent or disown another based on tribe? Who are we raising when young children are routinely separated from their families, friends and environment “until the election is over”?

Or do we not care? Does it not matter?

The tribal card is deliberately played up by political manipulators at election time, to shore up their feudal egos with no regard to the consequences. When one national leader calls for the expulsion of “foreigners” -people not of a particular tribe- from an area; when another, also a national leader speaks exclusively in a language understood only by the ethnic group from which he comes; they are deliberately playing up the tribal sentiments and creating well calculated tension. Their “tribesmen” are not “their people”. They are their vassals – available for use, abuse and if need be, disposal, as they watch and pronounce utterances from their gilded castles behind armies of bodyguards deployed to ensure their own safety.

Tribalism. Nazism. Racism. They all play the same tune. The lyrics are simple. We are superior. They are inferior.

“They are the villains. We are the victims.” [Insert historical distortions here. Remember when “they” stoned our president? Remember how “they” stole our presidency?]

“It is God’s Will. He chose us to lead.” [Insert scoff here. Only a god who does not know the pain of birth, or the sacrifice of rearing an offspring can afford to play favourites.]

They will overrun us if we do not put in place measures to save ourselves from them.” [Insert appropriate call to arms under the guise of “safeguarding democracy”. Remember 2008? No Raila, no rail! Uthamaki ni witu! And suchlike. Be sure to dish out money “ya kutoa panga kwa nyumba” (to bring the machete out of the house)]

And the chorus?

Altogether now regardless of political divide,

“It’s us or them. There is no room for both. Our time has come. God is on our side.”

There is no room for logic then. It is all about survival. No one remembers that we have coexisted for eons, or that tribe as a negative, is a construct by those who were once a common enemy to both.

Once the lords get what they want, they will remind their vassals that the vassals once lived together in harmony. That violence solves nothing. That Kenya is a peace-loving island in a sea of unrest.

The political overlords are happy. Their troops are ready. And those who are hesitant either flee to safer areas or arm themselves in anticipation that they may have to “retaliate in self defence”.

Once the lords get what they want, they will remind their vassals that the vassals once lived together in harmony. That violence solves nothing. That Kenya is a peace-loving island in a sea of unrest. They will point to Somalia and South Sudan as they wave from large wooden dais draped in blood-red coloured carpets. The vassals must now live cheek by jowl. Forgive. Forget. Bible and Koran quoted in equal measure as piety replaces provocative pronouncements. Live and let live to both rapists and raped. Murderers and the families of those murdered. The children, the “future generations” in whose name the “aluta” must “continua”, the children watch and learn that elections mean separation, hate, rape and death.

At a mid-morning meeting in May 2017, a 23 year old journalist scoffed at me when I asked her where she was going to vote.

“Me? Vote? You are so funny!” she said, laughing in bemusement.

“Why?” I asked.

She laughed again, a little sadder, shaking her head.

“In 2008, I had just finished Standard 8. One night when the violence broke out in our area, the farmer next door brought a tractor and trailer to our house at night. Mum told us to lie down on the floor of the trailer. They put planks of wood supported by building blocks on top of us then piled the trailer high with hay. We slept there the whole night. The next morning, our neighbour set off with the truck. Along the way, he kept getting stopped. The guys were asking the farmer, “What is in the trailer?’ as they stabbed the hay with spears and pangas. “Nyasi ya ng’ombe tu [only some hay for the cows]”, he would reply. One group of young men threatened to set the hay on fire, convinced he was smuggling people. He responded angrily in the local language and they walked away, voices fading out of earshot. When he finally brought us to a safe town he waited until night and pulled us from under the hay by our feet then told my mum to run. We never went back home. Till today, I have never even gone back to visit. I never went to my high school of choice. Even though my elder sister had finished her school there. It is in an area where we would have been killed if 2008 happened again. I will never, ever, ever, vote. To vote is to choose sides and no matter which side you choose, someone has to die or be displaced or be raped.”

“I will never, ever, ever, vote. To vote is to choose sides and no matter which side you choose, someone has to die or be displaced or be raped.”

