Why are elections in Kenya associated with death and tragedy? At what point in our history as nation, did bloodletting become part and parcel of the Presidential and General elections?
In Kenya today, elections are synonymous with shootings, death, sorrow and destructions in some parts of the country. Kisumu and the counties of Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori, where the Luo ethnic group is dominant have become associated with police shootings and killings during and after elections. A look into the history of elections in Kenya can help us understand the triggers of these conflicts. Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce”.
From 1960 to 1963 in the years leading to independence, the battleground was a contest between the two nationalist political parties, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), competing for the Senate, Parliamentary or Regional assembly seats. The competing political ideologies were for a Centralist Government as espoused by KANU and Majimbo (Federalism) as propounded by KADU. There were other parties too, Paul Ngei’s African Peoples Party (APP) and Sir Michael Blundell’s New Kenya Party but the real supremacy battle was between KANU and KADU.
In 1963, KANU consisted of the Agikuyu and Luo led by Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya among others. KADU was led by Ronald Ngala, Daniel arap Moi, Masinde Muliro and Martin Shikuku and was composed of the Coastal peoples, the Kalenjin of the Rift Valley and parts of Western Province with the Bukusu and a smattering of other Luhya sub-tribes. The small communities fearful of domination by the two largest communities at the time –the Agikuyu and the Luo –had come together in KADU and wanted Kenya organized into a US style federal state with six autonomous regions. KADU actually got their way at Lancaster House.
The fiery William Murgor of KADU famously announced at the January 1962 Lancaster House Conference in London, ‘If Kikuyus are settled in the Rift Valley, we will blow the whistle and have them ejected. That was a signal for his people to come out with spears and defend their territory. ‘They belong to Central Province and should vacate Rift Valley as soon as possible.’ President Jomo Kenyatta had proposed to settle the former Mau Mau and landless members of the Kikuyu tribe in the Rift Valley to occupy the lands vacated by departing white settlers and Murgor bitterly contested this settlement arrangement.
While tension was high between Kikuyu and Kalenjin land interests in the period leading up to independence, the alliance between the Kikuyu and Luo leadership was strong as all the leading Luo political leaders, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya, Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko, CMG Argwings-Kodhek and Samuel Onyango Ayodo were all in KANU.
Jaramogi served as Vice-President of Kenya and KANU while Tom Mboya was Party Secretary-General and Minister for Economic Planning and Development. Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko held the Information and Broadcasting portfolio while Onyango Ayodo served as Tourism Minister and Kodhek later joined the Cabinet as Foreign Minister. This lasted until 1966 when Jaramogi resigned as Vice –President of Kenya and formed the opposition party, Kenya Peoples Union (KPU).
Parliament subsequently passed a law which forced all MPs and Senators who had defected to the new party to lose their seats. It is worth noting, that when KADU and African Peoples Party leadership voluntarily crossed to KANU in November 1964, by elections were not held.
In May 1966 what is called the ‘Little General’ elections was held to fill the seats of the KPU defectors. This occasioned the first major multi-party elections held in Kenya and Luo-Nyanza. Six of the by elections were held in Central Nyanza District (today Kisumu and Siaya).’Tom Mboya led the KANU and Government campaign addressing 12 rallies in three days’ as narrated in Cherry Gertzel’s the Politics of Independent Kenya.
Initially they were fears of attacks on Mboya and the Government delegation but no attacks happened, as the contest was limited to a war of words. KPU portrayed Mboya as ‘a younger man who was responsible for the older mans problems, through use of imagery and idioms.’ KPU won all the seats, Bondo, Ugenya, Alego, Nyando, Kisumu Rural, and Ondiek Chillo Miguda recaptured the Central Nyanza Senate seat.
In the House of Representatives, out of 28 contested seats, Kanu garnered 21 while KPU got 7 seats. There was no violence and campaigns and voting were conducted peacefully. However, the KPU candidates were subjected to considerable official harassment. They were not, on the whole, granted licenses’ for campaign rallies and their passports were impounded. The Voice of Kenya also imposed a news blackout on the KPU activities.
KANU and KPU were expected to lock horns during the 1968 local Government elections. This did not happen when the returning officers refused to accept nomination papers from all KPU candidates. As a result all KANU candidates were elected unopposed. The country was supposed to have had General elections in 1968, but with the merger of the Upper House (Senate) and Lower House (Parliament) in late 1966, the unicameral legislature voted to extend its 5 year tenure to 6 with elections now scheduled for late 1969.
