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Reflections

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

Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes

Gathanga Ndung’u commemorates activists whose lives were snatched away by Kenya’s brutal capitalism. Activists who launched a war against a system of impunity, a world one hundred times larger, mightier, and older than them, but, Ndung’u explains, that each of them mounted a defence to protect and defend their comrades and communities.

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Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes
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The independence struggle of 1920 to 1963 against the colonial government was followed by the second liberation struggle from 1982 to 1992 against the dictatorship of the President Daniel Arap Moi. This was a fight for democracy, a just constitution and a fight for civic space. This culminated with repealing of Section 2A of the constitution in December 1991 which had made Kenya a one-party state for almost a decade. The new, or third wave of liberation has been carried out by social justice movements in Kenya together with a multitude of organisations.

This reflection focuses on three committed activists whose lives were cut short by the same system that took our independence heroes. They dedicated their lives in the new wave of struggle which has been characterised by extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances by the police, the shrinking of democratic space, high level corruption, the ever-widening gap between the poor and rich and the privatisation of basic services.

The Social Justice Centres’ Working Group (SJCWG) is an umbrella body of more than sixty social justice centres based in the communities across the country. It was formed early in 2018 when individual grassroots human rights centres decided to come together to tackle the many injustices in the country and more so in the poor urban areas. The Social Justice Centres Movement has also suffered losses in its five years of existence with the lives of three human rights defender (HRD’s) ending in tragic ways. The richness of life is not through material accumulation, but rather through the impact we make on others.

In this post I celebrate the lives and activism of our fallen comrades as a testament to their work and in the hope that they did not die in vain, and they can inspire others.

Carol ‘Mtetezi’ Mwatha

Carol Mwatha was a mother of two and was a vibrant and committed human rights defender who dedicated her life to serving the community. She worked to ensure that the streets were safe for the youths who had been a target of police killings, arbitrary arrests, extortion and harassments. She started her activism long before the formation of Dandora Community Justice Centre (DCJC) and she had created an elaborate network with other community organisers, activists and organisations fighting for the same cause.

The truth about her tragic end will probably never be known due to the manner in which the state agents hastily created what seemed like an obvious cover up and disseminated the story to media houses without reaching out to the family first, as protocol would have demanded. This was a deliberate move to control the narrative. Carol went missing on 6 February 2019 only to be found at the city morgue on 12 February registered under a wrong name. Her family and friends had been at the same facility on the 8 and 9 February and didn’t find her among those that had been brought to the facility from the day she went missing.

The police story lacked credence from the very beginning. The mortuary attendants failed to disclose the officer in charge on the day she was purportedly brought to the morgue. The post-mortem was delayed, and even then, the wrong name was suspiciously entered – Carolyn Mbeki – and the police went ahead and informed the media of her ‘discovery’ on 12 February even before informing the family.

Carol was a visionary leader with excellent organisational and mobilisation talents. The idea of forming a centre in the community was taken in her house at an informal meeting with her comrades. She saw the need to have a community centre to bring different community organisers into Dandora under one umbrella and speak in one voice. She sat down together with her comrades from DCJC and committed to organising and mobilising her community against the many social injustices they experienced daily.

As a mother, Carol rejected the idea of bringing-up her children in a context where injustices are normalised. To this end, she committed to fight extra-judicial killings, police extortion, arbitrary arrests and harassment of youths which were and still are a common trend in Dandora and other high-density and poor neighbourhoods. She knew what she was standing against but her zeal for a safe Dandora superseded her fears. Alaman James, a long-time friend of Carol notes she was a frequent visitor to Kwa Mbao Police Post and other police stations in Dandora as she tried to secure the freedom of community members who had been arbitrarily arrested. Alaman recounts how Carol – his church friend turned activist – spent countless hours going late at the night to police stations and from one organisation to another trying to help victims. Her resolve to follow-up police killings set her against powerful forces which were used to acting with complete impunity. The establishment of DCJC in the community definitely sent a strong a message which made these forces feel threatened.

