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Our Dreams Are Valid

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Our Dreams Are Valid
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On March 1, 2018, two weeks after its release, Black Panther movie was approaching a billion dollars in ticket sales. 10 days in, the movie leapt past the $400 million mark in domestic box office in the USA and over $700 million across the world. That is Stars Wars territory but with an All Black Cast to boot in a Marvel feature. This is the movie equivalent to the US Dream Team, at the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona. Never before had a finer group of talented basketballers come together and when they did, they took the world by storm. Black Panther is having its dream team moment as the showcase for black excellence and representation in cinema.

Black Panther is a beautifully shot film. The fictional country Wakanda is rich in detail. The central story is about belonging and heritage. Ryan Coolger, the 31-year-old African American director looks at Africa with a different set of eyes and response to this film in Kenya has been tremendous. A film is big when people pack theatres weekend after weekend and even during the weekdays to experience the magic of the big screen despite our home entertainment movie culture.

Black Panther is a tale told by Africans about a place far away that they call home. In some respects, an African dream inspired by Marcus Garvey’s rallying call to the African diaspora, “ Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand”. Ryan Coolger said in a Rolling Stone interview that Black Panther explored what it meant to be African.

From the inside looking out, Black Panther checked some heavily referenced “Poor Africa” stereotypes typical of the outsider perspective. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina in his popular essay “How To Write About Africa” offered some satirical advice.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.

Black Panther gives a lot of prominence to the word tribe to describe the different people of Wakanda. The term tribe was used as a tool in the colonial policy of divide and rule. The enlightened way to describe native micronations in Africa is by their name, the Igbo, the Xhosa, the Turkana, the Shona. It is unnecessary to qualify African ancestry with the word tribe.

The Hollywood attempt at standardizing an African accent has to be resisted. Regional accents serve as a better representation of diversity. Accents can be assigned regionally as say speaking English with a Xhosa inflection. Then of course, every authentic African themed movie must end with a sunset scene and the Black Panther did not disappoint.

Away from the nitpicking, it is easy to forget that Black Panther is a film written for 10-year-olds and an adaptation of a comic character introduced in 1966, the same year that the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in America. The politics of the movie was bound to stir debate on racial dignity and self-determination. This is a picture frothing on the brim in its commitment to celebrate African heritage. A counter superhero story brewed in an African pot. Black Panther has provoked an identity discussion about what it means to be African and it happening between Africans in the continent and in the diaspora. I have gotten swept up by the pages of analysis and reviews, drawn into debates about the representations of race in American cinema and the complexity of a black African identity.

I started going to the cinema in the 80s back when Nairobi had a vibrant movie theatre scenes. The cinema halls Kenya, 20th Century, Nairobi, Odeon, Cameo, Casino were within a 100m radius of each other in downtown Nairobi. They were two drive-in cinemas, Fox Drive on Thika Road and Bellevue Drive-in off Mombasa road. The 80s were rough years. Structural Adjustment Programmes and austerity set off an exodus to the West and with the rise of an authoritarian regime in Kenya, we looked to cinema for that much-needed escape from the frustration of the daily life pounding our parents. There was hardly ever any black representation on the big screen and when black people were shown they were typically in subordinate roles to the white lead. The big movie depictions of Africa were afflicted by Tarzan’s jungle fever. Africa and her people were backdrop props to foreign stories. The big African themed movies of my 80s were “Out of Africa, Gorillas in The Mist, Sheena, Queen of the jungle ( A blonde haired white woman riding a zebra through the savanna). Africa was a vast space where majestic game roamed free, peppered with noble savages and subservient labourers in pressed white khaki uniforms pledging loyalty to the benevolence of their white masters.

The first movie I encountered that challenged this stereotype was “ Coming To America” and it stood apart in the 80s for its leading men Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and James Earl Jones. Coming To America is a romantic comedy about an African prince from the fabulously wealthy kingdom of Zamunda flying across the Atlantic in search of love. The prosperity of the fictional Zamunda kingdom was contrasted with the squalor that characterised the black underclass in Queens, New York. It parodied the African American ignorance of the African experience and introduced the radical idea then of sophisticated Africans appalled by the backwardness of American culture. There was an underlining satirical element to Coming To America. Africa in the Afro American consciousness was a place of poverty and primitive existence but within it existed oases of affluence, prosperity hiding in the open. In the kingdom of Zamunda and Wakanda, a glorious Africa thrived yet its story remained unknown in the Western worlds.

In the 80s, VCRs, video cassette recorders were all the rage and we started getting access to what was then the blaxploitation genre, with it stereotypical crime and violence themes. Spike’s Lee ( Do The Right Thing) and John Singleton’s ( Boyz N The Hood) became my most influential movies in this space and they helped raise awareness of systemic racism in America.

