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End of Empathy in Kenya

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End of Empathy in Kenya
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Presently, you can divide Kenyans into three groups.

There are those who are ambivalent, unsure of which political direction the country should take, trusting neither the Jubilee side nor the NASA side, even as the unity of the principal is under intense scrutiny following the no-show of the three other principals for the much-hyped ‘swearing in’ of Raila Odinga as the ‘President of the People’.

Second, are the loyal supporters of the government, who despite any misgivings, have some hope, however forlorn that Uhuru Kenyatta will deliver on his promises, that he has christened “Four Pillars.”

Third, are the implacable supporters of Raila Odinga, the thousands who filled Uhuru Park to witness his swearing-in, and the many who explicitly or implicitly support his disruptive antics as continues to fight electoral injustices.

The latter two categories of Kenyans hardly see each other eye to eye. The middle-class among them may be civilized and restrained, but their dinner table talks are frank and clear about their mutual distaste for each other’s political choices. Outside the middle-class, it gets a bit cruder.

If you watched online activity during the charged swearing in, most Jubilee government supporters online dismissed Raila Odinga’s supporters as Zombified, swum in schadenfreude when the three principals failed to show-up, effectively turning the ceremony into a ‘Luo Affair’ as a senior government official told me last November.

The game now is over, next is to make every demonstration look like a Luo affair and Kenyans will go back to their normal lives,” he told me, in an informal set-up (Ruracio), obviously, tongue-in-cheek. But as a Jubilee supporter, he felt that they had outmanoeuvred, one last time, and hopefully one final time. It is common among Jubilee fans to gloat about their unbeatable numbers, unparalleled business acumen and everything to rend credence to elections that one-half of the country for the fourth time feels that are not fair.

So, you have gloating on one side and grumbling on the other. But the grumbling has gotten louder and more militant, while the gloating cautious, made the more uncertain as Jubilee’s dubious policies begin to ruin the country. It is a constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina who captured it best in an article in the Daily Nation when he said,

“Mr Odinga’s problem is that his base is now more militant and intransigent than he himself ever was.”

The swearing in, even though deemed inconsequential, was cathartic, to his base, and a nuisance to the Jubilee side, that craves for sense of normalcy in the country often interpreted as no protests. Crime, deteriorating health sector, the ever-increasing cost of living, badly managed education system hardly concerns them.

The environment needed for a reasoned national conversation is now permanently fouled as no side will listen to the other. We are now so numbed, even something as humane as blood donation appeal provides a useful window into how Kenyans now look at each other.

***

On September 2, 2017, a day after the shocking annulling of the 2017 presidential election, Carol Radull, the celebrated sports presenter, made an urgent blood donation appeal on Twitter for Grace Wangui Mwangi who was hospitalized at the Kikuyu Hospital.

In good times, many people would have volunteered to donate the blood, without questioning the tribe or the background of the patient. But September 2, 2017 was not a good time to make such an appeal. Reading the responses to her appeal was jarring.

Ashikoye Omune responded.

And Zablon though it was the best time to crack his sarcasm.

There were other many responses, so crude, so heartless, so crass, so bereft of any shred of human decency, it was galling. Most were jabs at the perennial obsession of Central Kenyan politicians with the subject of circumcision, which even the soberest politicians from GEMA hardly ever criticize.

It was difficult to process the dumb and numb comments.

Yet, those responding with irony, cheap sarcasm to the appeal carried in their tweets certain undertones that if you stopped to think for a second, did not exist in a vacuum. They were a product of injustices and abuse, real and perceived. We all look for a chimney to vent our frustrations. And the appeal provided a channel for some frustrated NASA supporters to parade their frustrations.

Any sensible tweet, calling for restraint and common sense was drowned in the odious smoke of hatred from what were mostly NASA supporters from Luo Nyanza.

It is true when the state released the police on its citizenry, mostly of Luo extraction, comments by some people who support Jubilee approved the use of whichever means to contain the protesters. While there were those who obviously opposed to the use of excessive force, most were ambivalent, and some preferring to keep quiet.

When Daily Nation reported the shooting of three protesters in Kisumu, Mbugus James wanted more:

And Bony Kamau was full of compliments.

And Macharia Mwangi knew who the protesters were.

***

Political comments in the blogosphere and social media provide a useful window into the soul of the nation. If we can use our usual stupid marker of literacy-the ability to speak and write in correct English-you will notice most of the people commenting are learned, with university degrees, no less.

***

The mutual disdain between Kenya’s two most politically active communities, Luos and Agikuyus has deteriorated to such despicable levels, it is disgusting. Education in this case, hardly thaws prejudice, opening an avenue of tolerance and celebration of diversity. Learned people on either side of the politic divide are so prejudiced,

The most ironic thing is that when the two communities work together, they always lift Kenya to a higher ground; think of 1963, 2002, 2007/08 (the risky power-sharing deal) that gave us the new constitution.

Given other communities rally behind on either community depending on which side of the bread of their tribal chief is buttered, we end up with either pro-Luos tribes and pro-Kikuyus tribes.