Unsurprisingly, millennials, young people who experienced the horrific events of 2008 as teenagers, are increasingly choosing not to vote. They are referred to as “lazy, spoilt, selfish”. It is easier than hearing their stories and healing their wounds.

A week after the election, a colleague, “Owino”, resident of Kangemi, calls me on Whatsapp in the middle of the night. I pick the call. He does not say a thing. He just holds the phone to his window. I hear the screams that tear into the night and rip my heart. Then he hangs up and texts that he is fine. It is “his guys” “peacefully demonstrating” tonight. It’s “the other guys” in trouble. “Our guys”.

The overlords sleep on, undisturbed. Tomorrow, they will call for more peace. More demonstrations. But tonight, well, tonight, democracy expresses itself in bludgeoned babies and gang rapes.

“F@#k Government!!” translates to “Drag young men and women from their homes, sodomize, rape and assault them!”.

“Let peace prevail” is buried in the pieces of shattered skulls and torn flesh in children too young to spell the word “democracy”.

Democracy. The will of the people, By the people, To the People, For The People.

Democracy. I win. You lose.

Democracy. Majority rules. Or is it, muscle rules.

Democracy. Power by the powerful. “Pole sana” to the weak.

Democracy. A struggle in which the common people function more like pawns rather than any kind of sovereign authority.[i]

Democracy: a concept attributed to Greek era men with arms or power jostling for position.

Maybe, to paraphrase Hadeel Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, when she spoke at the Women Advancing Africa Conference in Dar Es Salaam, maybe we need to dream a new dream. A dream where everyone wins. A dream where a few men with power and arms do not “democratize” the rest.

Maybe, to paraphrase Hadeel Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, when she spoke at the Women Advancing Africa Conference in Dar Es Salaam, maybe we need to dream a new dream. A dream where everyone wins. A dream where a few men with power and arms do not “democratize” the rest.

Maybe it is time for us to emancipate ourselves from Greek history. Maybe it is time to create a new form of leadership called Inclusivity. Where every voice counts and leadership is more than democratic.

Until then, democracy will be raped into more men and women, shot into more children and crushed into more babies’ skulls.

Wikipedia referencing [i]Bailkey, 1967, pp. 1211-1236

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Renee Ngamau is a Capital FM presenter and a Life and Business Strategist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Hatred and Self Loathing: Naipaul’s colonial shame

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Hatred and Self Loathing: Naipaul’s colonial shame
Photo: Faizul Latif Chowdhury

In his memoir, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, published in 2007, V.S. Naipaul, who died last month at the age of 85, described the suffocation of being born and raised on a small Caribbean island that was racially divided. He writes of living in a place where “the living half-cultures or quarter-cultures of colonial Europe and immigrant Asia knew almost nothing of one another” and where “a transported Africa was the presence all around us, like the sea”. This sense of being trapped on an island with other races with vastly different cultures partly explains what led the young Naipaul to leave Trinidad for good and make a home in another much bigger island nation, England.

But adopting England and Englishness did not obliterate the writer’s inner conflicts about his identity. Being a Trinidadian Indian had left the young writer with a deep sense of inferiority, a kind of “colonial shame” that would define much of his writing in later years. Naipaul, whose Indian grandparents came to the Caribbean as indentured plantation labourers in the late 1800s, was ambivalent both about his birthplace Trinidad and his Indian roots. Both identities were the source of a lot of pain and shame. His grandparents had been slaves; and while they were not chained or beaten or forced to work for free like African slaves, they were made to feel inferior.

Interestingly, unlike many post-colonial writers whose writing is informed by their traumatic colonial experiences, and who actively seek to distance themselves from stereotypical colonial narratives of colonised people, Naipaul reinforced the thoughts and perceptions of the British colonialist. You could say that he was the Charles Njonjo of post-colonial literature – deeply contemptuous of his own people and forever looking towards Britain.