One time, I went to a video hall that screened martial arts and combat movies and settled to watch the legendary Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon. I remember the crowd cheered when Jim Kelly with his Afro came into the scene as if to say, finally our own black kung fu master. They were hardly any black people in major roles and had no access to African cinema.

From then, I started consciously seeking out Afro conscious characters in the 90s who had multi-dimensional lead roles, among them Wesley Snipes (New Jack City), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Will Smith (Men In Black), Samuel Jackson ( A Time To Kill), Laurence Fishburne ( Just Cause), Whoopi Goldberg ( Sarafina) and Angela Basset (Waiting to Exhale).

The excellence of these pioneer cast of black leading men and women were crucial counter-narratives to the childhood images I was exposed to on the big screen of an African race defined by tragedy and backwardness. In the first decade of my life, Nelson Mandela was in jail. Apartheid was alive in South Africa. Steve Biko was brutally murdered in police custody. Samora Machel was assassinated. Thomas Sankara met the same fate within a year. There was civil war and coups in one half of Africa, brutal dictators in the other including Kenya and a devastating drought in Ethiopia. In America is where we sought black excellence. Collin Powell was making history as the first African American Joint Head of Staff, Jesse Jackson was running for President and the Oprah Winfrey show was nationally syndicated. These were our little black spots of brilliance in a world of global excellence that was lily white.

Compare these depictions to the past decade(post-2007), for the African child growing up in the continent. The president of the United States was a black man. The most beautiful woman in the world at least according to the People’s magazine in the world is black. The most recognizable liberation icon, is a black South African. Among America’s top TV hosts is a black South African. The top sports stars, from athletics, through to tennis and formula one are black. A biracial woman born of a black mother is about to marry an English royal. The biggest movie of the time, has an entirely Black cast with multidimensional and strong female characters and is dedicated to a theme of blackness. The dreams of one generation have become the reality of another.

Movies have served as crucibles for the dreams of black excellence. Black Panther is a movie that celebrates dreams and speaks to the power of re-imagining of black heritage in all its shades. At the centre of this black renaissance in American cinema is a cast of strong, dark-skinned African sisters. Which brings me to the influence of Lupita Nyong’o who plays a Wakandan spy and the king’s love interest named Nakia. The strongest appeal for someone born in the 70s of the Black Panther was its African representation. It is this same pride that I felt when Kenyan actors started to be cast in big-budget Hollywood features. Edi Gathegi (Twilight), Benjamin Otieno (Tears of The Sun) and Charles Gitonga Maina (Air Up There).

In 2013, Lupita Nyong’o strut into the global limelight when she won an Oscar for the supporting role, at the 86th Oscars for her performance in 12 Years A Slave. She delivered full bodied tributes to her mentors and crowned it off with the quotable line,

“No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid”.

Indeed, she was living the dream of any actress who cut her teeth in Kenya. In 2009, I met Lupita at the Story Moja literary festival at Impala Club in Nairobi. She was an unknown in the local art scene, save for local prominence of a family name as the daughter of a well-known politician, Professor Anyang Nyong’o’. Lupita was presenting a small documentary, titled “In My Genes” about living with Albinism in Kenya. It was certainly not the biggest thing happening at the festival. She was one among many young Africans hustling hard in an industry that did not give too many breaks. She had previously worked as a production crew member for Fernando Meirelles‘s The Constant Gardener and Mira Nair‘s The Namesake. Lupita was superb as Ayira in the television series Shuga and there was little doubt that she was an exceptional talent with her stand out role in the series. It seemed then, a tall order that a girl of her dark complexion would crack the black ceiling of American cinema. Perhaps, her look was only good for a representation role as the latest exotic African beauty on a fashion runway.

Then came along, Steve MC Queen’s historical drama 12 years A Slave and we say the rest is history. In one moment, Lupita became the first African, Kenyan and Mexican (Afro Mexicans exist) to win an Academy Award. Back home, we argued with movie-loving friends whether Lupita would inherit the curse of black success. The Kenyan public relishes in cutting tall poppies down to size, something that celebrated TV host Jeff Koinange once described as the PHD syndrome, Pull Him or Her Down. When success descends after hard labour, especially the nature that involves international accolades, one is advised to keep their head bowed. You might be big in Hollywood but back in Nairobi, one must not forget their humble beginnings.

Lupita’s body of work in the last 5 years since she won the Academy Awards is impressive. She has had a very good run in Hollywood so far and progressively risen in stature. For the pioneers in the arts like her, she cannot afford to lose focus because the pressure of excellence is not negotiable. It is important to the dreams of millions that she succeeds in line of work.

