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Democracy Unleashed

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Democracy Unleashed
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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

Easter in the Holy Land, and Tracing The Modern ‘Way of The Cross’ in Palestine

Many Palestinians refer to our 70-year experience of living under Israeli occupation and the suffering we endure as “walking the Via Dolorosa” or the Way of the Cross.The stations of suffering that are visited include: checkpoints, permits, refugee camps, blockade, home demolitions, detention without trial, and bombing.

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Easter in the Holy Land, and Tracing The Modern ‘Way of The Cross’ in Palestine
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For Christians in the Holy Land, Easter is the most important of the Christian holy days. In fact, Palestinians refer to it as al-Eid al-Kabir (the Big Feast) while Christmas is known as al-Eid al-Saghir (the Little Feast).

The Saturday before Easter Sunday is the climax of the Holy Week in occupied Palestine. Sabt Al-Nur (Saturday of Light) is an Orthodox tradition that marks the end of the Easter fast. Tradition holds that every year on the Saturday prior to Easter, a flame arises from the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The miracle of the flame is celebrated by lighting candles from this flame in Jerusalem and carrying it from one town and village to another in Palestine.

Although Sabt al-Nur is an Orthodox tradition, Christians of all denominations have attended the ceremony in Jerusalem for generations, in what has always been a major community event for Christians in Palestine.

But last year, only a few hundred Palestinians made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. Most Palestinian Christians have never seen the miraculous flame – not because we don’t care about the tradition – but because Israel restricts us, especially our young people, from entering Jerusalem. Jerusalem: the sacred city of Christians all over the world; the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, the birthplace of Christianity itself, the site of its first churches.

As a little boy, I remember travelling to Jerusalem from our village of BeitSahour. BeitSahour is located just outside of Bethlehem, and is less than 15 km from Jerusalem. Yet it is a trip that took several hours due to the “no-man’s zone” imposed on us when Israel was created in 1948. This forced us to go through a route nearly three times longer than the normal way.

Now, I can no longer visit Jerusalem at all. I am a former political prisoner, and have been placed on an Israeli “security” list. The Israeli authorities will not grant me a permit to visit Jerusalem. My 35-year-old son has travelled widely and seen almost half the world, but he too is barred from Jerusalem.

Our story is not unique. Palestinians – indigenous to the Holy Land and who live a few kilometres away from Jerusalem – must beg for permission to visit, endure humiliating searches and pass through walls and checkpoints, while pilgrims from Germany, the United States or Peru can fly in for Easter.

For most Palestinians – whether Christian or Muslim – Jerusalem is the city we love the most and visit the least.

As an Easter “goodwill” gesture, Israel says it has issued approximately 10,000 permits to Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and 500 permits to Christians in the besieged Gaza Strip, where several thousand live. Is it really goodwill to force people to apply for permits to visit and worship in their most sacred city during their most sacred time? Is it goodwill to turn the sacred city into a military zone?

During Easter, barriers are set up in the early hours of the morning in the courtyard at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Its aim is to keep people out of the Church: a site central to Jesus’s death, crucifixion and resurrection.

Israeli army officers are present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre, as well as inside the Church itself and on its roof. These measures restrict freedom of movement for Palestinians, preventing Palestinian Christians from worshipping at the Church during this auspicious period. Even priests are not allowed to move freely. Is this what freedom of worship looks like?

Today, Palestinians feel that not only are our religious, cultural, and spiritual celebrations under attack but our whole existence as well. In fact, many Palestinians refer to our experience of living under Israeli occupation and the suffering we endure as “walking the Via Dolorosa” or the Way of the Cross.

However, this Way of the Cross is not confined to Easter week, but has been going for 70 years. The stations of suffering that are visited include: checkpoints, permits, refugee camps, blockade, home demolitions, detention without trial, and bombing.

Today, Palestinians are still walking the Way of the Cross, and anxiously awaiting the Day of Resurrection – the day the stone that blocks the tomb of occupation is rolled away.

The message of Easter and the Resurrection is that those liberated by God cannot be made slaves by anyone. But this is what is exactly what is happening today in occupied Palestine. Israel is asking the Palestinian people to let their freedom die, so that the Israeli people can live.

In the Holy Land – the land of the Resurrection – we see one group of people committed to security, justice and peace for themselves, only that is built on injustice and occupation for another set of people. We see one human being living at the expense of another human being. Christians believe Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to give life for all, to enable everyone to triumph over death. His resurrection gave life, justice and peace for oneself; their people; and all the peoples of the earth.