There are two ways in which colonised people who have been transplanted – either forcibly or voluntarily – in foreign lands cope with their new surroundings. They either retreat into themselves by becoming inward-looking or clannish (thereby reasserting an identity that they feel has been damaged or diminished by colonialism) or by underplaying or obliterating their own identity and emulating the identity of the coloniser. Both coping mechanisms are symptoms of a deep inferiority complex that even post-colonial states have to this day been unable to erase. The Western world is only too happy to indulge both types of people – either by exocitising them or co-opting them.

In a post-colonial world, co-option becomes a necessary tool to silence the former colonisers’ most vocal critics. This explains why after rebuking the Western media for infantilising and stereotyping Africans, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who wrote the satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” (which went viral), was courted by the same Western media and for a while became the darling of the English-speaking literary crowd. Many such authors end up living in the very West they so condemn in their writings, our very own Ngugi wa Thiong’o being among them. Writers, especially from Asia and Africa, in trying to be aggressively and consciously post-colonial – or deliberately anti-colonial, as Ngugi was – still yearn to be anointed by the very West they claim to resist. Being nominated for the Caine, Booker or Nobel Prize is considered to be ultimate recognition that one has indeed been accepted into the white literary world.

The novels of the extremely talented Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose writing describes a middle class Nigeria where families throw garden parties and borrow books from public libraries, are also in a sense a call to the West to accept Africans as “normal” people with middle class desires and Western tastes. Both Adichie and Wainaina have gained acceptance in the white literary world that was used to reducing Africans to exotic savages or blood-thirsty guerrillas – “natives” who served as colourful backdrops to white “saviours”. But unlike Naipaul, whose contempt for his own people was apparent in much of his writing, these writers have no qualms about both accepting and celebrating their African identity and questioning white privilege.

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was, on the other hand, deeply conflicted about his Trinidadian and Indian identities. In An Area of Darkness (1964), he said this of his ancestral land: “India had not worked its magic on me. It remained the land of my childhood, an area of darkness…” Naipaul failed to connect the dots between colonialism and the state of former colonies like India, whose experiences of colonialism had stunted or distorted their development. In this sense, his books are apolitical. In most of his writings, he sought to distance himself from the so-called Third World. He was particularly contemptuous of India, which he described as having “no autonomous intellectual life”. In India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), he described the home of his ancestors as “a very strange land” with bizarre customs and rituals and where people were steeped in ignorance. Many Indians, he stated in his memoir, can’t wait to leave the subcontinent, “to shake India off, shake off what they see as the retarded native element in dhotis and caste-marks, temple-goers…bad at English”.

Needless to say, his books on India were not well received; Indian critics wondered how he could have traversed that huge and diverse country without once tasting or feeling its rich culture and ancient heritage. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, also looked down on Indian writers, who he claimed did not have a global vision and could only write about “their own families and their places of work”. He did not spare Indian readers either, who he called “hard and materialistic”, people who only discuss a writer when he or she has won a literary prize.

His books on the Muslim world were similarly criticised by Muslim authors who accused him of perpetuating stereotypes about their religion. Others accused him of being a racist. The late Chinua Achebe called Naipaul “a new purveyor of old comforting myths”. Which is not to say that Naipaul was not a prolific and talented writer. His huge body of work are a testament to his literary skills and relentless curiosity about the world. In a recent tribute to the author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o referred to Naipaul as a brilliant “writer’s writer”, one “who holds a mirror of imagination unto society to capture a certain view of reality”.

Naipaul was also deeply flawed as a human being. He had misogynistic tendencies. He viewed female writers as inferior. In a 2011 interview, he stated: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me because women have a narrow view of the world”. He once beat up a lover so badly that she was unable to appear in public for several days. He was also known to have constantly humiliated his first wife Patricia Hale. (Naipaul married three times; his third wife Nadira, who he stayed with him till his death, was raised in Mombasa.) Naipaul did not spare his friend the writer Paul Theroux either, with whom he fell out, and who ended up writing a diatribe against his mentor called Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

I first read V.S Naipaul when I was in my 20s. I remember being enthralled by A Bend in the River (1979) the story of an Indian trader who ends up in a remote African township in a region that has an eerie resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Through this book I got a glimpse of what life might have been like for the early dukawallahs who set up shop in Africa’s interior as Europeans set out to colonise the land. How did they cope in such harsh and alien environments?

