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Counting Silently/ Discretely: A Dirge

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August 13, 2017

SEVEN: Post, post-election. The bursting open of the vast abyss beneath the veneer of ‘nation’. The mournful gushing of blood torrents. The turbulent groans of the lost, the soundtrack of a beautiful mother’s keening over her red-shirted son’s still, still body, miasma of teargas from canisters flung into homes through doors and windows, (the absence of media in their role as witness). Along the edges of the crevice, in awe of ruins and a thousand anonymous bullet cartridges (all used), are the ribbon-decked many who giggle, and baptise the torrents ‘streams’, and the groans, ‘thin gasps of the failed’ (failed: those other people, disposable, unmournable, Kenya bodies, renamed ‘criminals’). Moving on, yes, but remember, there are 360 degrees to choose from. There is no guarantee that our steps will converge. So…anyway…sometimes before an awful mystery that wears the face of existential dread, silence. Silence. There are destinations we reach where questions are not possible. So, again, silence. And watch. The clouds; watch them too. At some point, they might let the light in again. In the interim, to those who now must, Safari njema. And if you will, if you get there, do let me know the name of the country where you, at last, safely build your hearth. It is still winter in August here.

ONE: The unmournable, the disposable, and the uncountable. Those who counted differently. Those whose voices do not count for much. Now, their lives, we are told, do not count for much. Silently, we are called upon to watch. Incredulously, we apprehend their pain. Their death. Our imminent death. For three days ago, they were told not to stay home. They were told to go out and do what counts. They went. Willingly.

Being peaceful, it seems, has been reconfigured, as a first order question of the human being

Now, the streets are an abyss. A limbo. A space of abeyance that is too treacherous. Too dangerous. But some went out after the count. Some obeyed and stayed indoors, in the supposed safety of their homes, where they heard the darkness of the night pierced by jubilant vuvuzelas, hushed complaints, and then gunshots.

Now, their hearts are pierced by the fear that a bullet might pierce their walls…maybe their flesh, if not their souls. As they sit in silence, they wish something could pierce ‘our’ conscience. But all they get is orders and snide remarks about their own criminality.

How, my sister, did the place of abode become a marker of criminality? How did the finger marked in indelible ink become so trigger-happy? Become so quick to point and judge. So eager to stand in front of pursed lips so as to stifle the tongue of the (M)other…Shhhhh. Silence!!! It is a tragedy that for some, the ballot becomes the bullet so easily. In spite of this horror, there is hope. Life is resilient. It persists. Exuberantly. Painfully. Even when it is still. Even when it is silent.

ZERO : Has it come to naught, all our talks of peace? Maybe it was doomed to be so from the beginning. From the very first time, we agreed to disavow our old leanings, and their world of meanings. From the time, we agreed to forget. To forge on peacefully. Deceitfully. For what we were fed as peace was indeed a program of pacification. A formation that puts people and things in their assumed proper places – homes, offices, shops, factories, booths, and then graves, cells, exile – in their proper order. Sometimes, beyond the border.

We are pacified when our peace songs negate our humanly gains as they claim to sooth or obliterate our pains

Being peaceful, it seems, has been reconfigured, as a first order question of the human being. Here, being is being as peacefulness…we become peace beings. Partakers of a first order egoism that disavows justice, love and ethics. A self-referential mode that disavows any form of experimental altruism and the whole set of things or ways of being that peaceful cohabitation is predicated on. This peaceful order conceals the violence that produces it. It justifies the violence that sustains its. It glorifies the violence that it creates and sustains.

Whither peace and peacefulness when we remember that there are 360 degrees to choose from? When many are at point zero where it is clear that peace as pacification imposes itself upon us today. That peace as pacification dwells in our fear and the desire to silence the intense mirima (fury) of the other in the name of security. In the name of peace. Yes, we are pacified, even ossified, when the quest for peace quickly mutes our sister’s scream as the armoured thorax presses against her back. Against her face.