Freedom for one group cannot come through the oppression of another.

Israeli security and peace cannot be built at the expense of Palestinian security, dignity and peace. The occupation of Palestinian life must end, so that both Israelis and Palestinians may live as equal human beings.

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Reflections

Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised

Re-reading the passion narrative of Jesus allows us to be suspicious of how criminality is constructed today. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
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“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” ~James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

How important is the cause of Jesus’ death for our celebration of Easter this weekend? Those familiar with the Easter story may find the question of the utmost importance. They may even explain the cause along the lines that “Jesus died for our sins.” But it is much more complicated than that.

Theologians through the ages have grappled with this central question of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul argued that Jesus’ death led to reconciliation between divinity and humanity, while Origen of Alexandria, a third-century scholar, believed that Jesus was a ransom payment for Satan. The most common theory we might be familiar with today was articulated by Anselm, a twelfth-century theologian and philosopher. Anselm’s view of Jesus was that of substitutionary atonement, where God is depicted akin to a feudal lord whose honour had been offended by the sins of humanity. Christ then acts as a stand-in for humanity, suffering crucifixion for human sin and satisfying God’s just wrath against humankind’s transgression due to Christ’s blamelessness.

In their interpretations, these theologians are less concerned with the finer details of the historical circumstances that led Jesus to Calvary, as reported by the gospel writers. This is not to say that they are not interested in history, because the death of Jesus is a material fact that grounds its subsequent spiritual and allegorical interpretations.

The gospel writers more directly describe accounts of concrete reasons why Jesus received a death sentence; why and how a Judean peasant is sentenced to lethal punishment by a Roman procurator. They present narratives of arrest, trials, sentencing, and execution in order to articulate the causes of Jesus’ death – and to underscore that he was innocent, unfairly tried, quickly sentenced, and disproportionately punished.

Jesus’ death is not the consequence of well-distributed justice. Instead, it is the lynching of a man who through rhetoric, coercion, and popular opinion was criminalised. Although the gospel accounts differ in many regards, one place in which they are consistent is that portray Jesus as innocent. Jesus is depicted in the gospel accounts as one who has not done anything that deserves death; however, the people determine his guiltiness independently of both his actions and the charges levied against him. The charges actually function rhetorically to portray Jesus as a criminal.

Luke’s gospel is particularly useful for seeing how Jesus is criminalised. Luke is clear in illustrating how Pilate finds no reason to charge Jesus; however, the accusations of the Jerusalem temple leadership inspire the people to seek Jesus’ crucifixion. The people deem Jesus guilty without any evidence.

I see parallels with contemporary discourses that employ similar rhetoric and criminalise certain groups in today’s society. Khalil G. Muhammad, in his seminal work The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America describes how criminal rhetoric and racial logic in America have gone hand in hand, to the point where statistics were manipulated to “prove” that African Americans were more prone to crime than their white counterparts. Muhammad’s work underscores the fact that criminality is not about committing crimes, but it is about systems of power. These systems create and perpetuate discourses that present people marked by status, class, gender, and race, as prone to and even guilty of crime prior to gathering evidence.

The same kind of rhetoric is at work in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. The text in Luke 23:1-25 suggest that the accusations against Jesus, and his subsequent sentencing to death, mark how Jesus is classed as a criminal and how he is thus punished, although the allegations are unfounded or at least deemed by Pilate to be inconsequential and certainly not worthy of death.

In the accounts, Jesus is accused of three offences.

Charge 1: Stirring up our people

In the gospel of Luke, the Jerusalem temple leadership – comprising the priests and teachers of the law – present Jesus as an outsider “stirring up our people”. He is not outside of Jewishness or Judean identities, but he is from the outside of the axis of power in Jerusalem. In their ‘charge sheet’ the temple leaders emphasise that Jesus began teaching in Galilee, another part of Judea on the other side of Samaria. He began spreading his message amongst peasants, fishermen, and farmers in rural Galilee and had now brought his message all the way to the metropolis of Jerusalem. This implies that they consider Jesus either an outside agitator for Jews in Jerusalem, or an insider disrupting technologies of the temple leadership’s power from within.

The gospels all agree that Jesus was teaching in the temple publically during the busiest festival of the Jewish calendar. There would have been extra Roman police surveillance, which the presence of Pilate in the city epitomises. Therefore, Jesus’s broadcasting of “outsider” ideas would be dangerous, especially if those ideas appeared antagonistic to the power of the temple leadership or to Rome. The temple leaders’ arguments here could sound like a “Make Judea Great Again” campaign that needed scapegoats to legitimise the power of the elite and to quell any challenges to their power.