It is part of the deal with black excellence in the arts and twice as hard for women. Big dreams come bearing huge responsibilities and you can only get used to it. Be prepared to be celebrated and then eviscerated the moment you slip from grace.

Still, the significance of Black Panther is in its representation. Ryan Coolger talks of his own personal dream of representing black people in screens around the world. President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige said this about Coolger in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “He’s making this movie for his 8-year-old self,”.

The entire Black Panther cast breathes new life into the connections between Africans and African Americans, the coming together of a black Diaspora scattered by forces of imperialism to dream up a counterculture reality, as Wakandans. The African diaspora ensemble includes Lupita from Kenya, Danai Giriria from Zimbabwe, Daniel Kaluuya from Uganda, Florence Kasumba who is German-Ugandan, Winston Duke from Trinidad and Tobago, John Kani and his son Atandwa Kani from South Africa, Letitia Wright born in Guyana and Isaac de Bankolé from Cote d’Ivoire.

Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W’Kabi in the film (and who was born in England to Ugandan parents) talks about coming home to Uganda and getting transformed by the subtle reality of seeing blackness in new light, from the president down to the cleaner. This seemingly simple act of representation has been consistent in inspiring prominent African American personalities for decades. Legendary standup comedian Richard Pryor talked about how a trip to Africa changed his perspective in 1979.

“I went to Kenya, and while I was there something inside of me said, “Look around you, Richard. What do you see? I saw people. African people. I saw people from other countries, too, and they were all kinds of colors, but I didn’t see any “niggers.”

Barack Obama talks about a sense of belonging on his first trip to Kenya in 1987, in his memoirs “Dreams of My Father” upon an encounter with a total stranger at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport who recognized his surname.

For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, “Oh, you are so and so’s son.” No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.”

But perhaps no one said it more poignantly than Malcolm X after an extensive trip to Africa in 1964,

“I, for one, would like to impress, especially upon those who call themselves leaders, the importance of realizing the direct connection between the struggle of the Afro-American in this country and the struggle of our people all over the world. As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.”

The central question of what it means to be African for Africans dislocated from their roots is what the characters of Black Panther grapple with. The plot line draws out the connection between the struggle for identity, representation and dignity for black people all over the world. It is a movie that challenges its viewers to imagine and rediscover the cultural heritage of black ancestry. It insists on the participation of black people in their own ideas for the future.

What is Wakanda, other than the dreams of Zion while in Babylon, dreams of Canaan while caught in captivity in Egypt or Heaven bound while enduring earthly suffering? Africa is a continent that has consistently stood aside and watched, Bob Marley prophesized, as its dream weavers were killed. The shared story in the birth of modern African nations, is one of stillborn dreams. Africa is in need of dreamers and in Black Panther’s Wakanda, a generation of young Africans is inspired to imagine and color a future on their own terms. That dream of a Pan African utopia must remain valid.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist.

Reflections

Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firms were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university.

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Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities
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A few years ago, I was in a matatu along Riverside Drive trying to get to town, but the evening traffic was unrelenting. I decided to get off the matatu and walk through the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus, thinking that this might be a quicker way of making it to town in time for my evening beer.

At the gate, the security guard asked for my ID, which I promptly produced.

“A student ID, I meant,” he told me impatiently.

“I’m a former student, student leader no less. I just want to walk through to avoid this traffic,” I told him politely.

“It is past 5 p.m. Non-students are not allowed in the university compound.”

It was final. Unbelievable that a year earlier, anyone would walk through any public university without security guards demanding their ID and wanting to know which part of the university they were going to. I humbly boarded another matatu with a bad FM radio station on and endured the traffic.

Garissa massacre: The watershed moment

Sometime in 2012, when random terror attacks became the norm, buildings in the central business district, government facilities, shopping malls and other places likely to be targeted by Al Shabaab installed walk-through metal detectors. Those that could not afford the expensive apparatus bought cheap metal detectors and hired young men and women to man their buildings. Nobody knows how the detectors are supposed to stop marauding, gun-wielding murderers. (Having witnessed the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Dusit attack in 2019, we now know that they cannot stop terrorists.)

Around that time, there were messages that used to circulate on social media allegedly from Al Shabaab, outlining their targets, predictably the United Nations complex, government buildings, embassies of Western nations, shopping malls favoured by expatriates and the University of Nairobi.

Given the frequency of the attacks and their randomness, even the tough-headed University of Nairobi students grudgingly accepted the intrusive searches in the spirit of forestalling terror attacks. And any students who felt violated by the limitation of their liberties, the Garissa university attacks removed any doubt about the invulnerability of universities.