Faith Kasina, another close friend of Carol and a coordinator of Kayole Community Justice Centre, described her as a mother figure to most of her comrades. Despite her lean frame, she had wide shoulders for her comrades to lean on when they needed her. She was an elder sister, a mother figure to some, and a close confidant to many. Faith talks of a comrade who would frequently reach out to her friends and comrades just to make sure they were well. Through her friends’ accounts, I learnt about a leading comrade who stood against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome.

Carol Mwatha launched a war against a system of impunity, a system one hundred times larger than her, mightier than her, older than her, but she mounted a defence to protect her children and the community where she lived.

Henry Ekal Lober “Turu”

On 21 February 2021, we lost another committed comrade. Members of the social justice movement learnt of his death after a six-day search ended with the tragic revelation. Ekal had lost consciousness and was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital. Members of his social justice centre had spent days looking for him without help from the hospital administration. With the lethargy and negligence in our public hospitals and because he was not accompanied by anyone to the hospital, he was left to the mercy of fate. He succumbed to his condition and died.

Ekal or Turu as he was known by many, hailed from Loki in Turkana hence his alias. Just like many in Mathare, Ekal found a second home there and he would spend the rest of his years in the community. He came to Nairobi looking for a promising life after leaving his pastoralist family hundreds of kilometres from the capital. Mathare welcomed him with open arms, and he ‘fell in love’ with the place, never to return home.

Ekal had slurred speech, a limp and wound that had become septic overtime, and he struggled with both alcoholism and the institutionalised poverty in the ghettos of the city. Despite these problems, he was a forever jovial, brutally honest with everyone and coherent when it came to articulating issues of injustices caused by the system. For this, some referred to him as professor.

Mary Njeri, one of the administrators at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), recalls her moments with Ekal with nostalgia: “Even though he struggled with alcoholism, he was smart and very clear when it came to articulating his thoughts and what he envisioned for the community. He always carried a pen and a book for jotting down ideas and reflections and a magazine to read in his free time. I sometimes wondered what he would be scribbling and one day out of curiosity, I decided to have a look in one of his notebooks …I was shocked to learn that Ekal was conducting one-man research on Water Accessibility in Kosovo, an area of Mathare where he lived. He did all this with zero budget. Despite his failing health, he would criss-cross the narrow alleys to interview residents on his topic.”

On this particular day, he came straight to Njeri. She wrote and translated the conversation that ensued:

Ekal: Hello Njeri

Njeri: I’m fine, what about you?

Ekal: I’m fine. Are you still in college? Do you know how to use a computer?

Njeri: Yeah, I know how to.

Ekal: (Unfolding his research papers), I would like you type up my research report on water.

Njeri was left speechless after going through the content of his research. It was written in a very clear manner capturing most aspects of the water crisis. Ekal was proactive when it came to action and chose to do what was needed without waiting for donors to fund his work. This is the true spirit of an organic community organiser. Apart from this, he always wrote articles which he would ask comrades to type for him. Yet he was an intellectual that got smothered by the system, slowly sucking his dreams out of him, leaving him hollow and broken.

Ekal was a committed member of Bunge La Mwananchi (People’s Parliament). It is from this space where he became friends with Gacheke Gachihi one of the founder members of MSJC. Ekal floated the idea of forming a JM Kariuki Social Justice Centre named after Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki, who was an activist and politician assassinated during Jomo Kenyatta’s regime. MSJC would later be formed in 2014 to document and fight extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other social injustices.

I came to know Ekal in 2020 at various functions organised by MSJC. In all these meetings, he always created ‘beautiful trouble’, the kind of trouble I call, ‘necessary trouble’. He would not let the meetings proceed without following protocol. He would speak his mind and oppose anything that he deemed not to be in the spirit of true and radical justice.

