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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

The Day That Shook Nairobi

A former Indian diplomat recalls the terrifying moments after the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Kenya’s capital city.

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The Day That Shook Nairobi
Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
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August 7, 1998.

This date remains etched in my memory. Professionally and personally, it is one of the most significant and terrifying experiences of my life as a diplomat. At the time, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as the Deputy High Commissioner and Head of Chancery at the Indian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

The day started out normally. Nairobi’s cool August breeze made for a salubrious day. As usual, in the morning, I went to the Indian High Commission on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi’s city centre. I took a quick look at the schedule, and I knew it was going to be a busy day. We were organising roadshows to promote the Resurgent India Bonds seeking Non-Resident Indian (NRI) funds, which were launched on 5 August 1998. India’s Independence Day celebrations were a week away. Furthermore, we had significantly increased our diplomatic outreach as India had conducted nuclear tests
in May 1998.

At about 10:35 a.m., I got a call on my landline. I left my computer, which was by the window, and picked up the phone at my desk. (It was the pre-mobile phone time though dialup internet and email were in use.) The call was from an old army colleague, with whom I had worked in Colombo.

A few minutes into the call, I heard a loud bang. I paused for a few seconds and said: “It sounds like a bomb.” My colleague joked that I had not gotten over my Sri Lankan memories. Even before he finished his sentence, there was another huge explosion. This time, the sound was deafening. The whole building shook.

The reverberation from the explosion was so severe that it shattered all the 16 window panes in my office. The impact of the blast ripped the partition between the rooms, which fell on my head. Fortunately, I was on the phone and not at the computer terminal by the window. I told my colleague that this was certainly a bomb and hung up.

My mind started racing with questions. Why would someone plant a bomb of such intensity in Nairobi? And, that too, two of them? Who could have orchestrated such a blast? The bank workers and teachers were on strike. The teachers had demonstrated for a few days behind the commercial buildings, in which our High Commission had several floors. I could not imagine that the bank clerks or teachers could do such a thing. The market street below us witnessed the occasional lynching of suspected thieves, but this was nothing like that.

Within minutes, many staff members came rushing into my room, horrified and alarmed about what had happened. Some of them thought it was an earthquake. Having lived through earthquakes in Japan and bombings in Sri Lanka, I was certain that this was no earthquake. In Nairobi, we never expected an earthquake or a bombing.

Our first reaction was to secure the embassy and evacuate everyone else, excluding the guards. All embassies have crises management plans and we had, fortunately, revised ours two years earlier, before the 1997 general elections in Kenya. We knew what to do. Before leaving my room, I called my wife’s office at the United Nations complex and asked her to ensure children of all mission personnel were brought home from schools.

Amidst the chaos, my staff and I made our way down the stairs. When we reached the street, we witnessed utter devastation. The street was covered in the wreckage; pieces of glass strewn all over the street. Hundreds of people were bleeding, their faces lacerated. Amidst the chaos, we decided to help wounded people. Using our embassy cars, we transported some wounded people to the Aga Khan Hospital, which was on the way to the Indian embassy’s residential complex.

Meanwhile, though the phones went dead in the city centre, we managed to establish contact with the High Commissioner through his car phone. When we informed him of the blast, he went directly from his UN meetings to India House and took charge of crisis management.

This was Al Qaeda’s first attack on American assets in Africa, with simultaneous bombings at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In Nairobi, the first explosion was a grenade attack. The second more powerful explosion was the detonation of a truck bomb. 214 people died, over 500 injured. Of them, 13 were US citizens. Most were Kenyans who happened to be at the crowded city centre when the bomb went off.

The five-storied Ufundi house building behind us came crashing down, burying most people beneath the rubble. Most were staff and students of a secretarial institute there. The rescue missions managed to extricate about 120 people from that rubble over two days. Some survived longer, but could not be rescued. The US embassy, barely 60 metres from our building, was damaged. The car park, where the truck bomb detonated, was wrecked.

That day, Kenya was grievously hurt. The nation had no idea why it was the victim. The story, from the US point of view, is well documented. Let me recount the unsung part of our story.

My team at the High Commission and all the families who lived at the Highridge estate rose to the occasion with great responsibility. In a few hours, we had set up dialup internet connectivity, opened an office and a crisis centre and established contact with Indian diaspora organisations. We also set up a meal ferry to the guards at the High Commission.