At dawn on Thursday, April 2, 2015, gunmen descended on Garissa University College and killed 148 students and injured another 79. It was the second deadliest terror attack since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people. The attack sent chills down our spines for its severity and cruelty.

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firm were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. At the universities’ main gates, security guards began searching cars and frisking students. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university. They don’t necessary keep these details, so you can cook up any excuse if you have ulterior motives. But the presence of the guards has definitely limited the foot traffic of the general public at universities.

Buildings that host the most important people within the university are now fortified, and senior university officials have security details that rival those of the President. I recently saw the Vice Chancellor of a top local university walking around the university. He had more than five bodyguards. The building where his office is located has no-nonsense security guards who ensure that they have taken your every detail before giving you the wrong directions to the office you need to go to. The apparatus and the many security guards who replicate their roles can give one a false sense of security.

In a way, the many security guards have made university less fun. Just a decade ago, when I was a student, the university was a free place for both students and the general public. If tired in town, you could walk to the university and rest on the seats or any of beautiful manicured lawns.

At the hostels, those from less fortunate backgrounds would host their relatives in their tiny rooms as they worked or went to college somewhere in Nairobi. Public universities had a comradely camaraderie regardless of the students’ backgrounds; there was an egalitarianism, a sense of belonging. Public universities had a tinge of elitism, but they were equally accessible to the sons and daughters of peasants and of wealthy folk.

Also, the university was a place of ideas. Several public forums used to be held at universities. Thinkers, writers, foreign dignitaries, and local celebrities came and freely interacted with us. There was no payment or the signing of some Google-doc for you to attend an event.

I remember a time when the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kweyi Armah visited the University of Nairobi in the mid-2000s. Barack Obama also came to the university when he was a Senator for Illinois. So did Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Joe Biden visited when he was the Vice President of the United States. I remember when Chimamanda Adichie was brought by Kwani? in its hey days in 2008, when her magnum opus, Half of a Yellow Sun, had just been re-published by Kwani? Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo also delivered public lectures at the university. These forums and the resultant public discourses made the university experience all the more exciting.

I remember a time when there were no restrictions to anyone who wanted to attend. But in the last few years, there have been fewer notable public forums at the university. There have hardly been any new or controversial ideas on language, literature, politics, economics or philosophy that have been debated here in recent times. Universities have not provided an environment where we can contextualise what is going on in the country, the continent and the world.

There is no shortage of thinkers, philosophers and scholars whose works students should be exposed to, from Mahmood Mamdani to Achille Mbembe, Wandia Njoya, Stella Nyanzi, Kwame Antony Appiah, Evan Mwangi, Sylvia Tamale and Mshai Mwangola, among others. But you are more likely to encounter their minds in a civil society setting or other forums than at a university. Ironically, private universities that were citadels of the bourgeoisie have fared better in hosting these thinkers, who sometimes can be a thorn in the flesh of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

Symbols of segregation

Security guards act as physical gatekeepers of free intercourse of ideas that should take place in universities. Security guards are a symbol of segregation. There is a reason a public university is protected and a public market like Muthurwa is not. And the nature of security searches is so subjective. There are places you can go in if you are driving a big car or wearing a suit. A young man with dreadlocks will have a lot of difficulties going into the same place.

Al Shabaab, like their counterparts Boko Haram, have contempt for Western education, which is why they target educational institutions. However, when these terror attacks began, universities had become commercial enterprises. Since university education became commercialised through self-sponsored programmes, universities began swimming in billions. It was, therefore, in their interest to ensure that Al Shabaab did not disrupt the business side of things. Remember, most self-sponsored students come from middle class or wealthy families. Hence their lives matter more. A visit to the hostels where regular students stay can reveal the amount of neglect and class divide in our institutions of higher learning. The influx of self-sponsored students meant that the already limited resources in universities were stretched beyond the limit.

Politics and corruption also had an impact on public forums that took place at universities. It is hard to host an anti-corruption activist with progressive ideas at a university that is embroiled in mega corruption scandals. It makes the management very uncomfortable. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, opposition politicians and human rights activists have always been uninvited to universities, as university managements have tended to align themselves with the government. It is not uncommon to see a university Vice Chancellor groveling with a team of tribal leaders at State House. Their presumed intellectual autonomy is at the mercy of the powers that be. Funding can be cut because of any perceived misdeed. This is not fiction; most universities have had their budgets cut because of some misunderstanding with the Ministry of Education. You can’t blame the management at times, since self-preservation is natural. Why host a talk on human rights of young men succumbing daily to extrajudicial killings and risk budget cuts when you can award a political bigwig with a dubious honorary degree to attract funding?