This charge of stirring up the people that the temple leadership raised against Jesus to Pilate does not explain how he stirred up the people and what he stirred them up for, but the connection of this charge to insurrection could depict Jesus as a threat that needed to be neutralised. Hence, when Jesus asks at his arrest, “Why do you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit (insurrectionist)?” he identifies that he is being criminalised as the type of troublemaker that the ancient imaginaire would anticipate to receive crucifixion for seditious activity.

Charge 2: Forbidding people to pay taxes

The Jerusalem temple leadership accused Jesus of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar. This at best is an overstatement, because the people did not actually pay taxes directly to Caesar. In Roman-controlled Judea, peasants were not only employed to work on land that they could never own, they were also taxed. This taxation went to the ruling aristocracy (for whom they worked) who in turn paid taxes to Rome and were thus considered a part of the extended Roman imperial family. The taxation, tax collectors, and tax recipients were hated by the underclass.

The relationship between the peasant class and the ruling priestly class explains why the temple leadership, and particularly the priests, would see this charge against Jesus as particularly insidious. The priests, appointed by the Roman procurator, were given a measure of autonomy to run Jerusalem on behalf of the Romans. They were in effect the brokers of the fiduciary relationship between Rome and Judea – like homeguards or paramount chiefs in the African colonial context – and this arrangement during this time was particularly successful for the ruling elite. Pilate had an uncharacteristically stable relationship with the Jerusalem priests and did not have to exchange the high priests as frequently as his predecessor or successor. This relative stability was desirable in Judea in particular, an area that was prone to turbulence and tense relationships with the Romans. Forbidding people to pay taxes would jeopardise this proximate tranquility, which impacted the priests’ economic and political position as well as the people’s safety from Roman aggression.

Charge 3: Claiming to be a Messiah king

The last charge that the Jerusalem temple leadership raise against Jesus is that he says that he is a Messiah king. This charge is important, because it is the only one that Pilate asks Jesus about. This charge most clearly demonstrates the appeal to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist. Both messiah and king are politically loaded terms in the Roman imperial context, and for one to claim either was often linked with being an insurrectionist. The majority of the times this term is used it is in reference to a criminal involved in seditious activity.

Messianism was rampant in first century Judea. The historian Josephus acknowledges a number of figures that considered themselves to be messiahs, who felt they were anointed to bring back the Kingdom of David, or to reestablish Judean independence as had been the Hasmonean period. The activism of many of these messiahs earned them the death penalty on the cross. Even the book of Acts notes how some figures “claimed to be somebody” and had led many people in ineffective movements.

Pilate does not ask about the messiah part of the charge, instead he focuses, as he should, on the charge about Jesus claiming kingship. This charge is both laughable and serious. It is laughable that a Galilean peasant’s claim to regal authority would be taken seriously and given due process by a Roman procurator. It is a serious charge though, because this charge would claim that Jesus is pitting the “basileia tou Iēsou/Theou”- kingdom of Jesus/God against the “basileia tēs Roma” – the Roman Empire. If that was the case, then regardless of status the individual would be guilty of treason and that was a crime punishable by death, even for citizens. With this charge, the Jerusalem temple leadership is seeking the highest penalty that they can for Jesus by portraying him as the most abominable of criminals.

The Sentencing

The gospel of Luke never presents any Roman or Jewish official as deeming Jesus worthy of death until the moment that Jerusalem temple leadership and people exclaim, “Crucify him!” This even shocks Pilate, because he had not found him guilty of any of the charges. But the rhetoric of the elders, priests, and scholars had prevailed, because when Jesus returns from being interrogated by Herod, the gospel writer Luke adds that Pilate addresses not only the Jerusalem temple leadership but the people as well. They unanimously ask for Barabbas’ freedom and Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the account, Barabbas is an insurrectionist who has committed murder and the people prefer him over Jesus. This suggests that the crowd views Jesus as more of threat or more hated than a murderer. This disdain for Jesus from Luke’s narrative is unwarranted and unfounded. However, Jesus is categorically placed beside an insurrectionist and is determined guilty by the people. It is not clear what he is guilty of but it is safe to assume that the people presume that he is more deserving of punishment than one who committed murder and insurrection.