According to Njeri, Ekal wouldn’t hide his disappointments and offer his unsolicited criticism and would repeat it over and over until his counsel was heeded. And of course, it was always positive criticism. Through this approach, he was instrumental in MSJC’s growth and helped to ensure that the centre did not veer off from its core and founding mandates.

Oyunga Pala, a Kenyan journalist, columnist and an editor, teamed up with Ekal and became a committed member of the Mathare Green Movement where, with Ekal, he embarked on an ambitious project to clean and green Mathare. Hailing from the arid areas of Turkana in Northwest Kenya, Ekal understood very well the role trees play in our ecology. He invested his time in increasing the tree cover of Mathare knowing very well that most of the trees wouldn’t benefit him personally but would serve the generations to come.

The Mathare Green Movement went ahead and transformed garbage sites and polluted areas into small parks. These small parks serve as oases of hope in Mathare giving us a sneak preview of the Mathare dream that Ekal believed in. In his final tribute to Ekal, Oyunga Pala describes the futuristic dream that Ekal saw for Mathare; the future where youths could craft their destinies by being proactive in shaping and charting a new path full of hope. Ekal was one of the few comrades who was proactive, pragmatic, brutally honest, and committed to the struggle with a jovial soul. He always strived to rise above the system’s dragnets stifling his spirit.

This is my ode to Ekal:

May the homeless birds from the wilderness find a tree to perch on in Mathare,

from a restless journey may they find home, an oasis of peace and comfort.

May your trees be home to thousands of homeless birds,

ejected from their ancestral homes due to ecological disruption.

May your trees clean the foul air in Mathare,

the foul air of ethnicity, crime, despair and hopelessness

 and breathe out fresh air rich in hope, a brighter future and common goal of prosperity.

May the roots of your trees hold together the soil of Mathare,

the soil with the blood of Mau Mau and many slain youths.

May that rich history be held together by the roots of your trees.

May that soil never be eroded or washed away.

Let your trees hold the rich history for us and for the future generations.

Alphonce Genga

On 4 February 2022, the Social Justice Centres’ Movement was thrown into yet another deep mourning after the sudden death of Comrade Alphonse Genga. Alphonse was a 21-year old comrade of Githurai Social Justice Centre (GSJC) whose demise occurred four days to from his 22nd birthday.

Brian Mathenge, a close friend, and a colleague of Alphonse paints a picture of a young, vibrant comrade fresh from school, who decided to make an impact in his community. He chose the unfamiliar route, to commit his life to protect the weak, the marginalised, the voiceless and the poor in Kenya. Within a year, Alphonse was a powerhouse in activist circles due to his sincere commitment. He used art to reach out to more community members and to educate, organise and mobilise.

Alphonse would later join the Mau Mau study cell organised in Githurai. Through the ideological grounding classes he attended, he joined the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK) where he dedicated his time to reading and understanding Marxist theory. This sharpened him politically and he would later use the same knowledge to reach more people from his area of residence in Roysambu. He preached and practiced socialism.

Alphonse wore many hats, but if there is one aspect that defined him it was his commitment to ecological justice. He took part in the annual climate strike, he had joined several ecological justice groups such as Eco-Vista, Ecological Justice League, Kasarani Ecological League, Green Jewel Movement and Githurai Green Movement among others.

During the posthumous birthday and celebration of his life, one of his friends confessed that Alphonse had quit football, giving up a talent that he had nurtured since childhood so that he could spend more time in the fight for his community in Githurai.

On 2 February, he was involved in a road accident. He suffered an internal head injury and a broken arm. He was rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he was left unattended for more than ten hours, yet he was a critical condition. Alphonse was in acute pain; his centre members were in panic in the hospital compound. It was only after a confrontation between his friends and the hospital staff that the doctors attended to him although with great lethargy. At the time of his death, his broken arm had not been attended to, more than 36 hours after admission. It was this kind of neglect in a system dominated by privatised healthcare that gradually and painfully squeezed the life out of Alphonse. The same healthcare system he was fighting to improve cut his life abruptly short.