The upshot of this unwillingness on the part of universities to open their spaces for public discourses is that civil society organisations and the embassies of leading Western powers have taken over this role. The Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française and the British Council are doing what universities should be doing. This is not a bad thing in itself, as we need as many of these public forums as possible. However, with universities rarely hosting notable public events – save for entrepreneur forums where phony businessmen are allowed to sell their half-baked ideas anchored on neoliberalism – institutions of higher learning are losing much of their clout.

A local university erected a huge tower recently and the only events sanctioned to take place there are events that can bring money or improve the image of the university to the outside world. Its beautiful theatres cannot host the university’s student travelling theatre group because literature is considered a lesser discipline than commerce (possibly the most useless discipline ever invented by universities, but the most lucrative).

Universities have robbed themselves the agency of owning ideas, and Kenyans now have to rely on Western institutional spaces (embassies or spaces funded by NGOs) to provide forums for the many needed discussions. Young minds in much need of intellectual nourishment beyond what is served in class are poorer for this.

Foreign institutions, for all their accessibility, are viewed by many as elite institutions, and some of us neither feel at home there nor free to express our opinions as we would in a village baraza. You must adjust to certain dialectical expectations of the hosts.

The life of a security guard

Security guards are the best symbol of inequality in Kenya. Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to data from Oxfam (often debated upon), 8,300 (less than 0.1%) of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. The richest 10% earn on average 23 times more than the poorest 10%.

Security guards who work with security companies are among the poorest Kenyans. A casual conversation with them reveals that they mostly walk to work. (Some live in nearby slums that are always near the richer estates and communities.) A simple chat with them will show you how meaningless their job is. They survive on a meal day (usually dinner). The reason they try to strike a conversation and become familiar with the people they frisk daily is so they can get a tip that they can use to buy a packet of milk and a KDF (a pastry favoured by the poor). Most have to moonlight, washing cars parked in spaces they man or running some petty errands for an extra coin to augment their meagre earnings that defy common sense.

What’s worse, the security companies fleece them – not only are they badly paid, the companies even deduct the cost of their own uniforms from their salaries. There is no transport allowance or transport provided by the company; most security guards walk for hours to get to work. Not even Francis Atwoli, the flamboyant Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), has stood up for their rights.

When you scrutinise their work, you will find that they are a symptom of a badly diseased nation. At universities they symbolise the breakdown of the flow of ideas from the university to the public sphere. Public lectures were called so because the public could attend, but presently the public is not invited to universities. There are other gatekeeping methods, such as email bookings and notices that only students can access. Security guards best represent the barrier that has been erected. And at universities, they exist to remind us whose interests universities now serve. They are there in the pretext of terrorism, but everyone knows they are badly underprepared should a gunman strike.

***

It is the naiveté of the Kenyan elite that baffles me. We are all like the passengers on the Titanic. Privileged ones think they can escape the inefficiency of a government that has failed to provide basic services to the poor, from education to healthcare and security, by securing the services of private firms.

But if there is one thing that the Westgate, Dusit, Mpeketoni, Mandera and Garissa attacks have taught us, it is that a society only functions properly when the poorest and richest share the same privileges when it comes to basic services and public goods. Private schools and private hospitals will not fill the gaps in education and healthcare. Neither will private security companies fill the gaps in policing.

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Reflections

Geometric Circles, Zigzags and Waves: The Anatomy of a Kenyan ID

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Geometric Circles, Zigzags and Waves: The Anatomy of a Kenyan ID
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I.

Some years ago, I forgot my national ID in a jeans pocket before a wash and it’s been steadily losing glue ever since. Now at least three corners of this sad rectangle have curled up to expose government paper with my zeros and ones. The card’s many adventures inside the small purse that lives in my handbag are evident. The open border is freckled with dust, eyebrow pencil shavings and a dash of blue ink. Imeona life.

Fifteen years before that peeling skin, that festering wound, had formed, I stood against a classroom wall in Embu to get my picture taken. It was a hot day and the man in a lab coat didn’t allow any of us to smile. We’d been advised to apply for our IDs while still in school to avoid the confusion and long queues at the chief’s camps that would really be practice for the first day we’d vote. (Many years later I would visit this hectic space and secure a new ID only to promptly lose it.)

I’d written to my father, giving him the list of information needed by all Form Four students whose 18th birthday fell within a particular window. His reply arrived by Kenya Posta’s express mail service and was written in red ink, greetings and all. Still visible on the top left column of the frayed card is the district of my father’s birth. Listed below that are the division, location and sub-location. Each concentric circle was intended to lead to where my grandfather lay sleeping. My father, the cartographer, even let me know the exact village and chief at the time, in case that was needed too.