We are pacified when our peace songs negate our humanly gains as they claim to sooth or obliterate our pains. Songs that drown out our sister’s involuntary sigh, that cry that escaped her lips when a bullet stung her thigh and a boot was set to her eye.

To apprehend her pain. To mourn for her and those who we are told do not count, is to refuse this pacification. This Faustian pact and its sacrificial bargain. To mourn with her is refusing to negate others. It is refusing to be counted consensually even when we disagree. It is refusing to be drawn into a faux moral calculus where we are always invited to partake of the least of all possible evils in the name of normalcy. It is refusing the false dichotomies that make us inattentive to the pain of others.

…anyway….sometimes before an awful mystery that wears the face of existential dread, silence. Silence. There are destinations we reach where questions are not possible

So Scream!! Your voice is a refusal to participate in this sacrifice. This blood-bath that baptizes us. Sacrifices us. Sets us apart.

…anyway….sometimes before an awful mystery that wears the face of existential dread, silence. Silence. There are destinations we reach where questions are not possible.”

***

But question we must. Even silently. We must question this peace that disavows life. This pacification that tells us that questioning perpetual peace will lead to perpetual war. We must question this false bargain that imposes itself upon us. A bargain that threatens to constitute us anew by calling up old formulas.

First silently, then virtually, and now with actual boots, batons, and bullets that I must flee. I flee if only so survive. To find a space where I, no we, can thrive.

But if I ever get there, know that I might not let you know the name of this country where I build my hearth. For you might follow me there…with your whispers and your habits. Our old habits and ghosts. Our old passions and affiliations. In my hearth, I want silence, maybe loneliness. Maybe stillness. I want to mourn for those who lie still.

For those who know it is still winter in August here and know the pains and the tragedy of what happened Sometimes in April…elsewhere.

So, again, silence. And watch….

TWO: Yes, I have arrived here. It is cold. It is still. It is a place devoid of certitudes and moral platitudes. But it is lonely. Silent. I yearn for the everyday laughter. For the familiar cries, confusion, hustles, and sufferings. I yearn for some place shared with others, if only for a moment. Even with a stranger. I yearn for my home before the teargas from canisters [was] flung through doors and windows.

Yes, I still dream of my home and it possibilities; its fragile hospitality; its banal hostilities. These that I had learnt to live with day by day with the hope of surmounting if only by counting.

If you will not join me here my friend, I will return home. Not like a thief in the night, but like a friendly visitor. Unannounced, yet pleasurable. For I still believe in you. I believe in us. In our home. Its flaws, notwithstanding. So please Speak! Please whisper. In this strange country whose name I have kept secret lest you follow me, I have tried to safely build my hearth.

As justification for his death. His is a necessary demise. A sacrifice, we are told. One that makes it possible for ‘us’ to return to normalcy. To return to reason. To return to raison d’état. To Peace, Love, and Unity…in the guise of development.

But my heart is elsewhere; it is there where It is still winter in August. It is there where the turbulent groans of the lost pierced my ears.

Where the witnesses sat silently as the beautiful mother keened over her red-shirted son’s still, still body.  

It is there, where we were baptized…not once, but over and over again in blood. Our own blood. There, where brothers and sisters remained unmournable and uncountable because of how ‘we’ liked to count and Account. But I am returning. I am returning even if there is no guarantee that our steps will converge. I will try. For many before us have tried. Many more have cried. And many have died. So please stay. Stay at home when you can. Please walk, walk out if you must. Talk!!

Yes talk. Let your tongue exorcise our demons. Question, knowing that sometimes before an awful mystery that wears the face of existential dread, silence [abounds]. Silence that marks those destinations where questions are not possible.

But it is in this impossible place that we must dwell with others. With ourselves…maybe otherwise.

EIGHT: Like me, she returned home. She had hope and took the leap of faith. She gambled. She now kneels….

along the edges of the crevice, in awe of ruins and a thousand anonymous bullet cartridges (all used).She is a sign of our national game/gaming :

pata potea. Kura ni karata. Mla samaki na uthamaki.