It is an agonising fact which makes one reel with pain to learn that a public hospital such as KNH has a private wing to attend to their well-to-do clientele while the general populace is segregated in general wards without enough medics, nurses, drugs and beds for patients. Only the rich get services as they can afford to pay for them while the poor daily die in droves. Privatisation of the healthcare system in the country has turned the entire system into a for-profit venture.

To give a befitting tribute to our fallen comrade, it is the responsibility of every comrade to demand a total overhaul of the cartel-ridden healthcare system and replace it with a service that serves the people.

In the spirit of Alphonse Genga, it’s NOT YET UHURU until our healthcare is liberated. Let’s ensure we fight for justice, dignified lives, and a better healthcare system as comrade Genga lived doing.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Reflections

The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day.

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The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System
Photo: Guss B on Unsplash
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My name is Kara Fischer! I currently live in New York City, and I’m 24 years old. I’ve loved trains for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been making fantasy maps ever since I was eleven years old, when I visited Europe and saw trains absolutely everywhere—it was nothing like the almost-nonexistent train system at home in the United States. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if the United States had just as many trains as Europe, and so I started sketching maps with pencil and paper, one state at a time.

A few years later, I discovered Cameron Booth’s blog transitmap.net, which collected and reviewed maps from all over the world. Seeing all the wonderful maps on that blog inspired me to start mapping existing systems as well as imaginary ones, and I decided to make my own blog, at https://thetransitgirl.tumblr.com/. While my maps did land me one brief summer job with my state’s Department of Transportation, for most of my life my mapmaking has just been a hobby, where I’d make maps in my spare time while working towards my dream career of writing stories for animated film and television.

Until recently, most of the maps I made were focused on the United States, with a few maps of European cities mixed in. However, that changed at the start of 2022 when I saw a news article about Morocco’s Al Boraq high-speed rail line. I’d had no idea that Morocco actually had high-speed rail at all, and when I looked into it I found that Morocco had a fascinating network of high-speed, intercity, and local trains, with a level of service far greater than what we have in the US. But what I couldn’t find was a map clearly showing the service patterns—and so I decided to make one myself, piecing together all the information I could find online. I’m certain there are errors, including a few missing stations, but I was still quite proud of the map I created.

Since Morocco’s network had wound up being an unexpected joy, I started researching railway networks around the world to try to find other countries to map. Many countries had networks far too large to permit showing all stations in a single map, while many more countries only had one or two train routes, if any. And of the countries that did have networks of the size I was looking for, most didn’t post their timetables online, or had websites that weren’t viewable from the United States. But I did end up finding two national networks that I wanted to map—Estonia and Kenya.

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day. This was different from most of the systems I’d seen elsewhere in the world: usually, lines with infrequent service and spread-out stops would go considerably further from the city center, while short lines that stayed mostly within a city would have frequent service and lots of stops close together. So the way I saw it, Nairobi was using commuter rail to do a metro’s job, and its current network wasn’t serving the needs of the citizens. This was remarkable to me since I knew most people in Nairobi didn’t have cars.

Nairobi Metro Schematic Map

And that’s what raised the question: what if Nairobi had an actual metro, with frequent stops and frequent service? Where would the lines go? Almost on a whim, I decided to try making a fantasy map, just like the maps I’d made since I was eleven.

I started with the existing commuter rail lines as a template, and the first change I made was to add more frequent stations. I looked at both Apple Maps and Google Maps to try to spot the major roads and population centers along the train lines, and I started adding stations in locations designed to be easy to get to, mostly along major roads. Outside the city center, I tried to have stations be approximately one kilometer apart: that way, the entire path of the route would have stations within walking distance, but there wouldn’t be so many stations that the trains would be slowed down by all the stops they’d have to make. Within the city center, however, I spaced stations closer together, since there would be more popular destinations—this would reduce walking distances for many passengers, and it’d also prevent individual stations from becoming too crowded. This method of spacing stations is quite common around the world—a good example is the rail network in Chicago, where I lived for five years.

