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”.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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