There is a bigger picture, indeed, a political ideology behind the tribal arrangement. The two communities that have held power since independence are more conservative in their politics, keen for resources not to be redistributed. The rest usually are more liberal and socialist, advocating for a fair redistribution of the country’s resources. But all this is lost as tribal chiefs pursue their selfish interests instead of the larger good.

In such an environment, it is impossible to have a conversation about national values, and what makes us Kenya, the best country in Africa if you ask me.

Since 2007, our general elections have been flawed in the favour of one side and to the exclusion of the other. Whereas, in some cases it is purely a question of perception, the recalcitrant refusal of the ruling elite to address the root cause of the problem has made a bad situation worse. Every successive flawed election puts the country on the edge, and now we are hanging on a cliff so precipitously, just one nudge and the country will tumble down.

It is easy to dismiss the people who comment online as idlers whose thoughts and ideas have no real consequence. But as a fairly educated man, with a Masters, and middle-class (for argument sake), I have participated in conversations, online and offline that usually shock me. When I travel to the village and talk to the villagers, their comments about the Agikuyu community scare me. The comments belie a deep-seated antipathy towards Kikuyu that grows with every flawed election.

Back in Nairobi, when I have a candid talk with my Kikuyu friends, you know those dinner table conversations in safe spaces where people can afford to be painfully honest, it is always discomfiting when they lay down their fears and explain why they coalesce around their preferred candidate.

“When Kalonzo stands in front of a multitude and declares ‘we ask Mt Kenya people to lie low’ we are left with no choice but vote for someone we can trust,” a Douglas Kanguru, a Public Policy expert says, citing Raila Odinga’s obsession with the land question in the country. As the people who received the largest brunt of the colonizer’s brutality, displaced from their ‘ancestral land’ and even further dispersed after we became independent, and also the recipient of the worst brutality meted on a community in election-related violence since 1992, they have little choice but stick with what is convenient, Kanguru argues.

But this only tells half the story. The ugly truth that is hard to discuss, creatively blockaded by those in power until kingdom come is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that may address some of the historical injustices that are the root cause of our growing antipathy towards those of a different politic persuasion. The land question is the thorniest.

In several WhatsApp groups that I belong to, especially those from college colleagues, the love is not lost between the members of the two political divides. Again all the members in all the groups are educated to university level. But the level of discussion reveals the pain and trauma that people carry with them. Virtually since August, most groups have banned political discussions. In most groups many people left, before group leaders decided to ban politics. Others maintaining a stony silence adopting the “Accept and Move on” philosophy, finding political conversations draining and becoming more and more numbed.

As a middle-class fellow, I may not pick a machete and hack someone of a different political persuasion to death. But if some ethnic chauvinist arranges a fundraising drive to donate money to empower an army of young men to protect my community’s interests, I will find myself obliged to pay, in the pretext of self-defence.

When the Nairobi Business Community came to prominence at the height of NASA’s call for demonstration, I accompanied my Kikuyu friend to a hotel in downtown Nairobi to meet another lady for some transaction. In the introductory small talk, of course the Nairobi Business Community featured prominently. Mistaking me for a Kikuyu, and feeling safer, she said, she was extremely happy that the Nairobi Business Community had flexed its muscle, scaring those (insert expletive) away. Business was now good. And she fully supported them.

Objectively, I held nothing against her. She did not know what she did not know. We all like expediency. I am sure if another vigilante group surfaced on the NASA side, it would receive implicit or even explicit support from the NASA supporters such what happened in Kawangware.

What most people, surprisingly even the most educated, hardly know is that the vigilante groups that communities and political parties turn to for protection when the police fail, share one trait: both are disenfranchised young men, with nothing to live for and they are all products of the bad politics played by both sides of the political divide. If indeed successive governments, were the governments of the people, by the people, you will not have millions of young men on either side of the political divide ready to pick a machete and descend on fellow countrymen.

The cowardice of the country’s elite to confront these problems head-on, instead of using the problems to divide the country further has made us emotionless towards each other’s plight.

Prof. Anyang Nyong’o wrote a powerful essay in The Star in the aftermath of the 2017 election arguing, that a poor woman in Limuru has the government to blame more than a Luo in Kisumu for her plight. Ditto a poor Luo man in Kisumu, his enemy is the government and not another community. Yet, not everyone can see these things this way.

When you have empty political heads with no better vision to sell, preaching ethnic prejudice and hatred all the time, the result is feelings of marginalization and entitlement, adding fuel to a state of permanent conflict. With agitation and aggression on one side, and the other side becomes defensive. This stretches emotions. And elections provide a chance to correct the notion of dominance and marginalization. When they are flawed, or perceived to be flawed, the agitation persists.