With more stations added along the existing commuter rail routes, the next question was how to bring service to the parts of the city that weren’t already next to the commuter rail. I decided to mostly follow existing major roads, which is a common approach in cities around the world. Major roads tend to already go to major destinations, after all, and there are multiple options for how the tracks can be built: within the road sharing lanes with cars, in the median at the center of the road, elevated above the road, or in tunnels underneath. Waiyaki Way, Thika Rd, and Mombasa Rd were obvious choices, and I decided to also add an additional downtown route that could go along either Moi Ave or Tom Mboya St. At the outskirts of the city, I tried to connect some of the larger suburbs, but I completely missed both Rongai and Ngong due to a visual quirk in Apple Maps.

In putting together the route segments to determine where each line would go, I made sure every line would serve the downtown area, and I also made sure that every line intersected with every other, so that passengers wouldn’t need to make more than one transfer. The current commuter rail network has the route from Central Station to Makadara as its busiest segment, and so I kept that in my map, sending three lines along that corridor. Since this was the core of the map, I decided to color the three lines to make the flag of Kenya, to tie together the map’s aesthetic design.

When I posted the first version of the map to Tumblr, I expected just a few people to see it—that’s what had happened with all my previous maps, after all. Since I didn’t know anyone from Kenya, I didn’t expect I’d actually get any feedback from locals on how well I’d understood the city’s geography. But after a few days, my map was shared on Twitter by Mbithi Masya, and suddenly I was getting a flood of responses to it from Nairobians. None of my maps had ever gone viral before, and so this was incredibly exciting—and I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to use this feedback to improve the map!

And so, a few hours after the map went viral, I started working on a second version. The most common criticism I’d seen was that the map didn’t serve Rongai or Ngong—both of which I was able to connect to the network by extending the Purple and Green Lines. One person from Githurai convinced me to send the Purple Line there rather than sending it out to Ruai and Mihango, while another person brought up the lack of service to Kitengela. This highlighted the lack of actual commuter rail in my map, and so I added several commuter rail lines out of Nairobi Terminus—some following existing tracks, while others would follow new alignments to connect additional suburbs. (This included Ruai and Mihango, so that they wouldn’t have to lose service due to the rerouted Purple Line.)

When I posted the second version of the map later that evening, it started spreading just as quickly as the first one had—and this time, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, where even people who had taken issue with the original map were thrilled about how I’d addressed their concerns in the second version. This was unexpected—I’d never been to Nairobi, and so I’d never fathomed that I’d be able to make a map that would actually appeal to locals. And before I knew it, my map was getting noticed by public figures such as Sakaja Johnson and Charles Kabaiku, the latter of whom expressed interest in inviting me out to Nairobi. I don’t actually know whether or not he was joking, but if he wasn’t, I’d certainly love to visit for a few weeks to gain an on-the-ground understanding of the city’s infrastructure!

All that being said, though, this map’s ultimately a pipe dream—or a Tube dream, I suppose. In planning the routes, I deliberately avoided questions like how hard the network would be to build, or how much it would cost, or the impacts the train lines would have on the surrounding areas. The map’s aspirational, but not realistic—I’m not the person to go to for actual solutions to Nairobi’s current transportation needs. One Twitter user called me “mzungu”, and while I hadn’t heard the term before, it’s definitely accurate: I’m a foreigner, and I certainly don’t know the city even remotely as well as Nairobians do. And there are people on the ground in Nairobi who’ve been working for years to find practical and feasible ways to breathe new life into the city’s transportation—as an example, the Digital Matatus project is a wonderful visualization of the current network. Guiding Nairobi into the future is a job for Nairobians, not for me.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to fantasy maps like mine. Even if my map doesn’t show a vision that’s feasible to build, it’s gotten people talking—Twitter says the second version of my map has been seen over a hundred thousand times, and that number keeps going up. Countless Nairobians have taken this map as a call to action—when people see how good the future of transit can be, people realize that the future of transit is worth fighting for. And so while my map may have sparked a widespread passion for transit in Nairobi, my greatest hope is that everyone who’s been inspired by my map will follow that inspiration to find the practical ways people are working on to improve transit—because if those projects gain more awareness, then that’s the next step towards building a better Nairobi.