You choose. You blink, you lose. She watches the sleight of hand, the genius of counting, and the terror of slippery algorithms. The error of our everyday rhythms. Little things that seek to determine the value of her life. To undermine her strife. To subject her to their values and evaluations. To their way of counting, praying, and playing (with fire).

For some, it is Lotto and tithe; for others, the wheel of fortune and kamari; for her, it has always been ballots, and then bullets. A perverse Russian roulette. A rigged bet. Sometimes, its just bayonets.

Her shame runs deep and wide…… It is a shameful old problem. It is our little family secret. One that remains unspoken.

But she still went out and queued. She hoped it would be otherwise. She paid her debts and hedged her bets. She risked, knowing that we bet on anything. That we gamble with everything. Even with life. With her life. With maize and highways…with plays. Yes, this land is a casino. A small betting house. “Mi casa, su casa” (my house is your house), they tell their friends. “Come here and play. Come here and prey.” From Shanghai to Dubai, from Cancun to Quangzhou, casino capitalism has its day. This foreign game that is now our own, renders her life cheap. She is superfluous.

***

Ballot OR bullet,” the revolutionary of days of old told her. “No, it is Ballot AND then Bullet” …she bets. She knows her causality. She knows she will be the casualty. She always gets the bullet slot. It is not an either / or game. It is a question of if/ then/ when. Here, hope of winning against the odds is fatal. So she gets the bullet over and over. Last time it was her man, now it is her son. But she is hopeful. She knows that life will change. She knows that this game will change. So, she rises again, plays the game…hoping that one day…yes, one day… things will be otherwise. That ‘we’ might become otherwise. She waits. She watches. She counts. Silently…

Eight:As she waited, her hope turned into horror. Horrific Hope!! Her hands are up in the air. In prayer. She is a supplicant. She is pleading. She is bleeding. She hopes that her knees, now raw from kneeling, and her arms, stretched up high in the air will make her voice audible. That her prayer will save her. But her voice is noise.

Athumani and his boys swarm in. His armored convoy, his exo-skeletal thorax puffed out, his abdomen sucked in, his compound eyes seeing through walls, through holes. His antennae feeling for her, or for others like her. For all those unlike him. He hopes to crash her hope. To Horrify her. Like a locust, he arrives every five years. When it is winter in August. This is his season. But she is hopeful…For,Mungu si Athumani. Na… Athumani si Mungu.

She looks at Athumani’s ink stained finger, it looks just like hers. She focuses on his bloody trigger finger. First fear, fury, then shame. Deep shame. For she knows this man has been elsewhere before. She knows that he has been in someone else’s home. Invited. “Your home is my home…my playing field.” He tells her.

She can smell another woman’s perfume on him. She can smell someone else’s blood. All mixed with pungent teargas. How, she asks herself, does this man go back to his family after breaking so many homes? After breaking so many hearts. After wreaking so many lives. After taking Carol, Msando, and Baby Pendo. Does he remember that baby he kicked when he kisses his own? Will he remember her kneeling down and pleading before him when he kneels down to pray for his mother? To his heavenly father… Shame!!

***

Shame. Not only for the Athumanis in her house, but for all who gloat as they point at her wounded body. For all who condemn her son’s bloated body. She is ashamed for those who have chosen to forget our history of violence. For all those who, even before they listen to her story, assume that they know her fully.

Her and her type. That they know her value and values. That they know her son’s pathology; “he does not obey. He does not pray. He loves stones, more so in this country where stones are best left unturned,” they say.

Worse still, “he threw a stone yesterday, he drilled a hole in two of them and put a bar between them instead of piling them on top of each other and pouring mortar between them.” He is a fool, “he built his body instead of a house.”

He is gullible, “he fought to build a better body politic instead of a bigger house of ones own.”

He is a criminal…“he does not stay at home. He went out to the streets.”

He is a man-child. A crybaby… “he has too much Skin down there. He does not respect the sanctity of private property. He does not care about his own life or treat it like his own private property.”