Now, we are all out of patience. Shortly after the Rwandese genocide, where nearly one million people were killed in 100 days, Gregory Stanton, then the head of Genocide Watch presented a briefing paper to the United State Department of State identifying the “8 Stages of Genocide”. They include,

  1. a) Classification: where people divide themselves in the narrative of US versus THEM. We already have the “42-against 1” and its many variants.
  2. b) Symbolization: whereby people are labeled with lowly references. The competing communities have monikers to identify pariah groups in their eyes. Both political sides of the divide use certain references, often in derision, whether it is Moses Kuria’s obsession with circumcision, or those in NASA who perceive Kikuyus as thieves, the labeling is getting stronger and stronger.
  3. c) Dehumanization: When one group denies the humanity of the other group, equating the members of the other groups to animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Not to overemphasize, but increasingly seeing the humanity of others with a different political view is becoming impossible.
  4. d) Organization: Stanton argued that genocide is always organized, using special army or militia, trained and armed. We may not yet have organized and trained militia, but militias are a part of political organization. A friend from Central Kenya told me in 2013, “Never again shall we be caught unawares, like in 2007. We will permanently be ready and vigilant.”
  5. e) Polarization: Polarizing propaganda, made the worse by the advent of fake news was evident in the 2017 election, another indicator of the dangerous road we are traveling down.
  6. f) Preparation: At this stage victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic and religious identity. In 2017, we saw the Luo community targeted both in Nairobi and Nyanza, with the state enjoying the monopoly of violence and no awards for guessing where the strings were being pulled from. Various vigilante groups like those that wreaked violence in Kawangware are a harbinger of how things can turn ugly at the snap of a finger.
  7. g) Extermination: killers at this stage are so numbed out, they will not see the humanity of those being killed.
  8. h) Denial: the perpetrators deny committing the crimes or underplay their role.

When you look at these stages, you can see we are at a stage where we have dehumanized our political rivals and refuse to see their humanity. Empathy only exists in a few rational voices.

For now, silence works. But deep within, people are demon-possessed, and soon or later, the true colours will surface. We may wish to ignore, maybe some of us are a bit melodramatic, but reality has a way of blindsiding one, before slapping the illusion out of folks. By then, it is usually too late.

 


Featured response to this article by Dorcas Sarkozy, a blogger.

RE: The False Equivalence in the lack of empathy among Kenya’s many tribes.

FALSE EQUIVALENCE: An argument that simultaneously condemns and excuses both sides in a dispute by claiming that both sides are (equally) guilty of inappropriate behavior or bad reasoning. While the argument appears to be treating both sides equally, it is generally used to condemn an opponent or to excuse one’s own position.

EMPATHY: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; (1) the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another, (2) the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself:

There is a piece in the online publication “The Elephant” titled “End of Empathy in Kenya” by Silas Nyanchwani that on the surface reads like a thought-provoking and balanced analysis of a very worrisome trend (lack of empathy) currently pervading Kenya but upon further cogitation, IS part of the worrisome trend.

The writer cites several clips from social media – Facebook, Twitter and reader comments in a local daily (Daily Nation) as evidence of this lack of empathy some Kenyans have towards one another.

He does so via a 2400-worded piece that effectively rehashes some known/common stereotypes Kenya’s various communities have of one another; that Luos have of Kikuyus and vice versa.

This he does without broaching head-on, the elephant in the room.

As a result of this crucial omission, deliberately or otherwise, the writer evenly apportions responsibility for the inability of Kenyans to empathize with one another, the glaring imbalance of power dynamics between the main antagonists, the Kikuyu and the Luo, notwithstanding.

For the record, the elephant in the room is the responsibility that comes with having power: political, economic AND military power.

I have previously alluded to a modicum of schadenfreude the writer is pointing out, but I would like to believe that I have usually done so as a cautionary tale of what happens when one refuses to assign responsibility where it most resides and chooses instead to tie themselves into a knot justifying or rationalizing why glaring obviosities are different depending on who is involved.

To illustrate the foregoing phenomenon, consider the differences in characterization and reactions when Uhuru Kenyatta cautioned Kenyans against “selling their land” and when Raila Odinga did the same thing.

Somehow the former’s “advice” was seen as an illustration of his business acuity; his understanding that “land is a factor of production”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE3088jpqkE

Conversely, RAO doing the same thing – to the Masaai in Kajiado – was seen as illustration of his “belligerence”; that he was “advocating ‘violence’ against persons not indigenous to the region i.e. Kikuyus”.

https://www.the-star.co.ke/…/2…/06/17/uhuru-tells-off-raila-over-talk-of-land-invasion_c1581163

Or when the 2017 Madaraka Day Celebration held in Nyeri degenerated into a celebration of the region’s (and Uhuru’s) culture replete with use of exclusionary language instead of the national celebration the day is meant to denote.

Readers will recall that attempts to call out the ethnicization of the national event (and snubbing of RAO) was characterized by commentators and supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta as the usual (and unfair) “demonization of the Kikuyu” by people “who are jealous of the tribe’s many accomplishments and rich culture”.

https://www.nation.co.ke/…/440808-3954512-122fx9…/index.html

Throughout Kenya’s post-independence history, one side and one side alone has had all three permutations of power:

The Executive.

All four Kenya’s presidents – from Jomo to Moi, Kibaki and now Uhuru – have controlled political power.

While military power is a function of the office of the president i.e. as the commander-in-chief, Kenyatta Pere & Son, Kibaki and Moi have also used their office i.e. political power to accumulate inordinate amounts of wealth i.e. economic power.