And as for me, well…I’ll keep on making maps as I continue to pursue my screenwriting career! People who’ve seen my Nairobi map have asked me to make similar fantasy maps for other cities, such as Mombasa, Lusaka, Kampala, and Kigali, and I’m hoping to get at least a few of those done within the coming days. I’m incredibly honored to have made an impact in Nairobi, and I’ll definitely be very excited to see what happens next from here.

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Reflections

The Woman in a Leso

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour

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The Woman in a Leso
Photo: Shirley de Jong/Wikimedia Commons
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The Amstelveen bus station is located under a large parking lot serving the Stadshart shopping mall where several luxury brands have stores. It is not the kind of bus station that I am used to and I find it quite sterile. The passenger platforms are wide and mostly empty and the walls on one end are a dull grey in a way that emphasises the often lugubrious weather in Amsterdam. There are two lanes where the buses enter and exit smoothly and on time. The drivers never honk their horns, or leave the engine running as they go off to look for a toilet. There are no touts jostling for customers or hawkers trying to catch the eyes of passengers through the windows. I have never seen a queue for the bus even in the rush hour. The efficiency of public transport in this new country can feel robotic and it does not encourage idling.

But today, I find myself idling because I did not bother to consult my transport app to time my departure to precision. The electronic bus schedule screen tells me that I have a twelve minute wait time for Bus 348 that takes me to Amsterdam South station where I can catch a train to the North.

From where I stand, I spot a motherly figure about 20 metres away walking calmly towards my direction. She stops in front of a pay point. The Netherlands uses a cashless system and you have to buy a ticket to use a bus, tram or train. She starts ruffling through her bag. I find myself staring at her unusual presence and instinctively straighten up as one does in the presence of a woman deemed to be in the age group of one’s mother. I have this sudden need to be helpful but all I do is stare at her.

Where has she come from? Did her son or daughter, probably an African expatriate send their old lady off to catch the bus on her own and now she had lost her way? Did she even know how  to navigate the foreignness of this place?

I jump to all these conclusions based on her appearance. She is wrapped in patterned and coloured Swahili lesos (a shawl), one wrapped around her waist falling all the way down to her ankles, another over her woollen sweater and tied in a knot just over her chest. Her head is wrapped in a headscarf of the same pattern and colour design as the lesos. In a country where the default fashion style is dark and dull hooded jackets and boots, she stands out like a peacock fanning its tail feathers.

She is now standing in front of the pay point about 10 metres away from me. She has a branded shopping bag strapped on her shoulder and she reaches under her armpit to fetch items from its depths. I recognise the Nairobi-blue brand colors of the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. Her manner is nonchalant which leaves me conflicted. I am trying to be culturally appropriate and to ascertain that this elderly African woman is not having any challenge finding her way to the next destination.  Yet, I am restrained because this is the Netherlands, the land of mind-your-own-business and don’t look me in the eye. Overly polite gestures are thought of as insincere and put on.

Her stout short build, her firm belly bulge and dark wry face is a familiar presence. One that I had met throughout my life, in rural market places in the early morning spreading out their  fresh vegetables by the roadside or at funeral wakes, singing gospel hymns with the choir under a tarpaulin tent cover, facing a coffin on a chilly night, in the village.

The leso, also known as the khanga is a traditional rectangular shaped textile that is worn by women in East Africa. They come in an assortment of intricately patterned and colourful designs, and sometimes with a cautionary message, a Swahili proverb, written on one of its sides. The leso is a ridiculously versatile garment. It can function as a ground cover for sitting outside on the grass, a baby carrier for a working mother, a pouch to store valuables, a towel and a blanket. Only that I never imagined its function as a shawl for the cold in the early winter weather.