Unlike Athumani, he is not a man. More so in this space of capital, his existence, his resistance, is a cardinal sin. A crime. So his life is cheap. Dispensable. Disposable. Unmournable.

Her son does not say ‘Me-I’ over and over again. He does not know the value of this egoistic style of accounting, so his life does not count for much. And a song of reason is sang, as the basis of peace. As justification for his death. His is a necessary demise. A sacrifice, we are told. One that makes it possible for ‘us’ to return to normalcy. To return to reason. To return to raison d’état. To Peace, Love, and Unity…in the guise of development.

Her son was moving too fast. He spoke back against those who want to retrace and revive old footsteps…those with nostalgia for the old man’s footsteps knowing full well where they already led us before. Knowing what they turned us into. Knowing how those footsteps turned us against each other. How these footsteps made the index finger supreme. How with the footsteps and index finger, we pointed each other… we judged and informed on each other. How this index finger was shaken in the air…triumphantly. Threateningly. How it judged, and then slid into the trigger and shot. How this index finger pointed and stood in front of men and women’s lips and commanded their silence. Their disappearance. She is ashamed for we forget how this same index finger that points at her son’s body today had rendered our little fingers useless. How the index finger’s blood stain is always fighting hard to erase the little finger’s indelible ink.

Point…point again. Her son’s death is not a mere spectacle. It is a spectre. A symptom, and a judgment.

***

Her shame runs deep and wide. She feels intense shame for those who smile from miles away assuming that these things only take place elsewhere or only took place in another time. “What are you laughing at?…you are laughing at yourselves.” She restrains her quote. Her ire, her fire, turns into cold shame. She knows that what is happening to her has taken place elsewhere and will soon take place elsewhere. This, she knows, is not just her problem, it is ‘our’ problem. It is a shameful old problem. It is our little family secret. One that remains unspoken.

“ watch them too. At some point, they might let the light in again. In the interim, to those who now must… Safari njema.” 

But now, it is no secret that some do not have to commit a crime, they are the crime itself. They are an existential or ontological infraction. She cries for us all. She cries for her kith and kin. For those who persist. For those who say that “whether you kithni or ndekni( wiggle or shake) they will change the way we count.

She cries for those who obey and never question. For those who pray and then prey. For those who anoint and appoint. For those who point…and then smile. For those who celebrate any type of tyranny…She cries silently. For the false professors turned false prophets. She cries for those who count.[…]7,1,0,2,8,8…She counts slowly and watches the clouds to which Athumani might dispatch her. The clouds to which he has dispatched many others and hidden many figures. She keeps counting and says;

 “ watch them too. At some point, they might let the light in again. In the interim, to those who now must… Safari njema.”

By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor with Sam Okoth Opondo

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Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports

7 min read. Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

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Once every few decades comes a sports hero, a legend, who transforms and ignites their discipline far beyond its traditional boundaries to inspire millions of people who would otherwise have little interest in that sport.

In football, we had the remarkable Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pele, and the mercurial Diego Maradona. In boxing, we had the poetic Muhammad Ali and the rage of “Iron” Mike Tyson. In basketball, we had the versatile Michael Jordan. In athletics, we had the exciting sprinter Usain Bolt. In golf, the resilient Tiger Woods. In tennis, the dominant sisters Venus and Serena Williams. In the marathon, we now have the philosophical Eliud Kipchoge.

12th October 2019. The time is 8am, the temperature is 9 degrees centigrade at the Reichsbrücke (German for Imperial Bridge) in Vienna, Austria. Eliud and seven members of his elite team of pacemakers jog up and down a 50-meter stretch behind the starting point of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge Race on the gentle slope of the bridge. To their left, the 119-year old St. Francis of Assisi Church can barely be seen through the mist lifting slowly from Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube.

Hundreds of excited fans make their way through the grey chilly morning to the bridge. Thousands more line up the race route on both sides of the iconic Hauptallee in the Prater park, known to local runners as “the green lung of Vienna” due to the fresh air from the trees along the 4.3 km straight avenue. The anticipation among the fans is palpable as they seek vantage positions before the start of the race.