A part of me likes to believe that the countless M-Pesa agents and watchmen and landlords and companies that have accepted this ugly and, quite frankly, suspect identification document all decided to show me a kindness. However, I’m also aware of the privileges that allow me to slip past. It is the security of a presumably harmless surname.

In 2013, I visited a cousin who worked as a dentist in Garissa. It was a largely pleasant nine-hour bus ride, but as we neared the township, our vehicle was stopped and soldiers boarded the bus. I watched with terror as they moved from seat to seat with bright flashlights, asking passengers to produce their IDs. I frantically pawed through my bag but as fate would have it, I only had my NHIF and job cards on me. My cousin had forgotten to let me know that I needed this crucial document. Perhaps it was an assumption that I would naturally have it on me. But at that time in my life, the fear of being pick-pocketed or mugged for my handbag was bigger than worrying whether anyone would question my Kenyan-ness.

That night, the police let me through. On the day I was leaving for home, the bus was stopped yet again. This time the soldiers used magnifying glasses and took their time scrutinising the tapestry of geometric circles, zigzags and waves. I had organized to have my ID couriered from home so I was able to board the bus after the first checkpoint. I had a seatmate, a young lady who was travelling with a small child and an elderly auntie. When we first sat down, she had the child on her lap and we shared polite conversation. At some stage, they disappeared to the back where her auntie was sitting. Later, the lady returned alone.

We got separated when we disembarked the first time but she made it through okay. That is, until we got to the second checkpoint. This time, the soldiers boarded the bus as on the night of my entry into Garissa. The waiting card that had served my seatmate well the first time wasn’t enough for these soldiers.

“Unaishi wapi?” (Where do you live?) asked the soldier, as he examined the laminated piece of paper.

“Garissa,” she responded.

“Basi kwa nini ulichukua hii kadi Wajir? Ebu toka kwa gari.” (Then why was this card issued in Wajir? Get off the bus), he replied.

And that was the last we saw of her. The bus pulled out of the checkpoint amid a flurry of animated shouts in Somali by the other passengers. As I craned my neck back towards the area we’d dropped them, I saw my seatmate being escorted towards a small mabati structure off the road. The conductor then came to sit by me and I asked him if the girl was coming back.

He said, “Huyo tumemwacha kabisa.” (We’ve left that one indefinitely.)

II.

But the slave who sees another cast into a shallow grave knows that he will be buried in the same way when his day comes…” – Chinua Achebe, The Arrow of God.

 III.

Mama, the last of Nyanya Kachui’s nine children, grew up right across from the mosque her grandfather had built and in the area her father had governed as chief. The story goes that her surname, Godoro, came from a joke her father had made when, as a young man, he marvelled at the length of a city bridge and how many mattresses one could fit on it. Her mother’s name was from her diminutive size as a child; she was as tiny as a chick, gachui.

Babu Mkuu Tairara died in Eastleigh.

Babu Godoro is buried beside him in Thika cemetery.

Mama was lain to sleep there too.

My other concentric circles.

If we traced my lineage through her, through them, if I was Salma, like my shangazis had wanted, would my tattered ID card still draw laughter if I’d given the district of their birth, listed the division, location and sub-location?

IV.

There’s a co-mingling of stupidity and smugness whenever I present my battered ID. They remain even when I’m trusted to enter my details into one of those large black notebooks as a nice security lady goes through my bag. To borrow Brenda Wambui’s term, that visitor’s log, beloved by procurement officers across the nation and no doubt purchased for its endless ruled pages and that no-nonsense hardcover, is speculative fiction at its best. I am simultaneously Wanjeri and Carol of ID 12345678 and neither of us is any safer.

V.

“The alarm at the Ruiru base of the Recce Company of the General Service Unit was sounded at 6 a.m. on Thursday last week. As they gathered, officers of the elite paramilitary unit were informed that a possible terrorist attack had been launched on Garissa University College by suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen.” – Shame of slow response in 15 hour campus terror – Daily Nation

“The Kenya Police Airwing plane was not immediately available to fly the Recce Company on the morning of the Garissa University College terrorist attack because it was flying a small group of civilians from Mombasa.” – How police plane is misused for private mission – PHOTOS – Nairobi News.

One hundred and forty-eight people lost their lives in Garissa on April 5th, 2015.

VI.

Every once in a while I think about my seatmate and what fate found her. I hope she came to no harm. I hope her waiting card was accepted. I hope she finally got an ID. I hope her son, if indeed he was her son, was allowed to continue practising his family’s faith without fear; allowed to form a zebiba, a black mark on his forehead from constant contact with his prayer mat, like that on the foreheads of my wajombas; allowed never to experience either the Kasarani concentration camp or the Wagalla massacre; allowed to mourn with dignity first and only in the face of the loss of two sons like it should have been for Haji Yassin Juma.