The Asian community, as the people of Indian origin are known in Kenya, reacted swiftly and generously. Many community organisations coordinated their responses and set up evacuation and rescue teams to support the administrative machinery that was struggling to understand the situation as well. Before noon, they managed to bring in heavy machinery from construction companies and set up functional kitchens
at the periphery of the damaged area, serving people who were part of rescue reams.

The Kenyan Asian community stood shoulder to shoulder and provided the much-needed support to all people at those critical times. They provided ambulances and many volunteers supported Kenyan efforts. But unfortunately, their role has not been fully documented or acknowledged.

By the time the full impact of the explosion came to light, after a day or so later, we were relieved that some of our friends in the US embassy, including Ambassador Bushnell, though injured, were safe. However, their Consul General, Julian Bartley, whose children went to school with ours, perished. A US diplomat of India origin, Prabhi Kavaler, who joined her husband in Nairobi on a couple posting a week earlier, was a casualty that unfortunate day.

The glass shards from the blast caused irreparable damage to hundreds of people. Several children from the Shree Cutchi Leva Parel Samaj School sustained severe eye injuries. Hundreds of people, who rushed to their office windows when they heard the sounds, were wounded by broken glass.

Many Asian doctors provided round the clock trauma and ophthalmic services for several days. The Aga Khan Hospital provided splendid services at that time. They refused financial support, which many hospitals obtained from the United States. The Asian Foundation led many initiatives, the Kenya Society for the Blind trained many affected people for computer literacy. The US embassy gave way to a memorial garden.

Kenya realised it was now in the crosshairs of international terrorism. It was the victim of terrorist attacks again in 2013 in Nairobi, and in 2015 in Garissa.

The Indian High Commission is still in the same commercial building. It has, of course, undergone many renovations. But the lacerations in our hearts have not healed.

Twenty-two years later, as I saw the horrific explosion in Beirut, I was reminded of the bomb blast in Nairobi. It remains fresh in my mind and I pray for the souls of all those innocent people who fell prey to terrorism that day.

This article was first published in the Madras Courier.

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Reflections

Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities

The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. Even now, faced with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it has opted to place the responsibility of ensuring that students can safely return to school squarely in the hands of school managements.

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Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities
Photo: Unsplash/Mwesigwa Joel
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The head teacher of our local primary school reminds me of Mr. Musili, who ran the primary school I attended in downtown Nairobi back when Kenya was newly independent. He was greatly respected, little feared, and much loved by the pupils, as is the head teacher of our local primary school.

The school is old, built in 1947 by the colonial administration and, up until very recently, had pit latrines that were prone to flooding every time it rained. Kids barely out of their nappies would chase after Head Teacher across the quadrangle, “Teacher! Teacher! Choo zimejaa!”, and off he would go to call the exhauster, throwing 52,000 shillings down the toilet with each exhauster visit.

Head Teacher’s budget for running the school is meager; he receives each year – in three tranches – the grand sum of 335 shillings for each of the 846 pupils that are enrolled at the school. With that sum, Head Teacher must pay the electricity and water bills, buy firewood for the kitchen, maintain the school in a proper state of repair and generally keep everything ticking nicely. Luckily, his financial management skills are peerless; each of the 335 shillings is milked for all its worth and, somehow, the 11 shillings per year that the government deems sufficient for the purchase of sanitary towels for each pubescent girl suffice.

The fees paid by the parents of the 297 pupils that board at the school (26,500 shillings per student per year) are crucial to Head Teacher’s budget, bridging the gap between the government’s disbursements and paying the salary of the groundsman (who also takes care of the two cows that provide the milk for the morning tea), as well as the salaries of nine other support staff. That money also covers the cost of all meals and the sorghum, millet and maize flour uji the boarding pupils enjoy during the mid-morning break.

Head Teacher is a true educator; his is a calling driven by a passion to mould young minds and bring the best out of each of his charges. And so, despite the challenges and the lack of resources, our local primary school has built itself a reputation, drawing pupils from as far away as Nairobi, and attracting pupils away from local private schools.