Many are convinced that they are on the verge of witnessing a once in a lifetime sporting spectacle. Among them are scores of Kenyans who have travelled from neighboring countries and others all the way from Kenya, eager to cheer their national legend.

Eliud Kipchoge, the world marathon record holder is once more set to make athletic history. At precisely 15 minutes past 8am, the announcer counts down the clock by 15 seconds. The crowds cheer, and the race is on.

One hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds later, Eliud spectacularly sprints through the finish line at the Prater park becoming the first man in history to run a marathon in under two hours. The watching world collectively bursts out in celebration peppered with a sense of relief. Athletics’ last great barrier has been shattered, paving the way into a new frontier no one can quite define.

For several months, the event organizers have rallied behind Eliud’s personal philosophy that “no human is limited” to galvanize the world around a profound idea, an experiment in stretching the capabilities of the human body. The one thing that was never in doubt among supporters and cynics was that if there was anyone capable of running a marathon in under two hours, it had to be Eliud Kipchoge.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man and founder of INEOS, expressed his confidence and trust in Eliud’s ability to run a sub-two marathon right from the announcement of the 1:59 Challenge Race in May 2019.

“Eliud is the best marathoner there’s ever been, and he’s still getting better. He’s the only man currently who can break the 2-hour barrier,” Sir Ratcliffe said.

During the same occasion, Eliud had no hesitation in saying that he was equal to the task. “My mind is saying that I’m going to do it. So my heart and mind is on 1:59. The secret is believing and trusting in my capabilities that I can do it,” he explained.

In writing himself into the history books, Eliud ran an average speed of two minutes and fifty seconds every kilometer across the entire 42-kilometer course. That this feat that would commence at the Reichsbrücke was even more fascinating for someone described by sports commentators as the greatest marathoner of all time.

On 1st October 1976 shortly before five in the morning, the imposing bridge, one of the most trafficked in Vienna, unexpectedly collapsed into the river Danube killing one person. The main reason given for the collapse was structural failure in the bearings, which was not spotted during inspection due to the massive granite mantle that surrounded them. A new bridge was re-designed and formally opened on 8th November, 1980. It remains an impressive structure used by 50,000 vehicles each day with six lanes of traffic, U-Bahn tracks, two footpaths, two-cycle paths and two utility tunnels.

Eliud’s stellar athletic career faced a near collapse in 2012, when he incredibly failed to qualify for the London Olympics as an accomplished 5,000-meter runner. In a radical decision that would prove to be a game-changer, he switched to road running that same year starting out in the half marathon before winning the 2013 Hamburg Marathon in a course record time. From that win, Eliud’s marathon career took off into the stratospheres.

He has won 10 of the 11 marathons that he has participated in. In 2016 he took the Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in a race where he was seemingly under no threat from the competition. He currently holds the official world record of 2:01:39, set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In contemplating Eliud’s extraordinary triumphs over the last six years, it’s clear that the world of sports has once more produced an iconic figure, transcending cultures, race and languages to redefine the boundaries of human achievements and inspire billions across the globe. Only a few personalities come to mind when one reflects on the scale of what this means. We may even have to look outside the arena of sports to find such inspiring individuals.

The world of music carries a comparable transcendent power to sports, and it therefore provides a notable personality we can briefly examine to comprehend Eliud’s influence on millions across the globe. The late pop-musician Michael Jackson immediately stands out.

His musical talent and genius were undeniable, enriching the global music industry for decades during his lifetime. Through his music, Michael Jackson managed to transcend racial barriers to inspire millions of adoring fans across different cultures and different generations. Shortly after his death in June 2009, American evangelist Al Sharpton described him as a truly historic figure.

It may be too early to make lofty comparisons between Eliud Kipchoge and the late King of pop, but the greatest marathoner in modern times does provide some profound and inspiring insights from his athletic achievements. To truly understand the driving force behind this fascinating man, we need to go back and examine a few of his past philosophical thoughts and musings.

