In January 2018, The Star newspaper splashed the headline The Ship has Sailed, It is time to Move on. The report quotes the US ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec urging Kenyans to stop discussions on the 2017 election and rally behind President Uhuru Kenyatta’s four pillar development agenda. That was the first time I was hearing of these pillars, from a foreigner. It got me thinking, yes the October 26threpeat presidential election were concluded and Uhuru was declared the winner and sworn in, hence the legal president. I still have problems with its legitimacy even when I can do nothing about it. That is why I declare that Godec can move on because I am not moving on.
I have always believed in the Kenyan dream, even when things were not going so well. Kenya is way ahead of countries in the region despite our institutionalized tribalism and corruption. As a robust market based economy in Africa, with the right leadership we can do wonders. As of August 2017, the belief was shuttered, resuscitated by the Supreme Court then killed again by end of October. For the first time, after despising people who leave Kenya for odd jobs abroad, I was ready to go and wash dishes in the West just to get away. The direction the country has taken makes me doubt if my children’s pursuit of happiness in this country is guaranteed.
A few years ago, I met Mutiso in Kisumu. Mutiso left his home in the former Eastern Province in the early eighties as a teenager and has never gone back since but I did not ask him why. He is now a small-scale businessman in Kisumu, married to a Luo and settled in Muhoroni area of Kisumu County. He told me how he proudly took up the name Onyango and it is only the advent of mobile phone money transfer that blew his cover to many of his friends in Kisumu. His experience cemented my belief that the Kenyan nation-state dream is valid despite all this madness. I had even contemplated coming up with a TV show to showcase such stories until 2017 happened.
Nowadays, my heart is no longer neutral. I may not be a great admirer of Raila Odinga’s brand of leadership but I have immense respect for the man. I respect him for his consistent belief in good governance, which is rare in African politics. Raila was at the forefront in agitating for introduction of multiparty politics in Kenya in the late 80s. He served two stints totaling 10 years in detention for the same before joining parliament in 1992. He was part of a team that pushed for the enactment of a new constitution that culminated in the promulgation of our new constitution in 2010.
On the other hand, I could not place a finger on one thing either Uhuru Kenyatta or William Ruto believes in or stand for. There is nothing to attribute to the two Jubilee Party leaders except a penchant for amassing wealth for wealth’s sake. Uhuru Kenyatta was running his family’s vast business interests before coming to politics. The first thing that comes to mind when one hears the name William Ruto -is land, which ironically the Kenyatta family owns in excess. A court ordered Ruto to return land he illegally acquired from one Adrian Muteshi an internally displaced person in 2013. One of Ruto’s business interests was adversely mentioned in attempts to grab the Langata Road primary school playground in Nairobi in 2015. If someone has not done basic stuff to uplift his community as a private citizen or junior civil servant, they will not learn to do it when they have power. This informed my decision to back the NASA coalition in the 2017 general elections.
So towards 2017 general elections I felt a deep apprehension. Deep down I believed that the Kenyan dream was viable and that lack of astute political leadership had denied us a chance to live up to our collective potential. Against this hope, I somehow knew that Raila was going to win but Jubilee Coalition was not going to hand over power. With a heavy heart, I tried to play out several scenarios and I feared for my country.
I supported Raila Odinga’s decision to pull out of the repeat election in October called by the Supreme Court. Nothing was going to change under an IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) that had disobeyed a Supreme Court order to open its servers for scrutiny. International media outlets reported turnouts of between 27% and 30%. IEBC first reported a 48% turnout then posted a 42% final turnout. Kandara MP, Alice Wahome was caught on camera trying to force a returning officer to change figures which reinforced my suspicions that IEBC headquarters did not get actual figures.
Two deaths within two weeks either side of the August 8th election date blew up my long held belief in the Kenyan dream. On 31stJuly the body of IEBC Acting ICT Manager Mr. Chris Musando was found in Kiambu County. His autopsy report later confirmed his death was caused by strangulation after torture. On 15th August, six-month-old Baby Pendo who slipped into a coma after suffering head injuries from a police raid to her home in Kisumu’s Nyalenda slums breathed her last. If there was a thin layer of hope, the blood of these two washed it away.
Chris Musando was in the media assuring Kenyans that the upcoming election backed by an electronic transmission system was secure and tamper proof. Whatever happened after the votes had been cast and counted a week later and the subsequent annulment by the Supreme Court leaves no doubt where fingers of suspicion should point. There were several ways of ‘dealing with’ Musando for standing in the way of those who wished to bungle the polls. The choice of elimination shows the kind of people operating behind the veil of the Kenyan system. I believe the government knows who killed Musando because it is the job of the government to know. But I am old enough not to hold my breath waiting for someone to be charged in court for the murder.
Baby Pendo’s death cut deep. Here is a couple who struggled to get a baby after several miscarriages and waited for a few years. I am a Sunday school teacher and my belief in children as the future of society inspires me to teach children every Sunday despite my stutter. The police initially ignored people’s outcry then later launched an investigation into her death but as I said earlier I won’t be holding my breath. Two days before Pendo died, police shot dead nine-year-old Moraa Nyarangi in Mathare in Nairobi. In November, a stray bullet in Embakasi area of Nairobi killed seven-year-old Godfrey Mutinda. In Kisumu several children were hospitalized after tear gas was lobbed into a nursery school compound. In total Kenya National Commission on Human Rights reported that the police at the height of 2017 elections drama killed seven children. Nelson Mandela said there is no keener revelation of a nation’s soul than the way in which it treats her children. We have lost our soul as a nation.