But I couldn’t help thinking that Naipaul had very little respect for the sad but comical characters he created in many of his books. The opening line in A Bend in the River reflects the contempt he held for his main character: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” He condemned many of his characters for being Indian, for continuing to live small lives in Trinidad, for being unworldly or unsophisticated. One rarely found him getting into the skin of his characters to learn more about what made them tick. Many appeared like caricatures of “natives” etched by some bored colonial administrator’s wife in a tea estate in Assam. As Manan Kapoor commented in an article in The Wire on 12 August 2018:

“Naipaul only observed his subjects from a distance and often lacked self-awareness. In reality, he never touched his subjects with his bare hands, only with a stick, as if he was trying to poke them to generate a reaction which he surprisingly did. James A. Michener wrote, ‘If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home,’ and it stands true for Naipaul.”

Perhaps Naipaul will be remembered for having the courage to be politically incorrect at a time when it was politically incorrect to be so. But I am afraid this attitude was not the result of courage or conviction but a deep sense of self-loathing – a kind of “colonial shame” – that was evident in most of his writing.

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Reflections

No Excuses, Women’s Lives Matter

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No Excuses, Women’s Lives Matter

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

On September 5th, 2018, Sharon Otieno’s body was found dumped in a thicket near Kodera forest, Homa Bay county a few days after her abduction. Sharon was a student of Rongo University and was seven months pregnant when she was killed. The autopsy report gave a gruesome and horrifying picture of what she went through before her death – eight stab wounds, one directly to her belly that pierced the baby too.

A few weeks later, on September 21st, the body of Monica Kimani was found in her house, tied up and with a slit on her throat. I read this story just before a suspect was arrested for this murder, when not many people were talking about it, until it was emerged that the suspect was the fiancé of local TV presenter Jacque Maribe. The media, upon realizing this murder was connected to a local prominent person, finally gave it attention, changing the focus of the lens and centering it on Jacque and her fiancé, Joseph “Jowie” Irungu. The case has since had many twists and turns, a major one being on Monday 9th October when Jowie Irungu, the initial suspect and Jacque Maribe were arraigned in court for the murder of Monica.

In the days following Sharon Otieno’s death, as the details started to unravel, as it emerged that she had been in a relationship with Okoth Obado, governor of Migori county where she lived and studied, and where her body was found. Sharon was engaged with the governor in what many immediately labeled as a ‘sugar daddy’ or ‘blesser’ relationship. Pictures of Sharon were published, presented as evidence of the flashy lifestyle she was enjoying from her affair with the married governor. From radio stations to social media platforms, Kenyans had varied opinions about these types of relationships. Many statements were started with “Murder is wrong, but…” as people went on to list the evils of having sugar daddies and enjoying their financial support because in the end you will pay for it with your life. For many, including these prominent women, this was a cautionary tale in which women were supposed to learn that it’s their responsibility to avoid murderous men with money. Whether by coincidence or by design, it was at this time that the BBC released their 3 part documentary on sugar baby/blesser culture in Kenya, telling the stories of 3 women who are engaged in various forms of it. The documentary added another layer in the conversation, with even Al Jazeera holding a panel to discuss this.

In Monica’s case, when it was discovered that the main suspect was engaged to Jacque Maribe, a TV presenter, the story which hadn’t received much airplay before suddenly took center stage with Jacque being the leading act, while the murder became secondary, its importance only that it is connected to high profile people.

Whenever any of these high profile murders happen, the conversation, often guided by mainstream media shapes in the most sensationalist way. If a woman was with a man, then their relationship is suspect and her presence is scrutinized, often with the aim of pathologizing her and giving an excuse of her murder.

Just before the General Elections in 2017, IEBC ICT Manager Chris Msando was found murdered. In the footnote of this story, there is mention of a lady companion who was found a few metres from him. Her name was Carol Ngumbu. On the night of 17th June, 2011, university student Mercy Keino’s body was found on a highway in Nairobi after attending a party in which a former Kiambu Governor William Kabogo was present. In an inquest of her death, he and others were cleared of any wrongdoing that led to her death despite CCTV footage showing her struggling against two men and witnesses claiming that Kabogo had been physically violent towards her that night.