As famously offered by Mao Tse Tung, “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th and arguably its most famous president offered a different take on power. That, it, power, tested a man’s true character.

Kenya’s leaders have proceeded to use their monopoly of these variants of power, unfairly and with impunity, AGAINST those who dare challenge or stand up against their respective regime.

Mr. Nyanchwani knows only too well the outcome that overwhelming military might brings to bear in the fight for empathy or as Homer famously said, “woe to the vanquished”.

Might makes right – even when the mighty is wrong!

You get a sense of the writer’s bias – wittingly or unwittingly – in the second and third paragraph in his characterization of the role played by two of the three groups he identifies as being present in today’s Kenya.

Kenyatta’s supporters are seen as “loyal…..who despite any misgivings, have some hope….(he) will deliver on his promises…..christened “Four Pillars.”

Raila’s supporters, true to form, are characterized more ominously as “implacable….who filled Uhuru Park to witness his swearing-in, and the many who explicitly or implicitly support his disruptive antics…”

(The third group consists of those who are ambivalent, unsure of which political direction the country is headed.)

Language is a powerful tool.

When well-used (or mis-used), it can create equally powerful imageries that add to, placate or challenge existing perspectives/paradigms or stereotypes people have of one another.

From the opening few paragraphs, not to mention the title of the piece, the writer chose/chooses to either add to or placate the stereotypes Kenyans have of the two antagonists – Luos and Kikuyus.

Kenyatta’s supporters are “loyal”, have “some hope”, for “promises christened”.

Conversely, Raila’s supporters are “implacable”, “explicitly or implicitly support” his “disruptive antics”.

Disruptive antics?

Being at the vanguard of Kenya’s fight for the very values that allows Mr. Nyanchwani to pen his views, however questionable some may feel said views are, may be “disruptive”. However, the fight for a free, fair and transparent electoral process not to mention an end to corruption and impunity are not “antics”.

Asking to verify the accuracy of the vote tallies inside the IEBC server is not “foolish”.

Insisting to understand why corruption and impunity has been so rife in two Kenyatta governments – father and son – is not an “outrageous” request.

Standing up to a militarized law enforcement apparatus armed with the best-in-class riot suppression gear with nothing more than one’s strength of conviction and stones is not “amusing behavior”.

“Antics” is defined as “foolish, outrageous” and “amusing” behavior.

https://www.google.com/search…

While the article touches on a close relative of the elephant in the room, it does so almost as an afterthought; this without identifying, by name, those who are simultaneously responsible for creating the problems AND also able to fix what is at the core of the country’s instability.

The writer points out that the oftentimes deadly struggle between Kenyans was precipitated, then exacerbated by the country’s refusal to address its mélange of historical injustices that are the root cause of the growing antipathy they have towards one another; towards those who hold different political views.

He then offers that of all the historical injustices facing Kenya, “the land question is the thorniest”.

Those who have acquired land, oftentimes through nefarious means, also control the levers of military/law enforcement power.

These are the same people who have benefit/ted from pillaging resources from the various communities throughout the country – throughout Kenya’s history. In so doing, these individuals have accumulated economic power while simultaneously angering those whose communities were pillaged.

It is the clamor for the “power” of self-actualization promised at/by independence; by the dangled but unfulfilled promises of “matunda ya uhuru” that have Kenyans angry; angry at one another and angry at their government.

Until those standing on the opposite end of the barrel of a gun can walk a mile in the shoes of those facing the barrel of the gun, they will not empathize one with another.

This is particularly true if those holding the trigger believe that their stations in life are a function, not of malevolent machinations, but of an abundance of benevolent (divine) happenstance.

The false equivalence is that both sides of the divide are culpable in the lack of empathy the article alludes to.

It is a false equivalence because with power comes responsibility and power comes from the barrel of a gun and one side has a monopoly on guns.

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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students

Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.

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Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Photo: Unsplash/Roman Mager
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“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha

Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.

The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.

Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.

Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.

Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.

The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).

Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.

But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.

One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.

Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.

To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.

However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”

Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.

Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.

Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.

The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.

Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.

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Reflections

Remembering Binyavanga

The Binj, a larger-than-life personality who, through sheer force of will, opened up the literary space for young African writers who have gone on to give us some of the best writing in generations.

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Binyavanga: He Was One of Us, and We Are Him
Photo: Flickr/Internaz
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In the early noughties, I was working on a project to publish a lifestyle magazine that my team called Miro. “Miro”, deriving from “Amero” or African American, is a word that urban Nairobians of yore used to describe black people. We were hoping to come up with the first urban lifestyle magazine in which Nairobians would see themselves represented as they did in the Ebony and Essence Magazines published in the US.

During that period, I met a guy named Peter Achayo who had a clothing label and believed in what we were doing. He also knew some other guys doing something similar but their focus was mainly literary. He offered to make the introduction and in early 2005, I met the leader of that group, Binyavanga Wainaina, at the Java Coffee House on Mama Ngina Street, a dreadlocked, dark-skinned, heavyset fellow of medium height, sitting in the company of several people. We sat at a booth where I explained to him what my team and I were doing and trying to achieve. He listened keenly, offering several suggestions which I noted. Binyavanga told me that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was in town at his invitation and wondered if an interview with him would be useful. I jumped at the opportunity as I had read the book as a teenager and rated the writer highly.