The police brutality during the 2017 election season was a stark reminder that the state identified my kind as Luo by extraction and not Kenyan. Since late last year, I have been writing a series on the Luo relationship with the government for Nairobi Law Monthly. When I was writing the second part, I found myself using the third person plural pronoun “they” when referring to Luos. I edited it to ‘we’. In my published piece, I realized I had referred to Luos in third person. I was born in Nakuru but schooled in the former Western province of Kenya. This gave me a nationalist outlook and the feeling of the insider standing out-looking within the Luo-national context.
After 8th of August, I realized that the government measures Luos on a different scale. The levels of police brutality meted out against demonstrators in Luo Nyanza failed to assuage my doubts. Dead bodies discovered in bags floating on Lake Victoria after police were reported requesting for body bags in Kisumu was proof of a calculated move to kill and not contain demonstrators. The invasion of homes, the reports from Nairobi slums of militia gangs pulling people out of their houses at night and killing were hallmarks of a sinister plot against opponents of the Jubilee Party government.
What police fail to take cognizance of is that they rarely catch the actual demonstrators. It is innocent people going about their business who get cornered when police close in on fleeing demonstrators. I can bet most of the victims of police brutality during the post-election violence were not actively taking part in the demonstrations. The evidence is in the number of children who died in that period.
NASA supporters then called for the creation of The Peoples’ Republic of Kenya from NASA supporting counties leaving the rest as Central Republic of Kenya. They even designed a flag for the new republic. The calls tagged my heartstrings and I soon became a secessionist. This is not the first time such ideas are coming up. There was the push by ethnic Somalis to secede to Greater Somalia after independence. The secessionist movement was crushed during the Shifta war of 1963-1967. Kikuyu leaders also toyed with the idea at the height of tribal clashes in Rift Valley between 1991 and 1992. Mombasa Republican Council recently called for secession of coast province. This time round, the secession calls are emanating from western Kenya.
The systematic marginalization of some parts of Kenya is one reason for the calls for secession. Unresolved political assassinations since independence cannot go unmentioned. The methodical design to keep political power in the hands of two communities is pushing some of us to be separationists. In various social media forums I find Kenyans giving in to the reality that their votes never count during elections. You cannot separate political power from state patronage even with the advent of devolution. Marginalization in Kenya walks hand in hand with political exclusion. Three Kikuyus and one Kalenjin have led the Kenyan government in our fifty-four years of independence. Moi who is a Kalenjin Kalenjin ruled for 24 years while Kenyatta I, Mwai Kibaki and Kenyatta II – who are Kikuyu’s – share thirty years between them. In Kenya, political power skews economic growth. This is why the adage out here is Kikuyus and Kalenjins are hard working while the rest of the other Kenyan tribes are lazy and poor. Exclusion from the centre of power has given us more millionaires in the political class than in business.
The Jubilee Party and government made 2017 look like a Raila problem. The use of brutal forces on his supporters especially Luos who make only 30% of his base is tyrannical. This selective treatment engrains the feeling of resentment in his support base thus leaving secession as a dignified option. When people feel that they do not belong, despondency creeps in leading to likelihood of instability. The constitution gives a road map for a section of Kenya to secede if they want to.
Suppressing the will of the people, which I believe happened in 2013 and 2017, has negative effects on the social and economic development of a country. The most rapid growth in Kenya was witnessed between 2003 and 2013 despite the effects of 2008 post-election violence. This is because Kenyans felt they had won or lost the 2002 elections fairly. The joy and optimism trickled down to business and social spheres with positive effects. The converse is true; electoral manipulation leaves people with negative energy or just enough energy to barely survive. Traction will be very minimal regardless of what the government of the day does. This is why the calls to forget the 2017 elections and talk development will not bear any fruit.
In the midst of this political standoff, some people are proposing further reforms to our electoral laws. The law is innocent, let us keep the law out of it and look each other squarely in the eye. The law is only as good as the people executing it and it has no power to change the hearts of men. There was the IPPG (Inter Parties Parliamentary Group) push that changed election laws in 1997; we had further changes in 2008 then the promulgation of a very progressive constitution in 2010.
Then in 2016 NASA led a push to send home IEBC commissioners and repealed our election laws again. In mid-2017 Senior Counsel and Siaya County Senator James Orengo wagged his index finger, blinked in his characteristic style then proclaimed that Jubilee Coalition would lose the August election. He was basing his point on a court ruling that votes counted at the polling station and announced at the constituency would be final. He was deluded, what happened between August and November in spite of the changed electoral laws in place must have left NASA bewildered. Our problem is not lack of good laws, so reforms will still be futile.
In pursuit of their selfish interests, foreign envoys are pushing for moving on or a power sharing deal. The unseen hand of foreign masters can be felt in the cherry picking of issues they choose to speak against. Gone are the days when the west stood by democratic, human rights and good governance values as they pushed for their interests. Today China has taught them that their economic interests supersede everything. The push by the envoys for a political settlement without auditing 2017 elections will not solve the problem. We cannot insist on swimming in the baby pool because some people fear to swim in the ocean. We have to move from taking care of politicians’ interests and demand what is good for Kenya.
The biggest problem is once a mistake has been committed in the course of a nation’s development; it takes a generation (about 25 years) to turn things around. The expelled Tutsis who went to Uganda as children in the late fifties and those born in exile in the sixties invaded Rwanda as RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) in 1990. The children born in Burkina Faso after Blaise Campaore murdered Thomas Sankara in 1987 came of age and drove Campaore out of power in 2014. Righting our wrongs will take us a long time.
The ship may have sailed but this time round I am neither accepting nor moving on.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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