Fast forward to July 5 1969 and the country’s peace and quiet was shattered when Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge shot dead Tom Mboya in a Nairobi street. Kisumu and Homa Bay bore the brunt of the protests and demonstrations with police shootings and killings. Earlier, in January 1969 Foreign Minister Clement George Michael (CMG) Argwings-Kodhek died in a mysterious road accident in Nairobi.
Kodhek was one of three Luo ministers, alongside Mboya and Ayodo who had remained in KANU and Government when KPU was formed and was MP for Gem until his death. He was succeeded by Wasonga Sijeyo of KPU who overcame Rading Omolo of KANU in the May 1969 by election, despite Mboya and KANUs aggressive campaigns.
In 1969, the Country was preparing for Presidential and General elections where Kanu was to be pitted against the KPU and President Jomo Kenyatta was to face off with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga later that year. That election happened without Jaramogi and KPU after the clash at the official opening of the New Nyanza Provincial Hospital (also known as Russia Hospital) in Kisumu between Kenyatta and Odinga on October 25 and ended up with 11 people shot dead. The deaths of Kodhek and Mboya set the tone for the clash at the hospital especially in reaction to President Kenyatta’s vitriol directed at Jaramogi Odinga and his KPU party.
KPU was banned and her Members of Parliament and the entire constellation detained without trial. Only one KPU member Grace Onyango was re-admitted to KANU and won the Kisumu Town parliamentary seat becoming the first woman elected to the August House in the entire Republic. The 1969 elections set a firm precedent regarding the exclusion of former KPU politicians from the electoral process. The election was peaceful and this was replicated in 1974.
The death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, seemed to usher in a short period of political rapprochement and reconciliation when new President Daniel arap Moi released political detainees, sought reconciliation and visited Nyanza province. After the Russia incident in 1969, Kenyatta did not return to Nyanza. However, KANU in line with Moi’s “Fuata Nyayo” (Follow the footsteps) stance, continued the tradition of denying the ex-KPU group an opportunity to stand in the 1979 election.
Moi established a firm grip, consolidating power under a single party and ruling the country with an iron fist particularly in response to the failed coup attempt in 1982 fronted by junior Airforce officers. The failed coup gave birth to a draconian regime that brutally dealt with dissenters. In the intervening electoral periods, 1983 and 1988, Luo Nyanza remained politically marginalized and subdued up until another prominent death shook its core in 1990.
Foreign Minister and Kisumu Town Member of Parliament, Dr Robert Ouko’s macabre murder in February 1990 set off a wave of protests, demonstrations and confrontation between police and locals in Nairobi and Kisumu and to some extent other parts of Migori and Homa Bay.
When Ouko’s remains arrived in Kisumu Stadium for last rites, the security situation deteriorated and he had to be airlifted to Nyahera, the hills above Kisumu to his parents’ home. This was after a deadly confrontation between Police, the GSU and protesters. Robert Ouko’s death and the aftermath left more than 200 people dead according to the Weekly Review.
Ouko’s murder broke any pretense at good relations between Government and the Luo community. ’If a Government Minister who has round the clock security can be kidnapped and murdered and the culprits have never been apprehended then what options do we have? ‘Queried a resident of Kisumu at the Commission of Inquiry constituted to look at Ouko’s death between October 1990 and November 1991. The Inquiry that sat at the Kisumu Municipal Council played a merry havoc with public confidence- in terms of corruption and alleged kick-backs by Ministers.
An array of issues that included the removal of the security of tenure of Judges of the High Court, the queue voting system introduced ahead of the 1988 General elections, the human rights violations in the Nyayo torture chambers and the politically instigated ethnic clashes in 1991 and 1992 led to the exodus of the Luo community from KANU to Oginga Odinga’s newly formed political party Ford in late 1991. William Murgor’s people had finally blown the whistle and they targeted opposition supporters particularly the Luo and Kikuyu. From 1992 with political pluralism back in the statutes, the opposition became vocal but Moi did not tolerate dissent. Police dealt with protests and demonstrations ruthlessly as Luo Nyanza found itself back in the line of fire.
In March 1992, police chased down multi-party demonstrators into Kisumu Boys High School and shot them down despite the fact that the school was in session. A former student who was at the institution, collecting his O-level results was one of the casualties. The State instigated ethnic cleansing continued unabated in the Rift Valley and at the borders of Nyanza and Nandi as well as the Kericho-Sondu areas. At the General election on 29 December Luo-Nyanza voted to a man and woman for Ford-Kenya and Oginga Odinga in the first multi party elections since 1966. Ford Kenya came in fourth after, Mwai Kibaki’s DP, Kenneth Matiba’s Ford Asili and Moi’s KANU that won amidst widespread claims of ballot stuffing and irregularities.