On the day of the interview, I made my way to Lillian Towers, aka the Nairobi Safari Club, where Binyavanga had me sit at the lobby and wait to meet the great writer. At the time, our magazine Miro hadn’t seen the light of day but he was willing to accord me the same respect that I had seen accorded to journalists who had been around for a while. That respect was something that I carried with me into a career as someone who catalogued the lives of those whom I met. For Armah it was probably just another interview but it forever changed my perception of what being African was.While our efforts at creating a publication failed only months later, I cherished the meetings I had had with this guy with a weird name and with the famous writer from Ghana.

A year later, I founded a new website/blog called NairobiLiving.com (since discontinued) to catalogue a city that was evolving in multiple ways. Some of the hottest gigs at the time were the monthly Kwani Open Mics, an even which was first hosted at the Yaya Centre and later at Club Soundd on Kaunda Street. My reviews of the Kwani Open Mic events got me an invitation to the East African Writers Summit at Lukenya in 2006 organised by Kwani Trust because I was cataloguing the literary revolution that was taking place.

My life was a mess when I received that invitation. My mother had invested a huge sum of money to ensure that I received the best private university education. I had left the country for a year and a half and returned floundering. I was a thirty-one-year old man with no income who had moved back to live with his parents. The magazine project that I had initiated had failed spectacularly and I was desperately looking for something to fill that void both as a career and for income.

I attended the Lukenya writers’ summit and adopted a sort of mute position, one that I would adopt for many years to follow where Binyavanga was concerned. I sat and listened in on the panel discussions by day and, in the evenings, on the conversations that took place by the campfire over copious amounts of alcohol. Listening to Binyavanga, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others discussing the challenges and the opportunities in their writing careers had a marked influence on my life. Binyavanga spoke about the need to write back to the European canon, challenging the writing that defined Africa from the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Joseph Conrad. It was an amazing opportunity for someone seeking purpose in life. That weekend was a turning point for me and I committed to this writing world fully in the months and years that followed.

In making this commitment, I got to know more about this dude who went by the name Binyavanga—or The Binj, or Binya to the many who knew him in the African creative community—and who was central to my making such a life-altering decision. Over the years of a glittering career, his work was featured in many of the world’s most famous publications. Starting with G21, the magazine which had featured his award-winning short story Discovering Home, his work could be read in Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Bomb, etc. At one point he had a regular column in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.

The year I met him, Binyavanga’s essay How To Write About Africa, satirising how European writers talk about our continent, was published in Granta. That essay reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to him railing against those who brought Africa and Africans to disrepute with their writing. It became one of the most shared pieces of writing in that respected literary journal and brought him worldwide fame.

His 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon. It was a memoir of his middle class childhood in his Nakuru hometown, his time as a student in South Africa and, after he return home, his travels across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it onto Oprah’s 2011 Summer Reading List . It was The Binj at his best, showing what English could become in the ownership of a writer with his singular talents.

Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when Binyavanga came out as gay. At the time, several African countries including Nigeria and Uganda were either drafting or passing new laws that would make it very difficult for gay people to be who they were. Outing himself in this “lost chapter of his memoir” and following it up with a series of videos that outlined his views on what was happening to the social fabric of the continent was a revolutionary act.

While his own writing career was significant, his biggest contributions came from his ability to influence others with his larger-than-life personality, his compassion and his sheer determination. It started with the winnings from the Caine Prize, part of which he used to set up the Kwani Trust, jolting the literary establishment in Kenya and across the continent. Before he showed up, there was no Kenyan literature in the true sense of the word as, for a quarter of a century, the industry had been hobbled by anti-intellectual dictator Daniel Arap Moi. At the time the publishers association was a text book lobby that focused mainly on selling books to school children while onn the continent, there was a lull in African writing after the glory years of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the 1960s and 70s.

The appearance of Binyavanga Wainaina signified a shift not only in Kenya but across the continent. After many years of inactivity, the “literary desert” got a new lease of life with the publishing of the literary journal Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the years that followed, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community like the aforementioned Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Forster, Billy Kahora, Andia Kisia, and many more that became the foundation of the literary community that we all look up to today.

With Binyavanga editing Kwani?, he challenged the idea of what literature looked like, what it sounded like or even in what language it was expressed. Experimentation was the name of the game and nothing demonstrated this as well as his association with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau which many considered the biggest hip hop group to come out of Kenya. Led by the inspirational Kama (Kamau Ngigi), young artists who came mainly from Dandora could be spotted at the Kwani? offices huddled around an office assistant who was typing their poetry and other musings. These musings, written in Sheng—a constantly evolving urban language made up of Kiswahili, English and many other Kenyan languages—ended up in the journal much to the consternation and fury of those in academia who considered themselves the arbiters of good literature.