Less than a year after this, 26 year old Careen Chepchumba was found strangled at her apartment in Kilimani, Nairobi on February 2012. She is reported to have had an intimate relationship with former TV personality Louis Otieno. In an inquest of her murder, it was ruled that police bungled the investigations leaving gaps that made it hard for the court to convict anyone.

These are just a few of cases of murdered women who are connected to prominent men. When Sharon was murdered the conversation about sugar daddies reached peak volume, prompting even women politicians to caution girls from the perils of “wanting the easy life” by taking money from men. With Monica’s case, as details emerge giving rise to speculations about what really was Jacque’s involvement in the murder, people are now talking about the lengths women go for men often to their own detriment.

It is enraging to see that in Kenya this violence is treated like the next sensational story, with clickbait headlines and dramatic speculations for the sake of giving media houses clicks so that they can continue selling advertising. In addition to continuing misogynistic representation of women, using their connection to men to shame them even after being murdered, it creates the perception that women are murdered because of their behaviour or their lifestyles, when in reality women are murdered everywhere and by every type of man in all manner of situations.

It is clear that this country still refuses to reckon with its violence against women. The prevalence of intimate partner violence against women in Kenya matches the global statistics, about 40% of women have experienced IPV – this includes sexual and non-fatal physical violence. And when women are murdered by men. Women are killed by their husbands, sometimes together with their children; they’re killed by men they meet online; they’re also killed after a night out; And sometimes women are killed “mistakenly” by the state. This and many, many, other cases of different types of violence that women go through, underscore the gravity of the situation, and build an alarming pattern that should be scrutinized and elicit urgent action. Instead, this kind of violence is still seen as isolated incidents every time they happen.

It is encouraging to see that the cases of Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani were taken seriously, investigations were carried out quickly, and there have been arrests. This could be a sign that something has changed, but the speed with which Sharon and Monica’s murder has been investigated and suspects charged is the exception and not the rule in how seriously and urgently violence against women is taken in Kenya. This is evident in the way that despite the fact that murders of women continue unabated, as a Twitter user has tried to document in the last year, the media still steers the conversations on these murders with a focus on the famous people they’re attached to.

The safety of women has to be taken seriously and the media plays a crucial role in changing the way we trivialize violence against women. Murder is the escalated and final act of the various forms of violence women face in Kenya, around the country and through all socioeconomic classes. Many of the stories never make it to prime time news and end up being silent yet alarming statistics. Our focus should always and unrelentingly be rooted in the seriousness of the issue and in ways in which we can stop this. It is immoral to continue nurturing the environment that continues trivialize women’s lives, as if their existence is not valued or worth protecting.

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Reflections

Homo Nairobi Mobilae: Walking in the city as a young man

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Homo Nairobi Mobilae: Walking in the city as a young man
Photo: Rodgers Otieno on Unsplash

“Jamaa, si hukubali vitu nyingi sana sababu yaani society inatuforce tukubali.” – Nonini

Once, not long ago, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park. It was the end of Ramadan and there was a certain feeling in the air; The weather was crisp, the grass was green, and the ice cream sellers were happy. The Park was full, crowds of Muslims breathing in the celebration of the end of the fast. A group of young Muslim men were sitting on the grass, drinking soda, talking to each other, being. Two men approached them, leaning down to talk to them. Friends of theirs, also revelling in the joy of Eid al-Fitr, I thought. The man seated on the bench next to me corrected me. Kanjo, he offered.

I looked at him.

He continued. “Ona wamekuja wawili. Mmoja wa kuongea, mwingine wa support. Watauilizia ID. Lakini si ID wanataka.”

My face was blank.

The man, my bench buddy, spoke again. “Watu huweka ID wapi? Kwa wallet.”

Shit.

At that point I realized what he was saying. Rule Number One of being a young man in Nairobi: Don’t keep your ID where your money is. Because you don’t want to ever lose both at the same time. Of course, the shadow rule is, Don’t question this colonial mentality of having to walk around with identification documents. Kipande.