There was some respite during the cooperation between KANU and Ford-Kenya and Moi and Oginga Odinga for some time in 1993 and this lasted until Jaramogi’s death in January 1994. Tension increased again as political leaders started agitating for reforms ahead of the 1997 General elections. Government outlawed the rallies and met them with brute force, not only in Kisumu but also in the Nairobi.
With elections approaching, ethnic cleansing resumed in the Rift Valley. Kisumu was again targeted with KANU thugs given state protection. This time Alego-Usonga Constituency was the Government target in the contest between Peter Oloo Aringo of the National Development Party and the KANU candidate, Edwin Yinda. The number of those who died in that clash have never been known.
2002 was a calm year as the opposition sought to succeed Moi who was scheduled to retire after the term limits was introduced in the Constitution in 1992. The Kikuyu and the Luo joined forces to defeat KANU but the marriage did not last. Cracks emerged in the NARC Government of President Kibaki in 2003 because of the controversial Memorandum of Understanding, which promised Raila Odinga of LDP the Prime-Ministers position.
Those cracks finally came to the fore at the Constitutional referendum in November 2005. Roads Minister Raila Odinga and Cabinet colleagues Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, Ochillo Ayacko, Najib Balala, William Ole Ntimama, Kalonzo Musyoka and Assistant Ministers, Peter Odoyo and Orwa Ojode among others led the NO team symbolized by the Orange while President Kibaki led the YES team represented by the Banana.
The November 2005 constitutional referendum between the Orange and Banana teams left death and destruction in Kisumu. One of those killed was a 13-year-old pupil at Josana Academy, shot dead by police as he came from School. The Kisumu Polytechnic gate was brought down by a GSU Landover acting as a battering ram. Students were beaten black and blue before being arrested and arraigned in Court.
Eventually all the charges were dropped because unknown to the State one student had recorded the entire episode on video. The 2007 General elections and its aftermath was the worst in living memory. During peaceful demonstrations, following the disputed result, a police officer gunned down a citizen taunting and making faces at the police, in the full glare of television cameras.
Despite the fact that this killing was recorded, the policeman was acquitted. Starting on 30 December 2007 up until the peace-accord in February 2008, police shot and killed citizens who protested the outcome of the election. Victor Odhiambo who played rugby for Kisumu RFC was one of those gunned down in Nyalenda area.
During the 2010 Constitutional referendum, Kisumu had a chance to catch its breath as President Kibaki and Prime-Minister Raila Odinga were on the same side. The peace only lasted until March 2013 with the face-off between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Following the announcement of the results, those protesting clashed with the police, again resulting in shootings and death.
In the year 2015, during peaceful demonstrations against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, police again shot dead citizens in Siaya, Migori, Homa Bay and Kisumu.
History does repeat itself and 2017 has lived up to the painful consequence of death for protestors in Kisumu and other parts of Nyanza. Since the first election held on August 8, it is actually not possible to put a finger on the number of those killed and maimed. A 6-month-old Baby Samantha Pendo’s skull was crushed by a policeman’s boot following the protests against claims of a rigged election. A few weeks later, 2-year-old Chantal Amondi was a victim of a police bullet. She was shot on the shoulder, while playing with her neighbours.
On 26th October during the repeat elections, 26 people suffered gunshot wounds and three died, according to a record of those admitted to the New Nyanza Provincial Hospital (aka) Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital. Figures released by the Kenya National Human Rights Body, IMLU and police gave conflicting numbers. Other casualties were admitted to sub-county hospitals and private institutions.
Given this history of state brutality, the trends of ethnic profiling remain self-evident. Policing in areas populated by communities aligned to the ruling regime is restrained and moderated. In recent times, a look at how the police have dealt with demonstrations in Gusii, Kitale, Bungoma, Vihiga, Mombasa and even Nairobi contrast sharply with the sort of excesses that have been normalized in Luo-Nyanza. Rarely will you find citizens shot and killed over an election contest.
The only thing new elections have taught us in Kenya, is that we have learned nothing from the old. Why are elections in Kenya associated with death and tragedy? The simple answer is the lack of electoral integrity and credibility that is an essential ingredient in reconciling political conflicts peacefully. Until, Kenya holds free and fair elections that adhere to the rule of law, Kenyans who rise up against injustice will continue to bleed. As the black American singer and actor turned Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson said, “The answer to injustice is not to silence the critic but to end injustice”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
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