When not ensuring that their work was immortalised in his preferred literary medium, Binyavanga also influenced the young artists as the executive producer of the 2016 Dandora Burning album. He raised money for studio time as well as for living expenses for the artists who featured on the album like Juliani, Kitu Sewer, and a whole host of others.

It wasn’t just experimenting with language that became a trademark of the journal under The Binj. Stories refused to follow any familiar patterns, with fiction, nonfiction and poetry mixed in with everything one could imagine, being published in the smaller version Kwanini when the journal wasn’t in publication. For a long time, there had been a yearning for something new and exciting and the breath of fresh air that was Kwani? was welcomed by those who had been rejected elsewhere. There was now a new space in which to showcase their talent. The new methods were however not as welcomed by those in publishing and academia, with one commentator famously calling the Kwani? writers “literary gangsters”.

One of the methods that the Kwani?, team employed to share their work with the Nairobi audience was the Kwani Open Mic. At the beginning, the events were hosted away from the Central Business District at the Yaya Centre Café Crème and at Kengeles in Lavington. Writers would read from their current or forthcoming entries to the Kwani? Journal, the readings interspersed with poetry and music including from the aforementioned hip hop artists who were part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. The open mic events were a occasions where some of the city’s well-heeled residents met some of the least well off, continuing on a theme that had been prevalent in the wake of the 2002 “revolution” where everything was possible without Dictator Moi; even the rich could sit with the Dandora boys.

The open mic events eventually moved to Club Soundd which was located in the Central Business District. People coming to Club Soundd had convenient access to public transport until the late hours and so more people attended and stayed longer. The events became a spectacle, with the person on stage having to be extremely compelling with whatever poetry, prose, or rap they were presenting or else the audience would switch off and turn to conversation with whoever they were with. Showtime at the Apollo had the Sandman; Kwani Open Mic had a crowd that became easily bored and tuned out.

As the years went by, it became the stage on which many of the poets of the last decade and a half cut their teeth. It was an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships, both professional and personal, were forged that endure to this day. That open mic spawned what became Nairobi’s vibrant poetry scene.

Eventually, Binyavanga had to leave the day-to-day running of the organisation to other people as he took up writing gigs “in the abroad”. He was the writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 2007 and in 2008, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. He then became director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York state. While not physically present at the organisation, Binyavanga sat on the board, giving valuable energy and input.

The organisation he once led came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011 to identify the next big writing stars from the continent and it delivered the motherload. The shortlist from the hundreds submitted included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. The Kwani? Manuscript Prize was ultimately won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, arguably the biggest starin Ugandan writing today.

Binyavanga was involved in other projects with varying degrees of success. In 2010, he led a team of writers in the Pilgrimages project where 14 African writers travelled to 13 African cities and to one city in Brazil to explore the complexities of disparate urban landscapes. From this experience, the writers were to create 14 works of non-fiction about their trips, capturing each city against the backdrop of Africa’s first World Cup. In the list of writers were Chris Abani, Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, Alain Mabanckou, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The much-hyped works never saw the light of day; even the charismatic Kenyan couldn’t always deliver on the hype.

The Binj did deliver on many other occasions though. One of these was the Hay Festival/World Book Capital Africa39 list, a project to identify the writers, under 40 years of age, most likely to influence African writing in the future. That project, for which Binyavanga did most of the initial research, gave us a list of writers who would theoretically influence African writing in the future. Many on that list like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Shadreck Chikoti, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Zukiswa Wanner continue to live up to its premise. Binyavanga was also the biggest supporter of the 24 Nairobi book project which showcased Nairobi as a modern African city through the eyes of its own photographers.

Away from his hits and misses, Binyavanga was plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, suffering a major stroke in 2015 from which he never truly recovered. He announced that he was HIV positive in 2016 and battled with his body until it all ended on the evening of May 21, 2019.

There were two Binyavanga Wainainas; the man before and the man after the 2015 stroke. After he recovered, Binya as I knew him, was not the the same force of nature that he had been. The man who was clumsy in an endearing sort of way was now having that clumsiness seep into all of his life, and it showed. He spent many hours on social media sharing whatever he was thinking and doing while getting into unnecessary virtual battles with perceived or real enemies.

The Binyavanga I wanted to remember was The Binj of before 2015 who showed up one day and changed the game by sheer force of will. I remember meeting him two weeks after being hired as an editor at the Star newspaper in Nairobi in 2011 and was invited to his birthday party where we chatted and he encouraged me, reminding me just how important the work that I did was. This coming from him was a boost that drove me for a long time. I knew that, being in an influential space, I had to ensure that the literary arts occupied their place of honour in Kenya.

We met on and off over the next few years until he was hospitalised by illness. His last words to me were, “You’ve grown a beard”. I laughed and said, “Yes”. They were the last words we shared.

The last time he was at my house, he took a nap in my living room then woke up and dominated the conversation at the smoking area at the backyard. I could tell that he could be a bit frustrated with his speech but he still held his own on in a wide variety of topics. That night showed me the best and the not-so-great of the great man. Being down because of a physical challenge but still coming to the conversation, opening with his signature, “you knowwwww…”

Thank you Binya. You saved me, and many like me.