Now the coronavirus has come to put a spanner in the smooth workings of Head Teacher’s finely calibrated budget, with the government placing squarely in his lap the responsibility of ensuring that the school is COVID-prepared when pupils return next year. Head Teacher has been advised by the education ministry that he will have to find ways to ensure that handwashing facilities are placed outside each classroom and office, outside the dorms and the kitchen, by the door of the school hall, in the toilets, at the gate and in the playing fields. Liquid hand soap must be provided, and a thermo gun foreseen, as well as hand and surface sanitisers.

A sick bay must also be established and a qualified nurse engaged. The non-teaching staff will need to be equipped with personal protective gear and the cooks in the kitchen will require food-handling certificates. The government doesn’t say where the money for all this is to come from, or indeed how adequate water supplies will be maintained come the dry season when water is prone to rationing.

To adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule, the school would need 48 classrooms. But a sudden increase in classroom space is unlikely to happen in an institution where the number of classrooms has risen from one, when the school was established in 1947, to 24 today. The Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, has proposed the installation of temporary tents and the use of teleconferencing by teachers to ease congestion.

Well, as far as computer technology is concerned, Head Teacher is in possession of exactly one projector (without a screen) which was supplied by the government, together with the tablets that now lie gathering dust in their purpose-built strongroom for want of material that is suited to the recently introduced competency-based curriculum. In any case, the school only has five teachers who have received basic two-day computer-skills training as part of the government’s now collapsed Digital Literacy Programme. So CS Magoha’s proposal is moot.

The government also says that pupils found sharing textbooks shall be considered to have committed an offence. Well, at our local primary school, a textbook is, of necessity, shared between two pupils and so, based on that threat alone, the school will not be able to reopen. It used to be that the government would allocate a budget for books according to the size of the school population. With his usual careful use of resources, and zero tolerance for loss or damage of learning materials—and by organising book harvesting events—Head Teacher had managed to bring the number of pupils sharing a textbook down from one book for every ten pupils in 2013 to one book for every two pupils within five years. Then in 2018 the government decided to take over the supply of books to schools, but even today, in half the classes, one textbook is still shared between two pupils.

It is also highly unlikely that the boarding facilities will be expanded in time to meet the social distancing requirements and so, either the number of boarding students will have to be drastically reduced or the section will have to be closed down altogether; in either case, Head Teacher’s finely tuned budget will take a direct hit.

And as if the headache of ensuring that the school will be COVID-ready when classes recommence is not bad enough, Head Teacher has also been given the responsibility of “ensuring access to education [through] guidance and counseling” for those pupils who have fallen pregnant or have been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse during the long COVID-induced break. Needless to say, even if Head Teacher were in a position to discover which among his pupils have been whiling away the time indulging in alcohol and drugs, there is not one trained counsellor on his staff to deal with the problem, even though the education ministry’s directive asks Head Teacher to “strengthen the guidance and counselling departments to help pupils and staff deal with the psychosocial issues in the wake of corona pandemic [and] prevent stigmatisation and hysteria in case of a detected case”.

The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. That a school established over 70 years ago only recently managed to raise enough funds to build modern eco-friendly, wheelchair-friendly toilets is a clear indicator of the government’s neglect. It took the inventiveness of Head Teacher and his management board, the collaboration of parents and the support of the old students’ network to come up with a solution to save the 160,000 shillings lost annually to pit latrine exhaust services. And so, the toilet ratio of one urinal for every 30 boys and one toilet for every 25 girls is the one requirement that the school will be able to respect when schools reopen.

Still, something good for Kenya’s pupils might yet come out of this coronavirus pandemic; the government is reportedly considering moving the preference to day-schooling, with boarding schools reserved for pupils who must of necessity travel long distances to get to a school. This, in my view, is as it should be. Head Teacher should not have to confront an irate parent, fed up with having to deal with a troubled youth at home, or the complaint that the food budget has gone through the roof because the school holidays have been too long.

We Kenyans have long abdicated our responsibilities towards our youth, abandoning even the raising of our children to teachers, thus unwittingly widening the emotional gulf between children and parents and creating intergenerational alienation even as the government criminalises the youth, and issues edicts laced with threats each time it is confronted with a problem affecting them.

As Wandia Njoya says, “We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating adults who abuse the children they are supposed to take care of as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.”

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Reflections

A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China

To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.

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A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
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I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.

She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.

In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.

I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.

China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.

I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.

As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.

And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.

However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.

A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.

China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.

The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.

To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.

This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.

When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.

Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.

Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.

Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.

A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.

This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.

We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.

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