It is not enough to empathise with the persecuted and the dead but it is a start. It is a virtue that is sorely lacking. This grand project called Kenya calls on all of us to hold space for kindness—the kind that M-Pesa agents and watchmen and landlords and companies and soldiers should show to clumsy girls who carry worn tapestries of geometric circles, zigzags and waves.

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Reflections

Forget Al Shabaab, the Police Are the Real Terrorists in Kenya

Rather than destroying the colonial system, what Kenyan leaders desired at independence was to replace the coloniser. So they saw no need to reform the police force, the very system that propped up the colonialist. Since then, Kenya’s police and security forces have been used as weapons of terror against the “natives” by the country’s administrators.

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Forget Al Shabaab, the Police Are the Real Terrorists in Kenya
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Listen. I don’t know how to write this. What am I saying even? A few months ago, my friend and I were at the Maasai Mbili Art Collective in Kibera, and the folks there were talking about attending reggae concerts in the city. “Hiyo siku walituangusha wengi. Mimi hizi form za reggae siendi tena.” (That day they struck many of us down. I don’t go for reggae concerts any more).

Listen. I don’t know how to write about this conversation that troubled me greatly, this conversation about kuangushwa at night after reggae concerts, this conversation about how these people doing the felling are merciless. Instead, in its place, here’s a story.

Once, there was a boy. The boy played football and disliked avocados and went to school.

In Kisumu, how many times did the boy join a crowd of people running away from police bullets?

How many times were the boy and his classmates, while in the middle of a lesson, told to lie down on the corridors of their school, away from the windows, because of police bullets?

Listen. I don’t know how to write this. Can you tell? Can you tell that I am struggling, drowning, to find the words, wrong or right, to say whatever it is I want to say?

Once, there was a group of children. The children were less than six years old, all in nursery school. One day, while they were in school, a group of police officers came into their school and tear-gassed the children.

This wielding of power like this and that on three-year-olds, on four-year-olds, on five-year-olds, is this not terrorism?

Actually, what is terrorism? My dictionary says, “Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

So, these little kids, are they civilians?

In Kisumu, the main road running through the city, the road that divided the city neatly into two, used to be called Jomo Kenyatta Highway. Here’s a story I heard. Do you know that one night, a group of people (or could it have been just one person?) rubbed off the words Jomo Kenyatta Highway so violently that from certain angles the words appeared to have been burned away? Now people call the road Bi Pendo Road. Samantha Pendo was a six-month-old infant bludgeoned to death in Kisumu by police on the night of August 10, 2017.

Is it a good thing that roads are named after babies killed because of terror, because violence was used against a civilian, against a baby almost too young to be a civilian, because some people somewhere were pursuing their political aims?

Then, the judiciary was told, “we shall revisit” by the president, but then hands were shaken, and this revisiting, me I don’t know when it will happen.

I don’t know many things. But sometimes I hear things. Did you hear about Caroline Mwatha, who was fighting for the victims of police violence in Dandora? Ati she died of an abortion. That’s the statement. Anyway, what do we know? Trust, that’s all we can do. We’re told to trust the system. We are wananchi – children and heirs of the land.

I read that the Kenya Police was established by colonial governor Sir James Hayes Sandler in 1902, but didn’t exist in its modern form until 1920 when Kenya became a colony. From the start, it was anti-African. The historian and journalist John Kamau describes it as “a tool for the settlers and administrators to enforce their will on Africans”.

The Administration Police’s mandate is a microcosm of this early anti-African attitude in Kenyan police work, seeing as when it was first established (it was known as the Native Police). Its mandate was to enforce the payment of taxes by the African populace, to control livestock movement, to provide forced labour for the coloniser, and to protect government installations. The village headmen stuffed the Native Police with local tough guys and bullies, ma first body as they would be called in Sheng, and these untrained recruits bullied the Africans into doing the things that the colonial administration wanted. Therefore, instead of protecting the locals and maintaining trust with them, the police force acquired a reputation as manifestations of the terror and violence of the colonial administration.

While one would have expected that the attitude of the police force would have changed with independence, it did not. Frantz Fanon writes, “The colonised man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true, for there is no native who does not dream of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”

Thus, since, rather than destroying the colonial system, what Kenyan leaders desired at independence was to replace the coloniser. So they saw no need to reform the police force, the very system that propped up the colonialist. Since then, Kenya’s police and security forces have been used as weapons of terror against the “natives” by the country’s administrators,

Another friend and I, at a sleepover at her house, talk about this. “The police is being anti-citizen? That seems to be a narrow premise,” she argues. “I would lean towards them being pro-state, and in this country, that often means anti-citizen.”