Rest in Peace Binya. Rest in Power.

You can find a gallery of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing at PlanetBinya.org.

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Reflections

The Capture of Kabuga Frees Me to Hope Again

A Kenyan investigative journalist reflects on the capture of a genocidaire in Paris after 26 years on the run and its significance to the families of the victims left in his wake.

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The Capture of Kabuga, Frees Me to Hope Again
Photo: US State Dept.
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May 16th, 2020 1:43 pm

News of the arrest in Paris, France of Felicien Kabuga, the man long accused of funding the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda 26 years ago, has now reached a one-bedroom house in Pangani estate, Nakuru, Kenya. Josephat Gichuki, the tenant in this threadbare home, calls me to ask if I have heard the news. We talk now and again, our conversations mostly prompted by the slightest of wisps of news about Rwanda’s octogenarian outlaw. Today I can hear excitement in his voice. I ask to interview him on his thoughts and call back eight minutes later.

“I am very, very happy. This is important to me because there is no office I have not gone to seeking justice”, he says. Josephat has cause to be happy. His younger brother, Kenyan journalist William Munuhe was murdered hours before he was set to lead Kenyan and US authorities to Felicien, Kabuga on January 16th 2003. Kenyan Police first claimed that he had killed himself by lighting a charcoal burner and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. Yet the evidence found in his Karen home told a completely different story.

Josephat has been searching for the truth for the last 17 years. Just like that, he very possibly could get the closure he has sought for close to two decades. Pushing for the Kenyan government to provide him with the answers his family needed hasn’t been good for the Gichukis. His father passed away in 2018. Gichuki says that his father was “distraught” that he “struggled so hard to raise a child only to see him killed” and no one to answer for it. “Heartbreak killed my father”, he says. Almost as if his mouth was working on muscle memory, he fires off nearly every attempt he has made to get a response from the government, as well as every missed opportunity.

“[Former President] Kibaki was a guest of the Rwanda government in 2004. We expected him to say something. He didn’t. In 2014 at the 20th commemoration of the genocide, [President] Uhuru was a guest of the Rwanda government. We expected him to say something. He didn’t”.

Neither one of us would be surprised by this. The Kenyan government has long denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of Felicien Kabuga and the crimes that have been linked to him. The day of his capture doesn’t seem to inspire any volunteering of information either. “He isn’t our criminal”, I can almost hear some local public relations spin doctor say. Would Kabuga’s arrest matter to a population whose median age is 19 anyway? It should, in the way that all life-altering events do matter.

May 16th, 1994

A situation report issued daily by the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) rattles off statistics on food, water and fuel rations, a rundown of the fighting between the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) and the RGF (Rwandese Government Forces) on this day. Fighting between current President Paul Kagame’s forces (RPF) and government troops was focused in the north of the country and in Kigali, the small nation’s capital. Journalists had visited various refugee camps to look into distribution of food rations. A meeting brokered to discuss a ceasefire took place at the Hotel Diplomat. The RPF didn’t send any representatives. It makes for a mundane reading of the facts about one of the worst tragedies to have ever taken place on the face of the earth. Yet every detail is important. This one line sticks out:

“HA (Humanitarian activities) team held a meeting with the OPS (operations) officer of the Gendarmerie, GSO II of the RGF and representative of the Interahamwe and the militia, concerning the evacuation of orphans from Giimba and Gitega. Numerous problems were posed regarding the evacuation of orphans”.

This statement meant two things: first, that any humanitarian aid organisation working in Rwanda at the time had to work with the approval of the Rwanda government. That is normal. Secondly, a representative of the Interahamwe, a brutal, bloodthirsty militia responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus was also at the table. That should strike out any doubts of how central it was as a player in the civil war.

26 years later, in the middle of the second month of Rwanda’s Kwibuka commemorations, it also spotlights how important the arrest of the Interahamwe’s chief benefactor Felicien Kabuga is bringing the arc of history that much closer to the endgame; bending it towards justice. Kabuga bought hundreds of thousands of machetes that were given to these men. He owned media houses that trumpeted the “cut down the tall trees” narratives that captured a misled public’s imagination that their brothers and sisters were actually vermin. He was at the heart of the plans to eliminate more than 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population. He was a rich man whose money bought him 26 years of freedom – in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and France.

Few people have walked the earth freely after committing the crimes that he is accused of. Many of the main actors in the holocaust were arrested, tried and hung. Dictators responsible for bringing untold suffering to their citizens have risen and fallen in the time since Felicien Kabuga escaped imminent capture (and possibly a similar fate) by the RPF in the early days of June 1994, starting a 26-year life on the run that ended on May 16th 2020.

Kabuga traveled to Switzerland first, where he was denied entry, before coming to Kenya. Here, he was received with open arms. He and his family bought properties in Kilimani, owned fancy cars and lived quiet lives between 1994 and 1997. His children went to school here. He registered his businesses here and was well on the way to gaining a foothold in the Kenya-Rwanda logistics industry when he was arrested and jailed at the Kilimani Police Station. He was released at the behest of very senior Kenyans including a current Member of Parliament. He would go underground, and official accounts denying his presence in Kenya would begin.