Another time, a friend and I are talking about running. This particular friend is an athletic type, obsessed with split times and running regimens and Eliud Kipchoge. He says, “Do you ever, when you are in the CBD, wish that you could run? Just put your bag on the shoulder and pound the pavement up Kimathi Street?” He smiles at the excitement of this thought. I wonder how that would look like, a male six-footer with long shaggy hair, dressed in shorts and sneakers and a hoodie, running up, or down, any street in Nairobi, with a bag on his shoulder. All that needs to happen is for someone, one person, to shout, and that’s the last time one ever runs in the city.

Rule Number Two of being a young man in Nairobi: Never, ever, ever, run in the city. It doesn’t matter how late you are, how much you need to meet Mr or Ms. So-and-So at what time, whether your cardiologist told you running will be good for your heart. To run as a young man on the streets of Nairobi is to confess to a crime, and to be a running criminal on the streets of Nairobi is to run for your life. Caveat: Even brisk walks are suspicious, unless performed while wearing a suit.

Yet another time I am walking in town, heading to meet a friend. It is a Sunday morning, and the streets are void of the usual weekday foot traffic. Walking past Koja Mosque, I walk past a group of police officers and they call me back.

“Kijana, uko na nini kwa bag?”

This is not the first time I have been stopped by police officers on the streets asking about my bag. “Ni vitabu tu.” I open my bag, or they open my bag, and indeed niko na vitabu tu kwa bag. When I was new to the city, I used to walk around with a laptop, or an iPad, or something. This is a rookie mistake of course, because any veteran of the streets of Nairobi will know not to walk with a laptop or an iPad or something in their bag, because doing that leads to another conversation. Kijana uko na nini kwa bag becomes kijana hizi umetoa wapi which becomes tutembee tuongee kidogo.

Another rule of navigating the streets of Nairobi as a young man: Expect that police officers will randomly, or not-so-randomly request for you to open your bag, and you will, despite any inclination to point out that the Constitution does not allow for such impromptu searches of one’s person, open your bag to be searched. Unless you are in a suit. A caveat: Pointing out that such impromptu searches are illegal is a moot point because, “Ati una rights? Me naona una wrongs.”

And so walking the streets of Nairobi becomes an exercise in navigating unspoken rules and nuances that no one ever warned you about. You discover that, suddenly, when you read about two young men, University of Nairobi students on their way to the HELB offices, were shot by the police at Globe roundabout. You realize that on another day, walking down Globe from Ngara that could have been you.

When you hear about young men shot dead by state machinery in Mathare, young men who look like you, and probably dress like you and sound like you, who but for the fate of class could be you, you sit and wonder whether that could have been you. And you decide, because you have the choice, that you will not venture into Mathare. When, some time after the elections, the governor of Nairobi announces a plan to weed out muggers from the city, you realize that, because of how the profiling system of the security machinery of the country works, because of your height and your build and your hair and how you dress, you are seen as a mugger. And so, as long as the security operation to weed out muggers from the city is ongoing, you wear a tie and official shoes and limit the occasions when you walk in the city. You take cabs more than you usually do, because you can. Your friends will comment on the sudden change on your fashion style, and you will say, vaguely, “Ni manguo ndio chafu. So ilibidi.”

Being a young man in Nairobi is the realization that you now have stories you can beat with your young male friends about how people like you were profiled in the city. A friend tells you that, because of his dreadlocks, when he walks down Moi Avenue or Tom Mboya Street or Ronald Ngala or any of the other alleyways and vichochoro that litter the city, cops accuse him of being a Mungiki.

Another friend talks about how he has spent time in the back of Rashid’s Probox. Yule yule Rashid wa vigilante pale Eastleigh. Another friend tells you, how when he was arrested for walking home, a crime also known as loitering, he stayed in the cells for the entire weekend because he didn’t have money on him. You will laugh at this story, at the ridiculousness of it all, because that is the only way to make light of these situations. You laugh, and make memes and share funny tweets and tell yourself, bora uhai. But then what happens when this profiling threatens your uhai?