The same rhetorical technique is used when we contrast Jesus with the two criminals who are also crucified that day. One of the criminals suggests that these two have done something worthy of such a heinous death. Although such a speech is unlikely, it rhetorically serves the purpose of illustrating the type of criminal that Jesus is portrayed as. This exposes the vicious nature of criminality, because it legitimates and justifies lethal state power.

Jesus is classed with people who are considered to deserve such a despicable form of punishment. He shares their criminality, because the judiciary process landed them all with the same sentence. Another way to read this portion of the narrative is that if the criminals’ guiltiness is brought about by the same means by which Jesus is criminalised, Jesus’ crucifixion with them could potentially allude to the criminals also being innocent, despite their execution.

This is not justice.

Pilate would have certainly been concerned about suppressing any attempt to supplant Roman power. However, his non-guilty verdict, and its multiple attestations of this across the gospels, is noteworthy. Pilate says that he did not find Jesus guilty of anything worthy of a death sentence, which is not the same as saying that he did not find him guilty of anything. And Pilate’s suggestion to have Jesus flogged exposes how Jesus’ body is marked and understood.

Flogging was reserved for the lowest status of person. It means that Pilate’s suggestion is still humiliation, and recognition that Jesus’ status suggests that he is guilty of some crime even if there is no evidence, and even if the charges brought forth are unfounded. After engaging with the judicial system at this level, Jesus could not go free without being taught a lesson. That is why the word for flog here is so interesting, because it can also mean “to teach.” Pilate’s mercy punishment is framed as diminutive and educative. It serves to remind Jesus and others who were like him of their status in regards to Rome. Nonetheless, Pilate does not get to follow that course of action and is instead prompted by the crowd to sentence Jesus to die on a cross.

Although Pilate issues the sentence, it is the people who make the judgment. The mass of people described in the text is not an unreasoning horde of people, but is part lynch mob and part democratic assembly. They judge what prisoner is let free, even though Pilate does not offer to let one go. They judge that Jesus should be crucified, even though Pilate suggests a milder punishment. By the time the people speak in the narrative, it is clear that the facts of the case are irrelevant and that the people have made a decision. The Jerusalem temple leadership’s role, then, was not to convince Pilate that Jesus deserved death, but it was to convince the people at the praetorium in the presence of Pilate. This is not without historical precedence that public opinion influenced Roman officials’ distribution of justice, especially if the stability of city depended on the people’s response to a verdict. In effect, Jesus is sentenced to death by a state-sanctioned lynch mob.

In the end, I am not convinced that Jesus deserved to die. I see him as caught up in a system that veils its logic of criminality by justifying imprisonment, torture, and execution as legal necessities for the good of society. But this does not critically reflect on how people who may receive the punishments of criminals may not necessarily be lawbreakers or crime committers. If one is classed as a criminal, then one’s body is perpetually in danger of arrest and punishment.

Criminality, therefore, is not about crime. Some scholars suggest that the Roman government would not have been concerned with a Judean peasant unless he had posed some type of serious threat, but that logic assumes that imperial governments are always guided by logic, compassion, and justice.

We can look at our own contemporary (in)justice systems and recognise that that is not always, and for some people it is never, the case. Most justification for criminal rhetoric tends to side with those in power, with the voices that benefit from criminalising lower classes. Then, their criminal status is used as the basis for their continued legal and social oppression.

So, re-reading narratives like the passion accounts of Jesus in light of that observation allows us to be suspicious of how criminals, even today, are constructed by the powerful to maintain oppressors’ authority and distinct identity.

But the passion accounts don’t end there. They end with the resurrection, where the God of Jesus does not allow people falsely imprisoned and criminalised to remain there. This God follows his people through prisons built by criminalised logic and even beyond the grave, guiding them to liberation and resurrection. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

And if I could just preach for a moment, I would quote Cone again when he says, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” This recognition illustrates how the strange fruit of the prison industrial system is linked to the strange fruit hung on southern U.S. trees, which must be linked to the strange fruit Romans hung on the cross at Golgotha. May we strive to not find ourselves like the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who declares too late, “Surely this was an innocent person.”

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Reflections

We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

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We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
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7th August 1998.

Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.

At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.

A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.

Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.

My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.

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Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.

On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.

Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)

Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,

Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)

In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.

In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.

*********

I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.

My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”

I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.

After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.

I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.

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4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.

4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”

4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.

4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.

4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.

On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.

As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.

*******

Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”

Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.

The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.

The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.

We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.

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