May 16th, 2012

My wife and our two children had just moved into what would be our home for the next one month. I had been investigating Felicien Kabuga’s whereabouts and my sources and I had begun receiving threats. We were in the process of getting passports for our two young children just in case we would need to leave the country. We had already pulled them out of school and my wife had to take leave from work. Meanwhile, I needed to keep on the track of the story. I had turned in the first draft and it was decided that I would need to travel to Rwanda to deepen it.

I had picked up the thread of Kabuga’s sojourn in Kenya in December of 2011. I would read about the man whose money and beliefs sowed bitterness in the hearts of his countrymen through his radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the years before the start of the genocide. I visited Kigali Prison to speak to a woman who worked for Kabuga at RTLM as Rwanda commemorated 18 years since Kabuga and senior Rwandan government officials plotted a genocide.

I pored over documents linking Kenyan military officers to a cabal of Kabuga’s protectors in Kenya. I interviewed former senior government officials in confidence about the man’s whereabouts. I read books about the genocide, spoke to foreign correspondents and senior Kenyan journalists who had covered the genocide. I spoke to genocide survivors, broke bread with young Kenyans working in Rwanda and watched in horror news of a helicopter crash that would kill, among others, Kenya’s internal security minister, George Saitoti. I had planned to interview Saitoti when I got back to Kenya on the subject of Kabuga. I chased leads that led nowhere, and received some that opened up even more information about what Kabuga was up to while in Kenya.

I also interviewed the former Prosecutor General of Rwanda, Martin Ngoga, about Kabuga’s whereabouts. Earlier in the year I had received a photograph of a man who my sources claimed was Kabuga. I showed it to Ngoga, as well as to the lady I interviewed in Kigali Prison, and to a doctor who it was claimed had treated Kabuga in Nakuru, among other people. With the exception of the doctor (who passed away weeks after my documentary aired), everyone else was agreed on the identity of the man in the photo. It was the photo that would cast doubt on a story I had toiled so long to tell.

The man in this photo was produced at a press conference addressed by former Kenya Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe. Daniel Ngera, a businessman from Isiolo, had been forced into the frame by what Kiraithe called shoddy journalism on my part. I couldn’t respond because I wasn’t there to do so. My wife, our children and I had left the country the Friday before the story ran, and were just settling into life on the run. My heart sank and my stomach turned. I could never have imagined that an error on my part would serve as a distraction from the existing facts about one of Rwanda’s most dangerous men.

The month that followed was one of the darkest in my life. I spent it fighting anxiety attacks. Would I have a job to come back to? My wife had already lost her job because she couldn’t explain in detail why she had to be away from work for three months. All through this, I was trying to reassure my wife that everything would be alright. To be honest, she did most of the reassuring.

Fortunately, I had a boss—Linus Kaikai—who stood by me, and (I hope) believed in the integrity of my intentions and the rigour I had applied to the story. I will always regret having exposed Mr Ngera, a man I had never met, to that kind of ridicule—even if I hadn’t set out to do so, much less plot to pass him off as a genocidaire. Yet for all the efforts that my team and I made, or the shame that Mr Ngera was exposed to or the anxious days and weeks that followed, this was the least important part of the story of Kabuga’s life as a fugitive.

Kabuga’s freedom, enabled by people in different countries across the world, was a slap in the face of every Rwandese citizen; those who lost lives during the genocide, those who have endured life without loved ones, even those who were brought to justice years before he will see the inside of a courtroom. The soil that turned red and the rivers in which bodies floated, the churches that were turned into slaughterhouses, all of the history that heaves with the weight of this dark chapter deserves a twist like this one. The hilltops from where the cries of the innocent rang out 26 years ago should hear news of Kabuga’s capture loudly beamed.

Back to May 16th, 2020

My day draws to a close with a call from my mother. She called to say she’d seen the news about Kabuga’s arrest, and that she was proud of me for playing my part in bringing to justice an evil man. “You may not have succeeded, but you did your best—and I feel vindicated on your behalf”. Those words wrung out a bitterness I’ve carried for eight years because of how my attempt to find a bad man ended. If only for tonight, I feel a lightness I haven’t felt whenever I have thought about Kabuga. Earlier, Josephat had ended our call with the same note of hope that he had had for answers 17 years ago. Maybe the request for a public inquest into his brother’s murder will be heeded now that the chief suspect in that murder is behind bars. Maybe not. All he and his family have wanted is justice. Josephat was 33 years old when his younger brother William was murdered because some people in Kenya chose to stand on the side of a butcher than with the millions for whom Kabuga’s crimes can never be fully atoned. His hope may have wavered many a time, but on this day, May 16th 2020, his ageing eyes opened to see the day when an ageing criminal’s luck ran out. The end of Felicien Kabuga’s freedom has freed Josephat and I to nurse the hope that justice does not have a sell-by-date. I know we must nurse this flame with care and not shout too loudly, lest we extinguish it before we have fought the many other battles ahead of us. Hope, it seems, may actually spring eternal.

Who’d have thought it?

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