We were not just splitting definitional hairs. Her characterisation of the police being pro-state actually points out the irony of something we all know – that police officers are underpaid, have always been underpaid, are overworked, and live in deplorable housing conditions. So why would they be strongly pro-state if raiding citizens was not the purpose of their existence?

A police force/service/whatever it is they insist on calling themselves ought to be pro-citizen, but this one of ours – where Kikuyu police officers are deployed in Nyanza, Luo police officers are stationed in Eldoret, Kigsigis police officers are sent to Mombasa and Mijikenda police officers work in Embu – is anything but. They are deployed in this way so that they don’t form bonds with the civilians. When these bonds are formed, then the officers are transferred, especially immediately before elections when the administrators want to enact their little and big terrorisms on the native, and when we expect them to be so anti-citizen that we don’t realise the wrongness in this. They are supposed to be serving you, not terrorising you.

If the police service/force/whatever name they insist on calling themselves is built on the premise of being pro-state and thus anti-citizen, do the sporadic acts of virtue performed by individual police officers even matter? These, my questions, me I don’t know the answers, I don’t know whether my answers are right or wrong, or even whether it is my questions that are wrong.

How do we write about terror? Mimi sijui. I don’t know.

Instead, here is a list of attacks that Wikipedia classifies as the major terror incidents in Kenya:

  1. Nairobi bombing, March 1st, 1975 – 30 people killed.
  2. Norfolk bombing, December 31st, 1980 – 20 people killed.
  3. United States Embassy bombing, August 7th, 1998 – 213 people killed.
  4. Kikambala Hotel bombing, 28th, November 2002 – 13 people killed.
  5. Westgate Mall shooting, 21st September 2013 – 67 people killed.
  6. Mpeketoni attacks, 15th June – 17th, June 2014 – At least 70 people killed.
  7. Garissa University attack, April 2015 –147 people killed
  8. Dusit D2 Complex attack, 15th January 2019 – At least 21 people killed.

Who updates this list, I wonder. Whose job is it to add the grisly details of these deaths to this list? Don’t they know about Wagalla, when the Kenya government killed its own citizens in 1984? Here’s what Wikipedia says about the death toll of Wagalla: “The exact number of people killed in the massacre is unknown. However, eyewitnesses place the figure at around 10,000 deaths.”

Around ten thousand deaths, is that not terror? Or maybe because we read in the Bible that David killed tens of thousands so that’s no longer terror? What is it called when one of the men who is said to have abetted (authorised?) the massacre in Wagalla is appointed the chairman of the commission to investigate the Wagalla massacre? His name was Bethuel Kiplagat. Is that what they call dramatic irony?

Listen, I’m not an expert in these things of terrorism, can you tell? I’m not an intellectual, I don’t think solidly about these lofty things. Have you noticed that I’m quoting from Wikipedia? But here’s a question my editor asks: Why does death by terrorism grip our psyche? Why does Al Shabaab frighten us so? Is it because it’s a “globalised” death? Is it because vigils will be held and commissions of inquiry will be formed and presidents will make rousing statements about the country’s unity? Is it because terrorism is viewed as that committed by the other, the foreign, so that whatever the nationality of the individuals involved in the attacks, Al Shabaab is a foreign group against which we must all stand together?

Me I don’t know. Me I just hear things. Like how I heard that in Mathare, cops have their criminal networks, networks from which they eat, but that once in a while one of their superiors goes on TV and promises action, and then their bosses want action, and these same cops look for people to kill, people whose deaths will be action in the war against crime, and more importantly, people whose deaths will not threaten the networks that benefit these officers of the law.

On 28th February 2019, a community dialogue was held at the Kayole Social Hall. Organised by the Kayole Community Justice Centre, in collaboration with the Social Justice Centre Working Group, the dialogue aimed at addressing criminality and police brutality. The dialogue was a follow-up to the Machozi Ya Jana community dialogues held in Kibera, Kawangware, Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare, Njiu and Dandora in 2017. I sit in my house and follow the #KayoleDialogue hashtag on twitter. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations boss, George Kinoti, are speakers at the forum. Question: Of the 123 people killed by the police in the 2008 post-election violence (according to the Government of Kenya), how many police officers were prosecuted successfully for these deaths, these acts of terror? Answer: Zero.

Here’s a story. The last one. A group of friends are having drinks somewhere in Nairobi’s CBD. When we leave, I decide that I want to walk for a bit to clear my head. Haiya sawa, one of them says, Tembea, but chunga this street and this street kuna makarao. You can go, he says, but watch out, on this street and that one, there are cops.

Question: Shouldn’t the one that terrifies you, the cause of the terror in the citizens, be considered the terrorist?

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