We need to appreciate the motivations that compelled him to take on the challenge of running a marathon in under two hours, succeeding on the second attempt two years after the Nike Breaking2 project where he fell short by just 25 seconds. Immediately following that pioneering event of May 2017, the philosopher king of the marathon simply quipped: “The world is just 26 seconds away.”

At a press briefing hosted by his local sponsors Isuzu East Africa on 4th September, 2019 in Nairobi, Eliud powerfully explained why he was going to Vienna to make athletic history.

“I am going to Vienna to inspire a whole generation. I am going to Vienna to sell the idea that no human is limited. I am going to Vienna to inspire the human family. I want to inspire that journalist, lawyer, engineer, teacher, driver that when they wake up they can do more. It’s not about setting a world record but it’s about making history and inspiring the human race.”

The world of business can certainly learn a great deal from this excellent athlete’s training methodology, personal discipline and winning mindset. Take for instance his radical decision to switch from his favorite track event the 5,000M to the marathon. Jim Collins in his best-selling book Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make The Leap, provides two compelling approaches practiced by these successful companies that one can discern in Eliud’s career.

First, Jim Collins asserts that companies that made the shift from being good to later become great institutions, started by developing within their organizations the ability to confront the ‘brutal facts’. They created a climate or environment where employees were consistently encouraged to speak up and share truth in their day to day operations, no matter how unpalatable it was to their leaders.

Secondly, in that bold process, these companies came to the realization that if their core business did not propel them to be the best in their sectors, then they needed to change to what they could be best at, not what they were competent to do. Finally, the companies needed to build an absolute belief in their ranks that they could become the very best in their business. They nurtured an unfailing faith, an iron-willed self-belief that they could achieve their goals no matter how ambitious, insurmountable or wild they at first appeared to be.

In failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, Eliud had to confront the brutal reality that he was not the best in the 5,000M track discipline. While he was competent in the event, having won Olympic medals and a world championship in his career, he was yet to realize his full athletic potential. He had to make a choice between continuing in an event where he would likely not rise to dominance, or courageously try out something new where he had a chance of truly excelling. The switch to the marathon resulted in a stunning change of fortunes for Eliud which culminated in the enthralling sub two-hour performance in Vienna.

In the lead up to this memorable event, Eliud once more clarified his intentions for taking on an epic race challenge that he well knew would not be recognized as an official marathon record.

“I want to be able to show the world that when you focus on your goal, when you work hard, and when you believe in yourself, anything is possible,” he said.

The element of self-belief came out consistently in Eliud’s statements when confronted with the epic 1:59 Challenge Race. From the moment he announced to the world his intention to mirror what British athlete Roger Banister had achieved in 1954 running the mile in under four minutes, Eliud’s simple conviction regarding what a human being could achieve with the right mindset was amazing.

“Any human being can go beyond their thoughts, but self-belief is crucial. I totally believe in myself, and in my team-mates and my training,” he said.

Indeed, no other human endeavor demonstrates the power and benefits of teamwork as well as sports does. One of Eliud’s most cherished training principles is anchored around his team-mates and what they have enabled him to achieve.

“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. 100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the team,” he often asserts.

Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

In Kenya, Eldoret was the epicenter of excitement with ripples of celebration going right across the country. For one tantalizing day, we forgot our petty differences as we applauded our gallant son for making history and swelling our hearts with national pride.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Eliud’s achievement that Saturday morning inspired the thrilling performances of Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei the following day at the Chicago Marathon. They were the male and female winners of the race with Brigid winning in a world record time of 2:14:04, shattering Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year old record of 2:15:25.

Without a doubt, there is no better case for increasing our national sports budgets, county budgets and corporate sponsorships to deliberately invest in our rich sporting talents across the country. Building on the lessons from our successful track athletes, we have in recent times also seen the immense potential in our football, rugby sevens and women’s volleyball teams. We stand to gain immeasurably as a nation from this untapped goldmine that can radically transform the fortunes of our young people. As Eliud has shown us, there are no limits to what we can achieve as Kenyans if we set our minds to this noble undertaking.

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In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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