And so you walk the city. Dusman Gozanga walked the city in Meja Mwangi’s The Cockroach Dance and you wonder how different the city’s moods are from the city you walk in. Down Moi Avenue, up Muindu Mbingu, across Ronald Ngala. You experience Nairobbery in the ways everyone does. You learn not to carry heavy bags. You discover that, when, at midnight you are walking from one of the numerous chips dens that litter the city, a street boy will warn you not to venture down a particular street because kuna makarao huko, you will trust this stranger more than the police officers who are supposed to ensure your safety. Utumishi kwa wote is not utumishi to you.

It is important to note, however, that profiling is an important tool in police work. Whenever a crime is committed, police officers will actively take part in both Be On The Lookout (BOLO) profiling and psychological profiling. BOLO profiling is the act of providing a specific description of the suspect of a crime based on eyewitness accounts. For instance, after a robbery, police officers may review CCTV footage and release the following description:

Suspect, a young man, was last seen running away, with brown bag on his back. He was wearing a green hoodie, a black pair of shorts and white sneakers. He has an afro and walks with a slight limp.

Thus, from this description, the police officers will be on the lookout for people who fit this description and seek to bring them in for questioning. On the other hand, because the police officers lack eyewitness accounts and have no idea how the suspect looks like, they will try to construct an image of the suspect from their behaviour during when committing the crime. For instance, if the robbery took place in a store with female employees, and the female employees were sexually assaulted, the conclusion might be that the primary suspect of the robbery is male.

Still, police work is not merely considered with solving crime; it is also concerned with crime prevention. Ergo, predictive profiling. According to Chameleon Associates, a security firm which trains security personnel in various areas of police work, their course in predictive profiling “provides security and law enforcement officers with the tools and skills to effectively assess threats in their operational environments. Trainees come out with the ability to articulate “gut feeling” into clear definitions of Suspicion Indicators and Adversary’s Methods of Operations allowing the organization to avoid liability issues and increase overall threat mitigation capabilities.” For example, a police officer may be aware that drug peddlers in Nairobi are usually young men who dress in loose-fitting hoodies, jackets and jeans, who walk around with bags, have shaggy hair, and walk down Ronald Ngala Street at three in the afternoon. Thus, the police officer will position himself on one end of Ronald Ngala Street and watch out for a young man who fits this description. In most countries, predictive profiling is not frowned upon. Rather, it is considered excellent police work. At the same time, in most countries, such impromptu stop-searches are only legal if the police officer has a search warrant, or they can prove probable cause. Trying telling this to Nairobi security officers. Kijana unaniongelesha ni ka wewe ni nyanyangu, nitakuingisha kwa Mariamu.

When the British colonial government was in power, one of the things that were criminalized was the act of Africans being poor. Thus, loitering and vagrancy became punishable offences as they indicated that the person in question lacked a fixed abode and was therefore a nuisance to the peace. Successive national and local governments inherited these laws and people were profiled on the basis of their class, where indicators of upper classness (the right clothes, the right English, working in an office, etc etc) became the desired while indicators of poverty (loitering, the shabbiness of one’s dressing, the wrong language, etc etc) became the undesirables. Into this reality of their poverty being a crime, young men from Mathare and Kibera and Kawangware and Dandora enter, unaware that their very being, their youngman-ness is a second, bigger crime. You could be unaware of the rules of existing in Nairobi, and you go about your business, and in the evening we hear reports of a young man, a suspected gangster, shot while fleeing arrest.

Still, I walk the city. Homo Nairobi Mobilae. Route 11. I walk the city because I am aware of the biggest rule of being a young man in Nairobi: Thou shall know your Englishes. I walk because, after the initial search in my bag, my English projects that I am not a danger, that despite my bag and my hair and my age and my complexion and my height, my English communicates that I belong in this world, that while I am guilty of being a young man on the streets on Nairobi, at least I am not a poor young man. And I think of the fresh stories I will have to beat to my friends, all the while asking, when I will ever stand up for myself against endless waves of profiling and kijana, uko na nini kwa bag?, When I will ever kataa hiyo, and what does standing up for myself, kukataa hiyo, looks like.

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