Kenyan oraturist and artist Mshai Mwangola, once called it, the cloth that speaks, and these lesos were speaking to me, transporting me back in time and place, to a world that was thousands of miles away from here.

The woman in a leso seems to be struggling with the pay station where one tops up the balance on their bus card. Maybe she needs the language of instruction changed? I begin to summon fresh courage to approach and politely ask whether she needs any assistance.

Then I notice that someone else had beaten me to it and I find myself getting possessive.  Everything about this individual looks disheveled. He has on a layered faded green khaki jacket with deformed pockets.

I had seen this man earlier, squatting with his back against the wall and I thought that was an odd position to be in, on a Saturday afternoon in this upmarket location. There is an air of despondency around him and I get an even stronger urge to intervene.  But he is already assisting her and fiddling with the pay point.

I notice his height. He must be Dutch, for they are a tall people who I think of as the Dinka of Europe. He is also gangly and he towers over the woman in a leso. I also notice that he has a lit cigarette in his free hand and that only serves to trouble me further.

Didn’t he know that this is a cultural faux pas? You never smoke in front of an elderly woman? Jesus Christ!!! Where are your manners?

This conversation is all going on in my head and I make no attempt to move in their direction, sparing only the occasional glance in order not to appear overly interested in the affairs of the woman in a leso.

She continues to speak to him as he fiddles with the machine and after a short while, it appears the problem has been resolved. Then, I see the tall man hand the old lady a lighter and she proceeds to extract a half smoked cigarette, that she lights up, taking a long drag like a smoker who just got off a 10 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg.

The tall man resumes his earlier posture by the pay point.

The woman in a leso continues puffing away without a hurry in the world. Three young Asian women walking past her, frown disapprovingly. One even makes an attempt to sweep away with her hand, the cigarette smoke wafting up their path.

Two buses arrive in tandem. The 347 and the 348. As I wait for the passengers to disembark, I notice the woman in the leso talking to the driver as if seeking clarification. I think she has a firm authoritative voice but since I am out of earshot, I cannot make out what is said or catch her accent. After a minute, I see her walking back and she enters the 348, the same bus I am in.

The long red bus takes off, riding low and snaking smoothly around the roundabouts. At every next bus stop, the automatic doors open with a hissing sound and cold air from outside drifts into the bus. The passengers are subjected to routine recorded health safety announcements in both Dutch and English, “Please wear your face masks properly’’.

The woman in a leso has her mask under her nose and she is standing even though there are two empty seats next to her. One hand grips the railing firmly and she appears to be familiar with the rhythms of the bus, her feet steady and swaying with a fluidity I was not expecting.

The next stop is a narrow street lined with old trees with knotted trunks. The electronic signboard in the bus reads Kalfjeslaan. The bus stops for some time as the driver has to put out a ramp for an elderly lady in a wheelchair to disembark, so I take a moment to look at my surroundings.  On the right side of the bus stop there is an aged church building in red brick with a tall bell tower next to it. On the opposite side across the road, I see a brown bar, a corner liquor store and next to it, a coffee shop named the Border. There is a motley mix of people standing in the queue facing the bold green signage of the coffee shop.

Then the woman in a leso appears in my view walking to join the queue with the same calmness as when I first set my eyes on her. I find myself chuckling under my face mask because I would never have guessed that the woman in a leso, the old lady I desperately wanted to assist, was a disciple of cannabis.

I wish I had caught her eye, standing at ease in that queue to the coffee shop. I would have told her…I know you are a complete stranger but I know you. You are my aunty from the village, the defiant one. The one who rolls her own cigarettes, smokes laced tobacco, drinks the local gin and the men, do not walk on her wrong side. You have probably refused to accept Christ as your personal saviour and do not have a single bone of affectation in your body. You are from the league of badly behaved women who were shunned by society because they were not demure and avoided because they only speak the truth.

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour.

This piece was first published on oyungapala.com

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